By Erika Grumet
It’s birthday time here. Mine is this week, although I am nowhere near 200, but we’ll also be celebrating Walt Whitman’s 202nd birthday with this weekend’s episode of The Ivory Tower Boiler Room.
I think it’s hard to grow up where I did on Long Island and not have at least a passing acquaintance with the name Walt Whitman; at the very least because there’s a mall named for him right in Huntington. At the same time, I don’t recall reading his poetry until well after I was at least familiar in a vague sort of way with the phrase “I sing the body electric.” I loved the tv show “Fame” as a kid, and as did many others, knew the theme song lyrics by heart. But, I was also very lucky to have had a babysitter who had the soundtrack record and a VHS tape of the movie. The movie is 40 years old now, but “I Sing the Body Electric” at the end is still one of my favorite school based movie scenes ever (it ranks up near the top of my list along with “Oh Captain, My Captain” in Dead Poets Society, another Whitman reference.) In sixth grade, I got my hands on a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass” and I read it until it fell apart. Perhaps I understood the erotic tones of “Song of Myself even if I couldn’t label it that way yet.
I have always found the lines
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes,”)
to be some of the most incredible words ever written. They’re comforting words to me-they’re words that tell me that all of the feelings I have are real and okay to feel, they’re the ones that remind me “it’s okay to not be okay, and that the only thing I need to focus on is the next right thing.
As I’ve gotten older, Whitman has become intimately tied into the idea of B’tzelem Elohim, the idea that we are made in the Divine Image. That we are all perfection and all flaws and as we are supposed to be. We are. We exist. We affect change in our worlds, in the lives we touch, we must remain open to the idea that there are unknowable things that we do know, and that we are unable to see the threads we form in the universal tapestry as others weave together with us.
So happy birthday, Mr. Whitman. You don’t look a day over 200.
I hope you’ll join us for Saturday’s new episode.