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!

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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?