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Archive for the ‘A Pioneer in a Mountaineer’ Category

This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.

 

A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.

 

My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)

 

Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.

 

During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”

 

Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.

 

Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.

 

When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.

 

 

So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.

 

I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:

 

Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like

It.

I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair

Where

I always

Stop.

  

Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!”

 

Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.

 

I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.

 

PIONEERS! O PIONEERS!

 

COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-

most,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines

within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

 

 

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