The annoying poetry professor begins, “All right, pupils: listen up! What rhythm do we have here in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’?”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:
“I’ll beat on the desk to show you. The pattern of unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables goes short long, short long, short long, short long—‘In Xan-a-du did Ku-bla Khan.’ So what we have—if you are paying attention—is iambic tetrameter, four poetic feet of iambs. How are you [asks the annoying professor] going to appreciate poetry if you don’t know an iamb from a dactyl or an anapest from a trochee?”
Hold everything, Professor: Stop right there! Probably you were trained by pedants much like yourself, but the way to read a poem is not to rip it to shreds. A poem is not a code to be cracked. The way to read poetry is simply to enjoy yourself, as I am about to explain.
Come to know a poem gradually. Begin with an overall sense of its subject and tone. Read the poem all the way through, aloud or silently. Visualize the images—the words that paint pictures or arouse your other senses. Absorb the tone and mood.
Here is a well-known short poem by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of Me.
It might take reading the poem a few times to figure out fully what Emily Dickinson is saying here, but the sense comes through immediately that she is speaking of hope as a bird that sings in spite of the storms and buffeting of life. Also immediately evident is her conversational tone, which is enhanced by the punctuation slowing the presentation of her thoughts. (Early editors “corrected”—i.e., damaged—Emily Dickinson’s poems by making her punctuation more traditional. Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s work restores the poems as she wrote them.)
Sometimes getting a general impression of a poem—simply sinking into its sounds and the mood it creates—is enough. If the poem inspires a second look, move on to such details as characters and situations and develop a clearer sense of the theme, the central idea the poem is expressing. The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is standing at a window overlooking the English Channel: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” he says to his companion. For the rest of the poem, the speaker talks about the view before him and the thoughts the scene inspires. For him, love is the only peace available in a world full of uncertainty and sorrow:
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:
If you want to dig still further into your poem, the next step is to take a look at its rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. By noticing these, you will better understand why the poem affects you as it does.
Look to see if there is a consistent rhythmic pattern, such as the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in the professor’s lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Another fairly common pattern is the galloping rhythm used in Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” You will see that the rhythm is well chosen to support the mood and meaning of the poem:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Rhyme is a feature present in most poetry written before the mid 20th century, as well as in some contemporary works. In William Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Sonnet 116, the first four lines discuss what love is not, and the next four lines explain what love is. (A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows established rules for its rhythm and rhyme.) The rhyme scheme in Sonnet 116 supports the poem’s content:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments: love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove.
Minds, love, finds, remove. And now the next four lines use different rhymes:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Mark, shaken, bark, taken. Lines nine through twelve continue the established pattern (rhyme scheme) with new rhymes and further establish the qualities that mark genuine love:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Even if you don’t realize how a poet is using rhyme, the patterns can have a strong subliminal effect. Such is especially true for the sonnet’s rhyming closing couplet—two lines—which create a satisfying summary comment on the entire poem:
If this be error and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Finally, vivid and well-chosen words are essential to a poem. They should evoke sharp images and appeal to your senses. Particularly take note of a poet’s inventive comparisons. For example, “Her Legs,” by English Renaissance poet Robert Herrick, creates a pleasingly silly picture because of an unexpected comparison. This is the entire poem:
Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg, Which is as white and hairless as an egg.
In her poem “A Work of Artifice,” contemporary poet Marge Piercy makes the point that many women live constricted lives. The poem compares a woman and a bonsai tree. Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” compares steadfast love to the North Star.
As you can see, poetry is not about obscure language and singsong meter. It’s not about figuring out that “Kubla Khan” goes da dah, da dah, da dah, da dah. It’s about experiencing the magic, mood, and meaning created by lines such as these:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
If technical terms and analysis interest you: great! I like them, too. Recognizing and understanding poetic techniques can help reveal the soul of a poem. But if the literary terms and tools overwhelm you, why not simply enjoy poetry on your own terms?
Reading contemporary poets, as well as the poetic heros and heroines of the past, is thrilling. Browse the poetry section of a bookstore to see whose work appeals to you. You can also get leads by searching online for “best contemporary poetry”; here’s a link to one useful site. If you don’t enjoy a particular poem or poet, go on to another one. The world is filled with so much incredible poetry that it would be a shame to get stuck wading through poems you don’t like for whatever reason. Try Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and hundreds more. Jump in and discover new poetic heroines and heros.
The backyard is both a place and a state of being.
The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must
be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think
dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before
they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and
company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we
lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers
along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers
best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized
doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I
wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a
playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on
a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth
round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe
this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down
and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the
long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was
fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the
area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and
explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One
afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle
hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the
odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes,
Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house
did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our
new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded
hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of
bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to
meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I
played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it,
for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path.
Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and
jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the
spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted
me with still-fresh, light-green
leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the
woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat
on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand
and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine
didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I
liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared
some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay
five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought
about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and
Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long
tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy
preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob,
huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side
of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year
older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed
away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s
husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt
Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their
sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie
managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt
swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player.
Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in
back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr.
Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the
dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an
incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the
hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,”
the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.
Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story. They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.
Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir. And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings. More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.
In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history. In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight. More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.
Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.
This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:
The drawing here shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.
Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:
Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek
In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:
In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:
Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:
During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.
Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:
Penobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine
The section also has this photograph:
Mason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay
My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.
What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?
The church tonight was and was not my church;
I am making my home there,
Even as corners and entire rooms
Not yet my dwelling place.
A kind acquaintance greeted me
In my now-familiar pew
Before the organ told of time for quiet
And the small procession gathered.
I knew the crucifix rose
In the dark beyond the window;
Jesus as he lived inspires me,
As failingly as I follow,
More than Jesus as he died.
The priest spoke to us of speaking up
For right as we understand,
Of nurturing the saint within.
I loved singing the hymns:
Hymns and a sermon, a homily,
These are church enough for me,
Along with friends,
Who are my sanctuary.
Je l’aidai de mon mieux, c’est-à-dire, en essayant d’écrire un chef-d’œuvre immortel. (I did my best to help her, that is, by trying to write an immortal masterpiece.)
–Romain Gary, La promesse de l’aube(Paris : Gallimard, 1960) 185.
Relief for me is finally, finally being good enough in my own estimation, within my own head and heart.
I haven’t felt good enough before now. I would have liked to be a great novelist who stirs readers’ souls. Or perhaps, I thought, I would be good enough if I earned a doctorate and became a tenured university professor, or even if I earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing. My master’s degree in literature is not a “terminal” degree and so is not good enough, or hasn’t been. I began a doctoral program at the University of Maryland but changed states and jobs when I was just two courses into the program. Even at this point in my life, I’ve thought about earning an MFA or PhD. I’ve explored university websites from time to time, hoping to discover the path to wholeness. I would enjoy the academic work; I love to learn. But I can learn outside an expensive degree program. The degrees have appealed to me because I’ve thought they might make me, finally, fully sufficient.
For most of my life, I have felt insufficient, second rate next to the world’s full professors, full-time writers, musicians with careers, people with a life mission. Above all, I have with desperation sought a mission for my writing. I’ve been searching for fifty years. Having a mission would, I was convinced, permanently ignite my writing, giving it drive and meaning, carrying me past procrastination, past wondering what to write, past the paralysis of feeling overwhelmed with projects calling to me but languishing unsupported by confidence in how to do them and in their offering others something of value.
I have with frantic intensity tried to find my writing niche—my life niche. Good ideas have come and given me hope that I have finally found this longed-for writing and life niche. But inevitably I’ve bogged down sooner or later from a loss of energy, inspiration, momentum, and belief in the merits of my plans.
I want to write about so many things, but the pen becomes too heavy to lift if I think I must write specifically about X or Y and do so at a suitably high level—what that is, I am uncertain. I bloom at intervals, even finishing substantial projects from time to time. But then I sink back into the slough of discouragement, fatigue, and endless games of Scrabble on my Kindle Fire.
The truth is that, in contrast to my ambitions, I love being a Jill of all trades. I have not proved willing, or even able, to give up the quantity of my interests and hobbies in order to achieve quality, to overcome my master-of-none status. I love the full range of my enthusiasms. I don’t want, for example, to give up my French class in order to spend more time on Italian, or give up Italian in order to practice my flute daily, or quit billiards, tap and line dancing, or my occasional acting to reestablish a regular program of reading literature. I don’t want to give up my meaningful visits with friends in order to have time to produce masterful creations, as much as I am driven to express myself creatively. I’ve joined a choir and signed up for spiritual retreats with a dear friend. I want to organize my possessions, walk down by the pond, meditate, make jewelry from beads. And still I’ve craved—begged—to find my overarching purpose in life, my reason for being, my way of serving.
Can I possibly serve merely by being as I am—rather than only as I have, all my adult life, longed unsuccessfully to become?
I can’t be a great writer and also spend long hours studying my part for a play, or figuring out how to fill seventy-five minutes leading a book discussion in French, a language I love but in which I lack confidence. I can’t be an accomplished musician if I spend my days on other than practicing music. Yet perhaps, after all, my failure to reach the heights I’ve been thinking I must scale if I am to count, to serve, and to overcome my sense of not measuring up is because God didn’t form me to be an Isabel Allende, James Galway, or tenured professor.
Maybe I’m meant to serve as I can by savoring smaller bites across the vast smorgasbord of life and by sharing my enthusiastic efforts—whatever their limits and deficiencies—with others. I can encourage others, too, to find their joys in the world and to embrace their own God-given ways of being.
I suppose it is shortsighted of me to smother the pleasure and satisfaction of my Jill-of-all-trades temperament and opportunities because of my shame and discouragement over my master-of-none status. I’ve been damping the fires of who I am. I’ve spent large portions of my days mourning the failure to materialize of the person I thought I ought to be—but couldn’t figure out how to make myself become.
What profound relief I feel as I begin to move forward, having decided that who I am is not simply enough but is also who God made me to be. I have the responsibility to grow, to serve and to seek to master being me, but not to become other than the nature I was given.
Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me. In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church. I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.
My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism. I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding. Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.
You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy. I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses? In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?
Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers? Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?
I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.
As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics. For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me. Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.
At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding. I want and expect all of me to be welcomed. I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.
Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective. But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God. I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.
No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings. I want to be a part of that process. I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.
So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be? If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.
Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.
To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church. I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic. To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.
On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away. On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns. If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”
As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house. I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past. I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”
So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me. In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being. I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass. I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail. But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.
I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker to Catholic. The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy. So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water. Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.
My Reasons for Setting Sail
I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship. But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home. Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.
The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting. When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting. And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity. It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.
But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans. Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being. Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me. Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things. Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.
And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too. Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns. We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:
As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.
Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there. And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.
I crave regaining a spiritual home. I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love. I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.
But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon. The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.
I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans. Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place. I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace. And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ. There is much to love. And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes. But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.
Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?
I don’t expect a perfect Church. Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect. Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements? If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change. Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.
I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women. Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power. Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.
And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women. Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals. Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives. But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message. We all are.
I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me. Every human being can commune directly with God. Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.
It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present. At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service. The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes. In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality. And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.
Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church. Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example. Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment. God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water. Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.
God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status. Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on. And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized. Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not. By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.
The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me. (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.) I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion. Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity. But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”
No One True Humanly Charted Course
I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth. When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe. In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school. I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor. But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?
Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding. Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s. No one, and no religion, has all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.
The Wrong Direction Altogether?
When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home. It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction. The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.
Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family? Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in? Should I join the Church feeling as I feel? I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.
 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).
 The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.
Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters. You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far. Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.
Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing. By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work. Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book. Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.
Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present. These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir. Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful. You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful. It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.
Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting. In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged. Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).
Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now? You seemed to know me then. I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City. You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat. You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you? To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more. I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter. As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now? Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be. I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life. Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you. I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters. A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively. In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .
I wonder what life has brought you. Can you believe we’re now in our 60s? It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama. He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class. You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree. My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper. You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance. With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside. I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had. I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date. (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.) But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .
If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book. Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?
Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings
For me, August is a month of change. It is a time of coming to the world and growing older, of awakening to sun-filled hot, blue mornings filled with blossoming, burgeoning life. And also for me, August is a month of meeting loss and death.
I was born in August, and on the August day that I marked fifty-five years of life, my infinitely dear father died. In the years I lived in the North Country—in Maine and in New York near the Canadian border—August was a time of transition for Nature, too. Wind stirred the lakes, a few leaves turned red before their time, and most nights called for warm blankets and flannel nightgowns.
In “North Country August,” autumn tunes up its season of change. In this poem, I welcome the coming of autumn’s pared-down beauty. I will never cease grieving my losses, above all my parents and other dear ones who have gone on ahead. Yet while I struggle to keep the confident outlook of the poem’s last stanza, I vow to embrace its peace and optimism, as best I can.
North Country August
A large brown duck with orange feet stands on a log by the creek
And then swims upstream against the current.
In the smooth water, a perfect duck looks back at her.
Crows call between the dead trees of the swamp.
Reeds and low brambles hold an early fall dryness,
While the scraggly petunias in window boxes still remember spring.
A monarch butterfly tastes purple phlox.
Chattering chickadees fly in to feed on sunflower seeds.
The sky is clear, but the mountains are lost in haze.
The Earth waits for change.
Along the fence roses bloom, with buds forming
As if the month were still July.
Would I want to live in July forever?
August is Earth’s send-off to subtler days ahead.
How lovely it will be to sleep soundly under my blanket.
Already the Sun is setting earlier,
With evenings that give more time for reflection,
Fewer demands to be out doing.
One glorious fall morning, the snow geese will fill the sky
From horizon to horizon.
Then snow crystals will sparkle in cold December air,
And mists will rise until the lake is frozen.
The first reawakening will be the birds on a March morning.
Ice will boom in the warming Sun,
And the seagulls will congregate on the flows by the ferry channel in glorious reunion.
The silent flight of herons, with their long dancers’ legs, will herald summer,
Spread before us once again.
I was born in August.
Each year of my life closes then.
But as my season of birth,
August is the beginning for what is still to come.
My spring will not return in this life.
Yet I choose not to see August as summer’s end.
It shall be my passage into vivid autumn colors,
My transformation into the clarity of September’s blue skies.
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.