99 – Lost and Found

This project has been therapeutic for me in a couple of ways – certainly if you’ve been following along at all you’ll notice me dumping my brainweasels all over everywhere, so it’s cathartic if nothing else. The more I do, and the more I force myself to see that I do, the more I acquire a sense of… myself.

That feels very banal when I say it out loud. It’s something most people take for granted, I would imagine. A couple of years ago, I was joking with a friend and mentioned offhandedly that I had never recognized my own face in a mirror. “I mean, yeah, I know that person in the mirror, it’s the same person who’s always there when I look in the mirror, but it’s not me; it looks nothing like me.” My friend found this startling and concerning enough to comment on it. This was when I learned, at 29 years old, that other people generally do recognize their own faces.

I didn’t get much of an opportunity to develop an identity. I was born to be the proxy of someone else’s ego. This isn’t hyperbole or speculation on my part; my mother told me this explicitly: “I had you so that I would have a friend who could never leave me.” Since the second I was born, I existed to reflect and flatter a more powerful personality. There was only one scale of value: more or less like her. More = good, less = bad. More = love, less = pain.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t spoken to her in a while. Because my sense of self is very new and fragile. I have to build it now, as an adult, with my therapist’s and my wife’s help, because the person who should have helped me build it thirty years ago spent that time stomping it down to build herself up. I don’t want to cut her off, but I need a little time and space to build something that doesn’t have her fingerprints on it anywhere. My in-progress tattoo feels good for that reason – another way of reclaiming what belongs to me. It’s so easy for me to slip back into old patterns when I talk to her.

I know she often thinks that I hate her, but the fact is, it would be far easier if I did. I love my mother, even the worst parts of her, even the parts that hate me. When I talk to her all I want in the world is to be in her arms, to ask her for approval, forgiveness, comfort. There’s so much of me that would happily step right back into that prison, laugh along with all the abuse, just to be part of the family, just to belong to her. I think most of us feel that way. Hatred would be cleaner than this.

I don’t hate her. I hate myself for loving her and for not being good enough to ever get her love in return. That’s the monster she made of me.

Very young, I write my name on the sole
of my doll’s foot, so people know she’s mine.
I know it causes her pain all the time;
I know what it feels like to be controlled.

I feel your fingerprints still on my skin
I perch outside my cage all day
waiting for you to come put me away
waiting for another chance to let you win

I want to wrap myself in other words
I want to shed my skin and luminesce
for every tatter in this mortal dress
every destination half-remembered.
Each day your signature shows a bit less
Each day I feel a little less encumbered.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

98 – The Lying Machine

This started out as advice my therapist gave me, when I complained about being unable to trust myself. It’s difficult to make good decisions when I’m very aware of how profoundly trauma has shaped my worldview and the way I interpret what happens to me. If I can’t get good data about what’s going on and what people are doing, how can I trust my reactions or know what to do?

She reminded me again – you are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. You are a being inhabited by both of those things. And here’s the deal: your feelings, your sensory experience and the bodily reactions you have to that, and what that feels like… none of that can lie to you. It simply can’t. Its only function is to tell you what it feels.

But your brain’s whole job is to take sensory input, interpret it, and make decisions based on its interpretations. Your brain can and almost constantly does lie to you. Your brain can lie to you about where your pain is coming from or how to solve it. Your brain can lie to you about what you’re seeing, hearing, or doing. If you’ve got a good imagination, or if you’ve had a lot of trauma that resulted in your brain becoming… talented… in some very specific ways, your brain is very, very good at lying to you. Sometimes it’s so good at it that it can create an entire world that doesn’t exist for you to live in.

If you’re anything like me, it can feel by the time you’re grown up that you’re living inside a Lying Machine. Even if, like me, you got a little paranoid about lying after spending a childhood doing it in self-defense, and swore off it entirely… it still feels like you’re lying every single second. It still takes armor to go out, to talk to people; it’s still a different mask with everyone, a different shape to fit against everyone, none of it quite… right. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what everyone does, it’s just that… being aware of it makes it a little harder to do naturally. It’s not muscle memory for me to act like a person. I have to do it manually, step by step, memorized out of the book.

So how is it ever possible to know what’s going on when your organizing organ, the one that’s supposed to figure out what’s going on, is a pathological liar? You have to let go of the thoughts, turn off the Lying Machine. It’s not required to live, and you can turn it off with a little focus. Focus all of your attention on that incoming sensory data, the stuff your brain is trying to interpret. Stop slapping words on it, stop trying to categorize and label it, stop all of that. No, stoppit. Just… observe. Just pinpoint the thing, see and hear it very well. If you’re crying, if you’re angry, if you’re afraid, if you’re stressed, go inside your body and find where that feeling is right now. Is it knotting behind your sternum? Is it tension in your shoulders? Is it pressure in your throat, like you want to speak or shout?

I’m not asking you to fix any of these things, or relax them, or anything. Just look at them. Note every single thing about them. Where, how, how much. Hot, cold, hard, soft, loud, subtle? What happens inside the Machine when everything is still? Pay attention. Don’t miss a thing. If you have time to form words about any of it, you’re missing something. Keep listening. Keep feeling.

Your body can’t lie to you. Your brain will take huge floods of incoming data and build conspiracy theories off it. So when the data starts flooding in, when you’re overwhelmed for whatever reason, just turn off the Lying Machine and monitor the incoming data. Bathe in it, like a wave. The Machine would tell you that you can make it stop, that you can in some way affect how chaotic everything is inside you and outside you, but you can’t. What’s happening is happening, and until it slows down, there’s no point in scrambling to organize it. Don’t try to control what you can’t control. Be here, right now. Don’t miss it or drown in it because you’re busy wishing it was something else.

“Damballah Wedo,” October 2006

Listen to your guts – they can’t lie to you.
Your brain, now, can’t do anything but lie
and try to persuade other brains to buy
and no matter what you say… they do.

No one claims to know the truth anymore.
The truth can only tie you to the ground;
why choose one world when there’s more to be found?
We burnt the boats the moment we hit shore.

But dearest, here’s the thing about running:
there’s oh so much you have to leave behind.
The wind can get to howlin’ in your mind
when you fix your eyes on your becoming.
Make a promise, get yourself in a bind –
make sure when Death comes, he’s taking something.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

97 – When I Go

Don’t look at this one for sense so much as sound, if you will. I was kind of enjoying the iambic pentameter in combination with Emancipator, and so I tried to let the words arise from the sound I wanted to produce rather than from a coherent image or narrative, if that makes sense? I think that’s an interesting dimension to poetry that narrative lacks – and I guess it’s good I found one thing to like about poetry by sonnet 97, eh? – poetry has a musical quality that allows language to be used free of definition, language as instrument rather than medium. I may also be very fucking high. It’s been a good day. I hope yours is too, my children.

You are nourishing.

Daughter, pluck the warm seas from the earth, swing
each around your shoulders like a cape and
take your turn to walk across the grey sand,
and when you leave, you must take everything.

This bread we brought has supped the blood of ten
bakers’ thumbs – these fruits were grown from heartbreak.
These seeds require the fire to germinate
these daughters grown without the sperm of men.

We’re rising from the oceans two-by-two
We’re bringing all the shackles you cast off
We’ve got a list of grievances with you
Our daughters steal your dreams on wings of moths
As you approach I muster one last truth
and tie you down as they vanish aloft.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

96 – Something Something Space Sloth

Okay, this is not my fault. I asked someone who purports to be some kind of genius to tell me what to write about, and obviously I should have known better, because when you ask geniuses an open-ended question, they insist on bringing math into things. She sent me some kind of randomly-generated character building card, specifically the lefthand one seen below, just to prove to you that this is, as we covered, not my fault. I just wrote some nonsense based on the words on the card.

Your guess is as good as mine, honestly.

The cargo bay is not the place to sleep,
but Maia’s got a tent in her pocket.
She finds a secluded place to drop it –
a pity that the laser shielding’s cheap.

A laser was the officer’s best guess –
it burned her tent away in an instant,
left the interloper just an infant,
albeit one that beat us all at chess.

She hung around the doctor’s neck all day,
except when gripping bishops ‘tween two toes.
The more she learns, it seems, the more she grows;
now she’s taken over the cargo bay.
She’s certainly the smartest sloth we know –
at least, while she has the laser, so we say.

95 – Bloody Mary, Full of Grace

Another little something in the universe of Sects. I haven’t gotten too deep into the metaphysics of this setting, and probably won’t for a while, but the basic operating principle is that the eldritch invaders that have taken over the world respond to belief. A sufficient amount of emotional investment, commitment, faith directed at anything will, in effect, turn it into a tiny god. And I do mean anything. The cult of rejects at the heart of our story worships a taxidermied cat, and gives regular sacrifices to the router when the internet fails.

In a world where the strength and purity of your conviction determines the power you can manifest, children are powerful all out of scale with their size. Children’s belief is pure, thoughtless, as sharp and unstoppable as a diamond knife. I’ve seen it in this world as well as the one I’m drawing – if you ever did any playground magic as a kid, you’ve seen it too. It works when you believe completely that it will. The Ouija board may be a joke to adults, but when you were twelve, I’ll bet it told you things nobody there knew. If you’re the kind of kid who was jaded enough to actually say “Bloody Mary” into a dark mirror, just to prove how cool and unaffected you were, revel in your joyless little life, because you suck. Mary doesn’t give a shit about your cynicism; she only shows up if you believe in her.

“Bloody Mary,” November 2019

When all that matters is what you believe
children and madmen will hold all the crowns,
summoning goddesses out of the ground –
their congregations don’t have time to grieve.

Try to remember the words they taught you,
like “light as a feather, stiff as a board,”
rituals on bathroom mirrors, chalkboards.
Watch out Bloody Mary doesn’t spot you!

One of the first to answer our call,
Mary was glad to get out of the glass.
Plenty of vengeance saved up from her past,
plenty of straight pins to stick in this doll.
In the end, we barely had to ask –
she didn’t need convincing to kill them all.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

94 – Understudy

I guess I’m just self-flagellating this weekend. Yesterday four hours in a tattoo chair, today re-reading sites about narcissistic parents. I don’t keep going back to this stuff because I’m learning something new about narcissism – I’ve got a grasp on the pathology and it’s not complicated – but because reading other people’s stories of how their family treated them helps me learn what abuse looks like. It helps me understand what kind of behavior is abnormal, what I’m allowed to be mad about.

I have no idea what a normal family looks like. I’m sure I’ve known a few, but I’ve always found normal people intimidating and tended to avoid them. I guess I felt like I’d infect them with whatever rot was eating at the heart of my house. My parents told me that it was me, that I was the problem, and for most of my life I believed that completely. I believed it so deeply that when I wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist about a year ago, complaining that my parents wouldn’t stop asking me if they were good parents, what I wanted to know was how to make the question go away. I wasn’t able to mount an argument that they were bad parents, but I couldn’t in good conscience claim they were good. Captain Awkward answered my question directly, and her commenters said what she didn’t: that the behavior I described didn’t match up with the praise I heaped on my parents. They asked me if I was even capable of feeling anger toward my mother. I realized for the first time that I wasn’t.

That realization got me into therapy, and in the last year of that, I’ve become aware of how profoundly warped my view of the world has always been. I haven’t talked to the fam in a bit, for reasons I’m sure that I’ll go into here at some point, but if they asked me that question now, I could answer it. They weren’t good parents, no. That’s it, full stop. They tried, and they genuinely loved me – sometimes – but they were not good parents.

They were alcoholics. It got violent sometimes. It got loud and aggressive a lot. My mom took me out with her to buy more booze at ten or eleven all the time, and I trusted her when she told me that she was fine to drive after killing two bottles of wine since five o’clock. Her undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder made life at home a tap dance in a minefield. There was no way to predict what I might say or do to make her change, but she could turn from cheery sweetness to red-faced, screaming rage and back again in a split second. She would lay down rules and later shame and punish me for following them, claiming she never said such a thing. She never remembered what she did when she lost her temper, and she could lose her temper any minute. What she heard seemed to bear no relation at all to what came out of my mouth. She projected so much hatefulness, so much malice and deception and sadism onto me that I didn’t exist at all. I simply filled out the clothes of whatever scapegoat she needed next.

We used to go to Blockbuster a lot – yes, I know I’m on the verge of old – and there was this shitty horror movie on their shelves called “The Stepdaughter.” The cover featured a blonde in a bloody schoolgirl outfit, holding a bloody knife. My stepdad – and my mother filling in when he wasn’t available – always made sure to point at the movie and say, “Is that you? You gonna come in and kill me in my sleep someday, huh? Whaaat, it’s a joke, lighten up, Frances.”

I never knew what to say to that. After a year of therapy, I can say conclusively that no, it’s not so very funny if you think your twelve-year-old wants to kill you in your sleep. Why do you think that? If your child genuinely wanted to kill you, why might that be? Because, you see, the only way this joke is funny is if we all know that it’s a little bit true, right? It wouldn’t be a hilarious joke if we didn’t all understand that at a baseline level, we do not trust each other, we fear for our safety in our own beds, and that, around here, is called love. This is not a family. This is a war.

And just think, beloved and brilliant daughter, light of my life, just speculate, dear stepdaughter: what if we should come to truly believe you want us dead? What if it was more than just a little bit true? What might we do, if this is war? What might happen to you?

“Climb,” November 2019

They painted a killer over my face.
They showed me that they thought of this as war.
I learned to be what they’d taken me for,
learned to play all their villains’ parts with grace.

They never tell you the name of the play.
Watch carefully and you’ll know what to do;
you’ll work out who you are from context clues.
No matter if you’re right or wrong they’ll say:

“In this family, we laugh when people weep.
We quote the bullies’ best lines back to you
just because we’re sick of children today –
and how can you be drowning, it’s not that deep!
You just want us to feel sorry for you
so someday you can kill us in our sleep.”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

93 – The Necromancer Next Door

Getting a huge tattoo in about an hour and a half, so of course I’m brooding about zombies. This definitely is part of Sects, which, if I haven’t beaten you over the head with it hard enough yet, is a Primer for those also just trying to get through a day in a world that has been taken over by tentacled monstrosities.

Before the Fall he was just a con man,
made his living on the life insurance
of families wanting reassurance –
being proved right was not part of the plan.

But there was no sense of surprise, no fear
when after a seance the deceased spouse
turned up in his collar outside the house –
the dead Reverend made his terror quite clear.

The faithful came first, a reverse Rapture,
and then came the saints, all girded for war,
died again when the outsiders attacked.
Nothing like the ghosts he’d manufactured,
nothing like the nightmares he had before –
the dead he raises now don’t want life back.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

92 – The Last One

Poetry inspired by poetry. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge bitchard (gender-neutral form of “bitch/bastard,” tell your friends) about poetry. I’m only willing to admit to liking a poet if I’ve been blown away by literally everything I’ve read of theirs. 100% quality or nothin’. It’s not about mechanical aptitude; it’s not about format. Mostly it’s about the poet’s heart. I recognize a heart like mine when I see one, by how it’s constantly bleeding all over everything.

One of the three poets who have managed to pass muster by this completely bullshit standard, Rainer Maria Rilke, was a German Romantic, better known for his passionate letters to his loved ones than his poetry in this country. The first poem of his I ever read is still my favorite, and I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and great and he’s very dead now, and because it inspired the sonnet today:

“I In Flames,” May 2008
 Come thou, thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body's fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee:
the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.

My gentle and mild being through they ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.

It’s the last poem Rilke ever wrote, the last entry in his notebook two weeks before his death of leukemia at age 51. I love his personalization of Death as a friend, someone kindly who comes to pull him away from the suffering of his body. Rilke believed that we grow our deaths inside us from the moment we’re born. I find that idea elegant.

There’s something morbidly lovely about the idea of nurturing and building our particular Death within us all our lives, our one duty in life to bring this being into the world – Death is an infant born the second we die. It takes every second of our lives to create her, every pain and every joy, every scar and sorrow and mistake. That’s why she has such kind eyes – because she knows that all of your mistakes make her wiser, more tender, more understanding. All of your life is part of her, indispensable, even the bad parts, do you see? If you let her, she heals your wounds with her hands, as if every touch laid skin grafts over your raw and aching soul. She’s the only person in the universe who loves you more when you fail.

There are a lot of voices in my head,
and then there’s someone else who never speaks.
She smiles a lot, and dresses like a priest.
The others say that she’ll talk when I’m dead.

I’ve found she’s more softhearted than you’d think –
cries whenever we go to the movies,
always the begger
never that choosey
but when I mention suicide, she winks

and shakes her head. Refuses to be rushed.
I’ve tried to make her speak a thousand ways –
She has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen,
and when the hammer falls she’s never crushed,
but she won’t take command of this machine,
just hangs around, awaiting the end of days.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

91 – Bacon Town

I was at a wedding all day. The bridesmaids were talking about a bacon festival that apparently happens somewhere nearby, and, uh… well, you can’t just say “bacon festival” in my presence like it won’t make me start imagining things.

The crackling fat can be heard for miles.
The sun is vague in the sky at midday,
clouds of vaporized pig over the midway
where they set up the bacon piles.

They have a dunk tank full of bacon jam –
room temperature, of course, but don’t inhale –
kill a man that way, go to Bacon Jail
where no one’s ever even heard of ham.

Bacon figurines and bacon favors,
at two o’clock they crown the Bacon Queen,
clad in the most delicious gown you’ve seen.
To attend, you have to sign a waiver;
by midnight, poor girl looks a little green,
but her canine subjects love her flavor.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

90 – Never Stop

This one has some cool lines in it but I don’t feel like it came together very well. Sometimes the leaps in association I make are a little larger than other people are comfortable with and it results in me looking incoherent. That’s a great excuse for being a blithering idiot, I know; how’s it working out?

At any rate, it’s kind of about my marriage, by way of Ursula Le Guin. My wife and I disagree constantly, but not about anything important – we fight about story structure and game mechanics and language and interpretations of TV shows, but never about money, or parenting, or values, or honesty. We’re very different in our expression but very similar in our underlying structure, like when you go inside a house in a subdivision and realize it’s got the same floor plan as yours.

One of the deepest foundations we share is a sense of identity as someone who perseveres. We are both never-say-die types, a tank/damage combo that has jumped from MMO to shooter to brawler to tabletop and back, infuriating teammates with our refusal to “just surrender and let’s move on.” She’ll taunt the boss without thinking if a healer screams, even if she’s got ten percent health left herself. I’ll be your top DPS and it won’t be because my gear’s good, it’ll be because I’m the only person still shooting when everyone else is dead and the boss is charging at my face. We’ve both spent our lives getting in trouble for never knowing when to stop.

There’s a kind of safety in that, from a relationship perspective. When I’m afraid, lonely, despairing, sometimes it feels like I’m in a space like the land of the dead that Ursula Le Guin describes in the Earthsea books – a dry, barren place, infinite miles of grinding rocks and bare dust, no borders, no light, no kindness, no mercy, no way to go back. All you can do is go on, into the dark, toward the other shore… which doesn’t exist.

In that place, where all you can do is push forward, keep walking on bloody stumps… the only joy in the world is someone who keeps walking with you. Someone you never have to worry will fall behind, drop to the ground, leave you alone. To not have to do it alone means so much. To know for certain, like gravity, a fact of the universe, that neither of us will give up. We will never stop while it’s within our power to keep going. Unlike Orpheus and Eurydice, no one needs to look back in doubt. If the distance between us can be devoured by effort alone, it’s nothing, and always will be nothing.

“Soul Clap Hands,” July 2006

The river got higher;
all the fish drowned.
We hit rock bottom and started digging,
hanged the navigator from the rigging,
tested our wings in vaults underground.

There’s a low wall at the top of the hill;
most people don’t go much further than that,
give up on escaping right off the bat –
what’s another millennium to kill?

You never fail to find me in the dark.
I never fear I’ll turn around and find
me out of your sight
you out of your mind
nothing’s heavier than someone else’s heart.
I won’t go back, and somehow you don’t mind –
love, like chair legs, stands best a bit apart.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets