Carol A. Hand
As I sat on my front porch drinking my morning coffee, alone, I was thinking about today’s Writing 101 assignment.
“ … today, write an update post in the form of a virtual coffee date.”
I watched the birds playing in the scruffy fall gardens, hanging from the spent cone flowers and eating fallen crabapples scattered on the lawn and sidewalk. I wondered what I could possibly write. A curious little grey squirrel walked up the steps and stared at me, sitting on its back legs only a few feet away with its tiny front feet reaching toward me. I spoke to it in a gentle voice, “Good morning, little one.” It cocked its head in reply, turned, and scampered down the stairs again.
I realized I’m far more comfortable being here, alone, with trees and plants and birds and squirrels, then I would be having coffee or tea with a group of people. I thought about the photo my daughter took of me not so long ago. It’s the one I still use as my avatar.
Photo: On the Southwestern Shore Of Lake Superior, Duluth – 2010 (photographer, Jnana Hand)
I wonder if she’s captured the truth about who I really am deep inside. Someone who is more at home alone, contemplating deeper questions of life, breathing in the beauty around me. Storing it for later when I need to return to the social world.
I’m often not a fun coffee date. My social encounters almost always have a purpose. I won’t refuse an invitation to share tea or coffee. I may sometimes even be the one to propose it.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love to listen to other people’s stories and learn about who they are. Yet today, I realized when I leave my sanctuary to interact with others, I put on my professional, purposeful persona. I wear my symbolic protective necklace to help me stay centered, tucked out of sight close to my heart. If I have the luxury of being part of the woodwork, I listen, watch, and feel what’s going on, hoping I won’t have to speak much. Hoping when I do feel the urgency that glows in my heart telling me that I need to speak, my words will be gentle and true. Or hoping that they will at least be true and effective when my task requires confronting injustice.
I remember there were times when I was younger when this wasn’t so – times when I played joyfully with friends as a child, or stayed up all night talking and laughing with college friends. As I think about this now, it seems this was before I realized that being on the margins does make me different, before I understood the responsibility that position conveys. Maybe it was my first performance – reciting a poem to my third grade classmates and teacher that showed me how precarious it was to reveal who you really are.
Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”
The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?
“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”
The room was hushed: In silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671 )
Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class. “You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”
Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.
Sometimes, like today, I’m really not a fun coffee date. I can’t always forget that there’s a reason why I’m here although I’m not at all sure what it is. I do enjoy the peace of a solitary morning drinking my coffee. But afterwards, it’s time to be part of a social world that sometimes brings beauty, kindness and laughter, as it often does in this virtual blogging community. But sometimes the injustice and cruelty of the world around us forces me to speak with passion and a sense of urgency. I prefer to highlight the beauty and strengths of others and paint hopeful possibilities. Yet other times, like today, I’m reminded that I too often feel the need to play the jester.
H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann (1936)(Eds.). Adventures in American Literature. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Company.