On Sunday I found myself in the comfortable red chair of church, listening to one of our parishioners talk to the children about earthworms and mealy bugs. He stood with his back to the congregation, with the children all lined up on the low step in front of him. One twiddled with a shirt hem, another pulled up a slouching sock while listening to the man's questions about light. He reminded me of my own father in stature and dress -- tweed jacket, tan pants, a white beard, glasses. He asked the children what the song This Little Light of Mine meant, and what was good about light, and then when responses slimmed he moved on to mealy bugs and earthworms, and why they love the dark. He got the kids to think about the meaning of the lyrics to a song they hear every Sunday as they are ushered out of church and into their religious education classes.
His talk to the adults in the congregation was about meaning, and he framed it in the idea of metaphor and how metaphor enhances our understanding of the world through the use of the sensory. A few weeks before I had a short conversation with him in the hallway between the sanctuary and the church office, and he said that he was not going to include any poetry in his sermon, and was a little apologetic about it, which reminded me further of my father, who was not a man for poetry. When I was in my twenties, I had a short talk with my dad about the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. My mother found a copy of A Few Figs From Thistles, and my dad, being the avid reader that he was, picked it up off the kitchen counter and read it. He liked some of the poems he said. What bothered him about poetry was having to read it over and over to get the meaning. Edna's* were accessible to him.
When the speaker made a visual representation of a timeline from the beginning of time ("this window and wall on the left") to the present ("the paint on the wall on the right"), and marked the beginning of humans on earth (right by the piano which is about six feet from the wall on the right), and then the start of language (still closer to the wall on the right from the piano), I was transported to the Smithsonian Museums and their visual timelines for science and history exhibits, and dwarfed again by the thought of just how new we are to the world. Without language, there is no meaning, because without language there is no word meaning, no word idea, not word thought, no word tweed, no word father. We make meaning out of everything we see, feel, hear, taste, and smell**.
My mind kept wandering in spite of his wonderful talk, or perhaps because of his talk and the ideas in it. His family sat in the first two rows of chairs -- sons and wife, daughter-in-law, all rapt in his words. I kept looking over at them, and thinking of my dad and how when I had my first real poetry reading he and my mother sat in the audience, and he stared at his hands and rarely looked up. I didn't know whether I wanted him to look up, or keep looking at the map of his hands, but I knew I wanted him to understand my poems and to understand me.
When Sunday's sermon was over, the speaker's family led the congregation in a bouquet of applause, which was followed by a few minutes of silent meditation where I listened to the heat ping and creak from the radiators and wished my own father were there so I could hold his hand and squeeze it.
Then I remembered the moment just before children's time started that morning. When the children were called up by the speaker to have a seat in front of him, a boy about 12 years old leapt up and ran from his half-seated position at the invisible prompting from some adult in the back and questioned, "Wait a minute ... I'm not a child anymore?!?"
* I have a cat named Edna, named for the poet. She's 16, very dotty in her old age, and walks a little sideways to go forward. She is very much like a poem.
** My daughter mocked me post-service while I was talking with a friend about the scent of the local casino. "It smells like a combination of bus exhaust and cheap perfume. Probably something they clean with, but certainly it's the scent of desperation," I said, and she chimed in with, "She's always coming up with stuff like that. 'It's tastes like attic!' or 'You know the smell of toast and the inside of an old book? Like that.'"