There are more people than seats or room in this bar, downtown on a Thursday night, and I wonder who chose this subpar venue for such an important event.
We’re sectioned off from the may-lay of intoxication, still, this bar floor squinting under florescent lighting has seen its share of misery – just like those whose feet grace its linoleum facade. Perhaps it’s this commonality that binds us to this location, verses some more comfortable, more spacious, less seedy place.
This Me Too reading is an ovary fest. Still, speaking to the choir has its merits. Empowering others out of the darkness of their shame to join the chorus of Enough! is perhaps the only way to burn this whole thing down.
Strange as it sounds, I feel rather like an intruder. Perhaps this is why there are not more men here. I have no voice of experience to lend to this particular chorus of women. But I put great stock in learning, knowing, and understanding the systemic issues that plague our collective consciousness, so here I am.
And so maybe this sticky saloon isn’t the worst place for this dialog to ensue. Maybe this hotbed of back alley lusting for something profoundly missing is right where we need to be. A place to match the darkness of this topic and meet it face-to-weathered-face.
As Harrison said in a poem: there is a place in us to weep for others. So maybe this is it.
To listen to me reading this blog post in audio form:
I’ve questioned whether I can make it through this book: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, the likes of which I discovered propped up in one of those little free libraries situated on a quiet neighborhood street in town. I almost didn’t take it, on account of the Oprah’s Book Club sticker adhered to the cover, which was designed to be a draw, a first-class recommendation, a rubber-stamp of approval by someone people trust. For me, though, it served only the ill-affects of resigning to a fate that had been chosen – neigh, thrusted – upon the masses, as though a woman who graces the cover of every O magazine should wield the power to say what’s hot in the literary world. How does this work? Do people care so little for their own opinion that they should have cause to hold hers in such high regard as to turn over their decision making power? But, I digress.
The reason I may not get through this book has nothing, in fact, to do with the circular sticker glued to the front. Instead, it has to do with the sheer visceral magnitude of the writer’s account of getting sober – in what turns out to be the oldest residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in the world, located in the state of Minnesota. The rock-bottom nature of his experience. The clutching force of how far a human being can spiral down the black hole of depravity. The hellish descriptions of agony. But it’s the realness that keeps me reading. And I know that since he mustered the ability to relive it while coiled over his computer, hands shaky on the keys, I can settle in beside him and listen to his story.
The point? There’s a time to push through discomfort and there’s a time not to. It depends on the situation and where we’re at. If we don’t know ourselves well, it becomes almost impossible to intuit which time calls for which action. Sometimes discomfort is a sign of needing to stop engaging with something because it may trigger us in un-beneficial ways. Other times, it’s a sign to keep going because it affords us the opportunity to learn and grow. And only we ourselves can know which time is which.
I recently signed up to participate in a local poetry slam that takes place this coming weekend. It’s an annual slam that happens around this time each year, as part of the Montana Book Festival. This will be my fifth slam. Doing these poetry slams is the most nerve racking thing I do with my time all year. But I sign up for two reasons: 1. It’s good practice for me in getting outside of my comfort zone. The more I practice, the easier it gets. 2. It’s good for me to practice shining my light of creativity and love for spoken word. I’ve taken it on as a diligent practice to step out of my fear of shining brightly – a fear I came to realize I had a couple of years ago while on a retreat at Deer Park Monastery.
(Quote to the right by Marianne Williamson)
A few days ago I was at the Good Food Store, our local organic market. When I was in the checkout line the cashier, having remembered me from when she saw me in my first slam in the fall of 2014, said, “Oh, I saw that the poetry slam is coming up soon. Did you sign up?” I then proceeded to tell her about how I did sign up and that I was feeling pretty nervous about it, since it’s at a more popular venue this year and will probably be pretty packed. She was surprised that I was nervous and even more so to learn that the one she had seen me in two years ago had been my first slam. “You didn’t look nervous at all!” she remarked. I replied with a smile and said, “Yeah, it’s one of those don’t judge a book by its cover things.” She nodded and agreed and then quoted something a friend of hers had told her: Don’t judge someone’s outside by your inside. And after a pause, to let those words sink and settle in, I thought to myself: Good phrase!
It was then my turn to be surprised when she mentioned having remembered something I said from my first piece in the slam she saw me in all the way back in 2014, which had to do with busyness being a choice. She really appreciated that and said it was a good message. For someone to remember a quickly spoken few words I uttered on stage two years ago seems quite remarkable.
Similar encounters have happened to me a handful of times over the past couple of years: people I don’t know coming up to me and commenting about the slams they’ve seen me in and offering their appreciation of my pieces, each becoming equally surprised to find out that I am super nervous up on stage and that it’s a relatively new craft for me. I’ve written on this topic a few times before but it never ceases to amaze me about the strength and power of our perceptions and how often we are totally mistaken. Please don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of gratitude for those folks who’ve come up to me and offered their kind words, it’s a great and unexpected support – and I love that I live in a town where this sort of thing happens! It’s just funny how quickly we can judge a book by its cover, or a person’s outside by our inside. I am continually reminded to ask myself the question Thich Nhat Hanh poses as a practice tool: Am I sure? And it’s still amazing to me how often the answer is no.