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Remembering what I have: A poem from my great-grandmother

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

A thought popped into my mind yesterday morning: What if I go throughout the day focusing on what I have instead of what I don’t have?

I’m not sure where this thought came from, exactly;   I guess “the Holy Spirit” is as good an answer as any.  I’m glad it appeared,  though, because although I strive for an attitude of gratitude, dissatisfaction can creep in, in rather insidious ways.

But with this new attitude in the forefront of my mind, yesterday was better than it would have been.  Instead of wishing for more time to work on my next writing project, I was grateful for the hour I did have while my kids were playing with their cousins.  Instead of wishing for a bigger house, I was grateful for a cozy one that fits our family’s needs.  And on, and on.

I wrote a week or so ago about my great-grandmother Helen Cary Keyt Wolf, and the “Button Box” of poems that she wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s.  She was certainly someone who lacked much of what we would consider essential for happiness.  Raising five children during the Depression years, with a husband who would leave and come back at various times without warning, she lived  with no small amount of financial and relational uncertainty.  I am sure she had plenty of moments where despair and envy were close to the surface.

And yet even then, there are things to be grateful for.   Her writings show that she knew this, and tried to live by it.  I am sure that there were times when her resolve wavered and such optimism was hard to maintain.  But we have evidence, written in her own hand, that she knew the value of focusing on the positive, and that she made the choice to recognize the blessings in her life – her children above all.

Here is one of her poems, written sometime in the thirties.  It captures this philosophy well.  .

My Shopping List
by Helen Cary Keyt Wolf

What would I do if I had
A dollar or two today?
For son number one,
I’d buy a new shirt.
For son number two, new shoes.
For son number three, a pair of pants
And a bonnet for baby.
For my young miss
I’d get some cloth
For her to make a new dress.
Then perhaps some curtains I’d buy
For windows in our sunroom.
Some new pots and pans
Some tea glasses, too -
Oh, I have lots of plans.
But since I haven’t that dollar
I’ll put a patch on a shirt,
About shoes, well, I can’t do much
But give them an extra shine.
I’ll lengthen and press a pair of pants
And make a bonnet for baby
And look through the chest
Perhaps I can find
Something to make a “new dress”.
The windows? Well, I’ll just leave plain
For it would be a pity to
Shut out the view
Of roses and bushes and vines.
The pans will have to do for now.
We can use cups for glasses.
Oh, it’s not hard to substitute
If one goes singing about it.

What are the blessings YOU can focus on today?

Poldark, Episode Five: A baby changes everything

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Unlike most period dramas (or most TV shows, period), “Poldark” got the hero married off very early.  By the end of the third episode, Ross and Demelza were already at the altar.  This flies right in the face of the classic will-they-or-won’t-they tension that usually keeps viewers tuning in week after week.  Think of how long it took Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley to end up together, or Elizabeth and Darcy, or Sam Malone and Diane Chambers (I guess that last one shows my age).

So it says something that the story of Poldark ends up being so gripping even though the romantic leads have already gotten hitched.  Part of this is due to the little hints that maybe Ross still sees Elizabeth in a fond light, which makes me wonder where, if anywhere, these not-quite-buried feelings will go (I’ve read the first three novels in the series but I have no idea what happens after that).  I will say that if he does ANYthing to disrespect Demelza, he will suffer a swiftly dramatic fall from grace in my eyes that will make Francis’ steep downward plunge look like kids’ stuff.   Not even your great hair will save you, Ross!  You have been warned.

More thoughts:

*Aww, little baby fingers and toes!  I love seeing Demelza slip into a new mom-role and I adored the conversation she and Ross had at the end, where he talks about how everything bad that happens around them seems even worse now that he has a child.  Parenthood does that.

Also, how adorable was it when he had baby Julia in a sling and was walking along the cliffs with her? Forget the scything scene,  it’s moments like these that make  women melt.  Throw in a golden retriever and no woman on earth would be immune.

*It cracked me up when Demelza’s dad, who has apparently Found Religion, comes in and starts dissing Mean Girl Ruth for having such a low-cut neckline.  What a very satisfying taste of her own rude medicine.  And I love how she had to poke her husband to make him say, “Sir, I’m offended!”, which he did in a most unconvincing fashion.  Ha ha ha!

*Francis, Francis: did anyone ever tell you that gambling is a really  bad idea?  Giving jewelry to prostitutes is not such a good move either.   Alienating your wife won’t end well.  At least you got to show off your Latin by writing a classy epitaph on your mine.  And I love how Demelza asked Ross what “Resurgam” meant, because while I was pretty sure I knew, it was good to get confirmation.  (True confession: I don’t actually know Latin.  I am Catholic, which means I am good at faking it.)

*Can I get girly  for a moment and say that I really love all the curls these ladies have?

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I always wanted hair that curls like this.  And I guess Demelza’s lice never returned after Episode One.  That’s a good thing, because with Poldark’s flowing locks, he would be very vulnerable.

He's just asking for crawlers.

He’s just asking for crawlers.

*Speaking of hair: if we know George is bad because of his ugly ‘do, this new Matthew Sansome guy (the one who played Francis at cards and cleaned his clock) must be Satan in a waistcoat.  I have never seen such weirdly unattractive hair on a man.  Let’s all keep him on our radar.

*So Demelza manages to get Verity and her guy back together!  (or so it seems). I think the moral of the story is that if a girl does not want to get together with you, hire some rioting miners to thunder towards her, and then pull her dramatically  out of harm’s way.  You will a) look like a totally awesome manly hero and b) be able to say your piece without her running off.  A few minutes should do it.

Do you think Demelza was right to try to get them back together?  Would you have done the same, or left it alone?  And aren’t you excited for next week?

My great-grandmother’s poems

My great-grandmother, far right, with her children, 1944.  Left to right: Baxter (my grandfather); Walt; Bob; Helen; Carol Ann.

My great-grandmother (far right)  with her children, 1944. Left to right: Baxter (my grandfather); Walt; Bob; Helen; Carol Ann.

In her 1929 essay “Women and Fiction,” author Virginia Woolf observed that   “Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day.  The food that has been cooked is  eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world … [A woman's] life has an anonymous character which is baffling and puzzling in the extreme.”

It is certainly true that history tends to be written by and about men.  They have traditionally done the kinds of things that get written down for the ages … and the same, alas, has not always been true of women.

But some women leave behind written records of themselves.  I suppose blogging is that, for many of us; anyone trying to figure out the life of a modern woman needs only to visit her website or read her blog posts to have a glimpse into her interior life.  Many women keep diaries or journals that serve as a record of their inner lives.

And some women – like my great-grandmother — write poems.

My great-grandmother, Helen Cary Keyt Wolf, is someone I never had the pleasure to meet; she died in 1963.  But she was a prolific poet, and throughout her adult life she wrote poems by hand, all of which are collected in a little box she called her “Button Box” of poems.  Some are undated; the earliest dated ones are from the 1930s, the latest from the 1960s.

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My great-aunt Carol has transcribed them all, and my uncle Ken,  the family geneaologist, has compiled them on the family website.  They are a window into Great-Grandma Helen’s life: they focus on her five children, her struggles with money during the Great Depression, her optimism and the spirituality that guided her throughout her life.

This is one that really struck me:

Where God Is

by Helen Cary Keyt Wolf

Across the country far and wide
I see God on every side.
In mountain tops and cloudless skies
Or in another traveler’s eyes
In deserts vast and lovely place
Or cities’ myriads of faces.
I see God and feel Him near,
While winging high upon the land
Or on the beaches clean, white sand.
In deep blue lakes of mammoth size
And in a laughing baby’s eyes,
In forest green and peaks snow bound
Where e’er I look, he can be found.

Dated 8/15/53

God can be found in all things, said St. Ignatius hundreds of years ago, and that idea is echoed here.   I love this poem.  And though I never knew my great-grandmother, reading this makes her feel that much more real to me.

I’ll share more of the poems in future posts.  I’m glad we have them.  There is a big something to be said for recording ourselves in writing for our great-grandchildren and beyond, so they can know something of who we are, and of where they came from.

You’re a grand old flag

Happy Fourth of July!

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Two great new books for teaching social justice

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I love reading books with my kids before bed.  It’s especially fun when it’s a book I enjoy too, and not, say, something inspired by Legos or Transformers.  To me, the ideal bedtime storybook is colorful and well-paced and has a little spiritual weight to it, too.

So I was only too happy to receive review copies of two new children’s books from Loyola Press.  Both are part of their Two Feet of Love in Action series, a collaboration between Loyola Press and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace,  and Human Development.  The goal is to help kids recognize the link between faith and social justice, and to build awareness of the importance of concrete actions to make the world a better place.

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They’re terrific books, each one taking on a different aspect of social justice.  In Green Street Park, a little boy realizes that the park where he loves to play basketball is actually littered with trash and full of weeds.  He sees the need and, with the guidance of his teacher and mother, is inspired to mobilize his friends and start a campaign to clean up the park.  (In a nice touch, the book invokes the example of St. Francis of Assisi as a model of someone who cared about the earth and the environment).

Drop by Drop tells the story of a girl named Sylvie, who lives with her family in the West African country of Burkina Faso.  Because her village has no running water, she must walk three miles each day to the river to fill a large water jug for the family.  Sylvie desperately wants to go to school, but her family needs her to fetch the water.  Finally, one day Catholic Relief Services builds a well in her village, and Sylvie’s wish of attending school comes true.  In the book, her story inspires schoolchildren in the US to raise money of their own to build wells in other villages.

I love how the books show two different faces of charitable works. One focuses on a need close to home, the other on a need far away.   There are so many ways to work for social justice; that’s a great lesson for kids to learn early on.

The books are gorgeously illustrated, too.  Green Street Park has vivid primary colors that pop off the page; Drop by Drop has softer, more muted tones that capture the colors of the desert, punctuated by the bright colors and lively patterns of the clothing worn by Sylvie and her family.  They’re lovely to look at and their strong visual appeal is perfect for sparking young readers’ imagination.

What’s great is that there are also supplementary materials that go along with the books.  Each book can be purchased alone or with the Pray Me a Story guide, short guides that parents or teachers can use to help kids engage prayerfully with the story they have just read.  They include questions and a guided meditation to help kids bring Jesus into the story and into their own lives.  They’re a great way to help kids process the books and help the lessons stick.

All in all, these are engaging, colorful ways to introduce kids to the connection between faith and social justice.  It’s fun to plant the seeds and see when and how they bloom.

In fact, the other night, we read Drop by Drop before bed, then I tucked the kids in for the night.  As always, I asked my kindergartener who he’d like to pray for.  He looked at the world map posted by his bed and waved his arm.  “All of the people in the world,” he said.  He paused, then added, “Especially those who don’t have water.”

I think it’s working.

Check out the Loyola Press website for more information about these books, and the Two Feet of Love initiative.  (Both books are also available on Amazon.com)  And if you like the idea of Pray Me a Story, you can see the whole range of guides they offer, including for picture books you probably already know and love.