In all of time coming and going, whatever’s next and long before now, before this millennium, before the Dark Ages, before Jesus, Christ, even before the measure of time, we share these years, now, you and I, this splinter of nanoseconds as we tumble through space in this brief awareness, together, share these histories, these stories, this pandemic, that eruption, the wars, the towers tumbling, the time we stayed up all night looking at stars, and the time we said good bye, that was us, we got caught on each other as the accident of “now,” the randomness of this moment, determined we should share this present, hooked, for just a little while anyway, then not, and billions of others and billions more were and are and will be, so you have to know that the odds remain incomprehensible that we’d collide, leave pieces of each other in the other’s pockets to carry as a reminder on some wayward journey through space, and then, gone, evaporated into that eternal foreverness of never again. Oh, how brief, how tragically beautiful yet sadistically brief is this whirlwind of now in which we find ourselves with each other until suddenly we no longer are, forever and even beyond that inconceivable distance of nothingness,
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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?
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?
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?”
“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.
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.
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.