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  • Jenny Runkel

A Poet's Call

I spent almost half of my life teaching high school English. I retired last year and up until about a week ago, when people asked me if I missed it, I had to stifle a laugh.

But today everything has changed.

I wish that I had a group of students who had to spend time with me every day. I miss people. I miss having someone to tell how the tulips I saw this morning were so beautiful they hurt my eyes. That the birds in the park didn’t seem to know that the world was collapsing and that when I was with them, neither did I. I miss Mary Oliver. And William Wordsworth. And George Orwell.

I miss being surrounded by my books filled with poetry that I donated to the school when I left. I miss my colleagues who made me laugh and cry. I miss the petty concerns that drove me crazy about my daily life. More than anything else, I miss the chance to connect with other people, in a very real way, over the beautiful words and ideas that actually help us in times such as these. Even though in the history of humanity, we’ve neverhad times such as these.

You can ignore me all you want and think that poetry and writing are luxuries for another day. I’m telling you, with authority, otherwise. When cancer came knocking in 2005, writing and poetry were the only things that made sense. The anger, uncertainty, dread, and loss roiled up in my body and threatened, quite literally, to make me even sicker.

Reading how other people across cultures and time periods dealt with the same kinds of feelings was one of the only things that gave me comfort. Lyrics to songs I had ignored before made me weep openly. Lines from poems I had glossed over in my classes, put me on my knees and lifted me up off of them. And, impossibly, when I joined them in the solitary act of sitting quietly with paper, pen and truth, I felt less alone and less scared.

When cancer came back again in 2015, it was a student who comforted me first. Jackson O’Brien was the first person I saw after getting the phone call and as much as I tried to hide it from him, I couldn’t. He hugged me and asked how he could help. I told him that he could show our whole class his Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball impression. He did. It helped.

We really don’t have much else to hold on to right now except for each other and the words that need to be said.

I’m done dispensing “helpful” advice and cheerful aphorisms. I’m leaning on the power of words that has always told me that I’m not alone and I’m going to share those words – both mine and theirs - with others. Unfollow or hide me. Dismiss or patronize me. Your call.

But if you’ve got a gnawing hole in your chest like me, and you’re ready to try just about anything to help it feel better, I promise you, words can help.

Poets spend their entire lives digging through confusion and fog until they hit rock, solid truth. Words are both their spades and their fruit. Read them. Join them. Feel the freedom of screaming on the page with sloppy handwriting. Releasing all of your deepest, darkest, dingiest fears about what lies ahead for you onto the page is a brave thing to do. It will also allow you to cut through what you think you think and help you see what really matters. Every time I do it, I feel lighter, more capable, more alive.

I leave you with a small poem by Emily Dickenson that’s full of truth.

In this short Life that only lasts an hour

How much - how little - is within our power

We are both powerless and powerful in this moment. We cannot fix the pandemic, but we can stay home. We cannot allay the fears of our children, but we can listen. We cannot will our jobs to remain, but we can stay connected to people and serve our clients.

We cannot be together, but we do not have to be alone.

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