This morning WP is asking me what one thing I would change about myself (WP, if you’re listening, I really HATE seeing those questions when I open a new page. “Yeah but you’re responding to them!””Shut up, WP.”). That’s kind of an interesting question, and, in its way, jibes with what’s on my mind this morning. I wonder if any of us is exactly who or how we would like to be. I’m not, but when I look at the broken bits or the less than ideal bits and the parts that are OK and the few parts that are WOW! it all seems to make a kind of harmonious whole in the midst of the constant flux that is life.
In China I taught an American lit survey class to fourth year students, students on the cusp of graduating and becoming, themselves, English teachers. One of the poems I taught was Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” which he wrote when he was 19. In the pronunciation of Guangzhou, Longfellow became Rongferrow. I loved that so much. I heard, “Wrongferrow,” as my students talked about him and read “Rongferrow” sometimes and “Longfellow” most of the time in their essays.
The underlying concept in the poem is that our lives are something we “make.” I explained this by drawing pictures on the board and comparing the idea with a statue that we spend our lives carving, all this based on the lines,
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time.”
The idea I wanted to communicate to them is that — in Wrongferrow’s view — we make our lives into something comparable to a beautiful statue, an inspiring creation. We do that. Life isn’t random; we have something to say about it, if only in our attitude toward it. I did this by drawing a big, solid rectangle on the board with chalk and taking bits out until it was a person. They loved it.
In China at the time no one had much to say about what happened with their lives. It was right after the Cultural Revolution and my students weren’t there because it was their burning dream to become middle school English teachers; the government had put them there. I NOW think that none of us has complete freedom in the determination of our destiny; we DO have something to say about WHO we are approaching our destiny.
But POETRY, the beauty of that poem — they felt it. Add the fact that someone their age had written it! Those students loved it. Teaching poetry to Chinese students was one of the most wonderful things in my teaching life. They had been tuned into poetry all their lives. There was no need to persuade them that it was worth their time to struggle through the language, metaphors, similes, etc.
I have been thinking about the effect we have on each other. Yesterday Elizabeth came over to buy Christmas cards. I don’t have many any more because I can’t afford to have them printed, I haven’t completely solved the printing at home problem, and I haven’t had time to work on it. Later on I realized it wasn’t about Christmas cards. It was about socks. She came over armed with two $20. The price of two pair of socks at the boutique where I bought two pair of the socks she knits (and are the best for walking the dogs and dressing up and and and OK just generally the best). We’re neighbors, but friends, and kind of family. She didn’t want me to buy them, but the Holiday Boutique is a craft fair. We don’t carve these stones alone.
I woke up this morning with the idea that maybe life is going to push us in this stone carving business to, after a long process of carving and overcoming, to the point where we are faced with the THING, the monster in the closet, the bit of stone that has resisted everything, the bit we don’t even want to LOOK at let alone start carving. And I’m there. I can see it and I find myself marshaling all the tools I’ve acquired in the meantime that I didn’t know I had. I might succeed in finishing this thing the way I want to, but it’s a little scary.
And then, there’s Goethe, whose work Rongferrow translated. But this, “Have the courage to be what nature intended you to be.” Thanks for listening to my yammering. 😀