Jun. 29, 2006

Square Dancing with Sister Robert Claire

by Michael Cleary

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Poem: "Square Dancing with Sister Robert Claire" by Michael Cleary from Halfway Decent Sinners. © Custom Words. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Square Dancing with Sister Robert Claire

First week of junior high, Kel wised off to her
same as he'd done to the one all year before.
I can still see it. Her so short, the uppercut put
all her weight under the whack of her pudgy fist
against the V of his chin. Kel arching a back-dive, landing
legs up, desks dominoing halfway up the row.
Sweet Jesus, she was tough, but bless her the first one
who liked boys best and didn't carry a grudge.

But she sure as hell wasn't one of the almost pretty nuns
you could almost imagine out there in the world.
Picture pie-faced Lou from Abbott and Costello,
lumpy-looking in any duds but now add a thick black
floor-length habit with dozens of folds, hidden pockets.
Around her waist rosary beads big as marbles
dangling to where knees would be.
Hair, ears, and neck under a stiff white wimple,
she waddled the aisles like a wooly toad.

One week she dragged us into the gym
and the alien world of square dancing—and girls.
Shedding blazers, ties, and shoes, we were cornered.
In sweat socks and knee socks, we shuffled like prisoners,
allemande left and dosido stranger than dominus vobiscum.
Robert Claire stood on a chair trying to clap rhythm
into our dumb feet, sometimes leaping down, landing
light as a blackbird. She'd skip and twirl among us
arm over arm until her habit billowed like a gown,
face aglow, God's clumsy children urged toward lessons
of possibility and romance she brought from a life before.
Reluctantly, we learned to move together, touch, let go.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the aviator and author of The Little Prince (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (books by this author) born in Lyon, France (1900). He came from an old aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. Saint-Exupéry was a poor student, but when he was twelve, he took a ride in an airplane and fell in love. When he was twenty-one, he was called up for military service in Morocco, where he received his pilot's license.

After his military experience, he signed up to be an airmail carrier. At the time, it was a death-defying job to take, flying mail from France to Africa in frail planes with open cockpits. He flew without instruments except for a compass and an altimeter, navigating by landmarks and the stars. In 1929, the airmail business sent him to South America as well. He turned his experiences as an aviator into two novels: Southern Mail (1929) and Night Flight (1932), both of which were best sellers.

He flew some missions for France at the start of World War II, but when France fell to the Germans, he sailed for the United States and arrived in New York City on the last day of 1940. He planned to stay for four weeks, but he wound up living in New York for two years. It was one of the hardest periods of his life. He'd survived numerous airplane crashes in the previous twenty years, and those crashes had taken a toll on his health. He spoke little English, and deeply missed his home country and the family and friends he'd left behind. And so, to cheer himself up in his period of exile, he began to write a children's book that became The Little Prince.

The Little Prince is narrated by a pilot who has crashed in the desert, where he meets a strange little boy who claims to have come from an asteroid where he took care of a single rose. The little boy asks the pilot to draw him a sheep, and the two begin a series of conversations, mainly about why it is that grownups are so difficult to get along with.

When The Little Prince came out in 1943, it didn't sell many copies. The following year, Saint-Exupéry was presumed dead when his plane disappeared while he was flying a reconnaissance mission for the Allies. After Saint-Exupéry's mysterious disappearance, sales of The Little Prince skyrocketed. Today, it still sells more than 100,000 copies a year.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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