In Buddhist tradition, one important practice is the dedication of merit. Following Buddhist practices–sitting meditation, walking meditation, teaching of the dharma, chanting–the group recognizes the effort expended and offers that energy outwards: May any merit we have generated together through our practice be distributed throughout the world to all sentient beings equally. May our thoughts, words, and actions bring benefit to the world. Our dedication to practice and our desire for the whole world to be enlightened and free from suffering does not stay within the confines of our hearts or the community we practice within. Whatever light or grace or goodness we have created collectively is shared with everyone.
I often say that art is the only thing that will save us. I’m not being hyperbolic. Art is the enemy of authoritarianism. Art breaks things open, art shakes systems apart, art creates new pathways. Through language, music, visual art, theater, we gain access to new ways of seeing the world. The arts transform hearts, spaces, communities, ideas of what is possible. Indeed the only way we have ever progressed as a culture is through deep dreaming and conscious collaboration. We can and must dream our way into a better future.
When I facilitate writing classes with youth, we too dedicate merit. The world needs all the creative energy we can give right now. There is so much need, so much pain, so much separation. We are wounded and in need of healing, individually and as a collective. Creativity has the power to heal and transform us. So at the end of each class, we offer the creative energy we have generated into the world.
This semester, one of my residencies has been with fifth graders at Pueblo Gardens. This group of students is deeply curious, smart, open-minded and openhearted. They are willing to try new exercises and explore new ideas. Their language is fresh and surprising. They produce work that inspires me to think about words in new ways.
This week, I met with this class of fifth graders at Pueblo Gardens for the last time. The purpose of this session was not to write but to practice performing. In anticipation of the launch of the anthology featuring student work, which will include a celebration and reading, I wanted to spend some time getting students comfortable with reading their work aloud in front of an audience. Together, we brainstormed ideas of what made speakers compelling to listen to: posture, facial expressions, projecting and modulating the voice.
When I reminded them that each student would read their poem aloud, some students’ faces looked excited and others were neutral, but a few students shook their heads. They were scared. I promised the whole class that we would be a generous audience. As I looked at the students, seated in groups around rectangular tables, I told them that sometimes it’s good to push ourselves to do things that make us uncomfortable. Because when we finish and we are still alive and breathing, we realize we did the thing we thought we could not do. I said that most writing is not meant to be produced in a vacuum; that writing is a way to connect with others; and that in reading their work aloud they were offering a gift to others: perhaps a glimpse of beauty or words that made someone else feel less alone.
The students came up in groups to read their work. One by one, they took their stance, one foot slightly in front of another, they took a breath, and, then, they began to read their words aloud. The timbre of each voice altered, their pausing and inflection changed, but together, their voices became a kind of threaded chorus. Their words teemed within the space of the room. I was acutely aware in the moment of the power I was witnessing. We live in a world where we are told might looks one way: aggressive, hard, unflinching, ready for battle. We are told that might means conquering, might means being inflexible, might means never yielding. But these young people were mighty in the way we most need. They were courage embodied. They were standing in their truth. They stepped on the edge of their comfort zone. They led with vulnerability, honoring their words and one another’s.
When students spoke quietly, we praised their tempo and requested more volume and, in the next rendering, their voice shifted into a stronger register. When students spoke quickly, we acknowledged the strong tenor of their voice and asked them to slow down. When each student finished, we snapped our fingers to show our gratitude for their reading. At the end, these young people told me we should clap now, for the whole class. And we did. We created a rousing applause.
A year ago, when I was in my second semester as a teaching artist, a poet friend posted a picture on social media. She was holding in her hand a small piece of green construction paper that, on the top, read: "Poetic License” and bore her name, the date, and the name of the teaching artist. The poet, now in her thirties, received that piece of paper from a visiting poet when she was in middle school. That green paper made her feel seen and gave her permission. She kept it all that time. Inspired by my friend and her teacher, I continue in that tradition: giving my students laminated Poetic Licenses that have the date and my signature and that read, "[___________] has the power & potential & passion to write themselves into the heart of the universe.”
Before I handed them out at our last class, I asked students, “What is a license?” Hands shot up. A license, they said, allowed someone to do something, a license granted access, a license made someone an authority, a license gave information about the person who possessed it. I told them that the licenses I was about to give them were only in recognition of the power they already possess. I told them about the term “poetic license” and how this was a play on words. While I was giving them physical “licenses,” poetic license also meant that a writer could depart from conventions of language or fact for effect. That, as a writer, you have freedom.
When I called students up by name to get their licenses, some took them quickly and returned to their seats but others turned the licenses over in their hands, smiling. When we took a group picture to celebrate the end of class, I looked at the students standing on either side of me and realized, with a sudden flare in my heart, that many of them were holding up their newly bestowed licenses for the camera.
At the end of our time together, as we do in every class, I asked students to stand and to stretch out their arms as far as they could. Then farther, then farther still. What are we doing? I asked. One student said, “We are sending the energy we created out into the universe.” Yes, I told them, we are sending that creative energy into the world to the people and places that need it most. Because you have done a beautiful job of being courageous. Because that energy has power. Because the world needs it. "On the count of three," I said. “One, two, three.” We clapped. We threw our hands into the air.
Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer and writing teacher living in Tucson, AZ. Originally from New Orleans, she has lived in Tucson for nearly a decade where she has taught writing at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. She developed curricula and taught creative writing workshops with incarcerated students at juvenile and adult detention through the Inside/Out program and has also taught writing workshops at The University of Arizona Poetry Center and The Body Love Conference. Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona and previously served on the board of The University of Arizona Poetry Center and literary nonprofit Casa Libre en la Solana. She works as teacher, editor and creativity usher, helping writers discover and clarify their voices and stories. Lisa is dedicated to working for social justice with her community. Her writing has been published in defunct, drunken boat, Diagram, The Feminist Wire, Essay Daily, and Edible Baja Arizona among others. She is the founder, editor, and curator of literary blog The Dictionary Project and is currently writing a book on sound and silence.