Robert Alan Burns (1959-2020)

The following post was placed on my Instagram and Facebook feeds a few weeks ago in order to alert friends of the passing of my father, whose memoir I’ve been reflecting on with previous posts on this blog. His obituary is being printed in his hometown paper, The Victoria Advocate, tomorrow, Thursday July 23rd 2020, and I felt it was appropriate to post these words here before continuing (at an unknown later date) the memoir project which I will be finishing in his honor. – GDB

A week ago my father Robert Burns died of a heart attack in Portland, Oregon. He was 61. Yesterday morning my mother and I returned from settling his affairs, or beginning that process, and mourning & remembering him with my sister who still lives in the PNW. We’ve had many health scares in the past decade, each one shocking the system, but none of them really prepared me for this. The whole experience has been surreal and I stayed clear of posting anything until the end of the journey. But now I wanted to share with friends, many of whom may have met him, some lessons I carry with me from his time as my father.

First of all, our relationship was fraught with issues. We did not get along for many years. He formally adopted my brother and I after marrying my newly divorced mother, coming into my life when I was 5. He was overwhelmed taking on parenting two growing sons, then having a daughter a year later into this new marriage, straight out of a first one gone awry. He was often an angry and frustrated man, physically and verbally abusive, making one feel small and insignificant. Also, he stood 6’3″ at his tallest, near and sometimes over 400 lbs., so he was an imposing parent we usually tried to avoid. Times were good when he was employed and on anti-depressants, and bad when he didn’t have either. It was hard to see beyond my own nose about him and it took many years to step back and view him like a bust of frozen music, his past and person in-the-round.

Although a stubborn and prideful man, he was also humble before his God and generous towards strangers. A Christian who often quoted the converted Saul, it wasn’t until after his divorce from my mother that I began to see behind the monstrous figure I had so feared. I found there a man in pain, wounded by abuse he had suffered in his adoptive family, and privately haunted by his financial failures and self-sabotage. I also began to know and understand his vulnerabilities, those in particular that plague the psyches of the Boomers, but which can be entryways into grief and soul work. I listened and was able to forgive, working on myself in the process, and am very thankful we shared the time to do so.

The last decade, after intensive therapy, late diagnoses, and slower life in care facilities, we were able to bond as two adult men with a shared history as father and son. I had never felt closer to him, and I feel like we had more path to walk. He trusted me as a typist and editor for his memoir, which will continue now that he has passed, as he wrote the final pages before his fateful visit to the emergency room. Oddly enough or fittingly before I drove out to the Finger Lakes to meet my mother last Wednesday, I checked my mailbox and found the final pages of his memoir stuffed into the manila envelope I had self-addressed a month earlier. I finally took a hard look at it in the backseat at a rest area parking lot and broke down crying. Tears might be the origin of baptism, but I don’t know what kind of world I’ve now been brought into by them. It will take time to find out.

It saddens me I will no longer be able to call him or call him back, to reminisce about lines of movies and television bits which stuck in our brains, to tell him I love and care about him, or send him another book. I am at a loss for truer words, but I will have his to remember. I hated him, then I loved him – he was my father.

R.I.P. RAB Born: 2/59 Died: 6/20

Tertius Amanuensis: intermediate school, pt. 3

 

reunion
Worf, you’re a daddy now

 

If you move an average of 2-3 years growing up, one begins to self-identify with a deeper and more transient nature than what our culture prescribes as the aim of one’s material life. After all, to be sedentary is to be rooted, to grow into a place, to invest time and energy and love and devotion to the cause of peace and to the idea of shared, communal space.

If there is a nomad within you where there is for so many others a stolid and principled settler, your movements in life aren’t periods but phases of huntings and gatherings for sanctuary, for shelter, for brief connections and the restocking of goods, before moving on to the next place, and the next, and the next – never quite at peace, never tied down, not really belonging anywhere. The latter was my experience as a child and young man – always the new kid, the odd face, the unknown variable in a formula of constants.

I look up from the pages of his memoir and think how this upbringing provided to me was so unlike my father’s own formative and sedentary years in southern Texas. Now that we are two decades into a new century of upheaval and displacement, I’ve simmered down my own frustration felt about being so transient. To be certain, 10 years of staying put in one place (Portland, OR) helped ease and soothe my sore joints, but I soon picked up again, headed back east, and have worked on myself towards a realization that I actually received some form of grace, an adaptation’s blessing, with my upbringing – though very tired and worn down has it made my spirit. In a world that will become more and more migratory, displacing its people like sand dunes, eroding cities with the oceans’ leaping tides, Global Climate Shift will wear down those who remain sedentary and never listen to that inner nomad.

It is now wearing down our material livelihoods with a current pandemic circling the globe. The planet demands we become more amenable to the compass, deep within. Where will it take us for survival – and how can examples from the past temporarily guide us while we find our way?

Meanwhile in the 1970s…

It feels kind of like paving-over his narrative to give a summary, if that’s indeed what I am proceeding to do in these posts, of those stretches of years which encompass each chapter of my father’s memoir. The preface itself was a sketch of 60 years with a fairly rough chronology; the private, Episcopalian, primary school years have few reminiscences before mentioning quickly intermediate, secondary, college and so on, in very broad strokes, “just the highlights” Bob has said over the phone. What is established in Chapter 1 is the main idea, which is all predicated on “the lack thereof,” from the hypothetical reader’s point-of-view.

These include but are not limited to: The lack of social and emotional skills, the lack of recognition of his intelligence, the lack of close friends, the lack of parents who took him seriously when he reported familial abuse, the lack of empathy, and the lack of trust in others.

As reader number one, I struggle to ask what I am left with, reading and typing out this personal record. Do I begin to find truth in Wordsworth’s line “the child is father to the man”? Something like this is what I tell myself, and I attempt to take a step back. This is like archaeology, and in that discipline, geology must be reckoned with first. There are layers within which the pieces of one’s identity are settled. Those layers have to be brushed away. But also, this is a story of his life, and few else can verify the details, as his parents are dead and friends are far-flung. I have to take him at his word.

It is as if an ancient Trojan were present at Hisarlik with Schliemann on his historic dig, saying “Disregard these other layers and those objects – here, these are the ones which tell my story.” No one but the bard Homer being able to confirm anything from that period, whoever they were, whenever the lines were set down.

I type again – the things which remain are what Bob composes as his life’s theme. He had the gift and power of intelligence, smarter than anyone else around him in fact, and this was used to help his purpose. This purpose, however flawed, fueled his life: he would make his parents as angry as he was, to bring their attention to him (which he claims was only involved in managing their own outward public perception, a symptom of Adult Children of Alcoholics, which is in line with the ACA’s Laundry List) and also, not to fall into the suicidal trap of self-hatred which he was feeling. In the ACA, anger is known as “emotional intoxication.”

My father attempted throughout his pre- and early teen years to shift this tendency to more healthy activities with efforts in scouting, choir, and church service, though each of these things acted as more of an escape. Two natures were at work within him – one that told him what he had was enough and to stay put, the other that he needed to leave Victoria as soon as he was able to, but at least with a high school diploma.

“There are things I have yet to put closure to.”

I believe in what my dad has felt, but I’m critical about his reasoning process and where it took him, which I don’t think he could have predicted. As an adult his own faith in the logic of his intelligence, and the conclusions they brought him to, made my mother nickname him ‘Spock.’ Indeed, Star Trek was often on the television at home, whether it was the syndicated Original Series, the 6 movies with the TOS cast on VHS, or new episodes of TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. Yet, as a child, the Star Trek character I saw most in my father was not Spock the Vulcan but Worf the Klingon. Worf is a complicated but easily flattened character in TNG and DS9. However, many episodes are centered around his chief feature – Worf is a character between cultures, between the codes of his people and his duties to Starfleet. With this came struggle and friction, and it would be true to say that my father was also angry, adopted, and like Worf, from a family that by other’s estimation, ‘lacked honor.’

Because of these and other factors, my father was distant and didn’t show much affection towards me or my accomplishments, seemed bothered and/or upset at most anything my siblings and I did and was prone to fits of anger and depression. Worf’s son Alexander, who is introduced to him about the same age as I was to my father, is so intimidated by him, whom he barely knows him when they first meet. When Alexander eventually comes to live permanently on the Enterprise-D with Worf, he has a difficult time in his new environment and is likewise angry at his father.

I was too, all my childhood, and now, reading his memoirs, I become more aware of the patterns which are passed from the father to the son when there is a true lack of attention and conscientiousness of the self and others.

Tertius Amanuensis: the preface, pt. 2

olderpete
Teen-doppelganger-me on TV: actor Michael Maronna as ‘Big Pete’ from Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete

On the carpet

I grew up on the living room carpet, whatever cheap gray or brown weave the apartment complex had installed in the 3-bed/1.5 bath five of us would occupy in the western, southern or eastern part of this country, depending on the year. Anyways, I was often on the carpet at the foot of the center of the living room: the television set with its accompanying VCR for our modest collection or video store rentals. The weave of the carpet would imprint itself into the skin of my elbows and arms, with the kernels of popcorn or shells of sunflower seeds or whatever else detritus sticking to me falling away when I got up after hours of the tube. When we spent time together as a family, it was either in one of three places – at Sunday service, our dining room table, or in front of the television. I wonder if everyone else in the family would agree, if Bob has written about this later in his memoir, but to my memory, gazing up at the images of the TV set together were some of the most peaceful and civil moments we shared as a family…

Anyhow, Tertius here reporting that I’ve finished transcribing the preface – at least that’s what I take it to be. My father (I’ll use this term when writing about the voice in the text – I’ll use Bob when reflecting on him as a writer of the text) explicitly states in the opening paragraphs of his memoir that the main “takeaways” he’d like a reader to receive at the end of his story are the following, and I quote:

  1. There were certain skills lacking in this boy’s upbringing
  2. His social environment would not only cause him to insulate from others while trying to reach out in normal and age-appropriate ways, and
  3. Part of his normal response to his environment, given his lacking set of skills, would be to do things to make him think more highly of himself

If you re-read these takeaways, as I keep doing so, you’ll begin to get a preliminary sense of the intentions behind writing this memoir – not to leave the story of a man, but of a boy; not an opening out, but an insulation; not what was gained in life, but what was lacking. Lastly, what Bob even writes on the same page (still in the third-person), is that it’s about things he has done to “think more highly of himself.” He admits it is the consensus of psych professionals that these tendencies are “borderline narcissistic” – the ego’s defensive result of “the amount of people who kept trying to destroy me.” For the record, Bob does have three mental diagnoses, but to those who know the whole story (the psych professionals do not) are paraphrased as saying “It’s a pure miracle that you’re still alive!” and on later pages of the preface, gives the explanation that “I had to lie to myself to maintain enough psychological subtlety to not kill myself at an early age.”

Spurs dug into me when I first read the sentence which begins “In the words of the few people who know my whole story…” I frantically searched my mind but found I have no idea who these people are. I thought maybe that I was one of those people, but as I continue to transcribe, I am beginning to have my doubts. Perhaps my sister, who is eager to read this work and could clarify what is cloudy. Growing up with Bob was complicated because so many of the stories he told he told so often, often enough that you began to believe that they really happened. When I was a teenager he admitted that many of the stories he told didn’t happen to him, that they had “sounded better told in the first person.” A shock, but not a surprising one. Don’t we all fashion ourselves and embellish with vanity and pride the aura which we project socially? Except, this was a family member, the man whose name I bore, but one who became more of a stranger.

Even before this revelation, which at the time made me angry and confused, there was a shroud over his past. We learned the essential things early on from our mother and grandparents: he had been married before, he was adopted, he was a convert, and he was disowned because of his conversion to become a Saint. There was a kind of admiration in this which needed to be paid to him, that he felt needed to be paid to him, a respect which my brother and I were hard pressed to show. Later we learned from him that he had lived through several kinds of abuse, grave misunderstandings, subtle coercion or trickery, a kind of spiritual injustice, the sins of the father, etc. – in short, he had suffered. These were harder to show respect to because it involved too much pity and sorrow. Even with these new facts it was difficult to know the truth about Bob. I’m not sure I’ll even get the truth about him from this memoir.

The preface tracks his life from birth, adoption, early years in Victoria, to the end of his time at the elementary school he attended at Trinity Episcopal, ending at fifth grade. According to the U.S. Census from 1960, Victoria had a population of 33,047 people and was considered an urban place. His family attended, or were affiliated with, Northside Baptist, and this difference in religion taught at school v. religion taught at home is sharply contrasted – indeed, my father converted two more times in his life, baptized again into a non-denominational church, then confirmed a Catholic (He now attends another non-denominational church in Portland). It’s curious that he doesn’t mention his father’s occupation, owner/operator of the now defunct Red Bird Hot Shot Service, an out-of-normal delivery hours trucking company. He doesn’t mention his brother’s name, which is understandable considering the abuse he endured from that also adopted son. But he also leaves out mentioning one of his sisters entirely, and doesn’t say anything about both of them being intellectually disabled, the blood progeny of his parents – the very reason why they adopted him and his brother.

What isn’t there, what is lacking – perhaps this is what makes a person who they are. Conditions are key factors: the woman’s health who birthed you, the family you grow up in, the community you are a part of; the losses however, leave places that need filling. My father appeals to God, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to “open my memory to completeness” and that by the time he is finished with this project he will “either be a pastor and trying to fulfill my life’s calling or dead.”

The last pages will be mailed to me soon, and we are still talking over the phone.

Tertius Amanuensis: the preface, pt. 1

Screenshot 2015-04-11 16.00.14
My father, leaning in the foreground, as an extra in the 1994 TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

You don’t have to do this

The above was said with love by the two women closest to me and this project, my partner and my mother. They meant well – they would like to save me the taxing emotional work and efforts in time & energy that this project will cost. I’m choosing to do it anyway, based upon what I define as obligatory, believing obligations are not always dissimilar from the responsibilities incumbent upon us as members of a community, or a workplace, or a family. Sometimes they are different, and in that case, yes lover, and yes mother, they don’t have to be done. One can choose to accept it or not accept it. For good reason though, I feel that this project both is and is not my choice. It’s an obligation I have no choice about but also, a responsibility I choose to accept.

This project began after a few phone calls lead to a manila envelope of loose pages arriving in my mailbox in the late fall of 2019. It had six forever stamps in the top right corner, each bearing the word “CELEBRATE” among balloons that were brightly contrasted against its black rectangular background. After another, thicker, envelope arriving just before the unprecedented virus-related interruption of all our regular day-to-day activities and work lives, I am now continuing into the spring of 2020 after having completely transcribed the first envelope’s contents.

Compared to planning lessons for six sections of high school English, co-creating a presentation on the changing ELA standards in NY state, or attending multiple weekly team meetings, this is relatively simple work – being an amanuensis. I spend an hour here and there away from my life situation and those aforementioned responsibilities to sit at a desk, slowly turning over sheets from yellow legal pads numbered at the top left corner in a ragged scrawl, typing the deciphered script into a file on an aging laptop. This project holds no payment at the end – it’s not business, but personal. I’m working to transcribe my father’s memoir, a memoir he has entitled:

A Seemingly Wasted Life

My father has planned this project for at least the last decade, a decade in which his health has gradually worsened from strokes, heart attacks, sepsis, and amputations. Feeling the reality of his mortality, and following his 60th birthday last year, he began to speak seriously during our phone calls from his nursing home in Portland, Oregon about the memoir. This precipitated an exchange between us, and last week, a little over a year since he began writing, he’s said that writing has finished and he will send the third and final envelope soon. In fact, he sends me the only copies in existence of his story across the country to my current home in upstate New York, entrusting to the US Postal Service, and then to me. The story of his life figuratively and literally spans the continent – a story that as I read and transcribe will soon include his story of my childhood.

Knowing this complicates the role I’m playing as Tertius of Iconium to his Paul the Apostle. I am not writing down an epistle to the Romans, but also, Paul wasn’t Tertius’s father – at least not biologically – but nor is my father my biological one.

I should explain: I met my father when I was three or four, my brother was a toddler, and my mother was recently divorced. We were all living under the protection of her parents in her childhood home on Lake Ripple in Grafton, Massachusetts. My mother was depressed but seeking, seeking a father for her sons, seeking a love that would last. My grandparents in kind were looking for a new husband for their daughter, and the church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – had the same faith-based reason to search as my grandparents: families are forever, therefore if fractured they need to be made whole. When they married, both had had previous marriages, and so once they were wed they were committed to making their second one work.

My biological father was not a native New Englander, nor is my father. I remember my father as a man of stature and girth, a Texas Goliath of red hair and freckles, a loud man, a man of strong opinion, of sharp intelligence, and much more I didn’t perceive until I grew up and began to see him as an equal. I have no memory of my biological one, but I must have had some impression of the man who I had first beheld, coming out of the womb with eyes wide open. Perhaps a remnant of him was there when I met the man who was to become my father, who began to spend more time with us sitting in the pews at church, then at home at the dinner table. Before forging a relationship with my father as an adult, we had great difficulties as father and son, and I expect to see that reflected in his writing. However, I could also be surprised – the clarity of memories are often as a frosted glass: somewhat transparent and somewhat opaque.

Amanuensis

This word has Latin roots, Roman, meaning “within hand’s reach” – which I cannot be present for my father, except through his manuscripts, and by our connection maintained over the phone. He mentions the Romans and early Christians so much in his preface, it would be a mistake not to mention them here in my own, what I hope to be a record of this journey as his amanuensis, and a reflection on his faith, his memories, and his life. My next post will be a reflection on the preface, which has been completely transcribed, awaiting corrections and clarifications from Bob, my dad.

Guest Post at the Bard MAT Blog

Molly Albrecht of the Bard MAT program invited me to write a guest post at their Voices From the Classroom blog on my “why” – why I teach, what gets me out of bed in the morning, and keeps me in the classroom as a new teacher.

During a long-weekend reflection and needed break from beginning my second year of teaching, I ventured to NYC to attend a staging of Peter Brook’s new play (ironically titled Why?), and began to compose the following upon my return:

https://blogs.bard.edu/mat/2019/11/06/a-bard-mat-alumnus-shares-his-why/

Instagram and Poetry Month

This past April was National Poetry Month, as it has been every year in the U.S. since 1996. While I do sympathize in some part with the quiet criticisms of the celebration, a somewhat trivial designation for the public’s attention to turn toward poetry (the point being that after you’ve taken brief notice of the fact of its existence you can then continue with your general neglect of poetry), I decided to say Bernstein be damned and take on a reflective self-challenge.

I wrote a poem each day this April and posted it to my Instagram feed (not too far of a scroll away). Being my birth month, I associate the Spring and the re-awakening of the earth in this hemisphere with creative activity. But never have I forced myself to compose one poem, each day, for a month, as if I were manually breaking open seeds and thrusting them through to the surface prematurely. Most took in some light (and likes) amidst all the visual splendor of that medium. After week one I gained a steady pace of alternating between writing and posting, then took time to peruse the other poets at work through the convenience of Instagram’s self-making engine.

What I found was a strange mix. There was certainly cobwebs-upon-cobwebs of cliched and tired metaphors applauded with fan hearts and digital accolades, but there were also some authentic voices stringing together solid and resounding verse. In some cases, poets in either camp are making the leap from the app to bookstore shelves. My old employer of West Coast indie fame, Powell’s Books, has collected a number of such authors for your interest and support with handheld yet plug-less reading. Mostly self-published at first, these poets have made the successful transition to authors-with-contracts by the proving ground of Instagram – which saves the publisher most, if not all, publicity and marketing expenses upon the volume’s release.

Has this made poetry a well-read form again, as it once was in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century? Probably not as it once was, and perhaps “well-read” is a generous and not altogether substantial statement. The scrolling must continue on Instagram, indeed, it feeds off such motion which your twitching digits reinforce. What seemed so noble or profound in scant lines once jammed between the colorful plate of food before, and the glorious body come after, may not hold for much longer with its own spine. These are not uncharted waters, but the fog of short attention is always rolling in to obscure our appreciation of the beautiful, and the trash, alike. My only advice would be to read with a critical eye, not just for pleasure.

From One Equinox to Another

Now that autumn has arrived (this very night full of the cool breezes and beads of soft rain that wash away the heat and bear away the humidity), I am posting a piece that I attempted to shop around to various local journals and magazines when the spring equinox was upon us here in upstate New York. It is entitled “The Swifts of Spring” and was finished in late May of this year:

The night sky begins to pale toward morning. There is a bright chatter that rises up before the sun. It wakes you in the still yellowy night, lit only by a few streetlights. In the alley below, an exhausted and tearful weeping sounds over a deep but impotent protest. It’s the playing out of a lover’s quarrel, the current theme set to birdsong above the village streets an hour before dawn. Their voices soon fade away as night diminishes and I roll back over into the short dream before coffee.

I’m no birdwatcher but as I acquaint myself with my new home of Catskill, I watch on Main Street the arcs and lines of birds with the daily trails made by my fellow residents below going into Catskill Grocery & News for coffee, smokes and scratch-its; strolling between the Greene County courthouse and the county offices; working out to Zumba music from the open door of the Community Center; heading into the Community Theater for the latest Captain America film or out of Kirwan’s Game Store for fresh air. Weekenders from the city also trounce the sidewalks, and a part of me feels as if my partner and I’s move is just as transitory as their visit. However, we both know this is now home and these residents, our community.

From creekside to the tombstones at the top of the hill, across the variously stormy and sunny skies, the village now has a rarer visitor. Since the first two weeks of May, twenty or more migratory Chimney swifts have been sighted. Swifts are exceptional creatures and commit their energy to an almost totally airborne life. They eat, mate, and do everything but sleep in the air, having no ability to perch like most common birds. In fact, they are in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, meaning “footless” in Greek. Since leaving their wintering homes in South America, their high-pitched squeaks and chirps have been lilting overhead.

How much envy has greened our race for ages while admiring the flight of birds. Whereas a bird would use a crease in the ripple of a wind to bank or roll its body further along its course of flight, we clumsily trip on the edge of a slightly upturned sidewalk block. Some of us drag our feet while walking – I myself have an odd ‘duck-footed’ gait that reveals itself slowly in the wearing down of the backside of my heels. We feel the rule of gravity’s kingdom on our shoulders and try our best to straighten the somewhat crooked sway of our travelings. It’s no wonder that birds were imitated for a good many centuries by would-be aviators before we had to figure out our own means of catching the air.

(As an interlude, I scribbled the following poem while musing on this phenomenal influence:

Aviators

You have to admire

The stapled wings of foolish inventors

As much as the quilled designs

Of Leonardo –

Both inspired by the grace of birds

As much as – or more than,

The mechanics of flight

It’s now the breeding season. Chimney swifts make nests of twigs which are glued together using their own saliva, holding their clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. In the early morning the other birds of this village, the house sparrows, starlings, and purple finches, keep their nests in the slightly open cracks between cornice and gutter or among the now greening vines along the side of the old Oren’s building. The making of nests is in the nature of all birds, from the complexity of the bower to the simplicity of the penguin. For the benefit of the swifts, Catskill features many chimneys from the 19th century that no longer hold flames. It seems fitting with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s new studio and exhibit on the painter’s architectural designs that the swifts are making new use of our old brick. For local historians, this could be a point of pride in a town once known for its industrious brickyards.

I’m uncertain how long the swifts will be flying among us this spring. A brief bit of research shows that incubation and nesting takes a combined 40 days. And as much as I can glean from eBird.org, no sightings of Chimney swifts have been recorded in Catskill in the last decade. It makes one wonder at their being here, soot-dusted and gulping down great amounts of insects each day, to return at sunset to a few chimneys hanging in the air. If you live in this village or are visiting in the next few weeks, observe their grace while you can.

I hope more than a few of us took in the sight of their arching flights. There was ample time and number, as by the close of August more than 40 were in the undulating groups of parents and their brood before taking flight from Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties and number of other towns and villages in the area. Soon after they left, a legion of spiders soon filled the insect-eating vacuum left by the swifts and populated the streetlight, windows and facade of my building along Main St. to a creepy extant.

Weekend/ers

Sitting on the windowsill of another blooming summer day, Saturday opens its arms up to the weekenders in Catskill. The unhurried pace of parents or grandparents and their younger brood cast hovering shadows on the sidewalks. The shuffling of shoe soles halt for a moment with a quick look into the Exchange House space on Main Street. The owner is putting out some bikes, plants, chairs, and speaks a little to the visitors. It’s midday and the sun has already warmed the once cooler breezes of the morning. The trees which are maintained by Cultivate Catskill are briefly animated. Our visitors don’t seem to mind much at all beneath their large sun hats and baseball caps and after nodding the small business owner away, the attractive cool of The General Store of Catskill draws them inside. Further along our historic downtown strip lined with gaudy cat sculptures that merit a photo or two and a laugh, they disappear out of sight and return to their cars.

And then the week comes  – and with it, its relative peace and quiet. This is the gentle ebb I appreciate the most: slow enough to almost watch the plants grow. When you walk into a local pub after a day of work, you know who is here. We visit one another with the aim of burning some time away during long shifts and running errands. Small business owners, county office workers, police officers and locals strolling or sharing some shade, a cigarette, a little advice or a bit of gossip, create and augment the atmosphere of Catskill without its gawkers and gift buyers. With the farmers market on Friday evening, the whole cycle is begun again. Music from Carmen and Alison of Jumbo Bungalow emanates from the event to kick off a new summer weekend and lure citizens and visitors to the tables setup by farmers like Carol Clement of Heather Ridge Farm. Those who are willing to meet you and ask your name and get a sense of who you are, might be the very neighbor you live down the street from. We all have a tendency to self-isolate in our rigid routines, but opportunities abound when the weekend arrives. This double action, of the visitors coming in and the locals coming out, seems to grant us some kind of balance in a very, very chaotic country.

Looking to Age

DonaldHallSlider

I read the paperback edition of Donald Hall’s 2014 book, Essays After Eighty, within the last few weeks of 2015. A reading list was compiled during that summer, which didn’t include this newest of Hall’s publications. As happens with summer reading lists, it promptly extended itself into the fall and winter. More than a few titles from last year are now due to be held this summer in my hands, with morning coffee nearby or propped upon my lap before bed. However with Hall’s book I felt an urgency to take in his voice on the page immediately. It was also an unexpected purchase, and as I heard no complaint from the other books in queue, I followed his literary towpath into the world of the former Poet Laureate’s native New Hampshire town and into his home at Eagle Pond Farm.

His ancient and warm voice can be heard here, if you’d like to pair sound with his prose on the page. The essays are not terribly vast in their range but are bound by the horizon line of his current locality, his bodily state and the breadth of his memories. We return again and again to the landscape of his last few decades: to the barn of his grandfather’s farm; to the local roads he looks out on from a passenger seat window while being driven to physical therapy or the airport; to his farmhouse where mice and snakes scurry and wriggle their way across the floor while he searches for his dentures. What’s unique about the perspective of Hall’s voice in this book is his humility through the advance of his years. It is both self-deprecating and appreciative of his limiting dependence and diminishing energy.

While the end of our lives are never known (except perhaps by medical diagnosis or superstitious prophecy) we are freely given mountains of advice as to how to live it. For the devout especially conservative religious we are told to repent now and strive to live without blemish or sin in our actions and thoughts – for the next life. For the hedonistic, never mind the soul – you better live it up while you’re able to function, as the body is sure to wither away. Then, there is the strange cult of fitness that is the sort of flip side of the latter: eat well, watch your diet, don’t smoke, work out, drink smoothies, etc. Even if the body is going to pass away, it ought to be in the best possible condition! And for as long as it can exist. What is most common with all these prescriptions is this: whatever you are doing with your life probably ought to be changed before you die.

We never know when we’ll divest the planet of our consciousness, but while we age the reality of this fact makes different impressions to different people, and is often dependent more on our outer practices than our inner beliefs. In his essay titled “Death” Hall proclaims, “at some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting.” Later he affirms that his activities in spite of the reality of old age are very much the same things he was doing in the middle of life – “I try not to break my neck. I write letters, I take naps, I write essays.” I was reminded of an interview by Q TV’s Jian Ghomeshi of CBC with Leonard Cohen (another brilliant human past the age of seventy) who quotes his deceased friend and poet Irving Layton that “it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.” It makes a good point about where our heads usually are – do we live life from death’s perspective with dread or see death from life’s vantage point? He later tells Jian,

Of course, everyone has to have a certain anxiety about the condition’s of one’s death-the actual circumstances, the pain involved, the effect on your heirs. But there’s so little you can do about it. It’s best to regulate those concerns to the appropriate compartments of the mind and not let them inform all your activities. We’ve got to live our lives as if they’re real, as if they’re not going to end immediately, so we have to live under those…some people might call them illusions.

 

I see in Donald Hall, Leonard Cohen (and another of my “Don’t Trust Anyone Younger Than 70” club: author, educator and essayist Marilynne Robinson) a number of great inspirations to me and others that while we are wading through life’s swampy marshes or traipsing through its golden landscapes, we will continue to fade. How we are or aren’t becoming to the inevitable is but a little difference of musculature in the face – either a tensing up to brace, or a relaxing into the pleasant smirk of acceptance.

Speaking Music

The Scotland-based transatlantic publication Dark Horse Magazine is celebrating its 20th anniversary. A recent article by former U.S. Poet Laureate Dana Gioia entitled “Poetry as Enchantment” is available to read online here. I recommend it as an example of criticism done judiciously and with consideration to the future of the craft. Mr. Gioia writes of the sense of wonder at critical invention in a poem that can be understood intuitively be a reader. This same poem can also be examined to gain working knowledge of its form and structure, as a building is examined to discover how it is held up. More often than not today our wonder is subsumed by the task of the critic, as the child is surpassed by the adult.

"Spring Song" by Simon Glucklich
“Spring Song” by Simon Glucklich

Being able to listen to a poem read out loud is something the deaf are not able to do. But poetry began as an ancient oral art requiring no physical sight but the eye of imagination. Reading a poem on the page is likewise what the blind are not able to do. Poetry today stands somewhere between the page and the air, riding the backs of linguistic symbols and launching their arrows of meaning toward the reader. Somewhere between the old and the new, the sight and the sound of a poem, is its sense, which does not seek a house of understanding in one of our five physical senses. Both the deaf and the blind encounter this sense in poetry, and for those of us with senses intact, comparisons can be made and criticism “done.”

Poetry reading doesn’t begin with the critical eye. If it does so, say in the increasingly stringent quarters of an ideologically “rich” academia, a very narrow and more often literal or linguistic reading occurs. The study and enjoyment of poetry cannot be sustained by this activity alone, nor can it be continued with it at as the helmsman. There’s something in the immediate apprehension of language made in poetry that delights the intellect and connects it to the heart and the body – perhaps, feeding our souls. Enjoy the article and if you have the time, listen to a new poem I’ve recorded for the public at my Soundcloud. Spoken word – or spoken music?