What Matters?

Photo by Tabitha Mort on Pexels.com

This week has been very challenging, in a year that’s been challenging. I don’t think I’ve not cried watching the news at some point. I go from angry, to sad, to trying to understand how I can be of greatest assistance. I understand and have always recognized my life comes with privilege through skin color, sex, class, physical ability, and the list goes on. When I decided to work in mental health, I knew and promised myself never to let money or ego or whatever lead me away from the populations who need it the most and are often the least likely to get services to being disenfranchised. I have kept that promise and will continue to keep it. It’s in years of working as a social worker/mental health therapist, that I’ve learned how deep injustice runs, how privilege works, etc. Having lived abroad and in every corner of this country, I’ve seen racism and hate at all it’s levels from the institutional/macro level down to the micro level. Currently, I work with individuals who have HIV. Walking into the job, I thought living with a chronic illness that people are still stigmatized for would be one of the largest factors in these individual’s lives. To most of my clients, HIV (as we know the virus now as a chronic illness instead of the immediate death sentence it once was) is the least of their worries. We rarely talk about it. I will say, the trauma of most of my client’s lives is some of the worst I’ve seen and they are some of the most resilient people I’ve seen. That is saying something from an individual that worked with active duty wounded soldiers coming straight from Afghanistan and Iraq at the heart of those wars. I started as a teacher. My student teaching was in the inner city. I did fifth grade and then I did sixth through eighth. My students kept journals, and the things I read in them were unbelievable. There were several days where there was no recess because someone was shot near the playground. I could go on. I remember fighting for a student who was so smart, but she literally couldn’t see the paper in front of her, so she was failing. I fought so hard to get her glasses. It was then, I felt, I (personally) would do better as an advocate individually for students and people and decided social work was one way to do this. It’s hard work in so many ways. So many of the people I work with, accept abuse in relationships, lack of advocacy, proper education, etc. It breaks me to see them go back to an abuser or return to using or selling drugs, but it’s the life they know. They’ve never had one healthy model of a relationship in their life. They are not afforded opportunities the way I have been. A few weeks ago, I had a client I was sure had COVID. He was really sick. He had no money for a bottle of aspirin. He cannot write well and he’s essentially been on his own his whole life without any advocacy or parenting, so it didn’t really occur to call the clinic and talk to his doctor. I was so worried about him and wanted to help him learn how to contact the doctor, so we sent an e-mail together, where I dictated what to write to him. I could tell he struggled, so I asked if I could talk to the doctor and have her call him to check in. I work for a great clinic, with great doctors, and she was already on it when she got the e-mail before our session ended. It just broke me to see how much work went into getting him (if nothing else) a doctor’s visit and a bottle of aspirin. I didn’t intend to write about any of this today. I actually was going to write about a poem I chose for today. Poems come at odd times. I was living in Hawaii and I was at an exhibit of photographs, and I saw a photograph of a rose garden and the title was something like “Rose Garden in France 1914.” When I saw the year, the picture of the rose garden changed so much. 1914 is the year WWI broke out in Europe. I began to think about the photographer and what he was feeling as he shot this. Perhaps, it was a shot of rose garden, but the idea that he took that picture with the knowledge of war impending throughout Europe and reaching the soil of his nation, inevitably, was heartbreaking. I went home, and I wrote the poem. The picture, to me, represented the power of art. It was a simple picture of a rose garden, but in the backdrop of the times it was taken, it expands and says so much more. Art holds so much of our history. Poems and paintings and songs survive because they allow us to know where we came from. It’s amazing how we can read something written by Shakespeare, which was written in a time when English was so different than what it is know, that it feels foreign, and yet we still find universal meaning that speak to the times we live in today. Often, when I’m reading poetry in the morning, I come across a piece that was written years ago, but it could have been written about today. Artists are some of our greatest historians. We quote beautiful passages from speeches by Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln and so many others when talking about the times we live in. Right now, we are living in a time in history, where it becomes so clear that words have power. They not only have the power to lift us up out of dark moments, but they can be destructive. Language is power. We see it all the time on the macro level. We see it in our individual lives. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, we had to give a paper to our English teacher to determine where we’d be placed next year. I loved English. I was smart and always had been an avid reader, but I did not want to stand out in any way. Being good in academics made you stand out and I just wanted to disappear and not be noticed. It was easier. I checked on the sheet that I was just going to be put in standard eleventh grade English. I remember the teacher coming around and looking at the papers to sign them. She looked at mine and she said defiantly in my ear, “No.” I kind of looked at her and she said very quietly, “You’re skating in here. I can’t let you continue this. You know it and I know it. You can write, and I am not going to let you pretend you can’t anymore.’ She took my sheet and signed me up for college writing. I had no self-confidence and was with individuals older than me. I remember going to hand in my portfolio at the end of the year to the professor. He looked at me and said, “What do you think of it?” I said, “I’m sure it’s got tons of errors, but I tried.” He looked at me and said, “You really don’t get it.” I said, “No.” He said, “You have the power to be a great writer. I’m jealous sometimes when I read what you give me. I hope you own it because it’s a real gift.’ I decided to own that I was smart in English. I can’t tell you what doors open when you have the ability to articulate your thoughts and feelings. It’s given me opportunities to see the world, opportunities for jobs I probably never would have been up for, etc. When I realized what it could do for me, I also realized there is a responsibility with it and a power. When I chose this poem this morning, I was thinking about the power of a piece of art. What it can do. It can heal, it can hurt, it can become artifact or a piece of history, and it can guide us. In this time of deep uncertainty, we need to be aware of how much art is needed. We also need to be aware of the power of our words. They do matter. They might not become historical artifact, but if they reach one person, they matter. We are all connected. We all affect each other. One person’s misuse of words can be healing or damning. There is so much going on right now, somedays it’s hard to think. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, to make decisions on how to act. It’s confusing. For me, I know I can only change myself. In these hard times, I can hold the energy that all this suffering is going to amount to something greater. If nothing else, we can hold that energy. We can choose to see the roses and remember the light in our lives. In times of darkness, we must think toward the light. Even if there are awful things happening, it’s so that change can be made and a brighter world can emerge.

Photographer, 1914

He sharpened the roses, that year, as if they were tools
to their greatest place. He needed
each rose to rise and bloom to its greatest glory.
In a small patch of garden in his tiny French countryside backyard.
Outside of the gates, the town gossiped of an Archduke in Sarajevo,
whose assassination could tear up the world,
the great fields of France. This is when he planted the bulbs.

Ferdinand’s life, ironically, taken
by a group of nationalists known as the Black Hand
furthered the soil, digging their fingers into it deeper
giving all the roses all the more reason
to bring the world color.
It was at that moment he decided
the roses would be photographed in the same darkness and light
that meet when heaven and hell are exposed.

So as he drank cherry wine for what he felt was the last time,
as alliances came into bloom so did the roses.
As he stared at the buds on the stem,
he knew this could be the last bunch of roses grown on his plot of land,
so as the nuances of war changed how he saw the world’s color,
he waited….

until the roses had reached the final moment of their glory.
With the roses in full bloom,
he flashed his bulb
and captured France, as he knew it,
fertile, full of color, the only home he’d ever known.
With each flash, a tear rolled down his cheek,
As he captured the world he knew and loved,
knowing only the pictures one day would be able to tell
the story of his home, his nation, as he would always know her in his heart.

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