The clerk at the hardware store has been there for years, and is well past retirement age, closer to eighty than seventy, slight and white of hair, and one of the friendliest, most helpful people you’ll meet — the quintessential old-time small town greeter and finder of whatever you need. He knows where it is, what it is, and what it is for, and will take you there to be sure it is exactly what you want. And if it isn’t, he shows you the next best thing, which is even better. And you leave the store feeling good. You are six years old, or ten, and you’re walking beside your father, after listening to the clerk and him having the very same conversation you will be having fifty or sixty years from now. Then it fades, and by that it remains, dolcissimo, the sweetest of sounds.
Monday, May 21, 2018
Sunday, May 20, 2018
I was born Sunday, May 20, at two-thirty in the afternoon. And I was born again this morning well before dawn, a little after three, which is earlier even than my regular habit. And one of the very first things that came to mind was the image of an old Muscat vineyard, a composite of all of the old Muscat vineyards I have known and seen from the road. I am in one now. I am a vine myself. Shaggy bark. A lizard on one arm, a sparrow on another, a horned toad where my truth meets the ground. And by Muscat standards, I am still quite young. By human standards, too. And who knows? Tomorrow I might be a redwood. Or a stone. And you?
Saturday, May 19, 2018
There is light on the road to Devon.
This, love, is our work.
North is west. East is south.
A blossom falls to earth.
There is light on the road to Devon.
And light is the word for birth.
Light, on the road to Devon.
Sweet shadows. Dark.
Note: By way of an explanation, this poem, like any and every other thing, is an answer of a sort. Devon could be Heaven. North could be south. East, west. Dark, mirth. But love is always love. Of this you can be sure.
Friday, May 18, 2018
The irises are in bloom — the powdered faces, the simple and small, the elegant ladies, the bearded old men, the fragile royal court, the hearty proud masses, the fable, the conquest, the blue haiku.
Bird-track calligraphers. Scent-wise hounds. Time to put away your grandmother’s quilt.
A porch so large it could be a field. A field so small it could be you, and the distance it reveals. For you contain multitudes, and are born to wander in this strange truth.
Thursday, May 17, 2018
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
At the hardware store, one of the local chapters of the FFA is selling vegetable plants to raise money. This morning we bought two beautiful jalapeño plants in four-inch pots. Our garden is already planted. There was really no room for more plants, so I planted them in a small space where there is almost room. It’s the same thing I do with books, and why I had no problem at all finding a place to put these new arrivals:
Ants, hills. Bees, hives. Termites, mounds. Birds, nests. Beavers, dams. Humans, cities. The list goes on and on. Is one more perfect or more beautiful than another? I think not. Neither do I think humans are flawed. Humans are what they are, just as whales are what they are, and trees and rocks and stars. If nature is not flawed entirely, then it is perfect in its glory and variety just as it is, is it not? And if we decide or choose to believe otherwise, and to later abandon those decisions and beliefs, that is all part of what makes us human. Things change. We change. That is the heart of creation — to make and be remade. Someday we might even dispense with worldwide theft, poverty, and war. The thought exists. The dream. In the meantime, we have love. We have art.
A cool, calm, cloudy morning. The record high temperature for yesterday’s date was ninety-five degrees, in 2006. A real cucumber-cooker. The record low was thirty-three, in 1932. Perfect for milk bottles on the front step.
My father could tell you without hesitation how many weeks old the kittens or puppies were. I always forgot. Six weeks could have been six years.
Once, back around 1970, we had two cats that liked to watch us prune in the vineyard. They would perch on top of the redwood grape stakes like silent gray owls.
A couple of years later, my brother and I found a small stray untrimmed poodle. We brought it to the house and fed it for a few days until its health and confidence were restored. Then a man who lived on the same road a mile east of us took it home to live with his family. My brother called the dog Bentley. I don’t remember the man’s name.
I do remember the birthdays and telephone numbers of many of my childhood friends and schoolmates. One friend had a dusty old boxer named Bobo, a word that has meant, still means, or has come to mean a lot of things in a lot of different languages.
The moment after a man takes his last breath, there is a forever of divine notice. Will there be another? Will there be a shudder, a sigh, one last word?
I am like an old plow. I know the way. I am willing to go. No need to pull. Easy to turn at the end of the row. Gleaming now, polished by the soil.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Monday, May 14, 2018
Having finished the Virginia Woolf biography, as noted earlier today, it would probably have made sense to dive into The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. Instead, I started the first volume of four of Hours in a Library, a collection of essays about books and writers by Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father. That also makes sense. The first essay is called “De Foe’s Novels.” So far, so good.
None of this, of course, is as important as what happened after lunch. I was starting out on a short walk when I met the neighbors next door, who were only too pleased to introduce me to their sleeping twelve-day-old daughter, Stella, who is six pounds two ounces of perfection. Her tiny fingers and bare toes — I nearly wept when I saw them, so beautiful they are. And her face — if she were a doll, she would inspire little girls and little boys to play house the world over. Her brother, too, was thrilled — couldn’t resist tickling those toes. “She sleeps all the time,” he wanted me to know. And of course I did know, and do.
It’s always interesting to notice how the body adjusts to changes in the weather, and the influence the seasons in general have on one’s thoughts and outlook. Daily exposure is the key. The rest is attention. Viewed from indoors, walking or working in the rain, cold, heat, and wind, might not seem the most enjoyable or convenient activities. But to the one who chooses to be out in it, it is a joy of endurance, sight, and sound, and a way to keep in touch with the natural pace of the world.
I finished reading two more books, both of which I’ve mentioned in passing before: Books and Characters, French & English, by Lytton Strachey, published in 1922; and Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee, published in 1997. I found Strachey’s criticism entertaining and fascinating. And Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf is an amazing accomplishment. If you’re interested at all in Virginia Woolf, you owe it to yourself, and to her, to read this engaging narrative of her life, her heights, her depths, her struggles, her work, and her times. Because, by and large, hearsay is a form of murder.
What else? In its early stages, the garden is thriving, adjusting as I adjust to the warming atmosphere. It was eighty-nine degrees yesterday. And I could hear the tomato plants say, Ah, isn’t this grand? Now we’re getting somewhere. Oh, and by the way, thanks for the water, friend.
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Whatever the trouble, whatever the challenge, whatever the grief, whatever the loss, whatever the seeming impossibility, I have found there is still one thing I can do, and that is, give thanks. And the blessing is, little by little, gratitude becomes a habit, an outlook, an abiding presence, a friend, and a guide. There is an old saying, but I have forgotten it. I give thanks for that too.
These days, casual, random meetings with people who could be strangers feel more like reunions. There is a sense of warmth and familiarity, mingled with curiosity about the thoughts and happenings that have brought them here, that have changed their expression and colored their hair. And often the feeling goes both ways. We’ve met before, haven’t we? I just can’t quite remember where. It goes unspoken. We have a natural interest in each other. But there is more. We care.
Saturday, May 12, 2018
Today is my grandfather’s birthday. He was born in 1896. He bowed out in 1990, a little shy of ninety-four. This morning I woke up with a dream. My father and my brother were putting strange new metallic siding on an old house. Now I don’t see them anywhere around. I guess I’ll have to finish the job myself.
Friday, May 11, 2018
I’m not particularly fond of One Hand Clapping. I’ve even told people not to buy it or read it — advice hardly necessary, since only three or four people — and I mean that quite literally — ever have. And yet it’s full of good writing, and the writing is sincere, sometimes quite moving, even poetic. So then, what is the problem? In a nutshell, my own ignorance. I don’t mean to say I’m not ignorant now, far from it; but, back then, I was even more so. I was ignorant of myself, and therefore ignorant in my view of the world around me. The writing, too, as good and poignantly mediocre as some of it is, also reveals a certain amount of pose; it’s poisoned, in fact, by my need at that time to appear right and somehow all-knowing, which are nothing but symptoms of blindness, fear, and insecurity. (Funny — for symptoms I almost wrote synonyms.) To put it another way, I wish I hadn’t written about politics. Yes, many of my observations in that realm were true then, and true now. But many others are limited by name-calling and a species of conspiratorial buy-in, if I may put it that way. Nowadays, I won’t even utter, let alone write, the names of those who think they are in power. I don’t live with my head in the sand either. I just happen to think there are better ways to live my life than pointing fingers and squawking about others’ shortcomings. I’m not here to solve the problems of the world. I’m not here to be right. I’m here to learn, and to see, and to root out, and to let fall away, the causes of those problems as they exist in myself.
As the old Sixties song goes, “It’s all too beautiful.” Too beautiful for anything else.
That being the case, in addition to the entry I posted yesterday, here is one I still like:
Our neighbor, dressed for work, came outside this morning and picked a small bunch of roses from the bushes that line the narrow sidewalk in front of his house. When he was done, he paused to study the plants, then held the roses briefly to his nose and went into his garage. A couple of minutes later, he backed his van into the driveway, closed the garage door by pressing a button in his van, and drove away. Now the house will remain empty for hours, the front blinds closed, the clocks ticking, the faucets dripping, the dust mites rummaging around in the upholstery, the pictures staring blankly from the wall, crucified and forlorn, the refrigerator humming periodically and blowing its warmth on the kitchen floor, sighing through great wads of lint while breakfast stains harden on the counters and the telephone goes unanswered in an unheard symphony of stagnation and stale air. All the while, outside, the surviving roses will whisper secrets and add their scent to the fresh spring air.
May 11, 2004 — One Hand Clapping,
a daily journal in two volumes,
March 17, 2003 — March 15, 2005
Thursday, May 10, 2018
I’m tempted to say writing is what keeps me sane, but I think we’d better reserve judgment on that. The opposite could easily be true. Writing might be what keeps me insane. Or, my insanity might be what keeps me writing. Then again, it might be my sanity that keeps me writing — though it should also be noted that writing is an insane act — at least according to several sane people I’ve known — who were, in fact, miserable, because their sanity prevented them from seeing how insane they were, and from enjoying the fact. . . . Yesterday after running an errand downtown on Ferry Street, I walked up High Street to State Street, crossed State, continued past the old Grand Theater, which seems to have been re-designated as a church, turned left on Court Street, crossed the alley, and entered a used-book store called The Book Bin. After searching for about one minute, I found the Mother’s Day gift I was looking for: a hardbound copy of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Then, on the shelf behind me, I found a copy of the second series of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. The essays were originally published in 1844. The copy I found was published in 1892 in Philadelphia, by Henry Altemus. I bought both books, then, so as not to retrace my steps entirely, headed up the alley back toward Ferry Street. In the alley I passed a young man and young woman sitting with their backs against the brick wall of the book store. They were deep in conversation. Last night I read the first essay, “The Poet,” from which I quote: . . . For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, an obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. . . . And there you have it — one more reason to go on writing, and to go on being insane. Or, to quote from an as-yet-unwritten poem: He loved her, only to find he had driven her sane. / And wept, for in so doing, had made of her a stranger.
May 10, 2003 — One Hand Clapping,
a daily journal in two volumes,
March 17, 2003 — March 15, 2005
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
The finger sketches. The thumb hums along. Suddenly the thumb stops. What is wrong? The finger stretches. Is it the palm? The breath catches. The mind fetches. What is the name of that song? Where has it gone? Read well. Read on. School bell. Bright sun. Life in the afternoon. For whom the ball rolls. Home run. Run home. Take off your shoes. The dream watches. The spirit touches. The river rushes. The door latches, the eye lashes, the knee patches your mother has sewn.
You wobble down the road on an old squeaky bicycle with dusty rims and spokes and its chain caked with oil. It has one of those comfortable wide seats, supported by big couch springs or bed springs. Is that where the squeak is coming from? What else, besides the rider, can squeak on a bicycle? The handlebars shaped like your uncle’s old country mustache? The rusted speedometer with the broken glass that your older brother added years ago? The brakes worn to nubs that look like old erasers? Can spokes squeak? Can they speak? Can they sing? No. But they can hum. And anyway, who knows the words?
Monday, May 7, 2018
My father and I went to the same grade school, a little place in our old farm neighborhood called Grand View, for the simple reason that the view of the snowy Sierra Nevada from there is grand. He walked to school from his birthplace on Road 66. I rode the bus from my childhood home on Avenue 408. I say birthplace because he was born in the house, whereas I was born at the hospital in town — the same hospital where three of our four children were born, where I had my appendix removed, where friends and neighbors died, and where Dad closed his eyes for the last time back in 1995. A few years ago, the hospital was torn down. I’ve seen pictures of the empty space. It was a strange feeling. My first thought was — and this would have amused my father — a good place for watermelons. Humor and sadness. What could be better than the sweet heart of a melon, broken open in the cool of the morning of what is sure to be a scorching San Joaquin Valley day? Anyway. Back in the Thirties — I don’t know exactly what year — there was a very late frost, so late that the vineyard growth was well advanced, with canes tumbling down in emerald profusion. Dad remembered walking to school and seeing the vines blackened and limp — this in a place where we planted our garden in March, to the tune of seventy, eighty, or ninety degrees. Now it’s May, and we’re 735 miles north in Oregon, with fingers crossed just setting out our gardens, using the same shovels and rakes and hoes we used on the old place. No, they don’t make them like they used to. But it’s going to be a good year. It already is. It always has been, and always will.
Sunday, May 6, 2018
A smile is hard to resist. And really, why would we? Why do we ever? And so, upon returning yours and returning mine, why not go a step further? Why not move beyond the light in our eyes and the surrender on our lips, and let our whole bodies be smiles, every muscle, every thought, every nerve? Aye. Then we’ll have something.
Give or take a few centuries, my mother lived ninety-one years, two months, and twenty-one days. Alzheimer’s Disease made for a sad, confused, prolonged ending, difficult and painful for her and her family. It was also beautiful. In very personal terms, it was and remains a gift. I watched her light go out — the light of her thinking, the light of her reason, the light of her ability — and as it slowly faded from view, dipping and glimmering in the mist very much as if she were a ship lost at sea, her body responded accordingly, until at last it drifted unguided and uninformed to its final bump in the night. Maybe you have seen and experienced the same thing, or something similar. Maybe you are dealing with it now, and are exhausted and worried and wondering how much longer you can carry on. Maybe you don’t see it as beautiful, as I did, and still do. Maybe you see it as a tragedy and only a tragedy. And a tragedy it is. And yet the greatest tragedies, like the tragedies of Shakespeare, are illuminated by moments of humor. My mother and I laughed at the silliest things. Snippets of memory, the old times, the old days, even her own dear puzzlement and confusion. The colored flecks in the carpet, she thought were bugs. It was a matter of great concern. I said, “Don’t you think that if there were bugs, I would do something about it?” She replied, “Not necessarily.” And we looked at each other, and looked, and looked, until there arose the hint of a smile. The next day, the bugs were back again. Without thinking, she walked through them and over them. Tragedies. Histories. Comedies. All the world’s a stage.... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Donne. And done. Except to say, By what strange light, these gifts to me?
Saturday, May 5, 2018
It’s no secret that strong abdominal muscles help support the lower back and lessen the likelihood of pain and injury to both; and that eating a healthy diet, practicing good posture, and being active are of key importance in keeping the body and mind fit. I say mind, because when one keeps to such a course, the thoughts and outlook are sure to follow and will naturally take on a positive charge, which in turn benefits the body and all of its workings. And so, yes, we are what we eat; and, in terms of our daily habits, we are what we think and what we do.
And surely you’ve noticed: first gradually, then quickly, the easy course becomes the difficult one; until, if we wait long enough, it’s impossible to change direction.
A lazy body and a lazy mind are but a step away from being a sick body and a sick mind. Which will support the other? Which will take charge? The fact is, there is no which; there is no other. There is only the mess we have made.
And so while we can, and to whatever degree we are still fortunate and able, each day must be recognized and understood as an opportunity to do what’s best for ourselves, best for our friends, best for our loved ones, and best for everyone we meet.
Because we do not suffer alone. We do not rejoice alone.
Here I am, at your fingertips, perfectly hidden, still in plain view. A flower in your path, a burr in your shoe. A push of a button, from many to choose. Of a certain uncertain age, on a certain uncertain page. Now, where are you? What do you feel? And must it all fade, just to be real?
Friday, May 4, 2018
I was stretched out on my back for a rest yesterday, when I thought, Very well, then, here I am, on a bed, in a room, in a house, on a planet circling a sun, in a solar system, in a galaxy that is one of countless other galaxies, in a universe that is perhaps itself one of many, one inside the other, adjacent, parallel, or beyond, and naturally this made me a bit drowsy, but I was still awake, if not even more so, and continued, and at the same time there is a feeling that I am everywhere and all of these things at once, and that all of these things are in me, which seemed logical enough, and then I realized my eyes were closed, so I opened them, and when I did, the painted texture of the ceiling looked like an immense field of stars. The conclusion? Need there be any? Need there be one?
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
In the unimportant-and-not-that-interesting-except-to-me department, I paid ten dollars yesterday for a vintage two-volume first edition set of The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, written by the author’s friend, Elizabeth Bisland. The books were published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1906. Having bought just about every old book in town, I found them not in a local bookstore, but online. Or, rather, I should say they found me, because I wasn’t looking for them. Well, I was looking for them, just not actively. In fact, I had seen that very set before, but the price at that time was much higher, so I didn’t get them. After all, how many people on God’s green earth, as they say, are looking for The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn? They should be, of course, but they’re not. And this is only one reason life is the puzzling thing it is.
In other news, while the bluebells in the neighborhood have passed their peak and are beginning to fade, the two dozen we planted last fall, being first-timers, are in full bloom. The plants are smaller than their counterparts, but they’re healthy, and so we expect a more timely, vigorous performance next year, after the bulbs have established themselves. Next year. I laugh every time I say those words.
One street over, there lives an eighty-two-year-old man I meet walking every now and then. Yesterday evening, he told me about his daily two-mile walks to Safeway and back, which I was aware of, and about how he picks up cans along the way, which I was also aware of, and about how he is eighty-two, which he’s told me a time or three. What I was not aware of, though, is that he is occasionally mistaken for a homeless person, and has been given money for coffee, or breakfast, or whatever meal corresponds with the time he is out. He accepts the money, even though, as he says, “I probably have more than they do.” Life is certainly interesting.
Having finished reading the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, I’ve moved on to Strachey’s Books and Characters, French & English, published in 1922 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. The first essay, vigorous and entertaining, was about Racine. The author assumes the reader knows French. I like that. I like French. I like pretending I can read it. I like thinking someday I might even understand it. The next essay, which I hope to read today, is about Sir Thomas Browne, a writer whose complete works are very hard to find, at least at a price that I am willing to pay. And so it goes. Maybe I should start walking to Safeway.