I cannot seem to fully get warm today. Neither by the fireplace, nor the drafty back door. It is cold inside these bones and mind. I am not sure how to insulate that part of me that was left to the elements before it had a chance to warm its toes by the furnace vent. This draft must run its course…
Returning to the shed:
A few months ago, my friend Steve called to tell me that he liked a poem I had posted on my blog, called “The Shed.” I cannot remember exactly what he liked about it, except that he thought it was an eloquent metaphor, and that he wanted to use it in his writing workshop through an organization that helps people with disabilities.
When I was asked to write something about this poem and my process as a writer, I was honored and excited about the opportunity to reflect on what it means for me to be an artist, and what being a writer means in our culture. For years, I have tried to deny the fact that I am a writer, even tried to redefine myself as something else—a teacher, or a life partner. I stopped writing altogether for about three years.
After I started writing again, I told a co-worker that I was working on a screenplay about a struggling writer who had given up on her work as a novelist. She stopped me, and said, “Well, I don’t really think there is such a thing as a writer.” She emphasized that last word by holding up imaginary quotation marks with her fingers. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I couldn’t disagree more.
It is true that most writers cannot make a living from writing, but it’s mostly because we are not valued for our work. Some of us are even told that while it may be “romantic to be a starving artist,” at some point we have to suck it up and get a real job. No such thing as a writer, society tells us. No such thing as potential, in other words.
Part of what inspired “The Shed” was this same struggle with work–that thing we do for money–coupled with constantly wrestling with that looming existential question: What is my purpose in life? I was really asking, “Am I worthy enough?” When I wrote the poem, I was at a breaking point with relationships, finances, work, all of it, and finally, one day, I was so frustrated that I stepped out into the backyard to scream as loud as I could.
But I stopped short at the shed, and stared at it for what seemed like an hour. I thought about how my life had changed dramatically over the course of a year, how all those future plans I had when I bought a home with someone are now part of the past. Suddenly, I began to let it all go, and then I heard some inner voice speak those opening lines: “The first time we met/I did not see broken boards…”
True, it is a poem about potential, but as the days grow shorter and colder, I read “The Shed” as a poem about discovering new potential beneath the broken boards and chipped paint of some other shed in a place far away from Burlington, Vermont. It has become a poem about discovering the potential for new relationships, mending old ones, and letting go of ones that no longer support me as a writer and artist. And it will always be about what the reader discovers in each line, each simile, and what potential lies just inside their own sheds.
Cutting room floor:
No matter who said it first, “kill your darlings” is perhaps one of the most useful and pithy expressions that writers can use as an editing tool. Of course, I never follow that advice when I write, since my actions and words seem to be locked in a never ending dual. However, it has lately become less of a metaphor for my writing, and more of a literal interpretation of how I choose to love people. “Release your darlings” would be a more fitting phrase in this sense, but the motive behind the action is the same. Let love go.
Part of this is cutting out memories and replacing them with new ones. This is not easy to do by any means. In fact, I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night in the true spirit of erasing the memory of someone. It’s been years since I’d seen this movie, and there were many scenes and lines that are of particular significance to me now, but these four lines stuck with me all day:
“This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.”
“What do we do?”
I suppose I’m having a hard time releasing my darlings because I didn’t get a chance to enjoy them before they were gone. There’s never an alarm or two-minute warning for the end of a relationship. That, truthfully, only happens in the movies. But then, there’s not a buzzer for the answer to all of our questions either. We either live them, or we don’t live at all.
One of my favorite shorts from the book I’m reading by Rachel Remen is called “Counting Your Chickens,” in which she describes taking care of her elderly and sick mother before she passed away. One evening her mother closed her eyes for a long time, and when she finally opened them, Remen asked her what she was thinking about. Her mother responded with, “Why, I was counting my chickens.”
She had literally been calculating how many chickens she’d eaten in her lifetime, and thinking that this was a great deal of chickens to sustain one human life, she had begun to wonder if she was worthy of the sacrifice. Finally, after realizing that she had never intentionally harmed anyone, though she recognized disappointing and hurting others, she smiled and said, “I believe I have been worthy of my chickens, Rachel.”
One Sunday Morning:
Tonight, I am warming my toes by the fire and eating chicken for one. There are no warning signs hanging on the walls surrounding me: BEWARE! YOUR POTENTIAL EXPIRES SOON! I don’t want to wake up one Sunday morning to find it gone or lying next to someone who tells me how to live instead of loving me the way I want to be loved. So I continue to eat alone and pray that my chances to meet “my person” have been sacrificed for my full potential.
I continue to believe that I am worthy of my chickens.