Poem About My Rights

New Age pundits will say

that the point of power is where you

take what life gives you

and respond to it in constructive ways

rather than reacting to what someone else

has done or failed to do

Nobody can make you feel anything

curtly says the life coach

who brandishes a sheet of paper

with a colorful wheel containing individual “feeling” words

like enraged, enthralled, elated

after she gently corrects me when I offer that I feel overlooked

because “overlooked” is not a feeling word—

it’s a weapon I’m using to project blame outward

while keeping myself comfortably cocooned

in a blanket of self-righteous indignation

I struggle with this assessment

but I’m willing to be wrong

so I consider what would happen

if I did the thing she’s telling me

if I chose my words so they fit neatly into her suggested template

for conflict resolution:

“The story I’m telling myself is that you might be [blank]

and I’m feeling [blank]”

I consider what would happen if I were to tell

an inconsiderate workshop participant:

“The story I’m telling myself is that you might be a racist

based on everything you’ve said and failed to say

and I’m feeling pretty fucking angry and uncomfortable”

Would my assessment be incorrect?

If a racist barb falls in a forest in which none of the

other forms of sentient life particularly care or notice

does it mean it didn’t happen?

I think of the way I round corners

with a shopping cart

so timorously, lest someone in a hurry

come careening into me

I think of the trouble I go to

to contain my thoughts and judgments

to make them a secret only I know

I think of the way I round corners with words

hedging my judgments in the currently accepted

painfully polite chosen lexicon

so that no one can accuse me of reneging personal responsibility

so that no one can accuse me of

springing like an under-fed animal

on some imagined offense

Somehow we get past this awkward burp

facilitated by the fact that where most people’s faces would be

just their names remain in white block letters

and “Your Internet connection is unstable”

splashes its cautionary announcement

across my screen

What happens in you when you speak your truth this way?

When you choke down your protest and smile

at every innocuous invitation, like

“How do you feel about abundance?”

Abundance isn’t nearly precise enough a word

to hold the vertiginous expanse of itself

Abundance probably feels like

the billion trillion stars in the observable universe

an idea that scares me and makes me surge

toward the flickering candle flame of sufficiency

But I won’t say this

or tell you how I feel

I’ll merely smile

jot down notes in my gratitude journal

take whatever it is you offer

finesse and crank it through the mighty wheel of my imagination

and do my best to make it my own

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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