Last month, I taught a two week creative writing intensive at the University of Florida. One of my amazing students wrote a poem called “Soul Keepers” on the last day of class. I told her how beautiful it was, how I wished I had understood when I was her age that there are things you can do that blacken your soul, that once you lose it, you have to fight so hard to get it back. Your choices matter. The little pieces of yourself you give away matter. The abuses and indignities you decide to accept matter. The cruelty you dish out matters. The lies you tell to yourself, to others, to God, matter. Even if no one else ever knows, your soul knows. You cannot live a lie and be anything but lost.
Popularity is not a measure of truth. Some people lie and lie and lie and are popular. Hitler was popular. Sometimes, choosing truth over lies costs you the so-called love of everyone who doesn’t really care about you. But it’s worth it. If you pretend to be something for long enough, you can wake up one day forgetting who you really are. The only thing you ever really have to lose, the only thing you ever really own, is your soul. Nothing else belongs to you. If you sell it away for temporary things–money or fame or popularity or acceptance or safety–you are utterly fucked. I know because I did it.
That day in class, I cried. We all cried.
I woke up years ago hating the thing I had become. It wasn’t because I had low self-esteem. It was because I saw that so much of my life had been a betrayal of my own soul, a betrayal of everyone and everything I loved, including myself. I vowed to get my soul back, whatever the cost. It was a bumpy, horrifically messy process, because before I became the thing I really was, I had to figure out what that meant. It was like deciding to clean a closet and tossing everything in it around the room so eventually, I could throw away what I no longer needed and reorganize what I did. It was hard to figure out what I wanted and what I didn’t. It was hard to deduce what was really me and what was something I had absorbed from someone else. I had to sort through years of cultural conditioning and abuse. I had to dig into the core of myself, let go of society’s ideas of truth to figure out what the hell I really believed. When I found my truths, I told them, even if they were hard. I cut unhealthy relationships from my life. I stopped pretending to be something I wasn’t. I chose poverty over money that cost me pieces of myself I wasn’t willing to give. I started rebuilding my life and world one tiny (often messy) choice at a time. Sometimes, the process was downright ugly. Sometimes, I was downright ugly.
I do believe in redemption because I have experienced it. But my redemption was hard won. It was not easy. It was not a pretty light white falling from heaven and washing me clean in an instant. It was a battle, a rebuilding of a wall I had torn down, a lifting of heavy stone after heavy stone. I’m still lifting stones, but they are lighter now. The boulders have all been set back in place. Some days, I still make choices I’m not proud of. Instead of pretending it doesn’t matter, I tell myself it does. I try to set them right. I try to do the next hard thing, the next true thing, the next beautiful thing. I’m far from perfect, but I finally genuinely like the girl who lives in the mirror now. She doesn’t torture me at night anymore. I hate to mix metaphors (closets and walls), but it’s like I finally trashed everything in the closet that didn’t belong and have now started to put things back in place. I still have a pile of undies in the corner. Some of my shoes are missing their matches. But we are closer to pretty than we have ever been.
After that class, I walked in the pouring rain back to my room listening to Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul.” I had listened to Tracy sing it years before in an outdoor amphitheater in Santa Fe, just when I was beginning the process of soul reclamation. Under a New Mexico night pinpricked by stars, I let the words of the song seep into my bones, let it change me into a person who was willing to start the arduous, sloppy, glorious, nightmarish process of becoming true.
That day in Florida, having just finished teaching that beautiful class, I kept my umbrella in my purse, letting the sky wash me, swimming in joy and relief, knowing my soul was mine, all mine, and I was never, ever giving it away again, for anyone or anything. It felt like a baptism. I emailed the song to all of my students as my goodbye to them. The lyrics say everything I wish I would have understood when I was young.
“Oh, my momma told me, ’cause she said she’d learned the hard way, she said she wanna spare the children, she said don’t give or sell your soul away, ’cause all that you have is your soul. Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for a world of truth ’cause all that you have is your soul.”
(The photo I have chosen to pair with this essay is me and my precious daddy, the truest man I have ever known, the one who never left me, even after he was dead, the one who taught me what real love looked like, the one who was willing to sacrifice everything for truth. Thank you, Daddy, for being what you were (are) so that I could never really become utterly lost. I couldn’t pretend the way I was living was ok, not when you had showed me the glorious beauty of living a life of dignity, love, and truth. I’m that little girl again. My eyes shine like that, even if they are webbed with wrinkles now.)