Quiet, please.

I would like a quiet day. Just one. One quiet day without the residue of yesterday or headwinds of tomorrow. A quiet one during which I could just let the river run past and feel the cool and heat of the sand and the sounds of gulls or osprey and, of course, waves; when I define quiet, I include birds and waves. I would like one of those days where I’m not waiting for someone or when I’m not anticipating appointments or deadlines. A day where the phone doesn’t ring, or when it does it is simply family, ready with a joke or an old story to get us all laughing and remembering and planning. Usually quiet days include laughter and stories.

A day to myself like I used to do when I lived in Pennsylvania and drove into Manhattan and walked from Herald Square all the way up and through part of the park, talking to the vendors or checking out the music along the way coming from the cafes and radios. When I explain “quiet day” I must include the sounds of the city as natural and as organic as the osprey and waves at home since they are expected.

My life is not unlike Thoreau’s in that my retreat is near the water in the woods where I am able to regroup, not to ignore civilization as much as be better prepared to face it. So I would like one day. One. One quiet day where I could live deliberately and be in absolute touch with the passing of time solely for the sake of the passing of time, to not watch the seconds, to not count the minutes. I could lean against a tree and hear the combine on the neighbor’s farm or the rigging on the boats on the river. There is a thin, very thin, line between quiet and the sound of rigging in the early morning hours. A good quiet day for me often includes the sound of rigging on a mast.

I was thinking the other day about the quiet days in college when a bunch of us would walk into town just to get something to drink and everyone would be talking at once and laughing at once at different things, and we were always like that and we were always going to be like that. I loved that sweet and passive activity during a time in life of seemingly permanent transience. If I am going to define “quiet days,” I can’t leave off my friends all talking and laughing at once.

I have had many days which I would “formally” call quiet by the Oxford definition. In Spain on the Camino silence was most welcome, and at home on the river when it is early, or late. When I was young and hiked through Heckscher State Park, my friend Eddie and I would either sing or be absolutely quiet, like we both knew nothing would last and we needed to absorb every moment. Sometimes when I am alone at home I fiddle around the house, working out on the property or on the porch, and can go from sunrise to sunset without a sound and it can be delightfully deafening. But those are literal, and I have come to understand that true peace is not the absence of noise but rather the presence of love. It can’t truly be a quiet day without the presence of love, not if we know that “quiet” is also a state of mind.

I want the peace that comes from sitting in an Italian restaurant in a run-down strip mall, eating bread and drinking a bottle of wine and talking for hours with an old friend, and we finished each other’s sentences and we finished the wine. I miss the quiet of a stroll through a busy mall with my dad, stopping to rest, talking about nothing at all. I look forward to the type of quiet that comes from sitting on a bench at the boardwalk and listening to the mixing of music and pounding surf and kids playing in the sand. What peace there is; what quiet is there. A fine, quiet day should include absolute mindfulness so that what was, no matter how long ago, and what will be, no matter how allusive, remain irrelevant to the laughter of a friend who understands.

That kind of quiet. Peace of mind quiet. Trust quiet. Understanding quiet.

I would like more quiet days like that.

Central Park in New York - NewYork.co.uk

Perhaps They’ll Listen Now

Why Did Vincent Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? - HistoryExtra

Imagine these circumstances:

A thirty-seven-year-old man has not held a steady job since he was twenty-seven, and he was fired from the six jobs he held until then in his adult life. He has fallen out with his father, lived with a pregnant prostitute and her daughter, and his younger brother gives him every dime he needs for food, housing, and supplies so he can paint. He claims (after saying he wanted to be a preacher, an art dealer, a tutor, and a bookstore clerk) he wants to be an artist, but every artist save one believes he simply isn’t at all good at it. The critics dismiss him as an amateur with no control over his craft, and everyone believes him to be a bum, a vagrant, a freeloader. He has a handful of maladies such as syphilis, bi-polar, manic depression, and “fits of dismay” we can today label as seizures, but in his day was simply considered signs of insanity. Four months after turning thirty-seven, he still has no job, sold no paintings, received no sign of hope from critics or artists, and has been rejected by women from his cousin to his landlord’s daughter.

Then on July 27th he shoots himself in the side (yes, he did it, not some teenager in town, not some unknown soul, he did it), and two days later on the 29th he dies. There seems every reason to consider this poor man has thrown away his life and took advantage of those he loved for some foolish “obsession” only he seems to believe in.

Yet, within a few dozen years he becomes one of the most influential, inspiring, and successful artists in the history of western culture. His letters found later reveal his passion to show others the humanity so overlooked in the poor and destitute of the world. In his day, this greatest of artists was considered the least of our brothers.

How many of us would pay attention to such a character, listen to what he has to say, get close enough to understand what bothers him, motivates him? How many of us would simply walk past this man?

I am not suggesting we are surrounded by genius disguised as misunderstood, downtrodden individuals. But it seems believing in others even when no one else does, especially when no one else does, can change a person’s life, and who knows what kind of ripple effect that might have.

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?

Vincent van Gogh The Potato Eaters Poster 18x12 inch

Write to the Letter

Postal services history & origins | Postal history | stamps

Dear You,

This summer I’ve decided to sit at one of the tables here at Aerie, cover my iced tea from flies in the hot summer air, find the spot where the shade hits the table, place my pad down, and write letters. I’ll write about my garden, about the bay, about travel plans or family matters, depending upon who I’m writing. I won’t write about writing. I try not to write about anything negative, and I never have and never will write about politics in a letter.

Letters used to be the sole source of communication. Vincent van Gogh wrote more than two thousand pages of his thoughts to his brother Theo, a sister, as well as fellow artists. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letters to each other famously expose the thoughts of our forefathers, and even as far back as the early Christian era we have Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

I’m just planning to write some stuff about my garden and mail it in an envelope to my friends. I learn so much when I write letters. Simply by telling other people what I’m doing, I’m reminding myself how I spend my time. It also allows me to sit in nature, slow down, and take my world one word at a time. In an age that is spinning at Mach 6, writing is like sitting on a stagecoach, but that’s okay.

Remember those days when we would anticipate mail from a friend or a lover? It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me. My sister found letters our dad wrote to his mother when he was eighteen. When I was in college my Great Uncle Charlie, who was in his early nineties at the time, wrote me letters and often included poems he wrote. This was a man who fought in France during World War One, and when I was in my late teens he was still writing letters and poems and dropping them in his local postal box. I don’t know what happened to those; I moved around so much. Also lost are letters from my childhood friends on the south shore of Long Island. During the first year or so after my exodus in the mid-seventies, we wrote religiously. I am back in touch with a few of those people from that time, but the one who wrote the most letters, the one I was closest to, died last December, and now I can’t express how much I wish I still had those epistles of what we were like then, our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our indescribable confidence which time has eroded along with our penmanship skills.

On summer vacation from college I wrote friends in other parts of the country, and even after college kept a close written communication going with a few people. One is a woman I’ve known since we were freshmen, and another is a priest who I remained very close to through the years. I still have some of those replies, and some I recently sent back so my friend can see what was on her mind forty years ago. A few years after college, I wrote probably a few hundred letters to someone in the air force. Here’s how far we have come since then: At that time I would have to address the envelope with her full name, followed by her full social security number—right there on the front of the envelope. I still remember it, actually.

I know the problems in resurrecting such an ancient art form: besides the “slowness” of letter writing, there is the “I don’t really know what to write about” aspect my mother used all the time when I was away at school. Then there’s the “I don’t have time” factor which is just a crock. Sitting down to do anything for ten minutes is not an Olympic feat. And can we please just stop with the “it’s just easier to email” laments. Yes, it is. Write anyway. My favorite avoidance mantra is “I think faster than I write and I can’t slow down to do it.” Geez if you don’t think faster than you write than you’re probably legally brain dead.

As Neil Diamond wrote, “Slow it down. Take your time and you’ll find that your time has new meaning.”

Writing letters helps me remember what is important in life, and it reminds me that since I spend the vast amount of my time doing things I don’t deem worthy of including in a letter, I should appreciate the small stuff through the day as much as the grand letter-worthy events. It slows me down, helps with my blood pressure, my stress, and sometimes I might sit back while writing a letter to listen to the wrens or the cardinals, or leave it all on the table and wade in the river a bit before returning to finish. Mostly though, it is instigating a physical presence in another’s life in a completely non-threatening way; it is my DNA sealed and sent to another state.

I wish I had written back and forth with my father or kept in written contact with some friends from Spain, from New England, from New York. I’d love to have heard from my grandparents, or to read a collection of letters from ancestors from another land. They are treasures; they are history, humanity, emotion and time, all in the strokes of a pen.

Always,

Bob

These Five Books

Berger & Wyse on Ulysses – cartoon | Life and style | The Guardian

I started to read five books but simply could not get through them, so they sit on my shelf just daring me to take another shot. Understand, I did not major in English until I received an MFA at Old Dominion University in 2004, and that was strictly creative writing, non-fiction. At Penn State, my Masters’ were in art and humanities, and, sure, that included lit courses since the “humanities” part seems to think it relevant, but my undergraduate degree in mass communications, specifically journalism, didn’t call for it either.

Call me lucky.

As a writer I have read tons of books in my life just out of curiosity or research, and my shelves are filled with non-fiction works. Along the way I picked up books because of the cultural relevance when traveling. I have shelves of works I’ve read from Russia, the Czech Republic, Spain, and various locales in Africa, and good ‘ol American letters as well, including most of this country’s classics like Twain, Steinbeck, and Walker.

But still it has always been a struggle for me to sit and read at length, which my father was always able to do, and through him I read many volumes of Michener, Grisham, and historical works, as well as the great sports writing of Roger Kahn. My son, too, is a prolific reader and every once in a while will give me a book knowing I will like it, and I always do. When he was small I read to him tirelessly, and to this day I can recall just about every story of Pooh, Curious George, Richard Scary, and various zoo books. But that was fatherhood, not reading. Now, I simply don’t turn to literature out of habit. Some of it is my career for three decades demanded I read endless stacks of papers, and also stories and books in preparation for a course. Part of it is when I’m writing something, I avoid reading material not relevant to what I’m working on. And part of it is I simply prefer music, walking, talking at a pub with friends, to reading.

Still, as a humanities professor and a human being who knows books exist, there are a few works I simply know I should finish, but as of yet have not.

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh. This earliest surviving literature in the world, and the second oldest “religious” text, was written more than three thousand years ago. It’s an epic poem about, well, Gilgamesh. I’ll get there. I do like epic poems—Canterbury Tales, Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, for instance. But the Gil never worked for me.
  2. Beowolf. Okay, to be fair, I have read this one, but that was so long ago and I think I skimmed it because it was, well, boring as hell. So now that I’m some months older I need to give it another shot, particularly since my son has a translation by Seamus Heaney, whom I deeply respect as a poet and writer. It is sitting there, daring me to pick it up. But it is so close to The Far Side Complete Collection, I’m afraid the competition is simply too strong.
  3. Infinite Jest. You’ve got to be kidding. 😊 The reviews as well as my peers in the writing world told me I must read this, and my more astute students said it really captured their generation, which encouraged me to read Wallace’s book, and I tried, I swear, I tried. Once I even made it to page 125. My goal was to get half-way through the thousand or so pages, but no. I put it down and thought, Surely, you… 
  4. Ulysses (the book by Joyce, not Tennyson’s poem which I do love). To my credit, I know a Joyce scholar who said he couldn’t get past page twenty-seven the first dozen times he tried. But still, I loved Joyce’s other works, admire Wolfe and Hemingway who deeply admired Joyce, and, well, I’m forty-two percent Irish, so. I’m not sure what my problem is but I do feel better knowing just about everyone I know who has tried to read the damn thing apparently had the same problem. First of all, I’m not nearly as smart as I should be for the life I have read or the career I have had, so there’s that. But more, I speak English and Spanish with relative ease, dabble in traveler’s Russian, but have never been able to absorb Joycean. Maybe if he drew me a Portrait I’d find a way in.
  5. Middlemarch. A writer friend of mine once said to me about this book, “If you’re going to spend that much time describing a woman’s blouse, that blouse better kill someone before the book is over.” I actually have this on the list as an example of the primary reason so many of us don’t read works we think we should—we find them boring. I know I can read the thing, and I know I’d understand it; George Elliot isn’t that complicated, and she didn’t exactly make it difficult to read. It simply bored the crap out of me, all the seemingly useless details, endless descriptions. I don’t need constant conflict, but I want something a bit more than a fashion lecture. I know that’s not the point, I do. But I also know I’m a modernist, a minimalist with a degree in journalism whose primary influences were of that profession, who learned to get to the point and leave off the fat unless it is absolutely necessary, and I still have difficulty finding so much of Middlemarch necessary.

The truth is, these books aren’t in my comfort zone, and that’s why I keep them near.  Hardly ever does one not gain something by stepping out of the comfort zone and challenging the norms of life. In fact many of my daily activities were, at one time, outside that comfort zone. My routine was at one time not my routine.

It happens.

Adding a book to my list of things to do instead of watching another repeat of a favorite show I’ve seen, and I watch again because it is familiar and predictable and safe; and so I know how my night will go, when I will laugh. But a new book challenges that, like anything new to our routine challenges us to grow a bit more.

Slowing down enough to actually read words on a page is not on most people’s minds, schedules, or even anywhere in their peripheral view of life. It is not “productive” in the contemporary take of that idea, it is not “on the way home,” or “part of my routine.” But step to one side for a second, let the traffic go by, go for a walk instead of, say, not going for a walk. Learn the name of a new bird—just one—each week. Then see if you can spot it. Honestly, how much time does that take? Routine follows the new, it never precedes it. Then it becomes expected. Then it becomes habit. Then not doing it seems wrong.  And as for boring—well, the truth is, most of us get bored because we believe we should be doing something else, or we think that whatever it is that bores us isn’t worth our time, despite the obvious reality that we simply didn’t give it a chance, slow down, take a breath, and let it have its way for a while.

I am reading, however. I just finished Ice Walker by James Raffan. Incredible journey with a polar bear family. Escape Envy, poems by Ace Boggess, who has one of the finest voices I’ve read in the genre. The Total Skywatchers Manual, which my son gave me for Christmas, and I try and learn a little something each week about the stars. Some of it takes, most not, but at this point I’ll take what I can.

I don’t know how long I’ll remember how much I enjoyed a book, will be able to recall the plot. Some books, already, I see on a shelf and know I enjoyed them immensely, but please don’t ask me what happened. I do know that right now, for a little while anyway, I can feel the arctic cold, get tense by the melting ice, as Raffan beautifully and tragically describes the protagonist bears’ trek. Later, I will know a few stars tonight, drink some Blue Lotus Flower Tea and enjoy the peace of stepping outside of myself for as long as I can, understanding fully that in my six decades so far, it has been when I push myself out of routine, challenge myself to understand what I thought I could never understand, and find the beauty in what I foolishly perceived as boring, that I have been truly and fully alive.

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”
― George Eliot, Middlemarch

TBR stress - why I want a minimalist library

The Patience it Takes

I am proud now, today, to say I’m at the helm of a project I thought was going to be an easy ride, introducing people to writers who read their own work about nature. It turned out to be a much more involved undertaking than I ever imagined—legal issues, distribution and advertising issues, rights, writers’ rights, wrong turns and relinquishing enough control to start the process to go non-profit. I can honestly say I’ve learned more in the past seven months since the inception of this idea than I did in decades teaching. I am a student again, on the job training, and it is incredible.

As we build our catalogue and make sure everyone is happy and all the I’s are crossed and the t’s are dotted, we move closer to the end of stage one, which culminates in the Live Launch. I apologize to those who have waited, but I decided some months ago that for once in my life I was going to get this right, see it through properly and create something lasting that will continue to grow.

Chris the tech dude, Jamal the screener dude, and I are working in our free hours (I have more than both of them combined and they’re doing most of the work—go figure; it’s a specialty issue), and each day brings a new breakthrough.

We are fully funded thanks to the generosity of friends and nature lovers, the call for submissions has been quite successful as we daily view new incoming videos, and we are trying to make the growing site as user friendly as possible before users use it.

But underneath all of that is something fundamental, which has always been elemental in my life—nature itself. Two things dominate my adult life: First, I love to be in nature—canoeing, hiking, observing wildlife and landscapes from the Great Salt Lake to the alligator-filled swamps of Myakka, Florida. It has always been this way. My youth was spent in a state park, my middle years spent in as much nature as possible no matter where I lived—which was always in rural settings—to my AARP years, which find me where I have been for twenty-five years, here at Aerie on the edge of the river and the bay. And second, as a writer I find some deep need to express myself that I simply can’t, ironically, explain. I keep trying to get it right, find new words and expressions to bring readers closer to what I experience, but time and time again I simply don’t get there.

Then I read someone else who in one small way exposes something I had thought inexplicable. Then someone else from a different perspective, then someone new, and on and on…

So to bring all these voices together on one platform in various genres, for me, is a sort of culmination of the two most essential aspects of my nature-loving world.

I am glad it won’t be long before The Nature Readings Project is fully operational (insert Star Wars music), but I’m glad I was not the impatient, often immature operator I was on so many other projects in my life, from sports to music to people. Eventually we figure it out, and I hope when The Nature Project goes live it is obvious to everyone why we made sure we had it right—the natural world is all that’s left; it deserves the same patience it has always had with us.

but first, this:

On Contemplating Friends and Love in this Fragile Fragment of Time

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,

so

let us let go of everything but love, and now.

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