May 25, 2007

The Faces of Children

by Elizabeth Spires

FRIDAY, 25 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "The Faces of Children" by Elizabeth Spires, from Now the Green Blade Rises. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Faces of Children

Meeting old friends after a long time, we see
with surprise how they have changed, and must imagine,
despite the mirror's lies, that change is upon us, too.

Once, in our twenties, we thought we would never die.
Now, as one thoughtlessly shuffles a deck of cards,
we have run through half our lives.

The afternoon has vanished, the evening changing
us into four shadows mildly talking on a porch.
And as we talk, we listen to the children play
the games that we played once. In joy and terror,
they cry out in surprise as the seeker finds the one in hiding,
or in fairytale tableau, each one is tapped and turned

to stone. The lawn is full of breathing statues who wait
to be changed back again, and we can do nothing but stand
to one side of our children's games, our children's lives.

We are the conjurors who take away all pain,
and we are the ones who cannot take away the pain at all.
They do not ask, as lately we have asked ourselves,

Who was I then? And what must I become?
Like newly minted coins, their faces catch
the evening's radiance. They are so sure of us,

more sure than we are of ourselves. Our children:
who gently push us toward the end of our own lives.
The future beckons brightly. They trust us to lead them there.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short-story writer Raymond Carver (books by this author), born in Clatskanie, Oregon (1938). He wrote short-story collections such as Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981).

It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His poetry collections include Open House (1941) and The Waking (1954). He said, "Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

It was on this day in 1787 that the most important convention in United States history got under way, and that was the Constitutional Convention, held in Independence Hall, the same building where the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Some of the famous forefathers weren't there: Jefferson was in Paris and John Adams was in England. Patrick Henry was invited, but he refused to go because he objected to the whole thing. He said, "I smelt a rat." He objected to the purpose of the convention, which was to establish a stronger form of central government. Many people worried at the time that a stronger central government would lead to tyranny, and some even questioned whether the convention was legal. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention apparently felt that they were doing something revolutionary, because the convention was held in secret, the windows nailed shut, and guards posted. Not a single word of the proceedings was leaked to the press.

Most of the men there that day were fairly young. Only four of them were over 60, and five of them were still in their 20s. Ben Franklin, at 81, was the oldest. He was suffering from gout by that time and had to be carried to the meetings in a sedan chair. Two of the delegates, Washington and Madison, would go on to become presidents. Seventeen of them would become U.S. senators, 11 would serve in the House of Representatives, four would be justices on the Supreme Court. The only state that didn't send any delegates was Rhode Island, which disapproved of the whole thing.

George Washington presided over the convention even though he would have preferred to stay home in Mount Vernon. He rarely spoke during the formal debates, but his mere presence in the room affected what people said. Many of the delegates later said that they were reluctant to give the office of the president much power, because they were afraid of creating a king. But since they imagined Washington would soon hold that position, they couldn't deny him what he deserved as the head of state.

Once the document was finished, it was sent off to the states for ratification. It took some persuading to get all the states to ratify it. Rhode Island held out almost to the end. Patrick Henry said, "The Constitution squints toward monarchy." But today, ours is the world's oldest written national constitution. It's also one of the shortest constitutions ever written, at only 7,591 words.

The preamble of the Constitution begins, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

It's the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books."

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