20 August 2016 – Beyond the almost daily crazy that keeps going on out there in the big wide real, there are the littler things we go through as individuals. Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in everything we don’t notice. Such is life. But sometimes it takes time for those things we engage in to develop into memorable moments. And what a difference when they do.
About two months ago I began volunteering my Saturday afternoons to a youth shelter for boys. After a couple weeks I was asked if I’d be interested in starting a creative writing group. So I did. I had no idea what I was doing but I was game.
Nothing came of the first session. I set up shop in the common room. Put a sign on the table—‘Ask me about creative writing.’ None of the boys showed interest. But I kept at it. Posted a notice on the info board. Bought some small notebooks and a box of pens. The second session, again in the common room, didn’t go much better, but I did hand out a few notebooks and pens.
For the third session I secured a small meeting room. In total six boys dropped by, but again, nothing really happened save that I gave away more pens and notebooks.
The fourth session saw some dialogue on writing and was perhaps most productive for giving the assembled boys (there were four) an assignment, of sorts. I asked them to think about how they would like to use the time and space. If they wanted it to be like a class, for example, with me providing some form of instruction, that could be arranged. Or it could be an open door deal, like a drop-in clinic—I would be there as a kind of tutor, if that was their preference. I reminded them that the time was theirs and that the idea was to have some fun with this creative writing thing. As a parting remark I added that, if any of them were willing, they could take a leap of faith and start writing.
Bringing me to this afternoon. Session five. Three of the boys showed up for two o’clock (we have the room from two to three, right in the middle of free-time, which goes from noon to five). After a few minutes of aimless chatter I asked if anyone had any thoughts on how we should go forward with our writing group. Silence. As they each had their notebook out on the table I asked them if any of them had had a chance to do some writing. Two had, but neither was willing to share. Trying to stay positive, I put it to them that for the time being maybe we’d stick with the drop-in format. For today, they could stay and use the time to write, or talk about writing, or even take it in turns to consult with me one-on-one. I don’t remember much of what I said after that but by 20 after I had the room to myself, and in all honesty I was grateful. The wind was out of my sails.
Then Luther came in and one of those memorable moments happened.
If taken as a singular event, the moment itself was a compound of my reading a story he’d drawn in his notebook and various aspects of our resulting conversation. The story was straightforward enough, if macabre. A stick figure leaps off a building, hits the ground dead, and rises therefrom, with a halo over its head, to find a home in the shining sun.
On my first reading I watched the story unfold methodically, slowly flipping each page until I arrived at the end. Though I had some o-bomb reservations about the subject matter (no getting around the implication of suicide), and felt a fair bit of trepidation at the prospect of impact as the stick figure neared the ground, it didn’t seem to interfere with my viewing. I found myself paying more attention to how the story was rendered, as if the penstrokes themselves hinted that this was a fiction, that something good was going to happen, I just had to keep on flipping to find out what it was. And when I got there, to the last past, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.
Luther drew the scene as an animated serial. On the front of each page he used the left margin as the edge of a tall building and the bottom line as the ground. Page one sees the stick figure standing on top of the building (first line). Over its head is a waxing quarter moon. Subsequent pages see the stick figure fall, line by line, to the ground. As it does so the moon goes through its phases: filling up, waning, disappearing new.
When the stick figure hits the ground its constituent pieces (arms, legs, head, torso) separate. Over a few pages the pieces spread further apart and a pool (unmistakable sign of blood) enlarges to cover most of the bottom of the page. Then the constituent pieces start to move back together and the pool of blood shrinks, though a drop remains in the margin on the right. Once the stick figure is whole again, complete with halo, and it begins to diagonally ascend the page, the drop of blood also rises, at the same rate, straight up the margin, growing into a larger and larger circle until, as it nears the top of the page, it sprouts outward lines (classic indication that the circle has become a shining sun).
The haloed stick figure arrives within the arc of the shining sun (now too large to be seen in its entirety) and the story ends on the next (and, no less, last) page with a smile appearing on the stick figure’s round face.
While I read Luther sat beside me fiddling with the cord of his headphones and sighing—clearly I was taking too long. To his credit he let me finish before taking the notebook and showing (and telling) me how it was supposed to be read: thumb to edge of pages and let the pages fly. The scene came to life in his hands. I was so impressed it didn’t occur to me that I should be embarrassed for having missed the effect of animation.
Afterward we talked about his experience drawing the story. He was edgy and pensive but not at all closed. I asked if he had the story figured out before he started drawing. He said it came to him as it went along. To begin with he just wanted to get to the bottom of the page as quickly as he could. He said that he left it at that for a couple days. Then came the idea of getting back to the top.
I asked if he enjoyed putting the story together and liked what he came up with. He said he did, on both counts. I asked if he would like another notebook. He said he would. I gave him a fresh notebook. He held it in both hands as if he had something more to say. I asked if everything was all right, half expecting that he wanted to share a troubling event and might be seeking my advice (something I wasn’t sure fit within the parameters of my volunteer status). He looked around, as if to make sure no one else had come in the room undetected, then cleared his throat and asked if I was ok with him not using words. I was so relieved that all I could do was smile again. Eventually I said something along the lines of creative writing being, for the purposes of our group, about exploring ways of expressing ourselves on paper etc—a long-winded answer that ultimately came down to practising creativity and the telling of stories.
Luther seemed satisfied with my response. He put his two notebooks into his backpack and slipped on his bulky headphones. But just as he turned to go he pulled the ears of his headphones away from his head and said, ‘Oh, and you know, I was thinking maybe, instead of calling this a group, or whatever, maybe we call it a club?
I nodded and asked him to go on.
‘Like a band of brothers or something. You know? Something that’s just us. What’s it? Exclusive. Right?’
I kept nodding and played my hand for him to continue.
‘This could be like our clubhouse. And, well, maybe we’d have a secret password and stuff. Or a handshake? I mean, I dunno. What you think?’
I said I loved it.
Luther smiled and said he’d see me next week. I sat there at one end of the long table in the small meeting room. Hearing through the open door the distant and dull sounds of adolescent boys enjoying their Saturday afternoon free-time in the common room, down the hall and around the corner. Music, chatter, laughter, pingpong balls and paddles. A beautiful thing.
I was glowing. It was now after three. I got up and finished my shift on a high. Just itching to get home and write about it.
And you know, it’s funny, even if Luther hadn’t turned my day around with his story and his insight, there was still something noteworthy about this afternoon’s session. When I was setting up the room one of the boys, Drummond, showed up early and asked me what I write. Just like that. ‘What do you write?’ I wasn’t sure if he meant what I write about, so asked to clarify. He said, ‘No. I mean, do you write, like, poetry? Or thoughts and ideas. Stories. That kind of thing.’
‘Good question,’ I said.
But as I was thinking about how to answer the other two boys entered the room. Things ran their course and in my disappointment I guess I forgot to get back to Drummond. Not that I actually had an answer. But still.