He's a Poet and We Know It

My oldest son, Jake, has had a challenging semester, to put it mildly.  Tomorrow is the last day of his Sophomore year, and boy are we glad!  He took his Chemistry exam today, and for extra credit, wrote the following poem–which demonstrates that his true talents lie in the Humanities.
Ode to Chemistry
by Jake Sholly
O! Ye, Chemistry, Why dost thou tormenteth me?
What ill hath I inflicted thee, O, master of molarity?
From A to B to C to D, Mine grade’s as changing as the sea,
But is this just proclivity? Nay, I say, it canst not be.
Perhaps the blame should rest on me, or on mine failure to study.
But wherefore should I practice thee? Thine formulas mean naught to me!
Molality and enthalpy? ‘Tis saturated lunacy!
Such loquacious complexity does hardly bare necessity!
But ho! What’s this? Thou speak to me?
Thou say that without chemistry, mine life, itself, would cease to be?
I’d wither, and would certainly become as plain as unsweet tea?
If truly thou hast spake to me, then folly I would surely be,
If warning didst not hinder me from failing miserably to see the glory that there is in thee,
For truly thou art life indeed, in that you bid it to proceed.
It humbles me, O, chemistry, that thou, thyself, hast chosen me.
And thus, I beg a boon of thee: Please pardon me for failing thee.
 

Jake and John being silly before Prom

 

The Little Black Boy

Most of my classes my first year at Georgetown were part of the Liberal Arts Seminar, an interdisciplinary course taught by renowned professors of English, Theology, Philosophy, and History.  Our English professor, Wordsworth scholar Paul F. Betz, introduced us to pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  When I read yesterday about little African-American children showing signs of white bias, I thought of his poem “The Little Black Boy,” and I wanted to share it with you.  The pictures at the beginning and end of this post are Blake’s own original illustrations.

 THE LITTLE BLACK BOY
by: William Blake (1757-1827)
Y mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O, my soul is white!
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereaved of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And, sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissèd me,
And, pointing to the East, began to say:
‘Look at the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
‘And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
‘For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, “Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”‘
Thus did my mother say, and kissèd me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our Father’s knee;
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

Who Gave You Life?

This originally appeared as a column in the East Tennessee Catholic in 2006.
Today is my “baby” sister’s 29th birthday.  My mother reminded me today that Anne owes her existence to her two big sisters. I remember well how much we begged and begged for a baby.  According to my mother, she decided to have another baby because she loved us so much that she wanted us to have whatever we wanted!  Luckily, we were very pleased with the gift.  We did everything for the baby except feed and change her. And I frequently said, “What if we had never had her?  It would be terrible if we never had her!”

Three sisters at my wedding
Three sisters at my wedding

When Anne was two or three, I taught her to recite a few lines paraphrased from George MacDonald’s poem “Baby.”  I would say, “Where did you come from, Baby dear?” and she would reply, “The blue sky opened and I am here.”  Then would come, “Where did you get those eyes so blue?” “Out of the sky as I came through.
That’s about all I remembered; then yesterday I happened to come across the book the poem was in, pulled out by someone and left lying on the back stairs.  What struck me upon re-reading was the end of the poem.  After cataloguing all of baby’s sweet little parts, the poet asks:
How did they all just come to be you?
God thought about me, and so I grew.
But how did you come to us, you dear?
God thought about you, and so I am here.
Isn’t that a lovely thought? And how many people really think of babies like that these days, as a special gift, planned just for us and presented by a loving God? It seems to me that on the one hand people see babies as mistakes, accidents, inconveniences. Something like 60% of babies are unplanned, and don’t they seem to come at the worst possible times? They cost lots of money, they cause us physical problems, they interrupt our busy lives.
I think many times people don’t even consider their intended and wanted babies in terms of gifts from God.  No, then babies are something they planned, something they earned, something perhaps they even paid for, considering the widespread reliance on fertility treatments, artificial insemination, donor eggs, and surrogate mothers. If they think of a baby as a gift at all, it’s more like a gift they think they are giving themselves—there hardly seems to be room for God in the equation.
And often as kids grow we try to give them the feeling that it is we who gave them the gift, the gift of life. I hate that particular guilt-tripping phrase, “I gave you life!” Well, no, I didn’t give my kids life; God did. Life was His gift to them; they are His gift to me.
And I don’t always appreciate it either. Longfellow said that into each life some rain must fall and the Shollys have been in the midst of a rainy season for a while. Today at the dinner table we were discussing things we were grateful for and I talked about how 16-month-old Lorelei had given me a gift today. I was supposed to be working but she begged and begged to go outside.  Because of her I took the time to enjoy the Spring.  Because of her I got down on the ground, examined pine cones, smelled daffodils, tore up handfuls of onion grass, remembered what it was like to be a child in the springtime.
As I write, Lorelei sits in my lap, half-asleep, nursing. She is wearing pink striped long johns and a t-shirt which reads “Sholly Creations. Size small. 100% joy. Made in Heaven.” I couldn’t agree more.
Lorelei at about 18 months (with William, aged 5)

And tomorrow I will write something new, I promise.  So many ideas, so little time. 

What's in a Name?

The following is a reprint of a column that ran in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper on August 11, 2002.  It explains the name of my former column, which is now the name of this blog.
Names are important.
Think of the time we spend choosing the names we give our children, the hours poring over baby-name books, making lists, asking opinions, only to be told years later by an unappreciative adolescent, “I hate my name!”
Now, any writer or artist will tell you that his creative product is something like “offspring” to him.  So when it was time–past time–to name this column, I agonized over the choice for days.  Then, coming up blank, I followed my usual procedure for titling my work:  I stole.
Image result for bartlett's familiar quotations
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with its handy index is an old friend that has proved its worth to me many times.  I looked up life in the back of the book, and voila, the works of far better writers than I were at my disposal.
The phrase “life in every limb” sounded perfect at first reading, and once I investigated the source became even more so.
First, the author:  William Wordsworth, famed English poet of the Romantic Period, and as it happens, an old favorite of mine.  My first college English professor, later my advisor, is a preeminent Wordsworth scholar who spends summers at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District.  By virtue of his enthusiasm almost as much as Wordsworth’s talent, he taught us to love Wordsworth too.  This seemed like an omen.
Image result for wordsworth
Next the poem whence the line came: We Are Seven. The poem’s narrator encounters a “little maid,” who in answer to questions about her family asserts again and again that there are seven children, even though two have died.  This inclusion in the family’s number of two who are unable to speak for themselves resonated with me as I thought of the voiceless unborn and their need for similar champions.
Finally, the enire quotation:  “A simple child/That lightly draws its breath/And feels its life in every limb/What should it know of death?” I thought of the unborn child, alive in every way, in every part of its tiny body, heart beating, blood pumping, at the very beginning of its life doomed so often to a premature and violent death.
I wonder what Wordsworth might add to the abortion debate if he were with us today.  My first child’s godmother (a fellow student of the aforementioned professor) created a beautiful cross-stitch as a gift for Emily when she was born from a paraphrased Wordsworth quotation: “Children come trailing clouds of glory from God who is their home.”
This comes from his Ode on the Intimations of Mortality, in which he expounds upon his belief that children are closer to God because they remember glimpses of heaven that are more and more lost to us as we grow older.  His own heavenly visions, the “spots of time” he celebrates in his long autobiographical narrative poem The Prelude, were a continuing source of inspiration to Wordsworth.  I have a feeling that he would have viewed the killing of the innocent unborn, fresh from God’s hand, as the worst kind of sacrilege.
Moving to a different sort of literature, the phrase “life in every limb” calls to mind St. Paul‘s metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12: ” . . . [T]he body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body . . . .”  Each person, born or unborn, is a part of that body and has a unique role to fulfill.
In valuing all members of the body equally, our church espouses a consistent ethic of life.  Although abortion is the focus of this column, I plan to write about many other life issues, such as the death penalty and euthanasia.  We might think of the abortion issue as just one of the many limbs of the church’s pro-life teachings.  For we are a church that embraces and celebrates and protects all life, that of the innocent unborn equally with that of the convicted murderer, of the ill and disabled along with the healthy, of the non-Christian along with the Christian–life in every limb of the Body of Christ.