When the sparrow sings
deep in the woods all alone,
is it still lovely?
NOTES: My old friend and schoolmate, John Marquand is a bird whisperer. He rises early in his Colorado home and gets out when the light is good to stalk and take amazing photos of birds.
John shoots other beautiful photos as well, but he’s got a thing for birds. They seem to pose for him. He shares a lot of his photos on his Facebook page. If he ever puts out a nature calendar, I’d buy one.
So blithely we scrapped
our outmoded traditions.
But what did we know?
NOTES: My high school had long observed a set of traditions at graduation time. While probably only a few decades old, to us callow kids, those customs may just as well have been prehistoric.
For as long as we could remember, our school had marked the end of the school year with a Baccalaureate service, a Commencement ceremony, and Honor’s Night. The first was inspirational, and still carried a whiff of religion. Commencement was more perfunctory, and mainly served to get your tassel turned and your diploma into your eager, waiting hands.
But the real ceremony happened at Honor’s Night. That was where academic achievement and athletic prowess were feted. Scholarships were announced. Awards and certificates of all types were handed out. But while the awards were many, there was still a good measure of exclusivity. Not everyone got a trophy. It was the merit system on steroids.
The pinnacle of Honor’s Night was–as it had always been–the presentation of the Honor Stations. Four couples from the senior class had been selected, each meant to represent one of the four cardinal virtues of our school. They were to be arrayed on the stage of the auditorium beneath solemnly lit candelabras dressed in formal gowns and white dinner jackets. They personified:
(Historical note by way of full disclosure: My brother Larry had been named Most Courteous in 1960, coasting to the honor on his winning smile and prodigious gift of gab.)
At the center of the stage sat Miss Fair Marshall, complete with a tiara. We were not sure, but we suspected she represented all the good and pure and gracious qualities of Missouri womanhood.
I forget exactly how the Honor Stations were nominated and selected, but I seem to remember some sort of balloting by the student body.
THE DEMISE OF MISS FAIR MARSHALL
Miss Fair Marshall had a male escort, but he was merely unelected arm-candy. The star of the evening and the center of attention was the fair maiden.
I should add one more fact, especially for those too young to remember. The late 1960s were a time of upheaval and ferment. Across the country, kids were growing their hair, listening to loud music and protesting the Vietnam War.
The times were a’changing, and although change might have come more slowly to our Missouri farm town than other places, we were not immune.
When I was a junior, the senior class of 1969 did a bold and daring thing. (Many of my classmates and I admired our elders in the class of ’69. We saw them as smart and sophisticated and worldly.)
The dramatic move they made was to vote to eliminate Miss Fair Marshall. It was a shocking move.
I’m not sure if there was ever a cogent explanation made why this was a good idea. I suspect it had something to do with an unconscious awareness that having a “princess” without an equivalent prince was somehow unfair or sexist. Or perhaps it was a rejection of the whole patriarchal-vestal-virgin vibe given off by the institution
I dunno. But the hippies and the intellectual artsy kids rejoiced that year over the demise of Miss Fair Marshall. And, I suspect that many would-be beauty queens wept.
THE NEXT YEAR, OUR CLASS HAD ITS TURN
I recall sitting the next year in our snoozy all-senior-class meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding whether we would bestow a clock or a plaque as our senior gift to the school.
At some point in the proceedings, I turned to my friend Clyde Smith and joked, “Wouldn’t if be funny if we abolished Honor Stations?”
He replied that that was a great idea, and that I should propose it. I told him to do it. He looked directly at me and said, “No, it’d be better if you did it.”
Thinking back, I do recall that there had been some earlier joking about how ridiculous the Honor Stations had become. The year before, the position of male Most Industrious had been filled by our older friend John Swisher. Now John was one of the smartest, funniest and cleverest guys you’d ever want to meet. But he was the first to admit that he was nowhere close to being the most industrious member of his class.
John had even made many a hilarious joke about his lackluster work ethic and the irony of him being named Most Industrious.
So, I had already concluded that the Honor Stations were hypocritical. And, with no more forethought than that, I popped out of my seat, walked to the front and made a motion to abolish Honor Stations.
I think I heard what you might call an audible silence.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I thought I detected murmuring from the gaggle of popular girls. Probably looking forward to wearing formal dresses up on the stage, I thought.
There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition. But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom Nicholas stood up. Tom was the most rock ‘n’ roll member of our senior class. He had long hair before anyone else. He played guitar in a real band, and he exuded rebel cool.
Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this. It’s called ‘ego-trip.'”
That pretty much sealed the deal. Honor Stations were ego trips. The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.
The Class of 1970 had finished the work of our predecessors. We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”
I was exhilarated and pretty darn proud of myself–for a short time.
A UNEXPECTED LESSON
Later that day, I was pulled aside by Mrs. Van Meter for a brief, one-way conversation. Dorothy Van Meter taught English, and was pretty much universally regarded as one of the “cool teachers.” She conducted discussion nights at her apartment for students and former students. These were heady salons where heady subjects like philosophy, truth and beauty were seriously discussed.
Mrs. Van Meter had hung a small peace symbol over the door to her classroom, and on the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, she came to school dressed in black. So, she had credibility with the free-thinking, progressive students. She was actually the last teacher I suspected would hector me for my blow against hidebound tradition.
She was also known to take an interest in the character formation of her students. She was known to prescribe books or disciplines she thought would round out a particular student’s soul. I was a muscle-bound jock and she told me to pick up a book on yoga. And when I was flirting with the moral perils of agnosticism she gave me her copy of Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis. She even recommended weight-lifting for one of my classmates who was musical and brilliant, but soft and plump.
Her word to me on this day was matter of fact and brief.
“You know,” said Mrs. Van Meter, “some ideals are worth preserving whether they are fully lived out or not.”
That was it, and she wheeled around and left.
Her words took a while to sink in. But that simple truth just might have been the most important thing I learned in high school.
Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.
You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.
Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.
So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.
Notes: This month, my mother would have been 105 years old. She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some unnamed type of dementia.
She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age. This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.
Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic. She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.
We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.
And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.
The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.
It’s that time again to haul this old one out of the vault.
Among other things, God was the first poet. The world is full of rhyme and rhythm, image and metaphor.
In our own small, imperfect way, we just catch glimpses.
We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.
It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.
Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.
When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.
But, the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, there she was — surrounded by a golden aura.
At the time, I was a reporter for a small suburban weekly paper, and was there on assignment. I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.
I kept my eye on her while I got my story. But at the end of the program, she went right up to the speaker. I figured she must be with the group of important people who had accompanied him from Washington, D.C.
So, I put The Glowing Girl out of mind and tried to forget about her.
Fortunately for me, she turned up again a couple of weeks later at church. She was a friend of a friend, who introduced us and immediately left us alone. I didn’t let her get away a second time.
I think the whole experience was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We were married at Midsummer. She was sick and only made it through the festivities with the help of cold medicine. The next morning we flew out of town to New York, and the very next night, took an overnight train to Montreal.
Here comes midsummer’s milestone of our love,
Years since our selfish selves we pledged to yield,
So we’re as broken-in now as the glove,
I wore so long ago while in the field.
Fresh from the store unworn straight to my room,
Rubbed in the oil and every crease explored,
All through the night I savored the perfume,
The musky linseed leather I adored.
Come sober daylight with our job to do,
All awkward stiff not giving either way,
How many sweaty strivings’ deja vu
It took before we as one flesh could play.
Some ragged days I’d spit and pound the palm,
Or hurl the thing against the dugout wall,
But all the while a magic mute and calm
Mutated hand to glove with every ball.
The softening was gradual but sure.
Soon nerves and muscles seemed just like they spanned
From fingertips to join the glove secure,
As if I had been born with one webbed hand.
We’ve come now to the eve of middle age,
Well worn but with a lot of sport to go.
We must each for the other one assuage
Those stinging blows life certainly will throw.
We’ve held through wins and losses and through rain,
That etched new cracks not there at all before.
But loves like this were made to take the strain,
Just like that piece of cowhide that I wore.
Not long ago, I asked my wife if she had a favorite poem. Her blink reaction was, “the one about the baseball glove.”
So, that is what she gets on the eve of our 31st anniversary. A re-run.
It was written sometime in the early 1990s. We were young and just starting a family. I had a job I absolutely hated. I would take long lunch breaks and write poems parked by the side of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.
Long before I discovered girls, back in Marshall, MO, my first love was baseball.
I cannot begin to total up the hours spent playing baseball, watching baseball, collecting baseball cards, sorting baseball cards, reading about baseball, and dreaming about playing in the World Series.
I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart.
When I played one-man whiffle ball against my friend Royce, we would pick a team and go through the line up as each individual player. If the guy batted right, we batted right. If he batted left, we batted left.
(We drew the line at pitching left-handed, because neither of us was truly ambidextrous.)
Our spare time was spent searching for discarded pop bottles which we could turn into the neighborhood grocery store for two cents apiece. Every 5 bottles meant we could buy two more packs of baseball cards.
Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, we moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.
We were married 31 years ago today.
The inspirations for this poem are multiple. Several years ago, it was coming on to midsummer and my wedding anniversary.
I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But, despite the oppressive job I was enduring, I was confident that good things still lay ahead.
I was also listening to a lot of Van Morrison. His song “Madame George” was stuck in my head. (Quite possible the most poignant song ever written.)
In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational thing where he repeats the words “love” and “glove” over and over in an almost hypnotic chant.
My story is about a very different glove, and a very different love. But that merging of the two words was lodged in my mind.
The result of all of this ferment was this poem.
The only time I’ve ever read it in public, I was told it was “an audacious metaphor.”
I’ll take that.
Today, upon the occasion of my 31th wedding anniversary, I submit this little poem. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago