Admit it; You Hate Change, too. A reflection on Sara Teasdale’s “September Midnight”

18 09 2013

300px-Harvest_moon

September Midnight

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
Ceaseless, insistent.

The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.

Sara Teasdale

 

Summer is all but officially over for the year.  College is in full swing, schools are back in session, football is back on television, and I have made the switch of wardrobe.  Away go the sleeveless and the shorts, and in with the jeans and the sweaters.

On this night of the big, brilliant harvest moon, I am thinking about Sara Teasdale’s poem.

There are people who like good-byes and people who avoid them.  Maybe because I was a military child and so profoundly used to good-byes and their significance, I am the type who needs those moments to bid farewell, not necessarily to people, but definitely to places and times.

I like to take that extra moment to go into an empty house before I move, going from room to room and breathing it into my memory before leaving.

Why not take a picture, you ask?  Good question.  I don’t know the answer.  I have pictures of my old bedrooms and houses, but I don’t look at them.

I vividly remember sitting crossed- legged  in my small bedroom closet as a seventh grader the day we left our house in Maryland to move to New York.  I just wanted to remember it.

Why did I care about the closet?  I didn’t sit in there before.  I had no special attachment to it; nonetheless, there I sat for while trying to sear into my memory the slats of the folding door.

Maybe it is because leaving a place or a time is much like leaving yourself behind.

Life is constantly changing, and for a young person, that’s very unnerving.  Heck, it is unnerving to think of as an adult.

Change is unavoidable, but it is even more difficult when you have very limited control over your life.  That part of childhood is definitely not one that I would ever want to return to.

“September Midnight” is about the fast approaching change of seasons.  In her poem, summer is over; there are no more birds chirping, the growing season is over, and all that remains are the insects’ passionless chirps.

There is no scent to the fields and the moon is worn, broken, and tired.

So, really, what is she going to miss exactly?

These aren’t exactly beautiful images that she creates with diction such as weeds, worn, broken, tired, passionless, scentless, and shadowy.

She is afraid of the change more than the actual loss of the season, which reminds me of that little girl who didn’t want to leave that bedroom closet many years ago and move.  It wasn’t a great place to be, but it was better than the change.

So we pause; we try to drink in the surroundings to taste them again when we want to.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, either.  That way, when the world gets too heavy, we can bring to our mind’s eye the images of what we know so well and find some comfort, even if that is just fallow fields and insect chirps.

Helen_Allingham_-_Harvest_Moon

It only becomes a problem when you spend all of your time pining away for the past and thereby missing out on the new phase of life.

When I left my teaching job, I spent many moments looking at my empty classroom.  Being a teacher was the way I defined myself, and leaving that behind to start another phase in life was a bigger challenge than leaving any house.  When my girls are in the middle of big fits, it is nice to be able to bring to mind the peaceful classroom I once had and imagine what it would be like to return one day. . . but not too soon.

We might want to make the symbolic leap that she is reflecting not on a literal change of seasons, but on a figurative change in the seasons of life.  Perhaps this is commentary on the hesitation we feel when entering the autumn of our lives.

Because we are afraid of death, we focus on the dark, heavy, and cold parts of growing older, but with that attitude, we will easily miss out on all the beauty that is found in the winter, both literally and figuratively.

Happy autumn, and I hope the change of seasons finds you well.

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I Hear America Singing, but who is off key? You?

2 07 2013

I Hear America Singing.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman

I’m sure you know some people who sing through their lives.

Not literally like Grease or an episode of Glee come to life, (Although that would rock.)  No, more like people who are so into what they do that it is so beautiful—it is like they are constantly singing a strong and lovely lifesong.

It doesn’t matter if a person is into high art or baseball statistics; you can always tell if she is doing what she should be doing by the intensity and spark with which she does it.  This is what is meant by “singing.”

Add to this the fact that they are singing carols.  “Carols” connotes a religious, holy feel, and it is holy when you witness people who are passionate about their work.

What a difference it would have been if instead of carols, Whitman replaced it with “ballads” or something. Let’s try it out:

“I hear America singing, the varied slow jams, I hear”

See?  Word choice is very important.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked several odd-job positions at a local copper factory.  One summer I worked in the store room, so the workers would come to me to ask for the parts they needed.

I would try to find the part in the enormous warehouse, inevitably, it would be the wrong part, and the workers would grumble and honestly not know how I didn’t know what a 3, 4, L was, or whatever, and then I would try again.

And again.

Till I just let him in to find the part his dang self.

Anyway, this one guy, who was probably a year or two younger than me, greeted me each day not with a “hello,” or anything like that.  He started the day with a number. For example, he would say (while grinning from ear to ear):  “7,642”.

You know what the number was?

The number of days till his retirement.  Every day he would come in and his number was one less than the day before.

Doesn’t that make you sick?

How can a person live life like it is a prison sentence?

When does this guy think his “life” will begin?  Who is to say he will be lucky enough to even make it to retirement?

I will never forget that, and how sad it was.  I wonder if he is still counting down.  I hope not.

This guy is the perfect example of one who does NOT sing through his life.  And that is a shame.

Take a look at who Whitman lists in his poem.  It is the laborers, really.  He doesn’t mention any “learned” people or those in professions often admired and longed for. He mentions nothing about money or wealth.  You don’t see him writing about trial lawyers, senators, or professors.

You could have the best job in the world by society’s standards but you will not be singing unless it suits you, unless it belongs to you.

Whitman knows that singing happens when people have dignity in what they do and when people are truly present in their lives, no matter what it is they choose.

This guy loves faucets.

This guy loves faucets.

People who sing through life are not waiting to live (for retirement, summer break, graduation, Christmas, etc.) They are just living.  And I don’t mean in a carpe diem way, really.  I mean they are doing what they do and doing it thoughtfully and presently, and by doing their part, they make our nation strong.

They aren’t multi-tasking or staring at a clock waiting for the day to be done.  They aren’t lost in a perpetual plan for the future. They aren’t on the phone or reading the news while they attempt to play with their children or talk with a friend.  They live artfully.

Whitman emphasizes his joy in freedom in his use of free verse—

Since his content is a celebration of the individual, it would be a bit paradoxical to fit that message into a rigid meter or rhyme scheme, right?

One of the best things about America is that, to a degree, we are able to choose our lives.  The fact that we are free to be a baker in Los Angeles when our father was a doctor in Alabama is pretty amazing.  Freedom.  We are so lucky if we have it.

american flag

So, please.  No more countdowns.  If you are feeling like you need them to get through your day, maybe it is time to reevaluate and follow that passion to make America sing stronger and more melodiously.

Be part of the chorus instead of a garish cacophonous clank.  It would make our founding fathers proud.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!





Pause and Your World May be New: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

2 01 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.  

His house is in the village though;  

He will not see me stopping here  

To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

 

My little horse must think it queer  

To stop without a farmhouse near  

Between the woods and frozen lake  

The darkest evening of the year.  

 

He gives his harness bells a shake  

To ask if there is some mistake.  

The only other sound’s the sweep  

Of easy wind and downy flake.  

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.

 Robert Frost’s poetry, while not always exactly lighthearted and cheery, gives me a cozy feel.  Maybe it is because his words are so familiar to me, as they might be for you, or maybe it’s because the experiences he writes about are pretty universal and relevant to the modern reader.

 This one, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is almost like a Christmas carol in its effect on me, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it veers into sentimentality.

 Plus, it is a pretty good poem to start the year. 

 As he and his horse travel a familiar path through someone’s woods, he takes a moment to watch the woods fill with snow.  Who knows how many times he has traveled this same route and has never really seen things the same way he does on this trip. 

 Has that ever happened to you?  It does for me all the time, especially when I am out for a jog.  I have jogged down roads that I have driven on for decades and can still find things I haven’t noticed before.  Most recently, I noticed that a house just a few blocks down the street from my parents’ house is built sideways.  The front door is not facing the road, it’s like it got up and turned on its side, very strange.

 I never noticed that till I slowed down and looked around a bit more.  It makes me wonder what else is out there that I haven’t noticed before.  Stuff hiding in plain sight. 

 Maybe it’s the snow falling that makes our speaker hit the pause button for a moment.  Snow does that for me, too.  Especially when those giant snowflakes fall so slowly that they seem to reject all rules of gravity.

1/365 & 1/52 - Snow,

1/365 & 1/52 – Snow, (Photo credit: netzanette)

 We know it is not a common occurrence for this rider to stop in the middle of his journey from the behavior of this horse.  The horse shakes his harness bells—he wonders what’s up, this is not where we are supposed to stop.  This is not part of the normal routine.

After a moment, the rider reflects that, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” but concedes that he has promises to keep.  He’s got things to do, places to go.  No, he can’t shirk all his responsibilities and hang out in the woods all day, even though he may want to.  There are things to do before he can really rest. 

 However, he can take a few minutes to press pause from time to time.  He can slow down, admire, and appreciate what is around him, and make his world a little newer.

 Here’s to a year full of many pauses of new appreciation for you.





The Real Versus the Imagined Life: “Nothing That is not There and the Nothing that is”

6 12 2012

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The Snow Man

By Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Do you ever wonder how much of your world is real and how much of it is just a projection of your interpretation? Sure, we all know drama queens who thrive on drama of their own creation, but I mean all of us, even the least confrontational.

Is it possible to regard anything the way it actually is? For example, what do you see when you see a tree? Do you see a factual tree? Don’t we have to see it through the lens of our human experience? Do our aesthetics tell us that it is “pretty” or “ugly”? Do our experiences define the tree? We think of time spent in them or near them? Do we think of the passing seasons, perhaps? Do we look at trees in full bloom and feel in full bloom ourselves? Or maybe our personal beliefs help us define the tree? Our connotations are impossible to peel off the denotations of things.

However you define a tree, it is probably not an objective tree, it is only your interpretation of the tree; it is a tree as defined by your human drama.

We create and recreate things in our world to make our lives more understandable or more palatable. This is just the way we are. No one is saying it is good or bad.

It just is, like the tree just is.

Wallace Stevens’ short, but mind-blowingly dense poem “The Snow Man” explores some of these ideas.

This poem is one sentence divided up into a series of tercets, or three-lined stanzas. It is the type of poem that you have to read over and reinterpret several times before any meaning can be extracted. I loved this poem well before I understood it, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it, but for me, it is the mark of excellent poetry when the words echo through your mind and haunt you till you make some sort of sense of them. Then, upon a later reading, you find a different (or other layer of) meaning. Maybe this is because you are a different person each time you reread it.

“One must have the mind of winter. . .”

What does that mean? At first, I read it as metaphor. Maybe a cold, stark mind? An unemotional mind? A barren mind? A mind with no imagination?

But if you look at the title, we are reminded that it may be literal, it is the mind of the snow man, and that seems to make sense to me, since themes point to what is real versus what is imagined. I am projecting myself into any other interpretation, right? If I read this as an unimaginative mind, for example, am I not saying that winter is a time when there is a lack of life?

That is not winter, that is my projection of winter.

One must have a snowman’s mind to see this winter scene and “not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. . .”

The wind is not miserable, instead, we are miserable in the wind. One must have the snowman’s mind to think of the wind as only wind—not to consider the wind good or bad. The wind is just the wind.

“For the listener, who listens in the snow”

Who is the listener? The snowman? The reader? It is the same “one” that we identified with from the first word of the first stanza.

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumal...

English: Snowman on frozen Lake Saimaa, Puumala, Finland Suomi: Lumiukko jäätyneellä Saimaalla Puumalassa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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“For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself. . .”

At this point of the poem, whoever you interpret to be the listener has ceased projecting himself into his world. He is “nothing himself”

By doing this, he is able to see the world around him as it actually is. He “beholds nothing that is not there”

And by not reading anything of himself into the world, he sees that there is nothing there.

So, when we stop creating our own worlds, the world has no meaning. In fact, when the listener is able to view things completely factually as a snowman does, completely objectively, the poem is over. It is all over.

Again, it is interesting to note that there is no judgment here. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we create our own worlds? For Stevens, that is not important. It just is.

Popeye

“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam?” Maybe.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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