My emotions have always been too much for other people, and, if I’m being honest, quite often they’ve been too much for me. Although it totally explains how I came to grow up and become a poet, it isn’t an easy way to be in the world. I don’t mean that I go around expressing my feelings all the time. It’s quite the opposite: I was raised in New England where if we celebrated anything aside from too-short summer it was stoicism. We endured without talking much or at all about what we were enduring.
I only ever managed it for brief periods, exploding now and then in some kind of fit. As a result, I earned a reputation — at least in my childhood home — for being unreasonable and volatile. It caused me to feel a certain way about myself (nothing good, I assure you). Although everyone’s experience of it became a kind of inside joke, there’s a lot of pain that remains from that dynamic. (And not just for me.)
I grew up not only to be a poet but also to be in a marriage that repeated some of those patterns: there wasn’t a lot of room for emotions or intensity. Whether or not it was intended, I felt judged, and at some point, among the things that broke in that relationship was my ability to live with that story line. My divorce became equal parts separating from my ex and distancing myself from old ideas about who I was. The healing afterwards was as much about figuring out how to avoid losing myself in a relationship as it was establishing a new sense of my “okayness” (unlearning old standards for what about me was acceptable/unacceptable).
It’s a process I imagine I’ll always be engaged with (and to a degree, I think most people struggle with for their own reasons), but where I am today feels healthy. When I encountered the poem “Taking Care” by Callista Buchen thanks to an email from Poetry Daily, I recognized myself. Buchen writes,
“I sit with my grief. I mother it. I hold its small, hot hand. I don’t say, shhh. I don’t say, it is okay. I wait until it is done having feelings. Then we stand and we go wash the dishes.”
Those moments — presence, balance, awareness, generosity toward the self, etc. — aren’t necessarily plentiful, but that’s OK. I know what I’m after, and I know it’s possible. I seek the kind of presence that allows whatever needs to fill the room to fill the room for whatever time it needs.*
And so it surprises me when my inner dialogue leaves the building entirely.
It’s unlike me to have a vacancy sign where my emotions should be (at least not for any length of time), and I really have no idea what precipitated their departure. A little bit of chatter remained, but I couldn’t seem to access real reflection or meaning for 10-12 months. I still experienced things — pleasure, stress, delight, sadness, etc. — but not within my normal register. So the way I’d describe it is that I couldn’t really feel enough to process what anything meant or why it mattered.
During this time, I stopped writing and reading poetry.
I’d try both, but when I failed to feel any kind of way about them (or about the world seen through them), I gave up. This “lack” was my own (as opposed to the poems/poets I was reading).
I have no idea where the capacity to drop down into things went, or why it decided to return, but it *is* returning. The “read 100 poems in 12-ish months” effort is accelerating it, for sure. Coming back to the joyful, careful reading of poetry books — and taking time to make some personal notes about each — is helping me find my voice again. And this is why poetry matters. My inner self is speaking to me, and you can bet I’m all ears.
In fact, I’m so receptive that the poems are making me cry, as when I read Misery Islands and when I read The Second O in Sorrow. In the latter, there’s a poem in which the narrator describes the natural distance between teenagers and their parents, along with experiences specific to the narrator and his own teenage son:
“But there is also something there so far beyond me it is like looking at a distant cloud, or that feeling when the geese begin to cover the sky in vees. He is leaving me and I am feeling something mixed inside the bowl of the second O of sorrow. An ancient soup of passage every father has supped since the first spear was thrown above the tall grass of the Serengeti. … when I miss him, when he is out late or distant, it isn’t just him this tall stranger that I miss and worry so about, it is that three-year-old who woke from a thunderstorm or from a bad dream and frightened came running down the hallway and climbed into our bed.”
Queue the catch in Carolee’s throat.
As my oldest has grown up and left the nest, I’ve written my own descriptions of that experience or, more precisely, my fears about it. You can read those here (A poet and an astrophysicist walk into a room) and here (Congrats, bees: You’re endangered), if you’re interested.
In fact there have been some growing pains between us. For the most part, we talk them through, and, for me, anyway, as in the poem, the connection wins out: how I shielded his tiny body in the hall of an old house during a small tornado, how years after he was bigger than me and the dog died, he heard me crying in the kitchen, came to me and let me cry into his chest.
I know now why I needed some distance from poetry. It was so I could come back to the page empty and with no choice but to allow the poems to do what poems do.
It was so that I could feel this way when I came back to the poems.
And it was so I could feel all the things that are coming back to me.
And all the things I hope will come back to me.
* An important note here is that as a mother, I’m sure I’ve failed to do this for my kids from time-to-time. I’m certain — in the name of needing regularity/stability of the family unit (likely the same thing that pushed my own parents) — I squelched or shamed my kids for some of their emotional explosions. I’m hoping that I’ve also done enough debriefing with them about what went haywire, including my role in it, that the impact is minimal. But this is just a note to say that even with the best intentions we can damage our children in some way. It’s partly the nature of the relationship. And it’s heartbreaking to imagine. I extend this same grace to my parents/family.