I thought the only things the chronically homeless addict and the teenaged women had in common were literary readings on the same weekend and the relative precariousness of their lives. That's before I heard what they'd written.
The one is black, thin going on skeletal, 40ish going on immortal. She's living on the streets outside the Over-the-Rhine writing center where she read from her new chapbook.
The others are teenagers, the age at which too many women remember misplacing their authentic voices for a decade or three. But on the surface these youth were well-groomed and mostly white, with family members who care enough to pay for and arrange transportation to a writing center in Silverton.
A year ago I wrote about my homeless friend Melissa Mosby because I wanted to raise money for her winter apartment (see "Keeping Melissa Warm," issue of Dec. 13, 2006). She got that apartment. The next April, avoiding me, she left that apartment.
("Where do friendships go when they end?" a teenaged woman read.)
I haven't seen Melissa much in the year since. There were long stretches of time when I've had to live with the possibility that she was dead.
("What can I do?" Melissa read. "In the blink of an eye, hot steel meets flesh and bone. We draw straws every time we leave from behind closed doors, and we don't even know the length of the straw we've drawn.")
But last Friday there she was at InkTank, looking exactly the same to me. I should know by now that Melissa survives with the best of them. I've learned not to ask her to thrive, at least not in public.
InkTank recently released a chapbook of Melissa's writings. She was the only one glad that more than 10 people hadn't shown up for her reading.
Before one poem she paused and consulted the air to her right. "Do I want to read this? Yes, I want to read this."
"I'm about to get really personal here folks," she read.
"How I learned about sex? ... It happened."
("Do not use the word 'victim' as a term of endearment," a teenager read. "Do not use the word 'baby' as a term of endearment. Avoid the word 'incident.' ")
"I learned a lot about sex after I had it," Melissa read. "It was always done in secret; it was never talked about, and whenever they wanted it, I did it."
("I felt I owed them," a young woman read from a piece about manipulative friends.)
Two days later I sat in a Young Women Writing for (a) Change "readaround," or public reading. Eighteen women in grades 8 through 12 took three-minute turns at the lectern.
Those women said by turns things I wouldn't have dared say aloud in middle-to-high school. Somehow, they seemed unashamed.
"Your love is negligible, your heart is your own, I just want your ears," a young woman read.
Later, someone said Young Women Writing for (a) Change had taught her to not feel guilty for what she needs or wants.
"Everywhere else you have to prove yourself to be accepted," another woman said.
Melissa, too, writes often about how finding acceptance shocks her belief system.
"My impression of them was that they were wary of me, that they looked down on me, looked through me, disregarded me," Melissa read.
I also have a hard time rerouting the impulse to store people safely on pedestals or in gutters. Women learn early how to unconsciously size up and tear down, and it can be a slow unlearning.
One teenager caught my vestigial 13-year-old envy for her steady voice, her willowy frame and the smooth skin over her delicate features. I mentally skated back to seventh grade, my mortifying roller rink of frizzy hair, greasy skin and off-brand jeans.
Then this young woman read, "But my Mom did leave. I'm forced to re-feel abandonment, desolation, emptiness in a more mature, adult way."
Seventh grade was also the year my own parents split up. Suddenly I was rocketed back to 25th grade and surprised to sit face-to-face with my insecure adult self.
A friend of mine hadn't wanted to go to Melissa's reading. "I've been to those kinds of things before, and they rarely lead to good writing," he said.
Even though this friend left the reading impressed, I can sometimes see his point if we're judging writing strictly by technical prowess or performance pizzazz. I think it might be harder and more important to write something honest than something eloquent.
Melissa introduced this excerpted poem as the best thing she's ever written:
"I heard the ache in your gaiety/ I saw the isolation in your friendships/ I felt the hunger in your fullness ... I called to you/ And I sat and watched/ As you turned away/ From me as well as yourself/ for your glance in the mirror/ Sees me."
Later I heard Melissa echoed in the words of a teenage woman reading her own poem.
"I am calling, listening to my voice calling," the woman read. "I am calling, hoping for someone to call out to me. I am calling, waiting. I know I am not the only one calling."
Note: Melissa Mosby's chapbook, Hey, It's Me, Melissa ... Once Again, is $10 at InkTank, 1311 Main St., Over-the-Rhine. Half of all proceeds go to the author. For more information about Young Women Writing for (a) Change, visit www.womenwriting.org.
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