Alexandria station

I took this while waiting for my mom to roll in. We walked to the Metro and saw the Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips. At eighty-six, my mom’s steely as ever. When Metro’s machine spat her fully-paid fare card back at her, she simply climbed over the turnstile.

Family weekend

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Bethany at work in Kenyon’s metal shop yesterday. She and two other sculpture majors share a studio the size of a small townhouse. It has a twenty-five-foot ceiling and its own bay door for installation art. Bethany, however, likes to make miniature pieces.

The new studio art building opened while she was in Japan.

Pines

“Pines,” a chestnut here, got a good weeviling this week. It fit a project at school. A friend was so complimentary that she set me to revising it deeply.

3PicturePines4I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels and the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds and that tribe I knew from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.

Nagano now

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Bethany’s fall semester ended in late January, and her spring semester begins in early April. She’s been traveling around Japan in the two-month interim, staying in hostels and meeting up with friends.

Now she’s working on an organic farm in Nagano, which a lot of us older Westerners may remember as the home of the 1998 winter Olympics. She’s neither farming nor skiing, though. She’s earning her room and board by doing odd chores and helping her host with her seamstress business. Bethany loves crafts, so it’s a good match that way.

She finally has Internet again, and we caught up with her last night on Skype. She seemed happy. She wears a hat indoors because her hosts keep the thermostat low in the winter. (It’s as if my side had won that eternal domestic argument. When Victoria first walked into my life, I was at my stove in an overcoat. Since then, some changes have been effected.)

Bethany looks forward to returning to her life and school in Tokyo, though. She’s arriving five days earlier than she had originally planned, and she has already booked a hotel room.

You know what she misses, even longs for, even in Tokyo? Couches. Areas on or near campus where one can lounge. I guess it’s not part of the Japanese college mindset. Sophia University has about two sofas, Bethany reports. It’s funny what you find yourself longing for when you go away for a long time.

The seamstress and her husband’s Kindergarten-aged son had a stomach bug recently, so lots of the household’s conversation involved excretion. Bethany helpfully made the child a poster showing how such conversations may transpire in English. It went over well.

3PictureBJapan02

A transcript of the portion shown above:

“Did you poop?”

The child doesn’t say anything.

“She peed. She is just being shy.”

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And yeah. I’m the guy in the corner with the nose.

 

The comforter

The comforter is half-folded over with the upsweep of a snow bank against a house, if you’ll picture my wife’s side of the bed as the house.  Certainly, I am comparing a floor-plan perspective with an elevation, as it were, but you may ignore the rest of this paragraph: it may be worth your time instead to visualize the comforter just so.  She made the bed before she left, and I have not disturbed her side of it except to take her pillow.  She comes back Monday.  The sheets are pink, and the top one entwines with a thin, cotton blanket, the sheet’s yin swirling with the blanket’s yang.  Miles above them, the comforter’s displeasure is a perfect crescent.

I’ll make the bed Monday morning.  My simple sleep seems hardly enough to have messed up the covers to this extent, though I do sleep better with everything shoved to the side except some blanket over one leg.

Things would surprise her were she to return early.  The windows are open though the temperature is in the 80’s.  I have also saved up all of the dishes and housecleaning for Sunday.  I hope I will get it done.

When we’re in bed, my knee lies between her legs like a log dropped on top of an ebbing campfire (the elevation and floor plan again, I’m afraid), and my face is in her chest.  The comforter is full above us, and I stay under until I get too hot.  Then I lie on my back, and our dreams spire like smoke.

There are also clothes scattered around I have not picked up.  Maybe none of this would surprise her.  The man in me wants her, but the boy is a little afraid, as if I had mooned passersby through our window or had pelted them with snowballs from our roof.

This is not an object poem, but it was inspired by Francis Ponge’s object poems and by Robert Bly’s object poems that were themselves inspired by Ponge’s object poems.

Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting

At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.

“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.

“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”

“Not for me.”

“No.”

Continue reading

Billy

Billy, my stepfather-in-law, died last month after a nine-month battle with cancer. During our subsequent four-day visit to Nashville and Columbia, Tennessee, Betty asked me to preach at the funeral, something I haven’t done before. Here’s what I said.

Who can sum up a man’s life?  The finest eulogies diminish the dead. I can’t say what Billy meant to you, either.  I can talk a little bit about what he meant to me, and maybe it’ll add to your own reflections about Billy.

And even though we can’t sum up one another, we can all draw lessons from one another. We’re that close to one another.

At a funeral it’s customary to hear what someone accomplished.  And Billy accomplished things.  He and his first wife raised Joe and Tina. Those are amazing accomplishments! And marrying Betty would have made anyone proud. Billy had great taste in women – he married the mother, I married the daughter – and he was an accomplished mechanic, too.

But his accomplishments, many as they were, weren’t the main message of Billy’s life, to me. They’re not what I learned from him.

When I thought about what to say today, I thought I ought to run it in my mind by Billy. That didn’t take long.  I could hear Billy say, “I don’t care; whatever you think is all right with me!”

Billy was low maintenance. He didn’t ask things from life that life wasn’t about to give him. In an age when we’re all trying to reduce our footprint – our carbon footprint, our demands on our planet’s resources – Billy was ahead of us. Billy has always had a small footprint in this life. He worked, he came home. When he was retired, he walked in the house, and he walked outside. He had his truck, his transistor radio, and his poker machine.

But most of all, he had Betty. Betty dressed him, and he looked sharp. Betty fed him, and he was happy.

Billy was loved.

One of my favorite Bible characters is Benjamin, the youngest son of Israel. What did Benjamin accomplish?  I’ve searched the scriptures: as important as he was, Benjamin accomplished nothing, or at least nothing important enough for the Bible to mention.  But he was always on the minds of his father Jacob and his brother Joseph.  Before Jacob learned that his son Joseph ruled Egypt, Jacob and Joseph got into a tug of war, and Benjamin was the rope. Joseph gave Benjamin more than he gave his other brothers, and Jacob, keeping him in Canaan despite the famine, protected him more than his own life.

Benjamin was loved.  That’s all.  And how much history he made by just being loved!

We had a seven-hour visitation yesterday, and we about needed it all, too.  Billy was loved. His wonderful brothers and sisters – J.C., Charlie, Ruby, Ada, Bob, and Barbara — loved him, and he loved them.

And there’s a part of me, the older brother – part of all of us, I guess – that needs to be like Benjamin, too. That’s what I learned most from Billy.

Just before Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, she named him Benoni, “Son of my sorrow.”  But his father renamed him Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” Benjamin was born with a second chance! And Billy knew how to appreciate a second chance, too.

Billy appreciated everything.

I met Billy about the time he bought his truck. The truck is now nineteen years old, and I hear you have to know a few secrets to start it. But the truck didn’t have to move for Billy to enjoy it. The sun still came in warm through the windows.  You could still see through the windshield.

The Bible says we see through a glass, darkly. What Billy taught me was, that’s okay. Or, as Billy would say, “I’m fine with that.” You don’t have to have it all figured out to enjoy it.  You don’t have to earn love.  You just have to take care of your own business, work the program, and let God come to you.  Sometimes, it’s not about coming to God.  Sometimes, it’s about God coming to you.

One day, Billy found himself living next door to Betty.  The girl next door when you’re forty-four – they ought to write a country-western song about that.

And Betty, I’m sure God is singing over you this morning.

We see through a glass darkly.  But Billy now sees him face to face.  And if Billy were to speak himself this morning, I bet he’d say, “That’s okay, too.” And he’d smile that winning smile, and chuckle a little.

Be comforted when comfort’s offered. God bless you all in your grief.

Pines

I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels or the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds, or like that tribe I recall from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.

 

Posted April 2005

My kite

One day I was flying my kite.
My kite was lifting me up,
and I was flying!

– Peter S., First Grade

 

Literary analysis:

It a bummer when you want to write some verse, you know, and you’re always writing in the shadow of your best poem written when you were six. Everything I’ve really always wanted to do in a poem I did in first grade, and I haven’t quite done it again since. To be frank, I haven’t gotten close to when I was at the top of my game, learning to write the alphabet.

Let’s pull “My Kite” apart. First of all, the poem goes somewhere. In three short lines, I move from my everyday world into another world. I accomplish what Billy Collins says poetry is all about: “Poetry for me is a kind of travel writing – travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness.”

Second, I go somewhere without really leaving my world. Indeed, the change of consciousness in “My Kite” was there all along, even in the mundane and matter-of-fact first line. The poem demonstrates this idea two ways: repetition and verb forms. The third line is a repetition of part of the first line. In fact, the entire third line is really only a stripped-down version of the first line, as if the transcendent world lives and lurks in the prosaic world all along, like a seed waiting for its husk to split open.

The poem’s verb forms also support this “extraordinary in the ordinary” theme. The verb in the first and third lines stays the same, but its form changes. The poem uses the present participle of the verb “to fly” in both the first and third lines to express what’s happening both before and after my change of consciousness. I’m airborne by the end of the poem, but within the poem I move only from a transitive form to an intransitive form of “flying.” Nothing has really changed; I’m still flying my kite. I’m just flying with it, that’s all. Just… flying.

[Sigh.]

 

Posted August 2005

They move

I got a letter from Nash:

Hi, Peter. I enjoyed your Slow Reads Digest that you pretty much forced me to subscribe to. I don’t get to read books too often, except I check out books on CD from Cracker Barrel when I’m on the road, which is like all the time now.

Last week I had business in Waynesboro, and on a lark I visited a farm I had seen off of 81 probably a dozen times before. Really the idea came the day before as I was passing the farm heading to Waynesboro. I didn’t think I’d seen the cows on the south end of that farm’s pasture before. I believe they were normally at the north end near a pond. But there they were, some sitting and some standing, most in the shade, some grazing and some staring at I know not what.

That night at the Super 8 I ordered a veggie pizza and for the umpteenth time forgot to tell them to hold the olives. I arranged the olives to simulate where I had seen the cows. The pizza box lid was the field on my last trip here, and the bottom of the box was the field earlier that day. The olives were probably not placed too well on the lid because I wasn’t really paying strict attention to the cows last trip. So I kind of jammed them together at the lid’s north end.

I stared at the box until two in the morning. I even ate three of the olives. I knew I had to visit the farm.

“How do you get them into position each day? Farm equipment? And how do you decide on the arrangement?” I was too embarrassed to say what I really think: that the cows seem as if they’re some sort of giant dice rolled after long intervals – maybe a day or more between each roll. Think of a colossal Yahtzee game, where you roll a lot of dice, except it matters where they land. It looks like – it just looks like – some opponent takes some meaning from the cows’ relative positions and then counters the next night with a throw of his own, either on the same farm or on one nearby.

The game is slow because it’s complicated, maybe more complicated than chess. It’s big and it’s cosmic and somebody is telling somebody something.

I was careful not to say any of this. Although I’ve never met this farmer, I make it a practice to impress upon everyone I run into my ability to distinguish between my imagination and reality. I’ll need all the practice I can get when I call Tom Ridge.

“No. No equipment. They use their legs.” He looked at me squarely, and not without warmth. “They move.”

I’ve never seen a cow move. Granted, I’ve only driven by cows. But I’ve never heard of cows moving, either, except in nursery rhymes.

He was smiling now, leaning back. He cocked his head and studied his arrangement. “They got legs.”

I knew that, but I figured the legs were to prop up the operation, and to provide easy access to the udder for the calves and the farmer. But I was out of my element and said nothing.

I started down his gravel road. In the side view, I saw him turn his back to me and walk toward a shed. I stopped my car and arranged the olives on the lid to match what I saw. Clearly there had been some movement since yesterday. I could get technical but there’s no reason to here. And it’s not like I was using GPS or anything.

I’m starting small. I’m hoping to get a grant from The Old Farmer’s Almanac to study the connection between cow arrangements and long-term weather forecasting. I’d like to continue with this farmer because he was very nice. My working plan is to outfit the cows with battery-powered Rudolph noses in order to study their movements at night. It would be in December and I don’t think anything would look out of place.

[Inspired by Tom Montag’s “Morning Drive Journal,” in The Middlewesterner, May 13, 1998 entry: “The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?”]