Returning My Soul To The Room

My master yoga teacher often cautioned us to “keep our souls in the room.” I took him to mean that we should be present and aware, not off on a daydream or locked in some form of spinning thought. I was reminded about how I never finished Huck Finn because my eyes would glaze and my mind would leave and I’d have read page after page and caught none of it.

I don’t want to glaze over my life. I want to be present in it. And I want to feel free in writing and speaking about the rich, full life I lead.  So I’m back here after several years of silence.

Part of that silence was in the business of my life: the 300-450 miles of commuting a week; the mothering of a baby; the business of owning and fixing up and maintaining an old and somewhat scarred house; the ever-commitment of marriage. When there was a moment, sometimes I slept. Sometimes I soaked in hot bath. Occasionally, I went in for the $25 foot massage. I even managed, thanks to the ease of Submittable, to submit and place most of my unpublished work.  But write? Write beyond email and other assigned tasks? No, not much. Certainly not much more than a fragment here or there.

Another part of it was feeling violated. At one point in the last few years, I was called as a witness in a court case.  One of the lawyers, a man who in my opinion lacks ethics and compassion, mined this blog looking to slander me, and to mis-represent my life by quoting me out of context. It made me feel violated and touched at the core-wound I carry of being misinterpreted for the benefit of others. I had a similar experience in fighting for the charter of the school I have been working at.  My detailed, data-filled letter to the state board of education was completely ignored, and when my boss and I tried to verbally summarize some of the data in the letter, our words were stripped of context and used to say that we – two people who have dedicated our careers to serving underserved children – were morally corrupt and not fit for leadership.

These experiences are hard for me to rumble with. They fill me with shame, even though I have nothing to be ashamed of. And as they were intended to do, they try to strip my truth from me and bend me into silence. It is so hard, when I have built my career learning to listen deeply, that I am so easily mis- or un-heard. It’s enough to make me want to step completely out of any public arena.  Even an arena as rarely-seen as this blog. They’ve also made me decide that I don’t want to be anyone’s fall guy ever again.  I am much, much more comfortable in the shadows and to the side than my younger me would have guessed.

And I feel called to be more than that for my daughter.  Of course, I want her to know her silence is her own whenever she wants it.  I also want her to know that truth matters. That truths, because they are many, matter. I want her to know that her mother stood her ground and said, “I am worthy to be here, and I have something to say.” Something tells me this may be the great struggle of this next phase of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ellusive Allusion of Poetry

Be forewarned: this post is full of lit-speak and self-indulgence.

Enter Sixfold, a peer-reviewed publication that couples the reviewing process with a cash prize.  They charge a small reading fee.  If you choose to submit your work, you automatically become a part of other writers’ review panels, ranking their work in three rounds (1 to 6, six high), and leaving them critical and appreciative commentary.

After a year of hemming and hawing and deleting the emails from Sixfold, my hunger for a workshop-like environment got me to disregard my self-imposed reading fee guideline (as a practice I don’t pay reading fees for anything less than a chapbook length manuscript), and submit some work for review.  I ponied-up the $5, and entered the contest.  Now, I was strategic.  I didn’t enter to win.  I selected five poems that I wanted help with. The poems I chose met the following criteria:

  • Both JT and I considered them well written, among some of my best even.
  • They had been rejected by multiple magazines, over a multi-year period.
  • I was “stuck” in seeing a path to improve them.
  • They were each quite different from the next, stylistically.

I was hoping that in the peer-review process, some talented writer or another would say something like, “You had me until the third stanza, when you lost me on the phase, ‘xxxx’.”  I was really eager to figure out exactly what was preventing these poems from being published, and in doing so, revise them.  As a bonus, I’d be able to make more informed editorial decisions in my newer pieces.

The contest started, and I gave my detailed reviews, including reading suggestions, line edits, and other goodies to my assigned poets.  Of the 18 sets of poetry I read, 2 moved me. I found myself again wondering why my particular poems weren’t being picked up. Compared to the bulk of what I was reading, they were solid.  Not the best, but solid. (Spoiler, I did NOT win this contest – My set ranked 32/334, progressing to round 2, but not round 3 of the event).

So three weeks or so after we started, we receive not only our final ranking, but our individual scores (1 to 6, six high) from everyone who read our work, and our comments from those writers/readers.  This is what I’d been waiting for.  Imagine my confusion at my rankings (note: I received no 4’s and no 2’s):

6 – 5/16 gave me the highest score possible.
5 – 6/16 readers scored me at 5.
3 – 2/16 readers scored me at 3.
1 – 3/16 readers scored me at the lowest possible score.

What? So. Not. Helpful. 

11/16 of these people left comments on my work. Generally speaking, I received very little useful feedback (one reviewer helped me change one line of a poem for the better — Yay!), and what was useful came from the people ranking my poetry relatively high.  BTW: How do you give someone a “1” and then tell them that their poems are “very well written?” Beyond me. But I digress.  I was here for some writerly advice, and this called for a meta-analysis of the commentary on the poems I’d submitted.

Taken together, some these readers had something particular to say about my writing. Let’s take a look:

  • [T]hese are so far superior, in texture, in historic and literary allusion, in assuredness to the others I’ve read in this round that it gets a ‘Best.'”
  • “This is quite ambitious work, however it is also not accessible enough to make for pleasurable reading, being difficult to understand without the context of an academic.”
  • “Ultimately, I judged the other entry to be slightly superior based on a slight edge in comprehensibility.”
  • “[T]he literary complexity on display may hinder some readers.”
  • “I haven’t quite figured out what each [poem] ‘is up to.'”
  • “I’m probably not as well read as you.”

And there it is.  It’s all about the allusion.

As moviegoers, we like allusion, the tucked away Easter egg. We like that the inscription on Nick Fury’s gravestone reaches back to Pulp Fiction It adds a layer of bad-assedness to old Nick (see what I did there?) that we didn’t even know we needed.  But offer readers to (metaphorically) hyperlink a bit of poetry to something else, and now we’ve got problems. Readers, even many poets, are intimidated by a literary history.

I take three distinct issues with this:

  1. There is a long and powerful tradition of writers — even iconoclasts — calling on the works of their predecessors for strength.  You don’t have to have read The Tempest to appreciate Huxley’s title, Brave New World, but if you know that Miranda, speaking that line, was awed and innocent, suddenly there’s a painfully powerful juxtaposition to navigate. How cool.
  2. I take issue with a refusal to re-read, and read deeply, particularly in any community of writers.  Bear with me.  I have known many, many, new poets.  And a common ailment among our breed is a refusal to read any poetry (or much literature at all, really) other than what we write ourselves.  How can our spidey-sense go off at a probable allusion if we have no internal library to access?  This bewilders me.  I can’t imagine a contemporary artist who wouldn’t identify a bit of cubism or an overindulgence in blue as a nod to Pablo Picasso.  And yet, a line of poetry with four stressed syllables split by a caesura…and we’re lost.
  3. I am an associative thinker.  The interwebs is my jam.  I like to link-and-link-and-link. I like to read this way. I like to write this way. I love this way.

So what do I get for the (not-so-new) realization that my poetry is getting in its own way? Four really well-written but probably unpublishable poems that I’ve decided not to rework.  They are what they are.  And they have a really cozy home in my OneDrive.  I’ll put them in my next chapbook and let the readers skip them.  (The fifth poem that I submitted to Sixfold, “Bridges a Refrain” has since been picked up by Print Oriented Bastards.  Yay!  It’s the least comprehensible, in the narrative sense, of the five I submitted, and yet relatively light on the allusion).  Oh yeah, and this little bit of fun I wrote just so I could spend the time hyperlinking it at the end of this post.  Enjoy!

I Never Tell You I Love You*

because of Neruda. In those flowering,
dark places where waiting is soulwork,
work is love.  This is to say: I see Levine
in the weary faces of my siblings, and hear
Hayden in my father’s most lonely name.

I write you no love poems, because battered,
ravished by Donne, my heart thinks only
of death.  And dying, in comma and coma,
I leave to Dylan’s sufficient rageLee,
on the edge of the bed,

folds my hair to braids. In
the cinnamon of sex, Ondaatje
keeps me.  And good translation,
I’ve plenty from Heaney. The sun
and moon were bridegifts from Hafiz.

I know I am supposed to say: Emily
AdrienneJane, DeniseSylviaSharon,
Rita – but among us, we love like starfish.
It’s you I can’t bring myself to need.

When meter and marching make war,
I’ve Owen, in an ecstasy of fumbling, Fiacc,
like a lonely, winter robin. It’s for Crane,
I like my heart bitter, bitter.  And forgetting
is so long.  If you blame my cold love

on another man, always begin with Neruda.

_________

Note: this poem is about a poet’s relationship with the poetic community and the patriarchy that still dominates it.  I tell JT I love him every day. 🙂

*Gratitude to Havik for publishing this poem.

XL Xercise

I love to move. To twist myself into stretchy shapes, glide through vinyasas, take long, (but not too steep!) hikes until I’m out of breath.  And I like it when my body cooperates with this.

The trouble is, movement’s physically taxing.  And, no I don’t mean taxing in the way all exercise is taxing.  I mean it’s harder, and more risky, to move a bigger body.  My skeletal system is not twice as sturdy as that of a person half my weight.  Sure, because of my history of practicing yoga, my bones may be stronger than those of another woman my size.  But those teeny, tiny metacarpals in my hands, and the little muscles supporting them, have a lot more demand to meet in down dog than the same bones and muscles in the hands of most everyone else in the yoga studio.  It’s not as if my muscle strength fluctuates steadily with my changing weight, no way that I have double the hand strength of a “normal” woman.  And the impact of 200lbs as my foot hits the pavement, emphasized by the vehemence of gravity, is certainly more forceful than the impact of a 120lb woman’s stride on her relatively similar size 7.5 feet. In fact, moving, living, and yes, being, is harder the bigger I am.  I’ve lived the span of a 100lb difference, and am telling you this first hand.  Beyond the very real emotional and psychological versions of harder, exercise is harder on my body.  And what’s worse, I often feel isolated in this knowledge.

Last night I took a yoga class from a skilled, compassionate teacher.  I still had to explain to her, twice, that the pose she was asking me to do, when combined with the bulk of my breasts and arms was literally suffocating me.  And so was her first attempt at modification.   This is a normal experience for me in a group fitness setting, and one I’ve had to thicken my skin to.  Consider it inspiration to offer a second post going against the common belief that all bodies are made equal.

I’ve seen the videos of women heavier than me doing deadlifts and deep, deep, unsupported back bends.  I’ve read the many comments that follow, celebrating what “any body” can do.  While I see this type of commentary as far better than the hate and shame that could be thrown in the direction of my fellow BBW’s, I can’t add my voice to the chorus.  To do so would be downright irresponsible.

Let me illustrate. A while ago, I saw this viral video of a “Plus Size Woman Doing Burpees on a Box”.  Watch the video closely and look at this athlete’s lower back when she is going into and out of the push up portion of the exercise.  Do you see that wavy-wiggle?  I’m certain that’s a back injury waiting to happen.  In order to prevent some real damage, this woman would have to engage her abdominal muscles more strongly, lowering and raising herself with some serious control.   Choosing to do this would slow her roll way down, and without the momentum of the movement, she, most probably, wouldn’t be able to do all those burpees after all.  And who is telling her this?  And why should they? The speed with which she is going through the activity is providing a pretty inspirational illusion.

But from where I am standing, it looks like she (and gravity) are tugging pretty mercilessly on her lumbar spine every time she raises and lowers herself.  A person with less weight in her middle, while still doing the pose in a less-than-safe way (and still prone to injury), would have much less force yanking on her spinal column. She’d have to build muscle (but less of it to lift less of her) and correct her posture.

I imagine being the woman in the video getting that feedback.  It would be downright heartbreaking.  I want to be strong and badass.  I don’t want to go back to square one. I know that the time it would take to see those changes take effect (more muscle to lift more of me) is so discouraging.  So how do we get fit and strong when intense exercise is a long road? When no one wants to say, maybe this isn’t the best thing for your body to be doing.

Yoga, right? Everybody can do yoga.

Sure.  Let’s get it out of the way that it’s uncomfortable to be the biggest girl in the yoga class.  I won’t even rant about Eagle Posture, that ridiculous equivalent of stuffing a too-big sleeping bag into a very small case; I’ll brush over how I hate pulling my knees in to my chest and essentially eliminating all lung capacity; and I won’t dwell on the near panic attack that occurs when someone asks me to “squeeze in” between a couple of classmates.  But let me discuss the devil’s own hell that is child’s pose. 

Asking me to “rest in child’s pose” is like saying, “If you get tired, why not do some squats?” For someone with bulk (even a stretchy girl like me), this pose medieval torture. It’s the physics of it. Child’s pose is for resting if-and-only-if you can get your weight (i.e. your ass) back on your heels.  Otherwise, your center of mass is still in the front of your body, and you’re basically doing the work of downward dog on your hands and shoulders while concurrently and urgently pressing the backs of your thighs and your calves together in a futile effort to lower that bum.  (Think about squeezing two really firm pillows between your forearm and your bicep as you try to touch your fist to your shoulder.  There’s no resting happening).   And this pose is supposed to be my body’s chance to recover between more strenuous exercises. As. If.

So how do yoga teachers offer to relieve my visible distress?  By offering to add MORE padding between my calves and thighs.  C’mon!  I have enough padding.   This modification only makes matters worse.  Let’s be frank: it’s the struggle against the padding keeping my butt in the air in the first place (remember, I’m stretchy!).  And yet, teacher after teacher, I am offered this same modification.  I should be transparent: this is a modification we are trained to offer people in this pose.  And, in fact, the modification that works when the problem in the pose is caused by tension (i.e., muscles that are too tight to let the bum sink down, and there is visible space between the backs of the thighs and the calves).  In that case, the pillow provides a place for the rear to rest, and thus lets the muscles relax in to the pose. (BTW, I have also been offered a bolster under my chest; again, more padding where I have enough, plus restricted breathing as a bonus).

It has been my experience that very few fitness teachers (including yoga teachers) understand the difference between big and small bodies, and this leads them to treat our bigger bodies irresponsibly (like the time a trainer wanted me to do box jumps on pogo-ball.  Give me a break – like a broken ankle – no thanks!).  I have walked away from so many programs and classes because I felt my body was being misunderstood or disrespected by the person charged with training me.  Because people don’t look deeply at big bodies (we’re asked not to stare, after all!), they don’t see the differences in how we move and take up space and, therefore, have no schema for troubleshooting.

Few fitness experts seem to see that fat, like bone, can cause compression (a physical barrier) that literally changes the entire relationship of one body part to the next. (In nearly two decades of exploring yoga, I have had exactly two amazing master teachers who did see my body for the shape it makes, and with their compassion, I found my way into a safe and healthful yoga practice).

So back to that demon, child’s pose.  For many years, I just struggled through the pose, accepted the blanket and then set it aside.  But then, exasperated, I also I set out to find an alternative that would let me get some benefit for myself.  At first, when I didn’t feel like struggling through the nonsense of it, I stacked my head on my fists or a block to make the shape of the pose, eliminating the constant work, but getting absolutely zero benefit from the pose because I was not stretching, strengthening or resting anything. I was hanging out awkwardly and wishing I could teleport myself somewhere to suffer my shame alone.

A few months ago, in a stroke of insight and experimentation, I put long, fan-folded a blanket under my knees, essentially leveraging my butt backwards toward my heels (shifting that center of mass!), and for the first time in my life, I found a way into this pose that didn’t leave me wishing for death.  I even got that sweet stretch through my back.  My butt’s still not on my heels (it’s like I’m doing the pose for the first time, and it will be a while before that changes), but now I’m working toward something with a modification that is addressing what’s happening in my body.  A modification I stumbled upon after all this time practicing yoga, studying with multiple teachers, and having been a yoga teacher myself for eight years. And even now, it’s not a modification I’d offer offhandedly to others – there’s an issue of the knee joints that has to be considered that I won’t go into just now.

Take this struggle and lay it over every other bit of fitness instruction that is generally offered to the big bodied.  It’s that clothes shopping issue all over again: just because you cut something out bigger doesn’t mean it will fit the shape of my body.  I’m pretty confident, and most of the time I’m not afraid to gently tell a teacher to leave me to myself.  But I won’t do it if I think it will stop the teacher and call attention to me in the room.  And in reflecting on this, I imagine those of us who don’t even know the language of their own bodies, we who trust the experts the way we trust doctors, believing an expert’s insight will lead to what we ourselves could never access.  Mostly, it leads to things on the spectrum between injury and insult.

And people wonder why we don’t just do something about it. 

(Note: As I was writing this post I came across this pretty cool video of a smart, insightful plus-sized yoga teacher.  Look at the bodies in her class: nothing extreme going on. Bodies can get strong and flexible doing work like this. But they’re not going to go viral for it.)