“Nothing’s so beautiful as the memory of it Gathering light as glass does, As glass does when the sundown is on it and darkness is still a thousand miles away.” ~ Charles Wright, from “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”
My father was almost 73 when he died on November 22, 2001. His birthday would have been on December 5.
I’ve been looking for a particular poem by Len Roberts, but the name escapes me. It’s a poem about his father. Anyway, I came across this one by David Budbill, and it reminded me of all the times my father came to my house to help me, all of the things he taught me: how to change a toilet’s working parts, how to replace an electrical socket, how to fix a leaky faucet, and far too many to recount.
And I remember all of the things that I learned from him just by watching: how to squat low and weed a garden, how to find the perfect patch of sunlight on the floor and take a nap, how to sit silently and pet a dog.
Mostly, I learned the art of being still from my father, a man who was mostly quiet, and then at times, explosive.
Father’s Day is still hard for me, especially when I go to buy cards. I still pause in front of the section of cards specifically for daughter. Occasionally I will pull one from the rack and read, but only if I have sufficiently steeled my heart before hand, which is almost never.
I have no great insights on what it is about fathers and daughters, only about my own relationship, which was alternately close and then not. I will never forget the time my father, almost in tears, asked me if I remembered the last time I had said hello to him, how in being silent myself I had not realized the cost.
My father was simultaneously generous and stingy, as am I—overly generous with love and stingy about never paying the full cost.
I still have not recovered the 1966 Ford Falcon that my father told me was to go to my sons, the car that my mother gave away after his death, as if this final punitive act would close that chapter once and for all. I will reclaim that car one day.
In the end my father was tiny, the extra six inches he claimed over five feet almost entirely withered with age and pain and illness. I would have gladly given him my inches were it possible.
In the end my father died alone and afraid, and I will never be able to let go of that, how when it mattered the most, I was not there to say hello and then goodbye.
All images by Chinese artist, Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004). There was nothing in the world that my father loved more than fishing.
Music by Billy Joel, one of my favorite oldies, “Lullabye”
Seventy-Two is Not Thirty-Five
I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house
helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.
We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as
best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the
pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over
again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch
and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well
that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.
I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I’d done
enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on
the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.
All this made me remember my father forty years ago
helping me with my garden. My father’s dead now, and
has been dead for many years, which is how I’ll be one
of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child,
who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching
and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.
So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation,
around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and
somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again.
“the soft-aired Tennessee night Gathers it children in its cupped hands. Time has its covenant, and who’s to say that it is unjust. We make our sad arrangements. The sky clears, the sun sets. No matter the words, we never forget our own song. ~ Charles Wright, from “Arrivederci Kingsport”
Sunday afternoon. Partly cloudy and cool, 60 degrees.
A very quiet afternoon, alone in the house, just the dogs and me. Sometimes the quiet is too dense, as if it is filling all of the spaces around me, removing the oxygen and replacing it with something unnameable but palatable.
It’s this first week in November that does me in, causes my heart to collapse, makes my mind travel to dark places. This week—it is too much with me. “The world is too much with me” . . . Wordsworth? Yes, Wordsworth. For a moment almost said Eliot, but it is not cynical enough. Wordsworth still had hope, I think.
Don’t worry if you cannot follow along. I cannot either. Heavily immersed in stream of consciousness, easier than linear thought—at times, this is so.
If you want to know how little you matter in the grand scheme, Google your name. Grandeur is quickly extinguished. Who does this?
“There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God
In memory, the days from that Halloween until the seventh of November all collapse upon each other, like white-dotted dominoes laid out in a row. Unable to halt the tide, unable to hold at bay the hours. Nothing could have stopped what happened.
Alexis, small and innocent, a fairy princess, a silver magic wand, a plastic crown. Standing on the front porch, posing for her last picture as a sister until years later.
There was a nurse in a clown costume, or was it a rag doll costume(?). I remember only the bright colors, the two red circles on her cheeks. I wondered then how anyone who worked amidst such perpetual sadness could muster the mettle to come to work in costume, to tend the grievously ill for 12 hours dressed as a doll? Who does this?
Now it makes perfect sense. The costumes provided an escape, albeit temporary, from the monitors, the beeps, the sterile white noise that is the backdrop to everything in an intensive care unit.
“If you have endured a great despair, then, you did it alone; getting a transfusion from the fire, picking the scabs off your heart, then wringing it out like a sock.” ~ Anne Sexton, from Courage
From that night forward, it was as if we were propelled by adrenaline and sadness. Ineffable sadness. The six days between were anomalous to the twenty-four-hour cycle, having only two or three hours a day. I’m certain of it. Time was different then. Supernormal with its sunrises and sunsets heaped upon one another, not enough minutes between sleeping and waking, perpetually exhausted.
Did I eat? I don’t remember. I do remember many cups of coffee.
Approximately one hundred and forty-four hours between Alexis’s fairy princess smile and Caitlin’s pale countenance. Everything about the two was opposite: Alexis’s fair skin and hair, and Caitlin’s olive skin and dark dark hair—as if fate sought to heighten the differences between the two.
Of course we will never know what kind of personality Caitlin might have had, whether she would have been a reader, or perhaps a writer, what she would have liked to do with her time, what paths she might have chosen. All such speculation is pointless. How much can you know of a person in seven months? How much of a person can seven months reveal?
“I don’t know. I just feel stuck, like I’m afraid to take any steps, in case they’re the wrong ones.” ~ Rebecca Stead, from When You Reach Me
Long before Google could tell me of my irrelevance, I met it first-hand on a November afternoon. It only took a few minutes to break my heart irreparably, to harden me with a cold cynicism bred from loss.
I think that I laughed more easily before that day, found more joy in the ordinary nothingness. I know that I smiled more, or at least, I think so. But it would be a lie to say that I knew how to be happy then because I don’t think that I’ve ever quite known how to do that.
I will not lie to you: I do not remember what Caitlin looked like. I mean, I know from the pictures, but I cannot, simply am quite unable to conjure her image in my mind. She has become two-dimensional.
I never thought I would find the day in which I could no longer smell her, so long did I carry her belongings with me wherever I went.
It this all too much for you? Perhaps I should have warned you sooner of my propensity to crash so completely, should have placed a label somewhere to shield you from my carefully guarded obsession with those days in early November, the ones that I hoard like first editions and garage-sale masterpieces.
“But I understand how light works. . . . . . . . . . .
Later I will go out in a leopard-coat of light with you: just me and the trees baring themselves for winter, and the marbled paving stones, and my empty hand shining” ~ Henry Shukman, from “The Call”
I am never quite sure how much to say when my mind and heart conspire against me and take me back to that afternoon and the days immediately preceding. It’s as if I somehow can still be caught unawares, regardless of how many times I have made this journey.
And sometimes I think it would be better if I did not allow myself to acknowledge this tack, pretend it is not just there, on the periphery of my vision, waving its arms madly to get my attention. If I just don’t look . . . perhaps . . . maybe. If I spend enough hours in the bathtub with the lights out, it won’t be able to get a toehold, will fall away.
Who am I kidding? It always wins. Always.
More later. Peace.
Music by Bastille, “Oblivion”
Look, the eucalyptus, the Atlas pine,
the yellowing ash, all the trees
are gone, and I was older than
all of them. I am older than the moon,
than the stars that fill my plate,
than the unseen planets that huddle
together here at the end of a year
no one wanted. A year more than a year,
in which the sparrows learned
to fly backwards into eternity.
Their brothers and sisters saw this
and refuse to build nests. Before
the week is over they will all
have gone, and the chorus of love
that filled my yard and spilled
into my kitchen each evening
will be gone. I will have to learn
to sing in the voices of pure joy
and pure pain. I will have to forget
my name, my childhood, the years
under the cold dominion of the clock
so that this voice, torn and cracked,
can reach the low hills that shielded
the orange trees once. I will stand
on the back porch as the cold
drifts in, and sing, not for joy,
not for love, not even to be heard.
I will sing so that the darkness
can take hold and whatever
is left, the fallen fruit, the last
leaf, the puzzled squirrel, the child
far from home, lost, will believe
this could be any night. That boy,
walking alone, thinking of nothing
or reciting his favorite names
to the moon and stars, let him
find the home he left this morning,
let him hear a prayer out
of the raging mouth of the wind.
Let him repeat that prayer,
the prayer that night follows day,
that life follows death, that in time
we find our lives. Don’t let him see
all that has gone. Let him love
the darkness. Look, he’s running
and singing too. He could be happy.
“No word in my ear, no word on the tip of my tongue. It’s out there, I guess, Among the flowers and wind-hung and hovering birds, And I have forgotten it, dry leaf on a dry creek. Memory’s nobody’s fool, and keeps close to the ground.” ~ Charles Wright, from “Buffalo Yoga”
Friday afternoon. Cloudy with drizzle, 76 degrees.
The weather has been amazing. Yesterday was perfect—sunny and warm, with a breeze, in the 70’s. Wild weather in June. Today is the first day of summer, and it is cooler than it has been in weeks. When Corey got home, he said that it was warmer in Ohio than here. But I’m sure that in a few days it will be in the 90’s with godawful humidity.
I had thought about having Olivia today and tonight but decided against it. Neither of us are feeling that great, so it wouldn’t be the best of visits. Can you believe my little bug is going to be a year old next month? Time moves much too quickly.
I’ve learned a new word: tendentious, which means expressing a strong, (biased) partisan point of view. I don’t know why I’ve never come upon this word before. Of course, I now cannot remember where I found this word because it’s been a few days. My brain is like a sieve. More and more I fear that the holes are overtaking the grey matter.
Truly, though, all of the migraines would have to have some effect on the brain, wouldn’t they? I cannot imagine an organ suffering such assaults and coming away completely unscathed. I tell myself that my cognitive impairment comes from the migraines. Laying the blame there keeps me from having to think too much about what is going on.
“Leave. Be like the clouds. Be like the water. Stand for the thing that will and will not change for reasons we will accept and still think bad— be like words, like vague words belonging to the whiteout of endless work.” ~ Lawrence Revard, from “Incantations to Snow”
I had wanted to post yesterday, but I kept falling asleep, truly.
Night before last, Corey and I stayed up to watch the last half of Game of Thrones season 3, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the puppy hadn’t wanted to eat at 7 a.m. Her stomach seems to be pretty regular—7, noon, 5 p.m. She has already grown so much. I had meant to post some pictures before now, but they’re on Brett’s phone, and he hasn’t forwarded them to me yet. I suppose that by the time I finally get around to doing so, she’ll already be much bigger.
Anyway, the point was that I paid the price for staying up so late because Bailey insisted that I get up on time. She’s a funny dog, and I’m finally allowing myself to enjoy having her without feeling guilty about Jake.
The night that we watched GoT, Bailey came out to the living room, sat down and whined at me. I followed her, and she wanted to go to bed, but she wanted me to go to bed with her. It’s easy to forget that puppies are just babies. At this moment, she’s having her afternoon nap on the bed. Pictures soon. Promise.
“I wanted to say one thing so pure, so white, it puts a hole in the air and I’d pass through . . . ~ Robin Behn, from “Over 102nd Street”
The gardenias are in a bloom, a lovely, fragrant rhapsody of white. I missed the blooming of the lilac bush this year, and the spring storms thrashed my peonies; I was able to cut only a few to bring indoors before they were gone. So I’m harvesting fresh white blossoms each day.
I remember that my Aunt Ronnie in Great Bridge used to love the scent of gardenias. My mother would buy her a cologne called Jungle Gardenia, which might have been a musk. I, too, love the heady scent. It is such full smell, one that floats on the air long after the blooms have been cut.
I associate gardenias with a green scent, which is best described as cool and fresh, not sweet. I don’t have synesthesia like Brett, but I do associate scents with colors. Rosemary and mint are green scents. Peonies are a pink scent, deeper, richer, like roses, regardless of color.
I remember wearing a Jovan musk oil called Grass when I was a teenager. I couldn’t smell it after I had applied it, but other people could. I wonder if they still make it . . . probably not.
“Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire, Where the voice that is in us makes a true response, Where the voice that is great within us rises up, As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.” ~ Wallace Stevens, from “Evening Without Angels”
When I was a young girl, I remember the first time I found a wild honeysuckle vine. Suzanne showed me how to suck on the blossoms. So much of the neighborhood still had wild growth when we first moved here, the kind of growth that hadn’t yet been impaired by paving and building. Left unchecked, nature is an incomparable perfumer.
My mother has a bush in her front yard called Daphne Odora (odora L. = fragrant), which produces one of the best smelling flowers of any bush I have ever come across. It blooms in late winter/early spring, and its scent carries into the street so that passersby almost always stop to ask my mother where the smell is coming from.
I have tried at least three times to root this bush, unsuccessfully to date. Called jinchoge in Japan, the blossoms are white and pink, but the fragrance that they produce feels deep red, crimson. Don’t ask me to explain my scent categories as they are completely contrived; I can only say that something feels green or pink or crimson, sometimes yellow. Honeysuckle scent is yellow.
It’s all a lot of falderal, but the idea of color reminds me of a Merwin poem which I have actually been able to find (below).
“the infinite variety of having once been, of being, of coming to life, right there in the thin air, a debris re- assembling, a blue transparent bit of paper flapping in also-blue air” ~ Jorie Graham, from “The Swarm”
As an interesting aside, the Ruth Stone in the Merwin poem was a poet who actually taught at ODU while I was in the department. I think that she only stayed for a year, not really being into the whole idea of committed academe; someone once referred to her as the poet vagabond because she taught at so many different colleges and universities.
I remember an older woman with wild hair whose poems were intensely personal, who integrated the natural with her poems about her family, her late husband in particular. Merwin’s poem is an homage to a woman who, though blind, was still writing poems at the age of 96.
As you can imagine, the idea of Ruth Stone the woman, the poet, appeals to me greatly. Admittedly, I did not get to know her while she was in the department, and I really regret that. The timing was bad for me—I was pregnant with Eamonn and very self-absorbed at the time. It’s my loss that I didn’t enter even the periphery of this woman’s life. I could have learned so much from her.
But I can take her example, her complete dedication to her craft until the day she died, take that and imprint it somewhere on my consciousness. Stone serves as an imprimatur of sorts for me: She endured a lifetime of hardship, and was not even widely recognized for her poetry her late 80’s, when she received the National Book award for her book The Next Galaxy. (Click here for an NPR article and some of Stone’s poems)
No, I’m not comparing myself to Stone, only saying that I hope to be even a fraction as dedicated to my craft until the day I die.
More later. Peace.
Music by The Gourds, “Steeple Full of Swallows”
A Letter to Ruth Stone
Now that you have caught sight
of the other side of darkness
the invisible side
so that you can tell
it is rising
first thing in the morning
and know it is there
all through the day
clear and unseen
has begun to loom
in your words
and another light is growing
out of their shadows
you can hear it
now you will be able
to envisage beyond
any words of mine
the color of these leaves
that you never saw
awake above the still valley
in the small hours
under the moon
three nights past the full