LAST WEEK I conducted a creative writing workshop with a group of adult learners in a literacy program in Cherry Hill.
We talked about Lucille Clifton's poem "Sisters" and Langston Hughes' "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" Participants wrote about their experiences of "connecting." They described their dreams. When we read a selection from Carl Sandburg, "A Father Sees a Son Nearing Manhood," they were particularly thoughtful: "Life is hard; be steel; be a rock." "Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy." "A tough will counts. So does desire. So does rich soft wanting."
There was rich soft wanting in the room. I asked the participants to write a few lines of advice to their children. In one message they were consistent: Without exception, they told their children to stay in school, to get an education, or to resign themselves to being poor.
Two days later I was at a bazaar at my parish church on Fulton Avenue. The hall was tastefully arranged with tables of used decorations, second-hand toys and an assortment of donations ranging from talcum powder to kitchen ware. I was working behind the cake counter. The food, pineapple upside-down cake, banana nut bread, apple pie, was donated by parishioners. I was told to use my discretion in pricing the portions. It was difficult for me to remember that the purpose of the event was to accumulate a small profit for the unusually poor parish. I kept feeling that the purpose was to feed the poor who came with their pennies to do some early Christmas shopping.
Recently after four days of rain, I went for my morning walk in a nearby city park. Last summer I had learned to avoid the long road around the north edge of the park because it is too isolated. This day the air was particularly clear and clean, and I forgot. As I approached the most deserted section, a man stepped from behind a tree. He stood a short distance from me, smoking a cigarette.
When I turned, he turned. I changed direction again; so did he. Then I crossed the grass quickly and went down the hill to the center of the park where city workers were about their usual maintenance work. The man was coming across the grass behind me. I approached a young black man who was working with the crew, pointed to the man who seemed to be following me and asked if he would keep an eye on him as I left the park. The young man said he would, and then added, gently, "I have a mother, too."
During the summer I also took to walking the C&O; Canal. I like the walk on the Maryland side, across from Harper's Ferry, where the Potomac River and the Shenandoah meet. On several occasions over the summer I went there with friends to hike and swim. I wonder what opportunity the women and men I teach in Cherry Hill have for such wholesome diversion, where the people on Fulton Avenue go, how the young man who also has a mother sustains his gentleness.
A tough will counts. So does desire, and so does rich soft wanting.
Mary Ellen Dougherty, SSND, is associate professor of English at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.