Get Lit Rising 1. LOSER
MAIA MAYOR, 17
Sometimes I think about my past failures and I get sad, no matter how inconsequential they seem to be. That time I forgot the lines to a poem onstage and had to read it from my cell phone. That time when no one clapped. Those other times when no one clapped. That time I poured my heart out and then noticed a student sleeping at her desk. That time I made a collect call out of curiosity and had to pay my friend’s mother fifty cents. That time I failed Spanish. That time I failed Korean. That time I failed French. That time I failed ASL.
It is a deep hurt, igniting several other pangs of regret and remorse and embarrassment that come rushing up all at once. And it scares me to know that I am capable of feeling so much all at once. My heart drops into the pit of my stomach when I remember the time I called my mother “ugly.” Fifteen years later and I still want to cry. My heart beats faster and my chest feels like it’s going to implode. My throat closes up. Every part of my body hurts. I think about the time she got me a present I didn’t like and how I left it in the backseat of her car despite her constant reminders. I find it hard to breathe. I can feel it up in my throat and squirming in my bottom jaw. My stomach hurts. I am dizzy. But I wrap my arms around my chest and suppress anything trying to jump out.
When my grandma talks about wanting to die, when she confronts me with the brutal reality of the inevitable, I don’t react. I am unaffected. I am buttering my toast. I am detached because it’s the only way to keep my spine straight and my feet on the floor. I will not want to go to her funeral. I will not want to visit her grave. I will want to stay as far away as possible. Nothing in this world scares me more than the fragility of human life.
I expel pain at insignificant moments. To the dog shelter commercial, you may have my tears. You may have my quivering lip and wobbling shoulders. You may have my broken heart, my sobbing, my short gasps of breath. Because I do not want to cry in my grandma’s absence. Because I am afraid of what will pour out of me. I am afraid of running out of tears and out of breath and out of feeling. I am afraid of being empty. I don’t think my body will be able to handle it. I don’t know how I’ll find the strength to open my eyes and rise to my feet every morning.
I imagine this to be a concentrated version of my entire life. First I feel lost. And then I feel angry and upset with myself and with the world. And every bad thought and feeling that has ever passed through me comes crashing down all at once. And it progressively gets harder to breathe. I have a climactic existential crisis before eventually giving up. I briefly feel relieved. And then nothing at all. And I settle into a comfortable numbness.
At my best, I am dramatic, self-serving, and ruthless. At my worst, I am vacant and underwhelming. The spectrum of my personality is built like a looping roller coaster where everyone, including myself, tends to feel a little nauseated. I am crippled by anxiety and depression; I have been all my life. And I have learned to suffer quietly, letting opportunities pass me by on every occasion because I don’t feel capable. This is how I live my life . . . with everything just out of arm’s reach. This is why I’ve been kicked out of school seven times. This is why I still can’t drive. This is why my group of friends could be counted on an amputated hand. This is why my answer will always be no. I am perpetually on the cusp of greatness. But emotional instability and a deep-rooted fear of failure keep me tiptoeing through life like every task is an intricate puzzle made of broken glass. To be perfectly honest, I am the most terrified person you will ever meet. I am afraid of vulnerability, of inadequacy, of embarrassment, of imperfection, of death. Of life, for that matter. But I’m figuring it out one step at a time.
My first attempt at facing my fears started at the hands of my mother, whose love of language inspired me to express myself in ways I’d never imagined. My mother is Japanese, and when I was little, she used to teach me words and phrases, but one I still think of often is kintsukuroi, meaning “to repair with gold.” It’s the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. That is essentially what the Leonard Cohen poem (in the form of song lyrics) from “Anthem” means to me.
My response poem, “Perfect,” came from a dark place. From desperation and uncontrollable rage. And while I may never bloom into a self-assured optimist, the experience of connecting to Cohen’s words, responding with my own, and performing them live was transformative to say the least. (And far more cathartic than the empty promises of Prozac.) I spent years striving for unattainable ideas of perfection, but I view this poem as a profoundly important reminder that perfection is beside the point. We are all inherently flawed. There will always be a crack in everything. But that is where you find the light. That is where the raw honesty and the beauty of vulnerability lie.
From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Is there something wrong with you,
a loose screw or two that ruined your ability to function?
Why are you always so tired?
Your life is uninspired and small; all you do is sprawl on the couch
with outstretched limbs like a sloth in slow motion.
Where is your devotion to succeed, Maia?
Did it drift out your window with the smoke from your weed?
Do I need to force-feed you discipline ’til you finally concede?
I cook and I clean and I don’t stop ’til the soles of my feet bleed.
But I’m fine.
Be perfect, Maia.
Be perfect like me.
Stop wearing those god-awful ripped pants
and that lipstick like a whore with Double-D implants.
You only get one chance.
Stop acting like a cat with nine lives left.
Stop committing yourself to songs and stories and spoken slam bullshit
in a world where degrees and PhDs impede the need for poetry.
And stop chewing on your nails.
No wonder you’ve never attracted any males.
Why do you do that? Do you like the taste? Are they sweet?
You can’t eat sweets, Maia.
You’re ruining your teeth like you’re ruining your life.
My teeth are perfect. Clean and pristine.
They gleam like the golden halo above my perfectly conditioned head.
I don’t need sugar, Maia.
I am above sugar.
Why are you down here, Maia?
Why are you down here when you need to be up here?
Up here with the ones who have a promising career
who listen when information goes in one ear
and doesn’t come out the other.
You’ll never be up here, Maia.
You act as if the act of listening is a crime
or you would have heard me the six hundred and sixty-sixth time
I told you to STOP CHEWING ON YOUR NAILS.
Stop chewing on your nails like a goddamn piece of trash.
You can’t be trash, Maia.
You have to be perfect.
Be perfect like me.
I get up at 5 in the morning every day.
I start my day the same way worried that I’ll collapse
as my bones start to decay from cleaning up your scraps.
Why is your room such a mess?
The clothes go in the hamper, Maia.
Not displayed on your bed like your lack of morals.
Not littered on the floor collecting more dust than my withered expectations.
You disregard my rules with stubborn contempt
in a substandard attempt at teenage rebellion.
But you can’t be a rebel, Maia.
You’re not interesting enough.
You need to obey and say “Yes” and “Okay,”
you need to do it with a smile on your less-than-average face.
You need to try harder, Maia.
Make it wider, Maia.
Why don’t you know how to smile?
You disappoint me, Maia.
You never appreciate what I do for you.
You never try to be a winner.
And you never eat your dinner.
You never eat the dinner I consistently provide for you
as I constantly remind you of the life I set aside for you.
That meal doesn’t pay for itself.
I don’t care if it’s ideal, stop telling me how you feel.
You need to eat it.
Eat it all.
Eat it at a reasonable time with a glass of milk.
You need milk, Maia.
You need calcium like you need a catalyst for growth.
You’ll never grow to be tall.
Be tall like me.
I drink my milk, Maia.
Drink your fucking milk.
Be perfect like me.
You need to pay more attention, Maia.
Stop daydreaming, Maia.
Stop staring at the ceiling as if your one redeeming quality lies hidden in the plaster.
You need to organize your life.
Your life is a disaster
just like your room.
Just like your teeth.
Just like your future,
which will soon come to an end if you don’t put down that pen.
You need to stop writing, Maia.
Your life is not a book.
Don’t give me that look, Maia.
I’m just trying to help you.
I’m just trying to love you.
I’m just trying to love you.
You have to let me love you
so that you can be perfect.
Be perfect like me.
1. Have you ever felt like a loser? When?
2. How do you deal with your failures and mistakes?
3. Tell the story of a time you failed and picked yourself up.
4. Do you sabotage yourself by not finishing what you started or by not trying your best?
1. Pick a line, a word, a phrase, or an image from Maia’s poem “Perfect” that made you feel understood or made you feel worse about yourself. Talk back to it. Yell. Convince. Set your timer for ten minutes and keep your hand moving. Write a poem using that line, word, phrase, or image that inspired you.
2. Write about something you haven’t finished and how finishing it might change your life.
Claim your classic.
Classic Poems on Feeling Deeply and Getting Out of Your Own Way
“A Black Sky Hates the Moon,” Rumi
“Agonies are one of my changes of garments . . . ” from “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
“Bluebird,” Charles Bukowski
“Lost,” David Wagoner
“Saturday at the Canal,” Gary Soto
“Stone,” Charles Simic
“The Breeze at Dawn,” Rumi
“The Obligation to Be Happy,” Linda Pastan
“Truth,” Gwendolyn Brooks
“Yellow Glove,” Naomi Shihab Nye