Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brevity is the soul of wit

We’d had our lunch, and were winding down to nap time, when, as is my custom on these babysitting days, I drifted quietly into my workroom to read while Grandma got the kids ready. A few minutes later, our four-year-old grandson came in to announce that he was going to bed. Hugging me he said, “Oh? Are you reading a book?” When I said yes, he replied, “What book are you reading?” Showing him the spine, with all good gravity I said,
The Tragedies of William Shakespeare.” “Oh?” he said, smiling wide, “I love that book.”

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Canvas 286

Canvas 286”

February 26, 2012

[for the best view, right-click and open in new tab or window]

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Some things I write

Some things I write, I couldn’t say aloud without giving way to tears. And so the writing of them is weeping of a kind.

This morning, at about four, I started from a dream in which I found my mother in the entryway of an old church. I’d climbed the stone steps unaware of her presence, yet looking for, or expecting, to find something, or someone. She was alone, and looked so lost and afraid, that I immediately rushed to her side to comfort her. I felt her weight against my shoulder, and as she sighed, and again sighed, allowing me to support her, her burden passed into me in waves of relief and gratitude. As I guided her into a safer light — the first steps toward home, I thought — I was glad I’d arrived in time. And yet I was also so sad that I still haven’t recovered, and am not sure I will, or even care to. And that, by its own light and peculiar warmth, also gives me joy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Courage, n. A form of helplessness which generally culminates in suicide by living.

Suicide, n. Anonymous music of great renown.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

From bad lands

That we can meet and become friends over dreams, as much as by any other time-honored method or spontaneous way, is inspiring and heartening indeed. In that regard I’ve been lucky in recent years, since I began recording and sharing some of mine. One such connection is Giacomo Conserva, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Parma, Italy, who found his way to this blog via four lines by Auden:

From bad lands, where eggs are small and dear,
Climbing to worse by a stonier
Track, when all are spent, we hear it — the right song
For the wrong time of year.

I found and read them first on the title page of a Modern Library edition of Auden’s work. The lines soaked in to such an extent that they eventually returned to me in a dream, which I put down simply as “Dreaming Auden,” and which Giacomo so kindly shares in this entry of his blog.

And so the dream continues.

Friday, February 17, 2012

As I close

In a used bookstore a few days ago, it occurred to me that I’m slowly but surely recreating the old library† in my hometown — not, perhaps, exactly as it was, but as I remember and imagine it. More and more these days, surrounded by these musty tomes, I have the sure feeling that whatever book I open will draw me in, lead me on, and give me satisfaction. As it was back then, so it is now, with the added joy of knowing that the younger readers in the family will find them useful when I’m gone, and revealing, too.

“As I close, I’ve a bewildering consciousness of having left out the very things I wanted most to say, and incorporated in their stead the unimportant. You will forgive me, though, I know.”

in a letter to Howard Taylor
Sept. 4, 1879

since torn down

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Of the time it takes to tell

When I was a kid on the farm, my parents entertained a steady stream of friends and relatives. Visits were rarely planned — they simply happened, and were a source of joy. In that hospitable setting, a story was never just a story; its meaning arrived through the way it was told, through voice, gesture, and mood, in a pipe refilled, a burning cigarette the teller forgot he held, the phrasing of breath to the sound of spoons in cups — none of these could be separated from the images themselves.

Quite naturally, I fell into and relished a listening role, and that role continues to this day. They say that writers are great eavesdroppers, and I suppose that is so, but obviously one doesn’t have to write in order to eavesdrop, and eavesdropping itself hardly makes a good writer. One can eavesdrop maliciously, for gain, which isn’t listening at all. But attentive listening nourishes; it keeps us alive, in others and in ourselves.

Listening is a sacred act in which the concept of time, which is largely and desperately misunderstood, assumes its best perspective. When we listen, we never ask where the time goes, or if it exists, or if it need be at all. It is we who are going — ever onward, passing through.

Friday, February 10, 2012

On the Significance of Ash

Most people who “read me” (really, I laugh at the arrogance of that notion) know that I grew up on a farm, and that I lived and worked there until I was thirty-one years of age, when, to preserve our health, my wife and kids and I moved to Oregon. They also know, if they aren’t completely bored and are paying any attention at all, that I do not have what is in common parlance called “a college education.” Truth be told, I was at a university just long enough to get drunk and married, neither of which I regret, and which are, in fact, two of the best things I’ve ever done. While the drunkenness has taken on other comically exaggerated forms, the marriage, now in its thirty-seventh year, continues to blossom, thrive, and grow. Soon after our wedding, my father’s mother wisely referred to us as “two children playing.” She’d be glad, I’m sure, to know that her description is still apropos.

A few months before, although he would never have put it in those terms, my father was delighted at the prospect of our future life together. When my grandparents were married, his father was twenty-one. When my parents were married, my father was twenty. When my wife and I were married, I was nineteen. But the fact is, I was married from the time I was fifteen or so — life just hadn’t led me to the right girl yet. I offer this revelatory tidbit as one who has elsewhere entertained the possibility that his writing life began at birth, or even before. Of who I can be sure; how, and where, and when, remain a mystery.

It hurt my father to see us go. Bodily, by doing too much of the work he loved, he had been crumbling for years. He understood the logic of our departure, which was first and foremost for the benefit of his grandchildren. But without my hands and help there was no longer purpose to his farm, and without that purpose, and having to endure a steadily increasing amount of physical pain, purpose quietly eroded within himself.

I can’t count the times he has appeared to me in dreams, or that I’ve wondered if our continued presence would have helped him stay alive. And I still dream of the farm, with its big and small jobs needing to be done. Sometimes I find I’m late and have fallen far behind: how will I prune twenty acres of vines now that spring has arrived? There’s water in the ditch; polliwogs and crawdads teem along the edge. A buzzard drifts; a bullfrog calls.

The other day, I shared a dream in which I’d found him spreading ashes in the vineyard. With infinite patience, he was placing a shovelful at the base of each vine. Ash. Why ash? In my book, Winter Poems, there’s a page-long poem called “A Thimbleful of Ash” that I wrote more than six years ago on Christmas Eve. It ends thus:

The vineyards are asleep.
The neighbors have gone to bed.
In the far distance, a baby cries.
I still remember what he said:
Long lives, a thimbleful of ash.

And so, again, I say I don’t know how, or where, or when. But of who I can be sure. He is a child. He is a man. He is everyone who is, and who has ever been. And I must sleep if I am to remember him.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Between the Lines

This blog’s moody background image only hints at the importance of books in my life. The room has changed a lot since the photograph was taken. Each week, another volume or two is added, and often as many as three or four, almost all of them old, some many decades, others a century or two. I derive great pleasure from handling and perusing them, otherwise I wouldn’t bring them home.

All too often, those of us who call ourselves writers speak of the books we read as if their very mention were an indication of our learning, depth, and worth. I speak about them because I love them, knowing full well that even after they are read, I will be at a loss to explain the profound or mean effect they have had on me, my understanding, and my thinking.

I drift with the current. Some facts cling to to me like moss. Most, though, glide off and are lost. What I retain, most of all, is a sense of the times and of human thought and behavior. One day, I’m loaded into a cart and hauled through the streets leading to the guillotine; another, I live in Montaigne’s tower, or write Petrarch’s poems to Laura. Never, though, do I kill anyone in a duel. I see that as a good sign.

What’s to be gained by keeping my nose in the 1892 Peale edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or in Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides? Why, nothing — nothing at all. If I’m to limit myself to terms of loss and gain, then I’ll be obliged to believe a great many foolish things — even, perhaps, that the past is the past, and the present is mine to control.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I am well

Quiet, that’s all. Reading, mostly, and deep in thought.

This morning, shortly after one o’clock, I awakened from a dream. By the south road, I’d returned on foot to my childhood home. I found my father spreading ashes in the vineyard, one shovelful at a time. He looked at me and smiled. It was his work now, and his alone.

Thank you for your notes.