Under the harsh spotlight of a high school gymnasium somewhere outside of Phoenix, I presented myself to Confirmation retreatants. I started with a joke about how I’m sure they had other ways to spend their Saturday night, and 150 pairs of eyes blinked at me in teenage dialect of Morse code: “Duh.”
And so, I started another fanciful evening in pursuit of what often seems like a truly impossible dream: to engage young people in the Catholic faith through art.
For the past three years I have traveled the country and spoken to teenagers, college students and beyond about the value of beauty in our pursuit of truth. I do this through pieces of original performance poetry, colloquially referred to as “spoken poetry”. Each of my shows consists of 8-10 poems and some stories and lessons on why beauty mattersespecially in our faith.
To be honest, the start of my shows is always a bit shy and uncomfortable for everyone involved. Most of my audience has never even heard of spoken word before, let alone seen a live performance. And so, often, they don’t know how to react. Should they make eye contact with me while I play? Is it embarrassing if they react to the plays by crying or laughing out loud? Do they have to snap their fingers when they hear a line they like, or is that only in the movies?
But by the end of my 45-minute set, the audience’s faces change from blank stares to open smiles. And then, just as the public is starting to get to grips with this art form, I extend an invitation to them to try it too. Once my set is finished, we start a poetry writing workshop for all levels and end the evening with an open mic where everyone has the chance to share their new work.
Which brings me back to Somewhere Outside of Phoenix. When I stood in front of the girls’ room and asked, “So who here considers themselves creative?” To my amazement and delight, the girls didn’t roll their eyes; they raised their hands.
And then, in a way that somehow looked like teenagers and God at the same time, their raised hands formed a sea of waving arms, pouring out a deluge of writing ideas, inspirations, and ambitions. We talked about what makes something beautiful, what makes something good, and what makes something true. We talked about the word “catharsis” – what it means, how it feels and why it matters. And we talked about how it’s scary to read your writings in front of people, especially your peers, but how most of the good things in life are on the other side of scary.
We ended our session with some quiet writing time, then I moved on to the next group of girls, then the next, and the next. At the end of the evening, we held an open mic or “poetry slam” in the same gymnasium where we started. Their youth leader asked if any of the girls wanted to go first.
No one raised their hand.
They all looked at each other sheepishly, wondering which of them might be the bravest.
I caught the eye of one of the older girls and gave her a wink in the dialect of Morse code specific to women-in-the-late-twenties-who-have- -completely-been-there: “You have that.”
She blinked and raised her hand.
Now adept at the spoken word and all its charming conventions, the girls greeted their classmate at the front of the room with a chorus of snapping their fingers. She pulled out her notebook and I noticed that as she began to read, the hands holding her verses seemed to be shaking in time with their meter. And I smiled because she lived on the other side of scary and reap its ultimate reward: self-expression.
When she finished her poem, the whole gymnasium erupted in applause and cheers. And then another girl got up and read her poem. And another. And another. We listened to teenage girls turn their doubts, beliefs, and stories into poetry for over an hour, which to me is one of the most wonderful ways I can imagine to spend a Saturday night.
I believe there is something sacred about giving a young woman a microphone and telling the whole room to listen. By age 15, many teenage girls become withdrawn, and that’s understandable. I remember being this age, more than I would like, because it was the age when I stopped raising my hand in class. This is also the age when I started straightening (burning out) my curls, stopped reading for fun, and gave up the CCD. Looking back, I can see that all of these changes were linked, stemming from a loss of faith not only in myself but also in the foundations of what I had, until then, believed. I found my way back to myself, my faith and my voice finally; but those years have taken their toll.
Now, it’s been a good 10 years since my high school days and I’m healing those old familiar wounds by sharing the mic and the Gospel with young women who remind me more of myself than I can sometimes bear. Seeing them process the complicated world around them and their relationship with it, through art, has been more calming and beautiful than I could have ever imagined. I am grateful to be surrounded by these smart, funny and creative girls who make me want to be a better Christian, artist and woman.