Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Cage of Our Limitations

I’m a great believer in knowing limits. You ought not, for instance, try to swim a 100 yards if you can only swim 10 yards. If you’re tone deaf, you’ll never be a successful opera singer. If you want to be happy, ought to accept your limitations and work within that framework.

For many years, I taught middle school and saw up close plenty of individuals who were dissatisfied with their limitations: They didn’t “look good enough” (according to whatever the prevailing look was), they weren’t good enough to play on whatever team, they weren’t smart enough to make good grades, etc. So why try? Whining was so much easier.

On the other hand, I knew lots of kids who didn’t know—or chose not to accept—their limitations. They over-estimated their abilities and boasted how they’d be rock stars or professional football players. So what if they hadn’t had music lessons or didn’t make the team? Some knew they could drive fast, cheat on their schoolwork, take drugs, and not pay any penalties. They were invincible. They could do anything. After all, they’d been told that their future held limitless possibilities for them.

Whoever told them that, lied. While some of the thousands of kids I taught played in garage bands, I don’t know of any who made it as a hit recording star. I didn’t teach any who played in the NFL, although some did well in college sports. But some of the drug dealers/users I taught are dead or in prison; some who drove recklessly died in car crashes, some murdered some of the others. They didn’t know—or didn’t want to know—their limits.

The myth of Icaraus is a good lesson in knowing limits. Daedalus, after building wings of feathers and wax, warns his son Icarus not to fly too near the sun. But Icarus, heady with the joy of flight, strives for higher and higher limits. His failure to know his limits destroyed him.

Our limitations serve as a framework for what we can do. Yeah, sometimes we can stretch our limits a bit, but they’re always there. For instance, I’m tone deaf to sharps and flats, so no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a great singer. Why waste my time and inflict my lack of ability on others? Instead, I’ll pursue interests that I can do—or can learn to do. Like blog.

Not long ago, I Googled the phrase “peevish pen,” to see if anyone else was using the term I chose for my blog title. I was surprised to find “peevish pen” used in a poem written more than a hundred years ago. And the poem dealt with limitations.

CANARY IN HIS CAGE
by Mrs. Dinah Maria Mulock Criak
(1826-1887)


SING away, ay, sing away,
Merry little bird,
Always gayest of the gay,
Though a woodland roundelay
You ne'er sung nor heard;
Though your life from youth to age
Passes in a narrow cage.

Near the window wild birds fly,
Trees are waving round:
Fair things everywhere you spy
Through the glass pane's mystery,
Your small life's small bound:
Nothing hinders your desire
But a little gilded wire.

Like a human soul you seem
Shut in golden bars:
Placed amidst earth's sunshine-stream,
Singing to the morning beam,
Dreaming 'neath the stars:
Seeing all life's pleasures clear,--
But they never can come near.

Never! Sing, bird-poet mine,
As most poets do;--
Guessing by an instinct fine
At some happiness divine
Which they never knew.
Lonely in a prison bright
Hymning for the world's delight.

Yet, my birdie, you're content
In your tiny cage:
Not a carol thence is sent
But for happiness is meant--
Wisdom pure as sage:
Teaching, the true poet's part
Is to sing with merry heart.

So, lie down thou peevish pen,
Eyes, shake off all tears;
And my wee bird, sing again:
I'll translate your song to men
In these future years.
"Howsoe'er thy lot's assigned,
Bear it with a cheerful mind."
So: know your limits and work within them.

And don’t forget to sing with a merry heart—even if you’re tone-deaf.

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