Poetry, Pediatrics, and the Present: Sherry Shenoda on #CreativeUncertainty
This guest post by pediatrician and poet (what a combo!) Sherry Shenoda is a continuation of the Creative Uncertainty series. Every other Wednesday, I ask a writer or artist to stop by the blog and share with us about the role uncertainty plays in their creative life. If you’re interested in being a contributor, check out the Submission Guidelines.
Nicole: I like to start these conversations by asking about the space where you create. Where do you write? What is it like there?
Here’s the corner of the dining table where I do my work. The stack of books varies. The little bird on the coaster is from the house of my late great-Aunt Marie, who was a strong, independent, opinionated woman. The hand cross was given to me when I met Mama Maggie, a contemporary Coptic saint. The bright green notebook is from Daiso, my favorite Japanese dollar store—it helps me not take my writing too seriously to use inexpensive notebooks. You can also see that my son chewed through the corner of my gratitude journal, which tells you almost all there is to know about my work-life balance!
Nicole: In your role as a pediatrician, you’re a front-line worker in this pandemic. Yet as a writer, you–like most of us–aren’t saving the world or an “essential” worker. What role do you think creativity plays in the tumultuous times we’re living through?
Sherry: I remember coming home from the hospital one night after caring for a young girl with cancer, feeling a leaden certainty that she would no longer be there in the morning. As I was hanging up my coat, wilting after that trying day, my husband wandered by and asked me about a little patch of dry skin he had on his elbow. This feeling of struggling to focus on what seems like a less important issue in the shadow of a larger, urgent, looming issue, is very familiar to me. It was difficult to turn toward him, to address him with compassion, and to acknowledge his concern, after dealing with what was so much more pressing during the day. More and more this seems to me to be one of the central tasks of the Christian life. The turning toward, the re-alignment to the present, even if the present doesn’t seem terribly urgent or important.
During the past few months, during this period of heightened uncertainty, I was struck by how nourishing poetry has become in my life. I found myself reading not just widely, exploring poets who were new to me, but reading each poet’s work deeply, delving into collected works, and in turn, writing poetry to work out what I was experiencing. Poetry, in short, never feels less “essential” than my work as a physician. It may feel as though creative work is non-essential, especially during difficult times, times that force us to stratify work into a hierarchy of needs and importance, but I don’t think art is non-essential. Instead of distinguishing between work as “essential” and “non-essential” what has helped me is to differentiate between work that is pressing, and work that can take its time.
The poet Hafiz said “Dear world, I can offer an intelligent explanation for our suffering, but I hope it really makes sense to no one here, and come morning, you are again at God’s door with ax and pickets, eloquent petitions and complaints.”
Art is often the ax, the eloquent petition. I make art to knock on God’s door about suffering in the world. I would say that it is especially during a crisis that we need artists to keep creating art. Even if they take time to observe in mute horror for a time, then create. Art is not nonessential work because there is no nonessential worker. There is just pressing work, and work that can take its time, can listen, can attend to the small and the big, can be present to suffering, and can respond to hurt. Art is essential work that can take its time.
Nicole: I love how you phrased that: “I make art to knock on God’s door about suffering in the world.” What a beautiful way to put it! Are there other ways faith informs your work as a creative?
Sherry: What I create attempts to point to order and goodness. It doesn’t mean that there’s no sadness or pain or suffering in it, because those are part of the human condition, but it does mean, to me, that there’s a redemptive ending. Not necessarily a happy one, but a redemptive one. That’s the type of ending that aligns with my faith.
A priest once gave me helpful advice when I went to him with a heavy heart over something that had happened at work with one of my patients, and it has also helped me in my creative process. He said, “I go to the altar of God and place everything on the altar, everything that the people have given me. Then I take from the altar and give what I receive back to the people.”
Whenever I feel too full of problems, I take them to the altar, and when I feel too empty to give anything to anyone, I go back and take what is given to me at the altar. It helps me to think this way about my creative work. When the creative work is too much and I feel like I can’t carry it, or do it justice, or when I worry about what people think, I try to put it on the altar, and take from the altar what is given me, to put back into my work.
Nicole: That’s a great way of thinking about our work and offerings as creatives. For me, one obstacle to operating from that more sacramental, giving-and-receiving place, is that I get tempted by self-comparison and trying to be more successful. What does “success” look like to you?
Sherry: Success in my creative life looks like connecting with people who are of “like mind,” who see deeply and understand. More and more, success is starting to look like friendship to me. Being able to connect with new friends has always been a challenge, but even more so as an adult, an introvert, and a writer. Being able to reach another person, whether through a poem or a bit of prose, matters more to me now than ever before. A friend read an early draft of my novel and I remember sitting across from her in a coffee shop, sipping tea, talking about the characters in the novel, and how the book had made her laugh and cry. That’s what success looks like to me right now.
 Hafiz, from the poem The Winter Crop, The Gift
Sherry Shenoda is an Egyptian-American poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo, living in California. Her work is at the intersection of human rights and child health. Her first novel, The Lightkeeper, will be released in May 2021 from Ancient Faith Publishing. She lives with her family in a tiny, sunny apartment by the beach and has just run out of space on her bookshelves…again.