Blowup

The title of this post comes from a conversation I was having with a friend about taking care of infants. Y’all who know, know what we were talking about and I’m just going to leave it at that. So this past weekend and mainly this morning, I had an experience to which many of us can relate. I don’t want to use specific words for it because there is no one title for it, so I’ll call it “coming up.” Stuff came up for me. Like, a bunch of stuff.

rawpixel-661936-unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The first thing that happened was a real impulse to cry. I fed that impulse. Mascara was everywhere, and then makeup, and then other stuff. You know that phrase “ugly cry?” Imagine the ugliest. Then my body started to hurt, like after a really tough workout. My neck and shoulder muscles especially just ached. It was as if they were holding in all these unexamined emotions right there, right in the fibers. The knots began to stiffen, and then suddenly release. An outpouring. I curled into bed, clutching a pillow and waiting. While I waited to calm down, I tried to observe the thoughts that scrolled through, the visions that caused these feelings- feelings of worthlessness, being small, being unlovable and irrelevant and a failure, feelings of living in a body that holds guilt and shame inside of it- flashed over and over. It was a blowup. Except instead of a diaper to clean up, it was the thoughts. Slowly and carefully, I imagined a mop gently wiping the inside of my forehead. It felt soothing.

What is this blowup thing, and where did it come from? Different folx have different answers. Sometimes it’s a place. A smell, a noise. Sometimes a person. Sometimes a memory that appears out of nowhere. Sometimes there is no explanation. If I try to pin down the origin of this time, I’d say it has something to do with returning to writing my own story. Sometimes knowing is helpful, and other times I think it’s really about processing. Because I am writing, I wanted to lean into what was happening. I drew a thought bubble chart that helped me parse some of what’s happening. Stress about the exhibit opening. Fear of failure. Rage about injustice. Trauma in my body. I circled body because I continue to struggle with the healing process. And I started writing, and crying, and listening to the first sermon ever preached at the Women’s Mosque of America in my home city. Edina Lekovic, the Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, gave a call to action. “We must build upon this beautiful truth,” she said. “The truth that we now have a Women’s Mosque, and our daughters will say ‘of course we do’ when they grow up. We are inclusive, not exclusive. We are open, not closed***.”

I want to help build these beautiful truths for which women continue to lay the foundation. I am glad everything “came up,” because like a foundation the pain sits and stirs once in a while. Upon this foundation, we can build not walls but windows into beauty, and greatness, and love.

You can check out this amazing sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4g26wK-VYV0

Advertisements

Nightmare

I woke up screaming at 2 am after experiencing a nightmare.

This certainly was not the first time I’ve had bad dreams- often when I am stressed or anxious about a meeting, a test, even the amount of work ahead of me, my sleep has been fitful or disturbed. My dreams include strange and weird images. But this was different. This was terrifying darkness and powerlessness. This was screaming in sleep and out loud. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this dream means.

james-stamler-153583
PC: James Stamler

I’m in a dark room, laying on a bed. Someone outside the room is keeping guard. I’m shouting to let me out- please! But the person doesn’t respond. I realize I’m dreaming within a dream, and try to wake up. I’m paralyzed, just lying on this bed. Wake up, wake up! Until finally, someone shoves me and I am, in fact, awake.

I have never been so happy to see my room in Boston, dimly lit from the moon peeping in through the curtains, my stuffed animals strewn about the sheets. After a few deep breaths, I felt a little calmer, but disoriented still. I clutched my penguin Plush and tried to fall back asleep.

This weekend I revised about 25 pages of my memoir. Revision may indeed be harder than writing in the first place. After receiving feedback from my classmates, I was forced to grapple with the questions they posed to make my narrative clearer.

“Why did the narrator (me) say she didn’t believe in God when this is a memoir about faith?”

“What made the narrator hide the fact that she was traveling by herself?”

“Why does the narrator feel so guilty about almost everything?”

I kept writing and deleting, writing and deleting. I found myself scratching my head.

I don’t know why.

Just as nightmares illuminate possible emotions we are hiding deep within, perhaps these questions led to a stir where there has long been no movement. The only way for me to understand this terrible, terrible dream is to wonder what came up as I faced these questions, trying to honestly tell the story of my life and my journey. Darkness. Paralysis. As if stirring kicks up dust we are forced to inhale, sneeze, and clear away.

Why Honesty is Risky, Sometimes

I started my Memoir Generator class. There are 12 of us aspiring memoirists. All women identified, all pretty quirky. I have decided after our first meeting we are all hiding something. That’s why we want to write. We are trying to figure out how to unhide. 

PC: Hauke Morgenthau

We read two memoirs before the class so we could tear them apart. I don’t mean in a bad way, like a really tough movie critic- I mean we dissected them, made lists of characters and objects and places, and honed in on the authors’ strategies for effective writing. The books we read were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (which I wrote about a few months ago) and The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. These memoirs are both about death- the first is about the author’s battle with cancer and his understanding, as a surgeon, of exactly what is happening inside him, and the second is about the author’s father committing suicide and her family’s quest to pick up the pieces for years. Literally, years- Wickersham worked on this book for 14 years. Kalanithi died about a year after he started writing the book. 
I felt so alive in our first class, even after a long day of work, even as the sun set and the bands of gold light turned pink and purple and then darkness flooded the window outside. I love learning, and what’s more, I loved being in a room with writers interested in understanding writing as a deep spiritual, artistic process. We agreed that writing a memoir takes time, reflection, and the final product will leave out quite a lot of what we write. “Don’t think every scene you write isn’t sacred,” our instructor told us. “But don’t think it’ll all be publishable either.” I admit, that statement scares me. But I’m still willing to try the process. I have stories and people and pain to unhide. 
In this first class, I learned something crucial about telling the truth amongst my new classmates. As we delved into the character list for Wickersham’s memoir, someone asked, “Why do you think she only mentions her sister once in the whole book? That seems strange to me. We don’t even know her name.”
It did seem strange- I suddenly wondered if the author was trying to tell us that her sister wasn’t very important to this whole experience, which I found unbelievable. My sister would be, if that ever happened in my family. Before that train of thought could spiral out of control, another student responded, “her sister probably asked not to be in the book. She probably wanted to be private.”
Oh. Yes, that makes sense. I realized in my quest to begin telling my own story how difficult telling the truth is, especially to the world who doesn’t know you and the people you love. Because “the” truth is actually your own truth. We have great power in our hands (literally) when we write down the stories we tell ourselves and share them. We are exposing brokenness and pain and memory that may be locked away for good reason. Someone in my class mused, “you’ll never please everyone when you tell the truth. The truth hurts. And usually we are writing because we are hurt, or we hurt others, and we write about the people who have caused us pain or for whom we have caused pain.”
I thought about my family and our collective secrets. What will happen if I write them down and share them? Even the stories we have exposed are told in a way that everyone feels they have agency. We’ve told these stories over and over, and drafted them in a way that confirms and contributes to the greater narrative of who we are. What if my writing challenges this narrative, shatters our story of “us”?
So I begin by asking “why.” Why do I feel such an ache to tell my story, even though I risk upsetting the people closest to me? For now, the answer is that sharing my story could also put forth the beginning of an honest conversation about our shared family pain that we’ve never addressed before. Telling the truth is risky- and maybe it’s a way for me to build stronger relationships with my family. I hope the memoir process helps me unhide from my own truth, and that I learn to listen for others’ struggles in sharing theirs. 

Why Writing Brings Me Joy

It seems like all I can talk about these days, besides my moving woes and the storm that is Welcome Week at a large urban university, is my writing. What joy writing has brought me! Someone asked me recently: “Have you always been a writer?” I have always written papers and blogs and reports, yes- but it has not been until this summer that I have mustered the courage to call myself a writer.

A few weeks ago, I shared my experience at the Kenyon Institute seminar on spiritual writing on this blog. The seminar pushed me to make writing a priority, because of the joy and healing the process evokes. As soon as I returned from Gambier, Ohio, I decided to enroll in a GrubStreet class (a Boston non-profit dedicated to providing resources for writers of all ages), mainly for the accountability to write every week. A six-week Online Memoir Generator was about to begin, so I signed up and began to think about my memoir.

writing.jpg

The first week, my classmates and I discussed the topics of our memoirs in the online forum. Death, heartbreak, illness, leaving a life behind to start another- these all made the list. I struggled to describe my story- struggles with faith, growing up, finding community. My eyes rolled as I typed these words, they seemed so overused. Was I whining? I submitted a scene about losing a wiffle ball over the fence that separated my family’s back yard with our neighbor’s house and our quest to retrieve the ball, knowing full well our neighbor lived with dementia. The story provided a little humor and demonstrated the relationship between childhood me, my sister Mallory, and my dad. As words filled my page, though, something else happened. My soul transported back to that scene, that moment, and I remembered walking home after our quest, unsuccessful in retrieving the ball, and having my first encounter with a religious ritual that was not my own. The meaning is in these small details, I decided.

In the next weeks, my classmates shared their work and we commented on each other’s pieces. I found myself cringing to open their submissions on my computer. Am I ready for this? I wondered. Every time I read about the death of my classmate’s sibling, the struggle to raise a child, the reality of living as a gay man, the feeling in my chest resembled a shame as if I had taken off all my clothes to strut my far from perfect body in a room full of people. How unworthy was I to witness these life experiences with the people who lived them, and then to critique their writing about them?

“Work is love, made visible,” wrote Khalil Gibran, in his famous work The Prophet. The course continued, we completed our assignments, and I began to find joy in the work. I wrote about my struggle to feel like part of a community my whole life. I wrote about the car accident that totaled my big red Jeep and my childhood. I wrote, though didn’t submit, a short piece about my cousin who died far too young by her own hand. She was 28, the same age as me. Through the pain revisited on the page, my classmates took me in, and we held each other. I cried at their losses, their love, their pain. And I began to heal, or at least to feel what healing feels like. “Work is love, made visible.”

The love I felt through this process illuminated the source of the joy that I call writing. The source is the community. Writing is such a personal process- we know our story, we own our methods and tactics for telling it. Yet we write to share (if only with our future selves), to connect with our readers. Finding community has been a real challenge for me my whole life, and yet, it only took a website and some discussion forums to find a group of seven people willing to be vulnerable and intimate, willing to put love into the work.