Me to a roomful of high school students last week: “Raise a hand if you’ve lost someone you love to murder.”
Every hand went up.
Every hand. At least that’s how it looked to me, standing there. How do you make your way through something impossibly hard? That was the premise of our conversation, and the students took turns reading out loud from my novel What I Leave Behind, which is about exactly that. Impossible hardship is something these students are no strangers to. Institutionalized racism and sexism and poverty are all designed to keep a few people sitting pretty at the expense of so many, and one result is a roomful of children who have all watched loved ones die violently.
I asked them how they coped. Some meditated. Some did yoga. Some cooked. Some listened to music. And every one of them seemed to make art: writing, painting, drawing, singing. They clearly understood the power of art, how you can use it to translate and transcend an impossible experience, push it out of you and at the same time absorb it. Art can keep you connected to others. These students are old souls, wise beyond their years. I got back to my hotel that night to find that a friend in Germany had sent me a poem that I’d forgotten, a poem I love. A poem that the minute I saw it felt like the poem to send in honor of these beautiful, powerful youth. We have to do better by them.
This Is the Dream, by Olav Hauge (translated by Robert Hedin and Robert Bly)
This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.
For more information on Olav Hauge, please click here.
When I read your conversation with the students who had experienced so much in their young lives, I had to search out the poignant poem by Maggie Smith, ‘Good Bones’. “ This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.” And I hope we can at least make it better. Keep up the work.
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That poem (“Good Bones”) is one of my favorite poems in the entire world. XO