I wonder what the new owners did with
the ancient, petrified chicken coop we left behind when we moved from
the farm to Oregon. I’m not quite sure now why we got it in the
first place. Probably because it was offered by an Armenian old-timer
who lived a few miles away near the next town. I remember he put it
on his rusted old truck and hauled it to our place. Then we got it
off somehow and skidded it to its resting place on the southeast
corner of the third-of-an-acre space carved out of the surrounding
vineyard and orchard for our house and barn and garden. It was
beautiful: dry, unpainted, the color of old houses and barns
scattered around the countryside, from an early era of survival and
shelter and nothing much else, boxes and burlap and horse-drawn
cultivators light enough to pick up and move around yourself.
Our barn, by contrast, was red.
Anyway, with a single strike of a
match, the old coop would have gone up in flames. Or it could have
been chopped up for kindling. Or it might still be sitting there.
After all, what’s thirty-one years when you’re petrified?
Look at me, Ma, I’m petrified.
The old-timer died at the age of about
ninety-six, as I recall. But he probably regrets it because it makes
him feel lazy.
Every year, he raised a patch of
Jerusalem artichokes. He called them sun-chokes. It was a thriving
market. Whenever he finished a jar of dill pickles, he’d cut up a
few chokes and stuff the pieces into the spices and juice and turn
them into pickles. They were great.
Shortly after the war, my father and
his father planted fruit trees along the ditch bank. It was the
family orchard. There were two kinds of fig trees, two kinds of
peaches, an apricot, a plum, a pomegranate, and a persimmon. The
trees thrived. At the west end of our house we also had walnut trees
that gave us mountains of nuts, while shading the west end of the
house. Orange trees and a grapefruit tree too. And of course we had
grapes, nectarines, and other varieties of peaches, plums, and
apricots as they ripened in season on the farm itself. Add to this
the big garden behind the house. And a little dust-vision of a boy
handing wooden clothespins to his mother as she hung sheets on the
line. Now, who were they, I wonder? Not that there’s really an
answer, or that one is needed. They were, I suspect, just someone who
had been granted the fruits of labor and play, a twist of lemon,
memory and joy.
As dry as the weather has been the last
few weeks, and as welcome as a late-spring rain would be, we are
still enjoying a cool, cloudy, coastal atmosphere. The garden loves
it and is off to a good start. And while there always seems to be an
odd corner in need of a pot, a seed, or a flower, all of our regular
plantings are in. I do plan to move the irises this year, and will
get to that in a few weeks if I live that long and am still able. In
my mind, the work is already done. But that, as they say, is another
The other day, I found myself not
thinking. I don’t know what made me notice it, or how long it was.
This happens every now and again. It seems there is, for the nonce,
simply no one, and no need for there to be.
An archaeology of dreams. A digging
through the detritus of metal parts and leaves, an uncovering of the
bones of an after-age. The entire world is a grave. And yet it is new
on your knees. This is the revolution: the bark of a tree. You are
the mother and father of all, and whenever one is taken in the name
of convenience or by thoughtlessness or whim, you weep. And then you
care all the more for the ones that remain. And are astonished at
what appears in the very same place. Your arms extended grow leaves.
Peace. Strength is your surrender.
Surrender is your strength.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
old Sixties song goes, “It’s all too beautiful.” Too beautiful
for anything else.
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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.