Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," on this, Walt Whitman's 190th birthday! If you ask me, he and Emily Dickinson run neck-and-neck in the Best American Poet race.
Twenty years ago today, I was as wretched as I've ever been in my life. I was two weeks overdue with my first child. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, and our house had no air conditioning. I was so enormous I could hardly move. The lazy thing inside me seemed in no hurry whatsoever to breathe the clear air of New Jersey.
Today I stood in Harleigh Cemetery at the tomb of Walt Whitman, with my daughter The Heir at my side. We were there to honor Walt's 190th birthday. Heir only missed sharing Walt's birthday by one single day. On June 1 she turns 20.
Most of the people attending the informal Walt Whitman anniversary were our usual suspects from the poetry group Heir and I belong to. The Monkey Man presided, but we all said a few words about how we became interested in Walt Whitman and where Walt fits in our lives today. So of course I spoke about telling my students from Camden that the city once was Whitman's, but now it is theirs, and they should write about their Camden. They are ready to do it, trust me.
One of the people there was not a regular. He was a young dude with a day's worth of stubble and a funky urban t-shirt. When our homage to Whitman ended, this dude struck up a conversation with The Heir. And it occurred to me suddenly that the baby who was reluctant to breathe New Jersey air in 1989 is now taking huge gulps of it in 2009 and is a magnificent human being.
When The Heir was born, her grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family encouraged me to get her involved in a good church, so that she would grow up with strong moral values. And I followed that advice for many, many years. It was disastrous. Heir wanted no part of choir, youth group, acolyte, Sunday School. In all her years as a budding young Methodist, the only thing she ever did that meant anything to her was go to a homeless shelter to mop the floors. Asked by the pastor how she would describe God, she said, "Temperamental."
So, has this failure as a Methodist turned into an immoral reprobate? Bamp. No. Quite independent of any praise and worship system whatsoever, she has grown up sober, hard-working, compassionate, and trustworthy. And beautiful. She's the very model of the modern secular humanist.
There are 517, 234 citizens in Camden County, New Jersey. The Heir was the only one under 21 to go to Walt Whitman's grave and honor him on his birthday. If that doesn't beat youth group by a country mile, I don't know what does.
Pagan values? Honor your local Bard.
"As for me, I know nothing but miracles."
-- Walt Whitman