Planting Season

This April has not provided a great backdrop for poetry, despite its designation in the U.S. as National Poetry Month. Too many people are busy slamming each other physically or via verbal abuse. Not enough are participating in good-natured poetry slams. 

Likewise, the month has been somewhat problematic for planting, as military invasions and erratic weather have both contributed globally to farmers’ woes. So I was heartened when, amid all the horrid news coming out of Ukraine, I saw a short video clip a few days ago about a Ukrainian farmer who’d regained access to his fields after a Russian military withdrawal from his area. He was out surveying his acreage, preparing to fill in recent bomb craters and then to plant much of his 100 acre spread in sunflowers. 

As a neophyte gardener in southern California, I’ve been tentative with this year’s planting, with limited success so far. Some of the succulents I’ve attempted to grow in pots have survived, others not. My springtime carrot “crop” is laughable. Most of the yard plantings that predated my arrival are holding their own, though about a third of the trees in our housing development have varying degrees of die-back. Each weekend, I spend time at our neighborhood’s closest community garden, listening to more experienced gardeners, gathering tips. Then I continue planting and experimenting with water conservation and shade provision measures, as the sun daily gets higher in the sky. 

It’s nourishing to me to spend time outdoors—minimizing my exposure to airborne viruses like covid. Outdoor, unplugged time also helps reduce my exposure to the incessant chatter of media types. Many seem intent on nudging everyone toward the extremes of the political spectrum, clamoring for our attention like overstimulated toddlers.

When active gardening isn’t enough to mitigate my worries about the state of the world, I sometimes turn to scriptural sources for reassurance. One partial verse that has long inspired peace activists and aging flower children like me occurs in two different books of the prophets. Both Isaiah and Micah talk of a time when wars will cease, when former weapons will be transformed into gardening tools:  

“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3) 

      Micah then goes on with a second gardening reference:  “…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4)

Loath to conflate any of our current earthly political leaders with the “Lord of hosts,” not even a little, I still long for and work toward a time when it may be possible for each of us to sit outdoors unafraid. 

So, as another planting season progresses, I take heart. Maybe this year some sweet potatoes, maybe sunflowers, maybe corn. Maybe a different kind of seed—a donation for humanitarian relief, a soothing refrain in the ear of a frightened child. What seeds will you plant?  

Shape Shifting

Every war has its own shape,
Its own trajectory, even when it
Occurs on territory pockmarked
By prior conflicts.

Crimea, the Donbas, 
Mother Russia–
All have seen much carnage
Through the ages.

Those of us who’ve 
Viscerally known atomic horrors
Dream gingerly, if at all,
Of a bad end this time.

We listen wistfully for the
Nightingales of the current conflict. 

We watch reports of the
Thousands of deaths, of the
Millions fleeing destruction.

International aid agencies
Despair as planting goes
Dormant under the tread of tanks.

Earth is resurrecting herself—
She needs seeds, not bombs.

Watchful, waiting, we 
See the graves and we ask:
What will be the shape
Of the next peace?

Anniversaries

This year, it may be March that’s the cruelest month—
Snows are melting in Ukraine, but little planting
Gets done, just more craters from more shelling.
It’s a month since Russian troops crossed the border,
Initiating what average Russians are
Forbidden to call a war.

How many more month anniversaries before
The carnage abates? How many more refugees?
How many more lives lost or displaced?

This month contains, too, my annual wedding
Anniversary, typically a happy event. I need
To remember, though, some prior years with strife,
Separation, near despair at mending
Serious breaches. 

Online sources’ lists of global notable
March 24 events show the date
With a mixed record: the Exxon Valdez
Oil spill in 1989, Bhutan’s first democratic
Parliamentary elections in 2008.

Lest we forget, anniversaries can mark
Both triumphs and disasters–
We cannot relive the former.
With luck and skill, we can avoid
Perpetually reliving the latter.

Changing the Rules/Cadences of Warfare

It’s been a struggle lately to decide whether or not to turn on network or cable news. Just when we thought the covid pandemic might be easing, we were slapped with another whammy—a “hot war” between Russia and its southern neighbor Ukraine. Few journalists with fluency in both English and local languages are reporting from Ukraine on American media. As of late March, 2022, coverage is spotty at best. My guess is that were I living in Moscow rather than southern California, the impressions I’d get of the conflict would be quite different. Might I even be persuaded that Mr. Putin was a hero fending off a predatory NATO alliance, with Mr. Zelenskyy as its puppet? I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the war is damaging for all of us, whether directly or indirectly,  wherever we live. Where I live now, I face rising gasoline prices, continuing supply chain disruptions, the renewed specter of nuclear fallout from intentional attacks or tragic accidents, worry about loved ones vulnerable or in harm’s way. Your list may be slightly different from mine, but it’s not likely pleasant, either.  

The older I get, the more aware I am of the difficulty of eliminating warfare altogether. I was spared direct experience of the horrors and deprivations of World War II, but since I was born, there has been nearly continuous warfare among humans somewhere on this planet we share. My childhood not far from Washington, D.C. was spent in anxiety about a possible resumption of nuclear warfare, with a “near miss” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As I took my first tenuous steps toward adulthood, the U.S. got increasingly involved in an ongoing conflict in Vietnam, part post-colonial struggle, part civil war, part proxy for an increasingly expensive, destructive stand-off between “capitalism” and “communism.”  

When in the late 1980’s, the Berlin Wall fell, ushering in a brief period when warfare seemed somewhat more contained, I cheered. Then the Balkans exploded. Then hijacked planes exploded in American cities. Then the U.S. launched retributive or pre-emptive attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly to prevent further terrorism on American soil. Twenty years on, Afghanistan is in tatters, Iraq remains unstable, and home-grown American terrorists have stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

Yet in parallel with “advances” in warfare, there have been corresponding attempts to limit its damage. Since armed conflict became more mechanized and more deadly during the 19th century, there have been repeated efforts to limit the carnage: the International Committee of the Red Cross (founded in 1863), the League of Nations (founded in 1920, dormant after 1940), the United Nations (established in 1944, since expanded to include 193 nations), Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (established in 1971, now operating in 70 countries).  Similarly, various treaties have attempted to limit the weaponry used in warfare, having some impact on the devastation, though ignored by combatant nations and groups from time to time. 

I’m by now somewhat geriatric to be marching in peace demonstrations, so I do what I can from the sidelines. I make donations. I write letters to media outlets and public officials. I blog. I try to make some sense of what is going on. I try to maintain my own mental health. In this effort, it helps me greatly that I still have access to a non-lethal space outdoors. I can take walks. I can garden. I can marvel at the changing seasons, yes, even in southern California. 

Even when indoors, I can listen to music. Recently I did an online search  for beautiful music from Ukraine, and found a YouTube selection I liked a lot. If the English translation of “A Moonlight Night” is accurate, its lyrics fall somewhere between a lullaby and a seduction song. Not that it’s likely to happen, but I wonder what would occur if, instead of the thumping cadences of planes and bombs, wars were required to be conducted in waltz time?   

 

Diaspora

Horrified, we watch the bombs fall,
The buildings crumble. Another
Round of refugees flees
Across artificial borders,
Seeking some sort of
Sanctuary.

Observers or participants, we carry
Revulsion as baggage. Perhaps,
We feel an aggrieved resignation.
Fear, loathing–why such destruction
Mischaracterized as conquest,
Again?

So many have fled our birthplaces,
Impacted by overt violence,
Or, having survived more subtle
Pressures, hunting for better
Lives elsewhere.

Wherever our homeland,
Whatever our current location,
Our wanderings began at birth–
Expelled or pulled from the womb
Once it became confining and
Uncomfortable.

We’re all part of a human diaspora,
Pilgrims, seekers, strangers, yet
Inescapably kin.

Sooner or later, whether
By war, accident, injury,
Illness, or old age,
Our diasporas
Will coalesce.

Each of us will return to earth.
We’ll be subsumed to oneness,
All of us once more at
Home.

My Granny’s Knitting

Until I was eleven years old, I lived with my parents in a family compound, with my maternal grandparents next door. Until age four, I was an only child. Then, during the post-World-War-II baby boom, my three siblings were born over the course of twenty months. While my mom and dad were busiest—mom caring for my younger sister and twin brothers, dad building a fledgeling small business, both of them scrimping and saving up for a larger house—there were several years in the mid-1950’s when “Granny” became my frequent caregiver. 

Granny taught me piano, encouraging me to practice daily on the tuned used upright at her house—as our family grew to four children, our small cottage threatened to burst at the seams and had no room for a piano. Granny also taught me to knit. I noticed that on social occasions, Granny often proudly wore a Red Cross lapel pin that identified her as a World War II “knit your bit” volunteer. She and others like her had knit warm sweaters, hats, and socks for Allied soldiers, both those at the front and the wounded in hospitals. 

During the years when she was teaching me knitting basics, Granny was still knitting warm socks and caps for the Red Cross, probably to be shipped to World War II refugees in Europe. As the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s, the need for Granny’s knitting diminished. Arthritis eventually put an end to her handicraft efforts. I don’t know what happened to Granny’s lapel pin, but recent events have got me to thinking about her knitting again. 

The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops plus threats of nuclear escalation by Russia’s president Putin have struck a nerve for many. They remind me of a previous nuclear stand-off—the Cuban missile crisis. In the fall of 1962, as I entered high school, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), which included the current country of Russia, engaged in a tense stand-off about the deployment of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. At the time, the U.S. had stationed nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the southern border of the U.S.S.R. Many adults around me worried about the possibility of an exchange of nuclear arms. The widespread destruction and the ongoing aftereffects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that nuclear weapons strikes could obliterate entire U.S. cities. They could also contaminate with long-term nuclear fallout the Maryland countryside where I lived. After a tense couple of weeks, the 1962 crisis was resolved peacefully, with the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. 

Mr. Putin’s threat to again use nuclear weapons raises the specter of human-induced annihilation. It’s also scary that the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents so far, at Chernobyl, is in northern Ukraine. Escape of radioactivity from that partially hardened reactor might be an ancillary result of ongoing hostilities.  

It now makes more sense to me why Granny did her knitting, and why her Red Cross pin was so special to her. Granny was born in rural Virginia in 1879, when the area where her family lived was still struggling to rebuild after the U.S. Civil War. She lived in various parts of the U.S. before relocating to central Maryland with her husband and growing family about 1915. In April, 1917, when the U.S. entered “the Great War,” Granny was pregnant with my mom. For much of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Granny became the prime family breadwinner, heading the housekeeping department at a Baltimore luxury hotel. 

When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, Granny worried about the draft status of her only son. She followed news reports closely. I’m not sure how early in the conflict Granny began knitting for the Red Cross, but I think she produced warm wear for soldiers and then civilians for much of World War II and its aftermath.  

Last weekend I attended a local rally in support of Ukraine. It was a sunny day in San Diego. War seemed distant. Lots of attendees waved Ukrainian flags, carried bouquets of sunflowers, hoisted hand-lettered signs decrying the Russian government’s aggression, expressing hopes for a speedy end to the killing. Several speakers explained, in Ukrainian, Russian or accented English, that there was no quarrel between the peoples of the two countries, just lethal aggression instigated largely by Mr. Putin.

By now, I too am a “granny.” It’s a continuing joy to watch our two grandchildren grow toward adulthood. Soon, if all goes well, I’ll have three additional step-grandchildren and a third biological grandchild. Since this past weekend’s rally, I’ve arranged further donations to charities working with refugees fleeing the fighting. I’m intensifying my charitable efforts more locally, also reaching out to friends and acquaintances with ties to Ukraine. I’m searching for ways to be more effective in reducing the suffering caused by this senseless war. I’m recalling Granny’s knitting with a renewed sense of respect.  

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?   

A Different National Anthem?

As a former Baltimorean, I was exposed early to stories of the origin of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It was part of our history lessons starting in elementary school. Later, I got to visit Fort McHenry, a national park on the site of now-obsolete fortifications at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. In September, 1814, the shelling of this fort by British warships was the inspiration for a Francis Scott Key poem, later set to music and dubbed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” During the day-and-night-long battle, Key had been held as a prisoner of war on one of the British ships. When, the following morning, Key saw the fort’s large flag hoisted at dawn, it meant that the British bombardment had failed to overcome the fort’s defenses. An exultant Key penned three verses of a poem whose first stanza now fills our ears at nearly every sports event or civic celebration. This song was officially designated our national anthem in 1931.

As our country has matured and begun to come to terms with the full complexity of our history, some commentators have pointed out that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best obsolete. It was composed during the War of 1812, when our then-young nation was under attack by a much stronger former colonial overlord. Its third verse, though almost never sung, contains allusions to then-legal slavery, wishing that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” 

Last November, I tried writing for myself a daily series of appreciations of anthems or hymns that have grown to have special meaning for me. One of these is “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (for fellow Unitarian-Universalists, #149 in the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition). This hymn/anthem originated in Florida at the turn of the twentieth century, written by the principal of a segregated school as a poem to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A tune was later created by the principal’s younger brother. In 1919, the fledgeling NAACP dubbed the piece the “Negro National Anthem,” a dozen years before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our official national song. 

Brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the words and music to “Lift Every Voice,” were upwardly mobile Negroes born a few years after the end of legal slavery in the United States of America. At the time he wrote the lyrics, James Weldon Johnson was principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he and his younger brother had earlier attended school and where their mother taught for many years. J. Rosamond Johnson had studied music at the New England Conservatory and in London. After teaching stints in Jacksonville, both brothers moved to New York City and participated in the flowering of art and music that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. 

The poem was first performed on February 12, 1900, by all 500 or so students at James Weldon Johnson’s school. The musical version that followed spread mainly by word of mouth from school to school. It has become a staple of choirs at historically black colleges and universities, often performed at commencements and other ceremonies. In September 2020, singer Alicia Keys performed it in a prelude to a National Football League game (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=i30SdcfEpSE), partially in response to a series of racially motivated killings and resurgent white nationalism that has transfixed our nation’s attention.  

“Lift Every Voice” was written just as the strictures of Jim Crow were circumscribing the ability of African-Americans to advance. It is as much aspirational as “factual.” A black or mixed choir can often bring a depth of meaning and history to the anthem that those of us who have benefited from white advantage may lack. I have not had to live the trauma of so many who “…have come over a way that with tears has been watered; 

… have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered…” 

though I am gradually learning the extent and persistence of that trauma. 

As debates continue about which parts of our nation’s tangled history get taught, which parts get emphasized and which parts get marginalized, a choice of national anthem sometimes becomes part of the conversation. As a former Baltimorean and Fort McHenry visitor, I know the background of our official national anthem better than most. As a student of America’s broader history, I can also share the story of “Lift Every Voice,” especially with white friends and acquaintances. 

Having spent most of my adult life in the U.S. South, I’ve reluctantly concluded that Americans are unlikely to agree completely on the “true” history of our diverse society.  I doubt it would be wise to entirely replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our nation’s song. Over time, though, we can learn to be more nuanced and inclusive in our presentations. The rousing sentiments of a newly defended nation, as expressed by Francis Scott Key, are laudable, but the enslavement, sweat and toil of the many Key left out or vilified, need to be remembered as well.

Music is a truly universal language, if one with lots of local dialects. Whatever our background or life station, it behooves us to remember to

“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty,
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

January Musings

In January, 2022, media exposure in the part of the U. S. where I now live has tilted toward retrospectives about last January’s U.S. Capitol Riot. Sometimes, even the ongoing covid pandemic gets relegated to second billing. Human-induced climate change can come in third or even lower. Most of the news is bad and can seem overwhelming. Before I get totally overloaded, I temporarily turn off all media outlets and go for a walk in nature. I am fortunate to have this option.   

In January, 2017, I took part in a very different mass event, the January 21 “women’s march global.” According to the British journal The Independent, between 3.3 and 4.6 million people participated in nearly 600 locations within the U.S., making that day’s events the largest domestic protest in U.S. history up to that point. By some estimates, nearly 6 million people protested globally. Over 200 associated events took place on every continent, including Antarctica. 

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,  half a million attendees, mostly women, converged in 2017 for a day of peaceful protests and speeches supporting women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and a variety of other causes. 

In North Carolina, my home then, I participated in a hastily organized Raleigh event which drew about 17,000 people, twice the number that local organizers and police had planned for. This event was also peaceful, with humor, flexibility, even camaraderie between some police officers and marchers.

The size of the January 6, 2021 Washington, D.C. demonstration prior to the Capitol assault has been variously estimated at from several thousand to as many as 20,000. Not all participants in the rally were involved in the subsequent riot. According to an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested so far for their actions at the U.S. Capitol, 93% are white, and 86% are male. (For a more detailed analysis, check the “Chicago Project on Security and Threats,” https://cpost.uchicago.edu.)  

As someone who is comfortable with a female identity, if not with all the restrictions that female identity has sometimes imposed, I’m both curious and concerned about the gender disparities of the 2017 and 2021 events. A half million mostly female demonstrators in Washington in 2017 managed a peaceful protest with no damage and no arrests. Less than a tenth that number of mostly male attendees in 2021 caused multiple deaths, an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol, and over 700 arrests so far. 

As we try to put January, 2021 into perspective and work toward curbing our current pandemics of virus, violence, and climate-changing economics, it should be evident that inflammatory rhetoric and destructive behavior have only worsened them. We have to continue talking and working with each other across our real and perceived divides. We need to find ways to better live out a national motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: “E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.” 

Women who helped organize the 2017 events have not stopped working, but have gotten less visible. We have turned to other avenues in our attempts to support meaningful change. The focus is both local and global. There’s an emphasis on women in the “global south,” who’ve contributed little to current global problems but are disproportionately impacted by the policies of “the industrialized north.” Wherever we live on our planet, it is true that disasters and conflicts disproportionately impact women.

Paying too much attention to the news can be disheartening. Going for a walk helps me regain perspective. I also find solace in some favorite lines of a favorite poet, Marge Piercy’s “The Seven of Pentacles:”

“..[S]he is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.”

True masculinity does not require rioting and destruction. There is ample room for a masculinity that supports equal access to life’s opportunities, that can be strong without being bullying, that does not rely on vilifying an “other” to be validated. 

Perhaps some who are gifted at dismantling cults can work with the men (and women) who were part of the violence on January 6, 2021. Each of us, whatever our gender,  can continue work on our own unique tasks in the global effort to reinforce the mutual vulnerability and solidarity we share on this planet with its over 7 billion temporary human guests. 

Hymn: Now I Recall My Childhood

“Now I Recall My Childhood” (UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition #191; words by Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum Corda)  

“Now I recall my childhood when the sun burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise, faith in the marv’lous bloomed anew each dawn, flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.”

The reminiscence below was started as the first of a series of daily journal entries during the month of November about some of my favorite hymns. It seems appropriate this New Year’s Eve to post it to my blog to “finish up” the strange year just ending. I’m taking a look further back to where I came from before facing forward into the coming, as yet uneventful year.  Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of the words to this hymn (in English translation here), was a poet, writer, and activist from the Indian state of Bengal. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two of his compositions have been adapted as national anthems: India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Shonar Bangla.”  

May all of us have at least some good memories of childhood. May all of us maintain hopes for the future, whatever our stage of life:  

An ear worm of a tune in a hymnal, remembering the joys of childhood—the sun on my face, a smile from a parent, a favorite swing, the wind in my face as spring began. A few darker images, too—a scowling uncle, a bramble patch that scratched my bare legs in summer, an uphill trudge to school. School mornings featured a hurried scramble to get to our elementary school before the Greyhound bus came past, belching diesel.  

I remember playmates, a sandbox, a swing set, a sliding board, some apple trees, a backyard chicken coop. The coop was constructed hastily one spring after my kindergarten classmates offloaded their Easter-gift baby chicks to my former-farmer-father. The cute little fluff balls over time had gotten bigger and grown feathers, outgrowing their initial families’ patience and living quarters. After we’d dispatched the cockerels to the stewpot and installed the laying hens in their expanded coop, it was my job to collect the eggs—a sometimes smelly job, depending on how recently the coop had been cleaned.

I remember a big horse chestnut tree where my dad had flung a long rope for a swing. It was so much more fun that the measly contraption on the store-bought swing set, which would only curve an arc a few feet wide. On the tree swing, I could pump my legs until the arc reached at least ten times higher, or that’s how it seemed to six-year-old me. 

I remember the sweetness of the raspberries my grandfather grew on a hillside behind the housing compound that sheltered my parents, me, my sister, my uncle and aunt, and Pop-pop and Granny. Once we were old enough to save more berries than we ate, my sister and I were given free rein in the berry patch, only occasionally chastised for bringing in half-empty berry containers and ruby-red-stained hands.  

I remember an elementary school building whose lower floors were dark, smelling of a mixture of urine and pine-scented cleaner. I remember Blinka, the cleaning lady, and the long-handled cloth mop she wielded up and down the hallways. 

I remember the elementary school playground, and little boys chanting “I see Paris, I see France, I see sister’s underpants” while we girls practiced dangling upside down, like some of the cartoon monkeys we saw on a neighbor’s TV set on Saturday mornings. 

I remember walks to school a couple of weeks before summer vacation, when the honeysuckle was blooming. I remember the beads of nectar we’d stop to savor just before the one major road crossing, where Mr. O’Casey used his whistle and arm gestures to stop traffic and let us cross. 

I remember the Catholic church and the school building next to it. We didn’t know anyone who went there, but had heard stories about the ruler-wielding nuns, ready to slap your hand if you talked out of turn or didn’t do your homework. I remember church bells ringing for celebrations, weddings, funerals, saints’ days. The most consistent neighborhood sound, though, was the weekly test of the civil defense system, blasting out a pattern on the volunteer fire department’s siren every Friday at noon.

I remember May fairs, with a May court of young girls in frilly dresses—one for each grade. I only played that role once—a first grade alternate pressed into service after the girl we’d voted to be our first choice declined to participate. In preparation for the big event, my mom took me to the beauty parlor to get my usually limp hair tressed into ringlets. She was only slightly mortified when in the excitement of May Day I forgot to take off my hair net before making my princess-ly entrance to “Pomp and Circumstance.” 

I remember snowfalls, some slight, some nearly overwhelming. During the snowiest winter, my preschool twin brothers got snowsuits.  They would jump off the front stoop steps and sink up to their waists. I remember “Pan top” sleds, with handles but no good way to steer. We eventually created ruts enough to guide the things—a sort of primitive luge course.

I remember lullabies, and silly rhyming songs, and bellowing “I’ve been working on the railroad” at the tops of our lungs when returning in the family station wagon after longish car trips. 

I remember sometimes having thought that I’d be even happier when I finally grew up. The growing up part I’m still working on; the happiness part has, more often than not, turned out to be true.