Dear Courageous Leaders,
For as long as I can remember, I have loved words. I love weaving words together, for not just the story they can create, but also for the sounds they can make. This love was nurtured first by my mom who eventually became a speech therapist. She created word experiences like our family “readings” of many favorite children and youth books in which my brother, Dad, Mom, and I, each took turns reading aloud from a book we passed to one another. I delighted in the slippery, silly, and often made-up words told by Dr. Seuss. I adopted the tradition of reading aloud favorite Seussian messages to family, friends, high school and college students, and eventually to faculty and other colleagues I worked with. I loved the wordplay offered by authors like Shel Silverstein; poems that made you want to skip with the reading of them, and JUMP with glee when the words read hit just the right note, revealed at just the right pace.
I am profoundly moved every time I hear wisdom and grace of Maya Angelou, the growl of passion and beautiful cadence of Martin Luther King Jr., or the often painful-to-hear narration of James Baldwin. I still see, with almost perfect clarity, my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Aspenes, a large, beautiful-inside-and-out woman, reading to our class Where the Red Fern Grows. I can almost feel of the tightness at the back of my throat I had that day, desperately trying to ward off crying in front of my fellow fourth graders when we learned that Billy’s hound Old Dan dies saving him from a mountain lion…and Mrs. A, her breath hitching while tears streamed down her rosy red cheeks. And oh! how glorifying, it was, how cleansing, to discover how humanizing it is to experience the raw grief, anger, laughter and tears amidst the words of someone else’s life; to see ourselves and to grow ourselves, for having heard their stories.
More recently, I have fallen in love with ‘spoken word.’ Spoken word in the United States, as I learned from a bit of online research, has roots in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance blues and the Civil Rights Movement. Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, The Last Poets, hip-hop, and slam poetry, shaped, and were shaped, by the spoken word woven from the rich fabric of African American culture, literary, and musical heritage.
It is with genuine humility that I periodically draw inspiration from these great master poets and orators and write a poem that combines ‘jazzy’ with ‘blues’, ‘hip’ with ‘soul’—and perhaps a few Seussian tongue-twisters—and share it with a larger audience.
It is rare, except perhaps with family and close friends, that I’ll actually perform the poems I write. The last time I did so was at our college convocation—the one we had before ‘normal’ turned to ‘not normal.’ Some days it’s hard to believe that this event was only a year and a half ago. At that convocation, I stood up with my cane on a stage before a thousand-plus people, and with a thousand-plus nerves coursing through my body making it even more difficult to stand, I shared a poem I had written for our retiring President. It was my “gift” to a woman, who I knew was humble enough to be able to genuinely laugh, when the sly humor of my poem poked fun at her in front of this very large audience. It was my “love letter” to an inspiring leader, not only a tribute to her thirteen years of service in this role and for loving our institution and community with her whole heart, but also to the community that helped shape her and their whole-hearted service.
Before that day, the biggest group I’d stood up in front of and read my poetry to was maybe fifty people, and I’d never have thought I’d have the courage to stand up in front of a larger group and make myself vulnerable in that way. But I did.
To truly feel the words and the way they are woven together, the beat, rhythm, and cadence of what was heard in my head when I put those words to paper, is to share it so it can be seen and felt through the spoken word. And so, as I face a new year, and take new courageous leaps, I’m going to do something that would never have occurred to me a year and a half ago: I’m sharing my first ever a video reading of one of my poems as a “live” love letter with all of you.
And even better, I am joined by a few colleagues and friends who said, “yes.”
If you think you might enjoy this, come listen to Just One Day Left: My 2020 New Year’s Eve Blessing.
Still walking my learning journey,
What do we hold? Where is your hope?
In the future you mold, in the ways you will cope?
In the world you create? In the story you narrate?