Family Poems Are Hard–part 3–final part

I left off part 2 of Family Poems Are Hard saying I thought I was done writing family poems after my first full-length collection, Dance Inside My Bones.

DanceBonesFrontCover

In the book, I have lots of poems about growing up in a difficult family situation.

Like most of us, I suspect.

There is no such thing as a perfect family.

And maybe, not even a normal one. What’s normal, anyway?

normal

There are poems about my mother, my father, my brother, grandparents, uncle, friends, and boyfriends in Dance From Inside My Bones.

There are poems about the state of my heart and mind, from childhood to young adulthood.

So what else was there to say?

no words

Mostly, all my relatives were alive when I wrote and published the collection. They didn’t read it.

Then, over the years, loved ones started dying off.

Some, of awful lingering illnesses.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: The shadow of a cemetery worker is cast on reclaimed gravestones in London City Cemetery on March 2, 2009 in London, EnglandThe cemetery is piloting a scheme whereby graves over 75 years old become eligible for reclamation. New bodies will be placed into the existing graves, the headstones turned around re used carving the names of the newly deceased. Once a grave has been earmarked by English heritage the cemetery must wait one year to see if family members claim the existing grave. By conserving as many memorials as possible the City of London hopes to maintain the historic cemetery landscape and sustain buriel provisions for the future. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Grief  is always hard. Grief over difficult relationships ending, is especially complicated.

Complex & powerful.

My brother, who had helped with rescue endeavors on 9/11, was diagnosed with a rare, likely incurable leukemia.

 

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My brother and I had never been able to be close growing up because my mother pitted us against one another. She was a master of hateful mind-games. And she forced my brother to to inflict physical punishments on me, as well.

This did not inspire a deep, loving relationship between us, as you can well imagine.

But with my brother’s fatal diagnosis, I realized time was short. If I was ever going to have any meaningful dialogue with my brother, it had to happen soon.

time out

In what turned out to be the last eighteen months of my brother’s life, we talked–

really talked–a few times.

We said things, I never knew were possible.

That brief time was such a gift. A tremendous gift for which I will always be grateful.

heart gift

And then, my brother died, after living his last days with a grace I never imagined possible.

A hero in life, and in death.

There was so much I never got to ask him. Or to say.

So much about our relationship I still needed to process.

So I took up my pen.

write left

I took up my pen because writing is how I process my emotions.

Writing is how I sort what I am feeling and thinking.

I wrote “dead boy” poems because my brother died too young.

Because all my memories became entangled with his too-early death.

headstone

I never intended to publish these poems.

But I did share a few at readings.

Listeners asked me about where they could find these poems in print.

(nowhere)

Still, I didn’t really plan on a book.

And then, a year later, my mother died.

dead mother

My mother died in her sleep. Peacefully.

Unlike my dear father who suffered a horrible lung cancer death.

Unlike my aunt who suffered a terrible, ongoing battle with cancer.

Unlike my dearest friend who died too young–bled to death on the operating table during a procedure meant to extend his life.

Unlike my best friend, who had a bad headache that turned out to be an inoperable brain tumor.

Unlike my brother, who fought the illness as hard as he could, for as long as he could.

death unfair

I was relieved my mother hadn’t suffered.

But angry all over again that other people I loved had.

To be honest, I was glad to be free of my mother. At least this side of the earth.

But her hurtful words live on inside me–make me doubt myself and my self-worth.

So why the bejeezus was I crying so much?

cry

Because fresh grief re-opens old wounds.

Shreds them, actually.

I kept going over family and over family stuff in my head, like a dog scratching at fleas.

scratch

And more poems came.

Because there was more to say about family.

And I was willing to speak my truth because it was mine.

truth

If people would judge me harshly over that truth, it no longer mattered.

Because deep inside, I knew from reading my first book of family poems in public, that sharing my family situation could make another person feel less alone. Feel they could get through the worst of it.

less alone

And so, I went ahead and published the new family poems in journals.

I read the poems at readings.

And eventually, I let the book enter the world.

dead boy

I have no regrets.

The Dead Boy Sings In Heaven is for my brother.

And for anyone else who comes from a difficult family.

I believe if my brother could see the book, he’d give me a hug.

And he’d tell me that the Godzilla poems were his favorite.

(Mine too.)

godzilla and friends

Though family poems are hard…

family poems are healing.

healing

Thank you for reading this far, and listening to my heart.

May you always find healing whenever your heart hurts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Family Poems Are Hard–part 1

You’ve heard me say before, poetry saved my life. It did. It does.

Reading and writing poetry, both.

I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon.

crayons

And because things were difficult for me at home, many of the poems were about family issues.

Family poems felt important to write.

But the hard part was not being able to share them with anyone.

The content of those poems felt shameful. Secrets that needed to be kept. Too dangerous to reveal.

art w

For many years, I wrote poetry just for me.

And read whatever collections I found at that struck my fancy–Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Phillip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, and many others.

luc cl

But in 1987, I wanted my own poems to matter. I wanted to learn how to write well.

So I signed up for a poetry workshop at the Boston Center For Adult Education with instructor Ottone “Ricky” Riccio.

To this day, Ricky remains one of the finest teachers I have ever known (and I have 5 official degrees, so that’s really saying something). He was firm, but kind. Gentle, but direct. He was a humanitarian and he took such joy in his students’ work. He was humble and loving and generous.

Ricky truly opened the door to writing poetry and welcomed me over the threshold.

His how-to book on writing poetry remains a bible for me:

int art po

https://www.amazon.com/Intimate-Art-Writing-Poetry/dp/0595093809

When I moved from Boston to New Hampshire, I discovered another amazing poetry mentor offering classes–Patricia Fargnoli.

You know how you secretly wish someone would tell you that you were special, that you had talent?

Pat believed in me. She told me what I wrote mattered. She encouraged me to start sending work out. To put together a collection. She wrote me a glowing recommendation when I decided to pursue an MFA.

Patrica Fargnoli remains my mentor, my friend, my poetry mother. I can never repay all she has given me.

DanceBonesFrontCover

Thanks to Pat, family poems were the first collection I assembled, though not my first to be published.

Little did I know what it would feel like to have this book in the world…

[stay tuned — Family Poems Are Hard — part 2 coming soon]

 

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The Road Paved With Rejection

Rejection never gets easier. Not for me. I know rejection is the more likely outcome whenever I submit a completed poem or fiction piece or essay.

If for no other reason, than because of the sheer quantity of writing being submitted everywhere. Publications have limited space and unlimited selection. It’s a numbers game.

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.

But when rejection comes, it always feels personal. Even though I understand from a rational standpoint that it isn’t. I feel like I am being told I suck. I don’t matterNothing I do matters. I am the worst writer in the world. Maybe the universe.

As an editor myself who has to parcel out rejection–something that hurts as much as receiving it–I know rejection is about the taste of the people choosing. And their mileage may vary from my own.

Rejection is subjective. Taste is individual. Not absolute.

Editors’ differing aesthetics, their biases, having to read the thousandth dead grandmother poem that month. And their grandmother is in the hospital. And she may not live. Or maybe that editor just discovered their father cheated on their mother with a person who has the same unusual first name as me.

Whatever the reason, rejection still hurts. And for me, it’s a physical pain as well. A blow to the chest, making it hard to breathe. Which makes sense according to MRI research. Rejection lights up the same areas in the brain as physical injury. There’s a great article on the TED site by psychologist Guy Winch that talks about this: Why rejection hurts so much

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The good news is, once I catch my breath, I’m ready to try submitting again. Mostly because of the voice in my head. Thankfully, that voice belongs not to me, but to my very first poetry mentor, Ottone “Ricky” Riccio, who taught at the Boston Center For Adult Education for several dozen years.

Ricky said, “Don’t call yourself a poet until you’ve received a thousand rejections.” What he really meant was that success at submitting doesn’t make you worthy. Passion for writing makes you a poet. And if you have enough passion that you’ve submitted a thousand or more times, you’ve got what it takes.

By these guidelines, I can call myself a poet many times over. Thousands of rejections.

Ricky didn’t place much value in the hierarchies of literary publishing. He encouraged sharing your work, but getting it out into the world any way you could. He suggested students take a handful of magnets and post poems on the refrigerators in the appliance section at Sears.

Ricky was an early proponent of self-publishing. Way before print-on-demand came into being. Many of his photocopied, hand-stapled collections stand among my all-time favorite poetry collections.

dealing with rejection

In my heart, I know sharing work matters. During my childhood, growing up in harrowing conditions, poetry saved my life. It still does. Every day.

As a child, I saw how people who’d suffered loss, and tragedy, and all kind of hurt, wrote about their experiences in poems. Across distance, time, gender, culture, these folks spoke directly to my wounds. They lived to write about what they’d been through–a testimony to survival, and likely, even thriving.

I’ve come to believe that our words reach those who need them most. However that happens–whether publication in a literary journal, or in the community newsletter, or posting online.

Poetry is my spiritual practice. Getting work into the world is a necessary part of that practice. Rejection is a piece of it as well. And the hurt. So I rest, take some deep breaths, and keep on. I hope you will too.

heart road

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Reading for Delight

Here’s the thing. I’ve come clean previously on this blog about my depression since the 2016 election and the state of our country and the world. I’ve recently managed to pull myself out of the dark depths, but it takes every ounce of practice and resolve to stay afloat. Self care is hard, especially when we need to be putting positive energy out into the world.

One thing that really helps me is reading for delight. Books that transport me to another world–a world in which the awful things that happen are resolved, and justice prevails. It may be fantasy, but it does give me hope.

Two books which I read recently that have been pure delight, are The Plot is Murder by V. M. Burns and Ghosts in Glass Houses by Kay Charles. Both are cozy mysteries, and in cozies, the world is better at the completion of the story than at its beginning. If only real life was like that!

plot is murder

So much to love about the first book in Burns’ Mystery Bookshop Series. First, is that the lead character  Samantha is a bookstore owner! What writer doesn’t fantasize about that? Second, is that she’s also a writer, writing her own mystery. So there are two mysteries happening concurrently in the book. But what really makes this book special are the senior citizen cast of characters that help Samantha investigate the mystery. They are quirky and fun and lively and radiate joy. I want to be any of them as I head toward Medicare age. Frankly, they not only make me smile, but give me hope for my future.

ghost in glass

Kay Charles’ book is all about voice. The main character Marti is snarky as all get out. She’s sarcastic and funny as she deals with her quite dysfunctional family, some of which are dead and appear to her as ghosts. Haunt and harass her is more like it. The story is all about redemption of one’s sense of self and that too is empowering. This is also a first in a series, and I look forward to the protagonist becoming more and more comfortable in her ghost-seeing skin as the series continues.

Literary fiction that explores the depths of human suffering is a necessary art that informs and inspires. And the beauty of the language can bring delight. But right now, I need more humorous delight in my life. And I am very grateful to authors like V. M. Burns and Kay Charles who brighten my spirits. That is a necessary art as well.

 

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Coming Clean September 25, 2017

I’ve been very depressed since November 8th of last year. It’s unusual to be able to pinpoint an actual beginning date to depression, but this time the cause was having my worldview, or at least my view of the country I live in, completely pummeled.dep

The explosion of racism and bigotry shocked me. It shouldn’t have. People of color have been getting beaten and murdered by the authorities for years. And there has been no justice. No universal outcry from those who live inside acceptably-toned skin.

But somehow, I didn’t think my friends and neighbors and relatives fell into the vile category of bigots and racists, or supporters of bigots and racists. After the election, I leaned so many do. I’m still not sure how to cope with that knowledge.

Racism and bigotry have been something I’ve had to deal with on a personal level my whole life. I’ve been called the n-word and the s-word, followed around by store detectives in department stores, and profiled in airports, being pulled out of line, wanded, and having my bags searched every time I flew anywhere (up until I hit about 47—guess I’ve gotten too old to be that dangerous?).

My entire life, people have asked, “What are you?”  It’s a question with an agenda.

I’ve suffered bouts of depression throughout my life—some strictly biological, some related to what’s going on in my life, some related to the state of the world. And when the depression hits hard, it’s almost impossible for me to verbalize why I stop feeling able to go on and why even the most minute tasks—like brushing my teeth—require monumental psychic effort.

With the depression, comes marginal functionality, at best, and a complete inability to function creatively. I have been a nonwriting writer for many months. And you know what Kafka had to say about that: A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

A lot of people who know me, would never know I am depressed. That’s because I hide it well. I don’t want to burden others with my depression. I don’t want to pass on negative energy. Being an introvert, I shun as much social interaction as I can get away with. But with depression, it’s that much harder.

Things came to a head at the end of this summer, as close to the edge of the abyss as I’ve come in a long time. I thought about ways to end it all, but thankfully, did not get beyond the thoughts.

I have inverse SAD, where exposure to sunshine incites my depression. This was my first summer in Oregon and it was unbearably sunny for weeks on end. People think it’s weird all I want to do all summer is hide inside. But I do it for survival. Part of the problem is, I guess, is I didn’t hide quite enough.

Now, major populations around the world and in our own country are being devastatingly impacted by fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. And the truth is, I feel guilty about wanting to feel better. I feel it’s wrong for me to start feeling better when the suffering for others is only getting worse.

But I do want to feel better. And I am finally taking active steps to do so. I appreciate all those in my life who continue to be supportive and empathetic. Thank you for your understanding and patience.

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