above: created in the women’s circle in the recovery center
In April of 2016 I took my first job out of counseling school. I had studied Expressive Arts Therapy, and I dreamed of offering space for people to express themselves through art, and music, and movement, and poetry.
The job I was offered was providing substance use disorder assessments for food stamp applicants.
No one wants to be in my office. It’s an indignity. The people who keep their appointments to see me are incredibly resolved. Many of my clients are homeless, most are transitioning from incarceration, and nearly all are angry. The assessment is a dull instrument, and often it feels that I am wielding it against them.
For the first few weeks, I went home too numb to cry.
Then a client came into my office and pushed the assessment aside, locked eyes with me, and proceeded to tell me why I was part of the problem.
She was right. I changed then, and instead of wielding my assessments like weapons I carried them lightly, setting them aside anytime there was a story that needed to be told.
There is always a story that needs to be told. One day a man walked into my office muttering to himself, shaking, eyes rolling. The minute he sat down it all fell away.
“No one messes with crazy,” he told me, in explanation.
Sometimes my clients’ stories are so heavy and heartbreaking that they cling to me like cobwebs, trailing after me when I walk home, too close to brush away. They cocoon me in a gray film that seems to filter out happiness. Sometimes I cannot understand how my clients even stand up beneath all of that pain.
So now, after my clients tell me their stories and go back to their lives, I sit quietly where they sit. I close my eyes and feel what it is like to be in that chair. I let myself feel whatever lingers—frustration, sadness, laughter, hurt—and then I read over the assessment, choosing ten words that seem to leap out. Sitting in my client’s chair, I write a poem that incorporates these ten words.
I will never know what it is like to see through my clients’ eyes. These are my poems, using borrowed words. All I am trying to do is honor the interaction, to make sense of why we two people sat in a room together for one hour of our lives.
South of this house,
Through the windows and
Clear up to the endless sky,
There is a place
Only the birds know.
I dream of them, lifting through
South of this place.
It can be one word
A smile lifting the corners of the eyes
I wonder what it will take this time
What people least remember
The people we remember
The least of these
Memory and hope and
What will it take
The men who talked him down put gas into his car
He said ‘they spoke sense to me’
He said ‘I’ve been all over this country and
It’s time for a change’
He said ‘thank you for being kind’.
It is the mystery of a lifetime why some of us suffer so.
I want to thank the men who talked him down
I want to take these pages of documentation
And fold them into a room
Where he can rest
Quickly, swallow this river.
It is still true: the reach and the drowning
It is still true: the promise of adventure
Beyond this room, quickly, swallow the river and
Every word is a conspiracy.
Sometimes the pain
turns sound to flame
Before this room was wood, it was a tree
Before this pain, I was simply free
I bet you think you’re doing right
You’re part of the conspiracy
You’re part of this conspiracy
I’ll tell you a story to make you laugh
Kindness practiced, kindness witnessed
I can lean into the trunk and grasp
The branches before I remember the tree
Isn’t there anymore
And the space I forgot to see
Just gapes there, open,
As I throw in kindness
I tell you what, honey, all I do is wander.
It’s not a flow, it’s a flat-out retreat
Beat out on my last legs
A dog’s life, and
I’m aware there are choices.
I’ll choose what’s left.
I tell you what surprises me—
God might sit here and look you in the eye and tell such a disagreeable story that
You’d kick God out, say
‘You’re not God!’ and wish
You were anywhere but here
In the presence of this suffering
You may wish to change your memory of what God is,
Just to make this moment vanish,
Just to banish this unexpected holy visitor
Sitting here, looking you in the eye
I will end this script and pioneer a love story.
Calm the bells, I am the wedding
I am the start of this love song
Rubbing hardship into pearls