Back in the Spring, Lynn Rosser asked me to write a poem for the Singers spring concert. I was honored – and asked her about the theme. She told me that it was, “Transformation – Awakening to the New Consciousness for Our Time”. I said, “Cool” – then went away and realized that I didn’t have anything to say about transformation, or about consciousness, old or new. So I got back to Lynn and said that, for me, the theme for the concert and the song list were just a little too relentlessly upbeat – and that I would need to contribute something that would be more “grounding”. Lynn had the intuitive wisdom to not immediately warm to this idea: “Uh, OK.” Then I went home and proceeded to completely act out: I wrote the darkest poem I could possibly write – and had a total blast doing so. Needless to say, you did not hear that poem at the concert. I think Lynn might still find it horrifying, but I still kinda like it. It’s called “How Can I Write of Transformation?”
HOW CAN I WRITE OF TRANSFORMATION? (Majo, 4/28/09)
How can I write of transformation When I am so angry? How can I speak of My better angels When today the demons run the show?
Life, By beating me into submission By a thousand humiliations Has lowered the bar for me So many times And still I can’t help but to Keep going under
How can I speak of expansion, Of transcendence When I am so contracted, So depressed?
I want to expand within, not without To go to the dark heart Of that black hole within Which is not just mine But a human thing
How can I speak of my higher self When I have just screwed up again And hurt you as I did? And then you told me how that still somehow worked for you The sweet thing that for you happened next
May I screw up in all the just-right ways If I must be an ass Make me Life’s holy ass Let others ride on my mistakes To where they need to go
Lord, help us – Make me an instrument Make me an instrument of your divine chaos Let me surrender any claim To be evolved, to be further down the path
Make me Life’s great Role model from hell If others may not want to be like me, Then let my screwed-up example Make them want to be More and more like them.
“If even he can keep moving, Can put one foot in front of the other And trust that they will take him somewhere Then so can I”
I want to lead the troops Deeper into the swamp Than man or woman has ever gone And trust that somewhere In this gooey, putrid mess There lies an orchid A magic jewel that transforms The mud in which we are encased Into the heavenly armor that allows us To fight our way to the gates of hell Crash through And be burned alive Into the phoenix we were meant to be
If my road must be the low one Then let me not settle for just Both feet on the ground Life, make your drill bit To the center of the earth
It may hurt like hell going down But I want to see what’s there
Yesterday my fabulous friend Terry Mueller, back in Chicago (Oak Park), gave me a wonderful assignment:
“I won’t be with you in Asheville tomorrow to go for a walk with you and Pancho, but I want you to walk with me anyway. Pretend that i am with you and ask me any questions that you want – whatever is on your mind – and listen to what I have to say. Then report back to me.”
Terry is a real wise-woman – she’s been around the block, she’s suffered, she’s learned deep truths. She is a teacher and practitioner of Process Painting – inner directed expressive painting (sorry, Terry, if I totally butchered that). I did some of this stuff back in Chicago, before I moved here 14 years ago, and it’s really good work. Terry’s total devotion to the creative process certainly shaped the conversation I had with her in my mind’s eye today – what she had to say to me – but I totally trust what came out.
My question for Terry was immediate, obvious, easy. “Right now, having just come out of the hospital and being the focus of so much loving connection from my friends, I’m having all this fabulous connection with people. The amazing Karen Vickers, Facebook friend I’ve been seeing at Jubilee for years but never said hello to, called out of the blue and said ‘Let’s go out to coffee.’ She’s wonderful. Donna Glee Williams told me about the ‘Fun and Foolishness’ playshop at Jubilee tonight, which sounds like just what the doctor ordered for me right now. I had amazing phone conversations with Jenn Garrett, Tom Kilby, Kathy Poling and my sister-in-law Lesia. I had so many wonderful exchanges on Facebook and email. I scheduled visits with Frank Marshall, Terry Poling, Jenn Garrett, Karen Vickers, Meg Moss, Laura Hunter, and Michelle Baba Raiford.
But my fifteen minutes of fame will pass and isolation – part of the human condition – will start to slip back in. How do I prevent myself from coming right back to this place of terrifying loneliness and hopelessness? I asked Terry, “What’s the next step in healing from my isolation?”
Her answer was immediate and clear as a bell. “Keep doing all that you have started to do in connecting with your friends. But also – and maybe even more important – you need to connect with Spirit, your essence, your creative spark.”
“How do I do that?”
“You know as well as I that your real pipeline is your writing. You wrote two pretty good pieces in the hospital – on typewriter paper with that little golf pencil that was the only writing utensil they would give you. Now you have been out of the hospital for two days and you have all but forgotten those pieces. But they are your thread – the writing that is on your plate right now. You will write better things eventually, but right now they are what the Muse has given you. Honor them. Word process and edit them. They will make good blog posts – and good performances at Jubilee, more connection.”
“I have several blogs going – which blog shall I put them in?”
“I think not the blog you were working on before you went in the hospital – ‘Majo’s Last Blog’. It’s probably a good time to let that puppy go. I have an idea for a new blog that we can talk about tomorrow. Post this in ‘Write Me a Poem’ – that blog still has a lot of aliveness in it.”
I can hardly wait to see what Terry has to say tomorrow.
Last year I lived in seven houses in ten months. Some of them were roommate squabbles – I hated them or they hated me. One was a landlord issue: he hated us and we hated him. One of them hated my little five pound yorkipoo dog – the completely adorable Toni, who was clearly a menace. This whole saga was as harrowing to my friends following my adventures as it was for me. They were afraid to read their Facebook for fear of what I might have posted now.
So when my friends heard on Facebook that I was moving into the famous Battery Park Apartments,
they did victory dances all over Asheville. Famous for the location – right downtown, directly across from the Grove Arcade.
Famous for the amazing history of the old hotel. Famous for the year to three years it took people to get in. (I was lucky and waited only a year.) Famous for nice large remodeled 1 bedroom apartments right down town rent controlled need-based senior living charging rents that all over town would get you a studio with free cockroaches. Famous for the reputation that you could live there three months and not see anybody under sixty. Famous for the word that nobody ever moved out except on a gurney.
My friends were so relieved that I had landed there that a month later when in one of my bad moods I told one of them that I needed to move out, he said, “No you don’t.. No you fucking don’t. If you so much as attempt to move one stick of furniture out of that fucking apartment I will come down there myself and rip that chair out of your feeble old hands and sit on your fucking chest until you get your head out of your fucking ass and agree to stay put.” And then he told me what he really felt.
I have bipolar disorder that in 20 years my meds have never gotten under control. I have no middle ground – I’m up or I’m down. In the interest of fairness, my raging biochemistry tends to give me roughly the same amount of time up as down. Lately I’ve been 2-3 weeks up and then 2-3 weeks down.
Some parts of my moods are relatively predictable. When I’m moving – which has been every other week lately – I gear up for the move. At four a.m. I’m throwing shit in boxes. After a move, within a week I am crashed flat on the floor. As I was moving into the Battery Park Apartments and for the next week, I loved everything. I loved the layout of my apartment, I loved the views out my fifth floor windows.
So for a week I liked most everything. OK, except my neighbors. What am I doing living with all these old people? Yeah, at 72 I cleared the bar for living there ten years ago, but I’m not like really old. I’m a young person walking around disguised in an old suit. So I kinda, in that first week, stayed clear of my neighbors.
Then, after a week of being up and mostly liking everything, I crashed and hated everything – especially my neighbors. Old – I’m not old. Or disabled, mostly crazy – I just have a little bipolar disorder. But the symbol of what I wanted to avoid in my neighbors – the woman I most wanted to avoid (she helped me to write this part – and insisted I use her real name) was the woman out in front of the building – all day every day, in overalls every day. Chain smoking all day every day. Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the building. Like light the next cigarette off the last cigarette just before it burns your fingers – all day every day. After long hard struggles over a couple of years to get off of cigarettes, I had eight years ago gotten free. Her especially I wanted to stay clear of.
So I went three weeks down. Then I had a stroke. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t leave me paralyzed – or with any long term symptoms except some balance issues, and the risk of having another.
Three days later, I checked out of the hospital a new man. I had had my brush with death and had come back from the brink. I was more than happy to be alive. My depression had passed and I was again wonderfully up. I wanted life – all of it. I wanted to embrace my new apartment – including my neighbors. So when the friend who had been caring for Toni picked me up at the hospital and dropped us off in front of Battery Park apartments with my little overnight bag there were no parking spots. “No I’ll be fine getting myself in, really”.
In front of the building, the icon of Battery Park Apartments – the woman with the overalls and the cigarettes. She looked too young to live there – and it turned out she was. She had gotten in for a disability ten years before.
“Ok, I’m gonna make friends with her first.” “Hey, how ya doin?… Nice day, huh?… Can I bum a smoke?”
From there began one of the most amazing friendships of my life. I discovered that – although her schooling, back in Mexico and here in Chicago was sparse and lousy – Diana was extremely smart – brilliant in some areas, interesting, a great communicator… able and willing to share deeply about herself as well as being a world-class listener. Extraordinarily generous.
And adored my Toni. Most everybody actually did – but Diana more than anybody. And Toni, who mostly loved everybody, especially loved Diana.
And we smoked together. What started as sharing a smoke, then a couple, became a full-fledged habit. Two days after having that first cigarette, I went to the smoke shop to buy one pack so I wouldn’t be mooching off of Diana, who clearly was of modest means. (I had no idea.) When it was my turn at the counter, I totally shocked myself by ordering three packs. “Who is that voice?” When I got outside, I talked to that voice. “What are you doing? I just want a few cigarettes.” The voice said back, “Who are you trying to kid? You’re in it now.”
Soon Diana became Aunt Diana for Toni. Diana sat for her when I went out. Toni, who for some reason had stopped sleeping in my bed, napped with Diana. Toni, who never really cuddled with me, with Diana would sleep here – up against the side of her head.
Diana then went from Aunt Diana to christening herself “Mama”. It accurately reflected her relationship with Toni. We became co-parents. Never a hint of romance on either side: We have checked in with each other a couple of times. We are blessedly clear of that. But we had become an ersatz family. When I announced to our smoking posse – all spokes in the wheel to Diana’s hub, people love to be with her – in front of the building that I had to leave to take Toni to the vet, to find out why she was walking even less than usual, Diana asked “Can I go?” She dropped everything and didn’t smoke until we got out of the vet’s office. After running a lot of expensive tests, the vet said, “She has congestive heart failure. Like people with heart disease, she could have a relatively long life or she could die of a heart attack tomorrow.’
Diana and I digested the news together, we grieved together. Our baby might not make it. Our little angelic being – who had always seemed to inhabit a rarified atmosphere, above this earthly plane – now seemed more precious than ever.
Then came the liver disease.
Diana: “I still have a good feeling. I think she will live a long life.” Me: “Her liver is shot, Diana – she’s not going to be here much longer.”
I still thought we might have her a few weeks longer. When two days later my friends Karen and Lisa convinced me that she was looking terrible, that it was time to let her go, i realized how much denial I also was living in. As I grieved, I feared what this conversation with Diana would be like. Perhaps, finally, this would be our first big fight. When I told Diana it was time to let Toni go, she was amazing, astonishing. “Hey, you’re the real parent. You know her better than I. You hear her labored breathing all night long. You’ve got to make the call.” And she really, truly, totally fell in behind the plan.
I arranged for the Four Paws Farewell mobile euthanasia group to come to my apartment the next morning, Monday morning at ten a.m. I called a few of Toni’s favorite people to come be with us. Amazingly, four of five were free – and each loved Toni so much that there was no question of them coming.
At the releasing ceremony, Diana was as strong as I thought she would be. She held her baby tenderly. At one point, one of my friends gently said to her, “Maybe you could let Majo hold her now.” I had not even noticed that she might be taking too long a turn. The next day, we wheeled Toni in the stroller she loved three blocks over to Montford, to bury her in Amanda’s back yard, which she also loved. I dug the grave, we together laid Toni in it. We cried.
A week later, i shocked everyone by saying that – still clearly grieving over Toni – I was going to quit smoking. I had tried several times lately and failed bitterly. “I’m going to do it the right way this time – get lots of support from the state ‘Quit Line’ help resources.” Toni’s death made me want life more than ever. “These things are killing me. I can’t breathe right any more.”
Diana and I had the conversation. We no longer had our baby to pull us together. Toni died on October 1. If i stop smoking on my quit date of October 29, what about us? I was very clear that there would be no more children to pull us together. “I won’t be ready to let another dog into my life and my heart for a minimum of one to two years.” Diana said, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.” And in some ways she has. We no longer start our days with that first smoke of the day at 7 a.m. I no longer make several trips a day out to the front stoop. If there are more than two smokers out there at a time, my sobriety feels threatened and I stay away. I hate the cold, while – even with her Mexican blood – Diana endures it out there most of the day.
But we both crave and continue this friendship. I will leave the building by the front door even when my car is in the parking lot out back. I will endure the cold for a while to talk with her. Her smoking for some reason never threatens my sobriety. We go down to World Coffee on a warm sunny day and sit outside and she has six cigarettes. We wrote this story together.
We are soul friends and we know it. We will never let each other go – until one of us goes out on a gurney.
I have been totally clean of cigarettes since October 26 and have not had a craving. The Quit Line counselor the other day asked me the two questions: “How much do you want to stay off of cigarettes – 1 to 10?” “Ten, no question.” “How sure are you that you will stay off them?” “Eight.” I could weep.
Hey, if you have any time after the show, you could walk with me the three blocks back to Battery Park to meet Diana. Diana hates crowds and knew this was not for her. She was my first audience for the finished story the other night and gave the whole thing her blessing. She’s sitting for Panchita aka Pancho – a five year old adorable female chihuahua, my totally loyal Mexican sidekick that I adopted two months ago.
Fresh start? Who are you kidding? This is not going to work You can’t make something new work By running away from what has not You need to hunker down in therapy, heal the old And pray that somehow that will make some difference
It’s entropy, man It’s all winding down all the time Don’t you see it? You can’t start something new at all Just struggle mightily against the dissolution of the past A virus will take your computer And a virus will take you
Face it It’s not working, hasn’t worked, will not work Bottom line – you don’t work And that’s what you will carry with you Wherever you go This is what therapy cannot fix What no number of geographic fixes will ever mend
“Well, but” No well but’s – it’s just the truth I say it to you for your own good
“But, I think new things have happened – Sometimes life feels new” Bullshit – what happened to it? What do you have still to show? Where is all that newness now?
“Well the very fact that I want to go That I could somehow emerge a vision of something new The part of me that believes I could Take off without a plan and trust what is ahead The part of me that sees you This voice within me that Certainly speaks for entropy And is not totally cowed That yes has feared you Has feared, does sometimes fear But will not live in fear Will not back off from my truth just Because you say ‘face it’
“Somehow ‘face it’ from you does not really mean ‘face it’ Does not mean look at the whole truth and take it straight It means, ‘listen to my right-now mean and nasty version of the truth – Listen to my painful, limited, destructive picture of the real, Emerging honestly from my own pain’
“OK, I’ll face it – on my terms I’ll face your despair – and mine I’ll face the call of the new Which comes to me from more sources than I will ever know I will face the love of those who love me Which I know that I would sometimes dodge I will face the energy and aliveness Present in this world in more forms and places and people Than there are words to tell And I am going to go see some of them And see what they do for this aliveness in me Which, yes, has suffered its share The slings and arrows And all manner of psychological crime Which sometimes therapy can help And sometimes maybe not I will go face this energy outside of me and inside me Why might not some new place Help me find and see and face That source of new life sleeping always within me? Perhaps this is my testimony of faith That there is something new Over that hill I have not yet crossed
Something might be calling me that I have never seen And that things are present within me that perhaps Can never find life except in that next place
“Or not – But if I do not climb that hill I will never know And so I gotta go And that voice inside of me and you And in the air we breathe, it seems That says that change can’t happen That risk is wrong That I can’t, we can’t – and shouldn’t try I love that voice, because it speaks so poignantly to So much of what we have suffered, do suffer But I gotta respectfully submit Entropy this!”
There are at least four reasons for learning to create and offer Affirmative Poetry:
Maybe the greatest source of human pain is not knowing who we really are.
The most powerful way to be woken up from the sleep of not knowing who we really are is to have someone in front of us reflecting the full truth of how beautiful we are.
Most of us are good at blowing off affirmations – even really strong ones. They will have more chance of really landing – of having a powerful impact – if they come in some creative package: dance, song, drama, poetry/poetic expression, etc.
In the process of creating affirmative poetry/poetic expression for others, inevitably the positivity of that act attaches to us. It may actually be impossible, as my therapist used to say, to give a genuine affirmation to someone else that is not also true about us.