Sometimes we sit alone and wait for inspiration, never realizing that it is bubbling up all around and within us.
A long time ago, there was a land called “Wells,” because it had a lot of water wells. People and animals drank water from the wells. But, during the dry season, the water level was always low because of lack of rains.
One day, an old man found a boy sitting next to a well and asked him, “What are you waiting for while sitting next to the well?”
They boy answered, “I am waiting for the well to be full of water so that I can drink from it.”
The old man then told him, “Child, if you don’t kneel down to drink, you will only drink when the rains come.”
via Kwanzaa Guide
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that has its roots in the tribal societies of Africa. Created in the 1960s by Maulana Karenga as a way to inspire and unify African Americans, the tradition has grown to include not only people of African descent all over the world, but people of other traditions as well. The seven principles of Kwanzaa are unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Today is the day to celebrate creativity, called kuumba in Swahili.
Kuumba encourages a person to do whatever he or she can to enrich the family and community. Far from the romantic myth of the artist as a loner, a distant genius, this tradition embraces the artist as a leader and problem solver in the community. By the same token, art is not a distant pinnacle of learning and understanding, it is something that surrounds and guides us. The artist and the community are joined and neither will prosper alone.
New experiences are waiting for us
Last spring I was having lunch with a friend of mine, Cecilia Duarte, a wonderful singer and great soul, when she mentioned to me a project she was working on. It was called Houston Artists Respond and was part of the Home and Place Initiative at Houston Grand Opera. The program was looking for artists, especially musicians and writers, to look through videos, writings and pictures created by children and adults at Houston community centers and respond with original music and poetry.
I was interested but unsure. I have written poetry for years, but in an isolated way, writing for myself. Would I be able to take someone else’s story and put into my words?
That evening I watched videos from the Baker Ripley Community Center, videos of women who came to the United States from Latin America. Three stories captured my attention: a sixteen year old girl receiving her first pair of shoes, the memory of nature and food at a childhood home, and a battle with cancer. I sat down to write, but nothing came until I allowed myself to fuse with these women and allowed these memories to get inside of me. The result was far more rewarding than I ever imagined.
Three poems, Nubia’s Shoes, Drumming, and Yo soy un Corazòn, were accepted and commissioned by Houston Grand Opera. For the first time I was paid to write, and soon to read them. The greatest joy was to perform them for the three ladies who had been their inspiration. Nubia herself told me, “I don’t understand English so well, but I understand your heart.” We were drinking from each other’s wells, a community connected by kuumba. It was pure joy.