Life’s Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem by Tosha Michelle. I discovered the wonderful, brilliant, persuasive poetry of Tosha when she first commented on one of my poems. I started following her blog immediately. I am sure you will be swept up by the imagery of “Life’s Poetry.”

I sit. Heart in hand. I
create. Some of you
may turn away from
the blood. The red
spilling over. It’s OK
if you do.

Sometimes it scares
me too, but still I
hold it. Palms out.
I’m giving you what
frightens me. This
is me saying, yes, I’m
still here.

I give you my less than
moments, my insecurities,
my madness, my ideas
about life and love, my
shrine of longing.

My heart slipping from
my hands, falling past
my knees to the floor.

Falling toward your
shadow I hope you
will pick it up.
Feel the hopeful
beat that wars
with my still
soul and chaotic
mind. I give you
my wounds.

We connect through
our pain, my friend,
my reader. Through
the hornets in our
coffee cups. Our
syllables of what
we can’t forget.

As we suffer together,
fear becomes less.
Our hearts beat stronger.
Place them on the
dashboard like a
plastic Jesus.

It’s doesn’t matter if
they leak on the
floorboard. It only
matters that we travel on,
even if we’ve misplaced
the map, even if our sanity
becomes displaced, even if
we drive down a reckless road
on a moonless night.

Understand, if we want
heaven and angels,
sometimes we have
to ride around with
our demons.

Understand, sometimes,
darkness is the heart of
life, of beauty, of art.

-Tosha Michelle

Please click on the following link for more of Tosha Michelle’s engaging poetry: https://laliterati.com/category/poems/

Can I Be Real?

Can I be real?
Just for a moment anyway.
(Any longer and I may
start hating myself all over again.)
I stand before you,
less than an artist,
but hoping to appeal
to your kinder side.

You reach for me at times
in frustration, not meaning
to endanger
our entanglement.
Certainly, we revel in the
dance of our emotions.
In fact, they seem to form
who we are when we’re
together.

We don’t know how to
be apart. From
the start there was nothing
other than us.
(I stayed with you the first
night you moved into your
new house, and every night after
for six months.)

I try standing taller
whenever you approach me,
but I feel less than you.
I am no alpha male; rather,
I shrink
in your presence,
I think,
sensing
a superiority
you cannot help but
ooze.

The booze, for me,
is liquid courage, but
I’m like the porridge Red
could not accept
until the third bowl.
I cannot,
even with all my might,
measure up to your abilities.

As if a serving of porridge,
I am not necessarily cold; just, I don’t
know, maybe
merely
food,
but not sustenance.

I could never be the
writer you are. I’m unable
to see the things
you see.
No harm, really. It’s not
as though I’ve suffered
a dashed dream.

It would seem I
am merely not able to push my
feelings up from
deep within my gut, down my
arm,
into my hands and fingers, and
onto the page.
I am not capable of
translation like you are.

I know the language,
and can grunt a
word or two, but the
fact is I fail to
get the words out
at the same intensity
I am feeling them
inside.

Tragic in a way.
It’s as if the one thing
I do best,
That is, to feel,
is not enough.
Writing
is not for me.

Oh, I would love to be
a writer, sure,
but what kind of art form
involves a depressed
and anxious soul
belting out his insecurities?
No one wants to read about
worms eating at my heart,
depleting my love for life:
or gnats buzzing in my head,
distracting me from
my deeper thoughts.
(My ruminations and such.)

So, no, I won’t write.
I’ll let storytelling and
prose, and poetry, and
activities of expression
such as these to
you,
the real writer.

© 2017 Steven Barto

Family: The One True Constant In My Life

So many things change in our lives. Our address. Our income level. Our mood. Our tolerance and acceptance of others. We are in constant flux. Some changes are subtle, while others are profound. Earth shattering. Some of us have to change our last names (as in when we marry). Others have to change their approach to life in order to adjust to their surroundings. Many of us find our faith in God to be in constant fluidity. Some days we’re very much in tune with God, and other days we’re in complete doubt. I can’t tell you how many times my faith has wavered over the years.

I was unfortunately quite the young hellion while growing up. My behavior was, at times, reprehensible. I discovered booze and drugs at age eighteen. Being in an altered state seemed to be a way to avoid fear and uncertainty. I loved being drunk or high. But the alcohol and marijuana changed my personality and my behavior. Morals became a thing of the past. I started out on a pathway to destruction that landed me in prison for three years at age nineteen.

The one true constant at that time was my family. They traveled hours to visit me every month at the state correctional facility. When I was granted pre-release to a halfway house in the last six months of my sentence, my family allowed me to come home to visit on weekend furloughs. Initially, I had been visiting with my wife and daughter on furlough, but she decided she wanted a divorce. This was a truly unexpected change in my life. I had been writing letters to my family on a regular basis while incarcerated. I had renewed my faith in God, and often shared my feelings about Jesus in my letters. When my wife asked me to stop coming home on furlough, my family allowed me to come home to visit with them.

There were many changes over the years since my release from prison. I went through a divorce. I started college. I dropped out of school and got a job at a Pizza Hut. I became a shift leader and then an assistant manager. But again, drugs became part of my routine. I started smoking pot again and discovered cocaine. My drug use ultimately cost me my job as assistant manager. Although this was a self-inflicted change, I was truly shocked that I was once again facing failure.

I had met a woman in college and we became very close. There was a lot that would change over the ten years we were married. We became parents at a fairly young age. Two wonderful sons. Because I could not seem to stop drinking and getting high, and was therefore not willing to do whatever it took to improve my life, my second wife filed for divorce. Once again, a major change.

This ridiculous behavior continued for decades. I drank and did drugs for thirty-seven years. As you can imagine, there was not much personal growth in my life for decades. Quite the contrary, there were many changes and numerous setbacks. There were far too many stops and starts in my sobriety. I started attending Alcoholics Anonymous in 2001 after nearly being evicted by my younger brother. (We were sharing an apartment.) I did well for a number of years, but had several relapses. I managed to stop drinking and smoking marijuana in 2008, and haven’t had anything since that time. Unfortunately, I developed an opiate addiction, which started when I was prescribed narcotic painkillers for chronic back pain. When I couldn’t get enough pills on my own through various doctors and pharmacies, I started stealing painkillers from family members. I was not able to quit on my own. My family conducted an intervention this past December, and I agreed to go to rehab.

The most amazing thing is this: I just spent Easter Sunday with my siblings, my mother and my aunt. Everyone was genuinely glad to see me. They had forgiven me for my actions, and welcomed me back into their lives. Despite all the ups and downs, starts and stops, and lapses in sobriety over the my life, my family was still in my corner. They were the one true constant in my life. For that, I am extremely grateful. There is only one way to thank them. That is to live a sober and generous life. An honest life. To make amends by my actions.

I know now that many of my failures and unfinished projects, especially writing projects, were due to my addiction. My lack of creativity and courage were because I was nearly always drunk or high. In the beginning, I thought writing while drunk or stoned would allow me to write in a deep and profound manner. Funny, but many of my writings made absolutely no sense when I read them the morning after. Guess I thought I could be the next Hemingway.

Deciding to start a blog has been one of the best decisions I’ve made since deciding I wanted to be sober. I am writing at a deeper level. I am consistent, writing a blog post nearly every day. I am getting at the root of things on a creative, sober and spiritual basis. God has blessed me with a muse I can connect with. God is the Great Creator. As Julia Cameron writes in her fantastic book “The Artist’s Way,” we need to allow our inner child to express himself. We’re all creative. We all have hidden talents. I believe life truly begins when we learn to let those talents shine.

I feel like I contribute something today. And for a recovering addict and alcoholic, that is a tremendous thing. I believe my blogging exercises are slowly peeling back the many layers that have built up during my addiction and my being miserable. I think I can finally share my experiences, my ruminations, my talents with those around me. I believe only good can come from blogging. From expressing myself. From getting at the root of who I really am. Of what my purpose for existence is. I feel truly blessed by God, and I am very grateful for my family.

Writing is an Act of Courage

Here is a recent entry from my journal pages regarding writing as an act of courage. I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage; it’s almost an act of physical courage. You get up, you have this great idea, and you sit down to write it, and almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not too brilliant when you go to write. It’s as though you have a certain piece of music in your head, and trying to get that music out on the page is absolute hell. And so you fail. You never really get, I never really get, to that perfect thing that was in my head, so I always consider the entire process about failure. I really, really do, and I think that’s the main reason that more people don’t write. Writing is a lonely profession. It is by definition generally a solo act. Some people find they cannot be that alone, and they write as part of a partnership or a team. I am not a team writer. I work alone. I don’t always have the discipline to write. I’m afraid at times to put the truth on the page. Afraid, I guess, of what certain people will think when they read it. Especially if I write about them. That’s part of the reason writing is an act of courage.

What Stops You?

Fear. Now there’s a terrible four-letter word. Some will tell you that fear is necessary for survival. How else will you know if something is harmful or fatal to you? I propose the correct word here is caution. Not fear. You see, fear will stop you dead in your tracks. Fear will lie to you. Fear is an emotion. It will make you question your next move, and every move after that. It will create doubt in your plan of attack. It will convince you that you are going to experience nothing but rejection and ridicule. Fear will make you give up. Quit going in to avoid failure.

This applies to many things in life. Some typical events that are interrupted by fear include proposing to a woman. Yes, asking her to marry you. What if she says no? Then what? I’ve already asked her dad for her hand in marriage. I’ve told my mom, who cried, then dabbed her tears and said with a gleam in her eyes, “When’s the wedding?” I’ve told my best friends. I told my brother and my pastor. Good gracious, I’ve told everyone. What am I going to do? See how our protagonist is ready to quit just so he doesn’t hear the word “no?”

Now what about writing? How many times have you bragged to teachers that you’re going to be a published author one day? How often have you told your mother or your father. I think it was well past five years since I first told my dad I was going to be a writer. I mentioned it once again, at a family picnic. Maybe one time too many. He said in response, “A wise man once said if you have nothing good to say, maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.” You could hear a pin drop. No one knew what to say. My face turned beet red. I fought back a tear, and I decided comments like that don’t create fact. Action does.

Why do writers write? What makes them see beyond all the negative prognostications and decrees? How are they able to see something on the other side of the blinking cursor on the laptop? When it’s all going so well, and I am cranking out word after word that somehow seem interrelated, I am convinced I’m well on my way. This is it. I’m writing. Where did all this talent come from? Dad was a woodworker and a painter on canvass, so I must have his creative genes.

Then I hit a wall. A dead end. And I do mean dead. Like my fingers won’t even move. No thoughts come to mind. The characters are trapped, never to go anywhere again. This can go on for days, weeks, months. I hate to say it, but it can even go on for years. I had a wonderful idea for a screenplay. It had everything. Teenagers, music, a snowstorm, a party gone horribly wrong. Great opening act. Act One was a joy to write. I even had a good idea how the story would end. But I am stuck at page 57. Dead in the water. I’ve tried altering the ending. I even changed the moral of the story, and looked at various character arcs. Nothing.

So what stops you from moving forward? Julia Cameron, in her great book The Artist’s Way, takes her reader through a series of exercises and workshops and lists in order to get at the bad guy inside you that’s telling you what you’re doing is no good. The internal editor. This evil force is ultimately based upon someone in your life that told you there was no way you’d ever make it. You’re too old. You’re not clever enough. You’re not creative. Your idea is not original enough. I highly recommend if you are seriously stuck as an artist — songwriter, sculptor, painter, writer, poet — that you get this book. Follow her instructions. She will help you get unstuck and find out what’s stopping you from moving forward in your work.

To the writers everywhere, just stay plugged in to the spirit that moves you. Julia Cameron talks about God being the Great Creator. She said God has instilled creativity in all of us. Our job is to get in touch with our Inner Artist. Why do we write? Because creativity is living deep down inside of us. What stops us? Oh, hell, it’s a whole number of things, most of which are not even rooted in reality. No one knows where your writing will take you. For me, it’s given me back my spirit and my drive to create. It has put me back on my intended path, and that’s worth every word I struggle to put down on paper.

So write, my friend. Start with free association. Try writing the minute you wake up. Write anything that comes to mind. Your internal editor is still sleeping. He won’t see what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or word usage. That can all be fixed in your rewrite. Just write. You will be so amazed at what comes out of end of your fingertips at six in the morning.

Goody Two-Shoes

I behaved myself in school for the most part. I wanted all of my teachers to like me. I learned how to write a sentence, a paragraph, a short story. I practiced diagramming sentences. My compositions were smart, clear and concise. My mind was filled with hundreds of original thoughts. Sometimes it was like a committee meeting in my head! I was eager to share all these great thoughts and ideas with the world.

In college, I was in love with philosophy and psychology. I had a rough patch from the summer of 1977 to the winter of 1979, ultimately ending up in prison at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview for three years. Too much booze, too many drugs, too much antisocial behavior. This seemed odd to me after I sobered up and got over the initial denial that I was in prison. I could not seem to explain my behavior. I was one of those students who loved to be busy. I worked on the yearbook, a local history project, did some sports photography and other photography, joined the debate team, and even participated at a state-level forensics competition in State College, PA.

I was able to enroll in college-level courses while a “guest” at Rockview. I applied every waking moment to reading course materials, assigned books, collateral reading, and to journal entries about what I was learning. My favorite courses were English, public speaking, creative writing, rhetorical writing, and psychology. I did very well. After all, I had nothing else to do but read and study. I ultimately graduated with an associates degree holding a 3.95 GPA. I was granted early release to a half-way house run by the corrections department in Scranton, PA. I was accepted as a transfer student at the University of Scranton. My studies there were mostly focused on philosophy, psychology and helping others.

I was going broke. After three semesters of classes at the University of Scranton, I quit to accept a full-time job as assistant manager of a local Pizza Hut. Nevertheless, I kept reading and writing journal entries. I got engaged twice inside of eighteen months. Needless to say, only the latter one stuck! Romance was very important to me. In fact, it defined me. I had to be with someone in order to be someone. Many years later, I have found this to not be true. In fact, I have to be somebody before I can be with somebody. I don’t need to be defined by someone else.

I have never taken an official writing workshop. This is mostly true because I don’t live in areas where they are given. I have not been motivated enough to drive a great distance to some workshop or seminar in a big city. But I did begin to read how-to books about writing. The Weekend Novelist, by Ray and Norris. The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. On Writing, by Stephen King. The Forest For The Trees, by Betsy Lerner. I highly recommend them all. Each has given me insight into the creative mind, the writer’s life, and the discipline needed to become an author. I heard it said on one occasion that writing is your “practice.” It’s a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane. This is especially true for me. I get pretty squirrely without putting my thoughts down on paper or in a computer document. (A note here: Writing by hand will actually feel different to you than typing words into your word processor. Try using both methods.)

I was born with the tendency to write. A predisposition, if you will. But I was not born with all the necessary skills and habits of a writer. In that regard, we need to learn to write. We need to take hold of that so-called innate ability and “gentle” it like we would a wild horse. There is no one definite way to become a good writer. There are many truths and disciplines that apply to the process. Natalie Goldberg said in her great book, Writing Down The Bones, “To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life.” I think to do less than that, in other words to leave parts of your life out of your writing, is to tell a lie.

Whether you were a goody two-shoes (a perfect student), or a hellion you can latch on to the creativity that is in you. You can begin to talk to the world about stuff you never realized you felt. You can communicate, instruct, advise, suggest. You can create something out of nothing. You can tell your story. Or, you can tell the story of others. Whatever you write about, however, you must write what is true. The A.A. anniversary coins have it right: To Thine Own Self Be True. This is the only way to, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, “Write down the bones.” Write clearly and with great honesty. Technique is one thing. Voice is another. I’m talking about telling the truth. Only in this manner can you truly become a good writer.

Get started. Have fun. Dig down deep. Come back to visit me from time to time, and share what you’re working on. We’re a community, we creative types. You’ll find that no one else understands you. Not really. They will be baffled by the fact that you spend hours, nay, weeks or months, alone, writing in that crazy journal or on your laptop. They wonder who is ever going to read all that stuff. Just remember: Initially, you are writing because you have to or you’ll go crazy. If you keep at it, and if you remain honest, you’ll discover your own voice. You will see that you too have things to say. And eventually people will read what you write.