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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Midsummer Love Poem

Here comes midsummer's milestone of our love

Here Comes Midsummer’s Milestone

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.


(1992)

Notes:

Not long ago, I asked my wife if she had a favorite poem. Her blink reaction was, “the one about the baseball glove.”

It was written sometime in the early 1990s. We were just starting a family. My career was having troubled taking off. The agency where I worked had just downsized, leaving the few of us who remained in a state of anxiety.  I would take long lunch breaks and write poems parked by the side of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

Years before, back in my Missouri hometown, my first love had been 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.

My first baseball glove was a treasure, my most prized possession.

I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart. Hot summer nights were made tolerable listening to games my little transistor radio. Harry Caray (who broadcast for the Cardinals BEFORE he jumped to the Cubs) was my favorite.  “Holy cow!”

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 discovered girls and moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.

We were married 33 year ago this June.

The inspirations for this poem are multiple. I recall midsummer drawing near and along with it 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 scat-singing thing repeating 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 rhyming 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, I post this little poem again. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago.

Paradise Sonnet

Our paradise is something less instead

Our Paradise

Wafting comes the mower’s comforting hum,
Assuring all is just as it should be.
Our gates and fences all are rightly plumb,
We celebrate our capability.

New curbs and gutters sluice away wild rain,
Alarms and locks protect our doors from breach,
Our lives arranged to minimize our pain,
Designed to keep us safely out of reach.

But wreaking roots upheave the sidewalk path,
And worms devour our precious woolen thread,
The black and red mold creep into our bath,
Insomnia disturbs our peace in bed.
Despite our engineering and our math,
Our paradise is something less instead.

(2016)


Notes:   Summer-ish weather has come to the Pacific Northwest.  It seems fitting to haul out this old sonnet.

Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate material comforts and modern conveniences.  Probably even more than most of my friends and colleagues.

I was born in the middle of the last century, and started out life on a farm that was primitive, even for that time.

How primitive?  Well, we milked our own cow, raised our own chickens for eggs, butchered our own hogs, and raised our own vegetables in the garden.

For special occasions and Sunday dinners, Mother would grab one of the slower chickens, chop off its head, and fry it up.

When we sold our farm to the Amish, they took one look at the house, and commenced on an immediate upgrading and remodeling project.

As for me, I was delighted in my new home in a Missouri farm town of 12 thousand souls.  For the first time in my life I had my own room, central heat, and indoor plumbing.

I could finally take a bath in something that wasn’t a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor.  In freshly drawn water that hadn’t been previously used by other members of the family.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I didn’t even notice that we didn’t have air conditioning, even when the Missouri summer visited its oppressive humidity and triple-digit heat upon us.

So, I am thankful for many things.  I am certainly grateful for indoor plumbing and running water. I am so  thankful I can enjoy sardines from Norway and wine from France.

I am grateful for antibiotics, and the miracles of modern medicine.  I missed the polio epidemic, but just barely.  Had I been just a couple of years older, I could have suffered withered limbs or worse, like the older brothers and sisters of some of my friends who were not so fortunate.

All of my ancestors as far back as I can research were dirt farmers.  I am grateful for a professional job in a meaningful enterprise.  (Inside work.  No heavy lifting.)

Many years ago, when I moved out to Seattle, we settled in the suburbs because — even then — the city was too expensive.  We made a serendipitous choice, because our little suburb has become a highly desirable place for Microsoft employees coming here to live from all over the world.

Heck, in one of those specious magazine “Top 15” lists, our little suburb was once ranked the “Most Friendly Town in America.”

Crime is low.  Violent crime is virtually non-existent.  The weather is temperate.  People take care of their property.  Unemployment is not really an issue. People of seemingly every tribe and tongue live side-by-side here in peace.  You can walk or jog without fear.

Pinch me because sometimes I start to fool myself into thinking we live in paradise.

Yet, it is good to remember that even heaven on earth is not really heaven.

Memento Mori Free Verse

Sappington Cemetery

Old Cemetery

That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
++++++it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.


Notes:  Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true.  Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.

The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.

I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.

Hometown haiku

 

Minuteman missile silo, Saline County, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.


NOTES:  In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country.  Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.

The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either.  There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town.  Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.

The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.  They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.

The idea was deterrence.  Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us.  We hoped nobody blinked.

It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close.  But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.

A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby.  These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.

I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs.  If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target.  I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.

The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status.  Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.

In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job.  The Russians never attacked.   The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.

In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded.  Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves.  And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.

China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if  they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.

Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke.  Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.

Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.

It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.

Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?