Seismic Shifts

Since I last posted, the promised “moving poem” has been completed, revised, almost completely rewritten, and revised some more. Turns out summing up the transitional history of a life is trickier than it sounds! I could probably go on editing forever, but at some point one must just call a thing finished, so here it is. As the piece itself is rather long, I won’t preface it with much except to say:

1) I’m extremely grateful to have been able to call such diverse communities (San Francisco; western Massachusetts; Jackson, Mississippi; and the greater Los Angeles area) home for seasons of various lengths, and I wouldn’t trade my meandering road for an interstate to any destination (which is not to say there aren’t ever days when such an exchange, if offered, would be tempting).

2) The poem is “set” just prior to my most recent move, and while I don’t yet know my newest place of residence well enough to have gotten over all the anxiety surrounding this latest transition, I am beginning to find pockets of this vast and complex metro area that feel “homelike” to me, and I trust that a deeper settling will come with time.

3) I started work on this before the Bay Area experienced a series of earthquakes in the 3.8 range–while I don’t believe I had anything to do with that, let me take this opportunity to apologize, just in case.

Seismic Shifts

California born and raised
as I am,
I really ought to be accustomed
to the way life can change
in an instant
as foundations lurch beneath our feet,
the world sways all around us,
and—when the dust settles—
some things long taken for granted
are gone
while others, though still standing,
are changed forever.

Truth be told, the temblor now beginning
likely won’t register more
than a 3.8 or so
on the relocation scale,
for what do a mere 400 miles along I-5
(or the 5, depending at which end
one begins the journey)
signify, really—
especially when compared
to those displacements
which have come before?

Unlike Dorothy, I began in Oz,
growing up in a Technicolor world
in which diversity and eccentricity
were not only accepted
but celebrated.

Leaving the colorful confines
for an education in New England,
I soon learned that an ivory tower’s sepia tones
do little to soften
the common pains of humanity:
deception, betrayal,
loss, death,
and the ever-dreaded fear of failure—
for tragically, to some,
not even a U.S. News and World Report
seal of approval
can provide the confidence required
to face life after graduation.

From there, a tectonic disturbance
of perplexing proportions
thrust me deep within the bastions of the Bible Belt,
where life still largely unfolds
in black and white.
There fellowship with others who refused
to stay within the lines of color
provided a sketch of heaven
here on earth—
and the generosity and grace
extended by one such friend
as she lay destitute and dying
radically redefined
notions of wealth and blessing,
even as the baleful glares
of anachronistic antagonists
who had not yet discovered
that beauty may be found in shades of gray
spoke to a poverty of spirit
that still shakes me to my core.

And then…
a click of the heels,
a dream of home,
and I find myself once more
in my beloved, rainbow-hued
City by the Bay.

But only for a moment,
for now I propose to step behind the curtain
trading one fault-line for another
as I set my sights on Hollywood,
where the boundaries between reality
and projection
are often blurred—
where color can be corrected
and natural imperfection airbrushed away.

Is that what causes my heart to quake within me—
the conviction that my innate inability to conform
to traditional standards of beauty,
and success
will place me on shaky ground
in this image-conscious town?

Is it the fear of falling short
in the pursuit of a dream widely acknowledged
to be virtually impossible to attain—
or the anxiety that, like so many before me,
I’ll lose my grip on the things that matter most
while grasping at the stuff that glitters,
but is not gold?

Or is what I feel simply the perennial foreboding,
common to those who dwell in quake-prone zones,
that the next shift could be “the big one”:
that jolt of such exponentially increasing magnitude
that, retrofitting notwithstanding,
whole lives are wrenched free
from any semblance of moorings
and all pretense of stability?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers



Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the major transitions I’ve made in the past couple of years. First I returned to my hometown of San Francisco after living long enough in Jackson, Mississippi, to call that city home as well. More recently, I’ve relocated to the Los Angeles area (to study screenwriting, as so many who relocate to Los Angeles do). It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that these are three very different cities, and that the adjustments related to the moves have been substantial! For several months now, I’ve been working (sporadically) on a poem that reflects on some of the effects of these and previous “bounces,” but that piece has been stubbornly refusing to be quite right. I hope to complete and share it soon.

In the meantime, I’ve revisited something I wrote a year or so ago, about halfway through my “sabbatical” in San Francisco. This piece focuses on one particular effect that I’ve more than once felt in the wake of change: denial (not refusing to believe that things have changed, but refusing to feel the pain and loss associated with the alteration–because even when change is desired and good, as these recent transitions have been for me, there is almost always still some degree of loss involved).

Having moved to L.A. just as I was beginning to feel re-rooted in San Francisco, I find this poem once again descriptive of my general state (though the terrain here is less hilly, and I haven’t had blood drawn recently). So, here’s my nod to a phenomenon that can be quite helpful when one needs to “take a licking and keep on ticking,” but which I hope soon to speak of in the past tense…


It started when I wrenched myself
from a people and place
made inexpressibly dear
through years of sharing
life’s buoyant joys
and plunging sorrows.

This self-imposed separation
produced an emotional paralysis
that I at first thought was good
because it kept me
from crying.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder
what else it may have kept me from
as I go through days
in a daze,
navigating a more level existence
in this city of hills
than any I have ever known

And while a doctor’s order
gave me the opportunity to see
that I do still bleed
when stuck with a needle,
the phlebotomist performed his task
with such dexterity
and gentleness
that I yet do not know
if I still can feel pain.

© 2010
Alexis Spencer-Byers