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All Obstacles In My Way

At no point in my life have I had a healthy relationship with Shame. It is a force of nature, or maybe even an expanse of nature, such as a wood or a desert or an ocean that consumes all would be travelers within its relentless stomach. Often I have approached the edge of shame and even marched far enough into its maw to lose sight of the safety I left behind me, but never have I done so unequipped or unattended. It isn’t that I am a coward but rather that I lack courage enough to bare myself to the elements of Shame. Like biting cold or scorching heat, it tears away at me and I find myself unable to live in the element. Shame is a demon. It is a god. It is an Authority of immense breadth, and it has maintained tyranny over my psyche for my entire life. It sets its claim over me as my master and shall maintain that stance until I master my relationship with it.

Shame in my life is less an obstacle in my way and more of an obstacle course. The field is itself riddled with several more discrete obstacles all about it. Memories, inner voices, culture, belonging, remnants of Guilt and Fear, and the gaze of others all litter the landscape and present their own unique challenge and distinct pain. Through means of cartography, I know what exists on the other end of this boundary were I to traverse it. Love. Esteem. The chance to properly grieve. Vulnerable intimacy. A fulfilling livelihood. And the chance to exercise my authentic will in both selfish and charitable ways without the ceaseless cacophony of my inner monsters. Without consistent utterance of my worthlessness, my sinfulness, and my irredeemable case of humanity. As it is, staying as I am without conquering the wilderness of Shame will only continue to bring me self-loathing, a career I fail to identify with, and unhealthy submissiveness.

As is the case with most things (once left to their own for long enough), Shame has manifested in my life as very real and sometimes tangible representations. Shame has often and has again driven me to self-incrimination even where Guilt hasn’t fastened itself. I’ve experienced this with family, in businesses, and most presently in relationships and with the law. These representations need to addressed by understanding where my guilt is rather than feeling ashamed simply for being less than I would aspire. Shame also bars me from occupation. Not only have I been unwilling to change my career into one that best suits me out of embarrassment, but I have also been too ashamed to request work from new clients or request my payments from those I have done work for. Finally, shame keeps me from intimacy. The truth is that I don’t feel worthy of love and I so don’t actively seek relationships that would serve me. Instead I accept the ones that come, and often they come with abuse.

I have to overcome Shame. I have to overcome my expectations and standards for myself, because they will never be realistic or perhaps even ever attainable. Doubtlessly, I need to learn how to love myself. I need to find something in myself to love and something about myself worth protecting from the many tribulations I have invited to myself. Once that is done, I have a very specific need to claim my identity. I’m not a martyr nor a victim but I don’t claim the identity of a hero or a victor. This lack of resolute identity or ownership of my strength leaves me floundering in a sea of my unresolved problems. Presently I suppose all I need to do is convince myself and a judge. What I’m sure of is that I am unsure of myself and that once I’m certain that I am a firm footing to stand on I can tread forward in an affirmative way.

It isn’t in my nature to use an obstacle as an excuse the avoid a task, but I have been known to take the more difficult path forward in avoidance of the painful necessity. I regret the slower roads despite the insights I have found along them simply because I know that it has been my choice not to resolve my difficulties. It isn’t fear, but rather, disgust that is directing my feet in this instance, which is just one leg of a long instance of my developmental life. In this particular instance. Surely, however, I am integrating my many separated splinters through ritual and habituation. If nothing else, I’m beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I may not win against my aggressors, but I may very well conquer Shame this way. This has been my greatest obstacle in life, so it is paramount that I capture this momentum and carry it forward.

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I bend my heart to you, oh belov’ed
and pledge my pulse to stir you 

I bend my will to you oh believ’ed 
and in pledging you animate my form

I resolve to exist in your name 
to act at your announcement

For I have nothing but my devotion
and it is my devotion I give in evidence of the same

I empty my soul of its adoration
and make room to house you

My value is in my appreciation of you
I recognized my worth solely because I recognized your own

Let my efforts be a blessing onto you
A fraction of that blessing which is to know of your unknowable essence

I am consecrated by your gaze, oh belov’ed
by filling made whole 
by feeling made holy

Oh believ’ed, I bend myself to you
and with dedication fastened shall I be with meaning

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Sometimes you don’t realize that your life is poetry until you notice the stanzas. I started recording my thoughts together, particularly here, with a two-fold purpose: stitch a semblance of a narrative together from my scattered thoughts, and to figure out what character I was in that narrative. The latter proved far more of a struggle, due largely to the baggage that comes with being a human in even the broadest sense. There was simply too much “self-ness” in the being bucket to discern what parts were authentically me and what was simply getting dragged along. I heard a phrase once quoted from a yogi I don’t remember the name of which declared that only through constant self-annihilation can we discover the indestructible truth of who we really are. In April of 2019, I set the charges to self-destruct my own ego and in April of 2020, I detonated them. The resulting mess was substantial and dwarfed only by the resulting message. The previous stanza —

Over the past year, I have experienced and accomplished extraordinary oddness, at least for me. I don’t have the energy nor the bravery to expound deeply in detail in this article alone. Suffice to say it involved inexplicable and unexpected involvement with politics, scandal, activism, nearly para-military organization, world-wide catastrophe, jail, and esoterism, all of which I impressively survived largely unscathed. Actually no, not unscathed. I emerged scarred mentally and to a lesser extent physically, destroyed in several aspects and reinforced in others. Despite that, more than enough of me survived to teach me valuable lessons, some about who I am and a great deal more about who I am not. While there were truly lovely circumstances over that year, I would be lying against myself if I said that it wasn’t a terrific gauntlet of pain and suffering. Even still, in what might be either to most direct or indirect of ways, I’ve succeeded in clarifying my identity through the very thorough event of annihilation.

As I type I am working through a mood stabilizer which keeps me quite unable to track my own thoughts through a coherent narrative. If there were anything that made it hard to tell a story, that would be it. And yet, the conditions I currently live in, the strings of causality that conjured them, and the heaviness of the entire scenario makes it so that is barely an issue. I couldn’t imagine not knowing where I am or how I got here. My narrative is baked in my present, and my every breath is a forensic lab report describing the bizarre worldwide and personal events of 2020. Ironic that I would end 2020 without focus. Apropos that I would end 2020 with such sharp clarity. I seldom know if I am in the tragedy or comedy anymore, but at least I know my character and his role. Interestingly enough, though it seems to breach my previously established theories of mind and several takeaways from any number of Joseph Campbell books, I turned out to not be the hero of my story. As it so happens, I’m the audience insert. I am Doctor Watson. Call me Ishmael. I’ve been here to tell the story all along, not to live it.

I have, through one device or another, been trying my best to remove myself from the story. In childhood I had an obsession with the invisible hand. The idea that my life would be happier, and even more purposeful, if I were some ethereal being that participated in the world through untraceable action. To have no body and no voice. Appropriately enough for the Christmas season (It’s December 10th as I write this) I often remember the Rankin Bass Christmas special Jack Frost. Jack is a spirit of, as insinuated, frost. He coats leaves with shimmering ice, freezes the surface of the lakes, and even interacts with humans who can neither hear nor see him by nipping the tip of their noses with Winter chill. Apart from that, he is a non-agent, relegated to be essentially “other” from the world at large. This isn’t because I ever wanted to not deal with others. On the contrary, I like and actually love others and very much enjoy being in the human world. Rather, it’s because I have never felt quite human enough to be considered human in the human world.

When you don’t quite feel like others, and yet are expected to feel like others, and certainly to act like others, existing takes on a substantial eight and resistance. It is in these times that I am well acquainted with the phenomenon in which Hell is other people. This Hell is less characterized by the fires and smoke of Gehenna, and more with the chains, shackles, and iron bars that represent expectation itself, as well as its cousin, obligation. These things aren’t inherently bad or bothersome, especially seeing as they are among the threads that weave the fabric of social cohesion. The issue is that they seem, more often than not, detrimentally misassigned. The aforementioned Jack Frost fell in love with a mortal woman who claimed that she loved Winter dearly, and more than anything she loved Jack Frost. He petitioned with Father Winter to make him human so that he might love her properly, and when granted, he found himself awkwardly too inhuman for the masquerade. The funny thing is that in a lot of ways, he could never love her properly as a human. She loved Jack Frost the spirit, and the spirit is what he properly was. His life was doomed, on one side of the veil or the other, to disquietude.

Over the past year the story caught up with me. I can’t pose as the nameless narrator or the disembodied declaimer. The weight of the words and the pressure of the paragraphs crashed down on me hard and fast enough to remind me with certainty that I am no ethereal spirit. That hiding from my agency wasn’t an option anymore. That was the coward’s way out of self-annihilation, and no, freshly re-embodied, I was to be thrown into the cauldron. After losing a lot and suffering considerable psychological and spiritual “processing,” I am, or at least I feel, ready to assume my role actively. It was the metaphor that finally made it clear. The constant use of symbols and ideas I placed to distance myself from the description that helped me realized it was a poem. It was the pattern of the stanzas, the December collapse, April recovery, and July re-invention, for me to recognize its structure. I always felt like a misfit in my own narrative, like I didn’t rhyme with anything, so I omitted myself my page. This year perhaps at last gave me the vocabulary to belong amongst my own thoughts. If not, at least now I know, I couldn’t run from this work because I was always the title of this piece all along.

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The Market in the Heart of the City

With one eager inhalation, she fills her halls with the first round of customers. Still stiff with the sleep of night, this first breath draws quickening life into groggy corridors. A stretch and a yawn from wide, creaking, opening doorways invite another small crowd. The City Market had been stirring for some hours, and now with the sun hanging in the sky above bird and building, she is ready to rise. The shining warmth of well-settled dawn massages her outer walls and breaks through the high glass augers frightening away chilly night air.

Charleston City Market Entrance
The Market Entrance Widens on Inhalation

City Market Season Begins

This was not just any day on Meeting Street. It was mid-April. Spring break was underway. The tenacious chill of winter reluctantly gave way to heat and blossoms. Pockets of tourists and residents alike jingled with money from refunds. This promised to be a busy day for the market, who was still setting her intentions for the day with each blow of her nostrils. She was not caught by surprise. This time comes every year without fail, and she had decorated herself for the occasion.

Dressed in gorgeous flags and signs she sought to compete with the colorful bouquet of spring petals. Just as attractive as the bloom to the bee, she spun and danced and attracted many wandering eyes. Several incoming hadn’t visited for over a year and others arrived whom she met for the first time. She loved to be admired. Not simply for herself, but this was her duty. Her neighboring friend, the Farmers Market, had just returned from his winter vacation. It was both of their jobs to sustain the thriving commerce and activity of the city and she couldn’t wait to gloat. All in good fun, of course. They had a mutual respect of one another and were earnest old friends.

An Honest Dollar

One more deep breath. The street was a pulsing current of life, flowing with waves of curious meandering and late appointments. It has been hours since the morning and the rush has officially begun. In just a few months the same amount of labor will leave sweat dripping from air-conditioned pipes. Not yet, however. Fresh, cool Spring keeps the air moderate inside and outside of the market’s several open edifices. Regardless, the work is laborious. She hyperventilates with the ingress and egress of customers and gawkers. Her sides seem to bulge painfully from the bustling within her walls. Ever so slightly she settles and stretches her aged bricks to make room for the commerces within her.

She didn’t mind. This was a job she had come to love. These first days always excite her, but today particularly she housed new art. Several entered the City Market just for this alone, but today she was extra proud and wanted everyone to enjoy the colors and canvases leaning upon her booths. She flaunted them joyfully, beamed at every exclamation of how pretty they were, how talented the artists, how well that depiction of a docked boat would look over the sofa. This is what she lived for. Each transaction was life-blood, each paused and engaged shopper a heartbeat. And nothing brought her more pleasure, except maybe on occasion an exceptional street performance. There was very little that didn’t energize her bones. Little she didn’t enjoy. But there was one thing.

And Dishonest, Too

The word “commerce” deconstructed means “merciful together.” It pays a slight nod to an archaic idea of mercy, one many may be unfamiliar with nowadays. In long forgotten times if you killed a poor man’s cattle, you have destroyed his livelihood and he must pursue strict justice. Kill the cattle of a king or queen, however, and it was simply one of many. To demonstrate their power and abundance they could show mercy because they could afford to. The market was the symbol of being merciful together. Of commerce. She was a dance of abundance. In her bosom all were welcome. The wealthy, the peasant, the harlot, and even the tax collector on their tax season vacation. Regardless, what she couldn’t stand was a thief.

Theft disrupted the very soul the market embodied. With theft comes distrust. With theft comes guarded and unfriendly displays. Theft brings unfriendliness, and that is why she can’t forgive it. Without togetherness there an be no mercy, there can be no free flowing trade within her cavernous halls. It makes her ill and she hates it. Today, deep in her belly a woman tried to steal a fragrance from a booth as the vendor turned. Another spied her before she could get away. The upset turned the market’s stomach and she regurgitated the thief with a shudder. The market can’t excuse theft. One can busk, or panhandle if you’re brave. But never disrupt the spirit of the system.

The Busy Day is Done

The evening approaches soon, but the Sun still hangs fairly high overhead. What was once shoulder to shoulder congestion has hummed down to empty tables and some stragglers entranced in conversations. The City Market’s brick walls and cement floors are sore from today’s activities. While it has been splendid, she is glad to relax and recover for the night. Her art sold, and baskets packed up for tomorrow, she’s proud and has earned her rest. Slowly, one-by-one large doors and gates slide to a close.

Tomorrow promises a new day of wares and wanderers. Tonight the market will sleep and dream. City Market season has begun. She’ll need her quiet night’s slumber. Morning isn’t far away and soon her tables will billow with soaps, fabrics, woven trays, spices, and toys again. Shortly after, she will once again open her nostrils and breathe deeply. The air is cool over her rooftops.