This summer smoke announced burning, told us that flames and destruction were near. Maybe we thought the fury would come in embers from the skies. Maybe we believed the haze was metaphor equal to the confusion and frustration that so many feel. Maybe we reasoned that it was literal, that the West was on fire: Glacier Park, the Pasayten Wilderness, the Bitterroots smoldering again, the arid plains west of Spokane – out by the small towns of Marshall and Cheney – all burning or about to ignite. The air was heavy with foreboding.
Of course, the school shooting in Freeman still took us by surprise. I know that for some that pain will never fade (like the smoke of the fires that has now vanished). Our hearts ache for their losses.
I am not going to write about gun control; I am not going to write about this as another example of how “gun safety” is an oxymoron. I am not going to talk about the Second Amendment or militias or any issues that many have addressed. No, I’m going to do what I know best. I’m going to write about words and poetry.
Over the last 20 months, I’ve visited many schools throughout our state. I’ve talked with students about finding words that matter; whether the words are from poems or songs, short stories or biblical passages, the Bill of Rights or the Koran or a speech by Ronald Reagan or Martin Luther King Jr., the source matters less than finding language that speaks to them, that is important to them, that helps them understand dreams, loneliness, anger and sadness.
The Children’s Society, an organization in Great Britain aimed at understanding struggles with mental health in children, reminds us how important creative expression is for well-being. They collected data from talking with more than 50,000 young people: “Only 7 percent of children and young people who learn new things for fun (like music, languages, art or drama) most days or every day have low well-being – this rises to 17 percent of children who never or hardly ever do so.” Similar rises occur for children who don’t get regular exercise and aren’t exposed to new learning.
The largest rise – a 26 percent increase to 33 percent – in “low well-being” is connected to students’ struggles to live in the moment. Perhaps this is because of cellphones and the distractions of social media; perhaps something else is to blame. Whatever the case may be, I’m confident that ever-present devices – choose your verb – funnel, circumscribe, or limit the imaginative spaces that children explore and keep them from seeing the actual world around them: They are given visions of the world rather than being compelled to see, to hear, to notice the geese flying south, the leaves igniting to a brilliant gold.
Literally, pointing out flowers, walking in a park, urging young people to see the world can have a huge impact on their mental health. As The Children’s Society puts it, “The ability to live in the moment also turns out to be an important factor in their well-being … as parents it’s important to nurture this quality rather than discourage it. It’s not easy, especially when the clock’s ticking, but it’s good to keep in mind.”
In this spirit, I often share this William Carlos Williams poem with young people:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Many readers find this poem cryptic. I understand that. But imagine that Williams is just giving us an example of noticing a normal thing in the world around us: So much depends upon us noticing the glaze of rainwater after an autumn shower, upon us seeing the white chickens clucking about in the background. So much depends upon us living in the moment so that the moment matters.
I have friends and family who are high school teachers, and the shooting brutally reminded all of us of how pervasive pain among young people seems to be – a Seattle Times article from May offered the startling news of increased anxiety, suicidal ideation, and actual suicide attempts among our state’s students. Creating and exercising, encountering art and new ideas, emphasizing the wonder of the world that’s right in front of us, thinking about how every day, every hour, each second can be a little bit of poetry: These activities may not prevent violent acts, but they offer the possibility of new connections, and as each day reminds us, so much depends upon creating bonds between people and between people and the world in which they live.
Tod Marshall of Gonzaga University is serving as the Washington state poet laureate, a program sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission. The Children’s Society website is here
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