Poetry is a human thing

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])

Revelation

I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid who or what I really am. Trying not to see, feel, or be the turmoil inside of myself. I’ve spent my whole life covering for the anxiety simmering and seething within. Trying to keep it contained, to maintain “normalcy”, to be like everyone else–to smile. I’ve spent my whole life with people who think it is as simple as “there’s no reason to be nervous” or “that is so irrational, you’re too smart for that” or “just have some fun.” Wondering if anyone really understands what it is like to live one life, confined by the walls of anxiety, knowing that a better alternative is out there, just unavailable to me. I’ve spent my whole life keenly aware of the toll my selfish anxious world takes on my friends and family. Wondering why they continue to tolerate my nonsense. I’ve spent my whole life in an effort not to be my own worst enemy. Striving to become louder than the anxiety enriched voice of doubt within.

Lonely and isolating, anxiety stalked my brain at all hours, preying on my weakness and jealously seeking my companionship. It sabotaged my thought process with constant reminders of what I absolutely could not do and all of the germy places and things I should avoid. It made ridiculous rituals and paths seem intelligent and even clever…after all, I didn’t want to get sick.

When it sensed my strength rising and my thoughts clearing, anxiety charged panic with the takedown. Panic was a tougher opponent—subtle at first, as it crept surreptitiously from some dark corner of my mind. Unnoticed. I had no way of protecting myself, of establishing a means of defense. The struggle to survive panic’s attack felt intense and like a losing battle. Shaking from head to toe, sick and breathless, I would try to fight back, to overcome the internal siege with reason and rational thought, but panic was louder than I could hope to be and for a while I just had to wait it out—retreating to some internal nook or cranny until it was safe to exit.

My parents called me “the clam” because, well, I just didn’t really talk about how I was feeling most of the time. They and others, my husband included, have tried to understand and have tried to help. They’ve listened to what I was willing to share when I was willing to share it, but I withheld so much. I’m 41 years old and I still don’t really talk about it with any specificity. This piece of writing is the most I have said about this part of my life and the details of it still remain carefully veiled. I’ve spent the past 32 years working this out—fighting back with skills and strategies that even now sometimes feel vague and unequipped to handle the weight of the work, but I put them to use anyway. Panic doesn’t visit as frequently as he used to—my understanding of his elusive and insidious ways have stripped some of his power and brought me into greater control. But it is hard work. Everyday. Hard work.

And then there are the moments when I look into the eyes of my own child or into the eyes of a student and witness a mirror image of my own struggle—and my heart sinks to my toes. I cannot make it better for them. I cannot remove their burden. Only they can do the work. But, I can let them know they are not alone. That in some way I understand. Community, in the midst of the isolation and doubt, can be a sort of salvation. I can offer that.

John Green’s new book Turtles All the Way Down offered me that community, imbuing me with the confidence to write this today. In his character Aza, I saw myself. My struggles never truly paralleled the magnitude of Aza’s. I was lucky in that way, I suppose. But the emotion tied to her anxious, compulsive moments, the honesty and truth of her character, the way her fight within herself impacted her family and friends—all of it—overwhelmed me as a reader. I had never seen this side of myself, my high school self especially, so clearly expressed on the page. I found myself having to put the book to the side from time to time because, well, I had to take a break…from myself. It was as though someone had extracted the deepest secrets I owned and shared them with the world. I have spent so much time in the last few decades denying myself, that to see a portrait so clearly painted terrified me. And at the same time made me realize, once again, that community can be salvation—and that words can offer a way out.

My interaction with Turtles All the Way Down proved to me again, in the most personal way, why we offer our students diverse books and choice when it comes to their reading. They need these moments. They need to see themselves on the page and to know that whoever they are, whatever they are going through the world of print doesn’t deny their existence…that the world doesn’t deny their worth. Jane Eyre was a great book and I loved every second of reading it, but access to a character dealing with anxiety the way Green portrays Aza would’ve helped my sophomore self far more.  I might have understood myself and what was happening on the inside a bit better and I might not have been so afraid of it all, knowing that I was not alone.

But our kids also need to see the lives, joys and struggles of those people whose worlds and experiences do not reflect their own. Growing to understand and care for a character can lead our students, and all readers, to a retraction of judgment and to an extension of empathy. It can take time, practice, nudging and conscientious reflection for our students to acknowledge their own bias and to build these bridges. However, in a world so darkened by judgment and the need to be right, in a world so taken with the simplicity of the single story, it would seem offering the chance for kids to find themselves in a book as well as empathy for others is the least we can do.

This week, I’ve opted to share Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” (you’ll have to scroll through the article to find the poem-but it is worth it). I realize, of course that neither of these poems are about anxiety directly, yet somehow the imagery takes me there as well as to the places intended by the poet. And on top of that, they are both simply beautiful pieces of poetry and emotion on the page.