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poem is on tree trunk

 

 

When Giving Is All We Have

by Alberto Ríos       

 

 

One river gives

                                             Its journey to the next.

 

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

 

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

 

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

 

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

 

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me

 

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

 

Something greater for the difference.

 

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This post is dedicated to Mary Jane Samberg, a Michigan high school English teacher of the highest order. She died a few days ago of Covid-19. That sentence can’t begin to register the shock and grief so many of us felt on hearing the news.

 

 

She taught two of my daughters. Lucky, lucky girls. I asked them to describe her teaching. One said she was “whip smart, had a great sense of humor and a kind of snort laugh. Hard grader. Merry eyes. Great news judgment [Ms. Samberg moderated the school newspaper] and called out your best.” The other said, “She was a hard ass and didn’t give away A’s easily in AP Composition and Writing. I remember getting an A and feeling on top of the world.” They both said she was “cool,” an unusual compliment for a tough teacher.

 

 

I knew her well enough to have interesting conversations with her when we bumped into each other over the years. We talked about English, education, books, our kids—my daughters she taught, her daughter of whom she was so proud. (Side note: I never use “whom,” but in honor of Ms. Samberg, I relent.) I saw her regularly at church, but I couldn’t exactly call her a friend, however much I liked her. However much I admired her. She was a woman of strong faith and strong principles. She spoke with conviction and confidence and because of that she seemed older than me although she was not. As an example to my girls of how a woman moves about in the world, I could not have asked for better.

 

 

I remember looking over my daughters’ marked-up papers and noting how very marked-up they were, how thorough and thoughtful her comments. I disagreed often enough. (Of course I did, I’m an English major and an Enneagram type 1.) I thought she was sometimes too rigid about what constituted good writing—but damn if those girls didn’t learn to write well. She taught them how to think clearly and communicate carefully, the importance of just the right word, and the value of the re-write, the re-write, the re-write.

 

 

The fortunate among us have had teachers we think of with deep gratitude, those who directed us towards excellence or self-knowledge, the ones who loved us and let us know. But for the great teachers in our children’s lives there’s a different level of gratitude. I can’t articulate it. It can move me to tears. Because it’s pure luck. To have the right person introduced in their lives at exactly the right time. We know, as parents, our influence on our children is limited. At a certain point others step in to nurture their talents, shape their ambitions or widen their perspectives. I am a lucky, lucky mother in that regard. With each child I have seen the effect of great teachers. No, not the effect. Let me call it grace. The grace of influence.

 

 

The grace of her influence. Thank you, Ms. Samberg. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

To honor her I taped “When Giving is All We Have” to an albezia tree I pass daily on my shelter-in-place walks. She would not have loved this poem, I suspect. She favored harder-nosed sensibilities like her beloved Flannery O’Connor. Still, it speaks to her life’s work. The giving of her passion and expertise, her care and concern for her students, for their education, well-being and most of all for their character. It was her vocation to give. And that giving, in turn, if you count up the hundreds and hundreds of students she had over her many years of teaching, has exponential possibilities for goodness in the world.

 

 

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Now on to the poem. Ríos defines giving with a series of oppositions:  for better or for worse: loud and quiet; big though small; diamond but rough-set. It seems like algebra for some reason, all those variables—or maybe it’s more like philosophy. I know just a smidge more than squat about philosophy, but in thinking about the contradictions in this poem I did come across a description of Hegel’s dialectics (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that seems apt:

 

Because Hegel believed that reason necessarily generates contradictions, as we will see, he thought new premises will indeed produce further contradictions.

 

 

Looking further into dialectical thinking, I came across an idea that deepens my experience of the poem (courtesy of the Institute of Educational Sciences):

 

Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures.

 

 

And what is the reconciliation of the contradictions Ríos puts forth? The answer is right in the poem:

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

 

In other words, giving—however it manifests itself, for whatever reason it manifests itself, whatever the effect of its manifestation—giving is as old as humanity. Giving is a fundamental part of who we are. It’s what we do. In these terrible pandemic days it’s what we see, daily, and part of the frustration of our necessary isolation is the frustration of our impulse to give.

 

 

That’s as hopeful a note as any to leave my ruminations on a beautiful life ended too soon.

 

 

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Alberto Ríos was born in 1952 in a border town of Arizona. His father was Mexican, his mother British. He’s published ten books of poetry, a memoir and collections of short stories, and has won many awards and grants including an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim. He’s a professor at Arizona State University and for two years served as poet laureate of Arizona.

 

 

After I taped the poem to the tree, I was happily surprised to discover Ríos own thoughts on this poem:

 

 

 

“This is a poem of thanks to those who live lives of service, which, I think, includes all of us—from the large measure to the smallest gesture, from care-giving to volunteerism to being an audience member or a reader.  I’ve been able to offer these words to many groups, not only as a poem but also as a recognition. We give for so many reasons, and are bettered by it.”

 

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For the tree lovers, a few more pictures—

 

 

 

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