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

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