A Childhood Idyll by William Adolphe Bouguereau
My youngest daughter, Dorea, is finishing out a run of The Fantasticks in Winston-Salem this weekend. On Tuesday (hence my blog silence), my oldest daughter Aletheia and I took a road trip south to see her perform. The show is beautifully imagined, the music and acting not only carefully crafted but effortless, and there was a tenderness that overflowed from the relationship between the cast into the audience that I found moving. 

Try to Remember, a song whose popularity goes beyond Broadway, opens the show. With a warm baritone the narrator, El Gallo, urges us to take a moment and reflect on our own youth, that time when we were innocent and open.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

If we are able to remember our own experiences, then this story of young love will resonate. If not, perhaps it can offer us a sympathetic vehicle with which to travel into our past and look upon ourselves with kindness and understanding.

Remembering our youth, the experiences, the relationships, the dreams, the disappointments is what this poem by Longfellow touches upon. In My Lost Youth Longfellow weaves his memories of childhood around a "Lapland song" whose lines create the refrain at the end of each stanza.
A boy's will is the wind's will
And the thoughts of a boy are long, long thoughts.

Slowing down on this couplet opens some questions. How should we interpret the "wind's will?" Although known to be fickle, wind can also be strong. And while thoughts can be fleeting, through the repetition of the word "long," Longfellow intimates something substantial. I'm reminded of a sailboat, driven by the wind and yet on an ocean with an endless horizon. There is play between the strength of the wind and the ability to hoist one's sail and take control. But most importantly, there is plenty of room to maneuver, even if one might get blown off course. 

The rhyme structure of the poem is neatly balanced until we reach the final 4 lines. Then our sense of order is jarred by the fact that the last line does not end with "long," which rhymes quite handily with "song." Despite the repetition of "long" which gives some amount of satisfaction, we are left hanging a bit on "thoughts." Perhaps this open-endedness allows a bridge from the past to the current act of reflection in which the poet is now engaged.

The Lapland song which plays in Longfellow's mind is not static, but fluid; at times it haunts or murmurs or whispers or sings. Sometimes a burden, it is also described as wayward, mournful, sweet, fitful, beautiful, and fatal. In this, it is not unlike the soundtracks of our own lives, which change and morph depending on which vignette of our past we choose to play. 

It takes time and some effort to review one's childood, and many of us tend to be fully engaged in the present or the future, not leaving much room for past reflections. But I wonder if another reason we don't access our childhood is because of a reticence to engage in the conflicting emotions of our past. Someone once told me that most people cannot remember middle school, as it is an extremely painful period of development. And yet, as El Gallo tells us, "without a hurt, the heart is hollow."

All of our experiences make us who we are. "Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost," opens Whitman's poem Continuities. And so Longfellow comes to realize as he finishes his reverie. He has not flinched from the retrospective, the pain of those "things of which [he] may not speak, and dreams that cannot die." He acknowledges that there is discomfort with the changes that come over the years. "Strange are the forms I meet" he says, upon visiting his childhood home. And yet for all this, his lost childhood comes back to him as a welcomed gift; in the dreams of the days that were, it ignites a joy so profound, it is almost painful.

My Lost Youth
by Henry  Wadsworth Longfellow
Often I think of the beautiful  town
       That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
       And my youth comes back to me.
             And a verse of a Lapland song
             Is haunting my memory still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I can see the shadowy lines of its trees,
       And catch, in sudden gleams,
The sheen of the far-surrounding seas,
And islands that were the Hesperides
       Of all my boyish dreams.
             And the burden of that old song,
             It murmurs and whispers still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the black wharves and the slips,
       And the sea-tides tossing free;
And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
       And the magic of the sea.
             And the voice of that wayward song
             Is singing and saying still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the bulwarks by the shore,
       And the fort upon the hill;
The sunrise gun, with its hollow roar,
The drum-beat repeated o'er and o'er,
       And the bugle wild and shrill.
             And the music of that old song
             Throbs in my memory still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the sea-fight far away,
       How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains, as they  lay
In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay,
       Where they in battle died.
             And the sound of that mournful song
             Goes through me with a thrill:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts." 

I can see the breezy dome of groves,
       The shadows of Deering's  Woods;
And the friendships old and the early loves
Come back with a Sabbath sound, as of doves
       In quiet neighborhoods. 
             And the verse of that sweet old song,
             It flutters and murmurs still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

I remember the gleams and glooms that dart
       Across the school-boy's brain;
The song and the silence in the heart,
That in part are prophecies, and in part
       Are longings wild and vain.
             And the voice of that fitful song
             Sings on, and is never still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

There are things of which I may not speak;
       There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
       And a mist before the eye.
             And the words of that fatal song
             Come over me like a chill:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

Strange to me now are the forms I meet
       When I visit the dear old town;
But the native air is pure and  sweet,
And the trees that o'ershadow each well-known street,
       As they balance up and down,
             Are singing the beautiful song,
             Are sighing and whispering still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

And Deering's Woods are fresh and fair,
       And with joy that is almost pain
My heart goes back to wander there,
And among the dreams of the days that were,
       I find my lost youth again.
             And the strange and beautiful song,
             The groves are repeating it still:
       "A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

There are several youtube offerings of Whitman's poem read aloud and put to music and/or photography the I found enjoyable.

Sunflowers, Mums and Heather in Blue Mosaic Vase by Kris Carlson
I like this breezey poem by Updike, capturing many things I love about this month, although we haven't seen much morning haze. The last few days have been perfectly clear, so sparkling that it's been almost impossible to repress a smile out of doors. Pick-your-own apples are starting at the nearby orchard, so applesauce-making won't be long in coming, and the library is hosting a Bee Festival over the weekend. There's still zinnias to pick, and late beans to harvest. What's not to love about September?

John Updike (from a Child's Calendar)

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-

Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers, 
Chalk, and such.

The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hums,
And Mother cuts

Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.
"Sharing colors" from Frederick, by Leo Lionni
A friend reminded me of a delightful children's book yesterday. Frederick, written by Leo Lionni, tells the story of a mouse who, while the rest of the mice gather seeds for the winter, sits by himself in the sun. Accused of daydreaming, he informs the other mice that he is gathering sun rays for the cold, dark days. And that's not all. As the harvesting continues, the little mouse adds words and colors to his store. And in the long, dark months underground, it is Frederic with his endless stories and vibrant memories who offers nourishment for the other mice until winter is finally at an end.

My friend is like Frederick. She notices and collects experiences and images, making sense of them, and, much like Mary, the mother of Jesus, ponders them in her heart. There they rest until, engaging in conversations with her friends or spiritual directees, she brings those ponderings out from her treasure chest, nurturing the souls of those she is with.

The process of gathering and storing is also present when I read When On a Summer's Morn, by William Davies, a Welsh poet who spent a significant part of his life as a hobo. It is birdsong that awakens his senses on a summer morning, the "clear, born-singing rills" invite his bird-like spirit out into the sunlit day. Here is a largesses of sound; some of it, like the common leaves humming all day, may even require a different sort of listening. As the day ends, the author returns, heart full of music. I wonder if, like Frederick, the memory of this day, the theme of his own composition, will continue to gladden his heart (perhaps the hearts of others) when the summer has faded.

When on a Summer's Morn
William Henry Davies

When on a summer's morn I wake,
And open my two eyes,
Out to the clear, born-singing rills
My bird-like spirit flies.

To hear the Blackbird, Cuckoo, Thrush,
Or any bird in song;
And common leaves that hum all day 
Without a throat or tongue.

And when Time strikes the hour for sleep, 
Back in my room alone,
My heart has many a sweet bird's song -
And one that's all my own.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh

It's hard to imagine a more lovely May. With some recent rains the lawns are lush and green, and the creek is freshly filled. Wednesday morning I grabbed a poem and headed down to the Yellow Breeches to muse. A family of birds were chattering noisily in a hollow in the sycamore tree above me. Every time a parent would arrive, the squawking would intensify. At one point an oriole settled on a distant branch; the orange happy against the blue sky. As I headed home, a red-winged blackbird gazed at me from a signpost before launching into the sky. Like Milton, I felt blessed

Song on a May Morning
John Milton

Now the bright morning-star,  Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

Girl with a Watering Can by Pierre Auguste Renoir

There are small tomato, pepper and broccoli plants sitting in a box in front of my sliding glass door. In addition to several dozen marigolds, they are waiting for my mother to come by and take them (along with lots of good advice) to one of my nieces, who lives in New Jersey. I received them up from my sister last week and now am anxiously hovering over them, lest they die on my watch.

When my mom returns for a few days, we'll be digging up a part of the side yard to make a perennial garden. The thought of finding and owning foxglove, bleeding hearts, lupine, columbine and irises again makes me almost giddy! Back in the days when I had a larger plot of lawn, I dug (well, my husband dug) a good bit of it up into garden. But now that I have a smaller area, and not a lot of sun, I have to content myself with flowers, which is like saying I have to be happy with only dessert.

There's nothing like getting dirt under one's fingers during the spring. Edgar Guest, whose poems I've posted here and here, offers gardening as a tonic for what ails you. All the drama you could ever want, (take that, you aphids!) and more...

Plant a Garden
Edgar House

If your purse no longer bulges
and you've lost your golden treasure,
If at times you think you're lonely
and have hungry grown for pleasure, 
Don't sit by your hearth and grumble,
don't let mind and spirit harden.
If it's thrills of joy you wish for
get to work and plant a garden!
If it's drama that you sigh for,          
plant a garden and you'll get it
You will know the thrill of battle
fighting foes that will beset it.
If you long for entertainment and
for pageantry most glowing,
Plant a garden and this summer spend
your time with green things growing.

If it's comradeship you sigh for,          
learn the fellowship of daisies.
You will come to know your neighbor
 by the blossoms that he raises;
 If you'd get away from boredom
 and find new delights to look for,       
Learn the joy of budding pansies
which you've kept a special nook for.

If you ever think of dying and you
fear to wake tomorrow
Plant a garden! It will cure you          
of your melancholy sorrow
Once you've learned to know peonies,    
petunias, and roses,
You will find every morning         
some new happiness discloses.

Landscape with Olive Trees by Van Gogh

"Oh no," my friend wailed as we turned the corner. "They've cut down all the trees." I turned and looked. Along the field at the base of the hill, the line of trees which had once edged the large swatch of grass, punctuating the open space like so many colons, were gone. The landscape looked as forlorn as my friend.

Even if there is a good reason to cut down a tree - the ones behind our townhome have stretched their roots into the water pipes - it is hard not to grieve one's death. Especially when they have become dear friends, harbored neighboring squirrels, provided color, texture, architectural lines, shade, and eerily breathy pipes for the evening winds.

In The Trees are Down, the poet decries the demise of the great plane-trees at the end of her garden. By choosing to describe the lumbermen's talk as "common," she implies that they are oblivious to the sacredness of their task, their 'Whoops' and 'Whoas,' as out of place as whistling at a funeral. 

The energy of Spring is all about life. Even a rat, a "god-forsaken thing," deserves to be alive in Spring, she muses in the next paragraph. Perhaps a rat may die in the winter, but in the warmth of May, all creatures should be alive. The rat's death "unmakes" for a moment some of the joy, the verdant power of springtime.

And if the Spring was undone for a moment by noticing the death of a rat, so the cutting of the trees, these "great trees," signify an unmaking of the Spring which will have lasting implications. Having shared half her life with these woody guardians, the author mourns a deep personal loss. She is companioned by the quiet rain, weeping as the "whole of the whispering loveliness" is carted away.

The Trees are Down
Charlotte Mew

...and he cried with a loud voice;
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees --

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the garden.
  For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall.
The crash of trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoas', the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of the  
  men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat in the mud of the 
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.
The week's work here is as good as done. There is just one bough
  On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
            Green and high
            And lonely against the sky.
                  (Down now!-)
            And but for that,
            If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoas' have carted the whole of the whispering
   loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the heart of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
            In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
           There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
           They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying---
            But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
                   "Hurt not the trees."
Every spring I wait eagerly for the pink double cherry blossoms to burst into bloom outside my kitchen window. Since we live in a stacked townhome, I look out at branch level and feel like pink clouds have overtaken the sky. This year's early spring and then a not-too-surprising cold dip made me fear that the blossoms had frozen, but they tenaciously appeared.

Here's a poem by A.E. Housman, who had a similar love for the beauty of the cherry (although his blossoms were white, not pink.) The poem is one of 63 poems from a work entitled Shropshire Lad. Housman's work was infused by the brevity of youth  and the tenor of this poem reminds me of the famous opening lines from  Robert Herrick's poem  To the Virgins to make most of time. "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," Herrick admonishes the young women, "Old time is still a-flying".

I hope you have a chance to get out this weekend and enjoy the loveliness of spring while it stil lingers.

from A Shropshire Lad
A. E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
During Lent, I've been using the Wednesday posts to reflect on hope. When I came across this poem by Rilke. I was struck by the strong message of hope I found within its lines. There is work for us to do - no doubt about that; the very act of reconciling the pieces of our life that don't match, that don't make sense, is difficult. But there is a reward that comes from graciously owning our past - the good, the bad, the perplexing. By refusing to see ourselves as victims, we turn the tables and become hosts. Rather than throwing a pity party, we anticipate a celebration with a gentle yet empowering guest. This partner in our loneliness, mysteriously responding to our monologues, has the ability to change us. And as we yield to this love we are stretched, infused, transformed until it is no longer clear who is being held and who is doing the holding - so interwoven we cannot tell where this mystical dance begins and where it ends.

She Who Reconciles

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth --
it's she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it's you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.

Rainer Maria Rilke ~

Addendum: I was reminded, after I wrote this post, of a verse from the book of Revelation. In the first part of this vision, Jesus  instructs the apostle John to write letters to seven of the churches scattered throughout modern day Turkey. He concludes one of these letters by saying:
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."
Dusk by Alphonse Mucha

Given the recent solar activity, I thought a poem on the sun might be appropriate. Donne, whose poetry included sonnets both sacred and secular, was featured in Monday's post. Here, on a different note, is a poem written to the sun. In it, Donne takes the sun down a notch, scoffing that although other lovers may base their activities on his rising, falling, or seasonal affect, Donne and his lady love are quite impervious from this tyranny.

Donne can easily exercise his disdain of the sun - a blink is all that's necessary - but doing so would deprive himself of the source of the only light that matters, the beauty of his beloved. Others may be blinded after gazing upon the celestial sphere, but the poet is concerned lest, enthralled by the beauty of his mistress, that old, unruly Sun might have himself have difficulty in seeing. Perhaps, if he can still manage, the aging orb might take a gander at Donne's lady love to observe if all the splendors of the known world are not found in her. And, as she encompasses  the wealth of all states and all countries, the Sun might enjoy a well-deserved vacation, or at least go part-time. Since their bedroom certainly comprises the entire sphere, once they are warmed, the sun can consider himself finished for the day.

The Sun Rising
John Donne

Busy old fool, unruly Sun, 
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ? 
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide 
Late school-boys and sour prentices, 
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride, 
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time. 

Thy beams so reverend, and strong 
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long. 
If her eyes have not blinded thine, 
Look, and to-morrow late tell me, 
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine 
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay." 

She's all states, and all  princes I;
Nothing else is;
Princes do but play us; compared  to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy. 
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we, 
In that the world's contracted thus ; 
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be 
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; 
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.
Home sweet home by Sarah Sullivan

Hope is often perceived as a word of the future (in fact, last week's post took up that theme). But I wonder what it looks like when we view our past with hope? There are things that we’ve done which have caused true harm, and that we regret deeply. I heard once that people don’t remember much about their middle school years precisely because it is so painful. We want to forget the stupid choices we made back then, because we don’t dare hope that what we did can be reconciled with who we are now.

In Christianity there is a strong emphasis on forgiveness. That is to say, that what we have done in the past will not be held against us. We will be released from the guilt, if not always the consequences, of our action. But sometimes forgiveness falls short. And here again, Christianity offers an answer – grace-filled redemption, the belief that good will come from our mistakes.

I remember several months ago I was writing down my top values. One of them was “grace for learning.” In my failures, of which there are bound to be many, I hope that grace will be offered. If I am trying the best that I can, I hope that my mistakes will be taken up and formed into something beautiful.

There is a strand of Christianity that sees sin as inevitable, but also as a means of putting God’s grace on display. Julian of Norwich, in her Divine Revelation, says that God “considers sin to be the sorrow and suffering of those who love him and out of love he does not blame them... And so shame will be turned into glory and greater joy; for our generous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall into sin often or grievously; our falling does not prevent him from loving us.”

These words echo those of Paul, who in writing to the Romans says, "And I know, that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him." (Rom 8:28) They remind us that nothing is outside of the purview and power of God to be transformed. As Joseph says to his brothers, who sold him into Egpyt, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." (Genesis 50:20)

Recently I came upon this poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The dream is an “error” only because it is not literally true, but the grace it shows is marvelous indeed. How it nurtures my soul to hope that those golden bees are nothing less than the loving Spirit of a loving God, adamant in making good out of my life’s mistakes. 
Last Night as I was Sleeping
Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that I had a beehive here
inside my heart.

And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.