April 29th, 2010 – The View from Another Street

Over 10 years ago, someone introduced me to a poem by Portia Nelson.  It was called an Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.  It came to me at a time when I was being haunted by ghosts from the past.  I kept finding myself in the same unhappy situations and in the same unhappy relationships.

I read the poem and I saw myself walking down that street…falling into that hole over and over again.  And I started to realize that I made the choice to fall in that hole.

For a long time after that, every time I found myself in a hole, I would stop and ask myself, “Is this my fault?  Am I responsible for this or am I a victim of circumstance? ”  I learned to accept the responsibility for falling in the hole and taking the punishment of trying to crawl my way up and out of it.  I don’t fall into too many holes anymore.

A few years ago, I wondered who was Portia Nelson.  And the important question was what sort of life circumstances prompted her to write this poem.  With the help of Google, I found out who she was.  Betty May Nelson took the name Portia after her friends gave her the nickname from a radio show at the time, “Portia Faces Life”.  She became a well-known cabaret singer in the 1950’s.  She also was involved in the musical theatre, writing songs for the stage.  She was also a painter, photographer and actress.  If you want to see her on film, rent Dr. Doolittle, The Sound of Music, The Trouble with Angels or The Other.  Or if you are a fan of the soap, All My Children, she occasionally appeared as Mrs. Gurney from 1983 to 1991.

It was in 1970 when she decided to write a book, “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery”, a series of poems or ruminations on life and relationships.  Out of this book came the poem that has become essential to many individuals in the recovery process, as well as therapy and support groups.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN FIVE SHORT CHAPTERS

 

by Portia Nelson

 

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

Here’s why the poem is so important:

Chapter I – We acknowledge there’s a problem and that we are ready to change but aren’t ready to accept responsibility for our circumstances.

Chapter II – We find it hard to believe that we are in the same place again – but still blaming other people or things….”the hole jumped out at me”!

Chapter II – We finally accept responsibility!  And we recognize that our decisions are now part of a pattern of behavior…and WE are the ones who must change NOT everyone else.

Chapter IV – Through understanding ourselves, a change in thought process takes place…and our behavior changes, too.

Chapter V – A whole new level of maturity is reached.  Instead of making concessions to avoid the hole, change takes a completely DIFFERENT path.  Instead of tolerating old friends, we make new ones.  Instead of relying on old coping mechanisms to deal with life, we choose healthier behavior such as meditation, prayer, etc.

I got an email yesterday that today is Poem in My Pocket day as part of National Poetry Month.  I printed out a copy of Portia’s poem and folded it in my pocket.  But I also posted it here and on my Facebook page….maybe someone else will discover life once you walk down a different street.

A video interpretation of the poem:

In this clip from All My Children, you can catch Portia at the 4:00 mark:

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