My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

Middleswarth potato chips are to central Pennsylvania what cheesesteaks are to Philly.  You can’t get them anywhere else, and nothing else compares. 

After college, trips back home always included pit stops to the Sheetz or turnpike hubs to stock up on their BBQ barrels, tangy sweet deliciousness to which I introduced my husband and then children, formerly geographically deprived. Then several years ago I discovered an online retailer offering a variety of PA-specific snacks, and a Christmas tradition was born. Every year, I order a jumbo box for Christmas Eve. Every year, we hang our stockings then gather to watch Christmas movies and munch Christmas goodies.

But not this year. 

This year, tradition was consigned to post office purgatory. 

Although I’d ordered before Thanksgiving, although they’d shipped two-day priority December 1, on December 5 they arrived at Philadelphia’s regional facility and there they’ve remained, nearly one month and counting.

*****

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell” has been one of my all-time favorite poems, ever since AP English my senior year. A series of personal difficulties had left 17-year-old me adrift and needing an anchor. Brooks’ nameless persona offered me a map to find it. 

(You can read the full text of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43315/my-dreams-my-works-must-wait-till-after-hell).

On first reading, the poem seems merely dark and despairing. Anticipating famine, the persona secures within her memory the title’s metaphorical dreams and works (honey and bread). No one offers consolation, so she must journey alone, draw on her own reservoirs of strength, and hope one day to return home, her recollected treasures intact. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know what she finds when she returns.

Here’s the thing–I don’t think that matters. I don’t think that’s the point of the poem. 

Notice the tense: Hold. Store. Keep. Drag.

It’s present tense, which means the persona experiences these events while they occur. She speaks to us IN THE MOMENT OF their occurrence. Not until line thirteen is there a brief use of future tense, and its effect seems more conditional than predictive.

Notice the sentence structure: Whereas the octet ending with “The puny light” is composed of simple and compound sentences, the sestet is one complex sentence containing two subordinate clauses. And whereas the octet focuses on how she prepares, the sestet focuses on how she will overcome.

In other words, the former is EASY. The latter, not so much.

So what  does the poem mean? And what on earth does that have to do with potato chips?

This:

No matter who we are or where, we are all like Brooks’ narrator–travelling through an unnamed hell, carrying with us the memories and dreams of the time before Covid. But we will “return,” she says. Look at line four. 

How? 

  1. By focusing on what truly matters. “Eyes pointed in,” the volta (or turn of thought) in the second half of line eight. 

2. That is the food that nourishes hope (line 9)….

3. Which becomes the fuel to keep moving (“resume” line 10)…

4. Which reminds her “to go home” (line 12).

5. Because she knows it’s not IF “the devil days of [her]hurt/Drag out to their last dregs.” It’s “when” (lines 9 & 10).

This too shall pass. 

But don’t kid yourself. 

We can’t go back to the way things were. Life won’t ever be the same. We’ve lived this experience, been altered by our journeys through whatever hells we’ve confronted. Such change is as immutable as our DNA. 

Brooks’ persona knows that, as well. She also recognizes the very real danger of becoming “insensitive/To honey and bread old purity could love” (lines 13-14). In other words, the danger of not appreciating the very food whose memories sustain her.

Which I think is the poem’s message. 

Prepare. Protect. Keep moving. 

Because as she creates her present, she creates and feeds her future.  She doesn’t know what form her future will take any more than we do. However, she affirms what she DOES NOT WANT and in so doing, affirms how she will journey forth.

With hope. 

Hope, like love, is an infinite container. 

Hope celebrates the past, accepts the present, and welcomes the future. And together with action, hope effects change.

I don’t know about you, but I find that message pretty powerful. Seventeen-year-old me committed those lines to heart. December 2020 me committed to celebrating the holiday in whatever form it took. To nourishing myself and my family with this moment’s weird but wonderful honey. 

I’m so glad I did.

As for our potato chips?

The retailer switched shippers from USPS to UPS, so I decided to place another order, hoping it would arrive on time.

It did, on December 23.

And as I finished this post December 30, a soft whump vibrated my glass door. 

Yup. The original box. Unopened. Undamaged. Delicious.

Want some?

*****

How are you faring? How are you marking the end of 2020? Drop a line below and share your traditions new and old!

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