hymns for hard times

I.

I want my life to by an infinite hymn—

A song of laughter and moonlight,

Of prayer and rainfall.

To stand firm in the earthquake and shout

“I am here! I cannot be shaken!”

If I sing off-key, so be it!

It is better to sing my song badly 

Than someone else’s perfectly.

II.

Some voices are delicate and melancholy;

Others are cracked and bitter;

I have heard voices like sunsets 

And voices like avalanches.

I have sounded like a combination of these,

In my best and worst and moments,

And asked myself,

“Is that really what I sound like?”

III.

Teach me to be gentle,

Even in my screams. 

Teach me to be bold,

Even in my whispers.

Every muscle aches for kindness.

My throat is raw from howling like a madman,

But it keeps me sane.

IV.

I am the lungs and you are the air,

The sweet breath of dawn and stillness.

Let the wind carry these refrains through the desert and forest,

the cracks in the sidewalk

and silence between thought and action.

To know that there is no such thing as nothing, 

That every atom and particle

possesses an invisible soul—

And to hear and be heard 

By that elusive roommate 

Who shares our home

And walks beside us at all times—

That is reason enough to sing.

What Are Your Bumper Stickers?

I was having dinner with friends when the conversation quickly turned to politics. As a motley crew of differing experiences and opinions, it didn’t take long for a passionate argument to break out (especially after a few drinks had given some of us false courage). I sat back and listened to my friends loudly exchange views, observing how the energy of the entire table shifted from jovial to defensive. Every disagreement was taken as a personal attack. Feelings got hurt and the somber silence that pierced the room after the last shots were fired sobered us all up. 

As I drove home that night, I wondered why we were all unable to talk about important things without becoming angry. Our egos were so attached to certain labels and ideas that we couldn’t separate our identities from it.  Deeply wounded, our egos tried to protect and defend themselves through negative reactions like yelling, crying, or retreating. As I passed a car completely covered with bumper stickers like “My cat is a Democrat!” and “Yale Dad,” I couldn’t help but wonder if all these labels we stick on ourselves are really just cover-ups for who we actually are. 

Political labels are just one of the many bumper stickers we plaster on ourselves, but it got me thinking about what other things I falsely identify with. When I got home that night, I made a list of all the words I use to define myself. I didn’t realize that I had spent nearly an hour coming up with over a hundred words scribbled frantically across multiple pages of my notebook–words like “ Environmentalist, Runner, Writer, Vegetarian, Feminist, American.” Then there were names and places and past experiences that I still heavily identified with, some positive and some extremely negative. I realized I was still carrying the weight of past relationships, mistakes, and pain that I had subconsciously attached myself to. The list went on and on until I felt like there was nothing more to write about myself. At the same time, I knew something huge was missing. These words didn’t seem to accurately capture who I was. As I read them out loud, they sounded empty and superficial. I felt like that minivan covered with bumper stickers and wondered if that’s how other people saw me–as someone hiding under an ambush of labels. 

We live in a society that constantly tries to label and compartmentalize everything. That isn’t to say that all labels are inherently bad–being able to name certain things can be very empowering and help us realize we are not alone. Words can be powerful tools for understanding our personality and behavioral patterns, but they are in no way representative of our inner being. The problem now is that we’re more concerned with defining than being. As a writer, my initial instinct is to give a name to everything–every thought, emotion, experience, I want to describe through words. When I can’t find the right ones, I grow frustrated and disappointed. As I tried to capture my true essence, I couldn’t think of a single noun or adjective that accurately described me because there isn’t one. I am not a noun or an adjective. I’m not an -ist. I can’t fit into an Instagram bio or dating profile. My inner state cannot be defined, it is only something that can be felt.  Every now and then I get brief, beautiful glimpses of that perfect state through meditation. Sometimes when I’m in nature I feel it; sometimes it comes just from listening to a certain song. We’ve all had those encounters where we meet ourselves and experience the joy of simply existing, but worldly distractions pull us away from that state. Leaning to disassociate from these distractions is challenging, especially in today’s world of social media, political upheaval, and consumerism. If we stopped buying into these distractions, society as we know it could not exist.

Whenever I grow defensive, I ask myself why I am reacting that way. It’s usually because my ego feels threatened and desperately needs to prove that it’s right. I’ve damaged many relationships this way and I’m guessing some of you also have. Telling my ego to take a backseat has not been easy, but it has made my life a lot less stressful. Our minds have tricked us into believing that we are our ego, which is why we feel the constant need to identify with the outside world. The more we remind ourselves that we are not bumper stickers, the more we can connect with our true and eternal Self. 

What labels do you falsely identify with? What do you look like when you take them away? How do you untangle yourself from the ego’s webs?

Atlantis

A permanent hangnail,

a loose tooth my tongue can’t stop poking—

the question tickles the back of my brain until I scratch so hard it bleeds.

I laugh at myself for trying to measure infinity in teaspoons,

for enslaving myself to words like 

“daughter” or “American” or “Pisces.” 

I became my own shadow,

a shape-shifting silhouette in a hurry to read the last page of an unwritten book. 

In drunkenness I find clarity

that is perhaps too obvious to see—

a child’s laughter as ice cream drips down his chin,

dewdrops on the baseball field before sunrise,

the homeless man who feeds pigeons in the park…

Scientists don’t know why Venus spins backwards 

(does she even know?) 

I remind myself to stop searching for Atlantis. 

Connecting With Your Inner Child

The most sophisticated people I’ve ever known had just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children.

Jim Henson

After struggling to establish a solid foundation a year after graduating college, I decided to schedule an appointment with a therapist. Anxious and underemployed, I had no idea what to say when people asked the dreaded question, “So, what do you want to do?” The more time passed, the more I conflated what I wanted to do with what I thought I “should” be doing–I should be working at this company, making x amount of money, dating this kind of a person, living in this neighborhood, and the usual list of societal expectations we (especially twenty-somethings) put on ourselves. The reality was that I was working a service job I hated, making significantly less than I wanted, grappling with an array of failed relationships, and living in my childhood bedroom. Surrounded by pictures and memories of a much younger and more hopeful me, I felt like a disappointment to my younger self and didn’t even want to know what future me would be like.

In the first session of therapy, my therapist asked, “What were you doing when you were twelve?” Digging up ancient artifacts from a decade ago, I recalled a time of riding horses, playing with stuffed animals, singing, and writing short stories for my family. I thought about my best friends from elementary school who faded into memories and the summers spent at camp, swimming in the lake and tie-dyeing every article of clothing I owned. I recalled feeding ducks at the pond and my favorite tree to sit under and read. I laughed at an embarrassing story of having a major voice crack while singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” at a chorus recital. What was supposed to be a quick answer to her question turned into a thirty minute walk down memory lane. The stress and tension I had built up prior to our session melted into ease and a sense of joy. I felt like a kid again.

 “What about when you were six?” she asked. “Can you remember what you were doing then?” I told her I remembered making little books with simple yet bizarre narratives of cows in space and fairies living under my bed. I have a vivid memory of sitting on our living room floor (how I miss that purple carpet!) and watching my dad shine his shoes while singing “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles. It would become one of my favorite songs simply because of the memories associated with it and the first song I learned on guitar. I remembered Lucas, our black labrador, and how we would play all day in the backyard. Visions of digging up worms while watching my mother garden in her soil-stained gloves filled me with warmth and comfort. 

Before getting lost in a rabbit hole of nostalgia, my therapist asked me one final question–”What does present you have in common with these younger versions of yourself?” The answer was simple and obvious–everything I loved as a child I still love now. Writing, nature, music…these are the main ingredients of my personality, no matter how much I may try to ignore or change them. As I cried to her that I had no idea what to do with my life, she merely reflected the answers back to me. Deep down, I’ve always known that my love for the arts and the outdoors were more than passing interests. But as I grew bigger, so did my fears and doubts. I was more concerned with being “realistic” than honest with myself. My passions aren’t like shoes or sweaters though–I didn’t outgrow them like some of us think we can or are even expected to. Now 23, I know it’s time to face those fears head on and silence the inner-bully in my head.

I’m incredibly blessed to have the childhood I did, but that isn’t to say I don’t still hold on to negative patterns from my past. A lot of us have a wounded inner child who never healed and it is our job to love, apologize, and forgive that child in order to heal from past trauma. In his book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, Thich Nat Hahn provides a powerful meditation of saying, “I go back to my inner child” on the inhale, and “I take care of my inner child,” on the exhale. Sometimes merely acknowledging our pain brings comfort, especially if we can accept the situation for what it is and let go, surrendering to the Now. Only by forgiving the past can we truly heal and embrace the present.

I was an extremely nervous and fearful kid, partly because of a brain-injury I had when I was a toddler. This injury led to early learning and development problems and although I excelled academically, I still find myself saying things like, “I’ll never be smart enough” or “There’s no way I could ever do that.” My parent’s and teacher’s concern for my development plagued me as a child and I’d go to bed feeling inadequate and incapable of success (I still do sometimes). I was extremely hard on myself and I have to apologize to that little girl who constantly beat herself down. Nature became my refuge from those thoughts, a place where the silence and stillness showed me who I really was. As I told my therapist this, she asked, “Why aren’t you planning a future that includes environmental and creative work?” I was somewhat dumfounded by the simplicity of the question. Why wasn’t I? Why was I so terrified of doing what my inner child wanted to even though I couldn’t imagine myself happy doing anything else? I had spent nearly a year quitting jobs and then applying to ones I had no interest in, wondering why I was constantly in a rut. I put the things I actually enjoyed on the back burner because they didn’t seem important.

Admitting what I truly want is nerve-racking because it does’t follow the traditional path. Admittedly, I’m still figuring my plan out but being honest with myself about the person I am and want to be was the first step. Somewhere between adolescence and young-adulthood, I became ashamed of my childhood dreams because they felt…well, childish. We’re led to believe that as adults, we should sever ourselves from our childhood. But the inner child is always inside us, and the dreams and passions we had are there for a reason. The questions my therapist asked helped me break down my past and present so that I could imagine a future where six-year-old me would be proud. A future that includes all the things my inner child needs. I urge you to close your eyes and reach out to your inner child. You may be amazed at the wisdom you have always possessed.

Ways to Help You Connect With Your Inner Child

  • What negative habits, thoughts, or emotions do you hold onto from your childhood? How can you release them? Who do you need to forgive?
  • Listen to an old song or watch an old movie you loved as a kid. How do they make you feel now?
  • What did you want to be when you were six? How does your life align with that now?
  • Write a letter to your past self. What advice would you give? Do you treat your present self with the same empathy and understanding you do your past self? 
  • Text/call an old friend or mentor that you miss–we all have those people from our past that we’re too scared to reach out to. If more of us had the bravery to do this, we wouldn’t live in such a lonely world.
  • Ask your parents, grandparents, or other family members what they were like as kids. Can you see the inner-child in them today?