We interrupt this reading journal for a brief burst of mommyblogging. (But I promise you some Poetry Friday at the end.) The child whose blog name was decided before his real name was firmly settled upon…turns eight years old today.
Oh for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole’s nest is hung;
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;
Of the black wasp’s cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
And the architectural plans
Of gray hornet artisans!
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!
—from “The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier
The poem’s final stanza paints a somewhat grim vision of the boy’s likely future—”Made to tread the mills of toil,/Up and down in ceaseless moil”—but we’ll acknowledge that the weary adult may from time to time experience a pang of envy, looking at the carefree child with his life before him, “living and laughing as boyhood can.” Eat, drink, and be merry, the poet seems to be urging the child, for tomorrow you must get a job.
This bleak perspective sent me seeking to find out more about Whittier. I learned that he worked as editor of several weekly papers, including the New England Weekly Review, and was a passionate and active abolitionist. His anti-slavery publications and lobbying efforts earned him much enmity, including being stoned by angry mobs. He was politically active, pushing for legislation to end slavery, and was a founder of the Liberty Party which eventually morphed into the Free Soil Party. In addition to numerous abolitionist pamphlets, he published two volumes of antislavery poetry. In the late 1840s and ’50s, he served as editor of an influential abolitionist paper called The National Era. He was one of the founding contributors of the Atlantic Monthly. He was supportive of women writers, and in fact Sarah Orne Jewett, with whom he worked closely, dedicated one of her books to him. In short: Whittier was one of the good guys. And the wistfulness with which he urges the Barefoot Boy to celebrate his current joy and freedom makes sense in the context of Whittier’s grim awareness of the work that awaits him in the adult world. The more I learned about him, the more I saw that my initial take on the poem was a bit reductive.
I came to realize this was a particularly apt poem for me to ponder on my son’s birthday, here at the dawn of 2017. I understand why Whittier can’t extol the delights of a magical childhood—rooted in the small delights of the natural world, “rich in flowers and trees,/ Humming-birds and honey-bees…”—without his mind running to the toil that awaits the boy when he’s grown. We’re not finished yet. In the world of man, there remains a great deal to be done.
This week’s Poetry Friday roundup can be found at Keri Recommends.
Huck and I are cuddled up in the big brown chair. His hair is getting long again, all rumpled curls on top. Face a little dirty, because it’s after nine in the morning. Big sweet eyes smiling up at me, waiting for a story.
“Once upon a time,” I begin, “there was a boy named—”
“ACID FIRE,” he interjects.
Huck and Rilla and I have just finished reading three chapters of The Boxcar Children—they wouldn’t let me stop—and now I give Huck a big squeeze and say, “Okay, baby, time to go play.” He’s surprised I’ve called him “baby”—I usually say “monkey” or “my love” (same difference)—and shoots a reproachful gaze my way.
“I’m not a baby.”
“I know. But you used to be, so it still pops out sometimes.”
He considers. “But I am still little.” Burrows a little closer into my side.
“Mm-hmm.” His hair has that magical small-child scent, half fruity shampoo and half little-boy-sweat.
He takes a deep breath, as if about to unburden himself of a trouble. “That’s why I’ve been wondering…”
“Yes?” The moment has become suddenly fraught; whatever is coming, it’s clearly a serious matter.
“I’ve been wondering why nobody cuts the crusts off my sandwiches.”
And when I say “upon me,” I mean sitting on me in a squashing manner, because that’s what’s on the calendar today. So far, this has been a summer exceedingly full of running around.
Huck’s poor infected finger had been doing better, so it seemed, after he started antibiotics the week before last. By this weekend the antibiotics were done and the infection most certainly was not. Again I’ll spare you the ugly details. Of course it was a holiday weekend. We spoke to the on-call doctor at our practice on Saturday and he instructed us to take Huck to the ER at Children’s.
A dose of Versed, several shots of Lidocaine, and one fingernail-removal later, and I had a very stoned little boy waving his mummified hand in immense delight, inquiring of everyone who passed: “Why can’t I feeeeeeel it?”
Happy to report the finger is looking MUCH better this morning. Healing at last, I think. And yes, the irony of the On Tide Mill Lane parallel is not lost on me. Very happy my boy’s infected finger occurred in 2014, not 1814.
Here’s a little moment in time. Right after I read The Little Fur Family to Huck (for the first time!) the other day, he wanted to read it himself. This is one of my favorite picture books to read with very young kids, and I can’t imagine how it slipped past Huck until now—I found this copy of the book at the bottom of a box of toys earlier in the week. Of course the very best edition is the tiny one with the faux-fur cover. It’s around here somewhere, but I don’t recall seeing it in ages. It’s probably under a bed.
Anyway, when I grabbed my boy for the read-aloud, he was reluctant to listen, as he very often is right at the beginning. And then, as nearly always happens, before I finish the first page, he’s hooked. It went double this time around. He fell hard for the little fur child in the wild, wild wood, like so many before him.
I caught a good chunk of his reading on video. There’s background noise from his big sisters and brother, but you can hear him pretty well. I love watching the leaps kids make at this age—the substitutions where they think they see where the word is going and plug in one they know, like his “fun children” for “fur child” and “mom” for “mother.”
I don’t know if I caught this stage on video with any of the other kids. I have a pretty young Rilla reading an Ariel speech from The Tempest—you can’t hear much in the recording but it melts me to see the confidence with which she attacks some quite challenging text—but nothing, as far as I can recall, of the others at Huck’s stage. I’m glad I captured this much. Those sneezes!
Huck: “I know what ‘bow’ means. It means ‘hello’ in dog language.”
Huck, apropos of nothing and in a voice of great urgency: “How old do I have to be?”
Me: “For what?”
Huck: “To get the remote and to cross the street by myself.”
Ah yes, the important stuff.
Huck, on the way home from Trader Joe’s, in tones of disappointment: “We only passed eleven scoundrels.”
Me: Sorry, buddy, you can’t have any more juice right now. If you’re truly thirsty, have some water.
Huck: But I’m not truly thirsty. I’m only normal thirsty.
The way he pronounces “unfortunately.” Unforchally, I went outside in my socks.
Okay, I know I should tell him the mouse’s name is really “Tumtum” when he says “Numnut and Nutmeg,” but…it’s just so dang funny.