The Equality of Chaos, The Beauty of the Broken

By Alexandra Donovan

My time as the Writer in Residence at Fort Lyon surpassed my every expectation, and as I prepare to leave this place—a place many residents have described to me as “a downright miracle” (OK, they didn’t say “downright”)—I find myself deeply sad and at the same time, newly exhilarated. I feel like I have new eyes, a new lease on life.

Most everyone at Fort Lyon is in some form of recovery, and the more time I spent hearing the stories that led into addictions and life on the streets but also the stories of strength and courage and overcoming, I began to get a real glimpse, for the first time in my life, of the world of recovery. It’s a world where courage and grace meet daily, and though it’s a place I haven’t myself lived, it’s a place I can recognize from afar, to a small degree, from the not-too-distant shore of my own human struggles, and the writing life itself. I stand in awe, and even perhaps jealousy, of the choices the residents and staff here make on a daily basis to create a life that is self-aware, humble, proactive, and other-oriented.

There’s a quote from Father Greg Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles) that I return to often, from his book Tattoos on the Heart: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what [others] have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” The original quote has “the poor” where I have put “others,” but the reality of human pain and tragedy is, we could all be poor. We are all the other. And if there’s one thing you’ll learn over and over again here, it’s that it could just as easily be you here. It could just as easily have been you that suffered a brain injury and subsequent intolerable depression, or a home life of abuse that led you to turn to substances to numb out the pain. It could all, so easily, be any of us. I “knew” that, coming in, but every day I know it more and more in my bones. And every day, I know too that the grace of our “higher power,” whatever that is for each of us, is an offer that is available daily, though some days we may have to look harder or wait more patiently for it. As best I can understand, the theology of recovery is something like this: the underlying illness doesn’t go away, but neither does the grace. You can get “off the rails,” but you can’t go back to square one. Nothing is lost. Every day is a chance for courage and grace, or for failure and even more grace to meet you on the other end. There’s a freedom in knowing that perfection is unattainable, and just as much in knowing that progress is possible, and only one step away.

In our community meetings, Fort Lyon’s Program Director James Ginsburg would often end his inspirational pep talk by telling the newcomers: “Stick around, and don’t leave until the miracle happens.” And the miracle will—again and again.

I got to witness small and big miracles almost every day in our creative writing classes. Students wrote poems and prose pieces about addiction, grief, abuse, betrayal, guilt, shame, unfinished business, forgiveness, freedom, hope, despair, beauty, chaos, and glimpses of meaning. They wrote about topics like “the worst day,” “what no one tells you until it is too late,” the “photograph in their pocket,” and the hero’s journey. They experimented with erasures, pantoums, rhyme, blank verse, fiction, and sonnets. Every class had its own kind of magic, and even—often especially—when we got “off topic” and changed our trajectory, when we trusted the thing that was ruminating and emerging in that shared space, the miracle happened. Grace appeared in the form of small revelations, creative surprises, moments of awe, openings for grief.

One of the most powerful exercises we did together was what is known as the “Exquisite Corpse” exercise. Exquisite Corpse is actually an old parlor game started by the French Surrealists in the 1920s in which party guests would add to one another’s writing or drawings in such a way that no one could see the final picture until the final reveal. I’m not a huge fan of the name, though I understand the idea of “piecing together a body from various bodies,” a la Frankenstein. But perhaps a better name for our purposes would be: Collective Phoenix. Together, as we submitted pieces of individual poems (themselves an effort to piece back together fragments of stories, memories, injuries, and moments of grace) and put them together piecemeal, we watched as a collective wisdom, built from each person’s unique story yet controlled by no one person, began to arise. Like Fort Lyon, the beauty of what emerged was somehow bigger than the sum of its parts, and at the same time, required each and every voice.

The first time we did this, students had written their own poetic responses to Mary Oliver’s timeless poem, “Wild Geese,” which starts with the famous line: “You do not have to be good.” After students had written their own poems, I asked them to pick two or three of their favorite lines from their poems and put them on individual index cards. Then one by one, in no particular order, they taped them up to the whiteboard. Part of the beauty in this exercise is that we are submitted to what emerges. Students didn’t stand around re-arranging the pieces; we just slapped our index cards onto the board one by one and then took a step back to read what had been “written.” This was the result:

Raise Your Face

Raise your face.

You do not have to be afraid.

You do not have to dumb yourself down

to befriend the world.

Everything will be OK.

The universe befriends you

for your mind, your heart, and your spirit.

You do not have to hold yourself

like a broken bird.

You do not have to be skinny, or walk,

or walk a runway with red lips

to befriend the world.

Let them love you.

Be found at last.

Let yourself go soft.

Let yourself become slow.

Feel the gentle winds blast.

You do not have to be afraid.

You don’t have to be confused, all alone.

You can be yourself.

The world does not know perfection;

the universe has created nothing but.

You do not have to get there quickly;

you only have to go as far as today.

 

As we read our collective piece out loud, experiencing it together, a collective shiver went through the room. “Wow” was all we could say.

“Wow” is what I think when I think of all the faces and stories I have met at Fort Lyon, as I see the collective beauty and the shared wisdom in this place. Wow.

None of us has all of the answers, and the beauty of this exercise (and of life) is that no one has to. Together, we create an experience of beauty, of trying, of a search for meaning. There is a mystery to it. We show up and put in our bit. The grace is the glue. And after all, our minds are meaning makers. Since the dawn of humanity we have seen shapes in the stars, given stories to disparate points of light. This tendency to find pattern and meaning is part of our resilience and our strength—our ability to put together the shining fragments of our lives and to keep building out of the rubble. It doesn’t mean the meaning isn’t there; it means we are built for meaning.

Students liked this exercise so much that they asked to do it again at the end of the next class. In this class, we had written about objects in the natural world, and again, students picked a couple of their favorite lines from their poems and wrote them on index cards. Here is what emerged:

Behind Your Splintered Shade

You are one but grow on another.

I had no clue what was at stake

the day I said goodbye to you.

Oh how I wish you were bigger,

that you could support the tired animal of my body.

To love after love.

High on a mountain range

formed with fire and molten stone.

Never ending

deep in the core.

Because of love,

eternity.

Your light is so blinding bright

behind your splintered shade.

I could have relaxed into you for an eternity.

All I can do is witness what it looks like.

I wish I could be sheltered

with spikes from sad thoughts within my mind.

At the end of our time together, I wanted to do something to honor this sense of a fragmented whole, this idea that we are somehow bigger when we are together. Every Friday Night during my time at the Fort, the students helped me put on “Friday Night Open Mic,” which was a huge hit (and which, rumor has it, students plan to continue on into the rest of the year). For the final open mic night, I put together what’s known as a “cento” poem, a poem fashioned from bits and pieces of the writings of others. It’s in some ways like an “exquisite corpse,” though one person is in charge of curating the flow of the work. In retrospect, I think I needed a tangible, laborious way to work through my own grief in leaving behind the beautiful people and stories I had come across during my stay. My own words didn’t feel like enough. I wanted, more than anything, to honor the voices of my students, to hand their words back to them in a way that they could receive anew, like a familiar friend in new clothing. On the night before our final open mic night, I took every piece of student writing that had been handed in to me, made a copy, cut out every line, and arranged cut, rearranged, and glued until I had something that felt right.

Here are a few excerpts from the bigger piece:

Soul survivor

Gliding through the sky

You light is so blinding

Bright

A jet in the sky,

A star in heaven

The fact          you

See, I had

Allowed the vail of myself

To be lifted

Like stardust in the night black & blue

The song was indescribable

This new metamorphosis I am now under

Brilliance that radiates, multiplying my own light

The courage to reignite the fires

She alone believe in the treasure she saw within             her

 

Such a

Menu of different paths

I have adopted

My ways

As my own

Come with me

On the new road

Of you

Using the fractures to enumerate the inner glow so that it may show

Eternity

Like the Phoenix

Hold fast

Be found at last

 

Let them love you

For your mind, your heart,

And your spirit

I love you for an

Eternity

And

Because of love

I travel on...

 

And because of love, I travel on. But I hope, because of love, to be back again very soon. The community of Fort Lyon is a place, a community, an opportunity that is ultimately impossible to describe. At the end of the day, words fall short. They always do.

 

Alexandra Donovan is one of our 2017-2018 Fort Lyon Writers-in-Residence. She grew up in the Los Angeles area and lives in Azusa, California, with her husband Mark and her cat Mickey. She received her BA in religious studies from Stanford University and her MFA in poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches poetry and “writing to heal” workshops and gives talks and retreats for community centers, churches, nonprofits, and the Motherless Daughters San Gabriel Valley Chapter (which she co-founded). She works in the office of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pomona and volunteers with the Episcopal Church’s PRISM ministry to the incarcerated in Los Angeles. She has had her writing published in Presence and Listen (publications of Spiritual Directors International), Pirene's Fountain (Glass Lyre Press), Selfish Zine, Ruminate, and others. She loves camping, hiking, painting, and being with people, and she can't wait to get to know the community at Fort Lyon.