I came to know Wendell Berry at the wrong time in my life. My husband and I, with three children in tow, had just barely ... Read More
In the afterglow of Hutchmoot 2018’s dizzying cascade of several dozens of wonderful and meaningful conversations, I can no longer remember who requested copies of the poem I read during Rebecca Reynolds’ and my tag team session on “the holy, hidden potential of human weakness.”
Hence the posting of it here. Beyond that fulfillment of forgotten verbal obligations, though—because we as a community tend to skew heavily on the introvert scale and also because I suspect that even the beloved extroverts among us struggle with the same foundational insecurities—I would like to offer the piece to the wider Rabbit Room community.
It’s a poem I wrote some sixty hours before my Hutchmoot session. At the time I was harried and discouraged in my attempts to pare a 12,000 word outline down to a manageable 4,000 words. (Spoiler Alert: I failed.) Scanning my eighteen pages of ten-point font notes, I felt a vague and growing unease. Trying to divine my own disquiet I realized, “Okay, these notes do contain some interesting and valuable observations, but I’m mostly only offering abstract ideas about weakness. Is there some way to move this presentation beyond the abstract such that it might actually give someone something to hang onto?”
Yes, I could have just rested in the knowledge that when Rebecca Reynolds began her portion of the session everyone in the room would immediately feel connected and welcomed into that warm, encouraging aura she magically projects in a roughly forty-foot radius around her person. But it seemed irresponsible on my part to ask attendees to suffer through the first half of the session without any rungs yet affixed to the ladder we were asking them to climb.
I couldn’t see that I was offering—in my notes as they then were—any point of connection that might “incarnate” these important ideas and make them more immediate than abstract. As I was stewing on the matter I did what any of us do when faced with frustration. I checked Facebook.
And there I happened to read Helena Sorensen’s post asking the Rabbit Room community whether they were more discouraged or inspired by personal tales of struggles and failures. I skimmed the response thread and I was like: Oh. Yeah. That. Hmm.
So I just sat for a few minutes, long enough for all the fears and insecurities swirling chaotically just outside the edges of my vision to catch up to me and begin to announce themselves. And then I started typing, trying to document that sideshow parade of insecurities as they marched up the main street of my imagination.
Because the truth is, being asked to speak in front of a group of well-read, thoughtful, sensitive people—who have gathered because they think I might have something to say that’s worth their time to hear—pushes the buttons for almost every one of the fifty-eight floors accessed by my elevator of paralyzing insecurities.
Writing this mostly stream-of-consciousness poem was beneficial though, as the process of driving those insecurities into the open and naming them had a settling effect that allowed me afterward to move forward with more focus in the preparation process. (I didn’t shave the notes down to 4,000 words, but I did cut them to about 6,500. The rest of the editing had to happen at the podium. Apologies to those present, for any rather abrupt transitions.) Based on feedback from several of the gracious attendees, I think the poem did also do some valuable work to bridge that gap between the abstract idea and the personal experience.
If there’s a practical takeaway here for content creators, it might be that the sense of pressure and stress we feel in such moments of preparation and editing might actually be a friendly voice, warning us that we’re trying to position ourselves as an expert on a particular topic, when what might best serve community is not so much a “voice of authority” speaking from above, but the voice of a fellow pilgrim speaking to us just from the bottom of the next gulley, or from the far bank of the ravine we’re only just now descending into.
Shadows circle like crows over my shoulder,
and as I get older
I feel those wingbeats
and I can give them names; names
that escaped me
in my younger days:
Fear of failure.
Fear of loss.
Fear for my children.
Fear that the cost
of ever finishing another book, or story or poem
is more than I can pay.
Fear that life from here will fray,
growing harder and more confusing.
Fear that what’s to come
is mostly losing
what I’ve had and
learning what it means to hurt and how
to come to terms
with everything I cannot save.
Fear that the sometimes tremor in my hand
about a year ago
as I wrote
ing pieces for a book of liturgies
means that something really might be
wrong with me.
Fear of finding out
that something might be wrong with me.
Fear of letting people see
what might be wrong with me.
Fear that somehow
God is done with me;
fear that in the years to come
my lot will be
that of a sailor
lost in aimless seas.
Fear that all my old regrets
might finally catch up to me.
Fear that I stand here
in front of you presumptively
with nothing to say;
that my meagre offerings will not be met
by anything greater than the voices
in my own head
and I will be left
from anything but the cringe-inducing echoes
of things I’ll wish I’d never said…
to my growing, crowing, list of dread:
fear of exposure, fear of shame.
Fear of being named
Fear of how I look
in anybody’s eyes,
Fear of endlessly learning the same
lessons I already learned
as a kid
when I was burned so many times
by wanting so much to fit in
that it hurt. It hurt,
overextending my hopes again
and feeling those rope burns
on the skin of my palms
as the thing I so yearned for
was yanked out of my grasping hands.
Fear of what I do not understand:
I do not understand
what to say, or how to stand,
or what in creation
I’m ever supposed to do
with my hands,
or how to not come off
as too absurd, so add
fear of being seen as awkward,
which is to say
fear of being seen as I am because
I am awkward.
(I am as awkward
in my attempts to fit in or be loved
as the wobble of a
pursued through a mile of mud
by a redneck kid
in a pickup truck.)
Fear of inadequacy.
Fear of trying to just relate
because the basic mechanics of human interaction was
a language I came to too late
and somehow failed to learn to imitate
believably. And I never wanted to be the fool.
I never wanted to be uncool,
but I was always uncool. On my death certificate
the coroner will doubtless rule: Cause of death:
He was so, so very
terminally uncool. And when
my daughters come
to identify my body, they will shake their heads
and say, “We thought he
would eventually outgrow
this awkward stage. How
could we know he would only wax
more uncool with age? His sucking need
for affirmations he could not let himself receive
was so pathetic. Let us hope,
oh, let us hope,
it’s not genetic.”
So diagnose my clumsy self protection
as a symptom of
this constant fear of rejection,
paralyzed by possibilities
of pending hostilities that
might at any time be unmasked
and directed at me.
And in that crown
of utter instability
set these stones of other fears
and ring them round:
Fear that anytime I speak
or do not speak
or cross the street
or wait too long to cross the street
or sit across from someone
else and lift my fork to eat,
I’m being judged, and
run the risk of being seen as I am
which is to say—
of being seen as weak.
—©2018 Douglas Kaine McKelvey
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).