Today I want to honor MLK day—and offer my own small push back against the disheartening and upsetting things we’ve been seeing and hearing from the White House.
I knew that courage isn't something that could be "taught" but something that we can cultivate by listening to and strengthening ourselves. How is that done?
Martin Luther King, Jr and the many leaders and participants in the Civil Rights movement knew that to speak and act with courage, they needed to attend not only to the mind but also to body and to the heart--"courage" comes from the French word “coeur,” heart.
They also knew that courage is cultivated by learning from and surrounding oneself with courageous people (either in person or through books).
I've been asking myself how I can be more courageous. This is an ongoing question and pursuit, but one thing I can do is help share the courageous work of inspiring people. And in that spirit,I'd like to share a poem, "WHO UNDERSTANDS ME BUT ME," by Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Baca grew up in an orphanage in New Mexico and ran away at 13. At 21, living on the streets, he was incarcerated for drug possession and he spent the next six and a half years in prison, three of those in solitary confinement.
Those experiences may deaden, or break even the best people, but Baca tapped into something else. In prison, he learned to read and write, and, inspired by the books he read, began to write poetry and to access his own deep courage.
In the many years since then, then Baca has published more than twelve books , including poetry, memoir, novels and more. Today he helps bring writing and literature to disadvantaged youth.
This poem is about courage of the greatest sense: the courage to be oneself, not to give up on oneself, or on beauty and freedom even in the face of the greatest obstacles and injustice.
WHO UNDERSTANDS ME BUT ME
BY JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA
They turn the water off, so I live without water,
they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,
they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,
they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,
they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,
they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,
they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,
they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,
they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,
they give me pain, so I live with pain,
they give me hate, so I live with my hate,
they have changed me, and I am not the same man,
they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,
they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?
I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
The repetitions of the first stanza enact the shutting down that “they” enforce upon the speaker, turning the water off, building the walls higher, locking the cage around him.
But in the second stanza, the speaker finds what he calls “other freedoms” that are beautiful, and the poem is an invitation to the reader, too, to imagine the freedoms that come from being able to fully accept the self and “live with [the] self.”
Within ourselves is a wisdom and freedom and beauty that is transcendent. When we attend to our writing, can we also attend to that deeper wisdom and beauty?
Sometimes we can feel that taking time for our writing is “self indulgent,” but as Audre Lorde says, “poetry is not a luxury.” Writing—others’ and our own—is a gateway to freedom.
Most of us write in some way against external boundaries, Are there cages that you want to bring down? Perhaps you want to take the time to write a political letter.
Or perhaps you just want to play with the courage and freedom of being yourself.
See where you go if you activate your courage in your writing!
Emotional Healing & Mindful Writing Blog | Nadia Colburn
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society.