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San Mateo

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USA

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How I Became a Poet

Some people know exactly what they are going to do in life even as children and then continue to hone their skills. I am not one of those people. I didn’t start writing poetry until a couple of years ago.  I suspect three different experiences contributed to my discovering this gift.

The first one started in 2002 when my husband and I moved from an English-speaking congregation to a Spanish-speaking one. I was immersed into an ocean of words I could not understand. They washed over me and then I'd catch a drop here, a splash there. Gradually, I recognized more and more as my brain unraveled the patterns and swirls. It was very disorienting, but I was able to make sense of what I was hearing as my head adapted to its new environment. We were in the congregation for close to five years and I am now able to communicate in this lovely foreign language.

Second, as a result of hormone imbalances during peri-menopause, I suffered from intense anxiety and overwhelming depression. My brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton. My thinking was blurry and I was in a state of panic. What could I do? How could I fix this? I did research and in addition to working with the medical professionals, I decided to take up Sudoku as this is supposed to help the brain. At first, I couldn’t see where the numbers were to go, but I noticed if I was just quiet and waited long enough; my unconscious brain would take over and unlock the patterns and I’d see exactly where I needed to put the numbers. An added benefit was during this “Sudoku break”, I would feel calm. Then I started doing crossword puzzles and something clicked inside. Clues would help my synapses come up with connections they hadn’t tried before. I had learned to take care of myself and calm my panic. About this time, I started to go to Filoli as much as possible to walk in the gardens and take deep cleansing breaths.

Then my mother-in-law suffered illnesses that eventually lead her to being in our home completely helpless and dependent on our care.  In December, 2011, I found myself the primary caregiver to a dear sweet woman who couldn’t leave her bed, didn’t know who I was (or her son either), and was panicked all the time. Her constant cry was “Help, me” “Help, me” when she wasn’t actively engaged or asleep.

With this full-time responsibility of caregiving thrust upon me, I had to learn how to cope. I also wanted to help her. I found that singing to her was soothing for both of us and to our surprise, when I spoke to her in rhyme, she calmed right down. I picked up children’s stories and would read Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish” to her every evening. She never tired of it. During the reading, she would be calm, blissful and laugh delightedly. As soon as I stopped, she would be anxious again. Pretty soon, I was making up silly rhymes whenever I spoke to her and she loved it. Trying to find a way to ease her discomfort and make my job bearable unlocked something else in my brain. It as if I had a lump of coal inside me and when it was subjected to intense pressure, it transformed, producing a diamond.

My first official poem was in response to the grief my neighbors experienced losing their beloved cat of 20 years. I wanted to comfort them, but didn’t know what to say. While mulling over this, a poem sprang from my unconscious that was just the right mix of humor and pathos. When I wrote it down, I cried and laughed and knew it was just right. Every poem I compose has moved me literally to tears or filled me with joy (or both). When it does that for me, I know it is worth sharing with the rest of you.

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Jeannine Gerkman
Jeannine Gerkman