Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 12
Poetry Saved My Life

Friends, in 17 years of doing Pongo's work, of helping young people write poetry after terrible childhood trauma, I have continued to learn and grow, to the point that I feel a kind of awe for the power of poetry and for the resilience in the poets. There is brilliance in the young people's accomplishments, and this is not hyperbole.

Among the things I've learned...

I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions.

I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others.

But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.

In the poem below, a young woman from the "Hearts Out Loud" group uses poetry to reframe her emotional life after years in foster care and after her brother's murder two years before.

I attended a reading last week where this poet and her colleagues read with incredible joy, pride, and purpose, in celebration of their lives.

Poetry Saved My Life
by "Bad One," a young woman, age 14

See just before fire was sent to the rain
Before I even saw a glimpse of the pain
Before the arrow was shot through my heart
Before people's words could tear me apart
There was hope! Yes, little but there was Hope.

Before deceiving lies, foster care, love in disguise
Before tears of hunger bellowed in my brother's eyes
Before cries and pleading to survive
There was a gift from God
That hadn't yet been received nor forgotten!

So here I stand with no gun, only a pencil in hand
And in that drawer no bullets, but paper in store
But still the idea in mind is murder
Not the murder of a person, but the murder of emotions
And the only casket is the notebook that binds the faces together

At last I write about the sins within me
At last I speak of the unknown terror of my life
At last the emotions that keep the devil in me are released
Finally the burden of my brother's death can
Be resurrected with only one soul knowing! ME!

All 3 of my parents have a piece of my heart
So now it's time to give the world a piece of my mind
But instead of a massacre and a life sentence
I write poetry and spit flows within me
All I can say is Poetry saved my life.

["Hearts Out Loud" is the first poetry group that was started on the Pongo model. It runs weekly at Friends of the Children, a mentoring agency in Seattle. The group was started and is led by child therapist Robin Brownstein. Here is more info, more poetry, and more credit to the volunteers and staff behind "Hearts Out Loud."]

Jun 08

Writing and poetry can help people heal from traumatic grief, which is the difficult grief one experiences after a sudden, violent death. “Restorative Retelling” is a therapy developed by my friend and Pongo colleague Dr. Ted Rynearson, Director of the Violent Death Bereavement Society. In a few days I am speaking at a “Restorative Retelling” conference in Memphis. Dr. Rynearson and I collaborated on several projects that produced the Pongo books "I Lost My Sense of Protection" and "I Can't Imagine Myself Any Other Place."

Today’s blog is about Thea (a pseudonym), a young widow who has used writing to deal with grief and isolation, but also to record moments of surprising and transcendent joy. Writing, and especially poetry, has been a discovery for Thea at this time. In Pongo’s first guest blog, I have included a poem and essay by Thea, who lost her husband in an accident in 2007.

Here is Thea’s poem…

Empty Space
by Thea 

Alone at the cabin
peering into
the closet
looks strange
the empty space
where his clothes
had lived.

So suddenly
he departed
I was left
an aching void
that pulsated
a primal agony.

The passage
of time
builds strength -
does heal.

Now the space
within me
is sometimes
when I dance
it whirls

And here is Thea’s essay…

“Writing has been part of my journey of healing since I lost my husband in an accident three years ago.  A former colleague of mine suggested that I start keeping a journal.  Her sister had been widowed young and journal-writing had helped her maintain her sanity.  On a couple of occasions I have felt inspired to write poetry to capture some of the moments of peace and insight that I have experienced.

“Although I haven’t maintained a daily journal writing practice, writing in my journal has been a wonderful way to record my thoughts, feelings, experiences in a way that honors both the unique and universal experiences of the bereavement/grief process.  I usually find the experience cathartic.  I write in my journal when I have intense thoughts or feelings that need to be expressed and/or recorded on paper in order to release them.  Sometimes I simply write when I have extra time; for instance, a popular time for writing is on a ferry ride.

“Writing about any feelings of sadness allows me to express and often release them in a safe way.  Since it’s been almost three years since my husband’s death, most people assume that the acceptable time period for experiencing (or at least expressing) grief has passed.  Some friends and family members have made it clear that they aren’t interested in hearing about any residual feelings of grief that I may have.  In general, I’ve found that heart-felt expressions concerning emotional pain are unwelcome except with certain friends or in specific situations (such as a grief support group).  In my journal I am free to share intimate details about my memories of my husband and feelings of pain and longing without regard for possible judgment.

“Journal writing isn’t only about expressions of pain.  Another feature of journal-writing that I love is that I can record pleasant memories or some of the serendipitous, sometimes mystical experiences that have touched my life since my husband’s death.  There have been moments when I have clearly felt and experience my husband’s presence in delightful and unexpected ways.  I have also felt that there have been instances of divine intervention in which unseen forces have intervened on my behalf to provide support or assistance with the resolution of some sort of challenging situation.  Writing about these moments allows me to honor them and preserve them in a way that they can be revisited in the future.  Memories can fade but journal entries can be re-read and re-experienced over and over.  In my journal I can also explore my feelings of hope for a new life without my husband- a life that is still very much a work in progress.

“The journal writing has also opened up a space for more freedom of expression.  I have written a few poems during quiet ferry trips, reflecting some of the solitary insights that I’ve experienced.  In the past, the inner critic usually held me back from writing poetry.  I was concerned that my poetry would be judged as silly or non-relevant and not be valued by others.   In my bereavement process I’ve learned a lot about taking care of myself and honoring my unique life experience.  Now I write for myself and the satisfaction that it gives me; it doesn’t matter whether others read or like my poetry.

“As the third anniversary of my husband’s death approaches I feel a greater sense of peace and confidence.  The first two anniversaries were extremely difficult for me.  Writing has definitely helped me to come to terms with this tremendous loss.   My Buddhist teachers have often explained that the realm of human experience is characterized by both pleasure and pain, loss and gain, as well as joy and sorrow.  It’s clear to me that the writing process can help us to explore the very experiences that make us human.”