written and workshopped at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, Session 1, 2015.
Part 1: What I Learned About Me At IYWS
I crease, just barely, under the pressure. From the outside, perhaps it’s the tiny wrinkle between my brows, or the weakened dimple by my smile, or the collapsing strands of hair from my wayward knot.
The dorms overflow with people like me. A common thread ties us together, but often we seem to tug and pull in opposite directions. The majority of the crowd pulls one way, and I ease along, afraid of the fray, casting my gaze from side to side. Away? To stay? To breathe?
Uncountable hours of talking and walking and laughing and thinking and scribbling on the work of those around me. Of reading aloud, of carrying a wobbling plate of food through the cafeteria, of searching for a seat or a group or a conversation or even just a smile.
People, words, people. People, everywhere, bumping down halls and sidewalks with notebooks in hand.
The people here are writers. They’re literate, well-read, opinionated. They know not only the meaning of “metaphor,” but of “diction” and “syntax” and “tricolon” and “in media res.” They discuss motivation and theme and allusions in ways I’ve never thought of. They write pieces I would never write, choose words I’ve never heard of. My own words seem to crawl out, pale-faced and ill.
I can’t quite find the right words here. I can’t quite find the right words to love these people. To love me. On the inside I am always shoving down: shoving down myself and my dreams and my doubts. If I open up these pieces of myself, spill them out, I fear I will become a crumbling edifice, a collapsed tower—a monument of failure to gawk at. So, like many, I bury it all inside and hold up a glassy smile.
– – –
These words are for me. This time, this breathing, this is for me.
The last thing I truly did for me was go to that doctor’s office and ask for help.
I didn’t do it because someone made me. I didn’t do it because I felt guilty for hurting others, or because I felt I needed to be a “better” person somehow.
I did it because I was tired, broken, and yearning to be whole.
Last year, I watched my grandmother choose to go to rehab for alcoholism. I listened to her do it for my mom, for not disappointing us, for the sake of being “better.” She was making poor choices—she knew this. Her health was declining steadily—she knew this, too. We all saw her hands quivering, her judgment withering. Here was a chance, and she chose to take it.
And I watched as she chose to come home weeks early. I listened to her do it because she wasn’t “good” enough for my mom, and my mom somehow wasn’t good enough for her. But the truth is she had been fighting for all the wrong reasons and she couldn’t see that she alone was worth fighting for. So she gave up on herself.
I cried and I asked her if she didn’t want to see me grow up.
If she had only made her choices because she knew her worth, if she had chosen rehab for her and her alone, she would have stayed.
She’s worth staying, but she doesn’t know it.
I want her to know she’s worth it to me, that I want her at my graduation and my wedding and the birthdays of my children.
More than that, I want to be worth it to her.
– – –
I talked to that doctor because I am worth it. I am worth the sweating and the shaking and the crumpled tissues and the fumbled words. I am worth the hour and a half I spent in that office. I am worth the scheduled therapy appointment. I am worth the listening and the talking. I am worth the words and the time.
And I have to keep choosing that. Not for anyone else, not to earn something or be something. For me.
I have words, too. So many words. I will not let my words die. I will not let myself die more every day. I will not let these moments die—and I will not slip away.
I believe in love: that every human heart is worth loving and loved more than we could ever know. I believe that each one of us has innate value, that there is purpose in our everyday lives, that there is meaning in our feelings and words and actions. I believe that in fear there can be trust, in devastation there can be hope, and in death there can be life.
The swarming crowds sing, “Succeed, succeed!” They call for me to be strong, to be a bold and fearless woman with brazen guts and an impenetrable heart.
But that is not me. I’m not the invincible woman made iconic by our culture. I am a weakened, worn girl with a soft heart and broken pieces of herself she can’t quite fix. I am a girl with more questions than answers. I am bowed beneath the weight I carry, struggling to breathe through the panic and the pain. My heart is constantly staring at the brink of death. It stutters hourly, an arrhythmia, a twinging reminder that I am mortal.
But this is the miracle. I am still standing. I am still breathing. I am still hoping. I am still surrendering daily to a God who promises that I am worth it.
To me, every day is a miracle. Every single heartbeat is a miracle. It says that I refuse to give up. I refuse to give up on hoping that things will get better, that good will come out of bad, that loving the people around me does make a difference.
And I refuse to give up on me.
Part 2: What I Learned About Others At IYWS
Our words are different. Our ways are different. But our worth is the same.
Whether you see it or not, your words soak into my pores. There are words I’ve never spoken—words that start with “f”. There are words that make me shift beneath their awkward weight—words like “homosexuality.” Words that leave an ache deep in me for you, for how you have suffered at the hands of those who don’t know how to love you, for how lost you must sometimes feel—words like “pride.”
There is so much in your words that I have dismissed and ignored before, sloughed off my skin like crumbling smog. “Liberal,” “Californian,” “queer,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “agnostic,” “athiest,” “Catholic,” “Jewish,” “psychiatrist,” “Wiccan.” Words I have mocked and scorned. Words I never truly absorbed, never truly saw.
Words I now see as both beautiful and tragic.
These words are part of you. Part of your heart. Part of your scars. Your heart is beautiful, but I ache for the part of you that bleeds.
On Facebook, a meme scrolls by labelling “Bruce Jenner”, tearing down that precious human being: a meme that I once would have smirked at, perhaps allowed a giggle, an affirmation.
Now my eyes sting. They sting for you. And they sting for me. Regret for all the cruel things I have approved of or spoken—things I once saw as a seal of my “righteousness”. Not just to you, but to anyone different—the homosexuals, the Democrats, the liberals, the hippies, the Catholics, the Californians, the Massholes, the, the, the.
A drumbeat of titles that hide the true person. A word composed of simple letters, simple sounds, that can somehow define a person… destroy a person.
You’re not a “gay.” You’re a person. You’re not a “Democrat.” You’re a person. You’re not a “Catholic.” You’re a person.
My grandmother’s not an “alcoholic.” She’s a person.
I’m a person—not “OCD,” not a “homeschooler,” not a “Christian.”
Yes, even Christian can be a label. “I’m a Christian” can define a human just like you as a religious freak or judgmental goody-two-shoes or hypocritical sermonizer.
Have you noticed how we say it, even with mental disorders?
Not “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.” I am obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I am a Christian.
I. am. a.
How about, simply, I am Christ’s and I am loved and I am worth it?
– – –
The words these people proclaim, the song they sing, is one they view as a grand march—perhaps even a battle cry. A celebration of justice and equality and love. To them, it’s about being true to themselves. Protecting the disadvantaged.
Protecting their own self-worth.
From us. The ones who disagree, and label, and threaten their identities by brandishing our “righteousness” and their sins.
You do realize that holding up a weapon only makes the other person draw out a sword or shield, right?…
Perhaps this is a truth they know more than we do. Because so often we are the ones who draw swords, who use our beliefs to condemn them, the very people we believe God created and loves so much…
But—wait—do you see it? Do you see what I said?
They and we.
Since when did the us, people, become two divided forces with swords drawn?
Since when did we force on them the crown of thorns, the mockery, that Jesus took for all of us?
The battle we fight was never against people in the first place. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…
And if it is, we’re missing the point.
– – –
I watched an interview with a former lesbian once.
I say “former” because this woman, Professor Rosaria Butterfield, became a Christian and decided that homosexual behavior was not honoring to God. But instead of ostracizing all the people she no longer agreed with, she stood in the center of the battle lines. She became a bridge.
Her words of wisdom to the people standing in the middle, loving from the most vulnerable, difficult place on the battlefield?
“You’re a bridge. Bridges get walked on.”
Being a bridge is not apathetic or deceitful or hypocritical. Being a bridge is loving the people God made—all of them. All of us. Christians, Catholics, Jews, Wiccans, atheists, heterosexuals, and homosexuals. It’s reaching out, having a conversation, spending time over coffee or over Skype. It’s listening, praying for God’s love in their life, reminding them how valuable they are and how much you want the best for them. It’s loving, and loving means you don’t draw your sword and attack another person’s behavior. It means you open up your heart. As Jamie Tworkowski says, “Love [is] the patient telling of another person’s worth.”
Being a bridge means you are the open heart, the patient teller, the road to hope and truth: you are the stable path and you get stepped on.
If nothing else, I hope I have done that this week. Little things add up: a smile in the hall, chatting with the cafeteria staff, asking someone’s name, holding an awkward conversation with humble grace. I have aimed to do that this week. And I have aimed to listen: to listen to the cursing, to listen to the opinions and thoughts and choices of people different than me.
I don’t know how to bring the light in otherwise. This is the only way I know to tell them they are worth it. They are worth my time and my love.
Because somebody has to be the bridge if there is ever going to be an “us”.