Invisible Beauties: Poetry for Revealing Depth, Truth & Meaning
By Vicky Edmonds, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Okay, I need to start by saying that I have recently realized that I suffer from pargraphobia…
pargraphobia – n. 1. not knowing where to start or when to quit, how to end a sentence or a thought, how to stay on topic, use punctuation correctly (instead of commas as full band rests and where rhetorical questions don’t get questions marks because they aren’t really waiting for a response from anyone), how to think in a concrete/sequential way instead of in abstract/random movements, like how you can mash up two words to finally diagnose yourself with a lifelong ailment….
but I digress.
It has taken me all summer to write this blog (blog, a word that sounds like a waterlogged tree trunk that has rolled on to you, trapping you in the mud and you can’t get out from under it no matter how much you squirm) post. I write poetry because it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to anyone else, and if it does, by some miraculous occurrence, there is a brilliant opening between your mind and theirs, your hopes of being known or understood by anyone else in the world actually spilling through and finding a soft place to land. Those brief, shining moments of human communion. Thank god for poetry, for the rest of us who have brains that don’t work in regular, logical, step-by-step ways; (should that be a semi-colon?) poetry, which allows us to fall through the deep study of something that catches our attention and our soul, taking us into places of new understanding and slowing only at those moments when something bright and beautiful is trying to show itself to us while we struggle in our tireless effort to understand ourselves and the world better, and how those two things might fit together!
But what I really want to tell you about is the children…
Invisible Beauties… poetry for revealing depth, truth & meaning
“Poetry is like a seed in my heart
that grows up to my mind
and then blooms out my mouth,
and then the petals fall on the paper
and turn into words.”
– Maggie Holmes, 7 years old
Getting to write with children is like being in a box of fireworks and lighting a match to try to see them better. Sometimes they accidentally explode one another, some days they fizzle out, but most of the time each one bursts into something beautiful in the world that has never existed like that before – colors and shapes that have never been seen in exactly that way. They bring me to tears, they prove to me that there is absolute brilliance in everyone, and somehow they manage to fill back up with powder again before they rise the next day.
But working with children also proves to me that each human being has a window into the seeing of things that none of the rest of us has, that we can’t see from where we are standing because they are the only ones who have ever stood there. No one else has ever lived where they’ve lived, in their completely unique circumstances, and we can’t see through their amazing perception – until they share it with us.
No matter where I travel in the world I will still only be able to see through my own eyes, and that’s always going to be a limited perspective. But when I get to see through their eyes I begin to see larger and more subtle pictures. It helps me understand unspoken challenges better – even in the youngest children, makes me a more compassionate person and allows me to take in beauty that I didn’t even know was there. When I get to feel through their senses it compels me to seek even more of the truth, and the truth is the drug of choice for me. It’s like finally having enough oxygen in the room to want to go on breathing.
I think most people throughout time have had 2 questions as they move through their lives – “Who Am I?” and “What Am I Here For?” But when we’re young it feels much less philosophical and more tender and human. In its simplest forms, maybe all any of us wants is to have a sense of belonging and contribution.
And those are some of the things poetry can help us to find. The poetic elements are like divining rods, and then they’re like shovels and flashlights. They help us hear the whisperings or questions in ourselves, then when we think we find a place where truths may exist inside us, they can help us dig down into the deeper ground of being and shine light to try to see the particular beauties that are waiting there.
I tell the children I work with that I believe all people are like presents that have been sent to the world, and that the way they look on the outside is just like the wrapping paper and ribbons and bows. Even though that’s beautiful, I ask them if when they get a present they just want to look at the outside, or if they want to open it up to see all the cool stuff that came inside? Almost always, especially with the really little ones – K through 2 – they yell out, “The cool stuff that came inside!!!” Then I ask them if they know that the most beautiful parts of human beings are invisible? They are so animated, they crinkle up their mouths and eyes and blurt out, “Whaaaaat???”
I tell them that we all have amazing qualities inside us that I call “Invisible Beauties”. To get them to start imagining into those places I’ll start with one quality, like kindness. When I ask them which of them has kindness inside them, they almost all raise their hands. Then I ask if they can see kindness when one person is giving some to another. I can see them starting to catch the idea when they realize they can’t actually see it, and softly answer, “No.”
“But is kindness a real thing?” I ask. “Can you feel it coming into you, does it make you feel better when someone gives some to you, or when you give some to someone else? ”
They all nod enthusiastically, answering, “Yes!”
“And do you think it’s a beautiful thing, a quality that you’re glad people have inside them?” I continue.
Their voices melt into, “Yesssss.”
And then we start moving further inside. I ask them if they could see it, what color it might be, what texture, shape, temperature, weight or even how it might be moving through them. They begin to call out different images of the way they see it. I explain to them that there is no wrong answer, that kindness might be a different color and shape for each person, and that writing a poem is like finger painting – you get to do it any way you want to.
Then I ask what other qualities they can think of like that, invisible things people have inside them that make the world more beautiful, maybe even their favorite qualities in themselves. With the younger children we get a few words – joy, caring, helpfulness, friendship – and then I’ll name a few more they haven’t thought of yet. When I’m with upper elementary kids the list gets longer and I’m so proud of their insights – generosity, forgiveness, courage, honesty, determination, respect – and with older students the answers are even more thoughtful – humility, compassion, patience, trustworthiness, conscience, sincerity, hope.
One day while I was working with a group of kindergarteners I asked, “Who’s got love inside them?”
A little boy raised his hand right away, “I’ve got love!”
When I’m with the little ones especially, I like to get them started writing out loud, kind of priming the pump, so that when they get back to their desks with their poetry templates they already know where they want to start.
I asked, “If your love could be any color, what color would it be?” I like to start with color because it takes them right into the doorway of their imagination.
“Pink!” he answered immediately.
I paused for a moment. It was the day before Valentine’s Day and the room was flooded with red and pink.
“You know, love doesn’t have to be pink or red because of Valentine’s Day. It could be your favorite color, or dark blue with silver stars, or purple, or…” I started, just to open up the possibilities.
“PINK!!!” he declared.
“Okay, pink,” I laughed, then continued. “If your love could be like pink anything, what would it be like? If you were to say ‘My love is like pink… what?’ What would your love be like, maybe different than anyone else’s?” This is how I introduce simile and their individual felt sense of their own truth to them.
“Like pink… air,” he said dreamily.
I thought to myself, oh my gosh, it does feel like that!
I continued, “What is that pink air of love doing inside you, or when it comes out, how does it make other people feel?”
He paused for a moment, and then finished, “It makes everyone breathe sweeter.” I welled up with tears. Only a child could put those words together, and at that moment it felt even more true than the dictionary definition.
In a world of many people feeling ‘not good enough’, where self-esteem is nearly an oxymoron, I feel so grateful to get to show children new ways to begin to see the all beauty they’re carrying inside. Poetry is my favorite tool in the toolbox, but the disease I fight I call “the worthlessness.” It’s like being on a teeter-totter with the two sides labeled ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’, and many of us feel like we’re always on the bottom, on the ‘less than’ side without knowing how to lift ourselves up. Fear of doing something wrong often stops us from even trying something new, and the fear of not being ‘good enough’ can keep us from looking inside ourselves to see what stunning things might be in there that could be of service, a contribution that might give us a sense of belonging and worth in the world.
Of course I teach what I most want to learn. From the time I could speak I was told to be quiet, that I didn’t have anything important to say, that children should be seen and not heard. But maybe even those of us who aren’t as good at paragraphs or punctuation or concrete/sequential thinking still have things to offer, and places in need of them that are waiting for our arrival.
Who am I? I am a piece of paper waiting for always more truths to spill onto me and sink into me in colors and textures of ink and lead and markers and crayons. I am a cartographer that wants to help us all map our internal territories and find our precious, natural resources so that they aren’t left unshared. What am I here for? To light a match to try to see things better, and the most grateful audience watching the fireworks appear!
I am like a guitar
that makes the music of love.
Maya Harrell, Kindergarten
Shame feels like a black hole
sucking my heart in,
and the black hole gives it back
when I tell the truth.
Connor MacLeod, 2nd Grade
you are like pink, soft stars
shining in my heart.
Angie, 1st Grade
I’m sorry for hitting you.
I want to be like a cozy blanket for you,
not a scratchy blanket
that hurts your skin.
Will you forgive me?
Robel, 1st Grade
My family is like a sky.
My dad is like the clouds
because he rains down happiness!
Hannah Sam Ho, Kindergarten
My wishes are as blue
and soft as a river
that makes happiness
if you lay in it.
Hayoung, 1st Grade
I am like the moon,
so if someone is lost
I will help them find their way
Elizah, 1st Grade