Have you been forgetting to look at the leaves changing? I have. We’re supposed to eagerly await the shift, to watch it happen, but I feel like I never do. Instead, I look up and see flashes of red, orange, and gold. I am taken aback.
I think I’d rather not berate myself for being too preoccupied with life. I think I’ll let myself live. Anyway, if autumn isn’t a surprise at every turn, doesn’t it become just another item on the checklist?
Poetry surprises me pretty often. Even my own. Words just tend to connect in strange ways when we practice association. I love gasping out loud when I’m reading poems. Like a color is waiting for me around the corner.
I currently teach adult students in an ABE (Adult Basic Education) English class. Many of my students are English language learners and immigrants. We’re working on building their vocabulary, putting clear sentences together, learning grammatical distinctions between singular and plural, present and past, commas and dashes and parentheses. They are not experienced or confident writers, but they are eager to write. Each class when I set them up with a writing prompt, they grow progressively more intent on writing something they will be happy sharing. There is an interesting difference from my high school students, who are in the habit of writing almost every day, but have trouble thinking big, independent thoughts. My adult students have such a wealth of experience, such a diversity of age and background and beliefs, but they are not accustomed to putting their thoughts into writing.
Which is why it is so remarkable and exciting when they do find exactly the right words to capture their thinking. Their last assignment was to write about a special place, a place they knew well, and to try to describe it so it came alive. My student Ann, from Hong Kong, wrote about her kitchen window, looking out at the sunlight. I complimented her on the lightness and delicacy of her prose. It sounded gentle to me. She surprised me by saying it wasn’t a real place. She said, said: “I am writing my dream environment. And then — I hope — I can match it in life.”
I want her to be a poet, and to find writing as a blessing throughout her life. I consider myself lucky to have writing as my companion, as a space where I can meet myself as I am in this moment, flawed, limited, with fears and doubts.
But I love the idea of manifesting the world we want in our writing. Make the words and images on the page beautiful, and maybe life will be beautiful, too. At least for a minute, for the time you’re reading what you wrote. We can write ourselves better, too — set intentions, write out goals, put our dreams on paper and fold it into origami cranes to keep it safe and mostly hidden.
The poet Maggie Smith’s book comes out soon, and on Twitter she said the title was from a note she wrote herself: “Keep Moving.”
She started in this small way, and now offers almost daily messages on Twitter that inspire hope and perseverance. I know, I know, Twitter is a time suck, an empty hole of call-out culture and snarky subtweets and constant self-promotion. But the poets I follow offer little snippets of golden light on dreary days. They encourage me to believe in myself and be confident: in my body image, in my efforts to better my mental health, in my relationships.
I am not optimistic enough to believe that the universe will manifest whatever we intend and attract. I’m a little skeptical of affirmations and positive psychology, because I think you can be the best person in the world and horrible trouble can still fall upon you. It is too much to ask, in the face of injustice and depression and trauma, to just “cheer up.”
But in the things I do have some control over — my approach to problems, my energy, the way I talk to myself — I could be so sweet, hopeful, and kind. I could use my words as a dream.
You can pre-order Maggie Smith’s book on Indiebound