wordsIn a memoir I read recently, the narrator writes about the time when he met the woman who would become his wife. She wrote poetry, he said. During their courtship, they would spend hours writing and reciting poems to each other. These words slowly began to dislodge something inside of me…poetry, poems, poet. And then, a flicker of recognition: Hey! I know what that is! I used to do that! I used to be good at that!

Rewind to the Christmas before last. I was in New Zealand in my hometown and I bumped into an old friend I used to be quite close with. Petite and blond, she bares a striking resemblance to Kylie Minogue and was visiting from London. We took the same poetry writing course at university, as part of our English degrees (she got hers, along with a law degree, I downgraded mine to a minor). She asked me if I still wrote poetry. I said “Um, not really.” She replied, “That’s a shame. You were really good. You could do something with it.” A nice compliment and an interesting thought, but still, too traumatized and burnt out from graduate school, which I was only halfway through, I did not put pen to paper.

Fast forward to a year later. Just a few months ago, on a whim, my coworker in Seoul  invited me to a yoga class. It was in a dingy building in Seoul’s version of Chinatown for white people. All five of us fit snuggly into the room, which we shared with a little hamster named Pete. (The teacher warmed me that while free-roaming Pete usually keeps a low profile, he might pop out from his hangout to spend some time with us. And, indeed, at one point, as I am easing into downward dog, my eyes meet with a pair of little black shiny eyes, whiskers and a tail. Pete is staring me right in the face, as if to say, “Hey, you’re new here, aren’t you?” I let out a high-pitched princess-worthy scream, and he quickly scuttles away. Unfortunately, my friend tells me a few weeks later, Pete froze to death in what was one of the coldest winters in recent memory).

After the class, I noticed that the guy who came late looks familiar. We get talking and soon enough, I find out that he was also in that poetry writing class all those years ago on the other side of the world. He is working here too, the same kind of university gig. He also tells me that another guy from the class is around these parts too. Quite a high number considering that there were only 12 of us in the class.

This random meeting brings back a flood of memories from that time. Why I write about it now is because I think it is kind of funny, kind of cliched. The professor for that class was a very talented, famous/notorious American writer who was known for being difficult to get along with but also for shaping some of New Zealand’s best writing talent. Some of the students had moved cities and universities to be in this class. Past students had gone on to write books and win awards.

Our seminars involved sitting around a long table and critiquing our work which was submitted anonymously. We were the Stoner, the Hippy, the Reverand’s Wife, the Farmer’s Wife, the Bohemian, the Hipster, the Wounded Child, the Sophisticate, the Rastafarian, the Intellectual, the Goth and me. My creations, which were about family, travel, relationships, and of course sex and death, were called ‘inane’, ‘banal’, and ‘vapid.’ I had to run to the library to look in the dictionary to see what these words meant at the end of each session.

To celebrate the end of our course, we went to the teacher’s cabin-like house in a small community on the coast known for its large population of artists, musicians, sailors and people with substance abuse issues. We sat around, listening to Dr. Dre (amazing poet, according to the professor) and drinking cheap red wine from a cask. And then, one of our classmates comes late. He sits down and looks confused. He looks like he’s on the verge of a panic attack. We talk to him and try to pry out of him what is wrong. His agitation increases as he relays the day’s events: he took some LSD, and now he feels like he is turning into a woman. He is trapped inside the wrong body. He wants us to help him get out. Whhaaaaat?

Yes, that happened. Of course it happened. He talks some more about how he is feeling and we try to comfort him. Someone eventually has the idea of massaging his shoulders in order to bring him back into reality. But now, the atmosphere is too weird. We eventually drop the guy home and we all go our separate ways.

So after submitting my poems to the university’s anthology and having them rejected, I pretty much stopped writing poetry. I mean, you can’t make money from it. It doesn’t really have much of a purpose – it’s not like it’s going to end world hunger or stop global warming.

moonThen again, there is something sacred and beautiful about the gentle act of stringing words together that is an expression of your innermost self. Like gliding along alone in a sailboat on a moonlit lake. Maybe it’s worth doing it for the sake of just doing it – for the performance of it, the process. A creative gesture. Poet Jack Gilbert once said in an interview something along the lines of how tragic it is that we are not hungrier to find and express the diamonds inside of ourselves.

Thankfully, Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets, was. And hopefully I will be again, too.

…And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy,
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.

(Pablo Neurda)




Teen Spirit

Image by Lel4nd

I received an email from one of my good friends from high school this week – our beloved drama teacher is retiring and she wanted me to write a letter that would be presented to her on her final day.

I dutifully wrote it, and as I did, I was flooded with memories from those turbulent teenage years.

This woman’s no-nonsense, tough love approach and presence had a formative effect on my life. As I thought back to that era, I realized how much time we spent together – evenings and weekends rehearsing for productions, for assessments, for concerts. Having no children of her own, she dedicated much of her time and energy to us in all our emo, narcissistic, amateur glory.

It was because of her that I was able to have one of the most amazing experiences of my life – three weeks travelling and performing in the United States. This naïve, small town girl hopped on a plane for the first time and was transported literally to a new world. It was a transcendent experience – I devoured every ecstatic second of every teenage girls’ fantasy: giant shopping malls, Hawaiian beaches, Disneyland, and of course, performing a play about there being too many frogs and not enough princes for hundreds of Americans at a real American University. Hotels, international airports, palm trees, yellow cabs, buying blue jeans from The Gap – these experiences made me feel so grown up: invincible, as if the possibilities were endless. I was so lost in the moment that time ceased to exist. Everything was in technicolour and spaces seemed much larger, buildings much higher. It was as if each hour brought something better than the one that preceded it. I felt confident and beautiful and glowed like a candle on an altar.

That highlight aside, my teenage years were, like everyone else’s, awkward, and uncomfortable. I remembered my 17-year-old self. I am a little bit in awe of her. How did I manage to do well academically, keep up all those rehearsals, and work part-time at McDonald’s (usually the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights cleaning up my peers’ vomit at 3am)? I have no idea where I got the energy or motivation. Just thinking about that kind of schedule makes me feel bone-chillingly exhausted. Add to that an unstable family life, teenage heart-break, a mysterious ailment, and an insalubrious social life that revolved around alcohol, drugs and mourning Kurt Cobain. It’s a wonder I didn’t curl up and hide under a rock in my ripped Gap jeans.

I was such a diligent little soldier, ambitious and determined. I suppose I was driven to make something of myself, to be the first person in my family to go to university, to experience the world that featured in all those books I read when I was trying to escape from my painful reality. I can be grateful that I was pretty independent and self-sufficient from a young age.

Inevitably though, we get knocked down by life, and we learn to get up. Things wash over us easily when we’re young, but I feel now, although I have a stronger backbone, there are definitely chips in my armor. My confidence and resilience have been tested, and sometimes eroded. That is inevitable. The trick, I think, is to recall the strengths of that younger self and remind myself that I have got through crazy hard times before, that there is a well of inner strength there to be drawn from.

Also, now I have the gift of perspective and experience. I am older, wiser, more mature, less naive, definitely less innocent, maybe more cynical. Definitely more self-aware.

During those formative years, we need such mentors in our lives to provide some calm amongst the storm, a respite from the crashing waves of hormones and peer pressure. I was lucky to have had such a nurturing, if eccentric, role model.