In the face of a global pandemic, as well as a chaotic election for those of us in the US, I find myself wanting tea. While “a cup of tea cannot put your world back on its axis,” Celeste Allen explains in her book Soul Food, “it can…help calm your nerves.”
Yet not all mugs of tea are the same. While some teacups bring comfort, others hold trauma. I remember Earl Grey tinged with fraud, false propriety served to me while the world was burning.
As I consider the pain of such encounters, God has responded to me through poetry. I’ve discovered kindred spirits who chronicle their own traumatic teatimes. In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot asks, “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” In We Do Not Live in Vain, a book of poetry of witness from the 1973-1985 military dictatorship in Uruguay, Selva Casal laments “that silence that used to leave us / more wounds and sweets / at teatime / you don’t even know / what has happened to me.” These verses not only record similar moments of feeling disregarded and alone, but also provide a healing balm: when I read these verses of lament, I am seen.
Poetry like this can act like a psalm: no emotion is off-limits, and I can cry out the verses as my own. I’ve come to regard some poems as extensions of the Psalms, wording things in a way that’s closer to my own cultural context. The poetry above resonates with Psalm 61:1, which pleads, “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.”
To be clear, I still ache for honest and just conversations. In some situations, reparations still need to happen. Poems (and psalms) alone are not sufficient to address injustice. But they can be a first step in the right direction. When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, sending him to Pharaoh in order to free the Israelites, God first says, “I have observed,” “I have heard,” and “I know” the misery of God’s people (Exodus 3: 7-8). Perhaps we too first need to feel heard, observed, and known.
I’ve recently experienced the wonder of being seen not only in reading poetry, but also in writing it. Earlier this year, I wrote a poem called “Waiting,” where I recorded the details of a day spent anticipating a life-changing email: the hum of the radiator pipes, the compulsive phone checking (“Updated Just Now”), and the shrieks of the teakettle. The poem offers no easy answers. “Waiting” ends by saying, “a lack of remedies/ (‘Updated Just Now’) / today, only / tasteless tea.”
I then shared this poem in a poetry feedback group that I lead. I read “Waiting” aloud, wincing in remembrance of that painful day. A few colleagues offered some suggestions for improvements, as well as compliments. What I remember most, however, was when one colleague noted how she saw herself in the poem. “This is what COVID brain feels like to me,” she said. Both of us sighed with relief.
The email that inspired the poem later arrived; it was not the result I had wanted. Yet the act of creating and sharing poetry is still efficacious, as something shifted inside me when I discovered how my words accurately reflected another person’s experience. Through the act of writing exactly how I felt alone, I eventually felt more connected to others.
I wonder what it would look like to bring more poetry into our churches? I offer the following suggestions based on my own experience:
1) Weave (more?) poetry into the worship service. The Englewood Review of Books now offers poetry suggestions for the Revised Common Lectionary as well as the Narrative Lectionary.
2) Organize a group where everyone brings a favorite poem to read aloud. Establish common norms at the beginning in order to build safe space (the Grounding Virtues of the On Being Project are a wonderful place to start). Invite others to respond with open-ended questions, or by completing the sentences “I see…” and/or “I wonder….”
3) Organize a poetry feedback group of people from different congregations, denominations, and/or cities. Something magical happened in the feedback group I mentioned above, where all of us started as strangers to each other: we’ve built trust and acquainted ourselves almost entirely through our poetry. I know little about my colleagues’ family situations, jobs, or resumes. I nonetheless feel connected to them because I see the world through their verses.
The act of sharing poetry can be risky. Yet the trust, healing, and first steps towards justice that can develop through offering each other our verses is priceless. It’s certainly more delicious than tasteless tea.
Melanie Weldon-Soiset, a #ChurchToo survivor, served as a pastor at a nondenominational church for immigrants in Shanghai, China, and preached regularly at a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. She’s now a poet and contemplative prayer leader. Follow her blog, and/or sign up for her newsletter on poetry and prayer resources, at melanieweldonsoiset.com.
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