Flight

My son and I sat on a jetty in the Potomac River at Westmoreland State Park taking a break during a hike. The sun was strong and the water still, and the sky so clear the horizon out on the Chesapeake faded to something like royal blue. We had walked sandy trails on hilly terrain for a few hours, through seagrass and hardwoods, and ended at a retreat area where a man fished for spot and talked about not catching anything, though he clearly understood Thoreau’s decree that “many men go fishing all their lives not knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

We climbed further along the rocks to the end, and we rested there for quite some time and talked about nothing, about other places up the Potomac to hike, about art and writing, and about how we were surrounded by some of the most picturesque scenery we had seen in some time, and I laughed at how my photographer son neglected to bring a camera. We laughed a bit and turned toward the river where gulls and a late-season osprey had been feeding about fifty yards out.

Just then from the east an adult bald eagle swept down in what I swear seemed like slow motion, and as the gulls and osprey flew off, the eagle grabbed a fish out of the water with  his talons, swept back on high in perfect grace, and glided up toward the top of some hundred feet tall trees just to our right, where another eagle had been circling, and they both landed on neighboring branches. It was a scene from some nature show, a National Geographic special. It was one of those moments Sartre said can “hang in empty space like a diamond,” one in which you brainlessly repeat “Did you see that?” and then sit in silence hoping somehow to slow the whole thing down.

Incredibly and beautifully simple: An eagle glided in slow motion in front of us, grabbed a fish, glided off to the east and up into a tree nearby where another waited to dine. A basic act repeated by all birds of prey everywhere, every day, but this time we sat on the rocks jettying into the Potomac and almost could feel the push of wind from his wings the way John Muir wrote that “the winds will blow their own freshness into you…while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

I never asked the fisherman if he saw the eagles. I’m certain he sees them every day, again and again. He sees them.

We’ve done our share of hiking, of seeing wildlife and wild places. While these times of Covid have somehow careened our lives back onto the same path for awhile, we have hiked our share of wilderness long before this age of corona. We climbed the hills north of Irkutsk at Lake Baikal up to Chersky’s Rock and stared out through the misty afternoon across eastern Siberia, which Chekhov wrote is a place he would prefer never to leave. We walked almost entirely uphill for twenty miles in one day out of southern France into the Pyrenees and then another four weeks across Spain to the Atlantic, wandering through villages and walled, medieval cities, desert-like terrain, and pasture after pasture.

But through the years it has always been the Chesapeake region, my adopted home and Michael’s birthplace, that we’ve trekked. And at the heart of it all has always been the walk from our home to the river. We’ve seen enough sunsets on the Rappahannock to chronicle two decades of life here, and we’ve risen early to see our share of sunrises surfacing across the bay from Stingray Point.

France. Spain. Russia. Even eastern Quebec when he was young and we’d hike the hills behind Montmorency Falls, and in all of these, the locale, while beautiful and unforgettable, and even transformative as a good walk should be, was never the point of the matter. It was the silence, the understanding that the hike in the hills is more of a way to find ourselves and what grounds us than to discover any new paths there may be. To know nature, as those before—the Cossacks, the Celts, the Mohawks, and the Powhatans—understood nature, the rivers and wildlife; that’s what runs under the surface, weaves itself seamlessly into our narrative.

When I first spent a winter to build our home up in these woods I call “Aerie,” which is a hawk’s or eagle’s nest, I would take breaks and walk to the river. One time I returned, not long after the logs for the home had been stacked and the frame for the second floor completed, but the roof was not yet done, I wandered down the long winding driveway and saw an eagle perched on the gable. I stopped in the dead-still chill of that February day and watched him clean his feathers for a minute until he was aware of my presence. He looked back at me without moving for more than a moment, as if he had been waiting for me to get back from the water so he could welcome me home. Then he glided off the roof with barely a twitch of his wings and headed out over the trees toward the bay.

It’s a wonder that I will never tire of, the way he sits just watching, out on the edge of the rocks, taking it all in, so very aware, and then always before I am ready, he lifts himself up, pushes time behind him, pushes memories and happenings, and everything we know behind him to glide out on his own and see what’s out there.

If By Chance

Man Holding A Watch In The Hands Before To Put It On. Stock Image - Image  of black, human: 99245885

This is all absolutely true.

Many years ago a friend of mine gave me a present of a visit to a fortune teller in Virginia Beach. I’d never been to one and wasn’t going to diss the idea since I agreed with Jung who said he would “not commit the fashionable stupidity as regarding everything I can’t explain as fraud,” but she had been to one and said I just had to go, so she arranged for me to see this woman. I agreed because our friendship was already solidified by what we both decided had to be fate, that is, it was only a friendship but one which repeatedly was thrown together against odds.

I met Linda first at a CVS in Massachusetts when I lived there, and another friend passing through stopped and needed to buy items at a drug store. While she looked around I talked to the clerk who only later I realized must have thought I was hitting on her while who she thought was my girlfriend, who wasn’t, was down another isle. I left thinking how rude CVS clerks were. A few years later My friend Richard and I were at The Beamen Tavern in the same town having a beer when a server brought us popcorn and she looked familiar. Yeah, it was the same Linda and we laughed at the CVS incident, which she remembered. Anyway, end of that chapter. I moved to Pennsylvania; years pass. I move to Virginia Beach; years and years pass.

I returned from a trip to Russia and a local newspaper sent a reporter to do a story about my teaching at the university in St Petersburg. We were fifteen minutes into the interview in my office when I said she looked familiar and I asked where she was from, and it was indeed the rude CVS, popcorn delivering girl. We laughed and talked about Massachusetts and what she was doing in Virginia Beach (military fiancé) and she left and said we’d have to get coffee sometime and we didn’t; years pass.

My officemate Tom and I were standing in a hallway at Old Dominion University waiting for our first MFA class in creative writing and I read a poster on the wall about the ODU crew team. I said that the last time I had seen a crew team is when I would go for Saturday walks “along the Chuck,” knowing Tom would get the reference since he, too, had once lived near Boston. A woman behind him turned around and said, “You guys must be from Boston; no one else would know to call The Charles River “the Chuck.”

It was the rude CVS, popcorn delivering, newspaper reporter woman from West Boylston, Massachusetts—Linda. This time we had coffee. We got along tremendously and we laughed at the thin line between coincidence and serendipity, and I pointed out that Georges Braque said that the only valuable things in life are those we can’t explain, and a year or two later, just before moving back to Massachusetts for good and getting married, she told me she had been to a fortune teller at the Beach who nailed so much of this and I just had to go so she bought for me a gift certificate and made an appointment.

So I went. This woman’s place was like something out of a Gary Larson cartoon: beads everywhere, candles, a robust woman with a long, flowing serape and bouffant hair, and fat, fake pearls around her healthy neck. Pleasant and calm, she certainly carried an air of confidence about her duties as a soothsayer.

We sat and she asked for something of mine I was wearing so I gave her my watch. “This was given to you by a woman, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said and thought that was a truly safe guess. Not a lot of guys give watches to other guys unless they’re partners or fathers, and that narrows the chances down considerably.

She tightly closed her eyes and held the watch in both hands, caressing it, petting it, and said, “You have lived up North, haven’t you?” I let out a laugh. I didn’t mean to, but I thought, Oh, come on! Not a single person in the south can’t peg my voice and demeanor as from somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, but instead simply said, “Why yes!”

“You live near water,” she said.

“Excuse me,” I replied, and she opened her eyes. “We’re in Virginia Beach. I don’t mean to be rude, but we all live near water.” She smiled and agreed these were easy, predictable guesses but she needs to “crossover” to my “happening.” I said of course and thought I no longer wanted to be friends with Linda.

“There’s a woman from your past who is present again or trying to reach you. Someone you haven’t seen since you lived up north.”

Don’t get ahead of me on this one; yes, I also assumed she would know from the gift certificate that Linda bought it for me and had perhaps clued her in, though both women insisted no such verbal transaction occurred.

“You teach, don’t you? Adults.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a man in your life.” She hesitated a bit. “No. A boy. A son.”

“Yes.”

She ran through several other kind of creepily close assessments of my life, and I remembered that Euripides said that no one is truly free since we are all slaves to fortune, but I decidedly disagreed even though this prognosticator moved close enough to more specific references for me to believe she definitely picked up something or should at the very least be at a Black Jack table in Vegas. Then she asked if I had any questions.

I asked if I’d always be teaching college and if I’d be successful as a writer and if I needed new brakes on the car, and her answers were positive and vague, though declared with confidence. She gave me a fifty percent off coupon for a second visit.

In my car I had four of five messages from Linda all basically asking why I hadn’t called her yet to tell her what happened. I called.

“How’d it go? Isn’t she amazing!?”

“It went well; I need new brakes.”

“Come on, Bob! What’d she say??”

I summed it up for her pretty well and said I had a good time and glad that I did that, which was true, and that I appreciated her setting this up for me. Then added, “But when she told me someone from my past is back in my life or trying to reach me, someone from up north, I knew you guys had talked.”

“BOB! I swear to you, I never gave a hint. I just asked for a certificate and that was it!” I believed her, but between my New York accent walking through the door with a gift certificate just days after someone with a Massachusetts accent had purchased a gift certificate, I’m thinking said psychic threw us together pretty readily.

“Seriously, Linda, that was fun, and close enough to make me want to think about going to one again. That was a great experience, though I was hoping to hear some cool predictions!” Linda laughed and agreed. Then she moved back to New England and I haven’t seen her since, though I’m sure in some strange land somewhere I’ll be ordering a meal and she and her family will be at the next table. It’s how some lives cross paths sometimes, beautifully hopeful and tragically rare.

This place was just around the corner from my parents’ home so I stopped by. Mom and I sat at the kitchen table talking and we laughed about the “coincidences” and the woman fingering my watch like some talisman telling stories about my life. Dad was on the porch and came in as we were laughing.

“Well, hello,” he said, just realizing I had stopped by.

“Hi Dad, sorry but I have to go. Just stopped by fast since I was around the corner.”

“Don’t stay so long next time,” he quipped, and I headed for the door.

“Oh, Robert,” he called after me. “You got a call here yesterday from someone. She said she didn’t know how else to reach you after so many years.”

All of it, perfectly true.

I fingered my watch and walked to the car.

In Service to Our Country

This is a cake

I remember Mark. He was a student of mine at a college where I used to work. He came to me early in the Gulf War and said he received his orders and was on his way to get his affairs in order, his will and other essential documents, as instructed by his superiors, and he would have to miss class. He was nervous and we walked to the cafeteria and sat for a bit, talked about his newborn, talked about what college he might transfer to when he returned, but he never returned.

I’ve had the honor and absolute pleasure to spend almost thirty years teaching veterans—and many active duty members of the military as well—creative writing, art, and literature. Perhaps because of the contrast in their lives to their time spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and other “theaters” of war—a word we talked about in class as ironic while discussing Hamlet or Fences—these women and men have an acute appreciation of all things creative—writing, art, music, even just talking before class. I wish I could remember their names. Some I do, of course, and some I’ll never forget.

Some students’ names stuck; either from their attendance in multiple classes or their outstanding work, or, of course, the occasional underachievers who need a different brand of attention. Still, even with students sitting in front of me two or three days a week for sixteen weeks, the names remained allusive, but not their stories. I taught a class in creative non-fiction and the nine students all wrote about their experiences in places like Fallujah, Kabul, and Baghdad. They read the work aloud and after we all composed ourselves, instead of discussing the work, they would all talk about how each of them could relate to the story. They’d talk, use acronyms and other abbreviations, and laugh or cry while I sat and hoped they knew how proud I was to know them, to be with them, and that they shared their stories. The writing was irrelevant, of course. I am forever grateful I was able to tell them how much I appreciated their sacrifices.

I wish I could recall their names. Numbers, no problem. I remember all the phone numbers I’ve ever had; license plate numbers, even an old friend’s social security number because back in the ‘80s when you mailed a letter to enlisted personnel, you wrote their Social Security Number on the envelope just below the name, right there for everyone to see. Inconceivable today. I thought I’d type it here just for proof, but I changed my mind.

I’ve taught students from all walks of life and all ages, all attitudes with a variety of abilities, but there’s something about the veterans, and I think it is their proximity to sacrifice and death which enables me to etch their lives in my mind. I’ve had family members who served. My uncles Ed and Bob respectively deployed during World War Two and Vietnam, and my Uncle Tom is forever interned at Arlington for his service to the country. I’ve always been against any type of armed conflict, but nowhere near as much against it as these veterans.

Over the course of the thirty years teaching on Little Creek Amphibious Base, I’ve been to several retirement ceremonies at various locales in the area. Once I went to one in Norfolk, Virginia, on the deck of the USS Wisconsin, and the event would make the coldest person break down; to say it was moving would be shallow; the others on that deck experienced what no one should ever experience. A great awareness comes from knowing these veterans; an understanding that I have never truly known “sacrifice”; there has rarely been a moment of danger. That ceremony is another day I will never forget. Oh and at the end they had a cake that looked exactly like a uniform dress shirt with medals, all edible. Very cool.

But once, just one time, I went to an induction ceremony.

It was thirty-five years ago next July. It seemed less formal, probably because it was at an airport hangar and all the enlistees looked so young and scared, and afterwards, after they all filed out the door toward their transport far from home, I wandered out to the car and drove off alone. It was hot that day and I stopped at a State Park and thought about the world and how I had always thought it was so small yet suddenly it was so terribly large. I remember the moment so clearly because while I knew for certain it was obvious how sad everyone was about the departure, I immediately regretted not expressing how deeply, so very deeply, proud I was.

I’m glad that from a few years after that until last year I spent all that time teaching veterans and having the opportunity to tell them instead.

And to my students as well, thank you. And to my friends: Mike Kweder, Jose Roman, Tom Montgomery, Jan Howarth Donatelli, Tom Litwin, Brian Turner, Tim O’Brien, and Kay Miller Debow, thank you.

The Mulchman

Some twenty years ago in the front of the property, about three-quarters along the driveway next to a statue of St. Francis and a birdbath, I decided to plow through the woods with my mower, creating a winding path which comes out about one hundred fifty feet through the woods in a clearing on the east side of the land. I didn’t cut any trees; I just mowed a path about six feet wide. Over the course of a couple of years, the “Francis Path” became well-trodden by us, my son’s bike, deer, a kazillion squirrels, and who knows what. Eventually the ground was worn enough from us and rain so that it remained a path and the brush didn’t take it back.

Also, I have bushes around the house next to the porch, which wraps around the east and south sides, and I put paving stones along the barrier. And on the south side of the driveway before the woods, I cleared off a two-or three-feet perimeter so it’s easier to get in and out of the cars.

Basically, very basically, I landscaped. A lot, though mostly around the house, but also in other areas.

One day I decided to put mulch down. It is easier on the knees and ankles than the hard dirt when walking, and it simply looks so much better. I called the owner of a nursery about six miles from home. It’s a beautiful place to get bushes, flowers, and other landscaping materials. I have a few wrought iron tables and chairs from there, as well as one of the birdbaths and tons of roses and azaleas.

I called. “Hey, I’m thinking of mulching the place. I have a path, around the house, other areas.”

“Okay, Bob, How much mulch you need?”

“Oh, man, I don’t know.” I walked off the path while talking to him. “I’m figuring it out now. Okay, well, about forty yards.”

“FORTY YARDS?? are you sure??”

I looked at the house and the driveway and other areas around a short brick wall I had put up along another path. “No, you know what, that’s not right.”

“I didn’t think so,” he laughed.

“About fifty yards or so. I have other areas.”

“Bob, I don’t think you…”

“Oh and I’m not going to be here this week, can you just dump it down that path I told you about?”

“Sure Bob I can do that Wednesday—I’ve got to get rid of a lot of this bulk stuff before winter, but…”

“Oh! Right, should I leave you a check? Or do you want me to come in first and pay?”

“No, I’ll send a bill, Bob, but…”
“Thanks so much. I’ve got to go, but thanks! I’ll put a flag on a pole in the ground for your guys to leave the mulch.”

And I hung up. Yes, I was clueless.

I suppose this is the spot to stop and explain a yard of mulch. I learned this about a week later when I returned home: A standard dump truck with the controls inside to make it go up in the area and dump something out the back holds about ten yards of mulch.

Ten.

I ordered fifty yards.

I can fill my wheelbarrow up twelve times from one cubic yard of mulch. So, I ordered six hundred wheelbarrows worth. By the time I got back to the property they had delivered enough mulch to cover the entire path, pretty thick too, from the driveway entrance clear to the clearing exit, all around the house, all along the brick wall, all along the driveway, around all the flowerbeds filled with rose bushes and azaleas, around and behind the shed, and I filled a dozen or so thirty-three gallon size garbage bags and brought some to my officemates house, my parents condo, and other friends.

I smelled like mulch for weeks.

But I’ll tell you what: it looked really good.

This isn’t my first time buying in bulk; just the first time I had no idea that’s what I was doing. Outside our apartment complex in Virginia Beach where we lived while I was building the house, a crew was building a new Schlotsky’s Deli. At some point when the outside was complete, skids with two-thousand beautiful, rustic bricks were just sitting there, and they put a sign on them that said, “$50 for all of them. You carry.” So I bought them. I had to rent a truck for other wood and materials from a local home store anyway. They wouldn’t put them on the truck with a forklift, so one afternoon I hand-piled all the bricks onto the truck and as dusk arrived I drove them the eighty miles up to my house, backed to a clearing and tossed them all out. Construction workers loved it because they used some for different locales which needed them, but eventually I had all these bricks and didn’t know what to do with them. At first, I built a barbeque in the backyard, and it looked damn good considering I had no experience. And then I built a wall running along the tree line from the east side of the house and up a wide path to the clearing. I topped it with, well, brick toppers, and eventually put much—a lot of mulch—in front of it.

I was onto something. Buying bulk from people trying to get rid of their stuff is awesome.

The home store I used—Home Quarters—luckily was going out of business just as I was using them for most of house work, both inside and landscaping. They had crepe myrtles, about a foot high, for one dollar a piece; I bought about twenty. Twelve or so survived, but they’re now twenty-five feet tall and covered in blooms most of the summer.

But one gets tired, you know? At some point you start to realize you’re not going to be able to do this forever, and you sit on the porch and notice things you could have done differently or things you’d like to do if you had the energy to drive to the home store, let alone build a freaking wall. The summers are hotter than before—scorching sometimes—and Hurricane Isabel ripped through and downed thirty oak trees on the property. It took me years to get the place just back to what it was pre-storm. Walk through the woods and there are still some Isabel-felled trees out there returning to the earth.

The shed roof needs to be repaired, but honestly the whole thing needs replacing. Writing projects, classes, all steal time away, of course, and eventually house stuff like mechanicals need to be replaced, and a ton of other things need to be improved. Hell, it’s been twenty-four years now. You get tired. You know?

Then March came. And Covid. And the “few weeks” turned into a “few months” and suddenly it was summer, and I sat at one of the tables out there and zoomed my classes, and afterwards looked around and noticed things to improve, change, places that needed mulching, a new path I wanted to cut. And somehow my energy returned, like I was thirty-six-again energy, and the mower and sickle became my friends, new projects started to emerge, and I began making plans for an eventual new greenhouse to build, a guest house, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts! Okay, well, some of the ideas, and tidying up the place was not only easy, it became a new passion during which I found more than a little of the old inspiration. Working out on the land fights anxiety and depression, and it is way healthier than, well, just about anywhere right now.

Maybe it was Antonio Muchado’s comment, “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?” Sure, he meant the soul, but these days it’s hard to separate the two.

And I recall e.e. cummings:

“i shall imagine life
is not worth dying, if
(and when) roses complain
their beauties are in vain”

A Month of Sundays

Last March I received an email from the university telling faculty there’s a really good chance we would have to extend Spring Break by a week until this mess cleared out. The students who were already home (or in Florida) would simply go about their business and return to campus a week later. It came with attachments about how to adjust the outlines and accommodate changes to material under the tighter timeline of five less days to do things.

That was seven and a half months ago.

Over the course of late winter, all of spring, all of summer, and what is almost all of autumn, I’ve not conducted my normal half dozen conference workshops, not read at a dozen or so readings, not taught at one of the colleges where I worked because it completely shut down for good, not sold books since face to face sales are non-existent, and not sat in a crowded pub and listened to the patrons for inspiration.

But

throughout my life I have cherished Sundays. It is like the entire world takes a breather—no one calls complaining or asking for anything. Sunday mornings are by nature slower, the hands on the clock laboring to move, the air still. I take my tea on the porch and sit and watch the cardinals or robins or finches lite from branch to rail to feeder and back. Hummingbirds hover nearby, and squirrels quick through the leaves. It’s as if all the traffic stopped, and no one everywhere needs to go anywhere. It’s an extended pause, a held breath, a skipped beat. Life moves at an impossibly slow pace.

I walk to the river as always but now it’s the only time I can go out and not wear a mask; I breathe in the fresh bay breeze and meander for hours, often forgetting about the microscopic menace in the village, down in the city, God knows where, everywhere. I just walk, eat an apple or peel an orange, watch the osprey or eagles or herons, briefly forgetting the ongoing slow erosion of humanity, drift from marsh to pond to river and beyond. It is as it always has been, but that is what is different. While everyone else has had to adjust, my adjustment involved spending more time doing what I was already doing as often as I could anyway while everyone else changes course. I am fortunate, to be sure.

Certainly these days at three am I can wake up in a panic attack thinking about practical matters, understanding how weak the thread can be, but the weight is lifted, even for a brief respite, by walking along a river that has been here long before any ancestors of mine were born, and it will remain long after the line of my DNA is done. That’s what those Sunday walks of mine have always done, or should I say now after seven months of this worldwide pause caused by the pandemic, my daily walks; walks which start with anxiety and worry but which fade into calmness and acceptance, which eventually morphs into a positively fine day, one in which I summon the mindset to hope that something else will come down river and help me through.

I tell my writing students that if they ever use the expression, “Life is too short to..” in anything, I’ll kick them out of class. But after seven months of introspection seven days a week, I have to tell you, life is too short to let worries become a virus that destroys my world. There’s real danger out there; danger which we must respect and protect ourselves against.

Just not here along the river. Here, the view from this wilderness has not changed. It is still possible to believe in miracles when nothing but nature noses its way into my daily routine. With a clear mind and unobstructed view, I can canoe unmasked out toward the bay and leave behind the nuisance of this notorious year.