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This blog is about vulnerability and how it connects with the creative process.   We’ve all had people in our lives so guarded we rarely see beyond their masks.  Occasionally, perhaps at times of great sorrow, rage, or joy, we get a glimpse, a spark, a piece of something we recognize as genuine.  Many guarded people see vulnerability as a weakness, as leaving themselves without defense and open to attack. I disagree.

What is often thought of as vulnerability is really strength. Sharing our deepest fears and regrets is a courageous and unifying act. Our vulnerabilities, not our strengths, connect us as human beings and help us to avoid the aloneness of never being known. Most of us have made discoveries about a dead loved one and wished we could have known this while they were alive. When I was going through my mother’s things, I discovered a box of poems she’d written. I was 29-years-old, had written poetry my entire life, and had no idea my mother wrote, too. I was stunned. And a bit hurt, as I thought I knew her better than anyone. Why hadn’t she shared them with me? I suspect she was afraid to be that vulnerable. But her fear was misplaced. It would have been a great gift and inspiration to me to hear those poems in her voice.

Readers of my blogs often comment or question the way I go deep into human emotions. They talk about the courage it takes to be vulnerable. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps vulnerable people are brave enough to be honest and true to both their hearts and their convictions. In this era of so many different modes of communication—Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—we select bits and pieces of ourselves for public exposure—more concerned with our presentation than with our true selves. And while I understand the necessity of a certain anonymity for public media, I can also see the inherent dangers in terms of self-knowledge.

Making any kind of art takes tenacity, a deep need to create, a belief you have something to say and, above all, the courage to say it. Perhaps all good art is an expression of vulnerability and suffering because of the way it opens the mind and heart to newness. For writers, making our characters vulnerable means we give them courage to show up and be seen. It is the most authentic state of being—this place where you are open to the darkness, the light, and all the shades and shadows in between. Being vulnerable allows you to write deeper, more emotional characters. How many times as writers have we gotten rejected by an agent or editor because, “I just couldn’t connect with your character.” Discover your most authentic self. Write about fear, pain, resentment and heartache—dig deep into your own emotions—and your prose characters will come alive. Readers will feel the connection.

One of the most effective ways for a writer to gain sympathy for a character is to expose his wounds. Vulnerability is the gateway to that exposure. Sharing deep fears and regrets can and does make us feel vulnerable, but it is an ultimately unifying act and will connect our fictional characters to our readers. When a person or a character is open, he begins to heal both himself and others. And so I challenge you to have the courage to be vulnerable in your lives, and in your writing.  Go forth and be BRAVE. 


 
 
This is the third in my series of blogs about poetry and the things in life that trigger poems in me. Our lives aren't always easy, most of us have been wounded, but I've also been blessed with two children who have grown to be loving, productive and insightful adults. This feels like the biggest "success" of my life.

A few weeks ago my daughter wrote a letter to her dead father and sent it to me. It was a profound message, both inspiring and heartbreaking. I didn't know how to respond--wasn't sure what, if anything, she needed from me. I concluded she merely wanted an audience for her feelings--an address to send her letter--a living parent who cared enough to read the words she needed to write. The dead are alive when we think of them. Her intimate sharing brought many feelings to the surface for me--both for my child, and for her father. 

Like I always do when I don't fully understand something, I write about it. Because poetry, for me, is a way to say what I can't say in any other medium. I want to go deeper, go beyond the surface to the "real" meaning. Though my daughter's letter was written to her father, it was also a gift to me. My gift to her in return is my poem, "In Love's Crucible". Somehow, between the letter and the poem, I hope truth is revealed. Her father faced Alzheimer's Disease, faced the loss of his memories, his brain, his bodily functions and finally his life. He left a legacy of courage to his children and grandchildren. He showed us all what it really means to be a hero. We can still learn from the dead if we're willing to open our hearts and listen. 


With her permission, I share parts of her letter, followed by the poem it triggered. I think it will be easy to see how and why this poem found its way to the page. 



Picturedrawing a clipper ship together
Dear Dad,
Today the index cards I made for the book I thought I could write about dementia, tucked in a corner of my bedside desk, literally flew at me. There was no wind. No reason. So bizarre. The room felt cold. I shivered as I picked them up. Out of the blue void. Defiance of physics. "Pop? Is that you?" I immediately thought you were there--telling me to keep writing.


I've been secretly waiting for a sign of you. Did it come today? You are gone. I can't call you or make you a breakfast burrito and put on Casablanca. I can't tell you about how the world has changed or listen to your thoughts about the many wars humans are still fighting. Everyday we lose more of your brave generation. The veterans of WWII. The survivors of the death camps. The nurses. The doctors. The philosophers and psychologists who said, "Yes!" to unconditional positive regard in the wake of such reckless hate. 

I remember the day I read Viktor Frankl to you and you described the liberation of the American soldiers you witnessed in the Philippines. We talked for hours, trying to make sense of humanity and evil. You apologized for your anger toward the Japanese. You said you were wrong to react harshly to their presence when we went to the USS Arizona in Hawaii when I was ten. Mom looked at you and said, "They died here, too."

By the time you hit 85, you vowed to stop calling them "the Japs." You cried for the devastation at Hiroshima. You saw that all suffering is suffering. You struggled to release yourself from American tribal identity without sacrificing your patriotism and your love of freedom. You worked to transcend "us and them." I was your witness.


All those days and nights in hospitals. Your first hip fracture. They stood you up after surgery, one nurse on either side. Your bowels evacuated. It was automatic. You groaned in pain. The worst moment was when you noticed the feces. I immediately donned gloves and sang old Frankie Sinatra to you while cleaning. 


Somehow, with the help of Sinatra, you managed to look at me and smile. You were so heroic, Dad--your courage and humor so much bigger than shame or fear. I believe you were laughing at the absurdity of it all. How could this happen to an accomplished and intelligent man like you? Together, we did the best we could. I think the nurses were shocked. God, we earned respect that day. Looking back, I know I did what I did because I couldn't bear for you to suffer shame on top of the theft of your mind and body.

I’m so sorry, Dad. I know you'd have rather been dancing in body and mind all the way to the end of your life. The last month in hospice was so hard on you. You were starving, but often would not eat.  Oh my father, I could hear your stomach churning. I was scared. I did what I could. I read your favorite poems and Bible verses. I played the music you loved, held your head and put lotion on your withered hands and feet. I gave you water when you'd take it and at least made sure your lips were not too dry when you wouldn't. You could barely speak. I tried hard to hear the meaning of every subtle non-verbal cue.

I couldn't stop that horrible disease. I couldn't stop time. In a way, I wanted to go with you when you crossed over. I don't know what that means. But it's true. I am not who I thought I was. In the final moment, while you gasped the last breath, I said: "It's ok. You can go. I'll be ok. I love you. I'll always love you." 

I was crying. My voice shook. I spoke, though. I did. And I'm so glad if you were hearing anything at all, it was those words. When a single cloudy tear slid out of your right eye and you were gone, I was seized by the impulse to stand and raise my arms above my head, just in case your soul was hovering there, free at last. Free at last! I wanted to celebrate it, just in case consciousness is more than we think we know. Then I heard your voice. You said: "Let's dance.    

I wanted you back. I fought with you as a child. I fought for you as an adult. I've fought for others in the eighth decade too. I did it because of you. The walls we tore down. The walks we took. You with your flashlight; me with my questions. The many ways you caused and quelled my fears. When I was small, I didn't believe you loved me. I thought I wasn't smart enough for you. By the end, I knew you did. It's been a year, Dad, and I still hear you. I saved all of your voicemails.

It took seven years for Alzheimer's disease to destroy your brain. Every bit of sheer perseverance I mustered came from you. Every bit of spiritual guidance came from Mom.

I will always love you, Dad.


IN LOVE’S CRUCIBLE

On the first anniversary of his death
my daughter writes a letter to her father
and mails it to me. Winter whiteness fills
every room in my house. Silence hides
so much it is easy to forget and see only
beauty—a lone cardinal at the empty feeder.
This big loss behind her, so many still ahead.
One pine needle at a time, the world diminishes.

As a child, she fought hard with her father.
Now, she wants him back. Thanksgiving dinners.
long talks at the Cliff House. His wry laughter.
Always the Navy man,  lectures on the Great War,
remorse at the vacation when she was ten
and he raged at tourists in Pearl Harbor as they snapped
photos of the USS Arizona. She alone witnessed
his late vow to stop calling them “Japs”.
His tears for Hiroshima. Alzheimer’s
taught him one man’s suffering belongs to every man,
and now even his repented sins are hers for good.

In a lucid moment, he looks up at her and says,
“I used to be smart.” She swallows the childhood fear
she wasn’t smart enough for his love, places her hand on
his chest, sharp closeness of ribs. “Do you still feel 

love in here, Pop?”  When he nods, she tells him 
this is the only smart that matters. 

My door, once frozen to him, opens at once to her grief.
I stand at the window and look at the dirt road that leads
to her childhood. Even as a baby, her face reflected every
season’s weather, happiness pink as dogwood blossoms.
Rage, a summer monsoon with hail and tornado winds blowing.

Later, when his walls collapse and hips fracture, she grows
wings of protection that flutter over him like moths in search
of his light. As disease takes his mind 

and he forgets how to swallow, 
she fights hard for him, sings Sinatra to fill
his heart with joy as she moistens lips with cotton balls, rubs
lotion into withered hands, reads poetry and Bible verses
while trying to catch each nonverbal cue. 

When the end comes, she is still there, raising arms
in hopes his soul feels her presence
as it hovers in the reflective glow of a sun that lingers golden
on the sea’s surface, blinks, then slowly fades
and sinks below the horizon.


Susan Clayton-Goldner