April 2018

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Underneath that

For one and a half hours each week, I serve as a mentor in a writing group for young adults (ages 18-24) who are houseless and working to find housing. Three mentors generally attend each session (one of us takes each week off), and we may have from zero to twelve writers, depending on who shows up that day or who’s hanging out in the day center and wants to join the group.

When I arrive at the building a few blocks from my downtown bus stop, I punch in the code that unlocks the door (unless it has changed: then I push the intercom button and wait for someone to greet me.) I hold onto the handrail as I walk up twelve dark and dusty stars that open onto a large space of cubicles. There must be forty or fifty staff in cubicles upstairs. These staff help the young adults find housing resources, jobs, and so forth. A therapist has the office with a closed door three doors down on the left.

We gather in a conference room if the noise from outdoor construction isn’t too loud, and the leader reminds the group of the writing group’s purpose (to speak from the heart) and guidelines (to keep all members emotionally and physically safe).

Members of this group have always been smart and thoughtful. They live on the streets for some trauma they’ve experienced, not because they’re stupid. (They’re survivors.) At the point that they come to writers’ group, many of them live in the shelter at the back of this room, a place where they have a little privacy and can leave their things during the day. (They can’t be in the shelter during the day. For the rest of the day, many of them are starting jobs or spend time with the therapist, other programs, and resting, texting, or socializing in the day center.) They always have a free breakfast, usually cold cereal but last week scrambled eggs, strawberries, and pancakes.

To respect their privacy and the group’s confidentiality, I won’t say more about them, but I will share a little of my own story with them.

After my brain tumors and then graduating with a Masters from the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, I have been seeking ways to use my skills and experiences within the parameters of respecting my own disabilities to help others who struggle. Two years ago, I went to a Pongo workshop where leaders shared a method of writing poetry with teenagers in the juvenile detention center. I loved Pongo’s approach and wished I had known about it when I was teaching. This spring, through Pongo, I learned about the need for a mentor with this writing group for young homeless adults.

This volunteer job allows me to connect with young adults who write and with the mentors, and I feel like a group member who benefits as well as helps to lead. One thing I love about writing is that I am often surprised by what comes out of me, and so I learn about a self often so far below the surface that I don’t know them (not a grammatical error, but a semantic gender choice for this self.)

For the first six weeks, I said little and never led, but now I sometimes share my writing and lead once a month. I get my ideas from themes for leading from the writers, though the group’s membership may change from week to week, as writers find housing and jobs.

One week, I led with Sandra Cisneros’s “My Name” from The House on Mango Street. We discussed the passage briefly and then I offered several prompts, for a 10-15 minute write. Here’s a prompt:
Possibilities for writing
1.   Following Cisneros’s piece (here’s one possibility)
a.    My name means…
b.   It came from…
c.    A favorite story about my name is…
d.   People say my name…
e.    If I rename myself, I will call myself…

As a participant, I wrote, too. This is my writing from that day:

Grandmother Mary Edwards, spoiled baby of 13. Grandmother Mary Matthews, who mothered her father and her siblings before mothering her own five kids. Aunt Mary Ann, the family storyteller. Aunt Myra (which is just Mary scrambled up a bit.) Mary, Mother of Jesus, with all her worshippers, Mary Magdalene—the one who listened.  My name. Mary. Full of family history. Connected to my grandmothers and to God. Listener. Storyteller. Sometimes scrambled.

At church, there are so many Marys that we have numbered off. I am #3. Mary L is #11. Mary D won’t play. Mary F says she’s number one, but I say Mary the mother of Jesus is #1 and Mary F is # 7658. Mary Ellen has two names, making it easier, and her last name starts with an M, so she’s MEM and doesn’t need a number. She’s her own number.

Probably because I’m so focused on our puppy Dosey, the second reading that day was Mary Oliver’s poem “The Sweetness of Dogs.”

Prompts 1) If you were an animal, what animal would you be? (x3 if you want to) 2) Write about a specific animal that you love(d) or hate(d).
As usual, my writing about something else, in this case animals, says more about me than about the something else:

Abraham [not the real name of one of the group’s writers] used to hate bees. I still do. Intellectually, I know that they are good for the ecosystem, so intellectually I like them and want to protect them. When one flies around me, however, I cringe at its buzz and the unpredictableness of its flight. I know that there’s a difference between bees and wasps and yellow jackets, but they all get my hackles up.

I remember when, as I child, I covered my Coca-Cola bottle so that no yellow jackets flew in and then stung me as I swallowed them. I also remember when I was a kid visiting Spring Hope relatives, and the biting fly landed on my head in the swimming pool taking a bite out of my scalp: me screaming in a surprised pain as the fly continued chewing while my third cousins yelled, “Go under!” I also remember the fourth grade teacher I adored scolding me when I ran out of the room and screamed. She said I was overreacting.  I still believe I was responding appropriately.

Another day, we read “TheMoment” by Margaret Atwood. The poem aroused thoughts about my brain tumor, what I and my doctors thought and felt at first and what I think and feel now:

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and many paths,
some winding some straight and narrow,
my doctor called to say,
“It’s over now. Your life will be different and new,
but not shiny.”

I thought once that I directed my life,
That I only needed to find the right path,
And all would be well. I would be well and happy.

The right man would lead me to the right path,
a path with children and Southern Baptist sermons,
and Labrador retrievers in suburban back yards.

But as it turned out, I walked side by side
With a woman,
And my kids were teenagers in schools where I taught,
And no dogs were allowed.

And then there were the brain tumors
To detour me from my career path and
Lead me into the woods,

So here I sit,
Not on a path,
Not in the sun,
But in a place of shadows and breezes
Noticing the textures and
Verdant colors of leaves and bark
And flowers sometimes,

And with the trees,
I breathe.

And on a recent day, another mentor invited us to write one long sentence. She said, “Write for five minutes. Start with I just want to tell you…or I just thought you should know….” The anger in what I wrote that day surprised me:

I just want you to know that I’m disabled, but I’m not stupid, so don’t treat me like I can’t figure things out, and I know that you think I’m overreacting but the truth is that I’m not just reacting to you but I’m reacting to everyone who treats me as a fool or a weakling, so you’re taking on the heat of all who have come before you, but you won’t be the last because this world doesn’t get me, doesn’t get that to be slow and unable to work is not the same as being a drag on society and tax dollars and you who are in such a hurry and as I write this I learn about anger that I didn’t even know was there, but the anger is not really about you it’s about the ways my life has changed without my permission.

And as last week’s leader I chose poems and prompts related to getting below the surface, something that a previous group of writers had talked about. We read Dee Daffodil (H.W.)’s poem “Beneath the Ocean” (Sorry, but you have to get past an ad to read it on the web.)

One option I provided was to experiment with a frame by Chris Zweigle and Hamda Yusuf, which I did. This is what I wrote:

my passion for writing
is the sound of waves touching the shore, an endless waving
under the sound is longing
under that is belonging
under that: wonder.

underneath my fear of loneliness.
is the smell of metal, cold and bitter.
under the smell is pain.
under that is trembling
under that: weightlessness.

underneath my intensity
about writing
is the taste of lemon drops, sweet on the tongue and sour at the core.
under the taste is satisfaction
under that is ease
under that: summer.

underneath my obsession with my puppy, Dosey,
is the touch of soft curly fur 
under the touch of that fur
is a small, fast heartbeat.
under that is joy
under that: a deep sleep.

Additionally, last week we read together Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact,”  a poem about Eric Garner, the teenager killed by a policeman’s choke hold, and the life that teenager might have been living. The poem pushes the reader to think about the life taken, about the ways he might have been giving to all of us, and the gift we all lost in his death. It’s a lovely poem, but the reminder of Garner’s terrible death (“I can’t breathe” x 7) may have been too much to bring into a room of people, mentors and young adults alike, who have experienced their own traumas.

I invited writers to share what people see of them and what they don’t see, what I intended to be an empowering prompt. Indeed, the writers who shared went deep, but not everyone wants to go deep. Maybe the invitation was helpful for some but re-traumatizing for others. I hope not. But so much of their and our emotions stay below the surface, so I don’t know.

In my writing, I thought of the man, perhaps homeless, who noticed me with my cane at a downtown intersection. “Hurt your leg?” he asked, looking at my foot.

“No, my head,” I responded.

“Oh,” he said, and his eyes traveled up my body to my crossed eyes. Wide-eyed, then, he said, “Ohhhhh…” and as the light changed he hurried across the intersection as if my disabilities were contagious. Here’s the poem that grew out of that memory:

When people see
Me walking with my cane,
Lumbering to get down the sidewalk,
they think they see some one like them,
someone who hurt their leg
falling from a rock
while hiking
or sliding into home base
for the winning run.
They think they see
Someone who will get better,
Like them.
But what they don’t see is
That I won’t get better,
That my leg’s not hurt,
but my brain’s been cut.
What they don’t see is that
I’m like them, but not like them,
And it’s all different than they think.

The tumors have weakened me,
(My strength, my balance, my vision),
And they have emboldened me
To see a new world,
And to tell a new story,
A story without a clear ending,
But for sure a bold protagonist,
A spunky storyteller.

And finally, this week one of the mentors introduced us to Amy Lowell’s poem“Leisure.”  (Sorry, you have to get past the ad again.) And here’s my writing, which ends in the most joyful moment I know:

When I have leisure time, I write about time, the crunch of it, the compression. Olivia just told me that dogs are good for people, that they reduce stress. I think leisure time is like that, and maybe dogs take us into that space of breath and joy. Of being 100% in the moment, not worried about duty or the next task, just like a puppy wiggling in this moment.

Joyful is the right way to end.

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