Sheer poetry

Memory is a funny thing. Most often it is there when one needs it. Other times it can be elusive. I think I have sometimes been protected from hurt when my memory has failed to conjure up details of a long lost experience. I know I’ve been thankful when I could call a friend from years and years ago to help me fill in the blanks. It has felt great when I have been able to do the same for someone else.

In my role as a pastor, I have ministered to folks on the edge of dementia and some that are deep within it. I have had family and dear friends overtaken by Alzheimer’s and memory loss. It is an agonizing experience for me whether I am a friend, a family member, or a pastor. I cannot imagine the frustration of the one who must live through it.

In the ceiling of the downtown St. Joseph, Mo., library (Gretchen Lord Anderson photo)

In the ceiling of the downtown St. Joseph, Mo., library (Gretchen Lord Anderson photo)

My hometown is St. Joseph, Mo., and I’ve had reason to return to St. Joe many times over the past years to attend to family issues there and even to reunite with old friends. On one visit, I stole a few moments to return to the downtown branch of the St. Joseph Public Library. I figuratively lived there as a child and as a student. If they would have provided a bedroom, I would have moved in. It is a beautiful old Carnegie Library, built around 1902, with stained glass in the ceiling, pillars, marble floors, the whole nine yards. Just walking up the front steps conjured all kinds of memories and especially those of my dear friend Janet who died several years ago. I was reminded, as I often am, of how much I miss her.

When I entered, one of the first things I did out of habit was turn to my left to look at the stairway leading down to the children’s library. Still there. At the entrance to the stairway was a statue I remembered from when I was a very young child, a statue of a little boy on his knees playing with his little toy dog and toy soldier. It is intended to represent “Little Boy Blue” from the poem of the same name by St. Joseph native Eugene Field.

There are words inscribed at the base of that statue, and, ironically, I didn’t even have to approach it to remember the entire poem. I immediately started to recite it from memory.

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.

“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
“And don’t you make any noise!”
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue—
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,

What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there. [1]

The statue representing Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue" from the poem of the same name. It is located in the St. Joseph, Mo. downtown public library (Gretchen Lord Anderson photo).

The statue representing Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue” from the poem of the same name. It is located in the St. Joseph, Mo. downtown public library (Gretchen Lord Anderson photo).

I have recently read that when we reach 40 years of age we also touch the peak of our good memory. It begins to fade after that. Forty years! There is also a publicized theory of a link between favorite old poems and memory. That is, a person whose memory seems to be otherwise gone or fading, will identify with the words of poems they remember which would explain why I was able to conjure up that poem about Little Boy Blue all these years after hearing it the last time.

So, for instance, if I said to you:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear…
You would reply:
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…[2]

Or, if I would say to you:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
You would say
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.[3]

Let’s try this one:
Over the river and through the woods . . .
Your response?
To grandmother’s house we go.[4]

One more and this one is going to be harder:
The gingham dog and the calico cat…

Your response?
Side by side on the table sat;
‘Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!) [5]

Poetry, you see, is effective because it paints a picture for us. When we say or hear poetry over and over again, it becomes ingrained in our memory. When I was a kid I thought poetry had to rhyme to be really effective (and I admit grieving the loss of great poets like Longfellow). But listen to this one. It was shared by a Wisconsin man who wrote the poem as he cared for his wife who had Alzheimer’s disease:

Fifty years she was my playmate;
Now she wants to play no more.   

She has Alzheimer’s;
She does not hear my voice;
She does not know that I am here,
Nor that I am holding her hand.
But I know that I am here,
And if there is a God
Then God knows that I am here.
And if there is no God,
Then that is why I am here.

Let us thank God for our burdens,
For our burdens make us useful.
And if there is no God to thank,
Then our burdens create one.
He is an atheist who bears no burden.

Meanwhile, I can hold her hand.[6]

Now the reason this theory about poetry captured my attention is that I have made the same connection between memory and scripture or words used in many churches’ orders of worship.  The Psalms are, after all, poetry. If I say:

 

The Lord is my shepherd
You might say:
I shall not want.[7]

If I say:
I believe in God the Father almighty. . .
You reply:
Maker of heaven and earth. [8]

And if I said:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Some would automatically say:
Hallowed be thy name.[9]

Neither The Apostles’ Creed nor The Lord’s Prayer is considered to be poetry. But we know, at least those of us who have been raised in the church and have been required to learn them, we know these words as much or better than any poem. It has been my experience that when I visit someone with dementia and from whom I get little or no response, when I start to pray The Lord’s Prayer, inevitably, they will join me, either by saying the words out loud or mouthing them if they are otherwise unable to speak.

This connection that can be made by people with memory challenges is really interesting when we think of Paul’s call to us to “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds….” Even when the world may view a person afflicted with poor memory as someone of less value to the world, we can witness God’s perfect creation, God’s continued presence in the life of that person when they can respond to a line of poetry, or mouth the words to the Lord’s prayer.

“. . . be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

When a person with dementia can remember the words to The Lord’s Prayer, we know that person has been gifted or “transformed” with a “renewal” of his or her mind, knowing that in saying those holy words, they still know “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Now, I can walk into the next room and not remember what I went in there for. Many folks I know are in the same boat. There are some over-the counter supplements like Gingko Biloba that are supposed to help with memory loss. I will confess to you that I went on a regimen of a supplement called Prevagen to see if I could brighten up my brain a little. I don’t know if it worked or not. It got too expensive to stay on it so I’ve taken my chances and I’m going on my own, working puzzles, playing games, reading books, and talking with lots of people to keep my brain sharp. Having a short memory for most of us can mean that we simply have too much on our minds or, perhaps, that what we have forgotten or lost wasn’t important in the first place.

Paul’s emphasis on the use of our minds in order to be transformed so that we can figure out God’s will for us and know what is good and acceptable and perfect tells us that while intellect itself is not important, being deliberate about knowing the word of God is. He says we are not to be conformed to this world. We are to be transformed by giving serious thought to what is good and acceptable and perfect. We are to follow through as living sacrifices to God.

Mr. Nagle, who wrote that beautiful yet deeply heart-rending poem about his wife’s challenge with Alzheimer’s – wasn’t really writing about her at all. He was writing about his own challenge in keeping his faith that God was indeed present in their situation: a man who deeply loved a wife who may not have even recognized him at all. His poetry reminds us that he was transformed by the renewing of his mind knowing that God was present and, yet, doubting God’s presence, transformed in that doubt so that in the midst of carrying this burden, he discovered God was there all the while.

Let us thank God for our burdens,
For our burdens make us useful.
And if there is no God to thank,
Then our burdens create one.

The word of God is sheer poetry, whether it is found in the Psalms or in the simple telling of the stories of Jesus. When we hear it, and I mean hear it to the point that we drink deeply of it, we are carried away from the expectations of this world and transformed by the renewing of our minds to people who are of God’s world, good and acceptable and perfect – perfect in the eyes of God who is the only one who matters.

 

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” — Romans 12:1-2

[1] Eugene Field (1850-1895), “Little Boy Blue.”

[2] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

[3] Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”

[4] Lydia Maria Child, “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

[5] Eugene Field, “The Duel.”

[6] FW Nagle, 2008 (“My wife Elizabeth Craig Nagle, died on 18 December 2008.”)

[7] Psalm 23

[8] The Apostles’ Creed

[9] The Lord’s Prayer

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2 comments for “Sheer poetry

  1. Susie Thornton
    August 17, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    It wasn’t that long ago that my late 83 year-old father could still quote a poem he learned as a boy. It was called “Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Not sure that any poetry memorization is required in our public schools any more, save for those competing in Speech & Debate tournaments. What a loss of imagery and comfort and enjoyment to not be able to call to mind a favorite poem or scripture, as you have done for us here! And I have noticed: if that poetry or scripture is set to music… Even better do we remember it!

  2. Susan
    August 17, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Rhyming, music, repetition…all techniques I’ve used in teaching, be it in a school setting or with my own children. Loved your blog this week. Love you. ❤️

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