Last week, I was in a classroom in Austin, Texas, where a girl who was apparently going through a really rough spell at home wrote a poem that was definitely tragic and comic both, about—everybody was yelling at her in the poem, from all directions. She was just kind of suffering in her home place and trying to find peace, trying to find a place to do her homework. But she wrote this in such a compelling way that when she read it—and read it with gusto and joy—there was such joyousness in her voice, even though she was describing something that sounded awful—when she finished, the girls in her classroom just broke into wild applause.
And I saw her face—she lit up. And she said, “Man, I feel better.” And I thought, yeah, that’s—this is such a graphic example of putting words on the page. That feeling of being connected to someone else, when you allow yourself to be very particular, is another mystery of writing. —Naomi Shihab Nye in an interview with Krista Tippet
Those paragraphs could have been a poem. Maybe they eventually became one called “She Lit Up” or “Man, I Feel Better.” I reread this story and breathed in the wonder of that moment: the tragic comedy, the gusto, the wild applause. It was a holy moment of connection. And it happened just last week.
You never knew when you woke up that day
a burning bush on the walk to the store
a holy man feeding five thousand with the peanut butter and jam sandwiches
you dropped off at the shelter.
Or what about the Saturday
when you came home again to
a loneliness so old and hard that it cracked
and God spilled out?
Or yesterday, when you happened upon
a raccoon on the fence,
tulips taking the next shift as the daffodils retire,
and eagles cresting, calling, urging you to fly?
You don’t know, when you wake up each day,
what moment is waiting
to become a poem
that wants to be read
again and again.
. . . poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
–Naomi Shihab Nye
from “Valentine for Ernest Mann”
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In the On Being podcast I quoted above, Naomi Shihab Nye talked about the transformative power of poetry–of reading it and writing it. Her love mischief with poetry led her to read a poem to her son each day when he woke up. After a conversation Nye had with a principal, he began sharing a poem to the entire school as a part of the daily announcements. “One thing I’ve tried to say to groups over the years, groups of all ages, is that writing things down—whatever you’re writing down, even if you’re writing something sad or hard—usually, you feel better after you do it,” Nye said. “Somehow you’re given a sense of, OK, this mood, this sorrow I’m feeling, this trouble I’m in—I’ve given it shape. It’s got a shape on the page now. So I can stand back; I can look at it. I can think about it a little differently—what do I do now? And very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse. They always say, ‘I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it’—but they agree that it helped them see their experience, see what they were living. And that’s definitely a gift of writing that is above and beyond any sort of vocational—how much somebody publishes. It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.”