The Quarry

A few weeks ago, when it occurred to me that 2013 was winding down, and I had not made what one might call substantial progress toward my resolution of figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up (having entertained and/or attempted and subsequently abandoned some half-dozen career/life dreams over the past 18 years), I staved off panic the way I generally do–by starting a poem and hoping that the writing process would yield some degree of insight or comfort.

What happened, as I scribbled, was that I was reminded of something I have realized on multiple occasions before (but apparently have trouble remembering on a gut level): that in so much of life, the journey matters more than the destination.

Yes, I still need to sort out what my next vocational season is going to look like. It would be wonderful if, in that season, my work life could become both more financially stable and more tied into my passions for creative writing and youth ministry (because why wouldn’t those two goals go hand-in-hand?!). It would be kind of fun to be able to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” with a word or phrase rather than with a squid-like paragraph comprised of a compound thesis statement and multiple (mostly run-on) supporting sentences. I wouldn’t mind feeling that I had arrived somewhere–that all of the wandering and improvising had actually had some overarching direction and purpose to them.

In the meantime, though, the hodge-podge of freelance editing projects, youth ministry/education-related volunteer commitments, church/neighborhood activities, poetry writing (both solitary and communal), and relationships with family and friends provides me with a rich, joy-filled, inspiring and very interesting–if not particularly streamlined–life to live as I am growing up.

Below is the poem born from this process of emotional decompression–but before I yield the floor, let me wish everyone a happy new year and express my hope that we will all find joy, growth, grace and whatever comfort and encouragement we need on the next leg of the journey!

The Quarry

I stagger into the quarry
limping under the oppressive weight
     of a beautiful
     but ill-fitting
          burden.

As I tenderly relinquish
the latest in a series of boulders—
each lovelier than the last
and all smeared
     with the blood, sweat and tears
     extracted by the double-edged pick
          of imperfect discernment
          and hard labor—
joy at the release
mingles with the gnawing emptiness
that now rests
upon my ravaged shoulders.

As the anxiety mounts,
I frantically survey the field
searching for another massive stone
I might be fit to carry,
not yet noticing the exquisite mosaic
taking shape upon my back:

     multi-colored remnants of rock
          some smoothed by time,
          others still bearing
               jagged edges
     all mementoes
          of seasons past—
     reminders of small successes
          instructive failures
          unexpected adventures
               and opportunities
          momentous occasions
               both glad and grievous
          and the richness of life shared with others
               still learning to embrace
                    a yoke that is easy
                    and a burden that is light.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Pacific

One of the benefits of living in California again is the frequency with which I have the opportunity to drive up and down the coast along various stretches of Highway One. I have always loved the ocean, so catching glimpses of it from the car window, or stopping from time to time to take a more extended look, brings me great joy.

On one recent road trip, I paused at a scenic overlook to savor my proximity to the mighty Pacific. As I watched the waves crash and recede, I felt the familiar urge to put pen to paper, and I started trying to capture my fascination with this great body of water.

Not surprisingly, even as I attempted to craft an homage to the beauty and magnificence of nature, my mind turned to the realities of city life. As I observed the ceaseless repetition of the water’s motion—and thought about the daily ebb and flow of the tides—I was reminded of the heartache and frustration that so often come with community development work, when you pour yourself into people and projects over time, but fail to see the tangible positive change you hope for so fervently. (This is not to say, of course, that I claim to know the best path for any other person’s life to follow, but I imagine many of us share the gut sense that, to give just a few examples, incarceration, drug addiction, and unplanned pregnancy do not generally represent the most positive outcomes for our young people.)

So while I recognize the inherent differences between what the ocean “does” and what community developers do, I still felt inspired to renew my commitment to labor faithfully, whether or not I can observe “net progress from day to day.” I was also reminded how much there is to value and celebrate in the incremental advances; in the shared striving toward a common—if elusive—goal; and even in the growth that comes when we are forced to fall back, regroup, and try again.

Pacific

This ocean has a gravitational pull
     all its own,
drawing me inexorably
     to its edge
that I may listen to the rhythmic pounding
          of the surf
     breathe in the invigorating scent
          of salty sea air
     and watch with rapt attention
          the boisterous charge and slithering retreat
          of waves beyond number—
wondering all the while
if I shall ever possess
the patience and fortitude required
     to persevere so faithfully
     in a given task
when faced with such a dearth
     of net progress
     from day to day.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Numb

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…

Numb

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
before.

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