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Blackberry Transformation Blackberry Transformation
How something as simple as a pail of berries can make all the difference.

Caitlin was the winner of the 2004 Keene State College President's Writing Award,
presented last fall to the author of an outstanding essay from English 101.

Caitlin Tilton photo by Chris Justice

A pail of blackberries and a poem changed my life the summer before I turned 16. This was not a rapid transformation, but the seeds were planted, and my new course was so clearly set that I can remember exactly when it began.

Early on an already-warm summer day, I tiptoed out of my grandparents' summer home and headed for my secret blackberry patch. I enjoyed being awake before anyone else, and had two favorite solitary activities at this hour: walking to our beach on Lake Nubanusit for a brisk swim, or collecting berries when they were ripe. My pail filled quickly, and I planned to quietly leave a generous portion on my father's kitchen table before returning to my grandparents' cottage across the road. Later, I would make blackberry muffins for our breakfast. The peace of being alone on a beautiful morning was exhilarating, and the turmoil of the winter seemed far away.

Was it truly the poem that changed my life, or was it the love and wisdom between the typewritten lines?I especially savored my freedom this Sunday morning because the summer was not a vacation for me. I was in the middle of attending summer school for six weeks in the hopes of passing sophomore English and squeaking into the junior class by September. I had fallen behind in most of my courses this past school year, with the stress of coping with my mother's emotional collapse at Christmas, her month-long stay in a mental hospital, and her weeks spent at an alcohol rehabilitation center during April. I had dealt with this by hiding out at home for nearly 60 school days, playing "sick" and avoiding reality as often as I could get away with it.

Photo: At age 14: Caitlin with her friend Mercy.In addition to these family crises, as an overweight 15-year-old girl with glasses, all the wrong clothes, no self-esteem or confidence, I generally walked around full of self-pity. Wallowing in my insecurities had turned me into my own harshest critic; I had an ongoing conversation with myself, the prevalent themes being negativity and judgment. I was also quick to condemn others around me for their perceived flaws, always expecting perfection, but never finding it. Dwelling behind these walls of recrimination and endless disappointment was lonely, but I stifled these emotions and tried to appear brave, bored, and self-assured to the outside world.

That blackberry morning made an impression on my maternal grandmother's only sister, Aunt Jane, whose wise insights were often delivered in her forthright manner. Aunt Jane was lively, fun, unpredictable, and always ready for adventure, and she had recently been expressing herself through her original poetry. A few weeks before school started in the fall, I received a copy of her latest poem, "Blackberries," with only mild interest at first. I had never understood most poems and considered myself too practical to bother with flowery nonsense. I was concerned with holding everything and everyone together, so there was no time for extraneous words. In books, I would often skip over any descriptions of fanciful passages, and I especially disliked analyzing poems in school. A sensible rhyming verse with a strong rhythm was tolerable, but symbolism escaped me, and free verse poems were unintelligible to my mathematical brain. What was wrong with straightforward prose when something needed to be said?

Aunt Jane was lively, fun, unpredictable, and always ready for adventure.Out of loyalty to my aunt, I began to read the one-page, free-verse poem, pleasantly surprised to discover it was written about me. With growing amazement, I realized she saw me as I secretly hoped to be seen, calling me a "joy of a girl," "comforting," and "lovable," among other wonders. The words described that blackberry day differently than I remembered it, but truthfully, too. It was not a fairy tale poem; there were references to our unhappy family, and yet it was a gentler mention than my logical prose-self would have chosen.

With subsequent studying of the poem in the weeks and months that followed, I continued to see new truths in that remarkable work. I treasured the portrayed image of myself, trying to become more like that girl on the page.Blackberries I grew more familiar and comfortable with the poetic style of expression, and found that it led to a softening of myself, and a deepening sense of acceptance for others. I was discovering the meaning of poet Edward Hirsch's statement, "I don't think we should underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens within us." I began trying to appreciate the hidden poetry in other people's lives, walking that figurative mile in their shoes. I no longer skipped over descriptive passages in stories, and actually sought out other poetry to test against these new insights. One cold day in February when I was sixteen, I wrote several poems, although that was my first and only attempt.

Was it truly the poem that changed my life, or was it the love and wisdom between the typewritten lines? Of course, it was the combination of the two factors. I know that a plain, prosy letter from my great-aunt, thanking me for the blackberry muffins and telling me she loved me, would not have captivated my interest or become such a part of my identity over the years. A letter would not have changed my outlook on poetry, offered me a source of self-confidence, or taught me how to find the abundant truth and beauty in life.

(for Caitlin)

by Jane Jordan

Sunday morning after dawn
so quiet that an acorn drops

twigs snap
though we hear no squirrel.
Wet with dew and warm in August sun
the brown-eyed girl came in
hands full, bowls heaped

with blackberries
enough for everyone, she said;
a bounty for her divided house and us,
strayed father and grandparents.
Smiling, wouldn't tell

(we begged to know)
where she found them all

so many and so sweet
up the high mowing or the low?
The old bushes growing

their prize

for this joy of a girl
before the birds
and other girls and boys
or her little rival brother
could despoil them.

Sixteen soon and maybe never hugged
anyone but the dog that follows her –

a happy darkness in the air

whose black tail thumps the floor -
steady as she in love
and in maternal care -

much called upon
(mixed with a touch of fire)
for the younger and the older
(most unhappy one).

Makes muffins, egg in each hand,
chuckling at us who cannot break
so neat an egg; deft and quick
as she is comforting.

she not be comfortless
in a wild world,
this loving, lovable
adopted child.

From Edged in Light, Oyster River Press, 1993.
Reprinted with permission.