Reading Tim Seibles Poetry after Thinking of My Father

Tim,

It’s Father’s day so of course I was thinking of my dad. Then I picked up One Turn, and now I can’t figure out how right from the start I didn’t see it coming; the predictable phrasing, the expected lighthearted laugh. I read you again today, thinking of fathers, thinking of sons. I know your work. I know you know I know your work; the repetition, the subtle humor, my “this-was-my-life-too” reaction. Was it Ode to Your Father? Maybe. Or maybe Mosaic. Doesn’t matter.

I should have seen it coming.

The casual start, the familiar tones. The narrative rise, the trademark dialogue. We’ve done enough readings together for me to know better; the way you write is the way we talk at lunch at that oyster joint. I know the style the way I know the lady with the drinks is going to comment about our return, offer us menus, tell us the specials, not write down our usual order. It’s routine.

That’s what makes it work–lunch and your poems. It is familiar, like an old favorite song, and then at some point, even when I know it’s coming, something brand new happens. This last time it took two pages of standard stanzas before you made that turn, me tagging along like some newbie waiter-in-training. It reminded me of one of the many times we talked about our dads, and how tragically humorous it all was, how funny and horrific it all was, and we swapped stories until we couldn’t breathe from laughing—predictable, anticipated. Then somewhere just after she cleared the dishes and asked if we wanted dessert, you remembered his cologne, I remembered his deep-voiced “Well, hello,” and we sat a long time in silence, tried to digest the reality of it all.

That’s how your poetry works, by the way.

Always, you shift gears and make that turn, move me away from where I thought we were going. And I know you will take me there the way you always do, but I always forget, always think this time it will be different, it will stay the same. I never see it coming until it comes, and then I wonder how I never saw it coming. It’s a bent perfection, the way it makes sense in the end, the way you take us around that corner without a glance back, how you seem to let the phrasing cut loose all the while keeping it tight; and every time is the same, the way it’s always different.

When it is late like this and my head is not clear, I can’t remember if it was One Turn Around the Sun or a conversation we had at Bangkok Garden.

Like when you said sometimes he forgets what is real and what is less than real, like westerns or how tall you are. I said for me it was the lucidity, that last time, how just before the end it felt like the beginning again, and he was young and so was I, and then he let go of that consciousness and just left me there, alone, completely expecting him to stay even though I knew, I mean I knew because I saw it coming, was warned it was coming, that he had to go. Nothing prepares you for that turn, no matter how often you sit there knowing, waiting, anticipating, prepared. We had been talking about where he was and why he was there. He made a joke and we both laughed while the clock spun back two or three years. But the nurse came in like some dangling modifier, asked if he was okay, and the distance and incomprehension returned.

And I cried, just like I thought I would, and it caught me off-guard, and I left. Later, months probably, you and I talked about that, the crazy spin that happens in someone’s mind, a mind that understood math and history like they were prepositions and he was the master of all grammar; another who knew science like he was casually fielding introductory clauses. Then, for them both, one particular day was suddenly fragmented, lacking a subject. And it hurts. Man, it hurts like not knowing what to say can hurt, and I just sit there, speechless, wondering what the hell happened.

Life, Tim, right? Didn’t we decide one day that we’re all lobsters, we’re all dogs?

But, look, here on my nightstand, today of all days, is One Turn Around the Sun, in which you immortalized the old man, kept him alive, made him young again. It’s like what O’Brien said, remember? Something about how dying is like being an old book up on a library shelf, an old book no one has checked out in a while, just sitting there covered in dust waiting for someone to check you out.

Wow. Anyway, I don’t know whether to read, write, or just lay here and remember, which we decided is the first rough draft of our writing.

Yeah, anyway, Happy Father’s Day Thomas Seibles. Happy Father’s Day Dad.

Thank you, Clarity

Snoopy Typing | Snoopy And Friends Board #237313 - PNG Images - PNGio

A few weeks ago I started reading a book, The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth. I watched the series on Netflix several times and am deeply impressed by the narrative and characters. It follows the book nearly to a point, and the dialogue is almost all Tevis. I was very happy about that since I truly enjoyed the series.

One reason it worked so well is that they didn’t try and fit the book into a two-hour film, which might have forced them to make composite characters, drop scenes, and so on. The nearly seven hours of film is just about right for the book. It made me want to read the others. I will.

Last night after finishing the edits on the Siberia files my publisher sent and then organizing the gallery of my son’s pictures which will be in the middle of the book, I started writing the next one—the next book.

Okay, first of all, there is no such thing as “the next one” before publication. As far as I know, most writers have several projects going at once—even formula writers like Patterson. And right now on the shelves behind my desk are several hundred African pages, several hundred college-experience pages, two rough drafts of plays, a thumb drive with a dozen or so unfinished essays, and a stack of hand-written letters I promised myself I would finish before my birthday in three weeks, to send to friends and communicate the old fashioned way.

But in the midst of all this and inspired by having The Iron Scar moved from my computer to my lovely publisher Kim’s computer in Texas and enthralled by the deeply accessible writing of Tevis—so simple yet captivating without being predictable—I started a new project which has been simmering in my mind for months. Longer. Details come when I’m walking on the property or along the river. They are especially strong when I’m standing in line at 711, or when I’m sitting on the patio watching osprey above. I’ve been more focused lately as a result. An occupied mind has that effect.

It’s about…well, no, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to say there is one thing in particular I relate to in The Queen’s Gambit. She feels awkward in many situations, gets depressed, has high anxiety which kicks in at the most inopportune times, and has trouble making a go of it. Except when she plays chess or reads about chess; then she eases back, the knots in her stomach untie, and she can focus, her mood improves, her sense of hope returns. That’s how I get when I’m either out for a hike or working on a good project, one I am happy with anyway.

So today I wrote about six pages, which is a lot, and went for a walk to the river. It was the first walk in a while that I felt present, felt okay. I still have some serious issues to deal with, and I’m getting ready to teach an online course at the college, and I have so much yard work to do it is in itself depressing, but today, for a while when I walked at the river and a bay breeze came up over the marsh and filled my senses, I felt possible again. We spend too much time trying to fit how others define us, figure out what we “should” be doing, when the truth is we can find our greatest internal motivation when we follow the path that we know deep inside defines us. It is healthy to spend some time there, milling about.

I wonder how many people know what it is they turn to when the vice tightens, whether it be creditors or bad relationships or unemployment or terrible bosses, or simply some disturbance in the psyche. I wonder how many people can recognize what it is that might, quite literally, save them. When I worked in Massachusetts, my boss, Richard, would plead with people not to let the bad things in their lives push them toward something worse. He’d tell people that just because the relationship is unhealthy and depression has set in deep and made it hard to get out of bed, don’t throw fuel on that fire by eating junk food just to feel good as fast as possible and to falsely satisfy yourself! Don’t sit around because you are mentally exhausted, he would say. Instead, find the one thing that is healthy for you—a walk, a conversation with a friend, a book, whatever—and focus on that, focus on what makes you stronger and what you think defines you, not what others use to define you.  

I was good at doing that thirty-seven years ago. Not so much now. But today worked. Six pages, bucko! And what’s better is I know where the narrative is going next, so picking it up tomorrow (or tonight about three am when I wake like I always do), I’ll be able to dive right in.

The walls closing in didn’t stop, and sometimes, periodically throughout the day, I feel claustrophobic from the impending issues, but knowing what gives me my strength, finding that superpower and spending time there, makes the rest of it at least a little easier to handle.

Six pages! And counting!

Oh, and get this—it’s fiction.

I’m not lying.

The Fabric of Time

May be a black-and-white image of nature, tree and sky

A light rain has been falling since yesterday. Sometimes it comes down harder, other times as just a mist, but all the time it is grey, and desperately humid so that just walking across the yard when it isn’t raining my face still gets wet, my clothes damp. The wood screen door sticks when it is this humid, and the windows wet so that seeing outside is more difficult if the air conditioning runs.

I walked up the driveway earlier, and on the four hundred foot stretch I passed a box turtle which has lived at the first turn for quite some time. He was crossing the stones toward some brush between the driveway and the field. And in the field was a rabbit, nibbling on the ends of some wet weeds. The rain seems to bring everyone out. In fact, down the hill and on past the marsh to the river is a slow-driving zone right now because of all the turtles pushing themselves from one side of the road to the other.

At one of the apple trees out front a large doe chewed on some grass and then bolted her head upright, her ears forward, her tail up, when she saw me. I snuck past without her running away, and after I was inside she put her head back down to finish lunch. There aren’t that many apples on the ground yet, even though the squirrels have found them out on the branches. The apples are small, a bit larger than a golf ball, and green. In a few weeks they’ll be large enough for some of the weaker ones to fall to the ground and the deer will have at them, if the squirrels haven’t worked their way through them yet. I’m not counting on any for myself—I’ll head to the Great Value in the village for some Macintosh; squirrels hardly ever get into Great Value.

But to the rain: I’m glad for it, not solely because it helps the weeds I like to call the front lawn, but the flowers, the garden, the herbs, all could use a good steady soaking, but also because I can work at my desk on overdue and newly started projects. I have had a few essays waiting for final edits just sitting here, and I got them done today, and my son and I are going through the Siberian pictures to find a few dozen which will end up in the middle of the book scheduled for release in a year. Now is the time, though, when it is raining, and now those are ready to be sent. Those who know me well can watch it rain and know I must finally be getting something done.

The issue, though, is when it is not raining, no matter the temperature, I do not have enough discipline most of the time to sit and get the work done; I must be outside. It is my addiction, and I’ll leave the pile of work no matter how well it is going for a hit of some sunshine anytime. Usually after I’ve had my fix I can sit back down, but not right away as I mosey about the property or down the hill to the river to watch the gulls and osprey. There is certainly something timeless about them, perhaps since I’ve watched their peaceful and engaging flights since I’m a child, and doing so feels eternal, like if I concentrate hard enough, it could be just about any time I want it to be.

Ironically, the same thing happens at my desk. One essay before me now concerns an evening walk in Norway some twenty-five years ago, and when I am engaged in the pages I am nowhere to be found in 2021; the miraculous transporting quality of narrative and place eradicates all other references, all other intrusions, so that it is quite actually then and there for me. I love that fluidness of writing; it is how I know something is working. It is not unlike being engaged in a book and losing track of time and place, or the “virtual reality” as Susan Langer defined it in the 1940s that happens in theatre or cinema, when our own reality evaporates and is temporarily replaced by whatever reality the writers, directors, actors, and cinematographers want our reality to be. For me, today, I’m just north of Bodo, Norway, on a snow-covered trail at 4am, just me and my colleague Joe, and ahead of us a moose crosses the trail, and above us bands of green borealis bounce so it seems we can touch them. When I sit back in my chair, it can take a few seconds to return to the here and now. That’s the miracle of time travel that somehow circumvents Einstein’s premise—writers have been doing it for centuries.

Or, instead, when the clouds break,

I go outside and walk down the hill to the river, and the constant that is nature teases me into other times, some here, some in other states, even other countries I have been, and I am able to come closer to who I truly am, the one no one knows, and only one or two have ever met, because it is the ultimate form of “you had to be there.”

Today, here and now, the deer is still lunching on the tall, wet weeds, and I’m sure up on the field so is the rabbit. Above me on the skylight the rain is steady, and the sky grey, and on days like this I can set aside my addiction and get some work done. For now.

May be an image of nature and body of water

JT Williams

For almost twenty of my thirty years at my former college, I shared a small office (F-138, a piece I’ve yet to write simply out of respect) with poet and friend, Tom Williams. Oh I have stories from that cinderblock wilderness office that many believed was the collegiate equivalent of MASH’s “swamp,” but that is not where the real stories can be found.

Through the years, we traveled together to participate in readings throughout the eastern United States. A lot. And there were times, I tell you, oh my there were times…

Like…

…our first conference in Atlanta, just weeks after 911, and W was going to be in town at the same time. On the drive down at one of the countless times through the years that Tom insisted we stop at Cracker Barrell, he mentioned he simply wasn’t crazy about heights…after eight years in F-138 together you would think he would know better than to share that information with me. We arrived at the tall, round hotel on Peachtree Street. Tom parked the state car while I checked us in.

Clerk: I have you in a double room on the fifth floor.

Me: Really? Is there a mistake?

Clerk: Why?

Me: When I made the reservation months ago I requested the highest floor possible. They said they would mark it because of my fear of being too close to the ground.

Clerk: We have one on the 34th floor, is that okay?

Me: Perfect

Clerk: The glass elevators are right over there and on the way up you can see the entire city. Have a good day!

Tom did stand against the floor to ceiling window for a picture and outside we could see the presidential caravan moving through the streets. Very cool.

It was there we discovered fried pickles, and it was also there the editors of Southern Humanities Review sat at our table for dinner and thought Tom was the waiter taking a break.

Then, of course, Cortland, NY, where we met a man who would become a lifelong friend, Robert Miltner, but also where we drove to find the Book Barns—four barns filled with books owned by a man named Vlad. On the way we passed Dave’s Fried Fish Shack, which we later visited. We arrived at the barns to find the owner outside peeing on a tree. He kept his money in a cigar box, and knew where any author was upon request, despite literally hundreds of thousands of books.

But then on Sunday we discovered there is nothing—nothing, nothing-to do in Cortland, New York, on a Sunday, so we went to a tavern where the tender gave us both our draft beers at noon—dollar a piece, and said, “You guys want some Zitis?”

“Um, well,,”

“It’s free. Italian place across the street gives us a huge pot every Sunday.”

So he brought us two huge bowls of “zitis” covered in homemade sauce, fresh garlic bread, parmesan cheese, and with the two beers it all came to $2. Plus a cute black lab wandered around the bar sitting on everyone’s feet. Nice day.

Baltimore, where we met Baby, more commonly known as poet Karen Head, and where we met a young Nelson Demery who was at one of the readings, gave Karen her moniker, Baby, and said to the three of us, “I’m thinking of changing my name to Jericho Brown, what do you think?” Nice guy. Really good poet.

Huntsville, Alabama, was fine, quiet, uneventful, until we went for a drive, passed the Top Hat Barbeque and knew immediately we had to eat there and that if we had car problems surely one of the eighty-five tow trucks would help us out, and where we turned and turned and turned until we crested a hill in horse country and saw a citadel known as Mother Angelica’s EWTN Studios, which looks like Oz, a huge walled complex.

Dozens of other trips through the years from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, where we went into a toy store so I could buy my then infant son a gift and I asked the girl at the counter where a good place to go out that night might be.

“Well, there’s Joe’s Bar and Dead Zoo.”

We both looked up at her.

Joe was a hunter in the early nineteen hundred’s, and he owned this bar and turned it into a veritable museum of some of the once-greatest animals in the world—including an elephant, lions, and more. Plus, shuttle games and duck bowling.

And of course St Petersburg, Russia, where Tom came in second place for “best questions of the trip.” Sitting at lunch he looked up from his soup and said, “Hey Bob, what is the difference between hot and cold Borsch?” To his credit, before I had a chance to respond, he put up his finger and said, “okay, that’s not what I meant.” (Number one was in the Field of Mars when a woman asked me, “What are the hours they keep on the eternal flame?”)

I miss those days, a lot. Not the college, or just about all of the people I ever met there. But Tom and our journeys.

Like the time at the Jewish Mother when I was reading with Tim Seibles, but Tim got lost so while waiting, Tom got up and spontaneously created poems that kept everyone’s attention.

Or the time he couldn’t be at a reading in Norfolk, Virginia, so Tim came in his stead, but Tom’s daughters where there, both under ten at the time, and before Tim was going to read a poem that dealt heavily in sex and language, he asked me on the side, “Is it okay? I see some kid’s here tonight,” and I said, “They’re Tom Williams’ daughters,” and Tim said, “Oh! Okay, they’ve probably already heard this one then.”

Or the time he ran into my mom and dad on Amtrak and talked to them all the way to DC.

Or the time we went to Ashville and found a raw bar with really really tainted oysters. That was a long drive home.

Or when he came to my parent’s home to help my dad cut a branch off of a tree leaning out over the river, and Tom couldn’t stop laughing, saying, “Your Dad sounds just like Dustin Hoffman.”

Or when for my last class I ever taught at that college—advanced Creative Writing, Tom came in and read some work, and helped me finish that three-decade gig just right.

What’s next Tommy Two? What’s next?

May be an image of 1 person, standing and indoor
Tom and Me in my very last class

Knowing How Way Leads onto Way

Peter Trimbacher’s Castle

Long story short: I was supposed to go to Austria to work in an eight-hundred-year-old castle. I lived in Massachusetts at the time and met a friend, Diane, who already had contacted an Austrian, Peter Trimbacher, who owned the place. I wrote him and we started a correspondence which culminated in him asking if I wanted to tend bar at the castle and help him write his story. I bought a plane ticket and everything. We were to leave in May, so to save money, in February I moved down to Pennsylvania to live with my college roommate, Brian, and I got a job at the famous Hotel Hershey.

The next thing I knew, I had decided to not go to Austria. And if I had that moment back, that day I stood on the porch on East Chocolate Avenue, downwind from the Chocolate Kiss plant feeling sick to my stomach, thinking about my choices, I would still not go to Austria. No doubt at all. Not because everything worked out the way I had hoped it would—it didn’t—but because my decision was based upon what I felt to the bone instead of what I figured to the brain. Wow, reread that. Idealism at its best, no?

Yes. I loved those days when I could afford idealism.  

This happens in nature as well.

When I hike, I move from one trail to another almost always without forethought or contemplation. I try and stay aware of where I’m going in the grander sense, of course, so I don’t end up carving off my arm in a cave somewhere or falling off a cliff, but in the more immediate, I look down several paths a la Frost and just head one way, usually because of where it might lead but just as likely because my foot slipped and I caught my balance headed down to the left instead of the right. Whatever. Trying to predict which way to go in nature is better than another is like deciding which part of the river is best to watch run by when the currents are strong.

I have always done better without maps, without guides, when I was able to just instinctively move along, or when someone I’m with suddenly says, “Hey, let’s go this way now.” Yes. This worked when I hiked the deserts around Tucson, wandered streets in Russia, or walked aimlessly throughout Prague. In fact, Prague is an excellent example since I’ve more than a few times been lost for hours in the labyrinth they call Old Town Prague. Yet, those unanticipated hours when I thought I knew I’d be back at my apartment in the Mala Strana and drinking tea while eating strudel ended up directing me to sections of the city I never would have sought out. The Jewish Quarter with its disturbing graveyard and piles of headstones; the convent of St Agnes where a curator gave me some original stones from the foundation then a private tour of the Museum of Medieval Art; and the endless bends in the river I thought would take me home but instead led me to a group of artists sitting near what they told me was “the Hunger Wall,” and I explored the reach for hours until I came upon a small building where I sought refreshments, only to discover a cavern, now a restaurant, dating back to the fourteenth century when they stored wine there.

That’s how I travel. That’s how I make decisions when in nature, even when—sometimes especially when—I’m nowhere near nature to begin with.

But life? Oh my, well, it can be dangerous, I suppose, living on a whim, tossing everything to the breeze should the “sudden decision to make a right” turn out to be wrong. Fundamentalists will tell us there is no such thing as a “wrong” decision. But watch the Mets play—it’s not true. Many of my friends insist it is all chance. An intelligent romantic will say a solid combination of both is necessary—live life freely but have some sort of plan.

And that’s where I get into trouble. One cause of depression, at least for me, is seeing too far down the road. A few times in my life I made detailed plans only to have them crash around me, and people can get lost that way, even with the finest maps and the most detailed preparations.

Yet I agree—the whim thing can be childish. But the one thing I have actually learned from all the changes in my life these last, well, decades, is that I was not built to follow another’s lead. I have tried and it simply leaves me mentally exhausted and very confused.

Every single moment that we are alive we are in a struggle to balance our responsibilities with the urge to live fully before we die. I’m entering the fourth quarter here for God’s sake—and I just spent three years trying to find second gear again. And the truth is, after serious contemplation and a little bit of self-analysis, maybe the fundamentalists are onto something. Perhaps there is a reason I’ve been having trouble shifting gears and finding my forward motion.

In fact, you know what? I think I’ll walk from here on out. It turns out everything worked out just as it should. Always has.

Or maybe I’ll just go back to Spain. If the Camino taught me anything it was to follow my heart even if it means completely changing everything I thought was going to happen.

Oh, God! This is some shape I’m in. Thanks Jackson for the line.

Stop.

Okay, now this:

I wrote everything above this line some time ago; a simple journal entry. Jotting my thoughts down, thinking it might be a blog or an essay or, most likely, kindling on the next chilly night. But tonight I was listening to some music, trying to figure out a few things which need my immediate attention, and I worried I’d be able to handle it all, worried if I made the wrong decision—again—and the anxiety grew in direct proportion to the length of list of things I must take care of, now.

And I thought of Spain and the lessons of “simplicity” I thought I’d never forget but often do, and my heart slowed, my anxiety eased. I thought of a few friends out in the ether who know I’m here and always let me know they’re there. That’s what love is—letting others know we are here and that we know they are there.

Sometimes I get scared when I realize I’m sixty years old and still trying to figure things out as if I’m a teenager, and other times I gain my energy from that exact thought. I no longer worry about change, about gains and losses. All I have now, all we ever have now, is our ability to follow our hearts, which we know well and understand well what they want.

So I didn’t go to Austria. So what? Instead, I gained so much more.

Besides, Diane told me Trimbacher turned out to be an asshole anyway.  

Saturate before Using

blog-find-cell-phone-tower

Everyone is getting angry way too easily these days. Drivers and workers and customers, everyone. You. Me. And not just at Walmart where a little temper-tantrum from time to time is understood. Everywhere. Everyone. From leadership, opposition parties, faculty, students, police, everyone. It is as if we’ve all had way too much caffeine, or are constantly being poked, or aren’t getting enough sleep. I honestly don’t remember another time in my life when so many were so angry so much of the time.

I stopped at a light and noticed a group of people on their cellphones at a few tables at a corner pub. In cars, on the sidewalk, in the restaurant, the stores, the hallways, the offices, the entire population is on their phones. If those phones were all landlines, I thought, we would never be able to navigate the millions of miles of wires set out to trip us up. Every single human would have long telephone wires running from them to poles everywhere they went, and of course since we don’t live in a symmetrical world, the thick intrusion of wires would be like liquid, like air, like soup so thick we couldn’t walk or see or even breathe.

The light turned and I drove on, and eventually I made it to near my home, out in the country, nothing but the bay and the river and some farmland for dozens of miles in three of four directions. I could breathe, I could look out uninterrupted, I could think clearly. I could relax.

Contemplate this: Every single cell phone is searching for frequencies set out from towers, usually trying to find three towers to hook up to. And this is constant from every single active cell phone looking to hook up or already connected to the towers which transmit the information—calls, data, etc—to the destination, all the time. All the time.

Isn’t it possible our immersion in this saturated atmosphere is fucking with our mood, playing games with our attention span and anxiety level? Our blood pressure? It’s as if while sitting at a stoplight I am drowning under an invisible sea of signals and frequencies, and while it keeps me connected it makes it difficult to function. It isn’t that we are being “converted” into technology, or that technology is ruling us. No. I think it is just the mechanisms to make this all function have saturated the air, cutting off our oxygen, making us stupid.

I want to get out of my car at a stoplight and climb on the roof, or, better, climb a telephone pole to the top. But since towers are usually really tall my own refuge is to escape, to drive to where the “pavement turns to sand,” and break free from the tsunami of data.

Perhaps from some mountainside or the vista from a cliff on the bay, if we could somehow bend light to illuminate that which we can’t presently see, down in the city or other busy areas, a haze of black, or deep purple, or dust-like energy would pulsate before our eyes.

The region from central New York State to the Ohio Valley has been determined to have some of the highest levels of oxygen in the air anywhere. It is easier to breathe there, and more than a few times the regions have been rated to have some of the happiest people with the lowest rates of crime and violence.

And the cellphone reception sucks. Go take a good view in the wildness and see how calm you feel.

Coincidence? I doubt it.

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Let the Rivers Run

The Connetquot River, Long Island

The Connetquot.

The Lynnhaven.

The Allegheny.

The Rillito.

The Lualaba

The Senegal.

The Charles.

The Susquehanna.

The Neva.

The Vltava.

The Angara.

The Amur.  

The Rappahannock, where tonight I stand and think about this “first world” with its factories and interstates and rockets, and more. And I think about the “third world,” or, at least, the third world as I knew it. I have waded across rivers in both; I’ve wandered aimlessly and with purpose in both, and I have touched the extremes of elation and despair in both. Langston is an obvious muse here: I have known rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Rivers are a running theme in my life’s narrative, and I’m not certain if it is because I have always lived near one or if it is more than that. I have always been drawn to them, whether when young and my friend Eddie and I would walk the shore and push through the marsh grass and onto the duck blind near Timber Point, or at college where the river was my retreat, my refuge, and sometimes my dining hall.

There is certainly a sameness about them: the flow of water tells me where the river is shallow or deep, where the sandbar might alter the flow and current, and where the water is warm or cool. Along the shore the markings make clear what wildlife might be about, whether the slushy prints of a muskrat or the skid marks of a croc. All low tides expose crustaceans and debris caught on ancient and mysterious tree roots, and it is easier to know where to walk, when to portage. And hightides, likewise, tell of the coming weather, the movement of the moon, and the suddenly unpredictable movement of wildlife.  

The worst flooding I ever saw is a tie between the Amur in eastern Siberia, where its unprecedented height wiped out bridge tracks, and the Rillito in ’83, where we watched a house float by and the bridge of Route 19 to Mexico get wiped out, where just a week before kids played baseball on the dry bed.

The driest riverbed I experienced, however, was the Senegal, which was once so low, my friend Claire and I walked across the wide reach from Senegal to Mauritania to walk through a village there, and we barely got our feet wet. Such is drought in the third world. Such is dehydration and starvation and emigration to find a river with bounty to make a living.

I learned to canoe on the Lynnhaven, to plan the future on the Allegany, and to be a father here on the Rapp. I once wanted to canoe from Harrisburg down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake at Havre de Grace, Maryland, and down to Virginia Beach, but didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t, or I do know why but like so many of our plans and dreams, “why” we don’t do them is such an allusive thought it is difficult to say anything except “life happened,” but that is, of course, a weak response, since life was clearly already happening for a mind to imagine such adventure. Maybe, instead, simply, “You know what? I really don’t know why I didn’t do that.” In the end, I simply didn’t.

I have fallen into all of these rivers except the Neva, the Vltava, and the Charles, which I used to walk along on Sunday afternoons and watch the Harvard crew team scull along unaware. I’d walk to Harvard Square and buy breakfast and sit on a bench near the Chuck and wonder if I could paddle all the way to the Cape, and beyond the Cape to the Vineyard. I do know why I didn’t do that; it was simply a bad idea.

While I have been “in” all of these rivers save the Angara, the Amur, the Vltava, and the Charles; ironically, I’ve only swam in the Allegheny and the Rapp. I’ve fished in the Connetquot, the Lynnhaven, the Allegheny, and the Rappahannock, and from the Allegheny I’ve boiled water, dried fish in the sun, and dropped into it a stack of books so that they were all ruined, and I dried them in the sun like small fish and returned them to the library through their afterhours book drop.

I have skated on the Connetquot.

I have lost dear friends on the Allegheny and the Lualaba, and I’ve made friends on the shores of them all. I studied the Native American life who used to live along every single one of these rivers save the Neva and the Vltava, some of them I studied in more depth than others; a few to the point of absorption so that I could easily believe I lived there in another life, and perhaps I have, since even those days along the Allegheny now seem like several lifetimes ago.

The Connetquot makes me think of Eddie; the Lynnhaven my father, and also my neighbor Karen, who told me while we were deep into a late day canoe trip about a girl who had been killed by a muskrat in a canoe at Bush Gardens, and she frightened us both so much that we never paddled to shore so fast. The Allegheny and the Lualaba makes me think of Joe; the Rillito, Tom and Renee; the Charles, Linda, who, ironically, I only met briefly in Massachusetts, and not along the Charles, and I didn’t even know her there but met her again when she overheard me talking to a friend about “the Chuck” and turned around, five states away, and we had lunch at Bubbas on the Lynnhaven River. The Senegal, Claire of course, and the Susquehanna, Brian, whom I drove with more times than I can remember but not enough times—no, not nearly enough times, all along Route 22 from Harrisburg to the Allegheny on the Southern Tier of New York State.

The Neva reminds me of too many people to mention since I’ve walked the shores with so many friends and family, but mostly it reminds me of the fortitude, perseverance, and sheer will of the women of Leningrad during the Blockade during World War Two, when the Nazis bombed the city for nine hundred days, yet these women broke through the ice daily to find water and fish to sustain the troops and the children. To walk the shores of the Neva is to wade through time so that the war is always at your ankles, pulling you, and the stories of survival run up your legs and saturate your very existence.

The Vltava makes me think of Arnost whose bestselling books often include this distinctive river. It also makes me think of medieval torture methods since I’ve spent some time in that museum right on the river where they have four floors of the actual instruments used half a millennium ago, some of which were incorporated into the bridge crossing the river.

Let’s move on.

The Angara and the Amur remind me of my son, though I can add him to many others on this list except the Rillito and the Lualaba, the Vltava and the Charles, since we have traveled together to many of these locales.

And just about every night now for twenty-five years, we head down the hill to the Rappahannock River and wait for the sun to slip behind the trees upriver, behind the Norris Bridge, behind the distant Hummel Field, behind Fredericksburg at the headwaters, and behind the Blue Ridge beyond that, and the sky darkens to some royal blue, like river water, with channels of burnt orange and rust, and yellow ebbing farther west, hinting at sunrise, which, when we can of course, we catch at Stingray Point where the Chesapeake Bay and the Piankatank River gather and lift us up for the day, giving us pause, so that when we head out to face the unknown, we at least understand we do know rivers, and our souls have grown deep like the rivers.  

Sunset on the Rappahannock River, Virginia

“Dear Contributor: Pass” –The Editors

6 Mistakes That Will Get Your Short Story Rejected | Celadon Books

I sent an essay to a journal and they rejected it. This is year’s ago. Their brief note suggested they enjoyed the piece but ultimately decided to pass. It was a nice note; no one died in it. About a year later I did a reading at a conference and read that very piece, completely unchanged. After the reading, the very same editor came up and asked if the piece was available, that he loved it and would like to publish it. Not only did he do so, but the work went on to be my first essay noted by Best American Essays. The same journal with two different editors went on to publish four more works of mine, with two more going on to further recognition at BAE.

My point: publishing and rejection can be completely random. It can depend upon the particular style of the journal, or a particular editor, or even the theme of one particular edition, but it can often be equally dependent upon the caffeine intake of whoever read the work, the time of day, the weather, how much it reminds the reader of an old lover, or even whether or not the Pirates won that day. Sometimes essays and poems are rejected simply because the journal already had enough pieces for that time, and other times they’re rejected with great scrutiny and long epistles explaining all the changes that could be made for whichever other journal might publish it, though that new journal may just as easily prefer the essay in its original form.

Over the course of the last week or so I was rejected three times, accepted twice, and had three publications hit market.  So tonight after a day of septic systems and sewerage pipe repair, it seemed appropriate to think about my writing.  

Writing has taught me, finally, to trust myself and let go of my concerns and anxiety over what others think, how others perceive my decisions. In the writing world, editors can be helpful or random, can understand what they want but not what you do, or appreciate what you do but still not want it. Some like snark, some like drama, some like biting humor and some aren’t happy unless the piece sounds like it was written by some foulmouthed hack. It is essential to study the journal, to understand its history and style, its preference for length and how free one can be with language. In fact, for an editor to suggest in the rejection letter that the writer should first study the journal before submitting is so pretentious I can only assume the editors who make such suggestions don’t know their audience.

I once sent a piece to a place and it was rejected. A few days later, forgetting I submitted it there because my mind sometimes slips, resubmitted the same piece without changes to the same journal and they accepted it with great thanks. Random. I sent one piece to four different places. This isn’t unusual, but as soon as one accepts it, the writer is responsible for letting the other editors know it is no longer available.  Sometimes, though, writers forget. Oops. It helps to change the title of pieces.

I usually don’t pay attention to the comments and suggestions from readers at journals about how to change the work if they have no intention of publishing it anyway. That’s just silly. “Hey, we didn’t like your work enough to publish it but make these changes and we still have no intention of publishing it, but then you will ‘learn’ from us.” Freaks. I do not know them; I do not know their style or ability; and I may be fine with the piece as it is but need to find another journal instead. In the end, I simply need to trust myself or I will forever be second guessing myself.  However, once it is accepted, editors suggestions are welcome. Usually. Here’s something: One editor accepted my work but during the proof stage questioned one of my facts. I proposed that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” was a subtle reference to the fact that bread was too good for the masses. Editorman questioned if it actually happened. After research and discussions, I asked him to just scratch the line completely; it wasn’t that important. But instead, Editorman added the word “spurious” to the sentence, as in “According to spurious account, Marie…” I’m not kidding—I had to look it up. I turned to my friend, Tom, also a writer, and said, “That pisses me off! I wish he had just dropped the Marie Antoinette line!” Not because it wasn’t a good suggestions—it was, but because I’m not the type to use the word “spurious,” and I thought it sounded awkward with the rest of my prose. I think I had a good argument, but it was too late. So, in the four other essays that journal published, I used the word “spurious” in every one.

Writers need to humor themselves with things like this.

My favorite rejections are the simple ones. I received one which read, “Dear Bob, Pass. The Editors.”  Perfect. They don’t want it; got it. I understand. That one is crystal clear. I also once received what appeared to be a detailed rejection from a journal which mentioned my piece by name several times in the letter, and which truly made me feel they took their time and honestly wished to communicate with me. Then I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is a writer in Ohio, and she revealed she received the identical rejection from the same journal, only the name and title changed in the paragraphs. How do they expect us to take their thoughts seriously?

Last year I received a rejection from the journal which published five essays of mine, but which turned down this particular piece with the suggestion I study their prose style before considering submitting to them and that they expect their writers to read their journal before expecting to be published in it. First of all, the rejection of the essay didn’t bother me; after reevaluating the work I agree it needed much more polishing, and I have since done so and sent it out elsewhere and it has been published. The trouble I had with the thoughtless rejection was that editor’s inability to simply say no. I wanted to write back and say, “I took your suggestion and read old issues to get to know your prose style and, oh, hey, look! FIVE of my works are in there! Moron!” Instead I deleted it. I delete lots of rejections. I have one friend who adheres to the trend to tape the rejections to the wall and shoot for 100 rejections in a month or maybe in a year, I forget. I prefer to keep the negative crap out of my line of sight.  Besides, the implication the writer did not study the prose style of the journal is condescending. One writer/friend commented I might not recognize the editor is new and the prose style is no longer the same therefore the comment was valid, but that makes no sense. Then why in God’s name did they send me to old issues to study their style?

But it is the nature of rejection; I’m used to it, both socially and professionally. When the percentage of acceptances goes up, it is mostly because those essays have been rejected enough for me to rework them and then they all do well. It is a numbers game.

I know a writer who for a while every time a journal accepted one of his works, the journal subsequently folded.  

Another example: I have a close friend whose manuscript was at a publisher getting ready for publication when a new editor there decided it needed a LOT of changes; “very invasive editing suggestions,” my friend told me. Instead of making the changes he pulled the manuscript and sent it somewhere else which accepted it and published it as is. The work went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors and readers are like teachers: just because they’re qualified to get the job doesn’t mean they don’t suck at it.

I swear I once got a rejection from a journal I never sent anything to. It was like a “Snoopy” cartoon. I mean, I must have sent them something and simply forgot, but I could never find what I sent them, didn’t have an email in my sent file or a file in my Submittable account, and have nothing on my list of “works submitted” which I keep. Perhaps they just anticipated receiving crap from me and wanted to cut me off at the pass.

A writer’s history with a journal is irrelevant to acceptance. The new piece must stand on its own and it must meet the criteria for the new reading period. But that doesn’t mean the writer started from scratch when the piece was sent. It helps to mention previous successes in a cover letter, especially if some of those successes are the result of publication in that very journal. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t do this. But like a famous comedian taking the stage; the audience will give you a break and listen more intently for a few minutes, but if you don’t quickly start making them laugh, you’re outta there. A track record with a journal may get you read faster, but that’s about it. You still can’t suck. But neither should the journal treat any writer like he or she is a moron. Just read the damn thing and Pass or Accept.

I have no idea what my win/loss record is at this point. Better than the Mets I’m guessing, but really, I stopped keeping track. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly that’s because I do a fine job of rejecting my own work several times through scrutiny before I decide it is ready to head out on its own. I don’t believe writers should listen to the advice of anyone who criticizes the work unless the writer knows and trusts that person. I have a few I trust, very few. Of course, finding someone to criticize the work is as easy as finding a parent to praise it. In the end it is a waste of time trying to “improve” through blind criticism. You must know and understand and trust the person who makes suggestions. And this isn’t because these other people don’t have something beneficial to contribute; they very well may.

The list of famous rejections is out there; check it out. You’ve got to be one hell of an accomplished writer to make the list of famous rejections, and I don’t play at that level. Still, in my own little world I show up enough to understand the process pretty well, and I understand this most: my audience is me, I’m the first and most important editor, and only when I’m pleased does the work move along. I’m the primary reader, no one else. If someone finds something in what I do worthy of passing along to her or his readers, that’s tremendous, but if I’m not happy with the prose style, I probably won’t send it out; and if I am, I probably won’t change it for someone else I don’t even know. I write this for me, not you. I just hope you like it anyway.

I exaggerate, a little. Yes, I read the comments editors make and every once in a while one of those comments hangs on long enough for me to consider it. And editors, too, change their minds. I met one at a conference once who rejected a piece of mine and subsequently read it in another journal and told me he regretted passing on it—on the new reading, he saw what I was doing and really enjoyed it.

I like to think all rejection is this way: that somewhere someone who rejected me socially is thinking, “Damn, I screwed up,” sad because I’m being edited by someone else. It’s a crazy world of rejections and self-doubt. I’ve sent out more stories in one week than resumes I ever sent out in my life. I’ve been turned down by jobs but I’ve also fallen backwards into the best opportunities in my life. Writing is like that too. Some rejections force us into a new direction, and often that new direction has more meaning and purpose than the original goal.  

One more thing: There’s only one thing worse than rejection and that’s completely ignoring the work or the writer. This is true in the submission world and the reading and book signing world. If you see us sitting at a table of our books, don’t walk past because you don’t plan on buying a book. Come say hi—we’re an intensely lonely bunch of people. And besides, someone else might come over if you’re standing there and that person won’t feel pressured since I’ll be talking to you.

Listen, in the end writers write because somewhere deep inside is a deeply-seeded need to scream, “Holy Crap! Did you SEE that??!!” from some rooftop after an amazing sunset or an incredible connection with someone new, but we don’t want to get arrested. Banned, yes. But not arrested.

Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

Originally published as part of a trilogy called “Cycle” in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art, and later included in the book of flash non-fiction, Fragments, this piece has just been adopted for inclusion in a new anthology of literature sponsored by AARP.

For my father, who would have been ninety-six on the twenty-third.

Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

First of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation.

Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his Dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.

When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display. When he says he could use that new suit, a new pair of shoes, or a new whatever is new, agree. If he happens to stop in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood, there’s no need to joke; it will only emphasize he couldn’t get past a place he would never stop with his son. This time he simply couldn’t continue. Talk instead about his grandkids. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college and you saw him hours later waving to you onboard the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at Shea Stadium when you were a child. Instead, ask about the Mets and if he happened to catch the game last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.

When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”

Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in the car. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others—that he went for a walk at the mall and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”

When he can’t remember where he parked his car, ask if he parked in the usual area. He did. Sit down for a few minutes. It will come to him. There’s no need to ask probing questions like “which stores” or “what street” he was near. Just sit a while. He’ll remember. You’re not in a rush.

When you leave the mall be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the cliffs of Dover.

Don’t say “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall. He knows this as well.

The May Second Alliance

My God we were so young and unblemished, the very image of innocence.

You have to understand the times: The seventies had just ended a few months earlier; the fall of Saigon was only five years in the past, and we were brand-spanking new college students raised in an era when we were still able to remember the excitement of the late sixties, CSN, Dylan, marches, protests, and all that came with it—long hair, tie-dyed shirts (the first time around), and some sense of innocence and hope—Earth Day, Woodstock, RC Cola commercials, and Peter Max posters. And if we were not old enough to experience those cultural turning points in the country’s history, some of us had older siblings who made us aware of more than baseball cards and stickball in the street.

It is also important to know there were only a half-dozen television channels (which went off the air during the overnight hours), AM radio was king, there were only landline phones without answering machines, and every one of us—I mean everyone—spent the majority of our time outside. We were aware of the news, from Nixon to Ford to Carter; from the Beatles breakup to Disco to the advent of MTV.

Okay, some other crucial details to set this up: I went to college at a Franciscan University which is one of the core places for Franciscan studies in the world. Add to this that Thomas Merton taught there briefly just before becoming a monk (and during my freshman year, one of the librarians, Fr. Irenaeus Hirscher, would tell me stories about his friend “Fr Louis,” aka Thomas Merton), and even our orientation included video lectures by the feel-good, self-hugging likes of Leo Buscaglia. It was a place of peace, or harmony, and the priests lived on our floors (though Bonas was ranked one of the top ten drinking colleges in the country, so there’s that to include).

Is that enough imagery? You have the picture of peace and tranquility? The only thing missing was someone walking around putting flowers in everyone’s hair.

So, May 2nd, 1980

We woke that Saturday morning to the ball fields covered with tanks, military equipment, a few helicopters—a full-on display of all things ROTC. It was a day to celebrate the US Military on campuses in the form of their collegiate programs. Officers walked about in uniform, recruiting officers walked about with clipboards and smiles, and ROTC students walked about in their ROTC uniforms . This seemed to be a direct contrast to everything the college had preached. Remember, this is more than twenty years before 911, and we were already war weary. Hell, “Give Peace a Chance” was still getting regular airplay and Lennon was still alive.

I walked across campus and ran into two people: Fr. Dan Riley, a priest just back at his alma mater to live in a dorm and be a spiritual guide to students and run the ministry center—a man who remains a dear friend to this day; and an upperclassman, Lloyd Withers, who drove an antique black pick up truck. Our conversation drifted toward the display on the ballfield and how it all seemed out of place. I believe Lloyd was the first to say, “We should say something,” or something radical to that effect. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We should say something. Wow! Suddenly I felt like I was in college for real! I was about to become part of a new movement. Fr. Dan agreed with Lloyd and eventually we talked about how the military should not be a presence on a Franciscan campus, and how it contradicts everything St Francis and St Bonaventure stood for. I stood there saying “Exactly!” having never read a word of either one of them, but just figuring Fr knew what he was talking about. A few other students joined the conversation and since Fr is a tall man with a deep, hearty laugh, when people saw or heard him back then, they drifted in. One thing led to another, and someone showed up with a hand-held speaker with a microphone.

Fr said, “Bob, go get your guitar.” Lloyd said, “I’ll get my truck.”

Within thirty minutes a dozen or more of us stood on or around the back of Lloyd’s truck chanting something like, “No ROTC at Bonas!” or something else that most likely rhymed as those things are apt to do. Fr read passages from St Francis and the gospel, and in between his readings I played “Teach your Children” and everyone around sang together. A crowd formed. I switched to “For What it’s Worth” and more people came. Fr. read. People sang.

Someone took pictures. Note: there were no cameras other than, you know, cameras, and on that particular day the only one walking around with one was a newspaper man from the Olean Times Herald in town. Then local artist and teacher and friend Cole Young came by and played “Working Class Hero.” I joined him on the truck as we switched to “Give Peace a Chance,” and a movement had begun. This was going to be big.

During a break the photographer came over and talked to Fr and Lloyd. He asked why we were doing this, and our general consensus was that we were not at all against ROTC or the military, of course, but found its blatant display on a Franciscan campus out of place. He asked what we called “this alliance of yours.” Lloyd looked at me and asked, “What’s today?” I said, “May 2nd.”

“We call ourselves ‘The May Second Alliance,’” Lloyd answered, and I immediately envisioned t-shirts, posters, an office in the student center. Maybe a compilation album. Definitely more press.

After the military and the students and the “protesters” all dispersed, we stood around and talked for a bit, and on May 3rd, we all got up and went about our business. I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning it again other than when the article came out in the newspaper, and I wondered, or today I’d like to think that back then I wondered if all movements started like this—excitement, motivation, purpose, the definition of Margaret Mead’s decree that the world is most often changed by the efforts of a small group of people. And what separates us from those that we remember for their longevity and influence are the ones who woke up on the following morning and kept talking, kept at keeping at it until progress was made. Not only do I not remember if any talk of the contrast of Franciscan values and military power made it to the administration building, I’m not completely sure I even cared. It wasn’t my thing, really. I’d like to believe that when the article came out, then President Fr Mathias Doyle and Vice President Fr James Toal at the very least talked about it, but, honestly, whatever.

It was suddenly the 80’s and the new decade brought with it other ambitions for me to become passionate about.

But I do know that on that day I knew that’s what being in college should feel like. Raw emotion fueling a hopeless cause with just enough authority to make us feel like we had a voice, and I’m sure that Fr. Dan knew that, and was playing his part for us, helping us find our own voices as he preached into the mic.

Teach your children, indeed.

Pin on Thomas Merton Conference 2014
“Merton’s Heart” in the distance, where he would go work in his journal, overlooking the ballfields of campus