Friday, June 20, 2014

A Return to Words

(Originally published on elephant journal on June 19, 2014)

Artwork: Print by Trista M.

I used to trust my own voice.

I used to believe in the words that flowed from the hollow at the center of my heart (for this is where words are born) to the pen I gripped in my crooked little fist of a hand. I used to grip, not hold, the pen because there was a torrent of words pouring out of my fingers and I had to hold on tight and be quick in order to get them all out before the word-water reached my neck, my mouth, my nose and caused me to drown in a sea of unexpressed verbiage.

This is how I wrote, when I was 12.

I wrote like a wild animal chasing its prey, or being chased as prey, always running towards something, or away from something, never stagnant.

I wrote all the time, every day. There were words living inside of me, filling me up with sentences and wordplay and stories. I felt them pushing and pulling and swelling, demanding attention. I remember asking my Mom once if there were words living inside of her too and she paused for a moment and looked at me like maybe I was a strange little girl and answered, “No. Not really.” (I later discovered that there were numbers living inside of my Mom—mathematical equations and Sudoku-like puzzles).

I remember thinking maybe I was a strange little girl. Maybe I was the only girl in the world with so many breathing, pulsing, yearning words living inside of her. And that thought frightened me, but only for a second, because I was a brave 12 year-old and knew I could survive the terrible fate of being a bearer of words as long as I kept writing them out of my body and into the world.

I wrote.

I filled journals and scribbled on pads of legal paper and spent hours and hours (whole days, whole weekends) sitting up in bed, warm and safe under my pink, ink-stained comforter with stacks of books as companions (for I read as much as I wrote) and leaky pens and blank sheets and stories born between heartbeats.

When I was 13, I wrote a novel. It is called Donna Jill’s Unforgettable Birthday Bash and the main character’s name, Donna Jill, was inspired by Candace Cameron’s DJ in Full House. She resembles her too: blond, blue-eyed, the eldest of three sisters. The story revolves around DJ and her three best friends and the adventures they encounter on DJ’s 13th birthday (they meet Luke Perry, for example).

It’s a terrible story and I read it now and cringe. But it was fiercely hand-written, all 60 pages of it, and it stands now as a snapshot of sorts, offering a glimpse into the dreams and fantasies of my 13 year-old self. It reminds me to be daring.

I was a daring 13, 16, 19-year old. I dared to write poems and letters to the editor and journal entries so scorching it burns to read them. I dared to be open, to be fragile, and to love. I loved the same way I wrote: ferociously and without hesitation. I wrote love letters to boys, to girls, to friends, to authors, to pen pals who lived halfway across the globe. I wrote a love letter to a bee once, sitting in a field of wild daisies, under a sky so blue it pierced my eyes to look at it.

When the bee perched on my writing hand I whispered, “please don’t hurt me because I love you,” and I do think she heard me because she flew away, leaving me stunned, but unstung.

I trusted in the truth of my words. I didn’t judge what ended up on the page, or wonder if what I wrote was worth writing, or worry about the reception it may or may not receive. I just wrote and, then, I shared what I wrote. I shared it with whoever was interested in reading it, in hearing it. I remember being 16, hanging out with my friend RenĂ©e, and her asking me to share with her family a fictional piece I had written for English class. So, I did. I pulled The Myth of the Seasons out of my backpack, stood up, and read to her family as they sat around the table drinking tea after dinner. This felt comfortable to me. I felt comfortable–writing and sharing, writing and sharing. It felt as natural as breathing.

Then, somewhere along the rickety road of growing up, my pouring of words slowed to a leaky faucet trickle and nearly stopped entirely. When I did write, I did so only for myself, not willing to share the inner workings of my soul with even my closest of friends. I grew timid. I grew quiet. I had suffered my share of irreparable heartache and, in my tender state, had begun to build a flesh-and-blood barricade between my heart and my fingers, between my heart and my throat. I shut myself up.

This happens.

We grow and we fall and we ache and we become cautious. We slice open our hearts and reveal the shiny messy insides to people who take those shiny messy insides and crush them and we promise never to slice ourselves open again. We start to doubt. We doubt we had anything worthy to say (or to draw or to paint or to sing) in the first place. We drink, we smoke, we party all night and sleep all day, quieting the calling that resides in our cells, convincing ourselves we were no good at it anyway.

But the calling never dies, not entirely, and there comes a time (in our thirties, or forties, or fifties, or later) when the words (or the drawings or the paintings or the songs) that live inside of us can no longer be suppressed and we start to feel the cracking of the flood barriers and the rising of the tide. It rises and rises and, like an old beloved yet terrifying friend, it asks us to be brave again.

We must bravely express what lives inside of us because we must make space inside of us–space to hold (fear, grief, pain, longing, love) and space to let go (of fear, grief, pain, longing, love). We must bravely express what lives inside of us because our bodies and minds and hearts are not meant to be stagnant waterholes (things fester there), but flowing waterways connecting the outer world to the inner world, emptying and filling, transforming all the time. We must bravely express what lives inside of us because this is how we set it free (it is the only way) and this is how we set ourselves free. And this is how we heal.

I returned to my pen in 2010 by starting a blog I expected nobody to read. But people have read it, do read it, and some even like it. Last week, I received an email from a complete stranger expressing gratitude for my words and asking me to please keep writing as my perspective on things has shifted her world a little.

And here is the thing, friends, here is the kernel: We must bravely express what lives inside of us because what lives inside of us has the power to shift worlds a little.

After months of neglecting my blog and barely writing at all, I have recently picked up my pen and felt my confidence grow with every ink stain, every hand cramp, every nine o’clock sunset that tells me I have written the whole day away. I have broken my own promise of never slicing myself open again and I have stocked up on Band-Aids for I know there will be blood. I have submitted my words for publication, to an elephant I know, and it has responded like a happy trumpeter. I have asked my heart for forgiveness, for all those times I forced her to sit in silence, and I have started humming away the lump in my throat (which has almost completely dissolved).

Every morning, I write. I stretch and bow to a new day, make some tea, take deep breaths and write.

I write to connect to my own brokenness and I write to help others connect to theirs. I write ferociously and without hesitation. I write like my health depends on it (because it does). I write because it is one of the things I am meant to do, in the time that I have here on Earth. I write because I love it, because I hate it, because I have to, because I choose to be brave.


Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This Tree & Me

(Originally published on elephant journal on June 9, 2014)

Artwork: Lost by Emily Newman

Pick a tree,” he says.

Pick a tree and go to it. Be with your tree.

I pick a tree, not with my head but with my feet (there is a difference).

My feet are walking towards this tree, the one not directly in front of me but slightly off the path, to my left. There is no thought involved, just the movement of my rubber-boot feet on wet earth, the slow and gentle tread to the tree that picked me.

(We picked each other, you see.)

I greet my tree. I know it isn’t my tree. It belongs wholly to itself, as it always has and always will. Its soul is very, very old and very, very free. It will never be anyone’s tree.

But right now, for now, it feels like my tree. I wrap my arms around its trunk and, by doing so, I let my burdens go. We are alone in the world, this tree and me.

I lean against my tree and feel the roughness of its bark against my cheek, the glass marbles of its sap beneath my fingers.

And there is a memory.

I am eight years old, wandering the forest with Grandpa. He stops next to a towering pine and uses his fingernail to scratch sap off the bark. He tells me (in that voice I hear in dreams) that sap drips from the wounds of trees, their cracks and broken places. He tells me sap can fix our own wounds and rubs a bit of sticky on my scraped and scabbing knee.

(This tree is my Grandpa—old and tall and rough and wise. He is so very much alive.)

My tree has branches. I look up—towards the blue—and there they are, like long, crooked, primeval fingers growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. These branches don’t reach for the sun or the moon or the clouds, don’t try to touch something that cannot be touched or hold something that cannot be held. They simply do what branches do: grow up and out and around, in order to feel the light.

My tree has roots. I look down, towards the ground, and sense them underneath my rubber-boot feet. There they are, ripe with water and dissolved particles of past, present and future. They wind their way into the depths of the depths, intertwining with the roots of other trees, creating a living web that holds Earth together.

Trees hold Earth together.

I listen, ear pressed against the scarred bark of my tree, to the sacred silence that exists when all is known and there is no need for noise. I hear it: the nothing, the everything, the eternal truth that simmers in the deepest and darkest part of my tree, in the holy wood that exists at its center, the one we call heartwood.

My heart beats. (I, too, am so very much alive.)

I take long, unhurried breaths, my lungs expanding to let in all of the quiet, all of the knowing, the rush of remembering.

(To remember, a teacher once said, is to put the pieces back together again, to return to a state of wholeness, to literally re-member.)

The remembering glides over me like resin, slides into me, like a sweet syrup trickle. My heart beats against my chest in a slow and steady yes-yes-yes.

I remember:

That the sap that feeds my tree (yes) is the blood that feeds me (yes) is the rain that feeds Earth (yes).

I remember:

That there are bits of stars in our eyes (yes) and in our flesh (yes) and in the seeds that grow people and in the seeds that grow trees (yes).

I remember:

That the ancient ones returned (yes), that they are here now (yes), that they are you and me and my tree and all trees and all people and all beings of Earth and Sky and Sea (yes-yes-yes).

I remember not with my head, but with my bones (there is a difference).

I allow the remembering to seep into me, to soak into my cellular memory, which is more than a billion years old. I feel solid and grounded, growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. I feel like a tree, but I am not a tree. I am very much a human being on a journey of remembering, a journey thick with suffering and sorrow and beauty and love.

There is so much love here.

A prayer, soft as a pussy willow, buds in my mouth and tickles my tongue. I carve it on the bark of my tree with tender lips:

May I be graceful.

As I continue along this chosen human path, as I become lost and found and lost and found and lost and found and lost and found, as I dis-member and re-member again and again, may I be graceful.

As I live and give and teach and learn and hurt and heal and age and die, may I be graceful.

As I struggle to root myself in this in-between space (my home, for now), may I stand tall and strong, gently swaying in the breezes of change without breaking. And if I break, when I break, may I be graceful.

I thank my tree. It’s been a good friend to me for five minutes (or was it one minute? or was it one hour?) I’ve been a good friend to it too.

(We held each other, you see.)

Now, we let each other go and it is not easy, but it is not too hard either (because there is remembering and there is trust). I bow my head, I walk away. I feel very, very young and very, very old. I am aware of the birds greeting the spring with song.

And the forest feels like home.


Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” ~ Hermann Hesse