Just before I gave my first keynote speech, the mic broke.
Wtf right? Sometimes I think the universe has an agenda to keep my life interesting. I was anxious, not because I was speaking publically–I gave countless papers during my academic career, read my poetry at international literary festivals, and run a monthly reading series–but because the subject matter was genuine, and personal.
I was asked to give a speech on what literature, books, and words mean to me. I wanted to write something light and funny. Then I thought about privilege. It would be unkind for an educated queer woman of European decent, an author, and a Poet Laureate to glibly address an audience at a literacy fundraiser.
So I considered what literature, books, and words really meant to me. The answer was suprisingly close to the surface. It was something I really wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to stand up in front of politicians, philanthropists, and other good looking people in high-end business attire and speak about where I came from. How at sixteen I would have looked at these people and thought, ‘I’ll never be where you are, and I know I could be.’
But I did. I wrote and rewrote my speech until it said clearly and simply what I honestly had to say. Then I stepped up to the podium and centered myself. As I gazed out over the author-themed tables at the suits and dignitaries, I took a breath and began.
I wasn’t really expecting them to listen to me, afterall it was a subject most people tune out. But the room quieted; people had turned in their seats to listen to me. I told them what I’d been keeping secret my entire life. How books and writing buoyed me along until I could save myself.
“I raised myself somewhere in between dysfunction and Dickens.”
I was a COA. That’s something you can’t just shake off, so that means I’m an ACA. There’s thousands of us. But I belong to a very narrow ACA statistic that has done more than just become adjusted. I’ve gone beyond and become successful as I define it. Sometimes I wonder what sixteen year-old Kayla would think of me now. She would probably say, “But I was screwed up. I wasn’t going anywhere. What happened?”
I had to learn to leave the critique out of it, and to silence the inner voice that kept me from owning a life that was mine. The most difficult lesson was to set my fear aside and get out of my own way. When I stood at the podium that night, I felt as though I was attempting to pass one final test: the biggest one. I remembered Audre Lorde, “Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.” And I thought, ‘That better be true.’ I addressed the room even though I was worried I wouldn’t be able to speak through my emotion.
In so many words I said, Look at me now. I could pretend I’m this dress and my makeup and the degrees I earned. I could hide behind my title. I could pretend I’m just like you. But I am not like you. The truth is, I wasn’t supposed to be here. But I made it.
As I returned to my seat, the room stood to applaud me. People came to me and shook my hand, they told me I was inspiring and asked for a hug.
I didn’t expect this reaction to my speech. I wasn’t aware that there was this much power in authenticity. It was a good reminder that the universe always has my back. It was telling me that I’m still the girl with the power, doing what I came to do. I thanked Audre for her empowerment, and was grateful I’d had the courage to follow my instincts.
I think we’re often inspired and empowered by others who have made their difficult stories into fairy tales with happy endings. However, when we set out to do the same, the dragons are fiercer than we imagined, the mountains are much taller, and the peaks are slippery, covered in ice and snow. And we are alone. Then the sun comes out and we feel warm again, but the cold melts and we become mired in mud. Our feet are heavy, the soles of our boots wear thin. We are lonely, despairing, and tired. So it’s a wonderful feeling when strangers take a moment to listen to you, to trod along in your boots for a bit and wonder what quest brought you among them.
Just because you weren’t going to belong somewhere doesn’t mean you won’t end up in the right place afterall.
I invite you to read my speech, posted below.
“To search for power within myself means I must be willing to move through being afraid to whatever lies beyond. If I look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain…and that lessens their power over me. Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me. I am who I am, doing what I came to do.” – Audre Lorde
“I Walked Off the Pages of My Own Life“
When I was asked to give a short speech on what literacy, books, and words mean to me, I immediately thought of the personal essays we were asked to write in elementary school. Subjects like “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”, or “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up”.
I hated these assignments.
Mostly because I had to get up and read my essay in front of the class. Also because my summer vacations were pretty boring. So, my essays were the same year after year— how I wanted to become a vet or a marine biologist. For some reason I never talked about wanting to be a writer.
At five years old, I knew I wanted to be an author. I loved stories, but more than that, I felt the world of books and writing inside me. I just couldn’t imagine a life without words and paper and stories. But I didn’t know how to express the idea of writing as a vocation, or something I was called to do. Each day began and ended in the pages of a book, but I wasn’t aware of how important that was to me.
I grew up surrounded not only by novels and non-fiction, National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias, but with severe alcoholism and addiction. I wasn’t able to talk openly about my situation. If I had, the foster care system would have separated me from my younger brother. So books became my guides and my support system, my refuge, and my eventual exit.
I raised myself somewhere in between dysfunction and Dickens.
I swallowed novels and their lessons. I read Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother until their spines cracked. L. M. Montgomery’s Emily and Louisa May Alcott’s Jo achieved careers as celebrated female writers. Elizabeth Bennett assured me that my independence was valuable. Anna Karenina led me to sympathize with nearly every character, no matter how different they were. Jane Eyre taught me the power of remaining true to myself. In Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover, I saw many reflections of my own upbringing for the very first time.
To my peers I was “weird”, but I knew I was the girl with the power. I could transport myself to other dimensions through books. Everyone else might have been learning algebra, but I was in Civil War era Georgia, scheming with Scarlett O’Hara. The racism in Gone with the Wind upset me, but it made me want better things from humanity and myself.
While I had the power to stabilize and illuminate my world, I often felt trapped. Like one of Dr. Moreau’s grotesque creatures— hobbled-together by forces I couldn’t escape or control. I was acutely aware I wasn’t going to have much of a future unless I made one for myself. I had no idea how I was going to do that, or even if I could. I didn’t have any life skills. I didn’t show it, but I struggled to do many things that came easily to my peers. Because of this, I can tell you that speaking to you as Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate, as an author, and the recipient of a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing, wasn’t the life I saw for myself.
But I had a gift with words. I began to write poetry. The Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad changed my life. As a woman and a poet, she defied the male order of her world, and challenged ideas of what poetry should be and is supposed to do. She wrote her own life.
Poetry is the people’s art form. Like other kinds of high art, it seeks truth. In the variety and power of words I found myself. With words I could recall and restructure. I could lay claim. With poetry I could build a door, and seek an exit to my true life.
When I chose to pursue my writing, very few people encouraged me. Be a social worker, they said or a nurse. Be an accountant, an engineer. I’ve had many short professions. I worked on cruise ships. As a technical editor I proofed Canada’s largest pipeline projects. I was a pension assistant for the Federal Government. I wrote training materials for Air Traffic Controllers.
But writing and helping others with their writing is where I feel I am making a difference.
About five years ago I stumbled across a book written by eminent minds and discovered that I was a statistic. I was scattered across many studies gathered over the last forty years. It was as though the Brothers Grimm had taken up psychology. My story could also be told in percentages and control groups, disorders, medications, and dead ends. It was then I realized that I’d made my exit, I’d walked off the pages of my own life.
My mother taught me to read when I was two, and this made all the difference in my life. So many wonderful stories and ideas have changed me for the better. Literature brought me here and as a writer, it will take me further. But the deeper significance of literature for me is still the exit. The exit is where we leave the pages of our own lives, what’s been written so far, and head off in pursuit of a more fulfilling narrative, to choose the words we want to define us. This is the majesty of literature and language, books and words, they prime us to do this.
All of you are here tonight because you know the value of your own story. Or you know how important it is to help others. Literacy is not just a skill, it’s a key. You choose what it will open and where you will go when you can no longer find yourself in the pages of a book.
November 6, 2019