Tuesday, May 1, 2012

To die for

I am sitting on a tree stump about 7 inches off the ground. Far in the distance I hear electronic church bells. Closer in I hear the steady beep beep of an industrial truck backing up. Closer still, birds -- robins and mockingbirds -- invisible in the thick camouflage of trees. I am in a cemetery with my poetry students. Before they dispersed to fulfill their assignments, I read a Rumi to them. Now they’ll play with persona a la Edgar Lee Masters and the Spoon River Anthology. I remember the first time I heard the Spoon River Anthology. My brother was an actor in FSU’s theater department and they put on a reading of the poems, voices telling the stories of the people under the headstones. It was one more nail in my coffin -- a love of poetry to die for. The sunlight is diffused this morning by a thin scrim of cloud vapor. Cemeteries are sacred places to me. The ultimate transformation -- dust to dust. Being in this cemetery reminds me of scenes from a documentary film I recently saw. The filmmaker was my friend Therese Bartholomew, who had transformed the murder of her beloved brother into a testament of love and forgiveness. Her grief at his death was torrential. It was a monstrous thing that grabbed her by the throat and tried to drown her. Writing was the oxygen line that kept her alive. One time she asked me in despair, “What do I do with it all? How do I put it together?” “Just keep going,” I answered. “You can worry about putting it together later.” Then one night she woke up about 2 a.m. and told her husband she was going to make a movie. She began to keep a video diary. Then one time at our biweekly writing workshop she met some filmmakers at the coffee shop. They were in our space, but we were willing to share. Serendipity. Within a few years she had a book and a movie. Now she’s a spokesperson for restorative justice. Both of her works are incredibly transformative for one simple reason: the raw stripped to the bone honesty of her telling of the story. When Therese looks into the camera, debilitated by depression, puffy eyed and red-nosed, you know that it’s taken all of her willpower to articulate the pain, and you cannot help but be opened up to explore your own humanity. She transforms that pain into love, into art literally before your eyes. So now my students are wandering back. Two of the young women were resistant to coming here. They hate cemeteries they told me. Cemeteries are creepy, they said. And there’s too much nature out here. At first I wonder if this visit has changed their attitudes, but then I have to laugh at myself: as if everyone has to love what I love, as if a teacher dragging them out at 7:45 in the morning to wander among headstones is going to suddenly break through that iron shell and transform them. And also I know you don’t have to love a situation to write about it. In fact, sometimes getting uncomfortable is the most inspiring thing of all. Here is Merritt’s poem: Outdoors again, Starting to think My teacher is torturing me. Birds are chirping, The bugs are biting, And I am uncomfortably Centered in the Midst Of a thousand spirits. Not my personal place of Peace and relaxation, unaware of the spirits I'm encountering, Praying none of them Leave here with me! Merritt C. Ryan-Jones Ideas to write by: 1. Go to a cemetery. I’ve been inspired to write a story about dead people for a couple of years. One of these days I might even get around to it. At least steal some character names of the headstones. 2. Be honest about something that maybe you haven’t been able to be honest about before. You don’t have to share the writing with anyone else. Just dredge it up, write it, maybe it will turn into a piece of fiction or a poem. 3. Try keeping a video diary. See how that influences your writing voice. 4. Go to Therese’s website. Support a fellow writer. Buy a book, buy a CD. You won’t regret it. http://www.thefinalgiftfilm.com/

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