"Lay Down Your Shame" | Reflecting on the poem that made me cry in bed
A few weeks ago, my mom texted me a link to a poem titled "Beloved, Come Back to Yourself" and asked what I thought of it. I read the poem and told her I thought it was beautiful. It was beautiful. Is beautiful. Three days later, I was hanging out at home with my roommate, Haley, waiting for Haley's friend, Meghan, to come over for a girls' night in. Meghan, having run into the postman on the way up, brought a little package with my name on it through our front door. What the heck is this? I thought. I hadn't been expecting anything, so I got excited.
I opened the little package to find a book of poetry by the author my mom had showed me a few days earlier, Kathy Parker. (My mom also included a note wishing me a happy early Valentine's Day, which was so cute, considering my parents aren't normally the kind that send their daughter a gift on Valentine's Day like other people's do.) After telling Haley and Meghan about my mom introducing me to this poet, Haley picked up the book and opened it to a random page. Within a minute she was crying. She looked at Meghan with the kind of knowing look a best friend has and said, "You have to read this." Then there were two crying women on my couch. The three of us looked through some of the poems and really felt them. It was impossible not to.
As deeply as I feel, I'm not a big cryer. Haley and Meghan definitely tend to cry more easily than I do, but I feel things very strongly. I've slowly been making my way through this 180-page book of poetry and got up to 42 poems until I finally cried. It just happened. Like, not very long ago...right here in my bed...where I am right now. And let me tell you, I really cried. Not just got teary-eyed. I cried. A few lines in, and the tears started coming. I love poetry and have read some beautiful poems that have blown me away over the years, but I don't think a poem has ever hit me as hard as this one did (I've copied and pasted it below, but here's a link to it on Kathy Parker's website!). It's called "Lay Down Your Shame." I feel like it looked the scared little girl that lives deep inside of me in the eyes and told her, "It's okay."
Now, I'm genuinely a happy, confident, strong, independent woman, but I've been through some shit. We all have. And as much as I stress the importance of being vulnerable and owning who you are and what you've been through, there's something I've only shared with a few people other than myself, for no other reason than it hasn't come up that often. That "something" is the fact that for so long (up until very recently, actually) I tried to seem put-together and mature and wise beyond my years to overcompensate for what I thought people would expect me to be like, having come from a messy, messy divorce situation in a bubble of a small town where it seemed like everyone knew everything. I had this idea of what people expected me to turn out like, because my parents' divorce involved screaming matches and police cars outside our house at different hours of the day and night and, for me, days of having to miss school to see therapists or court-appointed child lawyers. A handful of people have said to me over the years things to the effect of, "I'd never guess you come from a broken home." That was always flattering to me, because it meant that I was doing a good job of coming across as happy and in control. But the truth is, I am those things for the most part. Sometimes I get lonely and darkly existential and wonder what I'm doing with my life, but it's not hard for me to check in with myself, find the good instead of the bad, and be happy. So, I face this weird struggles sometimes of feeling connected to people who have had particularly rough childhoods and traumatic life experiences, but somewhat disconnected from the countless people within that who, for whatever reason(s), aren't able to see things and positively as I do.
Like, how does happiness and gratitude and lack of shame come so easily for me when I know countless people who struggle with confidence and body image and shame and worthiness? It's hard to know how much of us comes from nature versus nurture. It's impossible to know why one tiny joke of a remark from a young girl's well-intentioned father could cause that young girl to spend her life battling with what she sees in the mirror. (That "young girl" I'm referring to is now a beautiful young woman and friend of mine who has to work every day to see in herself what the people who love her see in her.) It's impossible to know exactly why people handle similar experiences differently. Maybe I'm rambling a bit now and getting off track. What I'm trying to say is, we can't know everything or pinpoint why we have certain insecurities and weaknesses, but we can learn how to acknowledge our demons and confront them. I may not seem like I come from a broken home, but I do. And that's a huge part of who I am. I write today, because it saved me from so much when I was a kid. It's cathartic for me. Writing became a friend to me, because I spent hours upon hours writing to distract myself and create stories and safe spaces when the screams were too loud way back when. You simply can't know the extent of someone's life experiences unless you talk to them about their experiences. You don't know until you know. And you can't assume. Well, you can, but you'll be wrong sometimes. Probably a lot of the time.
I've found that sharing your baggage does wonders. Own who you are so no one else can tell you who you are. It's important to me to be open about my baggage and unafraid of sharing it, because it's made me who I am. I don't want to think of "baggage" as a dirty, or negative, term. It's simply what I carry with me. The fact of the matter is, we all carry stuff with us we may not always be able to pinpoint or fully understand. But there's lots and lots living inside of us. That's why looking inward is so dang important. We owe it to ourselves and the people around us to dig deep. We should do the work it takes to free the demons and little kids that live inside of us so we can focus on living happier lives and being better friends and family members and lovers. The more comfortable we are with our emotions and trauma, the better we are at accepting others' emotions and trauma. We can better serve others if we know how to serve ourselves. There's a level of confidence that comes with owning who you are and working to be better, and you're less judgmental of others when you accept yourself. That's huge in life.
I guess it's been a while since I tapped into the little girl inside of me. Reading this poem definitely opened my eyes to that. I don't know exactly where my experiences and pain of the past have found homes inside my body, but everything is in there. One of my favorite acting coaches, Joseph Pearlman, likes to ask his clients, "Where in your body do you feel it?" When you're doing scenework and finding the character inside of you, it's important to acknowledge where in your body the words you're saying are connected to. Where inside of you do the character's words and experiences live? For me, it's usually my chest. I have a lot living inside my chest. I guess that's kinda beautiful, since my chest is home to my heart. Oh, Life. You beautiful bitch.
I know this post is a little all over the place, but the poem I'm referring to brought so much out from inside of me. So, without further ado, here's the poem that reintroduced me to the little girl living inside of me. (Note: The website version is slightly different than the book version, and I'm using the book version below. You should check out both! :))
"Lay Down Your Shame"
You had to grow up so fast, didn’t you? You were so young when they handed you such a heavy box to carry. A box filled with secrets, lies, and shame. It contained the weight of the world, and your job was to protect it, to never put it down.
It was your responsibility, wasn’t it? To keep everything hidden away in the box. While other children played in fallen leaves under autumn skies and laughed with gleeful abandon, you sat with your box and watched and longed and imagined the feel of grass under your feet. But you were so scared of what might happen if you put the box down, even for a moment, and so there you remained; far too grown-up to play childish games. And at night when crickets chirred under skies mantled with glistering stars, even then you would lie awake, too afraid to fall asleep, too afraid that if you did, you would fail. This was your burden to carry: to be the keeper of secrets. It was up to you to keep the secrets safe.
As you grew, you hoped the box would become easier to hold. But over the years, you had shoved your own secrets into it—the abuse, the neglect, your lies, your manipulations, your deceits, the masks you wore, the things you did. Your box was laden with coping mechanisms needed for you to survive, but you didn’t know that back then. It was your box of shame, and your weary body crushed under the weight of it.
Childhood passed; games and play and laughter were forsaken for seriousness, solemnity, maturity. You were left to look after yourself, weren't you? You had to learn self-reliance when you were still so small. But you learned, didn’t you? You learned to do it on your own, to not need anyone or anything. You learned to hold it together. Even when you wanted to cry, to scream, to fall apart. Even when you longed to surrender, to trust, to love, to be loved. Even then, you stayed strong and in control. You never let go of your self-sufficiency. You never let go of the box. You never fell apart. You did what you had to do.
But now your bones ache, and your muscles burn, and your hands shake from the cold. Your legs are weak under the weight of all you have carried. You are forlorn from years without laughter. Depleted from such little sleep. Withered from worry, from care, from strain.
Beautiful woman, lay down your box. It was never yours to carry. The secrets were never yours to keep. The shame was never yours to bear. The burdens were never to be carried upon your shoulders. Lay it down. Rest. Breathe. Whisper words of truth to the precious child within. Tell her she can let go now. Tell her she is safe. She is safe to find joy, to laugh, to play, to trust, to love, to be loved.
Lay the box down, beloved. It no longer serves you. Leave it behind and walk the new path that has been set before you. You are free.
You are free.