I am taking a class at the university’s downtown campus this semester – English 102, Introduction to Poetry. My other class this semester is a math class for prospective teachers, and when I finish these two classes I will be finished with my prerequisites and I will be able to apply to teacher training. The end is in sight. After a good summer semester, I’m feeling optimistic.
I’m not done yet, though, so every Monday evening I make the trek to the city for class. The drive isn’t bad, although the last few minutes of making my way through the downtown core during rush hour can be harrowing. Once I’m there, I spend three hours immersing myself in the world of poetry, parsing lines and words and syllables and punctuation marks for significance and sentiment. They say the devil’s in the details, and that’s never truer than when you’re reading a poem. What does it mean? What does any of it mean?
It’s a question that reaches far beyond poetry, as anyone can tell you. A poem is like a microcosm that contains every other part of life.
Once the class is over I find myself in an altered frame of mind. I’m sifting everything I see, weighing shadows and colours and pedestrian crossing lights, letting it all seep through me, asking it to tell me a story. What does it mean? What does any of it mean?
And so, yesterday evening when I was stopped at a red light and I glanced to the right, I looked at the scenery with different eyes. Things that I might normally have overlooked, or not noticed, stood out in sharp relief. Every little nuance seemed replete with substance, placed there to tell me something.
I was looking in the window of a shiny coffee shop, a signal of the neighbourhood’s gentrification. Just inside the window, sitting at a bar that butted up against the window was a woman. She was facing me, but her eyes were fixed on the laptop open in front of her. She looked to be about my age, give or take. Perhaps she lives in one of the newer housing units in the area. Perhaps she works or volunteers at one of the local non-profits. Perhaps she was escaping the chaos of a house filled with young children to get some work done now that her partner was home.
The coffee shop door nearest to me, to the right of the woman, was blocked with yellow caution tape, betraying the seedier reality of this street corner in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. Seeing it, I pressed the button to lock my car doors, and then immediately chastised myself. You are perfectly safe, I told myself. Quit acting like a bumpkin.
As I clucked at my own suburban sensibilities, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back against the coffee shop window and his legs bent in front of him. He had a baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes, and he was wearing a red track suit, which was several years out of style and too large on his body. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but he had that look of advancing years that comes from too many cares. Still, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that the man, and the woman in the coffee shop and I were all the same age, give or take.
We were a strange trio, the three of us, made stranger still by the fact that neither of the other two saw me. There was a clean, well-dressed woman working in a coffee shop that is doing its best to bring life into an area that is long past declining, and well into downtrodden territory. There was a man positioned midway between us on the sidewalk, curled up and just sitting. Maybe waiting. Maybe resting. Probably wrestling with demons I don’t know about. And then there was me, a suburban mom of two, taking university classes in her spare time, wide-eyed and uncertain in the big city.
Coming from my poetry class I tried to parse it all. The caution tape. The shiny glass window. The laptop computer. My locked car doors. The too-big, but mostly clean, track suit on the man. The dirty sidewalk. The smell of late summer and car exhaust and the ocean and urine. The deepening darkness as evening settled into night. The happenstance that brought three strangers within feet of each other for only a few moments. What does it mean? What does any of it mean?
I don’t know what the woman was doing, or what the man was doing. If I’m honest I’m not even sure what I was doing. How can I find meaning in a poem, or a song, or a situation, or a coffee shop, if I struggle to find the meaning in my own mind? What does it mean? What does any of it mean?
And then, before I got too lost in my thoughts, the light turned. I shook my head once, and drove home to my family. I might not know what it means, but I know where I belong. That, at least, is something.