The only way to be creative is to try everything. We learn by making mistakes. We must have the courage to start all over again after each failure. Only then do we really absorb, really start to know. Alexey Brodovitch
It wasn’t my finest five minutes. Believe me, I admit it, and I intend to make a full confession later in this essay. But first, let me fill you in. There’s a backstory to be had. And it begins with the ringing in of this new year. From the first wee hours and days of 2019, I’ve felt it, a call inward to clean up shop, to release any inner clutter that keeps me from being as authentic, as connected to the almighty source of creation as possible. I’ve said it aloud, over and over. It is not a time for pretense and masks and people-pleasing antics. “Step fully into your power,” I remind myself as I move through my days. And how do I even know what that means, to step fully into my power? I suspect that the better I feel, the more alive and vibrant and openhearted, the more in alignment with the words I speak, the actions I take, the more aware of synchronicities and moments that feel magical, the more fun I am having — I suspect that it is then that I am fully in my power, the big power, I mean, the power that connects me to the divine.
And I’ve been doing okay with it all, actually more than okay, meeting the inner clutter eye-to-eye, greeting the old dusty stuff with a sense of enthusiasm. “It’s time for you to go!” I’ve been exclaiming, with a cheerfulness in my voice. “Make room for more light!” I’ve been adding. And I’ve been sharing this enthusiasm for inner house-cleaning and authentic-living with my buddies, including Marty, my poet friend who I have known since we were in grad school together in the early nineties. Marty, Upper Michigan’s Poet Laureate, has been facilitating a monthly poetry workshop at Joy Center for nearly two years now, a wonderful evening of Marty’s stellar poetry selections and prompts, of writing and sharing, an evening that usually includes a circle of people who travel to Joy Center from all over Marquette County and sometimes beyond. Not in February, however. It was one of Upper Michigan’s many blustery blizzardy nights and it was just Marty and me in the circle that evening. And in between the poems, the prompts, the writings and sharings, we chatted about this topic of authenticity. We both had just watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers, and Marty had seen the Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway, the television version of Bruce Springsteen’s raw and real Broadway show. By evening’s end, we not only had written three poems mingling music with words; we also had concluded that Mr. Rogers and Bruce Springsteen were mentors for us, providing a template for living from the inside out. They weren’t pulled by outside forces, we decided. They were brave, and, if they could do it, we could too. And then we made a friend date, to carpool together the next Thursday, to an open mic night at the cafe/store/gathering place Preserve.
I want to tell you that I don’t feel the urge to attend many open mic nights outside of Joy Center, that Joy Center usually satisfies that need for me, but there was something about this particular event, the one at Preserve, the one that would most likely be filled with a younger crowd, that pulled at my inner strings. It felt right to me. And I also want to tell you that I didn’t feel particularly nervous about this gathering, didn’t sense I would have to call on the bravery I so admired in Mr. Rogers and Springsteen. After all, my poems were polished, the ones I would share from a published book, and I had experience, years of experience reading and speaking in front of groups at Joy Center. If anything, I was thinking that I would share the wisdom of my sixty-plus years with these twenty-somethings.
It was a busy one for me, the day of the poetry reading, with back-to-back-to-back commitments, and plenty of chai to keep me going. And that might be what brought on my first tinge of caring what people might think. By late afternoon, I noticed my hands were shaking, a case of caffiene-overload. What if this crowd of millennial poets thought I was nervous? I breathed that thought aside, gave my poems a once over, then drove over to Marty’s to pick him up. By now, it was dark and foggy and it was misting out and I wasn’t doing a very good job talking with my travel companion as I navigated a road that was hard to see. I think, if I’m honest with you, there was a combo effect going on with the shaky hands by the time we arrived at Preserve, caffeine plus nerves. I wasn’t grounded; I could tell. I tried my hardest to breathe deeply, to smile a genuine smile as I placed my name on the sign-up sheet, but all I could think about was my shaky hands. And then things got worse. I noticed a microphone. It truly was an open mic. We don’t use a mic at Joy Center — I don’t know how to use a mic. And then people started reading, their genuine authentic poems, and I relaxed a bit, placed one shaky hand on top of the other, tried to listen with my heart and I truly thought it was working, thought I’d be okay. And that brings me to my five minutes, the allotted time for each poet.
It was my turn, and up I went, shaky hands and all. And that’s when I noticed that the lights were dim, really dim, and there was no stool to sit on, and that’s how I always do it. I sit down and tuck my legs underneath me and I breathe and then I begin. Instead, I found myself standing there with the mic in my face and the laryngitis that was just about gone back full force and the words of my polished poems in my published book a blur on the dimly-lit page. Mr. Rogers always started his television show by singing his song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . ” as he he slipped into his comfortable homemade sweater and sneakers. On the documentary, he is shown doing the thing he does every day, finding the zipper on that sweater and giving it a zippy-zip as he sings his zippy song. Except this day, it doesn’t zip, on the first try, on the second try. And Mr. Rogers, he isn’t fazed. He just looks at his television audience and say, “I’ll try again later,” and moves onto his sneakers. That’s bravery for you; that’s being present. And that’s not what I did. After Marty found the flashlight on his phone and gave it to me to hold with my shaky hand, I plunged in, started reading without a breath, held my breath throughout, I think, raced through the poems with a croaky voice, a shaky hand, and sixty-year-old eyes. I jumped ship, wasn’t present at all. And maybe that is what it takes to be authentic — to stay present, no matter what, shaky hands, dim light, faulty zipper and all. I witnessed this kind of presence in the college students. Their words often were fierce and brave, but it was their presence that moved me. Like Mr. Rogers, they inhabited their bodies, inhabited their five minutes. I was both humbled and inspired.
And later, it was shame, embarrassment, self-judgement that reared up from the depths to be de-cluttered. But I’m happy to tell you that this inner house-cleaning didn’t take long. I found myself laughing. It wasn’t my finest five minutes, for sure. But it was kind of funny and I didn’t melt. And I didn’t slither back to my seat either. And next month, on the second Thursday, I’ll be back, back in the saddle, back at Preserve for open mic. And I intend to haul up a stool, sit with my knees tucked beneath me, intend to bring my backpacker headlamp so I can see the words on the page of whatever feels good to me that night — polished or unpolished, who cares!!!!. And I plan to breathe, to connect with the moment. And who knows what the moment will bring, a smooth-sailing performance, or something choppy. It doesn’t matter, because the next time, I plan to be present to enjoy it.