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Mark Nepo wrote me a poem.
Yes, that Mark Nepo.
Yes, for me.
Here it is:


Instructions to my Smaller Self
by Mark Nepo

When hurt, it’s important to scream. Just don’t pray to the scream. When sad, it’s important to grieve. Just don’t build a kingdom to your loss. When falling through whatever you thought would last, admit “I’m lost and confused.” Just don’t map the world as lost and confused. And when riding the wave, however it appears, feel the strength in you released. Just don’t believe the strength comes from you alone. But most of all, when listening to others, say, “This may be so.” Then look for yourself at what life is painting with all its colors.

I knew the poem was for me because he named my struggles. He must have read my journals.

I pull out a phrase that speaks to me: …life is painting with all its colors. Yes! That’s where I want to end up, looking at all the colors of life. So, I pull out his instructions:

…don’t pray to the scream
…don’t build a kingdom to your loss
…don’t map the world as lost and confused
…don’t believe the strength comes from you alone
…say, “This may be so.”

And also he tells me that it’s important to scream, to grieve, to admit my failures, to feel my strength, to listen, and then to look for myself.

I have to admit that I’ve done all those things he told me not to. And often did not do those things he said were important. I could have used his insights a few decades ago, but I wouldn’t have listened. I had to learn by learning: the importance of screaming, of grieving, of admitting failure. Those things were too hard, too emotional, too vulnerable. I was stronger than that. I could hold it inside.

The thing about hurt and loss and failing is that because I didn’t scream and grieve and admit my lostness, I held them close. I held them dear. Kind of like a get-out-of-jail-free card I could pull out and show like a medal. I thought by being “strong,” I rose above them. I had a ready reason for not engaging fully. You see? I bared my heart once and I was hurt. You see? I tried once and things didn’t work out. You see? I trusted once and it only brought me pain.

Don’t pray to the scream, Mark Nepo says. Scream it. Let it out. Don’t hold it dear and close and forever inside. Don’t make a temple to it where you pray to it and tell everyone so they will worship it as well. They have their own screams, and soon you’ll be comparing scream-gods, holding them tightly, taking shallow breaths, each fighting for supremacy.

Don’t build a kingdom to your loss. Don’t hold grief a prisoner. Cry it out. Maybe scream it out. It’s a conundrum, grief is. It’s not something to “get over.” But in our efforts to protect ourselves, we weave chainmail as a shield, not understanding that joy and love and life will also ricochet off. Cry it out. Be sad. Be afraid even, because it can happen again and again, and it hurts each time. But take down the wall. Dismantle the castle. Drain the moat. Shed the chainmail. Dare to love again, to live again.

Don’t map the world as lost and confused. That time I thought I held the oyster with the treasure inside? That time I was on top of the ladder? That time I found out I didn’t know what I thought I knew? That time I fell flat on my patootie? Yeah, that time. Those times. Lost and confused for sure. No, no. It was the world that was at fault. It was this person or that person. I had done everything right, everything I knew to do. And then I lost, and my lostness sent me to confusion. I should have just admitted it. Let go of my need to be right. Taken on lost and confused as a place, a phase, an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity.

Don’t believe the strength comes from you alone. Ah yes, there were those times I rode the wave. I did it all myself. I worked hard. Often alone. But no. Did I stop to thank the people who paved the way, held me up, made it possible? Maybe. Perhaps. OK. I thought it was me, alright? I’m sorry! Perhaps that was part of my lostness. My confusion. Mom, Granny, Einstein, Clara Barton, my fifth-grade teacher I loved, my fourth-grade teacher I didn’t, a boss who challenged me, a boss who made my life miserable. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I learned from each of you. I owe my strength to each of you and thousands upon thousands of others.

But most of all, when listening to others, say, “This may be so.”

This is a hard one for me. I’ve been struggling with how to talk with people who totally disagree with me. My need to be right. My belief that I am right. My logic that tells me I’m right. But I don’t seem to be getting anywhere with those people who can’t see the rightness of my rightness. I’ve been getting more and more concerned because if I can’t figure out how to have even simple conversations in order to get along in my community or my neighborhood or even in my family, why should I think the world can figure it out in order to get along across the globe? Think global and act local, right? It’s not a problem out there. It’s in here. Right here. I’ve got a problem. Maybe again I’m lost and confused.

Mark Nepo tells me to say, “This may be so.”

To listen and say, “This may be so.”

Hmmm. What this person is saying could be true? I’m going to have to suspend belief here. Take it as a possibility. I’m not saying I agree. I’m just acknowledging this person believes it and rather than disagree or attack, can I keep the conversation open by saying This may be so? Tell me more. Tell me your story.

Listen to understand.

Most of us go through a black/white, yes/no, right/wrong way of thinking before we ever learn gray, and maybe, and depends. I think I’ve learned the possibility of so many shades of colors and contexts, but even so, I want clear answers. Clarity is like a map, a compass, a boundary. This may be so until we reach the edge and find we were only exploring our own backyards and there’s more to the world than we ever knew.

Mark Nepo tells me, once I’ve screamed and cried and admitted when I’m lost, to look for myself at “what life is painting with all its colors.”

Look for myself. Trust my inner teacher. Deep down. Deeper down.

Look at life with all its colors. Not black/white. Not even the primaries. So many colors. And shades. And hues.

Do you know how many shades of green there are? We tried naming them on a road trip once and came up with over 30. I won’t spoil it by giving you our list, but here are a few: jade, emerald, olive, army, pea, lime. And green is made from blue and yellow. A single drop more of blue will alter the color green. Go to a paint store. Look at all the shades and hues of green. Read the names of the various greens.

If there can be that many colors of green, we can’t even say green and be sure we’re agreeing.

This may be so!

My perspective of the world is colored by my experiences. Just as yours are colored by yours. We each see through a lens of our own, sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes aquamarine. Or gray. Or black and white. Even those I’m closest to had their own unique experiences that painted their perspectives quite different from mine.

That’s what Mark Nepo is saying to me in the end. Be open. Get open by being honest and authentic with all of my experiences. Shout it out, cry it out, scream it out, own the strength, own the failure, thank the multitudes. And listen to others who have their own screams and treasures and strengths and perspectives. Be open to listen fully.

Please. May this be so.