Friday, June 06, 2008

Poetry Friday: On Turning Ten with Billy Collins

I've been thinking about my children this week.

"Oh, (snort!) really, Karen? There's a new one. How novel! How original!"

Oh, stop.

Granted, I talk about them a lot. As if, you know, they're my life or something. Weeeell, yeah.

Not that "they're my life" in the way I used to scorn, the way I used to think would be a total abdication of my Self and a complete submersion of anything that was truly "me," truly "other," truly important. I used to think that women who ordered their worlds around their children were lost and sad. But now that I have these three incredible human beings in my life, I see that I was lost and sad before they were a part of it. They have enriched my life beyond measure, and that's a pretty good reason to order my world around them for the eighteen or so years I'll get to have them. And when they're gone, my world will not fall apart, as I used to think worlds did for stay-at-home mothers with empty nests. No, I will not suddenly find that I submerged my identity for their sake. No, I will be richer -- I will have a different, and better identity -- for having spent time with them. And I'll be grateful for lives well-lived. Theirs and mine.

What started this whole train of thought?

It might have started with Ramona and Betsy, a couple of days ago. I was sitting on my bed, writing. Ramona came, tentatively, into the room, with a stricken look on her face. Tears were imminent.

"What's the matter, sweetie?" I asked, as she climbed onto the bed and curled up next to me.

She looked mournfully into my eyes and then bravely shared her sorrow: "Betsy doesn't believe in fairies anymore!" she blurted out, and began to sob.

Oh, my. That is a blow for one so young. Her own sister, too. How did this happen?

It must have been that time I looked away for ten minutes. And when I looked back, my Betsy had been growing up. So. Betsy has banished fairies from her life. That's bound to happen sometime after the age of ten, I suppose. And Betsy's nearly a couple of years past that marker. But, I miss my nine-year-olds of days gone by. I now have two former nine-year-olds, and I miss the magic of that age, you know? The charmed existence of one who is intoxicated by a world ripe with imagined possibilities and enchanted creatures around every corner.

And so, when I found this poem, a few tears welled up. Billy Collins doesn't usually make me do that. He usually makes me laugh, or want to buy him a cup of coffee, or run to Atticus and say, "Listen to this one!" But, upon reading "On Turning Ten" I just wanted to hold my children and heal all the wounds that will come their way.

About this poem, Billy Collins said:
that he’s never written the perfect poem. But there’s one, “On Turning Ten,” that comes the closest to being perfect.
“I wrote this as a comic satire on the habit of poets to take themselves very seriously on their birthdays when those birthdays can be divided by ten,” says Collins.

“There are a lot of poems written about being 30 and 40 and 50. And I thought let's have fun with this and write a poem about turning ten.”
“But as I wrote the poem, the poem kind of got away from me,” adds Collins. “And I started to get into the kind of seriousness of this young 10- year-old dealing with mortality for the first time.”
(Read the whole article and interview here.)

from On Turning Ten:

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
There was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.

(Read the whole poem here, at

The poem still works on that delightful satirical level. I love it for that. And I love it for what it became, too. (And I love anyone who gives children credit for being real human beings rather than just messy little creatures who need to grow up.)

And, just as I smile and sympathetically nod at the boy in this poem, I can both laugh and cry at Ramona's sorrow over a sister who no longer believes in fairies. It's sweetly amusing, but that doesn't mean it isn't lamentable. It is.

It is.

Wounds will come. Children will know them as such long before they can articulate why it hurts so much. And so I will continue to order my world around these lovely people -- fairy believers and fairy scoffers both -- to help salve wounds, share laughter and, with grace and help, remind them that one day we'll reach that place where, truly, no matter what, every day, when we are cut, we will shine.

Sarah at Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering is hosting the Poetry Friday roundup today.


sarah said...

Fairies still at nine years old? How wonderful!! May Ramona continued to believe with all her heart for so long also.

I was so sad when my dd stopped believing in fairies (way before nine). But now she believes in angels and I guess that's even better.

christine M said...

Thanks for sharing that poem, it made me tear up too - I have one who's a little past ten - and one who will be there before I know it.

Margaret in Minnesota said...

I think...rather than dwell upon the consideration of my children growing up and leaving...gulp...I will instead laugh heartily. It *is* silly to place so much emphasis on birthdays that can be divided by 10. I'd never thought of that B.B.C.*

*Before Billy Collins

jama said...

Oh my, what a wonderful poem. Appreciate your heartfelt thoughts, too. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

"It seems only yesterday I used to believe
There was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine."

Truly marvelous.

I read your thoughts on your children and kept nodding. Thanks for supplying the perfect words.

Beck said...

I LOVE that poem, although it makes me bawl.
My nine year old still believes in fairies. I don't know how i got so lucky.

Karen Edmisten said...

hello karen here how may i help you?

Karen Edmisten said...


Please check with Mommy before you leave comments here. :-)

Anonymous said...

I love this poem and what you said about it -- thank you for capturing so much so well...

Liz said...

Tell Ramona that I'm way past 10 and I still believe in fairies (well sort of anyway) and I'm pretty sure that C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton did as well. I often long to go live in the Shire and find myself actually homesick for it from time to time. I actually think that while most people go through an "I don't believe in fairies" phase, that some people (lovers of fantasy) return to a more childlike state later on. Of course, I'm not sure Chesterton ever left it...L.M. Montgomery certainly captured the story of a couple of girls who believed in fairy land long after 9,

But if you think that feeling wistful for your no longer nine year olds is painful, try having a 26 year old who's about to get married with all of the attendant worries that go along with that. It's a good thing they don't hand you one of THOSE on the delivery table! Each stage of life has it's own particular joys and pleasures and it's own particular anxieties and pains. It isn't just Mary's heart that got pierced with a sword, even though her's was pierced in a particularly unique way.

Oh, I think my 26 year old and her 23 year old cousin still believe in fairies (at least sort of), but my daughter was far more sophisticated when she was 14.... I actually think that the older we get the more real the possibility of fairies seems to us... I've even pondered writing a story where foxfire in the woods was actually caused by fairies, real honest to goodness ones.

Sara said...

"And I love anyone who gives children credit for being real human beings rather than just messy little creatures who need to grow up."


Andromeda Jazmon said...

"nothing under my skin but light." This is my favorite line. What a great way of seeing yourself.