Begin Again

Dateline mid-town Tucson, written whilst watching the finches feed.

It gets confusing when I lapse between posts, and in the past I’ve managed to blame my laziness on the myriad life challenges that have confronted me. The issue with that excuse is, of course, we’re all confronted with issues. By design, the pace of American life tends to border on busy, if not frenetic, so please excuse all attempts at blaming lapses on the simple exercise of taking in air and then exhaling it. As an excuse, it’s a tad on the weak side.

I don’t like admitting that my life’s pace has distanced me from writing. In honesty, it feels like a small form of cowardice. On the other hand, there’s a great beauty in the admitting, and perhaps greater still in the return. What I’ll do, I think, is regroup, or as Wendell Berry writes in his beautiful poem, “Be Still in Haste,” I’m going to make the intentional attempt to “begin again.”

What better way is there to begin again by simply sharing Mr. Berry’s poem here. Internal footnote: if you don’t see another post from me for months, it wasn’t because I failed in this ideal; it’ll simply be because I required old Wendell’s advising once again. The idea that I can begin again each time I catch life getting in the way is worth paying attention to. My life has been, of late, hugely exciting. It’s time to start getting that excitement into words. For now, though, I’ll take a good breath and simply share Wendell Berry’s poem.

Be Still in Haste

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first

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On Doves and a Lake in Canada

Fishing Whitefish Lake04152013_0000Rick and Cindy are names I’ve given a pair of doves who grace my patio each morning. I actually don’t know which is Rick and which is Cindy, and I can’t even decide if it’s actually the same two birds each day, though it’s fun imagining so.

They’re usually within a few feet of one another until they stroll around in search of the seed I drop. At times, as they groom themselves, one leans over to offer the other help, as if there’s some kind of silent requests passing between them. At other times one stalks angrily behind the other. I imagine that’s Rick, trying to justify his “birdliness.” For all I know it’s Cindy simply having a bad feather day.

But what I love most about them is the chant, five low notes in the key of B. The last three notes are the same and work as elipses that imply something new’s about to be told. The dirge is slow and repetative, and, for the record, one of the two sings a little flat: almost in A-sharp. I assume that’s Rick.

They sing the first hour or two after the sun has rolled up and over the Rincons, praising the morning. Sitting on my patio sipping a second cup of coffee and watching them, I wonder what this particular day might offer me. But this daily ritual nearly always returns my mind to my grandfather’s home on Whitefish Lake, just north and east of Lake Superior, in Ontario.

We would rise early enough that the sun was just a tease of light beginning to wash away the stars. My job was to fill the rusty red gas tank and attach it to the greasy Evinrude motor in the boat, and Grandpa’s job was to make sure I did that. June, Grandpa’s wife, would stroll out in a thick robe just as we were about to leave to offer us a basketful of sandwiches. Fishing requires a certain amount of peanut butter and a stained thermos of coffee.

I would sit up front, on a bench, while grandpa determined we had everything we needed prior to pulling the lanyard that would fire up the Evinrude. It took him some time to get arranged—especially when he quietly inspected the tackle box—which gave me the chance to sit still and listen to the morning. In hindsight, I know now that my grandfather was listening to the morning as well.

What strikes me is how much we can miss during our days, how oblivious it’s possible to become. The sheer volume of songbirds in the air at Whitefish Lake was nearly overwhelming, and yet a few minutes earlier I hadn’t heard a thing. I was too busy to notice.

I think my grandfather recognized the importance of these few minutes of quiet before the boat motor was fired up. I think he liked his quiet time, listening to the world around him—small sounds of water sloshing, numerous birds crying and singing, the muffled laugh of a child waking somewhere above the dock in one of his cabins—I think he needed just a tiny moment to adjust himself.

I think my grandfather taught me to pay attention to these two mourning doves before I head out into another traffic-snarled morning. He loved the grounding that nature gave him, and all the sounds that propagated off the wide lake.

He was a simple man and couldn’t have articulated that notion very well. Still, as we motored away from the dock, I was as certain as a boy could be that my grandfather was somehow closer to the Milky Way than me, and that his two desires, just then, were to bring home fresh Pickerel and to teach me the lost art of listening.

On better days we managed to do both. And on worse days? We bragged about the ones that got away . . .

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Zebb’s Eulogy

CCI15022015_2 - Version 2Special people enter our lives all the time, and it’s best to hang on to them when they do. For me, young Zebb is one such person. Last July, on the day of my father’s funeral, Zebb’s eulogy for Dad eclipsed anything anyone could say, so no one else did. What Zebb offered was plenty, and it was perfect.

Zebb and my father became close the previous summer, in Henderson, Kentucky, where my father and Rose spent part of the year and where Zebb lives. By then, Dad’s disease was becoming pronounced, and Zebb spent a lot of time helping Rose and sitting with Dad.

On the morning of the funeral I was in a dither. Frankly, I would have rather been anywhere else that particular day, and I’m sure Dad would have understood. But there were obligations, and though I wasn’t looking forward to making a bad attempt at saying something, I figured I’d speak from the heart then let it go.

That changed when Zebb spoke. His thoughts were as honest as anyone’s, and his voice was as sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. He was just 15-years old, and he was speaking to a full room of mostly strangers. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when he finished.

I think it’s proper, seven months after my father passed, to share what Zebb told us that day. Thanks Zebb. This meant very much to me.

Zebb’s Eulogy

“I first met Jim when he married Rose, and ever since Jim has been a great friend, a great role-model, and all-in-all someone I have been inspired to be like.

“He was very important to me, and made a huge impact on my life. He and Rose would come to Henderson for the summer. I found myself at their house more than I was my own. Jim and I spent countless days and nights talking, laughing, and one of Jim’s favorites—watching TV. Those were some of the best days of my life, days I will cherish forever.

“All of the good times we shared accumulated many great stories and memories. Memories that I hold close to my heart and memories that will last a lifetime. The laughs we shared, the endless advice and wisdom and knowledge I gained, the movies we watched, the game shows we guessed at, the enormous amount of food we ate, the times he bragged on his family, the times he talked about his dog Keoke and all of the times I heard ‘Rose’ when he just wanted her to be near.

But the memory that sticks out the most is one that took place last year, on one summer night. It was just Jim and I. Jim was particularly hard to understand this night. We were watching TV and he was asking me how my day went. As the hours passed, it was time for me to go home. As I headed out the door in the most clear voice he looked at me, reached to give me a hug, and said, ‘I just want to thank you for being my friend.’

“I’m so lucky I had the privilege of meeting and knowing Jim. As long as I’ve known him one thing never changed: No matter the circumstances, no matter if he was in the best shape of his life or the worst shape of his life, he always had the most bright, uplifting, heartwarming smile you ever saw. I’ve always seen him treat people with love, with respect and care. Those are traits most people don’t have. And getting the honor of being his friend is a very special thing. Not often does a 76-year old man call a 14-year old at the time his friend. And that means so much to me.

“There are a lot of things I don’t know about Jim, but one think I do know is that he was sure proud of his family, his kids and grandkids. I’ve heard Jim say nothing but the nicest things about you all. He loved you very much. I also know he loved his dog. Jim and Keoke were just alike, no matter how much pain they were in Jim always smiled and Keoke always wagged his tail.

“It will be very difficult to speak of a lifetime of memories, but in a lifetime I’ll never forget what Jim meant to me. I hate that Jim is gone, but the fact is Jim is no longer in pain, sorrow, or grief or suffering. He is walking and talking like never before. The ways of the world are far behind him. One day we will see him again. And because we know that, we can cry with hope. The hope of knowing this is not the final goodbye.

“This week has been a hard one for all of us, but he wouldn’t want us to cry. He would want to laugh at the good times shared. Talking with Jim’s family, I know he left a legacy to be proud of. And his legacy will live on. Although he is gone from this earth, he will live eternally in our hearts. He was a great Dad, friend, husband and grandfather. We may have not been bonded by blood, but we were bonded by love, and I know I’m going to miss him a lot. You just can’t replace old friends.

“So until next time, I miss you, I love you, and I can’t wait to see you again. Zebb.”

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The Cultivation

Chiang Huang's "Brass Kettle"

Chiang Huang’s “Brass Kettle”

Cultivate. Harvest. Slow things both, the former taking precedence over the latter almost always. Several years ago I started following an artist from Austin whose precision with the brush is abruptly offset by a curiously thick brush stroke. I’m not well-versed in art, and I’d be hard pressed to explain what draws me to a style that transforms the round objects in a still life (fruit, tea cups, flowers) into more angular, block like images. But Qiang Huang’s style — that thick brush stroke — makes even the most sedate still life something more interesting, almost always.

Qiang holds a PhD in Physics, and until a few years ago he worked in that capacity while he pursued art in his off time. And then he took the leap — he quit work in favor of art, which he shares online along with a few paragraphs about what he’s going through artistically and emotionally.

Qiang’s writing is beautiful and simple, and he rarely holds back. Highly personalized, it often verges on a kind of artistic despondence. He wants to make an impact, but it’s clearly a struggle. He writes, I think, to remind himself that he has doubts and fears, that striving to maintain personal priorities can be difficult. I can empathize with that struggle.

These days, Qiang conducts workshops across America, and has gained a substantial following. He’s been featured in national art magazines. His leap from scientist to artist was clearly successful. And yet just this week he shared this tiny gem on his art blog:

I will keep on cultivating. Cultivating persistently, and do not think [sic] about harvesting too much.

It’s a reminder, a “note to self,” a personal diary entry shared with the world: stick to the cultivation, worry less about the harvest that certainly comes when you do.

A fairly poetic notion. We all struggle, but mostly in private. The artist struggles publicly, laying bare parts of an inner core that can sometimes be a little raw. The emotional risk is tremendous, but that’s what the artist does. He or she doesn’t see any option, and so the artist quits his work in science and turns to the only thing he really wants to do: in this case, he paints, and he goes public while his inner core warns him of all the potential dangers associated with doing so.

But the message is, I think, twofold. Yes, keep learning your craft, keep the harvest at bay as much as possible and concentrate on the cultivation. But harvest can equate to ego as well. Being too certain of ability and craft — bolstered by public appreciation — allows ruts to form. The ego’s satisfied, and that’s all that matters. The cultivation turns stale.

Most often I gain little appreciation when I go public with a poem or collection. At first this was a bit of a surprise, but after the initial elation of receiving an acceptance letter from a journal editor I almost always regret that I submitted. Maybe the poem’s too weak, perhaps I didn’t consider craft enough. I like that I feel this way — it makes me want to learn more, read more, to tighten every element of craft that goes into good poetry. I write poems in a vacuum, as alone with words as Qiang is with a brush. So I appreciate this reminder: cultivate with care, worry less about harvest.

I’ve never had much of a green thumb, but I’m not to shy to keep planting. So thank you, Qiang, for the simple grounding. I’m much obliged.

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The First-Person Bio

I overthink most things. No, that’s not quite right. I overthink everything. Case in point: last month a poetry editor asked me to provide my bio for a poem he’d accepted. Bios are necessary for publishing, but I’m not a big fan. In the third person you still know the omniscient narrator is the very poet writing the bio. It’s corny, or stiff. Maybe it just feels cheesy having to write yourself in the third person (“Richard Fenwick became a poet at the tender age of three after reading Eliot’s The Wasteland.”). But as I said, bios are a requirement, and long ago I canned a 50-word explanation for external publication.

This time, however, the editor wanted a first-person bio, with a short explanation: why do you write poetry? And I floundered. I didn’t want to bloviate or be flip, and I wracked my mind to get to the truth. Frankly, the question felt a little frightening, so I put the bio on a back burner for over a month.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when we gathered at a cemetery to say goodbye to another Holocaust survivor friend. She was a dear woman from Ukraine, a living textbook on Russian literature and politics, a former teacher who carried herself with an omnipresent smile hiding any pain she may have had in her older years. When we’d celebrate various Russian holidays, she always stood last, propped up by her walker, to propose a toast to America. She’d remind the group of the conditions they’d left behind, and always finished with “Спасибо Америка, за все.” “Тhank you for everything America.”

The temperature Tuesday was in the mid-70s, the sky a light blue thanks to wisps of thin clouds that hid the deeper blue prevalent in the desert southwest. The treetops were full of wind, noisy. At some point, as the Rabbi spoke, I searched across the vast cemetery toward a newer section that had yet to be seeded with grass. Out there, in that empty field of distant graves, a tumbleweed slowly bounced across the section, skipping over certain graves and getting hung up on others, until the wind captured it again and pushed further west in a curious and constant motion. It kicked up small amounts of dust as it rolled, then disappeared past the east bank of a dry arroyo.

This image is, I think, a fair representation of why I write poetry: A tumbleweed, dry and prickly, being pushed by the wind through a cemetery during a Jewish service. This was a curiously strong metaphor that seemed to represent . . . something. For now, I’m not sure. I know that it somehow made my heart sink. And until I can capture the imagine and its emotion on paper, until I can incorporate the metaphor in some meaningful way, I won’t be able to remove its essence from my mind. Even now I can see it, traveling slowly and haphazardly, moving, as all things do, toward some form of conclusion. In this case, to its resting spot at the bottom of a shallow, dry river.

I hope the editor will understand this notion. More than that, I hope I can synthesize it into one or two sentences. It would be a bit embarrassing, after all, to have my bio rejected.

But perhaps I’m overthinking things again . . .

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