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.

All Saint’s Haiku

Ginko tree in October

The modest ginkgo
adorns herself in splendor
for All Hallows’ Eve.


NOTES: All Hallows’ Eve begins the 3-day observance of All Hallows’ Tide, dedicated to remembering the dead, including the saints, martyrs, and faithful departed.

According to current statistics from Open Doors, each month around the world, 322 Christians are killed for their faith,

Poem for Autumn

October's blaze adorns the lawn

Autumn Lament

September’s sun has come and gone
++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn,
++++The swan song of the year.

The bonfires of my autumns past
++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last
++++Beyond the end of fall.

Out on the gridiron battlefield,
++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed,
++++Now flags and glory fade.

Our friends and kinsmen now are few.
++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through
++++Cannot be counted on.

When we were young we loved the fall.
++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall.
++++Those days, what did we know?


(2018)

NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.

Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”

There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Lad and relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.

One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables.  It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.

It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.

So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”

Let me know if you picked up the vibration.

Sonnet about Home

You've read the ads and opulent brochures

Preparing to Go

As you distill your life, some sounds you keep:
The creak of joists, the refrigerator
Humming through the night, lulling you asleep.
Even in the dark you know every door
And how to find the switch for every light.
This house for all these years has been your home
But very soon you know will come a night
When you must leave these rooms, perchance to roam
Down fairer streets to dwellings not yet seen.
You’ve read the ads and glossy sales brochures,
Which promise life both active and serene.
You’ve bought the dream and all that it ensures.
You’re guaranteed a lot next to a green …
And yet … you fear your life there won’t be yours.


(2018)

NOTES: About 20 years ago, I travelled back to Missouri to visit my father in a nursing home. He’d been there for several months, and I could tell he was going stir crazy.

I thought he might want to go for a ride and maybe get a meal in a restaurant for a change of pace. But when I asked him what he wanted to do, he just said, “I want to go home.”

Fortunately, it was still possible to honor that request. He had kept his house and left it empty. I’m pretty sure was holding out hope to move back, when and if he were ever able to take care of himself again.

I was more than happy to help him escape the nursing home, if only for a short time. So we took the drive from Slater back to house near the old hospital in the southeast part of Marshall.

Dad had trouble walking on his bad leg, but we located the key, open the door and found the place just like he had left it. The air was stuffy, but everything was still in its place.

Dad plopped down in his big recliner and sat back with a big smile. “Home!” he said, drawing out the word for emphasis.

I checked the refrigerator, which was empty except for a few cans of beer, left by some visiting relative two or three years earlier. You see, dad never drank, and we never had alcohol of any kind in the house when I was growing up. But the refrigerator was still running and the beer was cold. When I asked him if he wanted a beer, he said sure.

So I opened two cans, and we sat together in the living room sipping stale beer and talking about the past.

He was as happy as I had ever seen him.

After awhile, the beer made him sleepy and he took a little nap in the chair where he had napped a thousand times before.

When he roused from his slumber, he knew it was time to head back to the nursing home. On the way, I swung by the Dairy Queen to get him an ice cream cone–something he had done for me countless times when I was a boy. It made me sad to deposit him back in that new residence that was most certainly not his home.

In the ensuing months, he went downhill pretty quickly. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.

Transitions of my own

Dad had lived in his house for nearly four decades. My wife and I have lived in ours for only 25, but it represents the longest I have ever lived in one place.

We’ve raised our children here, made friends, and become part of a strong community.

A recent transition to part-time work, led to a discussion of retirement timing, which naturally led to a discussion of potentially moving.

For me the inertia is strong. My wife says we should downsize and move. I ask where. Neither of us has a good answer that satisfies both of us for long.

Whatever we do, we know we have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff that must be pared way down.

Our kids are far flung. One lives in the San Francisco Bay area, the other in Memphis. Neither place appears to be a great place for outsiders like us to retire.

We avidly read articles with titles like “Best Places for Baby Boomers to Live,” and “Where Your Retirement Nest Egg Goes Further.”

We try to balance factors like weather, tax climate, cost of living, cultural attractions, and quality of healthcare.

We know there is a whole lot of marketing going on to people our age, but we keep coming to the conclusion there is no perfect place. So we put off decisions and fret.

Transition of a different sort

At the same time, I have been noticing intimations of another transition, more inevitable and more drastic than retirement. As I mentioned, my father passed away years ago. My mother preceded him in death. My three brothers–all much older–are gone now, too.

When my last brother died eight years ago, it hit me that I was now the last leaf on the tree. It feels strange for me, who was always the baby of my family, to now be the elder.

With troubling regularity these days, I get reports of schoolmates who have passed away. A couple of years ago I learned the first girl I ever kissed had died.

While previous class reunions marked the passing of a small number of our friends, these seemed like exceptional cases. Now we’re beginning to see our numbers diminish at an accelerated rate.

The prospect of my own death has never seemed very real or imminent to me. And it still doesn’t. I’ve got so many things left I still want to do. Places like Spain and Portugal and Norway I still want to see.  Grandchildren yet-to-be-conceived I still want to hold. Poems still unwritten. Tender moments still to share with my wife.

While I have a measure of attachment to the house where I’ve dwelled for the past quarter century, I’ve got a far greater attachment to this world, this body, this life.

And while I have faith in Jesus and assurance of eternal life, the attachment to this life strongly persists.

I know a very spiritual man who tells me not to worry about retiring because retirement is not a biblical concept.

He argues that we all have gifts we can put to good use until we die. And the best way we can prepare for the next life is to keep exercising our God-given talents doing something meaningful until the next life overtakes us.

He may be on to something. That perspective makes it seem less important where I’m physically located during the next phase of life, and more important what I’m doing with my time.

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.

Poetry Improv

Ballard Market Poetrymongers

Back at the Ballard Market

Made my second trip back to the Ballard Market this summer.

I’m always in awe of poets persisting in their craft and striving to earn a living. the Ballard Market has a couple of regulars who do just that.

Seven and Elliot show up for work with their manual typewriters and their signs that read: “Poems: Your Topic. Your Price.”

They are the improvisational performance artists of the poetry world. If you engage one of them, they will tell you to name a topic and then give them a few minutes.

When you return from sampling the goat cheese and perusing the organic vegetables, they will have a short poem to your theme.

I asked Elliot to write about writer’s block (since that is a topic close to my heart!)  Here is his effort:

Market Poem by Elliiot the Poet

That’s pretty insightful. I couldn’t do that on such short notice! I love the insight about “the voyage inside.”

Elliot told us that he can make some decent money “on a good day.” But, then there are other days when the take is not so good.

I shared my favorite Hayden Carruth haiku with him. The one about the Japanese haiku master Basho.

Basho, you made
A living writing haiku?
Wow! Way to go, man!

I’m always happy to see poets making a go of it.