NaPoWriMo 2020: The Death of Self Help
Mastering the Wheel
(April 1, 2020)
Day one of my self-actualization: I'm six years old
learning to ride a bike on the sidewalk
of Claudine Street with my parents.
The principle I could not master was balance.
And I read a look of disappointment
on their faces, because I wasn't getting it
as fast as my two older brothers,
who were now flying through the neighborhood,
cycling their way to the Tour de France,
because it wasn't just the bicycle,
it was the zipper and the shoe laces
and the hands on the clock
and all the other life skills.
Forty years of self-help later
my mother sends me a box of myself.
I find a letter I had written when I was seven
and am shocked by its brittleness,
remembering in an instant that sidewalk
of 1977 on Claudine Street,
exactly what I felt:
the suffering, staggering all of it,
the entire world of what I wasn't good at;
except the disappointment
wasn't on their faces,
it was broiling inside of me,
a fact I insisted upon: I can't do it.
I can't do it.
It was in my mouth
like a tasteless soup:
this was a self that needed improving.
Self reliance is a caveman,
like this one over here
who has no bookstore,
no 7 habits, no thinking big
and glowing up the cave,
no power of the paleo,
no see you on the top
floor of the cave,
no making friends and influencing
yourself. This one has no paper
for a checklist or a manifesto.
This one has no assistant,
no department. He does it all—
all within the job description
anyway: caving, spelunking,
blinking in the dark.
This one has the discipline of Plato.
This one is enabled by the mythologies
of the New World as it exists
in their own cave.
This one needs no apparatus
or support system,
not even a hug from a bear.
This one researches his emotions,
this one her game plan
but there are no other players.
This one is built on hard knocks
from their own hammer
because nobody else is there.
This one is the point
in the whole universe,
solid as a light pen
on a cave wall.
This one has steel toed boots
for kicking ass and taking names,
but there are no other names.
This one has boot straps.
But who put them there
we'll never know.
like the sun set
or the tea set
or the suture
the set of eight
the set of sixteen
the set of thirty-two
settling for a compromise
or killing the enemy
setting fire to the barn
for a good night out
setting up the farmer
for his barn
using the data set
to get your mind set
around the set piece
set in motion
on your TV set
a null set
a twin set of intention
to do or not to do
set the table
with a chess set
and a drum
setting up shop
setting the record straight
on a turntable spike
or set forth
setting down the divide
Ever notice how many mechanics
it takes to fix a broken machine?
The tractor rudely locks.
The mower boorishly sputters.
Take it easy, you tell the car
before it skids and explodes.
The heart valve erupts.
The carbuncular cardiovascular
Ever notice how many mechanics
stall, avoiding the garage,
tiptoeing out the door?
Drills telling jokes
to ease the friction.
Nails offering solutions,
time-outs to let the machine rest,
let the engine breathe,
go around to happy places,
a glen in the valley
with no other machines in sight.
Management, manage it—
as if the machine were a disciple
to be regulated or mentored.
I never knew a bulldozer
to hold a grudge
or bite its sprocket
to spite its blade.
But the explosions can kill you
or rip off a limb.
And they do not, cannot, will not
listen with compassion.
And if they fail to fix
you'll have to hire the kid down the street
to haul them out to the dump.
It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
I'm two minds about this. 1
One mind is a sonnet.
One mind is a free-association, typographical experimentation.
A straight house is a straight mind.
But a straight mind never gets lost in a wonderful place. 5
But a straight mind can get you unlost, unstuck and done.
If you haven't used it in five years, lose it.
Exactly how is a stuffed lamb used by a Mary?
A real lamb followed a real Mary, you know.
And died a very tragic, painful death.
Longfellow's Wayside Inn wrote a little book about it.
A book I haven't looked at in over 15 years.
Clean out the riffraff, old lines and titles and prospectus.
You need less and more poems are always coming in. 10
But a riffraff can be thrift-fully utilized later.
Although that's what a hoarder would say.
The thrifty-est use is sometimes recycling.
Leaving it to another poet.
Organize so that when you are dead you will be free of plans.
Organize to organize to organize to organize. 13
And leave the end to ________________.
Shorthand for the power of positive thinking,
or TPoPT, but that's too much. Regardless,
it's a magic so imprecise
it could stand for anything,
a thing so mean like hoarding marbles,
not its recommended, sanctioned use
but as common as a dime, every time
a good aphorisms is put to bad ends.
A magic so biased it's constantly at war
with other PPTs,
those battles between cheerful demeanors
like the pleasant surfaces of creme brulee
above crocks of sour intent
when you crack the scum.
A magic so sinister
a PPT with the strongest might
makes right, like TV commentators
and political pirates feeding
on our collective willingness
to believe in the magic of PPT.
- Crosswords: make me cross.
- Dictionary: full of enough words to prop a door open
(for some reason called a door stop).
- Internet: also full of words—some of them real.
- Grammar: if rules were cookies...
- Scrabble: grammars play this. I don't enjoy this game...or the word.
- Maps: spatially represented words on floating shapes.
- Library: smells wordy in there.
- Punctuation: sounds punctilious, pugnacious; programmatic.
- Curiosity: this is the best word.
- Thesaurus. Thesaurinasaurus. Thesauraneous. Thesaurfragalistic.
I was a worried little mouse in the Super Seventies,
age of the Pepsi Generation and the kumbaya of Coca-Cola.
Self-esteem was a superpower in the dark maze of doing-things-well.
To be a mouse with chutzpah, to believe in yourself like a religion,
a mouse on a mission, whiskers to the wind, at the helm of the maze.
I was not this mouse. I was a worried little mouse
in the overwhelming corridors, endless decisions and turnarounds:
blunders, treasons and letdowns. Boys were a whole quadrant of quandary.
But a solution to the trap came like a dawn over the wall
and many years watching the mouse with the long neck of self-esteem
march with confidence down the blind alley like a Minotaur,
bottlenecks of followers lost in the the fog of hot air.
Turns out, what you think of yourself is not a key ingredient
in making it through. Like when you're really making progress,
deftly turning through the spirals, you forget all about your mousey self.
What a relief to be beside the point, walking through as you are,
all as it is, your esteem on a see-saw, flawed, carrying flaws, friends of flaws...
Although what kind of flaws a mouse would have, I do not know.
I've hit a dead end and lost my ball of thread.
This wasn't the exit after all. I'll have to sort it out tomorrow.
I'm a worried little mouse. Maybe I won't be able to do it.
Do what you love!
Love what you do!
A custodian removes tampons from the floor
of the amusement park bathroom
nearest the exit of the Twisters Roller-Coaster,
mops the puke and the hysteria of Fun,
pith of heat exhaustion from rows of sinks.
Be a disruptor!
In the stale halls of nursing homes
a caregiver struggles to lift away
the decay of a slow demise,
to sponge out the private crevices
of a bedridden matriarch.
Displace the market!
The social worker and the policemen
take their the violence home.
The slaughterhouse flu.
The happy mascot
punched in the kidney.
Break the rules!
The earth tilts to find spaces
for every body, turns sluggishly
to sort out the tenure of graves.
And the vortex of preening careermen
sucks all the life out of the edges.
Find your passion!
I never cared much about getting ahead,
which explains why I'm not ahead;
But I have always cared about
getting things done and about
checking the thing off the list,
paper cross-out or a screen's selection list.
Project management software, the PM job,
it's a real relationship job:
the relation of time to things,
the relation of people to things,
talking to people about those things.
One-hundred books could not teach me about time,
but thinking about increments all the time,
sorting buttons on a table like they were pieces of the day,
sorting time in buckets, to-dos on to-day.
Good habits are rice cakes.
Bad habits are salt and sugar.
Good habits are 8 oz.
Bad habits are 12.
Good habits are not carbonated.
Good habits are not inebriated.
Bad habits don't have a yoga scene.
Bad habits are not green.
Bad habits keep you in bed.
Good habits won't get you dead.
All habits in moderation,
Mother Nature says.
But like two feral siblings,
good habits and bad habits
don't ever play well together.
They tease and they taunt
and they pull at the ball flying high,
like any oblivious free will....
with a tether.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way,
the detectives say. Some are stoic,
some are histrionic. Some have more of it,
some less. Most have been fortunate
with small grief, innocent of the sense
of the word dealing, as in doled out,
shared among, the Middle Ages of grief.
You can see it in people's eyes,
something is banking up to break,
something we haven't felt in 100 years,
beyond gods and quantifiers, recipes
of stages and steps and recovery,
a landscape of loss, a tsunami, a flood;
a great grief is coming.
Leaders and influencers
and roadside preachers,
not many disciples,
no more students,
only the thumbs of followers
building their own pulpits,
a calamity of certitudes,
a cacophony of arrows fired
without hearts to land in,
barn raising for one,
platforms as far as the wide valley goes,
to consume and to curate,
(no mutuality without a deal),
a world of cold shoulders,
and dancing fingers
as they turn down to preach.
Plenty of arrows
and no bows.
Positive self talk. You know, affirmations.
I'm OK; you're OK (as if we're little cookies).
Except we're not OK. That's the way we crumble,
our chocolate-chip bling at a post-party run.
It's not me; it's not you (meaning me);
it's that peanut-riddled guy making us feel
less than delicious. That's the way we tumble,
part and parcel of our self esteem.
We're cooking with butter and flour.
That's how fragile we are,
basically a gooey core of innards.
That's the way we crumple,
bitter when left unchosen
by a God or a mate or a mouth,
turned hard and dried, a thing
nobody wants. Time to rationalize:
what a good little cookie you are!
That's the way we fumble,
a recipe meant to balance the self abuse:
a dish of honey, a flaw of proportion,
baking liquid angst to crust
with the addictive sugars of self talk.
Burning the inward off into fumes
becomes the outward smoke of hate
And that's the way we disintegrate.
This is the Slip 'n Slide®
the wet-willie they all speak of:
a summer garden hose and roll of plastic
(and a real good time)...
How much of this slippery stuff
can you protect, insist on
behind your ramparts,
your transient, elusive self
and the PowerPoint®
presentation of it?
We're self-segregating these days,
back to stay-in-your-lane purity
as deep as a projection
a slide: executive summaries
of essential natures, plenty of bullets;
but there's Tolstoy under there.
Turn the pages yourself.
Pretty soon you get to flimflam
It is, as they say, skin deep:
cooking, clothes and language,
personality, all circumstance
What have I become
since the beginning of time?
Who is doing the thinking
when thinking of me?
of Who Am I?
—the shanty towns
of tin and tires.
Do we inherit the body
or the karma?
Do we come into the estate
of genes or exposure?
Do we pull through the old, bad blood?
Or the new?
They say you can fix your memories
and alter your traumas and triggers,
swallow some beans or the sauce
and exit from all anxieties.
I've heard about rituals of mind-states,
veins of hypnosis. There's letting go
and letting God, punk proclamations
and pious manifestos, good cop, bad cop.
I have bad hips and a hurt in my spine
from all the shifting sand.
I've imagined my body as bones of sand.
At the end of everything
I'm still bones on a pile of sand.
After the storms, above the sand slides
and dunes full of drowning hands,
there's something hanging,
full of lungs, in the air.
Invisible lungs longing to breathe again.
Years of surfing the berms
in all that wind of wanting and suffering,
it breaks your body and at the end
you look terrible. Hair pulled out,
eyes sunken in, exposed to the stinging
grit of microscopic violence.
Immaculate. Impeccable. Venerable.
I. Self, selfie, selfish,
self-care, spoil thyself,
esteem, me, my, mine,
echo, ego, greed,
one's own, cock,
have it your way.
II. Self growth,
boost the numbers,
blow up the room,
drop the mic,
of the opportunity.
Magnify, inflate, balloon.
III. Simplify your life.
Reduce the bloat.
Thin out the fat.
Ease the swell.
Lighten the pudge.
Remedy the protuberance.
You know those days of splendor
when you’re at your peak
through the brambles, balancing
on the beam, working smart,
thinking ahead, making contingencies
drawn on a map with artful keys
and cursive monikers,
riding on strengths
like a nimble kid
befriending the non-obvious?
Nobody tells your tale
inside the fort on rainy nights.
Where the secret is buried,
only you know.
In therapy we learned about setting boundaries
to alleviate co-dependence and feelings of guilt
about things we cannot control.
Some of us got really good a this;
I started to hear people setting boundaries
everywhere, a black woman saying on television,
"It's not my job to teach white people about black people,"
a white man confiding to me, "It's not my job
to fix the economic situation for black people,"
and a father overheard saying, "It's not my job
to teach that brat of mine how to behave."
They're all setting healthy boundaries.
I tried to think of a metaphor for this
and the only thing I could come up with
was a rancher with a barbed-wire fence.
(I heard a New Mexico rancher once say
at a congressional hearing in Santa Fe,
"It's not my job to worry about gun violence."
Although in my metaphor, it's cows.)
And the first thing that happens
is the rancher's cow gets out
and doesn't come back...ever.
And the neighbor ranchers say,
"It's not my job to keep track of your cows."
(That would never happen according to my father.
A neighbor would always call up and tell the rancher
his lost cow was last seen near the caliche pits.
It was said neighbors looked out for each other
because they were a community.)
But in my metaphor when a neighbor cow
wanders into your pasture, you instead say,
"How nice for me, a new cow!"
Anyway, things escalate in my metaphor
and all the neighbor's cows go mad,
because they're watching Ox News
and getting fed all sorts of propaganda there
about evil gun-totting ranchers.
They heard about the congressional hearing, see?
Maybe it was misconstrued
but the cows don't care.
(Harding County, New Mexico,
actually has more cows than people.
Just a little factoid there for you,
courtesy of some organized cows.)
Anyway, the cows get militarized
and start stockpiling guns
and then they get a hold of the hormones
and become politicized monster cows
and they rip out all of the barbed-wire fencing.
Look out your window toward the horizon;
you can see them slowly lumbering for you.
The rancher says, "I don't even know
who these damn cows are anymore."
And what I'm saying here,
in the pasture of my metaphor,
is that maybe, quite possibly, just suppose
all that galvanic, mental fencing was ill-conceived,
maybe it was a bit of lazy living like those people
who didn't want to chop wood
and then froze to death in the winter.
Maybe chopping wood was your job.
There's something exciting about reinvention:
opening the game box, resetting the chess board,
redrawing the grid for Xs and Os,
setting up the new apartment
for the little figurines,
the first survey of the TrapperKeeper,
reading the syllabus, perusing the index,
tying the new running shoes,
perusing the menu of the new restaurant
or the new software,
pulling the ribbon on the wrapped gift,
(received or given),
the new haircut, the new product,
the pathway to the faraway hotel lobby,
turning the first curve on the trek,
new baby blankets,
the first word,
the first reconciliation,
the new desk,
the new sheet of typing paper,
organizing your tools,
the first mark on the whiteboard,
the first mistake, restocking,
frying the onion and garlic,
each time a clown pops out of the box,
the new surprise at always
finding yourself still there.
Say it was
the end of the world
three days left
on something small
like a rouge cell
or a guerrilla virus.
All your paper lists
scatter like leaves
in a squall.
How the grass bends,
how the leaf shakes,
how light moves across
the unread stack
suddenly these things
are most pressing plans,
of the day.
Breathing and breathing
in the cacophony
of quiet, faraway sounds
like the ticking clock
your heart alive.
And your lungs
become the seasons;
and your eyes
become the sun;
and your diminishing voice
becomes the door to heaven.
These moments prepare you.
And they prepare you
whether this is the end
I am everything in the book;
I am—all the things.
I am the big-dipper rollercoaster
at the crest and in the fall,
my heart in my mouth.
I am a pile of mud
that can only be moved by a flood.
I am unable to see
what the mirror sees.
I am a young girl wasting away
with reedy wishes.
I am the bunker full of charges
I tiptoe around.
I am a sitter.
I have performed the rituals
of the masque but I have bad skin.
I am a fatty, insatiable
for all the words on the plate.
I am too late.
I am full of regrets floating
like tea lights on the periphery.
I cannot decide.
I cannot solve puzzles.
Their numbers flap around my head
like bats, but I see what they're saying:
time to prioritize.
I cannot say I love you enough.
We're told to take what's ours
not to take only what's ours,
which is how we can be quite polite,
oh-so-solicitous before the shoplift,
delicately trying to even the score
or merely spread out the pain.
The lowdown manipulations
lie deep under cover of kindness,
twisting the arm in increments
and suggestions, slights and nudges,
shooting from forts, circling in drones,
no blood on our hands or in our hearts.
We're nice people, sweetly coaching the cat
toward the mice on the ledge.
The bad kids wear the badge of assertion,
like a soul pin, tapping into the spill
of ego's intoxicant. Meanness wants
to be mean. Lambs practice
assertiveness until it becomes professional.
Then at the corporate level they find
the aggressor stealing the lingo.
Bullies will always steal the happy term
and make it smart like a slug.
Considerate is soon to be running
from the very words they devise,
fending off the insults at the stern.
Because hooligans will soon defile the debutante
and beat her into a slur.
Sitting in all the restaurants, at the round tables of our friends,
at the feast with strangers, soaking the bread of ourselves
into other lives, the dulcet babble of spices, sharing plates,
the spoonfuls you'll never taste or imagine.
The host is beautiful, the chef temperamental,
the servers solicitous, cooks wielding all their wounds.
What is the spirit of the place? The maître d asks,
why are you here? Because there are feeders
and eaters. Booths banked up against the wall,
tables floating in the multitudes. The maître d knows
it's a long way between perfect parties
and stop caring what everybody thinks,
both antennas sensitive to the review.
One tries to be perfectly imperfect,
one makes a soup of solipsism,
narcissism as a political manifesto,
stirring and stirring and stirring
the stew's axis until it collapses
dizzy drunk and into itself.
You can't please everyone
so strive to please yourself.
You can't feed everyone
so only feed yourself.
There's a space between mansplaining and mentoring,
an atrium between blowhard and debunk.
There's even room between guru and guide.
Bequests form crossings and archways,
endowments that don't require hosannas,
scaffolding inspired to surpass the maestro,
the bounteous limelight of the edifice,
and many rooms for what everybody knows.
Ripping the muscle
to the feeling underneath:
calisthenics of the grateful,
no pain no gain,
not a useless exercise
but often rote epiphanies.
Not true or untrue,
but luxuries of the well-fed
with oblivious walkers
and quaint locker-rooms
where personal battles
become social ones.
Can you be grateful
for the torture? That pain
drives you like a car
until it becomes violence
you do to yourself.
You disastrous downfall
on the barbell board
on the bench
and all the small betrayals
of the antagonist muscle.
Your hands burn
climbing the rope,
hanging on the bars.
The pain works in time,
gets you a higher perspective,
sometimes the horizon.
But you resist backpedaling,
fetishizing the suffering.
Be grateful you can still suffer,
that they haven't killed you,
those taunting boys
with their dead lifts,
that they haven't passed
the baton on to you,
that you can still show up
and cool down.
It started with "taking care of yourself,
so you can show up for others."
Like a bejeweled promise ring hanging on a chain,
a promise made with dreamy eyes of devotion,
a pledge due following the courtship of the self:
the spa day, the day to do whatever you want,
the day for customizing the universe
toward your tasteful palate, a dozen roses,
the best champagne. The great romancer,
the Rudolph Valentino within you.
Soon you will get to the showing up.
This is all preparing for showing up.
But love is captivating and you are captured
and deserving. Don't forget deserving
of this and that, spoiling yourself rotten.
And you marvel this love that is true,
free of lies and deceptions unlike all those bad eggs.
Besides, self care will get you through the breakups
One starlit night
you're laying on the couch, the atomizer is puffing
pretty little things, the mask is drying,
your headspace is good. Then someone calls
requesting you show up, help them move
into a new place after a bad romance with themselves.
You feel the slight dread rising while you're dressing.
But just as you're pulling on your tight shoes,
you think you have the perfect excuse
for not showing up. You need love tonight.
You need more love.
With all the bad news, why go on fine-tuning the machine?
Why continue the long climb in the wrong shoes?
With a lack of energy to convert into other energies,
with no immune system, why keep climbing through
the pollen? The moment doesn't spark. Motivation
is like a field of heather in a glade that can't be found.
I'm tired of the hollow bunnies with their hortatory voices
and all the fragile images of my strengths, the incentives,
the you-can-do-its like flies on sweat.
The trees of ennui and me—they chi down
and I suck all the oxygen from the woods.
The alpine elf talks about time and effort,
the monotonous owl with her prudent prescriptions
wont get us up the hard side of the hill.
I am an animal with iron cleats on my feet
and I have forgotten why I climb.
But then at the crest I sometimes see the whole survey
and I can look back to the beautiful trudge.
But it's never an inevitable horizon, as sporadic as the spores
of mushrooms found by happenstance. Happiness
is that way. We're never immune to this or that,
a moving mist, a sprite sound, the smell of piñon pine
that can make me weep with relief.
This is all to say we need a hand
at the last, at fate’s cruel rejection,
so chilling and final we imagine
a fatherly figure who calls us home
to a city full of everyone we love.
After the gurus are defrocked,
the books of Spock worn thin,
after the disposable talk comes
and goes, we walk the coals
of our dread. The clowns pack up
and the circus leaves town,
deserting a dry and gutted lot.
We are left with the planned
obsolescence of our bodies.
We starve off the inescapable
with our plans to escape,
by working, solving, proving up
the soulplace. As things break,
we fix. As the paint peels,
we paint. As the rats root,
we wait to see if our mantras will hold.
Soon all the living will gather
around the body, crib-to-crypt,
blessing, chanting and breathing
for the dying,
for the beyond help.