Occasional Poems for Mothers in May

The Stone Boat: constructed in the mid-1700s. Photograph of the Marble Boat Pavilion on the grounds of the Summer Palace in BeijingChina. Photograph taken on April 172005 by Rolf Müller. Permission to Share from Creative Commons.

Occasions: When Audience trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days ~ May and June
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days ~ May and June and July
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days ~ May and June, typically but also constantly

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions are opportunities to practice crafting poems.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.

Many new poets write only when their emotions need an outlet. They require the emotion for the inspiration. Professional poets know that poetry occurs constantly. Poetry is for every day, not just for the days when anger or grief rule.

Occasions are excellent opportunities for poetic growth. Logic drives poems that endure, not just the canonical Shakespeares and Rilkes, e.e. cummings and Dickinsons, Poes Whitmans and Dickinsons, and so many more. Logic forms the enduring songs we hear in popular cultures, those songs on the radio, like the Eagles and Dolly Parton, Cold Play and Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Chicks and Sting, U2 and Chris Tomlin, and on and on.

Logic does not mean that poetry becomes lock-step.

Logic does mean that the poet controls the poetic craft.

Occasions go one step more. Occasional poems require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

In other words, poets write with other people in mind.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song.

The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.

Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one. Occasional poems are often read aloud.

Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering. These devices “control” the sequence of thought and must be carefully controlled.

Two Poems to Study

Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples of occasional poems written for presidential inaugurations.

Angelou gives us a free verse poem as sprawling as American cities while Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured over its 16 lines. For the audience, this is the difference between a 20-minute speech and a 5-minute one. It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it which everyone has forgotten.

Angelou’s poem resonates when we can hold it in our hands, peruse it, muse over it. It is a poem for future anthologies.

Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is powerful in the moment yet is then rarely referenced as more than an inaugural poem.

Craft an occasional poem well. It can gain power to reach into the ages.

Intimidated? You can always fall back on a greeting card.

Here is our first poem for Mother’s Day.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, located here on the Poetry Foundation website, Li-Young Lee presents the connection of the past to present to future.

Go off and read. I’ll wait.

Mothers connect past to present to future for their children in many unconscious ways. They ground their children with who they are (present) and who they come from (past) even as they encourage who they will become (future).

Lee celebrates this ability of his mother and grandmother through their singing. The women’s joy comes across in the second line: “Mother and daughter sing like young girls.” Then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a mother-based poem—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”, another excellent poem of past to present to future. Lee adds a memory of his departed father, reminding us that these two women who give him such joy will not always be with him.

Just as our mothers will not always be with us. A gentle reminder: Be with them in this now, for time will have its cruel way.

Lee’s second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song ::

“I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace / Nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers / running away in the grass.”

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the powerful imagery of soothing serenity ::   waterlilies become a bamboo fountain, “spilling water into water / then rock back, and fill with more”.

from Wikipedia, Kuen Ming Lake, spelled there Kunming Lake, at this link.
We finish the poem, but it’s not done.

We read the poem, read it again, basking in the soothing imagery and the wistful ideas. Then, in preparation for moving on with our busy lives, we read the title, those few words that we scarcely glanced over in our rush to read the poem.

Lee has done something wonderful with this title. It is a necessary part of his poem. It pours us into the words, just as the waterlilies pour water into water, from the first line to the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back, reading the poem a second and a third time, remembering it, connecting it with our lives.

Return on the 15th for another Occasional Poem in Celebration of May for Mothers.

Riddling Allegories :: “Tapestry” by Carole King

We continue our poetry series with the mysterious “Tapestry” by Carole King, a 1971 song from the album of the same name. Rolling Stone ranks the album at ranked 35 in the top 100 albums of all time. It also is second on the Billboard’s longest-running albums list (Number 1 is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).

Songs and poems may haunt us. They may entice us to return again and again, especially when their words pose a riddle we must decipher.

In challenging us to return for the clues to the riddle, the song serves the writer’s purpose ~ to have us read and re-read their words.

Sometimes the enticement is the riddling mystery that surrounds the work. We long to decipher the maze of words.

Sometimes it is the beauty of the words or the music or both.

And sometimes the enticement is the emotion and memories that the song or poem evokes.

The best writers tell us everything in fragments. They reveal even as they veil.

This is Carole King and her “Tapestry”, the 1971 song and album.

Lyrics are here, and the video is here. If you are not familiar with the multi-award-winning Carole King, then this 28-minute video from YouTube will give you her biggest hits by the year 1971. She had more hits after that year, too.

What is an Allegory?

First, an allegory works like an extended metaphor. We have a comparison with multiple points for linkage. An allegory, though, is more than a simple comparison. In it, a story is told.

A tapestry is a picture stitched with different-colored threads. The canvas upon which it is built is blank. The needleworking artist creates the image as she stitches. If the threads are pulled out or unraveled, the created image is lost.

The allegory begins by stating the metaphor > life = tapestry. Then elements of the comparison are revealed. As King works through her allegory, the various elements of the story create the points of the extended metaphor, each as interconnected as the threads in a tapestry.

How to Write a Riddling Allegory

In “Tapestry”, King does not bother with the usual refrain (or chorus). Each stanza serves a distinct purpose. The first builds the metaphor. The second and third and fourth work out the story. The last connects the story to herself (and us) and concludes the metaphor.

To help tie the lines together, she uses alliteration:

  • 1st stanza :: rich / royal, vision / view, wondrous / woven, bits / blue
  • 2nd stanza ::  soft silver sadness / sky, torn / tattered, coat / colors
  • 3rd stanza :: what / where, hanging / hand
  • 4th stanza :: rutted road / river rock, turned / toad, seemed / someone / spell
  • 5th stanza :: gray / ghostly, deepest darkness / dressed

The story of the allegory ties the poem together, yet King also rhymes with each stanza through a simple paired couplet. The rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, AABB. The concluding fifth stanza has five lines instead of four (a neat echo to the stanza), but the very last line is a repeat of the last part of the line before.

In the song itself, King concludes with a piano repetition of the last stanza, unvocalized.

So, a seemingly simple structure for her allegory.

However, King is extremely clever with the elements of her story.

How King Writes a Riddling Allegory

Like the Moonspinners of Greek mythology, the speaker in “Tapestry” is weaving different threads together to create an image of her life. The Greek Fate Clotho spins the thread. Her sister Lachesis measures it. The third sister Atropos cuts the length with her dreaded shears.

According to King, “my life has been a tapestry”. We are our own Moirai, controllers of our fate. We select the colors for our lives, of “rich and royal hue”. In the paradox of the antithetical repetition “everlasting” and “ever-changing”, we construct meaning through the opposing constancy and change.

Our lives push steadily onward even as they alter visibly and invisibly. When we end, our souls continue to a new existence.

This is the magic, the miracles that we don’t recognize.

The last line contains another seeming paradox:  “A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.” If we can feel it, how can we not hold it in our hands? Ah, “feel” has a dual meaning ~ touch and emotion.

Riddling Starts in the 2nd Stanza

The allegorical story begins in the second stanza with the entrance of the tatterdemalion drifter, each bit and piece symbolic of his wanderings.

He wears a coat of many colors, like the biblical Joseph, forced to leave his homeland because his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph had to make the best of his situation—just as we should when we sell ourselves into the slavery of work. Joseph interpreted the Pharoah’s dream, just as we must interpret our own dreams and turn them into reality.

Much Mystery in the 3rd Stanza

This drifter “moved with some uncertainty”. That’s like us, again. We go for years without understanding our purpose. I’m certain Joseph had many years when he wondered why he was where he was.

In pursuit of–something, we reach for a golden item, unnamed, unclassified. We desire it. We think it’s the ultimate treasure. Like Adam & Eve, we eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In the poem, though, the drifter’s hand grasps nothing. He reaches for his treasure, reaches for the knowledge of his desire. He hasn’t found it yet. Like the fairy tale of the Enchanted Song Bird in a gilded cage in a tree, we desire songs of love—but how often do we find such love?

King merely hints at this allusion, yet it fits best with her other wide-ranging allusions.

4th Stanza Reveals as it Veils

On the rutted road of his journey, the drifter takes his ease on a river rock only to fall victim to a curse. He becomes the frog prince, transformed by a wicked spell. We also are transformed when our desires are thwarted, again and again, dreams deferred as in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”.

Yet who created this wicked spell? Why is the drifter cursed? Would anyone have triggered the curse? Or was the spell intended for him alone?

Also suggested by the lines is that the accursed drifter / frog needs his princess. Only she can kiss him and remove the curse. He will be trapped in his toad-eous form until he receives that kiss from someone both inherently great and innately kind.

5th Concludes and Continues the Riddling

An unknown figures enters the tapestry. The speaker recognizes this person as a companion even as she questions who he is. Is he the Reaper? Is he Death (as in Donald Justice’s “Incident in a Rose Garden”)?

Before she can discover, the tapestry and life unravel. The Moonspinners’ thread is done.

Riddling to Truth

The Moonspinners who provide the threads to weave the tapestry are from Greek myth. Joseph is biblical while the golden treasure in the tree could be the Enchanted Songbird story from China. The Frog Prince is a European fairytale, and Death—gray and ghostly, sometimes dressed in deepest black—comes from the mythologies of many cultures.

What is this journey to find the greatest treasure of all? What is this journey that exhausts us? And when we stop briefly to rest, are we falling into the wicked spell of non-pursuit? Is the drifter Perseus, bringing back a gorgon’s head? Is the songbird the golden nightingale that heals the dying emperor? Or is it the golden bird sought by the young prince who constantly makes mistakes and needs the fox’s avuncular help?

Like the best of the ancient balladeers, King doesn’t give us any the answers—deliberately, she does not.

These questions keep us returning to decipher the clues she has given us. Her allegory draws from every where and every when and every what, just as we do.

We don’t have all the answers. We keep returning to our own story to decipher the clues we are given. Clues we may never decipher.

Writing Riddling Allegories

When constructing your own poems, play with the idea of the allegory. Set up your extended metaphor, and guide your story through it.

Use a comparison that is universal. When story speaks to everyone in every time, story endures.

Use simple methods to tie your lines together. Use clever methods to develop your story. King is clever with her use of allusions to develop her structure and story.

Leave enough clues so that your readers, like Hansel and Gretel, will journey back to your work, over and again.

And remember the 4 Requirements of Song:

  • 1] Clear Communication
  • 2] Heart-felt Emotion
  • 3] Strong Lines
  • 4] Powerful Imagery

Coming Up

We’ll touch on another allegory as we dream through the heat-heavy days of summer when we look at the classic rock “Hotel California”.

First, though, we’ll venture through the requirements of occasional poetry by looking at poems for our origins: mothers, fathers, and the country of our birth.

The Eagles land after that in August.

More: Bright Saturday

Prayers for Guidance

Not that long ago, a young friend of mine faced one of the many quandaries of life. She had for years participated in a group in order to do an activity she truly loves. The group had recently begun pushing her and nagging her to do something on a timeline they thought would be appropriate.

They wanted her–without understanding her situation–to accomplish something. They wanted her to do it NOW, on their timeline, not on her timeline. Even though she’d been with them once a week for several years, they didn’t really understand the timeline she was following.

My young friend understands herself extremely well. She knew their timeline would not work for her. After all, she knows that the timeline the world expects is not the timeline God expects.

It was HER timeline, not theirs. It was her slow-boat to her goal, at a speed that didn’t overly stress her and disrupt her careful maintenance of stress to control a physical condition.

Her timeline was not their timeline, but they couldn’t see that.

The World’s Guidance

How many times have we heard people asking five-year-olds, “Is he your boyfriend?” Or they say, “Oh, how sweet you are to that little girl. Is she your girlfriend?”

Why are they asking children about an adult relationship?

Newly married couples are nagged by well-intentioned relatives: “When’s the baby due?” The couple may want to wait a few years, to know their finances won’t be crushed, and to have stability in commitments and obligations before bringing another life into the world.

Young people who are trying to find a job that won’t send them home in tears hear comments like “That’s good money. I wouldn’t leave it.” They don’t know how the boss screams daily. They don’t know that co-workers snipe constantly. They don’t know the countless overtime that occurs without chance of remuneration.

Or someone approaching retirement may constantly hear, “Have you set the final date?” The potential retiree may need a couple more years to settle finances down so they can move back to their original home where family still is or get things lined up for when the 9-to-5 job ends. They may be asked, “When will you leave so this person can have your job?”

Ouch. My apologies–because I did that to someone once. Double Ouch.

Needing Guidance

My young friend put up with the group’s nagging (actually, it sounds more like bullying the more she describes what was happening). She allowed the stress to escalate just so she could continuing doing the activity she loved. Then came two last straws:

1] a push that she participate in an expensive seminar, because that would financially benefit the group’s leader.

2] a note filled with manipulative comments, blaming someone else for my young friend’s reticence.

On her own, she decided to sever ties with the group. She didn’t need the on-going stress caused by the constant nagging. She didn’t need the comments that sought to undermine her relationship with a loved one. Nor did she need to drain her financial resources just to help the leader improve hers.

She didn’t want to quit the activity. Yet she was so tired of their pushing.

“Take a brief break,” we advised. “Go back in a little while.”

“But they’ll just keep pushing me. And I want to do my activity.”

“Take a brief break and look around for alternatives in the meantime.”

After a couple of hours searching, we found three alternate solutions. And she discovered a benefit with these that she had not previously considered investigating:  the activity would now cost her less money.

Yet still she hesitated.

Praying for Guidance

When she went to bed, she prayed for guidance before she dropped off to sleep. And woke up with her solution.

Prayer is a conversation with God. The things that we bring up with friends and family are the same things that we can bring up with God.

The Bible contains many examples of prayers:  the model Lord’s Prayer, prayers of thanksgiving and praise, and prayers that others will get what comes to them. (Think about Jonah’s angry prayer after Ninevah’s repentance.)

We pray for things we want, for answers to questions (even though we may want a “yes” and God says “no” or “wait”), and for help that others need to receive.

And we can pray for guidance.

David also prayed for guidance.

Psalm 143:1-9

Hear me, David prays. Have mercy on me, even though I sin in countless ways.

  • Hear my prayer, O Lord, Give ear to my supplications. Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness! [1]
  • And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no man living is righteous. [2]

I am being crushed. I am overwhelmed.

  • For the enemy has persecuted my soul; He has crushed my life to the ground; He has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead. [3]
  • Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me; My heart is appalled within me. [4]

I know you, God, have helped me before. I know that your help will turn my desert into a lush oasis.

  • I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. [5]
  • I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah. [6]

Answer me quickly. Give me your loving and kind answer by morning. I trust your advice, for you care for me. You are my sanctuary from these pressures.

  • Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails; Do not hide Your face from me, Or I will become like those who go down to the pit. [7]
  • Let me hear your lovingkindness in the morning; For I trust in You; Teach me the way in which I should walk; For to You I lift up my soul. [8]
  • Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies; I take refuge in You. [9]

Keep me in your path, God. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

  • Teach me to do Your will, For You are my God; Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground. [10]

A simple conversation with God. That’s all we need.

Going Forward

This Bright Saturday post is the last of our More blogs surrounding Easter.

The next major holy day of the church year is Ascension Day, marking Christ’s ascent to Heaven after his 40 days with the apostles following His Resurrection. Ascension always falls on a Thursday; this year it’s May 21.

The 11 apostles spent the next days after Christ’s ascension in prayer and fasting with other disciples. Then, on the 10th day, the Holy Spirit descended as flaming tongues and alit on their heads. This is Pentecost.

Pentecost coincides with the Jewish commemoration of the Feast of Weeks, which marks when the Lord gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. That connection–the law given to Moses and Christ’s fulfillment of the requirements of the law–is a sacred connection. This year, Pentecost is May 31.

As the Church Year progresses, look for more. You will discover that God is infinitely more than you ever thought.

More: Bright Friday

We teach little children prayers to say every night before they go to sleep. As parents, we listen to their prayers. And sometimes, as we listen to those sweet little voices, we might think,  ‘Surely prayers should be more.’

Then, as we age, we think those prayers are for the little people. They seem too simple for our complex lives.

And our mistake is when we try to make our prayers more when simple is better.

In looking at the simple, we often see things we have forgotten because our so-called complex lives are actually only filled with distractions.

We receive more guidance for our lives when we actually heed what those little prayers are saying.

Three Little Prayers that are so Much More

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

In trying to protect our little ones from the harsh realities of life, we no longer teach the 1700s version of this famous prayer. You can find more forms of the updated (minus death) versions here.

Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The first line is the calming one, the one that reminds us that God is there, a constant presence even as we sleep.

What’s wrong with asking God to be in charge of our souls?  Nothing.

“If I should die”: this is the kicker. We don’t want to think about the end of our life which–we hope–is far, far in our futures, after we have lived many more years.

This third line is the reason for so many altered versions of this little prayer.

Some of those altered versions talk about angels watching over the sleeping child. These guardian angel additions may be adaptations from the Jewish Shema.

Guardian Angel Prayer (from the Jewish Tradition)

The little three-minute video at this link explains the Shema, a tradition thousands of years old, taken from Deuteronomy.  I happened upon this little prayer while exploring ideas awakened in my reading of My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

Here is one version of the Jewish Bedtime Prayer, calling upon the Guardian Angels for protection:

To God Almighty, Lord of Israel:

May Michael be at my right hand,

Gabriel at my left hand, 

Before me Raphael and behind me Uriel,

and above me the divine presence of God.

The Little Hand of God Prayer

Prayer is a conversation. People who never develop a prayer life as children worry about what to pray and how to pray. They never consider that prayer is just talking with God.

People who develop a strong prayer life just launch immediately into the prayer without worrying about what and how. They pray constantly, never worrying about the when or the where. They listen to God for His answers, and they speak to Him as someone who listens without judgment.

And the why of their prayers?  A closer walk with Christ Jesus–which makes us better people–which improves more of those around us, human and nature–and thus improves our world.

The little Hand of God Prayer, a version of the Five-Finger Prayer, is often taught to children to give them guidance as they begin their prayer life.

Hand of God Prayer

1st, thank God for keeping us in the palm of His hand.

2nd, using the thumb, pray for those nearest to us. The thumb helps us HOLD things. The people nearest to us HOLD us close just as we HOLD them close.

3rd, using the first finger (index), the Pointer, pray for those who POINT us in the right directions: teachers and preachers and coaches. 

4th, using the tallest finger (Tall Man), pray for those in charge of us: social and political leaders, bosses at work, anyone in authority over others (local and state and national and international).

5th, using the ring finger: This is the weakest finger. Even little pinkie does a better job pressing down than the ring finger does. Pray for those who are sick or feeble, for those who facing problems or diseases, anyone who is in trouble and suffering.

6th, the pinkie:  The little finger represents us. It is the smallest finger, and we are not only small in relation to God but also small in relation to all around us. We should ask for things for ourselves, but our requests should not fill our prayers. (This is also an excellent way to begin teaching more humility to children–and to remind ourselves of our small place in the world and in the universe.)  

Many people omit the 1st step, the Palm of God’s Hand, and just follow each finger. I have seen this prayer (as the Five Finger Prayer) attributed to Pope Francis, from his time as an archbishop. I don’t know the truth of that; my original source was in 2005.

Prayers that Grow with Us

Whoever developed these three little prayers, one by one by one, are three geniuses, for the simplicity of the prayers ensure their longevity.

The wonderful thing that elevates the Hand of God Prayer (and the ACTS prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) over other prayers is that it does not become rote memorization.

As we pray, we think about each part of it. Each part is developed by us and therefore has more meaning to us.

These early guides to praying can be as simple or as complex as we can make them. Simple is sometimes so much better than complex.

During a daily devotion to God, remember these early guides to praying. They seem simple until we examine them. And we don’t want to forget their simple lessons.

Coming Up

This Bright Week has examined devotions to God, beginning with the prayerful reminders of the Apostles’ Creed and the Gloria Patri (sometimes called the Minor Doxology yet more often known as the Glory Be), venturing to the ancient prayers of St. Francis of Assisi and the unknown monk of the Sarum monastery, and finally to these 3 simple prayers that guide children … as well as our adult selves.

Bright Saturday will conclude our two-week series on More devotions around Easter.

Our prayer life is extremely important yet so easily dismissed. How could simple talking with God accomplish so much? Yet it can.

Tomorrow we look at Praying for Guidance.

More: Bright Thursday

While the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed and even little Glory Be offer the basic tenets of faith, we can add more prayers to intensify our daily walk with Christ.

More can mean a greater understanding of the church year (as we did last week for Holy Week), but it can also mean additional readings to add to our daily devotions.

Reading through the Bible can be a challenging daily devotion, especially deep into Leviticus or Jeremiah. Supplementing with additional small readings can make the uphill struggle of the laws or the Lamentations bearable.

The Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is one such addition.

Most people first encounter the Peace Prayer as a song.

The beauty of this Peace Prayer is its excellent guidance for life. Each line tells us more and more how to create a peaceful community around us, all striving for better lives.

Better does not come from more materialism.

Source Questions:  Some doubt that St. Francis wrote the prayer, as it is not located in his writings. Parts of it sound like a friend of his. You know what?  I don’t care who wrote the Peace Prayer. It is valuable on its own.

Peace Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may

not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

More on St. Francis of Assisi is here although Wikipedia will tell you that no known written record of the prayer occurs before 1916. It is often associated with the pacifist movement that developed around WWI and WWII.

More: Bright Wednesday

On this Bright Wednesday, we celebrate for He is Risen!

Our Reading is The Road to Emmaus / Luke 24:13-35

“He is Risen” is the word that the women gave, based on the evidence of the tomb and the message from the bright angel who reassured them.

Yet the disciples could not bring themselves to believe. They wanted to, desperately, but their earthly realism prevent complete belief.

So, three days after the Crucifixion, on the day of the Resurrection, two of the Jesus’ followers are walking on the road to Emmaus. One of them is Cleopas. The historian Hegesippus[1] recorded that Cleopas was the son of the brother of Joseph; therefore, he was a cousin of Jesus.

The two men are talking about the events, especially the words of the women just that morning. And a stranger greets them.

They recount the troubling events, especially the greatest troubling event of the body missing from the tomb but the angel no longer there. And they admit they are amazed.

A Bright Amazement

We have forgotten the true meaning of “amaze”:  to fill with astonishment, to stagger, to stupefy, to awe. To be amazed is to be confused by mystery.

They explain the whole amazing events to the stranger as they walk the road to Emmaus together.

But they do not really see the stranger. Just as they never really heard His message. Not until he rebukes them: 

“And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart — to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24)

Once again, Christ had to teach them. Now, perhaps, they listen with better understanding. Now, perhaps, they can heed His words.

Yet Christ does not reveal Himself to them. They do not “see” who HE is until he joins them for supper, breaks the bread and blesses it and gives it to them. Only then, hearts burning within them, they recognize Him.

And He instantly vanishes.

A Bright Understanding

In life, how often do we not see what is before our faces? How often do we not understand until a flash of understanding reveals all?

How often do we never receive that flash of understanding?  How often is that the tragedy? That the information is before us, but we lack the spirit to see and comprehend?

As with these two disciples, so it often is with us. We see the constant daily miracles of God, but we do not “see” them, we do not accept them, we do not understand them.

Perhaps our prayers should be for more understanding, more discernment. The gifts we ask for should be the witness of His miracles. We should pray that we heed the lessons we hear and have heard over and over again.

A Prayer for Brightness

Many years ago, in my search for More about my faith in Christ Jesus, I stumbled upon this. In whatever document I found it in, this little prayer was called “The Sarum Prayer.”  I copied it into a journal.

Over the years, I have continued to move it forward in my journals. I re-encounter it at unexpected intervals. Every time it speaks to me, reminding me of lessons I still need to heed.

It’s comforting, but also a little sad, to realize that every individual in every generation has to learn the same lessons about Christ and our walk with Him. Yet generation after generation, century after century, we find strange connections, present to ancient past, from now to the person who first penned this little prayer.

The Sarum Prayer

(From the 1527 Sarum Primer[2] )

God be in my head / And in my understanding.

God be in mine eyes / And in my looking.

God be in my mouth / And in my speaking.

God be in my heart / And in my thinking.

God be at my beginning / And in my departing.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegesippus_(chronicler)

[2] https://www.oursanctuary.net/sarum.html

Personal Change :: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

(The images at the top of this blog are of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the wonderful Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window and one of the reading rooms.)

Many transformative songs arose from the 1960’s social change movement. One of the more powerful poets is Joni Mitchell, whose deceptively simply lyrics carry powerful messages.

My favorite Mitchell is “Big Yellow Taxi”, with its famous line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The catchy little tune and clever lyrics hide a riptide undertow of ecology and conservationism. (Yes, I love trees. You might call me a tree hugger. The bark’s a little rough, though.)

“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally than “Big Yellow Taxi.”. And the song reminds us that personal change is necessary before social change can occur. Mitchell pulls a Shakespearean Ages of Man with her song, reducing the 7 Ages to 3.

Here is Judy Collins with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, from 1976:

Lyrics are here.

Remember the 4 Requirements of Song? Clear Communication. Heart-felt Message. Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.

The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong Imagery

Stanza I = Clouds

Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our imaginings). The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning days.

Of course, big puffy clouds herald rain (and snow in winter), metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s illusions”. Years beyond our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.

Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded experience of our maturity. The line hints at how we went wrong:  we didn’t truly understand what we wanted, what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.

When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t understand the devotion necessary to achieve it.

Stanza 2 = HEA Love

Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing interferes.

Unfortunately, life interferes. The once-upon-a-time “fairy tale” of happily-ever-after love rarely lasts. The glowing first rush of attraction is not sustainable. Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush attracts a couple. Compatibility keeps the love re-charged; devotion helps it endure life’s slings and arrows.

This persona never gets past the demise of that fairy tale rush. She gives two pieces of advice. The first is a light-hearted mutual parting: “leave `em laughing when you go.” The second is for broken hearts: “If you care, don’t let them know.”

Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that are difficult to knock down. The persona says that love is a “give and take”. Is that a mutual exchange? Or does one give while the other takes? When she laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships never worked.

Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes

How do we go forward with these emotional barricades constructed from the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?

Mitchell suggests “tears and fears and feeling proud / to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”. Yet then our hearts are damaged again. After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain. We try “dreams and schemes and circus crowds” only to have our glorious plans fall apart. After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals. We don’t give up; we just turn aside.

And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out? Have they not faced the same difficulties?

Or did they never dream? Have they contented themselves with life’s first offerings? When that failed, maybe they shrugged and moved on.

So now they “shake their heads” when the persona won’t give up on her dream. Now they say that she’s out of step, that she’s the one who “changed”.

Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream

Mitchell shrugs off those judgements. She just wants a balanced “win and lose” life. After all, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

See, that’s Mitchell’s truth: don’t drift. Happiness and heartaches will occur. Don’t try to understand them. We can never understand the magical mystery of life and its illusions. Just live.

Writing “Both Sides Now”

Mitchell’s structure is three stanzas and one refrain. The refrain, though, changes slightly with each repetition. These slight changes are called incremental repetition.

The cleverness comes with the way each change matches its particular stanza. The first change occurs when the white puffy clouds of childhood transition to the young adult’s “love” and then the maturing adult’s “life”. The changes reinforce the focus of each stage of life, three stages for three wishes.

In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two clever rhetorical devices:  the polysyndeton and anaphora.

A polysyndeton is using more conjunctions than would normally occur. The purpose is to slow down the progression of the line. In Mitchell’s poem, the polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza, just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem to stretch out.

  • Stanza I] “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”
  • II] “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”
  • III] “Tears and fears and feeling proud . . . .”

An anaphora is a phrase repeated at the beginning of a sentence or a stanza.

  • Mitchell’s first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each stanza, in the second line with “I’ve looked”. The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.
  • Her second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”. Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.

Summing It Up

“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in William Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Simple rhetorical devices keep each stanza powerful.

Childhood, youth, and adult. In each stage we have our dreams and disappointments. Mitchell reminds us that life will perform a balancing act. She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both sides. We gain when we accept the balance.

Reality keeps us balanced. Illusions keep us going.

Coming Up

We begin our look at occasional poetry in May. Occasional poetry is written to celebrate or commemorate a specific person or event. In May, our occasion is to celebrate mothers while in June our fathers will be the focus. That takes us to July and the occasion of Independence!

In examining these poems, we’ll discover how to write an occasional poem.

By the time we finish, you’ll have what you need for that awkward moment at Thanksgiving when people ask what you’ve been doing with your writing. You can read them a poem for Thanksgiving—or Christmas—or Advent—or Halloween—or Labor Day. Or volunteer in your local community to write an inspirational poem. Every month has one major occasion, and many months have several. November, for example, has Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving and Advent and Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Basically, though, remember the 4 requirements of song, and you’ll do well.

On the 25th of April is Carole King’s “Tapestry”, a look at a riddling allegory. Then, after the occasional poems for moms and pops and freedom!, we’ll offer up another allegory.

Through the heat-heavy days of summer we’ll look at the classic rock “Hotel California”. The Eagles will have landed.