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Archive for November, 2011

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving tops my list of favorite holidays. It lacks the pressure often paired with other holidays and provides an excuse to get together with loved ones and bask in feelings of gratitude. I’m usually pretty dedicated about using Thanksgiving as a day to practice being mindful and thankful for every specific thing I can come up with. Most days I can write a never-ending list of what I’m thankful for–but some days that never-ending list, like the idea of infinite, gets too big and packed together for me to see or remember any one thing. I’m embarrassed to say that this Thanksgiving proved to be a day where I couldn’t handle grand ideas and even the concept of infinite didn’t seem real. I made myself concentrate on the simple and obvious things I’m thankful for like: loved ones, my education and ability to have a voice, in addition to the basic things like: indoor plumbing, heat, food, water, etc…

Somehow even the simple things felt complicated on Thursday.  Despite knowing, logically, I am always and forever grateful for all of those things and many more, I didn’t feel grateful. I dwelled on everything difficult or damaging about whatever I came up with to remind myself to be thankful. My mind took on a life of its own for moments of the day, and I had to gently remind it that I’m in control, making sure to avoid judging it for where it took me.

The night before Thanksgiving, I met up with a group of friends from a service-learning group I used to be apart of. It had been years since we’d all been together, and I loved catching up with all of them. I’ve shared deeply spiritual moments at both ends of the emotional spectrum with these group members. I guess that’s how we form spiritual connections with one another–by seeing each other at every extreme and helping each other learn to let go of our desire to “be tough” and “in control” all of the time. On our trips, we all witnessed horrendous poverty and the emotional and physical suffering that comes along with it. Yet, the miracles we’ve seen in smiles from gang members or felt in hugs from kids afraid to trust and terrified of love, keeps us going. We feed off of each others positive memories and the reminder of our ability to feel fierce love.

My best friend, Laura, and my older brother picked me up from dinner to take me to the bar where we’d meet up with more of my closest friends. I left the service-learning-group, overwhelmed with gratitude and excited for an evening with my best friends and brother. Due to my favorite bar closing, and a few other miscellaneous factors, the bar I went to had more people from high school in it than anywhere I’ve been since being in high school. Seeing so many people I used to know, overwhelmed me. I should clarify, it’s not that I dislike people from high school I lost contact with, in fact, I really enjoyed reconnecting with some. I just don’t like to be reminded of what I used to be like in high school. I suffered a lot in high school because I had an intense case of perfectionism and a fear of being disliked by anyone. I sacrificed being myself in order to be liked, or at least not disliked, by almost everyone. When people ask me what I’m doing these days, it takes more than a sentence to answer. “Living at a retirement home for nuns” isn’t enough information. When people ask me what my book is about, it requires a conscious choice for me not to smile and sugarcoat it. “It’s a memoir about struggling with mental health and spirituality, and how I think they’re connected,” I say, reminding myself there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I typically get one of two responses: “But you were always so happy” or awkward silence with an attempt to switch subjects. I’m still working to remind myself that I don’t need to internalize people’s discomfort when it involves insecurity on their end.

I got a few supportive comments from people I hadn’t seen in years–either about my project and current living situation in order to pursue it or just by letting me know they read this blog. Those are the little things that keep me going and remind me to be proud of myself for working hard not to return to my high school self when I run into people who knew me then. It’s easier to snap back into my high school politeness and eagerness to please, but I try to force myself to be real if they ask questions that require real answers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going around telling my life story to every person I ever knew, but I feel like if people are nice enough to ask about me, I’m going to answer honestly. If they didn’t want an honest answer, they shouldn’t have asked.

Overall, I left the bar feeling thankful for the growth I’ve had since high school. My brother made me laugh, saying he realized “he’s made it,” because he doesn’t have any kids, is in a PhD program, and was able to end the night by pissing on a Kid Rock beer bottle already in the urinal. I appreciated the metaphor.

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Mercy

Since moving here, I reflect on the word mercy a lot. It used to be a word I associated with guilt-based torment from Catholicism. They still start every mass by asking God for mercy, but what does that even mean? I used to interpret it as confirmation that I was never, nor could I ever be, good enough. Not exactly a healthy perspective to hold all the way from childhood into early adulthood.

The order of nuns I live with are “The Sisters of Mercy.” They are responsible for all the Mercy hospitals and schools you see all over the country. Their creed is something along the lines of helping the: poor, sick, and ignorant. I might have screwed that up, but you get the general idea. I’ve learned about their founder a lot since moving in. She, like many iconic religious individuals, was counter-cultural. She didn’t want to become a nun. She didn’t understand the point, because they didn’t seem practical. Their founder dove into helping the poor and sick, in addition to making education accessible to anyone she could.

The sisters here all take the word MERCY very seriously. The gospel at mass today was one I’m recently familiar with from reading Simplicity by Richard Rohr. Rohr quotes Matthew 25 over and over again. The point of the passage is that Jesus says the one thing (and apparently only thing) everyone will be judged on is whether they saw Jesus in the least of “his people.” Rohr says that, as a priest, he believes everyone caring for the least of humanity is doing it for Jesus, even if they don’t know it. That being said, he said his faith is something to keep him on track, and that not everyone finds Christianity or religion helpful, but that they still treat the “lowliest” of humanity with dignity and respect. Those are supposedly the real servants who gain access to Heaven, whatever you want that to mean.

One of the nuns got to do the homily today. I get frustrated with the patriarchy in the Church, so it was refreshing just to  hear a woman speaking with authority, and it being celebrated. She told a story from when she used to work fixing glasses in the 70s. She talked about how she always made sure to care for the person by taking off their glasses for them, touching their ear to see if the glasses fit okay, and then placing them back on the person. She said she hears Matthew 25, and thinks, “Yeah, I’ve done that,” and then thinks of all the great things she has done to show mercy to people over the years–Mercy, basically translates to compassion, I’ve gathered–Then she told this story of one woman who smelled so foul and had such filthy glasses, that this nun (before she was a nun) did not show the usual warmth, physical contact, and care she showed others. She was still pleasant to the woman, and the woman was grateful, smiling and thanking her for fixing the glasses. This nun said when the woman left, she knew that she’d missed an opportunity to show the kind of mercy and compassion she’d hope to be shown in that situation. She’d broken “The Golden Rule.”

This story got me. For instance, with my kids in the summer. I try to love them all equally, and I hope in my actions I do, but there are always the ones who are dirtier than the others, and they always seem to be the same ones who are needier, too. Sometimes I get uncomfortable when they play with my hair, hang on my arm, or wipe their sweaty foreheads on my t-shirt right where my belly is (Don’t ask. it’s just a weird thing they do that grosses me out, but is sort of endearing). Instead of thinking of the sanitary issues with those situations, I should just appreciate that those are signs of love. Those kids LOVE me. I don’t even do anything special. I just love them, and because of this, they make me feel like the coolest person in the world. Everyone should have such a cool job.

This homily, of course, extends to all aspects of my life and not just my summer job. And the nun somehow connected this all to Jesus, which is cool (but living here is beginning to make me think maybe I’m not as desperate for conventional faith as I’d thought). Either way, I realized I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the word mercy since being here, but that I hadn’t directly translated it to compassion. Compassion packs so much power, I don’t know why it’s not considered cooler than it is. It surfaces in so many subtle ways that I’m never ceased to be amazed by it’s strength.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m thinking about MERCY on more of a human level. All the people who’ve showed me mercy over the years. I can think of friends, family, teachers, even strangers who have showed me mercy that I will never forget. The cool thing about mercy and compassion is that it’s something that is better when shared. So whether you’re showing mercy for someone suffering because Jesus tells you to do it, or just because you feel their pain, it might even motivate them to show some mercy in their life too. This just got a little too “Touched By An Angel,” as my High School writing teacher used to say when things were a little too picture-perfect. Even if this sounds too good to be true, that doesn’t make it any less true. Plus, we all know what compassion and mercy are up against, and that’s far from a “Touched By An Angel” episode.

Swirl of Thoughts

I worry my last couple blog entries have been too much complaining. So here’s the way it is: the stomach pain hasn’t gone anywhere. My mind’s far from tranquil. Life isn’t bad, though. I’m seeking wisdom, and it’s a full time job. I try to celebrate the moments of clarity that somehow sneak their way in between all the thoughts of chaos.

I’m in conversation with one of my favorite writers about working under her for an independent study. It’s a dream come true, but it will require a lot of sacrifice on my end. We’ve been playing phone tag (except I seem to be “it” all the time), and it’s starting to worry me. I’d considered not applying to grad school, if I could, for sure, work under her for a semester. If I don’t hear from her soon, I need to get going on my statements of purpose and resume to send those in which I need to politely ask for a letter of rec. I, luckily, have my 30 page portfolio pretty polished up. It still needs a couple fresh perspectives, but I didn’t want to stress people I care about if I wasn’t going to go through with applying this year. This phone tag is strange, because she has given me specific times to call–like a phone date, and yet, still not answered. I’d do anything to work under her. I just need to figure out if this is for real or not. I worry too much, so this inability to connect is bringing out a lot of my insecurities.

I’m writing again. Well, I’m revising again–intensely revising. It feels great. I’m proud of how my first chapter has evolved. I started it two years ago as two separate pieces, and now, it’s once chapter that only contains excerpts from my first two pieces, switched around in order too. I hope it’s strong enough to get me accepted to a program that offers funding.

I don’t want to do a lot of explaining about my current journey, but I’m not in a bad place. The physical pain has certainly complicated things, but it also has humbled me a great deal. It’s a reminder that I’m not as in control as I pretend to be, and I’m hear as a student of life. Here are some quotes about “artists,” that comfort me on a night like this.

 

“The primary distinction of the artist is that [she]/ he must actively cultivate that state which most [individuals], necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”

James Baldwin

“Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home.”

Gwendolyn Brooks

“To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist.”

Jasper Johns

 

Oh, and I’m painting again. I love it, but have to be mindful not to snuff myself with all the toxic smells in my little room. I keep the windows open while painting and store the actual painting and paint thinner in another room. The maintenance folks are kind enough to dump the dirty paint thinner out for me in their toxic disposal stuff. Both the sisters and staff here spoil me. It’s really the best place a writer could ask to live. Now, if I could just get this health stuff straightened out!

Paranoid

Paranoia has a variety of root causes. It can be learned from nervous parents, a result of traumatic events, or more often, a part of a psychological disorder. It also can be triggered, or in many cases intensified, by street drugs or prescription medication. I’ve had traces of paranoia for most of my adult life. Both my parents worry just like their families did. Not to mention, paranoia is a part of Depression and Anxiety, which although they were often undiagnosed or translated into alcoholism, contaminate the soil of my family tree on both sides. I’ve come to accept I’ll always be a bit paranoid about some things. Plus, I like to think like Kevin Nealon’s character from the HBO show “Fat Actress.” He plays some shady record producer who offers one of the main characters marijuana. She declines and says,  “That stuff makes me really paranoid.”  He responds by saying, “Well it’s good to be a little paranoid. It keeps someone from just comin’ up and whackin ya.”  Amen, Nealon. Amen.

In all seriousness, I’ve been unbearably paranoid a few times in my life. It often correlates with when I first start taking Wellbutrin or have my dosage increased, which I’ve experienced a few times. For instance, a couple years ago I had to start taking it again after a year of being off of it completely. Kanye West’s album 808 & Heartbreak had just dropped, but I hadn’t heard it yet. It was around Christmas, so I sat in a room full of some of my closest friends from high school. I was tense, and I hadn’t seen most of them in a long time. One of them started singing that Kanye song, “Paranoid,” and I had never heard it, so I got paranoid thinking that they were making fun of my paranoia! It’s the most intense sort of paranoia where I panic in cars, certain people aren’t breaking or are turning into us. Or, I’ll panic and think I see animals running out in front of me when I’m driving.

After I adjust to being on the medication, I’m stilly jumpier than if I didn’t take it at all, but it’s manageable. I’ve been paranoid again lately, though. Not as extreme as mentioned above, praise the deities, but it’s bothering me. I’ve had unexplainable stomach pain and cramping for about a month now. They’ve done a lot of tests and found nothing that could be causing it. They suggested I get my psychiatric meds adjusted because the pain could be psychological and caused by anxiety/stress. I try to remind myself that just because I’m on almost the same amount of medication I was after my hospital ordeals, I’m not regressing. I’m still relatively well, mentally speaking.

The med adjustment seems to have thrown my body off. I don’t know if it’s medication related or not, but my new therapist thinks I’m having a bit of hypomania. Luckily, I’m not full blown manic. I can still function according to social norms, but my thoughts race, I don’t sleep as much, and I either get a lot of stuff accomplished or none because I can’t concentrate. This is where the paranoia comes in: my stomach pain is still just as bothersome. After being told my mental health isn’t as great as I thought it was and could be causing the stomach pain, I now get depressed about being depressed when my stomach hurts. Then I get paranoid about relapsing, which downright terrifies me. Then, balancing out the lows, the hypomania kicks in.

Another example of paranoia getting in my way, I just received some very good news about the potential to work with one of my favorite writers, so I’ve been on a bit of a high. I’ve always talked fast and been giddy when I’m excited. Now when I feel excited, I get paranoid that it’s not my excitement; it’s the hypomania and that something more is wrong with me. Then my thoughts spiral out of control: I think about how I’ve been so open about my mental health and tried to show others it’s worth putting in the energy to get better. How will I be able to tell them it’s worth it if I’m sick? Then, I think about how I will have to admit to the nuns I’m mentally unstable and move out and go back to the hospital and start all over again. It’s irrational thinking, but anxiety and paranoia are not rational most of the time.

I feel fine mentally. I do get depressed some days, but I know to just take it easy, sleep, and get through them. I also am having the hypomania stuff, but it’s not all bad. I’ve been getting lots done. I guess, now, my biggest concern is the stomach pain and whether or not my mental health is okay. It is an awful feeling to not be able to trust your own mind. It’s like at the end of “A Beautiful Mind” when the main guy asks someone else to make sure the person talking to him is not a hallucination. I’m like that, too (not the schizophrenic part). I have to have someone say, “No, calm down. This is normal,” or “No, this is definitely not normal, let’s address how to combat it.” I’ve gotten better. I used to panic at even just one bad day and think I was relapsing. I’d need my psychiatrist or psychologist to say, “Hey, be nice to yourself. You’re allowed to have bad days.” I can tell myself that now. Lately, these strange medical issues are bringing back my insecurity about my own sanity. Because here’s the thing about insanity, you don’t know you’re insane until you get better. Through all this confusion and paranoia, I’m still staying strong, though, thanks to all my wonderful friends and family who support me.

Detox

Today I started my first ever “detox diet.” I always thought detox diets were for people trying to flush drugs out of their system before a drug test. Don’t psychoanalyze where I got that idea. With all of my stomach pain, someone suggested I try to cleanse my system by doing one of these detoxes to start over the probiotics in my stomach. I asked my doctor about it, he seemed cynical. He also said if this will make me more mindful of eating healthy and drinking lots of fluids for 7 days, then he supports me trying it. Today I had a hard time passing up the desserts. In fact, I feel like I’ve been hungry all day. Fruits, veggies, and occasional whole grains or protein just don’t fill me up like the fattening food I love. I’m hoping it will get easier as the week goes on, but I’m still wondering how I’m going to make it a full week without chocolate.

Tomorrow I’m going to a new therapist. My brother, who is getting his PhD in Clinical Psych, was kind enough to research the resources in my area and even called the woman to make sure she takes my insurance. Going to new therapists is always intimidating, but I’ve gotten to be a pro at it over the last few years. Since I started seeing a therapist, five or six years ago, I’ve only had one long-term therapist. Having a long-term therapist makes a huge difference. I was lucky enough to have one see me directly following my hospitalizations all the way through to graduating college. Therapy is such a long, draining, and sometimes downright upsetting process, but all the progress I made in those couple years blows my mind. My quality of life is much better because of my work in therapy, so I just have to go into my appointment tomorrow with an open mind and the desire to improve myself. It’s interesting that admitting to going to therapy is so taboo. I try to be open about it, but I sometimes forget it’s still not talked about in some places. For instance, in a group of small town folks, without thinking I said, “My therapist says…” and then I realized I’d just made everyone uncomfortable by admitting I have a therapist. I, personally, think everyone should have a therapist. What better way is there to self-reflect and develop self-awareness? You get to talk for one hour straight while someone listens attentively, provides alternative ways to view situations, and always supports you and reminds you to be nice to yourself.

My dad seemed jealous of my self-assurance the other day. I was packing a bunch of my painting supplies, and it was a lot of crap to hall back with me to the convent. I didn’t think it was a big deal, because one nun had suggested I bring my painting stuff, not to mention, I have my own room where I can store it, so I don’t know why anyone would care.

My dad said, “Are you really taking all that shit?”

“Yeah, why?” I said

“Is it your meds that gives you the confidence to do that, or therapy, or what?” he asked.

This response shocked me for several reasons. The first and foremost: I’m far from being a confident person, and did he really think self-assurance can come in a pill? My parents also ask me if I’ve taken my meds if I’m upset about something. People struggle to understand that anti-depressants aren’t really happy pills. They don’t protect you from experiencing all of the emotions that life brings. There’s a quote I like, although I can’t remember the author. It’s something along the line of, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. It’s human vitality.” The medication just balances out the chemicals to take care of the physical symptoms keeping you from having the energy to do things that help you feel better. I don’t think people understand that mental illness can be physically paralyzing. During my second hospitalization, I could not get out of bed, and I honestly didn’t care if I got better. I didn’t have the energy to fight anymore.

Thinking about how far I’ve come, I try not to get discouraged that I just had to get my meds increased. I’m trying to remind myself that brain chemistry changes and that going on more medication is not the same as getting worse. It’s actually me fighting and my refusal to go back to where I was. I really don’t feel bad mentally yet, but it’s interesting how our bodies can sometimes tell us things we’re not yet conscious of. Maybe this physical detox will help detox my mind.

Warning: This Might Be Uncomfortable

What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t)
 
By Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
	coloring
in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
primping in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance at your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally having a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

I recently saw a clip of Sarah Silverman (on Rachel Maddow) criticizing the Republican Party for how quickly they swept under the rug all the tension surrounding the name of Rick Perry’s hunting camp. I know Silverman acts like a lunatic, but I love when she’s serious and drives a valid point home. She referred to racism as a gas in the air that is often not concrete enough to point at. Her argument was that the few times it is visible, like this issue about Perry’s hunting camp name that contains a racial slur, we need to tackle it head on, as a nation. Maddow and Silverman talked about how we avoid such topics because they are uncomfortable for all of us, regardless of our race. No one likes to admit racial tension is as damaging as it really is. This got me reflecting on a recent talk/book signing I attended by the rapper, Common.

I’ve been listening to Common since I was too young to even understand the depth of what he was rapping about. When he signed my book, I made sure to tell him this. He seemed surprised, but smiled and said, “for real?”

I understand I’m not the stereotypical hip-hop fan. I’m just a nerdy white girl who loves language and people who share a passion for it. I’ve also been concerned about social justice issues before I even knew what “social justice” meant. Someone like Common who plays with words and rhythms while talking about important issues facing society speaks to my soul. I feel it’s important to let people know if they’ve influenced me (yes, I am the dork that writes fan letters and goes out of my way to shake hands with influential speakers). I figure it never hurts to put genuine positive thoughts out into the universe, especially when we all face such negativity on a daily basis.

I complained to my friend, Laura, at the Common speech, that it’s frustrating how race has to be such an issue. I understand that I can only imagine what it is like to be Black, and I have no idea what it’s like to grow up on the South side of Chicago or what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. I don’t ever want to seem like I’m belittling others’ struggles by connecting with music that targets a group I’m not included in. Just hear me out, though: I gave the scenario of me approaching a country musician. I like country music, and I can connect with the basic human emotions they sing about like happiness, sadness, heartbreak, and anger –Plus, I love beer:) — That being said: I never grew up in the South. I’m not Christian, and I don’t connect deeply to a majority of the country singers. Yet, if I went up to a country singer and said, “Hey, I really feel your music. You speak to my soul,” no one would think anything weird about it because of the color of my skin. When I go up to a hip-hop artist like Common, and I mention that I’ve been moved by his music, I get odd glances. Isn’t art supposed to celebrate our differences while still connecting us as humans? If someone speaks raw and difficult truths, it doesn’t matter how he or she says it, I’m going to express my gratitude.

The poem I posted above is written by Patricia Smith, a woman I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times and have a deep respect for. She rocks both academic and Def Jam poetry, which is no easy task. I was assigned to read this particular poem in one of my first literature classes in college. We spent the entire hour and fifteen minutes deconstructing it. It blew my mind that there could be so much depth in so few words.

My professor was a British white man, so I found it interesting that he wanted us to read this, even though it was a poem about as far removed from his identity as one could get. Before this poem, I’d only had poetry by a bunch of old dead white guys shoved at me with an occasional Sylvia Plath poem thrown in. The teachers never emphasized these writers as people. They didn’t mention their addictions, mental health issues, and family struggles. I only saw their old-school language that I couldn’t understand and heard about their prestigious awards, which made them people I couldn’t connect with. Everyone in the textbook seemed dead—in more than just the literal sense. I’d never felt the poems come alive like they’re supposed to. I expected to experience the same sort of frustration when we went over Smith’s poem.

I got this feeling in my stomach when I heard it out loud (it was especially interesting to hear it read in my professor’s charming British accent). For the first time I knew that this poem was saying something deeper than just the words spelled out (Which I now know is the entire concept of poetry—trying to articulate the unspeakable). I couldn’t figure out why the poem moved me so much, but I knew for the first time that this poem was alive and meant to stir up my stomach and mind.

After years of struggling with explaining my passion for this poem, I think I understand why it got me. First of all, I was a freshman and it had the F Word in it—twice. I didn’t know poetry in a textbook could be so real and raw. Second of all, despite not being able to relate to trying to grow into a Black woman, I related to the struggle of just trying to grow into a confident woman in a society where women are seen as second-class citizens. And I knew if I was honest with myself, I hadn’t successfully transitioned into a strong woman. Instead, I’d learned how to act happy and pleasant at all times. So that line about feeling “like there’s something,/everything wrong” articulated something I’d been afraid to admit to myself.

Also, I was fortunate enough to have a diverse group of close-knit friends in high school. We didn’t talk much about race until we all moved away to different colleges and realized what a factor it is in our everyday lives. I’m thankful that we were all articulate and close enough to express these racial tensions in an honest non-hurtful way. My friends flat out told me they felt angry toward all white people because they believed them to have a sense of entitlement and ignorance about the struggles that come along with being a minority. They admitted that they had to remind themselves that no one chooses their race, and they had white friends they both loved and respected. I confessed to having trouble meeting diverse friends because of the way my stereotypical middle-class university seemed so segregated, and that I was afraid to step outside of my comfort zone. It calls attention to yourself if there’s a table of people who are the same race as you and another table with people from another race, and you choose to sit down with those different than you. I think it’s great if people can do that, but it messes with everyone’s ideas of social norms, so people stare and might not be welcoming.

Reading Smith’s poem, I felt sad and anger for my friends of color who have to deal with different issues than me just because of the color of their skin. Plus, regardless of race, I felt discouraged for all of the women I know, including myself, when I read the part about learning to swear with grace and have sex without it. What woman can’t relate, either personally or second hand, to learning to put up a strong front (saying fuck with grace) while still giving ourselves away (whether that be sexually or in other ways—just spreading ourselves thin) to feel some sense of worth and then needing to pretend we’re too numb/tough to care about the implications?

I had the honor of meeting Patricia Smith at a writing conference a few years ago in Chicago. Unfortunately, it was two weeks before my 21st birthday, and I was with a group of friends who were all over 21. I admit to taking full advantage of the unlimited free beer at this conference meant for all of the classy professors and writers, not undergraduates like me. Needless to say, I wasn’t my sharpest when I met her. I was too afraid to go up to her, but my friend, who’d also had too many beers, insisted I introduce myself because he knew how I adored her. “She’s been drinking too. She’ll love knowing you’re a fan,” he said while pushing me toward her.

“Excuse me, are you Patricia Smith?” I asked. She nodded, wondering what on earth I might have to say to her. I tried to tell her how “What it’s like to be a black girl” was the first poem that really awakened me to poetry. She laughed, asking what did I know about being a Black girl? I tried to justify that it was about more than racial issues and that I had friends of color who were really open about their struggles and feelings, so I thought of them when I read the poem. Instead it came out more like, “I have black friends,” and before I could explain that my friends and I talk about racial tension, she teased me, “Oh so you know what it’s like to be black because you have black friends?” I blushed, saying, “No, no, no, we just talk about race, but your poem’s not just about race. You know–just being a woman is tough, and” her friends interrupted her, telling her they needed to get back to their hotel room.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I gotta go. Are you coming to my reading tomorrow? I’ll tell you what. I’ll read that poem just for you, even though it’s an old one.”

I was on a high. I’d never met anyone out of one of my textbooks, but I felt humiliated about my inability to articulate why her poem moved me. I get so nervous meeting people I admire—add alcohol to the mix, and I’m just flat out terrible at it.

Luckily, I met her at the same conference the following year in Denver. I reintroduced myself, apologized for our first interaction and still tried to articulate why I loved that particular poem in addition to the poems in the latest book of hers I’d bought. She was so kind and, by chance, I just kept bumping into her at the conference. She even gave me a hug before I left.

You’d think all of this talk about racial tension would be the point of this entry, but it’s not. I felt this served as the best avenue for me to explain my recent epiphany, which hearing Common speak helped me better understand. I’ve been reading a lot of spiritual books lately. They’re all packed with wisdom that just blows my mind, but they all say sort of the same thing just in different ways. I had a moment of hopelessness, thinking, “Why should I try to write a book about spirituality and mental health? It’s all been said. The information’s out there if people seek it.”

Then, I started thinking about some of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and Marya Hornbacher. They’re all from middle class backgrounds dabbled in all sorts of mental health issues/addictions/or spiritual afflictions. It’s because of those people speaking deeply to me as a teenager that I’ve been able to branch out to read some of the people they were inspired by—people I can’t connect with as much, but are still full of wisdom. I realized we need everyone from all different backgrounds spreading the idea that we need to believe in ourselves and do our part to make positive change in the lives of those around us. No, we can’t change the whole world, but we can change our world and help influence others to change theirs.

We’re surrounded by so much hate and despair, we need people like Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and even Eminem (if people really listen to him as a whole) appealing to crowds that might not listen to some one like me trying to tell them they can change their life for the better. We all need people we connect with, telling us, “Hey, I’ve been to hell and back. I know life is hard, but let me just be there for you. Let me help you help others. Let’s work together.” Maybe some people will connect with my story more than some of the people who have influenced me. That’s really what it’s about. We all have our own story to tell. So what if our hopes and dreams aren’t unique? Let’s surround ourselves with positive people and feed off of each other’s energy to make positive changes. We’ll recruit more people who agree that life is hard enough without us making it harder on each other. Sure, this is idealistic, but it takes idealism to make change. Half-assing things doesn’t create radical changes. Be willing to put yourself out on the line to help others. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Sometimes all people need is someone to listen. Any of us are capable of that. Just do something. Anything. Make art. Talk to an elderly person on a park bench. Just do whatever you can to spread peace, respect, and love even if it’s just one person at a time.