Uncomplicated

I’m on a mission to dial back the news to a need-to-know-only basis. Even—especially—the news online, but even NPR has drifted into the “I have no use for this material” folder. It is essential to be well informed, but it is equally essential to be able to separate the news from the noise. My stress level has adjusted up during the last, I don’t know, five years, to some higher level of anxiety not at all compensated for by valuable information. Material gathered should be worth the anguish to obtain it. But that simply isn’t the case any longer. Now it is just static which causes stress, which doesn’t benefit me at all.

So…

excuse me while I step aside. It won’t bother anybody if I simply duck away for a while. I can no longer handle the endless stream of garbage reported in media. Don’t pay any mind to me if I move out of the way while I let pass the convoy of criticism and manipulation. I’ll just sit and watch the water and wildlife do their thing, the perpetual movement of the tide. In fact, my health, my energy, and my stress level are all improved by the absence of the nightly news, which I once revered back when it was journalism. And I’m better off without the one-on-one conversations with way too many negative people. I am more likely to live longer, less likely to have a negative disposition, and infinitely more likely to relax by turning away from those discussions. Remember the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?

When I’m at the river and the sun is just changing tones behind clouds in the west, it doesn’t make a bit of difference who the president is, what the commentators had to say, which tweets came from which attention-deficit minds, who bought what company, who accused who of what with whom, what happened first, and what happens next. My phone alert from the NY Times Breaking News doesn’t really catch my attention anymore, and I am far more interested in keeping my blood pressure in double digits and my heart rate closer to my age than my golf score.

When the eagle glides from the tree tops, and the osprey teach their young to fly, and the clouds at dusk separate colors in prism-like perfection, it is hard to remember what the complaining was all about anyway. We carry our baggage way longer than we ever need to if we ever really needed to at all. And the answers we seek in our daily life won’t be unearthed during some pointless pursuit of fair and balanced. Even if I listened more intently to all the facts and expert opinions and came to the correct conclusions agreed upon by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, what then? So I might know the truth about A and the lies told by B and the injustice we see served to those in need. Again, what then?

I think my students would be better served if instead of watching presidential debates and finding the fallacies, we all spent some time in soup kitchens and the cancer ward at a children’s hospital and then came back and discussed respect and morality and fair and balanced. Maybe we could spend a class talking about the good there is. Let’s write about that. Let’s take a stand and find expert support about that.

When I returned from Spain I was on a mission to “simplify” my life. It didn’t take long on the Camino to discover how little I needed; how superfluous most concerns really turned out to be. As a professor of critical thinking and research writing courses, I found it necessary, pre-trip, to discuss current events and breaking news. But afterwards I found philosophical discussions as relevant as any subject covered by some mass-com graduate reporting from The Hill. I told my students that any fool can gather and argue immigration or trade; but it took real thought to discuss the “matter” of things, the bend of time. “Which works better for you?” I asked. “Ted Cruz said that we need to make decisions based upon faith” or “St Bernard said, “We need to learn to make excuses for other people.”  One is a proclamation of how he intends to govern; the other is an edict of how we should live our lives. This led to discussions of driving and working, and we talked about getting along with relatives and partners. People like tangible applications. Those conversations spilled from the class to the hallway.

That’s how it should be.

But time got away from me. When all I hear is the call of an osprey or the way the waves lap at the edge of the land, I could be in so many other places and so many other times. It is innocent, even ignorant some might say.

We live in the age of information, the age of blame, the age of instantaneous and simultaneous where the comment you posted ten minutes ago is now ancient news five screens in the past. It is the age of convenience and the age of emotion, and the age of attention-getting-self-indulgent-everyone’s opinion matters and is valid and is equal and should be heard. And that’s just not true, it is wrong, it is defeatist, and it is destructive, and I’m simply over it.

So I’m done jumping through hoops and trying to walk across coals; I’m simply not built for it. I’ve finally “come ‘round right” and am simplifying my life like I hoped I would when I came home; like I hope I will again. My theory is this: I will be healthier, happier, more efficient, more useful and focused, and infinitely more at peace. Then I might be of use to others, and that is the point, isn’t it?

I love the way the water feels cool on the soles of my feet on a hot afternoon, or how the saltwater gets on my lips and seems to stay there all day, even after I shower. It is as if the movement of the waves exactly coincides with the movement of my blood, and that rhythm somehow settles my soul.

And it really wasn’t so complicated: I just decided to.

I’m going to sip my iced tea and let the river run by for a while. If it doesn’t work out, look for me chasing the windmills in Spain. There, I’ll be in good company, even if it seems a bit too quixotic for some.

Some Days are Stone

Jonmark Stone

Oh please remember me my good friend.

You know nothings really changed.

I will remember you until the end.

Only the end is rearranged.

–jonmark stone

Jonmark would play local venues, and I’d go with other close friends of ours to listen. There was Sondra’s at the beach, where I’d order a beer and ice cream, or sometimes a filet, and JM would play everything from Neil Diamond to original work which I’d be singing for a few days after. And that gig for some prom at the Old Cavalier, after which we climbed to the top of that tower, then walked for a long time on the boardwalk. Oh, and over on Independence Boulevard the not-so-subtle Fantastic Fenwick’s Flying Food Factory, where I’d hardly hear at all over the chatter of some of the most bizarre characters we’d met back then.

To say we have the same taste in music would be laughably mild. We were barely eighteen, just out of high school, and, more so, just out of options.

So we left.

“I went on the road; You pursued an education.” Yeah, I still think of Jonmark when I hear “James” by Billy Joel. The thing is, we both left—I headed to college on New York’s Southern Tier and he headed to Nashville in his VW van. It was 1979 and this is pre-everything. Pre cellphones, pre computers, back when life was something you did, not something you read about or witnessed on a screen. Back when keeping in touch was nearly impossible if you still didn’t live at home. Back when he said, “Fuck it, I’m headed to Nashville—nothing’s happening in Virginia Beach,” but the music always kept us connected. It was the creativity, the passion, the artistic drive which controlled us both that few people outside the arts can understand. Despite decades apart in a dozen or so states, we continued to grow up together.  

Geez, that was almost forty-five years ago.

Anyway.

It’s chilly today but sunny, and the bay is rough from the passing storms which at least cleared the pollen out of the air. I’m at my desk doing work on a new essay for a (someday) book, reading students’ rough drafts, and sometimes looking up in the corner where my two guitars rest patiently in their cases. I’m certain they’ve forgotten my name. I haven’t had callouses in a very long time. When I see them though, two people come to mind: My sister, who had such an influence in my taste in music and my desire to play guitar (it was hers I learned on) back when we lived on the Island, and Jonmark, who made it seem so easy—he is that good. At college, I channeled Jonmark when I played coffeehouses, and later when I sat with Kenny Loggins and the two of us played and sang “Danny’s Song.” “This is what you should be doing,” Kenny told me. “Quit school and go do it.”

But he was too kind to note how much I sucked. A person’s passion for what they do can confuse the average mind into thinking someone is actually good at something. I definitely had passion; and this was long before you didn’t have to be that good to be successful in the music industry; back when success was reserved for those with not only that passion, but talent, and I suppose what is best called “vision.” Jonmark had all of that, and success came his way through hard work, years of playing with the best in the music industry, and some sort of innate ability to string the right notes together. And I wrote, and Jonmark and I continue to this day to be each other’s biggest fans as I continue to attempt to string the right words together to strike a note in readers, but it is more than that. It’s the “old friends” thing, the being there before we went anywhere. I have a handful of people in my life like that, but JM holds the record for the “back then” notation. Carter had just become president; Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” had just come out, and Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” lp. Saturday Night Fever hit the theaters. But we’ve done okay, the two of us; “made it in the minor leagues” as he has pointed out, which is not at all a small thing. Since the Flying Food Factory, I’ve traveled quite a bit and written about it; Jonmark has been part of some of the biggest recordings in the industry, written songs for countless other singers, music for commercials as diverse as Ford Trucks and 7-Up. Man we are old.

No. Older though.

Most of us have someone like this in our lives; someone who sees you for the young dreamer you used to be, but understands why some dreams worked out, why some didn’t; what drives you and what scares you. Someone who can just give you a look and you don’t see sixty-two, you see seventeen and all the possibilities of then, making time circular, and making hope more persistent.

I walked to the river just now, not expecting to need to bundle up, but up north friends of mine are buried in a foot of snow. Still, I sat on the rocks and looked out a long time tonight, thinking about the changes, about what remains the same. I’ve had countless changes in my life in the past five years. And when that happens it is natural to bend toward the familiar, someone who has hung in there through it all, was there before it all. I came home and listened to my favorite Stone recording, “People are Talking,” and stared out at the trees. I’m having trouble with a work I’ve been toying with for—no kidding here—forty years. Parts of it have been published, the jumbled mess was my MFA thesis, but it is one of those stories that I just can’t get right no matter how I approach it; something is missing and I’m nearly certain I will never find it.

So I opened the case of my 12 string—something I did on a daily basis when I first started this monstrosity of a book—and played around with the notes a bit. Then a little more. It felt so natural, like when words come out in just the right order, just like that; exactly like that. Turns out I do still have callouses. That happens at this age.

It’s good to have an old friend nearby to listen and to listen to. Maybe I’ll do that open mic thing after all. Life’s too short not to, right?

Because:

We die every day that we’re living

But we live every day that we do.

–jstone

Listen, my friends, to this recording. Please. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful songs you will hear. I’m not kidding. Then, please, make it go viral. The world could use someone like Jonmark Stone in its life right now. Click the picture below and listen:

An Open Letter to V. Putin

As you well know:

Every year since the end of the “Great Patriotic War,” veterans and their families remember something different than their counterparts throughout Europe and the United States who celebrate the Nazi’s surrender, the liberation of millions of people. In Russia, Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th. In St. Petersburg in particular, they celebrate survival. For nine hundred days the Nazis bombarded the city in an attempt to “wipe it from the face of the earth.” The Nazis failed; the veterans never forgot.

But apparently, you have, Mr. Putin, haven’t you? Your beloved Leningrad. I was there at the Piskarevskoe Cemetery twenty years ago when you placed the wreath at the foot of the statue of the Motherland and mourned for the seven-hundred-thousand women and children buried in mass graves; your relatives, your family, friends, all starved to death or killed during the Blockade. “One of the most tragic events in human history,” you called it. “This must never happen again,” you said.

In the 1990s, when you were vice mayor of St Petersburg, you stood in front of the Mariinsky Palace—City Hall—and nodded as a guide explained to a Canadian delegation the wonderful story of perseverance. I was a professor traveling alone from America who happened by, lucky to hear the story in English. And after two dozen trips to St. Petersburg, I have become quite aware how this story of pride is ingrained in the hearts of all of the city’s residents, including you, so you said. “Everyone in this city knows this story,” the guide said, and you nodded, smiled.

Your actions in Ukraine suggest you’ve forgotten, so let me jog your memory: Hitler was so convinced he would take Leningrad, he sent out 250 invitations for a celebration party to be held at the Astoria Hotel, just feet from where we stood near the statue of Nicholas I. The guide said that when it became clear to Hitler that he was not going to be able to take the city after all, he ordered Leningrad be “completely destroyed and wiped off the map.” Hence the siege—nine-hundred days of bombing, a million and a half dead, nearly seven-hundred thousand of them women and children. But it didn’t work. Your own relatives insured your birth by holding off the Nazis. And for decades, even as late as the 1990s when I spoke to old women in the city about it—survivors of the siege—they remained proud to say that “Hitler never dined at the Astoria Hotel.” Everyone clapped. You clapped. It’s a great story.

A few days later I watched you lay the wreath on Victory Day and declare such terror should never occur again in the world.

It has come full circle, hasn’t it, Mr. Putin, only now you are the evil aggressor who has abandoned his own people, a population who swore such an event should never be experienced by humanity again, when you imposed a similar fate on the citizens of Mariupol, Ukraine. Now the people of Ukraine are fighting their own Great Patriotic War, and you are their Hitler. It took eighty years for another madman to think he has the right to destroy a population to satisfy his own ego and insecurities. We’ve seen it before; we know how this turns out. No matter what happens geopolitically, you will go down in human history as a tyrant and cold-blooded killer, “Putin” spoken in the same sentence as “Hitler,” Mariupol in the same breath as Leningrad.

What’s tragic personally is I stood there in that cemetery, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, on the speakers, and watched you place that wreath, listened to my translator proudly repeat what you said: “This is one of the most tragic events in human history and we must never allow it to happen again.”

The people of your city—St Petersburg—are ashamed that not only did it happen again, but it was conceived by and carried out by one of their own citizens.

The true Russian heart, the true soul of someone from St Petersburg, is one who celebrates survival and all that Peter the Great’s “Window to the West” has to offer the world. You might be from the Soviet Union, but you are not Russian. There was a time when even St. Petersburg could see the beautiful and celebrated results of your efforts to bring the city and the country back to life after a century of darkness. But once this is over, you will only be mentioned as the tyrant who sacrificed his own people to destroy another culture. And then, like all monstrous dictators, you will simply be forgotten.

A Non-Poet’s Tribute for National Poetry Month

At a creative writing workshop someone asked the standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question. I used to say, “Trenton. I use a mail-order catalogue,” but I realized that was somewhat snarky. Now I quote my good friend Tim Seibles:

Some things take root in the brain and just don’t let go

I love when someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Saves me time.

As for ideas, yes, that’s how it works. I might be out for a walk along the water, or perhaps driving somewhere, and one thought leads to another, and then just the right song comes on, or a smell—yes, sometimes it might be an aroma that makes me think of a place, and then the receptors in my head are off and running; I’m just along for the ride, somehow simply a spokesperson who never really gets the translation right. That’s the problem with writing; it is never right. If someone looks at a piece they’re working on and very comfortably suggests there is nothing more that can be done, I am weary of reading it.

But of all the writers I know it has always been the poets who can get me to sit back and say, “Yes! Exactly.” I can carry on conversations all day long about a subject and then toss it around in my head for a few days, write it out, readdress it, and pour some decent energy into it, only to turn to a few lines some poet wrote and I find the need to burn my work. I’ll do it too; I’ll sit here with a match and hold the pages while they flare up. It has a very cleansing effect. Plus, you know, toasted peeps.

Here’s an example: Tim and I went to lunch at this same divey joint in Norfolk we always go to, and we talked. We talked about our fathers, or about something in the news. We talked about a variety of things that good friends talk about; we rarely talk about writing. Well, somewhere over the course of the last year I have several times talked about my dad, about how I miss him; I know Tim gets it so I don’t’ have to say much, but still, talking is always helpful. Unfortunately, my words are trite, predictable, and lazy descriptions of how missing a person feels. Of course, I’m not trying to compose a play; I’m just talking about my dad. Still, I want to get it right.

Then not too long ago I flipped through one of Tim’s books and came across this:

Missing someone is like hearing a

name sung quietly from somewhere

behind you. Even after you know no

one is there, you keep looking back.

I could write a thousand lines about how I miss my dad, but that covers it. That’s poetry.

Anyone who listens to a lot of music knows what I mean. Some lines just say it all.

I have tried to write essays about nature, already handicapped by the vast selection of the genre from people such as Thoreau, Muir, and E.O. Wilson. In my files are dozens of starts in an attempt to finish a piece about the fall of the year and the coming of winter. Those brain receptors often click into the passing of time, the end of things, the changes beyond our control. I wrote one “epic” diatribe that might be the most bloated, pretentious vomit I’ve ever attempted. The only way to make it more pretentious would have been to have it translated into Latin. Then Frost does this:

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay

Asshole.

I prefer conversations, of course. I like to sit and have a beer and talk about our dads; I like running into a friend and grabbing a bite and laughing about simple things like sports and movies. But I also like reminders of our glide across this thin layer of life.

Over the course of the past several years I found a way to handle my frustrations when I can’t find the right words to express our need to celebrate being alive. I call a friend and meet him for lunch; luckily, he’s usually a poet—I know a lot of poets. If I can’t find one, I head instead to a favorite café and have a glass of wine and talk to strangers. Every single one of my closest friends was, at one time, a complete stranger. I walk along the water and watch the dolphins breech and disappear. I feel the coolness of morning give way to the warmth of the sun on my face.

Note: We are surrounded by poetry.

I sat in an Irish pub in Prague once during a soccer match between Dublin and Manchester United. The excitement and roar of the crowd, the explosion of being in the moment, alive, then, ever-so-briefly, was poetry.

There was the time my friend Tom and I sat on a rock in the mountains west of Tucson and watched the sun work its way across the desert. Or when Michael and I walked past the small sign that said “Santiago de Compostella” five hundred miles and five weeks after we left France. Or when we watched the seals at Lake Baikal.

Poetry. Like when we walk to the river at sunset, most nights for twenty-five years now, and catch the colors, find the light on the water. Or those Tuesday nights a long time ago after I finished teaching and Dad and I would have some Scotch.

The sound of a golf ball dropping into the cup. The sound of cardinals on the porch, looking for food. Whippoorwills at dusk. Gulls at dawn. Rigging. Waves.

A very long hug from an old, old friend.

My dad’s laugh. His deep “Hello.”

A name sung quietly from somewhere behind you

Staying on Track

I’m on a train again, headed north out of Virginia, through DC, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. I wandered from my wide and roomy comfortable seat up to the empty dining car where I hung out for a while in a booth the size of those at Applebee’s, had a breakfast sandwich and coffee I brought with me, and watched the farms and rivers retreat as we swung through Richmond and Fredericksburg. At some point we paralleled the Potomac through an area so wild it seemed more like a ride out west.

I took pictures.

It costs about $25 to get from Williamsburg to DC; another $7 to continue on to Philly. Gas is $4 a gallon; it’s 292 miles. At a generous 30 miles per gallon, that’s 10 gallons of gas. So for $8 less than the gas right now, I left Williamsburg at 5:40 and will arrive at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia at 12:10, wandered about the cars and stretched out in the dining car, walked around Union Station in DC, took pictures and texted friends, and even napped early on. No wear and tear on the car or my body or my eyes, no traffic jams, no parking expenses, tolls, nothing. $32 bucks.

I’m never driving again to a place I can take the train. I’d fly, of course, if it was a great distance. Well, except if the purpose of the trip IS the train, like in The Iron Scar, which, ironically, is why I’m on this train to begin with—to get to a convention in Philadelphia for the launch of The Iron Scar, do some book signings and readings, and hang out with friends. $32 bucks. Geez.

The dining car earlier filled me with a sense of some sort of powerful memory of chess, and vodka and beer,

of onions and sliced salmon and borsch. Of loud laughter from new friends and the cacophony that is a group of drunk Russians speaking their Slavic tongue for hours. The rumble of the train, the traditional music,

the hard, heavy slamming of the cabin door when others are trying to sleep, the low glow of Michael’s book lamp on the bunk below me while I’m trying to sleep, his harmonica playing American folk music in the passageways between cars, the uproar at “Checkmate,” which apparently is a universal word,

the old man in the dining car late one night just above the Mongolian border, of the hallways lined with travelers gaping at the dangerously swollen Amur River, of the ease of heart and spirit when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, of

the disappointment when the skyline of Vladivostok came into view, because the beautiful bonding journey was coming to an end, of course.

I hope people read my new book and discover this for themselves, discover the hesitancy of letting go of their children when they are no longer children, of letting go of their fathers when they are no longer able to live the life they had lead, of letting go of our own trepidation at getting older, of being next in the line of succession, of moving further down the tracks without knowing what to expect, trying to enjoy the ride the best they can without losing sight of the horizon.

I hope they read my book that is not so much about trains but the ride, not so much about Siberia but those distant places ahead of us which seem so foreign and barren yet comprehensible once we are forced to face it.

I’m almost in Phlly. This was a deeply fast ride. I tried to enjoy it the best I could, tried to meet people and equally avoid them, spending time alone in the booth looking at the beautiful passing of the world outside.

If I could only take with me one thing from this ride I’ve been on, it is that I tried to spend as much time as possible witnessing the beautiful planet I’ve been privileged to see so much of.

It’s been one hell of a journey. A bargain to be sure.

Out of Line

Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg, Russia

In the early ‘90s, I stood in line at a bakery in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was in the city for three weeks teaching American culture to the faculty at Baltic State University. The entire nation had just opened up after seventy-five years of communism and four hundred years of czarist rule. Things were a bit unorganized and haphazard. Yeltsin was in charge but not really; the Russian mafia was in charge. But that’s an entirely different story with a very bad ending for so many people.

But in the early ‘90s my colleague Joe and I had an apartment near the Gulf of Finland, not far from a family who we paid a great deal of money to host us for three meals a day plus tours. It was incredible to be part of all these changes with this family—him, a former Soviet Naval Captain whose job had been to search the arctic for American submarines, and her a translator and professor of English and languages at the university. We became family. More stories.

But mostly Joe and I discovered Russia on our own when not through the experiences of this family whose own changes were occurring daily. Understand, Russia never knew democracy, never knew capitalism.

So the bakery story:

I stood in line and Joe videotaped me waiting. But I waited forty minutes. Finally I arrived at the counter and pointed out a dozen or so pastries. She bagged them but put the bag behind her and handed me a piece of paper with the total price and pointed me to another line. I waited there. Ten minutes. Twenty. Finally when I was second in line, the cashier went outside to smoke, and we all waited another ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually she returned and rang up the sale, I paid, and I moved back to the first line where I waited as long to turn in my proof of payment for my bag of pastries.

Most of this is on tape somewhere.

That night at the college we talked about many things and answered many questions. That deserves a different story entirely, but not here. To the point: we had handed out US newspapers, and someone held up coupons and asked what they were. We explained, and he commented why in the world would you sell something for less than the price, that is dumb, no wonder capitalism doesn’t work. So I told them all the bakery story, and they nodded as if to say, “yeah, that sounds about right.”

And then he asked, “So how is it different in America.” I love a good setup.

I told them: In the states the cashier is fired; she sucks at her job and I’m losing business—you know why? Because Joe has a bakery across the street and his line is moving, and my customers are heading over there, and my income comes from customers, not the government, and while your income is guaranteed, it allows you commune apartments and mafia shakedowns. We offer coupons as incentive to try my pastries, and if you work hard and keep the line moving and don’t eat the pastries, you’ll get raises and promotions and eventually own your own store.

Yeah, they didn’t get it.

That is Soviet Russia; that is how Putin mistakenly sees Russia. That is how he was raised and was already part of that mafia/governmental system by the time we arrived thirty years ago. His Russia was a population paid by the government no matter what, and no where on Nevsky Prospect (Fifth Avenue) was a single billboard, a single neon sign, few restaurants, no advertising save Marlboro. You bought sour cream and milk from the back of trucks, or you went to the stores set up exactly like the bakery with long lines, and that was how it was since the Romanov’s came to power in the 1600s. Putin gained control by gaining control over an economy and country that was shredded after the coup; and when the government gave everyone across the empire three days to trade in Soviet money for Russian money, and the vast majority of people live three days from a bank—Putin and his cronies scoured the countryside buying Soviet money at twenty cents on the dollar and making millions.

But the Russia he runs now is not the Russia he so quickly gained control over by the late ‘90s. That Russia was still filled with people used to the government telling them what to do and they complied so long as their pension was secure. Today’s Russia has had thirty years of absolute freedom to come and go, make money a la capitalism, set up and own businesses, travel the world, speak relatively freely, and families live all over the world without fear of repercussions. Anyone in Russia who was even ten at the time of the coup is now in their forties, so all Russians forty or so years old and younger know nothing but the freedoms listed, the opportunities experienced by the west, and they like it—a lot. Enter McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, western music, movies, travel packages, tours of New York, London, and LA. Enter jobs with international corporations and BMW’s and HoHo’s.

This is NOT their father’s Russia.

So to keep them quiet and subdued, it is now illegal to indicate support of Ukraine, illegal to travel abroad, illegal to speak openly unless it is for the government.

People compare Putin to Hitler. That is not accurate.

Putin is Stalin.

But his narrative has a significant flaw which perhaps Stalin was able to avoid for some time—the population of Russia and Ukraine have a western mentality that simply didn’t exist there at all prior to the early 90’s. Sure, he keeps getting re-elected: At first simply for stability—no one liked Yeltsin or Zyuganov. Later he was re-elected because of fraud (the 2018 election found one of his two opponents dead and the other poisoned and later imprisoned). But the country he rules will quickly become unruly, much like the citizens of Czechoslovakia who knew democracy well when communism came in 48 and again in 68, and those who remembered how life was prior to communism refused to allow the suppression, hence the Velvet Revolution, led by those who remembered.

People have something now they didn’t in Stalin’s day—a basis of comparison. They’ve not had to stand in line for pastries for three decades, and they have family not just in Ukraine but throughout the world. The government, the military who act out of fear of Stalinesque punishment (like the Not One Step Backwards decrees which insured that any Soviet soldiers retreating or disobeying would be shot), cannot sustain the isolation required to continue the onslaught of other nations.

I’ve made more than two dozen trips to Russia, crossed it by train, traveled with more than 500 people including US Army generals, professors, writers, artists, lawyers, and others, and I kept journals, I wrote extensively to the tune of three books and countless editorials and essays.

There was so much more to write—about Valentine, my dear photographer friend, about a graveyard on the gulf, about the rebuilding of a church by another close friend, and the planned exodus of two other friends, artists, some years ago to avoid draft into the army to fight in Chechnya. Stories about old women in the Hermitage and a homeless man who became a companion.

And I could write an entire book about The Shack, about playing guitar with a gypsy band every night until five am, drinking outlawed Georgian wine and laughing, teaching them “American Pie,” learning their folk songs which made us all cry despite not knowing a single word.

For thirty years Russia was a fine combination of history and romance with hope and emergence, like a young child with an old soul. And I have full confidence when the dust settles, the that Russia I came to love will survive. The bell of freedom rang for those people years and years ago, the chimes of hope, the echoes of prosperity.

The old truism is indeed true: You cannot unring that bell.


Oh I have stories. Geez what a time it was. Nothing is what I was told it would be when I was young. Nothing.

I’ll go back, but I don’t see a need to write about Russia anymore. My last piece of writing besides this short blog is my book in which my son and I travel from one end of the country to the other, and we see the world together, enjoying the fragile and beautiful passing of time. How can I possibly follow that?

at the shack

My Own Private Camino

So many people talk about war, about poverty, emigration, about nuclear fallout and political discourse. The news is now riddled with bullet point reporting about stranded soldiers, homeless families, courageous politicians, and psychopathic leaders. You’d hardly know they were talking about humanity. You’d never guess they were talking about us.

The top of the hour take on today tells me a few million people must live elsewhere, most likely forever, that the cost of gas is so high it is no longer cost efficient for minimum wage workers to work unless they bike or bus. The cost of food will rise, as well as the price of everything trucked, shipped, or flown to somewhere else to consume.

Covid is still killing people, and controversy concerning restrictions consumes organizational meetings and town hall events. Two people were shot and killed in Worcester, Massachusetts, last night, and those late souls were just two of two hundred and seventy others in the last twenty-four hours.

The view from this wilderness is discouraging.

So many people talk about sanctions and retaliation, about cyberattacks, about drone warfare, about soldiers looting and soldiers who have no idea what they’re doing there to begin with. So many people talk about inflation and recession, about climate change and burning swatches of America.

The headlines have gone bold on a daily basis, largest type of the fattest font, that bold type normally reserved for assassinations and declarations of war, set aside until Dewey Defeats Truman, is constant, morning edition, afternoon edition, online version, all full bold above the fold in your face headlines about how many dead, how many fleeing, how many floundering in some nether land on their way to Poland or Germany or Alabama or anywhere that’s somewhere else. Headlines about a leader misleading his nation, another leader leading by example, and a little girl singing a little girl song in a shelter. She holds a kitten.

Some people will believe anything. Some people need to believe in something. Some people believe that if you believe you’ll be fine.

This is not how I wanted my fourth quarter to start. It’s been a good game, mostly. I’ve had some incredible, once-in-a-lifetime plays, well more than once, but I’ve fumbled as well, threw my share of interceptions. But it’s been amazing. I trained across two continents; I walked across a country; I reconnected, resigned, regrouped, then remembered what it was I wanted out of life to begin with. And it’s not to listen to so many people with no expertise decide exactly what’s wrong and who caused it; it’s not to listen to so many people bend toward the fight instead of negotiation, lean toward aggression instead of forgiveness. This is not how I want the fourth quarter to play out. Clearly I have more comforts than the vast majority of this world; I’m not “sitting on the cold floor of a train station” as some random posts remind me, insisting that since I’m not destitute and homeless I should shut up. I agree completely with this sentiment; I’ve no reason to complain. But this isn’t about empathy; this is about my inability to absorb anymore disappointment with a species with such capabilities as to create miracles on a daily basis yet falling faster into a vacuum of violence from which it doesn’t seem possible anymore to escape.

I’ve tried switching my meds, I’ve tried exercise and eating differently, I’ve tried laced lollipops and tiny bottles of Baileys.

I’ve tried. But still, I need to try something else. So I remember that...

when you walk five hundred miles, you note each step, your life slows to some equatorial pace, and you can feel the air move around you, the subtle brush and lift of a soft breeze come across a field. Every day is an eternity, each moment you find yourself exactly where you should be with whom you should be with. Each person crosses your path for a reason, and each reason evaporates with the next step, like a constant stream of rebirths, an endless loop of beginnings.

This is how I escape the persistent pounding of chatter, the numbing talk shows filled with nothing more than speculations. This is how I keep from falling: I wonder, would anyone notice if I just walked away, headed south along the coast, hitchhiked, bussed, trained, away from here? Would anyone notice if I ended up in Pied de Port, France, looking out toward the Napoleon Pass across into Spain, out of reach of the rising tide of so many people?

I’d like to believe that the view from this wilderness is always optimistic, and so many people have commented on the beauty of this wilderness, the sunrises and nightfalls, the slow glow of dawn sweeping gently across the bay and stealing the day, but the true wilderness that must be explored is within, always first and last the wilderness within, and that is very difficult to do with so many people talking about so many people dying.

I wish that I could slow the whole thing down. The world is changing again, and it’s not looking like a strong narrative is headed this way, but there are still so many people I want to spend time with, so many places I’d like to see.

Timing

I had a bad night, last night. Couldn’t sleep, finally wide awake at four am talking to ghosts and sitting at my desk. Part of it is standard anxiety, part of it is staring a cold-hard truth in the face, and that usually happens with the utmost clarity at four am.

Then on the drive to work I listened to the news. Yeah, I have no idea what I was thinking. And here I had Jason Isbell in the cd player, but no, I went to NPR. Kiev, Moscow, invasion, twenty-mile Russian convoy (now thirty, now forty, now fifty), nuclear arsenal on high alert, one million Ukrainian refugees fleeing for elsewhere from their homeland which has stood for more than a thousand years, long before Moscow.

So I checked my email and a dear friend whom I’ve known since 1994 had written. He lives in St. Petersburg and said they’re probably losing all social media, he can’t travel anywhere, food is hard to find, and everything he owns, including his finances, are worth less than half than they did one week ago. He worries about his son.

I thought of the people I’ve met across the entire stretch of Russia from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan, and how none of them–seriously, none of them that I’ve ever known and by all of the accounts I hear from journalists and other writers in-country, support Putin. They are indeed opposed to the invasion. These are people who, unlike Putin, grew up in a non-Soviet state, where western goods and services and freedom to travel were standard. They understand the invasion of Ukraine is supported by and carried out by a small group of bitter men from Soviet Days who have no respect for human life.

So I wondered what it would take for Putin to go over the deep end, even further than he is, and order the release of nuclear weapons, and I realized he would have to have his back against the wall and feel like there is no other way, and I thought about how the entire world, supported by every single United Nations member country who voted today save five despicable ones, are for pushing this psychopath against the wall, and while that’s a good thing, my anxiety spiked.

So I escaped that mental bloodbath by returning to my original issue from 4am and pulled out a pad and started to make lists of how to handle that, and I briefly thought “sure, go ahead, push Putin to the wall: two problems solved,” but of course I just needed caffeine. Then I spoke to a dear friend, and though I spoke more than I listened, nothing cleanses the soul like talking to someone who knows you now and knew you then.

Then I got home and it started all over; no problems solved, but definitely better perspective having gotten through a beautiful day, and I went to the river, my river, here, and

well

every star in the sky must be visible tonight. No city lights, no moonlight, just starlight, and it’s brilliant. Orion and his troops are on full blast in the south, and just to their left Sirius is seriously awake this evening. I stood a long time, saw a few shooting stars, made a few wishes (come on, you have to), and walked along a bit, the waves gentle, a few boats out past the channel. And I remembered how sometimes nature grounds us, not because it makes us feel small, though that too, but because it has such integrity, such steadfast confidence. Five hundred years ago what people in this wilderness witnessed is not much different than I saw tonight, despite the wars and poverty and the combined human sense of fear at falling away from itself since then. Nature simply is. What a lesson; Buddhist in its manner, eternal in its truth: Nature simply is. As we should be.

So I came up to my desk and in my search for one document found another. I read it, sat back and wondered which ghost put it there for me to find tonight of all nights. Might have been Bobbie–she liked poetry, or perhaps Lianne–she taught poetry. Wasn’t Dave; Dave would have left me some Bowie lyrics again.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll ask later when the anxiety kicks in.

In the meantime, it is a good one to remember–that we are, as the Bard once touted through Gertrude, simply passing through nature on our way back to eternity.

Still, the news makes me miss my friends tonight.

Seriously. Read this:

There Will Come Soft Rains

by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Україна

Kiev

UKRAINIAN  GENOCIDE (1932-1933)

by Eugenia Sakevych Dallas, published in Nova Ukraine in 1945, translated by Marko Carynnyk

“1933”

Peaceful, hard working, happy, gregarious people,
With their golden fields of wheat
Blue skies, Ukraine my country,
Breadbasket of Europe.
,
Suddenly black clouds of terror
From the neighbor to the North.
Darkness blew over the green hills
The peaceful golden steps of Ukraine.

Bullets riddle my country,
They took my freedom, my land
And brutally turned us into a colony
Run by hostile ruthless outsiders

By Force they made us give them
All our food to the last morsel.
In return they gave us prisons in Siberia
And Genocide in Ukraine.

Countless Numbers of Children
With protruding frightened eyes,
outstretched little hands
Pleading for food, crying.
Some of us survived – Orphans Forever

The free world was silent!

Our Hopelessness, Bewilderment,
Gave way to panic.
We sunk deep into resignation,
Mental apathy, stupor, and despair

The Communist Terror, their sadism
Made us pay dearly with our lives.
Extermination by slow starvation
Was done quietly, so that no one in the world
Would hear or know about it.

We Must Pledge to Preserve,
Memories of Ukrainian Genocide
To ensure that the world,
Does not repeat the past.

We must not forget the pain
That was inflicted upon Ukraine.
We must remember our
Obligations and responsibilities
Toward our loved ones, who perished so unjustly
Today and Always, Their memories must be kept alive forever.

The Russian Revolution
Creation of world Communism in 1932
Let to a yet unknown Genocide
In Ukraine, a story that was never fully told.

Kiev, February 24, 2022

Books Are In!

Special Edition:

The preorder is over, and Amazon will not start shipping books until April, but Kim, my publisher, sent me a carton of the ever perfect number 42 books, and I can ship you one signed, (or not signed) to anywhere you’d like, this very afternoon.

Here’s the link: Send $20 to this link and that includes shipping, and email me the address at bobkunzinger@yahoo.com and I’ll mail the book today.

I’m very excited about this work.

Click on the picture for the purchase link: