Learn to Love the Breath of the Trees
by Ann Teplick, Seattle Children’s Hospital
“Learn to love the breath of the trees” is a line from the poem “To Understand Me,” written by a teen whom I’ve worked with at Children’s hospital. This line reminds me that trees are our breathing partners; we depend on them for oxygen. It reminds me that the act of inhaling and exhaling is often taken for granted.
Children’s hospital is a place where beauty, hope, and heartache intersect. Our youngest have become ill. They do not always recover. I walk the floors with families, nurses, doctors, educators, volunteers, art makers, music makers—all who hold these children and teens in reverence and love. It’s an extraordinary place to be.
I love my work here, and learn from everyone I come in contact with. I collaborate with the teachers in the education department, who are compassionate, witty, and carry the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen. I work with young writers, ages six to twenty, in groups, and individually. I meet them in the classroom; the inpatient psychiatric unit; in dialysis; and on the oncology floor. I wheel a small suitcase that looks like a flight attendant’s. It’s kind of wide, and often gets caught when I round the corners, tangling my feet and sometimes tripping me into the wall—a little like Chevy Chase. But that’s okay, because this suitcase is the carrier of poems and more poems—words that hum, chant, shout!—and are often the inspiration for new writing.
Learn to love the breath of the trees. I come to Children’s, with all the oxygen I can muster. I know there is nothing I can do to fix anyone or anything, but I also know the power of art, and how poetry has pulled me through backbreaking times. I come to listen. I hear stories of pain, anger, and confusion. I sit with these the best I can. I’m not afraid to feel sad. I also hear stories of resolution and endurance. Stories of aspirations. There is an abundance of courage and resilience—enough, really, to fuel me for the rest of my life.
Learn to love the breath. At the beginning of our writing circle, at our first “in-breath” together—I let each writer know that they have important things to say, and that the world needs their words. I invite every emotion into the conversation, and onto the page. I invite them to write from the heart about who they are as a person. Here is a sampling:
We write about our need to be understood—TO UNDERSTAND ME Learn to read between the lines Know what it means to crave change Learn to become the boat in the bottle Know that the sun stays in one place no matter how quickly you are spinning Learn that a compass could point you sideways Know how to change every color of life Learn to love the breath of the trees Know how to be in the moment You should know to ask questions Know to stay calm Know to get to the point Learn to understand by J.
We write Question poems about what we’d like to understand about ourselves—THINGS I’D LIKE TO UNDERSTAND Why don’t I grow as fast as other people around me? Why doesn’t my hair wanna grow back long? Why do I like to eat straight hot jalapenos? Why do I always wear purple? Why did I want to end up with seven dogs? Why was I born with an ostomy, till I had a transplant when I was ten? Why do I eat more now, after the transplant? by Z.
We write Instructional poems, because each of us is an expert on various topics—HOW TO BE A KID Try to look for coins in my house—my garage, on the ground and shelf, but not in my dad’s bathroom, because that’s where all of his coins are. I’m saving up for a Bearded Dragon. To be a kid, you need to get snacks, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and popcorn with cheddar cheese sprinkled on top. Watch the animated movie, Cars 2. It’s better than the first one, because it’s got spies. To be a kid, you need to know how at least, to play video games! by J.
We write about how our lives have changed—MY ROUTINE I’ve been at Children’s hospital for the last year and a half, three times a week— Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, three-and-a-half hours, each day. I’m learning to put the needles in my arm. Sometimes it’s hard to connect the needle with the vein and it stings like a hundred angry bees, but it’s worth it, because it cleans my blood. When I imagine my blood being cleaned, I see a concrete road, no cars, just my blood going from my body to the machine, and back to my body again. When I’m in dialysis, sometimes I feel achy, like I have a fever, no energy, really, really tired, as if I just ran a marathon. Sometimes I feel nauseous, from the chemicals and fluids changing in my body. Sometimes I throw up. I have to stick to a special diet— less than 1 liter of liquid a day and no salt. If I go over my limit, I start to get puffy in my face, legs, and hands. After my three-and-a-half hours of dialysis, I remove the needles, and put pressure on the two holes in my arm, to stop the bleeding. I weigh myself, to measure the fluid that’s been taken out. And then, it’s back to work for me, an eight-hour shift. by M.
We write about fear—SOMETIMES MY FEARS Sometimes my fears feel like mice running around. Sometimes they smell like a trash can with rotten meat. Sometimes they are as black as the dark. If my fears could speak, they would say “I’m scary as a train wreck.” by J.
We write about the times we are shaky—WHEN THINGS FALL APART When things fall apart, I scramble to pick up the pieces. I try my hardest to make it all okay, again. If it can’t get better, can’t be right again, I look in the small places to find something, anything to hold onto and give me hope. I look under rocks, in the garbage, behind the couch. At the top of my closet. In old forgotten files, folders, drawers—I look for my favorite song. I look for strawberry ice cream and old friends I haven’t spoken to forever. I look for someone who I can help. I look for my favorite dinner and a rink of ice. I look for old photos. I look for anything sparkly, garage sales, and I count down the days until Christmas by J. FALLING APART I fall apart when my Xbox breaks. I get angry when I get hit by a snowball. I wish I had a magic wand that would fix everything, like when my IV pole keeps beeping and the nurses never come. I bet that will happen today, when I’m just about to fall asleep. by A.
We worry about ourselves, and how our families are holding up. We wonder if we will ever retrieve any semblance of normal. We write Gifting poems to the special people and pets in our lives—MY FAMILY I would send my mom a week off from hospital things, so she wouldn’t have to worry about me all the time, and spend some time to herself. I would send my dad a break from work, so he could put his mind at ease and relax. I would give my brother friendship and love because he has been stressing out and he’s been so solitary, lately, it has made him even more sad. I want him to realize that I will always be his friend. I would like for my dog, Skittles, to know that I love her and that she’s not hurting me— so she wouldn’t be scared about hurting me all the time. I would give myself the fit of perseverance and acceptance, so that I can keep trying, and accept that it’s what I have to do, and I would give my family all the happiness possible. by L. I WANT TO GIVE I want to give a handful of understanding to my brother, so he will forgive me in my moments of stress. I want to buy a big fluffy blanket for my dog, so he can dream about a world where he has no lymphoma, and chase abstract butterflies. I want to give my mom and dad a truckload of money, to help pay for my hospital bills. I want to exchange words with my friends and family, to tell them I miss them and that I’m alright. For my cat, Kitty, I want to give the gift of friendship, so she would have another cat to play with, when I’m not there. I would love to give my teachers clear heads to not speak conscientiously, but to know what to tell my classmates about what is going on. I wish to uncover the confidence hidden inside myself, to overcome the obstacles that stand before me. by A.
We write love poems to ourselves, because, in the roughest, and most beautiful of times, we need them—TO MY LOVE My hair is like the vines of a jungle, twisted and tangled. My heart is like a mother’s embrace— warm, comforting, undying. My exuberance is like a roller coaster with really high highs, and really low lows. My passion is as strong as the sun’s powerful beams. My pain is like a tornado picking everything up, getting bigger and stronger. My fear is like ice—cold, rattling my core. My morals are like a diamond—unbreakable, strong. My brain is like a cluttered library, always putting more books on the endless shelves. My anxiety is like a mudslide, destroying what has grown. My life is like a river, unable to know whether there are rapids ahead, or a rainbow. by K.
We write to make sense of the world, to unpack who we are and where we belong. And maybe we write, so we can learn to love the breath of the trees—their greenness and sweetness, stillness. Those slow-going moments, where everything is okay.