Deep Down

Before the storm there is thick fog and before the fog there is a dreadful humidity that suffocates every molecule of the air around and inside of us. As I settle in with my laptop to write literally anything I can think of to get my fingers moving and give permission to even my most perverse thoughts to come forward, however sheepishly at first, I am wondering what gives anyone of us the energy to keep going. What is it we are after that we believe will prove to us that any of this is worth it? What is it that drives that man in his properly pressed button-down blue shirt and buttercream tie to walk into that office just one more day and try to hold it all together. Why does it feel like I’m walled off from everyone else by some kind of static impenetrable distance. So much of what I am supposed to find fulfilling I find unnervingly not so. What they worship I cannot understand. Is it enough to work the week out in administrative minutiae and microwave leftovers and water the houseplants on weekends in between bouts of writing? Don’t you ever want to just cut loose from everything in your life that feels so maddeningly mundane and do something else – something that actually matters, something that finally scratches that wretched burning itch to wrap your arms around the sky?
The thunder is collapsing loudly now, shaking the very foundation of the house as I reach for my coffee and take a long hot sip. I make a mental note that we need more coffee beans and sugar next time I am at the market because a day without either is no day I can drag myself through.
Fraught over my lack of creative flow and cursing myself for my obsession with trying to remain loyal to my writing practice despite very little interest from the outside world, I pick myself up off the couch, slide off my sandals by the back patio door and step outside into the pouring rain.  I can taste the sweetness of the heat coming off the pavement as it rushes full with fast forming rivers. Closing my eyes I turn my head toward the clouds and feel the cool water streaming onto my face, down my neck, over my bare shoulders and soaking my skin thoroughly all over. Hands in my hair, heart in my throat, wondering if the only worthy motivation for writing is to put myself in deep touch with this melancholy soul of mine who cries out for something so much more than this. And I can’t help but wonder what about our souls makes us terrified to live the lives we are so desperate for? How they ache to tell us so many secrets and how we turn them to face the corner again and again convinced that to listen – to quit being so damn afraid and choose our dreams for ourselves – would be the end of our sanity. When the truth is that those wild dreams are the only worthy motivation for anything.

The Things We Deserve

As we are frolicking about acting like children in the makeshift swimming pool in our back yard, the rest of the country is mourning the most recent mass shooting in America. Actually, this time it’s two shootings within hours of each other. El Paso and Dayton. After sipping coffee and scrolling on your phone, you reluctantly inform me of this as I have taken a break from the news and the rest of the outside world for the weekend. This planet is so full of cruelty and pain I’ve decided to try to write myself out of it as often as I can. What should never happen already has: I stare across the yard almost unfeelingly. You aren’t supposed to feel numb right now you are supposed to be enraged and do something because enough and this has to stop and never again and never forget.  We are a country that disgraces the dignity of people, their bodies and their words. Bodies are for counting. Words are punchlines, words are excuses, words are little trap doors for the monsters to slip out of sight.
Once I can get past the shock, disbelief, and numbness I will feel something and it will be awful. I’m still human just a much more jaded and cynical one than I once was. As the birds are singing and locusts buzzing all around us in the grass and we decide it is in fact early enough to start drinking, I pour us some wine to share while eating turkey and cheese sandwiches for lunch. And the next day, another lunch, another dinner, another bottle of wine and a cigarette and the waiting for the other shoe to drop in this vacuum we call life. I’m sitting in my office and people come and go obsessed with their executive performance, ranking, standing, achievements, retirement plans. Not a word passes between any of us about the shootings because it isn’t the time or the place or the thought or the prayer so best to just keep on punching that time clock and smiling fake smiles while ignoring all the blood and death and ignorance and cowardice and self-destruction happening right outside our glossy corporate floor to ceiling windows. I can smell the stale coffee burning in the glass pot in the break room. I can hear the screaming of the terrorized and the wailing of the mothers who cannot find their children. Are they among the dead? I can see the sunlight splashing through the trees on this beaming summer day in August 2019 that shouldn’t belong to anyone.

Boy Preys On Girl, Girl Submits

Allison has hairy legs, he whispers loud enough for the kids around us in the next row to hear.  I remember his voice and how I always thought he was especially creepy in a predatory way, the kind of kid who would grow up to be the kind of sleazebag who would do disgusting things and smile and breathe a little too heavy while doing them. He sat behind me in the sixth grade and for some reason on this particular day he decided to brush his hand up over my entire lower calf and announce to everyone within ear shot that I had hair on my legs. In an instant I went flush with… embarrassment? Shock? Confusion? Up until that very moment I hadn’t given a damn about shaving my legs, it wasn’t even a thought in my young mind. Mostly it was disorienting in the way most girls’ initiation into a culture of normalized violation is disorienting- the world you used to live in evaporates and disappears to be replaced by a world where you are constantly on guard against being touched, seen, objectified.  In the space of a few sudden seconds I was conditioned to expect and accept “facts” which in hindsight I can clearly see were false about myself, my body, and my place in the world as a female human. I was to be touched whenever a man wanted to touch me just because I was there, and close enough to reach.
I was expected, when being touched randomly against my will, to be clean shaven, that is to feel good to him. Never mind how it made me feel: violated, gross, angry, disturbed, ashamed, embarrassed, uneasy.  Be ready, your body is not for you anymore. It’s not for enjoying freely and you are not protected, anywhere you show up you are vulnerable. Your legs, you suddenly learn, aren’t for riding bikes or playing hopscotch anymore, they are for boys to look at and fondle, any day at any time. Be ready. Always be ready for it. And if you are caught not ready, not shaven, not smooth, not pleasing, you will be shamed because you have broken the rules. You didn’t keep up your end of the bargain-you know, the one where you exist to add to a man’s enjoyment of his surroundings. After all it’s not the man’s fault that when he touched you he was disappointed. It’s yours. You had been warned, remember. The creepy kid warned you back in grade school to always be ready for it. But you weren’t.  

Only Way Out

Leaning over the counter top painting my toenails a deep raisin, I am wishing I were a better writer. You know like the ones who can conjure up an entire world made electric with the sweetness of wicked delicious fantasy. Most people think writing is just about writing but it isn’t. It’s so much more than that. Writing is about coming undone and dying inside over and over. It’s about becoming the person you always knew you could be without the hindrance that is most of the rest of this ridiculous life. It’s about giving a middle finger to the rest of the world because you know they are ignorant to all of your most sacred fears and why they matter so much to you. It’s about fingering your darkest secrets until they flower for you into everything that makes your gums bleed with naked desire; the way you obsess over the guy with the shifty eyes like blades and the scent on the summer breeze as the evening sifts inside your open bedroom window. It’s about hungry mouths and the aching memory of bathing nude with a lover under the cascade of a secluded waterfall. It’s about the glistening tangerine light glinting down the side of a pink wine bottle as it sweats from coming right out of the fridge onto the back patio in the balmy air.
If you can really do it – if you can really write, like write with the very best of them, the rest of the world doesn’t even have to exist at all. Because you have enough dirty love in your sad little heart and enough big impossible visions swirling like stars in your weary head that you don’t need anybody else. Or anything else. Not time or space or permission. You don’t need healing you just need a way to let it all out and sex won’t come close and drinking won’t fix the scars on your bruised insecurities. Only writing. Only the brutality and beauty of the chasing of the words and the spinning of the scenes and the giving of your entire soul to something that will kick you in the teeth just as readily as it will cradle you in your darkest hour. That’s what writing is and so few have any idea. At least, it should be.

Grade schoolers

two grade schoolers kissing
in a thin soft rain
at a bus stop. public transportation
public displays of private affection.
wet sweetness, hard concrete
street, observers.
it is early and the sky is pale gray
and i can taste the strawberry chapstick
of my childhood, slung on a braided string
around my neck.
the fade of shy gymnasium
romance smoldering in my skin.
i remember a time when i thought
i had to be everyone’s favorite girl.
all the while knowing
i never would be.
the weight of the world
on the wait of my girlhood.
the sharp claws of that. made to think like that
was the only way to think.
like that. because he
likes that, they like that you
don’t say what you really
like. what you are really like
is
whatever it took, whatever I had to do,
to become, to degrade, downsize,
legitimize
to hide.
it takes years.
decades. fire storms. drownings.
to exorcise that sickness.

Freeze Frame

Watching the moon late in the evening and listening for the precise moment when the seasons click from summer to fall, I light a cigarette and let the long deep drag burn my tender lungs. A terrible habit. It could be any day of any year that passes by in the blink of an eye, but as it happens I am in the middle of my 41st year on this planet. I’ve got almost everything and hardly anything to show for it, depending on who you ask. That’s the thing about creating your own life, it cuts across the membrane of the lives other people seem to think you ought to be birthing or killing off according to rules you may or may not agree apply to you, yourself, as an individual collection of fears and hopes, desires and obsessions.
For all the words left unsaid on this side of the veil, it’s only once you cross over to the other side that they will suddenly try to reflect upon the story of you, the one they’ll cobble together – the story of a life they only ever glimpsed a small well-manicured fraction of. To the outside world you are mostly a collection of titles affixed to you to have you figured and therefore quieted…palatable. Daughter. Woman. Assistant. Wife. Writer. Addict. Mother. Mother means you are a nurturing, selfless, giving woman but what about the time when you thought motherhood was the thing that was going to kill you and you cursed it alone in the dark as your baby screamed and so did you and you both went hours without touching each other? What about the time your own mother slapped you across the mouth in the bathroom for saying something flip? What about that motherhood is sometimes trauma of a twisted and secret kind that makes you feel ashamed and afraid and tired and like you don’t deserve it?

As the flashes of my former life flicker across my mind and the darkness falls into a vacant backdrop to the sound of crickets singing in the heat, I turn my body to curl into a patio chair on my back lawn. The moon is high and piercing, swung up there all alone, a rock in orbit around the same old bits for all eternity. How beautiful we think she is, observing her majesty from down below while sunk to the bottom of a bottle of white wine grown warm. Underneath that static glow, where the shadows deepen to pock her ancient lunar body, what does she actually feel?    

is it time to let go?

Though it is just barely autumn here in the U.S., I have already found myself cozied up to more than a few bonfires on these recent cooler evenings. Bonfires in the chill of a crisp fall night, surrounded by the crickets below and canopied by the dark trees and bright stars above, are some of my absolute favorite things. The promise of change — bold, rich, deep, earthy, soulful transformation — crackles in the spiced smoke air.

Every cell in my body can feel it.

As if I am a collection of seasons myself, every year at this time I begin to feel the deep desire to let what is done be done, let what must die die, so that eventually, new life can begin in time. Recently this idea of burning the old to the ground has come up in articles and books I have been reading, as though the universe were reflecting back to me what is going on inside, helping me to make sense of this strange need to seemingly “throw it all away.”

After all, if you let go of everything you have created up until this point, doesn’t that mean it was all for nothing? No. In fact, it is the opposite. To let what is done be done is to dare to honor the full cycle of creativity: life, death, re-birth.

No one better described this feeling than a woman whose brave, difficult, critical and important work I have been following for only a few months but who has dramatically changed my perspective on the world around and inside me. Layla F. Saad is a Black feminist writer, racial justice advocate and spiritual thought leader. I could write for hours about Ms. Saad’s impact on me, and on the culture at large, but that is best left for another time and space.

What I most want to share with you on this Full Harvest Moon Monday is an excerpt from Layla’s recent essay, which she shared privately with her most loyal followers. She sums up exactly how I am feeling now, about setting myself on fire so I can start over. That letting go in order to move on is what is required of all of us at various points throughout our lives, and that does not mean our past was not vitally important. It’s just that what is done is done, and it is time to move on toward the next beautiful thing.

“Before the world sets me on fire for not living up to expectations that I agreed to because I was growing too damn fast and ignoring my heart, I’m choosing to slow down and set myself on fire so I can start over and figure out who I am, what I want and what my expectations are for myself. I am choosing to let who I have been and what I have done go, so that I can define myself for myself and move forward with an unshakeable foundation of clarity and sovereignty. And again, saying that does not undervalue or invalidate any of the work that I have done up until this point. But my heart says it’s time to take a different road now.”
  — Layla F. Saad

Sometimes what is next is deeper and therefore more painful. Often it is the most painful things which can teach us the most but only when we are ready to face them. I can feel that time is bubbling up inside of me. I sense the claws, cries, whispers, and possibilities of my own personal stories welling up inside. Stories I have never shared before. Because I was not ready. It was not time. But if it is now their time to come forward, I must honor that. That is the call of all writers always, to let what needs to come forward come forward, no matter what the reactions may be.

There is a secret wisdom in this work of writing which can only be revealed through the practice of doing the writing itself. By paying attention, by listening, by remaining alert and willing. After a while you learn to sense the turning of seasons. You can see it in the way the wind catches itself in the withering trees.

If I am to move forward in this way I must first take the time to go silent and search inward for the messages coming forward. To tune out the world and tune into myself. To burn myself to the ground in order to emerge a new season.

“That love voice.
She’ll help you find treasure. but she’ll guide you right into the minefields first.
   — Glennon Doyle

Are you feeling it is time to make a change of your own? Are there things you are doing that feel like they are dragging you under, that perhaps they would be better off let go of?

If you are going through this time of transformation as well, I understand. And I wish you well on your brave journey inward.  Burn, baby, burn.

 

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how to decide what to do next (in writing & in life)

If you have been at your writing, or whatever your artistic craft of choice, long enough you will inevitably face the following annoying (though, annoyingly important) question: so… what’s next?

No matter the milestone you reach — no matter how many books you publish or TEDx talks you give or exhibits you display or awards you win or tickets you sell or followers you gather — after all is said and done and the confetti is swept away and the empty champagne bottles are tossed a strew, eventually the quiet of endless future space will descend in around you and beg this one simple, maddening question.

Perhaps strangers will ask this of you, or fans or family, or you will simply find yourself asking yourself: so, what’s next?

Fear not, beloved, for here’s what. I came across an unlikely and absolutely brilliant answer to this question and it turns out that to actually find the answer we need to change the question. How terribly existential of us.

I follow the refreshingly insightful and wildly entertaining Ash Ambirge, author, CEO & Founder of The Middle Finger Project who has the cleverest, sexiest way of making sense of this inevitable crossroads. (I enjoy following successful entrepreneurs – and I’ve been watching Ash killing it for years – because I believe entrepreneurship is much like writing in that it is creative, innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, and you are constantly trying things that may or may not work.)

In her most recent article, Ash flips the question from “What do I want to do?” to “What do I want to change?”

And in that nearly imperceptible shift in how you ask the question about where you are headed in your creative life, or your life in general, your next step begins to come into much sharper focus.

Because as creatives, we are change-makers. By choosing what we want to create, we create the world in which we live. So… what’s next? Well, maybe start at the end and work backwards… how do you want the world to be different when you’re done?

 

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this is why we need you to tell your story

As I write this, it is so early in the morning there are still sounds of the night whirring outside my writing room window. It is pitch black. Crickets are chirping their low piercing cadence upon the silent dewy slumbering earth. This is my favorite time of the day to write. There is something especially inviting about writing ahead of the claws of the day. Your body is still warm and snug from sleep, and with fresh coffee in hand, you can crawl up close to the words because you’re ahead of the fear.

A good deal of writing is about fear and pushing past it to get to the other side to a more beautiful, more free place. Isn’t that what art is? What life is? What death and the burning threat of it, ultimately, is?

The further into my writing journey I go, the deeper I mine my own thoughts, ideas, projects, and experiences, the more I recognize fear as a guide. It is always an indicator — all be it a sharp and gripping one — of interesting things to come.

One of the fears that surfaces again and again for me is this (lame) limiting question: Who am I to tell my stories?  Why would anyone care what I have to say? Why do I care? The amount of mental and emotional capital I waste on jabbing myself in the ribs with this shaming technique is truly astounding. It cuts absolutely every beautiful idea off at the neck. It is a way of beheading a perfectly fine creative endeavor — that of sharing my experiences with the world — before it can dare open its imperfectly hopeful mouth to speak.

So this week I’m loving the idea of turning my big fear into big motivation by flipping the question from: Who am I to tell my story? To: Who am I not to?  

Who are we as writers, creatives, artists, humans, to hold back what we were given the tools and the gifts and the inspiration to offer? What else do we have, really, of any lasting value?

Maybe let’s stop killing a good thing before it even begins. Our writing doesn’t have to save the world or achieve massive wildfire success to be worthy of existing. It doesn’t have to matter to everyone else. It just has to matter to us. And we have to allow ourselves the space, the permission, to let the things we dream about creating come to life. To simply begin.

If you’d like to explore this concept further, do check out this article on OnBeing, by Elissa Altman, Writing and the Permission to Succeed: The Intersection of Art and Shame. Here, an excerpt in response to the all-too-debilitating question, Who am I to tell my stories?:

“‘Who are you to not tell them?’ a writer friend said to me. This writer friend — author of novels, memoirs, a short story collection — tells me that it is ownership, the acceptance of the fact that our stories make us who we are, that is the most complicated and treacherous part of what we do. When that ownership is withheld, we cannot succeed. When other forces say, no, that story is not yours, they have not only killed it and its place in your soul; they have killed you.”

We need your stories, dear one. We need them because the telling of stories is often the only way to own our lives, our selves. We need to tell our stories because that is what writers do, this is our work and our stories are the material. The telling of our stories is how we discover the many millions of ways they intersect with other people’s stories. This is the fabric of connection, empathy, collaboration, community, understanding. This is how we weave the past into the open palms of the present so that we can show ourselves to ourselves, and ourselves to each other. 

If you never tell your story the way you need to tell it, in your own creative mysterious voice, the world around you cannot grow any richer for it. And the truth is, this is all we have: the story of our lives. And none of this is permanent, none of it. So whatever it is that burns within you to create, whatever the story you have to tell, give it breath this week. Start today, don’t wait. Put it into a body, a body of art work. Watch. Listen. Let it amaze you.

In closing and until next time, I leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver called When Death Comes. It is one of my favorites, because I too want to know that “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.”

Click here to read When Death Comes by Mary Oliver.

Click here to listen to me read When Death Comes by Mary Oliver.

As I finish writing this post, the first little bird begins her dimpled singing outside my window. As if to say with full force and affection: the night turns into day, the day will turn into night, and all things will come and go in time. Write your story, tell your tales, give breath to your song, for soon enough, you and I will blink, and fly, and be gone.

 

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on art, democracy, & dangerous play

There are a few artists and thought leaders I follow and read regularly a few times a week. No matter how busy my days or how disconnected I may be feeling from my creativity, there are a select few people I turn to again and again to ground me and at the same time who expand my view of the world and my place in it as a creative.

One of these artists is Maria Popova, author of the incredible treasure trove which is Brain Pickings. The amount of sheer love in the form of magnitude of work she does to curate her collection of posts on everything from art to philosophy, from poetry to astronomy, from activism to mysticism, is astonishing. And such an incredible gift.

Most recently I’ve been taken by this piece in particular in which she explores the writings of Iris Murdoch, why art is essential for democracy, and the ways in which art makes us “not only human but humane.”

“The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities… Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces. We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.” — Iris Murdoch

It is no secret in my country, in the USA, democracy and freedom upon freedom is under attack. It is dizzying and maddening to say the very least. These are radical — sometimes, often even, inexplicably complicated and complex times — and one of the things that pains and concerns me the most is the attack on the truth. The eroding of our ability to engage in intelligent, respectful and respectable discourse as a humane society.

As a nation, as a world, as a global network of artists, writers, creatives, connected ever faster and with more and more urgency, we are losing touch with the essentials for growth, nourishment, deep thought, deep commitment to our soul’s purpose of truth-telling, no matter how painful or uncomfortable that may be.

I call myself a writer. Maybe you do, too, or maybe you don’t. But either way, we are all contributors to language, we are all users and shapers of words and ideas, how we use them to build up or destroy, to honor our common dignity or to pick away at it.

So not just this week, but these days in general, when facts seem harder and harder to pin down and the very use of language seems to be broken, splintered, desecrated, dismissed, and left for dead, I cling to the strength and wisdom of artists and thought leaders like Maria Popova and her work. She is an anchor, a pillar, a lighthouse.

We need art because we need to stay in touch with our own humanity.  To remain humane, to remain close to compassion, understanding, knowledge, humility and grace we must all be concerned with how we use language. What we say, how we say it, why we say what we say, who we say it to, all of these things matter each and everyday. We are all speakers. We are all writers. Writing this world we live in, speaking our way one word at a time toward a more brilliant or more cruel existence.

“Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art. A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.” — Iris Murdoch

Until next time, I wish you a beautiful week ahead.

With much love & gratitude,

Allison Marie

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