When I was fourteen, my mama drove us in her old battered Pontiac station wagon the dozen miles from where we lived out in the trailer park into town to East Carolina’s campus on a crisp fall Tuesday night. We parked behind the student union, and Mama looked over to where I sat with a sheaf of wrinkled paper clenched in my hands, poems, typewritten on my daddy’s manual typewriter, my teenage angst and effort click-clacking late into the night, transcribed from the bits and pieces in my journals, or scratched on to napkins, or whatever paper I had stuffed in the pockets of my Levis that day.
I was a difficult child, and an even more difficult teenager, mouthy and hungry for things I had no clue about or could even name, obstinate and wild, and angry and defiant, and too easily bored, a particular trait that more often than not led me into self-destructive, even dangerous attempts to a keep myself entertained, and to do something–anything–with the wild demanding thirst–for something–anything–that boiled up and through me all the time.
The only times I felt still, or filled, or not terrified I was gonna miss something, was in the woods, or when I was writing.
Mama got that. So she took me to campus so I could go to a gathering called the Poetry Forum, an open to the public workshop hosted and facilitated for years by the tender, funny, wise, and wise-cracking poet Peter Makuck. I stared down at the papers in my hands, words blurring, and then Mama patted my hand–Mama was a patter of the highest order!–and said, “I’ll be right here.”
So I got out and climbed the steps behind the student union, and walked into my very first workshop. Peter welcomed me like any of the “grown-ups” and 🙂 the readers gathered round that table handed me my fourteen-year-old behind on a platter with the specificity and directness and detail of the critiques they made of my poems that night. I was stunned. But no way was I gonna let them see me cry 🙂 So when the meeting broke up, I said, “Thank y’all,” and headed down the hall, out to where Mama sat in the car (now for two hours), reading one of the thousands of books she read by the weak yellow overhead light in the car. I sniffled back tears, nearing the door, when I heard a voice behind me. “Wait!”
I turned to see Peter trotting down the hall toward me, smiling gently, as he asked, “You okay?”
I nodded. He reached out and patted my arm, saying. “Well, I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re very brave, to come in here so young. And I wanted to say, Don’t quit writing. Never quit writing. You have talent. So yeah, just that. Don’t quit.”
I couldn’t say anything, too afraid I’d cry, so I just nodded. He headed back down the hall, and I walked out into the dark toward my waiting patient Mama.
Seventeen years later, after a decade of believing the story the world told me–that I needed a “real” job, that writing was a childish dream I needed to give up–I was terrified, but still filled with that hunger for things I couldn’t name–desperately so–I pulled up the website for the English Department at ECU, just beginning to harbor hopes of going back to school. What was I thinking? I had three kids, poverty-level income, two failed marriages rife with alcoholism and now single-parenthood defining my twenties. Maybe the naysayers were right; maybe I needed to just grow up.
But then, on the faculty page, I saw Peter’s face. “Don’t quit. Never quit.”
And I saw my mama’s face in that car that night, waiting patiently in that watery parking lot light, while her troubled teenage daughter chased after poetry in the long uncertain dark.
Gratitude. Even after a life now for more than twenty years where words are my work, they fail me here. Can’t even begin to articulate the gratitude.
Never ever ever underestimate the power your kindness can have in a person’s life, nor how far-reaching and long-lasting that kindness can be ❤
Peter’s website: http://www.makuck.com/site/