"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, May 28, 2010

Love In The Open Hand


"Is love rice in a jar, no need to give back an egg?"

I really liked The Joy Luck Club; then I liked The Kitchen God's Wife even more; and The Hundred Secret Senses even more than that. Good Better Best. (The Bonesetter's Daughter, not so much; but that's okay.) In all these novels, Amy Tan has created so many moments of pure magic, you might find it difficult to choose a favorite, but for me it's easy: Chapter 12 in The Hundred Secret Senses: "The Best Time To Eat Duck Eggs."

In this chapter, Kwan tells Libby about the thousand-year duck eggs, buried years before in her previous life as Miss Moo, when she shared an understated romance with the peddler, Zeng who provided her with empty canning jars for storing the lime-cured eggs. Each week they exchange these tokens: a jar for Miss Moo and an egg for Zeng, until times get hard and food of any kind, including eggs, has become scarce. Even though Miss Moo no longer has any pickled eggs to share, kindly Zeng proffers the jar, this time not empty but filled with rice to see her through the lean stretch. She is overwhelmed by his generosity: "So heavy with feelings! Was this love? Is love rice in a jar, no need to give back an egg?" (181).

To answer Kwan's question: Yes! That's love, pure and simple, no strings attached, no angle, no need to give back an egg. Love in the open hand, wishing to help, wishing not to hurt. The same love described by Edna St. Vincent Millay in her tender sonnet:

Sonnet XI
Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:

"Down in
the meadow
where the
cowslips grow"

by Kate Greenaway
(1846 - 1901)
English children's
book illustrator

Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have!—And these are all for you."
~from the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview

A few months ago, when I mentioned this sonnet on my daily blog, I knew that it deserved another, longer look. Millay is undoubtedly one of the the most-mentioned writers in my literary discussions, and always one of my top choices for desert island reading. I know you're supposed to say The Bible or Shakespeare, but I'd be more inclined to pack the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

What I admire about "Sonnet XI" is its innocence and optimism, a poem to read when you fear that what you have to offer, the things that you hold out are not being accepted, not even when you say, "these are all for you." And what are those things? Not diamond rings so much as thoughts, ideas, values, dreams, favorite poems, past experiences, rice in a jar, cowslips in a hat -- all the things that add to up to your own particular way of being in the world. How sad the thought of offering honest companionship and getting the message, "Oh, no, you should be a different way than what you are."

This sonnet says that you deserve someone who offers you "Love in the open hand / no thing but that." However lovely the gifts and delightful the tokens, they should always be offered freely out of tenderness and a desire for your company -- just the way you are -- never as a way to control or "improve." And better yet, when you offer your affection and your deepest hopes and dreams, "ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt," they should be accepted freely -- not scrutinized or analyzed or held up against the light or laughed at or brushed aside or put on hold. Kwan's story says to avoid the selfish lovers who give "only enough to take back what they wanted from me" (181). Not all are as trustworthy and pure of heart as dear Mr. Zeng.

Take care of your heart.

Knowing, as I'm sure you do by now, that one of the imperatives for this blog is a poem for every poem, here are a few others to go along with Millay's sonnet.

First, this song by Donovan:

Your smile - beams like sunlight - on a gull's wing
and the leaves - dance and play - after you
Take my hand - and hold it - as you would a flower
take care with my heart - oh darling - she's made of glass

Your eyes - feel like silence - resting on me
and the birds - cease to sing - when you rise
Ride easy - your fairy stallion - you have mounted
take care how you fly - my precious - you might fall down

In the pastel skies - the sunset - I have wandered
with my eyes and ears and heart - strained to the full
I know I tasted the essence - in the few days
take care who you love - my precious - he might not know

words and music by Donovan Leitch (b. 1946)
British singer, songwriter, guitarist

sung by Joan Baez (b. 1941)
American folk singer, songwriter, activist.

Second, this childhood reverie:

I Shall Come Back
I shall be coming back to you
From seas, rivers, sunny meadows,
Glens that hold secrets:
I shall come back with my hands full
Of light and flowers....
I shall bring back things I have picked up,
Traveling this road or the other,
Things found by the sea or in the pinewood.
There will be a pine-cone in my pocket,
Grains of pink sand between my fingers.
I shall tell you of a golden pheasant’s
Will you know me?

composed at age 10 - 12, by Hilda Conkling (1910 - 86)
American child poet

And third, this long poem:

(click on poem to enlarge text for reading)
John Logan (1923 - 87)
American poet and teacher
The Picnic
It is the picnic with Ruth in the spring.
Ruth was third on my list of seven girls
But the first two were gone (Betty) or else
Had someone (Ellen had accepted Doug).
Indian Gully the last day of school;
Girls make the lunches for the boys too.
I wrote a note to Ruth in algebra class
Day before the test. She smiled, and nodded.
We left the cars and walked through the young corn
The shoots green as paint and the leaves like tongues
Trembling. Beyond the fence where we stood
Some wild strawberry flowered by an elm tree
And Jack in the pulpit was olive ripe.
A blackbird fled as I crossed, and showed
A spot of gold or red under its quick wing.
I held the wire for Ruth and watched the whip
Of her long, striped skirt as she followed.
Three freckles blossomed on her thin, white back
Underneath the loop where the blouse buttoned.
We went for our lunch away from the rest,
Stretched in the new grass, our heads close
Over unknown things wrapped up in wax papers.
Ruth tried for the same, I forget what it was,
And our hands were together. She laughed,
And a breeze caught the edge of her little
Collar and the edge of her brown close hair
That touched my cheek. I turned my face in-
to the gentle fall. I saw how sweet it smelled.
She didn’t move her head or take her hand.
I felt a soft caving in my stomach
As at the top of the highest slide,
When I had been a child, but was not afraid,

And did not know why my eyes moved with wet
As I brushed her cheek with my lips and brushed
Her lips with my own lips. She said to me
Jack, Jack, different than I had ever heard,
Because she wasn’t calling me, I think,
Or telling me. She used my name to
Talk in another way I wanted to know.
She laughed again and then she took her hand;
I gave her what we both had touched; can’t
Remember what it was, and we ate the lunch.
Afterward we walked in the small, cool creek
Our shoes off, her skirt hitched, and she smiling,
My pants rolled, and then we climbed up the high
Side of Indian Gully and looked
Where we had been, our hands together again.
It was then some bright thing came in my eyes,
Starting at the back of them and flowing
Suddenly through my head and down my arms
And stomach and my bare legs that seemed not
To stop in feet, not to feel the red earth
Of the Gully, as though we hung in a
Touch of birds. There was a word in my throat
With the feeling and I said, It’s beautiful.
Yes, she said, and I felt the sound and word
In my hand join the sound and word in hers
As in one name said, or in one cupped hand.
We put back on our shoes and socks and we
Sat in the grass awhile, crosslegged, under
A blowing tree, not saying anything.
And Ruth played with shells she found in the creek,
As I watched. Her small wrist which was so sweet
To me turned by her breast and the shells dropped
Green, white, blue, easily into her lap,
Passing light through themselves. She gave the pale
Shells to me, and got up and touched her hips
With her light hands, and we walked down slowly
To play the school games with the others.
I discovered "The Picnic" my Senior year in high school, in the anthology I have mentioned a few times before: Some Haystacks Don't Even Have Any Needle. I suppose it is the "apples in her skirt" in Millay's poem that brings to mind "the long, striped skirt" worn by the girl Ruth in Logan's poem, and "the loop where the blouse buttoned." Ruth is the poet's date for the school picnic; and although he admits that she was only "third on my list of seven girls," he is pleased to spend the day with her and finds himself falling in love for the very first time:

We went for our lunch away from the rest,
Stretched in the new grass, our heads close . . .
And our hands were together. She laughed,
And a breeze caught the edge of her little
Collar and the edge of her brown, loose hair . . .
I felt a soft caving in my stomach
As at the top of the highest slide
When I had been a child, but was not afraid . . .

Similar to the "cowslips in a hat," described in Millay's sonnet, Logan portrays Ruth sifting sea shells and offering them as a souvenir of the special day:

And Ruth played with some shells from the creek,
As I watched. Her small wrist which was so sweet
To me turned by her breast and the shells dropped
Green, white, blue, easily into her lap,
Passing light through themselves. She gave the pale
Shells to me, and got up and touched her hips
With her light hands, and we walked down slowly
To play the school games with the others.

Hanging Out in the Tree House Before the Prom

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, June 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Friday, May 14, 2010

Play With This!

Take the scenic route: St. Peter's Way
A Pedestrian Friendly Greenway in the Middle of a Busy City

Looking for the perfect childhood?
You can almost find it here,
on this beautiful street in Philadelphia


"Wow . . . When did this happen?
You're like a little gnome to me now."

You may have seen this picture
last month, when I devoted my
book blog to
"Catching Up On Anne Lamott."
Here it is one more time,
a current photo of my sons
towering over with me,
captioned with Sam Lamott's
sweet "little gnome" remark.

And this long ago picture:
[Porch at left can be
found on street above]
Back When They
Were the Gnomes.

Not forgetting, of course,
that back when they were
the Gnomes, I was the Ogre!

Actually, I kind of had forgotten that, but was reminded of it the other day when looking through a collection of Anna Quindlen's Newsweek columns. In one of her many essays on child rearing, she says that "Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay." Looks like this is going to be one of those essays! I was touched by Quindlen's truthfulness about trying to be the perfect parent, and accidentally focusing on all the wrong things:

"Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the 'Remember-When-Mom-Did' Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, "What did you get wrong?" (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?"(Anna Quindlen, "Raising Children," Newsweek, March 2006).

I showed this to Ben and Sam and had them read it, so that they could see some things from my angle. They still love to punish me for not letting them watch the movie Billy Elliot when it first came out and for the time when I refused to play hide & seek with them at bedtime, and for the time when I got mad and took all their toys off the shelf and threw them into a big pile on the bed, shouting "play with this; play with this; play with this" -- after they had complained to me that they had nothing to play with. These are the embarrassing things they said they'd make me include if I ever decided to write an essay about the parenting errors I made during their childhood. Well, now I've confessed voluntarily, so no one has to make me. Ha! (See also: "Perfect Parent? Not!")

Rereading Quindlen's essay makes me feel less like an ogre or a hopelessly flawed parenting figure and more just like a normal ol' mom out there learning by trial and error. It allows me to forgive myself a little bit, just like when I read Anne Lamott. Because -- guess what? You can't promise to be perfect; and you're not really an ogre, after all.

Her example of driving off without the food at McDonald's reminded me of something that the boys don't even remember. Sam wasn't born yet; Ben was just six months old, and I had taken him with me to pick up a package at the post office. The obvious thing to do was make a request for re-delivery to the house, especially since it was a large package (full of gifts and toys that my sister had sent from Germany). But I suppose to make the trip worthwhile, I was determined to complete the task myself.

Somehow or other -- I don't even remember how -- I managed to get the big box and Baby Ben back out to the car, tuck Ben properly into his car seat, put the car in reverse: crunch! What? It was the package, still sitting on the parking lot behind the car! Luckily this small-scale collision caused no damage to the Christmas presents, and no one saw me do such a stupid thing! But now you know, and obviously I haven't forgotten. Even now, every time I pull into that post office parking lot, I am reminded of those days when getting the child in and out of the car, and getting myself in and out of the building seemed like such a mission accomplished that I completely overlooked my reason for being there in the first place. Well, raising children does require focus! And, indeed, the baby is more important than the toys! So maybe I wasn't too far off track, just not fully functioning.

Quindlen's essay closes with the heartwarming prospect of our kids growing up into our favorite human beings:

"Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't . . . I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top.

"And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity.

"That's what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me awhile to figure out who the experts were."
(Quindlen, "Raising Children")

Here are a few related ideas about "quality time"
from some of my favorite writers:

Peggy Jones and Pam Young (aka The Slob Sisters): "I had never agreed with the idea that it was 'quality time' that was important when raising children. I think it's quantity time that counts. A child can't be expected to concentrate all the important things he or see feels and thinks into some arbitrary hour or day that a parent designates as 'quality time.' . . . In the end, the person who is there all the time is the one who gives quality time" (Get Your Act Together, 133 - 34).

Al Franken: "Quantity time is quality time. My dad never took me horseback riding. We never went white-water rafting. He never gave me the seven-thousand-dollar fully functional scale model of a Ferrari that I coveted when I was twelve. But he did spend time with me. Not necessarily quality time, but quantity time, hours and hours and hours of nonproductive, aimless quantity time.

"What did we do with this quantity time? Mainly, we watched television, hours and hours and hours of television. My fondest memories of childhood are of sitting on the couch watching comedians on TV with my parents. . ."

Funny Franken goes on the describe his father's laughing fits, pipe-smoking habit, and eventual death of lung cancer at age eighty-five, concluding that "it was this quantity time spent with my father, laughing and coughing up phlegm, that inspired me in choosing my life's' work: making people laugh and raising money for the American Lung Association" (Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to Success, or, Failing That, Happiness, xiv - xv).

Barbara Ehrenreich: "Forget 'quality time.' I tried it once on May 15, 1978. I know because it is still penciled into my 1978 appointment book. 'Kids,' I announced, 'I have forty-five minutes. Let's have some quality time!' They looked at me dully in the manner of rural retirees confronting a visitor from the Census Bureau. Finally, one of them said, in a soothing tone, 'Sure, Mom, but could it be after Gilligan's Island?'

" . . . The only thing that works is low-quality time: time in which you -- and they -- are ostensibly doing something else . . . "

Ehrenreich's essay draws to a conclusion with this amusing yet truthful advice: "Do not be afraid they will turn on you, someday, for being a lousy parent. They will turn on you. They will also turn on the full-time parents, the cookie-making parents, the Little League parents, and the all-sacrificing parents. If you are at work every day when they get home from school, they will turn on you, eventually, for being a selfish, neglectful careerist. If you are at home every day, eagerly awaiting their return, they will turn on you for being a useless, unproductive layabout. This is all part of the normal process of 'individuation,' in which one adult ego must be trampled into the dust in order for one fully formed teenage ego to emerge. Accept it."

Like Quindlen, Ehrenreich points out that one day, just on the other side of those teenage ego years, our children will relate to us as adults. They may start out as Little Gnomes, but that doesn't last long. As children they are just smaller versions of that bigger person who is soon to come. "Your job is to help them . . . get on with being that larger person, and in a form that you might like to know."

All Ehrenreich passages are from
the essay "Stop Ironing the Diapers,"
found in her book The Worst Years of Our Lives
(see pp 146 - 48)

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, May 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Take a look at
my running list of recent reading