Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Happiest Day, Linda Pastan

The last two weeks have been so crazy, I didn’t even realize it was Thursday until about an hour ago. I was patting myself on the back for starting a book for next week’s post when I realized that next week was already here…

So this one goes out to everyone who walks around chin up when the balance of life is perfect, and has nightmares and dishes overflowing the sink and tiny legos stuck to the bottom of their feet when it’s not. Because we’re all just doing our best, right? We’re savoring the happy where we can while missing it more often than we want to admit.

The Happiest Day
It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day–
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere–
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

This week, my better half is on the other side of the world for work, and my mother has come to keep us company. That hasn’t left much time for reading, but it did remind me of this poem. I’ve loved it for years, but I understand it now in a way I never imagined. It just burns at my heart.

To a daughter leaving home, Linda Pastan

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

 

(I’ll be back in two weeks with a proper review, but for now, time must be spent with a few of my favorite people.)

Marriage, Michael Blumenthal

A brief post, as this week, our family is traveling to celebrate an important birthday with my wonderful mother. She does so much for our entire family, and it’s a blessing to be with her right now.

This poem, which I’ve loved for years, speaks to me not just about my own marriage, but also that of my parents, who have spent so many years teaching me about the importance of shared burdens and teamwork. I’m lucky they’ve always been honest about both the joy and hard work required in a relationship, and that they have not only discussed it, but also led by example.

Marriage
You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you. Your arms
are tired, terribly tired,
and, as the day goes on, it feels
as if either your arms or the ceiling
will soon collapse.

But then,
unexpectedly,
something wonderful happens:
Someone,
a man or a woman,
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.

So you finally get
to take down your arms.
You feel the relief of respite,
the blood flowing back
to your fingers and arms.
And when your partner’s arms tire,
you hold up your own
to relieve him again.

And it can go on like this
for many years
without the house falling.

What is Death, Henry Scott Holland

What is Death

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.

All is well.

 

I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot the last couple of weeks. When I was at church the Sunday before Lent began, we were celebrating, as our congregation always does, with a wonderful brass band. It’s made up of some exceptionally talented members of our community, and when they play for us (typically on that Sunday and on Easter), it energizes everyone. For an hour, it felt like Mardi Gras had truly descended on us. The only downside to this particular service is that every year at its conclusion, we sing a hymn called “Glory Glory (Since I Laid My Burdens Down).” It’s one of my favorites, and it also happens to be a song that I asked to have included in my grandmother’s memorial service a few years ago.

My grandmother and I were very close. We spent a lot of time together, just the two of us, especially until I was about ten, and even after I moved three thousand miles away in my twenties, I tried to come back and visit her four or five times a year. As she got frailer in her nineties, I still enjoyed going out to sit by the river with her, or to get an ice cream because she managed to keep her good humor and sharp wits about her nearly to the end. I’m sure her body often hurt, that she was frustrated when she couldn’t speak as quickly as she wanted or dig into a ham sandwich on rye with the vigor she’d had even at eighty-five, but she never complained to me. She was practically blind by then (a particular sorrow for a woman who dearly loved to read), but she would sit and hold my hand, enjoying the sunshine and listening with eagle ears to the busy world around us.

After she was gone, I realized that many of my earliest memories were of her. She taught me to read and write in cursive long before those activities might have interested me in school. She had such beautiful handwriting, and she would write me little stories so I could practice deciphering the text and rewriting it myself. When we ate lunch together, she would pull out two pretty aluminum tv trays and set them up in front of the bay window in her apartment; I would spread out the special embroidered place mats and together we would make peanut butter sandwiches cut twice to form four triangles. As we ate, we would sit and watch the commuter trains go by and she would listen quietly while I talked (and talked and talked).

As the second child, I especially appreciated and craved the kind of dedicated love and respect she gave to me. She never expected anything of me other than to exhibit a joy for learning new things; she saw the world as an adventure waiting to unfold, and she wanted me to see and believe that too. In return, I never questioned the old-fashioned nature of our favorite past times – stringing wooden beads, or playing Authors, or learning to read aloud sentences from the worn books in her old wooden chest. She would crawl under tables with me to play pirates and into bushes that had holes just the right size for the two of us. My faith in her as a playmate and confidante was absolute.

I think of her often, but never more so than when I hear that particular song – a spiritual written about finding, finally, a release from trouble and pain. It’s a joyful song, especially when played with unbridled enthusiasm by a brass band and sung by 250 people, but it never fails to make me cry by the third verse (I feel better, so much better, since I laid my burdens down). I don’t like to cry in public, so I usually end up mouthing the lyrics through to the end while trying to pretend that everything is completely fine. It’s probably a futile exercise, but I persist because the wave of sadness it brings reminds me of Holland’s simple verses – that the pain of loss should not taint the joy of who a person was in life.

There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods, George Gordon Byron

I’m on vacation this week, and this is the piece I’ve been meditating on as we hike and swim and rest our busy minds at the end of this, the darkest month of the year.

 

There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

The Moment, Marie Howe

Happy New Year! Tomorrow I have to drive eight hours, then fly six to get home, so I’m going to enjoy this last day of vacation to its fullest. I hope you’re able to do the same.

 

The Moment

Oh, the coming out-of-nowhere moment
when,   nothing
happens
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe   half a moment
the rush of traffic stops.
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.