“What right do I have to write?” I asked my writing coach recently.
I’m not stressing about putting food on the table for my kids, I told her. I’m not facing laws or policy decisions that affect my individual freedoms (yet), let alone trying to survive any other number of unimaginable circumstances. I’m an exceedingly average white woman of privilege.
“If not you, then who?” she asked. “If not now, when?” Then she told me to read Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is Not a Luxury.
You’re proving my point, I thought quietly to myself. Audre Lorde – the now deceased, brilliant, Black lesbian feminist writer – is exactly the kind of woman whose voice needs to be heard right now, not mine. I read the essay anyway.
“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives,” writes Lorde. “It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized…As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.”
Expressing those words, says Lorde, is not a luxury. It is the way in which we transform ourselves and the world around us.
As I read her words, I suddenly got it. it’s not about my own or anyone else’s right to speak. For me, it’s about facing up to an old, old belief system that can be summed up with three simple words: not good enough.
For most of my life, if I’d had a word assigned to me it would be “striving” – striving to do more, be more efficient with my time, be more confident, be thinner and more fit, make more money, acquire more clients, run more races, master more inverted yoga poses, etc., etc. To accept myself as good enough, even for a moment, would have been inconceivable.
I was proud of this attitude. What was the point of living if I wasn’t constantly striving to be better or push myself farther than I’d ever been before?
In a weird way, this need for striving even extended into my spiritual life. For a short period of time in my early 20s, I was obsessed with being a nun – despite the fact that I am not and never have been Catholic, and have deeply conflicted feelings about Christianity.
I’d read a book called Enduring Grace about the lives of several women Christian mystics (all of them nuns), and I was fascinated by their deep, ecstatic connections to God. Even more, I loved the notion of suffering that many of the mystics described on their path to God. This fit my worldview perfectly: anything that was easily obtained was not worth pursuing. If I had to forsake everything in my pursuit of a relationship with the Divine, then it must be a relationship worth having.
Reason overtook romanticism, and I never ended up getting close to a convent. Without being able to put my finger on it, the church never really felt like church to me. But the woods did, so I shifted my attention to an even more compelling fantasy: being a forest ranger somewhere really remote. Just me and the trees and the wild animals, surviving harsh conditions all on my own.
I never got close to that fantasy either, but note the extreme, “all or nothing” thinking.
Go big or go home. I used to love saying that.
Living this way takes its toll, although it took me a long time to recognize it. When I began meditating, I began the lifelong process of figuring out how to slow down and move less forcefully through the world. One day, a question emerged that I’d never thought to ask before: “Why?”
Why did I have to go big or go home? What would it mean to accept myself just as I was?
Even contemplating this for a moment was terrifying. It pulled the rug out from under my entire professional career, and most of my so-called hobbies. Everything had been built on the foundation of not good enough. If that foundation crumbled, then my entire self-identity might just go with it.
For a time, it did. When I left the company I founded, I felt like I was in a freefall. I spent the better part of a year avoiding just about everyone because I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Writing – poetry, journal entries, essays that never saw the light of day – kept me going during that time period. And, just as Lorde describes, it was an instigator, too. Immediately prior to making the decision to leave my company, I spent 100 days writing at least a single line of poetry each day. One theme relentlessly emerged again and again: the overwhelming desire to be free.
Writing has always been a vehicle of transformation and a portal to something much larger than myself. And no matter how many reasons I can think of to stay quiet, I can’t seem to shut my own voice up. It turns out I have things to say, and it turns out I really want those things to be heard.
“For each of us as women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautiful and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness’ and of impotence,” writes Lorde. “These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.”
Power and spirit, growing in the dark. Sounds a lot like the DF to me. Again and again, She seems to be trying to remind me that our darkness holds our greatest potential. Diving into it, then – in my case, through the written word – is both important and necessary.
In Transcendental Etude, poet Adrienne Rich writes:
But there come times – perhaps this is one of them –
When we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
When we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speak
new language, has avoided this.
Sometimes I wonder if I should be marching in the streets, screaming about all the indignities and inhumanities in the world, doing anything other than sitting alone and writing. Sometimes the answer feels like a resounding yes.
Then again, the Goddess works in deep time, a teacher once told me, and deep time isn’t the same as linear time. It is much larger than the span of our simple human lives. After all, we’ve convinced ourselves that humans were uncivilized savages before the Christian era, and superstitious simpletons prior to the Age of Enlightenment. The more time I’ve spent digging into these assumptions, the more erroneous they seem to be.
In deep time, things are proceeding as they should. In deep time, we are witnessing a great dismantling, “a paradigm on its way out,” to quote one of my favorite singers. It will take courage to continue to witness its unraveling, and great strength to respond to the challenges we will continue to face.
Maybe, then, what I’m really doing is heeding the advice of the poets. I’m mining the depths, listening to a universal rhythm within myself, respecting and honoring what is emerging in its own time. I’m dismantling myself and my old belief systems, piece by piece, so that I, too, might tap into the power waiting in the dark, and survive to speak – and write – a new language.