Serious writers must sometimes explain that writing is not a hobby, not a leisure pursuit, and not a luxury. Rather, it is the most essential practice of our lives. Audre Lorde said it best: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," one of my dearest former poetry students said to me many years ago. "But what do you really mean when you say that writing is not a luxury?" It was just a few weeks after the beginning of my poetry class. He could not understand the notion that some serious writers' very survival depends on writing. It all seemed like romantic claptrap: for him, writing was a luxurious choice, not an austere calling. He was a wealthy white student at a small, private liberal arts college who had always dreamed of being a famous, award-winning, bestselling writer. But, as he shared on the first day of class when we all introduced ourselves, if he did not achieve his ambition, he was going to be okay because he could rely on being comfortable. Then he said, "After all, writing is just something that I do on the side."
During a conference in the middle of the semester, he told me that he did not know what he was going to do after the first week of my class because he had never had a black teacher before, much less an LGBT Buddhist teacher. I affirmed my former student that day in our conference and I affirmed him every other day throughout our rapport in the years to come. (And I have received his permission to write about him with the understanding that I not reveal his name.) His honesty was one of many starting places for true learning between us. True learning is frequently uncomfortable: we must break to reveal. If you think that I was in the slightest bit upset with him for his honesty, then you may need to read my thoughts about bias. In fact, he was doing everything right: he was trying to work-through the influence of his upbringing as he came to terms with my searing, discomfiting poetry lessons.
I sensed that he was covering up pain. The tragedies of my own life helped me to see a darkness engulfing him, a darkness so encompassing that he could not fathom its encroachment upon him. I suspected that my former student was a drug addict a month after meeting him. Unlike most teachers at the school, I have lived through the harshness of the streets and I know its struggles. I have never been an addict. But, some of my dearest friends have struggled with addiction. My office at the time was on the far, backside of the campus in a dorm. When I was working late, I would often see him when he was high: stumbling, nodding with a glazed, deadened gaze and an ashen pallor about his skin.
One day his drug supplier came on to campus to drop off a shipment. Yes, along with being an addict, he was a dealer. I saw them conversing furtively behind the dining hall as I made my way to the bus stop late at night to go home: the white young man of privilege and the black young man of disadvantage connecting through drugs. Then they both turned to look at me, the black LGBT Buddhist teacher from the working poor world of the streets and I broke the spell of their secret, painful rapport by calling out, "Be safe! I'll see you in class next week!"
Soon my former student's substance abuse and drug dealing came to the attention of the authorities at school. An incident occurred about which I still do not know the details. He stopped coming to class. It would not be long before his problems would force him leave the school. But, while he did not formally complete my poetry class, he continued his education with me.
One night I received a call from him at 3 a.m. in the morning. "Please," he weeped, "Come help me. I think I am in Druid Hill Park. I don't know where to turn." Without hesitation, I hopped on a bus and then walked past the abandoned buildings and trash strewn thoroughfare to the cross streets where he said that I would find him huddled under a street light. He was shivering. He seemed to have lost some of his clothes. He wore only one shoe. I gave him my jacket. "Aren't we going to hop a cab?" he asked and I told him, "Absolutely not. We are going to catch a bus." As long as I did not alert his parents or the school, he agreed to let me help him.
He fell asleep on the bus without asking where we were going. It was only when we arrived at a 7 a.m. meeting of Narcotics Anonymous that he understood my designs. I lived blocks away from the venue where that early morning Narcotics Anonymous meeting took place. When I walked to the bus stop in the mornings, I passed by the meeting folk lingering outside, smoking cigarettes. That morning after the meeting, over breakfast at the Paper Moon diner in Baltimore, I suggested that it was time for him to rewrite his life. And so began my former students' true writing education.
Five years later, the poems started coming: vital, brutal, brilliant poems about being a rich kid on Woo-Woo (heroin laced marijuana smoked in a cigarette), Belushi (heroin laced with cocaine), and Cheese (heroin laced with cold medicine). He once told me, "I'm an asshole." I then encouraged him to "write like an asshole until you come to a place in your life when you can cover up your behind."
Ten years later, I am pleased to say that he has rewritten his life and, whatever happens, he has the tools to keep doing so. His very life depends on writing. I told my former student who is now my friend that I was blogging this week and I wanted to feature one of his poems to introduce his artistry to the world. At first he agreed, but then, just before midnight, he called to say that he was not ready. Instead, he suggested that I link to an old hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul" that I once sang to him over the phone five years ago that begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,/When sorrows like sea billows roll;/Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,/It is well, it is well, with my soul."