A Time to Heal
by Susan Parker
"Call your brother!" Those three words kept nagging at me on June 11, 2000. I thought I had learned to listen to my inner voice, but this time I chose not to. I just couldn't bear talking to him, listening to his Budweiser-words as he rambled about nothing in particular. It was a reminder of the pain he had caused our mother and how many times she had bailed him out of one jam or another.
The following morning, mom called to say that Randy had died. I immediately regretted not making that call. The regret hit harder when I discovered he had telephoned all his friends the day before, as if he knew of his
impending death. But he had not called me. Never again would I hear "Hi, Sis, how ya' doin'?" I knew I would feel the guilt the rest of my life.
One day my friend Sandy called to say she was teaching poetry at Archway Recovery Services in Fairfield, California, a drug and alcohol recovery center housing a group of about fifteen men between the ages of 20- to 60-something, from all walks of life. They were addicts who had "challenges" with drugs and alcohol, most having spent time in jail. She explained that Archway is a non-profit, loving environment where the residents learn to respect themselves as well as others. Through the 12-Step Program, the staff is committed to helping them heal their drug and alcohol ravaged minds and bodies, complete their educations and find employment to set them on a more positive path in life. Some were in this program for the first time, while others had been in similar programs before, still hoping to turn their life around. When she asked if I would like to help out, I jumped at the chance. I thought perhaps I could redeem myself, heal the guilt of not being there for my brother. Little did I know what an impact the time spent at Archway would have on me.
I arrived on my first night with trepidation, not knowing what to expect, thinking they were going to look like a bunch of ex-cons you see in the movies. Almost without exception, they came into the program with scraggly, greasy hair and an attitude. The majority had tattoos (most likely from prison), they needed dental work, some were rough around the edges, some had personality and anger management issues, but they were all respectful. Despite my husband's concerns for my safety, I was never afraid. I saw my brother in every desperate face.
What the heck could I teach these guys? I had never walked in their shoes! A few had written poetry somewhere along the line but most said they didn't like it and sure couldn't write it. They couldn't imagine reading aloud anything they might write or sharing their innermost feelings with strangers. However, within a few weeks their minds had changed. The poetry class gave them something fun to do and a "safe" place where they could express their feelings.
Gleaning information from workshops I had attended and books I had read, I developed a plan for the weekly sessions. Using pictures from magazines, photographs taken during my travels, or words and sentences I supplied as "thought evoking," they wrote poetry. I taught them what I had learned: That today's poetry is about our life's experiences, with different formats and genres everyone can enjoy and appreciate. We read Shakespeare to Robert Service to Tupac Shakur and wrote pantoums to haiku to cowboy poetry.
Using Spurrin' the Words, a Montana 4-H Cowboy Poetry Project (an excellent manual for teaching and learning about cowboy poetry), I introduced them to the background and cultural diversification of cowboy
poetry. Through reading a variety of books and listening to CDs, they were delighted by the storytelling quality of the poetry. They saw the honesty in Wallace McRae and Virginia Bennett, the tenderness in Laurie Wagner Buyer, heard the unique Indian voice in Henry Real Bird, and the magical music in the words of Paul Zarzyski.
Through their writing, you could track the changes taking place in their lives. At first they were cocky, with anger and resentment about their lots in life. By the second or third week after arriving at Archway, they had
gotten hair cuts, but were still a little cocky. Humor started to seep into their writing, even if it was what we came to term "their dark stage." After a couple of months you could see another change - for the better.
They were beginning to take life a little more seriously, see themselves differently, and realizing they could, perhaps, control their futures.
By the end of six months, you could see the impact that poetry and writing - in conjunction with the 12-Step Program - had on their life. They had learned to journal as an outlet for their frustrations, and for the most
part, were optimistic about their futures. These tough guys beamed like children at Christmas when you praised their work and cried like softies when overcome by emotion, as falling tears healed their wounds. The depth of their feelings and the raw talent in their work amazed me as I cried with them.
I met some delightful characters. There was Mikey, a 30-something young man who had challenges with reading and writing, who at first, said he could never read what he had written in front of anyone. But with a little positive reinforcement and encouragement, he couldn't wait to share his work and always managed to get his hand up first.
Then there was Joey, another 30-something young man, who was exposed to marijuana smoke when he was three years old. His sister and her friends thought it was funny to see the little guy get high. He'd been around the block many times and didn't make it through the program. But there is always the chance he'll succeed another time.
Ken, a 40-something, looking like an 80 year old, came in barely able to stand with the aid of a walker, experiencing seizures. He had been at Archway before, but fell off the wagon and was truly at the brink of death. I attended his graduation six months later and this time I am confident he will stay clean and sober. He truly is a changed person and a wonderful poet.
And Dane, who turned 21 at Archway, sustained a back injury and got hooked on painkillers because "he liked the buzz." To him, trying recovery was better than going to jail. I watched him mature and grow into a fine young man. He came to realize he had to change his sphere of influence in order to stay clean and sober. I have no doubt he will be a strong, upstanding member of his community.
I led my band of poetry converts for almost a year until family illnesses required my energies be redirected. Sandy and others handle the reins of Archway's poetry program now, and are even hosting monthly open mike poetry sessions at a local coffee shop. I hope that soon I can once again get involved in the program. I got back much more that I gave.
Like for so many people, cowboy poetry was foreign to them. This gave me an opportunity to share the many facets of the genre, to show them this is the poetry of our American heritage - poetry that cannot be forgotten. Will the poetry I shared keep them clean and sober? Probably not. I am told the success rate of the 12-Step Program is only 28%, although that is higher than the 22% success rate of other programs. But it gave these men two things: self confidence and another coping mechanism. Am I a better person for sharing poetry with a bunch of guys who some people gave up on? Absolutely! I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding things I have done my entire life. Has my personal guilt healed? Not completely. But I feel Randy is watching and forgives me for not making one last call.
© 2006, Susan Parker, all rights reserved
The following represents poetry written by the students at Archway and is reprinted here with their permission.
The first poem was the result of an exercise where the students were asked to use the first line of a Walt Whitman poem, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."
All poems were written in 2005.
By the sea, beneath the yellow sagging moon
harmonious chords come out in tune.
Deep feelings float free to the sea,
some dark, some light, and some in between.
The pattern in which the vibrations flow
is sequential although not overly repetitious.
As the moon sags further
gleaming across the water
ease of mind becomes simple to find.
The dark is flushed out with the tide
extension of thought born into sound
the feeling of nearly drowning
before being brought back to solid ground.
There is a warm wonderful place I go
where no one else can enter
where terrible trouble need not rear its ugly
for this place of mine
is for my earned escape
when life's little problems push
their nasty negative responses
running to and fro across
the grey matter of my mind
where only I can reside.
So don't bother me
when I'm away from here
if you please.
by Mike G.
If you were to creep into one's closet,
many stories would unfold. Bygone eras
coming to life, living, breathing before your eyes,
secrets revealed. The size of their feet,
a favorite color, what sports they played,
even ones they didn't.
I crept quietly and gazed into the dark room
almost expecting a monster
to leap out at me. I saw things
that filled me with wonder-
old black and white photos
jeans torn and aged
clothes, lots of clothes
new and retro, fads of time gone by
platforms lime-green colored
polyester plaid shirts
moth eaten cotton
shoes long since worn.
I discovered wigs
lead based lipstick
fluorescent orange blazer
with matching skirt
wool suits covered in dust
smelling quite musty
baby clothes of children now grown.
a living epitaph of a life
and accomplishment therein,
breathing before my eyes.
by Ken H.
Read some of Susan Parker's poetry here.
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