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In Defense of the Whim | Elizabeth Bolton, PhD

It’s dandelion season again. I love those tiny sunbursts, those little lion’s manes of which there are no shortage on my walks to and from kindergarten with my three young daughters. To my daughters, dandelions are far from “weeds.” To my daughters, all under the age of five, they are “the ones you are allowed to pick.” I find myself hard-pressed to explain to children of that age why the neighbors’ pink tulips cannot be touched or trampled, yet dandelions can be plucked up by the bunch. Why is one an untouchable symbol of house pride, the other an invitation to eradicate? It is my four decades of gathered worldly wisdom, my knowledge of what is socially acceptable, and my devotion to fostering a positive relationship between my family and our neighbors that moves me to put myself in between their sticky hands and the perfect pink tulips. What drives me to protect the tulips, and not the dandelions, is everything opposite of a whim, that small, light, easily dismissed feather of a word from which all poetry is born.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “whim” as “a capricious notion or fancy; a fantastic or freakish idea; an odd fancy.” Etymology Online suggests it likely comes from the Old Norse hvima, “to let the eyes wander.” Capricious is a thought-provoking word here: caprice is “a sudden change or turn of the mind without apparent or adequate motive; a desire or opinion arbitrarily or fantastically formed,” as though in our daily adult lives, led by the logic that keeps us safe and accepted, loved by our neighbors, having an “apparent, adequate motive” for the choices we make were the most important and honorable thing a person could do. It is the whim that pulls my daughters towards dandelions and tulips alike, and beyond that, their pure desire to experience and feel ownership of beauty by grasping it at the stem and taking it for themselves. It is their conviction that, struck by this bright, momentary bloom, nothing exists beyond the now, nothing beyond their dream that this flower should stay fresh and beautiful forever in their tiny, grubby fists. The whim is the wandering of the eyes toward the sensation of beauty to which no concept of the passage of time can be applied.

 

It is adults who have named it a whim, although it persists beyond the bubble of childhood. We give whimsy a light, inconsequential name so that its urgings might be dismissed, so that we might never humiliate ourselves by continuing to feel the pull of beauty in the smallest moments. As adults, the whim comes upon us in the grocery store as it strikes us that today might be the day to buy that new brand of fancy crackers, with the almond slivers and the dried cranberries, even though the price makes us balk. The whim says, no matter what, today is the day! Now is the time to seize beauty. The whim says nothing matters more than aligning oneself in this moment with the beauty that already exists in the world. What steps in to thwart that choice is logic. Logic says the cost is too great, the change in routine too drastic and unjustified, the risk of humiliation too much to bear. Logic is the protector of the neighbors’ tulips. Although I honor my neighbors’ care taken over their property, although I respect and admire their attention to detail, the carefully selected petal colors, the intentional placement of the blooms, still, it is the whim I defend most fiercely of all.

 

Poetry, and all writing for that matter, is a series of decisions made, but what drives those decisions? Surely we never concern ourselves with what motivated the decisions of our most celebrated poets. What made them choose this word over that one? What made them arrange the stanzas in this particular way? What made them break the line here, and not there, when it easily could have been broken anywhere? When we read poetry, we truly love and resonate with, we do not look for “adequate” or “apparent” motives behind its composition, and what do those words even mean, anyway, when the clear, overall purpose of a poem is beauty that resounds? When it comes to the crafting of a beautiful thing, the whim is sufficient, in and of itself. With the ultimate goal of resounding beauty in mind, to make a poetic decision based on an intuitive urge as light as air is enough, no questions asked.


When it comes to the craft of poetry, is it really based on something so “odd” and slight as a mere whim, something frankly embarrassing to give in to as an adult, something we devalue so much that we have named it to permit its quick dismissal? When it comes to my daughters, and to all children, wanting to pluck whatever brilliant beauty their eyes have wandered to, is whim really the most fitting vocabulary word? I find myself at odds with the word, despite defending it, especially after I have looked it up in the dictionary. While I love to follow my whims, I cannot reconcile how minimized its power is in our adult and logical world. What does it really mean, or what can we more accurately call it, to have our decisions entirely guided by the light and refreshing, easy pull of beauty, totally unobstructed by the brick walls of logic? Perhaps the better word is not whim, but simply, love. What we love, we find beautiful, and vice versa, independent of any logical rule that defines beauty based on rules, standards or conventions. And what we love, we choose, in a heartbeat, without thought.

           

When John Fox visited our classroom at Oak Knoll Elementary School in Menlo Park, California, in 1996, I was eleven years old, and logic with its seemingly insurmountable walls had already begun to rise up in my experience, brick by brick, at every turn, constructed carefully and with great, well-meaning concern by all aspects of my well-ordered, university-bound California childhood. John’s visits to the classroom were for me a poetic intervention of sorts. I remember the poetic exercise that ended in my very first publication, where we were given the chance to write a poem about an everyday object. My object was a bar of soap. My memory tells me it was green, marbled with white: Irish Spring, but my memory might be lying. That exercise is perhaps the only lesson of his I vividly recall, that and a simple introduction to the concept of line breaks, and how poets make them.

 

What I remember of the line breaks lesson is only this, that you could – break them, that is – anywhere you wanted. To break a line meant that you were a poet, making a decision in the name of beauty, nothing more, and nothing less. What I remember of the bar of soap now makes me laugh: I did not choose it. As I waited silently in the back row for my turn to approach the table and select from what remained, logic stepped in to caution me to choose anything but that bar of soap. Logic sternly informed me, as I stepped up to the table to find the soap one of the only objects left, that I had been stuck with it, and had better make the most of it. Logic was what let the disappointment in. Being exceptionally obedient and quiet in grade five, I had my seat in the backrow on the far end, which was a place to seat students the teacher never needed to worry about. Logic told me, with bitterness, that the bar of soap was what happened to you if you were too good.

 

Fortunately, the whim came to my rescue that day. Whim took over my mind and then took up my pencil. Whim grew especially enthusiastic when I opened the little box and ran my fingers along the surface of the smooth new soap bar. Whim said, despite the soap’s ordinariness, how pretty this object is, to touch, to see and to smell! How lovely the marbling of white and all shades of green. And whim, love in disguise, love that sneaks its way past logic, was right. Whim prevailed that day, resulting in my full obedience to beauty, and beauty alone. Whim drove me to make one light, thoughtless decision after another and wrote an entire poem that was an extended metaphor, comparing the smoothness of the soap’s surface to the ease of dream-filled, childhood sleep in the dreamland of a childhood bedroom. Whim said, and I neither questioned nor doubted, make the lines as short as you can get away with! Break them, break them, and break them again. Because the impact is poetic, the playfulness poetic, and the beauty of that poeticism belonged to me. That meant something. I broke them like dandelion stems, never once thinking that so many short lines might be too many. Logic’s voice was quiet that day, trying once or twice to suggest that perhaps a long, skinny poem was ridiculous and unnecessary. But whim sang over logic, saying break the lines in bunches, so the beauty of it might be gathered in my childhood fist like a tiny, sunny bouquet.

           

The propensity towards whimsy has always stayed with me, perhaps as a result of that single poetry lesson. Since it resulted in a publication at the age of eleven, no other educational experience in my life has so successfully solidified my trust in giving in to the pull of simple, whimsical poetic decision-making. Whim stepped in again in a big way in the midst of a reflective postpartum, nearly three decades later, when I began scrawling poetry of a whole new style than what I was used to. I was at the end of a PhD program in literacy education, with a handful of poetry publications under my belt, adoring the formality of gaining repute as a poet when my second postpartum threw me very suddenly into a process of healing deeply from the postpartum depression I had experienced with my first baby, something I never really addressed and found I could not heal from, but for within the context of another pregnancy. Where before I had neatly penned poems within the lines of a notebook, carefully typed out, edited and submitted them, I now scratched them feverishly in neon pink felt ink, in a penmanship messier than I ever thought could be mine. A great pressure to be known to myself, to appear beautiful to myself, pressed them out into the creamy, beige, gold-edged pages of a Peter Pauper Press hardcover notebook.

 

Whim told me the delicately lined pages were lined just so I could learn how good it felt to ignore them, to dance all around them, not in blue or black ballpoint but in pink felt, that ink forbidden since it hurt the teacher’s eyes and made her whole life harder. Whim said no matter what was going on at the time, when a poem came to me, I must take it down, quickly, before it left me and landed on someone else! I hungrily ignored the lined pages then and bled out my delightful pink ink however I pleased, diagonally and upside down, reaching awkwardly over a newborn, a breast pump, or a wild toddler to press my blessed motherhood poetry onto the page and out into the world. Logic informed me that eventually, those messy pink lines would need to be typed if I ever meant to disseminate them, and logic was right about that, but still it was whim that told me to gather all those poems together into a manuscript and send them to only one publishing house that simply “felt right.” Perhaps it was whim that told them to accept it, and place a crown on the cover, my first and only full-length collection, Coronation of the Cosmic Orphan.

 

                        It appears

                        amidst art

                        I have never been

                                    ill,

 

I wrote. What I meant, I think, was that the practice of literary art reframes mental illness not as a lack of health but as a need for recognition of beauty in our lives. With the nonchalance of the opening words, it appears that this knowledge came not of logic, but of intuition, through the lightness of the free, unbound, unafraid mind that lets love and beauty pour in as easily as the eye wanders to them, as easily as a child plucks up any abundant spring flower they see. It is logic that applies the helpful label, “postpartum depression,” well-meaning, socially intelligent logic! It is logic that lies behind the design of our most focused approaches to the upkeep of mental health in times of struggle. And logic is not wrong! Logic means to help, and it does. Logic looks out her kitchen window and smiles with relief at the mother who has just stepped in to protect her tulips. But whim has an important role as well, in the maintenance of the mind. 


What does whim do, exactly? Does it, like logic, relieve? Intuitively I sense that whim is less relieving and more refreshing than logic is, like a cool glass of lemonade in summer, squeezed from the real fruits and stirred with sugar by someone who truly loves you, someone who has been expecting you. It is whim who picks up the pen, any pen, in the midst of great pain and simply plays, by crafting whatever feels beautiful in that moment, as though absolutely nothing lies beyond the now. And when we exist in the realm of the whim, truly, nothing does. Mental health deserves relief, yes, particularly when there is great pressure in a person’s experience. But as the dandelions pop up this year, it occurs to me that the mind perhaps needs more refreshment than relief. At times the mind craves the removal of logic, even for just a moment, so that a person might prioritize beauty above all else and align the entirety of their lives and identities with it. In defense of the whim, perhaps a tulip might be plucked, here and there. In defense of the whim, perhaps as many tulips might be planted as dandelions that grow.

 

Where our mental health is concerned, when the whim speaks, she smashes logic-based labels, well-meaning as they are. Whimsy washes us clean, and the experience is one of total ease, like the plucking of dandelions begging to be gathered, or the penning of a little poem, made up of one mindless decision after another, written in the span of a few minutes yet exquisite enough to publish. To defend the whim is to defend beauty is to defend love, and it is nothing short of refreshing, to act in defense of our own clarity of mind, without so much as a fight.

 

 

Elizabeth Bolton, PhD, is a poet and writing teacher with doctoral and masters degrees in Literacy Education (University of Toronto) and a multiple-subject (K-8) California teaching credential. Her poetic-phenomenological doctoral research project explored the mental/physical health benefits of reflective creative writing. She is the author of one full-length poetry collection, Coronation of the Cosmic Orphan (Resource Publications, 2022). 

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