Radishes

April is National Poetry Month.

When my children were younger, I went through a phase where I tried to get them to appreciate poetry by reading it to them at the dinner table. They were, at the time, the opposite of appreciative. It’s not that we didn’t read at the table — my husband had moved bedtime stories to dinnertime as their tastes went from Richard Scarry to “Lord of the Rings.” But they wanted stories, not poems. And especially not the poem that I tried to make them love.

I had chosen a Japanese poem, “The Man Pulling Radishes,” by Kobayashi Issa, who lived around the time America was founded. It’s a simple poem, not even a haiku (at least in English), but it encompasses so much. The translator, Robert Hass, is still alive, and I don’t know enough about copyright law to know if I can post his translation here, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Here’s a link.

I love the poem because in three short lines, Issa (and Hass) accomplish and teach so much:

– The man pulling radishes had nothing to use but the radish, but
– the man seeking his way didn’t know where he should go, but the man pulling radishes did, and yet
– the seeker will continue on his way, and the man with the radishes will keep pulling radishes.
– Sometimes all you have is a radish. God will make it enough.
– Even though all someone has to point the way is a radish, it’s enough to get you started.

Radishes are easy to plant, and are one of the first things to come up. And so this might set the time of the encounter for us — early Spring, and the seeker is out seeking, and the man who planted the radishes is harvesting them. Each of us has a task.

My children’s reaction, though, was horror at the idea of me reading poetry every night during great story time, followed by derision of the poem for its brevity and content. Radishes became a running joke. When they encountered a bad poem at school, they’d shake their heads and say something about it being worse than radishes. When my mother-in-law gifted me with a GPS, a glorious day for everyone I’ve ever driven anyplace, they joked that now I don’t have to ask men pulling radishes. Whenever I served radishes, they quoted the poem, and rolled their eyes. They brought me radishes on a plate when a poem I was working on was not going well. And when they learned that a place called “Radish Magazine” reprinted my Guy Soup recipe but that I had signed away the right to a reprint fee from the place it was first published, their laughter was complete. Mom and her radishes. The irony was that yes, I had been trying to point the way with the radish poem. Instead, I was afraid that I had ruined poetry — and radishes — for them forever.

But then something amazing happened. Their adolescence (April, 1999 – June 2014) ended, and they became lovely adults, some of whom appreciate poetry. And my adult daughter chose this very poem to post on her Facebook page for National Poetry Month. “Today’s poem is beautiful both in its simplicity and in all the years of solid joke material it’s brought us since its Lardas Family debut. This one’s for you, mom!”

Well.

Plant those seeds, whether radishes or love of poetry. When you harvest them, you can point somebody’s way.

 

Small Hands

I recently had Afternoon Dismissal Duty as part of being a substitute teacher. Security is tighter than it was when my children were younger. I was to wait in the designated area with some of the students whose parents come, present an ID, and claim them. It’s winter, and I took in how much each child was wearing, and what a potential for disaster all these layers had to offer.

It is astonishing how many articles of clothing school children lose during the year. Most schools keep a lost and found that starts as a small pile in the office and ends as Rubbermaid bins full of tiny red sweaters, unmatched gloves, discarded jackets, forgotten vests, and even earrings and  school shoes left behind when students “changed out” for gym. Clothes are dropped in the school buses and hallways, left on tables at breakfast in the cafeteria, knocked over in coat closets, flung aside during jump rope or ball games, and left at school overnight because the day became warmer.

A Kindergarten class I had taught previously this month was lined up, with their teacher, waiting for their families. I noticed how many of them were still only partly dressed for departure. Some had not yet zipped their coats, others were holding their hats or scarves.  Many things were buttoned wrong or left untied, while others were hanging precariously, dangling down backs or hanging from small shoulders.

A student I recognized was holding her gloves gingerly at a distance, each by the pointer and thumb of one hand. She looked at them perplexed.  The gloves were hot pink, the same color as the beads in her hair. The student looked like she couldn’t figure out how to keep them open while putting her hands in.

The group of students I needed to dismiss had not arrived yet. So I walked over to the girl and asked, “Would you like some help putting your gloves on?”

She would. So I opened one of them for her wide and she put her small hand in. I pinched lightly at the fingers to find that some were double occupied while others were empty.

“Gloves can be tricky,” I said. “What you want is to put just one finger in each slot. Here, let’s put your thumb in this one. Very good! Now, Pointer goes in here. No, that’s two…. good! Now, Tall Man goes in the middle here. No, no, alone. Good. Ring man here. Nice. Pinky here. Good! Now just pull it on tight! Let’s do the next hand.”

The intensity of her expression was touching. The second hand went faster than the first. Soon she had both gloves on, each on the proper hand, all fingers where they belonged. She beamed. Then she played, clasping her hands together, interweaving her pink fingers and separating them over and over. Why, I wondered, had I thought that getting them dressed for winter was so hard when my own children were that age?

I turned to one of the teachers to ask a question about dismissal, and when I turned around again, my Kindergarten friend had removed both her gloves and was shaking them like pom poms while she giggled with friends. Her hat was untied and had climbed up on her head and was askew at an angle that was more disheveled than rakish. But she was thoroughly happy.

“Oh!” I thought, “And that’s just the gloves!” I had forgotten what it takes to prepare small bodies for the cold — socks and boots, pants and shirt over today’s underwear (“Every day deserves its own underpants!” was my motto.), snow pants over that. Jacket, hat, scarf, gloves… all took forever to put on and some took forever to take off if you were in a hurry. Other things were all too easy to take off and discard on a school playground bench, on the ground, on the floor, draped over a toy, woven into the banister…

I watched my young friend flap her gloves, now clutched one in each fist, in a hot pink greeting to her grandfather. He, wise man, scooped the gloves into his pocket and the girl into his arms while she giggled.

It’s very important not to lose things we value.