Nobody heard him, the dead man,But still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought And not waving but drowning.
I remember it so clearly: the classroom hidden in the corner of the humanities building, the nervous excitement of not just the first day of school - but the first day of college (as a high school junior), the burning knowledge that I had finally found my place to soar. Because I had taken an advanced English class as a sophomore, I was able to bypass the basic "college writing" course and dove heart-first into "Intermediate Writing," a course designed to both discuss contemporary and classic works and to cultivate our own writing skills. I could not have know, that first day of class, that the professor would become my undergraduate adviser, that most of my classmates would never take another English class, and that I would face all of my biggest classroom fears in the first week; none of this mattered.
All that mattered were the words.
A textbook full of words, of poems and essays and short stories and plays. Filled with commentary, with questions, with inquiry. And in it, a whole world of writing I hadn't yet encountered. The kinds of writing they don't put in middle school libraries: Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Annie Dillard, Mary Woolstonecraft. And Stevie Smith.
It was this poem that finally broke me. It's three-stanza simplicity, the raw truth of an experience I knew all too well but had never shared. Somehow, 40+ years earlier, this woman had written my heart.
Poor chap, he always loved larking And now he’s dead It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always (Still the dead one lay moaning)
It was in this class that I first read the poetry of Margaret Atwood, falling in love with her simple words that held such rich meaning. Such as this poem, "You Fit Into Me" --
You fit into me like a hook into an eye
a fish hook an open eye
It was in this class I had my first meaningful conversations about Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." But it was Stevie Smith I returned to, again and again. It was her poem that ultimately gave me the courage to tell my own story, to ask for help, to share the cauldron of pain burning in my heart.
I was much too far out all my life And not waving but drowning.
not waving, but drowning.
I started that writing class eleven years ago. I had dreams and plans mapped out: undergraduate degree, MFA in creative non-fiction, academic post at Smith teaching creative writing and social commentary while doing post-grad research on critical voices in the second and third waves of the feminist movement and their impact on gender equality, legislation, and social change. Tenured at 30. Sabbatical every seven years to travel and do international research. A wife, two kids, a brick craftsman-style house with chickens in the backyard.
Little did I know how different my life would be eleven years later. I couldn't have known how true Stevie Smith's words would remain all this time. I had no idea the struggle would be ongoing, that I would be facing these same fucking demons every single day. Drowning, every single day. When I was sixteen and fresh-faced walking into that classroom, I couldn't have pictured me at 27, struggling, fighting, treading water. I believed I was invincible.
And that was okay.
I sat in the back corner of the room, not because I wanted to be distant from the professor or the class. I sat in the back corner of the room because, for all I ached to be a part of the action, for all my yearning to devour knowledge and to engage in meaningful conversation about the works, I believed I was invisible. If I sat in the back corner of the room, it didn't matter how much I knew or what I thought of the reading, because I could hide. I believed I was already hidden, even though I simultaneously believed I could do anything.
Eleven years later, I still sit in the back of the classroom. I still don't fit in, with the popular kids or the popular adults, the dreamers the schemers the planners the do-ers. I still hide. I still believe that I am invisible. I still know I am invincible, or I wouldn't have made it this far. I am still drowning, every day. Every single day.
And I still know that the ones sitting in the classroom with me, the ones I see on the sidewalk and in the cafe and at the bar and while I'm waitressing, they still don't see me. They still walk away. They still know that I am invisible.
But in this tiny corner of the internets, where the virtual world has brought me some of the wisest, kindest, and most brilliant women I will ever know (even if I never get to hug their beautiful selves), in this tiny corner that is surfacing from so much drowning ...
I will be seen.
Today is a new beginning. Today is a hard lesson in truth-telling. Today is windy and cold and brilliantly bright between pale grey clouds. Today is transformation, evolution, parthenogenesis. Today is revolution. Today is birth and death and rebirth and a million tiny deaths all in one cycle of inhale ... exhale ...
There is always someone with the gift of seeing the invisible. There is always someone who witnesses, even we do not know they are aware. Today my witness is Joni Mitchell, the purple geode on my desk, the mother sparrow nesting outside my window. Today my witness is a bowl of fresh guacamole, a chai latte, a circle of women I unexpectedly convened over a clove cigarette.
Today my witness is my journal, and the woman who writes in it. The one who isn't afraid of sitting in the back corner of the classroom anymore, the one who wears skirts over jeans and dreams of a pair of black knee boots. The woman who wears her hair down after 26 years of wearing it pulled up in a bun. The one who paints her fingernails the color of cheap malbec and doesn't care that they chip after two days.
We are all drowning, not waving.
We are all looking to be seen, to be witnessed in that way that touches the place deeper than words. We are all hoping for the moment our eyes meet another's and pause, reaching into the center where there is no time, there is no wrong or right, there is only soul. We do not know when or where or with whom it will happen. And so we keep wandering, imagining ourselves invisible, waiting for the moment. Begging for the moment.
Give a piece of fruit to a homeless man. Buy an extra latte for the woman shivering down the street. Bring your neighbor some soup. Call a family member you haven't talked to in years. Hug your children. Kiss your lover. Stop, just for a moment, and inhale. Wherever you are. Let everything else go and just be.
You are not invisible.
You are magic and light and power and truth and the greatest story ever told. You are soft and spice and vibrant and cashmere and laughter. You are your favorite song, a new dance move, the first quiet snow to fall. You are ocean waves. You are a waterfall.
You are every single thing you have ever dreamed or wanted or desired or ached or believed or not believed. You are possibility in every single moment. You are perpetual re-birth.
You are the smell of an October bonfire, the heady depth of burning leaves and hardwood flames.
You are drowning, just like us all. And when you can no longer wave, and your head slips below the cool break of the water, you will open your eyes and see that all of us are beneath the surface too. We are all "not waving but drowning."
Together, we will take our hands as women and warriors and Amazons and witches and priestesses and soul-healers and magic-makers, and we will rise.