Reading at the dinner table was an attempt to get them to sit there longer. I had several little boys and a husband who worked late and lacked patience at the day’s end. I also had a picky eater, the tipping point of it all. He needed to be distracted. With the baby strapped into his high chair, I’d serve up dinner on their plates and settle in to read. The first time I did this my picky eater stared intently at the pictures I held up while simultaneously putting fork to mouth without any ill will towards the vegetables. I silently sighed with relief and kept on reading as he kept on eating.
Fast forward almost two decades. It was the last spring break of my son’s senior year in college. He brought home “Aimless Love,” new and selected poems by Billy Collins, and suggested we read some poetry at dinner. “Aimless Love” is also the name of a poem in the collection and he read that one first. This time it was me that didn’t notice fork-to-mouth action as resonating phrases landed in the air,
“…but my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.”
I kidnapped the book after dinner and brought it to my room to read at night. What followed was a new literary crush coupled with the regret that we hadn’t met sooner.
Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate during the height of my mothering frenzy – the years that were punctuated by laundry and exhaustion and a lot of wondering if all those boys would turn out all right. I didn’t read poetry during those years. In fact, I had forgotten how much I loved poetry through those busy afternoons and evenings while driving back and forth in suburbia. I forgot how much I loved quiet and gentle words. I was a manager of commotion, pillow forts, wooden blocks, and Legos. Poetry back then was the private language of a three-year-old performing rescues with dressed-up Playmobil firefighters. Listening to his little contented chatter was the pause in my day.
Graduation weekend finally arrived and it turned out that Billy Collins would be speaking at the Baccalaureate service. I attended, armed with my notebook, because I didn’t want to forget anything that he said. My pen is the best way I know I will be present and anchored. I stood there and tried not to cry as my six-foot-four, oldest son walked up in his black cap and gown and my mind drifted back to his six-pound weight at one week of age. Earlier that day when awards were given out, I was listening intently in case they called his name. At one point the legs of the chair that I was sitting on slipped off the concrete and into the grass. I nearly fell into the person sitting in front of me. That was the moment that I did indeed hear his name, but not the name of the award…because I was busy falling over. I had to wait until the ceremony was over to ask him what he won – as if I hadn’t been there at all.
“We are not being subjected to a flood of information, we are being subjected to a flood of insignificance” Billy Collins said at the ceremony. I thought guiltily to the time I’ve wasted on social media and news over the years. Then he wove through a series of ways to be more present, to take “slowing down seriously,” and to be more aware of existence. He talked about “intense looking” before he read us his poem “In the Evening,” and my heart jumped as he read his lines,
“The bee who has been hauling her gold
all day finds a hexagon on which to rest.”
Earlier that week another son had shown me a picture on the computer of the pollen sacks that worker bees bring back to the hive. He was showing me because his bees had those pollen baskets too. Curious, I shut down my computer and headed out to the hive to see for myself. And there they were – bees with side cases of pollen. How had I missed this in my already long life? How is it that come the week that I finally did notice, Billy Collins was there to confirm it? For that moment at graduation, listening to Collins, I forgot about the cap and gown – and the rushing of life – and my eyes teared up because of the bees, the beauty, and the little pollen sacks that I’d finally seen.
On the day of graduation, as I headed over to save seats for the rest of my family, I could hear the bagpipers warming up. As if the day wasn’t already complex enough – the juggling of memories of my own graduation and now my child’s, the watching of a transition, the good-byes to friends, the sorrow-coated happiness – and now bagpipes? The graduates filed in as the bagpipers played to the tune of “Tis a Gift to be Simple,” which predictably sent my emotions careening overboard. As my husband handed me his handkerchief, I took out my notebook.
I looked into the crowd, at a sea of purple and gold banners with sun streaming down. Some people had made little tents of the programs and placed them on their heads to shield the sun. A few were smart enough to wear big straw hats. The woman behind me used an umbrella. I started taking notes of all the things I wanted to remember and underlined the phrases that I hoped never to forget. The commencement speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said “Be ashamed to die until you have taken one stand that benefits humanity.”
I circled it in my notebook.