Just as we humans speak a multitude of
tongues and can best understand each other through the universal
language of love, it is, perhaps, if not true, at least reasonable or
understandable to think it is the same for other creatures great and
small. A basset hound named Byron, for instance, might not be able to
make sense of the barks of a boxer named Rambo. Sparrows and crows
may well need interpreters. Bees may understand some kinds of
hummingbirds better than their own bumbling colleagues and relatives.
When I was a boy on the farm, I held conversations with sparrows.
That we responded to each other was clear. And that we were all
bathed in and sustained by the language of love, is just as clear.
Bee here now. Hummingbird, don’t fly away. But if you must, fly all
the way home.
I’ve been in ancient cathedrals
ruined and whole, climbed the stone steps, gazed upon the altar,
listened to the wind through cracks in the dome, contemplated snowy
mountains through the narrow window of the hermit’s cell, chanted,
lit candles, burned incense, walked in the procession through the
nave and out past the burial ground, and what I haven’t done I’ve
dreamed, and what I haven’t dreamed I will, and what I am I will
not be for long, and this is my song.
I know now what it’s like to live
inside a bouquet. The air, suddenly warm and dry, has exploded with
pollen, and has become an all-encompassing perfume comprised of every
kind of flower on earth. The violence of my sneezes startles the
neighbors and sends the bees and birds into orbit. Dogs bark. Cats
scatter. Worms wriggle. Traffic is thrown off course. In between, I
maintain an air of sophisticated calm. “Look at that man,” the
neighbor kids say. “His head came off.” And their mothers and
fathers reply, “Oh, well, he wasn’t using it anyway.” But I can
still hear, even in this condition; oh, yes, even with my head
cooling overnight in the refrigerator, I can hear. And I can dream. I
can dream of pancakes and honey and soft leather shoes. I can dream
of waterfalls. I can dream of you.
I finished reading Posthumous Keats
today. It’s a moving, wonderful biography, full of insight, and
beautifully written. If you’re interested in such things, I’m
sure you can easily find a copy online. It’s by Stanley Plumly, and
was published in 2008 by W.W. Norton. I bought mine for two dollars
at the Friends store at the public library. It’s in near-perfect
condition. It was retired from the library shelves only eight years
after its publication. Sad. Insane. Come to think of it, sorrow and
insanity have always been part of the journey of the printed word.
But only part. The rest is inspiration, miracle, and triumph.
Just as if it were interesting or
necessary, I’ll tell you again how it is with me. I don’t seek
enlightenment. I don’t know what it is. I don’t assume it exists,
or that if it does, it pertains only to humans. Yes, like so many
things, and ultimately like everything — like life, death, and
roulette — it’s an intriguing subject — like pipe-smoke and
birdsong, like the evolution of language, like clouds, for which in
none do I seek destiny or cause. This is how it is with me. I stand
at the kitchen sink, looking out the window while drying a pan.
There’s a robin in the spring grass under the budding fig tree. If
there’s distance between us, or between us and any or every other
living thing, I can only imagine it, for I can neither sense it nor
see it. And all things do live — every stick, every leaf,
every grain of sand, every steel bridge and church spire. And there’s
no distance between us that I can perceive, that I can say honestly
and without doubt, exists. Now, it could be that this is
enlightenment, while enlightenment for you is something entirely
else, that is, if you care. I don’t know. What I do know, for the
moment, at least, is that I was able to dig up our garden space
yesterday afternoon and get it ready for planting. And although it is
ready, I still must be wary of frost. Or, to put it another way, what
is there to seek, when everything is here? What is there to know,
when I am part of all knowledge itself? And finally, how can I be
sure of anything, when I can neither prove my own existence, or say
with any certainty whether or not I am asleep or awake? I might even
be part of your dream, your enlightenment, your
grief, your pain. And if so, why would I wish it to be
In front of the house, near the
sidewalk by the street, we have a tall juniper that my father started
from a seed brought down from the mountains in Central California by
old family friends. When my mother moved here in October 1995, after
Dad’s death earlier that year in June, she brought along the small
plant, which was still in a pot. At the time, we didn’t know what
it was. The friends who brought the seed thought it might be from a
giant sequoia. But in its development it proved otherwise. And now
it’s about twenty feet tall.
Early yesterday morning, before the sun
was up, I went out for a walk. The temperature was just above
freezing. As soon as I stepped outside, I heard a towhee singing. In
the dim light, before food, before work, before its busy cares of the
day, the bird was perched at the uppermost tip of the juniper, making
that glorious spinning sound peculiar to its kind, throwing back its
head, as it were, to achieve the greatest volume and distance. As if
to say, and to teach, and remind, First, we must sing.
Seeing me, it flew a short distance to
unneeded safety nearby. When I returned from my walk a while later,
it was back exactly where it had been, finishing its song. This time,
it didn’t fly away. It looked down upon me, earthbound, bundled
against the chill, and sang on.
When I think of the vast number of
Christmas cards my mother sent and that our family received each year
during my childhood, and the quiet labor involved, the patience, the
thought, and the care that went into the process, and at the same
time how every penny counted, and how hard both of my parents were
working all through those years, and how hospitable they were, and
how happily and naturally they welcomed company at any hour, I smile.
And so now, it’s hardly a surprise that I still read and write
daily, and do things the slow way, everything from scratch, as it
were. And while we don’t send Christmas cards, we do send our love.
That it’s but a click away is easy to take for granted. First we’re
distracted, then we’re subtracted, and then we’re gone. Don’t
you be the one.
Reading weather. Standing water.
Hailstorms. Unstable air aloft. Massive cloud formations. Rapidly
changing light. Dark in the room. Lamp time. Sudden sun. Blinding
reflections. Misty veils. Spirit glass. Reading the weather. Reading
the water. Reading the clouds. Earth book. Sky book. Life book. Even
the pages have veins. Look down. Leaves at your feet. Taking root.
Stand up. Stretch. Dance. Laugh. Can it be? Five minutes already? An
hour? Old age? Infancy? “Oh, is
this your youngest? How cute!” “Yes, he’s the baby of the
family.” Yes, the baby. But look closely, because now he is
a grandfather with a beard. And we, my friend, are glorious dust. By
golly, you’re right — he does look like us!
This first half of April, rain is the
name of the game. And wind. Lots of wind. The wind arrives by the
truckload, and misty forklifts unload it pallet by pallet in the
street, where it escapes its fine-flimsy packaging and shreds
whatever it finds immediately at hand. From there it flies up into
the trees, the redwoods, the cedars, and firs, and sends the crows
off at odd angles. Then it pauses briefly to catch its breath and to
listen to the rain. An inch here, two inches there, cloudbursts and
cloudships, bluebell-soaking frond-furling fernlips charged with
And how was your stormy night? How is
your calm? How is your truth and your meaning, when need there is
none? How is your light? How is your dark? How is your new life, now
that your old one has flown?
The bookmark I’m using in Posthumous
Keats wasn’t intended to be a bookmark. It’s a blue ribbon
won by my brother in 1960 at Jefferson School, for winning first
place in the broad jump. This is the same school where the playground
was flooded periodically with ditch water, the resulting puddles
teeming with polliwogs. Melted snow. Dream valley. The celebrated
I found the ribbon in the wide shallow
drawer of an antique table my mother brought home back in those days,
from one of her “junking” trips with her friend, Maxine. The
table is by the big front window in this room, and where I keep my
old Royal typewriter these days, along with about fifty books, among
them a complete set of the works of Robert Browning and Plutarch’s
Lives. Melted valley. Dream lives. The celebrated jumping quill.
The ragged, spotted leaves of an old
biography, Sir Walter Scott, by John Buchan. Like the skin on
my grandfather’s face and hands. Published in London, March 1932.
Found yesterday in Salem on a thrift store shelf.
There’s a neighbor who waves at us on
our walks. When he sees us, he is usually driving off. He waves and
waves and smiles. Someday, perhaps, we will meet and talk. Now that I
think of it, we have already exchanged words from a distance. It was
one evening last summer, when his grandchildren were dangling from a
tree in front of his house, swinging from their arms. “Isn’t it
great?” he said. “It is,” I replied. Leaning on the
My father on Sunday morning, work shoes
on, having already checked on the water in the vineyard. Morning
paper on the table. Sunday sun. Day sun day. And he looks up. He is
I feel to take out the storage tubs, to
throw out the old notes and gripes and who knows what all else. The
truth is, I no longer remember what’s
in them, and know only that they take up closet space, neatly stacked
though they may be. The ghosts of former selves.
Once, as I was burying one of my dead
selves, the grave-digger came by and said to me, “Of all those who
come here to bury, you alone I like.”
Said I, “You please me exceedingly,
but why do you like me?”
“Because,” said he, “They come
weeping and go weeping — you only come laughing and go laughing.”
— Kahlil Gibran
John Keats has returned from his
walking tour through the lake country and the highlands, to find his
younger brother, Tom, dying of consumption. He will be his nurse —
he, with less than a thousand days to live himself, a truth he knows
well in his bones.
White space is a blessing, you know,
whether or not the wind fills your sail.
In Virginia Woolf, the biography
I mentioned the other day, there’s a photograph of a press she and
her husband used to print the books they published through their
Hogarth Press. You never know how things will strike you. The press
reminded me of an old metal tractor seat, rusting in Depression-era
prairie grass. It’s only now, though, that I think of a dust bowl
of ripe cherries. But I don’t mean to be funny. The Press was
serious business, to which Virginia and Leonard devoted great amounts
of time and painstaking labor.
I woke up with a dream this morning,
the essence of which is this: We thought we were returning the same
way, but it was soon apparent that we were miles and miles off
course. It was beautiful. We were on a winding path through the
woods. There was a river. At one point there was snow. I say we, not
knowing who, with the sure joy of knowing it does not matter.
This for your body, and this for your
soul? Not so, not so. The idea that there are two realms, one
spiritual, and the other profane, is a thing of the mind, born of
habits and beliefs not sufficiently examined. Put down your fork and
your spoon. Chew your food well, and in each bite you will taste a
miracle. Savor the sound of the voices around you. There’s a bell
on the hill, a cloud in the sky you have never seen and never will
again. And the sky itself is not the same sky it was yesterday, or
even a moment ago. It has changed. So will you. Know this well. Then
let it go.
The years go by, and I sit here and
write about tulips. The tulips go by, and I write about years. I go
by, and the tulips and years write about me. Flow gently, sweet
Afton. Flow gently, the yellows, blood-reds, and pinks. Flow gently,
the stone walls behind them. Flow gently, the mosses so green. And
when I am a grown man, and I am a sown man, remind me, O sun on my
There are days when you are certain a
simple glass of water and sunlight will do, when no other nourishment
is necessary, when hunger is your best companion. Around noon, you
think briefly about sitting down to a great cosmic sandwich, stardust
on rye, but soon enough the feeling passes. Then you start thinking
about lemons. The sun is a lemon. So is your eye. This thought also
passes. It is replaced by garbanzos, or chickpeas, if you prefer. But
you hold your course. In a little outpost just past Orion, someone is
selling beautifully fashioned walking sticks made from trees grown
all over the galaxy and beyond. Each walking stick is named for one
of the great masters of haiku, and you don’t think it odd. Rather,
what could be more appropriate, life being the eternally brief thing
that it is? You purchase one. It costs only your soul. Behind the
counter is a god with a face lined like a wind-webbed sahara. Or is
it a mirror? “Your change.” And you are pleased, because change
is why you are here.
After I was born, I lived three days on
this earth without a name. My parents never told me what names they
considered, but it took them that long to decide. And of course the
date of my birth was recorded, and was celebrated every year as
birthdays are, thus reinforcing the idea that I was, am, and will
always be a certain age. But to me, my name and age feel like
unnecessary distractions. I don’t need them. I was fine without
them when I was born, and I will be fine without them when I die. In
between, having a label and use-by date seems downright silly. Here
lies one whose name was writ in water, as Keats said. And the
poor gentle genius has been hounded by eternity and immortality ever
since. Which brings to mind this verse from Robert Burns:
It’s rained two inches since
yesterday morning. I walked early, during one lull, and I walked
again after lunch during a light stretch. But I didn’t walk in the
evening because it was raining so hard the street was a mass of
bubbles all the way across.
I spent most of the day reading:
Posthumous Keats, by Stanley Plumly; Los
Hijos del Pueblo: Historia de una Familia de Proletarios a Través de
Veinte Siglos, por Eugenio Sué; Virginia Woolf, by
Hermione Lee; and Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.
I was like a bee among flowers, but I
didn’t feel I was working. Do bees feel they are working?
Yesterday, as I do every day, I noticed
two Folio Society volumes I keep together in our main sitting room.
One is called The Diary of a Village Shopkeeper. The other is
The Diary of a Country Parson.
I open one or the other every now and then. They were written in the
eighteenth century. The writing is simple: I felt out of
humor today. I saw the widow So-and-So. I buried a child.
lived. Not as distant, not as long ago, not as unrelated to your own
as you might think. In fact, immediate, present, and impossible to
separate. Like the honey of posthumous bees.
For the sake of others still living, we
pass over the most painful, personal stories. We do not confess, we
do not tell all. And yet these stories do not remain entirely hidden,
if they are hidden at all. As the alert listener and observer knows,
they inform the ones we do tell. And of course there are hints and
references — clues, if you will — we offer to the world, and as
much to ourselves. Lines in drawings and poems. In the end, nothing
is withheld. I think of my mother and her mixing bowl, her flour, her
dish towels, her counter lined with canning jars. I think of the face
of the light of her soul. And how she pulled me up from the depths of
a dream like a heart from a well, simply to say, “Welcome home.”
It was their little ritual. Every day,
the fear of death and the
desire to be remembered joined
hands at the precipice. Looking down, looking at each other,
trembling, the fear of death said, “You first.” And the desire to
be remembered replied, “But no one is watching. Let’s wait and
see if anyone comes.”
The precipice yawned. “It’s always
the same with you two,” it said. “Why don’t you go home and
talk it over. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Finally, one day, feeling braver than
usual, the fear of death and the desire to be remembered came to the
very edge, and — some say they jumped; some say they slipped and
fell; some even say they were moved by a great moral earthquake. Or
was it birth?
No matter. No precipice either. Only
the sweet blue —
Here’s something else I remember: our
collie, Butch, sitting on the cool concrete floor of the equipment
shed behind our house, wagging his tail and simultaneously sweeping.
A clean spot formed in the shape of a fan. At the outer edge of the
fan, dust collected. Butch was the nicest dog. He let me sit on him,
against him. I was about five then. Tractor. Metal. Wood. Hammer.
Saw. Cultivator teeth. Welded and busted parts. Fifty-pound sacks of
sulfur. Depression-era tools, pitchforks, shovels, handles, worn out
cotton hoes. Work table. Grease. Oil. Black widow spiders. Coffee
cans full of nails. “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” “Yes
we do.” “Well, then, you’d better let him out.” How many
times did my father repeat that joke? A piece of plywood or
two-by-twelve. Drive in some nails. Stretch a few rubber bands. Put
the wood at a slant. Set a marble rolling and watch it slowly bounce
its way to the bottom. Your very own life, your very own pinball
I said to my mother, I said to my
father, “I have nothing to do.” To which they wisely replied, “Do
nothing, then.” And so I did. I did nothing as I wandered past the
orange tree. I did nothing as I walked between two long vineyard
rows. I did nothing as I plucked the buds from wild chamomile. I did
nothing so well, paradise smiled. And I am doing nothing now.
Quarters, nickels, and dimes go into a
pretty glass vase given us a great many years ago by my eldest
brother and his wife. Or it might be a candy dish. It has twelve
fingers not all the same length, held open in such a way as to
suggest a flower in bloom. From tip to tip, the piece measures
between five and six inches, and from top to bottom, a little less.
It’s quite heavy. Here on the smooth desktop, it’s easy to give it
a spin, intentionally, inadvertently, or in between.
Alas, my dear sister-in-law passed away
in 2003, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, which was
diagnosed when she was in her thirties and their two sons were still
Yesterday — I use the word lightly,
with a sense of love, gratitude and smiling disbelief — I needed to
go to the bank. And since our supply of coins was overflowing, I
decided to roll up at least some of them. I stopped at four rolls of
quarters, and four rolls of dimes. Sixty dollars! And that was
leaving all of the nickels behind, and at least part of a roll each
of quarters and dimes. Giving them to the teller, I felt like a kid.
A quarter, a dollar — they still have the same meaning they did way
back when. A penny for a gumball machine, or the sidewalk scale in
front of the jewelry store. With the help of one or two others, a
dollar for a Christmas gift, found on Christmas Eve in a little shop
on L Street downtown.
I did not attend her funeral. Distance
posed a not-insurmountable problem, but my mother having Alzheimer’s
disease made the trip impossible. Of course my brother understood.
Over the years, the glass flower, the
open palm, the vase, the dish, has been on the piano, on this table
and that. Now it’s here on my mother’s desk. For the nonce, as
she would say, as if words were a wish.
Yesterday afternoon I fluffed up the
two planting areas I’ve carved out of the front lawn in recent
years. The ground is in beautiful condition, and although it’s too
early to plant because of likely frost ahead, it is deep,
Easter-rich, and ready. Last summer, the dahlias went berserk there,
some of the larger varieties growing trunks almost as thick as my
arm. If they weren’t hollow, we could have used them for firewood.
Oh, and the bumblebees were out, plowing around, bumping
and thumping the front windows, at once oblivious to and delighting
in the dandelion flowers all around. Because the lawn isn’t really
a lawn. It’s a hillside, with grasses and flowers that come and go
in their time.