The Blue Shirt
As the doors close on 2016 we may find ourselves casting a backward glance, not only on the past year but back over our entire life as well, especially if we’ve reached a certain age. For many of us those very mundane experiences from our childhood remain vivid and profound throughout our adult life. They seem to hold some secret, some meaning that eludes us but that we are always reaching for, reaching back into memory to bring them to life again, trying to hear what they are saying to us now.
When I was very young most of my days began by walking to a county school from our rather shabby little house on a small lake in Michigan’s rural countryside. I walked along dirt roads which passed through a farmer’s field of sometimes corn and sometimes alfalfa. I was always alone but not unhappy. Something on that long ago journey loomed large for me and still resonates, an experience which can hardly even be called “experience,” something which perhaps triggered what I would now call “imagination” or a kind of awakening, even perhaps becoming a kind of sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Along the road there was a fence, just wire strung between posts, and on one of the fence posts at the corner of the field hung a man’s old shirt, faded, nondescript, a sort of washed-out bluegray. Every time I walked by this shirt, my heart twisted a little, wondering what story this shirt held within itself. What someone finally told me was that many years ago a farmer working under a hot sun in that field near the lake, had hung his shirt on the fence post, went back to his plowing and shortly after dropped dead of a heart attack right there in the furrows of the half-plowed field. It wasn’t the story itself that was so poignant for me. I understood that people lived and died and in that time and place folks worked so hard for so little that it wasn’t a surprise that their bodies gave out well before their doggedness did. But the fact that years and years later the shirt still hung on that fence post was a testament to something I could not understand.
Did the meaning of the shirt hanging there for so long have to do with the knowledge that I was probably looking at the outward and visible, innocent last act a human being had committed before dying? Had it simply been forgotten or had it possibly been left there deliberately as a sort of memorial to him? Wouldn’t his family traveling those roads have seen it and taken it if they hadn’t wanted it to remain there? And so there it was year after year becoming thinner and more insubstantial during my long walks back and forth from my four room house to the three room school, until finally just before I left that country school only a scrap or two of colorless fabric remained. It generated a certain kind of stubborn eeriness and, to me, a profound mystery. It was almost as if the entire community had silently agreed to let it remain there, as a kind of tribute.
It also conveyed to me something I couldn’t have described then, the sense of a life having been lived in all its dailyness, its ordinariness, and then—it was gone. All the real, grounded, implacable life of that farmer had dissolved like a wisp of fog and now existed in memory only and lay in a different dimension under another layer of time, the time I stood in at that moment. It was an object of real substance caught somewhere in the interstices of those two times.
Now when I go back, another layer of time has settled over my childhood and very few objects remain to serve as a marker of my life there. The farmer’s field has been gone for years and is now a sub-division of small ranch-type houses with bright green lawns. The roads are all paved rather than rutted and dusty. The small house on that small lake is gone—and the countryside is gone, having been transformed into something almost modern and almost urban.
Why is it so sad to see the familiar objects of one’s past changed or destroyed? Is it because that younger self then also disappears, dies with it and therefore brings us closer to our inevitable mortality? Is it because when the visible reminders disappear, it renders our past life, us, insubstantial and inconsequential? And so we mourn.
Yet somehow that lake and the rural lanes around it still exist, now in multiple dimensions. They contain their own history and were uniquely singular and totally themselves before a village grew up around those shores. It’s where a child’s imagination began to emerge and where that child’s new sense of mortality sprung up. The lake was deep (but not quite bottomless as we used to think as children.) Lily pads with their cups of pink and white flowers grew thick around the shore. Further out there was a raft where we swam, sunlight piercing the top three to four feet of water, creating pillars of browny green and gold through which the silent dark shadows of long, narrow pike moved under our oblivious, gleaming bodies.
Before she turned to poetry Sharron was a Social Worker serving low-income families and the mentally ill and worked as a community organizer around issues of civil rights and the anti-nuclear war movement.
Her poems have appeared in Agni, Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, among others. In 2009 she won the James River Writers Contest and was named the Poet of 2010 by the journal Passager. She also won 1st place prizes in 2010 and 2012 in the Poetry Society of Virginia annual contest, 1st place in the MacGuffin Poet Hunt contest in 2012 and 1st place in the Sixfold Contest in 2013. In 2015 she won the Thomas Merton Award for Poetry of the Sacred. Her chapbook, A Thin Thread of Water, was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press.
She teaches poetry in Charlottesville and in her town of Scottsville, is married with two children and five grandchildren.Share this post with your friends.