Image by Volkan Olmez/Unsplash
I thought that writing an essay for a themed literary magazine on the theme of “shame” was going to be a piece of cake. I was excited when I read this call for submissions; I thought I would write something easily, in the space of an afternoon. I had a whole truckload of images, anecdotes and memories ready to stitch together on the topic. I’d start with one of my adoptive mother’s favorite phrases: “Shame, shame,” the way she said it in a lilting, almost singsongy voice, accompanied by the hand gesture of two index fingers rubbing perpendicularly, as if they were sticks starting a campfire. She had used this most recently on our blind, eleven year old Havanese when a bowl of kibble ended up scattered on the kitchen floor.
I’d continue with the way she said “Shame on you” constantly when I was growing up. It was on me, heaped upon me. There was also the more direct,“You should be ashamed of yourself.” Of my self. The shame of my existence. That was a big one. I’d then go into my birth mother’s other, multiple shames and how they seeped into my embryonic cells: the shame of her family’s internment during World War II, then of being the only Asian Americans in a little Dutch town in the Midwest. Following this, the shame of an extramarital affair, a secret pregnancy, a child nobody knew about. So much shame, an infinite well of material. It seemed as if this essay would practically write itself.
I started writing. The beginning wasn’t so bad, but then I got four pages into it and it seemed to fizzle into nothing, like a car sputtering on its last drops of gas. I didn’t understand. This was the topic of my life! I was deflated.
Then there was the added pressure of a pressing deadline for my writing group. After months, my turn to share pages had come up, and here I was, nearing midnight on the due date, with nothing but a measly, struggling four unfinished pages.
Before long, I was paralyzed. I began to feel shame for not even being able to do this, to write about the most familiar theme of all. I was going to have to admit defeat, and send off my sorry little unfinished draft, and ask for support and mercy. As I sweated over my keyboard, writing a pathetic and apologetic cover email, the list of things I felt ashamed of, but was unable to craft into anything useful, grew. It sprouted branches and roots and climbed the walls of my writing room. It permeated the air I was breathing.
Some things on the list: I’m ashamed of starting but not finishing any of my books-in-eternal-progress (memoir, two novels, short story collection, poetry collection). I’m ashamed to call myself a writer. I haven’t published anything new recently. I’m ashamed of offering writing classes that for one reason or another don’t fill to capacity. I have a revision class coming up this Saturday at the Grotto. I don’t have the minimum number of students. Should I cancel? Or should I continue with the small class, and feel ashamed in front of the students when they see I have such a small turnout? I don’t want to let them down but it feels embarrassing to run a class with a tiny handful of students.
I’m ashamed that I built an online writing online course and then charged too much and then hardly anyone signed up. (note: I later made the decision to cut the price, shorten the course and make it the fun, open experiment that it is) I’m ashamed for being so scattered and not focusing on one thing. If I just did one thing – physical therapy, teaching, writing – I would probably be better at that one thing – but instead, I scatter my energy and focus and I’m afraid that it all comes out half assed.
I’m ashamed that I’m leading a session at the Fitblogging conference in two weeks, and I’m not very fit and I haven’t been blogging at FoodFoodBodyBody in months. I am confused about this because I used to love blogging. I lived for blogging. It gave me so much energy. But since my injury and this past year of physical pain and anxiety, I haven’t blogged. I remember years ago, somebody tweeting “If a fitness blogger stops blogging, it means they aren’t fit anymore.” Those words burn in my mind. At the time, I thought, that will never be me. I will blog forever. I will be fit forever. And then first my hip and then my cervical spine and then my foot all collapsed. Things change. I should know this. But it feels so shameful to go to this conference of fitness bloggers when I don’t feel like one of them anymore.
I am ashamed of the hundreds of emails that sit in my computer, emitting a radioactive glow. I am ashamed of my unfolded laundry, the pajamas on the bathroom floor, the pastries that I ate this weekend when I had sworn to eat Paleo. I am ashamed of my perpetually cluttered office, of the time that I don’t spend at the Grotto, and at the time that I do spend there but don’t write (enough). Many days, I’m ashamed of every fucking moment of my day.
I laugh at myself. Me, who thought it would be so easy to write about shame.
Last night I wrote to my friend. I said, I need a retreat. She said, “This is the beginning of summer writing right now.This is your retreat in your life this summer now. A 20 minute retreat. Whatever you do, don’t not write.”
Don’t not write. So I’m writing. It helps. It helps to wade through the shame, waist deep. The writing helped to bump me out of my paralysis, to loosen things up. It’s scary to put these embarrassing, mortifying things out in the world, but holding them in the dark is what makes them grow.