It was an attempt to get them to sit there longer – my reading of story books at the dinner table. I had several little boys and a husband who worked late and a lack of patience at day’s end. I also had a picky eater, the tipping point of it all. He needed to be distracted. With the baby strapped into his high chair I’d serve up dinner on their plates and settle into read. The first time I did this my picky eater stared intently at the pictures I held up while simultaneously putting fork to mouth without any ill will toward the vegetables. I silently sighed with relief and kept on reading as he kept on eating.
Fast forward almost two decades and it is the last spring break of my son’s senior year in college. He brings home Aimless Love (new and selected poems by Billy Collins) and suggests we read some poetry at dinner. Aimless Love is also the name of a poem in the collection and he read that one first. It was me this time that doesn’t notice fork to mouth as resonating phrases land in the air
“…but my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.”
I kidnapped the book after dinner and brought it to my room to read at night and what followed was a new literary crush and regret and shame that we hadn’t met sooner.
Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate during the height of my mothering frenzy—the years that were punctuated by laundry and exhaustion and a lot of wondering if all those boys would turn out alright. I did not read poetry during those years. In fact, I forgot how much I loved poetry during those busy afternoons and evenings while driving back and forth through suburbia. I forgot how much I loved quiet and gentle words. I was a manager of commotion, of pillow forts, wooden blocks and Lego’s on the floor. Poetry back then was when I would sit on the basement steps and listen to the private language of a three-year old performing fire rescues with dressed up Playmobil firefighters. The little contented chatter — my pause of the day– when they didn’t even know I was listening.
Graduation weekend finally arrived and it turned out that Billy Collins would be speaking at the Baccalaureate. I attended, armed with my notebook, because I didn’t want to forget anything that he said. My pen is the best way I know I will be present, anchored, the best way to not stand there and cry as my six-foot four oldest boy walked in, in his black cap and gown while my mind drifted back to his six pound weight at one week of age. Earlier that day, as awards were given out, I was listening intently in case they called his name. At one point my chair legs had slipped off the concrete and into the grass and I nearly fell into the person sitting in front of me. That was the moment that I indeed did hear his name but not the name of the award because I was busy falling over. I had wait until the ceremony was over to ask him what he won—as if I hadn’t been there at all.
“We are not suffering from a flood of information but a flood of insignificance” Billy Collins said as I thought guiltily of the time I have wasted on social media and the news over the years. And then he wove through a series of ways to be more present, to take “slowing down seriously,” to be more aware of existence. He talked about “intense looking” before he read us his poem “In the Evening,” and my heart jumped as he read the line:
“The bee who has been hauling her gold
all day finds a hexagon on which to rest.”
Because earlier that week my third son had shown me a picture online of the pollen sacks that worker bees bring back to the hive. He was pointing it out because his bees, in fact, had those pollen baskets too. Curious, I shut down my computer and headed out to the hive to see if for myself. And there they were—bees with side cases of pollen. How had I missed this in my already long life? And how come the week that I finally did, Billy Collins was there to confirm it? For that moment in time I forgot about the cap and gown — and the rushing of life — and my eyes teared up because of the bees, the beauty, the little pollen sacks that I had finally seen.
On the day of graduation, as I headed over to save seats for the rest of my family, I could hear the bagpipers warming up. As if the day wasn’t already complex enough — the juggling of memories of my own graduation and now my child’s, the watching of a transition, the good-bye to friends, the sorrow coated happiness — and now bagpipes? The graduates filed in as they played to the tune of “Tis a Gift to be Simple” which predictably sent my emotions careening overboard and as my husband handed me his handkerchief, I took out my notebook again.
I looked into the crowd, the sea of purple and gold banners, the sun streaming down. Some people made little tents of the programs and placed them on their head as a shield from the sun. A few were smart enough to wear big straw hats. The woman behind me used an umbrella. I started taking notes of all the things I wanted to remember and underlined the phrases that I hoped never to forget. The commencement speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said
“Be ashamed to die until you have taken one stand that benefits humanity.”
I circled it in my notebook.