By Ann Teplick
For twenty years, I’ve been listening to the stories of the children and teens I write with, in juvenile detention, psychiatric units, hospitals, hospice centers, and public schools. Many of these stories are chaotic. Many are traumatic. Many, ecstatic. And many, a slosh of confusion.
I am honored to be one of two writers-in-residence at Seattle Children’s Hospital, with Writers in the Schools. I work with the Education department in the classroom; on the dialysis, cancer, and rehab units; and in the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU), an Acute Care Crisis Stabilization Center.
I begin by telling each young writer they have very important things to say. I ask them if they agree, and they are emphatic with “Yes.” I tell them that the world needs their stories, and I invite them to write from the heart about who they are as a person.
But how does one receive, with grace, narratives that contain disease, fear, assault, self-harm, and feelings of hopelessness? How does one climb through the visuals of chemotherapy—a beautiful six-year-old boy, with a bald head and ashen skin? The girl confined to a head and neck brace, with a freeway of tubes and hook ups to machines, an amplifier to assist with speaking? The boy, shirtless, his scar, like a red rope, thick as licorice, which runs from his sternum to his belly button? And what about the photo he shows you on his laptop, where he is gowned and gloved, holding in each hand, each half of his defective heart, sliced by the pathologist, yellowed and spongy? Or the teenage girl with the feeding tube, who weighs sixty-six pounds? Or the girl with the cuts on the soft underbelly of her forearm? Or the boy who hears voices that will not quit? How do we travel with some of the sounds, sights, smells, and textures that we witness?
THIS IS HOW I BREATHE—
I inhale. My diaphragm and intercostals contract to expand my chest cavity.
My diaphragm flattens, moves downwards; the intercostals move the ribcage upwards.
I count to three. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three.
I exhale. My diaphragm and intercostals return to their resting position.
THIS IS WHAT I DO WHEN THE STORIES I HEAR ARE PAINFUL—
I try not to cling or push the pain away. I breathe.
I try not to react, in any overt way. I breathe.
I try to keep what I hear, from triggering painful memories of my own. I breathe.
I hold the pain, as if it were a baby bird: a Western Scrub Jay—head and plume, metallic blue.
LISTENING is the foundation of what we do—a deep listening, which I consider to be an art form, and which I continue to take seriously.
In his poem, “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” John Fox, of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, says that this listening is like “holding out a dented cup/you’ve had since childhood/and watching it fill up with/cold, fresh water.” He says, “When someone deeply listens to you/the room where you stay/starts a new life.”
THIS IS HOW I LISTEN—
I know that the quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.
I am in the moment—without judging, shaping, or controlling. I kick my minds’ ruckus, and any assumptions I may have, out the door.
I keep my mind open. Fresh, alert, attentive, and receptive. There is nothing passive about it.
I don’t plan my next statement, or interrupt the speaker. My full attention is demanded.
When I am aware of my own thoughts and emotions, I let them go. Float. While remaining focused on the words I hear, no matter how difficult they are.
I come with empathy—I try to see the world as another person might.
I know there is nothing I can do to change the life of a person, but I know I can listen. And I know I can share the beauty of writing a poem, or a short piece of prose, a process that invites us to look inside ourselves, to better understand who we are. A process that has pulled me through backbreaking times.
THIS IS HOW I TAKE CARE OF MYSELF—
I cook and eat plenty of soup…carrot fennel, lentil beet, garbanzo with shaves of pumpkin.
I wear pink flannel pajamas with sheep that graze the legs and sleeves.
I watch rerun after rerun of I Love Lucy, especially the episode where she and Ethel are working at the chocolate factory.
I write lots of poetry.
I make multi-media collages.
I headstand in yoga.
I’m in the woods, every moment I can be.
I think about the bravery and resilience of the youth that I write with, despite the challenges they encounter. I think about the way they walk taller and prouder, after they write and share their stories. Here is a sampling—
WORRY (12 year old)
I worry about my Dad.
He’s in the military.
I’m afraid of something
That could possibly
Happen out of nowhere.
I worry about someone in my family
Getting sick, like I did,
Then if something drastic happens,
Like becoming handicapped
Sometimes my worries feel like I’m
Running through a rusty electric
Sometimes they smell like the rancid
Odor of the mushroom farm by our house
Which smells like manure.
Sometimes they sound like a banshee
Screaming in my ear
Or a hyena laughing in my face.
They are sometimes the color of sky
On a gray stormy day in Kansas.
When I worry, I find comfort in hanging out
With my family, like my mom—comfort
And confidence that the worry is not going to happen.
If my fears could speak, they would say
“You’re going to have bad luck in the future
And there’s nothing you can do about it,”
Like a fortune cookie.
This is what I say to them:
“I’m going to drown you out like a teenager
Blocking out his parents with heavy metal,
And I’m confident nothing bad is going to happen.
I am most courageous when my family is around me
And when everyone is healthy.
THINGS I WORRY ABOUT (a collaborative poem by a 6 and 8 year old)
I worry about doctor visits,
And falling into a bottomless trench.
Earwigs laying eggs in my ears.
Spiders that live in my ears.
Black widow spiders.
To calm myself, I think about my family.
I worry that I will be a frog,
Or be homeless.
I don’t want to fall off a cliff.
Sometimes I worry about Vampire bats
That suck blood. And sharks.
Centipedes, grasshoppers, snakes.
Being eaten by an alligator, or a bear.
To calm myself, I ask for help to get rid
Of the thing I am scared of.
I don’t like having bad dreams.
My worst nightmare is that I will stay little
When I grow up.
To calm myself, I read a good book.
I worry about being a vegetarian,
And about earthquakes.
I worry that my Hickman catheter
Will get pulled out of my chest.
To calm myself, I take a deep breath.
BEING BRAVE (an excerpt—12 year old)
Not quitting, even when you think you’re at your limit.
You’ve got to push that extra inch.
When you need to get an X-ray or an Ultrasound,
It’s only for the best, to help you get better.
Some of the scariest moments for my parents
Were when my heart rate was out of whack—
180 bpm, then dropping to 60 within a few seconds.
Also, my huge pupils, when I was in a coma for three weeks,
And my crazy-high blood pressure.
It was hard for me to see pictures of when I was in a coma.
There were wires and tubes coming out of me.
It was so scary knowing that that was me
Hooked to all those machines and taking medication.
That’s not me! I didn’t expect this!
CHAOS (a collaborative poem by a 6 and 8 year old)
As stinky as moldy egg salad.
A stinky bathroom.
Could taste sweet like Valentine
Sweet hearts ~ U Rock, I Oxo you.
A wolf, a grizzly bear, a dingo growling.
A great white shark chomping a human under water.
A traffic accident when cars are crashed together.
When a train runs over a monster truck.
When a plane flies low over this truck.
A yapping Chihuahua.
A whale hitting a boat.
Wrestling guys punching each other in the face.
A tsunami washing over an island.
Chaos is as heavy as a gun.
As scary as dead people coming out of your closet.
Like touching a skeleton,
Getting squeezed by a python.
A vat of wriggly snakes.
Like someone’s drawing with red magic markers on me.
MRI (12 year old)
I am as loud as a lion.
I am round like a doughnut.
I’m as white as a baby tooth.
I act like a magnet, so take off your metal.
You can take a nap as long as you have ear cuffs.
I’m like a toaster and when you’re done
You’re going to want to take an ice bath.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to enter me
But I do enjoy your company.
THIS IS JUST TO SAY (8 year old)
I climbed the ladder
Of your tree house
And I accidently broke it.
But that’s okay
Because I took it inside
And made a hammock for a bed.
It’s a good thing,
Because I’m stuck up here!
BUTTERFLIES (12 year old)
Limerick green, for the days I am happy—
Like the flap of bluebirds flying to Hawaii for a vacation.
As smooth as a blanket wrapped around me.
Red Pizazz for the days I am sad—
Like a rose wilting in the flower garden.
A drip of wind. As hard as rock.
Southern Glow yellow, for the days I am nervous—
Like this morning, waiting for the results
Of my bone marrow test.
I was told Chemo would be the only hope.
And it worked!
Carnivale orange for the days I feel alone—
Like when I’m super nervous or scared about something,
Like a bone-marrow transplant,
Which smells like burnt newspaper,
And sticky like Gorilla glue.
Cupid red, for the days I am surprised—
Like the surprise birthday party
Given by my mom and step dad
Before I came to Children’s,
Like butterflies circling around me
And landing on my shoulder, whispering
“Your family loves you.”