Skip to main content

Three questions:

Does my heart remember?
Can I forget?
Can you guess what’s inside of me?

Does my heart remember the good stuff?  The fishing, swimming in the deep blue ocean, eating sweet mangoes.

Will I forget the ugly stuff?  The garbage piling up on the street, the rotten smells, the bright colors turning grey.

Can you guess what’s inside of me?  I’m feeling heavy when I taste little mistakes in my red heart.

What if, when I was 10, my family moved to a different country with a different language, different foods, different customs, a different culture.  That happened to N when he was 10.  Now he’s 17 and writes about both the beauty and the ugliness he remembers, the sweet mango, the rotten smells.

In his poems, N asks three questions:  Does my heart remember?  Can I forget?  Can you guess what’s inside of me?  I wonder if those three questions are asked by all immigrant children?  And aren’t they the same questions I ask myself as I excavate my own life?  Can you guess what’s inside of me?  Will my heart remember the special moments and special people?  Can I forget certain things that were painful or ugly?  For me, it’s the beauty of New Mexico, the land of enchantment, mixed with its historical pain, mixed with my personal story of beauty and pain.

Not at all like N experienced, but the contrasts are there for all of us.  What to remember.  What to forget.  It’s how we learn to write poetry, compose a life.  There was this AND there was that.  And for some, the contrasts are brutal.  For N who has left both this and that, he tries to remember and to forget at the same time he has to learn a new way of being in a new land.

At his old school, he says he wasn’t much of a student.  At his new school, he wants to make his parents proud.  He knows their hearts also remember the mango tree, the blue ocean, the grandparents.  How high does the garbage have to pile and the stench to overwhelm to leave the mango, the ocean, the parents?  Language, culture, food, customs, rules, unwritten ways of being – so much to take in.  N looks through young eyes and wants to make his parents proud.

Can you guess what’s inside of me?  I’m feeling heavy when I taste little mistakes in my red heart.

N is an immigrant from Vietnam, a participant in The Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Refugee and Immigrant Poetry project, an Institute of Poetic Medicine Partner project. The words in italics are from his poems.  Founded by poet, storyteller and teaching artist Merna Ann Hecht, The Stories of Arrival project takes place at Foster High School in Tukwila, WA in the classroom of ELL teacher and project co-director Carrie Stradley.  Foster is one of the most culturally diverse schools in the U.S.  All students in the project are refugees or immigrants. Each year the students record their poems with the help of a professional voice coach at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle. The most recent project resulted in a poetry collection with original artwork titled, Holding the Earth Together: Youth Voices Speak For Our World.  (Chatwin Books, 2018.)  N is one of the students featured in this book.  It is his voice that asks the three questions:  Does my heart remember? Can I forget? Can you guess what’s inside of me?

N touched my heart when I read his words.  But let me tell you how I found him.  It was through a series of connections.  I was so upset about the immigration situation, about the treatment of families, parents, and children that I wanted to get in my car and drive to the border. What would I do when I got there?  I didn’t know.  I just had to DO something, protest, scream, cry, something.  I could not sit quietly and pretend it didn’t affect me.  A dear friend convinced me to support other efforts and to use my anger and my energy to write.  I poured my anger out in “Who are We?”.  A friend, John Fox, the poet, author, and founder of the Institute for Poetic Medicine read the piece and told me about the poetry project at Foster High School, and about the book that had just been published.  I ordered the book and began reading the words of these teenagers who had dreams and feelings and questions just like my children, just like my neighbors, just like my friends.  Just like me.  My heart was split open by their words.  They became real.  Not just refugees from Vietnam, Somalia, Central America, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nepal.  Real people just like me.

These youthful voices reminded me how we are more alike than different.  What could I do to send these words out in ever-widening circles?  After discussions with John and with Merna, I decided to begin pairing some of the lines of their poems with my mandalas.  A mandala is a symbol for wholeness.  That is what I wish for these young people.  That is what I wish for all of us.  We are all in this world together.  We are all connected.  It is a small thing that I do. It feels both positive and not enough.  But if we all do small, positive things, they add up.  May it be so.

To learn more about the poetry project at Foster HS: