People tend to compare themselves to others at different stages of their lives. Sometimes these comparisons can help us set goals and find confidence in our identity. You might have seen yourself in a parental figure or a celebrity. But have you ever felt like lion at heart or a graceful fish in the water? Has your soul felt as one with a leaf falling slowly from its tree in autumn or have you found yourself ingrained in the cobblestones of a city?
That’s the spirit of Paean to Place by Lorine Niedecker: We see ourselves in others, like family, and also in our surroundings. I read Niedecker’s work for the first time as a college freshman, and sometime during that class I copied some of my favorite lines into a notebook. Unfortunately after almost a decade after “discovering” this writer, I’ve never seen anyone share her work. You can read the entire poem here.
Water lily mud
in the leaves and on water
My mother and I
in swale and swamp and sworn
thru marsh fog
from high ground
saw her face
Looking back to the past for help
“Paean to Place” centers around a woman who we learn several things about almost immediately. She was from an area constantly flooded by water. She grew up poor. Her parents are dead.
It is written in the past tense so I always read it as the narrator looking back at her life. She is not only remembering things, but recounting her story in order to accept who she is. I’m pretty sure of this as I get to the last stanza. Read it on your own and let me know if you agree.
So she’s a product of her surroundings? Yes, but more than that. She finds that herself and her parents can be described in reference to the water or the creatures living around it. Things that help her construct an identity and figure out what’s important.
Up in the sky and in the water, she was surrounded by birds that she knew by their official names: Plovers, sora rails, canvasbacks, woodcocks. She remembered all of their sounds (even wishing in one line, that her mother could hear them). At one point the girl considers herself a “solitary plover”. Like the marsh birds, she had a unique song and one outfit. She wore it as long as the birds kept their feathers. (Apparently seven years). But as much as the girl wants to be like them, ultimately it’s the wings that really set them apart. Her feathered neighbors had more freedom to leave the marsh in which they resided. This is pretty sad, given that within the first few stanzas she reveals her parents dreams: “that their daughter/ might go high/ on land/ to learn.
Niedecker’s narrator does not have feathers but “a pencil/for a wing-bone.” Words are what carry her out of her difficult world. This is the line that really resonated with me. (Please leave your sarcastic gasps for the end of the show. I’m sure that other writers and lovers of words will feel the same.)
You with sea water running
in your veins sit down in water
Expect the long-stemmed blue
speedwell to renew
It seems that the girl, now a woman, left her home in an effort to escape the water and the flooding. She’s different now. But when she returns to visit her parents’ graves, the narrator finds herself a part of it all again.
Though she tried to be a bird and fly away, it’s not the wings that were missing. Her identity was shaped like the water lillies, irises and speedwells that spread around her. Ordinary flowers grew toward light and pleasant conditions, but these survived flooding and grow on top of graves. She had just grown roots in one place for so long, but that was okay.
The water haunted her but it also renewed her, and gave her life.
O my floating life
Do not save love
to the flood
It’s not easy to figure out what defines us. For me, like in Niedecker’s poem, there’s always been a small battle going on to accept things that have shaped me for better or worse. Those things can feed us and help us grow instead of keeping us down.
So what would you say has shaped you? Is it something that holds you back or helps you forward?
Some time ago I was browsing Pinterest and noticed someone shared one of my images. This person was Willo, the creator of LessThan3Questions.com*. When I discovered her site, the concept instantly drew me in. (*For those of you who didn’t grow up on the Internet, the title is actually this: < 3.)
On “Less Than 3”, Willo writes: “What if we asked each other what makes a difference? What feels rewarding? What needs to change? What we still need to ask ourselves? I don’t know. But it’s worth asking.”
At first I saw photos with people holding up random questions. The next set were images of her own questions and answers. The images make you think — and that’s her goal.
On her site, Willo is the one asking questions so I decided to switch it up. She was kind enough to give a lot of details about her project and the motivation behind it.
Engage, Get Close, Find Answers
How did “Less Than 3” start? Who else is involved?
It’s just me. Although many of the ideas and questions come from conversations with those I am closest with.
In October I left my job in the non-profit world. I worked at a homeless shelter as a Volunteer Coordinator and loved the people we served but was really disenchanted with the way we served them and the way things were run. I was excited about possibility, big ideas, dreams, why we do what we do. [I] still am. It was the over-glorifying stress, making excuses, status quo model that much of the non-profit world engages in. One of my concerns with the current non-profit model is that it doesn’t engage people in the very personalized way that we have become accustomed to in the internet age. So I knew I wanted to go as simple and as close to people as I could get.
One of my concerns with the current non-profit model is that it doesn’t engage people in the very personalized way that we have become accustomed to in the internet age.
I was really inspired by Humans of New York. Here’s this guy who just started taking pictures of people and sharing a few sentences about them. Through that one simple action he was connecting people, changing lives, and making a difference. He can raise money in a way most non-profits would only dream of. The secret is the personalization. People seem to trust him, even though the site isn’t about HIM. This also really appealed to me. I follow and admire people like Jonathon Fields, Danielle Laporte, Kate Northrup, but the idea of building something on ME as the cornerstone really turned me off.
I wanted it to be about the ideas, other people, and building connections.
One day in early November, the idea of < 3? came and stuck. I got the idea on a Friday, launched it on a Monday and have been enjoying the ride ever since.
Do you get many submissions? How do you get people involved?
No submissions, yet. Although I’m totally open to it. I have been getting people involved by asking just about everyone I get a chance to if they are willing to be on the site. I usually ask if they prefer picture or video. The questioning process is a little different for each. If we do a video I ask them questions. If we take a picture they ask the question they wish everyone would ask themselves.
What inspires the questions/posts you write?
Everything! A lot of times I will be reading, or talking to someone, or listening to something and think: “There is a question here.” Sometimes my friends give me an idea.
And I have been able to expand it to things that never occurred to me in the original conception. Like illustrated essays and the incredible and inspiring video from The Paper Dress Code. That is one of the things I like best about < 3?. It’s so open that inspiration can come from anywhere and lead anywhere. Which is exactly how I think all the best things in life (including helping others) work.
Do you think asking the right question can get someone to make changes in life?
Yes. Of course none of us knows what that question will be that inspires us to make changes, or maybe accept changes. But questions are powerful. I become more convinced of that every day. I think that questions are more powerful than answers. Questions are flexible. Every person who reads < 3? can ask themselves every question on there. The same wouldn’t apply to answers. The things I write don’t necessarily fit or resonate the way the questions can.
Has this project influenced you in any way?
Absolutely. I am a much better person than I was when I started < 3?. The people I’ve met and the questions they’ve asked, or caused me to ask, have steered me in a softer, kinder, easier, more loving, more creative, more hopeful direction.
Which question/submission is your favorite?
Oh, see this is a tough spot! Because of course I am not supposed to have a favorite. Of course they are supposed to be like my children, all my favorite. But I personally hate when people answer that way, so I won’t.
I think my favorite question is the very first one I posted. Whitney from Traverse City was such a sweet stranger and so willing and helpful to launch < 3?.
After she asked [her question] I talked it over with my friends. We got to thinking, what would make your 10 year old self proud? 10 year old Willo doesn’t care how much money I make or what my job is (unless it’s awesome). She wants to know if I am happy. If I laugh a lot. If I found the love of my life. If I have fun. If I hang out with cool people.
The more I think about it, the more I want to hold my life to the standards of 10 year-old Willo. She knew what was up.
My favorite answer is when Mary from Ontario said that the best gift she ever received was when her brother came home from Vietnam. It was such an honest personal revelation. It told me a lot about her in one sentence. And it pinpoints what really matters to all of us.
In your “about” section, you say that connecting to each other makes people better. Do you feel that “Less Than 3” has done that?
When I started < 3? I wanted to have an impact on everyone. I thought I could do something to change the world. Now I realize that we can change ourselves, and by being happy and healthy and caring, we change the world. I know that’s the way that < 3? has connected me to people, has made me better.
Every time someone likes or shares something on < 3? I am so happy. Not because of what it means for the site. Everyone is so focused on numbers and audience and analytics these days. Honestly, I don’t care.
Doing this site has made me better. I would like to think each time someone shares their question it touches them in some way. And every single time someone interacts with the site in some way I am happy that I know about that person. That for a moment I saw their name, and maybe their comment or their blog or something else about them, and I am thankful for them in this world.
What question makes you think?
Here’s mine. Let me know your answer in the comments, or post your own question on Facebook or Twitter (@yevkusa).