"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."


By JENNIFER CRANDALL, AS TOLD TO LIZ HILDRETHBirmingham, May 2014

Virginia Mae was a star in Birmingham. I had just moved to town and my new friends Marge and Shirley, a couple in their 70s, had invited me to church for dinner and a play.

That was where I met Virginia Mae. She was on stage performing that night—her personality leapt off the stage.

Virginia Mae was a star in Birmingham. I had just moved to town and my new friends Marge and Shirley, a couple in their 70s, had invited me to church for dinner and a play. That was where I met Virginia Mae. She was on stage performing that night—her personality leapt off the stage. 

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We filmed Virginia Mae in her living room. You learn a lot about someone if you look closely at the details that make up their comfort zones. The texture and feel of her chair. Her chair had a remote. The lamp switch, pencil, and magazine—all within easy reach. And then there were those other details . . . the brown shoes with velcro, the hot pink fingernails . . . Virginia Mae read the poem’s first verse and set the tone for the entire project. The poem reads: "I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin," and here she is—almost 97 years old—embodying every syllable of those words. Nobody listening to her, or watching her, should ever ask, "Why isn't a thirty-seven year old man reading this?" It was a lot to ask of her that day—having her read the passage, and then read it again and again. It’s tiring to give what we ask of these folks. But Virginia Mae was totally generous. Totally present.

VERSE 1

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul,I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,Hoping to cease not till death. Creeds and schools in abeyance,Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,Nature without check with original energy.

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More Verses

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

WALT WHITMAN, "SONG OF MYSELF"