We are covering Shakespeare and poetry in my Monday class of high school juniors and seniors, and you’d think we were asking these young adults to bare their very souls in that classroom. If you asked them to do that, they would resist with a fury. This is the response when you ask them to write a poem, or even to listen closely as I read. “Poem” is a four-letter word of the most vulgar variety.
Weeks ago I listened to Christine Perrin on a podcast discussing the teaching of poetry. She said that poetry gives us the ability to think in metaphor, to have analogies for our experiences and the way we see the world. Understanding metaphors and analogies and making connections is key to developing empathy and understanding — I can relate to your story, even if I’ve never experienced your life.
I try to convey this to my class but it’s like telling kids to eat their vegetables — the fact that you say it’s good for them, even if they know and believe it’s good for them, does not make the eating of the vegetables more appealing. I preach to them about challenges and growth and not wasting time, meaning: You are assigned to read this stuff; you are good kids who want to check the boxes and do what you’re supposed to; you might as well dig in to what you’re reading and see if you can benefit from it. This isn’t the greatest motivator and my words come out more exasperated than they should.
Life can make us dull and forgetful. It’s easy for me to check out when I’m overwhelmed, to drift through days without noticing or paying attention. Like a young adult refusing poetry or Shakespeare or anything else they fear they’ll never use in the “real world”, I create a vacuum, missing beauty and power and wonder. Some things seem close and important. Things far away seem less important. I become deceived by proximity and urgency and the light of my own importance, and the days empty of anything awe-inspiring.
A few mornings ago I went to the hot tub at 6 a.m, in the dark. Everything changes so fast on the border of seasons — just a month ago at 6 a.m. the sun was lighting the yard and revealing the landscape, but now it was clear and cold and dark at 6 a.m. There were no barriers to the night sky. Looking up, I could almost feel the spin of earth.
We are blessed without street lights and the sky is an internet of activity when we let the world be dark like this. I watched the blinking lights and noted the position of the little dipper, handle down between the two spires of evergreen in the garden. I think it was the little dipper, anyway. I am not an expert at naming, and in this case, the name isn’t important — I noticed the stars. I saw lights that blinked and moved, and lights that flickered in place. Jets passed. I think the International Space Station passed, outpacing the jets and much brighter. Stars fell from the sky as I sat in my fixed place on a spinning satellite, orbiting the sun, orbited by space junk, flying through the cosmos, soaking in the chlorinated water of my hot tub.
Three shooting stars shot across the sky and made me feel like a kid again, lying in a field somewhere in Montana and watching the big sky like a drive-in movie. The meteors were far away and the planes were close and the space station moved quickly, and none of these ways of describing are sufficient for a world like ours. None of them fill me with the awe such a world deserves. But to say the meteors fell toward earth and I wasn’t afraid of space coming too close might seem dramatic — true, but dramatic, and drama is a dis-creditor.
Van Gogh painted Starry Night from an asylum. When you’re an expert at something you can be as dramatic as you want, describe things the way they are to you. Likewise, when you’re a little paranoid and frenetic (Van Gogh did all of his paintings in a 9 year period, sometimes completing one a day for months straight), the sky can glow and swirl and drop right into your lap. But you may not be a genius or an expert until you’re dead, unfortunately. Society seems to need time and space to feel ok with crazy ways of noticing the world.
Distance equals safety. Had I been closer to the sky I’d have wanted a blanket over me, a covering or magic cloak to hide in. Proximity to the cosmos inspires an awe we miss as we look at the ground — the commonplace of stars and planets and space junk flying unchartered, un-piloted, unhinged far above us as we live our mundane lives. But a clear night brings it all close. Darkness and silence remind me of the whirling universe I’m sailing through, not centered in.
I’ve heard the flight of a bird — the flap of friction over wings over hollow bones. I’ve heard the whip of a ball sailing past my head, the whoosh of a towel snapped tight, and the whistle of bottle rockets, but I have never heard the song of the morning stars or the fizzle of a meteor falling to earth’s atmosphere. Something so large and powerful, but so far away. Sound is mostly lost in the near-vacuum of space, not having the matter needed for sound waves to travel through. Maybe those songs are still traveling, the speed of sound trying to catch up with the speed of light as it bounces off space matter millions of miles apart; someday, might all the sounds of all the lights in all the heavens reach us, finally?
How huge is a cosmos like that?
The security against this danger might be a dark morning, or a whirl through the cosmos, or poetry. I wish the kids would get that, but maybe the most I can do is bring them closer.