Posted by Jo Robertson Jun 29 2012, 11:59 pm in " The Unexpected Opportunity, "George Gray, a metaphor for your life, Edgar Lee Masters, Jo Robertson, taking chances
Life seems to me to be a series of opportunities reached for or overlooked.
My father was a veteran of World War II, fighting in the South Pacific theatre. At that time the army had what they called “battlefield commissions.”
If the major fell during battle, the captain took his commission and his place in the fray; if the captain died, the lieutenant; and if the lieutenant, most commonly leading soldiers into the actual fighting, became incapacitated, a noncommissioned officer (master-sergeant, sergeant first class, etc.) could instantly receive an officer’s commission simply by taking his place and surviving the war.
This happened to my father during the Allied invasion of Guadalcanal, but at twenty-one years old, he was young and terrified of dying and refused the commission. He regretted that action all his life, and retired from the military at the age of forty-six with the rank of master-sergeant.
My father was an affable, strong minded man, and a born leader, but those traits alone were not enough to catapult him to the positions he wanted in the U.S. Army. When the opportunity came his way, he was shaken by the enormity of a leadership position during battle.
When I taught sophomores many years ago, I started the year by analyzing Edgar Lee Masters’ poem “George Gray,” from his Spoon River Anthology. The book is a series of poems which are actually inscriptions on the tombstones of the Spoon River community members.
George Gray was a man who lived his life afraid to take a risk on anything and compared his life to a ship at rest in the harbor.
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me –
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire –
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
I’ve highlighted in red the parts of the poem that particularly resonate with me. Masters’ central metaphor for George Gray’s life is “a boat with an unfurled sail at rest in a harbor,” a life that is going nowhere and accomplishes nothing of significance.
He next gives examples of why he “shrank” from grasping the opportunities presented him, and ends with what he’s learned about living an enriched life: that putting “meaning in one’s life may end in madness,” but to live without purpose is “torture,” leaving one with “restlessness and vague desire,” or as Masters says, such a life is like a “boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
I then have my students write a metaphor for their lives, loosely using the pattern of Masters’ poem. I have them write their poem on a tombstone cut out of gray paper (hey, they’re sophomores!).
I thought it would be fun if we tried this today, so here goes a metaphor for my life, what might be chiseled on my tombstone:
I have studied many times the marble that was chiseled for me:
A woman who didn’t believe the people who told her
She could not have it all – wife, mother, teacher, writer
Such a life is a tight rosebud waiting for the sun.
Now it’s your turn. What metaphor would you write for your life? If you’re uncomfortable with poetry, what would you consider your single greatest accomplishment in life? No modesty allowed!
I’m giving away a download of my latest release, historical thriller “Weak Flesh,” to one random commenter. Bring on your game!