Last night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall here in Portland, poet Nikky Finney shared some home truths. I use the term because I think it’s an accurate assessment of the great gift she gave us: there are some truths generally shared at home, in quiet moments between parents and children, rather than at a podium in front of two thousand people.
That’s how many Portlanders paid upward of twenty-five bucks to see the woman who won the 2011 National Book Award for poetry, and we were not disappointed. The poet looked us all in the eye, so to speak, and told us one of the things that her grandmother impressed upon her, which has, more than anything, made her the poet she is: that to tell a lie is a sin of the highest order.
Considering how easily so many people lie these days, Finney told us, the truth is no small thing–and in the face of such rampant BS, a potent tool for any artist who seeks enter the arena and speak in the kind of voice that casts out fools, as this small woman did last night.
I’ve had a practice of late of taking up the challenges posed by writers I admire. (Such as, say, George Saunders.) So I’ve decided to follow Finney’s lead in sharing one of my own home truths, passed down to me from my mother.
My mother is a patient person, shy of confrontation, who grew up on a farm. While we had some teary altercations in high school–and, I’m sure, some battles of wills before that–it is to her great credit that I have but one real memory of her being angry with me as a child.
This was on a summer’s day–summer in the north country, when the sun doesn’t set until ten p.m., and if you are a child, whole lifetimes can pass in a single day. I was playing in my sandbox, I remember, in the front yard, the soft white sand warm on top and delightfully cold beneath. On this day, say, a breeze off Lake Michigan to the west riffled through the old oaks and maples down Church street, shifting green shadows through the sunshine–this is my memory of such days in childhood.
Like the sandboxes of most every kid around, my sandbox was homemade, framed by old railroad ties and filled with sand from the Big Lake. Which meant that just below that sand lay dirt. I had been entertaining myself with a spade and a set of measuring cups I’d been granted, digging down through the layers of sand to the soil beneath. And there I found a worm.
I had no concept of girlish squeamishness in the face of such a thing, which leads me to believe I must have been quite young–three or four at most. I remember being delighted to have found this wet, wriggling thing, clearly alive. My concept of worms at that point probably having a lot to do with Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm Story Book, which was one of my favorites.
This worm seemed unhappy to have been taken from his home. So I packed him into one of my measuring cups with a heaping helping of sand and dirt. And promptly forgot about him.
Some time later, my mother appeared. I remember she was sitting on the picnic table in front of our house when I proudly fished out my find. Only it wasn’t wriggling anymore, and its skin felt different.
Someone else’s mother might have admonished me for playing in the dirt. Or gently chastised me for forgetting about my friend. But my mother was clearly seized by a great anger. Not a yelling kind of anger, but an anger wound tight. She told me that this animal had died because of what I had done. That it had suffered, stuck in that little cup in the hot sun. I was the one responsible for its death.
I cannot overstate the impact this statement had on me. It was, I believe, the first time I really understood what death was–that it could not be undone. It may also have been the first time I experienced what psychologists call theory of mind: I imagined what this worm had experienced, what it must have felt like to die that way.
And, let me say this clearly: I was ashamed.
I’ve spoken with my mother about it since, and as far as I can tell, she thinks she was maybe too heavy-handed. That she should have cut me more slack. I was just a kid, after all. I didn’t know any better.
But let me just say, for the record, thank you. To the woman who returned one day, greatly upset, from a friend’s wedding, where they had been given butterflies to release, and she’d opened her box to find her butterfly had broken its wing trying to free itself. Who told me once how the lone horse that remained on her family’s farm had broken free of its fences to visit the next horse down the road. Who eats meat on occasion, and once caught fish, but cannot bear wanton cruelty to any creature under our dominion.
Shame gets a bad rap, but I believe it has its place. Shame is what you should feel when you have bullied or abused others, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. Shame is the hot sting that should greet us when we have wounded what made us, makes us still: creation, our communities, families, and friends.
It’s the same shame, I imagine, Nikky Finney once felt, called out by her grandmother on a lie. And in its sting is the kiss of kindness. In its pain is a plain home truth: we cannot disregard our impact because we “don’t know better.” We are, all of us, responsible for one another.
(Kudos to Literary Arts’ Arts & Lectures series for bringing Finney to the Schnitz.)