Just for a Moment I was Back at School

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I talked about Spain at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St Bonaventure University Wednesday night. Normally, I do readings of my work. But last night I talked about the pilgrimage I walked with my twenty-one-year old son, and the places we saw, the chapels and mountains, the people we met. I’ve done this before in various venues, but never at my alma mater.

There was the exciting and predictable chance to be back home, and I didn’t miss the opportunity to point out how my own pilgrimage began in 1979 in Devereux Hall, just a few dozen feet from the auditorium. Some old friends showed up whom I haven’t seen since graduation, and some whom I’ve seen quite consistently since. But last night we realized just how many years have passed. We all are well along our journeys. 

There was some consistency. I saw Rula who traveled to Russia with me and other friends a few years ago. I saw the good friars at Mt. Irenaeus, including Fr Dan who has been an anchor for three dozen years. Renee and I ate at the Beef and Barrel, of course, as we did thirty five years ago before heading to Arizona. I saw Fr. Kevin, and went to dinner with Sean, a kindred spirit who understands how to listen and how to laugh. I saw Liz. Mikel. Bobby. And Rick—good friend and publisher, as well as excellent writer, who made the pilgrimage from West Virginia since he wasn’t far, comparatively speaking.

I can’t talk too much about what has changed. That students walk around with phones, so spontaneity seems rare; that there are endless fast food joints; that “sponsorship” signs are abundant; that there is a Starbucks on campus. I did notice, however, the view to “Merton’s Heart” is the same. At some point while having coffee with Sean, we noticed how empty campus was, even between classes, and I wondered if the students don’t hang out so much anymore, sitting under trees or throwing a football as was common years ago. It was, after all, an absolutely beautiful fall day. 

My journey since I was a student is nearly impossible to communicate. In fact I’ve written volumes about my life in books and articles yet haven’t scratched the surface of  what happened during the years since I lived here. When I think of my life back then, I remember innocence and hope, much like Michael’s and my innocence and hope while standing in Saint Jean at the start of the Camino. As the pilgrimage continued, new experiences contributed to the narrative, and the innocence slowly slipped away, but never the hope. The small village of Saint Jean became little more than a gorgeous village to begin from and which I look forward to seeing again, but it holds nothing on the deep satisfaction gained on the journey itself.

Yesterday I stood near the Center for the Arts about to talk to the audience surrounded by my son’s brilliant artwork, and I looked up at Devereux Hall where I lived when I was nineteen-years-old, and for a moment I glanced at a young man looking back at me. I swear I almost called out to him across the quad, across the ages, the innocence on his face so precious and frightening, to tell him I promise it is going to be okay. I immediately knew, however, he wouldn’t listen. And it’s just as well. We have to find our own way. And we will, so long as we keep hope. I still wanted to quickly warn him about the girl on the second floor of Francis Hall, but all lessons must be learned on our own. 

I walked around for a long time on roads and pathways so familiar in my youth. In that aspect nothing changed and I made my way across the bridge into the village of Allegany then back and well into Olean and was overwhelmed by the thought that  I’ve already done this; I’ve already walked this way. I wanted to find new roads but there weren’t any around here–not for me anyway; maybe for some newbie nineteen year old. I guess a few things the Camino taught me well is to keep going forward and only bring along what is necessary–like those people who made all of these journeys so worthwhile. My heart does not remain in the Enchanted Mountains; it is with people like Liz and Sean, Rula and Renee, and those who “see where you are, but they know where you’ve been.”

Harry Chapin had it right when I was doing coffeehouses thirty-five years ago, and it is still relevant today: All my life’s a circle. No straight lines make up my life–all my roads have bends. With no clear cut beginnings, but so far no dead ends.

Buen Camino.

 

1981

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It’s Like Rain

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It’s been raining for a few days now; almost four inches last night alone. Roads throughout the area are flooded and creeks and rivers have swelled well beyond their banks. Today schools throughout the area are closed because of impassable roads, and classes at the college are only half-filled.

I went to the oceanfront and walked as usual, though no one else was around. The waves were choppy but the tide wasn’t that high, and the wind was strong, though not as fierce as I’ve found before.

There is something so cleansing about walking in the rain. It keeps my mind almost entirely in the moment, and though by the end of a half dozen miles I’m soaked as if I dove in the Atlantic, it doesn’t bother me so much since I know I can change my clothes, or at the very least find a place to dry off.

Still, I prefer the sun and warmth, but I don’t mind the rain. There’s something about wet weather which makes me feel alive. It is the visceral, it is the texture of life we normally don’t brush against. Usually weather is something “above us” or “out there” or even if we are out on a fine autumn day, it is something somehow balanced so that we barely notice. Rain, though, a heavy rain with a slight tropical wind swirling back down from the northeast, makes its presence known. I love it.

When I was very young we lived in a house with a side patio surrounded by hedges and covered by a green canvas awning. I loved sitting at the picnic table on the patio when it rained and listening to the sounds. It is the same camping. After high school my friend Mike and I went camping in the mountains of Virginia and one day the rain was torrential. I’ll never forget it. We found things to do like visit the most obscure caverns in the east, but mostly we sat inside the canvas tent, listening to the rain and writing a letter to Jimmy Carter. It passed the time.

I am sure my most memorable rainy day was one spent with my son in Spain. We walked east on our way back to Santiago from Fisterra on the Atlantic, and there was a long, steady, heavy rain the entire hike. The mist was heavy and while there were supposed to be scenic cliffs and vistas to our right as we walked, we couldn’t see past the trees. At one muddy incline we followed a path to the left which led to an old chapel and stood in a bandstand-type structure in the back. It was the most beautiful sight, looking out at the chapel in the mist as if it was a thousand years ago or a thousand from now. We were soaked to the skin, but it felt fine; we didn’t mind. We were there, understanding the absolute sense of “now.” Rain can do that.

In 1983 I was in Tucson for the floods. Renee and I and Tom and a few others headed to the San Rillito River which had been used for kids baseball games just a few days earlier and watched an A-frame house drop off the cliff as the mud was torn away from raging waters. The house flipped and floated downstream toward Mexico. Even Route 19 South to Nogales was wiped out in one direction from the floods, which came from the heavy rains. It never ceases to amaze me how individual droplets of rain are harmless, but gathered together they are the number one cause of weather-related deaths. It is amazing and terrifying what the singular can do when bonded to others with a common goal—in this case just, you know, falling and saturating the ground.

The least rainy place on earth is Antarctica. Lloro, Colorado is the rainiest with 534 inches a year. Raindrops look more like chocolate chips than teardrops. Rain falls at about 18 to 22 miles per hour, no matter how “torrential” you think it is—it isn’t falling faster or harder, just denser. (See, sometimes you learn something from a blog)

In college I once borrowed a Franciscan friar’s robe for a Halloween party and went as a priest. With the hood up on the rainy walk home to my off-campus apartment about a mile away, no less than a dozen cars stopped to offer me a ride. I simply blessed them and kept walking.

It doesn’t seem to rain as much as it used to growing up. I used to love rainy Saturday afternoons when I was young, and we’d hang out in the den and watch old westerns or old movies. I thought those days would never end. Like that rain, the rain today reminds me that it had been sunny and isn’t now. It is a slight push toward melancholy, it hints at appreciation of things past. I welcome the rain so that I will not take for granted the sun. It is like fasting, a rainy day. It forces me to spend an entire day not in the sun, somehow allowing my senses to breathe.

“Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.” –Roger Miller

chapel-rain

Indescribable

14th

I have a problem: I am having trouble writing about beauty.

This frustration all comes from failed attempts to write about the scenery in northern Spain and eastern Siberia, my two latest locales for my current work. I envy photographers who can wait for just the right light and mesmerize us with panoramic views of anywhere. I suppose, though, even they would say the same; that when they look at their photographs they just shake their heads and admit, “No. Close, sure, but this isn’t what it was like.”

Landscape artists (apologies to Cole Young who hated that term) as well, such as Young and Mikel Wintermantel and Thomas Cole and others, might admit this gap between what they see and what they create, though I’ve been to the places some of these artists captured and can confidently say they nailed it.

The irony, though, is I surround myself with beauty. In my house are artifacts from various travels: A small shell from Spain, icons from Russia, a musical instrument from Africa, and more. On the walls is the inspiring artwork from my son, Michael, from our travels together; a half dozen or so Mikel Wintermantel paintings which calm me, energize me, remind me of where so much of my soul resides in western New York; and other beautiful artwork. There’s the glass work by artisan and friend John Almaguer, the pottery of NY and Arizona compatriot Tom Schell, and on the shelves books by friends too many to count. I read them sometimes—I read about the ‘60’s in Philadelphia, or the things they carried in Vietnam, or growing up in the Bronx, or the floods of North Dakota, and I am mesmerized by beautiful prose and poetry; I am transfixed as writing is apt to do when it is that good.

In my office, too, I have taken the time to insure I am not cut off from that beauty for which we should be alive. I have Michael’s photos overlooking the Atlantic in Spain and others on the wall for me to fall into, and pictures by my Russian friend Valentine. When I look at those photos I laugh and remember how out of touch with reality he is, and how in touch with beauty he has always remained. He is legitimately crazy and figured out how to make a living at it. That’s beauty.

Also in my office is a small statue of St James the Greater as a pilgrim on horseback Michael bought for me at the cathedral in Santiago. There is artwork from friends in various places. A monkey clock from Kay. Pottery from St Augustine (the place not the person). A Cole Young painting which to look at immediately places me in his studio listening to his rant, listening to Van Morrison. I can smell paint.

Outside, however, the beauty has always escaped my writing. I think because that scenery is so obvious, such the standard example of what is recognized as “beautiful.” The ocean this morning was especially calm, and more dolphins swam by than I’ve seen in some time with pelicans barely above the water, always in a straight line, not a “V” like geese. The sun burned through the few clouds at eight a.m. and it was warm before I was half way down the sand. I rarely try and describe that for the countless scribes who tried and failed in years past. Oh, there were some who knew how to capture the beauty of nature—Muir, Thoreau, of course, Frost, even EB White’s “Here is New York” describes the city in a most enticing way making the skyline as much horizon as the Atlantic.

You’d think with something like eight hundred thousand words at my disposal I’d not have an issue with translating the lush mountains of the Pyrenees. So I find myself instead writing about my inability to write about something. It can be a cruel occupation.

To avoid writing, as we writers are quite apt at doing, I decided to clean out some boxes I moved in here a while back. Also, my file cabinet should be thinned out. Oh, and a few tea mugs look dusty so I need to wash them in the bathroom sink, which isn’t far from the café, so I might as well head over there for something to drink. See, that is how we think. It is absolutely beautiful to watch a writer avoid writing.

But I did empty the box to focus on something other than beauty and found old artifacts from before I began measuring time. A wall rug of seagulls and clouds my sister made for me almost half a century ago; a few mugs my dad bought for me in some of his travels to conventions during the early years; a drawing, scribble really, of the moon Michael did when he came to work with me one night when he was two; a high school yearbook with a picture of my old friend Mike and me doing the morning announcements (a good hour was lost looking through that relic); a key to my house in Wellsville, Pennsylvania, I have kept for all this time; a guitar pick from an old friend; two tootsie rolls.

A note here: the tootsie rolls aren’t garbage. I collected money once outside a grocery store for the Knights of Columbus and we gave away the candy. Michael was just six at the time and we had so much fun that day I believe we both remember the details of every person who came by; at least I do. There is certainly beauty in recollection, much to admire in some degree of melancholy.

I have a dried sunflower, a ton of photographs, and three rolls of undeveloped Kodak film; I have no idea from when or where.

I think the natural instinct when wishing to write about something we find beautiful is to turn to metaphor instead of focusing on detail. We do that in life too, I believe. I know I do. When stress is overwhelming and the days feel like something to “get done” instead of enjoy, it isn’t the “ocean” I need to fix on, but the break of the wave right near my feet and how it chased young sandpipers back and forth with the surf. I shouldn’t write about Siberia, but about that moment our cabin mate Alexander figured out how to say “rain” in English, and he taught us the Russian; and it certainly isn’t possible to write about the Pyrenees, but I can write about the Basque café owner who gave us flag pins and shots of Pacheron and was thrilled beyond description when Michael spoke some of the man’s native tongue.

And so throughout writing, it is the details. I can’t write about how much I miss my father, but I can write about how his face lit up when he sank a long putt; or how I forgot to say just the right thing; or how I never really did like Scotch all that much; or how I’ve lost interest in eating at Mahi Mah’s.

It isn’t difficult at all to write about beauty. The problem then is not recognizing how we are always surrounded by it and never know.

 

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1963. 2001.

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I was three when President Kennedy was shot, just a few months older than John-John. I don’t remember the incident at all, nor am I aware of a difference in temperament before and after that fateful day in November of ’63. But I’m told it was distinct, black and white, an absolute clarity in “before and after” references.

I’m told Kennedy came with hope, with promise, with lofty goals like landing a man on the moon and cleaning the earth, the Peace Corps, the hope of peace in general. He was young and so was most of the population as the first wave of baby-boomers came of age. Things were good.

Camelot.

I saw footage only in great retrospect years later. People talked about conspiracy theories, they talked about Vietnam and Civil Rights; and they talked about the subtle differences of expectation and hope before and after November 22nd, 1963. But all I was ever exposed to was a post-Dallas world. There are newsreels, of course, and stories from older relatives. But there will always be something lacking in the narrative for those of us who didn’t experience life back then. There will always be some subtle element we will never be able to grasp.

***

This Sunday will be the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and like I do every single year, I asked my students this week to write a few hundred words about that day: What do you remember? How were your parents that day? When I first did this fourteen years ago, the responses were heartbreaking. As the years went by the paragraphs covered the spectrum from indifference to passionate recollections from military members who had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. And, predictably, as the years went by the details became less clear, less “involved,” and more repetitive to what they heard from others, from history class.

I gave the assignment yesterday and one of my more ambitious students raised his hand. “Professor. I’m sorry, but I was three when that happened.” The rest of the class nodded in agreement. An image of JFK Jr saluting his father’s passing casket ran through my mind.

I let this reality sink in.

“Then you couldn’t know,” I said.

You couldn’t know that before 911 our thought process was different, more hopeful, absent of impending doom. We still had that absolute conviction that whatever happened to us as individuals and as a nation was still pretty much in our hands. You have no idea that before that day we looked forward to what was next, not fearful of what might happen. Our daily vocabulary was absent of phrases involving extremism, terrorism, anthrax and Fallujah. These concepts were real and among us, but they affected others, were problems for others, were handled by others. Our attitudes of issues concerning Afghanistan and Iraq and terrorism back then were similar to students at this campus today worrying about what was happening to students at another college thousands of miles away. We were peripherally aware of it, that’s all.

But it is all you know. Your daily news intake since then—which involves a plethora of social media outlets not yet invented fifteen years ago, as well as traditional media—is riddled with world events as if the next horrible event will be fifty yards away in the dining hall and you’d better be ready.

It is hard to be positive, isn’t it? It is difficult to find some pathway to hope and prosperity when it seems as if we’re swimming upstream against an inevitable tsunami of a collapsing world.

***

In an age when higher education has once again become more of a world of industrial education, where students expect that the sole purpose of their classes should be to prepare them for employment, where enrollment is plummeting not just because of cost but because of the greater population of teenagers not seeing a point to it, there is a desperate need for the study of philosophy and art.

I can’t think of a better time for educators to emphasize the potential of humanity. But technology is our new curriculum, and students today are convinced it is the sole foundation of whatever they do. But “it has become appallingly obvious,” Einstein said, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

“Intelligence plus character is the goal of a true education,” Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted.

And according to Plato: “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.”

I cannot teach these people what life was like before terrorism terrified our cities. I can perhaps only describe what it was like to sit at a table at Windows on the World for lunch and enjoy a view absent of fear. I can talk about crossing borders without interrogation, walking family members all the way to the plane for their departure, carrying pretty much anything I wanted on board a flight. I can talk about what wasn’t talked about, places we never heard of.  

I changed their assignment. I asked them to write what they thought was humanity’s greatest strength, most encouraging potential. Again my student raised his hand. “Professor,” he said. “I’m sorry, but can I write about what I remember from fifteen years ago instead?”

911