Sometimes a poetry reading turns into something you do not expect. One of my readings last month became more beautiful than I could have planned. This summer has held many readings in support of my new book, Ache. Two of those readings were in South Bend, Indiana, where I lived for many years.
The first of the two South Bend readings took place in the Lillie O’Grady Center, Saint Mary’s Convent at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame. I had read there before so I thought I knew what to expect. My friend, Holy Cross Sister Judith Anne Beattie, set up the reading, along with the sisters’ activity director Lee Ann Moore. Several of the retired Holy Cross Sisters came into the space. Some walked on their own, some came using walkers, some were in wheelchairs.
Let me describe the Holy Cross Sisters. This is a remarkable community of women. They are religious women in the catholic church and they have been at the forefront of struggles for justice all over the world. This is what they say about themselves in their Direction Statement:
We… rejoice in being an international and intercultural congregation, which is both gift and challenge for us, for the Church and for the world. Immersed in a world of violence that is destroying human dignity and creation, it is our responsibility to work to implement a culture of peace and nonviolence.
From their roots at Saint Mary’s College, where they champion the education of women, to El Salvador, Brazil, Uganda, Bangladesh, just to name a few countries where they serve, these women work hard for the basic rights of people, especially people who are poor and marginalized, especially women. They do this work as a group of women within the catholic church– that in itself is not an easy task. Simply put, these women have seen a few things. They have fought more than a few battles and stood beside people in difficult places.
I read from Ache and my friend, Judith Anne suggested we have a discussion or question-and-answer session after the reading. I looked forward to it but did not imagine what it might become.
These women had some beautiful observations and questions. Let me recall a few of these women: Sr. Mary Denardis, who spent many years as a midwife in Uganda, shared some observations about how we suffer. Some of the elegies in Ache prompted her reflections. Sr. Anne Frederick Tardiff, who taught high school near where I live in Washington, D.C. had some reflections on Langston Hughes. As many of the poems in Ache touch on race, her reflections were especially keen. She asked about the title, Ache, and she commented on the ways we see one another and imagine differences which are not always true. Sr. Jacinta Milan, who knew Cesar Chavez, shared some reflections as well. She also commented on one of my poems about Archbishop Oscar Romero. I was pleased when she told me that essentially, “I got it right.” Others made comments as a result of decades of nursing and teaching. Sr. Jean Klene, who taught English at Saint Mary’s College for many years was also present. I was able to talk with her a bit before the reading. The fire in her eyes should have told me that something remarkable was about to happen.
What I thought would be a regular poetry reading became an experience of dialogue which only art can prompt. While I had read several poems, these wise women were listening and letting the poems take them back to their own experiences in service. Then many of them were able to share the connections they discovered. It was an occasion of great beauty– one which I will remember.
We often imagine that elders and people in poor health do not have much to offer. We often imagine there is not great reflection going on behind their experienced eyes. If we think this way, we will often be wrong. If we persist thinking this way, we will miss real opportunities for wisdom. These women, behind walkers, wheelchairs, and shuffling steps, are rich fountains of wisdom and learning. I am so grateful I was able to see it on a hot June afternoon. I will never forget it.
Photo: J. Ross, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.