I know that the title of this blog post sounds strange, but you'll understand it once you've read my newest poem about one of my oldest memories:
The Star’s Shadow
by Susan L. Lipson
I stared upward at the gold, foil star stuck proudly below my bitten fingernails, to the right of my one wrinkled thumb, and now held aloft in my first-grade teacher’s tight grip.
“Look at this! This is yesterday’s star for spelling!” she announced. Everyone looked at my treasured sign of specialness. Except me. I looked at the teacher’s downturned lips and her wrinkled nose. My skinny arm trembled in her grasp.
She clucked her tongue and asked, for everyone to hear: “Why did you leave it on your hand? Don’t you wash every day?” Everyone looked at our teacher’s grimace. Except me. I looked down at my desk, where a big teardrop had just plopped onto the math quiz she had just delivered, marked with a few red x’s, and no smiley face.
I had washed my hand. But I had washed around the star.
“Children,” she asked with scary sweetness, still gripping my wrist, “remember our lesson on the importance of cleanliness?” Everyone nodded. Except me. I was clenching my teeth, trying not to blink, so that tears wouldn’t spill.
My teacher clucked her tongue again, dropped my hand, and strutted off to the next desk, to deliver the next graded math paper.
Hiding my right hand under my desk, I pinched off the star, folded it into itself, hid it in my pocket, and then tried to rub off its grayish, adhesive outline. I wanted to go wash off the star’s shadow in the girls’ bathroom. But I was too afraid to raise my hand to ask permission.
Have you ever dug into your past as I have in this poem, to examine the profundity of relatively mundane moments that influenced your evolution? Try walking in your smallest shoes again so you can see your little child self with new empathy.
Manners make us memorable, either as courteous, compassionate folks, or as people who practice acceptable social customs out of obligation and respect for traditions, or even as hypocrites who use politeness to disguise disdain. Here, in poetry, are some thoughts about manners:
by Susan L. Lipson
They agreed that it was fabulous to reconnect after so long,
that they needed to get together--DEFINITELY!
And that old sentiments renewed should be called "resentiment."
They laughed together, then exchanged phone numbers, emails, smiles, and hugs.
She texted her long-lost friend the next day, to say how thrilled she felt to be back in touch.
The text evoked a "ditto" and a smiley face in reply.
And that reply evoked an invitation to get together,
which remained unanswered for two days,
before being re-sent, along with the words, "You probably didn't get my text, so…".
A day later she re-sent the text again, and then re-sent a new one,
and finally, "resentiment" became RESENTMENT.
And "definitely" became a lie.
by Susan L. Lipson
You’re welcome—to take your place
once you’ve finished gushing,
“Thank you so much for your help--thank you!”
and she replies nonchalantly,
but never, “Thank YOU—
Thanks for asking me.”
No, that would mean
to bother her again,
and clearly you’re not.
To thank someone for effusive thanks
equates giving and receiving,
and negates power of one over another.
“You’re welcome,” blithely uttered,
implies a privilege granted,
a favor tallied,
and only rarely a follow-up offer
to “feel free to ask again, anytime.”
She called to ask whether we received her sympathy card,
and whether we knew that
she had made a donation in memory
of our dearly departed.
She didn’t ask how we are
coping with the loss.
She didn’t even mention my mom-in-law's name,
or any memory of times
spent with her.
She was just wondering—“no
pressure, of course!”—
since she’d never received
a thank-you card.
“But that really doesn’t
matter, of course,” she assured me,
“since I’m sure you’ve
been so busy since….”
And then she assured me
yet again: “You know, dear, that you have
my sincere sympathy, in
card or no card.”
Whose card did she mean?
And why must I thank her
for mere sympathy,
which is like a carefully
wrapped package of nothing,
without the true gift of
Empathy rattling within.
Sympathy is what you SHOW
to others; Empathy is what you FEEL for them.
Sympathy is external;
Empathy is internal.
Sympathy is a polite
action; Empathy is a compassionate one.
Sympathy is expected in
polite society; but Empathy is a welcome, cherished surprise.
Sympathy can be expressed
by greeting cards; Empathy is only expressed in sincere words and/or hugs.
Sympathy is announced;
empathy is understood.
Sympathy shows caring;
Empathy creates sharing.
Sympathy is to shine
another’s beaten-up shoes; Empathy is to wear those shoes.
Loss is cluttered by the
But simplified by those
who share our burdens,
Leaving us a smaller
fraction of grief to bear alone.