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.

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

Creating Space

by Melissa Rose

The writing process can be ritualistic, so setting the space is important.

Keep it consistent. Keep it holy.

I set the timer. Write the prompts on the white board while pictures of Frida Khalo gaze down at a table I have covered in stray paper, pens and composition notebooks.

Every week I lead a writing workshop with female trauma survivors. The format is simple: One hour of writing. Your time. Your space. I provide prompts that encourage introspection and self-care, but the direction the participants choose to take those prompts are unique as they are.

What began as a simple routine has quickly transitioned into a life line. Women who have curiously come one week now come every week. Diving deeper into themselves, discovering more with each session and unearthing more possibilities with every word they write.

Giving oneself permission to do something healthy, even for one hour, has slowly become a reason to give oneself permission to do something healthy for another hour. A reason to speak up in situations where they wouldn’t have before. A reason to forgive. A reason to tell their story. A reason to love themselves more.

Writing may be the medium we use here, but what we are creating is sacred space. Collectively, through sharing the space we have conjured, we are tapping into something magical. The strength of creative energy. The spell of communal healing.

Creating space, for me, is such an integral part of TLA. It is the equivalent to turning the soil, preparing it for the seeds. I now find myself just as excited to lead the workshop every week and contribute to that space. To understand that it is not only the participants who benefit from this experience, but I as a practitioner.

Together, we have learned that we cannot heal alone.

Healing

is the little ghost

hiding under your tongue.

A miracle you mutter under

your breath

Afraid you will jinx its magic

Mind over matter

Whole life preparing you for this

You will now show your cells

Life is worth living.

Healing

is the the voice that reminds you to rest.

The whisper that challenges you

to take a step back.

The gently falling rain on the roof

above your head.

The sound of growth.

The promise of a million new lives.

Healing is what happens when you finally put yourself first.

It is the wound that knows exactly what to do

when you give it the chance.

The burn that saves you

from infection.

The silent pulse

only you can feel within yourself.

Here

in your empty

there is still space to put your hope.

The seed that is sheltered by will

and soil.

The dirt beneath you

you are not ready to die in.

Swallow this spring.

Let it fill you like a sunrise.

You are only just beginning. 

 

 

 

melpromo4Melissa 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.

 

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.

 

 

“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.