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.
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
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!
Monday, April 16, 2018
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 sweet care.
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?
Sunday, April 15, 2018
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 jumping frogs.
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 everlasting arms.
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 waving too.
Saturday, April 14, 2018
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.
Friday, April 13, 2018
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.
Thursday, April 12, 2018
April 12, 2018
My father-in-law passed away before our first child was born.
But he knew she was on the way, and was pleased.
Back then we did not know ahead of time what sex a child would be.
By the time our last was born, we could have known.
But we asked not to be informed. That feeling has not changed.
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.
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
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 grave!
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
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.
Monday, April 9, 2018
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:
Here Holy Willie’s sair worn clay
Taks up its last abode;
His saul has taen some other way,
I fear, the left-hand road.
Sunday, April 8, 2018
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: Leopardi’s Zibaldone; 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.
Lives 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.
Saturday, April 7, 2018
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.”
Friday, April 6, 2018
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 —
Thursday, April 5, 2018
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 machine.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
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.
Tuesday, April 3, 2018
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 kids.
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.
Monday, April 2, 2018
Sunday, April 1, 2018
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.