An Interview with Caits Meissner on Poetry, Prayer, and Social Change

Caits Meissner sat down with us to talk about her upcoming online class, “Poems as Prayers: Writing Toward a Just World.” The class begins Oct. 23. More here.

What do you see as the relationship of poetry to prayer, and prayer to social change?

There is a course to be made about religious tradition in social justice movements, but this isn’t it. I use prayer here in the loosest sense of the word, drawing on the simple idea that when we launch our wishes and hopes into the universe with earnest intention, they amplify. The object of devotion may be a higher power, but also may be nature, the universe, the commitment to reducing harm, a deeper sense of self love or humanity itself. 

The way I’m thinking about prayer in this course, as intentional wishing and visioning that extends beyond the self, is a different energy than protest, and railing against what is—a necessary strategy, but not the only one. 

I’m thinking of prayer as an impassioned call to forces beyond the human realm to support our collective betterment, to protect who is vulnerable, to uplift who is ignored, to create harmony and equity and peace and justice and environmental responsibility. To call in the gods or ancestors or universal light energy or natural intelligence to give us the strength and tools to help dream and build a better world. 

What motivated you to put together such a visionary class?

My own desperation for something different drove me forward. I have always been drawn to resistance art, and while I find that incredibly important, in this terrifying era we’ve entered, I also craved something more—hopeful may the wrong word—perhaps more fitting is visionary. The concept of emergence in social change began to stir me up. 

It was Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy that really got my gears turning about a course that tied together inspiration from a wide array of sources to propel us into the possibilities for healing our society. Brown looks at biomimicry, speculative fiction, posts tarot cards on her social media—she is ideating new social justice practices from an amazing mix of movement work, divination, nature and art. 

I am certain that hidden in the natural intelligence of our bodies is a creative force more profound than what is easily accessible in the rigid and fast pace of modern society. I think it takes playing outside our go-to inspirations to draw up what has previously been untapped. I wanted to push myself, and others, to dream forward and innovate in our poetry practices, the way Brown is asking of those engaging justice work.

What can people expect to experience, learn, and write in this class?

There will not be much, if any soap-boxing or pontificating from me, as the facilitator. I am no expert, I am a fellow seeker. Rather than reading my thoughts and ideas on a subject, I see my role as cultivating process and possibility through curating readings. 

I want to encourage participants to listen to what their bodies reveal, and then act on their gut impulses, what pulls them towards creation in what I offer. I would also like to gently push participants past nerves or fear to try something new. Therefore, we’ll engage a large range of material in order to unlock new pathways in the brain. I encourage participants to arrive expecting to play, and to challenge themselves to write towards creating an image of a just world, rather than (always) against it.

Participants should come ready to journal in response to questions, write for 15 minutes based on sometimes strange or even silly-seeming prompts, to read about a 20 page packet each week of poems and essays, to write another poem (I suggest writing a draft in 15 minutes, but it’s up to the writer) and to post the work they’d like feedback on in the forum—1 or 2 short pieces weekly. 

How has prayer and social change spoken through your writing, and can you share an example?

I often use poetry as a space to work out questions and ideas about the world—as writers tend to. And though I write from a variety of perspectives, the lens I employ that most closely resembles prayer, for me, is gratitude. I’ve written tender praise poems for women in prison, and girls in jail (this one is a poem-comic). I am also at work on a series of more personal comic-based “pep talks” that explore what is good in daily life, not always connected to an anchored social justice issue, but for example, how I’ve pulled myself out of depression, or how to connect to a partner romantically when totally broke! 

I also have a silly personal example that illustrates the kind of, wait, huh, what just happened? Did I write that into existence? As a young poet in my early twenties I was depressed. On the train home after seeing my favorite poet at the time, Pulitzer Prize-winning Yusef Komunyakaa, I wrote a poem asking him where his gift of writing derives from, and calling out for the experience of pain in order to write like him. Of course, Yusef’s life story is incomparably more intense than my own has ever touched close to, but still. A few months later and I experienced a romantic break up that kicked the light out of me—that really awful, gutting kind of ending. And then I got a letter. I was going across the world to a writing conference, on a full scholarship, completely free. To study under Yusef Komunyakaa for two weeks.

Magic? Prayer? I don’t know. I am sparked by the ideas presented in quantum physics, and what are thoughts but energy? Maybe there is something here to be harnessed intentionally in our writing towards a better world. 

Anything else participants should know?

Yes! When you take a class with me, you invest materials that can be used to make poems for years. I am not exaggerating. Each week’s packet comes with approximately 10-15 optional prompts that can be revisited again and again (you’ll only write 1-2 poem drafts each week during the course). Erika Jeffers, who took this class with me live at Poets House over the summer wrote me a wonderful email about how she used the curriculum again to produce more work. With permission, I’ll share what she told me:

“On the last day of class, I think I mentioned to you that I was planning on taking a week off from New York and staying at a cozy house in CT to write and revisit the ‘Poetry as Prayer ‘ class syllabus and I did just last week! In the mornings, I tackled one week and in the afternoons, I worked through another week and I had the entire 6-week workshop experience all over again, but condensed in a week. The workshop was truly a magical experience for me; and I’m not just saying that, I wasn’t writing for a year before the class. I wouldn’t say I was stuck (maybe I was), but I wasn’t really inspired and I had convinced myself that I wasn’t good about writing specific topics, but the workshop showed me that yes, I can branch out; yes, I can be experimental; and yes, I can be a witness and write about what’s going in the world around me. Overall, I left the workshop with a new confidence! Now that I’m back, I’m working on finishing up my chapbook!… Thank you soooo much! It was such a pleasure to work with you and this amazing, life-changing class syllabus.”

  I’d say, like most experiences,  you get out of it what you put into it.

More on “Poems as Prayers: Writing Toward a Just World” here.

Advertisements

Narratives of Self & Society: Writing Life Stories for Change with Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens

The TLA Network offers two self-paced classes: “Narratives of Self & Society: Writing Life Stories for Change” with Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens, and “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. Here is an engaging interview with Liz Burke-Cravens on her life-changing class, open for you to jump into right now. The class is set up for you to engage with at your own pace and on your own time.

What inspired you to teach this class?

My own experiences with autobiographical writing have been inspiring my own writing and my teaching for quite some time. When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher – whom I absolutely adored – required students to write an autobiography. As I put the narrative together, writing the words in my vulnerable young voice, I felt something inside of me shift. Although I did not have the language to describe what had changed, I simply knew that I saw myself differently than I had before. There was something about the act of putting my feelings and thoughts into words, writing them down on paper, and telling the story of my own life experiences that has fascinated me ever since.As an undergraduate at UMass Amherst, I wrote my first autoethnography – although I did not call it that at the time; I called it a political autobiography. This autoethnography was a collection of poems I titled, “My Body Speaks” in which I gave voice to the stories and emotions living within my body as an act of reclamation and empowerment.

Writing that poetic autoethnography forever changed how I perceived myself and how I walked through the world.

How is writing life stories – drawing from practices of autoethnography specifically – a transformative experience? What makes the this medium different from other forms of expression?

These experiences inspired my doctoral research which explored autoethnography as a personally and socially transformative mode of inquiry and expression of life stories. I was also particularly interested in learning about the unique value of autoethnography as a platform for underrepresented voices.

The findings of my study corroborated my own transformative experience writing autoethnography. My findings also expanded my understanding of it as well. Through writing an autoethnography, participants in my study experienced:

  • Personal growth, which reflected their experiences of personal development that included increased self-awareness, self-acceptance, confidence building, different worldview, and educational process;
  • An emotional process, which reflected their experiences of a variety of emotional realities and processes including painful or difficult emotions, joyful or fun emotions, feelings of liberation, therapeutic or healing experiences, and feelings of vulnerability;
  • Social connectedness, which reflected their responses related to experiences of the self in relation to others that included social responsibility, increased sense of belonging or connection, and
  • Transpersonal experiences which reflected their descriptions of qualities beyond their control and contributed to his or her sense of wholeness and spiritual growth.

Overall, autoethnography facilitated personal growth, greater self-awareness, greater awareness of contexts and systems in which one participates, and provided a meaningful creative experience.

Who/What are some of your favorite life-story writers?

This is always a tough question. The first writers that come to mind are Joan Nestle whose work A Restricted Country was a life changer for me as a young activist. Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman: The Story of Two Lives was also pivotal for me, and anything and everything written by Dorothy Allison – Two or Three Things I Know for Sure and Bastard Out of Carolina, in particular, have been my favorites.

As far as poets who write about their lives, I think of Marie Howe, Toi Derricotte, Sharon Olds, Ada Limon, and Claudia Rankine come to mind.

What should students in this class expect?

Although this is a self-paced class, my intention was to be your guide, helping you navigate the content and the writing students will do. They will have the opportunity to do quite a bit of self-reflective writing, investigating the stories of their life experiences from a variety of different vantage points, exploring memories, learning from others on their journey, and describing places that are or have been meaningful to them.

I will also guide you through a 10-step process for creating powerful and evocative life stories for the purpose of personal and social transformation. They will learn about what that means in general as well as what it means for them in particular. They will also have the option to engage in a number of creative prompts intended to help generate more writing and to keep their creative self inspired.

Each unit consists of a brief podcast lecture by me, a few articles and book chapters for you to read, related video and audio content, writing project development instructions, and creative prompts.

Is there anything else about this class you would like to share?

One really important point I want to share is that there is no one “right” way to do autoethnography. In fact, we encounter this type of life-story writing all the time; we just don’t call it autoethnography. But drawing on certain aspects of more formal autoethnographic processes and considerations can greatly enrich our life stories, making them powerful narratives for change.

My hope is that folks will approach this course, the resources, lectures, and writing and creative prompts with a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Have fun with this and enjoy!

For more information and to sign up for class, visit https://www.tlanetwork.org/event-3173329 .

Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens is a poet, interdisciplinary educator, and writing coach. She is the founder of A Brave Space, a learning community that seeks to create positive social change and personal transformation through writing. Her work has appeared in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2The Irish HeraldSoulstice: A Feminist Anthology Volume II, and Sandy River Review. Liz enjoys traveling, cycling, photography, and all things foodie. She has a deep love for language and a passion for teaching. Originally from Portland, Maine, she now lives in Oakland, California with her wife, Amber, and their two dogs, Schmoopie and Mr. Bits. You can learn more about her work, courses, and inspirations at http://www.abravespace.org.

 

Values of the Future with Doug Lipman for What We Need Now

Doug Lipman, one of the foremost mentors in storytelling and otherwise unearthing our most vital truths, explains of his upcoming class, “Values of the Future,” that “Our current economic, political, and social systems are serving fewer and fewer people, not to mention destroying the environment. I don’t know what a future society will look like, but if it is to meet our human needs better than our current society does, I believe it needs to be formed with certain values in mind.”

Listen to Doug’s powerful TEDx talk, “What Can Storytelling Teach Us About Creating Connections?”

His focus in this class is to help us find, amplify, clarify, and share our values for the world through stories, writing, and other arts and also, as he explains, “through the very processes of telling or creating stories….In other words, our artistic processes themselves can give people experiences that open them to values that are necessary for an improved society.”

The six-week class, kicking off Sept. 4, is all online, which means you can do it from anywhere and at anytime, looks toward how to cultivate the kind of world we envision through the process of our stories and storytelling, the power of listening,  the importance of relationships and openness, the preciousness of every human point of view, the universality of human potential, and other values that bring us all to the table.

The class is ideal, according to Doug, “for storytellers, fiction writers, narrative poets, songwriters, improvisational singers, dramatists, etc. – all who use language to help people imagine or convey their experience – especially those interested in teaching their art or discipline with an eye toward promoting generative values.”

“Taking a class with Doug Lipman is like sitting down with a trusted friend and mentor, who believes in you with all his heart and guides you to new ways of living.” — Laura Packer, storyteller and writer

Doug found himself becoming a storyteller when he was a struggling teacher of troubled teens, who responded positively to him telling them a story. From there, he has coached hundreds of people on their storytelling, writing, and recordings. He is the author of three books on storytelling (Improving Your Storytelling, The Storytelling Coach, and Storytelling Games), scores of published articles, and over 150 issues of his own email newsletters, including “eTips from the Storytelling Coach (http://StorytellingNewsletters.com).

A professional storyteller since 1976, Doug has performed and led workshops on three continents and led many online courses and webinars. His ongoing search for effective ways to teach the transformative power of storytelling has led to projects such as a new paradigm for coaching storytellers, an exploration of the seldom-noticed Hidden Storytelling Skills, and the pursuit of ways that storytelling and related arts can allow our true humanity to blossom. More about Doug here.

A Class For Our Time: Speaking Your Truth with Angie Ebba

Angie Ebba, one of our most beloved online class facilitators, has created a new class, “Speaking Your Truth: Creative Writing for Political Times,” which you can do from anywhere on your computer. The class as open to writers of all ability, experiences, and genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction and more).

Angie writes in her class summary:

From ancient times to modern day, creative writing has been used for a way to explore and navigate political and social issues. In this workshop we will use a variety of readings, videos, and podcasts to investigate and discuss the role creative writing has played, and continues to play, during political times. Writing from various time periods and of many different viewpoints may be presented. However, rather than focusing on the ways our political views may separate us, we will instead use these writings to explore both the history of social and political creative writing, as well as the role it can have in creating change and developing empathy. Each week we will also focus on one or two tips or techniques for effective writing in a given genre.

Angie’s classes over the years have helped many people find their words, strength, voice, and callings, including one student who wrote, “This class transformed me and my self image” and another who simply said, “I have been enlightened.”

Angie comes by such praise honestly: she has created, worked, and lived for years as a writer, educator, activist, and performance artist rooted in the transformative power of words and performance. With a Masters in Teaching and another Masters in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College, Angie is deeply experienced with working with people of all ages and backgrounds. A powerful writer who navigates the world as a self-identified “white, cis, queer, disabled, fat femme,” she recently began a regular column at She Explores Life, which includes her inspiring and evocative essay, “Why I Need Radical Positivity (and Think You Do Too).” Angie says of her approach to writing and teaching,

I fully believe in the power of words to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, to build connections and community, and to make personal and social change.

Find out more about Angie and “Speaking Your Truth” here. And check out Angie’s website, “Rebel on Page” here.

Upcoming Class-Cultivating Our Voices: Writing Life Stories for Change with Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens

When we discover, explore, and (re) connect with our voices—that perspective, knowledge, and expression that is uniquely ours—our life stories become intimate and emotionally powerful. We begin to offer a glimpse of what it’s like to live the complex constellation of privileges and disadvantages, joys and heartbreaks that are exclusive to each of us. Embarking on this type of self-reflective inquiry not only has the potential for healing and developing a greater understanding of one’s self and experience, it also holds the potential to open the hearts and consciousness of others, becoming narrative catalysts for change. Throughout this 6-week course, we will explore our various life experiences as a springboard for generating life stories that reflect our distinctive voices. By the end of the course, you will have a body of new writing, a clearer understanding of your writer voice, and an enhanced ability to connect with your audience. This course is also beneficial for non-writers, such as storytellers and other performers, who want to generate new material to use in their work.

This class is ideal for a wide variety of people, including poets and writers of all genres, storytellers, healing arts professionals, teachers, songwriters, and anyone interested in reflecting on, writing about, and sharing their personal experiences as a way to make connection, build community, and foster understanding of self and others.

The class begins September 6th 

Register for the class

Read an interview with Liz Burke Cravens

About the Teacher

Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens is an interdisciplinary educator, poet, writing coach, passionate scholar and determined optimist. She is the founder of A Brave Space, a learning community that seeks to create positive social change and personal transformation through writing. Her work has appeared in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2The Irish HeraldSoulstice: A Feminist Anthology Volume II, and Sandy River Review. Liz enjoys traveling, kickboxing, cycling, photography, and cooking. She has a deep love for language and a passion for teaching and supporting student success. Originally from Portland, Maine, she now lives in Oakland, California with her wife, Amber, and their two dogs, Schmoopie and Mr. Bits. You can learn more about her work, courses, and inspirations at http://www.drlizburke.com and http://www.abravespace.org.

Changing the World with Words with Joanna Tebbs Young

Joanna will be teaching the upcoming TLA Foundations Class, Changing The World With Words starting June 27th. Take the class to learn more about TLA and/or to also start your path in the TLA Foundations Certification.

Here’s some of her words, in response to questions Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg asked her, about her upcoming online class.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): How did you discover TLA?

Joanna Tebbs Young (JTY): I began writing a diary at twelve when my family moved to America from England. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it most definitely helped smooth the transition into a new culture and era of my life. After college I discovered Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Morning Pages became an addiction that allowed me to navigate the new experiences of adulthood—work, roommates, boyfriends—while keeping my creative dreams of being a writer and artist alive.

After I had my first child, I left the workforce but quickly got restless. I designed and taught a journaling workshop, not knowing anyone else in the world did such a thing. While researching for the workshop I discovered the Center for Journal Therapy. After I was certified as a “Journal to the Self” instructor and I began running workshops, someone told me about Goddard’s TLA program. I had waited fifteen years after my BA to finally find the Masters degree I just knew had been designed for me! Through my degree work I not only learned more of the “Whys” behind the benefits of expressive writing, I found my own voice through the personally healing journey of writing a memoir.

CMG: Tell us some about how you make a living as a Transformative Language Artist?

JTY: My husband and I renovated a small carriage house in our backyard into a workshop space. I call it The Writers’ Room at Allen House. I run a weekly writing workshop called “Voice Quest” which has been meeting for three years. I also run workshops for local organizations, such as a tween’s class at an art center and various summer camps, writing-for-wellbeing presentations for teachers and college students, a stress-relief program at the hospital, “The Yoga of Journaling” workshop at wellness centers, writing for goal-setting at business networking events, and “writing practice” workshops at writing conferences. A college-level course on expressive writing is in the works. I am also a columnist for the county newspaper, using my words to hopefully affect positive change in my town.

CMG: This class focuses on “all things TLA.” What can people expect to get out of participating in this class?

JTY: This class is an overview of the “whats” and “hows” of TLA—what TLA is (and isn’t) and how it can be useful in the world. Using essays from The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader, websites, videos, poems, and writing prompts and discussion questions, you will be introduced to the history, the different fields, theories and practices of TLA. You will also explore the personal growth, community-building, and social change aspects of TLA. In the last three weeks you will look at the various ways TLA can be utilized, how you might consider making a living as a TLA practitioner, and
finally some concrete ways you might put your dreams and plans into action.

CMG: What do you love most about teaching “Changing the World with Words?”

JTY: is fascinating to see the different writing styles and responses to the various prompts from people with diverse backgrounds; some write prose, some poetry, some are naturally humorous, others are sentimental, some are academic, others are more heart-centered. It’s also great to see the students open up to each other, most obviously tentative at first to be sharing their writing and thoughts with strangers in a computer. But as the weeks go on, most become freer in their writing and sharing. And everyone is always so supportive of each other, giving positive feedback and relating what resonated with them. I also enjoy reading of all the different TLA experiences and plans, the different populations people work with and creative ideas they come up with for TLA work.

joannatebbsyoung Joanna Tebbs Young is a Writer and Transformative Writing Facilitator and Coach. She holds a Masters degree in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College and is a certified instructor through the Center for Journal Therapy. Joanna writes weekly columns for two local newspapers and offers workshops at her writing center in Rutland, VT. Her blog and coaching information can be found at http://wisdomwithinink.com.

Upcoming Class: Values of the Future Through Transformative Language Arts with Doug Lipman

Doug Lipman will be facilitating the upcoming online class, Values of the Future Through Transformative Language Arts beginning May 16th!

Doug is an incredible storyteller and facilitator and we are so excited to have him teach this class! Watch one of his terrific performances here:

About the class:

Our current economic, political, and social systems are serving fewer and fewer people, not to mention destroying the environment.

I don’t know what a future society will look like, but if it is to meet our human needs better than our current society does, I believe it needs to be formed with certain values in mind.

Fortunately, these values can be taught, not just through stories, songs, dances, and poems about the values, but also through the very processes of telling or creating stories, singing or creating songs, and so on. In other words, our artistic processes themselves can give people experiences that open them to values that are necessary for an improved society.

In this 6-week course, I’ll briefly lay out a theory of how values can be influenced, as well as the eight values I’ve chosen as “values of a future society.” I’ll introduce the values one at a time and give examples of processes from storytelling that support each value. Then I’ll help you identify and/or create processes that can give others experiences of each value, from your particular type of transformational language work.

Key to this course is inspiring each other to notice the transformative power of the creative processes. Together, we’ll engage in building an enlarging web of activities that can help people align themselves with currents that, I believe, will help move us toward a more just, supportive, and enlightened society.

Who should take this class:

Storytellers, fiction writers, narrative poets, songwriters, improvisational singers, dramatists, etc. – all who use language to help people imagine or convey their experience – especially those interested in teaching their art or discipline with an eye toward promoting generative values.

The course will be most helpful to those with enough experience in their work to have already developed some processes for doing and/or teaching their art/discipline. I define transformative language arts broadly. If you think your work might belong here, it likely does!

Register for this class!

About Doug Lipman:

In 1970, Doug Lipman was a struggling teacher of troubled adolescents. He had given up connecting with them when one day, by accident, he found himelf telling them a story. They responded! Ever since, he has pursued the transformative power of storytelling.

Over the decades, Doug has coached hundreds of people on their storytelling, writing, and recordings. He is the author of three books on storytelling (Improving Your Storytelling, The Storytelling Coach, and Storytelling Games), scores of published articles, and over 150 issues of his own email newsletters, including “eTips from the Storytelling Coach (http://StorytellingNewsletters.com).

A professional storyteller since 1976, Doug has performed and led workshops on three continents and led many online courses and webinars. His ongoing search for effective ways to teach the transformative power of storytelling has led to projects such as a new paradigm for coaching storytellers, an exploration of the seldom-noticed Hidden Storytelling Skills, and the pursuit of ways that storytelling and related arts can allow our true humanity to blossom.

Stories with Spirit: Regi Carpenter

Regi Carpenter will be teaching the upcoming online class, Stories with Spirit: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice beginning April 4th.

About the Class:

“At the heart of one’s creativity lies a desire to explore and express the exquisite power of the present experience, feeling, sensation and belief. This class will focus on strengthening and recognizing the intuitive sense of the creative process without judgment or restriction. We’ll play with writing meditations, reflections, and written and spoken word pieces that gently guide us to who we are now, in this moment.

Through writing meditations, personal reflections, readings, videos and on-line shared discussions, we will explore how our creativity brings us into the present by bearing witness to the sacred within one another, the world and ourselves.

We’ll focus on the use of images, metaphors, ritual, voice, and a variety of writing structures to create vivid pieces in and outside of class. Beginning and experienced writers in any genre are welcome!”  

Regi is a phenomenal storyteller whose captivating presence can be felt in this powerful TEDx presentation:

Don’t miss out on this opportunity to connect to the soul of your creativity with an incredible facilitator guiding the way!

Register here

About Regi:

For over twenty years Regi Carpenter has been bringing songs and stories to audiences of all ages throughout the world in school, theaters, libraries, at festivals, conferences and in people’s back yards. An award winning performer, Regi has toured her solo shows and workshops in theaters, festivals and schools, nationally and internationally.

Regi is the youngest daughter in a family that pulsates with contradictions: religious and raucous, tender but terrible, unfortunate yet irrepressible. These tales celebrate the glorious and gut – wrenching lives of four generations of Carpenter s raised on the Saint Lawrence River in Clayton, New York. Tales of underwater tea parties, drowning lessons and drives to the dump give voice to multi-generations of family life in a small river town with an undercurrent.

 

What Does Vulnerability Look Like?

by Melissa Rose

This piece was written during my experience in the TLA online class, Diving and Emerging: Finding Your Voice and Identity in Personal Stories facilitated by Regi Carpenter. I loved this class and the places the writing prompts led me, causing me to form a richer relationship with my memories and experiences. 

       The woman sits crossed legged on the shore of the silent lake on a crisp spring morning. The lavender mist hovers above the water, as she watches a flock of brown and black birds bob along the surface. She has been up for hours, watching the sun rise from behind the mountain in the distance, wrapping herself in a thick pink sweater, as the chill around her is remedied by wool. In this moment, she is anything but restricted. No pressure of tiny hands reaching for her. No eyes watching where she is. She inhales the fresh air and for once feels free. She tries to savor moments like this. They only come occasionally. Every minute by herself she wishes she could stretch into miles between obligations. It’s been so long since she could remember what it felt like to be alone. To simply “be” without label. Without definition. Only the morning breeze blowing a quiet promise through her wispy brown curls. She slips a single foot from her sandal and digs her bare toes into the soft sand beneath her; a boulder worn down into a million pieces.

      I am 4 years old, up at the cabin on the lake. It is early, and my mother sits next to the water outside, watching the Canada Geese bob along the surface and I awaken alone in my bed. I see her from the window, and sliding out of my pajamas I open the screen door and step outside. Stumbling on the sappy rocks, I walk towards her. She doesn’t notice me for several seconds because I am so quiet, watching her behavior, how she looks different. Not like my mother, but a wild creature in its natural habitat. She senses she is not alone, and like a doe, turns her head suddenly, with a sharp startled snap, then smiles, relaxing when she sees me, amused by my nudity. It is spring, and the air is crisp. I dip my feet into the cold water, but feel no chill.

      She always felt her body was wrong. The bumps never fell in the right place. The stomach expanding in places she didn’t want it to go. She felt trapped inside herself. Sweaters become her uniform. She never goes swimming. She never speaks of her body as anything but a burden. The flesh dragging behind her, like a punishment.

      I am 5 years old, and I search the house for my mother. I check the kitchen and the bathroom, even venturing into the dark garage. Then I notice her bedroom door is closed. My tiny hands turn the polished copper knob and I push the wood, stepping over the threshold, turning my head back and forth, looking for her familiar shape. We lock eyes, her body bare, pink breasts exposed and she covers her naked flesh with her arms, screaming in surprise, her voice high and tight as violin strings:

“Get out!!”

I flee from the room, retreating to my bed and under the covers like I had just witnessed a cardinal sin. My mother had never raised her voice to me before, and the sound frightens me. Shaking under the covers, she eventually finds me, applying her voice in an apologetic band aid.

“I’m sorry, Melis…you didn’t do anything wrong…” but the image of her face as our eyes met in that moment left an imprint. The shock and softness. The sting of her standing there completely exposed. A deer in headlights. The nakedness of her in her most pure and isolated state. The place of her she never wanted anyone to see.

I am my mother’s daughter.

      I hide my body as it grows and expands. As the pieces of it change shape. I grow breasts at age 9. My mother tells me to cover up. It is no longer “appropriate” for me to walk around my own house without a shirt on and I don’t know why. Only that my flesh is no longer amusing like it was when I was 4. It carried with it another message altogether. Something shameful. Wrong.

So I hide.

I wear sweatshirts on hot summer days.

      I don’t look at my naked body for years. Every mirror is an averted glance. Every locker room is a struggle to expose as little as possible. To never be left vulnerable. To never be seen without armor. Armor becomes my voice. Becomes my brashness. Becomes my need to hide how I really feel. Armor becomes a way to cover everything I do not want seen about myself.

      She drinks alcohol, hiding the bottles in her closet. Keeping the soft parts hidden under intoxication. Swallowing everything, covering up the raw places, collecting the pieces of herself and telling the children to keep her secrets.  

      In a bedroom, a man asks me to take off my clothes, and I am silent. As the pieces flake off my skin, a new exposure emerges. The prying open of a mollusk. The vulnerability left in the dark with my voice. I tell myself “You didn’t do anything wrong” but now the nakedness becomes more than a scream from my mother. It becomes the reason I scream too.

      A year later and I am fully clothed, standing on a stage. The lights hit me and I speak about the things no one wanted me to say. Exposure is what happens when I show my mess to strangers. Raw is what happens when I realize there is nothing to hide. That speaking is a step towards healing. That telling my story saves me from it.

      I stand on another stage. This time I say nothing. I am naked in front of strangers, but for a different purpose. For 3 hours every week I pose for artists. I embody emotion through my posture. Communicating without speaking every inch my flesh can muster. Telling the story of my body itself.

      Being naked is how I show myself my body is worthy of love. That there is safety in uncovering all that you hide behind. That for the first time since I was 4 years old, I can show myself that my nakedness is nothing to be ashamed of. That vulnerability comes in many forms. That the flesh I reside in is anything but sinful.

      I think of my mother, and all she chose to hide from me. That seeing her unclothed was the first time I was ever able to see a glimpse of who she really was, and everything she never wanted me to experience.

melpromo4

 

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 and is the executive director of Siren, a nonprofit organization that empowers women through spoken word.