The mind is a mind boggling thing. The fact that we use this tool in an attempt to understand itself shows how complex it is, and how far we are from understanding how it works.
I often hear we are in the days Galileo when it come to neuroscience. We finally have imaging devices, but they are crude and showing us things at a macro level, while the micro details still elude us. I’m a little obsessed with neuroscience right now, every other book that I’m reading has “brain” in the title. To the point my friends poke friends at it. (Angie, I’m lovingly looking at you!) I feel like this is both because of my intense curiosity, and becuase of my desire to understand myself. Maybe if I understand the biology at play I can better understand why I have the strengths and weakness I do, and maybe even work on the weaker parts.
Lately I am again being tormented by dreams. At least its not so bad that I am afraid to sleep, as its been in the past. I still vividly remember the period of nightmares I had in high school that left me sleepless at night and falling asleep in class. And more recently, about a year or two ago, I was having dreams of dying and waking up unable to breath. That was another time I was too scared to sleep. Both of those times I would read or watch TV until I was physically unable to stay awake.
This time is a little different. I’m having dreams about specific people in specific scenarios and it seems every time I dream it escalates in intensity. This is paired with waking up feeling not well rested and tension in my neck and head. I feel like its a window to some unresolved trauma from broken relationships, but what the fuck do I know? I really wish that part of me would speak more clearly to the rest of me so I would know if there is something I can do to resolve this. Until that happens I have writing, yoga, and meditation to try and keep me grounded.
Most of school came easy to me. Too easy. So easy it was incredibly boring. I would live in my head until recess and lunch came along and allowed me to talk with my friends without being chastised. I usually hung out with the other nerdy kids. We didn’t know we were nerds at the time. The few friends from the K-8 school I attended (starting in 2nd grade) that I’m connected with via facebook are pretty proud nerds posting about what Harry Potter houses they are their favorite Magic the Gathering cards. We aren’t all the same flavor of nerd, but we are nerds none the less.
Yet I struggled in two specific areas at school, early on it was writing. Putting my thoughts on a page was hard. I didn’t have great fine motor skills and even though grammar was something I had mostly mastered in speech translating that to periods and commas on a page didn’t make any sense. The confining rules of grammar and the obsession with correct spelling nearly destroyed the love of writing in me.
I remember being in second grade and being told I was spelling too many words wrong and being made to write the words I misspelled over and over on a page until I got them right. I remember my mom drilling me on spelling words at home. No matter how much I practiced I would only get about half correct on the spelling tests. I still don’t understand how to figure out how a new word is spelled at 31. All those spelling assignments and punishments did for me was make me HATE writing.
By 3rd grade my mom was spending me to a tutor over the summer who was teaching me spelling and grammar. I hated that I was going to school over the summer, but at least this teacher was nice. She let me write about things I cared about and was gentle in her corrections. I was so torn on those lessons. I loved and hated them all at once, but she helped remind me that writing could be a good thing. I started journaling not long after that.
In 4th grade I started my first journal, writing mostly about the boy at school I had a crush on. Turns out he’s really into guys, but in Catholic school that wasn’t really something he could be honest about. He was so nice to me, and his last name was next to mine alphabetically, so we were always next to each other in line and often had our desks next to each other. We got in trouble for talking a lot and became close friends for a few years. He thought my mom was cool, it was hard for me to see it.
At school writing continued to be a challenge while everything else (except math) came easily. I now believe I had an undiagnosed learning disability, probably stealth dyslexia, which contributed to most of my struggles. Even though I could never articulate them well the rules of grammar eventually came naturally to me. I’ve since learned that good writing bends those rules too its will and I don’t worry about them. Writing is a tool, like music, to make someone else feel a little bit of what I feel. The point of learning the rules is to learn how to break them.
In Jr. High we learned how to type properly on computers. I hated those lessons, but they opened up a new world for me. Having a word processor that spell checked for me changed my life. It freed me to simply write. Teachers still made big red marks for my run on sentences and missing commas, but spelling was much less of an issue and the struggle of poor fine motor skills was completely gone. By that time we had a computer at home on which I was writing for fun regularly. By age 12 I was writing for a now long defunct website called sk8radio. I wrote product reviews and contest recaps in exchange for free stuff. It was awesome! I was a kid featured right there on the site with all adults and no one made a big deal about it. I was a competent writer who knew skateboarding and thats all that mattered. There was an editor for the site who made very small changes to my work and gave me feedback. No big red marks from teachers.
In High School things were mixed. I was constantly forced to write papers on things I just didn’t give a shit about. It wore me down. I journaled a lot. Its hard to go back and read those journals becuase they talk about being bullied, being scared, and my weird hyper spirituality. Believing in an all present, very involved God got me though the hellish days of Woodstock High School. But there were bright points. Some teachers gave a lot of freedom in their assignments and I could find something I really loved to write about. Of course there were always the fun classes, music and the sciences, which both were oases in a long hellish day of boredom, bullying, and self-hatred over my inability to do any math competently.
One class in particular really set in stone my love of writing, and it wasn’t even one of the “fun” english classes I took. My guidance counselor pushed me hard to take “College Bound Composition” at the honors level my senior year. She noted my consistently high scores in english and wondered why I wasn’t already in honors classes. I reluctantly took the class and in it we wrote of mixture of fun and terribly boring assignments, all very practical.
One day a few weeks into the class my teacher, Mrs. Aavang, took me aside and told me I was a gifted writer. I thought she was nuts. She told me that she rarely saw people with such a natural writing voice, and that I was particularly good at writing my own story and that I should keep cultivating that voice. I didn’t really listen at the time. I just thought, “Is this going to get me into college? Probably not, lets work on that stuff.” But her encouragement stayed with me. It rung quietly in my mind and I continued to journal and eventually blog in various places.
It stayed with me back in my Xenga days when I would write long personal stories mostly about my youth group and spiritual experinces, throughout college in assignments that I cared deeply about. At that level most of the assignments were meaningful, and the teachers engaging. That encouragement is with me now and I’m expanding on how I share that voice publicly and more vulnerably.
I’ve now learned to really love writing and let those awful early memories be separated from the fulfillment it brings me now. I’m even working on my hand writing. I now own a fountain pen and practice my hand writing. Its finally improving a bit and doesn’t look like a six year olds anymore. It took till my thirties to be self-motivated in that regard. I believe it would have come much sooner had it not been forced upon me too early in my development.
Now my own son is six and learning to write. I’ve made the mistake of pushing him to practice his letters in the past. He pushed back, HARD. I backed off and eventually he started writing all on his own.
The other day he wrote a list of all the words he knows how to write, completely on his own, entirely self-motivated. Writing is a big motivation for me to stick with self-directed learning for my own son. He won’t be pushed to do spelling lists and writing exercises. He will find his writing voice in time, probably sooner than I did without the baggage of being forced to do something within confining rules too early in development. Six year olds should be writing what they love and not worrying about grammar. There is lots of time to learn that along the way, which frankly is how I learned most of it. The lessons about sentence structure never meant much to me. I learned to write mostly by reading and I’ve always loved to read. My son loves to read already and started reading at an earlier age than I did. I’m excited to watch him develop his love of writing as I continue to cultivate mine.
Finding words can often be the hardest part of life. And putting words to your deepest feelings in incredibly powerful. A huge focus of my work with the kids this summer is helping them find words. I want to give them examples when I see them struggling and then have them articulate them back to me. Sometimes I need someone to do the same for me. That can come in different forms, friends, family, professionals, but the most powerful place I find words when they don’t come for me is in art.
Carrie & Lowell has been an incredibly important album for me since I first heard the single “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.” I had no idea what it was about, but I could feel the heaviness, and the Christian imagery resonated deeply with me. The first time I listened to it straight though, I had to listen to it again. I listened to it daily for weeks, I learned every word and I cried and cried and cried.
There is a hurt deep at the core of who I am. A loss that had defined me since I was 4 years old. The vast majority of my life I’ve lived without my Father. He died in a horrible accident when I was not quite four and half. He was in his late 20s.
I spent my childhood feeling a profound loss and also feeling like I was never allowed to speak of that loss. I had to keep it deep within myself. I was often angry, but I kept it under wraps as best I could expressing it though various sports. You can throw a ball hard or kick your foot though a board and people don’t get too upset. I was never good at finding the words to tell anyone how I really felt. I still kind of suck at it, but I’m getting better. I have a few safe people now, and I write. I write here, and in other more personal places.
But Carrie & Lowell reached something I never was able to reach in myself with lines like
For my prayer has always been love
What did I do to deserve this?
Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know In a veil of great disguises; how do I live with your ghost?
How do I live with your ghost. Thats always been the struggle.
And then there is
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much? Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch
Which so captures the deep visceral physical feeling of loss. To feel a loved person’s touch again. Nothing can actually communicate that feeling. But Sufjan does a damn good job.
Those past two lines are from the track “The only Thing” which resonates most deeply with me of any track on the album. I’ve struggled with feeling this loss so intensely I want to hurt myself. I’ve imagined how easy it would be to escape it all from driving off a bridge or into a tree. Then I realize I would only be passing on this same intense pain to the people who love me that dearly, and there are at least a few. I would never wish this pain on anyone, so I continue to find the best ways I can to cope, I search for healthier ways to deal with my struggles. This album provided one I didn’t know existed. Sufjan’s mourning of the loss of his mother and his reminiscing of his childhood helps me to explore those own intense feelings in myself.
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you And I long to be near you But every road leads to an end Yes every road leads to an end Your apparition passes through me in the willows Five red hens – you’ll never see us again You’ll never see us again