It’s My Birthday, and I’d Like to Give You a Gift

September 10, 2019

It’s My Birthday, and I’d Like to Give You a Gift


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.

The Background

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.

My late Mom in the 60s with her Kodak Instamatic on the California Coast

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.

There's me! 
Shining in the water-sun!
There's me!
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.

The cover of the November 15, 1968 issue of Time Magazine
A portion of the article about Gordon Parks; the poem is on the left

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.

From the Parks Foundation web site

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.

From the Gordon Parks Foundation web site

Here are some ways to experience the body of work that Gordon Parks gave us in his 93 years (1912 – 2006):

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.

Lasting Gratitude

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.

18 thoughts on “It’s My Birthday, and I’d Like to Give You a Gift”

    • I didn’t know. But Google told me, just now. Robert Frank? I have so much to learn! I love this quote from him: “”Like a boxer trains for a fight, a photographer, by walking the streets, and watching, and taking pictures, and coming home, and going out the next day — same thing again, taking pictures,” Frank said in 2009. “It doesn’t matter how many he takes, or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of.” That sounds like something you would say, and something you definitely do, with all of your street photography. Thanks for turning me on to Mr. Frank.

      • You’re welcome. How do you think that I built my photo philosophy? From him, Jay Maisel — who famously said, being asked after Hurricane Katrina destroyed so many photographers archives what he would do, to which he replied, I guess I’d go out and take more pictures. And from David Allen Harvey who defined modern picture storytelling.

        I’m terribly out of shape for really working. Between my poor back and hip, and the heat, I haven’t been training. Today was my first day back. Took some of the dogs for a walk on a warm, but not hot morning. A nice breeze was clearing out the humidity. We walked further than we have in a long while. I made more pictures on a walk than I have in a while.

  • As a Boomer (vintage “53), and as a hippie chick growing up 28 minutes by train from NYC, I remember Gordon Parks and Life. I was reading The Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain and Heinlein and Castaneda…we were so lucky to be so close to all the new and old and vibrant….I recall Mr Park’s innate dignity and humanity and a perspective alien to an affluent white girl in the ‘burbs… African American bought a home there til 1982. The only people of color were The Help and they vamoosed before dark on the bus. We lived way upstate in NY til I was nearly 5 and I had never seen a black person til our move in day. I followed a housekeeper all over the house until my mother chastised me, “Margaret, leave this poor woman alone!” I answered, “But Mom, she’s such a beautiful color!” The woman looked pleased but deeply sad…

    Anyway, I LOVE your story, your parents sound so….creative, nurturing and hopeful…which passed to you. You look beyond with optimism and excitement. You have shown such wonder and curiosity about your new home, it brings back so many good memories. And the chance to tell the tales and the tragedies and the triumph. This IS Mississippi after all. Let me know when y’all might be flying in to your birdhouse!!! Thankfully, the stressful holiday madness is over and 2020 will be our deliverance from the darkness into the light. My word for 2020 is progression, musically is bringing all parts into harmony……hope to actually SEE you soon

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