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Song in Spite of Myself: An Ode to Whitman

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Chelsey is an Undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida, where they are pursuing a Bachelors in English Literature.

Still trying to find your 'barbaric yawp'? Me too.


"You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead.."

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I have never celebrated nor sung myself.

I have no barbaric yawp but please—

Imagine a gentle melody

As I confess to these terrible things.

This is my Song, In Spite of My Self.

Whitman wrote, “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead.”

But I must explain why this is often my second nature.

A sizeable chunk of my life has been reiterated to me by family and friends; a kaleidoscope of assorted perceptions and temporal distortions.

I listen politely to amusing tales or nostalgic narratives about my past selves, but I am merely a voyeur.

Sometimes I feel something in my soul waver, accompanied by a sense of longing so strong that my eyes water, but it only ends in pain.

The chasm grows wider; my trunk gutted and hollow.

Often, I’m a stranger to myself; most of my information retrieved secondhand.

The thoughts that sear through me are often not my own.

They belong to my mother; guttural threats of brutality and revelations of disgust,

Relentlessly reminding me of my worthlessness, and how unlovable and sinful I am.

During my childhood, I had learned to hide; to make myself small while wishing to disappear.

I have my mother’s eyes; it’s difficult to defy the urge to view the world through the eyes of the dead.

Her ghost possesses me.

Whitman writes I am a culmination of all my ancestors.
Twice, in fits of hysterical desperation, I’ve tried to claw my mother from my face.

Mother’s milk was poisoned; I was fed words of vitriolic loathing and lamenting self-pity.

When my eyes fell upon, “each part and tag of me is a miracle,” and “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,” tears sprung to my eyes.

I was conditioned to hate my body; to be afraid of being seen.

I have never once found myself to be beautiful.
“Your face has character,” my grandfather once told me.

My mother’s fists did not feel like love nor did my step-father’s wandering hands.

I starved myself to be less visible; to occupy less space.

I burnt and scarred my body in an effort to claim it as my own.

I wanted to lie upon the forest floor and let the trees crack open my ribs.

I thought I was in love once, but I was only afraid of being alone.

We were seventeen when she asked, “What do you think about before you fall asleep?”

I did not pause to wonder if she expected sheep or “You, of course, baby.”
I told her the truth; I thought my mother’s God was deaf because he never seemed to hear me.

I thought about my depression.
I thought about how I wished it’d take me.
I told her how I thought about it the way people call it euthanasia for terminal cancer patients but suicide for Major Depressive Disorder.
Mostly I thought about the places I hoped to visit—San Francisco, New Orleans, the ocean—and how I’d never make it there.
So my hospice became the imaginary New Orleans I created inside my head.

I shared a bed with her for seven years before I learned how to say No.

"I do not doubt that Betelgeuse, a strong shoulder of Orion, may not know its own magnitude like we may not recognize our own."

But In Spite of My Self, I am the first to remind someone of their magnitude.

Unashamed, I proclaim that we are energy; we cannot be created nor destroyed.

For the thoughts that course through our mind reverberate supergiants of the past—Galileo, Mary Shelley, Anne Sexton, Sagan, and, of course, Walt Whitman.

When one is feeling lonely, I romanticize astronomical theories like that of the Multiple Worlds Theory like a soliloquy.

We are physics—every action has an opposite and equal reaction—every single action, everything we choose to do creates a parallel universe, as though our lives splinter off into branches, there may be another one of us in a corresponding universe who might be living with the consequence.

Sometimes our parallel selves cross paths; we are never alone—every version of us spread out across the entirety of existence racing toward our selves; every version existing in the same place for a while.

In Spite of My Self, I revel that everything is composed of star stuff; almost every chemical was formed in the heart of a star.

“You and I are energy and light,” I'll smile through the crowns in my mouth, them thrust upon me because for a long time I believed myself to be dead. Do the dead need teeth?

While we may not fathom our own brilliance, for we lack introspection or may feel eclipsed by others, we are radiant; constants made from recycled chromosomes.

I do not doubt that Betelgeuse, a strong shoulder of Orion, may not know its own magnitude like we may not recognize our own.

"I, who tried to die at sixteen, made it to thirty."

But we form a constellation of affections—friends, families, communities, philosophies.

Our core is formed of our ideologies, opinions, beliefs; some of us may wobble on our axis.

We are magnetic—attracting or repelling.

Like our cousin the bacteria, there are symbiotic relationships as well as parasitic.

We orbit one another, all of us bound together by gravity; tethered as one in our state of constant freefall.

We have atmospheres; thick skin filtering bombardments from absorbing into our hearts.

We are DNA, all Terran life birthed from a common ancestor; we are the spider, the rodent, closer related to the pests we despise than carnivores.

Animals compose merely one branch of the Tree of Life, and we have billions of years of history coursing through our veins.

We are music and love, evolution and mutation.

Daily, I must remind myself I am luminous.

I shine through a kaleidoscope of color; a spectrum of behaviors and idiosyncrasies emitting an aura.

I am a universe of atoms; I am matter made of blood, hair, flesh and sinew, of stardust and supernovas.

I contain galaxies of nuclei, of neurotransmitters; electrical impulses.

My synapses are solar flares.

I, who tried to die at sixteen, made it to thirty-two.

St. Augustine Pier; 12/25/14

St. Augustine Pier; 12/25/14

I, who never imagined I’d live to see the ocean, stood on St. Augustine Pier on December 25, 2014 and gazed in open awe at the majesty of the Atlantic.

I, who never thought I’d make it out of my small Indiana hometown, stood on Ocean Beach in San Francisco on October 6, 2016, and closed my eyes to simply bask in the Pacific air.

I, who was told I was too stupid to attend college, felt my previous selves crowd around me as I cradled my Associates degree to my chest and cried on the living room floor.

I, who was told that I’d never amount to anything, am proud of myself.

Though I have much to accomplish, I have survived much.

I have faced brutality but have not let my heart become a fist.

In Spite of My Self, my eyes blur in absolute admiration when I stand under a large tree—

Gnarled, knotted limbs that stretched toward the sky like capillaries,

And the oak, waving its welcome in the gentle breeze.

How can one not marvel at such beauty?

I have been humbled by the Atlantic and Pacific,

Honored to have met such gorgeous bodies that have existed long before myself and will thrive long after my departure.

I have been left breathless by watercolor sunsets; clouds of pink, purple, and yellow hues left by tender brushstrokes.

I cannot doubt that Mother Nature is an artist.

The stars remind me that out of all of space and time, of all the galaxies with planets in the habitable zones of their solar systems, I’m here.

I have been billions of years in the making.

If that is not love on the largest, most immeasurable scale, I cannot fathom what is.

My Song may be off-key and possess a simple melody, but it’s mine.

Somehow, my heart still pounds bravely within my chest.

One day I will find my voice—my barbaric yawp—In Spite of My Self.

Until then, thank you, Walt, for yours.

© 2019 Chelsey

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