Friday, November 26, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 8: Someone Who Has Made Your Life Hell

On day 6, I gave a brief preview of today. Here’s where I spill the beans in detail. Ugh, dredging up junior high/high school angst! Let the catharsis begin: A girl I grew up with, Leslie, decided at some point that I would be her target. Leslie sat at the popular table, but her friends feared her bad side as much as/more than they actually liked her (at least that’s what they told me). She wasn’t like Jill, the homecoming queen, who played the Regina George completely-sweet-until-she-isn’t role to perfection.

No, Leslie was all about judgment. She was, for example, the one who told me I was a blasphemer for saying words like “gosh,” “jeeze,” and “darn.” This wasn’t entirely her fault. When we were 7 or 8, our teacher held a presidential election, and Leslie told us we had to vote for Bush, because her parents said the other guy liked murdering babies.

Me: “That can’t POSSIBLY be true. If he murdered babies, it would be in the newspapers, and…”

Leslie: “But it IS true. My parents TOLD me! He thinks murdering babies shouldn’t even be against the law. It’s called abortion.” Start ‘em young, eh, Pro-Lifers? So Bush won the election in our classroom by a LANDSLIDE, as no one in the second grade had a convincing Pro-Choice rebuttal. What I’m saying is, the judgemental-fundamentalist-Christian part is not entirely her fault. She was fed that rhetoric from birth.

The part that was her fault was her cruelty. On day as she was mocking Chris, one of the most-teased kids in our school, he said, “Didn’t you just leave an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meeting? Christianity is about being kind! You’re being a hypocrite.” My ears perked up, as I’d always wondered how Leslie justified her behavior to herself. She replied, “We’re all hypocrites in the eyes of the Lord. None of us is without sin.”

BAM! We’re all sinners, so why bother being kind? That’s when I knew something I’d never known before: that she was dangerous and I didn’t want to be around her. You see, before that, I thought there was hope for her. In fact, when her friends ostracized her at one point, I let her sit at the lunch table with my friends and me. I thought our kindness might have an effect on her. It only made her see us as weak once she got back in the cool kids’ good graces. (See yesterday’s post on the weakness/strength of being forgiving.)

Over the years, Leslie mocked me mercilessly, pulled my hair, shoved me up against lockers, and once when a teacher was out of the room she whacked me in the face repeatedly with a rolled-up magazine chanting my nickname, Eek (formed from my initials, E.K.). Cornered, I ignored her for as long as I could. Eventually, I calmly said, “What, Leslie?” Whack, whack, whack! “Leslie, if you touch me again, I’m going to hit you…” Whack, whack, whack! “…and I’m going to KEEP hitting you until you stop.” Whack! went the magazine into my face.

SMACK! My palm connected with her smug face, but she kept touching me, so I smacked her over and over and over, I don’t know how many times, until she finally stopped. I ran out of the room crying, sure I was going to be suspended and grounded. Instead, the teacher apologized for leaving me alone with “that girl.” Hee! The sad part of the story (besides that I was not good at maintaining pacifism in a stressful situation) is that if I’d stayed and acted like nothing happened or—better yet—laughed at her, it would have changed everything, because it would have been Cool. Instead, I was a geek pushed to the breaking point. Under her leadership, the bullies were determined to make me lose it again.

And sometimes I did lose it. When they soaked my clothes in the showers during gym class, I kicked over a trash can and went on a yelling tirade. On another particularly memorable occasion, Leslie sat behind me on the bleachers, leaned forward and tried to rip a mole off my neck by pinching it between two nickels and twisting. Sometimes their attempts to goad me fell flat, though: they tried to ditch me when I was driving behind them to Boone for some event (Mom’s orders, as it was deer season, and she was afraid I’d hit one with the car or something.) I guess they forgot that I drove to Boone EVERY WEEKDAY to take college classes.

It was Leslie who started the mocking nickname Julia and my Roy Orbison theme song. In DNA Biology, my lab partner Christine was depressed because someone told her she looked like Barbra Streisand. “I hate my nose!” I told her, “Oh, I’ve been told I look like her, too! Don’t worry about it. It’s just something people say when they don’t know what to say. I mean, people are always telling me I look like Julia Roberts or Barbra Streisand or whatever other actress. And these women look nothing like me or like each other. Whatever!” Leslie, who had been eavesdropping turned around. “You think you look like Julia Roberts?” “No,” I replied. “People just keep saying I do.”

By the end of the day Leslie had the school convinced that I thought I looked like Julia Roberts. After that, every time I ran out on the field or in the gym to cheer, they would shout “JULIA” and sing “Pretty Woman.” Heck, even if I was just getting up to give a speech in English class, they’d hum it. Luckly, that one didn’t really bother me. They were trying to point out the absurdity of me thinking I looked like someone that beautiful? Oh, no, you think I think I look like someone dozens of people say I look like!

The worst part, though, was Leslie’s effect on my friend Dawn (more on that tomorrow). Dawn and I were incredibly close frenemies. When Dawn was with me, we got along well and had so much fun. When she was around Leslie, she would turn cruel. It hurt that someone with whom I shared so many good times could, at any moment, turn against me to mock me with my nemesis.

How did I make it through all that torture? Luckily, I had a ton of amazing friends. I had supportive parents who offered to put me in private school. (Just knowing you have the option of escape is an immense relief). I got out of the building as often as possible to take college classes or do a work-study program at a daycare center. Spring semester of my senior year, I was a page in the State House of Representatives, so I only came to school on Fridays. I had cheerleading, choir and drama to cheer me up. I was a strong person, and the torment only made me stronger and more empathetic. It also helped that I knew the teachers were on my side, even if they couldn’t stop the abuse.

The last week of senior year, our English teacher broke us into teams and had us build weight-bearing structures out of macaroni and gumdrops. Leslie was bragging about g how her team was going to dominate, as she’d gotten a prestigious acceptance letter: “ISU Engineering program, YEAH!” she bragged, high-fiving Brandon. Leslie’s team built some crazy stilt-structure. My team built a bridge-like box with a large surface area for weight displacement, and plenty of crisscrossing spaghetti noodle support beams reinforced with gumdrops that I mooshed up wrapped around every cross and joint. (The other teams just jammed their noodles into the gumdrops.) In the end, every other team’s structures broke, and our structure supported not only our books, but most of the other teams’ books, too. I told Leslie off for being so arrogant, imitating her earlier tone: “Logic! THAT’S how the English majors do it!” After the rest of the class left, the teacher called me to her desk, laughing: “Thank you so much! I’ve been wanting someone to tell that girl off for years!” Hee!

One of my junior high students said to me once, “You must have been a geek in school.” I asked her, “Why do you say that?” She replied, “Because you never put up with bullies in class. You yell at kids whenever they’re mean.” At the time, I thought it was sad that a kid would assume only a former geek would be kind and protect her students. I should have, instead, taken it as a major compliment: I was doing a good job at preventing bullying in my classroom. Students recognized my room as a place where they were safe, and trust me: when you’re bullied, you appreciate any oasis.

I heard Leslie got pregnant in college and dropped out of school. Maybe she went back and graduated; I don’t know. Leslie brought her husband and three kids to our 10-year reunion, and she seemed like a nice mom. She was the first one to come up and hug me when I arrived. She looked like I’d hit her in the face, though, when Dawn and I were explaining our complicated past to her fiancé, Chris. Dawn admitted that she used to pull my hair: “It was me and…” “Leslie,” I finished. “Yep, you guys used to torture me.” I wasn’t mad, but I wasn’t going to pretend it didn’t happen, either. After the reunion, Leslie requested me as a Facebook friend. I figure my life is awesome, and if she wants to read about it, that’s fine.

Maybe being a mom has changed her and made her a better person. I hope so. I hope she’s raising her kids to be kind.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 7: Someone Who Has Made Your Life Worth Living For

What an appropriate prompt for Thanksgiving Day! Who has made my life worth living? Every person I’ve ever called a best friend, including (but not limited to): Marjory; Harmony; Gwen; Justin; Jan; Amanda; Alexis; Chieko; Dawn; Kari; Margo; Mary-Elizabeth; Calvin; Misty; the women of Heritage 11—Jenny, Jessy, Kelly, Kiyo, Emily and Rachael; Jackie; Lex; Drew; Tom; my NYC girls—Madrid, Laura and Carolina; Todd; and, of course, Rose and Val. God bless you all for the laughter, the letters, the late-night conversations, the adventures and the fun. I wouldn’t have made it without you.

My students, in a weird way, make life worth living. As I help them, I send ripples of good out into the world. Help one kid in the Bronx and you may help his family, not just now, but for generations to come. That kind of hope is inspiring and renewing. Also, my students are often vivacious and kind. I work part time at a daycare center, and the hugs and giggles are a natural antidepressant!

My family makes life worth living. I am blessed beyond measure to have been born into my family. They are one-in-a-million in terms of closeness, supportiveness and camaraderie. They raised me with faith, good values and kindness. They taught me a strong work ethic and a dedication to civil justice and community. They taught me to be patriotic—not an unquestioning drone, but rather an informed, reasonable woman who loves her country and shows it respect.

Over and over again, it strikes me how lucking I was to have parents who were crazy in love and took such good care of us, six grandparents and countless aunts and uncles who teased/doted on us, and cousins who are as close as siblings. Living in New York, I’d hear people say of the homeless, “that could be you.” But I always knew it couldn’t. I was blessed with a support system that would never let my life spin that far out of control. Some of my friends and family members have admired my accomplishments, or my bravery venturing so far from home. To them I say that it’s easy to jump when you know there’s someone there to catch you.

Thank you all for the fun, adventures, comfort, time, energy and love. Thanks for the love most of all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 6: Something You Hope You Never Have to Do

I pray that I never lose a child. Several years ago, my nephew was born premature and passed away before his due date. Noah was in our lives long enough for us all to fall in love with him and to believe that he could survive.

Loving Noah taught me that sometimes you must love freely, completely, without reservation—even if you suspect your heart will be broken, because love—however fleeting—is worth it. Noah changed the way I lived my life (not long after, I moved and changed careers) and the way I love. For that, I will forever be grateful for knowing him. That said, losing Noah was devastating for all of us, and I pray our family never faces such a tragedy again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 5: Something You Hope to Do With Your Life

I hope to become a tenured professor and a published author: precisely what I’m doing now, just on the pro level. I love my work, I love writing, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my work-life. No extensive explanation is required. What is required is for me to overcome my fear of rejections and submit, submit, submit and apply, apply, apply.

Monday, November 22, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 4: Something You Need to Forgive Someone For

You know what’s tough about being a Christian? The part about forgiving and loving your enemy. It feels weak and doormattish, or as Mark Twain put it, “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mahatma Ghandi has a great rebuttal, however: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

You forgive for three reasons: it’s better for you, better for the forgiven, and it’s better for the world—every bit of hate/every bit of forgiveness counts. Ghandi also taught us, “We need to be the hope we wish to see in the world.” If I want the world to be peaceful and forgiving, then I must be peaceful and forgiving. That doesn’t mean I don’t learn from the past and use that knowledge to build a safer, happier future. It just means that I try to let go any anger and pain attached to past wrongs. So here goes.

The people I forgive:

The mean kids I grew up with, whose methods of torture ranged from throwing my clothes in the shower during gym class to violence, mocking jokes, skits and even a theme song. (More about this on Day 8.)

The students who insulted and/or assaulted me when I taught in the Bronx. All I wanted to do was help them. All they wanted was…a million things and none—whatever was running through their heads at any particular moment. To feel safe. To vent all their frustrations in life on a safe person: me. Students, I forgive you.

Mr. B—I described our breakup on this blog years ago. I cared about and trusted him. He accused me of deceiving him when I did not. I realize now that it was about his inability to trust, not my untrustworthiness. Though his issue hurt me, it wasn’t ABOUT me. Ex-boyfriend, I forgive you.

The employer who tied me in knots. She was just trying to do her job, jumping through bureaucratic hoops— hoops that coincidentally tightened around me neck. The fact is, we both wanted the same thing: safe, happy, well-educated students. We just had different ideas about how to achieve that goal. Former boss who took a chance on me and gave me a job, I forgive you.

The guys who burglarized me, breaking into my apartment and stealing my DVDs, my cameras, my jewelry and more. BOO! I miss my stuff! But I survived the loss of my stuff, just I my family survived the loss of a bunch of our other stuff in the tornado. I love my stuff and find it comforting, but I don’t NEED most of it. Thieves who reminded me of that, I forgive you.

The pickpocket frat boys who stole my wallet in Solas, my favorite NYC bar, and used the info on my ID to mess with my head before taking off. Violated on so many levels! Stupid frat boys, I forgive you. Okay, not entirely yet, but I’m still working on it.

The guy who attacked me at a party in college. I managed to fight him off, but I occasionally suffer symptoms of PTSD, including a couple times while kissing a boyfriend I had flashbacks that left me crying and hysterical. Those moments—scared in the arms of a man I loved—I was so angry. Carrying that anger around is exhausting. It doesn’t hurt the attacker; it only hurts me. I forgive you, bit-by-bit. It’s a struggle, but I keep trying.

Other creepy guys who’ve pushed too far: you make being a woman feel scary and lonely. Stop it! That said, I forgive you for your past icky, slimy, grabby come-ons. That said: cut it out!

Okay, forgiving the last three on the list—guys who made me feel vulnerable and violated—it’s not as easy as saying, “I forgive you!” Or maybe it would be if I let it. Maybe I’m afraid of violet forgiveness: sweet, velvety and crushed.

In "Forgiveness - The Power to Change the Past," an article in the January 7, 1983 issue of Christianity Today, 7 Lewis B. Smedes wrote, “Forgiving is love's toughest work, and love's biggest risk. If you twist it into something it was never meant to be, it can make you a doormat or an insufferable manipulator. Forgiving seems almost unnatural. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love's power to break nature's rule.”

Ghandi said that forgiveness is the purview of the strong, but Smedes remind us that it is also their privilege: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 3: Something You Need to Forgive Yourself For

There are a few, specific deeds I regret. In middle school I bowed to mean-girl peer pressure a few times. Once, in the midst of a fight with my friend Alexis, I overheard some popular girls making up a song about her. Their lyrics were so lame. Before I thought better of it, I threw out a perfectly rhyming verse with insults that would hurt my estranged friend. Who knows better than our friends what hurts us? Another time, I threw two birthday parties because I knew my more popular friends wouldn't attend a sleepover with my less popular friends. That must have hurt them, and I'm sorry.

I was irresponsible on other occasions: I opened the lambing barn to show a fried a baby lamb and didn't close the door properly. The lamb got out and died, and that loss of innocent life was my fault. In high school, I stayed up too late studying. Sleep deprived and fuzzy-headed, I tried to pass in a no passing zone at dawn. I was sure it was a passing zone, but I was wrong. Coming at me was a car with no headlights on. I managed to avoid a collision my jerking the wheel to return to my lane, but the truck flipped, totaling Dad's Ranger.

Yes, I need to forgive myself for those mistakes, but more importantly I need to forgive myself for mistakes in general. Logically, I know that no one is perfect, but I obsess over every mistake I make, and for every dream that hasn't come true, ruing the gap between who I am and who I was supposed to be.

I'm not happily married with kids and an impressive, established career.

BFF Val reminds me of the things I've accomplished: A MFA in Poetry, an MS in Teaching, a BA in English. Two years as a reporter. A three-year term in the Americorps/Teaching Fellows teaching in the South Bronx. An adjunct job at a state university. Being a good friend.

BFF Madrid reminds me that I might not have been any happier if all of my exterior measures of success had been reached. If I'd gone after my dreams of acting, my relationships might be more difficult to maintain, and everyone who has been my student would be a little pit different from learning from another teacher instead (for better or worse). If I'd fallen in love and gotten married years ago, I might have missed many of the academic, service and artistic opportunities I've been blessed to pursue.

So I graduated late. So what? It's time to forgive myself. So I'm 30 and my career as a poet and professor is still in its nascency. So what? I need to forgive myself. Each aborted career helped make me who I am today, and I like who I am.

As a child in the talented and gifted program, I thought I was going to be some kind of prodigy. I thought that was what people wanted from me, and I desperately wanted to please all those grownups with their high expectations. I prayed that I would manage to create something that would show everything that their faith in my was justified, and that the mean kids I went to school with were wrong: I was special in a good way. Being smart didn't just make me a geek: it meant I was destined for good things, and the world would reward me.

I love that the movie Hope Floats because emphasizes the idea that not being special is okay. Birdee, a former beauty queen, takes an ordinary job at the photomat in her ordinary hometown. Yes, her family is quirky and she develops an artistic hobby, but her life isn't glamorous. Justin, formerly a hot-shot architect in a powerful firm, gave it up because the pressure made him hate work he used to love.

The external recognition wasn't enough for him. It never will be--not for someone like me. I seek external validation, hoping it will make me happy, but the result is fleeting, like a drug. My best chance for lasting happiness is to find validation within.

I know how cheesy that sounds: like a self-help book run amok. I'm not talking about the kind of self validation that leads people to feel justified in every selfish choice. What I'm suggesting, instead, is a stab at self-acceptance. The serenity prayer isn't just for people in a 12-step program; it makes good sense for all of us. Here is Reinhold Niebur's original version: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

So here goes: I forgive myself for my mistakes and for not living up to my dreams and the expectations of others. Some things I cannot change: I will probably always battle depression and the roadblocks that come with it, but I can work the steps to ameliorate its effects. I may never fall in love with someone who will marry and have kids with me. I can't control that, but I can do my best to get our and meet new people. I will change the things I must and work to accept the things I cannot change.

For my mistakes, I'm very sorry, and in this moment I forgive myself. I'll have to work hard to forgive myself over and over; I know this about myself. I will forget who I am and get lost in who I'm supposed to be. Then I will remember again, examine the lacuna between "am" and "should be" and step back from the ledge. I will remember again that I need forgiveness--that we all do. Why is it so much easier to forgive someone else than myself? Because it is hard to believe that I deserve such clemency.

The thing is, we don't always forgive because the wrongdoer deserves it. Sometimes we forgive because we need to let go of the grudge. Grudges are burdens that weigh us down, standing in the way of our paths forward. The only way to lay that burden down is forgiveness, but that the place to start is also the hardest place for most of us: we must start with ourselves.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 2: Something You Love About Yourself

I love being an artist. From my first memories, I remember being happiest when I was drawing, sculpting, taking pictures, singing, acting, writing or telling stories.

As an actress, being other characters let me explore other lives, and it made me more empathetic. I made people laugh and cry. On stage, you can feel your audience, even when you forget they're there. You can feel what they need from you--what you have to do to give them the emotional release they've been seeking.

Being a writer/storyteller bestows that same gift to the artist: helping the audience feel something they've been longing to feel or better understand an idea they've been grappling with. The Kennedy/Gioia Anthology of Literature claims the goal of drama is to lead audiences to a new understanding of what it means to be human. I'd say that's the goal of all art. One of the greatest gifts I've ever received was after my MFA Thesis Reading. Several members of the audience told me my poem Mirrorbox captured their grief: "That's just how it felt," one told me. "Thank you for reading it," another said. Somehow, hearing my words helped. As Julia Kasdorf wrote in her poem "What I Learned From My Mother," "Like a doctor, I learned to create/ from another's pain my own usefulness, and once/ you know how to do this, you can never refuse."

When I was a reporter, I had the added bonus of getting to hear other people's stories. I got paid to ask people questions and examine their lives in search of what made them special and beautiful. Every person I interviewed had a great story in them, though some required more digging than others. I mentioned this to Buzz Bissinger, author of the nonfiction book Friday Night Lights, and with a mixture of skepticism and boredom, he informed me he hadn't found that to be the case. Perhaps it was my scant time in the reporting biz (a mere two years) that lead me to believe that every individual has a great story, but I don't think so. You see, in six of the seven years since I left reporting, I had my students write memoirs--hundreds upon hundreds of students-- and each one had a unique story to tell, one that I could learn from.

In yesterday's post, I said I hated my depression, and I do, but that's not the whole story. Jacob Clifton, a Television Without Pity recapper, wrote about the season finale of Weeds (he tends to do literary/ psychological analyses of episodes), "The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. 100% of the time. But we hardly ever get to talk about the opposite thing, which is also true: The very worst thing about Nancy Botwin is the very best thing about Nancy Botwin. [...] The thing that makes you suck is the thing that makes you awesome." His language is crude, but he speaks the truth.

Last year, I told a therapist, a quiet Chinese man, that I hated being depressed and feeling so emotional.

He steepled his hands and softly asked me, "But you are artist, yes? A poet?"

"Yes," I replied, wondering where he was going with this.

"And this is a calling that requires understanding of emotions? You must be able to feel things deeply?"


"Okay, then!" he said with a beatific smile.

I was flabbergasted. The thing I hated most about myself--my depression and the attendant pitfalls and insecurities--also gave me what I loved most--my empathy and my artistic nature. Go figure! And here he was, a psychiatrist, telling me that it's okay. It's not only okay that I'm depressed: a good thing! A good thing with a hefty price tag, but a good thing, nonetheless.

It's a hard lesson to hold on to--hard to believe my depression is a gift even as I'm battling its more detrimental aspects. But in the end, I love who I am. I love my relationships with my friends and family. I love believing in the goodness in others. I love art, both partaking in it and creating it. If depression is the price I have to pay for those gifts, then so be it. Maybe that's the secret to a happy life: learning to love the flaws.

Friday, November 19, 2010

30 Days of Truth- Day 1: Something You Hate About Yourself

I can't believe I'm jumping on a meme bandwagon. I haven't posted since March, though, and I've barely been writing. Then, on Facebook, I saw that my former BVU classmate of Micah Chaplin was writing on some challenging topics for her blog. The postings were prompted by a list from another blog, Hope Dies Last, which she got from (Sorry: as an English prof, I'm meticulous about citing my sources.)

Following the list seemed like a good way to write brief-yet-substantive posts that might even help me grow as a person. Hey, did I just hear you groan? Well, you can either keep reading or wait for a post without a 30 Days of Truth doily in the corner. With that warning, we're off!

Day 1: What is something you hate about yourself?

I hate that I suffer from depression. I also hate that I'm ashamed of my depression and I'm nervous that some future employer will Google me, read this post, and decide not to hire me for my dream job.

So why post it here for the world to see? My grandfather killed himself in 1955, a time when people thought psychiatry was just for weak, crazy people. More than 50 years later, people are still dying of silence and shame. I'm tired of being ashamed of who I am, and maybe my honesty can help someone else.

Here are the symptoms of depression, according to WebMD:
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • fatigue and decreased energy
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • irritability, restlessness
  • loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • overeating or appetite loss
  • persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
  • persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings
  • thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 20, though I'd probably been suffering off-and-on before that. (Depression comes and goes in waves, but many mental conditions strengthen in the teens and early twenties.) That summer, I'd lost my appetite and my weight had dropped below 120 lbs. (I'm about 5'7".) I also suffered from insomnia and had trouble completing my school work. One day, I thought, "It would be easier if I wasn't alive." I probably would have written the thought off, but I remembered my Grandfather Nissen's suicide at the age of 25. I decided to go get help before my problem got any worse.

In the ten years since my diagnosis, depression has affected my career, my art and my relationships. Sometimes I feel exhausted, I can't concentrate, and I fall behind. As a result, I feel guilty and hopeless, and I draw away from the people I love. Those "empty" feelings mentioned on the list? At my lowest points, I felt like I wasn't real--like maybe I was just a character in someone else's fiction. It's hard to fight for happiness and for what you want to achieve when you can barely believe that you're real and you matter.

Even when I feel good, I have to be vigilant: Am I tired, or am I depressed? Is this a normal backache, or is it depression? Am I eating too much candy because it's Halloween or because of depression?

It doesn't help that, unlike most physical ailments, mental conditions can't be proven by a simple blood test or x-ray. I've had people suggest that I should just try harder not to be depressed. When I was on antidepressants, more than one person told me I should get off them and/or that they would never deign to alter their brains via chemicals.

Stigmas regarding depression, therapy and the use of antidepressants may have diminished over the decades, but many people still believe that depression is an empty excuse for weakness or bad choices. No one would judge someone with an inherited heart condition, but an inherited mental condition they will judge 'til the cows come home. (Farmgirl tangent: What a dumb saying! Dairy cows will come home by nightfall to be milked, and most domestic cattle will be back for the evening hay or grain. Judgmental attitudes last way longer than that!)

When my depression is problematic, I combat it with medicine, therapy and behavioral strategies--which I try to maintain even when I'm not in therapy or on meds. I have to fight for my happiness, productivity and positivity. I've had to go on meds three times, and each time felt like a failure--like maybe, if I'd fought harder, it wouldn't have happened. If I'd been more careful about what I ate and how much I exercised and maintaining my sleep patterns. If I hadn't allowed myself those negative thoughts. If, if, if. But even that line of thoughts-- the what-ifs and the blame-- are a symptom.

So I remember my therapy: Some of my depression isn't my fault. I can't help it, and that's okay. Some of it I can help. I can't change what's happened in the past, but I can try to make better choices next time.

And I try to remember that people love me, and I love them. That so far, my life has worked out, and it probably will again. That the world is beautiful, and there are a million wonders in it to see, to create, to and be. Every moment is a new opportunity. Each breath is a gift. Just like in The Velveteen Rabbit, it's love that makes you real. Start by loving one breath. Breath by breath, build that love into a life.

*If you are depressed or suicidal, please seek help. The world needs you. Please keep trying.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

How Not to Get Published: a Literary Magazine Editor’s Guide

I recently became a poetry editor for a new literary journal. One hour as an editor gave me a deeper understanding of several writing pitfalls than the classes I’ve taught, classes I’ve taken and books I’ve read on the subject. We had hundreds of poems submitted, but only 30 slots to fill, and we saw a pattern in the poems we rejected. The fiction and nonfiction editors saw patterns in their rejected pieces, too. I've compiled handy guide, based on our pet peeves.

How Not to Get Published: a Literary Magazine Editor’s Guide

1- Address your submission “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs” regardless of the editors’ genders.

The call for submissions listed our names. Two of us are female, and one is male. Our names aren’t misleading like “Sam” or “Chris.” Either the offending submitters chose to ignore the female editors in favor of the male editor, missed seeing our names entirely and just guessed our gender, or simply could not process the thought of women in charge. Either way, writing “Dear Sirs” was a bad call. Perhaps they should go find some “sirs” to publish their work.

2- Ignore the instructions on the call for submission.

Follow submission instructions, or your work will be rejected. While you’re at it, proofread carefully. I’d think that goes without saying, but apparently it doesn’t.

3- Try to prove your cleverness.

We read a few poems spoiled by one weird element. Actual dialogue between us at one point (with identifying details removed):

“This poem is beautiful, but why did the author do X? Was it a mistake?”
“It can’t be. Look: he/she does X in every stanza.”
“But why? To suggest some kind of theme?”
“I think she/he wants to suggest ‘I am very clever.’”

The stunts distracted us from the poem’s meaning and music. Offenses included needlessly obscure word-choice or imagery and bizarre use of numbers, symbols, or capitalization. Clever stunts occur in fiction and nonfiction, too, but in different ways (See 4 -6).

4- Build your poem/story very slowly. Withhold information.

We found that several poems with excellent endings had inferior first stanzas. In poetry workshops, we call that “throat-clearing.” It’s okay in a first draft, but not in the final poem. Choosing weak first lines is like showing up for a hot date in baggy sweats. Make a tantalizing first impression!

In fiction and nonfiction, by the end of the first few paragraphs, the reader should have a general understanding of the character, setting and situation. If the character or the narrator knows what’s going on but refuses to tell the reader, the result isn’t mystery: it’s annoyance.

Withholding sometimes works in a movie (e.g. The Sixth Sense*), but in written media the strategy isn’t as effective. In written fiction and nonfiction, the message of such a revelation is: “Congratulations, reader! I’ve now told you what I refused to tell you before!” Wouldn’t you rather have the character and reader make some kind of discovery together?

*I think withholding worked in The Sixth Sense because of the visual medium, but also because the movie didn’t taunt the audience. We made the discovery as Willis’s character did. We weren’t tricked. The narrative wasn’t thumbing its nose at us, singing, “I know something you don’t know.”

5- Buy into the imitative fallacy.

In The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, a nonfiction novel by Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and The Merry Tricksters are frustrated. They want to use footage of their lives to create a psychedelic movie that will open audiences’ minds, but it never works. Why? I’ve seen some of the raw footage— weird but boring because it lacks plot, character or structure. Nothing happens! It’s just a bunch of “heads” tripping. Wolfe’s book, on the other hand, works because he uses an experimental writing style to capture the psychedelic mindset of his protagonists, but gives us a narrative thread to follow.*

The text itself needn’t be insane to explore insanity. The story doesn’t have to be boring to explore boredom. You don’t have to distance your reader from the narrative in order to explore the protagonist’s difficulty connecting in life. You shouldn’t torture your reader in order for him or her to understand a protagonist’s trauma (See 7).

Employing imitative fallacy in the situations above will likely end up annoying, boring, losing, or traumatizing the reader, respectively. Wouldn’t you rather make readers care about a character’s struggles and/or triumphs and subsequently gain new understanding of the world, being human, etc.?

*Some of my friends argue that The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test doesn’t work—that his experimental style is meandering, distracting and annoying. In other words, even Woolf’s skillful negotiation of the imitative fallacy loses many readers.

6- Preach!

Some poems seem to proclaim, “LO, I CALLED OUT TO THE MUSE, AND SHE BESTOWED UPON ME THE SOUL OF A POET!” Sigh. My colleague dubbed these “Poetry Poems.” In any case, we don’t need a speaker proclaiming, “This will be my X poem!” Don’t force it. Just get out of the way and let the poem do its work.

In fiction and nonfiction, I’m told the preaching problem often manifests either in didactic dialogue or moments when the narrator stops the action to pontificate on a concept. The cliché is “show, don’t tell.” Of course a writer occasionally have to break that rule, but only occasionally…and skillfully. Lecturing the reader is not the way to go.

7- Get sexually graphic.

When dealing with sex—whether romantic, erotic or traumatic— please avoid being gross, clichéd, or gratuitous.

When writing about rape or incest, don’t imitate a police report. Giving a detailed play-by-play of the crime isn’t the most effective way to help the audience understand the emotional/mental experience of the character. There is a difference between therapeutic writing done for oneself and writing done for an audience. Ask yourself which details are necessary to advance character development or the plot.

As an actor, I learned from the Aquila Shakespeare Company not to make stage combat too realistic. If the violence looks too real, the audience is ripped out of the story, because they fear for the actors’ safety. The same occurs with intensely graphic depictions of sex crimes. Give the reader enough space so that he or she can stay in the story.

For erotica, check out Steve Almond’s amazing advice*. For example, he declares clinical terms like “penis” and “vagina” unsexy, but warns that “genital euphemisms” should also be avoided, “unless you are trying to be funny.” Then what are you supposed to do? “As a rule, in fact, there is often no reason at all to name the genitals.” He then gives examples proving his point. For more sex scene advice, try the link above.

*I was going to warn about the naked picture at the top of the page, but I realized that’s ridiculous, as it’s an article on erotic writing. Ha!

I’m not trying to discourage anyone. I want make you aware of these problems so you can avoid them and get published! Keep writing, keep submitting, and keep believing. But stop calling me "sir."

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Want to watch my thesis reading?

Mom had the brilliant idea for me to record my thesis reading, since none of my family or non-Norfolk friends could make it. I set up my laptop on the podium and let it record. After a few moments, though, the screen went black, so we didn’t really know when we were in frame. Still, it turned out pretty well, though the microphone on my Mac only caught the loudest laughs and comments from the audience. Sometimes it sounds like we pause for no reason, but they’re laughing. As funny as we sound on the recording, in real life we were even funnier!

Speaking of funny, the goofy intros were Jesse’s idea, yet when it came time to read mine, he chickened out, and in so doing killed the laughs! Boo! BC is to blame for me cursing in his intro…although I’m solely to blame for my use of the “f” word in “The Science of Wearing High Heels.” Sorry.

A funny thing about that night: I had planned to drive, but my roomies blocked in my car. I had to RUN there in 3.5” heels and a knee-length dress, despite the chill. (It was too late to go back and change.) As a result, I start out a tad flustered, and my hair in the video is not nearly as cute as it looked pre-run. My BFF Gwen assures me that people cared more about my words, anyway.

NOTE TO MY WATCHERS: Remember, poems aren’t necessarily non-fiction, even if they contain the word “I.” Sometimes it’s me, but just as often, the person speaking in the poem is a made-up character.


ODU MFA Thesis Reading Part 1- Introduction from me on Vimeo.

ODU MFA Thesis Reading Part 2- Me, Poetry from Me on Vimeo.

ODU MFA Thesis Reading Part 3- BC Wilson from Me on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Maybe We Will Shine

I should be working right now, not blogging, but my brain is too twirly to focus. I figured venting might help.

I keep bouncing back and forth. One moment, I feel love and joy rolling off of me in waves that I just want to share with the world. The next, I don't feel real. It's like I'm a character in some story, and the book could close and I would cease to matter. (I know I sound manic depressive. Well, that's never been the diagnosis by the professionals thus far.)

Just when I feel irrelevant, though, I remember moments when people told me that I made their lives better. I know I'm blessed to have been told such a thing. Most people never know the good they do.

For example, I once ran into my friend Olga after several years apart. She told me, "What you said changed my life." I didn't know what she was talking about. "You told me, 'If someone is bored, it's their own fault. You choose how you react to the situation. If you decide to enjoy something, you will enjoy it." I remembered the context of the comment. We lived in Spain, and our class was discussing our proms for some reason. My senior prom was lame (in terms of decorations and music), so most people were sulking. A few of us decided we were going to have fun and dance anyway, and we had a fabulous time. We realized that happiness can be a choice. I had no idea, but my little anecdote changed the way Olga lived her life. A moment that I had thought inconsequential made her a more joyful person.

I recently received an e-mail from someone who was plagued by self-doubt, and I gave him advice. Now, I'm the one drowning in doubt, so I must give myself the same advice I gave him:

"Sometimes I cringe because my work isn't as good as that of some of my colleagues, or when they win awards and get publications I do not. There's always going to be someone better. I became a poet because I read (and fell in love with) Lorna Dee Cervantes' 'The Body as Braille.' Maybe, someday, someone will read my work and it will be what they need--it will become a part of them--the way 'The Body as Braille' has become a part of me. You never know what part of you, what gift, the world needs. As such, you must give your all."

The Bible says not to hide your light under a bushel. Enough of us hide our lights (even from ourselves) that it needed to be said, recorded in a holy text. Why? Let me quote a text I hung on the wall of my classroom in the Bronx:

Our Deepest Fear is That We Are Powerful Beyond Measure.

From A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?

[…] Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. […]

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Work to set yourself free from fear, and I'll do the same. Maybe we will free each other. Maybe we will shine.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top Ten Reasons I'm Psyched that Chuck Returns to NBC tonight, January 10!

10. Chuck finally gets a decent haircut. Zachary Levi is a handsome man. They gave him that awful haircut (see photo at left) to make him look dorky. Well, hot geeks exist, and they’re the best, so bring on the haircut and the hotness!

9. Jeffster, a.k.a “Sam Kinison and an Indian Lesbian.” The band rocks every venue they play, from the Buy More to a church on a wedding day.

8. Chuck gets spy skills! It’s bugged me for a while that the government didn’t just put Chuck through spy training. Then he’d be better at defending himself. Heck, Casey and Sarah could have at least taught him basic self-defense. But did they? No. Thanks for remedying the situation, Intersect!

7. Maybe this year, they’ll have Chuck sing. Zachary Levi used to be a musical theater actor, and his voice is beautiful. I’ve seen an ad for the new season in which the Intersect allows Chuck to play guitar. Maybe it will allow him to sing, too. Shows with singing are in this year! Pretty please?

6. John Casey. Oh, how I’ve missed that cranky man, with his love of Reagan, bonsai trees and his Crown Vic. How will Casey react to Chuck’s dominating new skills? I can’t wait to find out.

5. Wait, Chuck’s magical spy skills will sometimes malfunction? Hee! Let the hilarity ensue.

4. Spies + Romance + Humor = Awesome!

3. Speaking of which: the return of Captain Awesome. Captain Awesome (a.k.a. Devon) can do sit-ups hanging upside-down from a doorframe. He’ll teach you how to tuck in your shirt, use hair product or dance the tango. Devon will come to your party wearing nothing but a fig leaf, and on top of all that, he’s a doctor! Oh, and his fumbling at keeping Chuck’s secret (something he’s not awesome at?) makes Captain Awesome all the more lovable.

2. Chuck and Sarah’s chemistry. It makes my heart flutter!

1. It’s a miracle we got Chuck back at all! (Thanks, Subway!) And even after NBC renewed it, Chuck wasn’t supposed to air until spring. They moved it up! How? Why? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ll just thank my lucky stars and soak up the sexy, goofy spyfun.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

On shooting oneself in the foot: (a.k.a. "I Call My Writer's Block Jordan Catalano.")


Seriously, I wish I could scream my fool head off, but I have roomies and neighbors. I have a good scream, too. I’ve been told it's blood-curdling.* In fact, I've been a stunt screamer in a play. The girl whose character was supposed to scream didn't have my mad shrieking skills.


I’m tired of fucking up, of standing in my own way. Once upon a time, I didn’t know failure was an option, but now it is, and I flirt with it—the boy who smokes under the bleachers: dangerous, unsuitable, easy. And the more I’m warned that he’s all wrong for me, that he's my doom, and that I’m throwing my life away, the more irresistibly I’m pulled away from the limelight of the cheerleading squad to linger with him in the dark, the gravel and smoke—to let him touch my clean, chaste skin even though God and my grandmother wouldn’t approve. Even though it makes me feel dirty.

“You’re not a fuck-up,” Val assures me. “The world is fucked up. They try to use fear and negative reinforcement as a motivator, and it doesn’t work! That’s what the prison system is based on, and it does it work? No, but it’s not going away anytime soon. You and I, we’re sensitive to negative reinforcement, so when we face it, we shut down. You’re not a fuck-up. You’re a talented, accomplished, dedicated woman."

As long as she was talking—as long as I could hear her soothing voice—I could believe it, but as soon as we hung up, the shame would rise again. Well, fuck that noise! I wish I were the kind of girl to shout, “FUCK THIS!” and go out drinking. Hell, maybe later tonight I will.

I am human. I can only do what I can do. I need to stop worrying about others and just worry about myself. Maybe I’ll reread the Tao of Pooh. There’s a part in it about how Pooh never works, but somehow always finds what he needs. I’m going to try to do that: joy my way through life. Follow my bliss. All that hippy bullshit.

*I seriously doubt anyone screams like that in real life. It's certainly not how I scream. When startled, I have let out a quick shriek (like the blood-curdler, but only a millisecond long) or--more often-- a low, hoarse "AAH!" (Perhaps I subconsciously want to seem tougher and think a low shout is more effective than a high scream?) My weird rant on screaming technique is now complete. As you were!

P.S. I can't believe how many times I just wrote the word "fuck." I can hear my mother scold: "Inappropriate!"