The gentle, comforting smiles on the donkeys, giraffes and whales decorating the pediatric rehabilitation unit at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center seem to tell children and families dealing with chronic disease or criminal abuse: You can trust us. You can relax. You can say what happened, or what you’re afraid will happen. You are loved here.
“My paintings always turn out whimsical and joyful,” said Gwendolyn Morgan, who grew up on a 10-acre family farm near Hillsboro, Ore. The family dog, cat and rooster used to wait at her stop and greet her when she stepped off the school bus every day, she said. The models for her colorful paintings at Legacy were all “rescue animals” whose desperate situations turned into happy endings, she said. That’s the best possible atmosphere for pediatric rehab.
Poetry is where Morgan explores darker matters of life and death, nature and disease.
Clark County’s incoming poet laureate has lived lifetimes of experience, all over the world — serving and living alongside everyone from homeless women in a Seattle shelter to needy villagers in Costa Rica, Bulgaria and Liberia; earning a degree in divinity at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union; and, for the last 13 years, working as a chaplain and the spiritual care manager at Legacy Salmon Creek.
Spin through the hospital with Morgan, and you take in a lot at a speedy pace. The bustle was learned during Morgan’s residency in a trauma unit where most of the patients were burn victims, she said — but the soft-spoken, natural-born introvert is also pushed along by her eagerness to redirect attention elsewhere.
In addition to pediatric rehab, Morgan’s guided Legacy tour visits the rooftop healing garden, an oasis of greenery, lavender, artworks and places to sit and meditate or walk a labyrinth; and the glittering hospital chapel, where light pours in through textured glass.
If You Go
• What: “Passing of the pen” to Gwendolyn Morgan, Clark County’s new poet laureate. Featuring poetry, music and dance.
• When: 2 to 4 p.m. today.
• Where: Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St., Vancouver.
• Admission: Free.
Back in her office, Morgan shows off her stack of holy books from as many world religions as she could muster — so visitors know she is open to any and all spiritual traditions — as well as a plush toy horse. “We could have therapy horses here,” she chuckled, except that a hospital security official begged her not to lobby for that. But it’s been known to happen that Morgan gets an urgent page to deliver a cuddly horse, or other fluffy friend, to a patient in crisis — either child or adult. And off she hurries, on a serious mission of spiritual care.
Morgan’s pace is just as speedy as she plunges along a trail at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge — with a reporter and photographer hurrying to keep up — until she stops to listen to a bird call or some creature crunching around in the underbrush. Then she sets up under a favorite tree with pens, papers and watercolors to brainstorm and experiment.
Morgan has been immersed in art and literature since she was raised by artsy parents, she said; she dug deeply into poetry and befriended poets when working in a library in Alaska, and she earned an M.F.A. at Goddard College in Vermont long before creative writing degrees became trendy, she said. Since then, she’s won many awards and published many poems as well as two books: “Crow Feathers, Red Ochre, Green Tea” in 2013, which won the Wild Earth Poetry Prize; and “Snowy Owls, Egrets & Unexpected Graces” in 2016, which won a Nautilus Book Award — given to works that champion green values, social change and spiritual growth.
“She weaves concerns for global warming, social inequities, and health care together with images of birds, plants, animals, breath, evoking our interconnectedness with all sentient beings and the spiritual universe,” the Wild Earth prize write-up said about Morgan’s work. “There is in these poems a deep sense of care for and rootedness in the natural world.”
“Birds and animals show up in my writing a lot,” Morgan agreed, and they’re more than childhood nostalgia. Clinical studies keep proving that contact with nature is literally healthy and healing for sick, stressed-out humans. That’s not poetry, Morgan emphasized — it’s science.
“Red-shouldered Hawk, Healing Circles”
by Gwendolyn Morgan
(from “Snowy Owls, Egrets & Unexpected Graces”)
circles overhead, over the meadow, Topaz Creek
She says, whatever your need for healing,
the world has need too
the polar ice caps, glaciers, melting
earthquake, volcano, tsunami
pandemic of cancer, auto immune disorders.
She remembers to breathe
in a culture of non-breathing.
We are holding our breath.
The spotted owl waits
on the edge of the mixed riparian forest.
Write all this down in your dreams, slowly,
This buteo is very vocal, with distinctive, far-carrying calls.
This wood owl with strong resonant hooting,
white marks on scapulars.
Is there something in your life
you want to heal?
“alis volat propis”
by Gwendolyn Morgan
(from “Crow Feathers, Red Ochre, Green Tea”)
“she flies with her own wings”
three deer drink from the creek
a woman drank jasmine tea
from a grey pottery cup
transcendence has everything
to do with our daily experience
up north we hear
the sockeye salmon are spawning
daylight grows shorter
she touched your cheek
with her fingertips
says she saw an angel
yesterday in her room
the IV bag of sodium chloride with
is almost empty
she says our spiritual path
is the most important
a river otter ate part
of a trout and fish eggs
on the dock this afternoon
her primary care physician
gave her six months
the hospice social worker
asked if she ate her breakfast
“Yes,” she says
“the angel has wings.”
There’s also a lot about illness and fragility in her poetry, of course, because that’s part of the human condition and Morgan has chosen to be a hands-on participant.
“How many moms have I been with whose children have committed suicide?” she wondered aloud. “How many kids with end-stage cancer? How many people have I been with as they go from diagnosis to dying?”
Writing about all that — and much more — is Morgan’s spiritual discipline, she said. She tries to spend about an hour each day outdoors in nature, she said, but life sometimes gets in the way, and the best she can do is enjoying the outdoors while pedaling her bike to and from work along the Salmon Creek Greenway Trail. She shares a Salmon Creek area home that’s “filled with music” with her spouse, composer and music teacher Judy A. Rose, and their dog, Naomi — a rescue, of course.
“I write about the preciousness and precariousness of life,” Morgan said. “I ride my bike to get here, something could happen to me. We only have today.”
What is a poet laureate, anyway? Christopher Luna, a relocated New Yorker, served as Clark County’s poet laureate for two terms (four years), and he was a busy public champion for poetry — regularly hosting visiting writers and open-mic readings and heading into schools with teams of fellow poets to work with students. He also collaborated on projects such as “Poetry Moves,” which posts verses in C-Tran buses, and “Raining Poetry,” a sidewalk display for National Poetry Month in April.
Luna will keep doing much of that, he said, but he’s also a little relieved to step back and focus more on his own writing now. And the truth is, nobody applied to the Clark County Arts Commission for the poet laureate job in Luna’s wake; the role has been vacant this year, until now. Meanwhile, Morgan said numerous friends and fans urged her to step outside of her comfort zone and give it a try.
She did so nervously, she said, and she means to handle the poet laureate role by highlighting other poets. “I like to read poets from other traditions,” she said, and she’s keen to generate more exposure for them. She’s sure there are Muslim poets, Russian poets, Vietnamese poets, deaf poets, and First Nation women poets right here in Clark County, she said, and she’s eager to help them get heard, recognized and celebrated.
More concrete plans? Not many, yet. “It’s not mapped out the way I know it will unfold,” Morgan said. “I know the months will go really fast.”