What do I remember? A hot day in May, riding my brothers’ old three-speed bicycle to school, twelve years into my life, 3,000 miles on the odometer, seat-springs squeaking, oil and dust on the chain, tire walls finely webbed, the vineyard smell and houses along the way, clotheslines and chicken coops, looping sparrows, a tractor’s growl. I remember sailing deep into the abiding mission and purpose of things, deep into their hum and steady wonder. I remember the sweat on my palms when I arrived, and the glad tightness in my thighs. I still have my uncle’s pipe. My uncle, dead in the war.
Paranoia.n. A long-awaited postcard from myself, to myself, about myself, and the sure knowledge that it’s been intercepted — or even worse: read by the mailman on his lunch break, and him knowing all about me before I do.
Recently Linked: My thanks to Kevin McCollister for admitting in public that he’s about to read my chapbook, Among the Living. Kevin’s fine book of photographs, East of West LA, was released late last year.
To glorify thought, or to condemn it, is to think thought worthy of thought. Even the thought of the absence of thought between thoughts is a thought thought worthy of thought. I think I will take a walk. I think I will build a bridge to the stars. I think I will think about thinking, thinking thinking is the best place to start. Thinking thought, I will thoughtlessly think some more. I will think thought is a symphony. I will think thinking is a war. I will think thoughts unworthy of thought, thoughts thought countless times before. And if a new thought arrives, will I know it? The thought of such a thought is appealing. Like the sun on so many flowers, thinking this is the one, no this is, no this is, until it is all of them, or none.
This is the dream I woke up with yesterday. By evening I had tried several times to write it down, but I had trouble with it each time: my friend who died in January had returned, and as I placed my hands on his shoulders in greeting, he smiled and his shoulders turned into misty mountains.... It was just a fragment, and not even a disturbing one, except that it wouldn’t let go, even after a fruitless trip to Goodwill and then a bookstore downtown. On my way home, the car’s “check engine” light came on.
Update: In the Forum: when greatness isn’t good enough.
My paint can and brush, my paint can brush it away, my paint can smudge, my paint can do as much as my pain can any old day,
hey, paint can, hey,
hey, paint can,
Note: I wrote “Hey, Paint Can” early yesterday morning shortly before I took a shower. When I was in the shower, the poem became a blues song:
My paint can and brush, my paint can brush it away,
My paint can and brush, my paint can brush it away,
my paint can smudge, my paint can smudge,
my paint can do as much as my pain can any old day,
any old day, any old day, any old day,
hey, paint can, hey,
hey, paint can,
And now I can’t read the original poem without hearing the song, complete with percussive stomps and mournful uh-huhs.
I do have a good microphone, but it’s put away. It was given and shipped to me by a friend before we moved, with the idea that I could use it to record some of my writing. I had it set up for awhile where we used to live, but I never learned how to make it cooperate with the software on my computer.
Meanwhile, my computer doesn’t have a webcam. My son says that’s easy to remedy. I think having one would be like having a window into a strange new dimension. But the days fly by. Oh, yes, the days fly by.
I can’t resist sharing this photograph of William Saroyan that my brother in Armenia passed along yesterday. It was taken in 1978 at someone’s home in Echmiadzin, not far from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Willie, as I mentioned in this post that features a picture of him with my father taken outside my childhood home, was my grandmother’s first cousin. A picture like this, coming out of nowhere, so to speak, is a great treasure. Everything about his face speaks of family on my father’s mother’s side — the lines and valleys and shadows and nose, the great gray mustache, the certainty, the melancholy, the anger. Seeing this, I am for a moment whole again, even though I have not been broken, even though I am an accumulation, a composite force, a blending of the wide and straight and narrow, of the solid and precipitous, of the fallen, defeated, and arrogant, of exhilaration and pain, of good and bad, and am to my own glory and detriment in love with the sorrow of myself, the sorrow that is my self, a self itself subject to reason, joy, and whim. Meanwhile, of course, it’s just a picture. You might not see it or feel it at all — as it should be. For you have your own fire to tend, your own story to tell.
Update: As the Conversation continues, we cut to the camel chase.
On the last day of March, I presented a beautiful surprise portrait by LauraTedeschi. Now, as luck would have it, the painting itself arrived from Vienna late in the afternoon on my birthday, after a wonderful day of chatting with friends and hours of alternating rain, hail, and sunshine. My youngest son was here at the time, so he helped me free it from the large padded envelope. We were greeted by the wonderful smell of paint... and when the portrait was in full view, we were both amazed at how beautiful it really is. From across the room, it appears more alive than I do. Up close, it seems to say, “Soon, very soon, you and I will be exchanging places.” My son departed for work. I placed the painting on my grandfather’s old red rocking chair, then snapped this photo:
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Thank you again, Laura. I wish I were a better photographer. Your painting is a bright light in my life, and so it will remain for a long, long time.
Recently Linked: My thanks to Gigi Little for quoting from yesterday’s birthday entry and linking here from her blog, ut omnia bene. Thanks, also, to Johnnie Hougaard Nielsen for sharing my poem, “I Find Him Eating Butterflies,” on his blog, En sommerfugls selvmord.
Update: In the Forum: on location without a script.
Today is my birthday. I will work, of course. I arrived at two-thirty on a sweltering afternoon, and have been sweating ever since. The riddle, if there is one, remains unsolved. If there isn’t a riddle, then that’s a riddle in itself, and something that must be pursued to an illogical conclusion. I might also do some dusting here in my parlor and workspace, which means looking at old pictures and opening and closing a lot of books. It’s important to verify that the type is still there, and, if it is, to see if it has rewritten itself into a strange new language. If the type isn’t there, I’ll look for it in other books. Because the truth is, we don’t know everything there is to know about the lives of books. For instance, I’ve suspected for quite some time that books also read people, and that pages remember sighs and fingertips. Ink is blood — we know that already; but it’s also brain marrow — as are images and letters in the form of pixels. The disease, fortunately, has no cure. I’m thankful for that.
The tomato plants I put in the other day grew noticeably during the night — just as I feel this blog has done. One need only substitute “friends” for “sun.” Your gracious comments are inspiring in their abundance, and in their substance. They’re also fun. For I’m not as serious as you might imagine. I do often speak in terms of life and death, but in this dance I’m the one who steps on toes and stumbles his way to the punch bowl. Who spiked this drink? Never mind; I know — you all have, and therefore must pardon my pentecostal blather.
There are simply too many names to mention. But you know who you are. And new visitors will soon find you, and, as I have, follow the links to your own bright worlds. They will surely be missing out if they don’t.
Paul Martin, author of the fine blog The Teacher’s View, discussed this phenomenon in his recent post, “Looking Around the Blogosphere.” He and I agree that we are involved in something quite wonderful. And one of the things that makes it so is that the blog, as a medium of expression, is so immediate and open-ended. Like any art form and means of communication, its limitations are our own. We have to be open to the idea of us serving its purpose rather than it serving ours. It isn’t easy to do. In fact, I’m still struggling a bit with the notion myself. But I’ve just about reached the point where I’m willing to declare Recently Banned Literature ours instead of mine... if I can only bend this stiff old ego a little further, it might not snap after all.
Here’s to the past, then, and to each of you who have played a role, silent or otherwise. Here’s to the present, which is inexhaustible. Here’s to us, and the smiling force that brings us together.
Update: In the Forum: three great men who did not exist in their lifetime.
The Master of Ballantræ, by Robert Louis Stevenson, with an introduction by G.B. Stern and with color lithographs by Lynd Ward. The Heritage Press, New York (1965). 303 pages. $3.99.
Note: I visited two thrift stores this morning, hoping to find a suitable bookshelf for the massive encyclopedia set I brought home yesterday. I didn’t even find an unsuitable one; there were simply no shelves to be had. But I did find The Master of Ballantræ. That made me feel a lot better.
ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature. The R.S. Peale Reprint. With new maps and original American articles by eminent writers. With American revisions and additions by W.H. DuPuy, D.D., LL.D., bringing each volume up to date. Chicago, R.S. Peale Company, 1892. Twenty-four volumes complete, plus Index. $60.00.
Volume I, Title Page
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Volumes VIII - XXIV and Index
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Update: In the Forum: a twenty-five-volume set of corn flakes.
According to the directions on a jug of liquid drain cleaner, after allowing it to work for thirty minutes, the product was to be flushed through the drain with hot water. But since the drain in question is in the bathroom sink at the far end of the house, the arrival of hot water would come only after half a minute or so of cold, thus reducing the cleaner’s effectiveness. The answer, my wife said, was to bring hot water from the kitchen in our tea kettle. This made sense — and so, about ten minutes before it was needed, I started filling the kettle with water and was about to put it on the stove to heat when she asked why I didn’t fill the kettle with hot water directly from the kitchen faucet, and take that to the bathroom. Well — the fact is, the thought never occurred to me. Had she not intervened, had she gone outside to plant flowers or feed the cats, I would have heated the water to boiling; I had already done so in my mind; I know, because I was also concerned about using water that hot in the bathroom sink — because it didn’t even occur to me that I could heat the water only part way. And I doubt it would have, because by then I had jumped ahead to weeding the irises, and thinking about Vincent Van Gogh. I tried to draw an iris the other day, but it was black, and it ended up wearing an old shoe. I think that’s what reminded me of Van Gogh. Those beautiful shoes he drew. And irises. And souls. And you.
Update: In the Forum: an involuntary morning epic.
My son and I are in my mother’s old boat of a Lincoln. I’m driving. The road is straight and wide, and its only purpose, it seems, is to part the flat expanse of dust and sage as we approach a snowy mountain range. Then, after what feels like a mile or so, the car surges and the gas pedal goes to the floor. And instead of mountains ahead, we’re presented with a series of square brown doors, framed by rough timbers, with old-style photo album corners. The doors are open, and I have to drive through them at an ever increasing speed — and then, after we clear the last, all is as before.... Until the second time, when it happens again, with even more doors, and I think the windshield might be a computer screen, and that even the mountains are simulated — but not us, no, not my son, and not these hands on the wheel. We are real.
I can’t explain it — and indeed I feel no need to — but I would like to note that there are times when the urge in me to write is so strong that it’s simply a matter of sitting down and yielding to the spirit. And then there are times when the urge is not to write, but to draw, and so I draw. I suppose it seems obvious on the surface of things: oh, he wrote today, or oh, here’s another of his ridiculous drawings. But it used to be that writing was all I really wanted to do, and my little drawings played a complementary, secondary role. I was, in effect, drawing and reemphasizing what I wrote. Now when I draw, I am drawing instead of writing. I am yielding to that mode because what needs or wants to be expressed is best expressed in that mode. Or so it seems. Because what I do is, and has never been, a static thing. I’ve said all along that I’m a writer, but I have never been afraid of not being a writer. I’ve said that I’m a poet, and I am. I call myself an artist, using the word in a general sense, and I am. But I have no fear of not being those things, or of not being thought of by others in that way. And I have no fear of finding myself someday doing something completely different than what I’m doing now. In fact, I expect it. I expect it, and yet at the same time, I’m fully aware that I might also continue just the way I am, writing, drawing, maybe learning to paint eventually, gradually improving, and then losing ground as my faculties begin to wane, if they haven’t already. And I’m not afraid of that, either — of being the father and grandfather who was, the artist who was, of being the tired, worn out, doddering one that is, a hairy caricature with a twinkle in his eye at the oddest of moments, the one who can no longer sip his coffee without spilling a little, the one who fascinates little children by his mere presence, and who frightens already frightened adults. Why not? Why should I fear such a thing? Haven’t I already been granted an obscene amount of time in which to do the things I want and feel I need to do? Or I could be dead tomorrow — hence the daily sense of urgency, as well as the comedy — yes, the comedy, of being an animated speck in a universe also quite possibly in search of itself — an animated speck in an animated universe itself within, or parallel to, multiple speck-like universes. Or is it the other way around? I, the universe. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust — I, a universe that is and was, all dressed up, and every place to go.
Updates: “I, the Universe” is my newest Notebook entry. Old notes are archived here.
For mothers everywhere; for daughters and sons of every age; for those whose life has been turned upside down and inside out by Alzheimer’s Disease; for those who remember; for those who forget; for those who love this life and are not afraid to be a part of it —
I was admiring used books through the window of a large corner shop in an old downtown district, wishing I could go in. There were some beautiful volumes — ancient encyclopedias and bibles, atlases, literature in different languages, dictionaries, old bindings, and long narrow aisles leading away. But the store wasn’t open. So I crossed the street, and on the opposite corner I found a bookstore almost identical to the one I’d just seen. This one was open. I was greeted by a rather small young man, very thin, who told me that his original plan was to open a market in that space and sell organic foods, but that at the last minute something made him change his mind. “Feel free to look around,” he said, and then he went behind what looked like an ice cream counter, ducked down, and started laughing about something. I assumed he’d found a box of white plastic spoons. His laughter subsided. When he stood up again, he was holding a violin. “It will take me awhile to learn to play this,” he said. “Maybe you can look around on your own?” I told him I understood — and then, to a haunting melody I’d never heard, I started to browse. The first book I picked up was a volume printed in Spanish and published in Chile. It was very heavy and very old. Much to my surprise, just a few pages in, there was a liquid star chart — a shimmering night sky with cold stars of different magnitudes that I could touch with my hands. I picked another spot in the book at random and found a similar page, but on this one the constellations were more pronounced, and above the diagram were the words “For Sailors.” About this time, another customer came in. He said, “That looks like an interesting book.” I told him it was more than interesting, it was a miracle, all the more so since it had been printed in the nineteenth century. But when I tried to show him the liquid charts, I couldn’t find them. The pages were now ordinary pages — beautiful, to be sure, aromatic, yellow-brown at the margins, but no longer liquid. The customer smiled. I thought that in another life he might have been Cervantes, which made me think of the word cerveza. At any rate, he had a black mustache turned up at the ends, and was wearing the hat of a knight errant. The hat was made of meticulously folded newspaper. The man’s eyebrows were headlines. Viva la Revolución.
Note: Not surprisingly, perhaps, I awakened this morning with a stiff neck. But in art there are many such sacrifices, and I bear them willingly. Also, this seems an appropriate time to mention again the recent release of my new chapbook, The Thing About Strawberries: 31 Dreams. Actually, I think it’s a good time to mention all of my books — those titles scattered along the sidebar, winking like demented stars. I think of them as physical evidence of my time here, which, as we all know, could end in a heartbeat or with my very next breath. Maybe that’s not important — the books, I mean — I really don’t know — but it feels important to me — to say that this is my life, and that I’m living it in the best way I can, that I’m setting it down not as an arrogant or self-absorbed lesson to others, but as a conversation we can return to again and again, when the time is right and the message burns brightest. My dear, dear friends. If you only knew how much your observations and your laughter mean to me. Then, perhaps, you would understand. I am a man. A foolish man. A man who sees liquid stars. What I am not is clever. Every calculation I’ve made has gone awry. And so I simply don’t make them anymore.
How short the day, how long the expression I have lived — and at journey’s end a primal sunset, then a room that slowly dims on what remains of a conversation only I can hear, and which is defined by wry lunacy — almost typing rye and spelling it rhye for the tired smile it would bring — a few words, a drawing, a poem, each still moving toward the illusion of universally understandable form. To be old is not so hard. I’ve been so all my life — my mother knew, and said so. To be young is to see the world as a god from his deathbed, even as I burn. And there is nothing more unbecoming than a god afraid to learn.
Updates: “Unbecoming” is my newest Notebook entry. Old notes are archived here.