At Any Cost, Art

Saint-Cecilia-picture

I applied for a $25K NEA grant to finish a book about fathers and sons. It takes place in Siberia, in Spain, and in Brooklyn. It’s been an ongoing project for a few years, and recently I’ve had an excellent string of acceptances of excerpts, placing eight since January first alone. I am grateful beyond words for the placement of the work, and I know it is primarily because I’ve touched on something personal—relationships between fathers and sons, across time and miles and often across prayer or memory, has a universal appeal.

I planned on using the NEA grant, if it had been accepted, to finish the work both in Spain this summer and in Brooklyn in the fall to wrap it all up.

Then….DJT. Maybe since he is axing support of the National Endowment of the Arts he will give me the money. He had a father who set him up well; has three sons who also are set up well. Maybe he would read what I have so far and it will touch him a little, especially now that Baron Trump is in New York while DJ is in DC. Maybe he would read some of my work and, after sending me a check for $25k to finish it, he would wonder how his own son was doing at the other end of the shuttle to New York. Maybe he will read a few of my pieces and wish he could sit at Baron’s bed while his son sleeps and whisper confessions to him. He might suddenly see his son as a sleeping confidant, while somewhere in Virginia this minor writer is trying to record a few thoughts about his own father, his own son, and the space between them.

Damn, I should be writing fantasy fiction.

As for realistic means like the soon-to-be drained-dry NEA, it appears as if all bets are on hold, and myself along with other hopefuls striving to get some good work done in a world without patrons any longer, will miss the cut by one president. When I heard the NEA was in his crosshairs, I kept hoping he thinks it means Newly Elected Assholes, and simple wants to extinguish the reference. Apparently the NEA, along with so many other arts and humanities groups that support artists, is taking money away from other endeavors of the newly elected Populist Movement.

Oh to have been born in the last century where wealthy patrons paid for the expenses of artists for no other reason than they understood the contribution artists make to the world. When I realized I had run into this wall, that there was yet another set back to finally getting this done, I went for a walk. And when I came home I didn’t throw my work away; I didn’t put it in boxes in the back of the closet, and sigh, saying, “Maybe some other time.” I didn’t open a new blank file and start on a new project about butterflies or an essay about feeding birds and drinking iced tea. I kept working; a little on Siberia, some on Spain, both about fathers and sons.

The journalists recently told to shut up in DC and NY did not rush out and apply for bartending jobs. Leftwing news shows didn’t start running reruns of “The Apprentice.” No, we kept doing what we do. This is where the arts differ from business: we don’t declare bankruptcy even when there is no money, we don’t shut the doors and try something else.

The history of the arts is the history of civilization; from the cave art in France to the sharp-witted drawings by Goya in Spain, to the underground French newspapers, we record what is going on in civilization so everyone knows. It is how we pass along truth whether about our democracy or our dads. Thomas Paine couldn’t get anyone to publish “Common Sense” which told this New World we had it in our power to start anew. When someone in Philadelphia took a chance, lives changed. Paine did not quit. The dissidents who were exiled to Siberia did not silence artists from Dostoevsky to the Decembrists. Solzhenitsyn is more remembered and influential than the men who sent him away. Trying to stop an artist from expression is like trying to stop a river from going downstream: the thought will be created and disseminated. It isn’t an option. We can’t be fired, sidelined, and certainly not silenced.

Something a businessman could never understand is that artists are not in it for the money. Money does come in handy to more efficiently get work done and published; I could use the $25K. But it isn’t a goal; the art is the goal. A businessman may build the most beautiful hotel in Washington DC, but it is a waste of money if no one stays there. But for artists the work must be produced whether or not anyone ever hears it because we know if it is worth its salt, eventually someone will experience it, sometimes not for quite some time. Orwell’s 1984 is more relevant now that when it was written in 1948, as is Common Sense. Artists live by that old Japanese saying, “Just because the message is not received, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth sending.”

I’ve been to Siberia, been to Spain, and, well, Brooklyn is in my blood. It will take me longer this way, but it isn’t like I have a choice. I’m  still going to Spain this summer and Brooklyn next fall. I’m actually more motivated now. It might even be possible that if the NEA and NEH and other organizations which support artists are shut down, we will see an increase of some of the most inspired and subversive art to rip through society in a generation. And when this administration is past and the Republic has survived, it will be the artists that record these times; it will be the writers and filmmakers and musicians who will pass along to posterity what happened here. DJT can spin this however he wants, but I suggest anyone in the street can more easily name ten artists before they can name five businessmen.

I’ll get it done.

“There was a father who had a son. He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done. He came a long way just to explain. He kissed his boy while he lay sleeping then turned around and headed home again.”

                                                                                                     –paul simon

NEA_logo

Advertisements

Leave Death for the Poets

d042df7d654d5b91ac5ad2ac35bba9f0-800x600x1

At a creative writing workshop someone asked the standard “Where do you get your ideas from?” question. I used to say, “Trenton. I use a mail-order catalogue,” but I realized that was somewhat snarky. Now I quote my good friend Tim Seibles:

Some things take root in the brain and just don’t let go

I love when someone says exactly what I’m thinking. Saves me time.

As for ideas, yes, that’s how it works. I might be out for a walk along the water, or perhaps driving somewhere, and one thought leads to another, and then just the right song comes on, or a smell—yes, sometimes it might be an aroma that makes me think of a place, and then the receptors in my head are off and running; I’m just along for the ride, somehow simply a spokesperson who never really gets the translation right. That’s the problem with writing; it is never right. If someone looks at a piece they’re working on and very comfortably suggests there is nothing more that can be done, I am weary of reading it.

But of all the writers I know it has always been the poets who can get me to sit back and say, “Yes! Exactly.” I can carry on conversations all day long about a subject and then toss it around in my head for a few days, write it out, readdress it, and pour some decent energy into it, only to turn to a few lines some poet wrote and I find the need to burn my work. I’ll do it too; I’ll sit here with a match and hold the pages while they flare up. It has a very cleansing effect.

Here’s an example: Tim and I went to lunch at this same divey joint in Norfolk we always go to, and we talked. We talked about our fathers, or about something in the news. We talked about a variety of things that good friends talk about; no, we rarely talk about writing. Well, somewhere over the course of the last year I have several times talked about my dad, about how I miss him; I know Tim gets it so I don’t’ have to say much, but still, talking is always helpful. Unfortunately, my words are trite, predictable, and lazy descriptions of how missing a person feels. Of course, I’m not trying to compose a play; I’m just talking about my dad. Still, I want to get it right.

Then not too long ago I flipped through one of Tim’s books and came across this:

Missing someone is like hearing a

name sung quietly from somewhere

behind you. Even after you know no

one is there,  you keep looking back.

I could write a thousand lines about how I miss my dad, but that covers it. That’s poetry.

Anyone who listens to a lot of music knows what I mean. Some lines just say it all.

I have tried to write essays about nature, already handicapped by the vast selection of the genre from people such as Thoreau, Muir, and E.O. Wilson. In my files are dozens of starts in an attempt to finish a piece about the fall of the year and the coming of winter. Those brain receptors often click into the passing of time, the end of things, the changes beyond our control. I wrote one “epic” diatribe that might be the most bloated piece of crap I’ve ever attempted. The only way to make it more pretentious would have been to have it translated into Latin. Then Frost does this:

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay

Asshole.

I prefer conversations, of course. I like to sit and have a beer and talk about our dads; I like running into a friend and grabbing a bite and laughing about simple things like sports and movies. But I also like reminders of our glide across this thin layer of life.

Over the course of the past several years I found a way to handle my frustrations when I can’t find the right words to express our need to celebrate being alive. I call a friend and meet him for lunch. I head to a favorite café and have a beer and talk to strangers. Every single one of my closest friends was, at one time, a complete stranger. I walk along the water and watch the dolphins breech and disappear. I feel the coolness of morning give way to the warmth of the sun on my face.

I am surrounded by poetry.

I sat in an Irish pub in Prague once during a soccer match between Dublin and Manchester United. The excitement and roar of the crowd, the explosion of being in the moment, alive, then, ever-so-briefly, was poetry.

There was the time my friend Tom and I sat on a rock in the mountains west of Tucson and watched the sun work its way across the desert. Or that same year when Renee and I walked through a Mexican village and found a restaurant inside a cave where, incredibly, someone who had babysat her sat at another table. Or when Michael and I walked past the small sign that said “Santiago de Compostella” five hundred miles and five weeks after we left France. Or when we watched the seals at Lake Baikal.

Poetry.

Or Tuesday nights after I finished teaching and Dad and I would have some Scotch.

The sound of the golf ball dropping into the cup.

The sound of cardinals on the porch, looking for food.

Waves.

A very long hug from an old, old friend when we knew there was no reason on earth we should have lost touch.

My dad’s laugh.

His deep “Hello.”

A name sung quietly from somewhere behind you

11139373_10205989968335763_1044172444966323755_n

 

 

Walk On if You’re Walking

inthestreets-300x224

On Saturday, January 21, 2017, I sat on the foggy banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, far from the crowds of New York and DC and LA and cities across the country and around the world, where women—and men, of course—marched. In those crowds was a significant number of family members—Cathy, Jeannie, Janessa, Erin, Barbara, Fran, Tricia, Shannon, Morgan, Rachel, Suzanna, and many more—and those are just some of the women (it’s a big family).

Also on that day my Facebook feed was filled with comments from Republican friends urging everyone to get along. “It is time to gather behind our president and see what he can do.” You get the idea; comments common from both parties at the start of a new administration. They are normal, supportive words urging unity. I have never had a problem with the sentiment, until now.

Many of us who do not bend to the right did, in fact, give a chance to presidents in the past, like Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even his son, though to a lesser degree the first time because of the nature of the decision in 2000. But again in 2004, despite disappointment, Democrats pulled it together and did their best to move forward. The same can be said of most Republicans after both Clinton wins and both Obama wins. Respect for the winner has always been a mainstay of the American public, albeit coupled with dissent.

But this time is different. The new president has proven through action and words that he disrespects women. He thinks he can “grab them by the pussy” because he is famous; he made fun of a former beauty contestant because she gained weight; he wondered who would vote for a particular female opponent “with a face like that”; and he made dangerous, unprofessional, and immature statements, such as, “We will bomb the shit out of them,” and “Tell them to get the fuck out.” His behavior is not acceptable in a classroom, an office meeting, or at a dinner table. Despite the political differences of both parties during the administrations of previous presidents, it wasn’t difficult to respect them as men. President Donald J. Trump is not, in the eyes of a majority of Americans as well as leaders of many nations throughout the world, including leaders of the Republican party, a person one can respect or trust.

Many people questioned the march. They do not understand that this was not an Anti-Trump march; it was an effort to expose unity among the women of the world to be recognized as equal. But how telling it is that people immediately associated the Women’s March as anti-Trump; when women did the same thing in March of 2015 during the Obama administration, no one claimed it was an anti-Obama demonstration. Perhaps because Mr. Trump has from his youth established himself as anti-women, disrespecting and degrading them at every turn. So, yes, in part this particular march exposed the lack of support for Mr. Trump. A real leader would have supported the efforts of everyone who marched.

I urge my right wing friends to understand that our lack of ability to quickly gather our crumbled hopes and stand behind the president has much less to do with policy than it does character—he has none. And if anyone suggests character is not necessary or even secondary for such a powerful position, he or she should study the art of nuance, of subtly, and quickly take a crash course in international relations. I cannot stand behind a man or support someone who is little more than a street punk. Quick observation: if Barack Obama made any of the comments about women and minorities that Mr. Trump has, he would have been eliminated very early on; laughed off the stage. And I would have been at the front of the mob—that behavior is unacceptable, and everyone—everyone—knows it. Mr. Trump is a bad human being and the people who marched and the tens of millions more who support them simply do not respect the man. If this were simply a matter of policy differences, anger and fear would be replaced by profound disappointment with a “try again in four years” mentality. But policy has little to do with this: he is unpredictable, crass, and too antagonistic to converse with world leaders who are frankly far more intelligent.

I understand the reaction to such rhetoric is for me to “leave the country if you don’t like it.” On the contrary, I’ve traveled extensively throughout the globe and I know first hand this has the potential to be the best country in the world, and I certainly love my homeland. So I will do what real leaders from the early days of this republic guaranteed I can do through their foresight: Protest.

Some people march, like my sister and others did this past Saturday. Some will write their congressional leaders, some will even run for office. We do what we do best for our individual contributions to this Great American Experiment. As for me, I can open a dialogue at the university to insure that at least some small groups learn how to become well informed. And while I am no Thomas Paine, I do have some common sense when it comes to writing, and I will do so. I will not attempt to challenge Mr. Trump’s policies—I do not have enough political savvy, almost as little as him. I will not attempt to suggest particular actions. And I will most certainly respect the Office of the President, while I do not respect the current occupant of that office. No, I aim to remind as many people as I can that how he acts, how he treats women, how he disrespects people of color, how he lacks decorum, grace, and character, is unacceptable, and he does not represent what Americans are like.

When he ran his own company he rightfully could act however he wished. This is the first time in this man’s life he has ever applied for a job and works for someone else—us. Yes, my Republican friends, we will, of course, honor the Electoral College and recognize Mr. Trump as president. But we will do so the same way I should hope our counterparts do so during Democratic administrations—by exposing every possible violation of ethics, character, and morality. And if anyone suggests I should not throw stones but instead I should look in a mirror and hold myself to the same standard, I have two responses. One, I try to everyday, and while I am desperately far from canonization, surpassing Mr. Trump in those areas is not difficult—the man shows no sign of humility or self-restraint and that combination is both dangerous and insulting to the forty-four who came before him.

And two, I did not choose to run for office, he did.

We are going to watch what he does every single day, Democrats and Republicans alike. We have to; it’s in all of our best interests. But he has already proven he is not up to the task of common decency. And if anyone believes his repulsive remarks and disgusting attacks on women and minorities is acceptable or excusable, then you’ve completely misunderstood the role of the president on the world stage.

I agree, my Republican BFF’s: we should all get along; we should have unity and we should see what he can do. But ask yourself this: Would you accept his behavior in anyone close to you? At the office? At home? This might be the first time in electoral history the President of the United States was held to a lower standard than just about any decent-acting human being in the most menial of jobs.

Yes, we are giving him a chance, of course. But we will march on; some on the streets of New York and DC and Houston and Seattle.

And some on the back of the First Amendment.

untitled

One Brief Political Blog

untitled

Bear with me here.

A significant number of Americans, not a majority but a vocal minority, did not like the president, thought him to be illegitimate, thought they needed a change, saw the country going in the wrong direction, did not like the people surrounding him in office, did not believe anything he said, and therefore stepped to the plate and voted him out. Some other day someone else can argue the electoral college. For now, this is reality.

I majored in journalism and studied under some of the finest old-school journalists in the business. Russell Jandoli, Pete Barracchia, and others, whose bio’s include places like Stars and Stripes, The New York Times, and more, were my advisors. I went to school and have known some of the best in the business. It is why I left journalism; I could not play at that level, nor did I remotely desire to try. But because of that background and professors like George Evans, who demanded the most accurate and verifiable sources during our research studies class, I learned how to pay attention and have the patience to check all the sources. I am proud of that background. It can also be intensely frustrating.

But it is time for that now. We have entered a dangerous age with an unpredictable leader, and historically the strongest method of keeping him in line, of insuring our Republic is not compromised, is by turning again to those well-trained and experienced journalists who provide the most accurate reporting possible. This is the worst time for sensationalism, for ratings concerns, for caring about corporate sponsorship. It is a time to trust the best among the Fourth Estate to provide us with verified information.

I hope what they tell us is we were all wrong. I hope beyond reality that four years from now I am humiliated for thinking this repulsive man would make a bad president. But if I am not wrong, it is only through true journalism that I will know.

And if things don’t go well and we think we need a change; if we see the country going in the wrong direction; if we don’t like the people surrounding him in office; if we don’t believe anything he says; we need to step to the plate and vote him out of office.

Every journalist of worth is going to sit over this man like a hawk. It is what they do best. Trust me.

images

Channeling Richard Simmons

il_570xn_759181539_75ij

When I was in high school the light switch in my bedroom was a bronze plate we picked up in Charlottesville while visiting Monticello. Inscribed around the cream-colored on/off switch was this simple Jeffersonian quote: “Freedom is the right to choose.” There was more, but the switch smack dab in the middle made it difficult to read.

So whenever I had put the light on I could read at least that part of the quote. One day I was reading that quote and the light went on. This historical trinket suddenly became current. I did not have to go to college; it was an option. I did not have to stay in the crappy job I had; I did not have to follow one career path. What at the time seemed like inevitable destinations became simple choices I could make—or not. The indirect effect of this knowledge was to quit complaining about what is not going well for me and either accept it or change it—kind of a cousin to the serenity prayer. In essence: I put myself in whatever situation might be questionable and, therefore, I can take myself out of it simply by choosing to do so. I became aware of something everybody else seemed to have known instinctively: it’s my life and I can do with it what I choose.

This comes with responsibility, of course. I don’t want to make choices that hurt others. I don’t want to make choices to satisfy me now while compromising my future; and I don’t want to make choices good only in the long run but destroy my sense of now. It’s not easy, this balance; in fact, it can be profoundly complicated. Talk about the power of language: the simple phrase, “Freedom is the right to choose,” comes with unspeakable responsibility.

In 1985 I sat on a platform next to Richard Simmons, just him and me, with about fifty mostly women from Worcester, Massachusetts, at the end of a one hour workout I conducted which Richard had joined in the middle. I turned the cool-down over to him. The cool-down was the last five minutes or so during which we motivated the people to keep at it. Richard was the best at this.

He calmed everyone down and said, “You feel trapped, don’t you.” He teared up but honestly it was sincere. “You feel like you don’t have any choices, don’t you? Your husbands ignore you. They make fun of you at the mall. You stopped looking in the mirror, didn’t you?” Everyone nodded. It was absolutely silent. He was good. A crowd had formed at the open doors to the studio. “The only time you feel in control and good is when…you eat…isn’t it?” Everyone laughed and agreed.

“You’re not trapped! Freedom is your right!” he said. “Your freedom doesn’t belong to anyone else. It is yours. It is the most precious gift you have! Don’t hand it over to anyone.

“You can choose to eat something else. You can choose to laugh when people laugh at you. You can choose to feel good about yourself. If you stay home and don’t do something for yourself that helps, it is because you decided to stay home; don’t blame anyone else. If you go for a walk, if you ignore people who make fun of you, it is also because you decided to. It is your choice. Remember that.”

I saw some lights go on in the studio; women looked up seemingly suddenly empowered.

We all stood up and he hugged everyone in the club. Everyone. I finished working that day, moved, taught college, and more than doubled my age. I walked into class last week and asked people why they chose to come to college. It was the first day and for many the first time in college. No one could answer me. I made some suggestions about the future and majors and moving forward and blah blah blah but they just stared at me. They didn’t even nod.

So I asked again: “What are you doing in English Comp?”

Almost like a chorus, their response was, “It’s required.”

I swear for a moment I could hear music coming from the studio speakers, hear Richard’s overly-excited voice bounce off the walls followed by his calm voice which reached into each person’s fears and settled them down.

I looked at the class. “No. It isn’t. You’re eighteen, at least, you’ve graduated high school. This is not required. Nothing is required of you anymore. You can be here or join the military or get a job or hitchhike to flipping Key West and serve tables at Captain Tony’s. This is a choice. You freely choose to sit in that seat this day and take this course. The sooner you remind yourself you don’t need to be here the better you’re likely to do in this course.” They stopped looking at the cell phones and paid attention.

We talked a while but I was only half-paying attention to what I was saying. Part of me thought about the times I complain about my job, other situations in my life, the conditions in the world; the sense of doom and apprehension which saturates society right now. Sometimes we don’t get to choose, or when we do it doesn’t go our way. What then? What if I DID show up to exercise but I’m still not losing the weight? What if I DO want to be in English Comp but I just don’t understand the material? What happens when even when I choose, I do not feel awash with the glory of freedom?

Jefferson wasn’t dumb. So I went back and looked up that old quote.

“Freedom is the right to choose, the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice, and the exercise of choice, a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.”

Property. Without exercising our right to choose, we are not free. There is no difference between someone who is not free and someone who chooses not to exercise those freedoms.

Richard’s favorite cool-down comments were about choice. “You have two choices,” he would say. “You can choose whatever blocks your way to slow you down, or you can choose to do what it takes to overcome it. You can choose to take control of your situation, or you can choose to hand that choice over to someone else. But if you do, it is still your choice.”

I got more out of that job than anywhere else I ever worked.

img-20170116-01840

Attendance Policy

denial

 

The semester starts now and students will fill the classrooms ready for their lives to begin. Unfortunately, they think they can do so whenever they want. Some stroll in saying they got stuck in traffic, but they do so carrying coffee from Starbucks. Some are late because they couldn’t find a parking spot and I tell them if they got here so close to class time that finding a spot was an issue, they left home too late, and they’re never going to make it in the corporate world. I share with them Lee Iacoca’s decision to eliminate all personalized parking spots at Chrysler. He said if you’re doing the job right, you’re there early enough not to need a reserved space anyway.

Some stand in the hallway talking to some significant other about not being able to bare being without that person for another hour. Some stand up half way through the class and leave, apologizing, saying they had the wrong class even though they were looking for biology lab and I had just spent thirty minutes talking about creative writing. That doesn’t bother me, but in some other class somewhere is the student who was supposed to be in mine, and that student strolls in to my class half an hour late saying he was in the wrong class. He says when the professor started talking about dissecting a rabbit he wondered if it was creative writing after all. Ironically enough it could have been.

Please understand that this problem—showing up to class late—is chronic and widespread and over the years has gotten worse. There is recourse, however. We can count them completely absent if they walk in the door even a few seconds after we start lecturing. When they’ve missed fifteen percent of the course, including tardiness, they can be withdrawn with or without a failing grade. This rule is required to be on every faculty member’s outline. I put it on there but to be honest I don’t always adhere to it. I teach many military students, and after class, those who arrive late often show me their duty sheet and talk about a colleague who needed counseling. We learn to know what excuses are legit or not. Unfortunately, some of the tragic excuses are valid.

I really try not to be a prick. And it isn’t the “showing up late” that is a problem specifically, anyway; they can get the notes from someone. The bigger issue is their sense of individualism at a time they should be demonstrating their ability to work with others and respect them. When someone is late, that person is basically saying, “Whatever you are doing is no where near as important as what I am doing, so you’ll just have to wait.” This is true if someone is late for class, for dinner, a date, anything. See what happens if you show up late to a job interview. College degrees are common. 4.0 GPA’s are everywhere. So I like to ask my students what do they need to do in this class to stand out as someone worth recommending to another college or for a job? Because showing up on time and doing well is where the class expectations start. When they regularly show up late, they’re already not worth recommending; they’re just in the way.

And they have the excuses ready, so we have the policy. We can play with the wording how we wish, and every semester I adjust it just a little. One of the more frustrating fall semesters I noted that attendance was not an issue. I wrote that I didn’t care when they strolled in. I wrote that I know they have so many other obligations, so I wished to help out any way that I could. If they arrived late, the outline stated, I’d be happy to type up the notes and give them to them, and follow it up with individual phone calls to make sure they understood the material. I would even brew a pot of coffee, I wrote. Very few students understood my sarcasm.

But like my military students, the other students with legitimate tardiness because of kids, jobs, illness, and more, are the ones who call to apologize and usually get the work done ahead of time anyway. Those who do have valid reasons to be late are usually the ones who never are. No, it is almost always the lazy ass, howl-at-the-moon stupid ones with no jobs who live at home that show up late. One guy came in eating an Egg McMuffin saying he just woke up and rushed in as fast as he could (except for stopping for breakfast, of course). Several students over the years have reeked of alcohol. One woman showed up late, yelling, “Do you have any idea what freaking time it is?”

So this semester I’ve once again updated my course outline in anticipation of the lateness that is only getting worse. The dean of the department still needs to approve this:

Attendance Policy:

“What is so fucking difficult about getting to class on time? Let’s simply assume traffic is heavy, the weather is bad, accidents are everywhere, and the parking spots are taken. Get your ass in the chair by the time class starts or go home and come back when you grow up into a responsible human instead of an entitled little shit who thinks you can show up when you damn well feel like it. If you are late to work or don’t show up, you get fired, if you are late to class or don’t show up, you fail. Either way, F. It’s a great fucking letter. And as for your oh-my-god-this-is-the-best-ever excuse, we’ve heard it already. And no, you AREN’T paying me. You can’t come close to affording me. If you’re not ready to attend class, go in the hall, call your parole officer and say college just didn’t work out after all.”

I know the dean well enough to know she will at least want to approve this one. So I’m going to give this a shot for awhile. Now, back to the rough draft of my course outline.

I have to finish the Cell Phone Policy.

Student late for class

 

 

In Defense of Melancholy

stingray-024-2

 

The days following New Year’s are always the ones we inevitably balance by looking back and looking ahead at the same time. We assess and dismiss and excuse and celebrate our actions and inactions from the last year, and we resolve to act and hold back in the year to come. For me it is hard enough to do one of those things, but both simultaneously is a juggling act which makes my mind melt out of my ear. I need to process things differently than others I know. I made my resolutions and so far I’ve held to them both, so now as I walk outside where nature forgives my shortcomings, I take some time to look back. I love looking back.

I get up early in the morning by design. I like to listen to that pre-dawn stillness which in no time at all a thousand voices will disturb. I like the way the light holds off a while, almost as if it asks permission to spill across the sky. And then slowly the silence creeps off and hides behind some trees somewhere just before the phone rings, before the traffic picks up, before it is time to track time again and multitask.

I spend some of the morning looking forward to the day and some of the day remembering, but mostly I prefer to simply be present as the sun comes up and the morning flock feeds behind the oyster boats on the bay.

And I like the steady rain in the late afternoon. My son and I take pictures of the local waterways just about then, or we are home throwing the football; on those days neither of us can catch the slippery skin, but we don’t care. We are so much in the moment, eyeing down the ball, blinking at the wetness on our faces, knowing we’ll be inside and dry soon enough, soon enough indeed.

I like to walk along the river and recall a friend’s voice from college telling me everything I’m doing wrong as he loved to do, always with a laugh; or my grandmother’s voice when I called telling me she would let me go almost as soon as she answered because she knew I “had to get going.” I love how I can see clear as sunlight my father putting his fingers up to show me how much Scotch he wanted, the same amount every time. I love how I remember that so well I can still see him sitting there and hear him saying, “Just about this much, thank you” to the point I can’t breathe. Some people go lifetimes without missing their dads, cursing them for convoluted reasons. I love how I loved and was loved so that now my eyes sting. Why would anyone not want to feel this way? Why would anyone wish to avoid the sadness that comes with good memories?

If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went fishing when he was four, never catching a thing and never caring. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.

I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, my brother and sister still asleep, my mother making coffee, my father in his bed. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the echo of the speakers at my high school football game, or the sound of cars off in the distance when my friends and I would hang out in someone’s back yard or neighborhood street on a Friday night, laughing, telling stories about nothing at all.

Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends, now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades away, somehow still part of some shared history.

I embrace melancholy; I celebrate memory. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far.

The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.

No, it isn’t far at all. Which is why while planning ahead I also like to find a friend and say, “Hey, do you remember that time we…”

And then we laugh a long time. Until we cry.

phone-march-2013-009-2