A poet can survive everything but a misprint. — Oscar Wilde
Billy Collins wrote a wonderful, hilarious poem entitled, “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles.” It’s from his book, Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House). It’s his humorous take on the fact that some Chinese poems have titles longer than the poems themselves. In fact, Billy Collins has written a lot of great poetry. This one, however, I had the good fortune to hear read aloud at a poetry group at Lake Shore Baptist Church. And not just read – performed, you might say.
The most unexpected things began to happen after I started showing up at church – things I certainly never expected to be doing. I don’t think being invited to join a poetry group was part of what I’d planned to do with the waning years of my fifth decade. I mean, I wrote poetry in my teens, but it was mostly dark, brooding, sort of suicidal — you know, the usual teenage angst. I even read poetry in a UIL competition in high school, but I’m not sure I’d read poetry in forty years or so. Lots of things were happening, though, that had not been in any of my plans.
The poetry group usually met on Thursday evenings once a month. It was a small gathering. Each person was invited to bring a poem or poems, either their own or simply something they liked and wanted to share. Looking back, it appears this particular night was probably in February or March 2010. How could I remember that? Well, the Collins poem impressed me so much, I looked it up online and saved a copy of it for myself. I have the file date-stamp in the computer to prompt my memory. Clever, eh? Hey, you use what you got.
The time frame is important here. This meeting of the group would have been a short time before my surgery for Meneire’s disease. The dizziness and nausea were with me mostly 24/7 by that time, so showing up for anything in the evenings was an effort. I wanted to be there, though. The Meneire’s could leave me so sick it was hard to think. It was an effort to put two thoughts together to build something sensible to say. Seemed to affect my hearing, too, though I think I’ve always just heard things a little differently than others.
Enter Mr. Buddy P. He’s the one who’d brought the Collin’s poem that night. Part of what made the poetry group interesting was that one person would read a poem aloud, then that poem might be passed on to another person to be read aloud again. The emphasis can be a little or a lot different when read by another person. Consequently, my reading may differ substantially from the reading of another. Or, the difference may be very slight. Either way, a variety of voices contribute to a little different way of hearing the same poem.
Anyway, Buddy brought the Collin’s poem that evening. He pulled it out, explained where he’d run across it, perhaps gave a little background about the poet. And then, he began to read. Now, granted, the poem is humorous on its own, but the way Buddy read it made it even funnier. It was the speed of his delivery, the intonation of his voice, the way he couldn’t read it without laughing. I don’t remember if anyone else was asked to read the poem aloud, but I do know we asked Buddy for an encore. This particular verse still makes me laugh when I think of it.
And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
“In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird.
It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem.”
Moved, I wrote this piece. In the story, “Remembering Jim,” I used a quote attributed to “Unknown.” It goes like this: “Any person can be nice to your face, but it takes a real friend to be nice behind your back.” The quote describes perfectly the people I’d begun to meet – and the small group in the room that evening in particular. I’m so used to trying to appear okay all the time, it’s hard for me to recognize when it’s alright to allow the guard to come down. These people, however, were helping me understand how to do that. I’d tried to hide the effects of the Meneire’s for years. I didn’t want people to know how bad I really felt. Don’t ask me why. It may have been that I thought they’d think me weak.
At any rate, at some point in the evening we began to talk a little about birthdays. I shared my theory about birthdays with them. It goes like this: I figure I’m okay if my emotional maturity in any given year is at least equal to the sum of the two numbers that make up my age that year. Next year will be a breeze because I’ll turn sixty. Six plus zero is, well, six. At the time, however, I was 57. So, as I was relating my theory, I said that all I had to do was add five plus seven to know that I’d be okay that year if I had the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old.
I’m told I have a tendency to veer off topic. This, apparently, is one of those instances.
Did any of you go to school with a know-it-all? You know, some little girl or boy who always had the answer and loved to make a point of having that answer and also loved to make sure you ended up looking stupid – and did all that with an air of better-than-thou? Well, now, I’m not saying that Mrs. Buddy P. (better known to us as Judy) was one of those KIAs, but I do know that she thought it her duty that evening to point out that, in fact, five plus seven does not add up to nine. And, of course, she also knew that it really adds up to twelve. I’m pretty sure I also knew that, though it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me what I’d said had she not pointed it out. That sort of confusion comes with the territory when there’s nausea and dizziness. There were many years when it seems apparent I didn’t quite hear things correctly or felt too bad to put the words together to remember them correctly.
Thankfully, Judy is also a dear friend and I know (at least I hope I know) she enjoys some gentle ribbing. I knew right away that there was something I liked about Judy. I was sitting in worship one Sunday morning shortly after I’d returned to church. It was about time to stand up to sing a hymn. The music director at LSBC doesn’t usually direct the music in the way you may be used to. He’s usually at the piano, for instance, so it’s left to the congregation to follow the order of worship and know when it’s time to stand up. They’re a very talented group, though, so it works out. Anyway, one morning we were at that point where it was about time to stand up. I happened to glance over across the congregation just in time to see Judy stand up – before anyone else. I assumed she wanted to be sure everyone else knew it was time to stand up. I remember thinking to myself, “Hm, no control issues there.” That just made me smile as I stood up with the rest of the congregation. Judy had saved the day, once again. Her friendship was to later save the day for me more than once.
Buddy and I were later to reminisce that Judy likes to make us cry. It’s sort of an inside joke between the two of us. Of course, Buddy’s been married to Judy for, like, forever, so that’s probably not such an unusual thing. But, I’ve only known Judy for a few years now, so it’s obvious she’s quite talented in the ways of the heart — and the tearducts. Judy seems to think there’s a time to laugh and a time to cry and one shouldn’t confuse the two. She also seemed to know instinctively that I confused the two on a regular basis.
Well, anyway, back to the poetry group. There was no particular, set structure to the group. We’d visit until it appeared no one else was coming, then begin by reading a poem. We might read a number of poems or a conversation might start up from the reading of one poem. It was a couple of hours to simply relax and allow the week to wind down.
This, it seems to me, is the value of having friends. I’ve had friends over the years, but it was a difficult thing for me. I lived in a world of my own making where I tried to make the world safe — for me. Unfortunately, that meant I also needed to be safe from friends. It took a long time to figure out that no relationship is safe. If it’s really safe, it’s not even a relationship. Friendship, like love, involves risking vulnerability. I’d felt too vulnerable for too long to want to add one more risk in my life. I was learning, slowly, to begin to allow myself to see the danger of trying too hard to be safe. Life was racing by and I was afraid to take that leap from the platform onto a moving train. It’s your friends who reach out a hand to help pull you safely back onto the train, if you’ll allow it.
Still, it seemed to me that there were entirely too many Judys in the poetry group. Okay, there were only two (Judy P. and Judy D.), but that was still double the number of Bens or Buddys or Sharlandes. It tended to skew the gathering ever so slightly, you know. Well, I suppose I’ve now given it away. The poetry group usually consisted of four people – five when Sharlande was able to make it. That only added to the intimacy, though. It made it easier to say anything you felt needed to be said or to say nothing at all. It gave me the chance to get to know people who’d known each other for many years and learn how to become a part of that.
I’m not certain, but I don’t believe Buddy ever got that career as a sit-down comic off the ground. All I know is that his deadpan reading of “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles,” makes me laugh still. It’s one of those things you probably have to read for yourself to understand why it’s funny. And, I encourage you to do so. Better yet, if you ask very nicely, you may even be able to convince Buddy to read it for you.
So, we’ve covered Thursdays, five plus seven equals nine, and you’ve seen why someone’s woman is cruel. That just leaves the Weeble wobbling but not falling down. As you probably know, you can rock and rock a Weeble but it never falls down. The Weeble in this instance, of course, is me. Toward the end, the Meneire’s meant that I was never able to stand completely still. I often tried to stand next to a wall so I could touch it when needed to steady myself. It made it easier to keep from swaying back and forth too visibly. I wasn’t always aware of it, but I couldn’t stand still, no matter how much I concentrated on it. So, I moved deliberately while talking so you couldn’t tell I was unable to be still. And yet, I never fell down. I might lose my balance, but somehow always managed to catch myself before I actually went down. I suppose that became a metaphor for my life. I often lost my balance but I was never completely down for the count. It felt that way many times, but I somehow managed to find a center once again. My centers may still have been a little off-center, but they were close enough to center for me to survive the years it took to find my way back home.
The title for this piece came to me two years ago and I wrote it down. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but it amused me to come up with a title to rival Collins’. My mind sort of works that way. It seems to like to amuse itself. Seems to do it whether I want it to or not, so I usually just let it have its way.
If you thought the days of being read to were over when you hit the age of six, think again. It’s amazing to discover together the possibilities when sharing something you love with others. They may end up loving it, too. You may also rediscover something you’d loved and thought you’d lost. It’s a blessing to have friends who can gently point out that your math might be more than a little rusty. It’s good to have friends who are willing to laugh at your jokes, no matter how bad they get. It’s even better to have friends with whom you can laugh, as well as cry. It’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn. It’s a lesson I hope never to forget.