The Letter Q: Ely Shipley
The Letter Q (Scholastic, 2012) is a collection of letters written by queer writers to their younger selves, making imaginative journeys into their pasts, and addressing the often difficult coming-of-age experiences of LGBTQ individuals. Inspired by its strength, bravery, and heart, Poets.org asked several poets to respond with their own letters to their younger selves.
1 July 2012
I want to share one of my favorite poems with you:
"Maybe, Someday" by Yannis Ritsos (translated by Edmund Keeley)
I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you can't see. It's night—what can one see?
Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes,
so I'm not alone, so you're not alone. And really,
there's nothing over there where I pointed.
Only the stars crowded together in the night,
like those people coming back in a truck from
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.
But I'm going to insist on seeing and showing
you, he said,
because if you too don't see, it will be as if I
I'll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes —
and maybe someday, from a different direction,
I refuse to lie to you; you already know that living in this world is enormously difficult. But what you might not fully realize just yet is that what makes this pain bearable is love. You will go on seeking this love outside of yourself—from family, friends, and lovers. Through this process you will learn a lot. But what I need you to know is that I love you, for who you are, just as you are, absolutely and unconditionally, right now; there is nothing wrong with you.
In fact, you have become my muse. You are my creative source. I didn't always realize this. And sometimes, even now, I forget it. So, if I was harsh with you along the way, I hope you will forgive me. We're working on this now.
Something I return to, for example, is the way that every day of your young life, being perceived as a girl because of the body you were born into, you imagined yourself each night before you went to sleep as being recognized by the world as a boy. You could see something about yourself that others couldn't. This is a gift. But it was hard to carry, this secret. You couldn't share your vision with anyone. Often you were picked on for not conforming to your assigned gender role of female. We were ashamed of our vision. And so, at some point, I scolded you for what I mistakenly felt was a frivolous fantasy. I remember us thinking around age 14 or 15: why am I torturing myself with this thought; it's never going to happen. At the time, we didn't know that it was possible to live in this world and be recognized as male. We were so happy to discover—much later on— that to some degree it is.
But what's even more valuable to me now than this realization that one can transform one's body is that your imagination conceived it much earlier, before you had the language of society and medicine to name it. Interestingly, around this time, you began to read poems and write song lyrics and poems—a truer kind of language. Your poetic imagination gave you insight and joy in the midst of misery. I still remember the first time we read Percy Bysshe Shelley's line "nought may endure but mutability" from his poem, "Mutability." Its paradox was a kind of revelation for you, though you wouldn't understand why for years to come.
Though we denied a part of our self and this creative source for a while, we never lost faith. I am so grateful to you for this. Through reading and writing poems you were able to reconnect with this source. Reading and writing has been the antidote. Each time I realize you are my muse, I fill up, become expansive, spacious. I think of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," and his line: "I am large. I contain multitudes." I remember Jack Spicer's imperative: "Poet, be like god."
Recently, I read a wonderful book by a Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, called Radical Acceptance. I was touched by an anecdote she tells:
Several years ago a small group of Buddhist teachers and psychologists from the United States and Europe invited the Dalai Lama to join them in a dialogue about emotions and health. During one of their sessions, an American vipassana teacher asked him to talk about the suffering of self-hatred. A look of confusion came over the Dalai Lama's face. "What is self-hatred?" he asked. As the therapists and teachers in the room tried to explain, he looked increasingly bewildered. Was this mental state a nervous disorder? he asked them. When those gathered confirmed that self-hatred was not unusual but a rather common experience for their students and clients, the Dalai Lama was astonished. How could they feel that way about themselves, he wondered, when "everybody has Buddha nature." (11)
Indeed, "self-hatred is not unusual," especially for a queer kid. But I'm so proud you've survived. I'm so grateful that you found (and continue to find) the way to love yourself, to recognize something like this "Buddha nature" by transforming your suffering into something beautiful through poetry. It took reading and writing poems to see your true nature, to return to the source, and to realize there is nothing wrong with you. Your primary transformation, which is ongoing, has to do with perception itself, and nurturing your ability to see.
Your resilience, as made evident by our poetry, encourages me to go on.