Words from the Deep Core of My Brown Corazón

GS photo

Hello, Friends! I am delighted to introduce those of you who don’t already know him to George Sanchez Garcia Jr., one of the very talented young writers I have had the privilege to work with over the past few years. George spent much of his youth behind bars, during which time he began writing poetry. He has published two books and is currently working on a third, with the hope that his story and the wisdom he has gained along the way can help other inner-city youth avoid some of the struggles he faced, and can also help those of us who live a different reality gain some understanding of what his world and experience have been like. His second book, Words from the Deep Core of My Brown Corazón, is now available on my website (Urban Verses). I encourage you to check it out (excerpt below) and consider supporting this courageous young man in his creative endeavors. Thank you!


Puppet to Writer
(Dedicated to the Barrio)

Roll my eyes back…
Stay in my position…
Wishing to stay
silent, to no longer be
distracted…
Several insults,
disrespects launching off
the nuclear pads…
Moving to many locations
through my peace…
My own homies
are my predators,
worst of the worst
We wear the same tough guy
acts…
See that it’s something
else that directs
this show…
They hug me, and I return
the love of being homies…
We are to fight alongside
each other,
protect a street
that raised those Hispanic
babies,
but they used me entirely,
and my family sat with me
around metal tables,
telling me that they don’t love me…
You’re in jail now, for work
that didn’t pay you with
millions of dollars…
It should be that much.
They took your childhood,
something people wish they
could have back.
At peace, not to worry
about being shot in the back
of my head…
But with that peace come long
stories with powerful
realizations…
My own homies
think that I’m a weapon
they can use
until the rounds are up…
A puppet, you call me,
but a pencil is my strategy
to be at peace, and prove
that a writer I’ve become!

© George Sanchez Garcia Jr.
2018

Making Mud

As promised, here is a second poem about the transformative effect of interacting with incarcerated teens via the Catholic Services ministry at Camp Miller (as well as with some other inspiring youth I have recently encountered through a wonderful organization called Street Poets). I continue to be profoundly grateful for how these young people–with their struggles, rough edges, refreshing (if sometimes frightening) honesty, kindness, courage, and creative talent–are softening the soil of my heart. Even as I recognize the potential for great pain that is inherent in my growing attachment to these “at-risk” youth, I am deeply appreciative of the privilege of sharing a season of life with them.

Making Mud

With joined hands
     and soothing voices
they form a seamless healing circle
     all around me

names
     faces
          stories
     memories
dreams . . .

Tears of joy and sorrow
     anger and fear
          regret and relief
               tenderness and compassion

fall onto packed ground

not yielding life
     right away

but seeping in
     softening the soil
          making mud

creating a space that is
     messy
          malleable
     vulnerable
enriched

at-risk for being marred
     by the gouging imprint
          of a careless boot
          or wayward tire

yet simultaneously able
     to nurture and sustain
fragile seeds
     of hope and faith.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Breaking Out of the Box

With apologies for the long delay in posting new poetry…

Since sharing my first three Camp Miller poems (“Free”, “Gang Intervention”, and “The Fence”) a few months ago, I have continued to reflect on the opportunity I’ve had to spend time with incarcerated teens through the Catholic Services Juvenile Ministry of the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Restorative Justice. As much as anything, I have been overwhelmed by the way that being in fellowship with these young people has brought healing and refreshing to my own spirit after an extended season of transition and a certain degree of emotional closed-off-ness.* (While I still hope that my encouragement will in some small way help my young friends press on toward constructive and joy-filled futures, I am more and more convinced that I receive more than I give through our exchanges.)

I have found it difficult to put into words the transformation that is underway in my heart–or the depth of my gratitude for this emotional renewal and growth–but today’s poem and another that I will share very soon are early attempts to cobble together a fitting expression of thanks to my young brothers who are, to again borrow words from Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, “returning me to myself.”

*see my earlier post/poem “Numb” for context…

Breaking Out of the Box

I had sentenced myself
     to a lifetime
     of model citizenship,
relentlessly striving
     to subdue
     and repress
unruly emotions:

     fear
     anger
     jealousy

even love—
or at least the need-based
     counterfeits
that so often pass
     for love—

but now my corseted life
brushes up against
the chaos and pain
     of crime and punishment

and instead of watching
     with maternal pride
as my hard-won veneer
     of self-control
smoothes and shines
those who have been caught
     coloring outside the lines

I can only catch my breath
as scarred hands clasp mine
     in prayer
     and newfound friendship

offering back to me my heart

reminding me that perfection
     and excellence
are as often enemies
     as allies

and inspiring me to plead
     for early release
     from this solitary holding cell
          of my own construction.

© 2013
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 3: The Fence

One recent Saturday morning at Camp Miller, I sat and watched as half a dozen teenage inmates helped lead a worship service. I listened as they spoke of their gratitude for family members, life, and the opportunity to fellowship with the volunteers who had come to visit them that morning. I listened even more intently as a few of them expressed their hopes of finishing school and becoming doctors, chefs, or volunteers themselves. Later, I tried to capture a bit of the awe, joy, hope, sorrow, and fear that had washed over me during that sacred hour.

The Fence

Bearers of the divine image
in their scars and sorrows
     as much as in their irrepressible dreams
          of doing good
          as well as doing well,
they wear the green and gray garb
     of incarceration
with a restless resignation—
counting the days that stand between them
     and freedom,
the minutes that still must transpire
     before they will breach the barbed-wire boundary
     that keeps them from home.

This fence, I’ve been trained to understand,
is a just necessity,
put in place to protect the bodies and belongings
     of the law-abiding
from the reckless young men
     now caught within its confines.

But what will protect the minds and spirits
     of these wounded warriors
from those on the outs
who cannot or will not perceive
     among defiant tattoos
     and other marks
          of a rough-and-tumble existence
the indelible stamp
     of a Creator
     who makes no mistakes?

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 2: Gang Intervention

Early in my poetry-writing days, I spent a lot of time writing about the apostle Peter. I identify strongly with this impetuous, stubborn follower of Christ who had a special talent for putting his foot in his mouth, biting off more than he could chew, forgetting things he had learned, and otherwise stumbling his way through a life of faith and service.

Recently, I was inspired to consider one of Peter’s interactions with Jesus from Jesus’ perspective (or as close to Jesus’ perspective as I could get, anyway). During a Saturday morning mass at Camp Miller, one of our leaders guided us through a meditation focused on Peter’s water-walking misadventure (see Matthew 14:22-36).

I thought about how the young men at the camp could be described as at-risk for sinking in stormy waters, and about how desperately I wanted to help them keep their heads above the surface, and about how inadequate I felt to do that. An hour or so later, after some fellowship time that I thought might or might not have been “useful” to the guys, one of them stopped me on his way out to give me a hug and find out when I next planned to visit.

While I still feel a lot more like Peter than like Jesus, it was good to be reminded that the simple presence of someone who cares matters to someone who is struggling—and that while I do in fact lack the capacity to pull these young people from the waters that seek to swallow them, I can at least hold their hands for a moment and assure them that there is One whose grip is much stronger than mine.

Gang Intervention

I visualize the grip
     of the carpenter’s son:
strong, sure, yet infinitely gentle
as he grabbed hold of Peter’s
     flailing limb
and hoisted his drowning friend
     to safety.

How I long to possess a hand like his!

But my arm trembles and strains
as I strive to maintain my hold
on youthful fingers
that I fear are not completely committed
     to the clasp.

And why should they be,
     I interrogate myself,
when the rushing winds that terrify me so
     that whip the waves around us
     into such a treacherous frenzy
carry on their breath a siren’s song—
a seductive strain
whose lyrics of love and loyalty,
     set to the harmonies of home,
beckon with a power
     and familiarity
I cannot begin to match?

Then, just as it seems I will lose my grasp entirely,
     consigning us both to a watery end,
earnest eyes meet mine
and a grip of steel tightens around my wrist
as a soft, incongruous voice
entreats me to hold on
     for just a little while longer.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 1: Free

About six months ago, I “accidentally” got connected with a ministry to youth in a Malibu probation camp (while trying to get connected to a literacy program in Watts–life can be funny that way…). The ministry is sponsored by the local Catholic Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice; each Saturday morning, a team of volunteers joins incarcerated teens (many of whom are gang-affiliated and treading a very dangerous path) for mass and an hour of visiting/fellowship.

I was invited to participate in the program by some kind new friends who thought my poetry might encourage the youth–but of course, what I found as I began to interact with the young men at the camp was that God was using them to encourage, challenge and stretch me. I hope that my presence and my words have been some small blessing to the guys at Camp Miller; I know that their friendship and stories have been a huge blessing to me.

Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has been a hero of mine for some 15 years. In his 2010 book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg shares some of the stories he has collected over his two decades of working with current and former gang members in Los Angeles, and he asserts that “the day simply won’t come when I am more noble, have more courage, or am closer to God than the folks whose lives fill these pages.”

This is how I am coming to feel about the young men at Miller. I am inspired by their bravery, their resilience, and their willingness to welcome people they have no particular reason to trust into their lives and hearts. At the same time, I am grieved by their pasts (both by things they have done and by things they have endured), and I am absolutely terrified about their futures. This poem was written the day I learned that one of “my” kids was going home.

I believe in God. I believe He is good. I believe He is powerful. I believe He loves these young men far more than I ever will or could.

But trusting Him with their lives? I have to be honest. It’s really hard.

Free

The sweet mustachioed boy
who calls me “Miss”
and thanks me for my visits
is all smiles as he informs me
     that he goes home this week,
leaving behind the barracks and barbed wire
that have circumscribed the last few months
     of his existence.

I smile, too,
offering a hug
     my congratulations
     and the heartfelt hope
          that freedom will treat him well.

But later, when I sit alone,
recalling his eager anticipation
     of once again kickin’ it with his homies,
I find that I can barely breathe,
and bitter tears flow—
even as a stabbing pain alerts me
that my innards are attempting
     to twist themselves
     into the kind of knot
that would fill any grizzled sailor
     or gung-ho scout master
     with pride.

Lord, help my unbelief!

Forgive this fragile faith
     that trembles and bows before the fear
     that the odds facing my young friend
     will prove to be too long—
     that the hand he has been dealt
          from a severely stacked deck
     will play out in devastating fashion
     because knowing when to fold ’em
     is a skill neither much prized
          nor often practiced
          at this table.

Teach me to bear the growing dread
     that my heart will be broken
          many times over
and enable me to love
     as though the specter of loss
     did not have its bony hand
     pressed hard against my throat.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Art Imitates Life

While I love working from home, every once in a while I’m reminded that just because I don’t leave the house to go to an office every morning, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t/can’t ever leave the house at all. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I did not immediately head outdoors after writing this poem, but I have been out and about some in the weeks since—to a graduation, a Giants game at Angel Stadium, a picnic in the park, and a few subway rides and neighborhood walks, among other adventures—and it’s been a lot of fun! Perhaps I’ll make a habit of this leaving the house thing…

Art Imitates Life

Outside
an assortment of sounds and smells—
animated chatter around a smoking barbecue
the bolstering strains of a looping playlist
     that could justifiably be titled
     “Disco Faves”
children’s laughter
     shouts
     and rapid footsteps
as a paneled Pied Piper
     cruises down the block,
     blasting its maddening
          and infuriatingly hummable
     jingle
     as it goes.

Inside
the gentle whir of a computer fan
and subdued clicks of a modern keyboard—
evidence of my attempt
to recreate on one flat screen
     what I perceive through another
as I sit at my desk, oblivious to the notion
that I could, instead, venture out of doors
and experience it all
     in living color
     surround sound
     and three dimensions.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Construction

For the past eight months or so, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with a mentoring program here in Los Angeles, which means that once a week, I get to hang out with a few other adults and a group of students from one of L.A.’s public middle schools. It’s been a wonderful experience all around, and I’ve been deeply impressed and encouraged by the young people’s creativity, intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness and resilience (among other positive attributes).

Their approach to one activity in particular caught my attention and inspired these reflections:

Construction

Seven inner-city seventh graders—
constituents of an educational system
struggling to maintain a tenuous grasp
on teachers, funds and hope—
are charged with building
the tallest tower possible
out of the flimsiest scraps imaginable:
paper, straws and pipe cleaners—
the kinds of materials one might reasonably expect
to buckle under pressure.

Though the supervising adults
murmur words of caution,
advocating a careful, conservative approach,
the youth set their sights
on a loftier goal,
taking as their model
the highest-rising edifice
that scrapes the sky
above their corner of the world:
the U.S. Bank building
in downtown Los Angeles.

In a flurry of breathless ambition,
they set to work,
adhering components to one another
with tape and sheer will power
and contriving an impressive something
out of nothing—
demonstrating that a structure is as strong
as the faith of its builders
in their ability to create.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Welcome to the Neighborhood

First things first, I offer apologies for not having posted anything new for a while. Today’s poem touches on part of the explanation for my long absence: February saw me moving for the third time in two years. There may be those out there who have mastered the art of the seamless transition, but apparently I am not one of them.

Anyway, this latest move took me from Pasadena to (shallow) South Los Angeles, where I encountered a rather unusual welcoming party, as described below. (For any of you inclined to worry, please rest assured that this experience seems to have been an anomaly.) In the weeks since the move, I have begun to settle into my new community, and I eagerly look forward to seeing how the next season of my life will unfold…

Welcome to the Neighborhood

The darkness seems to deepen every moment
as I drive slowly down
what has just today
become my street,
gearing up to spend my first night
in unfamiliar
and reputedly dangerous
territory.

Reaching my new lodgings,
I inch along a narrow driveway,
then wiggle into a muddy parking space
at the edge of a bedraggled
and foreboding
courtyard
in the back.

As I step gingerly from my car,
my nameless, shapeless anxieties
take startling physical form,
as I am immediately accosted
by a swarthy young fellow
bleeding profusely
from one hand.

He tells me that he gouged his palm
trying to scale a fence
(a claim I see no way
either to verify or disprove)
and wonders if I would be willing
to help him clean his wound.

“I don’t mean to frighten you,”
he hastens to assure me,
and while I appreciate the sentiment,
the part of my brain still capable
of rational thought
wonders whether his repeated assertions
to this effect
ought to do more to extinguish
or to fuel
my smoldering alarm.

Although the entire contents of my residence
are in a state of boxed-up disarray,
from the jumble I manage to procure
a bottle of drinking water
a tube of Neosporin
and a roll of Charmin:
just enough in the way of supplies
to establish a fly-by-night first aid dispensary
on the sidewalk.

Before my minimally treated patient
takes his leave,
he politely inquires whether I have any objection
to his hopping the fence
that borders the rear
of my landlord’s property.

I find myself taken aback by the request—
certain that if I were he
I would now make every effort
to stay as far away from fences
as humanly possible—
but I muzzle my naïve astonishment
and simply tell him that as far as I am concerned,
he is free to make his own choice
in the matter.

Then, too flustered to wait and see
how the youthful hurdler fares
against his chosen obstacle,
I ensconce myself within the fortress
I will learn to call my home,
replaying what has just transpired
and hoping I have done enough
to earn a passing mark
on this first test
of neighbor-hood.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Seismic Shifts

Since I last posted, the promised “moving poem” has been completed, revised, almost completely rewritten, and revised some more. Turns out summing up the transitional history of a life is trickier than it sounds! I could probably go on editing forever, but at some point one must just call a thing finished, so here it is. As the piece itself is rather long, I won’t preface it with much except to say:

1) I’m extremely grateful to have been able to call such diverse communities (San Francisco; western Massachusetts; Jackson, Mississippi; and the greater Los Angeles area) home for seasons of various lengths, and I wouldn’t trade my meandering road for an interstate to any destination (which is not to say there aren’t ever days when such an exchange, if offered, would be tempting).

2) The poem is “set” just prior to my most recent move, and while I don’t yet know my newest place of residence well enough to have gotten over all the anxiety surrounding this latest transition, I am beginning to find pockets of this vast and complex metro area that feel “homelike” to me, and I trust that a deeper settling will come with time.

3) I started work on this before the Bay Area experienced a series of earthquakes in the 3.8 range–while I don’t believe I had anything to do with that, let me take this opportunity to apologize, just in case.

Seismic Shifts

California born and raised
as I am,
I really ought to be accustomed
to the way life can change
in an instant
as foundations lurch beneath our feet,
the world sways all around us,
and—when the dust settles—
some things long taken for granted
are gone
while others, though still standing,
are changed forever.

Truth be told, the temblor now beginning
likely won’t register more
than a 3.8 or so
on the relocation scale,
for what do a mere 400 miles along I-5
(or the 5, depending at which end
one begins the journey)
signify, really—
especially when compared
to those displacements
which have come before?

Unlike Dorothy, I began in Oz,
growing up in a Technicolor world
in which diversity and eccentricity
were not only accepted
but celebrated.

Leaving the colorful confines
for an education in New England,
I soon learned that an ivory tower’s sepia tones
do little to soften
the common pains of humanity:
deception, betrayal,
loss, death,
and the ever-dreaded fear of failure—
for tragically, to some,
not even a U.S. News and World Report
seal of approval
can provide the confidence required
to face life after graduation.

From there, a tectonic disturbance
of perplexing proportions
thrust me deep within the bastions of the Bible Belt,
where life still largely unfolds
in black and white.
There fellowship with others who refused
to stay within the lines of color
provided a sketch of heaven
here on earth—
and the generosity and grace
extended by one such friend
as she lay destitute and dying
radically redefined
notions of wealth and blessing,
even as the baleful glares
of anachronistic antagonists
who had not yet discovered
that beauty may be found in shades of gray
spoke to a poverty of spirit
that still shakes me to my core.

And then…
a click of the heels,
a dream of home,
and I find myself once more
in my beloved, rainbow-hued
City by the Bay.

But only for a moment,
for now I propose to step behind the curtain
trading one fault-line for another
as I set my sights on Hollywood,
where the boundaries between reality
and projection
are often blurred—
where color can be corrected
and natural imperfection airbrushed away.

Is that what causes my heart to quake within me—
the conviction that my innate inability to conform
to traditional standards of beauty,
style
and success
will place me on shaky ground
in this image-conscious town?

Is it the fear of falling short
in the pursuit of a dream widely acknowledged
to be virtually impossible to attain—
or the anxiety that, like so many before me,
I’ll lose my grip on the things that matter most
while grasping at the stuff that glitters,
but is not gold?

Or is what I feel simply the perennial foreboding,
common to those who dwell in quake-prone zones,
that the next shift could be “the big one”:
that jolt of such exponentially increasing magnitude
that, retrofitting notwithstanding,
whole lives are wrenched free
from any semblance of moorings
and all pretense of stability?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers