Shane McNeil: Romanichal poet – a feature by Lizzie Isaacs
Lizzie Isaacs explores the poetry of USA Romanichal poet Shane McNeil: “He seems to be able to take any topic and make a poem about it.” A highly recommended Travellers Times ‘Long Read’.
There are certain people in life who are fortunate to have a talent or a “gift" that is a blessing not only to themselves but those around them. It could be a beautiful singing voice that can move you to tears, or the ability to dance in a way that will enthral you. It could be a gift of being able to paint or draw. But surely one of the most beautiful gifts a person could possess is the one of being able to create poetry. A good poem can transport the reader into another dimension and touch their imagination and emotions in a way that no other art form can. One such person who has this rare ability is American Romanichal Shane McNeil. He seems to be able to take any topic and make a poem about it.
It must have been over two years ago now when I first read one of Shane's poems. I was scrolling through social media one day when I noticed a lot of people were calling out for prayers for a woman who was sick. I looked on her profile and saw the many responses and prayers for her and I noticed a poem. The woman's name was Ramona Bryer and Shane had written a poem especially for her. The words spoke to me more than any of the other messages and I knew then that whoever wrote it had a special talent. But it was only last year when I first spoke to Shane during the Romanichal flag campaign and I was encouraged to see how on board he was with that. It was in one conversation regarding the flag that he happened to tell me that he wrote poetry and he offered to send me a poem to read if I wanted. Of course, I wanted, I love poetry! The poem he sent was so good I did wonder if he wrote it himself or not. He assured me it was his own work and sent three more. These poems touched my heart in way that I was left wondering who the people in them were. I wanted to ask him about the young couple, what happened to the old couple with the man who spent his days in the lawn chair and the old woman who waited daily for her date who never showed. I wondered who the beautiful woman that he dreamed of was too, but I really didn't know him well enough to ask those questions. Later, however, I did ask about the people he wrote about and he told that not everyone in his poems was someone he knew, although when I read about them, they all seemed so real. I asked him what he did with the poems but he said "Nothing, I write them for myself and sometimes I share them with my friends, that's all" I felt sure he should get them published and told him so but he didn't make much of that and just answered with "Thank you, I'm glad you like them".
I must admit that when I think of "Poets" I have a stereotype, you know, a nerdy professor sort with brown tweed trousers that are considerably too short, a tank top and he quotes Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Shane, however, blows that image right out of the water. In his real life he is a typical fifty something Romanichal man who makes his living hawking and doing tarmacking jobs. He lives with and cares for his family in Delaware, Maryland on the East Coast of America. He can trace his family back to the old Romani families of England. The Harrisons, Stanleys, Coopers and Smiths, who were some of the first to leave England for America in the 1850s, and the McNeils who originated in Ireland, are among his ancestry and he is extremely proud of his lineage, heritage and culture.
Like most Romanichal in America of his age, he didn't finish school and most of his formal education was done by the time he was eleven. He told me "I only went to 6th grade. Basically, Primary School" he went on to add "I passed to the 7th grade. Then for the next 3 years I never completed it. Why? Because my dad would come pull me from class for work, and if you missed too many days they would fail you. So even though I knew the work and could pass on academics they would fail me due to lack of attendance. So I never completed that grade. With that said you only get credit for grades you complete in the last grade. I completed with the 6th grade" although he was proud to say that when he very young in grade 2 and 3 he was very advanced for his year but lost interest in the work he was given because it was way too easy for him and he got bored. Shane told me that in later life, when he became an adult, he educated himself. He said “Even though I was smart, I still needed to learn. So, life taught me a lot of lessons itself. It has a way of doing so. Plus, I have three children, and I would help them with school homework. I would learn along with them. Now my youngest daughter ended up going to college. But while still in high-school she took advanced placement classes, ones that prepared you for secondary education. I would follow along with her. So, I at times piggybacked my daughters work" In conversations I've had with Shane I understand that he values education and sees it as the only way forward for our people and he told me " To me the lack of education is the biggest thing that holds us back. However, I'd also be remiss if I were to say that it also plays a role in the Romani people remaining Romani. Our culture is very much dependent on our raising. The self-teaching of our culture and heritage to our children is how we've maintained it. I can attest to this by my own children. I insisted on education, the reason for this? I've seen too many times throughout my life, a young man marries a young woman. They're together long enough to have a few children then the young man is off to the next wife. This leaves the girl with the kids, and back living with mom and dad. I wanted better for my children because I knew they would out live me. Then what? They're left to the mercy of the world, so I insisted on them being educated. The trade off? My children have gravitated more towards a gorja lifestyle. Does this bother me? Yes, it does because it meant I didn't get the formula correct. There has to be a correct balance of education and culture. But I still believe that education is the key for us to earn the respect and acceptance to be able to coexist with wider society.
As is the norm among Romanichal, Shane became an adult before his time and was out working and driving way before non-Romani kids, "As a child during summer school break, I would work with my father. I would sit alongside of him and he would push the clutch and allow me to shift gears. I remember at 10 years old on a job site the first time I was allowed to back up the truck and make a dump of material by myself. Imagine at 10 most children were still playing with toy dump trucks. I was playing for real. My father always placed a tremendous amount of trust in me even as a child. By the time I was 12 I had driven on a road without anyone with me. By 14 with a pillow under my bul to see over the huge steering wheel I was hauling materials on my own. Late in my fourteenth year I got my own first truck, although I was still at school. I was released from school later that year. I wasn't allowed to drive to school though"
It's evident that family is important to Shane, especially his three daughters and his mother who he always refers to as his "mam". He told me that the first poem he ever wrote was for his mother and the only one he remembers off by heart. “The whole poetry writing started because I neglected to purchase my mother a Mother’s Day card. I was on my way out the door and realized I had forgotten. In a panic I sat down at my computer remembering it has a greeting card application that was printable. I found it, only to discover it had everything but words. I knew that card messages rhymed so that's what I attempted to do. It came so naturally to me, that here I am 13 years later still writing.”
A mother without a mother, to show her how to care.
A mother without a mother, one who's always there.
A mother without a mother, this one turned out fine.
A mother without a mother. I'm so blessed for this mother is mine.
This was a short one but quite emotional because he said that his grandmother died young when his mother and her sister were very little. So "Mother without a mother" is his way of saying that although she had nobody to show her how to be a mother, to Shane she is the best and he speaks so fondly of her, he gives her credit for all his happy childhood memories.
I feel very privileged that I've been able to read a few of Shanes poems, he told me that he really only shares them with people who he thinks will appreciate them. He's written hundreds and I've only seen but a handful of them. By his own admission he's "A deep sort" and he says most people aren't that deep so don't always get them. He said that he doesn't write as much as he used to but at one time he was writing one a day… "That was during the hard times of my breakup, they poured out of me" Lots of people have been inspired by Shane's poems which he thinks is great, but he admits that for him, writing poetry is like therapy… "They come from love, pain and my life, most of what I write comes from my heart" some of his poems are very personal to him and he has never shared them with anyone. Some he's only shown to his closest friends. Others, however, he has shared on social media.
I remember one day Shane sent me a poem he'd written, it made me cry and I told him that I didn't like it because it was too sad. He told me to read it to the end, I said "I have read it, it ends when you die, why would you do that?" but he laughed and told me it wasn't about him. We got talking about the poem and suddenly, he got an idea for another one. He came back later that day with one of my favourites, it was called "The child who lives in me."
There's a boy who lives inside of me, who's cried for most of my life.
He doesn't understand the trials sometimes, or why it's filled with strife.
It's hard for him to comprehend, Why life it is so cruel.
People who look out for number one, seems to be the golden rule.
I thought no one cried for him, This child who doesn't understand.
A child with a grownups body, who lives inside this man.
Well, Christ cries for the little boy, Something he'll always do.
He also cries for the boy or girl, the one who lives inside of you.
There’s a child inside each person, crying in every woman and man.
And what I do is help to find them, by offering the child who understands.
This is my key for healing, Finding the children can't you see?
By bringing them all to Christ, with the boy who lives in me.
Blessed are the little children, For they shall inherit the kingdom of God.
This is something I know too well, some of you may think that's odd.
This is why God takes the children, not the grown up who is old.
For humble is their hearts, God will never take the bold.
Each person should try to connect with their inner child can't you see?
Because God so loves the children, I found "The Child Who Lives in Me".
Shane has a strong faith in God and has studied the Bible for many years, often you can see elements of that faith in his work. “The child who lives in me” shows me how vulnerable we can all be at times and even though we might be adult that little bit of vulnerability makes us childlike and innocent. “Forbidden fruit” is basically the Gospel, how we are all sinners, every one of us, but we all have hope in Jesus.
When the storms of life start raging,
Your world comes tearing down.
Your hearts so torn to pieces
You barely can hear it make a sound.
You look toward the master,
Because you know that he still cares
To guide through the storm.
With his love that’s always there.
I said, why me o why lord,
Tell what have I done?
He said, you bit the same apple Eve did,
And turned your back on my only son.
I was so worn out from it all,
Broken, my eyes filled with tears.
I said, lord I never bit the apple,
Eve's tree has been gone for years.
He said, come closer to me child,
That's all you have to do.
Then your eyes will open up,
You'll see the apple tree still blooms
The spirt of the Lord fell upon me,
Suddenly everything became clear.
The sin that started with Eve,
Was passed down from year to year.
I said, please forgive me Jesus,
Yes my lord I can finally see.
That old tree it never died Father,
For it still lived here inside of me.
For everyone out there,
I want you all to know.
The Original Sin it never died,
Inside you and me it grows.
As long we have Jesus,
Your heart will always make a sound.
And with the edge of his amazing Grace,
You too can chop that old tree down.
My sin is no greater than yours
I'm making amends the best I can.
Just remember that same sin.
lives inside of every man.
I hope this story helps you,
And my point it isn't moot.
For every man, woman and child,
Has tasted "Forbidden Fruit"
Occasionally Shane writes humorous poems that make people laugh, he says they don't come that often but he enjoys them when they do. “The trials of a swinging bachelor” I think he must written after a day doing the chores at home. I know he loves cooking and shares recipes and videos online. One day however, he did say “I don’t exactly love cleaning and scrubbing but if I have to do it then I’m going to make sure I do it well”
The Trials of the Swinging Bachelor
Sitting here today,
Watching the rain fall.
Some chores I must do,
As I recall.
Vacuum the floors,
Wash out the tub.
Change all the sheets,
The toilet gets scrubbed.
Another load out,
Another load in.
Just sitting here today,
Watching the laundry spin.
Is this how it will be,
For the rest of my life?
Or will one day the laundry,
Spin for a wife? 😂😂
This is supposed to be,
A day off from the pave.
For when the sun shines tomorrow,
The wand I will wave.
But today it's the chores,
That has me busy in a bustle.
Work that keeps me moving,
Until it's time to get my Hustle.
Got to go it's time for lunch,
"YES" I can swing a spatula.
And this is just another day in,
"The trials of the Swinging Bachelor" 😉
Shane does seem to write for his own pleasure, and as he says "Therapy”. I get the impression that it doesn't really bother him if others like his poems or not. He's not doing it for fame or fortune and even this article was done as a favour to me not for him in any way, although he was happy to answer my questions. This is a wonderful gift he's been given but he's completely humble about it. He never boasts or shows off and sometimes his poems can even go unnoticed. Yet other times they get huge amounts of attention, and I can see for myself how inspirational they are. Rhonda Harrison Bryer says this about Shane and his poetry "He brings thoughts and feelings out in his poetry that a lot of us have felt. He finds the right words to describe what he's dealt with. I've learned from his poetry how to work through life using poetry as an outlet"
The friendship poem is another favourite of mine because friends are an important part of all our lives. I know Shane values his friends and said …”Id fall on my sword for my friends” I’ve actually seen how supportive he is to his friends, and going from the comments on his poems and other posts on social media, I can only imagine he has been a good friend to many people.
Some friends aren't meant for a lifetime,
Some are meant for a season.
Others are just for a moment,
Then they're gone without any reason.
Some friends can only be true,
As long as you're meeting the status quo.
Some you have for years,
But the real them you never know.
Some friends you can depend on,
And on others you can't rely.
Some you have are two faced,
When with others it's you they deny.
Some friends are like a rock,
Others, soft as a pillow.
Some are strong as an oak,
While others bend like a willow.
Some friends are understanding,
They hold you when you cry.
Some you can tell your secrets,
And they'll keep them till they die.
Some friends can make you laugh,
As the tears run down your face 😂
These are friends that are special,
And I suggest you never replace.
But through all of life's trials,
No matter how the road bends.
I know that life is always better,
If you can share it with "Some Friends"
Sometimes Shane has been asked to write a specific poem for a person or situation, he’s covered topics like drug addiction, alcohol abuse, divorce and death. He has even written poems for people to read out at funerals. His words can be a comfort to those who have lost a loved one.
You'll See Them Again
Sometimes in our life,
We just don't understand.
Nor are we able to see,
The lords greater plan.
He'll make a decision,
And then one day.
A loved one is gone,
The lord takes them away.
We're left with feelings,
Full of hurt and confused.
"Why me oh' lord",
Are the words you may use.
What have I done lord?
This maybe your question.
Am i being punished lord?
In your prayers you may mention.
I think I may have an answer,
For the prayers that you pray.
Your not seeing the full picture,
Listen to the holy spirit you'll hear him say.
You are dwelling in your past,
An open wound without a suture.
For the stitches that heal the wound,
You must look into the future.
For we all owe one life,
A debt that we all must pay.
In heaven you'll see them again,
So take comfort on this day.
Time on earth is short for us all,
Loved ones die we feel the sorrow.
And when they leave us here?
(The Blood of Jesus) promises tomorrow.
So leave this pain in the past,
Starting today you should begin.
Thanking Jesus for tomorrow,
For one day, "You'll See Them Again
Shane is a very reflective person, he ponders on his life, his past and what his future might be. Like a lot of us he knows that his life has gone by so very fast and he probably hasn’t made the best of it. He once was young with the world at his feet and he had his ambitions and dreams. He’s watched his children grow up and away from him and start their own lives and he wonders what tomorrow will bring for him.
The Winds that Change
There's a breeze that blows in life,
That carries us all through time.
At times it's like a hurricane, So fast you nearly go insane.
Others so still and so sublime.
The leaves of a tree are like moments,
Each one carries precious memories.
On the tree they will stay, Until time Takes them away.
Once they've fallen by a breeze.
The Good times they do blow fast,
The heartbreak it goes so slow.
Bad memories seem to last, that's a part of your past,
For the downtrodden the wind is so cold.
My babies with me was a vapor,
A fast gale came and took them away.
If I could only turn back the clock, and somehow get it to stop?
What I wouldn't do to make them stay.
But this is the cruellest of time,
So quickly they came and gone.
Wrapped in the arms you see, of their mother and me.
In my heart they will always belong.
I thank God for my mom and dad.
They've been a constant in every storm.
For when they blew my way, they held me up every day,
My protectors since I've been born.
Great memories move so slowly
I can still see my very first love.
A girl in my mind like yesterday, time quickly took her away.
Why is reality so fast Lord above?
Why people live their lives in a hurry,
This is something I don't understand.
With life so short anyway, take time to live it each day
should be the goal of every man.
Now my babies are grown and gone.
My young love is another man's wife.
The winds of time have slowed down, the leaves piled up on my ground.
What I wouldn't give for a breeze in my life.
So take a little time to enjoy it,
For sometimes life will rearrange.
The hands of the clock move slow, once you've become old.
For these are "The Winds that Change"
I have been spoilt for choice which poems to use, but I think you will all agree that a good poem reaches you right in the heart. For me whether a poem is happy or sad has the ability to make me cry, some of his poems I start, but am unable to read to the end. All the poems that I’ve read from Shane have real meaning to them; each one is like a gem that is better than the last. Most people could sit for a month and wouldn’t be able to come up with a verse but, I suppose, this is the meaning of being “a natural”. Shanes cousin, Ramona Bryer says “It’s definitely a gift that God has given to Shane to be able to write poems like that.” I asked if he had anything to say to people who were inspired to write poetry after reading his work and his answer to me was this..“My writing is selfish in the sense that it gives me an outlet to get things off my mind, to lift the weight a bit. I also keep a journal of daily thoughts. I highly recommend for anyone who enjoys writing or even if they don't, to try writing down your thoughts, even if no one else ever reads them. Just writing them down does provide some sort of comfort. As far as the inspiration goes.. I'm pleased if others can find hope or joy through my life's experiences, which is where I find the inspiration to write the poems. And, honestly I think it comes down to people being more alike than different, more so then they care to admit. So in a sense they see themselves through my words. I believe the inspiration comes from realizing they aren't alone.
To read a poem is like having a glimpse through a window of the author’s heart. Thank you Shane McNeil for giving us an insight into yours.
By Lizzie Isaacs.