Our Little Angels and Demons Eating Disco Fries – book excerpt

We often don’t have a choice when it comes to being wrapped in the barbed wire of suffering and despair. There is a good reason why 1 in 4 Americans have some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. It’s in our nature to become our own bitter enemies, far worse than any external forces. What we might be getting wrong in our society is this notion that if you’re not going to be depressed or anxious, then you should be sitting pretty on the other side of the scale – happy. 

I hate the word happy. 

It’s one of the worst dead adjectives in the English language. 

I don’t let my students get away with describing something or someone as happy in their writing. Now, before you brand me a misanthropic, pretentious C U Next Tuesday, let me explain. 

Happy is as relative as humor or food tastes. I’ve seen people go ape shit over exploring old cemeteries. I know. I’ve been one of them. Seasonal depression can be just as prominent in the spring and summer as it is in the winter months. A lot of people thrive on shorter days, oversized hoodies, and cold morning air freeze-drying a wet head. I am one of them. 

Furthermore, someone in touch with their angels and demons will acknowledge the fact that the darkest hours in life shape us into exactly who we want to be, not who we think we should be. 

Here is a list of women writers and poets who achieved unconquerable literary feats yet took their own lives. 

Ann Sexton 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman 

Virginia Woolf 

Elise Cohen

Dorothy Parker 

and my spirit animal, Sylvia Plath 

Now, before I go any further, let me make it clear that I do not condone suicide. But I strongly believe in person’s choice to live or die on their own terms. If that makes any sense. Terminally ill patients often face a suffering far worse than death. If you have nothing left to lose, and no control over what will ultimately consume your body, then you absolutely should be able to take your own life. I do not believe anyone with a mental illness dies by suicide. The illness is what kills the person. All of these incredible women, as well as brilliant men such as Robin Williams and Anthony Bordain died from depression, not suicide. Help, proper treatment, and acceptance over shame far supercede a permanent “solution” to a treatable mental illness. I have forgotten to remind myself of this several times. 

Nevertheless, these ladies’ suicides shouldn’t define who they were overall, but in a way, their deaths defined their art. None of these women would have been able to create the work they did without their inner torture. For that, ladies and gentlemen, we have to equally give thanks to the angels and demons on their shoulders and perhaps be a little grateful for our own.  

“As for me, I am a watercolor. I wash off.” – Ann Sexton. 

You can be a not so enthusiastic observer of art but still love watercolors. When spread out on paper, they give us a fair representation of the human condition – running unpredictably, blending and changing constantly, and weathering the storm. Watercolors can make quite a mess and they are not easy to use when painting a concrete image. Nevertheless, they are indescribably beautiful no matter how screwed up the composition may be. Yes Ms. Sexton, we all create chaos and wash off, but we are all our own masterpieces. 

“I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” Sylvia Plath. 

Perhaps I am a little bias since this woman is my girl crush, who I’ll always refer to in the present tense, but Sylvia hits the bullseye with a thumb tack on this one. Our wants and our needs often come together for one big circle jerk. All too often, we spend a lot of time prioritizing the needs and/or completely brushing aside our wants. Going through a cycle of wants over needs and needs over wants makes life a lot harder but a hell of a lot more interesting. Perhaps our self-destruction is an art, but an Impressionist painting – hypnotic from afar and utter chaos when magnified. Maybe Dorothy Parker was on to something…

“Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.” 

Bottom line, curbing the demons in favor of the angels would not have likely saved these incredible women, and bringing the devil to his knees may not have given us their phenomenal gifts. 

As an educator, I’ve sadly not had many opportunities to teach the power of writing poetry. But at the end of the day, it’s not really something that can be taught. It’s already there. In your bones, right down to the teeth and fingernails. For most, it just takes a lot of cattle prodding to start mooing that beautiful music. And poetry is, in fact, music without the notes. 

I learned this when, as a teacher, I organized and directed a Spoken Word performance with a large group of teenage students with various disabilities, namely Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Speech and Language Disabilities, and physical disabilities. For anyone who may not know, Spoken Word is basically performance poetry, recited usually from memory and with intense inflection and emotion.  

I’ve never performed Spoken Word, nor had I ever intended to. I can barely get up and read my poetry in a hole-in-the-wall hipster cafe where everyone is stoned. So the prospect of running a Spoken Word with my students was, to say the least, daunting. But there was one driving force that kept me pushing the envelope – my students’ undying enthusiasm for writing and speaking despite the hands they’ve been delt. As a special education student myself, the thought of participating in performance poetry would have been equal to preparing for a colonoscopy. I admired every second of their boldness, their love for the written word, and their ability to use their voices. They knew that in this judgemental world, not many would listen, but they still spoke. I hope poetry will continue its upswing and keep fanning the flames. 

Sure, a lot of the material my students wrote for Spoken Word fell into the category of angsty, teenage melodrama. However, a great deal of the writing brimmed with philosophical wisdom well beyond their years and their supposed disabilities.   

Student 1 – “…If I could go back 

and find you right away, 

our loving duet, 

I’d move faster for you…”

Okay, so that one is a pretty much adolescent emo, but well done for a child nonetheless. Now take in the next two pieces generated from old book pages I handed them while they were sprawled out on the stage during preparations and rehearsals. 

Student 2 – The works are in themselves 

found curiosity poetry.

Drama, poetical and sentimental romance   

in every country, 

in every language. 

Immortal halos around 

men and women

divided into classes. 

Student 3 – Her face is pleasing 

her body is soft 

her skin is fine, tender, and fair. 

Her eyes are bright and beautiful. 

She is lovely. 

Her love is perfumed like the lily 

that has newly burst. 

She is respectful and religious. 

She is the gods. 

This process is called blackout poetry. I call this the poetry method for anyone who’s convinced they are poetically challenged. You take an old book page, either real or photocopied depending on your stance on dismantling old books, and you circle the best words and phrases that can come together to make a sensical or ambiguous poem. Then you break out a black Sharpie and draw lines through all the words you don’t want seen. This can be done simply with black ink or if you’re feeling bold, you can sketch, paint, or collage the spaces you want blanked out. Here are some of mine. 

Blackout poems can be a versatile, cathartic, and freeing process, but it can also be challenging, especially for children who have enough of a hard time putting their thoughts on paper. But these guys embraced every second of this scribbling madness and knocked it out of the park. I didn’t think I could get a bunch of special education students to use unconventional ways to create poetry, but I still fall into the trap of questioning my kids’ abilities. Every time I do, I’m the one that comes out looking like the dumbass. As a special education student myself, growing up in cesspools filled with  people who doubted my abilities, which then kept my self-image in the shitter, I can understand where my own strained confidence comes from. 

For weeks, I rehearsed my kids to death – pushing as much eye contact with the audience as possible, reminding them to stand straight and tall and face the audience. I repeated the word “enunciate” excessively, and I threw little tantrums like my old drama teacher from high school, Mr. L –  the only teacher who could make me feel like I was ready to stand up in the world and be seen, heard, and remembered. I can’t say I was looking to match that kind of leadership. You either have it or you don’t. As a teacher or parent, you can always make an impact, but there’s a vast difference between educators and teachers. Educators instill knowledge and skill sets. A teacher’s job is to lay the bricks needed for students to value what they’ll experience as well as prepare them for the wrecking balls they have to dodge as they build. And perhaps…just perhaps, we also have to encourage our youth to experience and accept failure and approach it with an open mind. 

The day of the performance was phenomenal. Aside from one student who was overcome with crippling anxiety and had to leave the stage, every kid moved and felt their words and did their damndest to make sure the audience felt those punches. Not many powerful and joyous moments bring me to tears. I can’t say I’ve had enough of them to truly know the difference between my cool tears and my hot ones. But I ended the show, as the host, barely able to verbalize the unbridled pride I felt for my brilliant but underestimated wordsmiths. Based on their words, they know there is good in the world that will embrace their abilities and disregard their disabilities. But they also know as well as I do, this world dissolves what doesn’t fit into a typical mold. This duality is not easy for our kids to remember because all we seem to do is teach our kids how to avoid their external and internal demons. In general, we dwell too much on how to be happy, and we don’t focus enough on how to be productively despondent. 

Use bold colors, and speak to those who have passed. They hear you.

From the guidebook for my upcoming oracle card deck, The Forgotten Words Oracle. Preorder at http://www.etsy.com/shop/TheForgottenWord

Use bold colors

In tandem with “Let Your Colors Run Together”, keep in mind that it’s often best to use bold, brilliant colors that perhaps you’re not used to experiencing. In our professional lives, we are often confined in subdued colors – gray cubicles, black desks, chairs, and technology, an overall sterile environment. Our children’s classrooms are becoming more drab in hopes of minimizing distractions – so kids can keep their eyes on their electronic screens? Makes a lot of sense (note sarcasm).  

Our homes are often adorned with decor television shows tell us is stylish or appropriate. In general, our little worlds often lack variety, excitement, and bold colors. This card is about cutting out the mundane. It may be time to find ways to bring more color and vibrancy into your life. Look into gathering some flowering plants that grow indoors and in the shade no matter the season. Replace some achromatic winter clothing with more “out-of-season” colors. Dozens of shopping outlets have redesigned their winter clothing lines with more vivid hues. Maybe add some boldness of color to your home decor with vibrant throw pillows, blankets, tapestries, artwork, even a new coat of paint that rids your space of the emptiness of white walls.  If you’re feeling more adventurous, stop at a craft store and get yourself a set of acrylic or watercolor paints and a variety of painting tools (you can use objects from your home as painting tools that would make cool designs). Don’t worry about being an artist. A“full-fledged” artist (me) didn’t paint this picture. Just have fun with the swirls of color that represent who you are and where you want to be.   

On a more internal level, you may find that it’s time to let your voice be heard. Part of making positive changes in your daily life is standing your ground and accepting your right to say “no”. Make someone wonder what lit up your rainbow. 

Writing Prompt – Grab a set of multi-colored pens, pencils, or markers. Complete these mini prompts in the corresponding color. 

Red – If I could change the color of the blood in these veins, it would be _________________ because…

Orange – I need to learn to create ____________________ so I may….

Yellow – If life gives me lemons, I’m going to make ___________________ instead of lemonade, so…

Green – How would the trees around your home, job, and/or favorite getaway spot, narrate your life? 

Blue – You have the power to manipulate the shape of the clouds above someone’s head, who would it be and what shapes would you make and why? You cannot make words. 

Violet – Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers, comes down to Earth and declares violets can no longer be violet. Why? Get to know her better at Theoi Greek Mythology at theoi.com.

Speak to those who have passed. They hear you. 

I came across what appeared to be a makeshift grave marker in the same cemetery where my mother’s ashes are interred. This one stone wasn’t simply lying against a traditional gravestone. It was one of many large stones and heavy sticks compiled to make a shape similar to a pyramid. This was an actual gravesite of a departed loved one whose family may have not been able to afford a marble stone at that time. 

My heart ached at the sight of this. I sat on the grass in front of it for a moment and took this photo of the simple yet beautiful black writing against the gray. I thought about how loved this person was. I wondered if the family couldn’t afford a headstone or did they choose not to use a monument carved by a stranger’s hands. The possible reasons behind this gravemarker were pretty much endless. But one thing is for certain, this memorial was honest, meaningful, and well-kept. If any pieces from the wood and stone structure fell, they were put back in place. Someone placed red flowers in the dirt. Someone made crosses out of palm leaves. Someone felt closer to their departed loved one by using nature to honor the soul that has passed. 

This card reminds us to speak to our lost loved ones as if they are still here, and then be mindful of the signs that may be responses. These answers may be communicated with a cool or warm draft, a shadow that appears for a split second from the corner of your eye, or with a minute too early or too late needed for you to avoid catastrophe. 

Sometimes this connection can be much more subtle or completely unnoticeable, but if we remind ourselves to let go of our fear or shame over speaking with the other side, we could start to pick up on its presence. Whether you are a believer or not, you never have to lose someone completely because they carry on within you and around you. They are never really gone. 

Sometimes the best time to let out all that’s weighing you down is with someone who will not say anything in return. Why should speaking with a lost loved one be any different? 

Writing Prompt – Create your own picture perfect version of heaven. But make sure in the center there is a small pond, and through the ripples of the water, you hear your closest friends and family speaking to you. What are they saying to you, and how are you trying to get them to notice your response? 

Sylvia Plath once wrote, 

“Dying is an art.

I do it exceptionally well. 

I do it so it feels like hell.” 

We live as we die, 

and we die as we live. 

Are we going to know 

the difference when it’s time? 

Maybe we’re dead now, 

and the ones in the ground 

are living,

singing, 

praying, 

dancing,  

the way us above-grounders 

used to do. 

Maybe we are actually alive

and the ones we say goodbye to 

leave for new circles of aliveness. 

Labyrinths of grape trees. 

Oceans without waves we can’t control. 

They are the whispers in daydreams. 

They are the cries we won’t let others see.

The Forgotten Words Oracle deck project

Today is the last day for my Kickstarter to bring the printing of my oracle deck to life. Please see http://kck.st/2E8O5h5 for “The Forgotten Words Oracle and other goodies”if you would like to support the project and get some great handmade stuff! #kickstarter #kickstarterproject #oraclecards

Breathe

$124 and the first printing of The Forgotten Words Oracle will be in the works! Deadline is Wednesday. Fingers crossed 🤞🏻🤗 In the meantime, here is another excerpt from the guidebook. st/2E8O5h5http://kck.st/2E8O5h5

Breathe

Photo taken near the rocky cliffs of Newport, Rhode Island

Some little, out of the ordinary things
happen when you take the time
to stand under a tree and look up
no matter the season.
A memory of a tall, heavenward entity
that came from a miniscule seed,
a curiosity about how old the tree may be,
a wish to see its insides and count its rings,
or an acceptance of the shelter and perspective
its arms provide.

Stop where you are, look up, and take a replenishing breath. This is not so much a “stop and smell the roses,” type of message. That implies you have to wait for the right moment or place to breathe in and out and take in your surroundings. This photo was taken on a clayish kind of day when the air was heavy with an early Spring dampness. The trees were perhaps not much to look at yet. But no matter where you are and what surrounds you, take a moment to acknowledge and admire the fact that any environment can be made beautiful in your eyes.

There is no right or wrong moment or place for repose. When we think we don’t have the time for peace and reflection, that’s when we need to breathe, reset, and find an ascending light, even under the grey barrenness.

Writing Prompt – Visit a favorite park, walking trail, or a massive tree in your own backyard. Stand, but preferably sit or lie, under your chosen tree and look up. After each deep breath you take, repeat, “Bring me back and shelter me,” as many times as you need to before answering this question. What inside me do I need to continue to feed and let grow, and what do I need to starve and let die?