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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I Have a Strange Habit

I may be an odd person. I say this because, since I was in the 8th grade, I have a habit of memorizing poetry. I tried to pass this on to my children but they were not terribly interested. I remember that I constructed an artist's easel in the kitchen and had posters of poems written in large letters that they could read and memorize while eating breakfast. I don't remember all of the poems, though I don't think there were many. I remember two and I'm sure all my five children still know at least these two which I just insisted they learn by heart. I even check to make sure they pass down these simple words of wisdom to their own children. Most of them have.

1. A wise old owl sat in an oak.
    The more he heard, the less he spoke
    The less he spoke, the more he heard
    Why aren't we like that wise old bird?

2. He was right, dead right, as he sped along
    But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

I always wondered what my children would think when they ran across this Shakespeare passage in school. When they were very young and I would chauffeur them around, and as I would reach their stop and help them out of the car I'd invariably pat them on the bottom and say "Out, out brief candle..." See, I guess I am odd.

Why do I think about this right now? In the middle of the night? Tomorrow I have cataract surgery on my left eye and to give me something to think about since I won't be able to read, I have just finished memorizing the Gettysburg address. It will be fun for me to think about it over and over, and perhaps at some one or two places I will have to rack my brain to remember the exact word because I have just newly learned it.

I remember I helped my now husband, when we were both in the in the 10th grade, memorize The Chambered Nautilis by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I have never forgotten it in all these years. Let's see, what other poems have I memorized? I certainly have memorized a lot of my own poems. Then there is Invictis, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Milton's Sonnet on his Blindness, many passages from Shakespeare such as Portia's speech beginning, "the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him who gives and him who receives. 'Tis mightiest in the mighty. It becomes a sceptered monarch better than his crown.

Abou Ben Adam. is a favorite of mine. And The House by the Side of the Road. I guess I try to live my whole life by the words of The First Psalm.. Sometimes even I have dared to say to friends a lunch. "Would you like to hear a poem? I don't do it too often. Don't want to seem too weird.

Why do I do such an odd thing? Well, perhaps it only seems odd because I haven't yet run across anybody else who does it. Maybe I just haven't met enough people. When I explained it to my grandson the other day I remember saying that to memorize the great passages of Western Literature and have them ramble around in your mind forever changes you. Somehow it enlarges the horizon of how you think about things, how you look at the world.

I never thought of this before, but you can never feel alone when you can, at will, be in the august company of some great thinker. Certainly, if nothing else, you feel less confined to the particular small segment of time into which you just happen to have been born, or in which you momentarily just happen to be struggling.

When you wake in the middle of the night and feel lonely, or traveling and can't read for some reason, or stuck in traffic, poetry and great speeches are very good company. The Gettysburg Address is inspiring to think about.Every once in a while inspiring words from some lofty thinker's mind have been just the thing to say to a friend who was ill, or troubled or needing company. Sometimes they make a point better than anything else. I never cease to be touched by the fact that such words can so easily reach into someone's heart and make a difference of some kind. Including my own heart.  A. B. Curtiss

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