Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Am What I Am

For the service I wrote about in my last post, I had to create two poems: the introductory "loving myself is some hard shit" poem and the "I'm superfantastic" poem. We also wanted the congregation to participate in some way, so I suggested an exercise I've done in poetry workshops and services before in which the participants fill out a short prompt on a slip of paper. The slips are then arranged to make one communal poem. This is an exercise that relies heavily on serendipity, and the resulting poem has been different and amazing every time I've done it.

We combined it with another exercise, one I do with my beginning composition classes. Toward the beginning of the quarter I assign them an "I am what I am" poem* as an in-class freewrite. They don't have time to finish them in class and I don't grade them, but I'm always surprised how many of them finish these poems on their own and then hand them in to me just so I can read them. For me, this exercise has solid pedagogical underpinnings: students get a chance in a short piece of writing to practice vivid description, example lists, and repetition. From their perspective, they just like writing about themselves. Who doesn't?

For the congregation's poem, we used the prompt "I am what I am....I am ____." Our minister, Amy, and I agreed we would both write an individual "I am what I am" poem to share during the service, and then I'd read the community poem toward the end. This is my "I am what I am...." poem.**

I am what I am…I am the red-headed bastard stepchild who belonged but never fit in…one of these things is not like the others…a fair-skinned, freckled summer child, I am the lightning rod who saw too much and challenged too often. I was too smart for my own good. I knew grownups told me one thing but did the other for their own good, but they hid the truth in their sock drawers and on the top shelves of kitchen cabinets, behind their acrid clouds of cigarette smoke and deep in their bottles of bourbon. I was relieved to find out Santa wasn’t real because finally someone told me the truth.

I am what I am…I am Iowa: corn, soybeans, hogs banging feeders, county fairs, the Hawkeyes, demolition derbies, and beer for breakfast. I am small town squares where the community band oompah oompahs at the ice cream social on Thursday nights when the stores stay open until 9:00 pm. Iowa, where we were so poor we didn’t even have accents, but someone will always stop to help if you break down on the side of the road. I couldn’t run away fast enough or slam the door hard enough behind me, but it’s still there inside this city girl. Iowa…Iowa, that’s where the tall corn grows, and that’s where I officiated at my lesbian cousin’s wedding two years ago. Yes, I married my cousin. I am what I am, and part of me will always be proud I was born and raised in Iowa.

I am what I am…I am a mother. I’ve baked a million cookies, cleaned up vomit in the middle of the night when I had the flu myself, sewed Halloween costumes, homeschooled for 12 years, driven a million miles in my minivan, given great advice, read a million books aloud, kissed boo boos, yelled sometimes, hugged more. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes my parents made, so I invented new ones. I wanted to be perfect, but now that my kids are grown, I’m not sure what perfect means. Although, if I could do it again, with everything I know now, I’d come close. Soon I will be a grandma and I will bake a million more cookies, kiss boos boos, never yell, give less advice, and hug like a grandma.

I am what I am…I am an A minor chord, black leather, late nights downtown in the city, dark, bitter chocolate, and cold white wine. I am the waning moon, a daughter of the Goddess; I am tarot cards and patchouli, long skirts and silver bracelets. I am standard poodles and wild alley cats. I am folk, blues, rock, and Rachmaninoff. I am contradictions.

I am what I am…I can wrap a harmony around any melody, dance the jitterbug, play several instruments and fake even more. I can grow vegetables, cook, write, teach, sew, knit, and kill and dress out a chicken or a fish. I even have a superpower that I can use for good or for evil, and yet I never think I’m enough. I always want more, please.

I am what I am…I was a little girl who was told she should be seen and not heard, but I don’t play by those rules any more. Now I am woman hear me roar*** and sing loudly, read my poems, tell dirty jokes and, yes, sit in silence. I am what I am and I will be seen and I will be heard and there is more to me than any one poem can hold.

* From Tom Romano's book Crafting Authentic Voice.
** Hey! I have an idea! You could try this exercise yourself and share your results in the comments here.
*** You have to sing this part really loud, even if you're a man.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Weight of Loving Me

A couple of months ago I agreed to do a service at church on poetry. I agreed before I knew the topic, because I tend to say yes and then fake my way through having signed a contract without reading it I'm a professional. Turns out I had to write new poetry--two new poems-- specifically for this service because nothing I've written before was appropriate, for this topic or for church.

I admit I procrastinated on this poem and the other one. I made notes over a couple of weeks, but I didn't start putting the poems together until the afternoon before the service. It took longer than I expected for many reasons:
1. The topic made me cringe.
2. The minister didn't really want me to say "masturbation" from the pulpit.
3. That's none of your business.
4. I thought the entire poem was banal.
5. I was pretty sure I was going to fail...hard.
6. I took a break for several hours and went downtown to party with friends.
I finally went to bed at 4:00am, knowing I'd have to be up at 8:00 to put the final polish on my jumbled up pieces of word shit poems.

Imagine my surprise when my kind and supportive congregation said my poems made them cry and laugh. They asked for copies. One woman wants to send them to her daughter in California. So I thought I might as well post them here. The first one explains my difficulty with the topic. I'll post the second one in a couple of days. Keep in mind, I wrote these poems to be spoken. My fear is that they won't read the same on the page, so pretend you're hearing this on Def Poetry. And, yes, I could upload a podcast, but I'm too fucking lazy busy educating the youth of America.

Loving Me

Rev. Amy says, “Let’s do a poetry service. Will you read yours?”
I say, “Yes, I write poems.”
She says, “The topic is loving oneself.”
I think, Surely she doesn’t mean masturbation!
I say, “I haven’t written any poems about loving myself.”
I think, Because it sounds like either a Hallmark card or an OWL* lesson.
We have a meeting,
Amy, Laura and I, and we say,
“It’s hard to write a poem about loving oneself. We’ll start with how hard it is to say those words
and then we’ll write the ‘I’m super-fantastic’ poem.”
I say, “I’ll write new poems for the service. Don’t worry. I’ll be ready.”

I start…
I tap my pen on my desk
Roses are red
Violets are blue
I love me
You should too.

This is not the topic of my poems.
My poems screech around twisting curves at 78 miles per hour.
My poems walk barefoot on hot, gritty sidewalks littered with broken wine bottles, spent bubble gum, and cigarette butts,
or accidentally stumble into minefields of broken promises.
My poems need to be navigated carefully,
not appreciated for their floral scent,
pink bubbles,
rainbow ponies.
And yet the idea of writing about loving myself…
loving me…
feels more dangerous than any bad-ass, angsty, black-leather poem I’ve ever written.

Because back where I come from
loving yourself…loving myself…
looked like showing off
and the punishment for children who showed off could be severe.
Compliments were as rare as type AB blood
and were to be received with denial and shame.
The mantras of my childhood go something like this:
“Little girls should be seen and not heard.”
“You’re not cute.”
“God doesn’t like show offs.”
“Sit down and shut up.”
“You don’t need to go to college. You’ll end up back here married to a farmer anyway.”
 “Stop trying to be better than you are. You’re not better than anybody else.”
Don’t get me wrong. I knew I was loved.
The message was that loving other people and Jesus is OK,
especially in the long run…like eternity.
Acting like you love yourself is obnoxious, and if you persist,
other people won’t like you very much.
God won’t love you.
I learned to equate loving myself with bragging,
showing off,
Loving myself was wrong.
And so was masturbation.

This is the place in the poem where you expect me to tell you
how I overcame those word wounds and learned to love me
just for who I am, but I told you
my poems aren’t the teacup ride at Disney World.
I have lots of advice for other people about how they
should be kind to themselves,
be gentle with themselves,
love themselves….
What’s harder is knowing how to do it myself.
It has taken a lifetime to deconstruct the girl inside me,
after her bones fused, her muscles grew solid,
her red heart barbed wire-wrapped like the fields of Iowa….
the girl who didn’t dare love herself, but stubbornly wanted to.
And just as long to rebuild a woman who believes…
it’s OK to love myself as I love others.
Maybe it’s OK to stand up at the front of this congregation and sing a song,
and accept compliments afterward with neither denial nor shame…
or to stand up in Joys and Concerns and share a joy
that might sound like I’m bragging.
Maybe it’s OK smile at myself in the mirror and say,
“Hey, doll, lookin’ pretty good today.”
And it’s more than OK that I went to college
and later I went to college again,
and I married a farmer’s son, but I never went back to live on the farm.
Maybe…maybe I’m OK…
or even worth my own love.

As I wrestled with the topic of this poem
I looked in the mirror and said to my reflection,
“I’m supposed to write a poem about loving you
and I don’t know what to say…”
And as I looked into the blue eyes of someone I’ve known all my life,
“I’m not the one who said those things to you,
so why do you keep repeating them?
I wasn’t worried about being seen or heard.
I was a little girl and I just wanted to have fun—
to sing loudly and dance and spin in circles until I was dizzy.
They lied about Santa and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny;
they lied about God;
they probably lied about you too.
You would have loved me when I was a little red-haired girl.
Why can’t you love me now?”
I looked back at my reflection, and I saw the
blue-eyed toddler who loved to sit on her grandma’s lap and rock,
the shy ten-year-old who hated being teased about her red hair and freckles,
the anorexic teen smoking a Virginia Slims,
and the too-young Air Force officer’s wife, struggling to fit in.
I saw the new mom who swore those words would never come out of her mouth
and they didn’t.
And I saw the older mom who cringed with pride when her daughter,
after a break-up with her boyfriend said,
“I’m hot. I’m gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want me? His loss.”
I wondered if I could go back and tell those other me’s how hard it is
to write a simple poem about loving myself,
or if I could explain to my 90-year-old self how hard it has been to write a poem about loving myself….
And I knew it was time to stop writing this poem,
and move on to the “I’m superfantastic” poem.
See, it’s not easy to deconstruct a child who learned that loving herself was wrong.
It took writing this poem to finally realize,
there was never a reason not to love her in the first place.

*Our Whole Lives, the UU church porn lifespan sexuality curriculum.