I met Jim on a Saturday morning at the library. 

He sat at the corner edge of the table during our writer’s group meeting, and I was a few chairs down to his right. The small library wasn’t very busy, so our group felt comfortable speaking freely about our current writing projects and manuscripts. When it came Jim’s turn to read, he passed out thin, stark white sheets of computer paper with two poems printed in simple black ink. I heard a scraggly voice and leaned forward to see him while introduced his work. 

His hair was a darker brown with sprinkles of gray in his beard and he was wearing a worn t-shirt and cargo shorts. I could tell he was tall because his legs squeezed underneath the table, and his elbows dug into the wood as he held his paper.

“My writing isn’t necessarily autobiographical, but sometimes it reflects my life. I write poems every day as they come to me.” He paused, the paper pinched between his fingers, and made a final comment before reading aloud. 

“People seem to like the love poems best.”

We all chuckled and settled down to listen to him read as we followed along.

I first looked at the words black and bold in stanzas. 

But the more he read, the more I stared hard, underlining and circling. The words shot straight like an arrow, piercing an emotion with such precision that I was stunned. His poems were about the complexities of love and relationship, regret and relief. They didn’t just say what everyone says about love; they expressed the hidden pains and joys to which no one gives proper attention.

As his voice rumbled on in deep sincerity, I could hear his care for each phrase he wrote. He had nurtured these words, dug them out of the corners of his heart and past, revealing them to us with vulnerability. 

It touched me.

Seeing the stanzas on paper reminded me of my past with writing poetry.

Poetry was a game I used to play nearly every night throughout high school. I would sit on top of my bed, the comfort of my grandma’s homemade quilt beneath me; the soft squares of fabric and tiny tufts of white string. I turned on my purple bedside lamp and dug out my Bible, journal, notebook and silky pen. The whites of the pages were smooth and my pen glided like a surfer on perfect waves. I rhymed about love, relationships, faith, and dreams of the future. I wrote in quatrains, four-line stanzas, and chose words like a songwriter. The melody and cadence danced in my hand and I wrote the words as I heard them sung to me by my own experiences and wishful thoughts.

I was always proud of my poems. Jim’s poems though, were layers and layers of words, emotions, dreams. It hit a deeper level. They were complex, poignant, strong.

They were worth repeating. 

We talked after the writing group session ended, and he promised me a book in exchange for mine. He had collected his poems into a paperback book called Sun and Shadow. We discussed our mutual adventures in self-publishing through Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to get home and crack open the pages to read more of this poet.

I lay on my couch and flipped through the pages, reading and reading, bookmarking my favorites with tiny colorful sticker tabs.

The poems talked a lot about relationships and they were so short you would think to beg for more. But it’s easy to get lost in the metaphors and hidden meanings. At the end of each poem that are only a few lines long, I circled back to read it again and again, letting each word drip until it was dry. I sometimes re-read each poem up to three or four times.

Jim is a great writer. He takes the reader down a road heading in one direction, but then throws in a hard right hook with something unexpected.

Halfway through the book, I got an idea.

Ashleigh is a local artist who is learning all the nuances of art form in college right now. I have seen her portraits, still-life, and collages posted up around her house. The colors swirl and stand out loud as she tells her story through art. Her art draws you into the scene, and I have stared at the intricacies she drew or painted on the blank canvas. 

It’s breathtaking.  

What if we can combine her art with his poems?

I thought about how it would look if one of Jim’s poems were written alone on a canvas, Ashleigh’s creative art swimming around the words.

Kevin and I were at the time praying for a child to fill our guest room. I didn’t want to decorate the room to prepare for a baby, because I didn’t know if God would bless us with a newborn. I didn’t buy baby clothes. I didn’t pick out a crib. I didn’t even think about names, because the child might have come to us already identified and just in need of safety, love and a family.

While I wasn’t sure the age of the child, I was confident that God would send us our children. We had been praying and open to kids for years, and our guest room had been specifically prepared for whoever God led into our lives.

So I thought about each poem I had marked with colorful tabs. I read the words through the lens of Kevin and me receiving someone into our house, bags dropped off in the guest room. 

Our guest room.

Forever.

It took me a few minutes to narrow my options, but I finally found the perfect poem and wasted no time messaging Ashleigh about my idea.

I asked Jim for his permission to use one of his poems in conjunction with a local artist and told him that my husband and I were planning to adopt. The poem I had chosen was a beautiful symbol of love that I thought spoke of our desires.

He was thrilled and wished me the best. He even agreed to sign the completed work of art.

Ashleigh responded quickly to my message. She had some free time and would love to work with me. I stopped at Hobby Lobby the next day and used a coupon to buy a medium-sized silver frame to give to her so she knew what size to make it. 

I sent Ashleigh a few pictures of ideas and themes, but told her she could use her imagination and craft it however she wanted. I slipped some bills into an envelope and thanked her in advance, then went home to wait for my unique creation.

The guest room was simple; a full bed in the middle, dressed in a blue and white patterned blanket. A dresser sat to the side, and Kevin had painted the walls gray and navy blue, a white chair rail molding splitting the two colors from top to bottom. 

Three days later on Sunday, Ashleigh showed up to church with the silver frame and a sweet smile. I turned it over in my hands and admired the beautiful blue whale, and the poem penned in perfect cursive.

It was stunning.

We talked about the details, from the faint blue watercolor background to the specks of texture sprinkled around the words. Ashleigh bubbled over with pride, receiving my thanks over and over. I couldn’t believe what a great job she had done. 

Ashleigh had signed it in the bottom right corner, and I would take it to Jim to sign later. The two artists; one with words, one with a paintbrush. 

It was November, and I still had no idea who would be in our guest room and when. We would have to wade through almost a dozen adoption situations before God led us to our Eden Renee, who came to us on February 21st.

And little did I know how much we would blue whale love her. 

~

On a scale of minnow to shark, 

I blue whale love you 

-Jim Steele

Link: Jim Steele’s poetry book Sun and Shadow, 2019

Link: Jim Steele’s brand new book, Awakening at Twilight, 2020

Link: Ashleigh Nicole Art on Instagram: ashleighnicole.art