Stone Soup – How a Poetry Slam Healed My Soul
One day in 1996 a terrible thing happened. My brother-in-law Tom had a major heart attack and I was the one attending to him until the paramedics arrived.
I was in my last semester of nursing school and had never done CPR except on the dummy in class. When Tom entered into full blown cardiac arrest I began the steps of CPR as I had learned them.
It took twelve agonizing minutes for the paramedics to arrive – a lifetime if you have someone’s life in your hands. As they burst into the room and took over I stepped aside.
Thirteen days later Tom died and I was left with the never ending loop of video in my memory of all that had happened at the scene. I felt a deep hollow space in my gut and a cruel voice in my head that said “If you had done a better job he may have lived.” This voice seeped its way deep into my soul, creating a sadness that I could not exorcise.
I went to therapy, I read books, I spoke to medical professionals. Everyone I talked to had the same answer: this was not my fault, I was not that powerful, cardiac arrest is almost always fatal. Still, I carried this heavy sorrow with me and is was corrosive.
One day I heard about a poetry slam event scheduled at a local book store. My son and I decided we would both go and read. There was a prize for the best piece and we were both up for the challenge. He wrote something spiritually insightful which moved me beyond words.
I wrote a performance piece that embodied the trauma of the event with Tom and all the sorrowful feelings I had held inside since.
The night of the poetry slam the room was filled with an eclectic group of people. I remember seeing a woman who was dirty, disheveled and unkempt. I assumed she had no idea that she had stumbled upon an event that included reading out loud. To my humble surprise she was the most eloquent poet in the room; her writing and the delivery of it brought me to tears.
The event was a mix of fabulous and horrible poetry, but every person was heard, every poem given its due.
When my turn came to read I laid out the scene with Tom in graphic detail, reading my poem with unabashed emotion. It was a long piece and I felt intensely engaged as I read. When I had finished, I looked up and saw a sea of faces aghast with horror at such a topic. I couldn’t have cared less. I had birthed this experience and the labor had been long and arduous.
What I felt in that moment was the amazing power of poetry as a healing force. This poem, only words on a page, took on a life of its own once I had spoken it out loud. It felt akin to being part of the running of the bulls, with my traumatic experience running behind me, nipping at my heels as I read aloud and as I finished the last sentence and leapt to the fence, I felt the terrorizing rumbling of the powerful beast roar past me.
And then it was gone. The sadness I had been carrying, the sorrow, left as the last word was spoken.
It sounds dramatic and too good to be true, but just like the space shuttle that jettisons its fuel after takeoff, these long-held feelings left me and fell away that night and I’ve been free of them ever since.
All these years later I remember that the award that night went to a poem entitled “My Daughter Peels an Orange”, read by a woman who was moved by the simple act of her daughter whom she loved, performing the mundane task of peeling an orange at the kitchen sink.
I’m grateful that I stepped out and took a chance by reading my poetry. Those intensely personal, painful feelings that I had carried for so long were released in a way I couldn’t have anticipated, all because of the healing power of poetry.