Sunday, June 26, 2011

Address to the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on June 26, 2011

What follows is an address I delivered at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I used poems throughout the service; I don't reprint them here, but I do provide the titles in the correct locations. I would caution readers that it is often a mistake to confuse a poem's author with its speaker, though it is very possible to get an idea of a writer's ideology through his or her writing.

Through the Inside Out - Using Solitude as a Path to Communion


For the sake of context, I should start at the middle.

In what my happy memories tell me was a very long time ago and my worst memories tell me was very, very recent, I lived in Trenton, New Jersey. I had a few bad relationships behind me and was working at a dead-end job. I had no car, no computer, and no means, and the one-bedroom apartment my young son and I shared was small, threadbare, and roach infested. It was so roach infested, in fact, that one could look closely at the face of my digital clock and see tiny dead baby roaches against the numbers.

I feel the need to tell you, lest you get the wrong impression, that I kept the place as sparklingly clean as I was able. Resigning myself to others’ faulty impressions of me was, and in fact is, one of life’s greatest challenges for me. I knew very well that the poor were thought of as ignorant, lazy, and dirty, and when I might have gotten close to forgetting, one customer or another who came into my workplace was sure to let me know. At the same time, clerks and shoppers in the mostly minority neighborhood I lived in would often give me angry looks and would sometimes make rude comments as I went about my errands. The people who resented me for my imagined life of privilege would climb into their four-door sedans as they headed home, and my son and I would make our way home on foot across four lanes of traffic. Thankfully, there was a median on which I could shift my shopping bags or laundry basket from one arm to the other; I could not use both arms, of course, because one hand had to be free to hold my child’s. Racism is not and never has been limited to race.


I knew very well that the difficulties I faced were in part the result of a life lived thoughtlessly and selfishly. But though I could partly accept the consequences of my actions, I could not bear the guilt of knowing that my bad choices were crippling my son.


We made the best life we could with what we had, but there was precious little in the budget for socializing or entertainment. I had one close friend who had children of her own and with whom I had nothing else in common, and we had a small handful of acquaintances who would invite us over for the odd barbeque. On the weekends, Dan and I would walk to Dunkin’ Donuts or to the nearby farmers’ market for a treat, and on the way home, we would stop and rent dollar movies from the local Blockbuster.

Our routine lives in my heart as a blurry collection of some of my most cherished memories. In our most difficult moments, we sometimes forget that difficulty and happiness are not mutually exclusive. I certainly very often forgot, and forget it, myself. I wish I had realized then how important it is to breathe in each moment.

I began writing because I needed to do something; I needed to organize and make sense of my anger and guilt and grief, needed to make hope tangible. I needed to do something, and I could not afford to do anything that required more than paper and pen.

VERONICA GHAZAL (A ghazal is a kind of form.)

Writing did help me organize my thoughts and make sense of my feelings, and in so doing, helped me become a stronger person. It did not, however, take away my loneliness or my dissatisfaction with our circumstances. Instead, writing helped me very much to distinguish loneliness from solitude, to become comfortable with the person I was becoming, to recognize that I should enjoy my time alone with my thoughts, because the opportunity was finite. Writing helped me learn to see the moments worth savoring that lie outside the hardship.

Looking inward in the way that writing poetry requires gave me something else, as well. From the very beginning, so much a part of the process that it was never an idea but was always a simple experience, existed a conversation. Some day a person with the same feelings as I would read my words, and then neither of us would be alone.

That is still one of the most significant reasons I write poetry. I write fiction, when I write it at all, to see if I am up to the challenge of writing fiction. The answer is usually no. I write essays to make points that I don’t hear others making. But I write poetry to converse.

I’m socially awkward. I don’t say this from a place of low self esteem, and I’m not soliciting denials or compliments. My discomfort in social situations is simply one aspect of the many that compose me, and it is one that has improved a bit with time and effort but which I fear will never be eradicated. I become nervous in face-to-face encounters, my mind shuts down, and I ramble incessantly, circling around my point and making the kinds of revisions aloud that I generally make on paper. And I don’t become nervous because I see myself as unworthy of attention or friendship or conversation, I become nervous because I have become accustomed to life on the periphery. I do not lack faith in my talents or my character, but in my ability to connect with others in person in a way that they will find meaningful. I say to you now, most sincerely, that I will continue to try to love and listen more.

When I write poetry, I visualize others as most of them most surely are – compassionate, rational, and open minded. And I know that I am at the very least correct about those readers who stick with me for more than a poem or two. At least one out of three of my poems is likely to be offensive to someone, so only the very compassionate will continue to give me a chance to speak.

In an odd way that is of course no substitute for actual, engaged listening, writing has allowed me to hear those in the world who are compassionate, rational, and open minded, as well as those who are hurting, hoping, and frightened. In order to imagine my words as meaningful to others, I must think about those others. Empathy may be instinctive, but it also must be practiced, and poetry has been my practice.

It isn’t necessary, however, to write poetry as a means of looking both inward and outward. It isn’t necessary to know someone will read your words in order to imagine that someone hears them. I am a big advocate of talking to one’s self. Very often, when going through a stressful situation, I imagine talking to the other players involved. Sometimes I come away from these conversations knowing that my real-life words or deeds have been justified, but sometimes the words I imagine coming from others tell me things I have been unwilling to admit to myself. My make-believe conversations often lead to real-life actions.

I don’t always talk to the people around me, either. I happen to be a Christian, so I often talk to God. The movie Shadowlands credits C.S. Lewis with a fantastic quote: “ . . . I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I am helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

I believe the same dynamic is at work when one speaks to an imaginary sounding board. I’ve talked to a bespectacled, cigar-chewing therapist; I’ve also spoken to Oprah. She asks me terrific questions.

Now, I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I’m not equating anyone’s concept of God or gods with a good counselor or with Oprah. If I believed God to be imaginary, I would not call myself a Christian. There are simply so many ways in which I have experienced God that recognizing the psychological aspect of prayer does not diminish my belief in a deity or in prayer itself as something more than a psychological tool.

But I don’t believe anyone has been created without the gifts of imagination and introspection, and it is only right that we put them to use when we need them. Just as I am not dismissing the idea of God, I am not suggesting for a minute that theism is necessary for connecting with one’s self or with others.

I know that many, many people advocate silencing one’s thoughts and that meditation is a wonderful tool for them. Frankly, I stink at it. And I have truly made the effort to develop the ability. Like a student who really does need the radio on in the background while finishing an assignment, however, I find complete silence to be counterproductive. There is a valid reason for this, and it’s quite alright to ask me privately what it is if you really want to know. So this is the method that works for me, but I recognize that it will probably not be useful to everyone.

I would like to leave you with one last poem. It is a valentine of sorts, and though it was written long before I came to BuxMont, it was written for each one of you.


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