“My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.”
-- Jorge Luis Borges
I am writing this entry from a school classroom set on the outskirts of a squatters’ camp near Cape Town, South Africa. The children in this school come from the most dire circumstances. The headmistress of the school, Mrs. Hassen, explained to me that these children who look so joyful, playing in the school yard, often live in a one-room shack no bigger than her office, and they may have no food, electricity, or supervision.
I saw the long rows of shacks, the lines of locked port-a-johns, and the people stranded on the corners without work and without much in the way of hope. The children however, still have hope. Their voices ring out in sing-song cadence as jump ropes slap the sidewalk. They argue, they laugh, they screech. They remind me of chirping birds. Right now I can see the reflection of a little girl behind me, eating a sandwich. She is peeking over my shoulder through the window at the screen of my computer and pretending to type against the glass. Her head bounces as she mimics my actions. Life is a riot in her small body.
Transformative writing is sometimes about writing our stories, wringing the pain and the joy from our ordinary lives and pouring it onto the page. But it can also be about the stories of others. Sometimes we want to look outside of our own little worlds (as intricate and fascinating as they are) and immerse ourselves in the dramas unfolding around us.
One of the most transformative books in American literature is Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck talked to the “Oakies” he saw in the camps near his hometown. Then he told a story that changed how America operated. Laws changed because of that book. Harriet Beecher Stowe told the story of a slave family and was a catalyst for abolitionists. You can probably name others.
Spending time among these children has opened my eyes to a world of extreme joy and extreme despair. While the poverty around me is stark, the sense of community is absent from the developed world where I live. My essential humanity comes to the surface as I walk along the streets and stop to chat with a woman washing her clothes in a big bucket while chickens and dogs hunt for food.
In my day-to-day life, I can get caught up in the sport of comparison. I’m never good enough, never smart enough, never talented enough. But when I leave that world, those notions evaporate. Virginia Woolf exhorted us to find a room of our own if we want to be writers. Sometimes, though, it’s best to abandon that comfortable room and listen to the stories of people who don’t have a laptop at their fingertips, and find the commonalities among us.
A little girl I had never met before came up and hugged me yesterday. I’m sure there’s a poem in there somewhere. If not, it sure felt good anyway.
Write about it: You don’t have to go to some exotic land to find inspiration. Get on a city bus and go to a coffee shop in a different part of the city. Or volunteer at a local school. Be an adventurer. Talk to a stranger. Ask them what is the best thing that ever happened to them. Find out what they’re afraid of. Make no judgments. Just write.
*This post is from my blog "Transformative Writing"