Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 17
Fortitude

 

FORTITUDE

By a man living at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program

 

 

Eight years old

living in Forks

my dad left my mom

for another woman

then Mom had depression

and left us kids.

 

Nine of us

I'm the oldest

we survived finding beer bottles

trading them in for change.

 

All my siblings

down back roads

side roads

finding the bottles 

trading them in

buying a box of cereal

and some milk.

 

Then the sheriff showed up

asked 

Where's your Mom?

 

I said

I don't know.

 

He returned with

shopping bags of food

then three days later

showed up

found mom in the backseat

near the reservation

passed out with everyone else. 

 

Now I have fortitude

haven't been through the worst

but had my share.

 

And I am a stronger person. 

 

 

______

After a long bus ride from Everett to downtown Seattle on a Thursday morning, I immediately head for my cup of Pike Place roast and the Starbucks facilities, one of few facilities near 1811 Eastlake that remain unlocked for customers.  Relieved and revived, I leave the morning rush in the Metropolitan office building and think about how it would feel knowing that restaurants and office buildings locked their restrooms to keep me out—not me in particular, but me as a certain type of person.  The phrase “homeless person” does not describe a specific person at all.  It is a generic label our culture applies to people we assume do not truly belong anywhere and therefore cannot be validated in their particularity.  When a human being’s particularity is not validated, human needs are easily dismissed.      

 

In less than two minutes I round the corner of Eastlake, resisting the urge to lower my gaze, assume a hurried, determined air, or pretend I don’t see the faces of people who have created a temporary refuge under the overpass.  Slow down.  Don’t check out.  I notice a woman with beautiful long black hair moving leisurely down the sidewalk in a wheelchair near the DESC building.  Does she live at 1811, or not?  Is this even relevant?  I slow down and decide it feels more awkward to walk too close behind her than to go around her.  In spite of my default assumption that people do not want to be bothered, I force myself to turn and say hello as I walk by.  Apparently it is the woman’s birthday.  She asks me how I am, so I try to be honest.  We share the same birthday month and are about the same age.  In those few minutes of conversation she is remarkably open, though she knows nothing about me.  We discover we are headed for the same place.  I learn she is a resident at 1811, and she learns I am with the Pongo poetry project.  She tells me she enjoys writing and hopes to work with us eventually.  A week later she flags down our Pongo team while we are waiting for the elevator and gives us a copy of a poem she wrote about her birthday, a poem she eventually shares with other residents at the celebration of our first eight weeks there.  I have never written a poem with the woman I met that morning, but our encounter was one among many memorable encounters I have had with residents 1811.  This community continues to teach me that we cannot underestimate the power of any human encounter, however brief or insignificant it may seem. 

I first heard about Pongo while writing a paper for graduate school.  At the time, I assumed the healing power of the Pongo method was located in the creative process itself.  Creative writing had long been my primary means of coping with depression and anxiety over the years, particularly in adolescence.  When I applied to be a Pongo mentor last summer I had been journaling more often due to a difficult phase in my life.  I knew mentors were expected to write a weekly poem and share their poetry with other mentors as part of their commitment.  Writing poems on vulnerability, shame, change, feeling invisible, beauty, new beginnings, and healing during a time of personal struggle has not only helped me to take care of myself emotionally, but has strengthened my connection with the members of the 1811 community. 

One resident, who is passionate about the project and hopes to see more residents participate, believes poetry and other art forms can help people process trauma and grief.   What is most important to him, however, is the power of truly being heard and understood by another human being.  Just a few days ago he wrote about the growing loss of human connection he has observed, both at 1811 and in the larger society.  On buses and elevators, he told me, “everyone just stands looking forward; they don't even acknowledge anybody.”  The poetry we write with residents can give shape to emotions, thoughts, and ideas many find difficult or painful to articulate and share with others.  Whether or not we write together, every encounter is a gift.  I have talked with people who don’t want to write, wonder why we are there, and do not believe there is poetry in the suffering and tragedy they witness regularly in their community.  Some residents will not write, but are willing to talk with us and be themselves, whether they are feeling angry, despondent, grateful, energetic, or cynical.  I have worked with a woman who posts her poetry throughout the building to bring courage and hope to her neighbors.  I have written with people who desperately want to stop drinking and are determined to keep trying in spite of the hell of detox and the discouragement of setbacks.  I have written with people who have known excruciating loss, abuse, physical challenges, and trauma, often from a very young age.  What I will always remember about the residents at 1811 is their refusal to allow their sufferings to define them.  They play the drums, piano, guitar, and harmonica.  They sing, paint, write, and reflect deeply on the issues in our world.  In each person I have met I have found a deep, lively well of creativity, compassion, humility, resourcefulness, humor, and above all love.  They have loved deeply and continue to love deeply, in spite of the temptation to detach and grow numb in the face of grief and wounds from past relationships.   

 

The resident who is so supportive of Pongo is right that alienation is a growing societal malady.  Pongo is not just about poetry as individual catharsis, but about restoring human connection.  In the midst of personal upheaval in my own life, I could be scribbling out my emotions in a private corner of my home, but instead my commitment to the Pongo project has required me to voice my emotions in a communal space and listen to the voices of others.  As healing as this may be, it demands an enormous amount of trust.  I understand why it takes time for the residents to be willing write personal poetry with a stranger.   With our commitment to openness, patience, compassion, and respect, Pongo poetry mentors can help diffuse the fear that keeps people trapped in isolation.  Isolation is not just a problem for chronically homeless, alcoholic adults, but plagues most of us at some point in our lives.    

 

-- Stephanie Ramos, mentor at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program