My heart felt like a closed fist urgently knocking against my sternum. That’s not a metaphor or bad opening line; its a description. My chest felt knotted and angry. I was angry. There’s a plethora of reasons why. But I’m writing this because of the moment I felt it stop and open.
Earlier this week I went to an open mic, invited there by my friend. I arrived early and she was already posted on one of the couches with her laptop. She was with a man who, once I entered and sat across from them, he rose, finished his sentence and walked out. I took his seat. It was like entering her office. She ran a quick list of what she’d done earlier that day, then dove back into her laptop. I sat across from her and after a while pulled a book out of my backpack.
But not many were here– most of the bodies seemed behind the counter. We talked for a while and I thought maybe nothing else was going to happen. But gradually folks began coming in. This open mic is much more community friendly, much warmer than any other opens I’ve been to. The facilitator is so loving, a perfect rendering of Conscious California, she turns the open into something closer to group therapy and church than just a round-robin of performers. They incorporate projected video and slide shows. An artist walked us through his collection of amazingly detailed paper mache animals. A gay couple celebrated being together 19 years– five of those married– and were given their own cake. The rest of us got tiny cupcakes. A woman played an original instrumental on her guitar. Another woman sang a capella. A professional puppeteer performed.
I was there in order to read one poem– a meditation on the word Sorry.
“I think maybe I’d like to apologize… but who to?” Robert Blake, as Perry, last words before being executed in the film: In Cold Blood.
I was adopted. Which is shorthand for saying: I feel strung between two families, two identities I can do nothing with. The family who raised me have died. The family I belong to by blood, I walked away from feeling I didn’t belong there.
Maybe 10 years after meeting my biological mother, she apologized to me. For birthing me, For what I went through. She did this from her kitchen, me listening to her story while she massaged floured dough for bread. I listened to her story. I don’t remember saying much back.
Told me she was: Sorry
I’d been born
hungry, loveless, kicking like a fish in a bassinet…
A pre-natal hole through my heart
As if her body were rejecting me like a plastic organ
I loved your father, but… She said.
Read: I loved your father except
When it involved you…
Later that weekend, I was home, shaving, staring at myself in the mirror. My mind replaying that conversation. And from somewhere I asked myself: What exactly did that apology change?
Nothing. That sorry worked about as well as the sorry you’d give a group of hungry children at your kitchen table when you walk in empty handed. Sorry. No food today.
“Sorry”, right then, ceased to have meaning for me and became a word I no longer wanted to rely on to fix or change or acknowledge an unintentional error or slight.
I don’t want to mislead you or lie: I’ve apologized to others since that moment, I’ve accepted apologies– including from my birth mother– from others. I don’t hold ill will against anyone more than myself, and on that I’m still working. I apologized to my friends for being a drunken ass. I accepted an apology from my biological neice for publically snubbing me.
But often… even when I’m alone, all I ever feel is Sorry. For being me; being inadequate, not being enough. I feel it as if its a viral infection. And that feeling.. that inadequacy… is a type of anger. A rage against the way things are and a cry for how one wishes they’d be. My heart: A flower so enraged against the rays of sun it won’t open.
I’ve thought about being sorry, about my mother’s apology, for years. Finally, I felt so down, it started dripping out of me in words.
The second time I met my mother
It was like a blind date that wasn’t going to work out
She said she was: Sorry
Don’t look at my other children, She said
Closing her pocket-book. Look at me!
You slipped through my fingers unnoticed
like a seed that grew anyway.
I can’t be your mother, she said.
I can only be Sorry.
I took her hand, and despite it resembling my own, said:
Sorry… I was a missed period.
Sorry How everything in your life ran onward without me…
my mother made life by accident and was Sorry.
You think life belongs
to you until its
wrestled from your helpless arms
What word will be spat off your tongue then?
Poetry is an oral tradition. Every poem begins to live once its launched off the tongue of the poet. All poems must be read aloud and I consider reading a poem to an audience part of the writing, editing process. How people hear/receive the poem, how the words and language flow from your tongue can only be known once you give of yourself and release the poem.
The tension and ache I’d been feeling in my chest in the days before this was almost as if I’d wanted to cough up my half-swallowed heart. I was angry: at myself, at being lonely, at my failed relationships, at my family. All my undifferentiated emotion began to smolder.
I read the poem slow, as if peeling back its layers gently. I felt slightly guilty wanting to read it at all– everyone before me was all positive, all good energy and music. And I wasn’t excited to be catalyst for changing the rooms temperature by being serious. But the room was quiet and leaned towards me. I looked up at the audience and found people were listening and being present.
Beginnings and endings are hard. I feel lucky if a poem leads me to a natural conclusion. I read the poems last line and looked up. All was stillness. Even the traffic on the street outside seemed to pause. So I did too. I met a few eyes and let the silence hang there several seconds. Then I said thank you and got off.
I sat down and two things happened. The first, a woman– not the friend I met– came up behind me and hugged me for a long while. The second thing: my heart felt unraveled. The tightness had loosened. I immediately felt more at ease. Relieved. I finally felt I could take a deep breath without something sticking or awkwardly shifting in my ribcage.
A couple of people came up to me afterwards with hugs, all positive and encouraging in regards to the poem. This is valuable because The Room hears a different version of the poem than I Do.
Writing the poem was healing in itself, but reading it aloud somehow completed the circuit. The woman who hugged me– came in briefly and was gone before I could even thank her.
Moral: Write your truth and read it to witnesses. Give it away. Letting go is the only way to begin healing anything.
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