October 22, 2008
A Psalm of Life
"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
but make allowance for their doubting too..."
My high school friends had warned me that while loopily winding one's way out of anaesthesia from getting one's wisdom teeth removed, one is at risk of telling one's mother things one didn't mean to. You know, things. Apparently I didn't have a lot of things to tell, because there I was in that purportedly risky moment quoting to my rather astonished mother every single line of the marvellous poem If by Rudyard Kipling. Mother was even more surprised to learn that it had been laying dormant in the dark corners of my brain since fourth grade.
Mrs. Presley, my fourth grade teacher, was an old timer who firmly believed in the virtues of memory work. It was a constant in her classroom. Incredibly, I still remember almost everything I memorized at her behest, including the 100th Psalm and Noche de Paz (Silent Night in Spanish).
Just goes to show that what you feed to a young mind really does matter.
Spuddy Buddy is now in fourth grade, and we have been doing a lot of recitation work together this fall. In addition to some carefully selected poems, we are also memorizing the first chapter of John together over this school year. And we'll soon be getting that beloved 100th Psalm ready for reciting with the family at Thanksgiving dinner.
It was the legendary teacher Jack Cody -- Texas State Teacher of the Year in 2000 and my very dear lifelong friend and mentor -- who handed me an intoxicatingly aromatic mimeographed copy of A Psalm of Life by Longfellow for memorization. He gave our high school literature class such a stirring recitation of it that it is still his voice I hear in my head when I read it or even just think of the stanzas. This poem has been a fixture in my thought world ever since, and as such it has served me well. Different stanzas have floated to the top of my thoughts at different times, granting wisdom proper to the moment.
For instance, Mr. Cody could not have foreseen that the seventeen year old girl in the second row would someday lean into that second stanza while battling cancer thirty years later, would pause over this phrase and that one while grinding through the rugged detox from the pain meds, would huff through the last stanza over and over during the frustrating months of physical rehab that followed.
And therein lies the virtue of memorization: it allows you to meditate on a feast of ideas and beauty at will, to chew on a great thought many times over the course of a lifetime -- a lifetime so busy that you might never come across that poem on a page again, but once it becomes part of the furniture of your mind it is always available to you at any moment. Memorization populates your thought life with wise voices that will speak to you in both moments of need and moments of abundance.
I see now that it was a gift. When my father sat there with the Psalms open in his lap and had me recite whole chapters, when Mrs. Presley has us stand and chant Kipling together each morning till we had it down cold, when Mr. Cody took the time to read Longfellow and Dickinson aloud to us during precious class time... it was a gift. It was definitely something they could have just skipped. At the time, to me, it just looked like work. But can you see? It was really an act of love.
A Psalm of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.