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More Than We Seem
A Spark of Specialness

By Sue Saltmarsh

January/February 2010

Sue SaltmarshAs a devotee of The West Wing (I own all seven seasons on DVD), one of my favorite episodes was when Josh interviewed Charlie for the job of "body man" to the President. Charlie kept saying he'd applied for the messenger job until Josh finally told him that he was being interviewed for this better, more important job because the woman in Personnel who took his application "saw something more" and they'd learned to trust this woman's instincts.

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I usually tear up at that point because there's a part of me that hungers for someone, anyone, to see whatever spark of specialness I may have (assuming I have one), acknowledge it, and put it to good use. In some ways, I've been lucky that way in my career here at TPAN. I kept "becoming" things that I wasn't hired to be and now that I've finally landed at PA, I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be.

The theme of this issue was my idea (yes, I'll brag) and the article I wrote for it gave me the opportunity to talk with some very special people who work for AIDS service organizations all over the country, all of whom I'm sure have more than a spark of specialness. They do their work under limiting and frustrating conditions, the likes of which we can't imagine in the city. But then again, they can't imagine what it's like to have drive-by shootings reported on the local news every night.

It turns out that this nurse is a renowned poet who even occasionally sneaks a few moments away from work to jot down some verses.
In any case, though I'm sure they all have stories I would've loved to hear, time was limited, so I ended up "Googling" many of them. Many had impressive educational backgrounds and professional accomplishments, but the one who surprised me was Mary Jane Nealon, from Partnership Health Center in Missoula, Montana.

At first, I thought it was a coincidence -- after all, Googling me will get you a lot of things about what I've written, but also an amazing amount of info on a Sue Saltmarsh who owns a cattle ranch out West somewhere. But, no. It turns out that this nurse who administers the Ryan White case management at PHC is a renowned poet who even occasionally sneaks a few moments away from work to jot down some verses. In this day and age, when the use of words has become a truncated, ugly, bothersome thing to most, this woman has published two books of poetry -- Rogue Apostle and Immaculate Fuel.

I had to know more! So I clicked on some of those websites and read some of her poetry and was so, so in awe. For one thing, she does something I've never been able to do -- she says what she means to say in as few words as necessary. I was so jealous. But she also says things that everyone can understand and she does so with no arrogance, self-absorption, or elitism. Something tells me she would not (thank Gods!) fit in at a New York cocktail reception of literati.

And yet, she is, as are we all in some way, more than what she seems. I hope I get to meet her someday, sit down and talk long about writing and living and experiencing. Until then, I thank her, as well as all those who lend their specialness to this country, this fight, at this time. And I urge you to read Mary Jane's poems. From Rogue Apostle, this is one.

The ship under the foot of the elephant
This thick-skinned toe scraping.
This cool cool water splashing upside down.
Breath, once so unconsciously available,
hides now in the shadow of the foot.
This moment of slow sinking into the waves,
this steady forcing down into green:
some panic, some music from the band
and the long soft hand of the nurse
who adjusts the morphine drip, just enough,
just to ease the weight of the elephant
and expand the idea
of where the ship might go.
Breathe deep, live long, know your spark.

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