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Priming the Pump

A year ago I sat in a large convention center in Kentucky and listened to an hour of Taylor Mali poetry. His words fed my soul--my teacher's soul, my unrequited lover's soul, my singer's soul . . . .

The next day we fatefully crossed paths on the sidewalk. As we approached one another I was saying to myself "don't be stupid, don't say something dumb, play it cool." Somehow these words of encouragement led to "oh my God you're Taylor Mali." In spite of this graceless start, he kindly paused and shook my hand, and I told him how great his poetry had been the night before.

The next morning I learned that Taylor Mali had once written a poem about me. Let me just pause and take that in. Taylor Mali wrote a poem . . . about me. (If you haven't heard this story in its entirety, believe me, I'd be more than happy to tell it :) On the other hand, if you are one of the dozens who have heard it, and heard it, and heard it, well please know that I appreciate your patience!)

As I have told and retold this story over the last year, I have privately asked myself why it matters so much that he wrote about me. (I could write a book on the different ways I have told the story, how different audiences have changed my pacing, the parts I emphasize, how much or how little I tell. It has been a fascinating lesson in storytelling.) But I digress. 

I know this: it does matter. It matters a great deal that a poet remembered my singing so vividly--remembered our earlier, brief meeting so clearly--that he wrote about it two years later. All by itself, that single act matters to me. But it also matters in ways that I am still discovering. Of late I have begun to see how his poem--his notice--has worked as a priming of the pump. This phrase has special significance for me. (Robertses always seems to make a long story longer; forgive my lack of concision):

My father has been a minister for almost 60 years, and one of my favorite of his many illustrations--one that I've heard countless times--has to do with his rural Idaho boyhood, living without indoor plumbing. It was his job to go outside to the pump for his mother in morning to retrieve a bucket of water. He knew that the first thing he had to do with that bucket was set aside a jar of water for the next morning, so he could prime the pump. I don't exactly understand the mechanism, but I know that there was a piece of leather involved in this pumping process, and once that leather was dry, it made the process of pumping much harder. So before he tried to pump the next morning, he would pour that jar of water down the well, wetting that leather piece and making the job of pumping that initial bucket much easier.

So one last time let me say thank you, Mr. Mali. Thank you for being that jar of water that revived something in me. Thank you for being that instrument that God used to give me a new picture of who I am. Thank you not just for the miracle of your notice, but for preparing me to receive other notices. And finally, thank you for showing me how important it is that I pass on this noticing to those around me, particularly my students. 


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