For my birthday, I’d like to give you a gift of poetry. Of memory. Of curiosity. Of love. Of photography, and history.
Read on, if you will.
My dad was an amateur photographer when I was a small child. He had a darkroom, a vision and a passion, and took his 35mm camera everywhere. Later, he got too busy with his job, his positions on the High Island School Board and the Bayview Methodist Church Board, his side gig as the broker of Harvell Realty, and most importantly, our family, but then later still, after retirement, he went back to it. He took this photo of my mom in his early photo buff days.
Around the same time, Dad took this photo of me. It’s the best one of a whole series of me posing in the tree at a local park, just before my brother was born. I was on top of the world.
In addition to her job as a registered nurse (R.N.), Mom was an excellent cook and a crafter. She was Pinterest-like before it was a thing. With the spirit and determination of a folk artist, she took this photo and put it on a round wooden tray that she had painted blue and antiqued with gold and black streaks, and she had Dad copy a poem to put beside it in his beautiful handwriting. The edges of the parchment paper were burned for visual effect, the whole thing was varnished to a sheen, and it looked wonderful – can you picture it?
Oh how I wish I still had that decoupage folk art! It was placed on my wall in my 5-year-old room, and it moved with us a half-dozen times, always staying in a prominent spot until I went away to college. And then it was in a box somewhere. And now, it’s missing.
The Poem is the Gift
That was the setup. Now, the good part.
This is the poem they selected. This is the poem that was on my wall all those years. This is your gift on my birthday.
Shining in the water-sun!
With all the fishes, weeds and things.
Me moves when I move!
Me laughs when I laugh! And
There's a crooked sky and a
White bird flying through a turtle's shell!
But tell me
Where goes day each night? And
Where goes night all day?
How far is the sky up?
How deep is the earth down? And
What puffs up clouds and wets the rain?
Who pulls the river and blows the wind?
I can fly my kite and catch butterflies,
I can even climb a tree! But tell me
Why can't I outrun my shadow?
The Poem Made a Lasting Impact on Me
Dear Readers, that poem helped to shape my outlook on life: “There’s me!” I read it every day, waking up, falling asleep, just hanging out, for years. I have much of it memorized, and find myself repeating it in my head sometimes (“me laughs when I laugh! me moves when I move!”}…it speaks of curiosity, wonder, celebration of life and nature, and the awesome, simple, dead-on-target mindfulness of children. I LOVE THIS POEM.
My life mission has something to do with curiosity, lifelong learning, sharing knowledge and ideas, and being quiet enough to hear our world speaking to me, and I really think the poem set the stage for that. Of course, my parents are really the ones who set the stage…but the poem is definitely an important prop in that grand design.
But until recently, I didn’t know its origin or author. And wow, what a story that is!
Gordon Parks, Renaissance Man
Thoughtful and reminiscent in recent days, I typed out a huge chunk of this poem, from memory, in quotation marks, into Google, looking for it. I found it an an online version of Time Magazine from 1968.
This amazing poem, part of the script of my childhood, was written by Gordon Parks. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know that he was an amazing artist in many different mediums. He was a photographer, filmmaker, poet, painter, composer and novelist. From Google, I learned that Gordon Parks was a civil rights advocate who used his camera to expose uncomfortable truths, like in this American Gothic-style photo of a black female cleaner in a federal building posing with a broom and mop in the late 40s, intended to be a stark illustration of institutional racism.
I learned that Gordon Parks was a pioneer: the first black person to be a staff writer and photographer for Life Magazine, where he spent two decades. He was the first editorial director of Essence Magazine. He was the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film – based on his own bestselling novel, The Learning Tree. He was amazing. Let me repeat: amazing.
Here are some ways to experience the body of work that Gordon Parks gave us in his 93 years (1912 – 2006):
- The Gordon Parks Foundation
- Gordon Parks on Wikipedia
- Time Magazine Article on Gordon Parks in 1968
- (On Amazon) Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera (I just bought this)
Lifelong Learning, Curiosity and Sharing
There’s nothing I can find online about this poem except its inclusion in the book I referenced above, Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera, and the Time Magazine article I found. This surprises me, because is it sooooo lovely. But I learned in reading about Mr. Parks that his oldest grandchild is named Alain, which makes the title of the poem, “To Alain,” so very special. Imagine this uber-talented man experiencing the joy of becoming a grandparent – it’s no wonder that this wonderful, joyful poem sprang up bright like a rainbow.
How grateful I am that my parents found this poem, made it important in my life, and in a way, are still educating me even after they’re gone…I know of Gordon Parks because of them.
So, sharing this little story of the poem and Gordon Parks is my gift to you on my birthday. Many of you will know him from your professional experience as photographers or writers, but many others may not. Like me, you might still be learning…and curious…and open to sharing ideas…and quiet enough to hear our world speaking to you.