Wednesday, September 11, 2019

At a time in my life when I had lost my moorings, I offered a writing group to homeless women fresh from the streets in a church-run shelter. Most of the women who attended this program were coping with addiction and mental illness, as well as the effects of chronic domestic violence. It was not unusual to have women sleeping on couches and the floor and coming off crack during our sessions. The women had named the group, “Home is Where the Heart Is.”
A woman named Jackee arrived one day, only to sit silently staring out the barred basement windows at the sidewalk and legs of passersby. Thick tears rolled slowly down her cheeks.
Although it was early in my healing story career, by this time, I was gathering tales that resonated and that I could authentically share with others. On this day, I told my rendering of the  Iroquois creation tale, “SkyWoman and the Creation of Earth.” 
In this tale, a young wife had been pushed off the cloud of the Sky People by her jealous husband who believed she had become pregnant from another man’s breath. Far below, the winged and water creatures gathered in a circle to save her from a terrible end in the vast sea below. She was gently laid on the shell of Great Snapping Turtle, and she awoke to find herself protected by a community of creatures who wanted only to help her. On taking a small step, she saw the turtle’s shell expand. Another step, another expansion, until walking around the turtle’s shell, she created a whole new land, an actual continent, which you may know as North America, but that the People call by its true name, Turtle Island.
"In the Story Zone, there is never an end to hope" I ended. "There are always helpers. Just be open to them." Most of the women nodded. 
“Stupid,” said a voice.
“Shut up,” said another. “It’s a metaphor, that what you call it – metaphor?”
“Yeah, it means fuck you in Greek.”
But some of the women took me up on my invitation to write whatever came to mind.
I invited Jackee to write. “I can’t,” she said. She felt too bad about herself to do anything. A crack addict, she has lost her parental rights and her kids had been moved to foster care. She was not allowed to see them.
After a few minutes, Jackee asked for a piece of paper and pen. She wrote and then ripped the paper into pieces. “What a piece of shit!” she cried.
“If it’s how you feel, it’s good,” said one of the other women, looking up from her page. “Just keep writing.”
Meanwhile, I kneeled down and gently gathered the torn pieces and handed them to Jackee to hold. 
At the end of the writing period, when everyone had read their work, they gave me their poems to type up for our newsletter. Jackee held on to her fragments. But the group cajoled her into letting someone read all the crumpled pieces. Piece by piece, Jackee read:

Round and round I go
Lost in a maze
Trying to find my way out
Crying and crying

I want to stop
No more tears in my heart
Window, look out
See my life
Go by so fast

Time goes by so fast
Give myself time to heal
One day at a time.

            “If I were going to give it a name,” I said, “I’d call it ‘Picking Up the Pieces of a Broken Heart.’” I said I heard a shift from the despair of the first line to the medicine of the last.
            “Yeah, maybe,” she said.
            The following week, Jackee appeared on time and sat quietly off to the side, carefully writing and rewriting on a legal pad. Halfway through, she asked if she could read something.
            It was a short poem thanking everyone for their support and read another poem:

            When night falls
            I look at stars.
            I feel hope
            Facing a new day.
            Every day I try to say a kind word
            To someone.
            “Hold on. Don’t give up on yourself.
            Remember, one day at a time
            God loves us all.”

            The group burst into applause

“That’s beautiful, Jackee.”
“Write one for me,” said another.
Thus began Jackee’s new life as the poetry lady who created birthday cards for the other women to give to their family members.
Little things revealed her changing sense of herself. For example, she still sat in the same chair but she moved it into the center of the circle. She began to wear lipstick and to carry a small mirror, which she consulted frequently. This role became the foundation for a new life. Jackee had wanted to be a child minder, but her history made that impossible. Under the monitoring of the homeless center, she was able to fill this role.
Jackee has her good weeks and her bad weeks. For addicts like her, staying off crack is like trying to climb bare-handed out of an icy pit. What it ultimately comes down to is a persona’s ability to make healthy choices. Only Jackee has the power to change her life.
But the poems and stories are footholds. They bear witness to her struggle and her progress. “You got this far,” they say. “Keep climbing.”
It was becoming clear to me that my true ground lay within this healing story process. Whatever was meant to happen with my marriage, however I was supposed to make a tolerable living as a writer, it would come through this work. I didn’t know where I was going. But I knew it would be through this process. I had come to center. I at least had found something I could do with my whole heart.