When the COVID-19 pandemic started seeping into our state and neighborhoods, and as it lingers on, we try creative things to break our isolation – to amuse and inspire us. Every individual and neighbor has his or her own way of trying to keep some sense of community, and bring a little bit of fun and happiness to ourselves and our neighbors.
Douglas Yarrow is a Reed neighborhood resident who for ten years has been hanging poems, calligraphy, cartoons, music boxes, palindromes, knock-knock jokes, writing prompts, and other artistic creations upon a small maple tree by the sidewalk in front of his house. He calls it the "Poetree".
In the midst of the pandemic, Yarrow believes it is more important than ever to display bits of humor and inspiration that neighbors can read as they pass by. He has actively encouraged people walking by to write on small slips of paper to express what they are grateful for, or the "mottos" they live by, among other ideas.
"Some are funny, profound, elegant," Yarrow says. The contributions distract and inspire him, as well as edifying, comforting, or bemusing the community. He leaves them hanging on the tree for a few weeks before he changes the theme or question.
Then, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, Yarrow became even more contemplative. "How can an old, privileged, white guy like me understand what Black people and others of color have experienced in this country for hundreds of years?" he asked himself.
Searching for answers, he sought out and hung a poem on his "Poetree" – Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again". Hughes' phrase "America never was America to me" which follows the first two stanzas particularly resonates with Yarrow during this time.
As a Black American poet living from 1902-1967, Langston Hughes had a way of expressing yearnings similar to those of our times:
"Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me)."
Yarrow strung several stanzas of the poem, each on a separate piece of paper, from the "Poetree". "I used parts of Trader Joes' brown bags, so it [really] is 're-use and re-cycle'," he remarks. He plans to continue to hang more poems in the coming months.
Yarrow's fascination with words began as a young boy. "I was intrigued by palindromes. Back in the day, it was kind of special when people talked in palindromes. Not many people use them anymore."
The background for Yarrow's own artistic craftiness and community engagement was a childhood that included a social-justice-oriented father who was handy and loved to make "stuff" – like kites; and a "very kind" mother who invited neighborhood children in to help her make cookies.
He lived in the coal country of West Virginia in his young adult years, and taught high school photography for seven years, as well as English to 11th graders for fifteen years. Students in his English class hung their haiku creations in their classroom so other students could read them. Since then he has followed that practice as a way to engage people in ideas and self-expression.
"In this time there's so much going on with the virus and Black Lives Matter, I try to put out positive stuff on the 'Poetree'. My effort is to try to liven things up, to stir positive things up and encourage everybody to express themselves in these dire times."
Yarrow also is an organizer and participant of the 4 p.m. Friday and Sunday afternoon gatherings of people who stand with BLM inspired signs on the corners of Cesar Chavez Boulevard [formerly S.E. 39th] and Holgate. "It's a very small thing to do," he remarks, "but it keeps the issues and words in front of people. And scores and scores of cars honk [in support and solidarity]."
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