The older I get, the more emotional I find I'm getting.
But it wasn't the age that had me tearing up while driving home listening to Arielle Estoria's spoken word project, Symphony of a Lioness, released in April 2016.
I was struck by the way Arielle beautifully reminds people of their worth through her words, and I found myself hearing reminders I unknowingly needed to hear. Like the words in her poem, This Is For You:
"For the men searching for the little boys living inside of them,
You will not find him on the bottom of your briefcase.
It is okay to go play in the sand sometimes."
I recently spoke with the California native about running from creativity, believing words have power even when you don't feel like writing, and leveraging the power of words to remind people of their worth.
What do you do?
When people ask me what I do, I say it depends on the day. For the past year and a half, I've been a spoken word poet and a speaker. I get to travel and do those things, and it's been a huge blessing honestly. Opportunities have opened up that are far beyond what I could've imagined. I just said I was going to be a creative, and I didn't know what that meant necessarily.
I'm transitioning out of juggling multiple jobs and now I teach theater to fourth and fifth graders. I went through this frenzy of having to figure out what my real life was. I couldn't pay my bills. I had to move out of the house I was living in and now I live with a family and I nanny and pay a little bit of rent. I really struggled with being an adult and not being able to sustain myself, so I applied to a bunch of practical 9-to-5 jobs thinking that was the route I was supposed to take and the only job that came out of two weeks of applying for positions was this teaching artist position. That was a very clear moment for me where I realized I wasn't done yet. There was still a glittery mess for me to leave behind.
So I've narrowed it down: I'm a writer, a speaker, and a creative. Those are very broad because I don't just want to be known as a poet. I know that I'm supposed to use words, and, however that falls, those are the footsteps I want to follow.
How did you get there?
I graduated from Azusa Pacific almost two years ago now. I studied psychology in school. I double majored in theater for my first two years, and then I dropped it because I didn't want to be on the stage. I said that theater people were like Tinker Bell. They needed the applause to live. I didn't want that to be me. I didn't want to have to be on stage.
So I dropped theater. And then of course, right after I dropped theater, poetry came into my view. I say that I didn't find poetry. Poetry found me. I didn't go looking for it. Sometimes I feel like poetry almost chased me down because I did run from anything creative. I performed a monologue and then someone thought that was poetry, so I tried to tell them it was theater, but it turned into two years on a competitive poetry team and then leading a poetry club on campus. Then, friends who had events would ask me to come do poems. Some people wanted me to come and talk to their life groups or the people that they mentored, so it just kind of spiraled into something I did.
I went into graduation really confused as to what I was supposed to be doing because I had this plan: I was going to go to grad school and continue working at a university. But in the midst of applying and finishing those goals, I just stopped myself midway. I'm a Christian, so none of the things I do are out of my own accord. I just knew that something was compelling me not to go with my left brain and pursue this packaged plan that I had, so I decided to take the next year and be a creative – whatever that meant.
That looked like getting a website and business cards and saying that I was a poet, that I was a speaker. It was on my card, but my card was way more confident than I was. People would asked me what I do, and I'd be like I write things sometimes then sometimes I say them out loud, but I still really struggled with saying, "I'm a spoken word poet."
Why did you run from creativity?
I have all the psychology numbers against me: I'm the oldest child. I'm a pastor's kid. There were all of the expectations – not even necessarily from my parents, but from my church and the organizations that I found myself in. I was always in leadership. I was always looked to as an example. Creativity, in my world, was accepted, but it wasn't a profession. Creativity wasn't a job.
My parents let me go to an arts high school, so I went and it was fun, but then I was looking on to the next real thing. I kept theater and psychology because I wanted to do art therapy for kids. I always tried to find the practical, tangible light in creativity. It couldn't just be fluff. I needed to hold something. I needed to be sustained by something. That was always my mentality.
I'm significantly harder on myself than other people are on me. I self-destruct, I self-analyze, and I pick and I pick and I pick at myself. So for me, creativity was fun to do. It was good for me and I could do it, but only because I also did psychology. Only because I did the things that were practical.
I also struggled with what Christianity and artistry looked like and if that was a real thing. Can you be both? Can you be a creative human and also a spiritual human? And not just spiritual, but Christian. Can I do both? Because all I heard and all I saw were movies where people would pursue arts and creativity and then their life would be a downward spiral and they'd live in this black hole and they'd have to just sing worship music for the rest of their lives. I carried those images with me because I was really naive.
Now, I've witnessed God in the most bizarre of places. All the places people told me He wasn't, He was. Like in open mics in New York and downtown L.A. In backyards. It was just this really beautiful experience of realizing that I was creative; therefore, I have the ability and I'm supposed to create. And everyone has the ability to do that. Now, we have architecture and science and all of these things that we've deemed practical and logistical, but they are creative. At the heartbeat of what those things are, they are creative. I didn't realize that that could be me too.
I ran from the fear in creativity. I don't like not making sense of things. I didn't want to pursue creativity because there was so much open and there was so much uncertainty in it, and that was terrifying. Now, I live the uncertainty and it's still terrifying, but, even in the midst of the fear, you just have to do it anyway.
Creatives tend to be highly spiritual beings. What role does spirituality play in your poetry?
I think, for one, I knew that poetry was not something I could've chosen for myself, so it had to come from someone else because I had the plan. I had the package. It made sense. But my determination was not to go home and that means I had to find living and find work, so that's how I know this was very much a God thing because I wasn't gung-ho about being a creative. That was something that I had to wrestle with for years.
Then, creativity became this big open door of figuring out what I was going to do with my life. The practical didn't make sense anymore. I've always been a words person, and that's always been something that was spoken over me. I just thought I was articulate and that I could communicate well, so I thought I'd work with college students, that I would be a counselor, but I looked only at the surface. There was a lot of digging that had to happen.
In the moment where I thought I couldn't do this or that I wasn't made for this, I realized those things were all correct. But I'm equipped for this, and that's different. You don't get to just take a class or take a workshop. You can't YouTube and learn how to do things, and we miss a lot of times the fact that people are just gifted at things, that they're called to do things. No training comes with that. That's just something ingrained in your being from the very beginning. It just developed and developed and developed, and now I can see a little bit more of the web that was created.
Like, why did I go to an arts high school? Why, in seventh grade, did I perform a piece of Shakespeare? I didn't know it at the time, but my teacher told my parents they had to put me in something artistic. She can't be in anything normal. I think that God has been a constant in this because none of it makes sense, and that's the only thing that keeps you going because you realize it must be beyond you. It has to be bigger than me, and I have to be able to say yes to it.
Even now, I'm in a season where I'm just in a funk. I can't tell if I'm complacent or if I'm tired. I can't tell if I'm unmotivated or if I have nothing left to give. I'm in this place where I'm wrestling with how to navigate this season because I'm still expected to show up. I'm still expected to write, and I'm still expected to speak. I went through this season where I said I was going to be a creative and I made money wherever I could and I got invited to things where I wrote poems I had no attachment to, that I had no spiritual connection to, and I created out of necessity rather than calling.
Now, I'm having to rewire myself. One of my mentors said she prayed over me and she saw me as a candle and I was standing tall and I was lit. There was still a flame, but the candle was being melted down and melted down and melted down. So I'm in a melting season and a lot of internal thoughts are coming from that. A lot of stepping back is coming from that. But, even in that moment, it's not that God's not here. I can just feel a stillness and a pause more than anything else.
I can't do this on my own. You're not supposed to do it on your own. We're not capable of doing it on our own, so that has been very resounding, that we are made small only so that God can move so big. I don't know how to not come back to my faith. I can use the spiritual terms: it's a light, it's a guiding force, it's a muse – it's Jesus. I don't know how not to get to that point. Even in my poetry, somehow people find Him. And that's the point. If I'm getting up and speaking and that's not what people are finding, then I'm doing something wrong. I'm not doing my job.
Every time I perform, that's what I pray: "God, show up." Because if people only get me, what I said, the way I said it, what I wore, what I looked like, I am doing meaningless work.
Is there value in writing out of necessity?
I guess it comes down to it not being about me. It's never been about me. That's a mentality I've really tried to hold on to because of how much getting on a stage and people looking at you gets to our heads. We wrestle with thinking highly of ourselves, so humility plays a huge part in finding value in writing even when you don't feel like it.
My generation, especially, has a tendency to get so caught up in not creating unless we're inspired by something or in love with it. We use a lot of that in terms of motivation, whereas our parents were motivated because they needed to get it done. You didn't have a choice of whether you were in love with it or whether it made you happy. You just did it. We are really fortunate and also really spoiled to have the space where we can turn anything into a job now and we can sustain ourselves by doing what we love.
So for me, any event where I don't want to be there at all or I wrote my poem the night before at 11:00, I've found that's where God has spoken to me the most. It's where I met the people I needed to meet in that moment, and it's never about you actually getting up on stage and it's never about the poem at all.
Has there been a recent event where you saw that clearly?
The last event I did, it was for a Thanksgiving service and I kind of wrote a poem, kind of didn't, and then afterward I ended up meeting this guy who I'd been emailing back and forth with someone on behalf of and he just immediately dove in and began asking me questions like, What are you doing to feed your soul? What are you doing to meet with God? And it caught me off guard. The guy doesn't follow me on Instagram, but just that day I had posted something about feeling uninspired and asking people what they read and what they do and he was asking me the questions I needed to hear.
It's always in those moments or on those days where I feel like I'm not capable that God shows up and that's the best part because I more so realize that it has nothing to do with me and that it's not about me because, regardless, people still need to be spoken to and people still need to be encouraged and it's my job to do that. I have the ability to change someone's life with words. I may not feel like doing that, but maybe that person didn't feel like waking up or getting out of bed that day, so it get downs to the fact that I have a job to do – and a beautiful job to do, at that.
You do your job, and yes, there is reward, but also I'm obsessed with the Hamilton musical right now and he has this quote where he says: "What's a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see." And half of this work is exactly that. In those moments where I don't know what I'm writing or what I'm saying, it's calling on God to show up because I will mess it up if He doesn't.
What is the story you're seeking to tell in your poetry?
I didn't know, until after I did Symphony of a Lioness and other people listened to it, that I have key words in my poems. I have things that I say a lot. One of them is the idea of glitter and gold. I have zero idea where that started, but I've always been a little bit fantastical. As a little girl, I didn't really play with Barbies. I played Mermaid in the bathtub. I've just always kind of been enamored with fantasy and magic and whether those are things that apply in real life.
This glitter and gold concept came in terms of me encouraging people, like you are glitter and gold. Then, that turned into we are those things; therefore, we leave those things behind us. Glitter gets everywhere, and gold is distinct. So not leaving a legacy behind, but literally leaving glitter behind.
I had a mom encourage me and say, "Keep leaving a glittery mess." I just felt that was the most beautiful thing because it sparkles, it catches your eye, and it doesn't go anywhere. It sticks with you, and my motto for words and for this brand I've created, a.k.a. myself, is "Words not for the ears but for the soul." If people are just hearing things and not feeling them, then what's the point of words?
Ninety percent of the time, tears tend to be the response to my poems and I think that's just because I, at my core, am a feeler to too many things and that comes out in my poems. At what point in time did we become so afraid of feeling, of being okay with what we're feeling, of being okay with being angry and with grieving and with happiness and with sadness and with sitting in those things? We just brush all of those off so quickly and so easily. We are complex humans made to feel a lot of things.
My poems are this plea and this urge for people to just feel and be okay with that and be okay with letting the tears fall and not letting that be a sign of anything. It's not a sign of weakness. It's not a sign of strength. It's just what's happening to you right now, and we need to let that be okay.
I don't say that I write poetry; I say that I spill. From being this type-A, organized, oldest child, pastor's daughter, I had this one friend, who I actually wrote my first book with, who would visit me at my coffee shop and always tease me. He'd try to get me to spill things and try to make me mess up at work. Then, I freaked out on him one day and asked him why he always did that. He responded by asking why it mattered if I spilled something or if I messed up. You mess it up, you clean it up, and then you keep on going.
That was really resounding for me because I had so much anxiety about messing up or not doing something right. So when you spill, there's no distinct way of doing it. There's no order really. You just let those words spill out of you. All of my poems I write in one sitting. I don't really go back to them. If they're coming out, they're coming out.
Then, reminding people they're enough is really important and that's probably because I've convinced myself one too many times that I am not that. How many people do that? How many people are convinced that they are not enough? That they're not worthy of being loved and being loved well? If I'm feeling that, I'm sure hundreds of people and thousands of people are feeling that as well.
Also, I want to let people know that they're not alone. If I can tell my story and all people hear is "Me too," then that in itself is good because a lot of times we'll feel like we're on a deserted island by ourselves and that no one feels the things we feel or experiences the things we experience, and that's true to an extent, but, at the core of it, you've experienced hurt and I've experienced hurt. Admitting that to one another and sitting with one another in that hurt is so beautiful and something that we have drastically neglected as humans.
Then, there's this theme of a light. If people can recognize God in that somewhere and not even know what to call Him but still know that it's there, I think that is the coolest thing. You did your job if that's what people experience.
Why do you believe words are powerful in reminding people of their worth?
I think as much as we would like to convince ourselves that we don't need to be encouraged or spoken well of or have people see things in us we can't see for ourselves, we do. It's not shallow to want to be told that you're handsome or strong or confident. It's motivating.
It can get detrimental, sure, depending on how much you need that or how much you believe you don't have those things. There are lines and boundaries that get crossed with that, but, at the same time, especially with women, we often try to avoid light shining on who we are because that will shine light to the truth of who we are. At the core of it, we're just afraid that people won't accept the truth of who we are, that people won't accept that the truth of who we are is beautiful or strong or courageous.
I think it's important to leverage the power of words to remind people of their worth because we need it. I think it's important because there are people that are very compelled and very adamant about doing poetry as a profession and we can't do it if it's just us on a stage and no one's in the room. There has to be an audience. I write as if my poems are letters, like I'm giving this to someone.
I like the idea that we're all just walking one another home. If I can pull you closer to God, if I can pull you closer to accepting the beautiful glittery mess that you are, then I think we'd just live fuller, more abundant lives. We'd be more confident in stepping into whatever it is we've been put on this earth to do, especially with kids.
I've always loved kids. I've always been a camp counselor. I taught Sunday school. I had a nannying business at 14. And just working with kids now, the little instances where kids feel discouraged from sharing break my heart. They should be so encouraged, and they're not, so how do you revive that spirit back into them? I've seen too many kids who carry more stories than an 11-year-old should. That is disheartening. If they can't be told that they can do whatever it is their hearts set out to do, that they can be whatever their hearts set out for them to be, how in the world are we going to even believe an inkling of that as adults?
Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have a podcast together and they talk about how a lot of adults stray away from art because of that one time in middle school where they were told their painting sucked or they wrote a paper and were told, "Don't quit your day job." Those encounters stick with people, so they're 50, 60, 70, 80 years old and they never think to begin because of that one moment. Fear has the ability to cripple, and, if we can cripple fear, the amount of power and capacity that that has to equip people is amazing.
What are you consuming right now that you love?
I'm in between creative podcasts, so The Influence Network and Being Boss, which is all women entrepreneurs and creatives who are just killing it in the world right now, and then also the Relevant Podcast.
In the mornings, I just try to feed my spiritual soul, so I either don't listen to any music and I just drive my hour commute in silence or I listen to a sermon or worship music. If I didn't go to my church that wekend, I usually listen to that sermon. I listen to Bethel and Bobbie Houston.
I love Serial. I haven't been able to listen to the new one because I'm still a little bit torn from the first season. So I kind of go all over the place, and then I always ask people what podcasts they're listening to. Right now, I'm pulling from people that had posted on my Instagram and also my Facebook, so I'm just listening to what other people are listening to.
Then, in the afternoons, I listen to Hamilton and only Hamilton.
Car Window Poetry is a movement of people gathering their friends, writing encouraging poems, and sharing those poems on car windows. What words of encouragement would you like to speak into someone's life today?
You are enough.
I have stickers, and that is the only quote on one of them. You are enough. We don't hear the word "enough" enough, at all, in any regard. My pastor was just talking about this on Sunday. You don't hear that word "enough" enough. We hear about needing more or not having enough or even "I'm okay. I'm full. Actually, I'll have a little bit more." We don't even understand the concept of enough, especially when it comes to who we are.
We never think that we are enough. We always think that we have to do more, that we have to be more, and that gets exhausting. We will put ourselves into our grave thinking that we are not enough, so that would probably be the first and the biggest thing.
This Is For You is one of my letters and I don't even remember when or why I wrote it or if it was for a specific event or how it came out, but I don't think we call each other by name enough. If I could do that in a moment for strangers, I would in that moment to allow people to be seen and to look people in the eyes with words and touch a part of them in their hearts that maybe they don't let people see or tap into.
To learn more about Arielle, you can check out her website here. It features her most recent spoken word album Symphony of a Lioness, as well as her poetry book Vagabonds & Zealots. You can also watch videos of her spoken word performances and book Arielle for your next poetry event!