Saturday, February 20, 2010


Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

--Stevie Smith, 1972

How long can one flail about, searching for a hand to grab onto before giving up and sinking under? That old trick where you kneel in the lake, water up to your chin, appearing about ready to drown, and then, just as you gain attention, just as you draw somebody's eye, just as a hand is reached out to you, you stand up, and your savior feels a twinge of irritation, an urge to scoff. How many times can you cry wolf before everyone in town stops listening to you? You use up the chances, thinking each time this is the last breath of air you will be able to gasp before you go under, and no one is more surprised than you that you've surfaced once again. Then, when you get into really deep water, you regret those previous larks, those little experiments in how to lose your credibility.

Maybe you stop waving. Maybe you don't want to pull anyone down with you or maybe you don't think anyone has noticed at all how far out you've drifted, how big the waves are out here, how stiff the undertow.

The struggle to keep your head above water is tiring, never-ending, cold, numbing. You tire of hearing your hands splash the water, you tire of the seaweed tangled around your ankles, you tire of spluttering to stop yourself from swallowing the water. Maybe you could float, relax, allow yourself to drift. If you could just find a calm patch to rest in, lying on your back, looking up into the sun, stop trying to make way and instead just be.

Would the waves push you gently on to shore, or pull you under to roll along the bottom in the sand? Either way would be a relief.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Paul Revere's Ride

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

My mother reads this poem every year on the 18th of April. She bakes a cherry pie every February 22, in honor of George Washington and the cherry tree. She still makes me an Easter basket every year (although she did stop hiding it), and she insists we attend the Fourth of July parade. I look back over my childhood years, which were filled with turmoil and disturbance, and I see the anchors my mother put in place with her traditions. Not just the typical traditions like turkey at Thanksgiving and carving pumpkins for Halloween, but countless little traditions like hiking in the woods to see the first wildflowers of Spring and marking the Ides of March. No matter how uncertain life seemed, there were things I could count on, like hearing In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue on October 12, or getting the birthday spiel ("yep, x years ago today....").

She gave me other gifts as well: a love of nature, a curiosity of the world around me, a sense of the importance of history, an appreciation of literature. These, and the traditions, are the things I turn to when I face uncertainty in my life. They act as tiny sign posts through the unknown into the familiar, back home.

Monday, January 5, 2009


The Destruction of Sennacherib

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

--George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1815

Lizarddrinking has been making me think about war. Specifically war in the Middle East, and the centuries-old conflict between the Jews and the Muslims there (and not infrequently the Christians as well). It's a topic I don't really like to think too closely about, because it engenders nothing but despair in me. It seems from the perpective of a sheltered American that the peoples of the Middle East have known no other way of life than war against their enemies. It is the way of their fathers, and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers reaching back through countless generations. It seems that both sides take on both a martyr mindset of a persecuted people, and this justifies all sorts of violence toward the perceived oppressors. And it seems that neither side is willing to compromise to gain peace.

I am not at all sure what makes a people stop warring and settle for peace, but it has been done. The English and the French carried on warfare for hundreds of years before becoming allies. The bitter feud in Northern Ireland seems to finally have been laid to rest. Maybe all it takes is two leaders willing to put aside their mistrust and grievances and call for a halt, a breather in the battle. And in the absence of guns and rockets, differences can be smoothed over, bonds can be forged, trespasses forgiven. All it takes, maybe, is someone who's willing to forgive first.

Monday, October 27, 2008



When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

--Robert Frost, 1915

Every now and again we hit a spot in life where we are overcome with responsibilities and problems, where we feel lost in a pathless wood. My response to those times is usually a longing to go back to childhood. Not that my childhood was idyllic--it wasn't. But it did have a certain freedom to it. I would go out for hours and play in the woods in the nearby park, sitting in a tree or wading in the creek. The problems I faced at home did not follow me there.

And now, when I feel things are out of sorts with my world, I do the same thing, escape to the woods. I don't climb the trees now, but I walk among them. I set my troubles down and leave them be while I walk. Sometimes I find they have sorted themselves out when I pick them up again. And even if they haven't, they are often lighter to carry because I have set them aside for a time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Assignable Portions


I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--and then it was
There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--

Emily Dickinson, 1862

Every now and again I like to pause and take stock of my life and I like to play a morbid little game while doing it: I make a mental will. It's not so much about my possessions--I have little of value and I like it that way. It's more about my friends and loved ones, and what it is that they cherish about me. The Nephews will get Clyde and Beans, the stuffed horse and dog they play with whenever they come to my house, my best friend the box of old high school hall notes I have saved for twenty years, my knitting friend will suddenly have a much larger stash.

I picture an improbable scene where all my friends and family gather to go through my stuff and pick out the one thing they want to have to remember me by. It won't happen, but it's a comforting thought nonetheless.

A few years back, my single, childless uncle died suddenly, and I went to Oklahoma with my aunt and uncle to go through his things and bring what we could back to the family. My uncle had accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, and there was a lot to go through in a short time. There were a few things that were obvious things to save: a bundle of family letters dating back to the Civil War, an old autoharp in the family for generations, photos. But there was also a lot of stuff that had significance only to my uncle, and that got piled up in a heap to be hauled off. As we surveyed the piles of built up detritus from my uncle's life, we marvelled at what he kept. And my uncle pulled out a small scrap of paper and showed it to me, fondly chuckling at the idea of a 60 year old man still holding on to this:

(click on it to see more detail)

It was a Treasure Map my uncle had drawn. The inscription in green pencil on the bottom, possibly added later, gives a phone number in Milwaukee that dates the drawing to his high school days or earlier.

When I saw the map, chills ran down my spine. I knew this map. I knew the island, with its hidden valley accessible only through the labyrinth of tunnels or the dangerous cave entrance. I knew it because the book it appeared in was one of my favorite childhood books: The Island Stallion by Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion series. The premise of the book--one of a series about the island and its horses--is that a teen-aged boy gets shipwrecked on the island, discovers the tunnels leading to the secret inner valley, and finding treasure left behind by Spanish conquistadors as well as a herd descended from the horses they left behind. I had read all those books over and over, and imagined myself trying to find my way through the tunnels, and when I finally did, the glorious discovery of a green valley populated with horses. The imaginary island lingered in my memory as a hope of secrets revealed, treasure found, paradise gained. And it must have lingered in my uncle's mind, too, for him to have kept this carefully copied map through the years and through countless moves. I carefully tucked it away, and brought it back home. I knew I had found my inheritance from my uncle.

When I showed my mother the map, she was drawn into a series of reminiscences which revealed a side of my uncle that I had not known much about. He was always into treasure hunting and maps, she said, and went on to share some childhood memories. I took the stories in and added them to my own memories of him. He was a somewhat hard man to know. When I was a child, he was not always at the family gatherings and when he was, he tended to drink too much. He didn't have a lot of interest in children, and didn't have much to say to me. But as I grew older, our relationship deepened. He was good-humored, intelligent and well-informed on many topics. He loved nature and animals and wouldn't kill an insect in the house, but instead would capture it and release it outdoors. He had a sly sense of humor and enjoyed getting away with bullshitting me if he could. He seemed to enjoy it when I called him on it. When he died, he left a hole in the family.

I think about how odd it is, both of us remembering that book and never knowing it was important to each other's childhoods. I think about the moment of serendipity when my other uncle plucked that one piece of paper that would mean so much to me off that huge pile of other papers. I wonder what scraps of my life will mean something to my loved ones when I am gone.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


One Hour To Madness And Joy

One hour to madness and joy!
O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?
What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?)

O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender achings!
(I bequeath them to you, my children,
I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)

O to be yielded to you, whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me, in defiance of the world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me—to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d man!

O the puzzle—the thrice-tied knot—the deep and dark pool! O all untied and illumin’d!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
O to be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions—I from mine, and you from yours!
O to find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of nature!
O to have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!

O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
O madness amorous! O trembling!
O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts—with invitations!
To ascend—to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
To be lost, if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.

Walt Whitman, 1860

I am not so sure one can feed the remainder of life with just one brief hour of madness and joy. I think it much more likely that, having climbed those heights once, one's instinct is to want to climb them again and again. And if those heights are forbidden besides, well, so much more the pull to them. I imagine it would be easy to fall into a trap that way, always looking for that same thrill and never finding it. And in the constant search, I also imagine it would be easy to overlook a different kind of joy. Maybe less madness to it, but that doesn't mean it can't be just as fulfilling. There is much to be said for the slowly accumulating joy of tiny little moments of everyday kindnesses and shared laughter and comforts of familiarity.

The truth is that, as we move through life and find each other, we gather more and more ties and lose more and more freedom. Sometimes it happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, other times we choose the ties deliberately and publicly. And while there is intoxication in the thought of breaking free from all those ties at times, I imagine regret would follow such an action. And surely that regret would, in time, overshadow the joy of the moment.

All that aside, reading this poem, don't you just want to jump off that cliff anyway?

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Árbol que crece torcido jamás su tronco endereza.

--Mexican Proverb

A tree which grows bent will never get straight again.

I wonder how twined I have become around my past. If one were to remove the central supports of my life, would I remain twisted around, contorted to accommodate rigidity that is no longer there? Or am I still supple enough to straighten out, to reach directly upward to the sky? Am I too crooked now to stand alone? Are the habits and philosophies of my mind set forever in the paths they took when I was still young and green and flexible? Those paths wove in and around, careful not to disturb, but still longing to maintain contact, forming myself around others, bending to their convenience and liking. If I remain rooted, will not the center grow, straight and thick, until it has me locked into place, eventually consuming me, melding with me and taking from me my individuality?