The Heron's Nest Award
in the sun
Having experienced "water lilies" as a literal period in my life, I feel an immediate wave of emotion upon reading Yu Chang's perfectly concise poem. Nostalgia for happy-go-lucky days gone by, a deep sense of loss for the freedom that is gone forever except in memory. Asked for five words to represent the joys of my youth, I could not do better than "our days in the sun." Juxtaposed with "water lilies," the phrase is mesmerizing, and I transcend my age, my current circumstances. In my grandmother's front yard, I sit on the side of a large, pond-fed fish pool, my feet dangle between water lilies, fish nibble at my toes. A subtle perfume rises from pink blooms with golden centers.
As a child, I swam and fished in ponds and creeks and rivers, I ran barefoot through clover fields, cow pastures, up and down red clay hills. The word "bored" was not in my vocabulary. The sun commanded the flavor of my days. In my teenage years, girls were sun worshippers. Community swimming pools and local ponds were popular meeting places for young people. We might lie beside a body of water all day, slathered with baby oil mixed with iodine, and never once get more than our feet wet. It was all about the tan, the fit of the swimsuit, that one lock of hair being bleached by lemon juice and sunlight. And the boys. At the lakes, on the beaches, the boardwalks. First loves. "Our days in the sun" included summer jobs on the farms, that first time on water skis, parties, junior-senior proms; getting a driver's license, learning to toss a fire baton; wearing a boy's football jacket and his class ring made to fit a girl's finger by wrapping the band with adhesive tape—and painting the tape with red nail polish.
Today we still swim and play and laugh and love outdoors, but the risks are dire, precautions must be taken. Disease-laden mosquitoes, skin cancer, deadly bacteria that enter the brain, sharks that come into the shallows mauling swimmers, hungry alligators that lurk at water's edge where babies splash. That sounds like something from several horror movies, but the dangers are very real indeed. Realistic people do not ignore them.
Neither can we ignore the darkness that has insinuated, flooded, and blown itself into our lives. Will we ever again know carefree days without the threat of terrorist attacks? When we're not afraid to attend a movie's first showing, an outdoor concert, a political or religious celebration? Once upon a time boarding a plane was easy, security was minimal, and we could leave our shoes on; travelers didn't eye one another warily, noting complexions, clothing, and briefcases with suspicion.
I remember stunning moments of history during my days in the sun and after: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President's assassination, his brother's assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination; an arch segregationist's governorship, another segregationist governor paralyzed by a bullet; and much later a wall torn down, a cold war ended. Yet now comes more talk of walls and genocide. Nuclear one-upmanship headlines the news. Racial tension is palpable in many places that, perhaps naively, we once hoped had healed.
Each generation has its glory days. With seven perfectly placed words Yu Chang evokes mine—and dark times then and now. Yet in spite of the current political climate, incomprehensible murders, lethal drones, global warming, and superbugs, we will do everything in our power to see our children and grandchildren find the beauty of the water lily, to have their days in the sun.