How Do You Help Fight the Blueblack Cold? “Those Winter Sundays” and Gratitude

9 11 2012

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden


Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?



In November, many of us reflect a little more on what we have and what we are grateful for.  One of my favorite poems about gratitude, or probably more accurately, regret over ingratitude, is “Those Winter Sundays”.


The speaker, an adult, reflects back with regret on the way he and the rest of his family treated their father while he was growing up.  His father was a hard-working man.  Simply by using the word “too” in the first line, we know that for this father, every day was a work day, even including the “day of rest”. 


His hands ached from his labors, but still, he got up before the rest of the family to warm the house.  He fought that blueblack cold alone till it splintered and warmed.  Only when the house warmed did he wake his family.


Martel and van Over have friends for dinner an...

Spintering the cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one thanked him.


In fact, they were all pretty indifferent to him.

 This man gave and gave, and they took and took.


I think it is possible that the speaker is being a little bit too hard on himself here.  Children are self-centered by nature, and I think if we are being honest, most of us are pretty horrified when we think about what brats we were to our parents at least at some point in our youth. 


I, myself, was pretty bratty till my late twenties.  My mother and I can laugh about it now. 


When he says, “what did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices”, I believe that he really didn’t know.  So, how can he blame himself for something that he didn’t understand at the time?


What is most important here is that he realizes it now. 


He can’t go back and change things that are long past, but he can do something about it.  He can recognize those sacrifices, both small and large, that people are making for him now.  Plus, maybe now he’ll be more ready and able to make similar offerings of “love’s austere and lonely offices”  for his family, and do so without feeling the need to be thanked. 


Do you have someone who splinters the cold for you? I hope you do.


Or maybe a better question for reflection is how do you splinter the cold for those you love?

Instead of feeling like a jerk for all the crappy things you did as a child after reading this poem, try to think of all the ways you can help someone else fight off that blueblack cold. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t cold.   

Is it Possible to be a Feminist Stay-at-Home-Mom? Redefining “Women’s Issues”

25 10 2012




Woman Work

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.

Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.

Maya Angelou

In our modern conversation, the phrase “women’s issues” has become code for birth control coverage and abortion rights. How insulting is that? Sorry buddies, but this woman has far more pressing issues in my life.

I agree that both of these topics have a place in the conversation, but women are far more complex and are concerned with more than sex. Let’s try to expand that definition a bit.

Take a look at Maya Angelou’s “Woman Work,” and you’ll find that “women’s issues” extend well beyond reproductive matters.

The speaker in this poem starts out with a long series of couplets detailing her daily “to do” list. The rhyme and the rhythm in this first section creates a sense of the frantic pace of being a woman, and in particular, being a mother. Interestingly enough, even though the rhythm makes it sound a bit frantic, it also makes it sound a bit monotonous, as many days in the life of a mother can (paradoxically) seem.

If you take an even closer look at her list, you’ll see that it isn’t arranged chronologically—getting the tots dressed comes way after “company to feed”, “garden to weed”, and “clothes to mend”. This disorganization paints an accurate image of a woman with so much to do that she can’t keep things straight or think things through all the way. The way she’s running through her list makes me believe she feels overwhelmed in her many duties.

Woman in a rowing boat

Woman in a rowing boat (Photo credit: National Media Museum)

I feel overwhelmed for her just reading it. I want to go over and give her a hand.

But then I take pause. Things really haven’t changed too much for the modern mother since then, have they? Our culture has given us the script, and it reads that mothers must do everything. And do everything perfectly.


We cannot bi-locate. We cannot be perfect moms and perfect at work. Something has to give. We can pretend that we can do it all, but guess what? No one is happy doing that. Look around.

The speaker in the poem is a mother who works outside of the home. Check out where the two “work” related items fall in her list, the very last two:

“Then see about the sick/ And the cotton to pick.”

Her two outside jobs, tending to the sick and picking cotton, are the very last things on her overburdened mind.

That reminds me of where my work priorities were when I returned to work after having my twins. I really wanted to do it all. But I wasn’t on top of my game at work, and I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be, either. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a good enough mother, and a good enough teacher, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to make a painful choice.

And I know I am not alone.

Getting back to the poem for a minute, there is a dramatic change in tone and form after she goes through her list. The speaker, in contrast to the first part, is now speaking in very eloquent quatrains. She speaks poetically about her desire for a bit of rest and a return to nature. She addresses the sun, rain, wind, snow, and star shine, directly in what literary types call an “apostrophe”. What it boils down to is that she feels like she has nothing except nature. She doesn’t have any personal possessions.

Lately, I have had several conversations about the incredible difficulties women have deciding what to do after having children.

It is hard to leave a career you built, a career that you love, a career that makes you feel modern and feminist. But for many of us after having a baby, it is what we feel is the right thing to do for our families. It is the only option we are comfortable with.

I am the last person I ever thought would feel this way.

When I was pregnant with my twins, my superintendent came to talk to me a few days before I started maternity leave. I remember sitting sideways in one of the student desks as I talked to her (the only way my considerable girth would fit in the desk.) I told her I would be back in eight weeks, no doubt. She told me that I may change my mind. I was adamant that I wouldn’t. I had been there for nine years, and I had a position that I loved.

Well, I returned to work sixteen months later only to finish out the semester and resign when part-time work wouldn’t be negotiated. I am home now, and I am at peace with that decision, even though I miss having the ownership of something outside of the home, kind of like the speaker in the poem, in a way.

For me, the most important “woman’s issue” is finding a place of balance between work and home. Like the speaker in the poem, this would let mothers have the ability to both mother and have at least a partial ownership in their working world.

It would do MUCH more for us as individuals and as a nation if our employers could help mothers return to work in a more comfortable way; maybe let them share positions; work from home; who knows, get creative!

If we let Mom be present in her children’s lives more, AND let her still work in some capacity, we all will benefit, but


our children

will benefit.

This issue is more important to our nation than who is paying for the pills.

Some say that being a stay-at-home-mom is a luxury of the wealthy.


If you are not wealthy, it comes with considerable financial sacrifices, yes—but, for many, it can be done with creativity and serious downsizing, prioritizing.

Does that make me less feminist? Some would say yes.

Others would say No, and think yes.

No matter. I am happy with my rewritten script.

It’s not Him, it’s You. Reflections on the World’s Best Love Poem.

22 10 2012

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and

my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility: whose texture

compels me with the color of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

By: e e cummings

A few days ago, a friend and I were having a wine infused chat and discussion slowly turned to a recent development in a very old love story.

She found out her first love was talking to one of our mutual friends.

Now, before I go on, let me stress that my friend is a truly happily married woman. She would never consider a life with the guy from her past, but yet somehow, twenty years or so later, it still matters that he is talking to someone we know.

Is that crazy?

She wonders why she still cares, and if this means that she could still harbor secret feelings for this guy.

She wanted to know what I thought about the whole thing.

I told her that I definitely do not believe that she isn’t carrying a flame, and it’s certainly not a shameful feeling.

What she is experiencing isn’t a yearning for an individual person; it’s a longing for a time when things were exciting in a more tangible way: A time when the insanity of first love with all its mystical powers had her by the throat. A time when she, quite literally, lost her mind to love for the first time.

Sure, life is still exciting in so many ways as we get older and more grow in mature, deep, and meaningful relationships with our spouses and family. But it is an undeniably different type of excitement.

Most love poetry makes me gag. Well, that’s not fair. Cheesy love poetry makes me gag, and I have a very low tolerance for cheese. This love poem, however, is one of my favorite poems of all time. We have a long past together, this poem and I.

When I was sixteen, I copied this poem over and over in hopes of memorizing it. It was all over my brown paper bag-covered text books. (I did this instead of learning math.) Honestly, I think I loved this poem almost more than the guy I thought I loved at the time.

Even though I didn’t fully understand the poem back then, my instincts about its perfection were right. If someone had asked me to explain it, I would’ve stumbled around for words and wouldn’t have been able to. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to write an essay on it or anything like that.

Now, as I have matured as a reader, I understand it much more, and find it to be the perfect poem about the insanity, beauty, and confusion of first love.

For me, it is a love poem to first love itself, not to a specific individual.

The speaker in this poem is on a journey to somewhere he has never been—crazy in love. He is completely mystified and awe-struck at his love’s ability to control him. He communicates this by using confusing imagery like talking about eyes having silence, for example.

He compares himself to a rose, which gets my “fromage sensor” going a bit. I mean, come on. A rose in a love poem? But, false alarm, this rose metaphor is completely unconventional.

Rose et amour....rosa y amor ....rose d'amour ...

(Photo credit: photosylvia / silabox)

The speaker is a tightly closed rose bud that his love can open up petal by petal to make him in full bloom, but just as she has the power to open him, she also has the power to shut him up tightly.

There’s the rub.

Sure, first love is awesome, but it also has the power to hurt deeply, and it usually does.

“nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility”

Intense fragility. That’s a great paradox for first love. It is so strong yet so very fragile.

The “you” here is first love in general, not a specific person. First love brings “death and forever with each breathing”.

Death and forever—another great paradox to explain first love.

What a roller coaster ride it is! Combine that with the fact that first love typically happens during a most hormone-surging time in our lives, and we wonder why the memory sticks with us?

Come on, of course it stays with us!

The last stanza is my favorite. The speaker is resigned to the mystical power that first love has on him. There is no way to communicate the way he feels, which he expresses by using another unconventional image with “the voice of your eyes”.

He is a traveler to an unknown land. He’s lost, and he doesn’t understand the culture or what to do next. So, his poem about this feeling is equally confusing at times, but it still somehow leaves the reader with the message that first love is beautiful and confusing. It makes us feel powerful and powerless at the same time.

It’s intense and there is no way to erase that from our memories. And we shouldn’t want to erase it either.

It is about the experience of the first falling that you are remembering.

Do you have a favorite love poem? A poem about first love, maybe? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Meaningful Work Beats Perfect Work at the End of the Day: A look at “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost

11 10 2012

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.  
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass  
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.  
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)


How are you doing?   Really, how are you doing?

Do you stop and think about it often?  Do you consciously evaluate yourself?  When you do (if you do) do you tend to see what you have done well, or are you pretty critical and think mostly about what you did wrong or how you can improve?

Do you ever question whether the work you are doing is what you really want to do with your life? 

 I really like this poem for its ability to refocus my attention to what I am doing right, rather than getting mired down in what that jerk of an internal critic likes to spew out at me.  (Most of us have that nagging voice, right?  The one who tells us that we aren’t good enough?)

This poem shines light on the importance not of being perfect, but of living a life full of meaning.  It doesn’t matter what the work is, what matters is that you find it meaningful and you want to do it.

There are layers of meaning in this poem, like in most great poems, so let’s start with a look at the literal level. 

We have a speaker who is reflecting and evaluating himself after the season’s apple harvest. 

The harvest wasn’t perfect; there might have been some apples he missed, but he is done and overwhelmingly tired from his hard labor.  In fact, he has been tired since the early morning when he looked through a sheet of ice he scooped out of a water trough.  He holds the ice up and things look distorted through it; he lets the ice fall to the ground. 

He has been working so hard that he knows he will even dream of work. (Don’t you just hate those work dreams!  It’s not fair, right?!)

  He knows trippy distorted apples will appear and disappear in his dreams; he will even be able to feel the pressure and ache of the ladder on his feet, feel the sway of the tree limbs as he reaches out to pick his apples, and he will hear the rumbling sound of apples being unloaded into the cellar. 

The tense changes to the present when he describes his dream, and lots of critics like to focus on that.  Dream and reality intermesh in this poem, and it becomes unclear, but  I think it is because he knows exactly what his dreams will be, since he has had many similar dreams after a hard day’s (or season’s) work. 

Next come the most important lines of the poem, at least in terms of developing tone:

“For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.”

He is very tired, but it is what he wanted

Did he have an unreasonable harvest goal that left him exhausted?  Or is he saying that he is exhausted from his hard work that yielded a great harvest? 

Either way, what is most important is that it was what HE wanted. 

He loved his work—he cherished those ten thousand thousand apples.  He was careful with each and didn’t let them fall to get bruised and sent off for cider. 

So, yes, he is tired, but it is a good tired.  The harvest was a wonderfully satisfying experience. 

But still, he says his sleep will be troubled.  What is he troubled by?   Is it because he doesn’t know what kind of sleep he is preparing to enter?  He wonders if it is going to be like hibernation or human sleep. 

In this poem, apple-picking serves as a metaphor for anyone’s life work, anyone’s life purpose. 

Instead of apple-picking, what are you doing?  Is it what you desire?  If so, no matter how hard you work, it will be worth it, even if you are not perfect at your work.

You may get tired, but it will be a good tired if you are doing what you want to do.  If it is what someone else desires, all the work will be drudgery, misery.

We can also read this poem as a metaphor for life itself. 

If I was teaching this poem in a class, I would discuss the symbolism of the seasons before reading this.  It is nearly winter in this poem, and that usually means death is approaching. 

Not only is it the end of autumn, it is the end of this man’s labor for the season, and the end of a day.  Lots of “ends” here, right?  Add to that all of the talk to sleep (six times) and dreaming, and being tired, drowsing. . .and LONG sleep, and it becomes highly probable that the speaker is dying. 

He is evaluating his life’s work, and feels confident that he did the best he could with it, even though he realizes that it wasn’t a perfect life. Maybe he didn’t get to fill all the barrels he wanted to fill. Even so, he is all set; he is done with whatever he wanted to do in this world. He has had “too much of apple-picking” and is ready to go.  The only trouble that remains is the uncertainty about what death will be like.

Ah, and that is a little “fruit of knowledge” that we all try to pick, isn’t it?

What a pretty little poem. 

Apple: the fruit of knowledge. What does he still want to know?

Getting More by Wanting Less: Reflections on “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney

3 10 2012

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

Is it possible to be satisfied?

I mean really satisfied and happy, without thinking of getting more, doing more, being more?

Give me a pan of brownies, and after the first chocolate-gooey bites, I’m not thinking, “Wow! That was delish and perfect; I don’t even need another bite.”

No. I want more. More! More! Even if I put them away—high up out of reach—my brain knows they are still there. I’ll go back for just one more bite. Okay, one more. Then, if I am unable to control myself, and I eat too much, I feel sick.

Physically sick? Maybe, but more likely mentally dissatisfied with myself.

Why do I do this? Ugh.

Maybe you know the feeling.

I love this poem by Seamus Heaney and its exploration of our desires and wants, how difficult it is to control them, and the wreckage that results when we let our passions for anything go unchecked.

The first part of this poem describes the speaker’s blackberry picking as a child. He starts out by letting us know blackberries are only ripe for one week, so if you are a blackberry lover as he is, there is an implied urgency to the tone already.

Gather ye blackberries while ye may?

Right away, the diction that Heaney uses to describe the berries is off-putting and suspicious. He describes it as “a glossy purple clot.”

That’s kind of nasty.

I’ll admit, I’ve read some vampire fiction, but I’m not about to eat a blood clot. He doesn’t stop there; the speaker goes on to describe the fruit’s flesh as thickened wine, and describe the berries as “summer’s blood” that stain the tongue and create an all-out frenzied lust for more.

At first I thought maybe all this talk of blood, wine, and flesh might be creating imagery of a holy communion with nature, but if so, it is only momentary. It is not enough for them.

With all of this blood imagery and talk of lust, it is no longer a simple childhood memory about a sweet time picking berries with your siblings or buddies. It is not a physical hunger that sends them searching for “milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots” and whatever else they can find to collect all the berries.

They work very hard gathering all the berries; their hands are scratched with thorns and their boots are bleached on the bottom from the grass as they gather berries from all over. The “tinkling” of berries hitting the bottom of the pots and jars is replaced by the more muted tones of berries falling on top of berries till they are full and the speaker describes them as looking like a “plate of eyes”.

Plate of eyes? That’s an interesting simile, isn’t it? Is he feeling guilty already, maybe?

After they finish picking, their hands are sticky like Bluebeard’s hands. I don’t know much about Bluebeard, but I do know that he is an Irish folk character who killed his wives. More blood imagery. . . so now, with that allusion, “blood” is on their hands—does this mean they are feeling some sort of guilt? If so, guilt about what?

They hoard the berries, but there are so many that they can’t eat them fast enough. Soon, the berries grow moldy.

Their once luscious loot is sour, stinking, and rotten.

He remembers wanting to cry and thinking that it wasn’t fair that all their hard work and desire to have it all were not realized.

Every blackberry season, they hope they can have them all, and every year the same thing happens.

This poem creates an uncomfortable tension in my belief system; maybe that’s why I like it so much.

I really do believe that people who work hard deserve what they get. I do not begrudge wealthy, creative, talented (or even just plain lucky) people their wealth; however, this poem does a fantastic job of showing how unchecked desire, greed, and overconsumption do not create happiness.

“I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

The last line of the poem is from an adult speaker reflecting on the childhood lesson he learned: When we are consumed with a desire for more, more, more, we will always be disappointed.

No matter what we get, or how hard we work, it will not be enough. We hope that it will be enough next time, but deep down, we know it will not be enough.

So, now my question is how can we start wanting less?

Would that make us all happier? Is it even possible to want less?

Get up! You Can’t Sit Here. Improving Your Life in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes

23 09 2012


Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

 By Langston Hughes, 1922

 Life’s stairs are completely unfair.  Some people are born on top of sparkling crystal stairs, others are born on the bottom and have to fight and trudge up stairs that are in dangerous disrepair.  Still, there are others born so far away from any stairs that they wouldn’t even know what to do with a flight of stairs if they, well, fell down them. 


This is the staircase (and cast members) at Tara in Gone with the Wind. It’s my favorite staircase. What? You don’t have a favorite staircase?

The speaker in this poem is a hardworking mother who tells her son that he must push past the tacks, the upturned boards, and the splinters on his staircase of life.  Yes, no doubt, it is hard, she agrees with him, but he may not choose to sit down on the crappy steps. 


Eventually, he will come to a landing and get a moment’s rest. 


She tells him that sometimes, he has to turn corners in life–make  significant changes to move ahead.  Sometimes his path will be dark, and there will be no light in sight. 

But still, he must move on.      

“Just keep swimming; just keep swimming!”

 There is no other option. 


This poem’s power comes from a combination of this perfect extended stairs metaphor and the use of 1920’s black vernacular.  Even though this was written at a time when many black middle-class people disparaged the colloquial diction as something that could hold them back from climbing up the stairs of society, Hughes uses it beautifully and powerfully to help capture the black experience of his time.


Really, how ridiculous would this poem sound if it were in standard formal English?  The mother would lose all her cred because she would sound more like someone who has been climbing far better stairs than those she describes.  Isn’t the message much more powerful coming from someone who has been hard at work, herself?  The figurative language this mother uses to describe just how challenging the climb in an unfair life is works perfectly, doesn’t it?  Life definitely seems like it has its fair share of tacks and upturned boards.  It’s a great image!


Now clearly, the obstacles facing a young, urban, black man in the early nineteen twenties were daunting. There is no way you can remove the racial element from this poem– nor should you; however, like all good poetry, its themes are universal. Hughes transcends race and gets to the human level here, too. 


We can ALL relate to this on some level.  Very few, if any of us, would say our lives have been crystal stairs. 


Even people who you think have crystal stairs probably don’t really have crystal stairs.  All people have challenges and struggles— yes, even the wealthy.  (Although, maybe I wouldn’t mind trying out the problems of the very rich just for a little bit, just to see what they are like. . .) 


I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem lately with all the talk about the rising number of people who are dependent on government entitlements.  While it is true that we need to look after and support those who cannot help themselves, shouldn’t we really focus on how to make the entitlement period just a brief step on their journey?  Isn’t accepting welfare entitlements for extended periods of time kind of like taking a seat on a splintered up, carpet-less step? 


The climber would be so much better off if he had someone who said to him, get the heck up and keep going!  You can do it, and you WILL do it.  Wouldn’t improving his life make the climber happier?  Give him a sense of dignity and self-worth?


It is part of human nature that most people will do only what is minimally required.  In high school, I bet you had a teacher who was very easy.  I had him, too. You could just turn in something you scribbled down during the last five minutes of study hall and still get a good grade, right?  Am I also right that you didn’t really give any of your assignments for that class any real effort?  Most likely, you produced crap and lost out on learning.


I bet you also had a tough teacher.  I bet you worked your rear off on her assignments.  I bet the quality of work you produced with the tough teacher FAR exceeded the quality of work you produced with the easy teacher.  I bet you learned more than you expected to. 


By far, it is the much kinder option to raise the bar, keep the expectations high, and watch how far people can climb up in this world. 


However, we also have to provide support to get them to the next step, right? 


We need someone who tells them that sitting isn’t an option.  Not all people have a mother like the one in this poem—someone who cheers (or forces) him on.  So, we need to help each other out.  We need to show people that they have true worth.  How can we, as a government, do that for the people who depend (unnecessarily) on entitlements? 


By allowing her son no other option, she instills in him a sense of dignity both in work and in himself.  He is the one who has to climb, but she is key to his being able to do so. 


We desperately need cheerleaders in our lives to remind us that we can do things that we think are impossible. 


I recently completed a half marathon, but I didn’t do this alone.  My husband never gave me a hard time about going out for training runs and leaving him with the children.  My marathon-runner parents offered me tons of encouragement and coaching throughout the whole journey. Kara, my race partner, pushed me to do much better than I expected, and even the cheers of the spectators helped me reach the finish line. 


Slowly, slowly, slowly


But I finished. 


Now I’m left thinking about this poem and all those people who instead of pushing on in life, and accepting new challenges, choose to sit. 


I hope I can be a voice of encouragement like the mother in this poem to my children and anyone else who needs a reminder that she is capable of doing things that don’t seem possible.


A voice that orders people to

Get up

and get



I hope you do the same for someone else, too.  

Thinking about “Ozymandias” Might Help You Survive this Political Season

6 09 2012


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

In any acrimonious political season, I think about “Ozymandias”. And really, has there ever been a political season that wasn’t acrimonious? Watching the conventions is painful for me. All I see are puffed up politicians bloviating “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

But when I look around, I don’t see all that much worthy of all the bragging. And I don’t fully understand how the other guy will help any, either.

I realize that the conventions are meant to be pep-rallies, but wouldn’t it be great if each candidate just gave us a detailed plan of what he/she wants to do for our country along with an explanation about why he/she wants to do them? That would be so fantastically perfect. They shouldn’t even be allowed to mention the other guy. Just tell me about you, candidate, not what sucks about him.

A little background: Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II, who was pharaoh of Egypt in the 13th century B.C. He was kind of a jerk. The British Museum was set to acquire some ruins of a statue of Ozymandias in 1816, which inspired Shelley and his buddy, Horace Smith, to engage in a little friendly poetry competition. Neither poet would have actually seen the statue before he wrote the poem; their ink dried before it arrived.

(Interesting side note: even back then, and even in artistic pursuits, competition yielded amazing results. Hmmm. That’s something to think about.)

In case you are wondering, Smith’s Ozymandias poem can be found Online easily enough, and it isn’t too shabby, but Shelley’s was the clear winner, at least in most people’s opinions.

Now, on to the poem:

The speaker starts by saying he once met a traveler who told him about a mammoth ruin of a statue in the desert. He goes on to describe two giant legs sticking up from the sand that no longer connect to a body, and next to these trunkless legs is the shattered, decapitated head (visage) half sunk in the sand. Great image, right?

Even in its poor condition, the traveler is able to clearly surmise the type of leader Ozymandias was by the way the sculptor presented his subject. Through his “frown”, “wrinkled lip”, and “sneer”, it is clear this leader was not a very compassionate leader, to put it mildly. Plus, it’s clear that Ozy was overly impressed with himself in general.

In fact, one really does have to be pretty impressed with himself to commission a sculptor to craft an enormous statue of himself, right?

(It’s almost akin to all the people who take endless pictures of themselves to post on Facebook.)

Then we get to some tricky lines that scholars love to debate:

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:”

The debate is over whose hand and heart is being talked about here? Or could it be more than one person?

The way I read this is that the hand belongs to the artist. The artist’s hand “mocked” the passions of the leader.

But wait! The confusion doesn’t stop here, folks. There is a double meaning to the word “mocked”. Today,” to mock” usually means “to deride” or “to belittle,” but the more antiquated meaning is simply “to copy”. Maybe you have heard of something refered to as a “mock-up” of something else?

So then the question becomes, did the artist’s hands try to make fun of him, point out his flaws, and make a political commentary? Or was he just doing his best to make an accurate mock-up of the leader?

That is hard to say, and maybe the ambiguity in the word choice was intentional. I am not an expert on the history of the word or Shelley’s time, but from what I have read, the modern meaning of the word was becoming more popular at the time. Even so, this doesn’t really clear up what he meant for sure.

Most likely, the sculptor was not attempting to make a political point. That kind of outspoken “mockery” wouldn’t have been tolerated and would have led to the artist’s death.

However, can you really completely disconnect an artist’s beliefs from his work? Is there such a thing as true objectivity in any art?

Certainly, even if he was trying to sculpt Ozymandias as accurately as possible, isn’t it likely that by studying the choices the artist made in his work, we see just as much of the artist as we can of the subject?

The second part of the sentence is really confusing. “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:”

Whose heart? And what did it feed? Is it feeding something or is it being fed upon? Is it the artist’s heart that fed upon creating the work? Is it Ozymandias’ heart that fed on his passions? (AND, no, it is not that the kindly ruler fed his people food.)

I lean toward believing that it is Ozymandias’ heart whose ambitions and hubris grows and grows. But, I could be talked into another way of looking at it. I’m very hesitant in my interpretation there.

After those few sketchy lines, comes the part of the poem that packs a great ironic punch.

Inscribed on the base of the statue is:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

(Life rule #787,626: if you are ever king, don’t ever get tempted to refer to yourself as the “King of Kings” unless you are God incarnate. If you do, you will most likely end up in some ironic poem about how everything is impermanent.)

The next line is perfect:

“Nothing beside remains.”

So, yes, the joke is on you, Ozy. This great and powerful man—for one tiny moment in history—who “mocks” us from well beyond the grave to look upon his fabulous kingdom and despair that we are not as fabulous as he is,

has nothing of his work that remains except a boastful joke of a quote on a ruined statue.

You know what I love the most about this poem? You know what DOES remain? Not the politician or the kingdom but

Art: the ruins of the sculpture and this perfectly intact poem.

And really, what else besides art ever truly lasts?

(Thankfully, not political seasons)

The Forgotten Benefits of Failing in “The Thing you Must Remember”

22 08 2012

The Thing You Must Remember

By Maggie Anderson


The thing you must remember is how, as a child,

you worked hours in the art room, the teacher’s

hands over yours, molding the little clay dog.

You must remember how nothing mattered

but the imagined dog’s fur, the shape of his ears

and his paws. The gray clay felt dangerous,

your small hands were pressing what you couldn’t say

with your limited words. When the dog’s back

stiffened, then cracked into white shards

in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful

suffers from too much attention, how clumsy

a single vision can grow, and fragile

with trying too hard. The thing you must

remember is the art teacher’s capable

hands: large, rough and grainy,

over yours, holding on.


One of the few things I can thank standardized testing for is for introducing me to this poem.

Just a few years after I started teaching, it was one of the poems for the “Controlling Idea” essay of the ELA New York State Regents Examination, which is given to most eleventh graders in the state.  It was the third of four essays in a two-day, six-hour, torturous exam. Thankfully for the students, the exam has been reconfigured recently. 

The most remarkable thing is that even after reading and rating approximately one million (mostly competent if not completely inspired) essay responses on the poem, it still wasn’t ruined for me.

 This is easily my favorite poem about teaching.  

For many teachers, the start of the new school year means a welcome-back assembly where all sorts of fascinating information is imparted from those- in- the- know, like the importance of washing your hands for the precise duration it would take one to sing “happy birthday” and oodles and oodles of statistics regarding where your school scored last year in this and that, and where you must end up this year—or risk losing funding for art. 

It’s part informative, part doomsday prophesying, and part pep-rally.

The recitation of sentimental poetry is a favorite at these events to help motivate teachers.  It is usually some heartbreaking tale of a teacher who rescues some sad wretch of a smelly child from his horrific home life. Years later, the weary but dutiful teacher opens a letter from the formerly smelly child, and in it he credits her (and her alone!) with who the student is today, the scientist who cured all cancers. End Scene. Pass the tissues. 

 Did I mention that this poem is written in a forced ABABCDCD, etc. rhyme scheme with a sing-song rhythm?  Well, of course it is. 

But it isn’t the sentimental, poor poetry that’s the problem here. 

The problem is that this is not really what teaching is about.  Don’t get me wrong, it definitely happens that teachers save children from horrific things far too often.  But let’s face it, the day-to-day life of a teacher is much less glamorous, much more routine, and comes with very little recognition for a job well done, and a whole ton of recognition for a job not-so-well-done. 

So, this poem offers a refreshing look at the profession. 

Notice how completely silent but poignant the teacher’s role is here. The speaker, a former art student, remembers exactly what (s)he wanted.  She wanted to sculpt this damn dog that she could envision perfectly, and wouldn’t stop till she was happy with it.

Finally, after perfecting it, (but completely overworking the clay) the student puts the sculpture in the kiln. 

What comes next is no surprise to the teacher.

The sculpture cracks in the kiln. If you want to be technical, the student fails. But doesn’t she learn not only about art, but also about life?  Is this really a failure?

This lesson transcends the classroom and becomes authentically interdisciplinary.  At least in retrospect, the student learns from this incident how in most any situation, being myopic can end up destroying your vision. She could have had a cool dog statue if only she could have seen it didn’t need to be the ONE way.

And really!  How frustrating is it when people can only see things in one way? 

I’m sure you know people who insist that they know the one “right” way to do something when in reality, the goal can be met in multiple ways. 

Here’s one off the top of my head: there are many ways to fold a t-shirt.  You might prefer one way better, but really, seriously, who cares about the details if it is in fact folded, put away, and not wrinkled when you pull it out to wear it. 

Another thing I love about this poem: the teacher does not dive in to rescue the student at the last minute in some deus ex machina Greek Tragedy style.   You don’t hear the teacher frantically repeating, “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.” “Umm, you know, Student, the more you overwork this clay, the more likely it is that it will be destroyed in the kiln.”   She knows this is more effective.

For many reasons that I am not going to even try to start to discuss here, we are terrified of letting our students fail, even when they totally deserve and NEED to fail.

What a failure that is on us. 

Yes, this teacher has a failing student in this lesson, but she is not remiss in her duty; she is not a bad teacher at all.  In fact, she is a fabulous teacher.  You better believe that next time, that student will not overwork the clay. 

The lessons learned from failing are powerful.  Please, take a minute and think about how failure has pushed you, motivated you, in your life.  I guarantee that, no matter how successful you are, you have been pushed forward by your failures.  Who would you be if you were never allowed to fail?

Who will our students be?

This teacher is not absent. She is not unfeeling of her student’s failure.  Her hands are RIGHT there with her student’s the whole time.  The teacher’s hands are what Maggie Anderson wants us to focus on.  They are “the thing you must remember” from her title. 

They are large, rough, and grainy, yes, but they are holding yours as you fail, ready to pull you up and have you try again.

In our most challenging times in life, if we are lucky, there are hands that cradle ours through our failures and push us to learn from them and try again.  They don’t save us from failure, they guide us to success.

The art teacher in this poem, of course, can be a metaphor for any type of teacher— the meaning here can be expanded to include the type you have in school or out of school.  It can be a parent or grandparent.  It can be a friend. 

But most likely, it will be an English teacher. 



Here’s Why We Get Glued to the Olympics and W. E. Henley’s “Invictus”

1 08 2012

What is it about the Olympics that fascinates me?

 I am not a sports lover by any means.  I don’t get into any sports played on television by people I don’t know.  I’ve tried to get into football and baseball.  If nothing else, it would be a way to have something to talk about with people, but I couldn’t do it.  There is too much of a time commitment involved, and it is really boring; however, if I attend something live, it is a completely different story. I start to pay attention.   Throw in some personal connection, even a little teeny bit, and I catch the fever. 

So why then do I find myself watching so much of the Olympics? 


Water Polo?

 Women’s judo?

On TV?? 

 I mean, really, who cares? So why is it then, that for those few moments, I honestly do?  I know I am not alone in this, or they wouldn’t televise the games so extensively. (and so poorly- I mean really! In our modern world, they can’t delay showing the “best” events till prime time.  How many times have you inadvertently found out the results of something you wanted to watch later during these Games?  So frustrating! Just play them live, NBC!– but that is a different topic. )

I have a couple of theories why I get glued to the Olympics.

The Olympics is one of those rare things that unites us without us having to go through some horrible national tragedy.   The Games cast a warm shower of national pride down on us when we watch our athletes compete at the top-level, especially when watched in a group of people. 

Let’s say you are out at a bar watching an event.  Instead of hearing  the same old arguing about whether the Yankees , Red sox, or God forbid, the Orioles is superior, everyone stands united in support of  the “home team”; that’s really unusual, right?

Maybe we even well-up when we hear the national anthem play when someone earns a gold. 

So there is the national pride theory, but then there is something else about the games that make me think of the often quoted, very popular poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, 1849-1903. 


Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.


Much like this poem, the Olympics tend to push me toward a desire for greatness. 

Can you imagine what it must feel like to be recognized as the best at something in the world?  That is unfathomable. 

Sure, there are several other factors that play into being an Olympic Athlete, like genetics to a degree, but a lot of it is simply due to sheer determination, hard work, and sacrifice.  As Cassius explained in Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar:   “The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings”.  It is not some sort of fate that determines our lives, it is only ourselves. 

I think part of my fascination with the Olympics is that they serve as a reminder that I am making my own life; I am in charge, and I can choose to do better. 

 Is there something I don’t like?  Then why don’t I work to change it? 

Is there something that I want?  Then why don’t I go for it? 

What is stopping me? 

What is stopping you?

Ever Feel Alone? Read Li Po and Connect with our Common Human Experience.

18 07 2012

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

Gently I stir a white feather fan

With open shirt sitting in a green wood

I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;

A wind from the pine tree trickles on my bare head.

By Li Po (or Li Bai)


I love poems that create a quick, common experience in readers, and poems like this one that focus on a single image, a snapshot in time, do this better than other forms of poetry.

Summer is the perfect season for imagist poems.  Maybe it is because we spend more time outside in summer combined with nature offering her endless opportunities to be appreciated at this time of year. (I might also love quick imagist poems in the summer because the high temps fry my brain, making it impossible for me to focus on more than one image at a time.)

Haiku, Tanka, and even other less “syllabically rigid” short forms are perfect to help capture summer experiences.  The trick with these poems is to focus on just one image and make the language powerful, each word needs to really count.  It should be like describing a photograph with as few words as possible.

These poems don’t seek to tell a story; there is no narrative involved.  They only capture a moment in time.

Sometimes students wonder about the purpose of poems like this one.  They are used to treating the text like it is a treasure map to buried theme, so I can’t blame them when they feel irritated after they dig without uncovering the sparkling booty they expected.  It is a hard sell that not all poetry seeks to support a theme or create a universal message; some just create experiences.  However, don’t discount those experiences. They have meaning in themselves.

There is very little room for interpretation in an imagist poem.  We all see pretty much the same thing: a man in the mountains who is taking a moment’s repose from the heat.  He sits fanning himself with a white feathered fan, his shirt is unbuttoned, he takes off his hat, hangs it on a stone that is sticking out from the ground, and feels the wind on his bare head.

No matter who you are, you will have pretty close to the same experience when you read a poem like this. We understand the speaker in the poem.  We get his motivation; we know the sensations that he feels.  In other words, we “get” him.

Think about this: This simple poem, written in the early 700’s by a man in China, STILL communicates the same experience to this American woman in 2012.  We still “get” him.Image

Sometimes we think our lives are completely unique and no one could possibly ever truly understand us.  We think we are so much different, not only from those around us, but also from those who have come before us.   But then here comes a tiny little poem to remind us that there is little that divides us.

Being a person felt the same in the 700s as it feels today.

Goethe wrote, “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers, and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”

Have you ever thought that something about yourself was really kind of strange, maybe you even had anxiety over it, but eventually, someone else admits the same thing to you, and you feel a powerful relief?  You might say something like “Thank God, I thought it was just me!” It doesn’t make things better, but knowing you are not alone somehow makes it more manageable.

I’ve had this experience countless times—and even did today listening to NPR on my way home from shopping.  They were doing a story on how it is much harder for adults to make close friends once they leave college.  Several of the callers said they were so happy to hear that it wasn’t just them.

We all like feeling normal—well, at least not like freaks—we want to feel safe, like we are not alone in the world.  Isn’t it strange then that we often focus on what divides us rather than on what unites us?  We compartmentalize and label each other in countless ways, but then here comes a poem that gives us all the same experience for a moment.   That is a pretty amazing thing.

If literature can make us connect with each other and our past, then doesn’t it stand to reason that there is hope for humanity to become more compassionate? People cannot destroy something that they feel connected to, right? I think this is literature’s highest function, and it is why I became an English teacher to begin with.  (That, and of course, the cash.)

I’m going to try to capture an image or two over the summer.  Will you join me?  What is your image of summer?  If you decide to write some down, I hope you share your work with me.