Looking at myself…

On Monday, I recalled myself as a child in reference to the limited schooling available to the Mennonite children of Bolivia, such as the girl, left, in Lisa Wiltse’s photo essay in The Walrus. It was a way of explaining what motivates my concerns for her and her siblings and peers: my gratitude for the privileges I’ve had to be educated, and my remembered longings to learn. Today I’ll be even bolder — on the personal side of things — for there’s a photo of myself I love, and at a poetry workshop about a decade ago we were to write something based on a photo, and so I wrote about that one. I make no claims for the poetry, but it does try to get at what I was saying on Monday. (Photo and poem follow below.)

Some may see it as a failure of the imagination if I feel pity for those Mennonite children. I’m forgetting, they may say, how much joy can be wrested out of life in spite of limitations and constraints, and surely limitations and constraints have been the lot of women and children, and men too of course, throughout time. Life is but a vale of sorrow, etc. etc. True enough. Still, I insist on linking my life to theirs and wishing more for them, and I insist on pity too. I think it could be allowed that this is not a failure but an act of imagination. As writer Amy Tan has said, “Imagination is the closest thing to feeling compassion.”

Looking at myself at nearly-eight

I am set down to smile
in a classroom, a place as lovely,
as familiar, as comforting,
as any green arbor Nature might arrange —
a table, a blackboard, a book
open to every possible green thing
I will discover —

The face of the girl is radiant.
I want to touch her,
frame my hands about these cheeks
to remember the young skin of
curiosity and confidence,
meet her eager blue-green eyes of