Friday, January 18, 2019

Remembering a Poet

Before the storm hits, both here in the Midwest and in Washington (though it seems like foul weather is now the norm in Washington) take a deep breath and consider poetry.  One of America’s wonderful poets died yesterday, Mary Oliver.  She was 83.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for a collection of poems called American Primitive.  New and Selected Poems earned her a National Book Award in 1992.  Even with those accomplishments, she achieved only modest fame.  Because she was a poet.  Few poets achieve wide readership let alone notoriety.  It’s the quietest of the writing genres, the most obscure.  If you don’t know her don’t feel bad.  Most of us don’t.  She lived a quiet life in Ohio, where she immersed herself in nature most days of her life.

I came to Mary Oliver late, through a group of friends that meet monthly to read and listen, or just to listen, to poems; their own or other people’s poetry they admire.  We take turns reading, and then we comment or remark about each poem.  Had it not been for these friends I might not have encountered Mary Oliver.  We should not discount the riches that others give us.

A friend read her poem “Of the Empire” and I knew I was hooked.  Mary Oliver said what I felt but could not express.  When writers do that, when we feel that personal connection, we don’t forget them.  See if this poem speaks to you.

Of the Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

I am guessing Mary Oliver considered life far from a commodity.  The word that describes her view of life is probably “sacred.”  She wrote of the commonest forms in nature as is they were glorious.  Her writing found a way to make them glorious.

I like the way she finds metaphors in nature for her most hard to convey thoughts, the kind of thoughts most keep to themselves because words to express them escape us.  


just now
moved through my heart
like the thinnest of blades
as that red-tail pumped
once with its great wings
and flew above the gray, cracked
rock wall.
It wasn't
about the bird, it was
something about the way
stone stays
mute and put, whatever
goes flashing by.
when I sit like this, quiet,
all the dreams of my blood
and all outrageous divisions of time
seem ready to leave,
to slide out of me.
Then, I imagine, I would never move.
By now
the hawk has flown five miles
at least,
dazzling whoever else has happened
to look up.
I was dazzled. But that
wasn't the knife.
It was the sheer, dense wall
of blind stone
without a pinch of hope
or a single unfulfilled desire
sponging up and reflecting,
so brilliantly,
as it has for centuries,
the sun's fire.

That’s what you have in store if you order a book of Mary Oliver’s poems.  She won’t be forgotten for a long time.  And that rock wall is no doubt still there, probably somewhere in Ohio.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Just Where am I Going?

I’m planning the route for my February road trip in the Buick.  It continues to run like a top. 
I drive to Pensacola in the panhandle of Florida to play golf with some guys from Illinois who fly there.  After that I join up with my wife who flies one way.  We visit relatives in southern Florida.  Then we drive back.  This year we’re stopping for a while in Memphis to pay our respects to the king, have some barbeque, and hear some blues.
That I am planning the route is something of a first.  On past trips I had a general idea, more of a direction really, but purposefully left out any details so that the trip would be spontaneous and surprising, even to me. Actually I started out that way this time.  Here was the original plan.  I knew it was counterintuitive when I tossed it around in my head, but I let it play out. 

I wanted to head to western Iowa to get into Rep. Steve King’s legislative district.  It’s out there around Sioux City Iowa.  I’ve met some folks from out there.  Damn nice people.  They remind me of the kind of regular small town folks and farmers I grew up with in downstate Illinois.  It seems crazy that they have elected an open and self avowed white supremacist, anti-immigrant, homophobe to the U.S. Congress 7 times.  But they have.  I saw myself getting out there and visiting coffee shops in small towns, asking guys how they are doing selling their soybeans, and then seeing what they like about Rep. King.  It’s the kind of first hand observation I’ve gotten hooked on.
From there I wanted to put myself and the Buick in the most remote parts of Nebraska.  I loved the black and white scenes from the movie of the same name starring Bruce Dern.   I don’t live in a congested place, but something about the emptiness of that part of America, and what life must be like there, draws me like a magnet. 

But when I began to look on maps, I saw that to get from there to the panhandle of Florida would require me to head south into Oklahoma and North Texas, then angle through Louisiana to get to Pensacola.  Big circle.  Way too many miles.  I should have known that when I imagined heading west on 80 into Iowa.  You don’t get to Florida by heading west.  You go south and east, or vice versa, but not west.   I try to keep this to a five day, four night trip.  I’m not particularly cheap but there is the cost of gas (low now though) and all those roadside motels and meals.  I decided it isn’t feasible.  Too damn far if you have to end up in Florida.  So I put that journey on the shelf.  Good trip, just not at this time.
Now I’ve got it figured to head east, a much more sensible direction.  Trouble is I’ve gone that way before.  But so what?  My challenge, like life itself, is to keep finding new experiences. 

I’m going to see if I can find the old Mike Pence, who may be President one day soon, out there somewhere in Indiana.  As the story goes his family ran a chain of gas stations that sold cigarettes in a big way, made a lot of money, and then sold their properties before they were condemned by the EPA for leaky underground gas tanks.  It’s going to cost taxpayers upwards of $20 M to clean them up, and the Pence family $0.  I’d like to see what people like you and me in Indiana think about their one time governor and six term member of the House of Representatives, now a heartbeat away from running the country.  He’s another arch conservative anti gay right wing white guy who has found himself on top of the heap.  Amazing isn’t it?  Maybe people that know him better than I see another side of him. 
From there I think I’ll go straight south, through Kentucky and Tennessee, and concentrate on Alabama.  While I was in the Chattanooga area late last year I read a paper that described what I thought were amazing political developments in Birmingham.  They elected, for the first time ever, an African American County Sheriff and State’s Attorney who ran on a liberal, progressive agenda.  I blogged about it.  People that know the area remarked that I should not think of the South as a monolithic pure red state through and through, but rather as a place with pockets of progressive voters.  Those pockets exist in more urban areas, but many think their numbers are growing and spreading. That doesn’t sound like the Alabama northerners have in their heads.  I want to see if I can find out more about that whole proposition.

I also want to visit the museum in Montgomery where they have documented lynchings throughout the South in one spot which represents them factually, symbolically, and artistically.  I’m embarrassed I know so little on that topic.  I had no idea of the breadth of the murders, or how recently they ended until I saw a show on CBS’s 60 minutes.  I think that will be particularly blog worthy.
From Alabama, it makes sense to head to Gulf Shores and see if I can spend a little time, at least an afternoon, on those nice beaches.  From there, it’s a hop skip and a jump to Pensacola and the links.

I share this with my readers thinking you many have suggestions of good places to stop along the way.  Perhaps I can make my trip your trip in a small way.  If you want to give me ideas the easiest way to communicate with me is by commenting on this in Face Book if you are reading me there, or privately through Messenger.  But if you receive a link to my blog via e mail just hit reply, and send me an e mail.  The comment section of Blogspot, my blog platform, seems problematic for many.  If I ever get organized I’ll upgrade that.  But for now, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going.

Friday, January 4, 2019


Finally the sun broke through.  After what seemed like weeks of dense clouds and fog the morning was clear and I could see the sun across the ravine from the shack, shining red through the trees.  It was 7:21:22 a.m..    Within an hour the sun yellowed and was above the trees, throwing light into my shack through the east glass wall.  Light passed over my wood stove and threw wavy lines of heat shadows on my desk, the shadows more visible than the heat lines themselves.  The sky was bright blue.  The world around me was alive.  It’s amazing what sunlight does to lift my spirits.

We traveled over the New Year holiday.  I drove in fog and felt pressed down, not able to see the tops of buildings.  We walked through streets in the rain.  Water collected near clogged drains and cars speeding through puddles splashed pedestrians.  If not for the Christmas lights the gloom would have been constant.  We were with friends, and for the most part stayed indoors.  But the weather didn’t break.  Not particularly cold, no snow to speak of, it was a weird December.  Winter was taking its toll in an odd way.  My snow blower sits idle still.

We are living through mid winter in the North.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  Sunlight bottomed out on December 21, the winter solstice.  On that day the sun rose at 7:18:43 and sat at 4:29:34.  We enjoyed a mere 9 hours, 11 minutes, and 18 seconds of sunlight if the sun was even visible.  As I recall it wasn’t.  In that case you just get brightness, which fades to darkness.  Darkness had been winning, creeping up on us without notice, since the autumnal equinox September 21.  But at some point it becomes critical.  Before your day is through you find yourself in darkness, retreating to your house, seeking relief from artificial lights.  Darkness makes the world close up, and if we are not careful, we close up with it.

But we’re moving in the right direction now.  On January 2nd we’d gained 5 minutes and 26 seconds more daylight over the solstice, bringing us up to 9:16:44.  Just two days later, on January 4th, we’re already up to 9:18:35.  We cross the 10 hour mark on January 30th, and though snow may fall and storms may blow, it’s all goodness and light from there, until we max out on June 20st at 15 hours, 10 minutes and 4 seconds of daylight.  All it takes, when you winter in the North, is patience and faith that it’s going to happen.

I went back to yoga yesterday.  I am more than three months past total knee replacement and my therapist thought I was ready.  It was good to be back.  Lots of the old yogis were there along with some new ones.  It was a challenge doing my first plank, and downward facing dog.  It’s not just the knee but my overall fitness that needs work.  I’d thought about different poses and how challenging they might be, but I’d forgotten other parts of the yoga experience at the YMCA.

The music is so good.  While I was gone they replaced the sound system with a much better one.  Soothing music makes the whole class better.  While I held poses I anticipated the next notes and was carried away by the tunes.  You forget how your old muscles and bones are responding and focus on something outside of you.

I’d also forgotten the importance of the words of our instructor.  She talks about the practice of yoga throughout the session.  She said something yesterday that hit home.

“You are trying to find that place between easy and hard.  If you find a particular pose or movement too hard, back off.  Pain is not what you seek, but simply challenge.  Most of us are way too hard on ourselves.  You will not reach perfection in a day, or ever.  Try to better, but be easy on yourself.  Be patient.”

Since my surgery I have been terribly impatient at the pace of my recovery.  Even though others tell me I’m doing well, am on track, I want more now.  I have been terribly frustrated by what I cannot do.  And then in an instant, by listening to that short thought, I realized I should be thankful for what I have been given the new ability to do, and to be patient.  Not my strong suit, patience.  But I resolve to do better.

I wanted to get this short blog out to you today because I hope to return to a weekly post during the coming year.  I’m not terribly big on resolutions, but I hope to do better. And if I miss a week, I won’t beat myself up about it.  I hope you experience a good year ahead, with lots of sunshine.