William VannderWerff

My dad was a health food nut. Long before there was anything like a health food craze, Dad blazed his own trail.

Carrot juice was Dad’s answer to good health. He lugged 25 pound bags of carrots home from the market and we drank carrot juice for breakfast. He created a special concoction from carrots, celery, flax meal, pumpkin seed meal, and lecithin. I actually liked the carrot juice. My brother tolerated it. My sister poured it out of her bedroom window into the flower bed.

I have a vegetable juicer and made carrot juice on and off for years. When I became aware of the whole food movement, I gave up the juicer because I was throwing out “tons” of pulp and fiber from the vegetables I juiced. I now have a VitaMix. I make vegetable smoothies and drink juice, pulp and all.

My mother made carrot and raisin salad that I adored as a child. Though I still love it, I haven’t eaten or made it in years because I no longer eat mayonnaise and haven’t found a substitute. There probably is a substitute; but, I am a purist. If I can’t have the real thing, I’d rather not have it at all.

An avid Julia Child fan, I watched every episode of The French Chef and most of Julia’s later programs. I have copies of many of her cookbooks. Adding a touch of Julia to anything I cooked is a challenge and a delight. I like to steam baby carrots. Julia tosses steamed baby carrots in butter and splashes them with brandy. “Dad!” said my young daughter. “Did you put booze on the carrots?”

I am a health nut on my own. I come by that distinction honestly. I choose to eat a plant-based diet that works well for me and that I enjoy. At a recent Thanksgiving dinner, a family member remarked, “When all of us are gone because we ate this unhealthy Thanksgiving food, your Thanksgivings are going to be pretty lonely, Dennis.”

Personal Blog Challenge Update

Sunday is a day off from blogging; but, I decided to make a change in the focus and organization of my personal blog challenge.

I began the challenge with a plan to write 26 blog posts on each of 26 themes. Poetry is first theme I chose. To date, I’ve written 14 posts on 14 poems that are significant to me.

To keep the challenge fresh, I decided to mix it up. Instead of devoting an entire month to a single theme, I plan to write a post on a different theme each day. This offers more variety and keeps the challenge from becoming drudgery.

Following the blog challenge is easy. You can subscribe to my blog and receive each new post by email when it is posted. To subscribe, look for the “Subscribe to derwerffblogg by email” block in the upper right corner of the blog. Enter your email address in the box and click “Subscribe to derwerffblogg.” A notice will appear that says “An email was just sent to confirm your subscription. Please find the email now and click ‘Confirm Follow’ to start subscribing.” Clicking “Confirm Follow” will open a web page that says your subscription has been activated.

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Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School

I heard John Ciardi speak when I was a freshman in college. At the time he was poetry editor and contributor at Saturday Review. His reading of “On Flunking a Nice Boy out of School” impressed me. When I happened to come across the poem some years later as a teacher, I photocopied it and kept it under the glass on the top of my desk.The most striking line in the poem is about having the student’s work rather than his excuses. I don’t like excuses. I don’t like listening to them and I hate worse to make them. Why not tell the truth?

I shared Ciardi’s poem over the years with a few students who I felt were not living up to their potential. As a matter of fact, I have used the poem to tell on myself.

I was chair of my college’s curriculum and instruction council. At times the workload was overwhelming and I simply did not want to do it. My dilemma was not wanting to make excuses to the council members for not being prepared on time. Rather than to offer excuses, I confessed. “I have no excuse,” I said. I an email, I told them I felt I was the boy who Ciardi flunked out of school. I attached a copy of the poem to my email. I didn’t receive any feedback from the email and the work was finally accomplished.

Making excuses is a common attribute of human behavior. Everyone makes an excuse at one time or another. I wonder why we feel threatened about telling the truth. The need for an excuse is a matter of choosing to do one thing over another. Even though what needs to be done is important work, we will choose to do something else that may be more pleasant. Then we make up “dog ate my homework” stories about why we didn’t do what we were supposed to do or said we would do.

Flunking a student is a dilemma for a teacher who is faced with both duty and disappointment. A student capable not only of doing the work but of excelling at it cannot be allowed to get by with an excuse. “I’d sooner have it from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it, than all these martyred repentances from you.”

Wandering Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

After the dark cold of winter, the sight of golden daffodils tossing their sprightly heads in the breeze is a harbinger of spring.

In April 1996, I organized tour to England for Fr. Edgar Parrott, an Episcopal priest and friend, who wanted to offer his congregation an opportunity to explore the roots of the Anglican faith by visiting cathedrals and churches in the south of England.

Thirty people joined the two-week tour that stopped in London, Brighton, Bath, Oxford, and Cambridge. We visited Canterbury, Winchester, Chichester, Wells, Coventry, and Ely cathedrals as well as numerous village churches and historical sites.

Shepherding 30 people on and off of airplanes and tour buses, in and out of hotels, handling baggage logistics, and managing a tour itinerary is hard work. By the time we reached the second week of the tour, I was ready for time alone.

At Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford, I let the group go with our tour guide while I wandered off across the road and down a path into a wood. The peace and quiet of the wood was inviting. I walked along the path listening to the soothing sound of the breeze through the trees.

At length, I came to a bridge that crossed a quiet stream. The reflection of the sky and trees on the glossy surface of the still water was magical. As I looked across the stream, my eyes were delighted by hundreds of sprightly daffodils. The sight took away my breath. In that instant, I stood with William Wordsworth coming upon a host of golden daffodils. I’ve never seen daffodils anywhere that compare with the beauty and profusion of those in England.

To freeze the moment, I raised my camera, composed a shot, and snapped the shutter. The photograph of the daffodils at Stratford is the perfect souvenir. I had the photograph enlarged, printed, and framed to hang in my home. I have only to look at it to recall the bliss of that solitary moment.

Lifting and Leaning

Miss Baumgartner read Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Lifting and Leaning” to my ninth grade English class no doubt to illustrate a point. I brought the poem home to my parents. Mom and Dad liked the poem so much they bought a copy of Best Loved Poems of the American People that became one of my family’s best loved books

I memorized “Lifting and Leaning” and recited all or pieces of it often. I was thrilled that Mom asked me to recite “Lifters and Leaners” as part of a program at church.

When I was in school, learning a poem meant memorizing. The poetry we learned in those days was didactic, intended to teach a moral lesson. “Lifting and Leaning” is an example of such poetry.

In sixth grade we were given a new poem at the beginning of each month to learn (i.e., to memorize) and to recite before the class by the end of the month. Of those poems, I recall titles only of Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem,” and a nonsense poem by Charles Edward Carryl called “The Plaint of the Camel.”

Memorizing poetry and being able to recite it dramatically was important to me. Impressed by anyone who recited poetry, I tried to imitate them. I loved the sound of poetic language and learned many poems on my own trying to fit them into the conversation wherever I could. Memorizing was easier then; and, I can recite many of those poems to this day.

We read Romeo and Juliet in Miss Baumgartner’s class. Required to memorize and to recite 20 lines in front of the class, I memorized the whole of Act II, Scene 3 in which Romeo asks Friar Laurence to perform their marriage. Anyone want to hear me recite Shakespeare?


Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, read Horace’s ode “To Licinius” on the PBS Newshour shortly after 9/11. Horace’s counsel to Licinius is to pursue the middle way, a path of evenmindedness and equanimity. The middle ground and compromise are far from what is heard in today’s angry ad hominum public discourse.

What strikes me about Horace’s ode to Licinius is his counsel that things will not always be bad. Apollo picking up his lyre to awaken “the music sleeping upon the strings” is an image of hope.

“Expect reversals,” Horace says. Change is constant. The way open today may not be open tomorrow. There is as much to be learned from way closed as way open. Opportunity favors a willing spirit and an open mind. Remain resolute, but keep a short sail in strong winds to avoid the risk of being thrown off course. In other words, be flexible. Those who do best choose the middle way.

Julia or Her Clothes

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!
—Robert Herrick

In six lines with a simple rhyme scheme (AAA BBB), Robert Herrick creates a feeling of intense passion. But who is the passion for? Is it for Julia or for Julia’s clothes?

Herrick gives us no clue. Would he find the clothes as attractive without Julia? Is it she who gives the clothes the characteristics Herrick finds appealing? It could be he burns with passion for Julia, an exquisitely beautiful woman who moves with such grace in fine silk fabrics that she endows them with the qualities of liquefaction, vibration, and glittering that “taketh” him.

On the other hand, maybe Julia doesn’t inspire his desire. It’s just the way she dresses, her choice of fabric and color that sends him into a reverie of the sort of woman he’d like to see in such fine silks.

Though Herrick refers to her as “my Julia,” she may be only a fantasy or a woman he observed and fancies he’d like to possess. The poem says more about infatuation with an aspect of a person’s being than about the person herself. Having experienced intense infatuation more than once, I understand the possessiveness the feeling engenders. I’ve also experienced the disappointment of learning that appearance is often more appealing than the actual experience of knowing the object of my interest.

The poem is intriguing because it fosters wild speculation. Is there a short story or a novel in this poem? I wonder.

Islands of Retreat

I was in the third year of college when I read William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The poem expresses Yeats’ desire to be in a place of peace, quiet, and simplicity to pursue his art. The tone of the poem resonated in a deep place within me.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” reminds me of Thoreau’s “Walden.” In further reading about Yeats, I discovered he was, in fact, influenced by Thoreau. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard evokes a similar experience in her description of a year spent in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.

Relocating to another place for two or three months is appealing. Living in a small space, furnished with only the bare necessities, it is possible to relax and to enjoy the simplicity of life.

I planned last spring’s trip to San Miguel de Allende as a retreat. With no house to clean and no laundry to do for ten weeks, I could focus on writing.

For his retreat, Yeats sought an island in a lake. I lived in a studio apartment in a city. Yeats had the hum of the honey bees. I had the wail of the helote man. I didn’t plant beans. There was no place to garden. I bought fruit and vegetables at an organic farmers’ market. The neighborhood was quiet. I didn’t see or hear neighbors in the three other apartments in the building. It was as if I were alone on my own lake island.

A retreat allows one to see the world from a different vantage point. Yeats sought a retreat at Innisfree. Dillard went to Tinker Creek. I went to San Miguel. Distance facilitates perspective.

In San Miguel, I focused on writing. With writing, I get closer to understanding my life and the world around me. The more I write, the more I understand. The more I understand, the more insight I am able to incorporate into living a life of authenticity.

The insight gained from my retreat allows me to transport myself to that space whenever I want or need to be there. With a thought, I can arise and go to Innisfree, to San Miguel, or to any place of peace.


Amy Kermeth was a retired teacher from New York state who had been head of the lower school at the Albany Academy for Boys and who taught ancient history in the upper school. When Amy retired, she moved to Sonoma, California. I was librarian at the high school there. Amy volunteered in the library helping students with writing projects. Because she met her students in a small conference room in the library, we got acquainted and became good friends.

Amy’s sight was failing and, as time went on, she became blind. I began reading to her in her home on Wednesday afternoons over tea. I read from books we chose or from collections of poetry. Often I read letters from her sister, her niece, and her friends. I became a member of her family and of her circle of friends. A highlight of the time we shared was the arrival of the Albany Academy’s news paper, The Fish & Pumpkin, or the F & P, as Amy called it.

Amy read voraciously and she loved poetry. Her mind held a reservoir of poetry she could quote to fit just about any situation or occasion. Amy introduced me to a more exciting world of poetry than I had known. It was she who introduced me to Wendell Corey Johnson’s (1823-1892) “Heraclitus.”

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

Amy and I “tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky many times.” Though she has been gone for years, Amy’s pleasant voice, her “nightingales,” are still awake.

“What is the Grass?”

A 1959 Caedmon recording of Ed Begley, Sr. reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass echoes in my ears. I was 20 years old and Begley’s voice and Whitman’s poetry formed a major impact on my life. I still have the Signet Classic paperback copy of Leaves of Grass I bought for 75 cents. Dog-eared, with poems annotated, highlighted, and underlined, it is a relic of a lifetime infatuation with Walt Whitman.

[Click to see full-size images]

I wanted to write poetry and thought the best way to do that was to write poetry. Every morning, for several weeks, I copied small portions of Leaves of Grass, word for word, into a notebook. Like journaling, copying Whitman was a discipline. I don’t know what copying Whitman’s poetry into a notebook accomplished. The practice did not last long and I did not become a poet.

In “A Song of Myself,” Canto 6 (“What is the grass?”), Whitman poses a child’s question and responds he doesn’t know any more about the topic than the child who asked the question. He then proceeds to posit a number of guesses as to what the answer might be. After so many guesses, he begins to perceive an answer and suggests a conclusion.

Familiar with death from a young age, the reference to death  in the “What is the Grass?” canto appealed to me. My father was killed in an accident when I eight years old. My uncle died when I was ten. My grandmother died when I was 14. Two of my mother’s closest friends died about the time I was eleven—one committed suicide and the other was killed with two of her children in a flashflood.

I had no fear of death. In much the same way that Whitman guesses his way to a conclusion, I figured out that life goes on. Whitman’s confirmation of what I had experienced was reassuring: “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death….”