Authenticity is an Ongoing Process of Inquiry

Authenticity is an ongoing process of inquiry, not a static state of being. A person isn’t one day all of a sudden authentic, nor is authenticity something we achieve through accumulated effort.

As Brené Brown explains, “authenticy is a collection of choices that we have to make every day.” And then, if we are lucky, we get to rise up and make them all over again the next.

Authenticity is a word and concept that, from age 18 until recently, gave me the heebee jeebees. Mostly because I’m in an academic discipline that is suspect of essentialist ideas, but also because when academics do embrace authenticity, it is usually a pre-packaged variety of it, palatable to the powers that be. So, not authenticity at all.

When I leave the noise of academia behind, I find that authenticity is the core of everything I do. Authenticity is one of my core values, and to be inauthentic is to step out of my integrity.

Just because I know that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

One way authenticity pains me in particular is that often I’d prefer to fly under the radar, but my authenticity is a wee bit bossy, and has loud and rough hewn edges.

My authenticity often demands I behave in ways that will draw attention to myself when really I’d rather not.

My authenticity asks me to learn new skills, to grow, to be better.

When I’d rather stay in my office and read book after book and never leave the house, authenticity tells me to get my ass up.

Authenticity likes my discomfort.

For most of my adult life I have struggled with depression. Some of this is my biology.

But some of my depression stems from living out of alignment with my authenticity, from being out of touch with my core self and values.

Authenticity is energy, and when we don’t engage it, it metastasizes in a whole variety of ways.

Brené Brown has written extensively about this and explains that when we hide from or avoid authenticity, that energy instead often transforms into “anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”

That is quite a list, and most of us have experienced one, some, or all of the above.

authenticity is resistance

The patriarchy likes me depressed, because depression is a powerless state in which I will more easily eat the lies of capitalism.

Authenticity is necessary for agency, and the patriarchy works hard to keep us from being agents of joy, thought, love, and justice.

Authenticity is the center of our power.

Much of modern life is designed to keep us from being authentic, to keep us from understanding we’re not being authentic, thus keeping us in a state of powerlessness.

There is so much to unpack about authenticity, but the thing I really want you to take away right now is this: to be authentic is an act of resistance.

To resist is to push back, to rebel against oppression.

When something as necessary as authenticity is rebellious, the culture is broken.

To tap more deeply into your authenticity, do some reflection on the following questions.

  • What activities make you feel most alive?
  • What kinds of interactions with others enliven you?
  • When have others responded to you in deep and profound ways?

The answers to those questions are clues to your authenticity.

Send me an email [to cherri @]. I’d love to hear your answers.

Fire Inside: Poem

I’m not sure I’m done with this poem, but in the spirit of entering the discomfort zone, I’m ready to share it. 

This is the first poem I wrote after a decade of ignoring the voices that anted me to write.

I dreamed parts of this poem. It called to me in my sleep like words through the smoke.

Fire Inside

by Cherri Porter

you too can

set time aflame

and seed this dirt

Understanding Truth as Rage

I must have been born a truth teller, but I don’t have many memories of telling it.

What I have instead is like seeing multiple images compressed into one frame, exposure atop exposure, smell atop light atop sound.

Because my older childhood felt like one of indefinable conflict, I sometimes imagine I exited the womb with fists drawn, but probably not. By most accounts I was a reasonably happy little one.

In grade school, though, things changed, though not all at once and not with any particular catalyst. They just changed.

I took the city bus until sixth grade; in junior high I walked with friends most days; and in high school I took the school bus until I drove on my own or rode with friends.

During those bus riding days, I have more than one memory, on more than one bus ride, of standing up to confront the boys who were bullying younger or disabled kids—the kids I sat with.

For some reason, I never took bullying directed at me seriously. Maybe because I wasn’t particularly interested in the bullies personally, so I didn’t take what they said to me personally. But when their words and actions were directed at someone near me, I vibrated with rage.

I let the rage build inside me until I couldn’t contain it, then I stood up, faced the boys in the back of the bus, and screamed.

Truths I had no words for burst out of me as rage.

I had so few social skills I screamed nonsense sometimes, or just repeated what idiots I thought they all were over and over. But the rage was real, and it was recognized. I honestly think some of them were scared of me and my rage, though that just made them bully more.

Truths I had no words for burst out of me as rage. I raged at home, at school, and when I was older, at work. I was so inarticulate that it often wasn’t clear to others what I was upset about; it was energy and noise met by the adults around me with confusion or frustration or helplessness.

No one could help me channel or shape it, and like most negative emotions that are unchanneled, it turned inward.

I grew wounded by truth that only knew rage as a mode of expression. I think we all do in some ways. We might live with the wounds of injustice and inequity, or we live in the wounds of denial and lies.

I’ve come to think of my dangerous relationship with truth and rage as drive-by truthing. I let it rage out of me like uncontrolled weapon spray, and then I race off in the other direction so I don’t have to feel the consequences.

My young experiences taught me if I tell the truth, I best also run for cover.

I could see truth.

I could scatter truth like trash across an empty parking lot

But I couldn’t stand still in truth, with eyes wide and heart open. I couldn’t speak it with coherence and compassion.

As I began to examine this dynamic in my life over the last few years, changes became necessary.

From the outside, my life looks the same. I work the same jobs. I see the same people. I eat the same foods (except with less added sugar).

From the inside, though, there have been shifts. There is less blind rage and more varied vibrations. There is still red and hot-faced truth, but there is also the quieter kinds too. There is still fear, and still resistance, but I am aware and learning.

The shifting dynamics of how I process rage and truth are allowing me to stand in the circle of my authentic self.

Truth shouldn’t be a weapon, though it isn’t always a balm, either.

The truth can injure, but it can also heal.

I’m learning to chose the latter.

Nicki Bluhm and Josh Ritter

Starring Nicki Bluhm, as a woman coming into her power, and Josh Ritter, as the gleeful hobbit preacher.

Josh Ritter Band

A few weeks ago we went to the Crest Theater, a gorgeous art deco venue in downtown Sacramento, for an Americana show. I don’t leave the house much, and I especially don’t like to leave the house at night, so I’m pretty choosy about which events I go to. This was worth heading into the wild. (We also sat at the bar at The Capitol Garage, ate dessert, and talked to the bartender. Who even am I?)

I’d seen Nicki Bluhm before and I knew she was good, but my main incentive to go to this show was to see Josh Ritter. Although we’ve been listening to him for years, his Sermon on the Rocks album blew my socks off. All of the juicy religious imagery in that album destroys me.

Nicki Bluhm came out singing a cappella. When I last saw her at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, she was with her ex-band. With the whole band performing, I didn’t pay particular attention to her voice. But when she came out singing without accompaniment, well damn. That girl can sing. (We had front row center seats for this show and for Gillian Welch a couple of years ago, and now I’m ruined; I never want to sit in the back of a theater again, nor do I want to attend a big arena show. I like to see the music being made as much as I like to hear it. Another bonus at this show, I didn’t need my ear plugs. The sound was perfect.)

Sitting so close, we had the added benefit of watching Bluhm sing, seeing her neck and jaw and lips stretch to make sound. I can’t get over how amazing her voice is. It struck me that she is really a singer more than an instrumentalist, one who was lost playing in a band. She’s learning to fly as she plays alone. The woman has real courage and this is why:  she was standing in front of a crowd playing guitar, even though she’s really not a confident guitar player. Since I was up close, I noticed, but I’m guessing the further back you were, the less you focused on her hand placement and concentration.

We, many/most of us, have the idea that we have to be perfect or have it all worked out before we can start our business/write our book/do our art. Bluhm is an artist who had to reinvent herself publicly after a very public break up from the partner and band she was with for more than a decade. Bluhm is courageous and fierce, performing brand new songs, playing her guitar the best she can, and lighting the audience on fire.

Maybe the most striking thing was that her performance felt authentic. I felt like I was witnessing live art, literally. And, her dress was all kinds of gorgeous. When I saw her at Hardly Strictly, she was wearing a white pant suit with bell bottoms, which struck me as a bold choice considering most of the other performers went with an Americana or rock n’ roll vibe. This time she wore a full body black dress that shimmered and reflected the light magically. My husband, who doesn’t care about dresses, commented on it. Then, at the intermission, the twenty-something dudes behind me commented on it. It was mesmerizing. (You can sort of see the dress here, but this image doesn’t do it justice.)

The enthusiasm was so pure, like a life jacket from the universe in these confounding and cynical waters.

Josh Ritter, on the other hand, is freaking gosh darn adorable, as is his band of misfits. (Like, the guitar player is Meathead-from-Archie Bunker adorable and the bass player is proud-of-my-cunnilingus-skills adorable and the keyboard player couldn’t-contain-his-joy adorable). The description and I came up with after watching him perform a couple of songs is that he is a gleeful hobbit preacher. He jumps up and closes his eyes and smiles and is so dang excited to be alive. The second he started singing the crowd broke out in smiles. The enthusiasm was so pure, like a life jacket from the universe in these confounding and cynical waters.

I’ve always had an affinity for excellent songwriters. When I first learned that many artists and bands didn’t write their own music I felt cheated. (BTW, I don’t anymore, but as a young person I was both more idealistic and less intellectually flexible, which I suppose is what being a young person is all about.)

In my formative years I sought out musicians who wrote the lyrics, the music, and performed. I became even more impressed with the singer-songwriter when I tried to learn to play guitar. I took lessons for a while. I practiced quite a bit (and I apologize to my neighbors on West Street in Ames for that). I just was not good. I recognize that with more dedicated practice I would have improved, but I seriously had no real talent and could never get the hang of how to keep the beat, which is a basic component of musicianship. I also sucked at strumming, which looks much easier than it is. When I quit trying to play, I could pick a very staccato “Blackbird,” and that’s as good as I got before I gave my guitar to a friend who actually played it.

I also can’t sing worth a shit. I like to sing, but have zero natural ability. I tried to take singing lessons, too. It was one of those things I decided to do about a decade ago to create more joy in my life. Turns out, at least with my teacher, singing lessons are not fun at all. It sucked joy rather than created it. Weird, that.

When I started writing this I thought it was about the concert, and it is, but then all the stuff about not playing guitar and not signing came out. So I thought about what that was about. At first I thought it was about doing you. Nicki and Josh both embody themselves. There is a clarity to their stage personas that resonates.

As I was driving home tonight I heard someone on a podcast say that what creatives have in common is passion. I don’t tend to spend much time thinking about passion, and some days I might feel like I don’t have an answer to the question, what is your passion?, but I do today.

Maybe in an alternate universe I am a singer songwriter, but in this one I’m a teacher and I am pretty passionate about that. Even though I teach writing, I am more passionate about teaching than writing. I am more passionate about teaching poetry than reading or writing it. I am more passionate about engaging people in writing than I am in producing a body of work myself.

If you want to hop on the Josh Ritter bandwagon, start with Sermon on the Rocks for a more intense experience, or Gathering for a more melodic pop fun.

Manifesto: I’m a Motherfucking Lighthouse

A few months ago I was asked an important question, though it seemed inconsequential at the time. My answers to that question have shaped my behavior since. That question was:

What did 17-year-old Cherri want/like/feel?

I didn’t have an answer right away, but that 17-year-old’s voice and values have come back to me, through the years, and get louder inside the more I quiet and listen.

For years I entirely ignored 17-year-old Cherri.

I hushed her off as an idealistic fool. I grew up. I became cynical.

After 26 years, 17-year-old Cherri is done being ignored.

She had ideals, that one, but she was no fool. She understood the cynicism was no way to live.

A friend made a video after our first semester of college that was a little bit silly and a little bit serious. It was shot on a cassette tape, so I never saw the results back then, but a few years ago he digitized it and posted it to social media.

This friend, who moved away senior year of high school, was back visiting half of our graduating class in Iowa and recording it for posterity. Mostly, we’re all just hanging out and having a good time in the shots.

He did, however, pause to ask everyone what their major was. Most of us were undecided, which strikes me now as an optimistic view of the future–a view that there would be time yet to explore and decide.

I was undecided, too. But this is what I said to him after I told him I didn’t have a major:

My major is life, kind of, and I think that there is an Indigo Girls song that says, ‘If the world is night / shine my life like a light,’ and that’s what I want to do with my life. That’s an important thing about me.

I gave a cheeky grin at the end. In the still, I am positively adorable.

Most importantly, though I was young and sweet, I was confident in that assertion.

I did not look naive or foolish.

I looked sure. I knew this was true.

That was my intention at 17, 19, 21—and even at 25. When I dropped out of grad school (which is whole different story), a gal in the program asked me what I’d do instead. Only half jokingly, I told her I was moving to California to become an alternative healer.

The light so badly wanted to shine, but I didn’t know how to let it yet. I lost my way.

Lost it to depression, chronic pain, health challenges, marriage, parenting, the forces of evil and darkness in the world at large.

You name it, I used it as a way to avoid my truth.

My avoidance took many shapes, and I grew a distorted vision of my true self.

I began to see myself as naturally cynical and bitter. As naturally difficult and disruptive. As outside the lines, and cranky as all get out.

I thought that because I was irreverent, I couldn’t be holy.

I believed that because I was cranky, I couldn’t be kind.

My cynicism was so pervasive at times, lightness had little place in my world.

That is a bad way to live.

I let the weight of darkness have power over the brightest parts of me.

I hid my light in a bed of depression under blankets of pain.

I ate longing and despair and starved myself of other nourishment.

This is what I know now to be true. This is what reconnected to my 17 year old self has taught me:

Lightness and depression aren’t mutually exclusive.

Light and pain aren’t on opposite sides of a spectrum.

Lightness is my essence, even when it’s not visible through the haze of struggle.

I can’t wait to feel better to change my life.

I can’t wait to be healthier to get in touch with my truest self.

I can’t wait until the sun shines on me everyday to follow the dreams that have just now begun to whisper up to me from 26 years of debris.

There is no future. There is only now.

If the world ends tomorrow, do I want to spend my last day glued to a newsfeed feeling irate about the forces of evil? Feeling angry and helpless in the face of disasters and crimes and terrorism and abhorrent politics?

Hell no.

I am a lightworker.

I am a motherfucking lightworker.

I am made of light.

I am a lighthouse so others have a guide in the night. So others can strike flint to their own truth.

I will live in light.

I will no longer fling myself against the walls of darkness created by others.

During that first semester of college, the one that had just concluded when the video I mentioned above was recorded, my work study job was in the dorm cafeteria.

Two days a week I worked the line in Friley Hall, swiping student ID cards for meals. At the time, Friley Hall was the second largest dormitory in the United States, and we served thousands of students a day.

I loved working the line. I smiled at everyone. I flirted with everyone. I remembered names, pointed out cool t-shirts, and had inside jokes with dozens of people.

My nickname that one fall semester in 1992: Sunshine.

I am still cranky as fuck some days, but I now acknowledge the lightness and the shine as part of my true nature.

<©2018 Cherri Porter>