In 9th grade Marge Engebretson was my English teacher at Cass Lake High School. My family had just moved there from the Iron Range the year before, and I was feeling more than a little lost. Marge was a lovely woman who spoke with a slight German accent. Her family had immigrated when she was small—I loved the sound of her voice. It is so amazing how much one great teacher can do for a single student.
One assigment Marge gave us was to make a list of all the books we had read. I don’t think I realized that not everybody was hooked on books the way I was. The assignment seemed impossible—there was no way I could remember all the books I’d read let alone make a list. I had always been a reader—but with just a little encouragement and direction—Marge helped me to become a writer as well.
I still have some of the papers and assignments I did for Marge—for some reason I’ve kept them for nearly forty years even when getting rid of stuff became a major priority. One of was is a Poetry booklet. We were to choose and comment on poems that were meaningful for us. I can see the 9th grader that I was in this booklet—the cover has a giant pink flower in the corner, a peace sign, a heart created from the word “love” and the symbol for woman. But more interesting is that when I read the poems I chose back then, I can also see the 58 year old woman that I have become. Let me share a few verses of them with you. The first is called Three Gates and the author says “From the Arabian”
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass
Before you speak, three gates of gold.
These narrow gates: First, “Is it true?”
Then, Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear,
What the result of speech may be.
Here is the first verse of another poem called “Tell Him So”. It says “Author Unknown”
If you hear a kind word spoken
Of some worthy soul you know
It may fill his heart with sunshine
If you only tell him so.
Many of these verses have become a spiritual practice over my adult life. I find that fascinating. Did they pick me—or did I pick them? This one is called “The Pessimist” by a poet named Ben King. I get a kick out of it still and think it reflects the darker side of my nature way back then.
Nothing to do but worry,
Nothing to eat but food,
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.
Nothing to breathe but air,
Quick as a flash tis gone:
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.
It goes on for four more verses. My comment typed in red ink below says, “this poem is so skippy and catchy that it is likely to stick in your mind for years.” This next little poem (also author unknown) I seemed to have taken as a mantra throughout my life.
Life will hand Mary
No harder task
Than to know the right answer,
And have no one ask.
My comment below the poem says, “the author was ridiculing man’s need to be praised,” Today I have a different take on the meaning. Now I think of how many times I have had creative ideas and solutions for friends, family, clients and have “no one ask” me for those ideas.
This next one still guides me today. It is by Langston Hughes. The first verse says
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Each one of these poems has real meaning for me today. Each selection mirrors a part of my soul—then—and now. On reflection, I can see that the words we choose—and the words we use—really do shape us. This next one is a great mantra for all of us. It makes me think of my father for some reason—it must have been his mantra, too. Again, it says author unknown.
If you’ve got a job to do, do it now.
If It’s one you wish were through, do it now.
If you’re sure the jobs your own
Do not hem and haw and groan—do it now.
Don’t put off a bit of work, do it now.
It doesn’t pay to shirk—do it now.
If you want to fill a place
And be useful to the race,
Just get up and take a brace
Do it now.
Don’t linger by the way,
do it now.
You’ll lose if you delay,
do it now.
Finally, this one seems to show my ongoing love affair with nature and her many gifts. It is called Rain, by Jean Little.
Rain is as mischief-making as a child.
She pokes the thunder’s ribs until he roars
She sits on steepled roofs and thrums her heels
And tickles grass and taps at solemn doors.
She dampens dignitaries and their wives,
Pains saucy freckle-face on the roads,
Makes mud puddles and rainbows; and then gets down
To scrub the tiny blissful backs of toads.
What words have shaped your life? What poems or sayings have guided your path? I’d like to hear about them.
A bit of housekeeping. A lot of you who used to get my posts (from having subscribed) are telling me they are no longer coming. I’m trying to solve the problem, so if you get this far, leave a short comment or email me to let me know you are getting the weekly posts.
Also, the first version of this post was written as a commentary for KAXE/KBXE radio. If you would like to hear it, visit Between You and Me on the station website. (It may take a week or so to get the show up on the air.) I’d also like to congratulate KBXE for being the midwife to a brand new station serving Bemidji, MN and surrounding area. They worked so hard to get there and now I click on my radio and hear wonderful programming. Well done!!
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