I saw this on facebook today and it seemed to lock into place something I have been thinking about this week.
I find myself nearly every week telling at least one hurting teenager that it does get better. That these are definitely not “the best years of your life” for everyone. I hated high school. Even college was a struggle. But I love my life now. Every year, things got better.
Except that, well, maybe they didn’t.
I saw a quote going around instagram or twitter or facebook – I don’t remember. And I don’t remember to whom it had been attributed either – as if that matters when it winds up as a meme on instagram or twitter or facebook. We all know Meryl Streep said it.
Basically, the quote was about how life doesn’t get better; we get better at handling it.
I’ve been lying to my students. Things get increasingly complicated as we grow up. The choices we make are more complex. We no longer only have parents and friends to consider, but children and careers, when making plans for our future, when deciding whether to post that photo on instagram or twitter or facebook.
There are bills. And insurance. And taxes. Pension plans and adult diapers. And office politics are as nasty as playground politics.
I’m not going to lie to my students anymore. I don’t think it helps them to think that they really are on the receiving end of all the world’s meanness. They aren’t. They are learning to deal with their little share of it. They’re learning to do it better.
Kelli Russell Agodon’s third collection of poems, Hourglass Museum, was a Finalist in the Washington State Book awards and short-listed for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize honoring the best book of poems published by a small press. She also the coauthor of The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, O, The Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, as well as on “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor’s and in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times anthology.
Kelli is the Cofounder of Two Sylvias Press where she works as an editor and book cover designer, and is the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast: A Retreat for Women Poets. She lives in the Northwest where she is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. www.agodon.com / www.twosylviaspress.com
March 9th, Molly Gaudry
Later this spring: Richard M. Berlin, Tim Mayo, Cati Porter…
(also an upcoming This Choice: written interview with Patricia Fargnoli).
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I was probably 6 or 7 when I first remember making something. I made my grandfather a birthday card; rhyming couplets in my own handwriting, and a watercolor of the two of us fishing from the side of a lake. It was on thick, cream paper. I can’t remember where the paper came from. I remember the wonderful fuss he and my grandmother made over my artwork.
My grandfather used to take me fishing. I always use the phrase “used to” loosely. There wasn’t a lot of consistency in my childhood and if I did something more than once, it feels like a “used to”.
So, it follows that I “used to” make handmade cards.
In reality, I don’t think I was much older than 8 or 9 when I decided I wasn’t a good enough craftsman to give handmade gifts anymore: they were childish, imperfect, “charming” with a bright smack of condescension from Aunt S.’s lips.
Teachers pointed out that I should use the left-handed scissors to avoid the sloppy, jagged edges that I always seemed to wind up with. Left-handed scissors made no difference. Cramped my left hand.
I studied art in school. In college. I won little, local awards for poetry. But unless it was sanctioned by the gatekeepers who put monetary value on things, it was amateurish in my mind, and amateurish was a bad word. I was aiming higher. I always prefaced, and undermined, my attempts at crafts by explaining that I was a lousy at it.
I was an idiot.
In my twenties, I met a woman who became a mentor to me. We had talked a lot about being kind to our inner little girls. I decided to make her a doll for Christmas. It felt like an important thing to do. A process that honored what she meant to me.
I was dating her son at the time, and he made it clear he thought that was a childish thing to do. So I didn’t show him. I sewed the doll from scratch. Set her hemp hair in corkscrew curls with wood glue. I have a photo of the three of us. Two of us have faces a bit red from crying.
Even my boyfriend had to reluctantly admit it didn’t turn out as crappy as he’d imagined it would. (We all go through our phases.)
But it was many years before I made another object. I wrote books. But they were published by other people, illustrated by other people. Once I told an artist friend of mine that I was going to start making paper. She smiled and said that people spent years learning how to make paper. She’d been to Korea and taken a workshop on paper-making, but didn’t do it herself out of respect for the craft.
I didn’t make any paper.
I decided to learn Flash instead. I made interactive poetry videos. But after hours and weeks of work, I felt that I had put nothing real into the world. Nothing I had put my hands on, nothing that other people would put their hands on. It matters to me for some reason.
So, four years ago I took a bookmaking course. I told myself and everyone else that I was doing it because craftsmanship was something I knew I sucked at, so I couldn’t take it seriously, wouldn’t be competitive about it.
Who knew that it would take me so long to learn that what it takes for me to make thingswell, is a desire to put them in the world that has nothing to do with my own ego. It has to be an act of love.
After just three months of dating, I gave my now-fiancé a handmade book of poems.
There is a very interesting Ted Talk that I have been thinking about lately. Stella Young, who is physically disabled, talks about her frustration that stems from being held up as an object for what she calls “inspiration porn”.
In a very strange way, I can relate.
I’ve been thinking about “inspiration porn” since I let loose on a friend’s Facebook post last week. She was upset about the way the church has looked the other way when it comes to the sexual abuse of children. She said that it had to be stopped “because it ruins lives”.
It is a fair enough statement. Child abuse, and the social narratives surrounding it, does contribute to the destruction of some lives.
However, sexual abuse of children has to be stopped regardless of the fallout.
It is wrong. Period.
There should be no need to parade out examples of victims who have turned to drugs, or taken their own lives as part of the argument against the sexual abuse of children. Lives should not be moulded into poster slogans.
I see two problems with perpetuating the “ruined for life” stereotype for the cause:
One is the stigma that speaking up brings in its wake. No one wants to be labeled as damaged. I remember all the years when my children were small, and the concern I had that people were looking over my shoulder (because, after all, another thing we so often hear about is the “cycle of abuse”). Any opinion I had on gender, violence, abuse or even sex in general was often disregarded as biased.
If you do speak up, it is important to tow the party line.
The second problem I see is the guilt I know I feel when I say, “You know what? I’m doing as well as anyone else out there.” I feel like I am undermining the cause. An apologist of sorts. I should be screwed up. And, yes, when I say that my problems have little to do with my childhood experiences, I have heard: “You’re in denial.” The claim of having thrived, despite it all, is held up as proof of how essentially messed up I really am.
And then I can’t help but wonder: Maybe I really am more damaged than I think?
The fact is, I have been more damaged by the way society handles victims of child abuse than I ever was by the incidences of abuse themselves. And that is a frightening thing to say out loud. I prepare myself for a barrage of questions and accusations when I do. I struggle with the response to the onslaught of circular reasoning: Sexual abuse causes emotional damage, so if you haven’t been emotionally damaged, there was obviously no sexual abuse. Not real sexual abuse, at any rate.
People who have experienced sexual abuse are pressured to choose a camp: Be fine and have your experiences invalidated, or choose to assume the role of victim or one as damaged-but-surviving.
It isn’t okay to murder a homeless person who is incoherent, who has no family to mourn her; while, say murdering a young mother of two would definitely not be okay. What is morally wrong, isn’t measured by the damage done.
The sexual abuse of children is not okay.
But, you know what? Some of the children will be, if we let them.
The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).
At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.
Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.
Art as Experience
Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.
I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”
Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.
However, Wilde also said that art is useless:
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”
One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.
And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.
Art as a Tool for the Good Life
Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.
The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.
Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.
Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention
Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off. I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing. We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.
Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:
We can live deliberately.
We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.
– Oscar Wilde
This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?