When Did You Know?

On Twitter last week, poet Rosebud Ben-Oni passed on a question she’d recently been asked to whoever else wanted to think about it.

Obviously I wanted to know her answer:

This is my new favorite kind of math

So many other folx had beautiful stories, too:

She painted it on her wall! What a wonderful, physical manifestation of that first connection with the right words.

That metaphor says it all. I wish I knew anything, ever, so immediately and powerfully.

There are lots more by now; the thread is full of joy. (And some pain. Fair warning.) It’s a good read.

When I saw this response, I had a very specific feeling, beyond joy:

(First of all, that’s awesome, Todd)

Recognition. This is very similar to what happened to me in the 7th grade.* And I’d forgotten, so accessing the memory was such a beautiful gift. A double gift, in fact, which I’ll get to. Here’s what I remember:

Last period of the day, I had a class called Reading. Our first assignment: write an “I am” poem to introduce yourself to the class.

Oh how I wanted to half-ass this and stay hidden. I was in a new school, after two socially difficult years at the end of elementary. Grades 5 and 6 had been rough precisely because I was weird and different.** Safe on the other side of that, I did not need to stand up in front of my new peers and officially declare myself a freak.

It was my mom who convinced me not to go the safe & mediocre, nobody-look-at-me route. I already loved writing, although I didn’t know much about the process of it, or whether mine was any good. What I knew was I wanted to write something deep and authentic in response to this prompt. Even though I also knew it would be awkward in public, and even though I didn’t know if I could shape the words the way I needed them. Mom gave me permission to let my freak flag fly*** — and also not to sell myself short before I’d even started.

I worked on that poem all afternoon. I fell in love with the work. I didn’t notice this at the time, exactly, but looking back I can see it was love beginning. And my mom didn’t just walk away, having delivered her excellent advice. She paused her own activities every time I raced downstairs to read her a new stanza. She answered my questions about word choice. She told me, over and over, I was doing good work.

As we were all required to do, I read that poem out in front of the class the next day. It was definitely weird. It was Romantic (the only sort of poetry I’d read, besides Shel Silverstein), and it was painfully earnest. It was very different indeed to what my peers had written. Of course I was embarrassed. Also, I was intoxicated with discovery.

I guess I’m telling this story because remembering it let me access that sense of discovery all over again. That feeling of first flight, of beginning to come into a power.

I’m also hoping you have a beautiful story of your own to re-encounter.

And I’m telling this because it’s shining a personal light on how important community is in the creation of art and artists, and I want to uplift that.

My teacher not only took that assignment (and my response) seriously, she counseled me through my nerves and questions with a reassuring combination of patience and nonchalance. Throughout the year that followed, she encouraged me to write more.

My mom spent the time, and also found the right words, to convince me to take this chance, and then to encourage and support me as I tried, maybe for the first time, incredibly hard to do a thing I wanted and was not sure I could do.

I think about gratitude plenty in response to my writing, mostly gratitude toward writing itself, because it saves me daily.

Often, I think about my aunt, who saw my early word-joy, and named it for me by gifting my first journal, age 8.

Occasionally, I remember the teachers who brought their own deep and authentic selves to their work, and in so doing pointed out a path I might never have seen. I’ve stumbled pretty hard along that path–across a vocation I love, that loves me back.

But I’d almost forgotten how much of my ability to write today–specifically, to persevere when it’s hard, and to try new things I might not be any good at–is directly due to my mother’s patience and faith. Because of course it wasn’t just that one time. I just turned 36, and she’s still at it.

It really does take a village, as the saying goes. It’s just not always obvious.

So I’m sending extra thanks to my villages today–here, in emails and letters, in the Chiricahua Mountains last spring, in my family’s shared sacred space every summer, in shared worship and service through church, on Poetry Twitter, in my home and in yours, and between our hearts. And thanks to my Mama, first and always.

I make art because of you, team. And as I said already, it saves me. Which means you save me.

So, your turn. Whatever you are that you love, or whatever you love that you want to be, when did you know? Who’s helping you get there? What shape is your gratitude? What’s your beautiful story?

*I guess that’s the year for making American kids write poetry in response to personal prompts. I was not the only other person with a grade-7 tale.

**I mean, who isn’t, but that’s how I felt it at the time. Also, I realize I’ve written that sentence as if my difference was the problem, when actually the problem was people being cruel because they could, instead of choosing curiosity, or kindness.

***…She would probably not put it that way.


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