I’m thinking today about a poet I love and about why I love her. It’s a story I had not given a lot of thought to until recently.
My mom went to college when my siblings and I were all finally in gradeschool. She started slow, taking a couple of classes here and there at Mount St. Joseph College in Cincinnati Ohio. She studied music therapy and music education. She took voice and piano, theology and pedagogy. She’d be up late every night studying, sitting on the floor of her piano studio, the back room in our house. In the morning there would be piles of books and empty snack wrappers, yellow highlighters, lined notebooks with her swishy swirly handwriting. She worked very hard for that dual degree. I was (and am still!) exceptionally proud.
Having 4 young and spirited children myself I can appreciate the colossal effort this took, the amount of brain space required and the moment of realizing how fragile everything is…everything depending so deeply on everything else. We lived in a house of cards for an awful long stretch there.
She graduated in the early 80’s, things were chaos in our house. My parents long suffering marriage was exploding and imploding at the same time. We didn’t know what we were doing half the time, mostly in survival mode. I was “coming of age” in the early 80’s. I was moving from girl to woman and I don’t remember much of that, frankly. I only remember the atmosphere, I knew very little of my “self.”
On the day of my mom’s graduation, a day I had longed to be a part of, I had bronchitis. I had to stay home and I stayed home alone. My mom brought home her commencement program and a copy of the speech given by an area poet, Nikki Giovanni. I must have read that speech a thousand times. I can’t tell you now what the words were exactly…I can only say that I was moved by them, enamored of them. I remember the tension and the hope and the peace and the casual and deep language of them. I was so moved that my mom bought me a book of her poetry on my insistence.
“Those who ride the Night Winds” by Nikki Giovanni was the first book of poetry I owned. It may, in fact, be the first book I owned apart from the Nancy Drew series handed down to me. It was this line, that hit me first, that bored into my skin, that shouted to me so loudly I could not help but hear:
“And those who ride the night winds
do learn to love the stars…
even while crying in the darkness”
I knew then that I was not alone. I knew that someone else, someone completely different from me, my circumstance, my life experience, my hertiage, someone knew me and knew something deep about me. And it was hopeful, this line. In a time when I was so focused on the fact that I was crying in the darkness here was a moment of hope, that I might still be able to love the stars…at times it was hard to remember there WERE stars to love, the storm was so heavy, the night sky so obscured.
So, this is why I love Nikki Giovanni…it’s probably not overstating the point to say that she may have saved me, this one line, may have saved my life. This one line of poetry, one that still brings me to tears because of it’s timing, it’s simplicity and it’s truth, told me to hold on and to look for the stars, to love the stars.
And when I recognized that, when I embraced that truth, I discoverd that I, too, was a poet…and I was found, just then, changed, just then…
I am forever grateful for that.