A Person is Not a Country

100_2062The following poem will appear in my memoir, Riding Shotgun, a work in progress that gets a small but steady amount of attention every week.  If one uses the “birthing” metaphor for book writing, then I’d say that the rough draft is entering it’s third trimester.  I’m hoping to tie up all the loose ends and create a moving finish by December.  In case you are wondering, “it’s a girl!”

A Person is Not a Country

A person is not a country

not a food like tacos

Not a pigment like black or white

or brown yellow red

or blended shade that forms in the development of

skin organ inside the womb.

A person is a person and not a piece of cloth

draped over brow and face,

I always wonder how those stay in place.

A person is a person and not the region of their origin,

the place where runaway slaves found freedom,

the place where snow falls on a child’s dark eyelashes,

lace against delicate petals.

The place were breath is visible, where cocoa steams

from styrofoam cups on the sidelines of the high school football game.

Where you speak the way it sounds funny and strange in the south.

A person is a person and not the weapon they carry,

hidden, disguised, or blatantly worn in the open,

that sign of fear.

A person is a person and not the poverty they are running from,

like you did, Dad,

when you kept on going to school even though your mother

tragically died,

those horrid, open wounds,

the eating away of her flesh when the cancer crept out to the surface,

and you were there carrying her to the outhouse

and she cried of embarrassment

because you were her boy,

and fourteen.

A person is a person and not the car they are driving

while you sit shotgun dreaming of another kind of life to be living

away from all the things you think you need to be or say or do

to win approval and security and pride and acceptance, and literally,

food.

Be shameless in your skin

and leap from atop the racing stagecoach

when you find that you’re passing a lovely garden

reminiscent of Eden.

Let the shotgun fall where it may.

A person is a person and not the lies they tell

nor the penance they long to be released from.

 A person is not their sadness

nor longing nor disappointments, nor even their passing joy.

And a person is worth the same worth as the next,

born today, born yesterday, born in the future,

struggling to survive.

A person is a person and will change at a rate

faster than a country organizing revolution

or deciding to save what’s left of nature,

the life sustaining provider

they assume will recover and be generous to us

after the slaughter and poison and progress.

A person is a person and not a country,

a visitor,

for a moment

then gone,

even after all that work,

or because of it.

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Finding what you’re resisting is the key to opening the barrier of writer’s block.

I suffer from writer’s block because I am resistant.  In a strange way, I feel compelled and simultaneously repelled from writing my stories.

I believe on some level I am called to write, but just like Jonah and the Whale, I want to hide from it.

Just about five minutes ago, I realized exactly what is causing my resistance.

It’s conformity.

The pressure to conform in my writing is even stronger than the pressure to conform in my relationships, because writing seems to have a more permanent, powerful impact.  Spoken words can fly into the atmosphere and be lost to the memory.  Words texted, typed and handwritten often stay a while longer.

In my memoir, a story that now has a real name and several workable chapters, I’m uncovering the myth of my performance as a virtuous, approval-worthy woman to find the human struggling under the weight of dogma, familial expectation, gender expectations and cultural norms.  It is difficult to write not because I am trying to remember what exactly happened to me the year I lived as a single mother, but because I’m afraid to claim that I am filled with passion, desire and rebellion.  These are things that as a woman and a mother I have been told to put away or to never acknowledge.

So now it has become complicated and tedious to unpack the truth.  Yet as I learn to recognize the influence of standard ways of being that make me afraid to write what might be harshly judged, I will work with the oppression as if it is a weight machine at the gym.

The Personal Day

100_7450Yesterday I woke up and decided to take a personal day off.  I claimed the day as “my day” to do whatever I wanted to do, within my means.  Having spent the last two weeks preparing for big day of entertaining, I awoke to an awareness of self in the silent void that fills our home after a party.  Still full of the previous day’s cake and the warmth of old and new friendships, there was suddenly an emptiness; a pause where nothing urgent was anticipated.   It had been a busy two weeks, where simple things like cleaning the house and mowing the lawn were complicated by a sprained ankle, a massive three day sinus headache incurred at the pool, and an irritable monthly cycle.

So I wasn’t feeling physically strong.  But instead of cancelling our party plans and staying in bed with ice packs on my ankle and head and a heating pad on my middle, I worked every day with this thought:  each task is my opportunity for creativity.  Instead of rushing through decorating and seating arrangements, I savored the process.  Then, I repeatedly challenged my inner critic who told me that my work was amateur, imperfect and cheap.  I told the critic that I’m not perfect and that no one expects me to be perfect.  Perfection makes guests uncomfortable.

Real is comforting.

The party was a great success.  We were all enriched and loved and entertained.  A new life is on the way for a very loving young couple and being a part of that hopeful expectation was a privilege and a gift.

And just like it happens with visits from family who eventually leave to go back home, the space that our friends filled was once again, space.

How often have I said the words “today is mine to do as I wish?”  So rarely that I am unable to recall the last personal day.  Even my husband who works at a large company is allowed several PTO’s.  I suppose it’s a very tricky thing for me to take a day off when I live in the same place I work.  Taking time off is something that only seems to happen if I leave the house for a day or a weekend trip.  But what happened yesterday was a shift and a challenge to that perception.  There is a way to detach and reframe.  Isn’t it true that since I’ve been given a life to live, every day is my personal day?

Because it’s the only life I have to live?

Today is mine to live as I wish, as is tomorrow, and the next, and the next after that.  And if what I’m doing no longer serves my basic needs for survival or my spiritual longings, I can make changes.

This leads to the question of how much I “own” my life.  How much of each day  is mine to choose, and how much is dictated by my responsibilities? What portion of my time is spent in the service of others, and what slice is left for solitude or creativity?

Perhaps this is a first world problem.  People in slavery and bondage don’t have these choices.  Prisoners and people in debt don’t have these considerations. Parents with young children might not be thinking that this is a realistic goal.  My husband looked directly into my eyes and said “this is impossible for me.”

But is it?

I wonder.

Terrain

terrain_nBack country hiking is my husband’s passion.  So to celebrate our anniversary six years ago, he took me into the wilds of the Shenandoah, to hike a series of circular trails near and crossing over the Appalachian Trail.  It was the trip of a lifetime.  Unused as I was to carrying a fully loaded backpack and my new hiking boots, I struggled on the rocky inclines, especially the ankle busting terrain on Brown Mountain.

But what made that trip memorable was our repeated encounters with black bears.  Seventeen sightings in four days–although some of those might have been the same bears making their rounds in the wild blueberry bushes.

Now, most people would love that experience, as did my husband.  What a rare gift to be that close to unpredictable, furry, breathing, grunting nature.  And that each bear didn’t seem to mind us while they grazed on berries and turned over logs for bugs should have set my racing heart to rest.  After all, berries are tastier than sweaty me.

In my overactive imagination, I envisioned charging that ended in mauling.  Gore.  Paws the size of dinner plates with razor claws.  Teeth that ripped flesh, leaving hamburger like bodies.

It probably didn’t help that I failed to educate myself about black bears before going hiking.  I didn’t understand that black bears are not like Grizzlies, nor like the violent creatures of mythical fame.  With each encounter, my adrenaline surged and panic rose.  I begged to leave on the fourth day, asking my husband to please call a ranger to escort us out.  That was the day I went to use the little out house and a mother bear showed up with her cub.

But even being several yards next to a mother bear wasn’t enough to defeat my Richard.  He was very disappointed that I didn’t see our trip as an adventure to remember, but a trauma to overcome.

Since then, I’ve taken the time to educate myself about the nature of black bears.  I’ve taken short hikes to expose myself to the feeling of being vulnerable.  With each trip that ended in success, my confidence grew.

It took six years for me to be able to hike in bear country without jangling nerves.  I even saw this:

flowerthebear_n

Her name is Flower, and she lives on Grandfather Mountain.  She is in captivity.  But what I noticed was the difference in the size of her paws compared to the size of a bear paw in my imagination.

What was I so afraid of?

The truth is that wilderness back country hikes are challenging not because of bears.  I learned that my fear has everything to do with my vivid imagination that supplies me with a stream of dramatic, worst case scenarios.  It’s not that I fear the bears, but the idea of what it would mean to be seriously injured or die a violent death on the trail.  It’s so unlikely for this to happen, but it is an idea that persists.

So, I was celebrating in my heart with the freedom that comes with hiking unperturbed by fear.  I had a handle on my bear-scare and all seemed well.  There were waterfalls to enjoy, cool breezes, quiet peace.

Then one day on a particularly steep hike down to the river, Elliot, ever curious and full of adventure, decided to turn over a large rock. Richard saw that as a “teachable” moment, and described in detail what would happen if he turned over another rock and was bitten by a rattle snake.  How he would have to carry him up this terrain so rocky and full of roots.  And how that was a potentially deadly situation, especially since he was not carrying our first aid kit.

And I know this was an important lesson.  But all of that drama played out in my head, giving me surges of anxiety. With the idea that I could lose my beautiful boy in a random encounter with a snake, I was no longer having any fun at all.  I was reminded that anything can happen on the trail.  I remembered the story of one man who went hiking by himself in the mountains, slipped on a river crossing and broke both of his ankles.  Four days later, some college students found him hobbling with the aid of two crutches he had fashioned from long sticks.

What if it was a simple fall that turned a summer day in the mountains to a near death experience?  Some of these hikes are treacherous.  People fall from cliffs every year.  In other cases, hikers are lost and have to be rescued by search parties.  It’s not the kind of place to vacation if you don’t enjoy a challenge.

Which I do, at least physically.

It’s the terrain of the mind that is the hardest to hike.