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,
style
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

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

Giants

In honor of this being the last week (but I’m hoping not the last day!) of the 2010 San Francisco Giants’ reign as World Series champions, I thought I’d share this little tribute to them (which also serves as an expression of appreciation to the hometown that helped teach me the value of embracing those who have been rejected elsewhere).

Giants

They were a merry band
of cast-offs, misfits and the Freak—
the ideal ensemble
of orange- and black-clad characters
to bring that gleaming, flag-lined trophy
to our heart-snaring City by the Bay,
proving beyond a shadow of a doubt
that being different
doesn’t mean
being less,
and that anyone,
no matter how misunderstood
underappreciated
or flat-out written-off
they may have been
in the places they inhabited
before,
can come here
and be a hero—
unconditionally embraced by millions
and paraded down Market Street
in a Cable Car
never fearing confiscation
of a rally thong
or mandatory landscaping
of a beard.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Public Transit Epiphany

Thinking about the Montgomery bus boycott last week reminded me of my own life-changing bus moment. Though the two incidents are as different as can be in terms of the scopes of their impacts, they both have something to do with human equality–which is perhaps why I dare to mention them in the same sentence.

The actual moment described below occurred years ago, in San Francisco, but some of the reflections have evolved since then, as I’ve moved from a city where transit ridership is diverse in many ways, including socioeconomically, to places where public transit is often regarded as a dividing line between haves and have-nots.

I’m going to go ahead and confess that I’ve struggled a bit with this piece. It’s been difficult to get the tone right, and to communicate a bit of the awe I felt in the face of such a specific and unexpected reminder of a principle I believe but don’t always think about during day-to-day interactions: the notion that each human being, no matter their circumstances, has significance and a story–whether that story is consumed and shared by millions or largely played out before an audience of One. I’m still not sure I’ve got it right.

One more preliminary remark… I believe in God, and these reflections incorporate that belief. However, I recognize that belief in God is not a prerequisite for belief in universal human value, and I am grateful to know many people who, while they do not share my religious convictions, embrace and act upon (often better than I do) the understanding that all people matter equally. Now, without further stalling…

Public Transit Epiphany

I look around—
surreptitiously, of course—
at two dozen or so
fellow travelers,
and I am struck by the thought that—
bluntly speaking—
they mean nothing to me.

I have never met any of them before
(technically, I haven’t even met them now),
it’s unlikely I’ll encounter any of them again—
or recognize them if I do—
and I haven’t the faintest idea
what their respective stories
entail.

What twist of plot
brought each of them
to this time and place
where our paths have aligned
for the briefest
and seemingly least consequential
of chapters?

Scanning again—
and this time registering
the mismatched outfits,
missing teeth,
and matted hair
of several of these late-night riders—
it saddens me to think
that some of them
may not have anyone
to whom they do mean something.

That’s when my perspective veers
onto a different course,
and suddenly these nameless strangers
come to mean a great deal to me—
for they are living reminders
that, if there is truth to the belief I profess,
each soul aboard this bus
matters beyond measure
to the One who watches over all of us.

Regardless of our anonymity
to one another,
each of us is known to Him
as the protagonist
of a most important tale,
living an arc
just as crucial
to the ever-unfolding
narrative of humanity
as those traveled by the bravest explorer,
the most brilliant scientist,
the wealthiest businessperson,
the strongest athlete
and the most talented artist.

As our coach lurches forward,
I am simultaneously comforted
and challenged
by the conviction—
long held, and now poignantly illustrated—
that each of us is cherished equally
by One to whom value is not relative—
whose esteem can neither be increased
by fame, fortune or beauty
nor decreased
by obscurity, poverty, decrepitude
or even the need
to make use
of public transportation.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers