The Price of Tenderness
[ and where does it come from? ]
Where does this tenderness come from?
And what will I do with it? Young
stranger, poet, wandering through town,
you and your eyelashes—longer than anyone's.
- Marina Tsvetaeva
The older I get, the more fascinated and attracted I become to emotions like sweetness, which have no place in the pantheon of apprised and social concerns yet are vital to me. Tenderness is the opposite to greed, vanity, and masculinity - and I don't get on with lust for power or attention. I'm far more intrigued by sensitivity, weakness, fear, and anxiety because, like Alain de Botton, I believe that behind our masks, at the end of the day, that's what we are. That's where we want to be - but most of us are stalled by old patterns and muscle memory with our phones that prevent us from practicing genuine attention and the gift of stillness. My therapist refers to these roadblocks as "secondary satisfactions." Sometimes I can over-correct and turn my phone on DnD for days at a time, which can, regardless of my intention - feel like neglect when I take the better part of a week to respond to a text message.
Galway Kinnell said, "The secret title of every good poem might be 'Tenderness.'" It's a difficult entry point, but awe and gentleness are the touchstones of the work I hold most dear. Natalie Diaz calls her hands "the gates of tenderness," so when I read a poem by her - when I have one of her books in her hands - she’s asking me to open my gates. It's simple to "love art," 'but it's much harder to love what the artist asks us to love - whether that's a neglected part of ourselves or another. When we bear the unbearable, our concept of self is altered, and poetry helps us both mourn and embrace that shift. Writing is embedded in the essence of personal recovery —when I write a poem or essay that succeeds, I am not the same person I was before I wrote it. Sometimes this transformation is subtle, and sometimes it's big. Some poems I've written have changed how I look in the mirror in the morning. A lot of it is involved with bearing the unbearable. It changes and creates a different you. You keep pangs of who you are, but something essential changes, and we are enlarged. When we talk about being enlarged and transformed and enriched, it can sound like it's all exemplary, but of course, you must be brought to your knees again and again for that. I think of difficult life experiences as a softening, throwing us down - sometimes painfully - over and over enough that our edges are smoothed.
I know David argued with the Chisel. I know he said, "make me softer / when those tourists come looking for a hero - I want the rain to puddle in my pores."
When someone asks me why I love poetry, there are countless answers, but most of them surround poetry's capacity to bear witness to the world and its sorrows - as they are. All art holds this tension between elegy and ode, between our sorrows, despairs, and sufferings, and the praise, wonder, and awe we feel. W.H. Auden said that "every poem is rooted in imaginative awe." And imaginative awe is really hard to practice! Especially if we're stuck holding a painful emotion like shame, grief, or hopelessness. We're not meant to hold those emotions for extended periods, and we're certainly not meant to carry them alone. Paul Sheperad wrote: "The grief and sense of loss, which we often interpret as a failure in our personality, is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered." Like Tsvetaeva - I want to know about that otherness. I want to find the source! But I also wonder if the gift of [secular or mystic] grace lies with trusting that even though we are [often] denied gentleness and understanding, we can still extend them to others. Perhaps there comes a point where we no longer need to know where that well of light inside us comes from, only our calling to rise with it
All art tries to make meaning out of chaos somehow—to take the mess of this un-reconstructed life and find patterns. When we go through an immense crisis or terrible loss - it's easy to get lost scouring the wreckage. We can't move on when we keep going back and asking the same questions. The gift of life is it's a mystery and an exploration. I'm asking myself, what is this all about? Whatever I'm looking at—whether it's a small thing that piqued my interest or a big part of my life's journey. I'm looking at it and trying to discover something I didn't know before. That's when sorrow and grief can become windows. You've gotta let the light in - but you also need to air out your soul. Zora Neale Hurston said, "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you." We must descend into the dark yet continually try to climb out of it. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake said we have to go to heaven for form and to hell for energy and marry the two. There is vitality in that move vs. the kind of anemia in popular New Age spirituality. There's not much blood in it. It lacks what in Spanish is sometimes called duende: the erotic, dialectic energy that makes things shimmer. Blake knew that much of that energy was removed from our lives and relegated to hell. So we have to go into the shadows and bring it back out. Our hyper-positive tendencies want us to do a spiritual bypass around the mess of it all, but it's in that mess that we are most human.
Ascent and descent should vitalize each other: when we polarize them, we end up weighing and pitting experiences and emotions against each other. We praise success and despise failure. We value strength and devalue weakness. But then, every time we encounter defeat, inadequacy, or loss, we're at war with ourselves, and that's a bitter fight. Sometimes I'll apologize in therapy for "going backward" as if forward was the only acceptable direction. But the psyche moves every which way. It's our job to follow its lead and be curious and willing about where it is taking us. As Stafford writes:
There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.
Whether our "thread" is a question, an invitation, or an awareness of what matters most-it always takes us home to ourselves, to our belonging in this world, to the inexplicable love that holds & keeps us. These days, I have become aware that I can hold & follow my thread in various places - washing dishes, buying groceries, sitting in the parking lot while listening to the new 1975 single, in solitude or with others, in the city or the forest. Mostly, I admit, the key to following my thread is to put my hand on my chest to breathe and remind myself that if we're lucky, our threads can be intertwined. Rushing makes me lose awareness of the threads we hold. So, as the week begins, I want to consider together: How do we keep and follow the threads that bind and guide us?
Like Murakami: We're both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We're connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me.
I’m holding that thread. I love you. I’m listening.