A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
When I was younger, I kept scraps of the poems of ee cummings and T.S. Eliot in my pockets; I would find lines like “sunset)edges become swiftly” deep within my sweatshirt out in the woods. I spent hours on the farm where I used to grow up walking behind fields by the creek, committing lines to memory and wondering if “I have measured out of my life with coffee spoons” would cease giving me goose bumps.
It was the slow kindling of language becoming my armor and my weapon. I remember my heart feeling it could burst at how poetry could make me feel so small within the world, for being one person in a world too full of meaning for me to ever label and bear. Poetry was a jostling of sorts, an awakening of how words, even in small sequence, carry a weight that can’t be measured by a set metric.
And yet, there were an infinite number of sequences – not only in my language, or my alphabet, but countless others. I didn’t know how to tame this curiosity, and I started collecting words in languages I couldn’t read or speak to try and make sense of everything: hygge (Danish) was being warm, safe, and loved when everything else was darkness; saudade (Portuguese) was hopelessly longing for things that would never come back.
While collecting words, I was also, in a way, receiving narratives. In college, I volunteered as a grief counselor and a responder on a crisis hotline; after graduation, I taught and interned with NGOs in various countries in East and Southeast Asia. There were the highs of teaching young children the power of language, of watching people find their way. It was such a gift to have the privilege of being entrusted with the words and experiences of those young people. It is ironic that, despite my experience as a vessel of language, I still do not have the right words at my disposal to capture fully the impacts of these moments.
There is a price, too, to holding onto someone else’s narrative, especially when you are trusted with not only their triumphs but also their traumas. At times when knowing so many narratives started to feel like a weight that left me anxious, like their stories’ ghosts would start to writhe and rattle my mind, language again saved me: words exist like kintsukuroi (Japanese), where things are more beautiful after they’ve been broken. I saw it in the unfathomable strength of the girls I worked with at a human trafficking shelter in Manila, the illumination of faces of children at play. While living and traveling in different countries, I learned to view language as a frame, too: the words we knew and the ways in which we learned them shape how we process, comprehend, and act.
Now, I study international relations to better learn how to help others become more resilient. It’s hard work, not only intellectually but also in a the-world-can-be-really-horrible-sometimes kind of way. A few weeks ago, for example, I spent a lot of the time staring off into space, confused and drifting. For classes, I was asked to read about concepts like entrenched power asymmetries and human rights as relative. Also assigned were first-hand accounts of sexual torture and violence from both the victim’s and perpetrator’s perspectives. My papers were about how to support besieged children in Syria, the civil war in Myanmar, and how to handle working at a humanitarian agency whose access to a camp was determined by a local terrorist group. I wondered and later discovered when my strength to handle such intense topics all at once would run out; I also learned it would come back.
Since then, and since the election, there have been painful reminders of “how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness,” as said in Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness.” Because as much as my professors, classmates, and friends believe in work that encourages strength through community, that fosters empathy for people that we will never meet, there is so much rhetoric out there that tries to divide us, to imply that one person is better than another because of the place where they were born, the color of their skin, what lies between their legs, whom they love – the list goes on. Within that rhetoric is contempt for people who are trying to find safe havens, for people whose existence may not be seen as valuable or even recognized.
In spite of that rhetoric, or perhaps because of it, I write this as manifesto: I am someone who wants to be a global citizen. I recognize this is a concept under fire, that this can be seen as an identity that prioritizes the transnational above the local, or as impractical, overly idealistic. Here, I call for a slight reconfiguration. I believe in empathy, in the kindness of others, in taking moments to think about others and how their journey may have shaped them. I believe that this process should not be reserved for those who think or look like or come from a similar background as me. I believe in paying attention to what goes on in places and minds far removed from what one is familiar with, if one has the ability and access. I believe in what others may consider buzzwords: resiliency, dignity, community. I believe in these concepts as a practice, as growing and developing like the dynamic world in which these are rooted.
This, what I call global citizenship, is my “hardheaded art,” my means to establish community, “a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility.” With language as my armor and my weapon, I am full of hope.
And with hope, dear reader, this I ask of you:
I ask that you, too, seek mindfulness in your words. Language can be an armor and weapon for change or a wall of division. We must consciously choose to build people up.
I ask that you always remember safety and security and that all things safe haven require guardians and champions for their upkeep.
I plead that you be a guardian and champion, too.
 Viva, poem XXXVi, ee cummings Complete Works
 “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot
 C.D. Wright, Cooling Time, p.1
 bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies
Copyright 2016 Priscilla McCelvey
Priscilla McCelvey is currently a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.