So, it’s been a while since I’ve written. There’s no real explaining it other than to say that this poem reveals a bit of where my frame of mind and heart have been…“mydreams, my works, must wait till after hell” (Gwendolyn Brooks)
I’ve been sick. Not in any terribly dire way—just in a terribly disruptive way. My inner ear has been unusually and relentlessly unfriendly for the last few months bringing about frequent periods of hearing loss, imbalance, and vertigo. These symptoms have haunted my days and stalked my spirit, even when not present, for the last five years. They weaponize themselves further with feelings of anxiety, fear, helplessness, and most recently, because of their refusal to retreat, hopelessness. It was difficult to see the rather hopeless path I was walking as my mind was foggy and focused on simply making it through each day. It wasn’t until I was granted a few days of feeling well recently that I looked around to realize I had arrived some place unfamiliar to my bright, optimistic, unconquerable spirit. I couldn’t see my way out and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to try.
But I knew what was missing—I wasn’t reading poetry…I wasn’t writing…I wasn’t myself. And that had to change. The trouble was that without realizing it, as Brooks writes, I had stored “…my honey and…my bread/In little jars and cabinets of my will.” And apparently, I had placed them on the top shelf, out of reach. They were too important, too critical, too central to my being and I refused to tarnish them with the ashes from which I hadn’t found the strength to take flight.
I would wait.
And then I realized the veracity of Brooks’ 5th line. Two short sentences, one line of poetry; a line divided into simplicity, while burdened by the weight of truth—my truth. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete.”
Poetry and writing are part of my being. Without them, I’m hardly whole and without them I find it hard to breathe and impossible to move. Sure, I was still physically getting through my days and I was smiling through as many of them as possible, but my spirit—the intangibility that ignites the fire within my heart, eyes, thoughts—was starving, weak and waning.
Returning wasn’t easy—I had to make myself do it (and as you can see by this not so uplifting piece, I had to work through some stuff as I did). But, the more I read, the more I write, the more alive I begin to feel and suddenly health and hope seem possible again. I’d be lying if I said I felt fully invigorated because I read some poems and sat down to write, but I’m on my way—I’m on a better path and my jars of bread and honey are getting easier to reach and open.
I shared Brooks’ poem with students last week as we were opening a study on the impact of justice (or the lack thereof) in our world and on the individual. It’s always tricky sharing poems I’m so personally attached to with kids. Inevitably, those are the poems that evoke initial student responses of “this is ridiculous” or “this is why I don’t like poetry” or my personal favorite, “the poet is wrong” (though this does bring up conversations of empathy and questions of when do we have the right to deny the feelings of others—and it also brings up the opportunity to discover what can happen when a poem is read multiple times so that its words are no longer being decoded and its ideas and truth become present and palpable). But this piece felt important to our work because it reveals that justice isn’t something that exists solely in the courthouse and with lawmakers. So, I brought it to my kids. I wanted them to connect with the poem, to dig in and understand it, to feel its worth and weight. In order for that to occur, they had to be free to respond honestly, in their own way, and in a safe space, one that was theirs and theirs alone—their writer’s notebooks.
After I read it aloud and they reread, reflected, and wrote (or drew), we talked—well, they talked and I listened. They got it. They knew this moment of storing honey and bread. They had been or are currently incomplete and hungry. My kids, while they seem to have plenty, know significant loss; they know depression and anxiety; they know isolation. They felt as one with the poet—a solidarity of sorts. Many were amazed to know they weren’t the only ones who had felt this way and not only that but that a famous poet had felt it deeply enough to write it down.
They recognized that injustice doesn’t have to be as far sweeping and giant as racial inequity or police brutality or child poverty. They recognized that sometimes even their lives could feel unjust. They recognized that they weren’t alone—that this was a human thing. But mostly, they connected to what personal injustice had felt like and in doing so, doors were opened to be able to begin a discussion of systemic injustice with fewer barriers—because we are all human and injustice is a weight, a burden—one that maybe cannot be overcome alone. In connecting to an issue before putting up the barriers of having to be right, it is often more possible to understand it more fully. We were ready to begin.
This is why poetry is essential. It reminds us ever so gently that we are all humans—no matter what, we are all humans—and with that comes a common bond and a responsibility to sometimes reach the jars and loosen the tops and stand side by side until the “devil days of…hurt” are no more.
(just as an aside—we also read and discussed this poem as we moved through these early parts of our study on justice– “Kindness” [Naomi Shihab Nye])