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Criticism

Why I don’t Trust Positive Affirmations

On Oprah Daily you can find “40 Positive Affirmations to Add to Your Daily Rotation.” The first of these comes from Louise Hay: “I am at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.” This is all well and good, unless you happen to be drunk and naked, running around Times Square with a knife. In that case—and I might be a little crazy for saying this—it is entirely possible you may not be doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.

I’ll say it right out: I don’t trust positive affirmations largely because I mistrust oversimplification. Love cannot exist without respect, self-love included. Self-love is therefore predicated upon self-respect. When we label, we reduce. When we reduce, we disrespect. This is not to say that a positive affirmation, or a compliment, or a truth spoken at the right place and time is disrespect. It is to say that words only hold their meaning in specific contexts. To demand that a word or phrase or person be one thing at all times is a form of disrespect. 

In this way, the positive affirmation believed to hold true in all times, places, and contexts, is a form of self-disrespect and a failure to perceive the true source of self-love and self-esteem. 

I can’t think about self-esteem without thinking about Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect” because without self-respect, there can be no self-esteem.

Self-respect, and self-esteem are not built on the sandy foundation of a dozen positive affirmations whispered into the mirror in the morning before the sun rises. Didion said it best: “The tricks that work for others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself.” What use is the “kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed”? 

Positive affirmations are sold and packaged as a path toward self-love and self-esteem, but there’s a vast gulf between saying a positive affirmation to yourself and having self-esteem. The positive affirmation is a one-night stand with all the intensity, feeling, and illusion of love but none of the substance. Self-esteem and self-respect exist when we confront our own shortcoming and failures. Long-standing self-esteem, that is, self-esteem on solid ground, is like the 40-year old married couple that can look into each others’ eyes knowing that love lives in the disagreement and the agreement, which is to say that love of any type, self-love included, is predicated upon communication. 

Communication with oneself, by which I mean self-honesty, may be the most difficult communication of all.

Positive affirmations offer a fixed story that doesn’t actually fix anything.

The word “fix” means many things; it can mean repair, but the word “fix” gets its origin from the Latin word for fasten, as in, to tie. To fix something is to secure it, to lock it in place. Life is motion, stasis its opposite. We stifle what we fix. 

I do not want to fix myself. 

Screen to the Truth. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Screen to the Truth. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Didion writes that character is the “willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.” We may tell ourselves stories in order to live, but it’s important that the story be true, accurate, and fully our own. 

Michelle Obama may have asked, “Am I good enough?” And she may have answered, “Yes I am” in another one of the affirmations found on Oprah Daily, but to believe it, I believe Obama had to do a whole lot more than just say those words. Positive affirmations won’t bandage over moral turpitude, self-deception, and won’t salve the wounds that arise from failures of self-interrogation. 

Self-respect comes from a kind of self-discipline that cannot be found in a self-help book. Self-respect is integrity. It is hard work.

It’s the: I said I was going to write this essay today, and so I will sit my ass on the chair and write it, dammit. It’s being reliable. As in, I said I’d be there at 9 and I was there at 9. I’m still a work in progress, especially about getting there at 9.

Perhaps my favorite of all the affirmations in Oprah Daily’s “40 Positive Affirmations to Add to Your Daily Routine” comes from Fred Rogers. He writes: “Who you are inside is what helps you make and do everything in life.” Perhaps what I love best about this positive affirmation is that it isn’t an affirmation at all. It’s about doing. 

Self-love isn’t about a single positive affirmation. It’s about self-respect. It’s about knowing that anything in life involves risk, and taking the risk anyway, without attaching too of one’s self-worth to the outcome. In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova writes that in poker there’s always an element of chance and skill. You can’t change the hand you were dealt, but you can change how you choose to play it. Self-respect and self-love springs from how we choose to play the hand. Sometimes it’s a hand we have been dealt, and sometimes it’s a hand we dealt ourselves. We still have a choice in how we play the game.

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, and to remain indifferent… If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are particularly in thrall to everyone we see curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notion of us,” writes Didion. 

It is easy to read these words and believe them. More difficult to live them out. Who am I if I am not healing every lost soul because my soul is lost itself? Who am I if I am not playing Francesca to some poor Paolo?

Integrity is the key, but what a difficult one it is to hold. And what a heavy door of perception it opens.

Once upon a time I chased mad love in the hope that it would heal my oldest wounds. I wanted to redeem all the ways I thought love failed me. But love never failed me and it never failed you. The love that shines through all of us shines just as brightly even when we close the shades. You can close the shutters, but the light’s still in there.

Nothing true can be broken.

My mistake was thinking I had control over the light, over love. 

Self-love has always been in me because love never left me. Self-respect is the process of seeing this love rightly and putting it first. 

What I have learned about forgiveness is that it’s ultimately about self-reconciliation. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, but often those stories are distorted, and outright false. Self-respect is the hard work of seeing oneself rightly. All the positive affirmations in the world won’t fix you if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror and see the light.

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Writing Exercise: Origin Stories 

In my online poetry workshop, I recently gave my students a writing exercise where I set a five-minute timer and asked them to write their origin stories in ten sentences or less. I did the writing exercise alongside them. After the five minutes were up, I asked them to take a deep breath, and do it again. I set the timer again, and asked them to write their origin story again, differently this time. Five minutes passed. Then, I asked them to do it again, differently. Then again. 

I’ve done this exercise consciously and unconsciously in my own writing process over the many years I’ve been a writer. A writer never tells the same story once. My work is the culmination of many months or years of writing the same narrative over and over, first in poetry, then in prose, then fractured by the frame of fiction. Eventually, the subject settles into its final form, whether that is prose, poetry, or non-fiction.

But there’s something powerful about distilling the process of writing and re-writing into a single sitting, by forcing the mind to confront itself. I got the idea for the writing exercise while reading Melissa Febos’s excellent book, Body Work, a fabulous collection of essays about the craft of writing. Febos’s writing exercise is a little different from mine in subject matter, but the process is what matters. The goal is to force the mind outside its habitual narratives. Febos explains that as her students wrote and re-wrote the same assignment over and over, “Their writing got better. It became truer. It became more theirs. I told them, We could do this all day… and not run out of ways to tell that story.” 

Every writer has an origin story. The Marvel movie empire is built on it, but I’m interested less in the origin stories of Captain America and Spider Man than I am in the origin stories of real people with humble beginnings or trauma who go on to do great things. The best stories of love and redemption begin with a trauma narrative that somehow gives the protagonist certain powers, followed by self-knowledge. You can’t use a power you don’t know you have, after all. 

Every writer has a set of circumstances, accidents of fate, tragedy, or sudden luck that made them who they are. Even when Cheryl Strayed writes about her lovers or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, she’s really writing about losing her mother when she was young. For Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy might be about a stroll through hell and finding God, but it’s really about his grief over the death of Beatrice, the love of his life, and his exile from Florence. Dante needs to walk through hell because Beatrice is on the other side, and along the way, he meets some of the characters in hell that sent him into exile. If putting your enemies in hell isn’t the best form of literary revenge, I don’t know what is. Shakespeare couldn’t stop falling in love and so fell into his plays and sonnets, writing obsessive love obsessively. 

Every origin story is in some way the same. We all are wounded; we all want to heal. But every origin story is also unique. As a writer, what often drives me to put words on paper is the fact that I have never quite encountered myself in literature, not fully. And so, I have spent my life trying to find a way to put my experience into words. 

Infinite Spiral. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Infinite Spiral. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Today I met a new friend in the ocean, and I told her about how, after my ex-husband and I separated, I didn’t know what anything meant anymore; everything had lost its meaning. She looked at me and said that I had just put into words what she’d always felt and never been able to put into words. I live for moments like that. 

Perhaps we never encountered our stories in literature or in conversation and so we spend our lives trying to find a way to put our experience into words.

Trying something new and difficult can sometimes feel like being asked to do the same writing exercise over and over. You hit the same walls, the same dead ends, the same unsolvable problems. You don’t have answers right away. Doing hard things means embracing the difficult process and the failures that go along with it.

The real work of writing happens when you force yourself to tell the story central to your creation as a human being so many times that it passes through the prism of your writing in so many different forms and you see it from so many different angles, that eventually, you dig down into the understory of the story, the hidden truth that lies beneath the obvious truths, the wiser narrative, the one that admits other people, other things. Whether you’re writing about the death of your father, your long-lost love, the mad love affair that broke you, your divorce, or the day that saved your life, your story is not one story. It is many stories, and it contains multiple truths.

Febos writes: “Over the years, I’ve come to look forward to the point in my own writing at which continuing seems both incomprehensible and loathsome. That resistance, rather than marking the dead end of the day’s words, marks the beginning of the truly interesting part… It is on the other side of that threshold that the truly creative awaits me, where I might make something that didn’t already exist.”

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Online Poetry Classes: New Link

Last month, to my great excitement, I launched my online poetry classes (you can try my online poetry workshop one week for free by clicking here!). When it comes to creative writing courses, there aren’t many affordable options. Many creative writing classes can cost several hundred dollars, require up-front payment, and often require serious financial and time-commitments. My online poetry workshop costs only $34.99 each month and you can cancel anytime. While other writing courses require writers to attend weekly courses and submit work every week for 10 to 12 weeks at a time, my online poetry workshop lets you submit your work at your own pace any time during the month. And every month, you’ll receive personalized feedback from me, an instructor who holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. On the last Sunday of the month, I’ll also host a live online Zoom poetry workshop, where we’ll discuss the poetry and writing submitted during the month, and also discuss the craft of writing in general. 

Last month, my online poetry workshop went live. Our first online writing class on Zoom was a small group of inspiring and inspired poets. I look forward to watching this group grow. I found the discussions we had so exciting and encouraging that I feel ready to open the workshop to a wider audience. I am so thrilled to announce that I’m offering new members a chance to try my online poetry workshop one week for free. You can join by clicking here. If you tried before with another link and it didn’t work, please try again. I had to resolve some technical difficulties (the former one-week free link was a single-use invitation).

Try one week free by clicking here.

When you join my online poetry workshop you get:

  • To submit your work and receive personalized feedback on your writing. I can’t wait to read your work!
  • Attend a LIVE Zoom poetry workshop held on the last Sunday of the month. 10 a.m. HST; 1 p.m. PST; 4 p.m. EST.
  • Access on-demand video classes with writing exercises and prompts to keep you inspired and writing.
  • Join a community of inspired and inspiring writers!

While the workshop focuses on the craft of poetry, all writers are welcome. We also discuss non-fiction and fiction, and submissions of all kinds are read with delight. The goal of each online poetry workshop is to focus on our writing at the level of the sentence and the word. If you have short prose or fiction pieces you want to share or short pieces of non-fiction or fiction for which you’d like to receive feedback, feel free to join!

A writing workshop is also only as good as the instructor. While many online poetry workshops tell you the credentials of who will teaching, not all of them do. 

This online poetry workshop will be taught and facilitated by me. I’m Janice Greenwood, a published writer and poet. I hold an MFA from Columbia University in creative writing and poetry. I have interned at the New Yorker magazine, and have taught introductory writing classes at Columbia Artists/Teachers, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and at Mohawk College. My book was a finalist for several poetry book prizes and I was also a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. My work has appeared in New England Review, Honolulu Magazine Online, Climbing Magazine, the Intertia, and elsewhere. 

Click here to join.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and Some Observations on Male Entitlement

I first read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking while I was going through my divorce. The marriage had been a good one. I never once felt afraid to ask my ex-husband for anything, whether it was sexual, practical, or personal. I told him everything. I’d asked him to marry me, and I’d asked him for the divorce. He said yes both times.

But despite my ability to ask for things when the asking felt safe, I found myself incapable of asking for help in my daily life when the asking felt more dangerous. When it came to asking for directions, I couldn’t be bothered. (I once got lost on a Kentucky road for over an hour, driving back and forth past holler and highway, arriving ridiculously late to dinner). While working as a tutor, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a raise for years, despite the fact that clients called the tutoring company specifically asking to work with me. And during the same period of time, I didn’t know how to ask for help about my depression, choosing to go it alone and self-medicate. More crucially, I have had trouble asking for forgiveness, choosing to contort myself financially and spiritually, rather than asking for love and grace. Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is a humane exploration of why we have so much trouble asking for help, and why asking is essential to the formation of intimate relationships.

While I have asked for important things in my life, I marvel that some of the best jobs I ever had, the best friendships I’ve ever made, the best relationships I’ve ever had, happened because someone else asked me—not because I asked.

After reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, I wish I could say it transformed me into a person capable of asking for anything, the kind of person who believes she deserves good things in her life, a person readily able to accept rejection, the everyday no, but the truth is that I’m as terrible as ever at asking for help when I need it, and I’m as terrible as ever at asking for what I want. So, in seasons of change, I return to The Art of Asking

To ask for something, you need to know what you need.

To ask for something, you need to believe you deserve what you are asking for.

To ask anything of anyone is to take a risk. 

Ask. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Ask. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

And so, The Art of Asking is, as Brené Brown writes in her introduction “a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close.” To ask anything of anyone is to risk intimacy. 

The act of asking precludes the possibility of safe distance. Palmer writes, “Asking is, in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship.” We ask for help. We ask to learn who we can trust. We ask because “underneath it all, these questions originate in our basic, human longing to know: Do you love me?”

To ask for anything is to reveal your vulnerabilities, your own blind spots, your own weaknesses. I used to complain that no one in my family really worried about helping me because I always seemed to have everything put together. But I had everything put together because I never asked for help, never risked revealing the places in my life where I was the least put together.

For years, I hid the darkest truths about my life from the people who could help me, until the dark truth of it couldn’t be hidden, until it spilled out all around me.

It’s ironic that I was literally hiding when the truth became apparent, at least to me. I hid in a bathroom while the boyfriend I thought loved me raged through the house, breaking things, breaking us. I was scared. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask. I didn’t know who to ask. I texted a domestic violence hotline and couldn’t bring myself to tell the stranger on the other end of the line what was happening. I hadn’t asked for help in so long, I didn’t know how to do it. I’d never been in a relationship where asking was not permitted. I had learned through his violent outbursts, broken objects, and through my own broken skin that I wasn’t allowed to ask for anything. 

A few weeks later, I finally found the words to ask for help, first asking his mother, then my therapist, and again, the strangers at the domestic violence hotline.

No one could give me an answer, but for the first time in years I felt held. 

So much of what happened couldn’t have happened without male entitlement. I let a man manage my life and I stopped asking for anything. I stopped believing I deserved anything save what he gave me freely. I was leagues away from real intimacy.

Here’s a thing I noticed while walking my dog in Waikiki. Women almost always ask me before they pet my dog, while men only ask half the time. Most of the time, they just reach out and touch her. This isn’t a trivial fact. Men are trained—enculturated to take what they want, and they expect to get it. Women are trained to ask—and to be grateful for what they have been given. It’s a subtle difference but it makes a big difference in what we end up getting out of life.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about those men who touch my dog without asking, the ones that take without asking, not because this says anything fundamentally true about the men who reach out to pet my dog without first asking permission (I’m sure most of them are lovely people), but because it says something fundamentally true about the nature of our culture, about men and women, and about those who feel they have permission to ask for things and those who feel they don’t need permission. Mostly I think about the lives of the men who habitually take without asking, and I think about the many things they must receive that they otherwise wouldn’t receive because they take and expect to receive, and often do not ask. I think about the women who ask and do not expect to receive. But most of all, I think of the women too afraid to ask. 

And this is also not to say that women should start taking things without asking, but that we need to consider the ways in which we view a woman as suspect for asking, while not viewing men as suspect who fail to ask.

Male entitlement precludes the asking.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to live in a culture where male entitlement didn’t exist and where men and women were both subject to the same laws of asking, a culture where a woman wouldn’t often be seen as greedy for asking for a raise or a promotion, a culture where a woman wouldn’t sometimes be perceived as desperate if she asked the guy out on a date, a culture where a woman could ask for the divorce, the breakup, and the neighbors to lower the speakers without first being thought of as a bitch. I wonder what it would be like if all men had to ask for the privileges they otherwise often take for granted: permission to speak in the meeting, permission to kiss the girl, permission to touch the dog.

Don’t get me wrong. I think both men and women struggle to ask for anything. Everyone has trouble asking. Palmer expected her viral TED talk to resonate with artists who struggled to ask for money, patrons, and help, but the unexpected result of her TED talk was that it resonated with a diverse crowd of people: nurses, newspaper editors, chemical engineers, yoga teachers, truck drivers, nonprofit coordinators, architects, and freelance photographers. Palmer writes: “Everybody struggles with asking.” 

Even Amanda Palmer. In The Art of Asking, she writes about how, on the night before her wedding, Palmer, the woman who could ask strangers for help and money when she worked as a street performer, the woman with the million dollar Kickstarter found herself unable to sleep, and unable to ask her husband for financial help.

Why?

She writes: “From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us—it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak.”

To ask for help isn’t to admit defeat. Palmer explains in The Art of Asking, “some of the most powerful, successful, admired people in the world seem, to me, to have something in common: they ask constantly, creatively, compassionately, and gracefully.” 

At the core of the fear of asking is the fear that we don’t deserve what we’re asking to receive. And this is where I get back to thinking about the men who pet my dog without asking, the men who believe they deserve to pet my dog as a fact of their existence, the men who don’t think that they need to ask. What does it mean to go through life thinking you deserve so much? 

As I sat in that bathroom, crying, not telling anyone anything about the truth of what my life had become, there was a small or perhaps not so small part of myself that believed I deserved to be there, though I remember saying over and over, “I don’t deserve this.” And while “I don’t deserve this” isn’t quite “I deserve better,” it was a start. 

The Art of Asking begins with belief. You must first believe you deserve to have what you are asking for. Slowly, I’m seeing that I deserve good things in my life. 

I believe I deserve peace, security, respect, loving kindness, authenticity, community. These things aren’t always given to us. We need to ask for them. I pray daily for security and take steps to get it. I have asked for community, and I am building it through an online poetry workshop and forum where I have met several writers passionate about their work (Do you want to join us? You can! You can try it for a week free by clicking here).

I believe I deserve a healthy, kind, embracing love that isn’t afraid to ask for anything and isn’t afraid to hear no. I still believe it can exist. I’ve met men that are helping me see that this is true. But this time, I’m not choosing them, at least not right now. I’m not choosing them because I deserve to choose myself first. Being single is forcing me to learn how to ask for help from my wider community. Slowly, I’m learning that asking doesn’t need to be scary. Asking for help means first asking myself what I believe I deserve. It means embracing a more expansive vision of what I want and being unafraid and willing to fearlessly ask for it.

In the meantime, I keep re-reading The Art of Asking.

Need help? The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help.

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

In Body Work, Melissa Febos Asks Writers to Navel Gaze

There are few professions that require nothing more than a pen, paper, and a writing desk. Emily Dickinson’s writing desk was no larger than a microwave. In the same space it takes to pop a bag of popcorn, Dickinson traveled with death, chatted with God, saw the infinite in a bird. Something should be so easy as learning how to start an essay given the low cost of admission, and yet, taking the first step, or writing the first word, or making the first attempt can feel downright impossible. Every journey begins at home, and sometimes home can be a foreign country, even to oneself. I marvel at my own blind spots when I finally see them. True knowledge ought not to be the exploration of somewhere else, but the discovery of the somewhere else right here. But imposter syndrome is real. Access to the blank page is relatively easy but inhabiting the space as if it were one’s own, much harder. In her new book, Body Work, Melissa Febos writes, “Writing is a form of freedom more accessible than many and there are forces at work that would like to withhold it from those whose stories most threaten the regimes that govern this society. Fuck them. Write your life.” 

Amen, sister.

Starting an essay can be a subversive act. But why is it that when I’m telling my truest truths, I suddenly find myself a little seasick, which is to say, I suddenly find the Melvillian Ishmael in me “growing grim about the mouth” and I know it’s time to get myself to the ocean. Writer’s block is an easy enough excuse to go surfing. To this excuse, Melissa Febos writes: “I don’t believe in writer’s block. I only believe in fear.”

Nova Enso. Janice Greenwood. Watercolor.
Nova Enso. Janice Greenwood. Watercolor.

The word “essay” originally meant “trial” or “attempt.” An essay is not so much a complete expression of the truth, as an attempt to arrive at truth through the doing. In this manner, a good essay doesn’t know its conclusions when it begins. 

Perhaps this is why nothing is so difficult as beginnings. 

In Body Work, Febos writes about the power of writing her secrets and she urges her readers to tell her theirs. “Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair… Tell me about your hands, the things they have done and held and hit and let go.”

But, before you begin, never underestimate your own desire to please others before yourself.

Here’s me: I was a compliant girl, but a devil inside. When I became a teenager, I became a compliant girlfriend, rotten from the things I put in my mouth and the things I didn’t let out. Then I was a compliant wife, loyal but not to myself. One day, I decided to not be compliant anymore, but that didn’t last for long. I still fight my own desire to please. When I’m writing, I find that the figure I’m often trying to please is some old white male university professor, but in my daily life the figure shapeshifts. 

If you ask me how to start an essay, I’d echo my wonderful teacher Susan Shapiro and say, start with shame, start with your most embarrassing story. I’m 37 years old and only starting to write it. 

In Body Work, Febos writes that when establishment critics denigrate trauma narratives, or essays about violence, abuse, disempowerment, sexual aggression, harassment, or racism, “they are picturing women” writers. Febos explains that telling a true story “might free me from shame and replace the onus of change onto the society in which we live.” And “those who benefit from the inequalities of our society resist the stories of people whose suffering is in large part owed to the structures of our society.”

In other words, saying the unsayable is a political act, and a necessary one.

Start here. Tell a secret. Write your most shameful thing. Test your thinking. Weigh your evidence. Take a long hike, and gesture at conclusion with surprise, and awe, and perhaps a little exhaustion. To start an essay is less a matter of finding the right anecdote or rhetorical question, but rather, to begin with uncertainty. But uncertainty isn’t enough. Uncertainty is epistemology. Shame lives in its heart. 

An anecdote is not a catchy hook to draw in the reader. The reader, after all, isn’t a fish. Instead, an anecdote places the reader inside the midst of the mystery that the essay attempts to resolve through mastery. Context that situates the reader is less a history lesson than it is the attempt to find solid ground or common ground where there may be no ground to begin with. 

And so, an essay on the infinite might therefore begin with a description of home. An essay on home might begin with a description of the infinite cathedral of the universe.

Writers are omnivorous creatures. We digest the whole world. We read voraciously. We also go out into the wilderness and observe the changing tides and swells, marvel at the forceful movement of wind through the valley, and study the movements of a gecko.

What I love about Febos’s writing is her ability to include so much within it. 

She remains open to interruptions, to digression, to the accidental discovery that tilts the table and knocks over the cup of tea, blotting out the words. 

An essay must remain open to the awkward and dangerous conversation, to new rooms, and to new trails, and the blisters they leave on the feet. 

Febos writes that the “power of secrecy could become a prison.” But writing cannot be merely a payment plan to leave the debtor’s prison of lies.

The essay is not an accountant’s ledger. It does not add up sentences with a bottom line in mind. The poem whose end can be seen from the start is a road too well traveled to be worth recording and so it is with the essay. Febos’s writing in Body Work rings true because we discover the truth alongside the writer.

Can the essay live in a world of devices and algorithms? In a world where every entertainment and curiosity is curated to titillate our obsessions and desires? Can the essay survive in a world where our devices offer every alluring social connection with a simple scroll, the whole history of film at our fingertips, every great play or poem or novel ever written, available for a single click on the Amazon of ideas? It is a marvel and a miracle writers find time to write at all. It is a marvel and a miracle readers find time to read. In a world where everything is available, nothing can be known. The writer of the essay makes a choice and decides to stop and know. An essay must be rooted in specificity. 

To start an essay is a radical act of resistance against the attention economy, the easily defined algorithm, the palace of addiction and easy dopamine. It is resistance against the forces that would keep us oppressed and distracted. In Body Work, Febos writes: “resistance to memoirs about trauma is always in part—and often nothing but—a resistance to movements for social justice.”

To start an essay rooted in the present or what we know to be true about the past forces us to reckon with the truth of the here and now, where we have been, and where we may be going. An honestly written essay forces us to find sufficiency in ourselves and honor our need for connection to one another. We must face our darkest days and bring them to the light or else die in darkness. How to start an essay? Begin in uncertainty and walk toward the light. 

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Getting Over Heartbreak with Florence Williams

Getting over heartbreak isn’t easy. Recently finding myself wrecked on its shores, I turned to the only forms of solace I’ve known to heal a broken heart: writing, time with family and friends, time in nature, books, and time itself. In the past few weeks, as far as writing goes, I’ve written quite a bit of bad poetry. I’ve spent time with family and friends: my dad flew in and helped me clean up my wrecked home, and a day after he left, my best friend flew in from New York. We lounged on the beach, surfed, ate delicious food, and got pedicures and massages. When I looked for books that would bring me solace, I found it especially fortuitous that literally within weeks of my breakup, Florence Williams’ excellent new book, Heartbreak came out. If love is the product of good timing, then Heartbreak was my match made in heaven. 

Getting over heartbreak is a highly personal process. It can take months or years. My therapist tells me that it’s impossible to tell when I’ll feel better, just that I will eventually feel better. Some days I feel great, and others I just want to lie in bed and watch Euphoria

It’s one thing to know intellectually that the pain will pass and another thing entirely to sit with the pain when it hasn’t yet passed. I’ve spent more nights crying myself to sleep than I want to count.

Williams admits that until she had experienced heartbreak herself, she “tended to dismiss portrayals of it in popular culture or literature.” She can be forgiven for not “getting it.” Williams had never experienced heartbreak before.

As one who feels more like an expert in the field, having gone through a divorce, followed by a series of relationships that wrecked me in different ways, I wondered what this relative novice would have to offer. Yet, Elizabeth Bishop once wisely wrote “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” and indeed, when it comes to breaking up, quality can be as significant as quantity. As one who has been divorced and has suffered one breakup every three years for the last decade of my life, I’m starting to become all too acquainted with its horrible rhythms. 

Heartbreak is a braided tale, part memoir interwoven with current scientific research on the nature of surviving a broken heart. Williams’ goal is to learn more about getting over heartbreak, but the process is not linear, nor are there clear steps toward healing.

Like anyone learning a new skill, Williams throws herself into the topic completely: “I’d never been that interested in other people’s heartbreaks. But after it happened to me, I couldn’t get enough. I turned to literature, to science, to good music, to bad music, and to a wide circle of acquaintances, and then to a wider one. I wanted company.” 

For anyone who has turned to both good and bad art after a heartbreak, Williams offers something new. Misery may love company, but it’s also fun to read about the science of what happens inside the brain when the heart breaks. 

For example, “If you place someone who has recently suffered heartbreak in a scanner, parts of the brain light up that are very closely related to the parts that fire after receiving a burn or electrical shock.” And indeed, when I went through my divorce after a decade together with my husband, I remember being stunned about how literally painful the whole thing was. I’d expected emotional pain, but the way the emotional pain manifested physically was new to me.

Williams’ Heartbreak offers many other surprising insights. Studies indicate that people who are cold feel lonelier. 

Perhaps this is why, in the weeks after my most recent breakup, I became obsessed with upgrading my condo’s water heater to electric. The small one I had didn’t give me long enough baths. 

Williams also explained why my brain was so fuzzy. In the weeks after the breakup, my brain didn’t work properly. I’d promise to send emails, but the emails never got sent. I’d go to events and meet people only to forget their names right after meeting them. I knew that heartbreak could affect the brain, but this was a whole new level of cognitive decline.

Heartbreak may also come in degrees. Divorcing my husband took me to whole new continents of grief and pain. I felt like parts of my viscera had been removed. My stomach hurt for days on end. I couldn’t breathe at times. I got one urinary tract infection after another. 

There was one moment while driving where I literally didn’t see the red light right in front of me. Reality itself didn’t feel real anymore. Symbols stopped meaning anything. I had slammed the brakes in the middle of an intersection, pedestrians staring at me like I was crazy, and in a way, I was a little crazy. What did a red light mean without my husband?

Does one great loss prepare you for the others? I’ll say this. A few weeks ago, while driving in the early morning, I failed to see another red light. This time, I was not surprised. I had called my most recent boyfriend my soul mate. He had brought back to me what I thought I had lost forever when my marriage ended. Once again, symbols had lost all meaning. 

Failing to comprehend basic symbols may sound extreme, but Williams writes about more extreme side effects of heartbreak. For example, it is possible to have a heart attack as a result of heartbreak, a condition known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” With this kind of heart attack, the victims’ arteries aren’t blocked, and the victims are otherwise perfectly healthy. The heart just stops working as it should and it balloons up, followed by chest pain, fluid in the lungs, cellular death, and rarely, but sometimes, death. Williams tells the story of one of its victims that is so compelling and well-told, I won’t spoil it here. 

Sometimes at night since my breakup, I’d wake unable to breathe.  

A broken heart literally stresses the cardiovascular system. 

Coronary. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Coronary. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

While the stress can devastate the body, it can reconfigure the mind. Every breakup offers a lesson. Breakups teach us who we are and what we want. If you had asked me what I wanted after I got divorced, I would have told you I wanted sex and a boyfriend who rock climbed. After having gone through several breakups, I know myself better. Where I once wanted excitement, I now look for peace and security. Where I longed for chaos and adventure, I now long for someone connected to something greater than himself, a purpose. While I’d love to meet someone who shares my hobbies, I now see that authenticity, respect, and loving kindness are more important.

A breakup can be a gift. 

Williams writes that people who can tell themselves a good story about what happened are better able to see their grief, more able to see themselves as interconnected to a larger purpose. Like Williams, I am still struggling to find “narrative coherence” after my heartbreak, but I know there can be great awe in passing through pain, and it is quite possible that pain is the best path toward achieving awe. 

In the early days of my heartbreak, I turned repeatedly to the ocean, paddling out and just letting myself become flotsam and jetsam for a while. When a big wave crashes down on your head, there’s no doubt at all about who’s in charge. I loved that about the ocean. 

The ocean felt like a healthy escape, but Williams also writes about how the brain reeling from heartbreak can gravitate toward making poor decisions: “Heartbreak is a beast wagging a long tail. It can make you more insecure, more likely to make poor decisions, and more prone to behaviors that are bad for you… turpitude, stupidity, poor judgement, it’s all right there, documented and quantified in the brains and behaviors of people who have experienced abandonment, loss, and the natural consequence of those conditions: loneliness.” 

Dating right after a heartbreak may not be the best idea, but this is easier said than done.

Williams writes about how her and her therapist “discussed the wisdom of … taking a break from dating…You have a recovery to go through, and you can’t really recover until you feel confident and independent. It takes months. It’s hard to do if you’re infatuated with someone. It just postpones it.”

I see the wisdom, but the desire to escape pain with lust is powerful. 

The neuroscientist John Caccioppo explained to the New York Times: “One of the secrets to a good relationship is being attracted to someone out of choice rather than out of need… We were moving toward something that was really unique.”

I thought about Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape. I needed some of that wisdom. Williams soon learns that turning to the next available warm body isn’t going to save her from grief. She breaks up with one guy and then another, and then writes: “Expect to suffer. You can’t run away from pain for long. You must feel it and then you must wait.”

Breakups have a way of cracking open your life to its seams, but in that process, you learn what seems and what is. I realized who my true friends were, and I also realized that so many people in my community were looking out for me. In the weeks after my breakup, friends invited me to go surfing, my community of sober women held me, and I found solace in books and writing. In the aftermath of my breakup, I turned back to the things that worked, to the things that had always worked: sobriety, writing, reading, friendship, surfing. I thought about my deeper purpose and intention for my writing: to help others; to crack open the silence; to change the narrative.

All these practices helped me to calm down. Williams writes: “When we calm down, the real healing can happen: the emotional growth, cognitive insights, planning for the future, and ability to connect with other people in reciprocal, meaningful ways.” 

Ultimately, I wanted to find ways to feel good as myself, by myself. I knew that only time would help me get there. Williams ultimately comes to similar conclusions.

The thing the heartbroken need most of all is connection. The best part about reading Heartbreak was the feeling of reading the words of a good friend going through a similar thing. It made me feel less lonely. And that’s what we all hope and want in the end.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Janice’s Online Writing Courses

Click here to join my online writing courses!

After months of planning, thought, preparation, and work, I am so thrilled to announce the launch of my new online writing courses and so excited to see my first members join! I’m writing this post to invite you to join as well!

What do you get when you join my online writing courses?

  • Receive personalized critiques from a published poet who holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University.
  • Attend a live, Zoom online writing course each month where you’ll learn to edit your work and read critically. Each month, I’ll select pieces of writing submitted to the workshop to critique. If you can’t make the live Zoom course, no worries! Classes are recorded and accessible for a limited time after they run.
  • Access on-demand masterclass lessons on the craft of writing.
  • Share your work and grow as a writer.
  • Receive all this for only $34.99 a month! Many online writing courses can cost hundreds of dollars and require a weekly commitment. I want to make my online writing courses affordable, accessible, and flexible for writers at all stages in their writing journeys.

Not a poet? You’re still welcome to join! When you focus on your writing at the level of the sentence and the word, you’ll grow as a writer. Without years of taking poetry courses, I wouldn’t have gained the skills I now apply to all types of writing whether it’s my freelance writing, blogging, book reviews, criticism, and non-fiction. 

As a freelance writer for the travel industry, wellness, and law, I’ve learned that word choice, syntax, rhythm, and structure, matters. Being able to express ideas in a concise manner is a highly-sought skill. Guess what? I learned many of these skills in poetry writing courses! I use these skills when writing blogs, criticism, non-fiction and more. When it comes to learning how to be a better writer, I recommend all writers begin with a poetry course. My online writing courses are a great place to begin and to grow. 

Join now!

My Online Writing Course Curriculum

My online writing course is inspired by the MFA and creative writing curriculum offered at the university level. I’ve studied creative writing for years. First as an undergraduate where I attended creative writing workshops, then later, while pursuing my MFA in creative writing at Columbia University, and finally after graduate school, where I attended private courses with editors and industry leaders to grow as a writer. In crafting my online writing courses, I take the aspects I most loved about these workshops and offer them to my students at an affordable monthly rate. Many online writing courses can cost hundreds of dollars and may not offer the flexibility you need. With my online writing course, you can pace your learning, or go deeper with one-on-one mentorship. 

What kinds of topics will we cover in my online writing course?

  • Finding the right word.
  • Discovering your voice.
  • How to edit your writing.
  • How to tap into ancient symbols in your writing.
  • Writing grief.
  • Introduction to poetic forms.
  • Rhyme and rhythm.
  • Getting inspired.
  • Haiku.
  • Publishing your poetry.
  • And MORE!

Join today.

About the Instructor

Janice Greenwood, online writing courses instructor.

I’m Janice Greenwood, a published poet who holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. I am the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. While earning my MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, I served as an editor at Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and interned at the New Yorker Magazine. My poetry has appeared in the New England ReviewDIAGRAMCimarron Review, and elsewhere. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was named a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. I have taught writing courses through Columbia University’s Columbia Artist/Teachers program, Mohawk College, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and more. 

When you sign up for my online writing course, you receive personalized feedback from me every month, and can attend a live monthly online writing course offered through Zoom where I’ll critique select pieces submitted to the workshop. You also get access to my members-only forum, where you can ask me direct questions about your writing journey and goals. You’ll also have access to on-demand masterclasses on the craft that I’ll post to the site periodically. 

Click here to join.

Making Online Writing Courses Affordable to More People

I understand that not everyone can afford to pursue higher education in creative writing, nor can most students afford the hundreds of dollars it costs to attend the typical online writing course. For some students the financial commitment is too high, and for others the time commitment it too demanding. My online writing courses offer something a little different.

  • Affordability. At only $34.99 per month, the cost of entry is low. If you cannot afford the monthly fee, send me an email (sphinxmothpress@gmail.com); I want to make the course available to as many students as possible.
  • Flexibility. Instead of committing to a semester course or 10-week course, you watch the video lessons on demand, submit your work at your leisure (submissions remain open for at least three full weeks each month), and either attend the workshop, or watch the recording, which is available after the class. 
  • Pace Yourself. Set your own goals. Commit to a daily writing practice. Choose to upgrade your experience with one-on-one mentoring, or take it easy, have fun, and enjoy the classes at your own pace.

My online writing courses are a unique opportunity to grow and write. I can’t wait to read your work. Click here to learn more and join.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Under A White Sky: Failed Interventions

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky might owe its creation, in part, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a seminal book on ecological crisis, but Kolbert is highly aware of this uncomfortable inheritance. In the early pages of Under a White Sky, Kolbert discusses an unfortunate consequence of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the most influential environmental books ever written. Kolbert presents the example as a warning both to us, and to herself as an environmental writer. Interventions made upon any natural system have consequences, and the consequences may not always be good. 

Writers are often called upon to offer solutions, whether they are writing about life, romance, or environmental collapse. But when it comes to complex systems like the environment, or other similarly complex systems, like, say other people, or falling in and out of love, writers are wise to pause before dealing out advice or solutions. (While I focus on writers in this essay, I think this line of thinking can extend to anyone considering offering solutions to any big problem, whether it’s writing a letter to the editor about your solution to the climate crisis, or perhaps pausing before giving a friend life advice—the full picture evades even the most well-informed and well-meaning interventionist.)

In Silent Spring, Carson suggested that one alternative to pesticides could be the use of “one biological agent against another.” Not long after, Arkansas introduced Asian carp into its waters to keep water weeds in check. That choice, combined with the decision to dig a canal in Chicago, has led to the proliferation of invasive carp in American rivers and the risk that carp from the American south might someday make their way into the Great Lakes, devastating their ecosystems. 

The lesson is a stark one. Writers who offer solutions about how to solve the climate crisis should do so with care. But this lesson goes far deeper than policymaking. As a reader I often turn to books for advice. Which reader has not? Writers, either overtly or subtlety, offer advice for living through their work. Sometimes the advice is direct, like in Carson’s Silent Spring, and sometimes the advice is more subtle. 

Condé Nast Traveler reported that there was a 50% increase in the number of people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after Cheryl Strayed’s excellent memoir, Wild came out. While the Pacific Crest Trail Association claims that the book has had the positive impact of helping hikers better prepare for the rigors of the trail, the trail association also reported that it had to expand its campgrounds to accommodate the crowds. It isn’t clear what impact the added influx of feet and garbage will have on previously pristine natural spaces. The trail may change your life, but you will most certainly change the trail with your presence. 

In Louisiana, the intervention of levees has caused another problem. 

Kolbert explains, “Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land.” By building levees to prevent flooding, we have also prevented the water from depositing the very sediment that forms the land. “Thanks to the intervention of the engineers, there had been no spillover, no havoc, and hence no land-building. The future of southern Louisiana had instead washed out to sea.” 

Natural interventions can have unintentional consequences, but I’m also learning that personal interventions come with similar risks. 

A few weeks ago, the levees in my life broke. A relationship ended horribly.

Today, I feel like I’m standing on the roof of a house, watching the debris float by. 

I shut my mouth because he scared me, and then, he and I stood on increasingly shrinking land, until there was nothing left.

When we protect someone from the consequences of their actions, we build an artificial levee, but without the “spillover” of cause and effect, there can be no growth. When we protect people from their own havoc, the havoc emerges in other ways, often on our front porch. 

Levees are also boundaries, and for too long, I had none. 

At age 37, I’m learning how to set them. I’m trying to reclaim lost land. 

A White Sky Enso. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
A White Sky Enso. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

We make interventions because something has been broken, something needs repair. The problem with interventions is that ultimately, they don’t work, not the way we think they do. The truth is this: we can’t do anything.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the scientists who want to put diamond particles in the sky to cool the earth. There are obviously many concerns with the idea of sending reflective particles into the atmosphere, one among them being that the sky will turn from blue to white. But even if the particles are sent into the air, they’ll work or fail because nature allows it, not because we did it.

The same is true for interventions with people. The family gathers in a room, words are spoken, boundaries are drawn. But even after all this, a person changes because they choose to change, not because everyone else does, and certainly not because someone tells them to.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s exploration of natural interventions in Under a White Sky got me thinking more about the human ones. The A&E television show Intervention is a voyeuristic reality show about families and loved ones who have decided to stage an intervention to stop a loved one’s drug abuse. In episode one of season 11, we are shown beautiful shots of the suburbs, where well-manicured lawns and fancy Home Depot doors provide a façade of normalcy that cloaks unspeakable pain. On one such lawn we meet Christina, a vibrant 21-year old woman who loves her dog, has a “kind heart,” and happens to smoke meth. The camera pans out as Christina does flips in her yard. Later the camera zooms in on a bruise the size of a spatula on her mother’s arm. When Christina takes a hit, she loses her shit.

When asked why she can’t stop doing the drugs, she says “they’re the only thing that gives me hope.” When the intervention takes place, Christina fights it, kicking and screaming. She needs one more hit. Just one more, to make the flight to the rehab center bearable. Police are called in. Christina huddles in her room, bent over, praying for anything but this.

The scene made me sick to my stomach: the palpable pain of the bargaining, the panic of losing your lifeline. Compulsive behavior may take on many objects of its desire: food, drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships. When a person suddenly loses the object of abuse, there’s panic. 

“Heavenly Hurt—it gives us/ We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are” wrote Emily Dickinson. 

A theme runs through many of the interventions. There’s always an enabler, always someone who wants to fix the problem but who also knowingly or unknowingly makes the problem worse. Half of the intervention is to help the person who is abusing, but the second half of the intervention is to help the enabler. In another episode a mother who smoked heroin with her daughter is confronted with the truth in front of her family. She walks out of the room, unable to face it.

And yet, when we protect someone in our lives from consequences, we deprive them of lessons they may need. Consequences can have value. Distortions of thought and action can proliferate like invasive species, when unchecked. Ill-formed thoughts lead to bad choices, which lead to bad actions. Transformation doesn’t come cheap. Someone can’t do it for you. The truth is the only salve. The only way out is through it.

You set the carp free thinking you’ll take out the weeds, but you end up taking out your whole ecosystem. You build levees against everything and find yourself sinking faster into the sea. Sometimes you need to face the fact that you fucked it up. But most importantly, you must stop doing the damage. But I stop here at a precipice. Am I giving advice? And if I am, what will be the consequence of your taking it?

Humans are a species obsessed with transformation. There’s the $11 billion self-improvement industry with its glittery promises of transcendence and self-discovery. We transform our environment. We want to transform each other, to “drive our husbands wild in bed” to “lure in the one.” At the end of the day, the only thing we can transform is ourselves, the only things we can change are our own thoughts.

And yet. Our actions have consequences. Unintended and intended. 

The whole ice sheet in Greenland is melting. And then there’s the pupfish Elizabeth Kolbert describes in Under a White Sky. The wild ones need regular feedings from scientists just to survive in their natural environment, and the ones in captivity need to have the water temperature constantly monitored to ensure that they don’t die.

Kolbert writes, “People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on earth—some twenty-seven million square miles—and indirectly half of what remains.” 

Tonight, I am heartbroken over so many things. I think about diverted rivers, drained wetlands, uprooted bones, and coral reefs turning the color of necrosis and mud. The oceans warm. Dirty water from the suburbs spills into the sea. The Navy’s Red Hill Fuel Storage Tanks have leaked into O’ahu’s groundwater. We are told that the whole water table hasn’t been contaminated, but who knows. I buy bottled water these days just in case. 

Closer to home there’s been talk of expanding the beach in Waikiki. Sea level rise has threatened and compromised the sea wall near the Sheraton hotel. Though it has been acknowledged that retreat from the coast is inevitable, city planners are still considering writing a blank check to build groins along the coastline. Parts of the coral reef will be buried by sand as a result of the groin construction. This might preserve the hotel and current coastline for 50 years at most. Retreat is ultimately the only option.

Kolbert writes about a similar situation in New Orleans in Under a White Sky, “Retreat might make geophysical sense, but politically it was a nonstarter.” 

Retreat is painful and people avoid pain. Whether it’s literal retreat from the sea, or retreating from a relationship, humans are a species that thrives and dies in avoidance.

We deny reality, fail to face the truth. 

We love nature, but we also love our lives, with our cars, our airplanes, our electricity, food, fast fashion.

I was in love, in love with what I wanted to be and didn’t see what was. I didn’t see that retreat was my only option.

Kolbert writes about how the best-intentions can lead to a cascading series of errors that make a problem even worse in Under a White Sky. When we intervene with nature to solve one problem, we may unwittingly cause exponentially more. 

The same may also be true when we intervene with people. The heart is its own ecosystem, mysterious, and interconnected in ways known only to its owner. 

I know only this. This planet on its own, without our intervention, offers us everything we could ever need. If we left it alone, and stopped causing damage, I believe it could heal. It was the same between me and my partner. I didn’t want anything else. I had everything I ever wanted with him, but that life was not everything he wanted, and my presence enabled some awful things.

If you leave a road alone long enough, weeds grow through the cracks. Nature heals the damage we do.

They use electricity to shock and kill the carp these days, and the carp die by the thousands, but city planners won’t close down the canal that diverts the water, giving the carp a potential path to the Great Lakes. They keep building more and more levees in New Orleans, but no one wants to face the fact that the only solution may be retreat. Our most well-intentioned ideas turn to shit. We forget that fertilizer, before it is fertilizer, is just a bunch of crap. 

I’ve been full of shit for too long. I’ve stopped intervening. 

Nature will take care of itself. 

I will take care of myself.  

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

What Cannot Be Said Will Be Wept

It has been said that Sappho wrote “What cannot be said will be wept.”

Like Pablo Neruda, I could write the saddest lines tonight. “Who can say what happens between us and the stars? They give their light, and many years later, we receive it. The city lights bleach the stars, but their lights are there, always part of our glory.” Who can say what happens between two people in love? I gave him my love, and many years from now, perhaps he will receive it. I no longer love him as I loved him, but I love him, and that love travels down into his darkness tonight, where many years from now, it might someday find his heart. I have not lost love, though I have lost my love for him. Love’s fullness is like the moon, always there, even when shadowed. I have not lost my love.

What cannot be said will be wept.

What Cannot Be Said Will Be Wept. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
What Cannot Be Said Will Be Wept. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

I marvel at how one decision can change a landscape. A man decides to dig a canal. He diverts a river and contaminates the sea. A man builds a wall in front of his house, and down the coast, the beach erodes. A man gets angry and shoves his girlfriend onto the couch, grabs her by the sweater and the seams tear at the neck; their lives are changed forever. For years you insinuate that you’ll cut down the tree, and then one day, you bring out the saw and slice the outer bark. You can change your mind about cutting down the tree, but the evidence of the damage never goes away.“My people’s errors have become the features of my country,” writes Wendell Berry in “A Native Hill.” 

I cannot look over the landscape of Waikiki, the place I call home, without seeing errors written in water. There is the error of the Ala Wai Canal, which was created in haste to drain the taro fields of Waikiki, transforming farmland into resorts. Where the Ala Wai drains into the ocean, the water is contaminated, making the water almost un-swimmable after a rain, the coral reefs invisible in the murk. City planners warn of a hundred-year flood coming from Manoa Valley that could destroy lives and property, but there is little talk of what it would do to the ocean, fish, birds, and plants. Then, there are the errors of the sea walls on Waikiki beach. Ironically, sea walls have the opposite effect of their intended purpose. They cause more erosion than they prevent. Every few years, workers scoop up sand from the bottom of the sea and tractor it upon the beach, but the effort is futile. Waikiki is surrounded by sea walls. All it takes is one good summer swell to sweep most of their labor back into the sea.

The errors I’ve made in my life are also written upon the landscape. I chose not to see certain things in my personal life and paid dearly for choosing not to see. You build a wall around your heart and your self-respect erodes. You divert your pain into writing, but the pain drains into a deeper part of you and you wake up one day to find your soul contaminated with it.

I walk the beach with my dog, heartbroken. Wendell Berry writes that a path is more a habit of mind than a habit of feet, and two lives woven together form a kind of habit, a path through a personal landscape. But now, the paths are gone, the habits thrown onto the floor like a glass cup hurled across the room; the beautiful tea makes the floorboards rot. What cannot be said will be wept. I have lost my love.

Florence Williams, in her stunning new book, Heartbreak, writes that when researchers scan the brains of the heartbroken, their brain activity is “closely related to the parts that fire after receiving a burn or electrical shock.” What about abuse? Would that brain look closer to that of a person drowning, hot with the panic that comes when one is finally out of oxygen and about to pass out?

I walked through Waikiki suffering from my own internal hundred-year flood. Everything murky, contaminated.

In “A Native Hill” Berry writes: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us.” 

Until recently, I thought I knew what was good for me. I assumed that what was good for me would be good for the man I loved. What cannot be said will be wept.

To be responsible for a place means you must get to know it, and care for it. Maybe it’s that way with people, too. There are natural places on this planet so sacred we cannot walk upon them. I think of Kilauea Crater, glowing red with white heat, but untouchable. Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave the mountain to smolder.

What does it mean to love a place above any other? What does it mean to love a person above any other?

I was born in Miami, and spent my childhood in a place called Sweetwater, a land of easy and cheap construction interrupted by canals occasionally inhabited by an alligator that had lost his way from the Everglades. 

I have lost my way.

I’ve moved to another Sweetwater. In the Hawaiian language, Waikiki means “sweet water.” 

To be at home in a place is to set down roots and to feel a responsibility for its well-being, for its people, for its animals, to walk its paths. What does it mean that I love Waikiki more than the expansive skies of Sweetwater, Florida where I grew up? What does it mean that I make my path through the ocean every morning, a pathless place? My own personal answer is that it means I have a responsibility to the place, to the ocean, and to the kind of roots I set down. I have sometimes failed. What cannot be said will be wept. 

To get to know a person or place is to have a responsibility for their well-being. It is not a responsibility I take lightly. It means knowing when my presence is helping or hurting. We are told to appreciate the sea turtles here from a distance, and to look at the coral reefs but never touch them. What cannot be said will be wept.

And so, I sit alone in my little condo in Waikiki, surrounded by its still sweet water. And I think of the expansive skies of my childhood while I stare into the expansive sea. 

Today, there is no “native hill” for much of anything. It is expected that the promising student will leave home to study elsewhere while her ideas permeate cyberspace like a Platonic ideal. Indeed, books don’t need to really go anywhere to find themselves everywhere. The publishing world is no longer located in a glossy office where men sit behind tall desks and make cultural decisions, but it can be found in a desktop, or even on Instagram, where a single click can publish a piece and make it “go viral.” And while I celebrate the democratization of literature, I also worry about the noise. You don’t need to leave home anymore to go to the workshop.

So much has changed since Wendell Berry wrote “A Native Hill.” Berry writes about the difficulty and conflicted emotions he felt when he chose to leave behind the literary world in New York City. A writer leaving behind New York City today is less likely to feel such conflicting emotions. I know this from personal experience. I lived in New York City before I moved to Hawai’i. The literary world is no longer located in just New York, or Paris, or anywhere, for that matter. It has transcended time and space to find its home online where authors engage in an ongoing virtual conversation. The meeting places, like book shops and libraries are all but extinct, replaced with the Cheops of a well-lit warehouse or data center, where every piece of literature ever created is available instantly or almost-instantly at the push of a button. Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill” was written in a time when social activity of any kind was dependent on place. I have left so many places and people in my short life that leaving has become something of a habit. 

A writer can live anywhere without worrying about intellectual death. It is easier than ever to take your laptop to the Caribbean and write your thesis or book over a sunset and mojito. As the planet boils and burns away, the intellectuals of the metropolis have come to long more for the realities of the natural world. We have come to understand the price of the metropolis and the value of woods, rivers, and oceans. But we bring our digital shackles with us wherever we go.

Wendell Berry writes that European settlers were a placeless people because no place in America was truly home. Now, we are more placeless than ever, attached to our digital devices, no native hill on which to stand. We are responsible for no place, and every place suffers as a result. In a world where we can be anywhere and still do our work, and access the wealth of human intellectual history from any place, what does it mean to “love one place so much more than any other?” What does it mean, to live as Berry did, sending his “mind into the place like a live root system?” 

We live today as if everything can be replaced. Tired of this home? Move to another. Tired of this relationship? Go online and find another. But there is no other home but the home we make ourselves.

Where is my “somewhere” that I want to protect? Where is my “native hill?” 

Wendell Berry makes the distinction between a path and a road. Berry writes, “A path is a little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity… A road on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscapes… Its form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety.” A road’s goal is to serve “commerce and expensive pleasure” while a path arises out of intimate knowledge. To know a place is more than just knowledge. It is responsibility.

I paddle into the sea and make a path that leaves no trail. It is appropriate. I am a writer. I leave my marks elsewhere. 

In “A Native Hill” Berry writes that in making a path through a landscape, “there is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways.” We go from being strangers to knowing one another. A strange landscape might someday be home. Those we think we know may someday be estranged from us. What we think we know we don’t always know. What cannot be said will be wept.

I have been displaced from myself, but I am still here. My native hill is here, in Waikiki, in a place called sweet water. Everything and everyone I have ever loved is with me and close. Everything breaks, but everything heals. The world is sacred beyond my understanding. My native hill is caring for me, just as I have cared for it. What cannot be said will be wept.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.