I am teaching a poetry unit to some young people and had to struggle a bit to put my favorite (stolen) mantra, “everyone has a poem – and a story – to tell.”
I love poetry. I don’t believe in dissecting it, even though we have to do a little of that; I believe in creating it and sharing it.
My one stopping block–I haven’t written much poetry. I had to get over my own hangups about not having the “talent”to write it in order to help my students write it. Then, in my wanderings,I rediscovered a few concrete poems, a form in which the poetry literally takes a physical form. I knew I had to give it a shot, and suddenly my hangups disappeared.
I think it was a great lesson that, Sometimes, just finding a new perspective can turn a giant hurdle into a tiny little crack in the path. And most of us can easily get over those.
I spend all of my workday and a lot of my learning time online, so I am always delighted to step away from my desk and out into the real world for a legitimate interactive experience. Some, like the one I had with a young friend a few days ago, open my eyes in a way that no artificially intelligent technology ever could.
My young friend was talking about a project for English class. She and her friends wanted to write about the drug problem in the United States and, specifically, in Vermont where the opioid crisis has destroyed families and claimed so many lives. She and her friends have had intimate, tragic, experiences as witnesses to and collateral damage of addiction, and I thought I knew how they might feel about addicts and addiction. but real life people always surprise me, often in the best of ways.
“I think they should just let people overdose if that’s what they want,” said one of her friends. Another friend nodded while still another furrowed her brow as she listened.
“I thought that for a long time,” said my first friend. Her opening salvo surprised me.
Intellectually I tell myself addiction is not a choice, but emotionally, and not that deep down, I assign guilt to addicts. I classify them–the strung-out people in the emergency room that I move me and the kids away from, former co-workers who were constantly unavailable because of what I tell myself over and over is a disease. I look at them with judgement and suspicion, even knowing my own struggles with addictive behavior with substances nowhere near as powerful as opioids.
“I think they need help,” my friend said. She went on to relate how she had lost a parent to addiction, and I had to pretend my allergies were making my eyes water. What made my eyes sweat was not pity for this young woman who had lost so much because of the choices of others but admiration for her ability to have compassion still. As she elaborated on her belief that people don’t choose to become addicted, her classmates began to nod in agreement with her. Even the first friend, who had also spoken from her experiences, appreciated the nuanced perspectives they were beginning to share.
I am ashamed to admit I am not compassionate when thinking about addiction. I abuse food and caffeine, but, because they don’t interfere with my ability to earn a paycheck or take care of the kids, I haven’t put myself in the category of addict.
But I know that feeling of surrender.
My wise young friend inadvertently made sure that, going forward, I would make a conscious choice to extend a little more compassion to other people who aren’t always winning their battles with addiction.
The other day as we wended our way down the hill towards our house, wrapping up a walk that, for some reason, had caused Katy-the-Wonder-Dog many fearful pauses, the afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and we had something more than a walk.
I wanted to step up the pace for the last quarter mile and burn some calories. Katy decided sunny dirt was more worth sniffing than cloudy dirt. We trotted and paused a few times and then as the sun sank closer to the mountain across the way from us, she stopped and sniffed the air.
“Katy, ” I coaxed. She ignored me, closing her eyes and turning her face to the sun and the mountain. I noted the line of light highlighting her and sank down to take a picture, but before I could tap the shutter button, I felt the sun on my face and closed my eyes for a moment too.
The walk had been cross training. It had been a bathroom break. It had been huffing and puffing. Now, in the slightly warmer sunny air, it was something better. I opened my eyes to see Katy still meditating (if dogs meditate) on the sun and the sounds of the dozens of seasonal streams that were flowing down the mountains.
It was as if someone had gently said, “Stop.” Stop, for just a moment, worrying about being able to run 3 miles or pay bills tonight or find time for everything on your list and get centered.
A dog down the hill barked, and Katy’s head turned in that direction. I started the trot toward home and to-do’s again utterly unperturbed by the length of my list and committed to finding time to get centered more often.
I’m trying to include a two-mile hike/walk to the town hall and back each evening as cross training and, now, as Katy-the-Wonder-Dog is more inclined to wander in the warmer weather, a way to make sure she gets a good long walk in before dark. Taking the boys is always entertaining. Taking only the dog, yesterday, was enlightening.
Somedays the boys go with me, but yesterday it was just us gals.
We had to sneak out to keep the cats from following us (Princess Jane and Gentleman Jim-Bob have been joining us on the morning run). The first half mile of the walk is a steep incline from our door to our neighbor’s house. Katy loves this part of the walk. She wags her tail as we walk by houses filled with people who pet her and give her treats. We’ll stop so she can reclaim territory alongside the road, and there was a pause and a wag as we passed the neighbor’s house and she noticed the neighbor’s son, clearly in need of a canine playmate working in the yard.
To her credit, Katy had kept on track, the only serious pauses being the conducting of business. As we pass our neighbor’s house, however, we got to the quieter part of the road (a relative term in a town where the only traffic jam happens for 20 minutes after the July 4 parade when all the horse drawn wagons are driven home). There would be only one house to pass before we got to the town hall still over a half-mile away down the hill.
I will admit that my imagination starts to run faster than my feet on this section of road. We have seen a mountain lion cross this part of the road, and, even though I’m guessing he/she doesn’t just park himself up the hill waiting for stray joggers, I always wish I’d brought lion spray. Or bear spray. Or coyote repellant. Have I missed any possible predators?
With my vicious attack dog, infamous for drowning visitors in kisses and annoying passing deer with her attempts to play with them, I knew I’d be safe. Strength in numbers, right?
As it turns out, Katy is scared of more than just gunshots and thunderstorms. We passed a chained driveway to a camp higher up the mountain, and she slowed down, sniffing the air, looking down the mountain to our left and, then, up the mountain.
“Come on, honey,” I coaxed. She looked at me and then the mountain and then tried to do her happy trot. We passed an exposed ribcage, and I wondered if the smell had spooked the dog, but remembering that she had no qualms about eating decaying deer meat — a kill apparently deemed too small to tag by some anonymous hunter that had been left in our woods.
I kept walking wondering if she could smell big mountain cat pee on the road or something. Were the bears waking up? Maybe she could hear them rumble.
We did the sniff, slow, and stop routine a few more times, and I thought how ironic that I, the queen of worry and wonder (as in, I wonder if that guy in the unfamiliar truck could be a serial killer?) was suddenly in the position of trying to help another being find her moxie.
We got to the town hall, I slapped the mail box to mark the half-way point and started up the hill back to our house, me coaxing and ignoring my own ridiculous fears. We passed the petrifying rib cage again. Katy stopped to mark it this time, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I wouldn’t have to fake courage for someone else after a few more minutes.
The pathetic thing is that this road isn’t the only place my fears speed up my footsteps or, worse, stop me in my tracks to consider an ancient carnage. That tendency to stop becomes a habit in other areas of life, sometimes making daily struggles seem bigger than they are. Usually I muscle my way through them for the sake of the kids, but I always wish I didn’t feel the fear at all.
As we got to the top of the hill near the neighbor’s house and the easy part lay ahead, I decided I was really grateful to Katy. When I go walking with the boys, we’re so loud that any animal will steer clear of the road just to save their eardrums. With my fellow worrier, however, I had more than company. I had some time to consider my more ridiculous fears and, even if I was faking it the whole way just for her sake, to pretend that I was bigger than they were.
Most days, I run the makeshift path I’ve worn around the perimeter of our house. Fallen branches form impromptu hurtles, and this morning I thought about why I like my route so much better than paved roads or the groomed paths at the parks.
Whenever I get back into running, whether for a race or just to re-inaugurate a healthy habit, I always find myself at the same crossroads – sometimes more than once in my training regimen. In the beginning, it feels better to have run than to start running. Then the hills get smaller. The running begins to feel good. I get to a different crossroads where one path needs regular running to feel good each day. The cross road is treacherous, however, the other path leads right back to my life luxuriating on our thrift store couch in front of the TV.
Jumping over the occasional branches this morning, dodging puddles and charging up the hill by our apple tree made me feel like a warrior woman. I imagine people who might’ve run here before, wondering if they too felt themselves merging with nature as they padded through the temple of trees.
At the end of the run, there was the conspicuous absence of appetite. There was calm and the recognition of the will — fleeting, admittedly— to do better by my body. I knew that, this morning, I had already done right by my soul.