The Boats

boats

One of my favorite poems from childhood is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Where Go the Boats?” from A Child’s Garden of Verses, that bouquet of scenes from an innocent (privileged), tree-shaded England. Here it is:

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating –
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

Granted, the nursery rhyme world of mean spiders, bleeding mice and sticking your thumb in your food had its place in my life. But I always loved this poem my grandmother taught me because we shared a love of the water, and because, thanks to my grandfather, I am a Master paper boat builder.

As a Creative adult, I still love the poem: isn’t it a beautiful statement of an artist’s faith? I think so. As an undergrad, reading Shelley and Keats’s windswept vistas of eternity, I thought Stevenson stated faith in the Immortality of Art, carrying Our Names down the river of time. Well, he pulled it off. But Artistic Immortality is a yacht with a small guest list and a political agenda. I know now the poem is really an artist’s statement of faith in simple Connection, with another person or the world, through Creativity. The only thing the poem promises, and what it celebrates, is two sets of  hands playing with the boats, and the current between them.

Connection, when it happens, can often surprise you, like walking through unexpected lilac scent across a sidewalk. It surprised me this spring, when one of my classes was doing group work. In a moment of whimsy, I made a paper boat from a spare sheet on the desk, and set it among my notes. My student Ha, with the fabulous river of blue hair, came up to ask me a question and noticed it. Laughing, I told her about my grandfather’s lessons. She suddenly began to tell me how, when she was a little girl in Vietnam, they lived on a narrow street that was deep like a gully. It would flood easily in heavy rain, and she and her brother would sit in the doorway of their house, launching paper boats. The water would recede quickly, stranding their fleet, which settled into soggy, colorful masses of accidental sculpture, and, as Ha put it, “We papier-mached the street!”

This amazing image knocks my socks off. Connection over shared Creativity ensues, both a little breath-taking and wholly ordinary.

The humble request to use her story to write this piece is honored with the response, “I would be honored.” I hope this post will live up to the vivid, lovely story shared with me when another child saw my paper boat and brought it ashore.

For Ha Dang and Ida Schwimmer, and for Aaron Schwimmer, who sailed away June 8, 1985. I’m still making boats, Papa. I still know the poem, Gram.

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4 thoughts on “The Boats

  1. Oh, now you’ve gone and made me cry. And I’m thinking of the wooden shoe boats with sails my father made as a kid and sailed with his sister back and forth across the canals. Connection made, thank you.

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