I can tell you the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was in 11th grade, in Mrs. Helen Nicholson’s American Literature class, and she was demonstrating different techniques of writing by contrasting Ernest Hemingway paragraphs with William Faulkner paragraphs.
Anyone who has ever been in an English class for this demo (or, my English teacher friends, if you have performed this demonstration), you know that one Faulker paragraph (or page, or pages) is usually about one sentence, and one Hemingway paragraph is about twenty sentences. The differences are astounding, and I recall sitting in my desk at Rocky Mount Senior High School, my 17-pound red-covered American Lit text book flipped open in the middle and thinking my God, with words you can do anything. Then we read T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a poem that pierced my heart with the very words I was looking for to characterize the world around me, in my 17-year-old angst, and I made a decision. I was going to become an alcoholic writer.
Of course, when I mustered up enough courage to tell people of my heart’s desire–for I could hardly say the words, so terrified was I of being laughed at, of being discouraged–I left out the qualifying word. But, in the canon of American Lit, they’re all drunks, except Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but no one outside of the South had heard about them, and the life of liquor and letters and lovers seemed much more up my alley than sitting a’spell on front porches and takin’ care of Mama and Daddy.
It was about this time of my life when adult-sized events started happening: unexpected deaths of friend’s parents, classmates murdered or killed, friends were date raped, beaten up, or taken to the ER to get their stomachs pumped out. I began drinking in earnest, only I called it partying, we all did, that’s what you called it in high school, and the darker side of my personality began to find a way out. The innocence of childhood crumbled, falling out from under my feet, and over and over again I heard people remark that, for certain situations, there just aren’t any words.
I never agreed with this philosophy, and I still don’t. I do not believe language fails us in our ability to express life’s many experiences; however, I do think that there are not many people who can apprehend the right language at the right time because few people will submit to speaking the abject truth, and I certainly agree that sometimes silence carries its own, more-appropriate meaning. But there are words in those silences, and if you’ve ever been in one, you know what I mean.
Language, for me, is about communion. Speaking the truth of our own experience is about practicing unconditional love. Language also has the unique ability to transport the mind into an alternate reality, one that, for the time in which the reader is engaged, is active, is as much alive in the mind as jobs, relationships, money, family. It’s no wonder I loved writing–stories and poems are, by nature, in that nether-space between truth and imagination, the place where I wanted to live forever because “real life,” whatever that means, looked horrifying to me.
When I was 17, the dark energy that lives in me was beginning to take its own form and gain more power than I knew what to do with. Writing was my way to give the energy something to do, and I remember the first few feelings of having written something that I thought was good. Looking back, it wasn’t, of course, but what I was feeling was the release of my own energy, of the power that flows through me. What I was feeling was the sense of my own purpose. I felt alive. I felt my own lightbulb ignited by the electricity of the universe.
I have an abnormal amount of creative energy, I know this much, and when it doesn’t have proper channels, it will start to destroy–usually me, but the lowest point of my life was when that energy, fueled by the demonic whisperings of my mind on booze, began to find ways to persecute the people around me who loved me. I am telling you that this era of my life–you will hear people call it a “bottom”–needed to happen, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to walk through any other doors. I defined myself as an alcoholic writer, so that’s what I became. I wouldn’t recommend it, young people, if you’re thinking about it as a career path. If I hadn’t blown up my life and my entire perception of the world, I couldn’t have redefined myself or my life. It’s true: destruction is not “bad,” it is merely necessary to rebuild and recreate. This truth, we all know, executes between subatomic particles without judgment–constantly, incessantly, we are undergoing unseen forces engaging in natural processes of creation and destruction, no biggie. It’s just the way it is. Enough time has passed so that I can look back on those years in the bottom and be so very grateful for what was destroyed in me because I lost my mind, my way, my dignity, and my ability to choose.
I don’t want to do it again, though.
Other destructions (and creations, and triumphs) have come and gone since then, most noticeably last year when Michael and I met, and then broke up, and I guess the grief of losing our relationship pounded out the last bits of whatever ill-begotten ideas I had about myself, about love, and about my own personal power–and the consequences of giving it away. The most humbling experience of getting sober, at least the way I did it, was that I had to sit down and WRITE OUT all my fears, resentments, sexual behaviors and encounters, and then I had to tell somebody else about it. The point of that work was so that I could begin to tell myself the God’s honest truth about myself and what motivates my behaviors. If I could own up to that level of truth–if I could look behind my own veils and call out my own pathetic impostor shouting out the commands of the great and powerful Oz–I might have a shot at understanding my ego’s mechanics, and then I could be humble enough to ask the unseen forces to change my mind and help me understand how to make better decisions by following the guidance of my heart.
The process of writing out my fears stuck. I write out my fears, still, and my resentments, so I can take a look at what is working on my mind, so I can see it in my own handwriting and therefore accept that it is mine. I do not hide from my ego–I can’t afford to, not anymore. There’s too much at stake now, and too many events have come to pass in my life where I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is real and working in my life to show me what a miraculous world I live in, what miracles are capable of happening through me and around me, what miracles I can see happening through you and because of you. It is not some kind of huggy-lovey hippie festival I’m talking about, some kind of magical thinking. What I’m talking about is good, old-fashioned mysticism, the same kind practiced by the ancients, the same kind Einstein kept trying to formulate, the same kind Jesus outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.
When I was having a terrible struggle believing that God actually loved me and wanted good things for me–I just couldn’t get past the “Jesus is Watching You” kind of Big Brother messages I got from being raised Baptist in the South–a friend gave me a book called Soul Cravings by a fellow Carolina grad Erwin McManus.
“You might find what you’re looking for in here,” she said, and left it at that.
I read the book, starting with the section called “Intimacy.” McManus told me: “this thing that haunts you, that never seems satisfied, the cravings in your soul that you are unable to satiate through all the success that the world can bring—this is your soul screaming for God.” And it wasn’t no churchy God. Not some dude up in the clouds persecuting the unrighteous and the sinners. It was a God who was in love with me, chasing me, only I wouldn’t stop running from this God long enough to be caught. This energy that I never understood that so drove me was my soul searching for its home, its resting place. God was no man, no person, no publication; God was the resting place, the living Love, the Home. The problem was that I was too scared to get caught. Because then all the rules of the game would change–life, as I knew it, wouldn’t be my game anymore. Was I willing to give that illusion of power up? Could I say, out loud, “Yes,” and take the leap of faith into the unknown? WTF? That was my dilemma. If I would just stop and say “yes” to the Love That Is, then He would sweep me off my feet and show me a different life. All I had to do was say yes.
Here’s where I get to the topic of fear.
From all the spiritual reconstruction I had to do to get sober, I learned about identifying and walking through fear. One outstanding outcome of that is that I make a great birthing partner for anyone who is going through the excruciating and harrowing process of having to let go. Fear, you would think, would be something that we’d want to be free from, but it’s quite the opposite. Fear–and this is the tricky part–is at least familiar, it is a good excuse not to try for something different. It pretends to protect us from failure.
Letting go of fear, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, as it were, sucks. It hurts, it’s scary, it’s dark, it usually involves confronting ideas and thoughts we’d rather pretend we didn’t have, and we have to be willing to step into the world without that fear, which means a new, unknown world. I’ve found the best approach is accepting the process, looking forward to the new world, and trusting God’s unfailing love even when everything and everybody looks like shit.
I understand this approach, quite admirably, I might add, in theory. At least, right now.
When I was reading Soul Cravings, and I reached the life-changing choice: do I say yes and take the path of the unknown? Or do I wait and stay here, in this crossroads?, I said yes. I was scared out of my mind, but I did it. Out loud, to a dark sky full of stars, I said it. “Yes. Yes. Whatever this means, yes. Okay, fine.”
I did not realize it at the time, but when I said yes, my life was put on a different path. It didn’t seem like anything had changed, and not much did, at least for the next three years. I struggled like hell. Financially, in relationships, with my family–and I didn’t write for three years. I kept journals, I wrote poems in my Notes on Facebook, but I couldn’t create a single story, not one play, not a complete work of anything. It hurt. It was scary and dark, and I spent night after night with thoughts and ideas that I wished that I didn’t have. I prayed. Relationships came and went in which the worst attributes of my character were brought to the surface for my examination. I had to live with these attributes–jealousy, self-hatred, pride, abandonment issues, lack of trust, resistance to honesty–and then I had to sit in meditation and be willing to let them go. I did it, and it wasn’t easy, but I felt that I had no choice if I wanted a different life, if I wanted to live as my true self, if I wanted to demonstrate that when I said “yes” to God I good and damn well meant it.
Fast forward four years and you know the rest of the story. My life changed, and boy did it change. I’m here now in Florida, working with my favorite animals, in my favorite wildernesses, and I can buy fresh shrimp whenever I want to, and I’m in a relationship with a wonderful person. My financial life is gathering strength, and I can ride my bike to the ocean any time I want to. When I think about drinking, there’s nothing about it I desire, not anymore. I want the life I have, not yours, not someone’s in a celebrity magazine, mine. I’m studying Brasilian Portuguese for fun because I’m taking myself on a dream trip to study dance in Bahia, Salvador with a dance company from Los Angeles. There will be drums, there will be a different kind of language to speak there, one between a dancer and a drum, and that kind of spirituality is what I’m all about.
The only thing I have left to do now is write a book. This is the fear in front of me, and it’s not like I don’t know what to do. It’s not like I don’t know the appropriate attitude to have–I just spelled it out for myself five paragraphs ago. That’s why I say “in theory.” It’s not like I don’t know that I’m a writer. It’s not like I don’t know that, in the end, everything about this situation will work out perfectly.
It’s not like I haven’t been talking about writing this book for four years.
It’s not like I haven’t been preparing for this moment since Helen Nicholson’s 11th grade American Literature class.
So I find myself again, beloveds, at the crossroads of fear. Do I say yes, and step into the unknown, trusting that the Love That Is will light my way? Or, do I stay here, seduced by the fear that pretends to prevent me from failing?
Rhetorical questions, I suppose. We all know I’m going to say yes.
Even though I’m scared out of my mind.
Even though the great and powerful Oz has told me to come back another day, and I want to oblige him.
Even though there are things I’d rather be doing like eating and taking a nap.
Take care, beloveds. I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was Thomas Merton who noted that it was perfectly spiritual to tell your fears to go fuck themselves when you’re trying to get closer to God.