Baggage: How I Wrote My Way Through Self Destruction

by Melissa Rose

Five and a half years ago I was perhaps in one of the most confusing and chaotic years of my life. I was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, using alcohol to self medicate, and putting myself in increasingly dangerous situations by involving myself in abusive relationships. Looking back now, I can see why I was in that place, where the need to self destruct stemmed from, yet at the time, all I was trying to do was make it through the day in any way I could.

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This is the time in my life I did not want to remember. I didn’t want to remember the mess I was, lashing out at anyone who tried to help me. Blaming everyone for my own misery. I didn’t want to think about all of the shame of being in such a low place and being completely out of control. And I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t want to survive and all of my behavior during that time reflected this desire.

As fate would have it, I became pregnant, and my entire life changed. I was able to pull myself back to reality and remember there was a reason for living. I was able to stop the spiral I was in and turn my thoughts to the future for once. I moved on from that dark place and I became a mother to my son and tucked the years I spent on a bender in the back of my mind, like trash stuffed under a bed. But the more years that passed, the more I began to smell the rot I had been ignoring.

I sometimes worry that my history is doomed to repeat itself. I still fear ever slipping back into the person I was all those years ago. It frightens me to think of myself in that place again. To be so utterly out of control. I could pretend that nothing happened, that it was just a “bad time”, but that description didn’t do the experience justice.

Last year, I began writing about the years I didn’t want to think about. I mentally transported myself back to that place and time. I imagined myself as that young woman, confused and scared and alone. I wrote about my selfishness. My cruelty. All of the shameful things I did and said and how I justified it. Where it all came from. Where the self destructive tendencies started. Throughout the process it was as if I was able to cast a light on the shadow of my past and take away its power over me. I was able to face the parts of me I was most afraid of and reflect on them from a new perspective.

Eventually, I would turn these writings into a script. My first one-woman show, entitled “Baggage”. This 50 minute exploration of my past took place in an airport as I flew home from Europe, confused and jetlagged—completely unsure of where I was going to go next. Being separated from those memories for so long unearthed a million feelings I had been ignoring, and as I sifted through them, I was able to embark on my own healing process, and forgive myself for all of the things I was so ashamed of. I was able to see myself not as a monster, but as a human being who did what they had to do and survived.

I knew that to bring my story full circle, I would have to perform my piece, but I was nervous about how an audience would perceive me. I put off scheduling a performance for fear I would be overly exposed. I have written and performed about many personal things, but this piece was somehow different. The raw honesty in it cut me close enough to bleed.

I knew that in order to honor and love that young woman I was, I needed to tell her story. It was the only way to release her from that pain she felt all those years ago. It was the only way to let her know that she was important and worthy of love, even during those dark times. I owed it to myself to make sure I could heal in order to never be in that place again. So I set a date for the performance, and begin practicing my piece, pouring all of the experience into my words and movements. Embodying the woman I was for the first time in years. It felt like I was reuniting with a part of me I hated, and as I began to embrace that character, I was able to love her in a way I never had before.

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After the performance, I felt a sense of relief, like I had let go of something weighing heavy on me.  I had survived. I wanted to survive. Even during those times. No matter how often I tried to convince myself otherwise.

Through writing and performing my story,  I finally was able to unpack the baggage I had been carrying with me for so long.

Melissa Rose is a spoken word poet and playwright. She has hosted community spoken word events since 2003 and has been a member of 5 National Poetry Slam teams. She has performed her work across the United States and Germany and was a featured poet at the German National Poetry Slam in 2010. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.

 

 

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“Girl Talk”

by Melissa Rose

I began performing spoken word poetry when I was 15 years old. At the time, I was the girltalk5youngest person who participated in poetry slams and open mics in my local area. While this was sometimes an advantage, I often found myself surrounded by adults at least a decade older than me, knee-deep in life experiences well outside my youthful worldliness. I felt awkward in my natural place in life, and as I shared my feelings and thoughts on stage, I never felt quite like I fit in due to never having other young people to write and connect with. I felt like my stories were unimportant. That what I was experiencing–all of the confusion, self-loathing, and insecurity–was strange and unnatural. For years I wrote about what the adults around me wanted me to write about, instead of the things I wanted to express.
 
In 2015 I created Siren, a nonprofit organization founded to uplift the voices of girls who, like me, wanted their stories to be heard. For the last two years we have worked with other organizations that serve the girls in our community, providing spoken word summer camps, weekly after school improv workshops, and writing clubs. During this time I have had the opportunity to witness several young women share their stories and experiences on stage, developing self confidence and personal empowerment as a result.
 
In early April I was invited to collaborate with Cari Ingrassia, an amazing local visual artist, on an installation that would showcase the voices of girls from our community. The installation would be featured in an event called Platform Festival–a multi-disciplined art experience that featured dance, music, performance, and other forms of expression. Cari and I discussed that the project would focus on the “secrets” of girlhood and the messages girls receive. The stories told peer to peer about what it is to be female in our society. We decided on a blanket fort to be our setting for the installation; an impenetrable fortress of girlhood, reminiscent of slumber parties, and chose on three archetypal images to guide us: a doll, a mirror and a telephone.
 
girltalk2The girls who participated in the project wrote powerful pieces of poetry that addressed the issues of body perception, menstruation, virginity, broken hearts, catcalling, and “letting go” of the little girl inside of them in order to become women. We had each girl record her poems and then record some of the most powerful lines from their pieces in a whisper. Cari then installed the poems into each of the archetypes, allowing participants to interact with the poems by listening to the girl’s voices inside of the items. From the outside, the installation resembled something beautiful, frilly, and sweet, but like with the reality for girls around the world, what lingered just below the surface was filled with trauma, pain, and confusion.
 
The night of the event, two of the girls who had worked on the project performed their girltalk10poems live outside of our blanket fort as participants funneled through the installation. Women and men of all ages enjoyed interacting with the various elements of the project, some even moved to tears from the rawness of the experience and the poignancy of the struggles girls encounter that we were trying to convey.
Working on this project also evoked powerful feelings within myself, reconnecting me
with my past and those first few years of performing poetry. The inner turmoil and self-hatred I felt. The confusion and trauma I too experienced growing up as a girl. Witnessing these young women and hearing their own stories, their own self awareness and strength, was a healing experience for that little girl, still living within me. The one I tried to silence all those years ago.
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Melissa Rose is a spoken word poet and playwright. She has hosted community spoken word events since 2003 and has been a member of 5 National Poetry Slam teams. She has performed her work across the United States and Germany and was a featured poet at the German National Poetry Slam in 2010. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Mother’s Day Writing Prompts

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In honor of Mother’s Day, explore some of your motherly memories here with the following prompts:

  • Use color to describe your mother and three of four (or more) smilies comparing her to things of that color.
  • Write your mother as a flower. What kind of flower is she? Where is she planted? What fragrance envelops her?
  • In Yugoslavia, Mother’s Day seems more for the children then the moms themselves. The children have a tradition of tying up their mother and ransoming her freedom for gifts. What is an alternative Mother’s Day tradition you would like to have with your mother?
  • Write a letter to your mom with the starting like: “I have always wanted to tell you…”
  • Write about an adventure you and your mother had
  • If you are a mother, describe your proudest moment as a mom so far. Was it the time your child learned to read their first words? When they left the nest to start college? Something else? Recall how you felt at the time and what it meant for you as a mother.

Imagine Yourself a Place of Unsurpassed Beauty: The Power of Words Conference on the Coast of Maine

img_13241-cropped-belownav-cropped-photoDeb Hensley and Martin Swinger, the dynamic duo co-chairing the Power of Words conference, Aug. 12-14 at Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine, share this invitation to our 13th annual conference. Read on, and register by Nov. 15 to catch the super early bird rate. Find out more and register here.

Imagine yourself a place. Imagine a chair on a wide porch next to a beach where you bask in the afternoon sun. Imagine a morning walk through a grove of sunlit trees. Imagine joining brilliant vocal improvisation sessions under a bright moon, filling yourself with poetry, storytelling around a campfire and choosing from 25 workshops on the transformative 3058162_origpower of the written, spoken and sung word.

Imagine a loving community of people, healthy, delicious food, good coffee, lots of music, time for reflection and an after dinner frolic in the surf. Imagine Ferry Beach on the coast of Maine at the Power of Words Conference, August 12-14, 2016.

I don’t know which excites me more, this fabulous conference we’re putting together or the amazing place where we are holding it. With world renowned Vocal Improv Artist and Activist, Rhiannon, Award 8117810_origwinning Poet and Author Seema Reza, Afrilacian Storyteller Lyn Ford and Quaker Minister, author and educator Callid Keefe-Perry as our keynoters, this conference promises to embody spontaneity, humor, comfort and joy. And what could be more a more gorgeous location to gather singers, poets, authors, activists, and a host of other transformative language artists than a coastal paradise only 20 minutes from the Portland International Jetport?

Ferry Beach is a retreat community with 900 feet of beachfront in Saco, Maine offering respite away from the everyday world. It is a collection of meeting spaces, wide porches, an art and pottery studio, an outdoor chapel, a performance space, many gathering places and a wonderful dining hall.2459481_orig

It is a place of unsurpassed beauty where you will experience the joy of community, challenge assumptions, celebrate, reimagine, and commit your own language artistry to nothing less than global transformation. It is a place for renewal and rejuvenation where a small but mighty group of all ages and races, for one glorious weekend in August of 2016, will lovingly and boldly explore the Power of Words. I’ll be there! You?

See more about Ferry Beach right here.

 

Along the Learning Edge: A Personal Journey

by Caleb Winebrenner

WordItOut-word-cloud-950849 Once a mentor of mine put forth a question “What is your learning edge?” By this, she meant the boundary line between all of our knowledge up until now, and our current experience in the moment. It’s the place where you are feeling the most discomfort, and hopefully, the most excitement about how you are growing and stretching beyond what you previously knew to be true. I find “the learning edge” a useful concept, intellectually. On a personal level, I find that learning edges are places of deep vulnerability.

A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a learning edge that I didn’t even know existed for me. A friend and fellow storyteller asked,”Why don’t you ever talk about your own wisdom journey?”

I tell wisdom stories. I love the parables, the folktales, the dilemma stories. I love what they teach us. Instead of lecturing about deep and profound human truths, I try to find the stories that demonstrate those truths, and demonstrate the power of the human mind and spirit to grow and overcome challenges. I do this, as my friend pointed out, while saying nothing of my own. Facing that incongruity has prompted learning and healing in new directions, and a profound reorientation with my work as a storyteller.

Integrity

Walking along this learning edge, I am discovering that the inner journey of the storyteller directly influences the storymaking. As a young teller, I have mostly concerned myself with questions of talent, ability, and technique. I’ve focused on developing a “style” or “voice” to my storytelling. But here, at the learning edge, I am not concerned with those questions. I am concerned with a deeper question of my own healing: in a word, integrity.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” By this he means that the talents, abilities, and styles of teaching that most directly serve the strengths of a teacher are those rooted in his or her integrity as a person. Much like good teaching comes from the integrity of the teacher, good storytelling comes from the integrity of the storyteller. In being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I have discovered and learned from stories that speak more to my own experience and growth than to some abstract “truth.”

Love

There is a word for the stories that speak deeply to experience. They are the stories we love . M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled , “I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have adopted his definition, and applied it to stories. In other words, the stories we love, in the deepest way, are the ones that extend us out into the world or deep into ourselves, in order to nurture our own or another’s spiritual growth. As a part of my journey along the learning edge, I have parted ways with stories I like and respect, to give more room instead to the stories I love (such as the one I share below). If the stories I tell cannot nurture my own growth, then they are not authentically mine to tell. I have no heartfelt relationship with them. Given this, then stories I do not love certainly cannot nurture growth in others, which is why I began to tell wisdom stories in the first place.

Wisdom

M. Scott Peck also wrote that “Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.” The problem of not sharing my own wisdom journey is itself the place where my wisdom can be created at least if I let it. Looking deeply at my own life, and the painful, shadowy, and difficult facing of my problems, is the root of any sincere claim I can make to having wisdom.

In other words, the most profound shift in my storytelling has not come in choosing, “I will tell wisdom stories,” but rather in choosing, “I will pursue wisdom as a part of my life and healing.” Only when wisdom is in my life can it be in my stories. On my best days, the stories I tell are the most sublime expression of who I am. On my worst days (and any of the days in between), they serve, like a mindfulness bell, as reminders of who I hope to be.

This has meant facing moments where I feel I have no integrity, no love, and no  wisdom. For example, how can I tell a story of overcoming anger when it is such a frequent struggle? This is the story I tell, a Zen parable:

A samurai goes to a monastery and says, “I want to know about heaven and hell.” A monk, undisturbed in his meditation by the ferocious samurai, says “Such knowing requires discipline, friend.”

The samurai grows cross. “Of course I have discipline! I am a samurai!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires patience, my friend,” replies the monk.

“I am patient! I — I have waited for days to seize a castle or fight an opponent!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires integrity, my friend,” replies the monk.

“Integrity! I am a Samurai! A master of honor!” And he grows furious, even drawing his sword over his head.

The monks still sits calmly. He says, “See that feeling? That is hell.”

The samurai breathes, deeply, and puts his sword away. He breathes again, and smiles.

“See that feeling, friend? That… that is heaven.”

In this story, when I tell it, I am both the monk and the samurai not just in my miming, voices, or any of the other tools of technique but in my visceral, in-the-moment living of the story. I know from experience the heat of anger, and I know from practicing meditation the coolness of the monk’s calm.

In pursuing certain kinds of stories, my life has to live those themes for the story to be authentic. The monk and samurai story, at first, had something to teach me. I told it because I needed to experience that lesson for myself. Sharing that vulnerability with students and audiences gave me the resolve to know my anger better, and pursue the monk’s equanimity. It became a story I love, because it holds space for my learning edge.

Admittedly, I still have far to go in life before I master my darker places or lay any claim to “being wise.” But, stories like that one I can now tell from a place of empathetic awareness and experience. In the story, I honor my integrity, love, and wisdom. In honoring that in myself, I can then share all that, in abundance, with others.

Recommended reading

  • The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life , by Parker J.
    Palmer
  • The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual
    Growth

Caleb Headshot 2013Caleb Winebrenner is a storyteller and teaching artist based in Tempe, Arizona. His unique performances craft world folklore and wisdom tales into warm, engaging events. Trained as an actor, mime, and teacher, his performances and workshops draw out the natural warmth, intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom of all present. He especially loves the opportunity to engage with young people around the issues that matter to them, often through the lens of a parable or story. As Paulo Coelho once said, “The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gap where everything else has crumbled.” Find him on Facebook and Twitter @storytellrcaleb.

Not Enough Spoons: Writing about Disability and Chronic Illness

by Angie River
photo-4-300x225Around February of 2014 my body began acting in ways it had never acted before, doing things I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. Doctors began the long process of diagnosis, poking and prodding, taking blood, having me fill out numerous forms and questionnaires, testing various medications on me in search of something that would improve or eliminate my symptoms. Over the course of many months I began racking up a series of diagnoses, but the words that the medical system assigned me, while being a bit validating, didn’t help me to deal with the things happening in my body and life.
 
I found that I was in grieving for my body, mourning the abilities I’d lost such as favorite hobbies like rollerskating and going out dancing, or basic things like being able to clean the house or grocery shop without exhaustion. However, at the same time that I was grieving, I was also celebrating my new-found connection with my body, my improvements in self-care, and the community I found with other disabled people.
 
I was at a loss for how to express my feelings and thoughts about my body and my disability in any traditional means, and turned to poetry, which is where I always turn when I need to voice things that are heavy with emotion and less concrete than the normal ways in which I communicate. In poetry, I found that I was able to process some of the sadness and confusion I was having, celebrate the ways I was learning to communicate with my body, and explain to others what I was going through.
 
It is because of the profound experience I personally had with writing about my disability that I decided I wanted to offer the class “Not Enough Spoons: Writing about Disability and Chronic Illness.” The spoon theory (more info here) is something that many disabled or sick folks mention, saying “I don’t have enough spoons to do that activity today,” or “I need to conserve my spoons because I know tomorrow is going to be hard.” Spoons are, for us, just another way of talking about the energy it takes for us to go through our daily lives while sick or disabled. What I found personally, is that writing about my illness helped me with my spoons in many ways! I helped me to be better in touch with myself and my body so I could regulate my spoons better, it helped me explain my spoons to others and why I may have to cancel plans or why I may be tired more often, and because of the emotional value of the writing, it helped me to even gain a spoon or two! I wanted to share this experience with others!
 
The class “Not Enough Spoons” is geared both to those who are disabled or have chronic illness themselves, but also to those who work with individuals with disability or illness. The class will have two “tracks” of writing exercises. I am thrilled to be offering this class and I hope that through it many others can experience the transformative experience of writing about their bodies!
 
Visiting Hours are Over
by Angie River

Last night I dreamt I went to visit you in a sterile hospital room,
white and steel.
You lay in bed and I watched you, touching twitching eyelids,
holding hands that trembled as you slept.

In my dream I looked at you with love, longing for you to wake and smile
at me, rise from the bed and walk into the world.
Instead I woke, breathing through pain,
feeling spasms ripple from unknown places and darkness
creep into the corners of my mind.

I woke up angry, blaming you for my inability to work, to fold clothes,
to bake cookies, to pick up my child.
I blamed you for sweat pants and dark-circled eyes, for numbers
that climb with each step on the scale. I blamed you for hours
curled on the couch, for late-night sobbing in the bathroom.
But really, you have been holding me through all of this,
just trying to keep me together.

My therapist said, “Angie, the body does not lie.
Your body is screaming.”

I wish I could read between the lines of whimpers and tremors,
hear you over the static of neurons firing,
interpret your flailing language.

You pull words from my grasp, replacing them with stutters,
empty holes where language once was.
You reach over and shake me, pull my eyes back into my head
begging me to see your secrets hidden there.
You ache and cry with crippling pain,
and still I cannot translate what you are saying.

Together we dream of dancing.
You remember extended limbs, thigh muscles tight, toes pointed,
arms circling ‘round yourself before flinging out to embrace the world.
I remember exhileration, warm sweat on skin,
looking in my spouse’s eyes and laughing.

Together we repeat the words,
“We will get through this.”

Together we repeat the words,
“We are strong.”

Together we dance in new ways,
limps jumping and head nodding to music only we hear.

You are not someone I can visit between the hours of nine and five,
bringing flowers and cookies.
I cannot come and go as I please, leaving your side to go home to my life.

This is my life.

I am within you and you hold me, and we both are here,
in light and dark.
You are here, trying to make me understand,
trying to be heard.
I am here trying to hold on to hope and possibility
trying to be heard.

You ask me to listen,
and I ask you to listen.
You say, “one day we will dance again,”
and I promise I will not be
just a visitor in my own body.


 

IMG_2158-300x225Angie River is an educator, activist, and performance artist. She also has chronic migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, PTSD, and a handful of other things which impact the ways in which she moves through the world. Angie has discovered that writing helps her to process the things her body is doing and the emotions she experiences. She is currently in the process of writing a series of poems based on her medical bills, as well as taking a series of chronic illness self­-portraits. She will be presenting in June at The Body Love Conference in Tucson, Arizona on the power of telling our stories, as well as on disability and performance.

Seema Reza Wins USO Award for “Bringing Down Walls With Words”

Seema Reza with Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger, and Peyton Manning at USO Awards

Seema Reza with Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger, and Peyton Manning at USO Awards

Seema Reza, a member of the TLA Network governing council and accomplished writer and facilitor, just won a major award from the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore. She was honored at the organization’s 33rd annual awards dinner on March 26 along with Oscar-nominated filmmaker, author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger, singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks, and starting NFL quarterback Peynton Manning.

According to the USO, Seema received the John Gioia award “for her work with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers

at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda. Reza conducts workshops to help service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds express themselves through art, writing, film and music.” During the ceremony, she read a poem about working with service members while accompanied by Grammy-nominated, progressive hip-hop musician Christylez Bacon.

As one of the transformative language artists featured in Transformative Language Arts in Action, co-edited by Ruth Farmer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Seema says:

I love most of all witnessing the relationship between participants as they help each other move forward. Writing can be an isolating endeavor. We sit with the page, immersed in our thoughts and experiences, uncertain if our voices are valuable or valid. When we share our work—either through public readings and exhibits or in a workshop setting—we begin to feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to the collective narrative of our time.

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Seema, her son, a member of the service, and Christylez Bacon

Seema is also an accomplished writer with a mixed-genre book coming out from Red Hen press, and she’s a member of the TLA Network.  Read more about Seema’s work here, and see her superb website for more of her writing.

See a short video of the award-winners here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulCA1d0ikJ8