Sometimes amazing gifts come in unlikely ways. Sometimes they fall, like wounded birds, at our feet as we walk down crowded streets. Sometimes they spring out of strange hiding places, like flocks of blackbirds baked in a pie. They can turn up in the form of mysterious messages spelled out in Alphagetti, or exotic currency tucked into the pocket of a jacket picked up from the dry cleaner. One I received awhile ago came in the form of a beautiful poem by a writer I had never heard of. Her name is George Ella Lyon, and the poem is entitled “Where I’m From.” It begins,
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
… and continues to list some of the many events, sensations, memories, everyday objects and people that have formed the author as a person.
There have been certain poems (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, for instance, or Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”) that, after reading them for the first time, have slightly but significantly enlarged my perspective on the world.
This simple poem has become one of them. What is so striking to me is the wonderful twist on such a bland and commonplace question. A question, unfortunately, that often limits the person it is asked of as a means of pigeonholing and stereotyping people according to their ethnicity and/or place of origin. I wonder what would happen if each of us responded to this question with the originality of George Ella Lyon. It is also, of course, a beautifully charming and unique way of describing who we are, the itinerary of seemingly ordinary objects, experiences and stories from which our individual consciousness is formed. Finally, it is about the many things that we share with others: friends, relatives, lovers, fellow human beings.
After reading it, I found myself unable to resist the temptation of writing my own, personalized version of – something that the poet herself strongly recommends on her website (www.georgeellalyon.com – well worth a few minutes of your time to visit, read and enjoy).
Here is what I came up with:
I am from cold North Sea breezes,
from Shepherd’s pie and overcooked vegetables.
I am from reading Green Lantern comic books by flashlight
long past midnight on a school night.
I’m from black tea with seven spoons full of sugar.
I’m from firecrackers and bonfires
and ghost stories.
I’m from schoolrooms smelling of beeswax floor polish
and headmasters brandishing wicked wooden canes.
I’m from hiding behind the couch watching werewolf films.
I’m from pellet guns and plastic sheriff badges,
Saturday morning cartoons,
orange shag carpet in the basement,
practising disco dancing with Pamela Morgan
the night before the grade eight dance.
I’m from David Bowie and King Crimson,
Whole Lotta Love and London Calling.
I’m from a wife and daughter laughing,
and walking around in a city full of surprises, eyes wide-open all the time.
If you’ve got a few minutes, I highly recommend you come up with your own version. As Lyon advises on her website, “Remember, you are the expert on you. No one else sees the world as you do; no one else has your material to draw on. You don’t have to know where to begin. Just start. Let it flow. Trust the work to find its own form.”