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.

 

 

18. The Room of Requirement: The Fifth Incarnation

A September day a year ago.

We have not even moved in, boxes still stacked, the house in chaos.

The Nichols family has come up from Davis and Sacramento and San Diego to help us inaugurate the place.

It’s our new home, but it’s not yet our home.  It will be a while yet before it becomes that.  What up with the chicken barn, Evan Nichols asks.

We open the french doors and step inside.  The group oohs and aahs – the unclad raw wood interior has that kind of impact.  Evan’s wife Amy announces that it would make an incredible yoga studio.  Evan considers this.  I see writing workshops, he says.  Mazie can see only the ping pong table. My friends and I are going to hang out here, she says.  I declare that I’d rather it be a beer making room.  Or perhaps cheese once we get the sheep going.  No way, says Anna.  It’s going to be my pottery studio.

Evan ponders all this.  It’s everything that anybody needs it to be.  It’s the Room of Requirement, he says.

The Room of Requirement

17. The Room of Requirement: The Fourth Incarnation

In 2000, Peter and Andrea Regan bought a home on Sparkes Road in Sebastopol California. Neighbors say the dilapidated farmhouse was not much to look at. Cramped and claustrophobic, the Regans gutted the place and tripled it in size.

And then, there was the matter of the falling down chicken coop. Built of milled ship timbers, or perhaps from trees hauled out of the Mendocino or Stumptown woods, it hadn’t held chickens in years and was destined to be torn down.

But Peter Regan, through some infusion of resource and energy, did more than keep it alive.  He shored it up on new footings.  He had it reclad in recovered boards.  He added skylights and track lighting and a honey colored floor.  It became a playroom, a ping pong room, a secret retreat for his three growing daughters.

The natural tendency is for things to degrade until they become dust.  But what of the counterposing force?  That thing that creates and is being, well, it’s life itself.  And to foster life where there should very well be none at all – why that’s heroic.

It sounds so simple.

But what really occurs in that strange alchemy that we pass off as resurrection?

212. The Last Day

Jack is still a bit reluctant.  Never known a boat builder to plan a launch date before the boat was actually finished, he said.  So we recast it as a christening. Today Brett Baer turns thirty.  Tomorrow he sets off toward South America.  And this boat has become his own personal right of passage.

It’s a year ago, nearly to the day since Anna arrived here and the day Poe died.  Back then the plants were dying because we didn’t know we had an irrigation system.  The pool was green.  The house stacked to the ceiling with boxes.  Yesterday?  I put in a wild flower / lavender garden in the front island.  Spread mulch in the newly reconfigured vegetable area.  Wrangled missing chickens.  Picked a basket of raspberries.  Brett layered in gunwale gray paint in the belly of the boat.  And I made a celebratory abalone dinner with three kinds of pasta in the colors of the Peruvian flag.  It was absolutely, one hundred percent, the shittiest meal I have ever made.  Completely inedible.  A great day all in all.  And so it goes.

7. The story of the third forest

Yerba Buena Harbor, 1853

Patience yet.  In due time we’ll get to the Boat.  We still need to finish with the forests.

The story of the third forest

Once upon a time, through a series of ecosystem successions, great hardwood forests emerged on the eastern seaboard. The first Europeans to experience the woods were astonished at the almost park-like feel – the result of centuries of thinning and burning of the understory by the native inhabitants who each spring would clear the woods to make it easier to track and follow game. The Europeans experienced grassy glades shaded by maples and conifers, their trunks an easy ten feet in diameter.

We all know what happened, of course. Within a couple hundred years all of New England was timbered out – by the 1800’s 98% of Vermont had been deforested and the land turned over to sheep and dairy. A chunk of that wood made its way down to the McKay Shipyards in Boston and Kennard & Williamson in Baltimore where it was refashioned into clipper ships, vessels so strongly masted and engineered that they could cut around Cape Horn with record speed.

These were the ships that carried the miners to San Francisco after 1849.  When they set port in San Francisco Bay, their crews jumped ship by the droves and headed up into the mountains to work the gold fields. With no one left to sail the ships back, and the investors and owners left holding the bag, that forest of masted clippers and schooners floated idly amouldering in Yerba Buena Harbor, a nation of hardwood that was gradually dismembered and refashioned into the parlor houses, cribs, gin joints, and Victorian filagreed domiciles that graced the city.

That was until 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, when the ground shook so fiercely that the city of San Francisco collapsed and the gas lines burst into flames.  Within days the Great Fire had consumed over 25,000 buildings.

In a strange arc, those wonderful ancient forests tended by the Algonquin and Abenaki, and tendered by hundreds of years Atlantic nor’easters, as well as vast stands rounding Seattle rooted in tons of salmon flesh, came to be consumed in a holocaust at the gateway to San Francisco Bay.

But not all of the wood burned.

Regardless of what forest or what ocean she came from, some of that wood fashioned of steelhead and moutain fiber made it’s way to a spot of land newly parceled out from the Blucher Rancheria in newly incorporated town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County.  The boards were stacked on the open meadow on the knoll at the crest of our ridge.

One morning in 1901 or 1902 a few sawyers and carpenters arrived and, through their hands, the Room of Requirement wrought as ocean, and then as wood, in all cases ferrying whatever was into Safe Harbor, entered it’s Third Incarnation.

3. Tale of the Boat

The Boat

Why, we go to sea.

The Boat arrived here in the Fall, towed up onto the property on an unplated trailer by 80 year old Jack in his one ton truck.  Brett and I pulled it by hand the last hundred feet to the  Room of Requirement.  Opening both french doors wide we ferried her in.  And for a few months now she has slumbered.  The nights long, the air chill.  The cats climbed on her and sometimes we checked in.  But mostly she just slept.  Jack has visited a few times and on each occasion he’s asked if he could visit her, just to see, just to lay his hands.

Walking about in the Room of Requirement, he’d gaze at her and touch her and he was pleased.

She’s just a Penguin Dinghy, if that.  She was built for placid eastern waters and can hardly withstand the gusts on San Francisco Bay.  On top of that what’s left of her is covered in lichen.  Her stern has been plowed with gashes.  What to say?  She may be more hole than anything else, but can any absences stoved in upon her negate her right to existence?

All the while Brett has been away out with the wind.  He restored a barn in Bolinas, and served at a Vipassana retreat and painted a mural and went to a movement workshop at Tamalpa.  He got a girlfriend and got a plan which shifted into another.  All good stuff.

The days have started to grow longer.  The daffodils and narcissus have come up, the locust is in full bloom along with the magnolias.  Spring appears at last to be here.  And now Brett has returned home.

Time has come for the restoration of the Boat.  The boat that came from Arlo Guthrie’s house.  The boat that rotted in Jack’s yard in Marshall for thirteen years.  The boat that harkens to an ancient childhood memory that belongs not to me.

Why do you assume any task?  Why do you refurbish or refashion anything?  Why with all the things yet to be done – rooms still to unpack, months of bookkeeping, gardens to be planted, work work work to be done, have we taken on this project?

But we don’t have an answer.  There is no why.  We do it because it’s there to be done.

And a faint trust in the belief that beauty near always arises from the foolish act.

Frenchie

Mid-day I went down to visit Frenchie, our neighbor next door who had come home to die.  Her daughter called because Frenchie needed to be moved and the daughter wasn’t strong enough to do it.

Frenchie is 88, a feisty Quebecois.  Her husband, now gone, was from Montreal.  Over half a century ago they had bought their cottage in Sebastopol as a weekend retreat and eventually moved up here.  She was a devoted gardener who waged perennial war on the gophers.  She held dominion over this area as residents came and went and the old Gravenstein apple farmers grew old and went on.  In later years she filled her home with stuffed animals to keep her company.  Her menagerie, she called it.

Frenchie lay on a bed in the living room, hooked to an oxygen tank.  She still had fire in her, and when prompted she could eke out a yes or a no and a fierce yet gentle smile. You could feel the shimmering though, the giving way:  her struggle was palpable. I stayed for a bit, and told her she was beautiful and strong.  She was a lovely lovely woman.

It was a beautiful California day that felt to me strangely gray.

That evening Anna and I went to hear Jolie Holland at the Hopmonk. A founding member of  The Be Good Tanyas, Holland came out of the Gulf Coast and her musical heritage has broad Acadian roots.   I told Anna I felt so fragile, that I could feel Frenchie slipping such that any loss, even the closing of the damn record store in Sebastopol, felt like a sharp abrasion.  It just felt so sad.  Holland’s voice was sublime and provided some measure of relief, but nonetheless Anna and I were tired and we got in one of those kinds of fights that leave one drained and aching.

I fell asleep at home and awoke at 3 and couldn’t sleep.  My chest compressed with that feeling of blank dread. I went downstairs and lay on the couch in the darkness, waiting and observing.  I dreamt that I was on my way to Telluride but a snow began to fall and impeded my progress.  The ache slowly dissipated.  At some point I felt a release and opening up somehow and I fell into a thick slumber.  At daybreak the dogs went mad with barking and raced to the windows.

Later Anna came and pulled me from my stupor.  We should go see Frenchie, she said.  I threw some clothes on and we walked down the road.  Her son Louie stood in the dewy yard by the fence.  She died this morning he told us.  It’s funny, the others had all been dying lately.  One 88 year old neighbor just last week.  Frenchie was the last to go.

I later explained to Mazie that it’s like we’re a fabric, each person a knot of sentience in an immense dense weave.  And as any one creature starts to go, unravel, whatever, the area of fabric around the knot shifts and shimmers and vibrates as that knot is unraveled into the nothingness.  The description is of course not quite right, but perhaps close enough.

I lit a candle for Frenchie and let it burn for most of the morning.  What is a flame, but the release of matter over time as light and heat and disintered material?  A flame, be it life or fire, is again a verb, less a noun than a process.  And when the time came, my breath pressed against the flame struggling to hold purchase on the wick.  But the energy of the process couldn’t withstand the prevailing force which always is and it gave way and eventually extinguished.  How does a flame go out?  First there is the sequence of when it waves and bucks and bows. Followed by a brief flare before disappearing.  The ember tip of the wick remains for another moment, burning yet before it too goes black.  Then the long trail of whisping smoke that unfurls into space tracing designs and patterns until quite suddenly that too is gone.   We are left with the dissipated carbon dioxide to be absorbed by plants and in quick cycle returned to life.  And the inert stick of wax awaiting the next spark.