A Poem for a Thursday #25

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Naomi Shihab Nye was born in Missouri and spent her high school years in Palestine and Texas. Her experiences as an Arab-American woman infuse her poetry. William Stafford has said that "her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart." Nye has written numerous books of poems including several for children.

It is not so much that the boat passed
and you failed to notice it.
It is more like the boat stopping
directly outside your bedroom window,
the captain blowing the signal-horn,
the band playing a rousing march.

The boat shouted, waving bright flags,
its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.

But you had this idea you were going by train.

You kept checking the time-table,
digging for tracks.

And the boat got tired of you,
so tired it pulled up the anchor
and raised the ramp.

The boat bobbed into the distance,
shrinking like a toy-
at which point you probably realized 
you had always loved the sea.

Missing the Boat
Noami Shihab Nye

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A Poem for a Thursday #24

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Ted Kooser is "widely praised for his plainspoken style, his gift for metaphor, and his quiet discoveries of beauty in ordinary things." He served as a Poet Laureate and is spoken of as the voice of small-town America. His style is simple and natural.

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only 
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up 
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.

After Years
Ted Kooser

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Spring Fever

It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine.  
                                                      The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett




Blue skies.

Puffy clouds.

Robins hopping around the yard.

Warm breezes.

Cool winds.

The smell of the earth.

Longer days.

Green things starting to push their way above the ground and unfurl.

The first sight of a crocus.

And then a daffodil.

Being able to go outside with just a jacket.

Regretting that decision when the breeze picks up.

Frosty mornings that turn into warm afternoons.

The green haze of leaves starting to emerge on the trees.


A bit of joy.


A Poem for a Thursday #23

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Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts (about 30 miles from me) and grew up there and in Novia Scotia. She was a respected poet in her lifetime but has come to more and more prominence in the years since her death. She only published 101 poems because she was a perfectionist and spent a long time refining each poem. Her poems are "marked by precise descriptions of the physical world and an air of poetic serenity, but her underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing." Those themes come through clearly in the poem for today.

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident 
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like ( Write it!) like disaster. 

One Art 
Elizabeth Bishop

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On Grumpy Kids and Being Weird

Apparently, the world is caving in around my house tonight or at least it is according to my daughter. Life is unfair, boring, and absolutely not something she is enjoying right now. And no, she isn't grumpy at all. What could I possibly mean? And no, she doesn't want to do any of the things  I suggest. And yes, she is sure everyone else in the entire town is having more fun than her.

What can I say? She might be right. It is 8:23 on a Tuesday evening and we are doing basically nothing. I am happy with that. She isn't. We usually have a meeting we go to on Tuesdays but it is canceled for the week and I thought that meant a nice, quiet evening at home. I don't think nice, quiet evenings are in a 13-year-old's vocabulary.

It is a bit of a shock because I have always called Celia my little ray of sunshine but thirteen is rough and no 13-year-old is ever a little ray of sunshine. I am not sure any 13-year-old would ever want to be a ray of sunshine. It would obviously call too much attention to them. And it would be embarrassing. Moodiness and embarrassment are the two main emotions of a thirteen-year-old. I know this because Celia was embarrassed by me the other day. She informed me that I was too loud. I know most of you don't know me in real life but let me just say that I have never in my life before been told I am too loud. I am told I am too quiet with great regularity but too loud?! It was such a novel feeling that I just stood there and enjoyed it for a moment.

Both kids recently told me that I am weird. I was discussing the slight oddities of someone we know and they told me I couldn't say anything because I am weird too. They say no one else they know has a house made up of books (I wish. It is only lined with books.) and that I am unusually fascinated by London and WWII social history. I think Celia muttered something about my collection of vintage purses and pleated, wool skirts but I ignored that. The kids did point out that everyone is weird in their own way; we just like our own brand of weirdness so we don't notice it as much. I suppose that is true.

I suppose the nice thing about being not-13 is that I don't mind being weird. I don't mind being occasionally too loud. I don't mind being home on a random Tuesday. I definitely don't mind having a house lined with books.

Now if only I could find a way to banish the clouds and bring back my little ray of sunshine.*

*Her brother has somehow cheered her up by insulting her. No, I don't understand why that worked either.  Kids are weird. She also is laughing about how old I am because I said trampoline parks weren't around when I was a kid. Then she worried I felt bad and asked if I felt old. I said no, I liked my age and had no desire to be 13 again. She looked at me very solemnly and said: "I don't think anyone wants to be thirteen." Now she is asking what age I would be if I could be any age. I said 28. What would you say?

A Poem for a Thursday #22

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Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts in relative isolation for most of her life. Much of her interaction with others depended on correspondence. Only a few of her approximately 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime and those were edited to fit in with the poetic conventions of the day. Her poems frequently have short lines, lack titles, and use unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Dickinson was as unconventional as her poems and now, 130 years or more after her death, has a devoted following.

Dear March - Come in -
How glad I am -
I hoped for you before-
Put down your Hat-
You must have walked-
How out of Breath you are-
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest-
Did you leave Nature well-
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me-
I have so much to tell- 

I got your Letter, and the Birds-
The Maples never knew that you were coming-
I declare-how Red their Faces grew-
But March, forgive me-
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue-
There was no Purple suitable-
You took it all with you-

Who knocks? That April-
Lock the Door-
I will not be pursued-
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied-
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come.

That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame-

Dear March-Come in
Emily Dickinson

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In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I have always loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. I read them over and over as a child and still occasionally reread them now. Both my children read and loved them. Now, society as a whole is telling me that Wilder is "problematic." I just read yet another comment on a blog post saying that the books are too problematic to be read to children these days.

I have issues with that.

There are a few specific reasons why Wilder is being labeled as such and I will address those in a minute but first, let's talk about the problems with deciding that anyone and any book that doesn't conform to a current worldview is problematic. I'll start by saying that yes, there can be books that are just wrong, books that are intentionally cruel and that denigrate people for the fun of it. That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about books that were written in a different time period when people as a whole had different views. If we eliminate all books that don't line up with current attitudes then we are getting rid of a lot of very good authors. Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice portrays an antisemitic society. Dickens' Oliver Twist contains a Jewish man portrayed as twisted and evil. Just yesterday I read an article claiming that we shouldn't read Dr. Seuss because his political cartoons were racist. What about all the books that insist that a woman's place is in the home and she isn't fit for anything else? Once we start eliminating books where do we stop?

Do we have to agree with every attitude expressed in a book especially if it is a book from an earlier generation? Of course not. Does the fact that a book contains views we are uncomfortable with make it a bad book? Of course not. Previous generations, including our own grandparents and great-grandparents, frequently held opinions that would not be acceptable in the world today. That does not make our relatives bad people. It just makes them people of their time. Sometimes books are of their time as well.

That is where we learn. If we stop reading the books that don't agree with our viewpoint now then we are whitewashing the past. Read the books. Notice the things that have changed. Notice the things that haven't changed. Discuss things with your children if you need to. But read the books.

Now let's talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder specifically. Yes, I started out prejudiced in her favor because these books are such a huge part of my reading history. However, I then went back and looked at the specific issues that are being raised.

The first one is that the Ingalls family displaced the Native Americans. Well, yes, they did. So did most white settlers of the time. That is part of the history of this country. I am not saying it is right, I am just saying it is a fact. Was it necessarily viewed as wrong at the time? No. Would we do it now? Hopefully not. But by not reading about it we are denying it.

Next, the one problem that I view as the silliest. In Little House on the Prairie Laura and her family watch the Indians travel a trail near their cabin. Laura loved the little babies and wished she could keep one. People claim this means she viewed the Indians as other or as objects. All I have to say to that is have you ever been around a very small child? Most small children view almost anything or anyone as something they can possess. That is small kid thinking not racist thinking.

We also have the phrase that is frequently quoted: "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." Yes, that is unacceptable. But who said it? It was the Ingall's neighbor, Mr. Scott. Notice how Pa replies.

Pa said he didn't know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.
Little House on the Prairie shows Laura questioning the settling of the prairies. Notice this passage.
"Will the government make these Indians go west?
"Yes," Pa said, "When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west any time now. That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?"
"Yes, Pa." Laura said. "But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to---"
"No more questions, Laura," Pa said, firmly.  "Go to sleep."

That is a nuanced little passage and I remember reading it as a child. That is why we read these books.

Ma hated the Indians. That is clear in the books and many people have a problem with that. But is Ma a bad woman? I don't think so. If you read diaries of the women that went west many of them lived in fear of Indian attack. If you were Ma you would have lived in fear of Indian attack just as the Indian women would have lived in fear of attack by the white settlers. Instead of labeling her as racist and terrible maybe have a discussion about why she felt that way. It doesn't mean you have to condone her hatred but you do have to put it in its historical perspective. Ma would have been familiar with accounts of Indian massacres. How would you feel on a prairie, miles from anyone else, with your little girls, when strange men walked into your house? You couldn't communicate with them. They lived a life totally foreign to you and you knew that sometimes white settlers were killed. You would be afraid. This is how many of our great-grandparents felt. Is it how we want to feel today--prejudiced against other races? Of course not. But just as our distant relatives were not all bad people so too, Ma was a product of her times and her circumstances.

Pa is also accused of being racist for participating in a minstrel show. Again, and I can't believe I have to keep saying this, put it in historical perspective. Minstrel shows were the popular entertainment of the day. As an indication of how popular they were, in the 1850s ten theatres in New York City were devoted solely to minstrel shows. Are they racist and unacceptable in our day? Of course. But they were obviously not universally understood to be offensive at the time Laura was living or they would not have been so popular. Your great-great-grandparents might have attended a minstrel show. Does the fact that they might have attended a minstrel show negate any good qualities they might have had? Progress is slow and judging people by current standards is unkind. I think it is interesting also to note Laura's reaction to Dr. Tan in Little House on the Prairie. He appears in the chapter in which the whole family is horribly ill.

Then the doctor came. And he was the black man. Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away. 

Finally, Wilder used a sentence in Little House on the Prairie that gets quoted a lot in articles condemning her. She wrote "...there were no people. Only Indians live there." Yes, that is not good. However, that is something that, when it was brought to her attention in 1952, Wilder apologized for and changed. She said "It was a stupid blunder of mine. Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not." Why are we still talking about a quote that isn't even in the book anymore and that Wilder fixed and apologized for? Surely, people are allowed to make mistakes and to grow.

Children, and hopefully adults, are capable of understanding that attitudes and viewpoints change and that they do not always coincide with personal viewpoints. I asked my children about these books since I read them aloud when the kids were young and they have read them multiple times on their own. They were baffled by the controversy. These are books about the past and about past attitudes. They knew that when they read them when they were little children and they know that now.

I kind of hate the phrase but these books contain "teachable moments." If your kids wonder what a minstrel show is, tell them. If they wonder why Ma was afraid of the Indians, tell them. If they wonder why the Indians were being driven out, tell them.  Children are perfectly capable of understanding that people live and have lived in different ways than them. Isn't that what we want for our children? We want them to grow and learn. We want them to understand the past. We want them to understand people with different viewpoints. We want them to understand that good people sometimes act in ways we don't agree with. We want them to know that things change over time. We want them to know that viewpoints they hold right now might be disapproved of in the future. We want our children to have empathy.

This is the past. This is history. It is a fictionalized history but it is what happened. People went west. People weren't perfect. Little girls wore dresses and sunbonnets. Pigs were slaughtered. Wells were dug. Panthers were encountered. Blizzards snowed you in for a whole winter. Horses were trained. Cows were milked. Locusts ate crops. Life was lived by decent people living the best life they could in a different time.

Don't vilify them. Learn from them. Read about them.