For a little change of pace, I’m sharing an essay I wrote for “Storyworth”, a family history/memoir project brought to me by my two sons. When I run out of gas, or they run out of questions–or both– we’ll end up with a bound hard-copy book for each of us that will be, essentially, my memoir, driven by their questions, and done one week at a time. The following is this week’s essay.
We spend our lives
collecting things our kids
will sell in the auction.
In drawers and closets,
in dusty attics with
useless tax returns from 1992
and unused but sentimental
We store bits of their lives, too:
Talismans. Medicine bags. Memories
Of age 8, of high school.
It is we who can’t let go.
That rock collection,
the medals and ribbons and
papers with grades on them
high on a closet shelf
in a spare bedroom,
where we turn the heat off
in the winter because
no child sleeps there any more.
Talismans of our lives.
Little flames to light
our way for a time,
and hold back the darkness.
It’s difficult to imagine the conversations
between Jesus and Buddha this very moment
These androgynous blood brothers demand our imagination.
They could ask Shakespeare and Mozart to write words
and music, and perhaps a dozen others, but they’ve done so.
The vast asteroid on its way toward LA goes unmentioned.
in “The Shape of the Journey,” 1998. Copper Canyon Press
Once, long ago, I stood over the bones of a man Who had died at the gate of an ancient city, An arrow through his throat.
He slept through the ages in charcoal and rubble,
The world above spun round through centuries, but he was Oblivious to all such petty things, His city burned and fallen on his unmarked grave,
Then itself buried and forgotten.
A jewel of the Bronze Age,
Thriving in the time of Khufu of Egypt,
This city would rise and
Be destroyed again, five times, Until it was buried a final time, At the time Crusaders died At Jerusalem’s gates.Continue reading “Deep Time At Mohenjo-daro”
Being a doctor, I see death on a frequent basis. I have been witnessing death since before the clinical rotations of the medical school even started. Often, I would go to the mortuary whenever a dead body was brought in. Death never bothered me. It doesn’t bother me to this day. It is a fact of life. It’s a fact of living.
Not too long ago, a wise grey-haired colleague of mine taught me something new. I came out of a patient’s room and sat down on the chair at the doctor’s station with the computer in front of me. Next to me, on another chair, in front of the computer was sitting Tony, the wise grey haired colleague. I was staring at the computer screen, when he asked me what the matter was. I looked at him and told him the sad story of the Continue reading “Birth is Fatal”
When you’ve been together as long as we have—
the grown children are off making their own mistakes,
and careers have been dropped like bad habits—
the arguments tend to be about basic things.
We no longer tolerate easy answers.
Just the hard ones, such as those about walnuts and flowers.
One of you wants to plant the trees everywhere,
Knowing they’ll grow 100 feet high, and three across.
Their fruit is good, and their wood makes sublime furniture.
This all comes with foresight and patience.
Remembering a father saying one day, a few years before he died,
“Plant a walnut tree and generations will thank you.”
Gather ’round children.
I’ve something to say,
And the chance may not come ’round again.
You may not believe me,
But someday you’ll see that
This life is a joke in the end.
Oh, don’t get me wrong,
I love it, and you, and
Wouldn’t know what I would change.
I just remember, when I was like you,
All the certainties and plans I had made.
But it’s what happened instead—
In the spaces and cracks,
Through sorrows and losses and gains—
That finally taught me, until I awoke
And the picture of me made me laugh.
I have traveled my path, for better or worse,
And looking back I must smile.
I was so serious, so certain, so utterly dumb,
I knew everything, so it seemed.
But life is nothing like what I foresaw,
The twists and the turns, the raw surprises and all.
I don’t mean to tell you
A plan that will work,
Because that is the joke, don’t you see?
There ain’t no such thing as a stone cold sure prize,
No guarantee, contract or spin.
It’s good to have goals, but remember one thing,
The pros learn to go with the flow.
We do what we do, we try as we must,
But the real point’s so easily missed,
The touch of a lover, the smell of the sea,
The taste of food cooked with love,
These things are the purpose, my foolish young fools,
The meaning, the spice, and the heart.
So have no regrets, let them go, and move on.
Let’s go now and soak up the dawn.
After all, my young friends, today is unique, and
It’s the only one like it we’ll see.
“That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. “
who will ultimately fail…at something,
but that doesn’t matter?
Then trying again, knowing we’ll fail: that matters.
God is in that, in us. We keep getting up.
The world, society,
will just move on right over us
in any case
and brush us aside.
It’s really the natural way of things, to come and go.
Everything has its time to be,
To bloom, to rut and to spread itself
And soak up the sun … for a while.
But it all becomes loam
on the forest floor eventually
Food for next year’s bloom.
And every special snowflake
Melts in the sun.
It took a while, a long while for me to see.
I used to think of goals,
But found they were but mileposts,
incentives to keep going.
To where, exactly, I didn’t really know….
little accomplishments that marked
the turning of pages of chapters
in a book that will
probably be forgotten.
No. It will be forgotten.
And now? Like The Dear Departed Harrison,
I have found that I like grit in myself, in others
taking a punch and moving anyway.
That’s what endures. Endurance.
I prefer to think on love and death,
dealing with real things, big things,
not simulated sex and violence on TV.
And more, I find I and drawn to sentiment,
because real people are sentimental
and they like to tell their stories, and hear others’.
That’s part of the sweep of things, too,
so why the hell not?
So Darlin’, I believe we divine losers, you and me…we know the score,
And we sure as hell don’t need hipster irony any more.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in her room lately, up at the top of the house. There’s a finished room with plaster walls on the third floor, 40 feet off the ground, and the house sits on a tall limestone ridge. I can see for miles when the air is clear. It’s a quiet and peaceful place.
When this old money pit was new, a nameless young woman slept here. Nameless to me, anyway. A poor girl, making her way.
It’s been fixed up. I’m sure the floors then were bare boards only, with maybe a threadbare area rug.
The plaster walls were unpainted, probably. No money spent on servants. A metal bed with rough ropes for springs. An old, scratched bedside table and chair. A shallow closet with wire hooks held one or two of her things. There may have been a simple dresser, hand-made.
She must have gazed out that window—dreaming of another life when the work was done.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like up here then.
I wonder what she saw out these windows? What she thought in the coldest days of winter, with no insulation in the walls? Or when the room roasted in the summer? None of us have known a life like this.
Lincoln had been dead for 17 years. Things were changing, but not everything. Men in their 30s and 40s, missing legs, arms, eyes—sanity, in some cases—sat on benches on the courthouse lawn and reminisced the days away. The cannon that had mowed down Virginians and Alabamians at Gettysburg 20 years before dotted the grass, helped them remember other times.
She walked past them every day to and from visits to her mother in the worker’s houses on the other side of downtown, or when she ran errands to the shops downtown. The crippled, damaged men told the old stories over and over, of youth and glory and horror in the great struggle. Their eyes spoke more, though, things they could not speak aloud.
But the girl heard their stories. She also overheard all the talk in the dry goods store when the other servant girls chatted and gossiped about people and things they’d overheard their betters discussing over the morning paper. There were political arguments made out in public, and six partisan weeklies shouting at each other.
The owner of the mansion next door had been an officer at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and several others. He lost a leg in battle near the end of the war, a general by the time he came home. Later on, a governor of Pennsylvania.
Another girl like her worked for him. His home loomed up outside one of her windows, a different world of wealth and power and privilege. His carriage crunched down the gravel lane between the houses to the carriage house in back. On warm days, she saw him sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, reading, or walking on crutches, or on his wooden leg. She saw distinguished guests step down from carriages he’d sent to the train station for them. She knew he was an important man, and hurried past him on the street with a quick, shy greeting.
Sitting Bull had surrendered the previous July, at Fort Buford in Montana.
President Garfield had been shot the summer before her mistress had moved into the house. The news and gossip was full of nothing else for a while. Mark Twain published “The Prince and the Pauper.” And, oh, Bob Ford had killed Jesse James in April.
She probably couldn’t read the papers, though. She made an X for her name.
She was an immigrant, maybe Irish. Or German. Or Italian. Or from Bohemia. One of the floods of wretched that came in after the war for the jobs, the lands out west. Her family was here, too, but she was farmed out as a ladies maid/cook/char woman/nurse…(Whatever they called her, she probably did it all.)
Her father was a quarry worker, breaking the limestone into blocks and powder with a sledge hammer and muscle. A teenaged brother worked at an iron foundry in town. Another in an iron mine owned by her mistress’s in-laws. Her mother had two babies on the hip, the twins. There was another sister, too young to work for cash yet.
The young woman took care of a wealthy widow in a house on the hill. The old woman’s daughters had married mine and iron foundry and stamping mill owners, second-generation Irish and English, Quakers, movers and shakers making the stuff of railroads. Bridges. Guns.
I imagine her young. Unmarried. A heavy brogue, perhaps. Up before dawn every day to light the fireplaces, make the breakfast, empty the bedpans, clean the house, trim candle and lantern wicks, clean the glass chimneys. Before that, though she would take medicine and comfort to the old woman, who was not well. The old Quaker was stern, but could be kind. She was teaching the girl to read. It was only practical, she would say. The only way to rise above being a wage slave for the rest of her life.
Annie was the old woman’s name, and she would live less than a year. After that (and the girl knew it was coming), she hoped she could get another job, unless the spinster daughter of the house kept her on. The money she earned was needed at home. Maybe she would meet a boy and get married, and start having children like her mother had.
But on spring nights, when the air was soft and the incredible perfume of the blooms of a Black Locust at the corner of the house filled her room, she pulled a single wooden stool over by the window to watch the moon rise over the mountain. She allowed herself to dream of something better. She may have picked up an old McGuffey primer and labored over the pictures and strange shapes of words, lighting a kerosene lamp when it got dark
And now I use her room to write. Sometimes, I can almost see her sitting by the window, looking off into the distance. I wonder whether she ever found that boy, and whether she learned to read.
How difficult this would be, especially in our consumerist culture that fetishisizes instant gratification:
1. Accept everything just the way it is
2. Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
4. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
5. Be detached from desire your whole life long.
6. Do not regret what you have done.
7. Never be jealous.
8. Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
9. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others.
10. Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
11. In all things have no preferences.
12. Be indifferent to where you live.
13. Do not pursue the taste of good food.
14. Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
15. Do not act following customary beliefs.
16. Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
17. Do not fear death.
18. Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
19. Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
20. You may abandon your own body but you must
preserve your honour.
21. Never stray from the Way.
― Miyamoto Musshi