Eton Churchill

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Eight years ago this month a friend of mine died. Coincidentally, while cleaning out an old box in my office last week, I found a play I wrote, “Blessed Twilight,” which he directed. He was an artist in every sense of the word. In the same box was a copy of the following piece of writing I did just after his death. I am in the middle of a writers festival this week, and next week I’m headed to Florida to do the same. I am intensely lucky to be surrounded by artists, and when I found this I realized that has been the case since I was a teenager and became friends with such talented folks as musician Jonmark Stone and landscape artist Cole Young, the latter who died in his fifties.

Too young. So many artists die too young:

I saw “Witness” before I attended Penn State for graduate school. In one of the last scenes, Harrison Ford comes out of the barn and is going to be shot, but he’s surrounded by Amish. It has a happy ending–the dude gives up the gun, Harrison Ford walks away, and the Amish go home. One of those actors was Eton Churchill. To Ford’s left in the blue shirt and white suspenders, which he borrowed from Ford.

When I arrived at Penn State I was accepted for the Masters of Arts in Humanities, but since I wanted a double major to include one in Art History, I requested an active project in addition to my required thesis. The director asked what I wanted to do beyond my humanities proposal, which was the adaptation of prose into film and theater. I told him I wanted to write and act in a one man play about Vincent van Gogh. He sent me to Eton.

Eton Churchill published short stories, documentary films, and had plays produced around the country as well as having published a novel, “Mind How the Sun Goes.” Eton shared the power of storytelling, his compassion for humanity and his deep devotion to nature — in particular the islands of Penobscot Bay where he frequently sailed. In addition to his written works, Eton’s creative production included building wooden boats and playing the acoustic guitar. We became immediate friends, talked about sailing, about New England, played guitars together. We’d go for pitchers of beer and talk about writing and plays. He said he could get my project done, though something like that had not been done at PSU before.

He took my source, “The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh,” which is 2000 pages long, and helped me narrow it down to the less than 40 pages for the one-man show. Previously, when it was thinned out to 160 pages, he published it as a book. When I memorized the 40 page version, he drilled me on stage until I knew when to look toward the lights, when to fall on my knees, and when to keep going when I made mistakes. He was not concerned about our ability to pull this project off, but about people watching a play about a dead artist who kills himself at the end. “It’s real, but it’s real depressing,” he told me.

When rehearsals began, he told me in his less-than subtle way, “Don’t quit when you suck at something.” The writing was right on the money, he said. But my acting wasn’t working. “Just keep pushing it until you get through it.” I did, and 18 months later we premiered “Blessed Twilight” at the Olmstead Theater in Pennsylvania. The play did well, but it was his friendship which endured. He helped me get my job teaching in Virginia Beach.

He died at just 64. What I remember most about Eton is his passion about not simply talking about life, but living it, then writing about it. Talking about it has no destination. His plays have won awards, his directing has won more, including a nomination for the Pennsylvania Humanities Award for “Blessed Twilight.” When the first performance ended, the audience asked questions, and one person inquired who was my acting coach. “The writing is excellent,” this person said. “But your acting is, well, not beautiful.” After everyone stopped laughing, she asked, “Who taught you?” I pointed to Eton. Later that night while drinking beer at some Pennsylvania dive, he said, “You know, it wasn’t bad acting, it was the character. Van Gogh was psychotic–all over the place when it comes to emotion. They just didn’t get it, Bob. Nobody likes to see anything about a dead artist.”

No, I sucked. He knew that. But we didn’t talk about it. We pushed through it. When he read online a piece I wrote about artist Cole Young who had died, he called to say he was sorry and that he remembered me talking about him. “Another dead artist, huh?” he said, and we laughed. I heard from Eton after “Out of Nowhere” was released. He said, “Finally, you’re writing about yourself instead of dead artists.” He supported my writing more than any professor I recall. He knew it came from life, not from imagination, as his came from life. He wrote about humanity, about relationships, about sailing and music and the brief run on the reach when the trade winds come on. He wrote descriptive essays and plays with more imagery than most poetry.

Me, I’m still writing about dead artists.

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Shadows

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This afternoon a colleague told me she had to spend more time with the students not doing well in class. “I need to spend time with all of them!” she added. “But I’m going to pay closer attention to the ones who need some prodding to get things done.”

In an effort to be professional, I bit my tongue. But you know the analogy: When there are several people who are having problems on the mountain climb, help the ones most likely to survive, not the weakest. If you spend too much time with the weakest, everyone might die.

A bit extreme, I know. But go with it for a moment.

I have students who are doing almost really well but for that extra information, that little bit of one-on-one. They try hard, they do the work early and thoroughly, but they could use just a bit more assistance to see them to the end. I also have students who need a lot of help; who barely made it out of some developmental class; who forgot all the information taught in high school or in other English and writing classes; who are smarter than the first group but couldn’t care less about the material. If spending extra time with these students means not spending enough time with the very first group, then everyone suffers. There might not be much I can do to help these students get far, and I might neglect the ones with a real shot at moving on successfully.

In other words, the students who aren’t trying or aren’t up to the task are draining time away from those who are. Either the first group shouldn’t be here and should rather be at UVA or Tech or any other four year institution with an enormous endowment and well-placed grads, or the second group should be out working for a few years longer to find out how badly they really do need this information, and then they can come back later. I’ve said this before. Either way, someone shouldn’t be here.

Well, just a short time ago in the copy room two faculty members were planning a “brown bag” lunch discussion to review pedagogy for improving ill-placed students into faculty tutoring sessions so they (the ill-placed students) might better address their shortcomings in college. They made a list of assignments for various committee members to review before the meeting along with plans to seek out documentation on such programs at various other colleges to support their beliefs.

Then it was all so perfectly clear: I don’t belong here.

These hallways are packed with indifference, lined with skepticism, and overflowing with doubt. Everyone walks in shadows, wanting to commit but not knowing what to commit to, not knowing who to listen to since contrary voices abound, and finding it all so irrelevant. We are running out of absolutes. “It depends” is the backbone of every argument, rule and objective.

———

Last night Michael and I brought the telescope to the river at low tide and at the water’s edge stood and looked across the mirror-like Rappahannock and Chesapeake at such an abundance of stars we could not see them all in ten times ten lifetimes. We focused briefly on Saturn, then some stars whose names I forgot or never knew. It is a state of absolute presence. Billions of years old and still spilling down on us at night, the peace found by looking up can’t be written down, let alone taught. You have to see for yourself. I took astronomy in college, read some books, try and keep up with Michael’s magazines about the Sky during the various months. But either it doesn’t stick or it can’t compare to being there, under the stars, the stark reality just out of reach. There is absolutely no pretense, no digression from the facts. And yet it is not so much science to me as it is poetry. The night sky was abundant with perfect meter and appropriate rhyme schemes.

Nature simply “is.” There is no argument, no digressions at all, no false attempt to chase illusions. No, it is all so clear. I’ve lost interest in the shadows. I’m going to quietly follow Whitman out of here:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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a leaf falls

rip-rap

This time of year when leaves start to fall I recall a line I wrote which to this day bothers me.

“Life is the distance between a falling leaf and the ground.”

I loved that line. I was walking around home some years ago and it popped in my head. At the time I had been working on a piece called “Walled In” and the end of the essay digresses into a litany of “life is” comments. I added this as the last line of the piece, which tied back to the narrative about stepping away from society a la Thoreau. The Southern Humanities Review picked up the piece and when I received the final edits before press I wrote Dan Latimer, the editor at the time, and asked him to strike the last line. He did.

I am pretty sure it isn’t original. I googled it; I turned it in to turnitin.com, I tried everything. I don’t read that much so I looked through the few possible books I might find it, but nothing. I looked through poetry books, I called writers I know who actually do read books and asked them. I even, thinking it might have been in a passage read by a writer as a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” wrote the show asking if anyone there, namely host Terry Gross, remembered the line. They were nice enough to write back politely suggesting I might be having a mental breakdown. “But it is a great line!” I wanted to write back. I didn’t.

I remember an interview where Paul McCartney to this day is not convinced he is the author of the music for “Yesterday.” Unlike McCartney, I chose to strike the line. The piece went on to other outlets and has done very well through the years, san line. I was concerned someone would recognize it and know it wasn’t original, even though I’m pretty sure it is. My journalism training, however, requires me to be one hundred percent sure. “If you can’t back up your sources,” Dr. Jandoli repeated, “you don’t have a story.”

That might be in part why I slid away from journalism and into something more personal. I hate fact-checking. Instead, I found stories in life. Though to be honest I don’t know any writer who walks around looking for stories. We don’t stand in the middle of family circumstances or think about work issues or attend baseball games taking mental notes about some possible narrative arc.   

But those situations are always possible material. We never stop working. Either some digressive thought about an ongoing work, or a new work, or a very old work, crawls into our consciousness while we are watching television, or some quick phrase catches our attention and we know it is the beginning of or end of or transition to something. It is not on purpose; there is no attempt to blend writing and “life.” I swear. It just happens. We are always working.

An artist’s brain functions differently. A photographer goes for a walk and finds himself framing nature, a painter sees color schemes, a musician notices sounds, and writers, well, complete mental breakdowns from information overload is not out of the question. It is why we despise the comment: “You know what you should write about?” Go away. Did you really think we were sitting around thinking “I have no idea what to write about, I hope someone makes a suggestion”?

And we don’t actually “find” something to write about; it seeps into our existence like humidity or allergies. For me, I walk in the woods, or along the water, and the nature of nature is non-judgmental, absent of debate. I can walk for hours and my thoughts move through unattached to some human-inspired “suggestion” from a billboard or odd structure. It is organic, like leaves falling: thoughts let go and gather around.

Near my home at the river is a small strip of beach which changes with the weather and storms. Sometimes there is room enough to walk quite a ways along the water, and other times the river moves right to the edge of the swamp or rip rap and to continue means wading through the tide. In either case, I am always discouraged at my inability to communicate the perpetual reality of that tide, the infinite days the water will ebb and flow, and the significance of nature compared to the miniscule roll I play in this short span of decades. So I don’t even try. I “stand back and let it all be” as the Boss suggests. And the passing of time is enough some times.

That’s writing. A writer spends a great deal of time not writing. Not because we have nothing to write about, but because we have an absolute conviction we can never, ever do it justice.

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Painted Dog Conservation

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I wore a t-shirt this morning from an organization which has zero tolerance for snares in the wild; Painted Dog Conservation. I drove to 711. 

Reminder: I live I very rural Virginia where wildlife and Trump signs are common.

A few men always gather near the coffee counter to talk; it is a routine. Their trucks idle outside and they wear camouflage clothing even when they’re just headed to the store. Ironically, they really do blend in here, especially near the shelves of chips and display of Redskins paraphernalia.

One of the two noticed my shirt. I was not part of this conversation; just the catalyst:

“Yeah I gotta get rid of my snares.”

“Ain’t using them?”

“Nah. They’re not good. They snap the legs right off the turkey and the damn things get far enough to die where I can’t find them.”

“Sheeeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Dang.”

“Uhuh.”

“I saw me some snares got grippers electronically hooked up to know how much to grab to hold them without snapping off the best part.”

“I heard of them. I sure did, down at that show in Richmond.”

“That’s where I saw ’em. They got a device will text me when the snare snaps.”

“Sheeet.”

“Yeah.”

“Ain’t cheap I’m betting you.”

“Forty or so.”

“Ain’t bad. I’ll have to get some.”

They sipped their coffee. One asked how I was doing and that he liked my shirt. I honestly think he believed the shirt promotes snares. Though to be fair, it has a lot of words on it so can be confusing.

To the other guy:

“You ready for deer?”

“Almost. I needs me new collars for the dogs. Something with better range so I can track them right to the kill. I shot me one last year made it a mile before he collapsed. Damn dog collars were out of range and I had to hike out there looking. It was pouring out, like today.”

“Sheeet.”

“Can’t wait to go huntin.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I opened the door to leave and I wished them a good day.

“Yeah, you too. See ya out there, brother!” one said. I walked to my car eating my vegetarian egg roll and drinking some apple juice.

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Mon soon Come

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“The Weather is Here, I wish you were Beautiful” –j buffett

Maybe (maybe) the most universal effective aspect of life is weather. It concerns every person who wakes and must go outside, and even those who remain cloistered. It determines what we wear, how we travel, what grows and can be harvested, what we eat, our health, our heating bills, flight schedules, road conditions, skin cancer, landscaping, pizza delivery, getting to work, to school, to the stores to buy food, to our friends and family in need. To be clear—it is everywhere, this weather.

No metaphors here. No convoluted comparisons. Just weather.

I spend the vast majority of my time outside. I absolutely love to walk in the rain. Part of that is I know when I’m done I can dry off, change my clothes and make some tea. It is the same with snow. The cold tightness of my skin on a blustery winter day feels oddly healthy, as does the blistering sun on my neck in August. I love wearing my flip flops, shorts, a t-shirt and sweating profusely as the hours pass well into the afternoon while walking in the sun, listening to nature react. Equally, I’m completely engaged when I have to put on three shirts, a hoodie, sweat pants and two pairs of socks just to be able to go for a walk during which I might see deer, cardinals, and various other life scooting around for something to eat while I am engulfed in the deafening silence of the snow. I’ll cover the porch rail with seed and stay dressed and sit on the porch. Those birds don’t care that I’m a foot away; they stay, they brave my presence. Only in winter.

Then I go back inside and change into warm sweatpants and have tea. See, it works for me; it doesn’t work if you have no home. A little perspective there. Every time I walk in extreme weather I think about someone who might be in the streets of some cold place, or blistering hot place, and I remind myself it is more than bearable for a little while until I make the choice some can’t—to get out of the weather.

“Come in from the cold,” people say. “No I can’t it is pouring out,” people say. “Wow, it is just too damn hot,” people say. They’re not speaking for me. I like to spend as much time as possible immersed in the unbearably brilliant sensual joy of life. That includes rainy days.  

Hurricane Matthew is approaching the Florida coast and predictions show it will go ashore in just a few hours. I worry about my friends there, and I think about one of my homes away from home, St Augustine. It seems at this moment the worst of this storm will not make it as far north as my house, not like Isabel did, and others. But maybe (maybe) it is too soon to tell. There are times the weather seems not so much part of nature as it is simply nature having a bad spell. Blizzards, tornadoes, drought; these to me are nature’s way of hemorrhaging.

Van Gogh wrote, “There is peace even in the storm.” I understand that. When it rains hard, or the wind is fierce and I can hear branches snap, as long as I am safe it all simply reminds me I am alive to experience this weather, this turn of currents, this atmospheric screwball, and I feel somehow calmer and more alive. Of course I love the perfect weather, the still day with low humidity and pleasant sunshine. But equally, to experience the rain on my face, getting drenched, reaching out and being a part of the earth and nature instead of it simply being something “around” me or something “outside,” floods my senses and elevates my awareness to keep everything else in perspective.

Who among us during the calm days doesn’t hope for some metaphoric lottery win, some breakthrough in life to make us feel like there is something more to grab on to? And then severe weather arrives and we shift our thoughts and pray no one gets hurt and our property is spared, and above all else that we come out of it alive. When some system swirls off the African coast creeps its way up the Saffir-Simpson Scale, it throws our lives into a whirlwind of measuring value and understanding perspective to discover what is essential. Hell, just a little rain should do the same thing. Putting on warm clothes and having tea is absolutely more enjoyable when doing so is preceded by a good drenching.

The weather is constantly changing, and so are we. Rachel Carson believed that a rainy day was the perfect time to walk in the woods. Of course. And “the best thing to do when it is raining,” Longfellow tells us, “is to let it rain.”

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