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The Caged Tulip


While gardening yesterday, I came across a vegetational oddity that was both grotesque and poignant. I was weeding the lower tier of our terraced garden, where our radiant tulips are in full apotheosis. However, near one of them, a suet feeder (i.e., a small rectangular cage) somehow had fallen into the garden thickets. Lost in the snow, most likely. And many of the leaves of the particular tulip that was closest to the feeder had sprouted into and through the cage, so that they were packed inside the narrow confines.

I did my best to extract the leaves with a minimum of damage, but my hands were clumsy. It was like extracting a vine through a keyhole. Some I got out, some I didn’t. The tulip lived, but it wasn’t pretty-or rather, one set of its leaves weren’t pretty.

When I was in high school, my main form of writing switched from fiction to poetry. Most of my works of fiction were self-aggrandizing fantasies involving myself and classmates in interplanetary adventures of one sort or another, or based on whatever ideas I could crib from the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (hey, nothing wrong with that!). I would daydream alot and concoct and sometimes write down what I concocted. But it was all escape, and escape wasn’t solving the problems of high school I was having, which were numerous and seemingly insurmountable. Painfully shy, imbued with pretty much no self-confidence, and in an all-male Catholic prep school that was absolutely merciless in its bullying towards those in the first two categories…well, you can do the math. It was absolute hell-I was in the wrong place in the wrong time, and didn’t have enough guts to extricate myself from the situation and go to a school with peers who wouldn’t seek to destroy me every single day. I was stubborn and stuck it out, trapped.

It was in this pressure cooker that I really started to write poetry for the first time in my sophomore year. I honestly don’t know how I got through freshman year without it. This pain directly transferred itself onto the page in a direct relationship. I got out a blank notebook and started addressing my tormentors, the captors of my spirit; address the walls and blockages , to say what I couldn’t say to anyone else. Was the poetry horrible? Oh yeah, of course. It couldn’t have been any different. I had read Yeats, came across a few others in whatever random oratorical speaking event or English class I had stumbled across, and of course song lyrics from New Order, The Replacements and the like. But-and I don’t know if it was any different for anyone else-the lyric mode of address managed to reorient how I saw the world, and allowed me to create hope (I miswrote this as “home”, which works too) when there was none in sight.

Of course, things did get better, slowly and surely, and I started to accrue craft and some measure of experience and confidence. And then, sometime in college, the Rilkean decision to commit my life to writing, come hell or high water. With lots of both since then-not there haven’t been other torments, and other painful and spectacularly bad choices, but I was fighting for my soul in high school.

And I guess when you actually fight for your soul do you come to believe that the soul exists.

In that sense, then, deep down I’m still that same kid-vulnerable, using the sentences at my disposal to try to unlock the cage of my own insecurities and gently extract the leaves. And I do suspect that a lot of us in this particular field (let me know if this is being presumptuous, or not applicable to your situation!), with our own adolescent cauldrons that are only remembered in glimmers, such as right before falling asleep or stumbling upon one of your tormentors on Facebook. But these are our creation myths, the common soil that we have planted our roots in, the lyric of struggle and flowering in the spring sun. I can’t pretend for a second that I’m not who I’ve been.

Sun, April 18 2010 » Fiction, Life Studies, Poetry

3 Responses

  1. Christopher Barzak April 18 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    You know, I really needed this today. I actually did stumble upon a former tormentor’s facebook, and had to look, you know, to assess and see what he had become and if it was any different than he was then, or even if I could muster some other kind of feeling toward or for him than the ones I had in high school. It was really hard to even look at the page, but I made myself do it. It stirred up a lot of icky feelings in me that I’ve tried to put away, for good reasons, but I’m at a place now where I think I can look at some of those things and try to make something from them, because I feel like I’m in a place now where I might actually be able to do that, as opposed to who I was in those years of powerlessness when I wasn’t able to articulate anything about myself in a way that would have ever approached the point of being able to stand up for myself. Writing, for me, became a place where I learned how to do that, and am still learning. I think a struggle for a soul is appropriate terminology.

  2. Alan April 18 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    Glad I could help. :) And you’re right, it’s exceedingly strange, now in my 30s, to stumble upon people with so much negative power on me in the past. In that sense I really feel like a different person, in that looking back on that threat makes it seem like the opposite end of a telescope…they were trying to hurt me because they were hurting themselves, in all likelihood. And coming from a place of smallness. But it’s definitely, definitely odd.

  3. Paul Jessup April 19 2010 @ 8:21 am

    This line made my day

    “And I guess when you actually fight for your soul do you come to believe that the soul exists.”

    You know what’s even worse than going through this? Having two kids, watch them gravitate towards the nerdy and intellectual, and know that they too will have to face that horrid pain in a few years.

    And trying to figure out how to save them from that. No one should have to live through that.

    When we talked after the reading, you said something that changed me in a way. I think you’re right- I’m wondering what I want from my own career now. And I think I’d rather want to work part time still and have the freedom to write crazycoolfun stuff then try and write for a living, and write stuff that just doesn’t love me the way I want it too.

    Lot of fun talking to you and your wife. Hopefully next time your in Erie you can stop by and say hi again.

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