Unsafety & Real Talk

On my walk these past three mornings, I’m passing clumps of kids: walking, standing, waiting for the bus. As a non-parent, I’d forgotten late August is back-to-school o’clock.

I’m not thinking about the years I stood for the bus in late elementary school. It truly doesn’t cross my mind. I’m so good at not-remembering this era, I don’t even notice. Instead what I’m thinking is that school is supposed to start in the fall, right?, but it’s so damn hot most every August lately that not even the liquid ambers (who often start to turn in July) are considering rest. And I’m thinking how much I enjoy the orange splash of rowan berries, dangling in enticing bunches (don’t eat them) from their ferny green foliage. They’re the fallest looking things going on. I pick another blackberry, and actually wave at the rowan tree on the right.

And that’s all the landscape you’re going to get in this particular conversation.

Instead, I want to tell you about the thing that did jolt me back to my waiting-for-the-bus days.

Listening to The Liturgists podcast while I walked, I heard something that resonated so hard I actually stopped in my tracks. The episode topic was social media, and the hosts were talking about the relationship between that and kids getting tormented by (and being, I suppose) bullies. There wasn’t social media when I was a kid. (There were chat rooms, I think, but I’ve always been a late-adopter.) There was, of course, bullying. Which happened to other people, and that’s terrible. 

So, talking about bullying, one of the hosts said:

“There’s something about that psychological wound as a child
that creates unsafety [in your adult self.]”

Hear that? That’s what stopped me. “Unsafety.”

Friends…this is so very real. Possibly you know what I’m talking about; there are a lot of us.

I said it happened to other people because that’s really how I think of it. But here’s the truth: I went through some pretty intense bullying and isolation as a pre-teen. I didn’t forget the pain, I’ve just never named it. Saying “I was bullied” feels to me like admitting some kind of weakness.

When I think or talk about it, I say things like:

  • “It’s part of growing up.”
  • “Kids are mean; so what? I survived.”
  • “It was ages ago, I’m ok now.”

And I am ok, in a lot of important ways. I’m a functional, successful adult, with friends and family and work and play I enjoy. (Ask me about my favorite landscapes sometime. :p)

But I also like to tell myself I am not still damaged. Even while I’ve become willing to admit that those years shifted my personality and shaped aspects of my character.

I am, though. Still damaged. Not in the open-wound sense. But there are scars, and sometimes, they still hurt. They are a place of unsafety, and just about anything might push me into them. I don’t really know the territory they map. It’s constantly surprising me, and I do not love surprises.

Hearing the lovely folks on The Liturgists speak so compassionately, so vulnerably and also incisively on the topic clicked this into place for me.

So why am I sharing this?

Honestly: because it’s hard. Because it’s vulnerable, and I’ve been learning lately that the places we are vulnerable are sometimes the best places to connect authentically and helpfully with others.

Because even though I still feel ashamed of it, it’s not my shame. My feelings are valid, and also, I am not my feelings. 

Because I know I’m not alone, and if you feel like this too, I want you to know that it’s not your shame either. That it’s ok to hurt, even if the initial wound happened a long time ago, even if you think it’s “just part of growing up,” or just part of your family, or whatever you tell yourself so you feel less embarrassed. Your scars are valid. And if you also sometimes stumble on that territory of unsafety, that’s valid too. You are not your scars. What you are — and I can guarantee this — is loved.

All of this is hard for me to say, not just because I’m so vested in appearing cool and collected in all public forums. It’s also tough because, although I have always possessed a tendency toward this kind of earnestness and vulnerability, I’ve learned to bury it.

Culturally, we’re pushing up out of that long moment I grew up in, when it was always best to laugh off pain, fake it ’til you make it, and save the heavy emotional shit for your therapist. (That’s if you knew where to find one of those, and were willing to admit it out loud.)

I’ve spoken, texted, and written (in letters!) some embarrassingly deep and candid emotional statements in my time. And damn it, I’m tired of being embarrassed. I’m not going to start airing all my everything on Twitter. But there’s a difference between privacy and emotional censorship. Talking about hard emotions is ok. I have to keep repeating this so I’ll remember.

I’m not going to change me or our culture overnight. There’s plenty of change, though, that I can affect long-term, by doing and inviting kindness, vulnerability, and empathy in my own interactions with this world. It can be pretty terrifying, but so were plenty of other things that now enrich my life.

Unsafety is something I carry because of interactions I didn’t choose. From now on, when I notice I’ve run into it, I’m going to wave. And maybe noticing it will offer me a place of authentic connection with another person.

This is all getting pretty authentically uncomfortable; I need to stop now. Anyway, here’s to Real Talk. And thanks for listening.




Florilegium: The Overstory

Delaware Towpath

Since about halfway through its 500 pages, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Richard Powers’ recent novel, The Overstory. It’s about…well, that’s complicated, but here’s how the publisher condenses it. And here’s the author: “The whole book is a simple question: What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things?”

I’m thinking about the themes, oh certainly, but their delivery method is what’s caught me and held: this language, like a burr in the sock, like feather-winged samaras fluttering into every crack.

With a work like this, I do what I’ve done for years: underline the sparkly bits for reading over later — or, in the case of a library book, sticky-note them. By the time I finished The Overstory, my borrowed copy was bristling with blue sparklets. I call them sparklets in a tradition of the medieval reading practice of florilegia, which my own habit closely resembles.

Inspired by a favorite podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I’ve lately begun to place my sparklets in varying combinations, creating new texts — found poems — from their interweavings.

Here’s my florilegium from The Overstory. Please note that everything below was written not by me, but by Richard Powers. Only the punctuation and the ordering are mine. (If you’re reading this on your phone, please tilt for landscape orientation. Formatting is weird.)


Consciousness itself is a flavor of madness;

sleep, that nightly place of plantlike deliverance.

La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural.

The equation electrifies.


Places remember what people forgot:

that great basin between question & claim,

the green negation of all careers.

Life will not answer to reason.


The sturgeon moon rises over the lake like a pale

red penny, water cold enough to kill all pain.

Memory is always a collaboration in progress.

All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia.


Decent people loving the land in irreconcilable ways:

maybe mass extinction justifies a little fuzziness.

Revelation collapses into consumer electronics.

The tree feels no need to reply.


People will be discovering medicines here

for as long as they go on looking.

Reason is just another weapon of control.

What do all good stories do?


They kill you a little. They turn you into

something you weren’t.

The goal of growing the world,

instead of yourself.


Life is so generous, and we are so…inconsolable.

It takes some time to grow new beliefs

to replace the ones that fall.

Do nothing – nothing at all, and do it


for far less time than you might think.

Seeds remember the seasons of their childhoods.

It’s a Christmas of lignin. Old, lost friends.

Every branch smells of deliverance.


You have a right to be astonished.