Until I called to discuss the details, I was looking forward to teaching another writing and drawing workshop at Meta House, a residence for women addicts in recovery and their children. Then I learned that when the director booked me, she hadn't realized that in addition to ten women, fifteen children would be there, including several toddlers, and only one or two staff people. She asked if I still wanted to come. Though I suddenly dreaded the evening, I said yes. I did figure that my mother, who once owned a nursery school, would help with the children.
I always have a sense that whatever path I happen to choose determines my fate, and this morning I chose to hug the edge of the lake. The water isn't at rest today, it's perpetually moving with the gentle breeze, and the sun glints every ripple, creates a chaos of light specks that endlessly bounce against each other.
The water is covered with mists today, and the flowing sun sparkles burst through. The intensity of mist, water, and vibrating light matches my mood as I think about last night's workshop, about despair and healing.
When Mother and I started out for Meta House, the car stalled repeatedly, and part of me was relieved. I felt a strong desire to spend the evening in peace and quiet instead of in the midst of pandemonium.
However the car decided to take us there, and pandemonium is what we walked into. The acoustics boosted the sensation that these were not quiet children. Someone asked where I wanted to work and whether I'd be working with adults or children, so I knew immediately nothing was prepared for a workshop, except for a pile of blank paper. I suggested the room I'd used three years earlier.
I didn't mind that neither of the two staff people came up with me. I knew Mother would need their help with the lively group downstairs. The upstairs room was large, couches against the walls, everyone far apart, and no tables set up to provide a hard surface to write on. Anyway most of the women had no pens, and had to search for some before we could start.
It was an awkward beginning, but when I stood in the middle of the room and performed CHANGES IN THE LAKE, my five-minute poem about the constant metamorphoses of Lake Michigan, about its beauty and its pollution, about the infiniteness of the lake's faces and life's possibilities, I was struck by the degree of everyone's concentration. And afterwards by their thoughtfulness. As the appearance of the lake is different every moment of its existence, so is every moment of every life, and every life from every other life, and even the history of every thing from every other thing. I asked the women to write about, and draw a picture of, something, anything at all, that was valuable to them. Everyone was anxious to begin; no one seemed to have trouble thinking of something she valued.
One woman wrote about nature as being her salvation. Although she may have been abused the night before, when she awakened in the morning to sunshine and bird songs, she could feel serene. Even thunderstorms were somehow comforting to her. Another wrote of a shirt her mother used to wash every night so she could wear it every day when she was four years old. It was lost later that year when they moved to Milwaukee, and the loss of that shirt seemed to change her life. She looked for it and dreamt of it until she was sixteen.
One of the women had written her "auto" when she was at another drug treatment center. It took her four or five days of steady work, and when she finished, a counselor read it, was fascinated by it, and passed it around to about ten of the other staff members. She tried to get it back from them, and they refused to return it. For my workshop, she wrote of the beauty and sweetness of a rose and the inner strength required for it to grow. Two women wrote of rings that had no material value but a wealth of sentiment. Someone wrote of five stars that God had given her and that consoled her every night when she looked out the window. She began to cry and was unable to finish.
Someone wrote two poems about pain, the second one: Why me, why me, why me, why me? She'd once written a thick book of poems; her father didn't approve, threw it away, and she hasn't written since then.
One of the women gave me what she'd written as a gift:
My Secret Escape
Sometimes I'm CONFUSED, AFRAID, OR DEPRESSED. I don't want to feel these feelings because they hurt inside. I don't want to tell anyone because they might not understand. So I think of a place in my mind. a place where I can feel at peace. It has trees and birds and flowers. The sky is blue and the sea sprawled like diamonds. Then I hear music that seems to surround me, and move me. I know the music, every note, every beat. It comes so easy to me and I start to feel good and peaceful inside. Is this like heaven, I think. My serenity I hope. I want to stay here in this place forever. I want to go get my friends, my family, and all people who are in despair. But I know this is only a fantasy, my escape from my pain. But I can remember the music I heard and play it for all the people in pain like me. And together they can share my joy and peace through my music from my secret escape.
After all of them read, they asked me to perform THE CHANGES IN THE LAKE again. And they listened even more intently the second time around.
The women made sure I knew they hoped I'd come back again. I, too, hope so.
I wasn't worried about my mother and that wild crowd of children since there were two people with her. But when I got downstairs I discovered the staff people had gone into their office and left my 81-year-old mother alone for over an hour with at least a dozen children ranging in age from one to six, wired children, children of addicts. Though she was glad she came with me, Mother would not care to repeat the experience.
The children, mainly African American, told Mother they'd never before heard anybody speak the way she does. I assume that indicates they've had almost no contact with whites, a sad comment on our melting pot. Mother, who has worked with many children over the past sixty years (most recently with the children of migrant workers in Florida), said there was an unusual wildness about these children, the way they picked up things and threw them at each other. They seemed unaccustomed to being disciplined.
She told them her name is Rose. At first they called her "old lady," eventually called her by name, and in the end some hugged her good-bye. She sang with them, "Hush little baby, don't say a word, Papa's gonna buy you a mocking bird. If that mocking bird don't sing, Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring." It's supposed to continue, "If that diamond ring is brass, Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass." One little boy had his own version: "If that diamond ring don't shine, Papa's gonna buy you a bottle of wine."
Mother said they were beautiful children, bright and strong and streetwise. And that description fit the women I worked with. I don't know their histories. They're addicts or alcoholics trying to recover; perhaps all are single mothers, many have been abused. They also are bright, curious, and open. They were extremely supportive of each other and cared about what happens in the world beyond their own lives. Every time I've taught this kind of population, I've left the facility feeling a great respect and affection for the clients. If they are any indication of the people at the bottom rung of our society's ladder, there's still hope for us. We just have to find a means to provide hope for them.