On day five of my SNAP Challenge, I think about what is lost when you can't afford to eat. Luxuries like toppings: nuts, cranberries, or sour cream. Sauces and dressings. Pickles and olives. The extras are what make the meal a delight – more than just nutrition. This week I have experimented with toppings. I had a salad yesterday. the sunflower seeds cost more than the kale the salad was made of, but boy did I enjoy them.
Today I had a small bowl of organic brown rice for lunch - moistened with a little leftover broth. That ounce of rice was an 18¢ meal, washed down with a glass of tap water. I enjoyed every bite, but I would have enjoyed it a wee bit more with some almonds and raisins, maybe a little onion or fresh tomato chopped in there. The extras make the meal. But when you're hungry, and you only have $4.50 to spend on all of your food for a day, the extras become less important.
I've heard it said that there can be no "extras" like poetry or art when basic needs are not met. And I've always accepted that unquestioningly. it made sense. But I now know it's not true. When you're fighting for your life, poetry, art, music, whatever your creative outlet, might well be the wings that carry you through tragedy with your sanity intact.
When my life was at its darkest, in spite of all of the demands on me, I took Mother's Day off for myself and painted all day long. I made one painting, sketch to finish, on that one day. I knew that if I didn't finish it then, there would be no moment to set my paints up another day. Taking Mother's Day felt like robbing Fort Knox. It was radical. So radical, in fact, that I felt the need to warn my family, for weeks ahead of time, that they would not have me that one day. They'd be on their own. I was going to be selfish for one day. They were great about it, and gladly gave me my space to create. From the moment I awoke to the moment I drifted off, that day was miraculous. No burden of the world on my shoulders, for just one day.
When you are the mother of six young children and your husband is suffering from major clinical depression, when you work all day and do all of the cooking and housework every evening, when you have the only job in the family and don't bring home enough money to hold onto your house, every day is actually, accurately, a fight for survival.
But there are moments when you can't contain a poem bursting out of you. You have to put down the baby and pick up a pencil. You scurry out of the shower, dripping wet, to capture a phrase. You crawl into a chair under a lamp at 3 a.m. shivering because the words can't wait until morning. If tragic, painful periods in life can't make a poet write, nothing can.
The catharsis is incredible. A breath of life comes into you—a hope, a light, a joy—that you are more than a castaway, financially helpless, full of self-doubt. You have a heart and a dream and a story to tell. And the birth of that poem, rising from the very material your pain is made of, momentarily shuts out your sorrow and brokenness, and anchors you to who you really are, even if only temporarily.
The artist in me, the poet in me, was not dead, only biding her time. Besides those momentary bursts, she stayed in the background, all her dreams, visions and words hovering, swirling, forming future work that would be far more insightful and commanding than anything possible before this journey.
So poetry came, here and there throughout my darkest hours. Short and to the point or elaborate and sprawling. It knew when it was needed.
And eventually the art, more than just on mother's day, began to flow as well. As my tides began to turn, paintings could be found all along my shores. The hurricane was over and these treasures appeared from my depths: gifts for the dawn of a new day.
When you don't have money for food, you can still write a poem. You can't clean your ear with a cotton swab, or do many things that most people take for granted. But if I had to choose between poetry and cotton swabs, I'd always choose poetry. If I had to choose between painting and eating steak—you guessed it—I'd choose to paint.
I'll leave you with one of the poems I wrote while deep in the belly of the beast:
The Crucible of Eviction
I am in the crucible alone
and with my six children
alone and with my husband
and with my unborn poems
that swim around me naked of words
as I am naked of any explanation.
I am in the crucible of eviction
approach me and you’ll feel the heat.
I am liquid gold
on trial by fire
in the crucible that burns away fantasies.
It is the fire-brand of reality.
I am in the crucible now
but let me visit you again when I am not
when my poems will no longer be naked and silent
but eloquently robed with words
words that celebrate frivolous things