In Search of Helen Vendler



Aloha and Happy Mother’s Day, my Sassy Wahines!

While waiting around outside my daughter’s middle school dance last night (yes, I’m one of those parents who feel a need to be in close proximity, just in case a boy says something hurtful that makes her wanna leave, or someone makes fun of the way she dances), I found myself thinking about college and about a teacher I once had, wondering if she was still alive.  As you get older, especially in the age of the internet, you google people you once knew to see if they are still above ground.  A weird habit, I know.  It’s the modern version of how old folks used to go from reading the front page first, to heading to the obituaries instead, just to see who died.  I don’t know…maybe it’s a way of marking time, a little wake-up call to oneself, to not waste time, to get going, devour life, while you still can.  I couldn’t find out where she was now, or if she had died.  I did see she last published in 2015, that she taught a course at Harvard in the Spring of 2017.  Not bad for a woman who must be in her 80s now.

So, in my search for Helen Vendler, I began to feel I was searching for myself, the person I used to be and pondering, was that girl still inside me somewhere?  I remembered a poem by Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which I first read in one of Vendler’s courses. It was one I really liked:  “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, and live alone in the Bee-loud glade.”  I liked the rhythm of it.  Calm and resonant, the repetitive da dum of a heart beat.  I’d once heard a comical recording of Yeats reciting it.  He performed it in a thunderous manner, that seemed antithetical to me then.  Now, as a mature woman, I think maybe he read it that way like an alarm bell to his reader and himself.

It is a poem about pastoral daydreaming while being a city-dweller, the mind flowing back, back, into memories of childhood and peace on the beautiful Isle of Innisfree.  This daydream ends in the final couplet….born perhaps of the intrusion of city sites and sounds, he wrote, “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”  The “it” is the past, a simpler time, a former self, that yet remains deep inside the edifices of aging, the mundane details of daily life, the distraction of all that is around one, including the expectations of others that intrude on one’s peace and creativity.  The passage of time collapses and what remains most vivid are these memories, a time of great beauty and peace.

Unable to find Vendler, I began to remember vignettes of my time as her student.  She was a chunky looking woman, yet very refined, as well.  She could have been anyone’s Aunt, baking pies in the kitchen, with flour on her face.  A woman who had the tendency to be a little forgetful, maybe, yet absorbed totally in anything that was important to her.  She told us a story once.  She was reading or writing at home, naked.  She had put in for a service call for something or other, and being so absorbed in her work, when the doorbell rang, she answered the door like that.  We all laughed at the foibles of our distracted, yet literature-obsessed professor.   Now, most likely being the same age she was, when she told that story, I asked myself, would I ever want to be so passionate about something that I forget I’m naked?  Yes, please.  I’ll have what she’s having!

The three hours passed quickly, as I became more and more absorbed with my thoughts. It had grown dark outside.  My daughter opening the door startled me, as I came out of my own daydreaming.  Coming back to the reality of being her Mom, we discussed the success of the dance.  She reported that the 7th grade girls didn’t dance, despite her beckoning them onto the dance floor and her warning that, “If you don’t dance, you are going to regret it later”.   She and a circle of her guy friends were the ones to get out there on the dance floor and risk being foolish, or made fun of.  I am so proud of the way she doesn’t think of boys as, “the other”, or even a potential romantic interest, as a soon to be 13 year-old girl.  They are “just” friends.  She sees them as people, as she does her friends who are girls.  They know she sees them.  I see it in their smiles as they talk together in the distance and I’ve watched them stand taller and more confident, as the year has transpired.  Her recounting of the dance reminded me of Wayne Dyer’s admonition:  “Don’t die with your music still inside you” and I felt proud to be her Mother.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die with my music still inside of me.  We all deserve to have this kind of confidence and passion.  Today, on this special day, take the time to be you, feel you, do you.  Don’t let the past be the only vivid moments of your life.  (This doesn’t mean you aren’t Mom, or S.O.)  It just means that somewhere, deep inside you, you are still you, the girl from the past who dreamed.  Allow yourself to be a day dreamer, absorbed in thought, to be taken away, and have time pass without notice.  Whether you let it eek out in drips and drabs, or spill freely from you, let the “music” out that is inside your “deep heart’s core.”

Peace and Aloha Mamas!


Mrs. Sassy Pants


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