Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 22, 2021
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COURTESY OF CHRISTIAN PAULISICH

Paulisich finds comfort in poetry as he copes with the pandemic and the loss of his grandmother.

Here we are. We’ve managed to make it back to campus. But reacclimating to college and in-person classes has been challenging, at least for me. I thought it would be easier since I’ve lived in an apartment off-campus for the past year. We’ve had our setbacks with mandates and variants, with politics and restricted travel, yet for those of us still here (for those of us still alive), we must honor the lives lost by continuing to survive and making the vow to protect one another.

With so much time and so much pain, we must find a way to cope with all the awful things in the world, if only for an instant. Poetry is the one thing that eases my mind. In the past year, I’ve developed an intense passion for reading and writing poems. It has been my escape as well as my outlet — the way in which I process everything that’s happened to me, to us.

When my grandmother passed away last fall, I thought my world had ended. Honestly, I still do. She shared the fate of many unfortunate people during this pandemic. She died alone. She was in a nursing home and luckily, she had a window, so we could see her and wave for a bit, but it’s not the same. It’s hard to find closure, and honestly, I don’t think it exists. No amount of time or therapy will ever quell the grief burning inside me.

In my many days alone, quarantined in bed, I started reading poetry. It seemed to be the only thing that validated my feelings. So I read and read until I decided to try to write a poem. I look back at it now and laugh at its mediocrity. But it got me started, and now it’s all I seem to be good at.

With that being said, I would like to share a poem with you about the beautiful mess that is life. It’s not yet the aftermath of COVID-19, and we’re plagued with quarantine and hate. Nonetheless, it feels like we’re in a perpetual state of recovery, just trying to survive. This poem is about trying to move forward, despite the pain, the memories. I hope it serves as a vessel for us, as students and humans, to connect. I pray that everyone finds a way to heal.

Welcome back

For those of us left

Busy bees back to colonial brick,

swarming the quad at dawn,

basking in artificial light,

trudging grass so short I’m not sure 

it even grows.

It’s all the same, unscathed,

and any psych major worth their salt

will tell you perception is shaped by experience.

We’re not the same eager-eyed, sleep-

deprived bookworms we once were.

I’ve tried and cried and died more days than not,

it seems everything’s been lost:

the grandma I can’t stop grieving,

the past-due library books, 

the faces of friends I can’t seem to name.

We’ve struggled and we’ve grown,

we’ve constricted ourselves

to 10 by 10 bedrooms, cold as coffins

with only moths trapped in cobwebs for company.

We’ve said goodbye to those we’ve loved

and those who never loved us in the first place.

We’ve learned to welcome those off-campus and on,

we’ve learned to be present, to let in the light

so every loss, every goodbye, makes every hello

that much sweeter,

yet still so hard to take.

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I know that might not have been the feel-good poem we’re all looking for these days. With so much sadness, you might ask, why wouldn’t I want to write about something happy? And I think that's where a lot of mainstream culture goes wrong. I can’t count the reposts I’ve seen on Instagram about self-help and being positive. It’s the last thing I want to read when I’m feeling down and, often, it’s not very relatable.

Telling someone to “look on the bright side” or that “everything happens for a reason” invalidates their negative feelings and emotions of sadness, anger and grief and discourages people from being vulnerable about their feelings. For many people who struggle with depression, including me, toxic positivity imposes a sense of guilt for feeling sad in the first place. It is very damaging and contributes to negative emotions as well as mental health issues.

On another note, society’s obsession with happiness is actually causing us to commiserate over our sadness and prevent us from just living. We are always waiting for something “great” to happen that will “make us” happy. We expect ourselves to be happy all the time. It’s exhausting. It’s unrealistic. Life is tough and with every struggle we conquer, another one pops up.

I’m not trying to be cynical or persuade you to believe the world is an unhappy place. But what if it just is? What if everything we go through isn’t meant to bring us joy or sadness; it’s just meant for us to live through?

As someone who has struggled with chronic pain for most of my life, I understand how it might be difficult to digest what I’m proposing. But how else are we supposed to keep going, through the pain, the loss, the confusion? We keep walking. We look to others when we need help. We use our voices.

For so long, so many of us have dimmed our voices or had them dimmed by others who did not like what we had to say, who might have been afraid of what we have to say.

Poetry, for me, is that voice. It’s everything I never knew I wanted to say, and here, on paper, it doesn’t have to make sense. There is no single message or meaning the reader is “supposed” to take away from a poem (regardless of what your high school teachers might have taught you). We can poke and prod meaning out of a poem, but all we’re left with is a bruised steak. Poems are meant to connect the reader to the writer’s headspace, and, hopefully, connect the readers to the deep-seated questions they have about their own existence.

My suggestion: Read a poem. Buy a book that speaks to you, even if it’s just a cover, a name, a picture of a voice you’d like to hear. You might realize that their voice is the same one inside you, begging to be heard. All you have to do now is release it.

Christian Paulisich is a junior from San Leandro, Calif. studying Medicine, Science and the Humanities and Psychology.

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