One Word to Set You Free, or The Power of the Kanye Shrug

So life happens: You say or do something embarrassing, publicly or privately.  You don’t quite lose that last five pounds in time for swimsuit season. Your car breaks down, or your air conditioning goes out, and money’s looking funny. You break up with your boo (or your boo breaks up with you). Friendships and family ties go haywire. Someone hurts you deeply, whether a relative, a partner, or a friend. Maybe you hurt them right back. Maybe you even do something thoughtless or hurtful FIRST.

So what?kanye shrug

So you miss out on an opportunity because of procrastination. So you make a new commitment (like a poetry project or a blog *ahemcough*) and then find yourself struggling to keep up or even behind.

So what?

So people hurt you and let you down. So you hurt and disappoint YOURSELF (and others) sometimes. So what…

…are you going to do now? Sit down in the dust that you’ve kicked up and hope to disappear? Make excuses? Just quit and rationalize that no one cares or notices or could benefit from a little more effort on your part?

Or do you get back out there and try again because you know that guilt and shame — and pride and ego — have no place on the program? Do you say, “So…?” and get back to work?

Do you give a Kanye Shrug or do you give in?

Because the world is still waiting on your greatness.

“If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.” –Mary Pickford

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One Man’s Trash: NaPoWriMo Poem #3

Photo by Matthew LinderTuesday is trash-pickup day in my neighborhood. And with spring cleaning underway, new neighbors moving in and throwing out lots of junk, and Houston’s new One Bin for All initiative winning major props and cash this past month — and yes, with all the bad poems I’ll write this month — I thought a poem about trash would be fitting for this, the second day of NaPoWriMo.

Or, to be more accurate, it’s a found poem made from bits and pieces of emails in my Junk folder. Here goes!

(an Official, Personal Message from Captain George)

You do not have to lose;
replica Springs are available.
Replica thunderstorms can pelt down
replica splashes
of gray to freckle your face.

Urgently delay:
no-risk careers matter,
no-workout businesses work
out, and 100-percent raw, real school webcams
reveal themselves.

No need to save or survey.
Enlarge yourself.
This is your manhood:
to release nasty action,
screenshot by beachfront,
until your personal moral fund
matures or screams privately,
so wait.

Time is ready to reward
you, over and over,
with the seven secret watches
of freedom.

Wanna try? Post your poem in the comments below or let me know you’d like to link to your own blog.

Happy writings!

PS: I tweeted the titles from my first 2 poems here.

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Not a Toy, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I was thumbing through students’ folders, looking for work to type for our upcoming anthologies, when I stumbled across these two lines:

“This is not an toy/ It is Ms. Hays”

At first, I howled with laughter, not at this fourth-grader’s loose grasp on grammar and how to spell my name, but at the creativity, the audacity, and ultimately the TRUTH of this young girl’s poem.

The thing is this: the assignment was to draw a random object from The Mystery Bag, turn it into something else — anything else — and then imbue that Something Else with magical powers. Or extraordinary value. Or a raspy voice, or a bad attitude; you get the idea. It was the third or fourth class, and I intentionally gave a more open-ended prompt, only pushing the students to use their five senses, so I could see how each student wrote and thought without much outside interference.

Well, whatever Mystery Object this child picked from the bag, she decided that she would transform it into ME. And I don’t play, apparently. I may “smell like honey” (sniffed some at breakfast; not sure that’s a compliment) and “probably taste like flowers,” but “don’t touch her hair/ or she gets mad.” In fact, contact in general seems to anger me.

Not a Toy

Which then made me sad and worried. The picture that emerges from this poem is pretty, even perfumed, yet fragile. The person in this poem is afraid of drawing closer to others.

Is that person me? Perhaps. While I hope I don’t react with actual “anger” when my elementary students want to hug me or touch my hair — foreign territory for a former middle-school teacher — I know I am somewhat uncomfortable with it. What kinds of hugs are we allowed to give again? I wonder, scanning my mind for the latest legislation. How do you embrace a kid whose head hits you at boob-level?

But in a larger sense, I know there’s more. As a sexual assault and domestic violence survivor — and this month is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month — I have trouble letting people get close to me. It’s been several years and I have made humongous strides, but those crumbling barriers are still there.

So maybe I am the person in this poem. Kids see us the way we are, for better or worse.

But maybe, like this student did with her Mystery Object, I have the chance to redefine myself, to transform myself into Something Else. I’ve already come so far; why not keep going?

Maybe you have the same story. Maybe you have started making changes in your life, but it seems like they’re not enough. Maybe you WANT to make changes, but don’t know where to start.

Or maybe you just want to write a poem and join us in National Poetry Writing Month‘s 30-Day challenge. In any case, here’s an idea:

woman in the mirrorRedefine Yourself

Look in the mirror. Find one thing — physical or otherwise — that you really like about yourself, or want to change or always got teased or praised about. MAKE IT INTO SOMETHING ELSE. Capital Something, capital Else: something more, for better or worse. Something magical or unexpected or contradictory. Start your poem with “This is not a…” and/or do whatever you want. Make your big feet into personal surfboards that float you through life’s hard times. Make the walls of toughness around you into prison walls made of chocolate; melt them down with a blow drier and make your escape.

The point is to free yourself enough to imagine yourself differently, and then to write with that same freedom. I tried my hand at this exercise a while ago, so it won’t count for my NaPoWriMo efforts, but I encourage you to give it a go. The act of redefining yourself, even at a micro level, is incredibly uplifting and powerful (see Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” for proof).

So try it out! Feel free to share your poem in the comments or link back to your blog or Twitter. Let’s all get writing, and re-imagining!

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It’s Heeere! NaPoWriMo 2013

Who’s ready for a challenge? With the last frosts (hopefully) melting away, it’s time to shake off the winter doldrums and prove that April is NOT, in fact, the cruelest month.

That said, it’s time for the NaPoWriMo — better known as National Poetry Writing Month — challenge. The idea is deceptively simple: write 30 poems in 30 days. Over at the official NaPoWriMo website, there are prompts and links and all kinds of cool things to get you started. But really, inspiration is all around you. Read a poem, take a long walk, visit a gallery: just get to it.


I personally am an overachiever and a poetry nut, so I aim to do more (including this). Sometimes I’ll post the poems here. Sometimes I’ll post the titles or first lines (or the whole poem, if it’s short enough) on my Twitter account. Hopefully, as always, anything you see will inspire you to get those pens, pencils, typewriters (yes, typewriters!) or keyboards moving and do your own thing.

So enough with the gabbing. Let’s get started!

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Simple Gifts

Shaker dance positions

Written in 1944 for Martha Graham’s ballet of the same name, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is one of my all-time favorite tunes. If you’ve seen a movie in the past twenty years, you probably like it, too, although the name and history may be new to you.

What I love about this song is more than its beautiful melody or its epic, swelling crescendo. I love the feeling of peace and optimism — of dawning hope — that it inspires, but I also love the LYRICS.

Copland’s tune is based on a Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” that transcends region and even religion, in my opinion. Read the lyrics below, update the old-time language, and see if you don’t begin to see why the song these words inspired is so beloved:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

It’s easy to get caught up in what you DON’T have today. With the constant stream of media, technology, and advertising that bombards us (how many iProducts do we NEED, after all?), we all-too-readily find ourselves in an unfulfilling cycle of spending and discarding, all in pursuit of the Next Big Thing.

But what about the simple gifts? What about the things that, like this song, will outlive fads, remixes, updates, and add-ons because of their uncomplicated goodness and truth?

Consider the sound of birds chirping, squawking, or cackling outside. Consider your ability to hear them, if you can. Consider the sun on your face, or even the icy wind, and consider your education and ability to read or listen to this blog post, this song, and everything else you’ve experienced so far today. Consider the privilege of waking up free and where you ought to be — or free enough to make the changes needed to get yourself there. Aren’t these simple, nearly-invisible gifts worth counting — or trying to count, for they’re innumerable — each day?

Life, my friends, is good. We just have to turn, turn from all the distractions and open our minds to the beautiful gifts surrounding us.

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REACHING FOR OTHERS Published in Teachers & Writers Magazine

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the fantastic people at Teachers & Writers Magazine to publish a short article about teaching students in the face of traumatic events like those in Connecticut this past December. T&W is full of inspiring, practical insights and tips on teaching children to be creative, thoughtful, and writerly, so I highly encourage you to check out their latest issue for all the articles — including mine, Reaching for Others: Writing New Year’s Wishes to Newtown Students.



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Write Your Own Permission Slip

permission_slip_padA few weeks ago, I had the Worst. Date. Ever. One-for-the-record-books bad. Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not bad. So-awful-I-couldn’t-even-process-the-experience-until-I-got-in-my-car-and-drove-two-blocks-away bad.

This is not to say that the man who invited me out was a monster. Five months divorced and fighting a custody battle, he had a lot to deal with. I know a bit about that, being divorced for over a year myself, and the pain in his eyes when he spoke about his ex-wife and daughter was somehow both cutting and heartbreaking. It made me strive to be sympathetic, to listen and understand, since I know people aren’t always compassionate to divorcees.

But then the conversation became a monologue…and then a tirade against his ex-wife and her friends…and then a litany of all the hurried and superficial relationships he’s had and broken off with Ukrainian supermodels, followed by a high-pressure sales pitch for me to walk around a secluded lake in the middle of the night with him, followed by him standing MUCH too close and informing me that I was uncomfortable.

As if I didn’t know that. As if I needed him to notify me that, deep down, I wanted to run screaming from the Starbucks.

Well, maybe I did. Maybe that wake-up call was exactly what I needed. Obviously, I stuck around long after I felt like leaving (that would have been about 15 seconds in, when he told me his favorite TV show was Two and a Half Men). So why didn’t I? That was the question that bothered me all night. Why stay and allow a stranger to violate my time, personal space, and eardrums?

Call it habit. Like many women, I have a tendency to put others’ needs before my own. That poor guy, I’ll think. I don’t want to make him feel bad. Which is hogwash. People survive heartbreak and divorce all the time. I’m a living testament. And since I had no intention of going out on a second date with him, he was going to feel hurt anyway.

So the real deal was that I was just too scared to risk looking like an insensitive _______ (fill in with your derogatory term of choice for women who exercise their own power). That was a particularly tough realization to come to, considering I thought I had come so far over the past few years. Even after all I’d learned about speaking my truth and asking for what I want, I still was struggling to turn down things that DON’T uplift me, to be myself in the fullest sense of the word.

Yet there’s always something more to learn. Work-in-progress that I am, I decided to write myself a permission slip, just for the week, to do whatever the hell I wanted.

It was more like a command. Be unpleasant, I wrote on the pass. Be underdressed. Be overdressed. Don’t laugh at dumb jokes. Wear heels that are too high. Just say NO.

And so I did. I took myself out on “field trips” to enjoy art and poetry. I treated myself to multiple extravagant dinners. I actually made a point to hang out with a friend who always gives me a hard time…and to give him the blues back instead of being so dang agreeable. And you know what? The world didn’t explode. No one burned down my house or vandalized my car. In fact, we had a great time (or at least I did), and one man actually thanked me for turning him down without making excuses.

The lesson learned? The universe wants the real you. Not some sanitized, seemingly-perfect person or super-tough, untouchable facade, but your authentic self. Now is the time to write your permission slip. Who are you, and what do you want to do–where do you want to go–that you haven’t given yourself permission to be, do, or go yet? And what would happen if you tried it, just for one week?

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The Universe is Listening

Most of my life, I have NOT been the type to ask for stuff. As a child, when my family didn’t have money for fancy toys or expensive clothes, I sucked it up and picked out “Fashion Doll” instead of Barbie. (You know Fashion Doll…the one who comes in a plain brown box with all her clothes tied down next to her…oh, wait, you don’t? Guess I’m the only one.)Photo Caption: Randa Clay

Or, as an alternative, I simply didn’t ask for anything at all, no matter how much I wanted or needed it. After all, why make requests just to be shot down? Why complain about ballet lessons if I’m sure I’ll never get them? Why approach that cute guy I like — why ask a boyfriend or partner for more emotional availability — when I probably won’t get it? Not asking the questions freed me from rejection, disappointment, and humiliation…right?

Wrong. What it did was force me to live a half-life of What Ifs and If Onlyies. What if I had asked for the ballet lessons, and the answer had been YES? What if I had approached that guy and he’d said, “I’ve had my eye on you for the longest”?

Maybe I would be a prima ballerina married to Cutie from Middle School. Or maybe I would have had some fun and learned from the experiences. The point is, I don’t know — because I never asked.

But times have changed. What Ifs and If Onlyies don’t suit me anymore. Over the past year, I have committed to putting myself out there and asking for what I want and need. Has it always worked out as planned? No. I’ve approached the guy; sometimes he was interested, sometimes not. I applied to my dream grad school and didn’t get in.

Yet I also applied to four other MFA programs, and today I got a phone call from one more that has accepted me. That makes two so far, and that makes me pretty happy.

Over a year ago, I put it out there that I want to see Europe by train. So I applied for a side job every day for a month, interviewing and not landing anything until I finally got my current consulting gig. I asked my main job to load me up with hours, in just those words. And they did — enough so that a struggling writer/teacher on her own could buy herself a plane ticket to Athens yesterday.

Even last week, I posted on Facebook that I would love to see kick-ass poet Terrance Hayes when he comes to town on Monday. I had procrastinated on buying my ticket, and this week a friend texted me, letting me know she’d seen my post and inviting me to come along with her and her husband.

And today? As I type this, a wonderful man named Romeo…

…is sealing up my drafty windows and replacing my old stove, so I can keep WARM and bake myself some goodies this winter. =)

Why? Because I asked.

There’s nothing magic about it. The universe is listening, if you take the chance to speak up. There will be “No”s ahead, but you can handle that. Trust yourself. Keep at it. You’re worth it.

But whatever you want today, ask for it. Today.

The answer can only be Yes if you ask the question.

Move When the Spirit Moves You

Photo Credit: John Siebert

Photo Credit: John Siebert

Yesterday I went to my office job for the first time in months (and just when I actually had time and could use the extra money, I might add). When I walked in, my boss was more cheerful than ever. He even looked different, although I couldn’t put my finger on how or why.

As we sat down to catch up, as we always do after a long break, he revealed why he hadn’t called me to work in so long. It wasn’t because he was busy traveling, as I had assumed, but because he had had heart surgery in the fall.

He’d gone in for slight pain and the doctors found several blockages, even though he seemed perfectly healthy and is a vegetarian. So he scheduled surgery, and ON THE TABLE, just as the surgery was about to START, he had a heart attack. The one artery that had still seemed strong had just given way.

Of course, the doctors saved him. He was right where he needed to be when he needed to be there.

Take whatever lessons from this that you will, but it makes me think about how important it is to MOVE on even the little things: the “slight” pain, the gut feeling, the hunch. These are the signs that move us right where we need to be when we need to be there. This only happens when we trust ourselves, though—our own bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits.

So what are your hunches, emotions, and even body telling YOU? Are you trying to ignore it, or are you ready to MOVE? If you have already taken the initiative, what happened? Please share and encourage in the comments.

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Simone Digital

The adventure. Now.

Happy Black Woman

The adventure. Now.

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