On Turning 54

I awaken.

I bring kindling in from outside.

I build a fire in the wood stove.

A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.

Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.  

———

I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.

Why?  Because he faces forward.  And because I am facing back.  And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.  Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.

———

On most days I work on the creek.  Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.  

But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.  

And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.  

I watch how the water flows.  I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.  I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.  I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.

Granted, it’s not much.  So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.

The answer is, well, no.  But it is, in fact, what I am doing.  For whatever that’s worth.

———

On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote

I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,

worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,

planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,

guzzled everything save dry water.

Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.  I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.  Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.   

Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.   

His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.  

Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.  

The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.  I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.  While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.  I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.  

The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.  They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.  They had to apologize.  It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.  It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything.  In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.  They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.  

You are in charge, now, they told me.  And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.  I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.  I am so sorry.

On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.  And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.

And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.  If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?

———

We all are in the process of dying. 

I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.  And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.  That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.  So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.  

I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.

———

This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.  I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.

She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age.  And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.

So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.

And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.

Perhaps this will be the year.

 

 

Peace through Strength

Friday night all hell broke loose.

The chaos began when Mazie lay down on the puzzle field.

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Later that night she and Anna staged an insurrection and suspended all rules.  They fumbled around with pieces.  They tried to place pieces that lay outside the border.  They worked all helter skelter on one little area and then another little area and then another without any rhyme or reason.

IMG_8566Yesterday morning I instituted martial law.  All rules reinstated plus an additional 5th:  You were allowed to place three pieces and then had to walk away.

Last night we happily listened to the Republican debate as the cafe slowly came into focus.  I learned last night that a civil society can only prevail in these fearful times through strength and waterboarding and things far worse.

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Learning to Stand

Colorado SkyThe first thing she learned as a three year old violinist was how to bow. From that first gesture all things commence.

For most of yesterday, I holed up in the Stone Cup coffee house excepting a break to go back to camp and eat lunch with Mazie and listen to her sing a song she had written that morning about her song writing partner. In turn, her partner was supposed to write a song based on stories Mazie had told her. I asked her what she had talked about and Mazie wouldn’t tell because she “didn’t like me and didn’t want to share her stories.” Which is what, I think, this time is all about. After sharing lunch, she lamented that she wanted to connect with some other people, but didn’t quite know how to do it. I listened and made some feeble suggestions and then she was off, making as many tracks away from me as she could.

There’s the doing. And then there’s the allowing. The doing is the driving and periodic suggesting and the working and the paying for. And the allowing is the stepping back and letting her discover the person she is meant to be. Both, in their own ways, will go unrecognized. This morning after walking away, i caught sight of her writing in her songbook in the tent. And all yesterday and this morning she recognized people from Telluride and parts known and unknown. And I realized that our daughter was finally stepping out on her own.

We need to help her stand independently. But the sentiment immediately collapses in on itself. How do you help someone be independent?   We have to not help.  Instead we need to walk away.

So for the week, I’m her on call mule. If she needs an assist, I’m there for her.  But she knows what she needs to do.  And where she needs to go.  And it’s time to go.  And it will mostly be without either of her parents.  And, by definition, the very best parts of it neither of us will be there to witness.

Late on our first evening, she asked me what I wanted to do. After the long drive,  all I wanted was to pop some benadryl and go off to bed.  I told her as much.  But if there’s something else you want to do, I said, I’ll do it.  Well maybe I’ll just go to bed, she whispered. But then she hesitated, turned, walked over to a circle of musicians and pulled up a chair.  I followed. They asked if she wanted to play and she took the guitar and played a Patti Griffith song. She then left and returned with her violin.

A fellow asked if she could accompany him on a song . What would she like? he asked.

Something slow, she said.

And what key?

It doesn’t matter, she said. The fellow started to play, and within half a bar Mazie had  raised the violin to her chin. And then she fell in and let her instrument sing in a sweet and aching way. He sang and turned to her and the violin carried on, bearing the song in new directions and then back around so that he could carry it again. And like that they travelled for quite a while.  Folks sat, intrigued it seemed, and strangely moved.

How long have you been playing with your dad, another musician asked as they finished.

He’s not my dad, Mazie announced. I’ve never seen this girl before in my life, the song writer said.

Say Yes

You know that bucket list fantasy you might have, that one day you’ll get up on a stage in New York, let’s say, and sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

It kind of happened this morning. 150 songwriters and musicians sat groggy and expectant as Dr. Ysaye Barnwell just off from nearly a quarter century with the Rock, ambled up and took a seat in all her massive self.

From the moment she presents herself, you can’t help but think that this is what a fully actualized person must look and feel like: passionate, brave, mindfully scolding, patient, of brilliant intellect, and even greater heart.

You all get in a circle, she orders. We need to be in a circle for this. Two deep, bass to the left, sopranos on the far right. No matter the circle was three deep, and who knows if people were sitting in the right place.

As musicians you all only need to know how to count to four, she declares. Sometimes six. But we’re going to count to eight. It goes like this: one, one two one, one two, three, two, one, she sings. And so on. We’re going up to eight. With that she launches.

Man, you guys sound terrible, she announces when we conclude in something slightly more than a disorganized jumble. Again, she says, but this time instead of singing the number four, I want all of you to clap. And off she leads us. And then again, this time in round and then faster. Succeeding or failing at this exercise ceases to have meaning.

Which leads to the second lesson. Why are we here? Why is Mazie here at a weeklong song workshop in the Rockies? Why are any of us here?

Dr. Barnwell has us sing a quodlibet which, she explains, has two meanings. The first is a legal argument of which she knows little about. The second is a song in which different melodies (and even different lyrics) are sung in counterpoint to one another.

My soul is anchored in the Lord, sings one group.

Lord, I done done, sings another.

And through it all Dr. Barnwell begins to weave us together with her own voice.

Her three octave range seems to stretch out as she pitches notes to the highest soprano and then back down to whatever the basses can muster. Within minutes she has 150 people singing in different keys, different lyrics in round that merges into a a tidal chorus.

Lord. I done done. Lord I done done. Lord I done done what you told me to do.

If only we all could say that.

Say yes, Barnwell counsels. Don’t matter what it is. Just say yes. You may not know what they’re asking you to do, and you may not think you know how to do it. But don’t worry. You all will figure it out.

Terminal Conditions

ImageCall it the last heady days of summer.

Saturday evening. Mazie and I have crossed the Sierras and bullet across the Nevada basins and ranges, hoping to make Elko or something farther by night.  All the way, electronic signs remind us that the Amber Alert is still effect. The girl and the man had headed north to Idaho or perhaps Canada. No one knew which. Had she gone willingly, I wondered. Was she part of a plot to kill her mother? And if so, what kind of future had her or this man imagined. And if she’d been kidnapped, what had he imagined? Under what circumstances could this end in something less than bad for any of them?   At what point does the line of thinking break, and in the moment of breaking, what does it feel like?

Mazie will be attending song school in the Rockies, still many hundreds of miles ahead of us. She feels scared, I think, wondering if she will fit in or if she will be able to hold her own. But her fifteen year old self isn’t able yet to divulge her feelings to her dad. What energy she has must be directed at quelling the fear rising inside her.

At any moment she could ask to turn around, decry that she has changed her mind, that she can’t do it. But we have to go on. Regardless of what happens, it will at least be something, and something is more than nothing at all. There’s no gain in turning back. And we should take what’s been granted.

Life, after all, is a terminal condition.

10. Lucky Penny

Rain continues today. Sanding and prep of the boat is temporarily halted.  Which is fine.  Something else must be righted now.

1.  The story of the Boatman and the Lucky Penny

In 2009, the year she came of age, Mazie rode with Howie through Lava.
That trip for all of us was the high water mark of a magical summer.  Not even twelve, Mazie had busked in Telluride, had run in the desert, and bank to bank she had swam the Colorado.

But in this particular moment, there was little glory to be had.  The guides had nervously scouted the rapids and Mazie was well aware of their trepidation.  One by one, the rafts had set off, but when it came time for Mazie’s boat, she refused to get in.  She stood on the shore shaking with fear, and then in tears asking to be taken around some other way.

But there was no other way.

Lava sits in the depth of the Canyon, cut one mile deep in the earth.  Here the precambrian metamorphic rock is hard and ancient, dating back 1.75 billion years.  But the rock still feels fresh and scary and hot as if it was born yesterday.  And yet it came into being before there was even life on earth.  Looking at the chasm faces, you feel palpably that the world of life doesn’t belong to the ancient world that’s revealed there.  And yet life is.  The water cuts through the canyon, wearing it away until at Lava Falls water meets rock steeled by pressure and fire.  Lava is harder.  But in the end, minuscule grain by minuscule grain, the water will win.

To be safe at Lava you work against instinct.  If you bull forward straight ahead, you go over the lip of the ledge and you end up in the hole which is where you don’t want to be.  There water turns into a turbo charged washing machine the size of a small building.  You get thrown around or held under, or perhaps spit out hopefully in one piece.

To avoid the ledge hole you have to bank right, straight into a chute that slams you dead against a rock face. You ride high and bank off the wall, careen around the hole into the mountain size waves that threaten to flip you back.

Howie has guided river trips on the Colorado for over twenty years.  He has plenty of experience.  But each time he runs Lava, Howie dons a white shirt and tie.  It’s his schtick.  You need to respect Lava he says.  You don’t own it.  That water owns you.

Mazie had chosen to ride with Howie on this run.  She loved his humor, how he told a story about ancient Puebloans, narrating it with tiny plastic figures, until folks realized he was making things up.  He had been on the river for twenty years.  But most importantly, his collected and calm manner was equal to his experience.

Mazie stood on the shore sobbing, refusing to get in the boat, begging for Howie not to leave the shore.  All the other boats, including ours had already left.  Howie was alone and at a loss.  He had no children of his own and had no experience about what to do with a terrified little girl.  So he improvised.  Before he untied the boat he knelt by Mazie and put something in her hand.  This is my lucky penny, he whispered to her.  I’ve carried it every time that I’ve gone through Lava.  Hold it tight, he told her.  Hold it tight and it will keep you safe through the rapids.  With that, Mazie climbed into the raft and she held on.

Mazie clutched that penny.  Twelve years old, not even, and she descended into that roiling water with Howie at the oars.  They struck deep, disappeared, emerged and struck deep once again, the boat fully disappearing beneath the water.  They shot out into the face of the waves that mounted again and again until they were at last carried through.

Once all the boats had safely made it, we tied up against the cliffs towering above the water.  Shaken, giddy, and fully spent, everyone had stepped onto the ledge to which we were tied.  People sat and rested, some drifting into sleep.  Mazie, though, stayed in the boat, sobbing forever it seemed, still afraid to let go of the lines.  One by one the boatmen sat with her.  Howie held her, letting her know that they were safe, that everything was okay.

A few days ago, Howie Usher suffered a severe stroke.  He was set to go down on the river this summer.  There’s little word yet on his condition, only that it’s bad and that he has a difficult road to recovery.  This time the water carried wrong.  Howie went down over the lip and he’s in there now.  Things didn’t go right.  And now Howie against his will, knowledge, and experience, has been swept into the hole.

A New Life

The coming days were flush with the banal.

Mazie and I, waiting for school to begin, shifted our ways to a local hotel.  They had a pool which Mazie was hot to swim in.  We joked about our big and fancy house. Poe, he stayed put in his hotel in Occidental.

On the last day of summer I took Mazie to the Harry Potter movie in Santa Rosa.  It was a dad daughter day and Mazie was pleased and funny and grateful, I think to have her dad’s attention.

On the first day at school, I drove Mazie from the hotel.  That first morning, nervous as heck, she asked that I walk her to the office, we check in, and then we walk out and as we did so she would peel away.  In that way, just as she dictated, I delivered her to her new school.

The kids were different, she later told me.  But she’s grown up resilient, and slowly, in her own way, she set to making friends.

Mazie and I would have breakfast each morning in the hotel lobby.  She would pack a lunch for herself from whatever she could scavenge from the hotel breakfast line: a piece of fruit, some juice, a PB&J.  I would then drive her to school.  In the evening I’d pick her up, we’d settle back into our hotel room, and Mazie would diligently sit and do her homework.

As for Poe, he became my own affair.  Some mornings and most afternoons I’d drive to Occidental and up into the meadow, where I would set with him.  I’d nap in the straw while he perched near me.  I’d feed him and talk to him.  He would sometimes mutter back.  I called Anna on the phone.  I wanted to tell her about the bird, but when we talked he would caw loudly until Anna would tell me to get out of the coop.  It was hard to talk with the bird near by, she said.

People seek solace and meaning and fire, and we each seek it in our own way.

I found it in dreaming of and fashioning for ourselves a new life.  I found it in Poe.

In the end, I think he just bugged her.