Being there

“I probably shouldn’t be grinning on Good Friday,” I said to the Dean after today’s Good Friday service. But one of the features of bipolar illness is that sometimes you just aren’t in charge of your emotions. On a day like today, when I’m teetering on the edge of hypomania, sometimes I just feel giddy, no matter what. I was in that state when the first of my grandparents died. I got the news, tried to be sad, and failed miserably. So I went to the store and bought a pack of cookies, and probably ate them all in one sitting. Probably giggling, I don’t remember.

Today’s liturgy was the second part of the great Triduum, the three services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve, respectively. In a way, it is actually one liturgy broken across three days, and so it encompasses the full three days which it spans. The appropriate emotions would run the gamut of human experience, from the cozy togetherness of Maundy Thursday’s footwashing and Last Supper, to the pain of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution, through the shocked, perhaps numb, state Jesus’ friends must have felt on Holy Saturday, to the bewildering joy of Easter’s unprecedented resurrection. But few of us can muster all those emotions in three days just by participating, however fully, in the liturgies. “Were you there…?” we sang today; and even though in a way, we were, we actually weren’t. We were in a beautiful church, fully aware of the story’s arc and what happens at the Easter Eve vigil.

Then there was me, feeling giddy…able to rein it in, but unable to keep my mind from wandering throughout the service.

Which is one reason I truly appreciate our sacramental tradition. My spirituality is not something that happens in my head, or what my emotions are doing (emotions actually being much more bodily than we tend to acknowledge). Even when my mind is wandering, there is my body, in the church, sitting attentively, or standing, or kneeling, or kissing the Cross, or bowing, or, most importantly, receiving the Sacrament.

Today, we received the Sacrament under the species of bread only, reserved from Maundy Thursday’s Eucharistic celebration. Traditionally, Episcopal and Catholic churches keep Reserved Sacrament, in which we believe Christ is truly present, somewhere in the church at all times. However, on Good Friday, it is all consumed. There is no Reserved Sacrament in the church. I was reflecting on this after receiving Communion. Very dramatically, we see that Christ is now only present in the bodies of the faithful who are gathered there. Yes, we believe in resurrection, and we are preparing for it in ways Jesus’ disciples and other friends could not have done after seeing him crucified. But in his dying, as in his Incarnation, he gives himself so fully to us that we have a responsibility to be his body in the world.

And for that, as for worship, it doesn’t matter how we feel. What matters is what we do with our bodies. Show up, do the good work God has given you to do. Put one foot in front of the other and trust that God is directing your steps. Proclaim the Resurrection this Easter not only with your words, but with your body. This side of death, we already share in Christ’s resurrection in our mortal flesh, even if it’s broken or diseased (bipolar, say), even if we aren’t feeling it, even though we can’t break all our bad habits. Show up, put one foot in front of the other, do the good work God has given you to do.

Resurrection is coming.

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Wherein the poet casts herself in the role of the Gerasene Demoniac.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, dealing with life…

To at least check in, I figured I’d post a poem. It grew out of hearing the story of the “Gerasene Demoniac” one Sunday Evensong a couple years ago (or so). I recognized myself in the passage.

I feel the need to add a TRIGGER WARNING, as this deals with bipolar and self-injury. But other than that—I’ve been told I shouldn’t over-explain a poem before presenting it, so here it is:


Elaine Elizabeth Belz
MY NAME IS LEGION
Luke 8.26-39

I could be the madman in this passage: mine
the howling, the bruises, the manic
smashing of all constraint.

What have you to do
with me,
Love?
.                               I train my voice
to his, in case finding myself in the drama
might amount to faith.
Fractured shackles
still inscribe their false creed;
feigned hope bleeds into the margins.

But what if I were to profess
these dark stains, stark ciphers
set down on the page? Would belief
leap from dead paper, call forth
my name, and quiet
the clanging
hollow space between words?

The story plays out as arranged:

Pigs flee the scene,
the madman ambles off, perplexed
—though in his right mind;

.                                           but I
remain in white tombs of the text
poring over my Gerasene scars.

 


 

In case this seems familiar, I did blog on the text. You can find that post here.

 

Journaling in metaphor

Sometimes it helps to have a creative method for letting out and tracking your moods. A mood is more than feelings; it is an outlook and an energy level. It can be hard to put into words, particularly for those of us bipolar folks who experience “mixed states” which combine symptoms of both mania and depression.

One of my favorite things about metaphors is that when you find a good one, you can actually work from inside it and think through it, letting it do the heavy lifting. I think that lets you work through something while keeping your more analytical mind in the dark a little bit. It’s one way to approach poetry. I’ve also found it works for journaling.

I’ve never been good at journaling – especially when it comes to putting my feelings down on paper, in plain English. What was originally true for me with poetry (in my early days with the art form) is still true with this quasi-poetic form of journaling: I tend to mostly do it when I’m feeling relatively negative emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, or a vague sense of longing, or mixed feelings that need to find expression in order to be understood.

So I’ve found this set of three simple metaphors that help me make a little bit of sense out of my feelings. I started it years ago, traditionally just before turning out the light to go to sleep. A year ago, I started it up again in a lovely bound journal I was given the previous Christmas. New entries seem to find their way into the journal rather infrequently – which may be a good sign; maybe I’m feeling pretty good these days.

The first entry in this journal will show the basic pattern. I describe what the window, lamp, and clock are up to (even though I no longer have a lamp beside my bed, as I did years ago):

1 July 2012
The window faces outward.
The lamp beside the bed never meant to let go its light.
The clock slurs and staggers like a drunkard.

Night time has always been my most productive time for writing, poetry or otherwise, since I’m very much a “night owl.” I wrote a lot of these little mood journal entries over the years, particularly when I wasn’t feeling inspired to write much else. Eventually I arrived at some theories about what the window, lamp, andclock signify, but I try not to think about that when I write a new entry. Here’s the second:

3 July 2012
The window is silent.
The lamp beside the bed gives off strange light.
The clock has lost its voice.

Then there wasn’t another entry till August:

1 August 2012
The window shudders for no reason at all.
The lamp beside the bed responds with a flicker.
The clock does not stop.

That last line echoes Sylvia Plath’s poem, Mystic,” one of my favorite of her poems. The last line of Plath’s poem—”The heart has not stopped”—might be a clue about what my clock symbolizes, especially given its use in my own poem, “By Art or by Physics.”

Continuing:

2 August 2012
The window is shattered, but hangs inplace.
The lamp teeters and casts a long shadow.
The clock may be to blame.

But the next entry is an example of a positive, contented feeling:

11 August 2012
The window guards the light inside.
The lamp glows warmly.
The clock registers this moment.

A little over a week later, that feeling had changed:

20 August 2012
The shattered window tries to mend;
The lamp sends light and heat;
The clock ticks out a work song.

21 August 2012
The window quietly moans.
The light gently hums lullabies.
The clock is fingering beads.

29 August 2012
The window holds the stagnant light inside.
The lamp beside the bed bathes everything in grey water.
The clock hums so much white noise.

2 September 2012
The window turns its back.
The lamp beside the bed drones the same thing, endlessly.
The clock keeps repeating itself.

9 September 2012
The lamp beside the bed burned too brightly, now is going dim.
The clock can’t tell.
The window is so far away.

15 September 2012
The lamp’s light gropes at the corners of the room.
The window eludes its grasp.
The clock gives no hints.

As you can see, the order in which each “actor” appears varies. This probably means something too.

28 September 2012
The lamp beside the bed makes notes.
The clock interprets them inchant.
The window smiles broadly, a sympathetic audience.

30 September 2012
The window spins around, giddy and disoriented.
The lamp slowly drips out light.
The clock anxiously counts.

If I were looking for insight, I’m not sure the following entry would help much:

1 October 2012
The window is glassy.
The lamp sheds light.
The clock ticks.

3 October 2012
The clock is telling stories.
The light absorbs them all.
The window can hear nothing.

4 October 2012
The window is stuck, half open.
It lets the light escape,
and the clock considers jumping.

Now I’m going to skip entries, since no one probably wants to read them all. This one shows me playing with the format more than usual:

10 October 2012
The window reflects back the
Light, in pulse to the beating
Of the clock.

The following would have been written while I was home in Detroit for a visit. Apparently, while there, I occasionally wrote two in a night.

22 October 2012
The clock is of two minds.
The light beside the bed wrings its hands.
The window is busy negotiating.

The window is scanning the horizon.
The light kneels beside the bed.
The clock is parceling out prayers.

Feeling sleepy:

23 October 2012
The clock winds down toward stopping.
The light beside the bed dims.
The window is closing its eyes.

Feeling happy:

1 November 2012
The clock chirps,
The light whistles,
The window keeps time.

More variations:

11 November 2012
The window
Closes on the light.
The clock surveys the remnants.

13 November 2012
The lamp flickers in time
To the second hand of the clock;
The window is the only source of light.

16 November 2012
The clock ticks religiously, but it’s the silence between ticks that counts.
The light shows up on walls and things, but goes unnoticed in thin air.
The window is an empty space surrounded by a frame.

21 December 2012
The lamp hurls itself out the window.
Time can be heard passing
Even in the dark.

22 December 2012
Tonight, it’s the clock
That hurls the lamp out the
Window.

28 December 2012
If the clock seems erratic,
it’s only because it’s scrambling to capture scraps of light
let go by the dying candle’s wick;
Scraps which crumble to the touch of indelicate darkness
the window lets in.

31 December 2012
The window lets in light,
but the lamp is not redundant: it gives warmth.
The clock is lulled to sleep.

20 January 2013
The lamp’s glow is subtle, but warming.
The clock lowers its voice to a drone.
the window turns a gentle smile out to the world.

1 February 2013
Last night the light burned over-bright; tonight
It glows just enough to see.
The clock is steady, the window shut.

18 February
The clock has picked up its pace.
The window is a protective barrier.
The lamp exhales a warm light.

19 February 2013
The lamp refuses to be turned off.
The clock is giggling.
The window is oblivious.

22 February 2013
The window is sealed up in cellophane.
The light is like liquid.
The clock can’t keep time.

1 April 2013
Light ricochets
Off the window at such tremendous speed,
The clock winds up a month ahead.

22 April 2013
There is no reasoning with this clock.
The light pools up beside the window,
Sulking.

That nearly catches us up to the present. Only a couple more entries—30 April and 11 June—follow that last one. No entries at all in May.

I imagine this sort of thing can be done in many art forms, such as music, photography, dance, or painting. When it’s too tiresome to say how you feel in ordinary language, what creative outlets do you use?

A little trilogy of poems

Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.

WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.


Here are the poems; some discussion follows.

NIGHTCAP

I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.


I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.

Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.


WORLDVIEW

Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,

and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.

The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,

take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.

So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.

But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,

sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.


DE PROFUNDIS

I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—


Lord, have mercy.

I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:

Kyrie eleison.

My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.

Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.


As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.

The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy! 

I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.

De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie

Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.