A Saturday morning in December. Drizzly. Cold. Steel-like. The sidewalks are slick but I’m out running, breathing in the cold air like I’ve never breathed before. My hands are clammy with rain, clutching my house keys desperately. I urge my legs to go faster, wanting to feel them straining, wanting to feel my lungs hurt. Being outside is refreshing, as it’s been a stressful week at work and I’ve been surrounded by negativity in the news. There’s been another school shooting in America and those of us that work at schools are especially shocked- if it happened there, could it happen here, too? How do things like this happen in our world?
On this dark December day, all I had felt as of late was violence, grief, and the crazy bustle of the holidays. As an antidote, I wanted peace, cold air, and refreshment. But I also wanted words. I wanted creativity to slap me in the face. I wanted to be reminded, through ordinary words, that “a word after a word after a word is power.” (That’s Margaret Atwood.) The. And. Flower. Tree. Grass. Rocket Ship. How can these fit together in an extraordinary way? On this day, I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to be reminded of the power of words.
I arrived back in Portland in 2011 after some years away from my childhood here. A few months after I started exploring this place with eyes anew, I stumbled across a phenomenon that has integrated itself into to the ever-quirky Portland facade- the poetry post. What I mean by this is simple box with a clear front mounted on a post, not unlike a real estate sign. But it’s sole purpose is to display poetry, words, news, and messages. While climbing the hidden stairways of the West Hills, I crested a hill to find one of these displaying the poetry of e.e. cummings and was immediately taken by it. So I kept looking, and I kept finding them- in front of houses, schools, hospitals, community centers- little pieces of poetry found on our sidewalks. And it was on this drizzly December day of confusion and negativity that I sought out poetry posts in my neighborhood. First I visited the Google Map, which maps each post with their address location and sometimes a picture. Then I opened the door, and jumped outside onto the wet sidewalk.
On this day, I sought words and community- a place to notice, be surprised, stop briefly, think, and move on, perhaps more inspired. I craved a symbol of humanity in its most generous form, inspiration and kindness to a stranger, and kindness unacknowledged. I craved the proof that we humans are good, that we want each other to be happy. So I ran, surrounded by the sound of rain plinking off of metal, pattering on my head, and splashing on concrete. I stopped to look at raindrops that hung like tiny globes off of sodden green branches. They teetered on the edge of gravity, threatening to stretch themselves so thin that they would fall, yet again, to the ground. But to me, they were twinkle lights. And I stopped to read poetry.
As I stopped at each house and read the words they had displayed, I felt a small semblance of community. I stepped onto the lawns of strangers, invading their world for a few moments. And better yet, they welcomed me. They welcomed me with poems and announcements, silly and serious and curious. One poetry post advertised a diary co-op, listing a number. Another posted an appropriate poem called “Rain” by Raymond Carver. Another was empty. Yet even the empty box spoke to me, as if it waited for words to be placed inside it. Maybe I recited a poem myself, to fill that empty space.
When I stepped off the sidewalk into people’s homes, was reminded that words are flexible. Words are infinite. You can never run out of them. Sometimes words can be superfluous and sometimes they can be insufficient. We can use them in hate. We can use them in love. But most importantly, we can use them to form community. We can use them to stave off the seeds of violence and anger that burn insistently in our hearts by finding commonalities in our most disparate of neighbors. By feeling that rush of creativity and inspiration that can bloom in our hearts as we read poetry. By reading poetry, we can feed our seeds of compassion with words of power and meaning, not those seeds of negativity. And with this understanding as I stepped over the thresholds of strangers, I circled back home that day feeling happier, more rejuvenated, more inspired. I listened to the rain and let it drip down my neck, cold and rejuvenating. “Things will be OK.” And I began to think poems.
I leave you with the words of Kurt Vonnegut: