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 heart rockhas 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

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Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

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?


More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.


 

IMG_20151201_161947I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.

It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.

Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.

I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.

I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?

After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.

The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.

I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.

What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)

I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.

I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.

 

received_1027144970649322Listening to On Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.

If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”

The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.

Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.

I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.

The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?

It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?

I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.

The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).

If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.

Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.

But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And  I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.

There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:

“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”

We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.

There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.

These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”

I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.

But I think we are all wrong.

I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.

It’s an inspiring project.

 

 

 

The last time I kept a blog, I was training for a marathon. I was making major changes in my life, at a point where people generally decide to do it, or not. Midlife crisis, they call it.

I made more changes than I had anticipated, because change never happens in isolation. But there is no such thing as a midlife crisis, really. No one can predict a midway point to any destination. There are, however, lookout points all along the way. If you take the time to pull over, get out for a minute. A rest stop.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a “crisis”: took on major challenges, took off into completely unfamiliar territory. It wouldn’t be the last time. Won’t be.

Things are different now, though. Now, four years after running a marathon, I’m restless again. But this time, I’m looking backward as well as forward–and no longer afraid to do that. There are practices and beliefs I’d once nourished, things I’ve dropped or forgotten, that I now understand the value of. For example, the potential for faith. All kinds of faith.

I once knew that living is dying; we should remember that fact, in order to die in a way we choose–no matter how death might take us by surprise. There is a man in Denmark who lives each day dying well. And, I hate myself for my first thought after listening to him: I need to move to a place where I can dig a pond, like he did; where I can fashion my life like his. I use the word fashion deliberately, for all it is worth. I am even considering his eccentric knit strawberry hat.

I am still there. Here. Stuck, trying to make meaningful change, to find meaning, without giving up my life and making a pilgrimage to someone else’s belief system.

Someone asked me not long ago, if I was still running. I take that as evidence I have stopped proselytising. I take that as evidence in my progress towards becoming (authentically being) what I choose to be.

I am still running. Like so many others, asking myself questions I’d stopped asking for a while.414066_359311840791185_1987797442_o-2

And telling myself that the solution is not to buy a knit strawberry hat to wear on my runs.

(Check out the mini documentaries in the links!)