Disrupting the Cycle of Despair

Everyone knows this feeling: there is no way out.  A mental hello darkness my old friend. It can be hard to locate the origin of this fatalistic story we sometimes tell ourselves about being trapped, especially when fighting and flailing from deep inside it. After all, the story of despair that we tell ourselves is sometimes based in real, intractable facts: illness, poverty, physical danger, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, abuse. (Not to mention the terrible micro-aggressions and systemic injustices our world produces, all the isms and phobias and sheer harms that damage and box us in, in various ways.) I have been at the mercy of some of these conditions myself, as have you.

Yet I do recognize my many real advantages in this world. And because of them, various awful circumstances which I have suffered from in the past have shifted, or ended, or I’ve found ways to endure, as with my chronic illness; through good fortune and privilege, yes, but also with a combination of sustained outside help, friends, love, mental growth, a higher power, and determination. 

But what of the pain caused by creative angst and personal frustration, loneliness, anger, and grief?  These are also real human conditions, occurring in the mind, the body, and the soul, as a result of the states I listed above, or simply because we are human. I’ve been in this dark place so many times; a place in which these painful conditions have become distorted in my mind beyond all reason. Where I think I’ll never write again. I’ll never feel true joy again. Nothing will ever work out the way I’d hoped. I have failed at life. 

Perhaps the body, pulling energy resources from the brain in order to cope with pain, or disease, adrenaline, or histamine, leaves the mind bereft. Perhaps an overloaded intelligence, or a sorrowful soul, releases a cascade of chemicals into the body. At times my own illness feels like a tightening feedback loop, an eternal ouroboros gone mad. 


However, perhaps simply because I’m older, these days I’m most often able to realize that my depressive state is a crying out- a need for an intervention, an interruption of that tortuous feedback loop in which my own mind no longer sustains me, but turns on me.  (And by depression I don’t mean clinical depression, for which it becomes vital to seek professional consultation).  Joni wrote, “don’t interrupt the sorrow” but (in this very rare case, Ms. Mitchell) I disagree. If the darkness says: “this is all there is, you can’t tell me otherwise”, then I will, I must, seek disruption, even if what that means is surrendering my belief that I already know the answer, and the answer is despair. In my case, in order to surrender that false conviction, I turn to what offers me spiritual comfort and solace, and I pray. 

 Sometimes my despair arrives as a result of too much focus on the gatekeepers of the creative commons: those people and systems granted with the culture’s ability to say pass, or fail, to our creative work and our desire to send it out into the world with some form of recognition and acclaim.  Sometimes it takes fortitude to keep working the system, but today I’m going to ignore the gatekeepers altogether and post a new poem right here. 

A Good Clear Out

I divested myself

of what lies downriver

the rusted cans and blackberry thorns

the animal traps lined with bloody fur

I’m boxing up whole decades

And giving them to strangers

yearbooks, prayer books

the necklace I bought for you-

the one I couldn’t bear to part with in the end


was too ashamed to ever wear out, so

Here. Take it.

It doesn’t suit me anymore. I’m going bare.

 (SES, 2019)

And Lastly, What I’m reading:

I’ve been reading a collection of poems: New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich. I cannot recommend this book of poetry with enough fervor. If you were sitting across from me I’d wave it in your face and read poem after poem out loud, while you poured yet another cup of tea and tried to absorb the grievous beauty coming at you in words, lines, stanzas, incomparable images.  

Because making art and experiencing art is a way of choosing life, and disrupts the cycle of despair. 

Mary Oliver and the Poems We Need

As I write this, a young man ( a boy, really) has been caught on video, harassing an elder at a March for Life rally. The young man is wearing a MAGA hat. The young man is white; the old man is a Native elder. People on social media have named both, stood up for both, and weighed in with their own expressions of violence, shaming and hatred, from yes, all sides of this deeply broken agreement about what we owe each other as human beings.

There are many political and cultural signifiers in what I just wrote, which will trigger people in different ways, and yet what strikes me most is the way we rush to outrage, running right past sorrow: our tendency to instantly react can obscure a missed opportunity for real connection, for truly being reminded of the way we keep perpetuating the worst of human attributes. We race past intimacy and the holy practice of deep presence. What is happening in that young man’s heart? What is responding in that elder man’s soul? In ours? How can they find a way to each other, and us to them?

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
(From The Journey, by Mary Oliver; Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press 1986)

Mary Oliver’s poetry shows us how to pay attention, how to enter into a more deliberate state of attentiveness regarding what is unfolding in nature’s time. Her work is loved by so many because of this quality of intimate stillness simultaneously infused with life’s passionate urgency; her poems explore the path toward a balance of both, a fusion which delights and heals and transcends. Some have argued that poetry such as hers is too divorced from the daily realities we struggle with as a culture and a body politic, but I believe that there is an opportunity in every encounter with people, animals, and nature to deeply connect. Trying to articulate what that desire for connection, and the experience of it when it happens, feels like, looks like, is an important poetic pursuit. Her poems teach us how to bear witness to what really matters: the connection we are all trying to get back to, in one way or another. May the young man ( and all of us) who couldn’t see what was right in from of him, find his way.

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.”