Anne Sexton’s “Courage”

A sobering poem by a strong 20th Century voice:

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
comver your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.​


This is a brilliant remake of an exceptional song


A gorgeous poem of hope:

Sometimes – Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

Still I Rise, Forgetfulness

8 October 2014
Dear Friends,
As I seek to honor my first teaching mentor, Carla Hausmann, on her birthday, I am drawn to a poem by Billy Collins that my friend Lynn shared yesterday. But, knowing Carla’s love of Maya Angelou, I wanted to share my favorite Maya Angelou poem in honor of Carla, who guided me and loved me through my first two years of teaching. I was blessed to have her in my life then, and I am grateful that she is still in my life, if only through daily poems and occasional e-mails. Thank you, Carla, and happy birthday.  
Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

By Billy Collins
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Journey abroad leaves me knackered and chuffed

Providence Journal
Published: September 21, 2014 01:00 AM
I’m knackered (a great British word, meaning “tired,”) after hours of travel back from Europe. To celebrate my father-in-law’s 75th birthday, our family traveled to England for a canal boat trip through Oxfordshire. The slow, leisurely sojourn through the English countryside had its challenges, as eight of us were packed away on 6-foot-6-inch-wide, 70-foot-long boat that fit snugly in the 58 locks we traversed.
The second boat, our twin, had eight passengers as well, so 16 family members in tight, cramped quarters for the better part of a week. Anyone who has traveled with eight children and seven other family members questions not why I am in need of another vacation.
But, as I put away the trifles, trinkets, and insouciance of summer and unpack the toil, busyness, and routines of autumn, I reflect on a summer that will warm me and brighten me during the coldest and darkest days of winter.
It is a blessing to have the means to travel, for traveling allows us not only to see the world with new eyes, but also to experience a sense of unbalance that sharpens the mind and deepens our appreciation for each moment.
Technology has shortened distances and seemingly connected all of us to places heretofore only imagined. In seconds, words reach worlds thousands of miles away, and conversations in multiple languages occur at all hours of the night. If I like, I can read newspapers from the Australian Outback with my breakfast, listen to music from a South African radio station for lunch, and watch, with subtitles, Japanese television with dinner without ever leaving my computer.
It’s wondrous and specious, all at once: as much as I may think that I am experiencing Australia, South Africa, or Japan, I am not, because I am not there rubbing elbows with the people. Travel involves seeing the sites, hearing the languages (learning new slang words, like “knackered,”) tasting the foods, breathing the air, and feeling the dirt on your feet and the wind on your face.
No matter how many times I travel to a foreign country, I experience it anew. My senses are more alert, not only because of the dialects and languages, but also the odd currency, the strange sirens slicing the air, and the general awareness that travel, of any sort, demands. As an educator, I know that we best learn when our senses are most alert, and travel, like nothing else, enlivens us. It also forces us to communicate with humility, as we seek support, while fumbling with the language, the currency, and the roadmaps.
In addition, travel allows us to feel good about simple accomplishments, such as navigating the Tube like a local, or ordering a pint as a native might. We return home with clearer eyes, a new perspective and a deeper appreciation for what we have, what we’ve done, and what we can accomplish.
More important than these small achievements, however, is the substantial sense that travel improves who we are: as Mark Twain opined in “Innocents Abroad,” “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” In sum, travel makes us more sympathetic, more compassionate, more understanding, and in a world filled with fearful, dispiriting, confusing news from the Ukraine, from Ferguson, and from Syria, among other places, it’s good to know that travel kills prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, while encouraging understanding and empathy.
“Frederick,” a children’s story by Leo Lionni, tells the tale of a seemingly lazy mouse who spends the summer months storing memories of the summer, while his compatriots gather the necessities. His companions curse his laziness, until the dead of winter, when Frederick steps forth and shares warm memories of their summer sun. Like Frederick, this winter, as I trudge around the slosh-filled roads of Rhode Island, wondering when spring will come, I will unpack my memories of a summer of travel, forgetting how knackered I was plodding through customs at Heathrow and feeling utterly chuffed (British for “completely satisfied”).

Michael C. Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

Michael Obel-Omia: Ice Bucket Challenge heats up social media, urge to do good deed

Published: August 24, 2014 01:00 AM

The Providence Journal

Michael C. Obel-Omia

I’m sopping wet. Like thousands of people, I have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and, I must admit, I feel great (cold, but great). I took the challenge because I wanted to raise awareness of and contribute money to combating this awful disease.

For the uninitiated, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a social media phenomenon, primarily on Facebook and Instagram, in which someone posts a video of him/herself dumping a bucket of ice water over his/her head, then tagging at least three more people to take the challenge or donate to the ALS Association, which fights Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Then the ice rains down, eliciting laughter and squeals of shock and joy.

The shock is obvious: even on a hot summer day — I think that it was 83 degrees when I did it — ice water stuns the senses. The joy, however, is more complicated and worthy of note.

Being raised Roman Catholic, in the shadow of my church, I have always understood and embraced the edict from Luke: “For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

I remember scrubbing the floors of my church with Murphy’s oil and polishing the pews with Old English or Pledge. The smells of those products are still with me, and on the rare occasion I perform those chores at home, I am transported back to the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Albany. I also remember working in the church’s soup kitchen, and continuing that work all through high school.

In college and soon after, I was self-indulgent and had forgotten my charitable roots, until I started working at a school in Boston that firmly believed and promoted those words from Luke: they were inscribed in a frieze above the refectory. Daily, as we ate, we were reminded that to those of us who were so pleased to be at that school, much was expected.

That constant reminder led me to serve on numerous boards of trustees, complete several century rides for the Rodman Ride for Kids, run the Boston Marathon, cycle across the country to raise awareness of and funds for Nets for Life, ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge, and do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Each one of these events, almost always physically grueling, demanded that I look within and beyond myself to improve my world.

Some naysayers have disparaged the challenge, complaining that pouring a bucket over one’s head does little to raise awareness; instead, it is just a social media stunt that has quickly lost its true meaning, morphing into a macho exercise.

I think that there will always be an opportunity for well-meaning challenges, events or stunts to lose their original meaning, but so far, people’s willingness to cover themselves in ice has increased awareness of this disease incredibly, and boosted donations.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia returns home after saving the life of her husband’s dear friend. As she sees a light shining in her window, she remarks, “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Each one of us, regardless of our chosen communities or means, has an opportunity to shine a beam of light, often one ice cube at a time.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

Michael Obel-Omia: I know I’ll be judged by what I wear and how I speak

By Michael Obel-Omia

Special to The Journal

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” That quote, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is advice that’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Recently, I was out with a few friends, one of whom was a new acquaintance. The woman, who hadn’t spent much time with me, remarked that the top button on my polo shirt was buttoned. She noted it curiously at first, but then felt a need to unbutton it — yes, I am that irresistibly sexy in person — for it drove her crazy that I was so “buttoned up” on a warm summer evening. Smiling while dodging her furious hands, I told her, “I paid for the button, so I shall use it.”

Buttoning up, for me, is not only a matter of pride — I need to look good when I go out — but also a wonderful metaphor for how I view my world. As an African-American man who is predominantly surrounded by white people, I feel a need to be reserved, cautious, aware, well-spoken and even better dressed. I know that I am being judged by my words, by my actions, by my appearance.

Yes, I said “shall” to that woman, because I speak in a way that arrests attention. How I look and how I talk matter.

During last summer’s rush to buy school supplies, my wife, a white woman, allowed our biracial son to pick out a shirt. He came home and proudly showed me the T-shirt: “Wake Me Up For Lunch.”

I lost my mind. I told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t wearing that shirt to school.

I think my strong reaction has everything to do with my perception of how my son may be viewed: as a biracial boy in a whitewashed suburb of Providence, will his shirt be taken as a harmless joke, or will it trigger in the teacher some latent sense that this child, this half-black child, cannot and will not do the work?

My perception is probably as outdated as my conservative, ’60s country-club dressing style, but I still feel it — and, more important, fear it. As a black man, I, and by extension my children, need to be on point, both in speech and in dress, because I feel as if I am — we are — being judged.

I still remember my mother dressing me in the hand-me-downs of my older cousin. The shirts and pants could not have been more corny, and I was mercilessly mocked by my classmate Moses: “Michael, the 1950s are calling; they want their argyle sweater back.”

I fought with my mother about those outlandishly outdated clothes, but later, after elementary school, I started to choose to wear them. The reason is that I began to recognize that clothing says a lot about who we are. I had just entered a private school, and in order for me to fit in, I had to dress in ’80s preppy style (which seemed straight out of “The Official Preppy Handbook”).

Apparel doth oft proclaim the man, and we see that with “thugs” walking our urban streets with their pants halfway down their legs. Even when I, a black man, see these children, I don’t see innocence; rather, I see potential danger.

I button up not only to lower anxiety when people meet me, but also because it reminds me how to proceed — with caution. I don’t think I have the luxury of speaking and dressing as I like, because I fear that I am being judged by what I say and how I dress.

As post-racial and as accepting and as inclusive as we like to imagine ourselves, we are still a nation of people who quickly judge. By dressing as inoffensively as possible, I try both to blend in and to let my words allow me to stand out.

Michael Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.