Little drops of water

by Terry Hogan

Life's a funny business. At least that's my observation based on my own life to date. I fret over little decisions, and blow right by the big ones. Perhaps it is a matter of stupidity, or perhaps just a failure to understand context. George Ade wrote ''We are all wisps, and the winds of chance blow in many directions.'' I think we'd like to believe there is a reason or a pattern for our lives. I think it scares us to realize life's successes and failures are due, in part, to being in the right place or the wrong place at the right time. Sometimes life surprises you with a response, totally disproportionate to the stimulus. Would we have turned out the same, if born in a different location, attended a different school, or taken a different job?

One of Galesburg's own, Julia Fletcher Carney, wrote a little poem entitled ''Little Things'' or ''Little drops of water''. It was short, offered no worldly secrets of life, but it was the right poem at the right time:

Little drops of water,

Little grains of sand,

Make the mighty ocean

And the pleasant land.

So the little moments,

Humble though they be,

Make the mighty ages

Of Eternity.

So the little errors

Lead the soul away

From the paths of virtue

Far in sin to stray.

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy,

Like the Heaven above.

This little poem, written in 1845, was read by millions of children, and probably was memorized by many of them, at the encouragement of the classroom teachings of the day. Little Things became part of the ''McGuffey Reader,'' found in many of the early school classrooms of America.

All this fame for the little poem and the author. None would have happened except for a ten-minute writing exercise in which Julia participated while a teacher in Boston. While attending a class for teachers in the summer of 1845 in Boston, Julia and her classmates were given ten minutes to complete a writing assignment. She had written an article the night before entitled ''A Letter to Sabbath School Children,'' in which she had mentioned the importance of little things. In the article, she had written the initial four lines of the now often quoted section of the poem. For the ten minute writing assignment, she picked up these first four lines and extended the poem to its final form.

Probably this would not have given the exposure that the poem needed except for a coincidence reported by the author, herself. The editor of the publication that was going to publish her ''Letter to Sabbath School Children'' sought additional material at the last minute in order to fill out the publication. Because she had just completed the poem and it was literally at hand, she gave it to the messenger to deliver back to the editor. She doesn't recall that she even gave the poem a title. Such was a little decision that was to have a big effect on her life. The little poem took on a life of its own, being published all over the United States and in foreign countries.

Her claim to fame was recognized by a young Swedish boy who played baseball on Berrien Street in front of the home of Julia Carney. She was a neighbor that lived across the street. He remembered her as a old, little woman with snow-white hair, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. She sat on the porch, quietly rocking. She paid little attention to the young boys' running and screaming as they played baseball in front of her house. Sandburg recalls ''Šshe was just one more nice old woman who wouldn't bother boys at play'' (''Prairie-Town Boys,'' 1953).

Julia Fletcher Carney was probably more proud of her two sons, Fletcher and James, as mothers tend to be. Both were Universalists and graduated from Lombard College, a Universalist school. They had strong Universalist's roots, as their father was a Galesburg Universalist minister. Fletcher was the mayor of Galesburg from 1899 to 1901 and was the senior partner of the law firm, Carney, Carney & Frank. James was also a lawyer.

Carl Sandburg recalls that ''We should have heard about her in school. We should have read little pieces about her in the papers. She has a tiny quaint niche in the history of American literature under which one line could be written: 'She loved children and wrote poems she hoped children would love.'''

She apparently had some success. One of America's ''First Ladies,'' Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted Julia Fletcher Carney's most famous poem in a magazine article in 1952 (Sandburg, ''Always The Young Strangers'', 1953).

But, going back to Sandburg's observation, that is, that he should have learned about her in school, and should have read little bits of her writing. Such an observation can be, and has been made (at least by me), about Sandburg's own writings.

At the risk of sounding like a promoter of parochial teachings, I believe much can be argued for using Sandburg's autobiographical writings of growing up in Galesburg as a teaching tool. Carl Sandburg writes of his life in simple words, and deals with recalls ''real people''- some famous, some infamous, some who would otherwise be largely lost to history. Specific references to Galesburg, to specific streets, schools, and local historic events provides the relevance that may be lacking in a poem about fog and cat's feet.

I gotta admit that Sandburg was not on my top 1,000 list when I was in Galesburg public schools, nor was I much into poetry. For me, at least, it took a little more living, and a little more experience and perspective. I still don't spend a lot of time with poetry, but some of Sandburg's poems about his early years now sound like they could have been written specifically about my ancestors. My grandfather, Wesley Williamson, was old enough to have worked with the thrashing gangs that traveled from Knox County farm to Knox County farm. In fact, I have a couple of old, faded photos of him in the field with the thrashing machines and a sea of men and horses.

Sandburg writes:

I am the prairie, mother of men, waiting.

They are mine, the threshing crews eating breakfast, the farm boys

driving steers to the cattle pens.

They are mine, the crowds of people at a Fourth of July picnic,

listening to a lawyer read the Declaration of Independence,

watching the pinwheels and Roman candles at night,

the young men and women two by two hunting the bypaths and kissing bridgesŠ.

Such was Carl Sandburg's Galesburg. If your family roots are in the prairie soil, you could do worse than to incorporate Sandburg's thoughts in your heart and in your text, when recording your family history. We are from the prairie soil and bound in time to return to it.

For our brief period of experiencing life, we should try out the ''Little Things'' while remembering our prairie origins. From what Sandburg recalls of the little white-haired woman who sat on the porch while he and his friends played baseball, Julia Fletcher Carney must have ''practiced what she preached.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 3, 2001

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