Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cold Autumn Poem

Autumn scene

Autumn Song

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.


(1979)

Notes:  Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time.  Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.

Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate.  My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.

I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis.  We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder.  We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.

Autumn has its beauty.  “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.

But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors.  And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.

Sonnet on Truth, Beauty & Love

The golden light shone all about your hair

Perhaps it Was in Athens

Perhaps it was in Athens that you found
A glimpse of what you vaguely hoped was there.
You stood atop the pagans’ holy ground
The golden light shone all about your hair.

Perhaps it was in Florence when you stood
Before the boldly sculpted Hebrew king
That something stirred within you, something good,
Suggesting that one day your heart would sing.

But who would dream that your epiphany
Would strike in places both obscure and spare–
A country town on life’s periphery–
Or suburb that might well be anywhere.
Improbably, inside a darkened room
The golden light shone all about your hair.


(2018)

NOTES:  When she was in her early 20s, my wife, long before I met her, headed off to see Europe. She told her parents she was travelling with a friend, but she actually went alone. (I think the statute of limitations on that crime has long passed, so it’s safe to report it.)

She was a seeker, but I don’t believe she really knew what she was looking for. It could have been adventure.  It could have been truth and beauty.  I have a sneaking suspicion that she was trying to imitate Joni Mitchell and find love on some exotic Greek Island.

Although she broke her foot alighting from a bus, and had to fight off the amorous advances of a Greek boat captain, she made it back to the U.S. alive. But she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

That epiphany actually happened a bit later in the spare bedroom of her grandparents’ house in a tiny town in northern Minnesota. She tells the story much better than I, but suffice to say it was one of those dramatic spiritual encounters where God gives a seeking, but still doubting heart, the assurance it needs.

Then, fast forward a few years to the point of the story where I come in.  It’s actually the story of my epiphany, but she was central to it.

I’m a reporter for a weekly newspaper in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. I’m covering a conference led by the then-Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Richard Halverson. It’s being held in a high school auditorium.

As I’m inching down the far right aisle with my camera in hopes of lining up a good shot, I see–sitting all by herself in the middle of the second row–this beautiful blonde woman.  (That is not terribly unusual. I am a lonely single guy, and I notice these things.)

But what really gets my attention is that the beautiful blonde woman is glowing with a golden aura. I kid you not. This is a darkened auditorium. There is no spotlight or any other natural light source shining on her. But she is glowing. But no one else apparently notices.

(Had I been a better reporter, I might have taken her picture. But I doubt that the light I saw would show up on normal 35mm film.)

So I proceed to get my photo of the chaplain and take notes for my story, but I keep one eye on the beautiful glowing blonde woman.

I observe, sadly, that at the end of the program she immediately approaches the chaplain and his companions, and appears to be a member of his party from Washington, D.C.

My hopes dashed, I go back to the office, write my story and go on with my life.

A couple of week later, I find myself at the local Presbyterian church I had recently started attending. I’m talking to my friend Marci, a fellow member of the singles group. Imagine my surprise when who should stride up but the blonde woman from the conference. (Although she is no longer glowing with supernatural light, she is still beautiful.)

And, as fate would have it, they know each other. Marci says, “Jan, I’d like you to meet my friend Bob. Bob, this is Jan.” Then Marci turns and quickly ducks out of the conversation.

Right then I am pretty convinced that God had made the beautiful blonde woman glow for me. Being a little slow on the uptake, I needed the equivalent of a neon arrow to get my attention.

I play it cool and wait to mention the fact that I had seen her glowing until a bit later. But I make sure to meet her the next week at church, and get her phone number. I am not going to let this one get away again.

STYLE NOTE: I should point out that I intentionally violated the rhyme scheme in the next to the last line. The rhyming word comes not at the end of the line but at the very beginning. It was on purpose because–well–the event being described was improbable.

July 4th Love Poem

July 4th fireworks in Minneapolis, Minnesota

INDEPENDENCE DAY

The wind and you played in my hair,
You lambent in the moon,
The night arranged as by design,
Mysteriously boon.

Afresh the breeze and warm our hands,
So lately introduced,
Traced so gently new found lands,
From tyranny aloosed.

While all around with fire and bang
Our freedom was proclaimed,
A nation’s liberty was meant,
To us, two hearts unchained.


NOTES:  I celebrate the Fourth of July as a double holiday.  I’m proud and happy to honor our exceptional America and call it home.

And, it also warms my heart to remember the night I discovered my role in an on-going love story.

My personal affection for July Fourth goes back to 1982, when a young couple snuck to the roof of the Calhoun Beach Club in Minneapolis to watch the fireworks.  This perch, high above Lake Calhoun, offered a 360 degree view of the entire Twin Cities area.  You could see several fireworks displays from there, both near and far away.

It was rather romantic.

July 3 Love Poem

Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis … long ago

That Day We Lay Upon the Grass

That day we lay upon the grass,
A luminescent green.
The sparks that arced from arm to arm
Across the space between.

Our bodies quickened by the sun,
The willow leaves aflush,
The sunlight sparkling on the lake,
Our blood bestirred to rush.

Up and down the parkway, flowers
Enticing with their blooms,
Our loveless winter ended there,
Emerging from our tombs.

For we had slept as sleepers sleep,
Unmindful of the world,
Astonishingly we awoke,
Much like a rose unfurled.


Notes:  I have a theory that memorializing milestones in a relationship will fortify it to help it withstand the inevitable stresses and storms of life.  Remembering and celebrating events in the early, first phase of a love story are especially powerful.

On July 3, 1982 I took a walk with a beautiful woman around that most beautiful of the Minneapolis lakes, Lake of the Isles.  We had known each other less than two months. We sat down in the grass by the lagoon.  And then this happened.

July 3 has been my own personal holiday ever since.

Love poem for the Fourth of July

July 4th fireworks in Minneapolis, Minnesota
INDEPENDENCE DAY

The wind and you played in my hair,
You lambent in the moon,
The night arranged as by design,
Mysteriously boon.

Afresh the breeze and warm our hands,
So lately introduced,
Traced so gently new found lands,
From tyranny aloosed.

While all around with fire and bang
Our freedom was proclaimed,
A nation’s liberty was meant,
To us, two hearts unchained.


Notes

July Fourth holds special meaning for me.  I’m patriotic in the old fashioned way.  I still believe that America is exceptional, and has been an exceptional blessing to the world.

Our founding documents are exceptional in the history of mankind, and the men who wrote them were inspired by truly great ideas.

The big idea: That rights are given by God, and not some king or the government. That’s important, because what government gives, government can take away.  But the genius of the Founding Fathers was to see that our rights are granted by God, and thus “inalienable.”

I still get a lump in the throat when the national anthem is played.

But beyond this, my personal affection for July Fourth goes back to 1982, when a young couple snuck to the roof of the Calhoun Beach Club in Minneapolis to watch the fireworks.  This perch, high above Lake Calhoun, offered a 360 degree view of the entire Twin Cities area.  You could see several fireworks displays from there, both near and far away.

It was rather romantic.

Love poem for July 3rd

Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis … long ago

That Day We Lay Upon the Grass

That day we lay upon the grass,
A luminescent green.
The sparks that arced from arm to arm
Across the space between.

Our bodies quickened by the sun,
The willow leaves aflush,
The sunlight sparkling on the lake,
Our blood bestirred to rush.

Up and down the parkway, flowers
Enticing with their blooms,
Our loveless winter ended there,
Emerging from our tombs.

For we had slept as sleepers sleep,
Unmindful of the world,
Astonishingly we awoke,
Much like a rose unfurled.


Notes:

July 3rd — for me — will always be associated with the discovery of enduring love.

When love does not work out, it can painful, and the source of much poetry.  But when it DOES work out, it can inspire as well.

The events in this little poem date back to 1982. I know because I kept a little, old pocket calendar that proves it.

I’ve posted this little love poem before, but here it is again in honor of one of my favorite personal holidays.