The First and Best Lesson

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My university’s student magazine recently published one of my poems. I was so excited that I did something that probably rarely happens: I decided to read the other selections in the magazine. It was the non-fiction that arrested my attention. Perhaps it was the theme of the section, but each essay described the author’s strained (sometimes downright harmful) relationship with a parent.

It has taken the past two years, but I have finally made peace with my own upbringing. After a short-term stint at therapy, many psychology and self-help books with their endless five-steps programs and an almost inhuman dose of willpower, courage, and sheer tenacity, I can honestly say that I forgive my parents, but especially my father, for my neglectful childhood and the havoc it has wreaked on my adult life. Not only have I forgiven them and recognized their humanity, but I am also able to move forward with my life with clarity, self-determination, and hope.

Despite the flowers and rainbows of this catharsis, though, I have learned to be a realist. Having a unreliable father (and that’s being kind) has irrevocably changed the way I view the world. I sometimes worry that I am doomed to a cycle of failed relationships, because of my lack of trust and high suspicion of my partner’s intentions and affection. The issues go deeper than relationships: For many years, I struggled to believe in life itself, its goodness, its worth. My faith in life had no chance to blossom because of early experiences.

Poetry helped, though. Some might complain that modern poetry is filled with sadness, isolation, disassociation, and emptiness, but every now and then we find an uplifting, gem of a poem. These gems often allow those with no other outlet to experience and feel things they might not have otherwise. Philip Booth’s First Lesson is one such poem. On the surface, the poem is simply a father teaching his daughter how to swim. On deeper levels, though, we find themes of trust, endurance, and faith. Read it for yourself:

First Lesson
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
—Philip Booth

And just like that I have seen a good father teach his daughter the first and most important lesson in life. Just as you must learn to float before you learn to swim, a daughter, a son, a human being must learn how to hold on and not give in when life deals them trouble.

How my heart softens at the comforting tone Booth’s speaker uses! The daughter is reassured of his support at this crucial point in her life lessons. It is, I believe, the father’s voice and the firm pressure of his hand holding up her head that convinces her the sea will do the same one day when he is not there. To be sure, before the sea can hold her or anyone it seems that the father’s presence is integral.

Yet, despite my lack of a father, I learn so much from this poem. Life may be an adventure, a journey towards our own self-actualization, but it is fraught with fears, obstacles, troubles. When we tire of fighting against the tide, we must learn how to hold on (or float) until we are strong again. We must trust that the sea will hold us up while we are weak and eventually carry us to our destination. Yes, we might not have had a father’s comforting hand to teach us how to have faith, but the sea will carry us nonetheless if we believe.

I learn faith from this poem. The lessons here sustain me far more than any practical advice can. Poetry triumphs again. How about you? Has poetry ever helped you make peace with a troubling aspect of your life?

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