The other shoe — has it dropped yet?
Or are you still waiting?
It’s a funny thing, sitting here in
the early morning quiet, knowing full well the roofers will be
pounding away again by eight. In a strange way, although it is
a bit hard on the ears, I look forward to it. There are different
kinds of storms. Because I also think of war, and dwellings crashing
around those who made the tragic mistake of being born. We get a new
roof and they get
Has it dropped yet? Or are you still
Twenty-four degrees this morning.
And I’m glad you’re here.
I remember moving wood onto the porch
of my childhood home. From the door, it was a short direct line to
the fireplace. Eucalyptus, sycamore, peach, plum. Words, sweet on the
Twenty-six again this morning. I do
like to look back at the weather records, probably because it’s
something my father used to do, and partly too because memory is so
unreliable when it comes to weather extremes. A couple of days ago,
for instance, I noticed the record low was eight degrees, set in
2013. On yesterday’s date in 1972, it was minus-five. One forgets
these things. Something one doesn’t forget, though, is the long
hours spent pruning our vineyards and orchards during the winter
months. We worked in the cold, we worked in the thick San Joaquin
Valley fog, listening to the rhythm of our shears as their hum moved
up through the handles and into our hands, every sound magnified, a
sneeze or a laugh from the neighbor’s vineyard, the almost-sound of
someone’s far-off transistor radio. All of December. All of
January. Most or all of February. Sometimes even into March. The work
changes you. The cold changes you. And everywhere you turn, frozen
sculpture. Vine stumps revealed, looking like proud old men in a row.
And you recognize them. Planted by your father. Planted by his
father. Shaggy with bark. Like them. And what have you become? What
are you now? Are you still fruitful? Do lizards and horned toads
still congregate at your feet? Ha! You think I’m crazy, don’t
you. Well, you would be too.
You’re reading about a storm during a
storm, and then, shivering, you look up. Much to your surprise, you
find the trees calm, the street quiet, and the lamplight unwavering.
You look back at your book: a mute brick: ink: paper: binding. You
decide to rest your eyes. You close them. Here it is again! Here
comes the wind! It’s wild out. It’s wild in. And it only ends
when someone gently closes you, and says, amen.
neighbors next door have an old friendly blond retriever. Yesterday,
while the father was out hanging lights, and one of his little sons
was watching from the ground, the dog noticed us as we passed and
gave us a big smile from their driveway. And of course we smiled in
early the other morning, I stopped at the grocery store for some
bananas. On my way out, I met a woman who was very tired,
disappointed, and poor. As we approached each other, I smiled. And
though at that moment a smile seemed the farthest thing from her
mind, one appeared on her face, the deep lines of which were
immediately rearranged. Joy.
I think I will be an old friendly retriever today.
The lacy green maple is not so lacy
anymore. But now its bare twigs are densely lined with bright
miniature pearls. And that reminds me of two words that surfaced in
my mind during my walk earlier with the moon: abundance, and
generosity. The other words, if there were any, I cannot remember.
this morning, the clouds parted just in time to reveal the setting super moon. I saw it from two places on my walk: from the middle of the
street in front of the house when I first set out, and from the
second stop sign, at the corner, through the bare trees, one street
to the south. I have never seen the moon looking so large. And the
air, being washed by the rain, was so clear. A few feet further, and
then I saw him: a little boy, string in hand, looking up, smiling,
giving the moon a tug.
I was making the drawing I posted a while ago, it started to
rain. It rained heavily enough that I could hear it landing on the
roof. Since then, it has slowed to a sprinkle. And when I say slowed,
I realize that the individual drops are probably still falling the
same speed as when it was raining a bit harder. And when I say
I realize I have chosen a funny, if conventional, way of describing
something that kisses each leaf, each needle, each blade of grass;
each stone, each curb, each round metal drain cover, each mossy
mound. So what is it that I am doing, really? What am I trying to
say? That I am still alive, that I am still here, and that somehow
everything has changed — changed so profoundly that it seems just
the same? That I am enjoying my coffee? That it is enjoying me? While
I was drawing, I was noticing for perhaps the ten thousandth time how
good it felt. And now, while I’m writing, I am noticing the same
thing. In both cases, it is a feeling of intimacy, as if my fingers
were simultaneously sending and receiving and responding through the
touch of warm living tissue and bone and skin. I suppose that sounds
crazy. But that is the state I am in, and for as long as I can
remember, all the way back to my childhood on the farm, that is the
way it has been.
My mother’s brother-in-law was given
the Purple Heart seven times. Like my father’s brother — the
fortunate one — he survived the Battle of the Bulge. Then he came
home. And got a job. The years went by. He became a bank manager in a
small town. He played golf. His skin was deeply tanned. He smoked. He
had a gold cigarette case. He was nice. He was kind. He was gentle.
He never complained. He had smile lines around his eyes. He made a
roll top desk and gave it to my mother. It’s in one of the
bedrooms, full of my brother’s stuff. He also liked to grow things.
His backyard became a kind of maze of tree trunks with tufts on top
searching for the light. Every few months, my aunt would call and say
they were going to stop by for a visit that afternoon. They drove
into the yard and parked on the gravel under the big pine tree. They
came in and sat and talked. Very unremarkable. Very quiet. My aunt
was kind of a prune. Her husband understood her. He sat and smiled
and told stories and smoked cigarettes and was calm and friendly.
That’s what a kid remembers. That, and his gold cigarette case, his
manner of opening it, the way it looked on the little table beside
him in his chair. Patience. You would never have known there had been
a war. A kid had to find out about it little by little, find out
about the Purple Hearts, find out about the suffering and the fear.
Well. I don’t know what reminded me of this, sitting here in the
dark this morning, with my funny little second-hand lamps glinting
from odd corners of the room. He died when he was eighty or so. My
aunt lived on, and died when she was ninety-three. By then she really
was a prune. Pretty nutty, too. There are still a number of her old
letters around. I would read them, if I didn’t remember them so
well. Maybe our children will find them someday, open one, and say,
What the hell? And then
are not paper letters, I know. They do not arrive in envelopes. And
yet they can be read by the fire, or at the kitchen table while the
soup is on and the bread is in the oven. They can be examined like
leaves from the yard at your desk by the window. They bear no scent.
There are no handwritten clues. And yet you can imagine both. And as
you do, you become the letter yourself. Two authors, two writers, two
recipients. And a multitude of messages, one for each thought, each
glimpse, each silence, each present, each past, each eternity. All in
the moment. And when you look up, and around you, and in and out and
beyond, to the graves and the wind and the snow, to the meadow and
the fallen tree, to the granite-sleeping shadow, to the deer and her
young on the narrow path that leads to the still water, what do you
know? Everything. Everything. All. And what you know is what I feel.
The apples are wonderful this year. Or
maybe I have somehow become more receptive to their flavor. And of
course there is much more than flavor involved. Apples leave the
mouth fresh, the teeth clean, and the heart, mind, and spirit in a
state of readiness — for what? flight, I suppose — to new
heights, new depths, uncharted territory. This is how I feel when I
eat an apple. The texture. The crunch. The invasion of juices and
their joyous riot on the tongue.
A Larger Life
In my quest to live a larger life,
I have noticed smaller things,
including my own existence,
formerly thought of as profound,
but which now pales before
the taste and crunch of an apple,
or the invisible wake carved
in a misty November sky
by a formation of geese
passing overhead —
until I disappear altogether,
only to resurface on another plane,
where my struggles are unnecessary,
and I am no longer an intruder,
but a participant —
a human apple set upon by larger teeth,
a handful of crumbled earth
trod upon by a multitude of feet,
an enlightened gasp,
a flame burning clear and bright —
no longer a mistake,
or a question mark with a burden
of knowledge to bear,
but an intoxicating expression of
like words on a page
no longer strangled by their meaning,
or a hostage of time free
to run naked in the night wind,
glorified by all that is unnecessary,
rebelling at nothing, nameless, insane
where the larger life I sought
becomes a child knocking on my door,
breathless, urgent, asking me to play —
when the failed creed of purpose
withers and dies away —
and all that I am is forgotten and
Collected Poems, 2002
Or this, from the beginning of the
twelfth chapter of A Listening Thing, in the words of narrator
and dear friend Stephen Monroe:
I once read a story about a man who
cured himself by eating apples. His problem was that he had won the
lottery, quit his job, and didn’t know what to do with himself. As
a result, he stayed up late, drank, and ate all the wrong foods. He
was bored silly, because his friends still had to work. At the same
time, his friends were bored with him, because he had lost touch with
their problems. Tired, lonely, and constipated, he was considering
suicide when his mother happened to call. Focusing on his
constipation, she told her son that he should start eating apples. To
please her, he did. Within a few short days, he was feeling better.
Not only that, his entire outlook changed. Crediting the apples, he
went to the library and checked out several books on the subject. He
learned all about the history of apples and about how they were grown
in different parts of the world. Feeling better and better, and
having time on his hands and money at his disposal, he decided it
would be nice if he could get involved in something interesting that
would, at the same time, be of value to other people. He sent off for
brochures, read the mission statements of countless nonprofit
organizations, and made lists of worthwhile endeavors. None, however,
caught his fancy. Then, while sitting one afternoon in his backyard,
it came to him. He could buy a farm and grow apples. The idea was so
appealing that he checked the real estate section of his daily
newspaper to see if there were any apple orchards for sale. There
were. Thrilled to the bone, he set out to investigate. In a small
town out in the middle of nowhere, he stopped to ask for directions
to a certain farm he was interested in. In front of the hardware
store, he happened to meet a sunburnt and aging apple grower. The two
fell into conversation. When the farmer learned of the stranger’s
intentions, he smiled kindly, then told him all about growing apples,
from a farmer’s perspective. It turned out that there was an
incredible amount of hard work involved in bringing an apple crop to
market. The weather could also complicate things. The stranger
listened politely as the farmer went through an endless list of
things to watch out for. Faced with so much practical thinking, he
was unable to explain his own motivation. He soon realized that the
pleasure of growing and eating apples was only part of the equation.
Buying a farm and raising them commercially was a complicated matter.
In the end, the man didn’t buy a farm. Instead, he planted an apple
tree in his backyard. The story didn’t say what happened after
that. The apple tree could have died the very same year, and the man
could have killed himself after all. He didn’t, of course. He grew,
right along with his apple tree, and bore fruit in ways he never
could have imagined. He enjoyed his money, gave some of it away,
married, had children, died, and was remembered along with the tree
he’d planted. We know this, because whoever wrote the story did it
in a way that left the door open to hope and possibility. And we also
know because, everywhere we turn, there are symbolic apple growers
all around us.
for a few dead leaves caught in its joints, and a few tiny
undeveloped fruits attached like nodes to its extremities, the fig
tree is bare. The coloring of the branches changes with the
temperature, now green, now gray. The whitish blotches on its skin
are like age spots, with patterns and lichens and lumps. The tree is
both woman and man. Behind the tree is a little shed. Behind the shed
are the neighbor’s fir trees, which bury us in needles and branches
and cones. Rectangular steps, planted in a gentle curve, lead from
the house to the shed. They are covered with moss. About midway along
the path, some of the stones are pushed up by a large fig root. This
is on the west side of the tree. Other large surface roots radiate
all around. There are mushrooms, too. It’s a fairy tale world. Wind
in the firs. There is a very old bamboo chime hanging from the fig
tree on the southwest side as you near the shed. I love its hollow
sound. I think my mother put it there, although I might have been the
one. But I know she is the one who first brought it home. The wire it
hangs from has long since disappeared into the wood. And so it is like a
little temple back there.
A chilly morning, just above freezing.
Jules Verne, Galileo, Beaumarchais, Louisa May Alcott, Morley
Callaghan, the Brothers Grimm, Keats, Kenneth Rexroth, William
Saroyan, and Cervantes, waiting on a shelf immediately to my right
and slightly behind me, at eye level. Eye level. Sea level. This
house is situated at 161 feet above eye level. But whose eye? And
what if the person is sitting or standing? How tall is this person?
How high is the chair? Is the chair a mountain? A chilly morning,
just above freezing. Clouds. What if they part, and it should be
discovered that there are no longer any stars in the heavens? What if
they part, to reveal the closed eye of a dreamer dreaming a dream,
the eye so large that the face is kept from our view? Does that seem
impossible? Is not our existence and presence, which seems to natural
and inevitable, every bit as miraculous and unlikely? Chaucer, on the
shelf just above. A life of Proust. Letters, Shakespeare, and the
memoirs of Count Grammont. A collection of stories edited by Maugham.
Above them, on a perch near the ceiling, the poems of James Whitcomb
Riley, complete in ten volumes. Hoosier father, son? Everyone.
Hoosier mom? Molière? Gibran? No. My mom is a song. And at sea level
is my coffee cup. And high tide is coming on.
Writing what I feel is like remembering
a dream. Maybe that’s how the world began. Or did it begin with my
mother, and her love for Omar Khayyam?
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of
Has flung the Stone that puts the
Stars to Flight:
And lo! the Hunter of the East has
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of
Although firmly in the grip of her
dementia, she could still recite a verse or two from Fitzgerald’s
first edition. She would also on occasion recall the opening verses
of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”:
Several mornings ago, early in the dim
light, I was walking in the rain when I saw a very large bird I
thought must have been a heron or a crane, winging slowly overhead
near the treetops, between firs, past poplars and redwoods, at a
speed that seemed hardly enough to keep it aloft. It changed
directions, then again, before disappearing behind and beyond other
trees. In that light, at that hour, everything was gray, in darker
shades for the larger evergreens, in lighter for the bare maples,
with the bird somewhere in between. A living shadow. I have thought
of the bird every day since. It is like a character in a story, whose
life goes on after the book ends. It wings, then rests. Wings, then
rests. Finds food. Tends to its cleanliness. Makes its own
observations. It reminds me of the secret lives going on around me at
every moment, some of which, in all innocence, I crush underfoot. And
when I say you have no idea how happy I am that I came to myself
again this morning and am able to put down these thoughts, however
awkward and limited their form, and however similar mine, I know you
will understand. It is a secret life.
A very moist, warm air flow. Sixty
degrees. Yesterday evening, the smoke from a neighbor’s fireplace
hung low in the street, bound to the mist, the damp-scent to cling to
one’s clothing and hair. We carried it in. It’s still here. We’re
Three trees in front of the house are
volunteers. One is a young rapidly growing cedar, the offspring of a
much larger cedar across the street. Another is a young rapidly
growing pine, the nut of which must have been brought here by a scrub
jay or some similarly beak-worthy bird. The third is a delicate
lacy-green maple, and we all know how their little seedpods can take
to the air. The evergreens are lush and happy in the rain. The maple
is mostly bare, and her leaves are gathered beneath her and scattered
in the general area, in an array of colors that lifts and gladdens
the heart. And so we are thrice blessed. All my life, led by the
example of my parents, volunteers have been welcome, unless they
sprout in a place where they would do damage, such as the cottonwood
that erupted behind the house near the foundation when my mother was
still alive and living here. And even that tree I kept for a while,
trimming and guiding it and admiring its leaves. But finally it had
to go — as did my mother, as will I, until I am recruited for sky
service and planted elsewhere. Aye.
This morning, like every morning, there
is no greater surprise than being here — not that I know where here
is, or if or who I am. And if I did, then maybe there would be
no feeling of surprise at all — or maybe the surprise would be even
greater — as if I had said, in all innocence, Let there be
light, without realizing
the extent of my powers.
I derive a great deal of satisfaction
from moving books around. Since I have so many, and since most of
them are in this room, it takes a bit of doing not only to fit them
all and to accommodate new arrivals, but to arrange them in a
harmonious, meaningful way. In effect, each book must be free to sing
from its place on the shelf, while bidding its neighbors to join in.
Bindings, colors, sizes, page edges — all must be taken into
account. Wherever one is in the room, whichever way he is facing,
there must be a feast for the eyes and an ultimate balance. The books
must be presented in such a way that they demand to be picked up,
turned over, held, and examined. Those that are in stacks must be
accessible. Those that are gifts must always be at hand. Those that
are so old that they can only be touched infrequently, must not be
made to feel they have fallen from favor; on the contrary, they must
be honored like the venerable grandparents and great-grandparents
that they are. There is somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand
five hundred books in this room. There is also my mother’s desk,
where this is being written, and upon which reside a full set of Lord
Byron, a full set of Montaigne, a set of Daudet, a set of John
Lothrop Motley, and other miscellaneous volumes. Paintings,
photographs, drawings, gifts, family heirlooms of humble origin.
Three comfortable chairs: the red rocker that once belonged to my
mother’s father; the medium-sized leather recliner (my reading
chair) that my mother used to sit in; and a smaller rocker that used
to belong to my father’s parents. The room itself is not that big.
I would measure it right now, but there are too many obstacles. I
think it is meant to be a den or sitting room. It has a large window
that faces the street. But the room really continues into the front
yard, because I have encouraged the plant life out there to become a
kind of enclosure that gives privacy and yet affords glimpses of the
street. I have written many a poem about the goings on out there —
the bird life, the grass, the lilac, the delicate maples. If I could
keep books out there too, I probably would. But only a few. I would hate to over do.
We are in the midst of a misty morning
— yes, the midst of a misty. Timid frost. Like a deer afraid to
show herself. And then, suddenly, she is surprised by her reflection
when she finally decides to drink. Oh. Who am I? And who am I to
think? Water in me, water of me, how good it is to meet.
Making soup out of simple ingredients:
potatoes, garlic, leek, carrot, celery, and one very small tomato.
The tomato is from the garden. It was picked a month ago. The variety
is Indigo Rose. I mention the tomato specifically because the plant
was given to me by my now ten-year-old grandson as a Father’s Day
gift. A bit late to be planting a tomato. But it grew and produced.
The fruit ripened late, but that was quite fine with me. Just turned
off the soup. It smells very good. I forgot to mention that there is
a little meat in it. Does that make it stew? No. I think not. I have
theories about these things. Or are they beliefs? For instance, it
depends on how you cut up the potatoes. If they are in chunks, then
you have stew. But if they are in slices, then you have soup. That
this and everything I have said to this point is of absolutely no consequence rather
delights me. I left the peels on.
I have another new book: The Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion, whose real name was
Bruce Frederick Cummings. I started reading it today. I have a real
weakness for journals, diaries, lives, and letters. So far, this one
is wonderful. Here is a picture of it. It was published in 1919, the
same year the author died. Imagine that. If you want to find out why
the man was disappointed, you can follow the links. I won’t be
disappointed if you don’t. Because I won’t know.
We all know what it is to see someone
from across a room, and the feelings that go along with it, the
curiosity, the surprise, the fear, the tension, the joy, depending on
who the certain someone is, or, more accurately, depending on who we
are and how we perceive them. The memory, the hurt, the possibility.
The strange feelings of attraction or repulsion. The immediate desire
to make this person a character in a story, however beautiful or
implausible. We love her, we really do. In another life, he might
have been a king. In this life, which we know must be a dream, he
still might be. The intervening space — do we measure it in feet,
or in years? Do we cross it in a great ship? Is that ship our body?
And what of the stars, the galaxies, the wind? We feel ourselves rise
and fall and tilt upon the waters. The room, we discover, is vast. It
comprises the whole continent. It is the world. Suddenly we find that
there is a lantern in our hand. We are all holding lanterns, and we
are beckoning to one another from the shore. Then, when at last we
are about to meet, we drift awake. And that is when we say hello,
or pardon me. That is when we speak: you seem so familiar;
haven’t we met before? And the answer is, yes, of
we write each other in this way fulfills a very old promise. And the
promise is this: that those of us not met in the flesh may yet
express — and, yes, touch — that which is deepest within us. That
this would seem to require effort is an illusion. Those are our
distractions speaking; our seemingly sacred old habits; the nonsense
and noise we have allowed to cloud our view and cripple our
attention. And so the question we must ask is, what really occupies
us? Why, when we see trees so graceful about losing their leaves each
fall, do we cling so desperately to ours? This isn’t to be answered
rhetorically, or according to what we think we or others most want to
hear. It is to be answered privately, and patiently, without hurry,
and with the entire energy of our lives. It is to be answered with
our lives. Our lives will be the evidence, just as they already are,
and always have been.
between rains and windstorms I was able to clear the gutters and
downspouts of fir needles and birch leaves. The fig now is mostly
bare. The stack of empty flowerpots continues to grow. I also cleared
the front flowerbed, full of leaves and a few straggly blooms, gave
it a good deep digging, and then another after adding manure. It was
quite mild out, in the mid-fifties. Behind the house, the ground is
thick with fir needles. This happens every fall. The wind cleans the
trees, scatters all the spent needles and cones. The gutters catch
the cones, the cones block the rain, and the gutters overflow. I go out again and again to
clear them and the water runs freely once more. There is nothing I can do
about it. The trees belong to the neighbors to the south. The storm
winds come from the south. And if the trees were in our yard, what
would I do? The same, of course. Unless they were a danger, I
couldn’t bear to take them down. Besides, it’s good to be out in
the weather, whatever it is. Sometimes I get soaked. Sometimes I
shiver. The wind whistles through my ears — there’s nothing to
stop it in between. And so, gutters or no gutters, I make a point of
going out several times a day. The exposure does a body good. And you
can see what it’s done for the mind. But the mind is part of the
body. Just as the body is part of the dream. And what is the dream
part of? Everything. And everything is good.
I’m not sure what time is, or if it
exists. I don’t know that it passes. I’m told that it changes
speeds. I’m told that we change speeds, even while sitting
here like a lump, as my dear mother used to say, in front of a
computer screen, or philosophizing for the silent amusement of these
familiar four walls.
When did I become the ghost
that haunts these rooms?
When I could no longer
find my way out, I guess.
When my mind grew thorns
and knobs wouldn’t turn.
When I started to groan
and walk like my mother.
When she looked through me
and minutes turned to years.
When I looked through her
and saw the clock had stopped.
When our quiet talk became
dust on the furniture.
“Pictures, Tables, Walls”
Songs and Letters, January 31,
And so consequently, I never really
feel like time is running out. I am not an hourglass. I might have
one more year, or thirty. I might have one more minute. I might
already be gone.
book will break your heart if you have one. And yet, through it all,
and even after you have finished reading it, you will give thanks for
its simplicity, grace, and intelligence. Rare indeed is the
autobiographical work that is so keenly and objectively observed,
especially one that focuses on childhood and coming of age under such
trying, difficult circumstances. Life in a large family with an
alcoholic, sexually abusive father is enough to break some, and
permanently damage others. To survive is a triumph, especially when
that survival flowers, without bitterness, as self-understanding.
Love has the final word. And so we can truthfully say that Elisabeth
Hanscombe’s life, still far from over and promising of work to
come, is proof that despite or perhaps even because of pain, art and
eloquence are ever within our grasp.
By and large lately, the early morning
and evening walks have been windless. Last night the moon was so
bright I almost wished I had sunglasses. Moonlight is
sunlight, you know. The smell of dry crushed leaves, even though the
leaves are wet — how do you explain that? Why would you want to? By
the time you’ve accomplished the task, the leaves have changed, the
smell has changed, and you have changed. Haven’t you? No? Why? Are
you sure? And then you discover that even not explaining is an
explanation of sorts. At the kitchen window this morning. Washing out
the old Revere Ware coffeepot my parents bought when I was about
twelve. The fig tree. The better part of its yellowed leaves now on
the ground. And other incomplete sentences. One year, when the tree
was still fairly small, my mother, in the restlessness of her
disease, picked off as many of the yellow leaves as she could reach.
She wanted to keep things neat. When she turned her back, another
fell from higher up. Laura, the leaf said, we love you.
“Tell Laura I love her.” You remember the song, even if you don’t
know it, or don’t think you do. “Tell Laura not to cry. My love
for her will never die.” And other complete sentences.
Year upon year, fall upon fall, the
maple leaves on the path remind me of hands. And one must die to know
what it is to be held that way — die to the branch, die to the
stem, die to the light, die to the wind. In other words, one must
live. You turn up your collar, look skyward, then back again at where
you have been. And find it changed. Because you have.