Breaking ourselves open is hard. I've been teaching poetry to fourth graders in Ronan, Montana, a small highway town about an hour north of me on the Flathead Reservation, under the auspices of the Missoula Writing Collaborative. I just wrapped up week five of a twelve-week stint. My time in these four classrooms every Thursday is the only opportunity in my life right now where I get to be around Indians, get to see their brown and beautiful faces and it moves me. When it comes to teaching I feel like I'm mostly flailing. One of my writer friends who was teaching in Dixon (also on the rez) a few years ago urged me to offer my services back then and I did, but was turned down because I don't have an MFA. I guess they are desperate now because here I am, still no MFA and still no training in poetry beyond just reading a ton of it. I haven't taught any "forms" to the kids yet beyond haiku because that's the only one I know. What I am teaching them is to observe, to take note, to try to live lives that are also poetry, because that to me is what it boils down to. To open wide and observe the world and reflect it back through words on a page. To love the world and themselves and each other. There are so many stories coming off these children that I can sense, hints shared between the lines and in flashes across their faces. Every child different, every child a story. Some of the things they ask me to read, but don't want read out loud ... they are hard, and what can I say, for example, to a child who misses her mother and doesn't know where she is? Only that her words, delivered in a tiny scrawl in the upper corner of the paper, are beautiful, and thank her for them.
Being broken open is hard. Today we were talking about songs as poetry, poetry as songs. I began by asking for favorite songs any of them have, favorite lines. One boy raised his hand, and when I asked about his song he started singing it and it was beautiful. I don't know the song, but he had the most angelic little voice. When he finished, everyone cheered. He burst into tears and put his head down on his desk. The boy sitting next to him, a restless boy I worry about, put his arm around him and was quietly consoling him. Is it worth mentioning the first boy is Native and the second is white? Maybe. But it was beautiful. I nearly burst into tears myself.
It is hard being broken open. I am flailing in other ways lately, like so many others. It feels like living through an unresolved nervous breakdown. Is it the pandemic? Is it our awful Montana legislature and the daily hate we must fight back against? Is it feeling intensely at odds with the world at every turn? Is it the relentless tide of shootings and beatings and murders? Or is it merely the steady slog of hurt and angst and despair that I slowly drag behind myself to varying degree every moment of my life? Two days in a row now I've had to pull off the road while I breathed back a panic attack. First, Wednesday morning, approaching downtown Missoula early in the morning, eastbound on Broadway. It was gorgeous. I should have been celebrating the sunlight pouring from the mouth of Hellgate Canyon, the brittle blue of the chilly morning sky, the long, skeletal fingers of cloud. Instead the traffic, people on the street, the looming buildings ... they all seemed to crowd against me and I started shaking. I pulled off the road and idled in a parking lot until I got myself together. Then today, Thursday as I write, on my way to Ronan, again, as I reached the top of Evaro hill and started crossing toward Arlee, the stunningly white Jocko Mountains bright in my windshield, and I just ... cracked. Pull over, close the eyes, breathe, breathe, breathe. I don't know why it's happening. I need more rest but who can sleep at times like this? Maybe something different is broken, some frayed binding finally snapped. Who can say? I’d like to say I’m not going to lose sleep over it but clearly I do. Who doesn’t? Who isn’t?
The thing about being broken open is a lot of love pours through too. Love coming in, and intense love reflected back out. It sounds overly sentimental but love can heal the world. Or at least our human place in it. It is the only thing that can! But we have to move beyond the definitions of what love is as just this airy thing and create an active love in the world. It's like hope, it's meaningless if one just shrugs and throws it to the universe to solve whatever problem while we just go on with our business. The business of hurling ourselves into the grinder of doing the same thing over and over until only shreds of what we began as remain. The universe does provide but it takes work. Sometimes toil. Sometimes setting aside what is easier, or what we think we want, to show love as courtesy. Love as simple kindness. Love that can be inconvenient. Love that challenges us. If we all did a little more of that, how much better would we get along? That's what I try and teach these kids about poetry. It is what I am trying to teach myself but I'm not very good at it at all. I'm too angry all the time.
A poet friend of mine is also broken open. He'll even speak to it, I think. But he tells me the story of how the Blackfeet poet and novelist James Welch visited his high school—a small, weary, rural place—many years ago to talk about poetry. It changed my friend's life. He became a poet. He has written several books. He teaches for the collaborative too. Who knows. Maybe being the strange gray men who shuffle into these classrooms is the way we do our part to make the world better. It's worth trying.
Chris, thank you for writing this. The boys are beautiful. You are beautiful. I've been very angry as well, for most of the same reasons, feeling hopeless and wanting to do something. We can do many things but they all begin with love and kindness, first to those close to us and ourselves.
As a white man, my anger is superfluous. No matter how I direct it, it is anger by proxy, angry for others, anger against the power I'm a part of. Kindness, that I can do. And it is never superfluous. There's always a need somewhere.
And there is a great need for kind men like you to teach.
I'm returning to poetry. I live where Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass. I am going to read it where he was inspired. Maybe I'll write some again, too.
Don't forget to be kind to yourself.
You deserve it.
This all sounds sappy as hell, but I mean it. We will save all we can together. It's all we can do.
Chris, this is beautiful. Your poetry class has made such a positive and unique impact on my students. My students have been more vulnerable then ever before because of your class, which has made it easier for them to express their feelings. One student in particular who has difficult life at home has said to me, "I have so much on my mind, but when I write, my mind feels emptier."