Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

That Thing We Have in Common with Caterpillar Moths

Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.

As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.

I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month.  Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all.  One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.

Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t.  In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them.  It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly.  He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.

My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from.  Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”

Neanderthal?  I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.

I did a little research on Bob’s question though.  I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent.  They used tools and could be creative.  They made art.  Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA.  Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now:  “Neanderthals aren’t so bad.  Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”

Image converted using ifftoany

 

Image credit: caterpillar moth     Image credit: Trivial Pursuit      Image credit: Neanderthal

 

Not Everyone Likes Listening to an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to move the stubborn numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was much more important than expending it.

“Living in the country we worked for exercise!  We hauled water up from the well house. My mother stood over a hot iron ironing clothes. Dad hoed corn and built fences.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people worked when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I compared the importance of exercise for good health with my farmer-husband’s observations about cows.  He said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down!” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I smiled thinking how ironic life is. I disliked exercising as a young college co-ed, and now my elderly mother feels the same way. Yet another example of the circle of life.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Hoeing corn      Image credit:  Circle of Life