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When words are all we have for now

This last week, for me, has covered almost the full spectrum of joy and pain. It would feel disingenuous or disrespectful to focus on only the pain, or only the joy, of recent days. And I firmly believe that the only thing we can count on — the only thing I am sure life offers each of us — is the opportunity to know both, most often mixed together in a way that makes describing how we fully feel beyond the reach of everyday language.

The human condition seems to be that we harbor both love and hate, crave one but are drawn to the other, and that being a wildly social species we are both burdened and blessed to share that with others as well as have it shared with us.

I wish that as a kid, I had been given a better grasp on how shatteringly messy everything is. All the good and bad and kind-of-both are tied together, and that is the invisible, palpable truth we exist in. As an adult, I’m trying to not just acknowledge that, but make peace with it, while simultaneously working toward increasing the proportion of love in anything I share. Sometimes that love looks like joy, and sometimes it exists in pain.

When words fail, I tend to fall back on touch, hoping that it will say what I can’t seem to. But of course the medium of this blog makes a hand on your shoulder impossible, so we’re back to words. When words fail and they are still all I can offer, I fall back to poetry.

This poem* is one of my favorites, and holds the tension between the pain and the joy we’re faced with better than almost anything else I’ve encountered:

 

“On Kindness” by Aracelis Girmay

        after Nazim Hikmet, for & after Rassan

 

At the Detroit Metro Airport

with the turtle-hours to spare

between now & my flight, there is

such a thing as the kindness

of the conveyor belt who lends me

its slow, strange mollusk foot

as I stand quiet, exhausted, having been

alone in my bed for days now, sleeping

in hotels, having spent months, now,

without seeing the faces of my family, somehow

its slow & quiet carrying of the load

reminds me of the kindness of donkeys

& this kindness returns me to myself.

It reminds me of the kindness of other things I love

like the kindness of sisters who send mail,

wherever you are, &, speaking of mail, there is

the special kindness of the mail lady

who says, “Hi, baby” to everyone, at first

I thought it was just me, but now I know

she says “Hi, baby” to everyone. That is kindness.

Too, there is the kindness of windows, & of dogs.

& then there was that extraordinary Sunday

back at the house, I heard a woman screaming

about how she was lonely & so lonely

she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill

herself, she said, over & over like a parrot

in a cage, a parrot whose human parent

only taught it that one sentence. I looked out

the window & saw her from behind, the way she flung

her arms like she was desperate & being killed

or eaten by an invisible predator, like a tiger or a lion, in the chest.

& her voice seemed fogged out with methadone, I don’t know,

something, & I walked away from the window

& sat, angry with her for screaming, & sad,

& not long after, I heard her saying,

What’d you say? What’d you say to me?

& a man’s voice, low, I could not tell if it was kind.

& she said, I’ll kill myself, I’m so lonely.

& did I tell you, yet, that it was Mother’s Day?

Flowers & mothers, flowers & mothers all day long.

& the woman saying, I’m so lonely. I could kill myself.

& then quiet. & the man’s voice saying, It’s okay.

It’s okay. I love you, it’s okay.

 

& this made me get up, put my face, again, to the window

to see my landlord’s nephew outside, just hugging her so, as if

it were his mother, I mean, as if he belonged to her,

& then, again, quiet, I left the window but sat

in the silence of the house, hidden by shutters, & was amazed.

When the front door of the brownstone opened up

& let the tall nephew in with his sad & cougar eyes,

handsome & tall in his Carolina-Brooklyn swagger, I heard

him start to climb the stairs above me, & my own hand

opened up my own front door,

& though it was none of my business

I asked him, Do you know that women out there?

& do you know what happened next?

He said, No. The nephew said no, he didn’t know

the woman out there. & he told me Happy Mother’s Day

as he climbed the rest of the stairs. & I can’t stop seeing them

hugging on the street, under trees, it was spring, but cold,

& sometimes in the memory his head is touching hers

& sometimes in the memory his eyes are closed,

& sometimes she is holding him

& singing to him I love you. It’s okay.

I mean to tell you that everywhere I go

I hear us singing to each other. This way. I mean to tell you

that I have witnessed such great kindness as this,

in this, my true life, you must believe me.

I mean, on a Sunday, when nobody was supposed to be

watching. Nobody at all. I saw this happen, the two

of them hugging, when nobody was supposed to be

watching, but not a secret either, public

as the street, not for glory & not for a joke,

the landlord’s nephew ready to stand there for the woman

like a brother or a sister or a husband or son,

or none of these at all, but a stranger,

a stranger, who like her, is an earthling.

Perhaps this thing I am calling kindness

is more simple than kindness, rather, recognition

of the neighbor & the blue, shared earth

& the common circumstance of being here:

what remains living of the last

two million, impossible years…

 

Hopefully today we can help each other be a little more human, and find peace in that. For more thoughts like this or a bunch that aren’t, leave a comment below or on Twitter @ohgrowup. Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting.

 

* Note that this poem is “On Kindness”, from KINGDOM ANIMALIA by Aracelis Girmay, copyright © 2011 by Aracelis Girmay. I don’t own or have any rights to the poem, but first discovered it via The Slowdown.

Featured

The importance of art

Art is cool. Most of us appreciate it in various forms, and can join in on conversations about how it’s contributed to human society and culture throughout history. Which is awesome. But it seems like a lot of us, particularly emerging adults who are juggling responsibilities with trying to figure out just where we are in the world, act like we don’t have a lot of time or energy for art in our everyday lives.

I’ve definitely been there. In the last year, it has been a struggle not only to be creative, but to even make time to take in other people’s creative works. We’re always busy, and if we’re not then we feel like we should be — or we’re so exhausted that we feel like we don’t have enough brainpower left to do much more than throw on a relaxing tv show.

This habit isn’t good for us. In the last few weeks, I’ve made a greater effort to do things like read things I want to read and to take in more poetry (a favorite medium). I’ve been lucky enough to listen to people play instruments and have conversations with friends about big life questions. And it has made such a significant difference in my well-being. Of course, it doesn’t magically make problems go away or make life easy. But it has made each day noticeably better.

Art has been shown to reduce stress and, in some cases, even help people dealing with various illnesses. There’s a reason we’ve been making it for thousands of years, and have devoted so much time and energy to preserving art over the ages. A quote I recently read by Thomas Merton says, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

But we have to allow it the time and space to do that for us. And if you’re into creating art in any form, the time to practice so what we make can do that for both us and others. Creating and enjoying art can take innumerable different forms — written, visual, musical, some combination of those, or maybe something else entirely. There are pieces of art (in my case, largely written) that have indelibly affected my life. Pieces that I’ve written have helped me process things I couldn’t address head-on.

It’s also worth noting that even if you think art is not your thing, you’re probably wrong. I have friends who are amazing visual artists and cannot hold a tune, know someone who is seriously not great at drawing but loves playing guitar, a friend who collects skateboard decks, and people who don’t create much art but can have incredibly thoughtful conversations about it. Art is art because of the way it affects us and what it means to us, plain and simple.

All this is just a reminder that even though we’re busy and figuring out what adulting looks like, it really is important for us to prioritize art — for us, and for each other.

If you’re looking for more ways to bring some art into your life, these are a few I really like:

  • The Slowdown – This is a podcast and radio show hosted by U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith that my dear friend Kami turned me onto. It’s 5 minutes, 5 days a week, and so worth it. Even if you aren’t a poetry person, it’s almost like a little meditation or break from the world you can dive into for just a few moments.
  • Netflix options – You can find happy with Bob Ross, check out one of their music documentaries, or a series like Abstract: The Art of Design.
  • Explore on streaming services – Spotify, Pandora, what have you. I love my playlists dearly (and might have one for y’all next week), but they get old if I never expand. Let the algorithm enlighten you.
  • Read, but only what you want to read – I’m a massive proponent of reading, but it’s going to feel like a drag if you read what you think you’re supposed to be reading. Read what you want — whether that’s comic books, biographies, YA, nonfiction, whatever. I promise it’s way more enjoyable.
  • Go see it in person – Plays, concerts, museums. You really can’t go wrong. I went to 4 concerts in 2018 and honestly lost count of how many museums. I have plans for a few live events soon. Even going to see a movie you’re excited about in theaters. Support the artists. Seriously.

What are some of your favorite ways to keep art in your life? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!

NaNoWriMo

For those of you that don’t know, I love writing. As a kid, it was rare to find me without a book in my hand, and that spilled over into writing. I used to write a lot of stories, have been semi-regular about journaling since junior high (the photo above is all my journals), and now do this blog, but in college realized that my favorite thing to write is actually poetry. I’m always reticent to tell people that because caring about it deeply makes it feel personal and vulnerable (not things I’m often big on), but I’ve been trying to work on the part of adulting that means being willing to step outside my comfort zone. I’ve also been working on goals.

NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. Traditionally, writers across a whole lot of the Western hemisphere will all band together to jointly motivate each other, and each person will write an entire novel (or 50,000 words) within the 30 days of November. I have a friend who is participating this year, and asked if I wanted to as well. I didn’t exactly have a budding novel idea on hand, so my friend — who knows my writing well — said I could just write poems instead.

For the record, the last 30 poems I’ve written were done over the course of about 16 months. So 30 in a month felt pretty intimidating. But I wanted to try. And so far, it’s been going well. I’ve written seven poems and one short prose piece, and it’s felt really good. Of course, writing isn’t everybody’s thing, so instead I’m going to break down the process as general goal-setting and accomplishment — useful in any adulting journey.

Step 1: Prep

For me, this meant going through about 5 years’ worth of phrases I had collected, writing them on index cards, and pinning them to a corkboard in my room. I now had 50-something prompts from which to choose, so that ideas would never be a problem. I also set up parameters for myself: one poem per day, any length, any style, and it has to be “done” but not perfect. For any goal, make sure you have the tools and logistics taken care of ahead of time so that you have fewer roadblocks and fewer excuses.

Step 2: Tell someone

Full disclosure, I waited to post about this on the chance it fell through and I didn’t keep up with a poem a day. You don’t have to tell the whole world about your goals from the get-go. But do tell someone, so that they can keep you accountable. I told a few close friends and family, but most importantly one friend offered that we could do the challenge together. Now we keep each other accountable, and get to see/enjoy/improve the other person’s work.

Step 3: Start

It sounds silly, but that is a really big and often scary step. You just have to do it. Getting off the ground is the hard part because you don’t have any momentum yet. But once you start, you’ll start building a practice of working toward your goal, which will make a lot of efforts seem easier.

Step 4: Give yourself some grace

When I started this I thought I was going to write the poem every morning. Turns out, that’s not super practical for me. So I still make sure that I pick a prompt every morning and can think about it throughout the day, but if I don’t have time to write in the morning or feel creatively stuck, I let myself walk away and come back later. And that’s okay, especially since a lot of research has shown that you actually need time away from a problem/project in order to let your subconscious mind work on it.

Step 5: Push through the lows

If you’re just in the drudges of something, keep going. It’s easier said than done, but it’s something you’ll be really proud of when you accomplish your goal. As another example, I’ve been working out a couple mornings a week, and yesterday ran in 41 degrees with asthma and a couple cramps. It sucked. But I did it, and my lungs are (slowly) starting to build up a tolerance to exercise.

Step 6: Be proud of yourself

You don’t have to show or tell what you did to everybody you meet, but tell a couple people who care about you. Be proud that you accomplished the thing you set out to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my poems when the month is up, but I do know I’ll be really happy I accomplished the goal.

What goals are you working toward, and how do you stay on track? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up. As always, thanks for reading, and good luck adulting!