I believe in the power of the written word to transform us. The page can support the truth about what it means to be human. Even though my parents’ world was falling apart, through words I could find a way to believe and hope.
When I was seven, my father had a near-fatal heart attack. My mother was fighting schizophrenia with wine and pills. They did their best when they could, but they were giving up because they had exhausted their resources, and as they deteriorated, I became a fearful, emotionally frozen child.
Sometimes on days when my mother was not violent, she took me and my siblings to the public library, and let us explore the stacks by ourselves. There the lolling fragrance of leather, ink, paper, and glue pleased me. I could feel protected, understood, curious and even courageous when reading, but I had never thought of responding to words with words until one day I saw a poem on a poster that awakened something in me.
The poster was taped to the end of a dark brown shelf. Colorful letters on a purple background spelled out a little poem. The word “squawk” was in gold and the word “talk” was in white. Reading it made my brain tingle and I stood still. Reading it made me heart skip. I could not have said so, but I knew the poem meant we should value all forms of expression and that somehow the words brought that meaning. Yoking “squawk” with “talk” worked like a toy in my mind, was able to move me with rhyme and rhythm to a state of mind I now know as creativity. Often in my backyard I would teeter-totter for hours while emotions I could not voice churned in my heart and tears slipped into my hair because my mother tried to hurt us and herself. But in that poem words alone moved me enough to feel like teeter-tottering, only better; the poem was free and in the open, telling emotions and ideas in bright colors, and people listened. Then I understood that if people listen they can help each other.
I decided to write a poem for my dad’s birthday like the one in the library. When I gave it to him, he smiled a sparkling smile, held the poem at arm’s length and read it with gusto. Then he hugged me, treating me and my poem as something to be cherished, and happiness sprang like a little fountain under my ribs.
We weren’t able to talk about our emotions, but I had found another way to speak; I wrote a poem. I knew it was stilted but that did not stop me. I could feel my dad understand me when he read it and could feel him know there was more than childish nonsense in my heart. I was saying I loved my parents and he heard me. Through words I found a way to answer despair.
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