Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.
~ The Story ~
I wrote the following poem in some interesting circumstances when I was sixteen. For the previous six years, I had gone to a Christian school that participated in a state-wide “Fine Arts Festival” for Christian schools. This festival hosted competitions for music, drama, art and photography, Bible quizzing, and academic testing.
Under the category of academic testing was a competition for poetry writing, which I’d competed in every year since fourth grade. You just sat in a room with a proctor and were given a topic and one hour to write a poem about that topic (everyone got the same topic). I loved this. In fourth grade the topic was “pets,” and I wrote a poem about my imaginary horse named Grace who could talk. Another year, the topic was “friends,” and my poem was a story-in-verse about a girl who got picked on, another girl who stood up for her, and how they became best friends. I loved sentimental stuff like that. Most of my other poems had Christian themes.
In elementary and junior high, for every competition category, you got either a blue ribbon for “superior,” a red ribbon for “excellent,” or a multi-colored ribbon for “honorable effort” or something like that. You also got copies of the filled-out rubric forms that the judges had used to evaluate your performance, with encouraging and sometimes helpful comments. It was pretty cool! I definitely loved getting the blue ribbons, as I always did for my poems.
But for the high school competition, the judges ranked each participant within a category (using the rubrics to come up with point-scores), and the first-place winners would then go on to the national Christian school Fine Arts Festival (which was always held at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina). They would then perform all over again before new judges to produce national winners.
Now, when I was sixteen, I had just come out of a very bad year—my fifteen-year-old year was one of the two worst years of my life (the other was when I was twenty-two; in both cases the reason was depression). I didn’t understand my depression as an illness; I thought something was wrong with me spiritually. So I hid it and just got worse and worse. I manipulated people for attention, starved and cut myself, and—worst of all in my view—I lied and lied, only to hate myself even more for it. I was completely miserable.
But eventually, around my sixteenth birthday, the wind started to change—helped by the fact that by then all my secrets had come out, which meant that I was getting help, sort of, and which also meant that I no longer had to hide the fact that I felt down. Then that destructive energy finally leaked out of me, and I gave myself permission to just be withdrawn and sad. I took refuge in poetry, my own and poems I discovered, usually devotional poetry. Although the world of truly great poetry wouldn’t open up to me until college, I did discover Emily Dickinson during this time. Naturally, considering my background, her simplest poems were the ones that connected with me most. I memorized the first two stanzas of “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose” and recited them over and over, taking an almost physical comfort from the rhyme, rhythm, and words that spoke of calm beauty.
When it came time for that year’s Fine Arts Festival, I did the poetry “testing” again, though when the hour was over I wasn’t really satisfied with what I’d written; it was a syrupy, Christian-themed story-in-verse that fit the given topic of “children.” I had followed my usual approach, but for the first time that sugary happy-ending tone didn’t ring true for me. But, as usual, the judges loved it—and my poem won first place, which meant that I was eligible to go to the national competition!
When “nationals week” came along, I was the misfit on my school’s bus; everyone else was there as part of the vocal ensembles and drama teams that were made up of mostly juniors and seniors. But that suited me just fine. I read a book, wrote in my journal, and tried really hard not to start manipulating people for attention again, like I’d done the entire previous year. (I was not completely successful at my attempts at restraint, unfortunately, but overall I still acted more maturely than I had on school and church trips the year before.)
The day came for my poetry “testing.” While everyone else was at breakfast, I hid in a deserted courtyard and, in the cool, humid air of the April morning, sat and read Emily Dickinson until it was time for my session. Then I silently quoted “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose” over and over as I walked to the building where I was supposed to be.
The classroom was packed with other students from across the U.S. who were doing the same thing—trying to write a poem in an hour on the given topic, which, to my initial disgust, was “the wonder of springtime.”
I decided to take a risk and not write what I thought the judges might want to hear—something about how spring reflected the Resurrection of Christ. Instead, as scary as it felt, and prompted by Emily Dickinson, I decided to express the truth about how I’d been feeling over the past year and how, like the nature around me, I was finally starting to come back to life. I still framed it in an imaginary story with a character that wasn’t necessarily me, and I still made it as sing-songy and happy-ending-y as my past blue-ribbon poems. But unlike those, this one was real to me.
It won first place.
I was shocked—and honestly still am. This poem is no Dickinson, Keats, or Shakespeare, though I suppose it does have its merits. (I think I mainly just had a tried-and-true formula for writing poems the Christian-school-teacher judges would like.) But for me it’s loaded with a lot of memories and feelings that, as fakey as they might sound to me sometimes now in that sing-song verse, are actually very real.
I’m so grateful that spring finally arrived in my heart back then (and also later on, when depression came back for seconds). May new hope always finally bloom for you as well.
~The Poem ~
The Wonder of Springtime
An icy breeze blows off my hat
And sweeps through my chilled veins.
The soggy slush of winter snow
Feeds memories of pain.
I sigh and gaze around me
At this hopeless land of gray.
Then a voice inside says, “Hey, look up!
Spring is on its way!”
“Impossible,” I mutter,
For it’s simply been too long.
Then suddenly a chorus of birds
Startles me with song.
I reach down to touch a flower
That I hadn’t seen before
And a butterfly proclaims to me,
“Winter is no more!”
“Can this be true?” I ask aloud.
The warm sun whispers, “Yes.”
A new hope stirs my hardened heart
And the hurt becomes much less.
I breathe the scent of fresh, new life
And taste the vibrant air,
And my soul starts to sing a song
I didn’t know was there.
Spring for me is hope for life
And I see in its rhyme
That new hope after bitter cold
Is the wonder of springtime.
P.S. This poem is included in the self-published book I made for all the poems I wrote back in my teenage/Christian days. Since those poems don’t reflect who I am now, I published the book under a pen name, Ally O’kenna. But if you want, you can check out the book on Amazon here: Storm of Mercy by Ally O’kenna.