This Crutch That I Love
by Naomi Shihab Nye
In the center of the United States, in the middle of the 20th century, many people had come from somewhere else, and were figuring out how to put things together.
The French Canadians had traveled south to St. Louis in a large, rattling car filled with children and sweaters. The friendly Italian family had planted small, rounded trees in their yard. They told newcomers where to buy the best vegetables and seeds. On a cracked street without sidewalks, families set up humble households, unpacked their spoons and sewing machines, mingling outside before sunset. Everything felt softly dreamy right before dark, the air full of accents, and fragrances. The organic farmers up the street described their grandparents, immigrants from Germany, who had dreamed of owning land in the New World.
I looked around. Was this new? Everything always felt old to me.
I started writing poems at age six to see what was already there. Savory accents and blends.
Where were the Indians? Someone was always missing. I felt them in the stones and trees, the deep river called Mississippi, an Indian name, tumbling silently past.
My Palestinian father had journeyed to the United States on a ship in 1951, throwing his faded trousers from Jericho into the water just before the boat docked in New York City. If he was starting a new life, why did he need old pants? A university scholarship student, he'd requested a school "in the middle of America," thinking the location would give him easy access to everywhere. Little did he realize how big the country was. It would be many years before he saw California.
He had no idea he would marry an American (of German/Swiss descent) when he arrived. The United States was full of surprises.
Although he would miss his homeland deeply and always be dreaming of it, he dove into his new life with enthusiasm. He told funny folk tales from the Middle East and sang in Arabic. We ate hummus while the neighborhood ate hamburgers and spaghetti. My father loved the United States for its optimism, and for welcoming him as it had welcomed millions of immigrants before him.
Everything was possible in the United States -- this was not just a rumor, it was true. He might not grow rich overnight, but he could sell insurance, import colorful gifts from around the world, start little stores, become a journalist. He could do anything. This was the great shared pleasure of the land and he held it in his heart and guarded its trust. He stood up for the United States and was proud to become a citizen, even though he had not planned to become a citizen when he first came over. After a while, a very quick while, the United States got into your skin and your blood, it became part of your own sweet melody and history, and you wanted to belong to it, the way it let so much belong to you.
My mother, who had been raised in an American home with a strict Lutheran father, and a shy, repressed mother, was ready to taste the flavors of a wider world herself -- New Recipes, New Ideas! She went to art school and studied with some of the great artists of the 20th century. She took us to Quaker meetings and the Vedanta Society where we loved Swami Satprakashananda, eating rice pudding with him on his birthday for years. We attended an inclusive, modern church called Unity that said every path was an honorable path. My father visited these halls of worship with us, though he had been raised Muslim.
My parents agreed on the most important issues -- there were many paths to truth. There were, in fact, many truths. Why pretend otherwise? No way was the only way. Anyone who said a single religion or culture was the only "right one" was delusional and ridiculous. The days of tribalism and righteous exclusiveness were over, obsolete. They had to be over. All the world's citizens were mixing themselves together by now, in order to survive reasonably. Along the way, we would learn to respect everyone else, especially the people who weren't just like us. It was obvious, essential.
Though integration was still under way in the United States, many people had known for a long time that we were all connected. That you couldn't say "equal rights" and "due process" and not mean everybody. It just took the official systems longer to catch up. I would return to that modest neighborhood many times over the years to find it TRULY mixed by now, black and white families living side-by-side the way I'd wished it was when I was little too.
It was always hard to understand where people drew their lines.
Perhaps I started writing simply to see where we were -- my beautiful group of passionate characters -- needing, hoping, planting, waiting -- in their central plot in their central city. Central was even the name of the school we attended. It stands to this day, red brick solemnity, ancient and proud. George Washington's solemn face still hangs in the hallway. I would stare into his eyes and wonder. Are you happy with your land?
What did it mean to be in the middle of everything? I told myself, this is only one country, this is not the world! Stop thinking you are so important!
But the details of every minor day felt crucial and precious to me in their sweet brevity. Tiny things other people overlooked seemed like treasures and clues. I wrote them down, so I would not forget them. I did not begin writing because I imagined "a future career."
No one ever said to me, You cannot say that thing. You cannot say that thing that way.
I wrote with yellow pencils on tablets of paper, the backs of paper sacks. Sometimes I shared poems with other people. A teacher told us, "Your voice will be your greatest tool," and I believed her. I went to school and came home to find words waiting for me. Soon I would begin writing in the margins of workbooks, on the edges of mathematics papers. I played with words, stacking and rearranging them. Poetry was beautiful to me because of all the space around it. Writing was a way to have an anchor, to see what held you down.
In the neighborhood, that savory brew of a place, that fragrant mixture of histories, people wished each other well, trading news, imagining good things would happen in days to come. No one had much money, but everyone had hope. And I had the library, which was better than a trunk full of gold. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, had written about placing his words in a small boat, sending them floating down a stream, wondering if anyone in some "far place" might read them and know who he was.
"I do!" I shouted back across the sea. "I know you and I like you! I am your far-away friend!"
I shouted the same response to Margaret Wise Brown, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, William Blake, Louisa May Alcott, the Japanese poet Basho. The list would grow and grow. I was always searching hungrily for voices from over the ocean, those mysterious and important worlds we heard about. My horizon through reading felt much wider than the spatial horizon. What it meant to discover magazines that invited writing by children was -- someone you don't know is listening out there. If they print your poem, your world will grow beyond anything you can see.
But the writing itself was the power, the daily declaration of independence, saying, I am part of all this magnificent diversity and intricate texture, but I am not this. I am more than this. So are you. Everything was possible on the page.
I would stand outside the circle to see what went on. I would be the onlooker, documentarian of the miniature and forgotten. What was said and lost would linger in my ears.
Writing was a way to slow time down, to claim a moment and a space on the earth, to look INTO things, not just at them. If we only looked at outer surfaces of situations, we could easily feel separate from others. Contemplating deeper meanings or implications, the metaphorical possibilities of any scene, one might find endless shining and connected cords.
The details I recorded did not have to be significant or dramatic
Where would you put such information if you did not write?
In your memory, to be sure, but I wanted to be able to go back to it, think about its resonances, hold it in my hands, look at it.
I needed to find out more about the hard things: unfulfilled longing, depression, disappointment, fear, conflict.
If writing was a crutch, I needed help walking.
It is so long since I was a child, but I still feel closer to children than to adults. What is it about that early way of seeing that continues to guide us, even when our eyes are tired, even when we have heard enough bad news to make us lie down and curl up into a ball?
Have people lived up to their best dreams of what human beings could be? Have we helped one another enough? How often do we really listen to others? Are we always too interested in giving our own opinions, even while others are speaking? Does greed guide too many decisions?
Shouldn't we discover at least one new voice every week?
American writers travel around the United States a lot. We travel around other countries too, talking, listening, discovering writers we need to know more about. Who would ever have thought writers would be such nomads? We are invited to speak to students, give speeches, attend conferences.
I visit a wonderful school in Bahrain where a little girl writes me the best letter I've received in a long time. She says, "What is hard for you?" It takes me almost a whole day to answer her.
An unwillingness to communicate feels hard. We must keep encouraging one another to use our voices in hard situations. If people believed more in the Power of Voice, would we have so much violence in the world?
American writers feel lucky that anyone wants to listen to us -- we have such a short history, after all. We feel lucky to sit around with our pencils and papers, staring and mulling. This was always my best dream for the future. My dream did not have computers in it, but those too have become our allies.
To this day, no one has ever said to me, You cannot say that thing. They may have said, Thank you, but we do not wish to publish this thing, or, This thing could certainly be improved upon, but they have not said, You cannot say it.
Freedom of speech is the greatest gift America has given us all and I will treasure it forever and continue to remind people about it because sometimes if you have had it forever, you don't realize you have it.
We feel responsibilities to speak for ourselves and for communities we care about. Translation has opened so many worlds between countries -- it is our privilege and responsibility to read each other.
Everywhere is central.
We must remember that and live accordingly.
In recent years many American writers have written or edited books about cultures that were not their own to begin with. Living in a primarily Latino neighborhood in downtown San Antonio, Texas, gave me a culture that was not mine by blood, but one I care greatly about. Perhaps I had to live in a Latino city to learn what it really meant to be Arab-American -- how precious the spectrum of flavors, how many ways they intersect and blend.
Recently, an African-American journalist ended his newspaper column about a series of local Korean tragedies by saying, "We must remember: we are all Korean."
A scene, from a few weeks ago.
Setting: The second Skagit River Poetry Festival, La Conner, Washington, an hour and a half north of Seattle, along the shining watery channels leading out to the islands called San Juan, and the traveling whales.
The Swinomish tribal members (Native Americans -- the so-called American Indians I was always looking for as a child) are hauling large dry logs to the giant fires in their sacred smoke-house where hundreds of people sit on wooden bleachers to listen to poetry readings.
Tonight, the Native American tribe has barbecued fresh local salmon, cooked up large pots of beans, and welcomed hundreds of people to dinner. We have eaten together at long tables in a meeting house across the road.
Some drumming and chanting opens the evening reading. People with asthma sit near the door so they won't inhale too much smoke. A Swinomish elder in her 80s, wearing a shawl, rises and tells a story to welcome us.
There is Pat Mora (Latina), Li-Young Lee (Chinese-American), Edward Hirsch (Jewish-American), Joy Harjo (Native American), Kurtis Lamkin (African-American, who plays native African instruments when he speaks his poems), Colleen McElroy (African-American), Madeline DeFrees (a nun for more than 30 years before leaving her order), and the witty Thomas Lux and David Lee, who writes in a colloquial small-town vernacular. This festival feels like a reunion, since we have all met before and read one another's work and value the power of communication above everything else.
I look around the giant smoky space at poets and listeners of all ages and think, Incredible. Every voice is welcomed. No one says, Use my style. I think, This is my second family. The family that adopted me. The world of words that helped me make a map of this mysterious living. How various we are in our eccentric, multi-colored land, our trails dotting so many landscapes, cultures and histories up till now.
If I had to choose one word to describe this world, it would be acceptance.
In a family of voices this wide, no one can be excluded. Do you hear me? The little boats are traveling out to you.