Past pronouns

Another trip to the library and I find myself asking again why so many children's books, especially animal books, have male protagonists and even all-male casts. Not just older books, which might claim some cultural immunity from equality, but new books too. Books that should know better. Why? Why, when the bear or the duck (or at least his friends and offsiders) might so easily be female - when changing the gender wouldn't change the plot one bit - are they so often male? Sometimes I change the pronouns as I'm reading, just to mix it up, but soon Olivia will be alive to this editing - she already pulls me up if I vary even one word ("Not 'the' parrot, 'that' parrot!"). And I think, why didn't the author make these edits? Why wasn't it obvious in the writing that someone - in fact an entire gender - was missing? My best guess is that it's unthinking: an unreflective default to an unaccountable bias towards the male as universal. But that doesn't explain its persistence in our time, some fifty years after the male default was found (at long last) to be deficient. Especially now, but even then, why didn't it occur to anyone that books without girls were an imperfect reflection of the world; a world of eerie erasure and ghostly absence, in which boys roam free and alone inherit the earth?

That women are people, and that roughly half the time people are women, seems the most stubborn and yet the most stubbornly controverted fact in human history. That my two-year-old daughter encounters this controversy in books that contain barely thirty words fills me with despair. I should add that as far as I can tell she doesn't notice or care. Her enjoyment is not dimmed by the fact that the poky little puppy, the saggy baggy elephant, and the tawny scrawny lion are all males. But that's what troubles me: she's imbibing this imbalance unconsciously, learning with every story and each hero that it's boys who take up the world's subjective space. I don't want her to grow up taking in a view that leaves her out. So that's why, where I can, I make the little panda she not he, and make Mr Kangaroo a Ms. 

I have picked wild flowers for you

If Saint Patrick’s Day means celebrating Irish loves and lore, the thing that comes to my mind above all is beauty. The surpassing beauty of the place lives in all its songs and speech, in its rumours of heaven, and in its rich reserves of poetry. There's something miraculous about a country where trouble and tragedy, though long-lived, have never managed to banish beauty or silence the poets, who, in every sense, know their place.

One poet I have learned to love lately is Michael Longley. He's called, like his friend Seamus Heaney, 'a poet of the troubles' - his elegies for the fallen are quietly heart-stopping - but nothing in his work suggests that trouble is the true or abiding state of human life. Rather it's an affront, an uncivilised interruption, to the loveliness of ordinary life and the beauty that is everywhere if we only look. 

The place he knows best he's been visiting for nearly half a century, and it has never yet ceased to inspire poetry. This poem, 'The Leveret,' is about his grandson Benjamin visiting for the first time. It delights me not only because it is filled with beauty, and with the miraculous inexhaustibility of a beautiful place, but because I love the idea of the kind of grandfather who would mark the visit of his grandchild by picking wild flowers and writing a poem. Here's a man who knows what life is for, and how to praise the earth's unearthly beauty. 

This is your first night in Carrigskeewaun
The Owennadornaun is so full of rain
You arrived in Paddy Morrison's tractor,
A bumpy approach in your father's arms
To the cottage where, all of one year ago,
You were conceived, a fire-seed in the hearth.
Did you hear the wind in the fluffy chimney?
Do you hear the wind tonight, and the rain
And a shore bird calling from the mussel reefs?
Tomorrow I'll introduce you to the sea,
Little hoplite. Have you been missing it?
I'll park your chariot by the otter's rock
And carry you over seaweed to the sea.
There's a tufted duck on David's lake
With her sootfall of hatchlings, pompoms
A day old and already learning to dive.
We may meet the stoat near the erratic
Boulder, a shrew in his mouth, or the merlin
Meadow-pipit-hunting. But don't be afraid.
The leveret breakfasts under the fuschia
Every morning, and we shall be watching.
I have picked wild flowers for you, scabious
And centaury in a jam-jar of water
That will bend and magnify the daylight.
This is your first night in Carrigskeewaun.



Newmown hay and ancient woods

Here's some more Robert Francis, whom I like a lot. He's like Frost, who liked him too; and, like Emily Dickinson, he lived a long, lonely time in Amherst, Massachusetts. He died in 1987, at 85, having published a dozen books (mostly poetry, some travel writing) and collected a handful of prizes. Apart from the poems, there's little else to say about him, he lived so simply and, it appears, deliberately. Poetry was about all he wanted to ever do or leave. The poems are simple, but not easy to classify. They're Frost-like, of course, but Frost's wryness here rises to something more playful, more like Hopkins in its capering pursuit of sound. He's grounded, surrounded by grass and woods and farm animals. He was a nature poet of New England, after that was already a thing, so he's self-conscious: he writes as much about nature as about poetry itself. Yet there's a transcendent element, too. The landscape is enchanted. He works in it and on it not only with wry affection, but with reverence and a knack for the uncanny. This is “Evening Ride,” which makes an ordinary ride in familiar countryside radiant with mystery.

The world lay still and clear like a long mural
And we who watched were all that moved and we
Could overlook that we ourselves were moving.

There was no wind to flaw the level sunlight
And the long shadows lying on the hills
And chimney smoke pale blue on deep blue air.

Three children by the roadside stopped their play
To gaze. A woman sewing on her porch
Paused with the lifted needle in her hand.

Two farmers with a load of hay half loaded
Stood with their pitchforks idle as we passed.
Even a dog looked and forgot to bark.

The road was always upward. Now it was day,
Now twilight, and now day again. Now warm,
Now cool. We felt the cool grow ever cooler.

Woodsmoke was in the air, late supper cooking,
Fragrance of newmown hay and ancient woods
And evening vines in sudden deep ravines.

We reached the summit but only after the sun
Had gone. The road beyond dipped down to darkness
While all the higher hills round us were bright.


Susan Cain's book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking is an intelligent, literary reflection on the undue dominance of extroversion in our society and the neglected strengths of introverts. It is a cultural critique but critique is somehow too harsh a word for this gentle, personable, historically grounded, psychologically precise defence of introversion. Cain describes the rise of the extrovert as cultural norm and ideal, and the impact this has had on schools and workplaces in the last few decades. We've adopted a bias toward the extrovert as a better leader, the group as a better generator of ideas, and the open plan office as a better way to work, but numerous studies show this bias is misleading. Cain reminds us how much creativity (in all fields) is solitary, and how our understanding of genius and proficiency has all along involved introverted behaviours - like solitude and concentration; the 10,000 hours theory - that we've somehow misfiled as eccentricity. She is generous toward extroverts - they have, it emerges, many fine qualities - but I confess to a certain smug satisfaction (and confirmation bias) in some of her descriptions of their shortcomings. 

As an introvert, I found the book affirming and liberating. I don't have to feel guilty for being quiet or reticent. It's fine to prefer my own company to yours. I might even be some sort of genius! It opened my eyes to the complexity of personalities trying to relate to one another in marriages or friendships or at work: personality encompasses far more than how much you want to party. And as the mother of an introverted child, I took especial note of Cain's caution that introvert children do not need to be taken out of their shells, should not be told they are shy or that their shyness is something they must overcome. As Olivia gets older and the demands on her limited supply of social energy grow, I want to be mindful of her need for space and her right to have and be quiet. 

Coincidentally, just as I finished reading, I came across this lovely poem, 'His Wealth,' by Robert Francis - a poet influenced by Robert Frost and whom Frost called the greatest of all the great neglected poets. It speaks to the wealth that silence both creates and conceals, and the perilous line introverts walk between the riches of solitude and the risks of being alone. Whether you find this alienating or affirming might depend on your personality more than on your taste. Having read Quiet, I feel as though I'm in on the secret of his wealth. It's mine too. 

His willingness to be alone,
His happiness in being alone,
Was what they never could forgive.

Either he loved his loneliness
Too much, or loved his friends too little.
And didn't the one imply the other?

True, what they missed and wanted most
Was not so much his company
As evidence he wanted theirs.

Where had he kept himself all week? 
Always they seemed to want to know,
Yet at the same time not to know,

As if they hoped and feared to find
That all his secret wealth was both
Within and far beyond their reach. 

Unhealthy and o'erdarkened ways

After last year’s parade of horrors, I began this year hopefully. In spite of the world’s wild entropy, this would be a year of calm flourishing. I made my usual list: more yoga, more vegetables, more beauty.  I might still reach for my phone as soon as my eyes opened, but I would read poetry, not politics.

But the bad news centrifuge is strong, and so are the outcry and uproar that hourly spout from the internet’s blowhole. Before it was a month old, this year seemed worse than the one before. Calm flourishing seemed quixotic. 

Of course, outcry is the right response when civil society suddenly descends to the eighth circle of hell.  And yes, Danish coziness is probably insidious. But the lie of life online is that it resembles life at all; that you can sustain the rage it makes room for, or be sustained by it. Being immersed in the stream, the feed, is not the same as being engaged. It's at best a distraction; at worst, it's outrage as recreation. 

If I sound insular, it’s because last year I felt as though the walls around my inner life were too thin. So much of what I consumed was not nourishing. So much of what consumed me was gone within a week, sometimes less. This year, I wanted to resist that lure. I wanted to spend time in places of restorative quiet and beauty, and on things that will still matter a year, or a hundred years, from now. I believe that's a way to flourish, but it's also a way to see the stream, the feed, for what they are - to see how small they are. 

A month in, I haven't kept those resolutions. But the year is young. There's still time to find those quiet bowers beauty keeps for us. 

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: 
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing. 
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth, 
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days, 
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all, 
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon, 
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake, 
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: 
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead; 
All lovely tales that we have heard or read: 
An endless fountain of immortal drink, 
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Keats, from Endymion (1818).