There is a star jasmine bush on the northeast corner of Sherbrooke Road and San Felipe Road that smells amazing and takes me back to my childhood at Greene Street Friends School, picking honeysuckle and eating it in the late spring each day after school. For the past 40 minutes, I’ve been power walking all around my neighborhood, marching speedily like an ex-New Yorker and Army veteran. But as I near home, I decide to slow down and look around me. And there it is. The scent is what stops me in my tracks, and I turn and stare at the fragrant flowering hedge.
I am cultivating the habit of noticing when something stands out to me, noticing an undeniable engagement of my senses and emotions. It’s not like studying a “Where’s Waldo” picture, where I spend my days straining to identify people and objects around me. It’s not like a trick or a puzzle to be solved; it really is a matter of paying attention to both the external and internal world, noticing when something makes me do a double take, when it enters my stream of consciousness and changes it.
I have difficulty remembering most moments of my life and telling stories. I’ve been reassured that this is not pathological, although there is so much talk of stories these days, I am still disappointed in myself for not conjuring any hilarious, heroic, or hellacious tales. It’s something I long to do, and I haven’t given up trying.
I wrote poems in high school on a Smith-Corona word processor, and then on a Packard Bell computer. In college I did slam poetry, and I wrote my poems in several hardcover spiral-bound writing journals which I ended up throwing away when I thought I had “matured.”
In August of 2019, Rumi was hiding on the poetry shelves in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore, and I finally found him. Reading Rumi reminds me to enjoy poetry for the sake of discovery and expression, in a way that is profoundly distinct from prose. Poetry has no need to quibble or explain; for me, poetry is an umbilical cord between language and meaning; for me, my favorite poems are an experience; for me, poetry reminds me of the beauty and mystery of life.
Language both captivates and eludes me. I struggle with this sometimes, and it is ironic (possibly poetic) that I love reading and writing, and that I became an English teacher. In the words of Matthew Zapruder, author of the book Why Poetry:
“I was already deeply attracted to words, in an unreasoned, almost shameful way. I loved them for their own sakes, for the various things they could do, and for the meanings that could be made when I put them alongside ones they weren’t ordinarily next to, or far from ones they are usually near. This pleasure I took in language itself overrode any interest I had in telling stories, or organizing my ideas in a systematic way.”
In my lifetime of noticing words and language, yet often struggling to communicate clearly, I have come to learn this about writing personal stories:
I exist in a poem
and I’m trying to write it.
But a poem isn’t like a prose story.
It can only be felt, and emerges
when a spirit tumbles from the heart mind
into the ink of a pen,
which scratches out words that approximate
the glimpse of a very real imagined possibility.
With poetry, “we are brought to a place beyond words by words themselves.” Honoring that place is liberating and affirming. It is noticing trees and the scent of jasmine as you walk in your neighborhood. It is picking and eating honeysuckle on a sunny afternoon in April.