Of the many men whom I am, whom we are, I cannot settle on a single one. Pablo Neruda, ‘We are Many”
After the bride and groom had cut into the cake, after the mingling and the photographs and the playing with toddler grandson, after the first of the guests had begun to leave and the sun had sunk down behind those Tennessee trees, that’s when I kicked them off, those black wedge only-for-fancy heels, that’s when my feet with their coral-colored toenails began to tap to the New Orlean’s-style jazz, that’s when my inner teenager came out to play. She just pushed the others aside, the grandmother who is adept at propping an almost two-year old on her hip and showering him with love-hugs, the mother-of-the-groom who is just as adept at showering that love on a pair of newlyweds who she adores with heart and soul, the mingler who delights in flitting from table to table — she, the teenager, just gave them the brush-off, the “hey-ho, I’ll see you guys later!” as she jazzed her way toward the jazzed-up dance floor. And it was jazzed -up with toe-tapping, arms-flying, fancy-footworking friends of the bride and groom, friends who had been enjoying the homemade wine and the groom’s home-brewed beers. It was just the scene for a fifty-eight-year-old teen, her long arms flailing, her loud voice whooping, her bare feet jumping around in only the way that a fifty-eight-year-old teen who always was a little awkward on the dance floor but now just doesn’t give a rip jumps around with her feet. It was her time and there was nothing those others — the mother-of-the-groom, the grandmother, the mingler — could do about it.
We think we’ve got it all together, that we slip into our mother-of-the-groom dress, buckle up those fancy shoes, and voila! We think we’re a neat and tidy package, playing a neat and tidy role. In reality, however, we’re far more complex. We have a whole wedding party of toe-tappers inside of us just waiting to come out and play. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and nobel prize winner, reminds us of this in his poem, “We are Many”. The teenager in me loves this poem, and, it was with teenagers that I first got to know it. I was introducing a poetry unit to ninth graders while student teaching in the late 80’s and the focus was Pablo Neruda. They loved the unit from the get-go. They loved to bellow out his name. “Pablo Neruda!!!” they would shout with glee. And that inner teenager in me who adores teenagers couldn’t help but encourage this over-the-top possibly-obnoxious enthusiasm. The students loved to read Neruda’s ode poems out loud, odes to simple things like salt and watermelon, and then they loved to write their own. An ode to a hockey stick. An ode to hairspray. (It was the late 80’s!) An ode to a beloved pet. But it was the poem, “We are Many” that intrigued them the most. Neruda confesses in his poem — “When a stately home bursts into flames, instead of the fireman I summon, an arsonist bursts on the scene, and he is I.” I think the teens felt liberated reading these lines, reading the entirety of this poem. “You mean it’s okay to admit it?” they would wonder. “That we actually have an inner arsonist!?!” And so many other “inners!!!!”, too. I think it delighted them to confess to a lively thrumming inner party!
And my inner teen, a few weeks ago at our son’s wedding in Knoxville, she was having a blast, a lively thrumming party of her own out there on the dance floor as the band members pumped up the volume for those last few numbers. She was feeling at home, definitely more at home than she would have felt back when her body was technically teenage and more limber and also more self-conscious. The whooping, the stomping, the hand-clapping came easy, the jumping into center circle and letting her body do it’s awkward jerky motions was a no-brainer. And a while later, as the band was packing up and the chairs were being stacked, it took her aback, this lively teenager who was still center stage in the inner wedding party, to hear a gorgeous young friend of the bride and groom tell her that it was awesome the way she got out there and danced. “Isn’t that what teenagers do?” this inner teen thought to herself, forgetting that she had pushed aside the mother-of-the-groom who had been acting a bit more stately until this recent teenage invasion.
And that inner teen, the gal who laughs so hard she snorts, who jumps into the center of the circle and headbangs with the best of them, who slips into her most summery of clothes and rides the wave of adventure and would ride the wave of a surf board if one was put in front of her, I haven’t been able to stuff her back into the box. And I don’t think I’m supposed to. I certainly don’t want to. It’s fun to ride that youth-filled wave. I say let’s be as big and glorious as we are meant to be. Let’s embrace them all. The grandmother. The mother-of-the-groom. Yes, even the arsonist. Perhaps we can build a bonfire, a big blazing bonfire — and, as the leaves finally unfurl up here in the northern woods of Upper Michigan, as the birds twitter and chirp and the peeper frogs peep and the trillium and trout lilies splash their color across the forest floor, we can dance around that fire, all of us, the whole glorious package of who we are.