I love reading poetry. Slowly. Letting the words simmer in my brain, melt into my heart. I even dabble in writing poems. The practice provides me with little artistic success, I’m sorry to say, but with great emotional release. Reading and writing poetry cuts right through to a deep place that other genres often don’t reach.
Every Saturday, I look forward to receiving Alison McGhee’s “Poem of the Week” (https://alisonmcghee.com/about/blog/) in my inbox. Ms. McGhee chooses a poem each week that has touched her in some way and introduces the poem with a related personal anecdote. (Many weeks, Ms. McGhee’s short intro is as powerful as the poem—always, it is a wise and thoughtful little piece to savor.)
“Kindness is an act of self preservation”
Her March 2nd post shook me to the core. In “Poem for the Woods,” Catherine Pierce reflects on a time in her childhood when she was inadvertently cruel. Ms. McGhee introduced the poem with a story of how she herself was cruel to a boy on the school bus, way back when, and of how her action—which was caused by her own fear and frustration—lingers today in her mind and weighs still on her heart.
“Kindness,” Ms. McGhee writes, “is in part an act of self-preservation. Had I just sat still and endured the ride I could have spared myself the lifelong memory of having hurt a kid like me, another kid who was only trying to get home.”
Kindness is truly not just a gift to others but to one’s self, as well. The price one pays for being unkind can be great and long-lasting.
She wore wool skirts and wool vests and crisp white cotton blouses, when everyone else was wearing two-toned jeans and Huk-a-Poo patterned shirts made of nylon.
While reading Ms. McGhee’s words, I immediately thought of Lucy Martin. I don’t remember if it was 4th grade or 5th or 6th, but I can see Lucy today as clearly as if she were sitting right across from my desk.
Lucy: her stick thin figure, her cat-eye glasses. Greasy, black hair pulled straight back. Her ultra-tight pony, exposing the acne on her forehead, the acne that not yet graced any other of our faces.
Lucy was an early bloomer. She was also from Czechoslovakia and had a strong accent and a strange lilt in her voice. She wore wool skirts and wool vests and crisp white cotton blouses, when everyone else was wore two-toned jeans and Huk-a-Poo patterned shirts made of nylon.
I knew what it was like to be Lucy. Maybe not exactly what it was like to be Lucy but to be someone who stood out in an odd way, while I hungered to fit in, to blend with others. I was chubby—no, I was fat—and I bore my weight like a heavy stone tied around my neck. I felt like I was drowning, slowly, in a deep, dark pool.
I think she may have thought me to be a friend … which makes what I did even that much worse
This was not at a time when many kids were overweight, when video games and TV kept youngsters sedentary. No. Most of our families had just one TV, the three networks along with channels 9 and 11 for reruns—and channel 13 if you wanted to watch something that would make you smart. Kids were thinner, in other words. But not me. I was round and plump and fleshy. I did not blend.
I cannot say that I befriended Lucy Martin, but I would talk to her. I showed interest in who she was. She was interesting. I think she may have thought me to be a friend—I’m not sure that anyone else spoke to her without teasing—which makes what I did even that much worse.
It’s not that I said anything mean. I wouldn’t have done that. But in class, I would stare at her, at her greasy hair, at her pus-filled zits. I would stare at her in disgust. Lucy didn’t actually disgust me, but I put on that face, the face that I myself had endured from so many of the others of my classmates—I knew it well.
I put on the face of disgust with the intention of hurting her
When Lucy saw me look at her in that way, her stick straight posture became even straighter and her jaw clenched tight. I could feel the heat of her rising anxiety—and burn of her sadness. There was no way for Lucy to escape my sharp gaze.
I knew about having no escape. In class, I was safe for the most part, but the playground was a different story. And gym. There was always gym. I would be picked last and the team that got me would, without fail, utter a collective groan of disappointment. I can’t forget Rhonda (although I forgot her last name) who made it her job to make me miserable. She was very good at it.
And then there was home. It was lonely, so lonely. My mother was depressed and had nothing to give. My dad was at work; my sister who was six years older was perpetually out with friends, and my sister who was twelve years older (and who had been my dear mother figure) got married, then divorced, and was living in CA. (I started gaining weight when she moved.)
While I could see no escape from my reality of loneliness, Lucy might have been a remedy. We should have been friends
But Lucy and I could not be friends. I could not befriend Lucy because I needed her as a target. I needed to be better than somebody, than something, and I wanted to taste power in some small way, as I had so little power in my life at the time. My eyes, my mean eyes, needed somewhere to land.
Catherine Pierce (http://catherinepierce.net), in her poem, tells of a time when she and her friend walked through the woods, carrying salt. They
“ventured out to where the rocks teemed with slugs …
We wanted to see mineral against membrane
We wanted to see something living melt.”
Ms. Pierce and her friend were just curious—they weren’t intentionally mean or on a mission to feel their power, as I was. Yet, Ms. Pierce ends her poem like this:
“ …. If I could,
I’d find my younger self in those woods and stop her.
I’d say, Someday you’ll carry your cruelties with you
and you’ll never be able to set them down. Keep walking now.
Keep pretending you know of nothing but kindness.”
I have been carrying my own share of cruelties. My Lucy Martin stares haunt me to this day.
Hurt people hurt people
That is one of the most powerful statements I know. Mean-spiritedness and mean actions do not come from a place of peace or joy.
When we are feeling down or angry, we lash out. That’s when our eyes can pierce others. But carrying cruelties is too heavy a burden.
If, for no other reason—and there are many other reasons—be kind for “self-preservation.”
Oh, to unburden the load.
What cruelties do you still carry? What have you learned from the burden? I’d love to hear your thoughts—please send me an email or leave a comment.
May we all walk unburdened through the week.
See you next Friday.
P.S. Adri Sdao, friend, fellow MFA candidate at Antioch, and previous contributor to WomanPause (https://dianegottlieb.com/whats-in-a-word-much-more-than-we-think/), has written a wonderful, moving blog about homelessness just published in Lunch Ticket, Antioch’s literary journal. Please take a look: https://lunchticket.org/los-angeles-in-the-rain/