My mom is a special kind of lady for many reasons, but not least of which is her amazing ability to spout poetry on the spur of the moment. Whatever the occasion is, she’s got a poem – or enough parts of it to resemble a poem – to suit whatever is happening. As her daughter, this can be both impressive and terribly irritating. Her passion for poetry seems to turn life into one big giant rapture, which is serious uncool when your teenage friends happen to overhear, and is an inconvenient disruption when you’re trying to have a normal conversation with her.
When the poetic urge hits, though, there’s no turning back. She takes a deep breath, flings out her arms widely, and bellows the lines with full breaths and total clarity. Sometimes she can only remember the first couple of lines, and her enthusiasm gradually wanes as she fumbles around, trying to recall until she laughs and shrugs, “Oh well, it goes something like that.” If we are at home, she rushes to grab her well-worn copy of “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” and reads it with full, formal delivery from there. Other times, she knows the whole thing, start to finish, forwards and backwards, and you know you’re really in for it then. Some of those poems are long!
How did she get to be this way, I’ve wondered on many an occasion? Apparently she and her sister had poetry-memorizing competitions between themselves while spending their teenage years on the Greek island of Crete. Once they had to race to see who could first memorize all of Albert Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” which is no small feat. I don’t know who won, but nearly forty years later, my mom still knows much of it by heart.
Many of her poetic deliveries were saved for prime teaching moments, such as “The Spider and the Fly” by Mary Howitt. That one always gave me shivers of terrified delight, since I hate spiders so much, and the mental image of a spider’s insidious parlour was simply too much to bear. She has poems for waking up in the morning, for going to sleep, for the first of June, for birthdays and celebratory occasions, for nature when it’s particularly exquisite, and for perseverance, to name a few.
Despite my complaints, it’s quite lovely to be raised by a woman who is able to respond to life’s events with outbursts of poetry. There are many worse ways to react, as I’m learning over the years. Though I’ll never attain my mother’s knack or desire for memorizing poems, there are a few I’ll be sure to pass on to my kids. One of these is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, a copy of which got stuck in my suitcase when I left Canada for a year at age sixteen. I put that paper above my desk in my new Sardinian home and read it every single day.
At that point, I understood my mom’s love for poetry better than ever, for Kipling’s words gave me strength to face the challenges of living in a foreign culture each day. I guess poetry is like that – a little gift that you can store away in your mind and use when emotional reserves are running low. Even now, when I read those words, they give me a thrill of courage and a reminder to stay on track and keep focused, and that’s why I’d like to share it with you today.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can take one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!