And Then My Heart With Pleasure Fills

Forsythia, gaillardia, penstemon, and euonymus. It’s springtime and I’m struggling once again to talk plants and flowers. I have to repeat their names in my head over and over in order to remember them. Sometimes mnemonic devices work, but though “harrow” sounds like “yarrow,” a piece of farm equipment does not make me think of this fern-like flower.

Some people have a preternatural memory when it comes to flower names.

I have a friend (a little unassuming lady who wears sweaters with pearl buttons and goes to Mass every Sunday) with an amazing skill. She knows the language of philosophers and princes. She speaks Latin. Just point to the big yellow flower next to her neighbor’s fence and she’ll immediately say, “Helianthus.”

Sometimes I think I just have a memory block where flower and plant names are concerned. Then I get flustered at my lack of recall, which only makes things worse. We all deal with selective memory though. According to research (exploringyourmind.com) we tend to remember the things we care deeply about and find meaningful in some way. When I was much younger and took a night school class I had a reading professor who often gave poor, unfocused lectures. Not long after I took his class, this professor left the teaching profession altogether and began selling luggage at a store in the mall. He may have been a bad instructor, but he did tell our class one thing I’ll never forget.

He said, “If you want to remember a word, ANY word, you have to develop a relationship with it.”

Though I like plants and flowers, their beauty and fragrance are only for a season. As Robert Frost once wrote in a poem about the impermanence of both life and spring flowers, “Nothing gold can stay.”  Which brings me to an area I have a year-round investment and interest in: books. My daughter-in-law asked me last week if I’d ever heard of a novel called The Overstory. She told me she was curious because she saw the title in her e-library account. I read The Overstory a couple of years ago when it was first published. The content of that book immediately flashed in my mind. I told Amanda the book was a collection of stories all having to do with trees and the impact trees have on people’s lives and the health of the planet. Not only was I able to summarize the book despite having read it so long ago, but I even remembered the author’s name: Richard Powers.

My hippocampus clutches at all things literature.

So though I can’t remember the name of that blue, stalky flower (delphinium), I can distinctly recall stories about flowers. In Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the protagonist, a pioneering miner, finds out his wife’s cheated on him with a friend, and rips out all the rose bushes he’d planted for her next to their house. Larry McMurtrey’s novel, Lonesome Dove, is about a couple of tough Texas rangers. One of the rangers, Gus, has a lady friend who repeatedly plants flowers around her house only to have them die, subject to the merciless wind and drought of the Great Plains.

Though the genus names for flowers easily escapes me, I often do remember their common names, like daffodils for instance. And again it’s through the lens of literature, prose and poetry, that my memory is enhanced. Who can forget poet William Wordsworth writing about taking a nap and dreaming of daffodils dancing in the breeze:

For oft upon my couch I lie,

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye,

Which is the bliss of solitude,

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the Daffodils.

 

Credit Image:  Daffodils    Credit Image:  The Overstory

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