Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 18
Family: A Hand-Woven Tapestry of Memories

This is the second of four blogs by Pongoite Adrienne Johanson for the Seattle Public Library teen blog ("Push to Talk ") during April, Poetry Month.

by Adrienne Johanson

I am a writing mentor with the Pongo Teen Writing Project, and also a psychotherapist. Often young people write with Pongo about their family, in a way that reminds me of a complicated tapestry -- a tapestry that includes remembered and unremembered experiences, all of which can affect a person's current feelings and questions about life.

We are defined by many things throughout our lives, as our brain ceaselessly accumulates snapshots of people and events that influence us. We might say we "can't remember" certain things, but our brains are incredible devices, and often what we can't consciously recall is subtly encoded in us -- in our preferences (our choice of hairstyle or career aspirations), our reactions to sensory stimuli (loving the smell of Shalimar but not Patchouli), and even in our muscles (sudden shoulder tension or butterflies in our stomach). Our brains are writing all the time, whether we know it or not.

In the brain's meticulous catalog of snapshots lies the family album, things we remember about the people we call family, and things we may have a hard time remembering at times, including thoughts and feelings affiliated with them.

Because Pongo works with teens in shelters, inpatient hospitals, and detention centers, we write with poets who are temporarily or permanently separated from their families. It makes a lot of sense why the family album is often at the forefront of their minds. The writing process of poets exploring familial relationships becomes a hand-woven tapestry of both conscious and unconscious memories. And when these writers begin to dig in and explore the subtleties they ask very specific questions (e.g., Why do I cringe at mac-and-cheese? Why do I think dahlias are the flower of love and not roses?). As suggested in the previous blog on loss (Loss: A Shape-Shifter), their unique answers to these questions often create new meanings, help them define their life, and name or rename the tapestry of family.

Two Pongo writing activities that help poets write about family are I Just Thought You Should Know and Where I Come From .

Two great examples of teen writing about family are "Grizzly-LifeJacket-Tornado-Dandelion," in which a girl writes about the strength of her mother, and "Lonely," in which a girl writes about conflict in her family.

by a young woman, age 16

I hope that someday I can be as strong as my mother
My mother is as strong as a bull ramming into its next opponent

My mother is always ready to recover from the past and look forward to the future
The past has been one of a refugee, mother of seven, abandoned by her husband, no schooling – With every reason to give up, she didn’t

She has always been my backbone, always there when my world was as empty as a well

She keeps my head above the water of my own sorrows, like a life jacket 

My mom can be as strong as a tornado, sucking in everyone’s troubles and making them feel small
compared to what she went through, setting the troubles down as destroyed as
an old building

Pay attention to my mother’s lessons, she can see into the future

If I could go back I would listen to all her warnings and lectures that I didn’t think would help

My mother can be strong in ways you don’t expect

She can be as strong as a dandelion breaking through the sidewalk,
and when I talk with her she blows all my sorrows away like spores, making me believe I can also break the cement

My mother’s strength can be gentle

She can be as gentle as a grizzly bear with her young – quick to scare away predators but even quicker to comfort 

If I could change one thing, I would be the wind to the dandelion, carrying away her sorrows

by a young woman, age 14

Now my house is gloomy
there is no cable, it’s really quiet
everyday there’s arguing.
Back then, my mom had a job
and she always made sure
we had everything we needed.
She made dinner
she made sure we got out of the house
and did things.
She used to treat us really good
and equally.
But after she went to jail
she couldn’t find a job.
She’s miserable
and takes her anger out on me.
It’s her fault that I’m here
because I wouldn’t put up with
her boyfriend and their abuse anymore.
They want me to go to a group home.
I don’t understand why.
She won’t let me come back home
knowing that I’m pregnant.
It’s not really the best place to be for care.
If I had the home I want
there’d be a normal family
that’s able to overcome little things
and always make sure we know that we only
have each other at the end of the day.
But I don’t think she’s gonna leave her boyfriend
for me, so I just want to go far away
but I don’t know where to go.
She wrote on the police report
that no one in my family
wants anything to do with me.

I hope this gives you some insight on writing about family.

As we say at Pongo, “Keep writing!”

Mar 06
In My Blood to Be a Drunk

At 10 years old, the girl was always home alone while her parents were out doing drugs. I asked if she was scared at the time. No, not for herself. She was worried about her parents. Now, at age 13 and in juvenile detention, the girl has been smoking bud and doing things she isn’t supposed to do. She wants her parents to worry about her for a change. She writes about her parents: “They’re the only people who will be there.” But her poem is titled “When Nobody Was There.”

Pongo’s teen authors will often write about drug and alcohol abuse. They give multiple and contradictory reasons for their involvement. For me, as a poet working with the youth, one of the toughest knots to unravel is the role of family. Substance abuse often seems like a response to emptiness at home and also a confirmation of family connection, however flawed. Teens seem to be filling an emotional void with drugs and alcohol, but also emulating someone they love. And parents sometimes give their children drugs and alcohol, playing an active role in both distancing and dependence. Family is very important.

Here are three teen poems from this year’s Pongo project in juvenile detention, that describe substance abuse in the context of family.

Liquor Makes the World Violent 
by a young man in juvenile detention, age 16

It’s in my blood to be a drunk.
I can only think of one person who don’t drink in my family,
my brother, who’s a religious freak.

Things that are bad about drinking:
               Kills muscle
               Kills your brain
               Kills your liver (my mom’s liver is really bad from drinking)

I don’t like that it makes my family violent.
And it makes me violent too
cause I’ve got anger inside.

Out on the street corner
I don’t even remember the night
I was out beefin’ with another gang,
got jumped,
woke up in my bed
all bloody.
I don’t even remember the night.

I think liquor makes the world violent.

by a young man in juvenile detention, age 18

We have had three consecutive years,
Same day each year,
Where someone in my family drowns.

First year, my cousin’s grandma,
She was drinking water.
Her husband found her.

Second year, my cousin on his fifteenth birthday,
He fell off a waterfall.
They found his body three days later.

Third year, my brother drowned
In our big, backyard swimming pool.
My sister stepped on him, in the pool.
The chlorine water was foggy.
It took the ambulance fifteen minutes to get there.
That was four years ago.

I’ve been to more than four funerals this year.
All of them, family.
When it happens, I think,
“Here we go again,”
Like it’s something that’s just gotta happen.
I needed something to forget about it.

I’ve been smoking crystal meth for the last three years.
It’s killing my brain.
I see myself getting slower.
I’m not emotional anymore.
I used to preach as a missionary all over the country.
Now, it’s like I’m drowning.

My Dad 
by a young woman in juvenile detention, age 15

My dad is the coolest dad,
But he’s not the best dad.
Once I smoked meth with him.
I know that’s really bad.
He was never really like a dad,
But he always bought me stuff,
Gave me money –
He said to make up for lost time.

He is the coolest dad,
He lets me and my friends hang out at his house,
But he smoked meth with all my friends and my boyfriend,
And I didn’t even know.
He never tells my secrets to anyone, not even my mom.
But he acts like he is my age,
Not like an adult.
I used to run away a lot,
And I could hide out with him.
He would always tell me I should make different choices
Than him,
But he will support me no matter what.