Saturday night, we will be hosting our fourth installment in The Dictionary Project Presents! reading series at Casa Libre in Tucson, AZ.
As with the project itself, the reading series is rooted in serendipity, play, and love of language. For The Dictionary Project Presents! reading, our readers get the same word two weeks prior to the event and in that time, compose a piece to share with a live audience that is born from that word. We aren’t announcing the word until the night of the event, but there are a few hints in the photos.
We are delighted to have the following writers participating:
Em Bowen is a storyteller, a daughter, a writer, a sister, an amigo, a cat-owner, a story encourager, an editor, never a girlfriend, occasionally a boyfriend and always changing (much as we all are, whether we realize it or not). They went to college in a big university in the Southwest complete with a college town and artsy people. They preferred and still prefer the artsy people. They moved to Portland, Oregon for a while but now reside in Tucson, Arizona again where they like to imagine that they wake up every morning and kick each day in the face. Their work pieces through the human condition, queerness, honesty and the ways in which we learn to survive better.
Garrett Faulkner writes fiction and catches hell for his surname often. He is a fifth-semester student at the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing MFA program, and is interested in the history of systemic injustice within southern Appalachian communities. Among the august ranks of the MFA contingent here, he is the one most likely to be seen at a bar table surrounded by four or five beautiful women of exotic provenance, sobbing over a tumbler of Campari and grapefruit juice. He will kick this habit after his thesis semester.
Cybele Knowleswrites poems, essays, stories, and screenplays. Her work is forthcoming or published in Fairy Tale Review, The Destroyer, Diagram, Spiral Orb, Pindeldyboz, The Asian Pacific American Journal, Faucheuse, and The Prose Poem. She works as a program coordinator at the UA Poetry Center.
Molly Little’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and the Southern Review. Originally from Rhode Island, she has lived in Tucson since 2009.
Matt Mendez lives in Tucson with his wife and daughters. He writes, too. His first book, I, is out from Floricanto Press.
Here we are: post #2 of nonfiction november. The word is split and we are delighted to have a piece by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.
split (split), v.t. [SPLIT or obs. SPLITTED (-id), SPLITTING], [MD, splitten; akin to MHG. splizen; IE. base *(s)plei-, to split, crack], 1. to separate, cut, or divide into two or more parts; cause to separate along the grain or length; break into layers. 2. to break or tear apart by force; burst; rend. 3. to divide into parts or shares; portion out: as, they split the cost of the trip. 4. to cause (a group, political party, etc.) to separate into divisions or factions; disunite. 5. in chemistry, a) to break (a molecule) into atoms; separate the components of. b) to produce nuclear fission in (at atom or atoms). v.i. 1. to separate or divide lengthwise into two or more parts; separate along the grain or length. 2. to break or tear apart; burst; rend. 3. to separate or break up through failure to agree, etc. 4. [Colloq.], to divide something with another or others, each taking a share: as, winners split. 5. [19th –c Slang], to inform on an accomplice; peach. n. 1. the act or process of splitting. 2. the result of spitting; specifically, a) a break; fissure; crack; tear. b) a breach or division in a group, between persons, etc. 3. a splinter; sliver. 4. a single thickness of hide split horizontally. 5. a flexible strip of wood used in basketmaking. 6. a confection made of a split banana or other fruit with ice cream, nuts, sauces, whipped cream, etc. 7. often pl. the feat of spreading the legs apart until they lie flat on the floor, the body remaining upright. 8. [Colloq.], a) a small bottle of carbonated water, wine, etc., half the usual size, often about six ounces. b) a drink or portion half the usual size. c) a half pint. 9. [Slang], a share, as of loot or booty. 10. in bowling, an arrangement of pins after the first bowl, so separated as to make a spare almost impossible. adj. 1. divided or separated along the length or grain; broken into parts. 2. sixteenths, and not in eighths: said of a quotation smaller than the normal trading unit.—SYN. see break.
That night, I watched a woman nudge her husband, who seemed to have broken his leg. He followed her gaze and looked with horror at a man nearby, who had two metal clamps sticking out of his neck. It was hard to tell if the clamps were supposed to be there, or if he’d been impaled. When the man with the broken leg was finally called and his wife wheeled him away, the man with the clamps looked at us and muttered, “That looked bad.” Hannah held her middle and I read to her from an article about Kanye and Kim.
The next day, on the emergency room’s TV screen, a CNN anchor reports on the typhoon in the Philippines, about a moment when “the dust died down.”
When I am not craning my neck to look at the television screen, I am trying to read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha. He left home when his son was born. The Buddha was worried that his attachment to the people he loved would bind him to a life of sorrow: “Some of the monks used to compare this kind of passion and craving for perishable things to a ‘dust’ which weighed the soul down and prevented it from soaring to the pinnacle of the universe.”
A scream from the children’s waiting room sounds just like a parrot, irritating the woman with a swollen neck. Months ago in my notebook, I wrote, “Limbo allows for enlightenment, but if you’re not prepared, you’ll experience it as projection of all your demons.”
Across from us, a woman laughs at her own confusion. The sound of a bottle falling in the vending machine was just like that of a body hitting the floor in a hallway or bathroom. After absorbing the shock of the sound, our eyes meet and we giggle, a moment I’ve been craving for hours. This atmosphere is vaguely competitive. People scan one another for injury as they wait for their names to be called. Before we gave up and left last night, we had been waiting for three and a half hours. Some people had been waiting for nine.
Hannah said it felt like her stomach was being sliced by knives. For three and a half hours, her face switched back and forth between the way the cartoon face looks at numbers nine and ten of the pain scale. And then, the knives stopped. Everybody has heard a story of a ruptured appendix: the sudden end of pain opening out into a body full of poison. So upon waking, we get dressed, pack a lunch, and come back.
CNN discusses what we have to worry about next. “Disease,” somebody says, “a secondary disaster.”
“Suppose,” the Buddha said, “I start to look for the unborn, the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt and supreme freedom from this bondage?”
A nurse calls for a man who does not hear her. When she asks him point blank if he is who she’s looking for, he says yes. “Let me help you, my friend,” she says, her tone softening as she saunters behind his wheelchair and begins to push.
Earlier, CNN featured an interview with Sarah Palin. She was trying to explain why it wasn’t racist for her to use the word “slavery” to talk about Obama’s health care law. The night before in the ER, Hannah asked if she could help a woman with dyed red hair. She looked confused, facing the men’s bathroom with her temporary wheelchair and all her belongings on the floor. “I’m just trying to get away from the sound of Piers Morgan’s voice,” she said, as Hannah grabbed her purse and I picked up her steaming cup of hot chocolate, following her to the other side of the waiting room.
Now, they talk about women and children begging in the streets of the Philippines, though the streets are becoming increasingly dangerous. “That seems odd,” I say, looking at the footage of wood planks and discombobulated faces. “Everything is the street now,” Hannah says, finishing my thought.
Armstrong writes, “Adam and Eve lived in harmony, unaware of their sexual difference or of the distinction between good and evil. It is a unity that is impossible for us to imagine in our more fragmented existence, but in almost every culture, the myth of this primal concord showed that human beings continued to yearn for a peace and wholeness that they felt to be the proper state of humanity.”
We all gaze at the ultrasound together. It looks like we’re looking up through the ocean at the water’s surface. “Some see monsters, some see animals,” the sonographer laughs. “I only see organs.” She has an Eastern European accent. It makes me anxious to look at all these murky, unidentifiable shapes, so I sit down and hide from the screen behind the sonographer’s body.
“How long did it take you to you get used to the sound of screaming?” I ask the woman who pushes Hannah’s stretcher from one room to the other. She responds, unphased, “I have two kids, so.”
Outside, there are cop cars. I think of the little boy who was staring at us the night before. He had come in with a family flanked by policemen. He and his sister were left alone in the waiting room for close to an hour while their family disappeared behind closed doors. All of the sudden, the children stood up from their seats. As if on cue, the double doors opened. Two adults came to retrieve them.
As I drive to the Vietnamese restaurant for our dinner, it feels later than it is. I feel nostalgic for the ER now, and hurry to get back to it.
While I am not in the room, the doctor comes to check in on Hannah, and takes a phone call about another patient. “The bullet went in his back and came out of his neck,” she reports when I return.
I live across the street from the hospital, and often bike through the emergency room’s parking lot on my way home from work. Each time, I think with a commuter’s impatience about how long someone is pausing at the stop sign, sometimes shouting out loud.
Today at work, I was nicer to my students. Not on purpose, but out of exhaustion or surrender. As I traveled through the ER’s parking lot, peering into the newly arrived ambulances, I experienced the space anew. As a point of fracture. Something swollen. A kind of seam.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan grew up in an apartment building five miles from the ocean. Because the blue condo at the end of the block with porthole style windows was built around the same time that she was born, she always assumed she was going to be given one of the apartments for free.
And a little something extra: here is an oddly appropriate Volvo Ad–featuring Jean Claude Van Damme, two semis, and a soundtrack of Enya–that just came out this week:
I’m so pleased to be starting our nonfiction november with an essay by Mika Taylor. Enjoy!
eu·di·om·e·ter (yü-dē-ˈä-mə-tər) n. [Gr. eudios, clear, fair (eu-, good + dios, genit. of Zeus, god of the sky) + meier]. 1. originally, an instrument for measuring the amount of oxygen in the air. 2. an instrument for measuring and analyzing gases.
I pictured a machine – some complex contraption with tubes and knobs and glass spirals. It measures the air. Air is everywhere. It measures the everywhere.
In reality, it isn’t much – a simple apparatus – an upside-down test tube with numbers on the side, its mouth end submerged in water, a pipe leading from another closed tube in which something (anything) combusts. Arrows point the gas up and out the pipe, under the water and into this numbered tube, pop, pop, pop, floating to the top, and displacing what it can. Once the material is burned, the gasses released, there is a number, an exact measurement that those far better with numbers and chemicals and processes than I, will use somehow.
I don’t know how much gas there is in in a penny or a pound cake. I don’t know how much gas there is this room right now or on the planet or in myself. If I did know, that knowledge wouldn’t matter. I cannot change the number. I don’t think it would change me. These things exist. They are measured. Is there comfort in knowing that they can be quantified, and that others are doing that job? Perhaps.
There are so many things I would measure if only I could construct the right network of tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners. But I do not have the expertise. I measure and order and quantify what I can with words, not numbers – parsing language to better explain all I see and feel. But life is not exact. Life is complicated and long. There is beauty and pain. There is beauty in pain. I try to find order, but with words there is so much slippage. What I mean, and what I say, and what you read, and what you understand, are all different, all variable.
Even for this simple apparatus, the word is layered, its meanings multiple. The root, eudios, means clear and fair and good, and of the sky. This device was invented to measure the “goodness of the air”. It now just measures quantities of gasses. “Goodness” must have been too soft a term for modern thinkers. The inventors though, the namers of this particular tool called on Zeus, god of the sky, as if they were looking to measure something more in those tiny bubbles, something profound, and eternal, and real.
It’s time for someone to invent a machine to measure me. Centrifuge my cells. Boil my blood. Quantify and qualify. Be precise. Tell me my weight, my height, my bone density. Tell me how much is water and muscle and fat. What gasses are in my system? In what amounts? Tell me my IQ and income level and the number of descendants I will leave behind. What is my life expectancy? What can I expect from life? Numbers of years and days are not enough. Time changes. It opens up in front of me and disappears as I pass through it. Years go by and time is always now.
Tell me how much I have lived – how much more there is. Give me a precise calculation of everything I have gone through so far. I want an exact measurement of what is to come. How much more love do I get? How many more ideas can I have? How often will I laugh and cry and change my mind? How deeply will I feel each particular loss that sits unknown in front of me? How hard will it be from now on?
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (aka Romantic Willimantic, aka Heroin Town USA, aka Thread City, aka Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis and Petunia, their crime-solving dog. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Southern Review, Guernica, Hobart, The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, and Diagram.
united states #24, Patricia Carr Morgan (includes appropriated image from the film The Searchers)
Dear Dictionary Project folks,
It is time for our second annual nonfiction november. This month, six different writers will be writing essays to words bibliomanced for them. Each of them has one week from the time they receive the word to write their essay. The word they receive at random is a constraint. The time they have to write is a constraint. The question may arise: is it enough? will I be able to? is it enough?
Is anything ever enough?
Over the years, I have fallen in love with constraints. To me, constraints mean spaciousness. The blank page or blank screen looms ominous when you have no idea where to begin. When a beginning is offered, no matter what beginning it is, that is one less thing to think about. You have a place to start. You have been given one. And so you start there.
Yesterday, I took my students to an exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art by photographer Patricia Carr Morgan entitled: “Reality is a good likeness.” A likeness: “the fact or quality of being alike; resemblance.” In her artist statement at the beginning of the exhibit Carr Morgan starts with an oath: “I swear to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Then, in recounting personal memories and explaining their impact on her work—seeing a familiar piece of floral fabric hanging in a tree on returning home from junior high and thinking, that’s odd, before seeing the “charred skeleton” of her burned down home behind—she slowly begins to thwart that oath by revealing what she means by truth. The lines between reality and likeness are blurred, in her words and in her images, which rely heavily on juxtaposition to explore American cultural myths. She delves into film noir, the wild west, county fairs. She places a movie camera at the forefront of an image of a woman looking through a camera in the film “Peeping Tom” so that the watcher becomes the watched. She superimposes the large black and white image of the sheriff from “High Noon” who fills the walls of an empty courtroom. She makes a diptych of two images rich with violets and light pinks and white. The two images? One: a bucket of zinnias. The other: a woman in a purple shirt removing the innards of a butchered cow.
Reality is a good likeness.
I asked my students questions: what has the most dominance in this photograph? to what in the image is the photographer directing our eyes? is there contrast? what is the angle? what do we think is happening beyond the frame?
Constraints can give us freedom by providing boundaries to work inside. Nonfiction can run right up to the edge of fantasy. There is so much possibility in what we can create. Perhaps we are not frightened by our limits but by the limitless of it all. Expansion and opening. Constriction and shutting. Are these enemies or cohorts in the artistic process?
The beginning is what we have. What’s real is what we have. Let’s start here. It is enough.
Well, here it is! We have arrived at the 30th day of the 30 days, 30 words challenge at the dictionary project. This project has been a valuable teacher. I have learned that I can make time and space—more than I would have imagined—for writing each day. I have learned to make something and then let it go. I have learned a healthy dose of humility for when I had to send pieces out that felt far from ready from public consumption, and I have experienced tremendous gratitude for those of you who have read and supported me—by reading, by commenting, by writing your own pieces over this time. Most of all, I have continued to learn something this project has already taught me, which is to value happenstance and constraints, to trust the process, to engage in inquiry and to follow curiosities. I extend my deepest gratitude for being a part of this experience.
May·pole (ˈmā-ˌpōl), n. (often l.c.) a high pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, around which revelers dance or engage in sports during May Day celebrations. [MAY + POLE]
The last thing she wanted to do was dance around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Seriously, she could not think of one other thing she would like to do less. Okay, maybe she could: it was to wear some sort of German bustier and skirt contraption and a flower wreath on her head while she danced around a ridiculous pole with a ridiculous piece of ribbon. Maribel had not signed up for this. She wanted to go to a normal school, you know, one where kids made out in the boiler room and ignored their teachers. The kind where being anti-social was cool and being on student council was not. The kind where this kind of community-building-spring-ritual-dealie would be a joke. But this was not that kind of school. Her classmates seemed to have emerged from some other planet—a planet where wearing wreaths made of plastic flowers from Michael’s on your head was some sort of boon and where dancing around a giant phallus with a piece of ribbon was a damn good time.
“Maribel, get over here,” Ms. Dorber called from across the lawn. She was beaming and holding out a piece of marigold ribbon in Maribel’s direction. Maribel shifted her gaze and pretended she didn’t hear. That didn’t work. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ms. Dorber coming straight towards her. She was still smiling.
“Maribel, didn’t you hear me? It’s time for the Maypole dance.”
“Um, don’t you think I could just sit this one out? I’m not really feeling very springy today. I could just cheer everyone on.”
“Everyone participates,” Ms. Dorber said.
So Maribel followed her over to the Maypole to join her classmates. She picked the marigold ribbon up from the dewed grass.
The music began. It was some jaunty orchestral shit that she bet one of the teachers had transferred from cassette. Geezers. She had practiced for this, they all had. They had been weaving in and out and around the Maypole during gym class all this week, hardly physical education if you asked her. No one had.
Now it was time for the real deal. She tried to be as small as possible as she weaved in and around her classmates. She was not accustomed to being in the spotlight and she didn’t like it. Every time she looked up, this boy from her biology class James was looking at her. He gave her a smile that made her uncomfortable, as if the two of them shared a secret. They had never spoken. Well, once. He had asked her to borrow a pen one day.
There was no time to ask him to stop being such a creeper or to say anything at all because all the sophomores were weaving in and out and in and out with their ribbons. Every time she went around again, though, there he was, gangly frame and smirky smile. But the last time she passed him, he whispered something to her. The music had kicked up—violins and flutes and all that—and she didn’t quite catch it.
It felt like this song was going to go on forever. Spring would turn to fall and fall to winter and they would still be here, arms frozen solid, circling and circling around. The teachers looked on with the expressions of teachers who like to see young people applying themselves. Suddenly, Maribel felt her ribbon slacken and she looked up. The pole was descending quickly to the ground and suddenly it was a mess of arms and legs and torsos and heads and ribbons as people scattered, getting out of the way of the giant striped pole. And like that, it was over. The pole lay on the ground surrounded by severed flowers and tangled ribbons. Amidst the wreckage, students were strewn all over the lawn, collecting their breath. Teachers were frantic, running around to make sure everyone was okay. Maribel scanned the crowd and spotted James standing off to the corner. She caught him smiling as he looked down at the ground. It was just an instant, that slight upward turn before his face neutralized. But that instant gave her hope. Maybe she was not alone.
mad·cap (mad cap) adj. 1. wildly impulsive; reckless; rash; a madcap scheme —n. 2. a madcap person, esp. a girl [MAD + CAP1]
Character Sketch of Madcap Gal:
1. Character Functions:
The Madcap Gal is audacious. She is not afraid of women or men. She is manipulative but without others recognizing her manipulation. Her charm makes those around her want to be part of her crazy adventures, even against their better judgment. She is a (sometimes antagonistic) protagonist, love interest, a best friend (the one with more control in the relationship), a catalyst but never comic relief.
2. Character Emotions
Sometimes, the audience sympathizes with Madcap Gal (in the way that cops sometimes let crying women off for violating traffic laws). At best, the audience empathizes with Madcap Gal, because they see parts of themselves—the more wounded, hidden parts—in her. At worst (especially true for fuddy duddies), they view her as reckless, irresponsible, and they rejoice in her fall.
3. Character Components
a) Interior – Madcap Gal was raised in home environment where she didn’t get much attention. With aloof parents, she did everything possible to command attention: acting up, acting out. When that didn’t work, she decided to take her efforts elsewhere, moving out at sixteen and traveling the country. She never stays in a place for too long. She gives the illusion of being completely open and transparent without ever actually being open and transparent. When we are introduced to her in the opening scene, she has already been in Town A for six months, as long as she’s stayed anywhere. And she is torn because for the first time in her life, she feels compelled to stay.
b) Exterior – She dresses flashily. In loud plaids, in menswear, in tight pencil skirts. Her hair is styled in a tight bob, but she often wears wigs. Most times when we see her, she is wearing a hat. Her favorite is a beret, situated to appear tossed on when it has really been arranged just so. She imagines herself a modern day Bonnie without the Clyde. She walks rapidly, as if she is always late to the next thing (which is often true). Her small apartment is decorated with art she finds on the street. Her rooms are painted bright colors: turquoise, mustard seed, tomato. There is a sort of clutter about the shelves of knick-knacks—old skeleton keys, figurines, glasses—on the living room walls and the pans hanging in the kitchen. But every time she moves, she drags most of these possessions on the curb, taking only her white Samsonite suitcase. Over the course of the first thirty minutes, we see her working three different jobs: at a thrift store, at a coffeeshop, at a fortune cookie factory. We find out she has also worked at a rollerrink, at a record store, at a grocery store, among others. In a flashback, we see her arriving at Town A by riding the rails.
4. Character Background
a) Where is the character from (background)?
The audience doesn’t know precisely where Madcap Girl is from, because she has a different story for each person she encounters. She is from a nondescript town in the middle of the country. She invents new places to be from because the reality of her hometown is too boring for the image she creates for herself.
b) What was she doing just before this scene?
Just before the opening scene, she was sleeping.
c) What does the writer say about this character?
Writer says she is running from herself. That her antics are a kind of disguise she wears for having no sense of who she really is or what she really wants.
d) What do others say about this character?
Madcap Girl is either the source of admiration or of scorn. It is impossible to feel neutral about her.
e) What does the character say about herself?
She doesn’t say much about herself. She is a woman of action.
5. Character Objectives
These are the main needs and wants of a character (what people want out of life)
a) SUPER OBJECTIVE: “To Be Perceived as Madcap Gal” What is the primal motivation of the character? To be perceived by others as spontaneous, adventurous, the life of the party. What are the main needs of the character? To keep moving, to distract herself, to keep her truer needs ands desires invisible to everyone, especially herself.
b) OBJECTIVES What does the character want (motives)? Attention, excitement, constant movement. And, though she wouldn’t admit it, love. What are the active choices to achieve the Super Objective? Constantly switching in and out of identities and jobs and relationships, avoiding like the plague anything that could be perceived as practical.
c) MAIN ACTIONS
What the character DOES…initiates schemes, stays up all night, recruits followers to be a part of adventures to get what she WANTS…attention (feeling of worthiness) to fulfill her NEEDS…to be hidden (to be seen)
6. Character Dialogue: excerpts
“A man with a record!”
“You think you’re free? I’m free! You don’t know what freedom is! I’m free. I can breathe. And you… will choke on your average fuckin’ mediocre life!”
“I may have made a mistake but that is no reason to patronize me. It is dismaying that your expectations are based on the performance of a lesser primate, and also revelatory of a managerial style which is sadly lacking. Is it any wonder then that I’ve chosen not to learn the intricacies of an antiquated and idiotic system?”
“Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting.”
“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
“I have many skills.”
“He’s dull as powder”
“You’re never gonna jump, are you?”
“Do you think I may one day escape?”
“I’ve been living my life, okay? I’ve been in good relationships and I’ve been in shitty ones… and I’ve moved alot… and I’ve been happy, and I’ve been sad… and I’ve been lonely… and that is what I’ve been doing. Which is a lot more then I can say for some freak, who thinks he’s gonna get the Ebola virus from a bowl of mixed nuts.”
*sketch format based off of formula suggested by Peter D. Marshall
: a kind of tree whose leaves move easily when the wind blows
: any of several poplars (especially Populus tremula of Europe and P. tremuloides and P. grandidentata of North America) with leaves that flutter in the lightest wind because of their flattened petioles
I want to tell you about aspens but I don’t know anything about aspens. Not more than you do, I’m sure. That they have gray trunks. That they are tall trees, spindly. They look like a game of pick-up sticks falling, except with leaves. That their leaves have points and thick veins. That these leaves change colors—from green in summer, to yellow and orange and red in fall. That these leaves fall dramatically, one at a time and in clumps in winter, leaving the trunks completely bare. That in spring, naked aspens grow new leaves, after the snow has begun to melt. I can tell you these things about aspens but I don’t know these things in the way you know the palm of your mother’s hand or how to drive to the drugstore in your hometown or how your love likes his or her eggs. I didn’t grow up with aspens. Aspens like cool climates with cool summers. They like high altitudes. They live on mountains. They enjoy the way the winds tussles their leaves. I grew up in Louisiana, where the air is full with hotness and humidity. Still, the landscape is made of trees. Oak trees arch themselves over long thoroughfares. Cypress trees rise out of swampy water, their knees and torsos rising up from the muck. Sweet olive trees cascade their small white flowers, covering sidewalks and yards. Magnolia trees produce waxy dark green leaves and then brown buds that will eventually open into bright white petals. But I don’t want to tell you about oaks, or cypresses, or sweet olives, or magnolias. I came here to tell you about aspens. How when wind hits them, their leaves begin to spin without falling. How these leaves appear to shimmer, as they spin, in the sunlight. How, when you look out on a forest of them, it seems as if a painter has just applied one long stroke of cadmium yellow. How, incredibly, those tall trunks lean, pitch, bend so far to the side, without falling, without breaking. I don’t know about aspens but I do know about moving easily when the wind blows. I know what it means to sway. I know that when a strong wind moves me, I find it impossible to stand still, to quiet myself, to keep myself from fluttering. I know that when the gale hits, I quake from the impact. I wonder if I will withstand the feeling of pressure and of cold. I move. I am moved. I am moving. And even as I bend, even as I swing, even as I undulate and oscillate and stagger, even as I wobble and lurch and reel and roll, I can feel my roots extending down and down, fixed tightly in the earth, I can feel the sturdiness of my trunk as it extends up and down and I know that through this storm, I will hold.
shent (shent), adj. [ME. Schent < pp. of schenden, to put to shame, harm; akin to G. chanden], [archaic & Dial], 1. disgraced. 2. lost, ruined, or defeated, as a case. 3. injured; damaged 4. reproached.
Social work researcher and storyteller Brené Brown spent six years studying shame. She had gathered people together to ask them about their greatest accomplishments, their experiences with love and belonging. However, she found when she asked about these things, participants instead told her their greatest failures, their experience of lost love, their most painful experiences of not belonging. When she looked closer, she found shame.
We’ve all experienced it. That burning sensation that begins in the gut and spirals up through the chest until it reaches our cheeks, setting them ablaze. Our faces grow red and hot and we feel a deep sense of not okayness. We want to hide. We wish we could disappear. Whether our shame emerged from something said or done by someone else or from our own self talk or deeds, we are familiar with the feeling of shame searing through us.
Brené Brown says that shame can be lethal. Whereas guilt can be a powerful motivator for change as we realize: I did something bad, shame has the capacity to destroy us because the message is: I am bad. The tricky thing about shame is that we often feel like we are the only ones who experience it; this breeds isolation and, in turn, more shame. Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”
Our moment of difficulty or confusion spins out so that we search for all the areas in our lives when we are wrong. Perhaps a coworker alluded to us not doing enough on a work project and this was this initial hit of shame, but we didn’t catch it. So soon we are spinning stories left and right about our inadequacies: we shouldn’t have taken this road: look at this traffic, idiot ; we haven’t been attentive enough to our relationships: you said you were going to call your best friend back and you still haven’t done it; you are SO selfish ; we skipped the gym: you are undisciplined, fat, ugly; we didn’t wake up as early as we said we would: and wasted the morning, we are bad friends, bad employees, bad children, bad parents, bad bad bad. It is so easy to get caught up in this web of unworthiness. Shame spins us in circles.
Each shame we experience is embued with the memory of our early shames. These early childhood shames had us worrying we were not okay except without the awareness that these moments of self doubt or feeling not okay are things everyone experiences.
When I watched Brené Brown’s first TED talk, I was blown away by her articulation of what it means to be vulnerable and why it can be so scary sometimes. She spoke of how hard it is to live life with your whole heart. In her second TED talk, I was grateful that she spoke so honestly about her own vulnerability following the huge success of her first TED talk. She said that she had been intentionally flying below the radar, keeping her work small. Her desire to stay small mimicked the findings from her research: she feared what would happen if more people knew about her work.
Shenpa is the Tibetan word for attachment. Attachment feels like a mild word for what shenpa feels like. It’s when we cannot let go of something and it takes control of us. We keep returning and playing the same scenario in our mind and in each replaying we feel more and more out of control. We are so attached to the vision of what we want to happen that when something happens outside of this, we easily fall into stories. Shenpa is like shame. Instead of realizing that the world is uncertain and that we have very little control over our lives, we spin out, pretending that if only we hold ourselves accountable, if only we had done things different, if only we took the perfect path, we wouldn’t have to suffer. But this is a lie and it is a lie that disempowers.
We can’t go back and undo our past experiences with shame nor can we prevent it from arising from time to time. But we can choose to recognize it when it shows up. We can say, I see you, shame, and I know that you are not telling the whole story.
I find it interesting that yesterday the word was regret and today the word is shent. Both of these can cause us to feel strong emotions. In both of these, we have choices. We can regret our experiences and learn from them to make better decisions in the future. Or we can use our regrets to steep in shame, deciding that our regrets alone define who we were, who we are, and who we will be.
There is a trick though, to overcome shame. BrenéBrown says that if that petri dish growing shame is doused in empathy, shame cannot survive. We need to be mirrors to one another. This is why the practice of tonglen can be so helpful. In tonglen practice, when we are most immersed in our own feelings of grief or anger or loneliness, we can free ourselves of believing we are alone by breathing in our own feelings and the feelings of all the other beings around the planet who are experiencing the same emotions. Then we can breathe out relief to us all. Tonglen is a helpful reminder that, even when we feel alone in our “unique” experience, there are countless individuals experiencing similar feelings. That solidarity can save us from losing ourselves in shame.
re·gret (ri-ˈgret), v. –gret·ted, –gret·ting, –grets. –tr. 1. To feel sorry, disappointed, or distressed about. 2. To remember with a feeling of loss or sorrow; mourn. 3. regrets. A courteous expression of regret, esp. at having to decline an invitation. [ME regretten, to lament < OFr. Regreter : re-, re- + greter, to weep (perh. Of Gmc. Orig.) –re·gret·ter n.
Cartoon by Laure Porché
The origins of the word regret mean “to lament” or “to weep.” There is a bitter taste that permeates regret. We want things to be other than they are. We feel loss. We wish we had behaved differently or tried harder or let go sooner. People often hand out the trite saying: you’ll regret the things you didn’t do in life more than the things you did. But I think there is plenty of room in Regretsville for them both. I also think, in this privileged land of choices, we spend too much time regretting or anticipating regretting the wrong things.
Some regrets mark a culture in which we are too scared to even be in touch with our deeper desires and regrets. Teenagers and young adults say FML when they have a challenging day, when they don’t get precisely what they want. Microsoft boss Steve Balmer said “his biggest regret” was missing out on the smartphone boom (This was incidentally, the first result when I searched for “my biggest regret” is). Saying one’s biggest regret is not getting in on an industry to make more money seems pretty silly in the grand scheme of things. But I think it is a helpful canary for a culture that is driven by accumulation of more and more wealth.
Regret can also signify our desire for constant control of every aspect of our lives and our inability to recognized our own humanity. My mindfulness teacher once told me not to be too hard on myself about my actions in the past. “If you could have done something differently, something more skillfully, you would have,” he said. “That was the best you were capable of at the time. Regret as fuel for change and for acting better in the future seems productive. What doesn’t seem productive is using regret as a weapon against ourselves. Our today self decides that there was something that our years-ago self could have done so that we wouldn’t have regret. But our years-ago self wasn’t capable of more mature or wise action; that self hadn’t yet learned the lessons.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ultimately, what they seem to boil down to is one word: connection. Connection with ourselves and connection with others. Connection with ourselves allows room for us to become aware of how we want to use our gifts and our lives and to trust that over the feedback we get from socialization and expectations of others. Connection with others allows us to value relationships over work and to reach out and make ourselves vulnerable with the support of those we care about. Realizing our connection to everyone and everything allows us to get out of our selfish spin cycles of thought and into the world that we belong to.
The Dalai Lama said, “The pain of regret didn’t go away. But I don’t let it pull me back and drag me down.” I don’t think it is possible to be human and not have regret. We will inevitably mess up. We will do things we wish we hadn’t done. We won’t do things we wish we had. But I think there is a healthy way to acknowledge our regrets without getting mired in them. Miring ourselves in regret is a trick. So long as we fixate ourselves on the past, we don’t have to be present right now. And right now is when we actually have some choice.
bridge sign, Naut. a sign on a pier or quay to show where the bridge of a certain vessel should be when the vessel is moored.
We moored ourselves. The journey over water had been long and now we edged in from the sea. Places we knew before only by faint lines on a map were now vivid to us. But there was something even more thrilling than the adventure: the arriving, safely, at the quay. We pulled in to the space marked by the sign and anchored. Home.