Learning by Going #9: A Volunteer Perspective

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Becky Hampton, Known by Heart volunteer and author of today’s guest post, second from left at a poetry session earlier this year.

One of my big learnings— or at least reminders— from Known by Heart is how big-hearted people can be. I’m thinking in particular about a handful of volunteers who have helped enrich poetry sessions and help elders get their words onto paper.

Today Known by Heart offers this guest post from , one of a handful of wonderful volunteers who has helped in numerous and unexpected ways with Known by Heart.  Big thanks to Becky for this piece and for her volunteer help behind the scenes.

Here are Becky’s observations about her experience visiting a poetry session this past winter. Big Thanks:

After pulling into the parking lot of the Merriam Park Community Center, I hesitated a moment before opening my car door. It was February and five degrees above zero, not counting the wind chill which, by my amateur estimation, was something like twenty below. The walk from my car to the building was short but the cold seems to stretch the seconds, so I steeled myself and walk-jogged to the entrance, teeth chattering, my gratitude for warmth heightened.

I was here during my lunch break, to visit one of Naomi’s Known By Heart poetry classes for seniors.  As a behind-the-scenes volunteer who creates electronic documents of poetry written by some of Naomi’s students, I wanted to experience what one of a class might be like and meet some of its participants.  Being there on a cold day in February seemed to underline the importance of a class like this. The winter can feel lonely for anyone, as we huddle inside, away from the common spaces outdoors in which we would need to hide, anyway, behind our layers of coats and scarves and hats.  It can feel even more lonely for seniors or people with disabilities, as mobility during the winter is made more difficult.  My own grandmother and I are very close, and I know how difficult winters can be for because of her limited mobility.

Naomi’s class was a warm fire that invited people in. Into conversation, into community. Though my visit was short, I could tell the class provided a connection point for each participant. The connection they made was not only with each other (the class began with each person taking a turn to share a word and corresponding movement they associated with the month, followed by the rest of the group echoing the word and movement), but with themselves.  The class provided time for each participant to write in response to a prompt, to share something they had written, or to hear aloud the writing of poets outside of the classroom.  Participants seemed open and glad to be there, freely sharing or responding to each other.  These components, and Naomi’s facilitation, which modeled respect and interest in each voice, made the classroom a “warm space” of community, in which each member was valued and seen.

Becky Hampton is a writer who works in the nonprofit sector.


Learning by Going #8 –It Really Does Matter What We Carry in Our Hearts

I’m learning I never get over the impact of a person sharing a poem from memory…

I’ve had my own practice of committing poetry to memory for years. And forgetful as I am, I believe it has a real value. But merely asserting this is one thing. It is something altogether more powerful to witness.  A poem drawn from within a body, from a person’s secret store of memory.

Each poem that comes from the heart is different.

Each person and the reasons each of us holds a particular poem in our heart is different.

Often the poem is surprising. Often, in my classes,  it is nestled in the memory of someone with significant memory loss. But there is this mystery that they still remember this poem in a way they can share.

Often memory loss is not the only challenge the poem-holder copes with. Often it is the person who seems most cut off—Struggling with memory. Struggling with hearing. Struggling with eyesight—even the 24 point font eluding capture and interpretation. Struggling even to speak…So often lungs are no longer strong enough to push air past the vocal cords as well as they once did.

So often the poem comes out in a small voice.

Like the other day…I was leading a small group and had just shared Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers”

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Hope is the thing with feathers….

We were focusing on birds, both real and figurative. Bird poems always seem to get people going. The the conversation was swooping and fluttering.

And then, a few wisps of voice from a woman who’d been sitting, seeming shut down and withdrawn. But as if from a great distance we hear these words:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson’s lines are rising from her throat.

Barely a whisper, but no less powerful for that.

The other voices and sounds fall away.

She says a few lines. And stops.

But we have stopped talking about birds and imagination and reality. We wait to hear more.

She starts again

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

and slow but sure recites the whole short poem.

I swear she glows when she is done.