When I was a kid at Bates College, I spent a lot of my time feeling like less. My family had been kind of poor after my stepfather died. My nana would stand in line to get us big orange blocks of commodity cheese for the week to supplement our $30 grocery budget Every week my mom would yell at her that we didn’t need that. She always took it.
My mom didn’t answer the phone because she was so afraid of credit card companies calling. She’d make me do it and lie that she wasn’t there.
I still hate answering the phone, even the cell phone, even when it has caller ID.
Then College Happened
Anyway, when I went to college, I wanted to forget all that. I wanted to be an intellectual like everyone else. I wanted to have gone to private school in Manhattan or Conneticut, have a summer home in the Hamptons and clothes that weren’t from K-Mart, which was sort of the WalMart equivalent back then, but worse.
I got over all that because I knew it was pretty shallow. What I had a harder time getting over was class issues that had less to do with materialism and more to do with hatred and intellectual history.
In a Theater Class
In one of my directing classes, one of the sexier straight guys actually announced about Beckett, “People who are not wealthy don’t care about this. A truck driver doesn’t watch public television or listen to NPR. They don’t care, they’re too busy humping and eating and drinking.”
My dad was a truck driver. He watched public television. He listened to NPR. I didn’t want to think about him humping. He ate food. He didn’t drink. His parents had been prohibitionists.
In a Playwriting Class
In one of my playwriting classes the professor announced, “The working people of this country don’t give a shit about nuclear power. They don’t give a shit about a man of color.”
And I wondered if he meant working men couldn’t be BIPOC? Were working men only white?
When I was in elementary school, my dad would bring him with him to protest the same nuclear power plant that my step-dad was helping to build. He helped me try to get New Hampshire to recognize Martin Luther King Day and do a hundred other civil rights things. He cared.
With My Friends
And one of my college friends would love to say in front of me, “Carrie is too poor to be pro intellectual.”
He’s a minister now. That still doesn’t make what he said right.
In a Poetry Class
And one of my female poetry teachers told me over and over again, her voice trilling up with her patrician accent, “Carrie, you have the potential to be a poet, but your voice is too raw, not refined, not artistic enough.”
My voice was poor. My cadence was public school. I was not from rich. Every sentence I spoke showed that.
They still do.
Words are Voice
Those are just four of the incidents that made me both angry and intimidated and focused, but in the back of my head it just inflamed my self doubt. I could never be a poet because I wasn’t wealthy, private-school educated; my parents weren’t intellectuals. I could never move people with words because my words were too stark and my sentences too short. I would never fit in because even though I have the privilege of being white, I didn’t have the background that most of the other students had.
Poets who Changed Me
And then two things happened. I read Sherman Alexie, a not-wealthy Spokane and Coeur d’Alene who despite his issues with women, impacted me positively because of his words and cadence. And maybe because I never met him in person.
And I met Seamus Heaney in real life.
Seamus Heaney came to our college at the invitation of Robert Farnsworth, who was an awesome poet and professor. He met with students, he gave a reading and we all got to hang out with him at a reception.
“I can’t go,” I told my boyfriend at the time.
He bit into his pizza. He was always eating pizza. “Why not?”
“Because it’s Seamus Heaney,” I answered staring at the little bits of sausage on the pizza before I plucked them off.
I didn’t know how to explain. Seamus Heaney was THE poet, the Nobel Prize winner. He was Irish for God’s sake. Those people were gifted with words. They had so many amazing poets … Heaney, Yeats, Wilde, Clarke, Moore.
I was from New Hampshire. We had Robert Frost but pretty much every New England state tried to claim him.
Heaney wrote things like:
“A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.”Seamus Heaney
“You will regret it if you don’t go,” my boyfriend said. “I’m going to just be playing Leisure Suit Larry anyway.”
Are You a poet?
So, I went, as anxious as if I was going on stage myself. Heaney transfixed me with his amazing baritone and bear-like presence. And his words… Of course his words… And when I met him afterwards, I was terrified until he grabbed my hand in his and said, “So you are a poet?”
And I said, “No.”
And all he did was nod and say, “Oh, yes you are.”
But in his eyes was this knowing, this connection, and maybe it wasn’t really there. Maybe I just saw it because I wanted him to understand me, because I wanted someone to get who I was and who I wanted to be. Or maybe not?
I don’t know, but one second later my professor said, “Oh, yes she is. I told you about her. She is like you.”
And then one of them said something about growing up not wealthy and I can’t remember the exact words, but what I do remember is that I finally felt understood. Later, I looked up Seamus Heaney’s past, about how his dad was a farmer and neither of his parents were big on words really, not in the intellectual way that everyone at my college seemed to be. I found out that he was like me a little bit not because he was a poet and I was trying so desperately hard to write just one decent poem, but because we were both human, that we both came from humble places, that we both looked in people’s eyes when we said hello.
That was Enough
And that was enough for me. That was enough for me to believe in myself.
Seamus Heaney performed a miracle when I met him. He made me believe that I could be whatever the hell I wanted to be and that it didn’t matter how hard I had to fight or work or not fit in. What mattered was that I wanted the miracle of being a writer, of metamorphosis from Carrie the poor neurotic kid from Bedford, New Hampshire into Carrie Jones, the neurotic best-selling author who lives on the coast of Maine.
He gave hope and miracles in his poems and in his person and I am so thankful for his existence and so sorry for the world’s loss when he left.
“The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”Heaney
I wrote this post back in 2013 when Seamus Heaney died, but in one of my student packet’s this week, I referenced Heaney and the other night I wrote a poem and I realized that though I am a writer, I still don’t put my poems out there. And that is because of fear still. And that is because my poems are raw, trembling things. And that is going to change. I’ve made a big choice and commitment about this and I’m excited. More soon, I promise.
But my point here was always to use your voice, sing your songs, make your stories and especially shout, sing, whisper, and declare if it seems like nobody wants you to, if you feel like you don’t fit in, if you feel like not another soul is listening. That’s when we most need to hear it.
Here’s Seamus Heaney reading his own poem, “Blackberry Picking.”
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