The work continues
Three weeks ago, on a farm in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, I had the honor of attending Beth Kephart's first Juncture memoir writing workshop. You know how much I love a good writing retreat, and this one was good. Better than good. In fact, I'd say it was dang amazing.
I plan to write more about my experiences on the farm, what I learned, and Beth's incredibly passionate tutelage, but first this. Because Beth challenged us to write raw and real, not pretty and perfect. And because, before I traveled, I had wondered.
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The first evening—Sunday. Families around the country sat down to share a meal. We sat down too, to share the delicious and abundant food prepared for us by Sally, the farm’s owner. Like a family, we passed bowls and pitchers and platters. We said hello again and again. We filled each others’ glasses with sweet tea or water. We chatted and laughed. But the clank of silverware against china made my teeth hurt. I hoped I didn’t look as nervous as I felt.
After dinner, I made my way down the gravel path around the duck pond and toward the building in which we would work. The sky was turning dusty pink and muted coral, late summer colors of heat and humidity. I admired the field of cut hay, grove of stalky bamboo, and gaggle of geese. Even the peacocks, whose crack of dawn screams have been known to sound more there’s mayhem afoot than rise and shine. The air smelled like earth and sky. It smelled the way I imagine air is supposed to smell, the way it smelled before us. It smelled, in a word, safe.
Beauty surrounded me, and I could feel the land imploring me to let go, yet all I could wonder was, Has it been enough?
Notebooks and computers in hand, our group settled into the circular hodge-podge of chairs and couches. This evening we would read aloud the words we'd submitted to Beth as part of the application process. Three hundred well considered words on a meal. We commenced, and I listened. I marveled over words that sounded so right, so perfect, so much better than mine would sound. Soon it was my turn.
I raised my paper and began. “The vegetables are diced,” I said, and my chest tightened. Uh oh. “The meat is browned,” I continued, and saw my paper trembling in my hand. That’s when I knew the answer to my question was no—a big, fat no.
My healing work—four years worth of work, of study and practice and change, of acceptance and surrender—was not enough. Four years of progress to resist my perfectionistic tendencies, and still I was not enough. My words were not enough. Just like that, I no longer belonged in this community of writers. Or in my own skin. I was unworthy. I write and tell our story to help others heal, so they know they are not alone, and to acknowledge that the path of self-compassion is paved first and foremost with kindness to self. And here I was, a fraud.
The devil Comparison grabbed my brain’s steering wheel and veered onto a collision course intent on obliterating my authenticity and creative passion. Suddenly, I wanted what Comparison wants. I wanted to stand out, to be superior. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to decimate the non-existant competition. I wanted everything that is contrary to the work I've done to love myself and my life. My rational mind tried, as words caught in my throat, to grab back the wheel and correct course, to no avail. I read on to the last line of my piece, “Soon I will know,” but I already knew. Once again, I had failed.
So I did what I always do—I retreated. I sat quietly and listened to the rest of the pieces. I said little. At the end of the evening, I watched others say their good-nights and see you tomorrows. I walked to my cabin, changed into my pajamas, and washed my face. I laid down and stared at the ceiling. Here I am again, I thought. I couldn't let four years worth of life-changing work be for naught. Then I thought, So what are you going to do about it?
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(To immediately learn more about Beth, Juncture, and her upcoming retreat in November, click here and here.)
Wow, Tracey. So sad and yet beautiful in your honesty and lovely words. You paint pictures with words, as in the colorful sunset. I can't be the first person to say this, that you sell yourself short. Yet I know life is a journey and we all have our own path to traverse. You are an inspiration. Your honesty makes you shine. Keeping real puts you in touch with people who are looking to heal and grow. Keeping real makes you interesting. I'm not interested in reading material written by someone who thinks he/she is perfect & has all the right answers. I want to hear from someone who I can relate to and trust. If you don't show your vulnerability, you wouldn't be able to reach me. So I hope you see that your vulnerability is an asset. And as you continue on your journey, you will have more confidence. And instead of comparing your writing to others' works as a form of competition, you will appreciate hearing the paths other writers have taken. I know this is happening for you. I know you respect many other writers. It's so easy to be critical of oneself. Sometimes life takes us 2 steps forward and 1 step back. It's ok. As long as we are generally moving forward, and not stuck in a bad place, we are headed in the right direction.
Hi Sue, Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read and leave such a thoughtful comment. I can always count on you! First, let me say, I don't feel like I'm selling myself short…In this sense. I am a work in progress! And our mind fucks rarely have to do with reality! I have made much progress over the last 4 years and will continue to do so in the next years. This is a description of my inner critic, the place that I and I think many others go when we find ourselves in situations that challenge the very learning and work we are doing to improve. This struggle for me is almost as old as I am. And this is where my inner voice goes. Ostensibly, I have learned and understand that this voice is trying to keep me safe. Stop, I say! I will keep myself safe, thank you very much. But, since this voice/these ideas/this struggle is such a large part of my healing work, I try to share it honestly. Part 2 will hopefully be less sad as I explore the ways in which I've learned to negotiate with this inner me. And thank you again. Yes! I do see the vulnerability as an asset. I don't think I'd be able to write my truth if I didn't. I appreciate you acknowledging and sharing that I reach you with my real feelings. And giving up comparison….THAT is a big part of where the work lies. I respect ALL other writers..I know how hard it is. Thanks again for your lovely and encouraging comment.
Sorry. I stand corrected. I am a work in progress, too. : )
I am very grateful for your friendship and for what you write. You've helped me become a better person. A stronger person. Thank you.
What I saw that night, Tracey, was a beautiful woman with a lacing of tattoos who had a big story to tell, a big heart, and words I wanted more of. I am so glad you did not retreat and that we came to know the truest you.
Hi, Tracey. This piece is so wonderful. Your awareness of yourself, your thoughts, and your feelings as you moved through that first evening are so vivid. I love the internal conversations going on, and they sound like mine. "Get out of my head!" (Remember that?!)
Also, it's tough to realize we still have more work to do on an issue we thought we'd conquered. I'd love to be over my stuff once and for all, but it keeps circling around. Or, I guess my path does and I bump up against the same old issues. Maybe the good news for both of us is that we're aware that we're confronting the same issues. And if we're really good to ourselves, we'll remember that we healed from it the last time…so why not again?
Can't wait to read more!
You're an awesome woman and writer! Wow!! Can I share this with my students?