PHOTO: Nadia Hatoum, Flickr, Creative Commons.
A couple of weeks ago four couples got together for an evening meal. One of us, a poet, handed out copies of his new collection. His comment to me was something along the lines of “It’s okay if you don’t like them.”
I’m sorry he felt the need to qualify his gift, or perhaps give an end run around my as-yet un-lobbed criticism.
But I get it. Surely there’s little as naked as writing and sharing poetry. It’s straight from the heart, easy to critique and impossible to defend. To be a poet is to put yourself voluntarily in the cross-hairs, to take off the armor we all hide behind every day. And here he was, giving me his soul-sweat-stained work, unrequested, for me to do with, interact with, as I wished.
Unlike him, I’m supposed to be immune from this type of insecurity. I must be, since I’ve aired my struggles for all to see, willfully and repeatedly, on film and in writing many times over the past couple of years.
This willingness to lay it all out there is more about survival than anything. When I came out of the third cancer experience with its absurd set of events and terminal diagnosis, I found myself bewildered, standing on a mountain top looking out at an experience and a future I didn’t know how to comprehend or navigate and screaming “WTF?!”
Writing, speaking, putting it on film became an iterative process – the act of communication created meaning and understanding. I come back often to the words of E.M. Forester that Susan Gubar quotes in her book Reading and Writing Cancer: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”
Every time I picture the cancer’s return, writing or talking about it is easy, because meaning must again be created, sanity re-discovered.
When I presented the Proof of Life film for the first time at the end of October in 2018 to a group of 100 friends, it was a wonderful evening. I was calm, centered, communicating clearly and fluently from the heart. The group was with me, sharing my emotional journey for an hour.
Vulnerability? Not a problem.
Then a couple of weeks later, Rachelle and I were in the local Garland Theater with two friends where a 5-minute side-project of the Proof of Life film was shown as part of a traveling trail running film festival. Instead of being excited, I felt shy, naked, almost apologetic.
Here were 300+ trail runners, all faster and more fit than me, judging me and my stupid little 5-minute film with its trite lesson at the end, all about running a trifling little 25k race that any of them could do before breakfast on any given Saturday.
It was all I could do to raise my eyes as I scuttled through the lobby afterward.
Two weeks after that, I was one of 6 speakers at an event for a local nature conservation area that I volunteer for frequently. When I got there I was hit by my status as Odd Man Out, the emotional runner among the geologist, naturalist, ecologist, conservationist and board president with their well-informed fact-based talks and calm demeanors. I stood there in front of a room of mostly strangers after a busy work day, my head fuzzy. The podium setup was all wrong, my speaking was stilted, my voice was hoarse.
I was at the helm of the Hindenburg watching it crash into the Titanic.
Rest assured, there was a fairly major internal debriefing session the next morning.
In her TED talk on listening to shame Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is not weakness... Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
(She also says that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” – handy to embrace if you’re, say, a poet, or a person receiving the poet’s collection, or the emotional runner among the experts.)
That same evening when my friend handed me his book of poems, another friend shared around the dinner table about deep childhood hurts and the years-long process of recovery. That type of vulnerability brings a level of intimacy that commands not pity, but respect. You can’t help but grow as a human being when a person invites you into their life with complete freedom, and not a shred of self-pity, to share about their struggles and how they have worked through them.
That evening’s arc of conversation went from collections of poetry to Superbowl predictions to childhood trauma and mid-adult healing. It wasn’t strange at all – it was beautiful and vulnerable and fun all at the same time. And a lesson to mull over.