Friday, March 18, 2011

Equations

Once I had memorized Carl Sandburg's Arithmetic. I'd gotten a soft cover edition of some of his poetry. I don't recall if I'd picked the poetry for myself or if my mother had given it to me. I tend and prefer to think it was the latter; to have it given as a gift makes the remembering sweeter.

When I first read it I must have been in middle school, on the edge of teen age and just starting to know the world as a place that made me wonder about myself rather than a place I wondered about. Childhood transitions into adolescence in many ways---puberty and pimples, body odor and training bras---but I think the change that carries the most significance is the myopic self-awareness. It was scary to feel like all the things I didn't know were a part of an elaborate practical joke designed to highlight my failings. It was disheartening to try to grow up when every new thing I learned felt like a condescension.

I think that I loved Carl Sandburg because when we read Fog in school it was simple and somewhat prosaic and it certainly did not condescend. It was disarming, even if I did find it a bit boring. Arithmetic was equally simple and inviting and charming. It giggled and bounced and I loved it instantly and was never once inspired to yawn. I learned it by heart and practiced it for memorization lessons. I was always tickled by the last line:
If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she gives you two fried eggs
    and you eat both of them, who is better in arithmetic, you or your mother?
It's been more than 20 years that I've carried that poem around with me. I can't recite it in its entirety any longer, but I'm reminded of bits in flashes of relevance. Spring is oozing out of winter's cold flower beds and I can't help but think of the math student rushing through some times tables so she can spend a few idle moments anticipating recess.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and you can look out of
    the window and see the blue sky---or the answer is wrong and you have to start all
    over and try again and see how it comes out this time.
I've reread the poem often over the years. I've mentioned it in conversations. I've closed my eyes and pictured the cream-colored cover of that book of Sandburg poems I once owned, seeing my fingers stutter over the surface of the tacky cover or fumbling to find a certain page. I've not been active in my recollections. I never studied Sandburg in college as an English major; I've written no analysis of his lines. Passively, simply, in its unassuming way, these lines have analyzed me. It remembers me.

I crave equation in the daily act of living; the ins should be equal to the outs. I want to feel a moderate amount of joy and practice care in most things. I want not to avoid deep sorrow or soaring happiness, but I want the majority of my time to pass in comfort, stability, even a fair amount of predictability. Equilibrium is the most elusive of human desires. More than love and pride and success, calm balance is the thing that "flies like pigeons in and out of your head." I've applied a lot of problem solving to the puzzle of balance and it's very like carrying ". . . the multiplication table in your head and hope you won't lose it."

In two decades I've come to see the final lines in this poem not as the punchline but as a query about the nature of what we think we want and how that differs either from what we get or what we need. I've come to see it as a poem about the relativity of knowledge and how that knowledge is colored by personal achievements ( " . . . if you know how many you had before you lost or won."). It's a poem about the importance of context and common language because "no" is not "nay" anymore than it's "nix." It's a poem in the purest sense that it talks baldly about one thing and hints in whispers at some other meaning. The same way that math some times proposes concrete answers to imaginary questions.

Equation in my life would be the balancing of X and Y where I put the correct behavioral number in the first position and the emotional equivalent comes out on the other end. Equation might be the day that I decided to "quit doubling" and read this poem once more to find it silly, and likable, and no more than a child's verse about math. By then I hope my ins will prove to be equal to my outs.

***


Arithmetic by Carl Sandburg

Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head.
Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how many you had before
    you lost or won.
Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven-or five six bundle of sticks.
Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand to your pencil to your
    paper till you get the answer.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and you can look out of
    the window and see the blue sky-or the answer is wrong and you have to start all
    over and try again and see how it comes out this time.
If you take a number and double it and double it again and then double it a few more
    times, the number gets bigger and bigger and goes higher and higher and only
    arithmetic can tell you what the number is when you
    decide to quit doubling.
Arithmetic is where you have to multiply-and you carry the multiplication table in your
    head and hope you won't lose it.
If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you eat one and a striped
    zebra with streaks all over him eats the other, how many animal crackers will you
    have if somebody offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say Nay
    nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?
If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she gives you two fried eggs
    and you eat both of them, who is better in arithmetic, you or your mother?