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.

r

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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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New Year’s Day, 2015

New Year’s Day, 2015. Somewhere in the great white southwest.

I didn’t celebrate last night, and I didn’t wake when the neighbors launched what remained of their New Year’s arsenal. Instead, I read parts of James Wright’s Collected Poems (again) and nodded off early. This morning, to my surprise, a thin layer of snow covered the yards, so I took a small drive to a hill overlooking Pantano Wash to wait for the sun. It was cold, and for some reason I thought of Amber Hall, the building on Eielson Air Force Base where we pre-briefed our reconnaissance missions.

Winter missions out of Eielson, located 25 miles south of Fairbanks, were magical. The temperatures were always somewhere below zero — no wind factor — and the metal engines of the RC-135s would groan to life during engine start and taxi. Prior to boarding, we’d sit on a blue bus in parkas and fur hoods over flight suits, some in mukluks, others in the mountain boots we’d been issued. For the Pacific missions it was always dark, but for the Arctic missions we’d arrive at the aircraft during the few meager hours of sunlight that define the Alaskan tundra.

RC-135V, Tail # 14842

RC-135V, Tail # 14842

Leaving the bus, a brute cold invaded our nostrils and eyes. It froze the hairs in our noses and mixed with the smell of JP-4 jet fuel. The mission aircraft, either an RC-135 V- or W-model, looked cold and ready, its telltale hog nose and cheek pods somehow magical, steam rising from any cracks or openings in the fuselage from the large yellow heating tubes attached. We’d board excitedly, wondering what it was we’d confront on that particular mission, pre-flight our parachutes and butt boats (survival kits), and run through each checklist until takeoff.

Engine run up, brake release — 60 seconds later (these were heavy aircraft) someone would announce “S-1,” the speed of no return, then “rotate” and we were airborne. 40 minutes after, for the arctic missions, we were bearing down on the beacon at Dead Horse, Alaska, near Prudhoe Bay, getting ready for the first of two aerial refuelings. Many years earlier, the choreography of launching our mission aircraft and two supporting tankers must have been a challenge. By my time it was routine: we took off first, then the tankers, all three heading north, over the top of the world toward the Soviet Union. Refuelings were conducted in radio silence (to hide that we were coming), and the tankers returned to Eielson without getting near the operations area.

Soviet Su-15 Fighter Interceptor

Soviet Su-15 Fighter Interceptor

But it was the cold I remember most. That and the dull white turtle necks of nomex long underwear rising from the tops of everyone’s flight suits. And the Arctic ocean en route to the area. And the notion, once on orbit, that no one could possibly survive in the Barents Sea for long. Bailout seemed ludicrous — you’d just extend your misery. The sea below was dull and uninviting, dangerous.

All told — from pre-mission brief, taxi, takeoff, two refuelings, a fur ball of Barents Sea activity, and finally landing at Mildenhall Airbase, in England — the duty day lasted about 21 hours. 17 of those were in the air. Amazing, in hindsight.

And that’s what Tucson’s paltry amount of snow reminded me of this first morning of 2015. It seems useless to me to consider the past all that often. And yet, sometimes, it seems like parts of my past were so monumental that I can’t help returning to them from time to time. It’s too bad I didn’t always understand just how monumental they were.

Get lost 2014, come on in 2015. Let’s hope this year treats us well, and that we find time to laugh and love together. Now, back to James Wright . . .

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Putting Fall to Bed

IMG_3273 - Version 2

Two Roads Diverge in the Blue Ridge Mountains

November, 2014. Somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.

I returned from North Carolina on Tucson’s last 90-degree day. The next morning I drove out to nose around in the Tanque Verde and Agua Caliente Washes, watching for the numerous Javelina, coyotes, and various other beasts that traipse through these empty rivers, these natural desert interstates for animals. It was warm early, but the forecast called for changes.

My trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains was helpful. I’m still processing my father’s passing in July, and can’t quite write much about it yet. My experience in these things is that meaningful poetry related to his life won’t emerge until early next year. For now I’m left to think of him a lot, and to plunk about on my guitar in poor attempts to dedicate a song to him. He loved the guitar; it’s likely I received my first one from him, when I was eight-years old, just so he could have a guitar player in the house. I’m grateful to him for that.

This year, like all the others, is coming to its end, and friends in the east and north have already reported first snows. Despite the fact that winter begins, on paper, over a month from now, across this great country the trees have given their collective nod of approval: winter may now commence. Winter gladly complies to such orders.

So let’s put fall to bed with a poem. Most of us know this one, and many of us may have even (had to) put it to memory at some point in our lives. Robert Frost’s lines here have been shared often enough that his “I took the one less traveled by” has become a little bit of a cliche. Still, it’s a beautiful poem with a universal message of choice, given to us by one of America’s most precious poets.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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