“Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent.”
By Maria Popova
“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” young Sylvia Plath pondered in her diary as she looked back on the turning points that had taken her to where she was in life and considered what makes us who we are. This puzzlement is far from uncommon — who hasn’t wondered on a sleepless night or mid-stride on a busy city sidewalk how much of our lives are self-chosen and how much determined by our culture, our circumstances, our conditioning, and even our biology?
This question, which most mercilessly bedevils those who walk the nonlinear path of the creative life, is what Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash tussles with throughout Composed: A Memoir (public library) — a beautiful chronicle of her life in music and her relationship with her legendary father, Johnny Cash, ripe with insight into the artistic process and the psychological thrills, terrors, and tumults of the creative life.
My life has been circumscribed by music. I have learned more from songs than I ever did from any teacher in school. They are interwoven and have flowed through the most important relationships in my life — with my parents, my husband, and my children… Many of my own songs have taken the long way around, as I circled the edges of an experience … constantly roaming and constantly curious.
I dream of songs. I dream they fall down through the centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me.
Pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction between our biological ancestors and our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — the cultural, creative, and intellectual lineage from which we spring beyond our immediate genetic kin, those who seed our inspirations and beliefs and frames of reference. But for Cash, these two types of ancestry have always been deeply entwined. She reflects:
I belong to an extended family of musicians whose members sprawl across generations. Some occupy positions of great acclaim (my father and my stepmother’s family, the Carters), some have modest but respectable careers marked by persistence and hard work (my uncle Tommy Cash), while others never made it much further than anecdotal obscurity (my maternal uncle “Wildman” Ray Liberto, a onetime raucous honky-tonk piano player with a handlebar mustache), and some are just embarking (my daughter Chelsea). At sixteen I did not intend to take my place among them. Tradition was anathema to me; I understood that any real rebellion in which I could engage would involve taking a nondomestic, or artistic but nonmusical, path.
And yet she concedes:
Traditions can take root out of the dormant impulses of one’s own soul, if they are powerful enough, whether we acknowledge them or not.
This, indeed, was her own experience — something significant shifted for Cash in her late teens and soon the awareness of this dual heritage awakened in her the longing for a life of and in music. In the summer of 1973, just after she graduated from high school, her father handed her a list in the back of his tour bus. It contained one hundred songs he considered essential to the corpus of country music — knowledge he thought necessary for his daughter to have if she was serious about becoming a roots musician.
Many years later, when a brain surgery and the trauma of her parents’ deaths left Cash bereft of a solid center, she set out to reconnect with her roots by recording her own interpretations of twelve of the songs on her father’s list in what became her magnificent covers album, The List.
With an eye to the burdens and blessings of her father’s inescapable presence, Cash reflects on what it was like to spend her life locked in “an exhausting dance with his legacy” while trying to be, and very much succeeding in being, her own person and a thoroughly original musician. (In October of 2015, she was inducted into the iconic Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame — an honor equivalent to the Nobel of songwriting.) She writes:
He cast an obviously large shadow, and it was hard for me to find my own place outside of it, or to be comfortable when the shadow was the first thing people noticed about my life or my work.
In the fullness of that legacy, I am still first and foremost a songwriter. The curatorial work and the deliberate attention on my voice rather than my words, which happened with The List, has only added to my sense of honor as a songwriter and respect for the art and discipline.
Indeed, the idea of singing someone else’s songs might have been odd for Cash, who identifies first and foremost as a songwriter, had she not learned long ago from her father that there is always a deeper dialogue taking place within the music, beyond the singing itself. In a reflection with parallel resonance to almost every kind of creative work, she writes:
It’s not just the singing you bring home with you. It’s the constant measuring of ideas and words if you are a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the reveling in the melodies if you are a singer. More than that, it is the effort to straddle two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to those of daily life and back with grace. My father did all of those, as a habit of being. He provided a template for me, of how to live with integrity as an artist day to day.
This devotion to artistic integrity stayed with Cash as her career took off and she felt herself pushed one way by the Rube Goldberg machine of achievement, pulled another by her creative integrity. She resisted the conformity steamroll of success and chose the internal and eternal rewards of the creative process instead — a commitment that coalesced into conscious awareness after one particularly prophetic anxiety dream Cash had just as she was setting out to record her sixth album, King’s Record Shop. She recounts the values to which the dream awakened her:
I resisted the push to conform, to buy into a certain narrow aesthetic, and to become part of the established hierarchy. I didn’t want a lofty perch; I wanted to be in the trenches, where the inspiration was.
I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams — an old, entrenched habit — I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. I opened my eyes and focused. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I … went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range — never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks. I had written songs almost exclusively about romance and all the attending little dramas of loss and lust. It was legitimate, certainly, but only one small mode of transportation over a vast landscape of experience that might be fodder for whole new categories of songs. I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them, and what I actually wanted to say with them.
Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting. I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.
Four of the songs on King’s Record Shop became number-one singles. No woman in the industry had ever achieved this before, but the record’s ultimate reward for her was something far more significant. She recounts:
Although it was my sixth album, I felt like a beginner, and I was relieved and grateful for the chance to start over, to go deeper into sound and texture, language and poetry, and the direction of my own instincts.
But as rooted as she may remain in the past — in her personal and cultural heritage — Cash conceives of the creative process as largely a matter of writing oneself “postcards from the future.” She reflects on the nature of creative work and how her own orientation toward it changed as she grew older:
Creative work sometimes fosters a prescience — not a psychic premonition, but rather a release from linear time, a fluidity of movement on the continuum.
Sometimes songs are indeed postcards from the future, and are not written out of prescience as much as time travel. Thornton Wilder said, “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” In songwriting, I have found my attention to wander both forward and backward on that continuum. But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Thirty years ago I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the ecstatic flood of feeling that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker’s concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing, and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent.
“Understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.”
By Maria Popova
“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” teenage Sylvia Plath pondered as she looked back on her life-choices in reflecting on what makes us who we are. “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on,” Hannah Arendt argued a quarter century later in her intellectually exquisite 1973 inquiry into what free will really means, “we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Another generation later, cosmologist Janna Levin captured our confusions about free will perfectly in her conversation with Krista Tippett: “If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.”
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
This wonderful cinematic adaptation of a talk Harris gave based on the book synthesizes the challenge and the payoff of relinquishing the illusion of free will:
The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact as the truth of evolution, in my mind. And, unlike evolution, understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.
The question of free will touches nearly everything people care about: religion, public policy, politics, the legal system, feelings of personal accomplishment, emotions like guilt and pride, and remorse. So much of human life seems to depend on our viewing one another as conscious agents capable of free choice.
The fact that our choices depend on prior cause does not mean that choice doesn’t matter. To sit back and see what happens is also a choice that has its own consequences. So, the choices we make in life are as important as people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you cannot see and did not bring into being.
Losing a belief in free will has not made me a fatalist — in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on a basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system — learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life. Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can, paradoxically, allow for greater creative control over one’s life.
This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.
“When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive… If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations … you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.”
By Maria Popova
“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James asserted in his revolutionary 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. Two generations later, Rilke wrote in a beautiful letter of advice to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” And yet in the century since, we’ve made little progress on making sense — much less making use — of the inextricable dialogue between the physical body and the psychoemotional interior landscape we shorthand as “soul.”
Nowhere is this relationship more essential yet more endangered than in our healing from trauma, and no one has provided a more illuminating, sympathetic, and constructive approach to such healing than Boston-based Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (public library), he explores “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience” and the most fertile paths to recovery by drawing on his own work and a wealth of other research in three main areas of study: neuroscience, which deals with how mental processes function within the brain; developmental psychopathology, concerned with how painful experiences impact the development of mind and brain; and interpersonal neurobiology, which examines how our own behavior affects the psychoemotional and neurobiological states of those close to us.
Trauma, Van der Kolk notes, affects not only those who have suffered it but also those who surround them and, especially, those who love them. He writes:
One does not have be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.
It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.
In trauma survivors, Van der Kolk notes, the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain overactivated and even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations. Such posttraumatic reactions make it difficult for survivors to connect with other people, since closeness often triggers the sense of danger. And yet the very thing we come to most dread after experiencing trauma — close contact with other people — is also the thing we most need in order to regain psychoemotional solidity and begin healing. Van der Kolk writes:
Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
This, he points out, is why we’ve evolved a refined mechanism for detecting danger — we’re incredibly attuned to even the subtlest emotional shifts in those around us and, even if we don’t always heed these intuitive readings, we can read another person’s friendliness or hostility on the basis of such imperceptible cues as brow tension, lip curvature, and body angles. But one of the most pernicious effects of trauma is that it disrupts this ability to accurately read others, rendering the trauma survivor either less able to detect danger or more likely to misperceive danger where there is none.
Paradoxically, what normalizes and repairs our ability to read danger and safety correctly is human connection. Van der Kolk writes:
Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don’t need a history of trauma to feel self-conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers — but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.
The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.
When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy. Being a patient, rather than a participant in one’s healing process, separates suffering people from their community and alienates them from an inner sense of self.
The most essential aspect of healing, Van der Kolk asserts, is learning to fully inhabit that inner sense of self in all of its dimensions — not only emotional and psychological, but bodily — which are inseparable from one another. He explains:
The natural state of mammals is to be somewhat on guard. However, in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down. In order to play, mate, and nurture our young, the brain needs to turn off its natural vigilance.
Many traumatized individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences — or to be alert to signs of real danger.
Many people feel safe as long as they can limit their social contact to superficial conversations, but actual physical contact can trigger intense reactions. However … achieving any sort of deep intimacy — a close embrace, sleeping with a mate, and sex — requires allowing oneself to experience immobilization without fear. It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger. This requires having experiences that can restore the sense of physical safety.
One place where our culture fails, Van der Kolk argues, is in integrating this physical aspect with the psychoemotional infrastructure of experience — a failure spanning from our clinical methods of treating trauma to our education system. (More than half a century ago, Aldous Huxley wrote beautifully about the need for an integrated mind-body system of education.) Education, Van der Kolk notes, tends to engage the cognitive capacities of the mind rather than the bodily-emotional engagement system, which makes for an ultimately incomplete model of human experience. In a sobering passage that should be etched onto the wall of every Department of Education the world over, he writes:
Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behavior” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.
With an eye to heartening counterpoints like a karate program for rape survivors and a theater program in Boston’s inner-city schools, he considers the reasons and the urgency for engaging the body in healing:
The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.
Drawing on his work with patients who have survived a variety of traumatic experiences — from plane crashes to rape to torture — Van der Kolk considers the great challenge of those of us living with trauma:
When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.
In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.
While this dissociation from the body is an adaptive response to trauma, the troublesome day-to-day anguish comes from the retriggering of this remembered response by stimuli that don’t remotely warrant it. Van der Kolk examines the interior machinery at play:
The elementary self system in the brain stem and limbic system is massively activated when people are faced with the threat of annihilation, which results in an overwhelming sense of fear and terror accompanied by intense physiological arousal. To people who are reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense; they are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage. Mind and body are constantly aroused, as if they are in imminent danger. They startle in response to the slightest noises and are frustrated by small irritations. Their sleep is chronically disturbed, and food often loses its sensual pleasures. This in turn can trigger desperate attempts to shut those feelings down by freezing and dissociation.
Agency starts with what scientists call interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them.
But one of the most pernicious effects of trauma, Van der Kolk notes, is that it disrupts our ability to know what we feel — that is, to trust our gut feelings — and this mistrust makes us misperceive threat where there is none. This, in turn, creates an antagonistic relationship with our own bodies. He explains:
If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.
However, traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.
The more people try to push away and ignore internal warning signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed. People who cannot comfortably notice what is going on inside become vulnerable to respond to any sensory shift either by shutting down or by going into a panic — they develop a fear of fear itself.
The experience of fear derives from primitive responses to threat where escape is thwarted in some way. People’s lives will be held hostage to fear until that visceral experience changes… Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body. Without it you have to rely on external regulation — from medication, drugs like alcohol, constant reassurance, or compulsive compliance with the wishes of others.
In its extreme, this lack of internal regulation leads to retraumatizing experiences:
Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration. They either react to stress by becoming “spaced out” or with excessive anger. Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them. This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization and also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.
One step further down on the ladder to self-oblivion is depersonalization — losing your sense of yourself.
What, then, can we do to regain agency in our very selves? Pointing to decades of research with trauma survivors, Van der Kolk argues that it begins with befriending our bodies and their sensory interiority:
Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma, Van der Kolk writes:
The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they are upset is by clinging to another person. This means that patients who have been physically or sexually violated face a dilemma: They desperately crave touch while simultaneously being terrified of body contact. The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.
How we respond to trauma, Van der Kolk asserts, is to a large extent conditioned by our formative relationships with our caretakers, whose task is to help us establish a secure base. Essential to this is the notion of attunement between parent and child, mediated by the body — those subtlest of physical interactions in which the caretaker mirrors and meets the baby’s needs, making the infant feel attended to and understood.
Attunement is the foundation of secure attachment, which is in turn the scaffolding of psychoemotional health later in life. Van der Kolk writes:
A secure attachment combined with the cultivation of competency builds an internal locus of control, the key factor in healthy coping throughout life. Securely attached children learn what makes them feel good; they discover what makes them (and others) feel bad, and they acquire a sense of agency: that their actions can change how they feel and how others respond. Securely attached kids learn the difference between situations they can control and situations where they need help. They learn that they can play an active role when faced with difficult situations. In contrast, children with histories of abuse and neglect learn that their terror, pleading, and crying do not register with their caregiver. Nothing they can do or say stops the beating or brings attention and help. In effect they’re being conditioned to give up when they face challenges later in life.
With an eye to the immensely influential work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who pioneered the study of attachment and the notion that attunement between mother and infant lays the foundation for the child’s sense of self later in life, Van der Kolk summarizes these foundational findings:
If a mother cannot meet her baby’s impulses and needs, “the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is.” Having to discount its inner sensations, and trying to adjust to its caregiver’s needs, means the child perceives that “something is wrong” with the way it is. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies, the seat of pleasure, purpose, and direction.
The need for attachment never lessens. Most human beings simply cannot tolerate being disengaged from others for any length of time. People who cannot connect through work, friendships, or family usually find other ways of bonding, as through illnesses, lawsuits, or family feuds. Anything is preferable to that godforsaken sense of irrelevance and alienation.
Although we can’t prevent most traumatic experiences from happening, having a solid formative foundation can make healing much easier. But what are those of us unblessed with secure attachment to do? Pointing to his mindfulness-based work with trauma survivors, Van der Kolk offers an assuring direction:
Nobody can “treat” a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone. But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul: the crushing sensations in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.
The crucial point is that trauma robs us of what Van der Kolk terms “self-leadership” — the sense of having agency over ourselves and being in charge of our own experience. The path to recovery is therefore paved with the active rebuilding of that sense. He writes:
The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. For most people this involves (1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
One of the paradoxical necessities of the recovery process is the need to revisit the trauma without becoming so overwhelmed by sensations as to be retraumatized. The way to accomplish this, Van der Kolk argues, is by learning to be present with these overwhelming emotions and their sensorial counterparts in the body. He writes:
Traumatized people live with seemingly unbearable sensations: They feel heartbroken and suffer from intolerable sensations in the pit of their stomach or tightness in their chest. Yet avoiding feeling these sensations in our bodies increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.
Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits.
All of us, but especially children, need … confidence that others will know, affirm, and cherish us. Without that we can’t develop a sense of agency that will enable us to assert: “This is what I believe in; this is what I stand for; this is what I will devote myself to.” As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value. But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness. In order to have a healthy society we must raise children who can safely play and learn. There can be no growth without curiosity and no adaptability without being able to explore, through trial and error, who you are and what matters to you.
Weaving together history, literature, politics, and personal experience, Alexander — who became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day” — examines the rewards and challenges of being a black woman, a poet, an academic figure of authority and, above all, of inhabiting a culture in which the Venn diagram of these psychographic particulars is still lamentably improbable.
Radiating from these essays and interviews is incisive and generous insight into writing, the creative process, and the complexity of the self.
I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.
And yet the necessity of speaking and the authority of visibility come with a personal cost, which Alexander articulates with a vulnerable self-awareness tremendously inspiring amid our culture of invulnerable facades:
I have been in public discussions where my own paralysis had made me quiet or less articulate than I can be and kept me, perhaps, from being the role model a young woman needed at that moment. I now choose my battles and deal with the same beleagueredness that perhaps my teachers those years ago felt. I have learned that you can’t always be who others need you to be at any moment.
Alexander revisits this question in another interview:
I try to remember that you can get really distracted by the demands people make on you. Demands that are real are one thing, demands that come from a real community in need, or a real person in need. We’re asked all the time to be of service. But demands that are about posturing — you may have to deal with them, but I’m trying to figure out a way not to let them worm their way in too much.
Asserting that this obligation to the truth of one’s story must be “lived in our day-to-day lives, in the way we conduct the business of our lives, in the way we spend our money and raise our children and make a multitude of decisions every day,” Alexander considers the role of writing in inhabiting one’s visibility:
Great writing can make you face the truth around you and within yourself.
In another interview from the collection, Alexander turns to the transmutation of personal truth into writing:
A lot of my poetry comes from “personal” or autobiographical material. What is the transformation that has to happen in order for those details and that realm of personal to work within a poem? I can’t really say that I could anatomize it, but I know that there’s a transformation that has to take place.
Citing Sterling Brown’s pronouncement that “every I is a dramatic I” — a quote she wove into her beautiful poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — Alexander adds:
Regardless of whether or not you’re working in an autobiographical or personal mode, if there is a persona in the poem, you have certain charges to make it work dramatically in the poem itself. So, fulfilling those demands in the poem as such puts a nice set of parameters around the question of working within the infinite personal, because it’s quite infinite… The day-to-day me “I” [is] one level removed, or alchemized.
For any poem to succeed, whatever its rules, there are strict rules, or else the whole thing falls apart.
She recounts what the inimitable Derek Walcott, her only poetry teacher, taught her about writing and about the loaded interplay between personal identity and creative integrity:
He would always say never try to charm in your poems, never try to charm with your identity, it’s not enough that you’re a cute, black girl.
That was very useful advice, though I was already averse to exploiting “identity.” I think the point is, he’s saying, none of us as persona is ever enough. Whatever your identity, your set of particulars, there is going to be someone out there who thinks it’s fascinating unto itself. But that unto itself doesn’t make for a fine poem you could stand with. So he was also saying, don’t be swayed and don’t let praise go to your head. And don’t let it get into your writing, and don’t let it get into your quest.
But Alexander notes that there is a universe of difference between not being swayed by praise and being wholly impermeable, severing one’s connection to the world — a connection carried out through the authenticity of the word:
We live in the word. And the word is precious, and the word must be precise, and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other, and … it has to be tended with that degree of respect… I believe that life itself is profoundly poetic, in all sorts of … guises and unexpected places.
Being open to those poetic surprises, Alexander argues, also requires a certain openness to the audience and to the range of possible receptions:
To be presumptuous about any kind of audience is not a good thing. I’ve had too many wonderful surprises… I’ve had many surprises with people who read poetry who I wouldn’t have imagined read poetry, that it has a place in their lives. You just really never know. You just can’t let that imagining get into the creative process because it would twist it and distort it and shut it down… Some people talk about the ideal reader, and I don’t really have an ideal reader… I just trust that when it goes out there, it will be found by whoever can make use of it… The beautiful thing about poetry is that you never know who will find it, and you never know what will be found in it.
In fact, one of the most beautiful articulations of poetry’s singular power comes from the poet Vassar Miller, quoted in this book:
Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.
Spiritual and ethical situations and conundrums are occasions for poems — though I am rarely aware of the conundrum as such when I embark upon the poem — and the writing of the poem is a way of working through those conundrums and accepting their frequent open-endedness. Besides making and raising children, the mystery of making art is the most spiritual zone of my life.
No matter how devoted we are to the culture and to each other, we have a lot to overcome, imagining ourselves, or imagining each other. And in receiving each other.
Language, Alexander argues, is the locus of reception — the medium in which we imagine ourselves and each other — something she captures beautifully in the piercing final line of a poem: “…and are we not of interest to each other?” She revisits the complexity of personal identity and considers how the self lives in language:
It’s all well and good to have an idea, to say, I want to write about such-and-such and such-and-such. But I think the idea has to be rooted in language. It has to live in language.
That’s what catches the imagination of somebody else, a listener or a reader. Even the way that we express ourselves as non-poet “civilians,” if you will, is what makes us interesting to other people… Who is the self in language? And what is the revelatory and unguarded and surprising self in language? That’s what makes somebody else pay attention. When you start turning that into art, that’s what making poems is about.
But this unguarded self in language, she argues, isn’t about “superseding the social identity, but it is about protecting the full dimension of the self.” And yet social identity and the poetics of personhood can never be fully disentwined from one another, nor unmoored from the wider cultural context. Alexander writes:
Being an empowered and intelligent black person and even more so being an empowered and intelligent and self-respecting black woman is profoundly destabilizing to most status quo. You’ve got to remember that in a way that’s not disabling.
Those [are] examples of brilliant, courageous, beautiful, engaged lives full of rampant loving, loving of the world. Loving of the work. Loving of each other. Moving toward what we love and not just toward the destruction of enemies… And that’s what I feel like it’s important to do upon rising each day.
When I was younger I used to think that love as an ethic was … obviously a good thing, but a little corny. I am certainly an optimist but not a fool. In academic environments, we are taught a skepticism that can lead us to discount the power and force of love. But the older I get, the more I think of all the possible permutations and possibilities of a love ethic. To love someone or something is not just to agree with them or affirm them. To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love. So what does it mean in a complex and dead-serious way to come from that place of love?
When asked about the mental habits and practicalities of her creative process in writing poetry, Alexander offers:
I try to grab things when I can, to keep notes of things as I internally hear them so that when I do have writing time I have something to begin with.
Paper first, then the screen, for I feel bollixed up if I don’t attend to my internal soundtrack, so there is a personal satisfaction that comes from attending to it in writing. Also, at this point, twenty years into my life as a poet, I feel clearer about having something to say and people who benefit from hearing it.
I always tell student poets to read and listen as much and as variously as they can to build up a rolodex of possibilities in their minds when they sit down to write a poem. You always need to have many more possibilities of approaching a poem than you end up using… It’s about tuning your internal ear and listening to what the poem at hand is trying to do and be.
This internal process, Alexander enjoins, should be the primary focus of creative work:
Submit to it, tend it, nurture it, honor it. Too many young writers get distracted by thinking about career before process; without process, there is no real work and thus, no career. Every day is another blank page to be filled from your own particular landscape. Process it all.