‘turning madness into flowers’

We have moments that become memories that become stories that sometimes play over again in our minds like a blobby-ish piles of silly puddy. You search for the words to develop the right form and structure of a recollection, but sometimes even the best storytellers lose the rhythm that real good stories often have (and need).

I kind of think that’s the magic ingredient of poetry. Poetry pulls the perfect words together, telling enough of a story, but still leaving so much to the imagination.

I was recently telling a legendary tale of one of my summer adventures to a friend. Each holding a copper mug of a cold, icy moscow mule, I explained that one of the things I learned this summer was how to skin a snake.

No, really, it happened. Look here:

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Kevin & I, in Nebraska, just skinning a snake to cook over fire. No big deal.

Rewind my life a couple years prior, when I found a 2-foot long snake in my room in my Rwandan village, and you would have thought you had met an entirely different person. I screamed like a baby when I had a snake near my bed in Rwanda. But, while doing The Experience last summer, I kind of was tired of being afraid of everything. Of snakes, certainly, but of all the muck and crap we carry around. Afraid of failure, afraid of what people think, afraid of being alone, afraid of my feelings, afraid of who I was.

You see, I just kind of got over it. I was also totally over being afraid of snakes. So, I thought, maybe I’ll just help Kevin skin it up and I’ll feel less afraid. I’m still not sure how effective this method was. Except for the fact that I did eat the snake’s heart afterwards. So, there’s that. Fear is only fear. We can let it be in the room, but it has no right to dictate, rule, or ruin our lives.

So, you see, I wanted to tell this friend of mine about this stupid snake, but really it was kind of a bigger story. I really could have used a poem in that moment.

I don’t write a lot of poetry really, but I think I would like to. I like the witty, deep, with a dash of sass-kind-of poetry. The kind that is contemplative but rooted in real-life experiences, with words and ideas that make you think, but in the same swoop will make you smile.

That’s why I like Alice Walker. She’s a bad-ass poet, writer, and activist.

I went to the library a couple of weeks ago, motivated to read some poetry. I told myself two things: 1) Being a fan of African-American literature, it’s necessary to stay on top of classic author’s works. 2) I could get ideas for my own attempts at poetry.

Those are both really cute justifications for my poetry binge, but I also believe I may have been lying to myself. Really, I think I was jones-ing for some poetry because powerful poetry has a way of maneuvering and leveraging human experiences – the bold, the painful, the real, the gritty – into tangible descriptions. You can read sentiment from paper and feel like, yes. This person knows what I am talking about. i’m not alone.

Who better than Alice Walker? She nails it in one of her recent publications, The World Wiill Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, published in 2014. With a collection of over 60 poems, Walker brilliantly and intimately sheds particular light on relationships, memories, human oddities, and universal truths. For many of the pieces in this work, she dedicates the writing or includes the person in the work itself. So, the context is a bit more present than you might find in her other works.

I included a handful of my favorites below. They really spoke to me, moved me, and encouraged me to put pen back on paper and capture the strange, beautiful experience of being human.


When You See Water

When you see water in a stream

you say; oh, this is stream

Water;

when you see water in the river

you say: oh, this is water

of the river;

when you see ocean

Water

you say: this is the ocean’s

Water!

But actually water is always

only itself

and does not belong

to any of these containers

though it creates them.

And so it is with you.

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May It Be Said of Me

May it be said of me

that when I saw

your mud hut

I remembered

my shack.

That when I tasted your

pebble filled beans

I recalled

my salt pork.

That when I saw

your twisted Limbs

I embraced

my wounded Sight.

That when you

rose from your knees

and stood like women

and men

of this Earth –

as promised to us

as to anyone;

without regrets of any kind

I joined you – Singing.

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Desire

My desire

is always the same; wherever Life deposits me:

I want to stick to my toe & soon my whole body

into the water.

I want to shake out a fat broom

& sweep dried leaves

bruised blossoms

dead insects & dust.

I want to grow

Something.

It seems impossible that desire

can sometimes transform into devotion;

But this has happened.

and that is how I’ve survived;

how the hole

I carefully tended

in the garden of my heart

grew a heart

to fill it.

flowas

From Paradise to Paradise

From Paradise To paradise I go

Sweeping;

Collecting Rocks & Views;

Owning Nothing

But what I feel.

Who taught Me this?

This thankfulness?

You did.

Maker of all

Paradises.

Without borders

Or cessation.

Bowing

As I kneel.

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beyond boxes.

People fear boxes.

Lost Angels, one of the many, many documentaries available to be screened on Netflix shares the story of people living on Los Angeles’ famous “skid row”, where an extraordinary amount of people live with no place to go. The term itself originated in Seattle in the mid-19th century. In fact, at that point the term referenced a saw mill area in town. A century later, the term has all kinds of connotations, most notably referring to areas of “homeless people”, “society’s rejects”, “low-life’s”, “disadvantaged”, and “poor”. The quotations may or may not be needed – your definition probably depends on your attitude.

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Residents of skid row live in housing that has served the poor for years – until being gentrified by groups of wealthier people, organizations, and movements. Skid row then shifts geographically with changing boundary lines as the people, places, and culture are pushed elsewhere. It grows, gentrifies, moves, repeats.

Case and point: New Orleans, Louisiana.

I saw the implications and consequences of urban tension when writing my senior thesis on recreational youth development in New Orleans. City dynamics altered unforgivingly after Hurricane Katrina and revealed the established and long tradition of stark separation of rich and poor. Areas like Audubon Park provide a plethora of recreational opportunities for children in the neighborhood; take a trolley down to Treme and you will find run-down, 1-acre plots reserved for parks but have been largely left by the wayside. This impacts youth development, city perceptions, and how people move about. Really, it affects how people live. At some point, you might end up with 4,000 + people living in a relatively small section of the city, all poor, nearly all suffering from mental illness, and many using drugs. That’s exactly what skid row in Los Angeles has become.

Cities all over exist with their very own versions of skid row – Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

It seems odd then, that on the very same day I am packing my own boxes for a move, my brother’s current location for recovery is described as “Denver’s skid row” in a conversation. Which, is true. It’s been known as that part of town for decades. More than that, it was that particular evening that I chose to watch the aforementioned documentary on skid row and I’m left thinking,

Wow. What do I actually think about all of this?

People fear boxes.

That’s what I think.

In the documentary, footage is shown of police officers scrounging up every box they can find on the city streets and taking it away. Belongings or not, it doesn’t matter.

A box carries things. For me, it carries a lot and for others it carries everything.

When we move places – homes, countries, rooms, colleges, states, jobs – we take our stuff in a box and we aim to remove it as quickly as possible. At least I do. I certainly don’t want boxes hanging around.

*

I’ve moved a million times before and yet this one feels different. It feels better.

We changed houses when I was growing up, we separated houses when my parents divorced, I left houses when I went to college, I stopped living in American houses when I entered the Peace Corps, and I was relatively nomadic at that point, unsure of where my houses, my boxes, and my idea of home fit. I was scattered.

I feared boxes because I kept acquiring more than just physical things to take with me – I was transporting memories, people, relationships, and a hell of a lot of journals. Putting a bit of myself into each place I went, I felt like I had to pack up that part of me too – somehow fitting it in my already crowded identity.

I feared them because I feared losing them.

When I moved to Hendrix in 2007, my boxes were full of high school memorabilia and knick-knacks from growing up back home in Colorado. When I left the country in 2011 for a handful of years in Rwanda, I brought the bare essentials and yet made room for photographs and letters from my college days, adding to what I had originally felt was important. When I came back from Rwanda the first time, circa 2013, I had a suitcase full of lesson books, grade books, and literally every item I could bring back that would allow me to hold on to all I had experienced in two years. I couldn’t explain it so I was going to try to do so with the things I brought with me, I thought. Then, I went back to the land of a thousand hills for the summer, and repeated the coming home process, only this time with much less.

The simple truth?

No box or suitcase can fill experiences.

It’s that realization that has made this move and this season of life so, so sweet. I don’t care about the boxes anymore. Here’s why:

I’m writing wrapped in a blanket from Ghana. I’m surrounded by a china cabinet that my mother and father had for a very long time. The teddy bear I received after having appendix surgery when I was young is next to me. The coasters from Mexico keep the sweat of my water away from my beautiful, wood dresser that I had at mom’s house. My grandmother’s jewelry and red lipstick tube fills my great-grandmother’s jewelry case and the pottery that Jordana made me shares space with the traditional pestle and mortar given to me by my mama and papa in Rwanda. Letters from dear friends, photos from Disney World, and key chains I collected from all over the country are displayed.

The secret, as probably many of you know, is that the more life passes, the more of life you have to share. You don’t have to put it into a box either; the box serves as a resting place for the mementos you pick up along the way. The way in which we live our life, yes, that’s how we carry our stories, memories, and years.

You can spend too much time worrying about your calling ahead or the callings you have already lived out. Do this too much though, and you miss what’s right in front of you. Sometimes all you can do is just put one foot in front of another.

*

For a lot of people, there is only one box. Maybe there’s not a box at all.

My brother – whether he’s near skid row or not – is at the point of no boxes.

He OWNS very little. His life could probably be put into a duffle bag that he may or may not still have. Some pairs of pants, his state championship ring, a few sets of shoes, and some notebooks.

However, despite the dismal picture that skid row initially paints, he’s not at the point of no return.

He’s not.

Skid row, the suburbs, the ritziest places in the country, and the most dead-beat corners of our land have people. Good, bad, whatever. We’re just people and we’re just trying to figure out how we live life.

It’s felt weird as I have started to unpack the last 7 or so years of my life, knowing that my brother is where he is, doing so much more than that. I’m removing pieces, fragments, and evidence from my cardboard boxes and my brother is trying to figure out how to not live in one permanently.

Hope transcends the fear. Hope is so much bigger than anything that we can contain. Like jars of clay, God has chosen to place a piece of him – a piece of His son, Jesus – in each of us.

jars

That’s the miraculous part of our lives. The boxes, the years, the mistakes, the victories, whatever it may be – it does not define us. We live in a “worn and weary land” – skid row, you might say, but we will never run dry.

Just to know You and to make You known

We lift Your name on high

Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide

We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives

It’s time for yus to more than just survive

We were made to thrive

-Casting Crowns, Thrive

thrive