The Past is in It’s Grave

Heckscher State Park, Great South Bay

I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house, I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At almost fifteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was almost half a century ago; so far in my past I am the same number of years to 100 as I am to leaving the Island. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquot River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike and Camille. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if my family had stayed, would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken. Steve and I were like Chris and Gordie in the film Stand by Me; Eddie and I spent near every single day together hiking through Heckscher, singing, teaching each other guitar. Every. Single. Day. For five years.

They all signed the ball.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. My emotional connection to many of these things is tied to the people I met along the way. While it is true that the further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth.

But this box is different. These are the remnants of when a boy literally grew up and tried like hell to hold tight to what he knew he was losing. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in a while I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years, Steve holding a sign of luck, Eddie calling for me not to go, please don’t go. And we’d say good night. Not goodbye—a small quirk of ours. Good night! We’d yell, and laugh, oh my living God we would laugh.  

I used to have this crazy dream that we would all meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It would be at the old Great River Inn, which I think is an Italian restaurant now, or across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’d get tables on the deck. Eddie and I would have made fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve would recall the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Todd will have to head home, and Camille will have to get back to the city.

But that will never happen. We lost Eddie a couple of years ago just before Christmas, and since then the desire to go back to that beautiful, timeless, idyllic hamlet has faded away. But we could have met, we should have. We could have convinced the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I would tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that The Beatles broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off, but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there almost five decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

Eddie and I got back in touch about five years ago and talked often. Neither of us changed when talking to each other, and it was clear we would have remained close no matter where life brought us. We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. 1975 is so far ago I can’t conceive it ever happened at all; yet I can make a case it all went down last week, and if I head down Great River Road and make a right at Church Road and follow it all the way up past Woodhaven, and stay right when I get to Leeside Drive, my dad would be outside at the barbeque, and my brother mowing the lawn. My sister would be in her room at the top of the stairs, and me, well, I’d be heading down the road to Eddie’s and we’d be walking out toward the Great South Bay for the day to see what is next.

It’s just a ball. It’s just a damn ball. It will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty-five years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s how it is meant to be used.

Goodnight Eddie.

Write on. Peace out.

I suppose when I worked at the hotel when I was young, I could go home and leave work at work. It wasn’t my hotel, after all. Certainly, I’d get calls at various times since I was manager, but not often since the owner was often on site. And when I worked for Richard Simmons, it was a similar situation. As manager, I’d get calls at home if there was a significant problem, like when the other manager, Andrea, slammed her finger in a metal door and couldn’t work for several weeks. But overall, when I went home, work stayed at the studio.

This was less true as a college professor. Certainly before computers and cellphones I was able to compartmentalize my papers into office-hours work, and if I planned things well, I could get everything done for my normal eighteen teaching hours at one college, twelve more at the university, each semester. It was an insane schedule I maintained for almost three decades, including summers. But the luxury of making my own schedule, remaining primarily responsible for when things were due, allowed me to keep some sort of retentive check on everything, so, once again, when I was home, so was my mind. Sure, there were times the stack of essays followed me to my porch, sat down next to me, and would not stop babbling until I finished them. But mostly not.

Yet I have another occupation, one which chose me, therefore I cannot simply quit, lay down some sort of guidelines, and go about my business. As a writer, my mind does not clock out, ever. I have many writer friends who can do that, but I simply can’t and I’m not sure why. It might be one of several conditions, or it could be one of several medicines, or perhaps it is simply my inexplicable need to describe and highlight the miraculous beauty of life juxtaposed with the insistently rapid pace of life. But I cannot turn off my mind. I see narratives and characters, I hear stories and elements of distress, and the dynamic moments of everyday life can be overwhelming.

I actually and literally feel completely better when I’ve written something. The fact is this very blog started as an effort to relieve my mind. I know Van Gogh was like this as well, and Hemingway, and Jake the plumber at the hotel who could not rest if there was a pipe that could be fitted just a bit better, but after a solid attempt, even if he fell short, he could rest. Vincent wrote often about how his mind is eased either by absinthe or a good day of painting. My poison is nature and a few moments of trying to say something right.

But I remember fondly the days when I’d go home from the club and absolutely nothing felt undone or needed to be reworked. I could watch a football game and have some drinks with friends and never once glance at a somber face and need to make notes. That’s gone. Maybe that’s why I’m always searching for some peace of mind.

I was in a local store earlier and someone said to someone else, “No I haven’t been able to find him. I’ll call later.” That’s it. But that was enough and for the past three hours my mind has been beating the hell out of a piece I’ve been working on for far too long. This morning my son mentioned he might make biscuits today, and “process” stayed with me like a bad song that won’t leave your mind, and I either need to write things down or dive into some waves, let the cold ocean saltwater wash across me and make me present.

Nature can do that for me, more than anything else, really, make me present. A few months ago I was hiking the mountains in Utah and found myself nowhere else. Nowhere. I wasn’t writing in my mind, I wasn’t rewriting, or making notes. I was hiking. Yesterday I sat at the bay legs in the water to my calves and I watched two egrets fish for dinner. When I walked away I knew I’d spend time with them again late at night on these pages, finding that peace again on the page that I found on the bay. But at that moment, it was just me and them, kin.

I haven’t had a day off since I started working on a book about Van Gogh more than thirty years ago. Wine helps, though more often it can just fuel the flames. Lollipops certainly help. But my mind is growing tired lately. I’m always writing, even when I don’t mean to be. Still, I’ve come to terms with that. My friend Linda used to tell me, “Don’t die with the music in you.” This keeps me going. As long as I have some endless swirl of vocabulary beating at the exits of my mind, I should be fine. Maybe I never needed medicine to begin with. Just a notebook.

Painters see colors and perspective even when walking their dogs. Musicians hear that quartertone in the cardinal’s call, and writers, well, we keep indenting and backspacing, even when trying to eat a bowl of fruit loops.

That’s just how we are.