mid day post, January 25, 2018

 

 

I still remember where I left my staff.  I leaned it tall against an old oak near the top of the hill.  That was decades ago.  I was a different man then; less of a believer, but more of a dreamer.  In those days I never planned my walks in the forest.  They were not escapes from any daily grind but simply a part of every day.  The woods were adjacent to my home and in the summer my hours – my days – were open to rambling.  I grew to know those woods in the way that a long-time resident knows his house.  The paths, tunneled over with vines and foliage, were hallways and each opening a room.

I must see it in memory as more colorful, more wonderful than it was at the time, but even then I understood that the woods were inhabited by spirits.  There were spots where farmhouses had once stood, perhaps a hundred years before, straight rows of perennial flowers, a rusted wheel, and here and there one stone cemented to another the evidence of  long-vanished life.  In odd places I found old, wooden trunks, some that hadn’t been opened until I forced the latches.  Inside were books and clothing, sometimes a doll or other toy.

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Book Review: Lay Down Your Arms

Image result for bertha von suttner

Bertha Von Suttner

C.S. Lewis placed great value on the reading of old books.

 

He said that a person ought to read at least two “old books” for every new book read. He argued that old books serve to correct a bias he called “chronological snobbery.”   As I remember, there were two parts to this bias: one being  the idea that the age we are in now is superior in all attitudes and philosophy, wisdom and knowledge to any other era or age.  The other is maybe just a bit contradictory and that is that moderns need to be shaken out of their prejudice that all people at all times have thought in the same ways that we do.

Under these terms, BerthaVon Suttner’s novel, Lay Down Your Arms, certainly qualifies as an old book.  It was first published in 1889 , some twenty-five years before WWI destroyed the world she lived in and about 50 years before WWII gave us the realignment of Europe that many of us take for granted today.

There is no mystery about the book’s intent.  As she says in the final pages, anyone who reads the title will know it.

I came of age in the last years of the Viet Nam war, so anti-war sentiment is nothing new to me.  In that time every other song on the radio was an anti-war song and war protests were common on seemingly every college campus in the country.  Like so many of my peers, I read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

So how was Von Suttner’s book anything new to me?  What did it tell me that I didn’t already know?

Well, Lewis was right.  People in Von Suttner’s day did not think like we do today.  Then, before Auschwitz and the atomic bomb, the prevailing sentiment about war – at least in the circles in which the book’s protagonist moves – was that it was glorious.  The nations of Europe – and there were lots of them at that time – seemed always to be spoiling for a fight.  It was a matter of national pride and individual advancement.  Men joined the military with the hope that they would see battle.  And death in the field was a great honor.  The soldiers of conquering armies returned home to elevated social and economic status.

It is true that today we honor fallen soldiers and for the right reasons. These men, we know, died to protect the innocent, to stop a tyrant.  But the wars Von Suttner writes about were simply disputes about territory – which monarch would have control of this or that bit of land.  They issued in enormous horror – bloodshed and disease and the destruction of wealth and nature – and often ended with no clear winners and little in the way of political gain.

She makes the point that it was a part of the Germanic culture of the day that the horrors of war were not to be thought of or mentioned in polite society.  To do so was an act of cowardice or treason.

And the wars fed on each other.  Winners basked in glory and looked for new conquests while the defeated lived for a day of revenge.

Given that the subject was off limits, there was no living consciousness of the cost of war.  What the nations did, time and time again, was line their best men – the young and strong, the old and wise, fathers and sons – up in fields and have them slaughter each other.  And yet there was little public understanding that what was being spent and used up was far more valuable than anything that was being gained.

This book was Von Suttner’s attempt to move the conversation into sobriety.   She lived out her conviction by trying to persuade Austria not to pursue the course that eventually led to WWI and the death of millions.  She died just before the outbreak of that war.

The book is a true novel, not a mere polemic.  The story of Martha Tiller’s life – it’s told in the first person, in her voice – is an engaging one.  There are real characters and one convincing love story.

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Morning Poem, January 22, 2018

 

Lift the scales from my eyes

So that I realize

All the wonder and spirit of common things

.

Each tree is a mystery,

Each house a history

Every bird in its flight

Every hour of light

Was never before

And will be no more

 

copyright 2018

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Evening Poem, January 21, 2018

 

 

The evening sky

Is winter blue

Lit up by a quarter moon

.

The barren oaks

Lift their branches high

Outstretched toward heaven’s rooms

.

And one tall elm

Stands by itself

Its black limbs map a maze

.

Each tiny twig

Points to a star

A thousand million ways

 

copyright 2018

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Afternoon Post, January 17, 2018

 

In the frigid morning she stands beside the wall

There posters for soda and chips blare

And on the road beside only a few cars move

And them slowly, unsurely

Their tire sounds muffled in the new snow

Her coat is too short and she wears neither hat nor gloves

She blows the smoke from her cigarette into the white, winter air

The smoke is thin, the cold air thin, her coat thin

She looks nowhere, not even away

And gives no sign of bearing this weather, this day

She is a soldier to her habit; there is no decision to be made

All must be borne

.

Behind the pizza joint at three in the afternoon

A cook, damp with sweat and grease

Wearing the silly green t-shirt of his employer

Sits on a cinderblock just outside the employees exit

Cradling a cigarette, looking nowhere, not even away

 

 

copyright 2017

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afternoon post #2, January 12, 20178

Elizabeth knew it would come again.

 

There would be another conversation with Susan.  And Susan would be prepared this time.  Elizabeth would give the same answers to the same questions: it was an emotional decision, finally, to buy the old house, but not a sentimental one.  It was not just nostalgia.  Nostalgia was a longing for something you once had and lost – or at least you believed you once had it.  This emotion of hers was not that.  She knew good and well she had never had the thing she was now longing for and she knew as well that that thing, whatever it was, might not exist and if it did it might never be called into being by a habitation of this old mansion.  She was also ready for the questions about the practical consequences of such a decision.  She was not denying them.  Not denying that this allocation of her substantial but not unlimited resources would limit her choices for the rest of her life.  Her winters would not – would likely never – be spent in Florida or the Caribbean.  She would drive the same, old car she was driving now for years.  Maybe for the rest of her life.  But Susan would not let it rest, she knew.  Susan had made her own mistakes and had paid and was continuing to pay for them and she would not stop at polite distance from the hard questions.

The time came only days later.  Elizabeth knew going in what was up.  Susan was test-driving a new car and asked her to come along.  The dealer had permitted Susan to bring the car – a new crossover – home with her for the day and night.  And so the two of them were back on the road, up and down the blocks and the miles that they had driven together, time and time again, from high-school days, through Susan’s divorce and, last of all, during the months after Elizabeth lost her mother.

Twenty minutes in, Elizabeth started the small talk.  She liked the car.  Liked how it felt; how it seemed to handle

You should get yourself one like it, Susan said.  Makes it easier in the snow.

I know, Elizabeth said.  I know.

They drove on, past the old river beach where both of them had gone in the springs and summers of their early twenties.  This is where they had spent the important time with the men they would marry.  Neither woman could look at the low beach across the pooled river without emotion.  Without, to tell the truth, those thoughts that lie too deep for tears.  It was not that they missed the men.  They missed who they were back then, when they walked with such confidence and hope.  Because of all that, and because each knew the other’s mind.  Had to know; just no question that the other had to feel the same; neither of them spoke a word of it.  Neither of them allowed themselves to even look long at the old beach, now covered with a soggy blanket of autumn leaves, as they went on.

When they topped the hill at the falls of the river and turned off of the river road and onto the state highway, it was Susan who spoke first.

Liz, I think I know.

There was little traffic on this stretch of road, miles from town, and soon they were riding through the first shades of winter twilight and across the long shadows the hills cast over the valleys and roadway.  Susan never looked away from the road.  She gave Elizabeth time to respond and when no response was forthcoming she spoke again.

I mean, I think I understand.

About the house?  About buying the house?

Yeah.  I’m not saying I agree with it, but I understand.

Well.  I’m glad about that.  I’m not sure I understand it myself sometimes.  Not completely.  And I will say that I do understand why you object to it.  I do understand that completely.

I’d feel a lot better about it if there was – if I saw – some way to cushion your landing if it doesn’t work out.  I do know about things not working out, you know, and there are costs, real costs.  This day and time everybody acts like there aren’t.  That you can just make a decision – any decision – and just go on about your way unharmed.  That’s a good way to act, I guess.  You certainly don’t want to mope and drag everything around you down.  But when you see a friend – when I see you – on the verge of a momentous life decision like this, it’s time to take the mask off and say it.  Decisions matter and sometimes they can’t be undone.  I think about my divorce, of course, and wonder how things might have gone if we’d have gone another way.  Looked for another counselor.  Tried to forgive and forget.  Look at the long view of things.  I’m not saying that the decision finally was the wrong decision; I’m just saying that it has consequences that I probably didn’t foresee the depth of.  There are consequences every day.  Nobody else can see them, but there are.  I think about my divorce and then I think about the decisions that led up to it.  Not all of them mine, some of them his.  But they were decisions to let things go; to not back down; to never let him see me sweat.  You go so far on that road and then you’re stuck.  You can’t go back.  You can’t undo.  At least it didn’t seem that we could’ve.

Elizabeth had been Susan’s closest confidante through the entire divorce process.  She knew of Edward’s infidelity and of Susan’s retaliatory infidelity.  She knew the fights between them so well she could have recounted some of the big ones word for word, but she had never heard Susan speak like this – to admit regret, even current regret, and to admit continuing injury.

This isn’t really like that, Susan.  It’s just a house.  Just a purchase.

I know.  I know it’s not.  But there are consequences that will continue, maybe for the rest of your life.  You’re limiting your choices.  Limiting your freedom.  You need to think about what you could have otherwise.  The kind of life you could have.

I’ve thought about it.  I know it could be nice.  A lot of fun, really.  But it wouldn’t be an adventure.  It would be lots and lots of little consolations.  Good dinners.  Nights on the beach.  Tickets to great shows.  But it would never be one big thing.  It would never be a triumph.  It would entertain me, but never fulfill me.

Alright.  I think I understand.  But tell me, word for word, how sinking your entire fortune into this old wreck of a house can fulfill you.

It may not.  I understand that.  But what I feel right now is that I am called to do this very thing and no other.  This unique, almost nonsensical thing.  It may not be what I was born to do at first, but it’s what is for me now.  Me and nobody else.  To tell you the truth, Susan, there isn’t much I see in what our friends do – even the ones who are successful and comfortable and who chronicle their lives ever so carefully on Facebook.  Their travels – the hotels and restaurants at the beaches; their achieving children and charming grandchildren; their newfound religion; their certainties about politics.

But what can that house do?  What can it possibly be?

That house is a forgotten dream.  It is a thoroughbred stallion that has been left in a wilderness.  It’s a picture not of the past but of what the past thought about the future.  It’s an embodiment – could be an embodiment – of what the world has forgotten; what the world has left out of the recipe for a hundred years now.  It has the possibility to be enchanted; beautiful.

 

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afternoon post, January 12, 2018

 

Image result for woman parting curtain painting

 

 

 

 

Standing, she cradled the curtain back with one hand and looked out the window into the falling snow.

 

She sipped fresh-brewed coffee from a fine cup and allowed herself to consider what an unmitigated delight it all was – this quiet winter evening, this beautiful coat of snow that covered the world like new grace and yes, even this sensate, almost pulsing pleasure from the coffee, dark and rich.  She felt neither frightened nor alone.

And she allowed herself to admit and feel, even relish in the relief she now knew.  It was all put away, now.  John’s soul committed to the Father’s mansions that had been prepared for him and to the hope of the resurrection and his body to the dust.  All put away.  She knew that so many were worried about this moment for her.  The time when all the friends and family would be gone and she would be left alone with her thoughts and memories and her loss, her aloneness.

But she felt nothing of that.  Nothing of those things that her friends worried about or that the experts spoke so certainly of.  In fact, this quiet evening, this quiet moment, was her first real peace, her first real living breath since she had heard of John’s collapse at the office.  From that moment on – till now – her consciousness was full of buzzing, cascading words from doctors, nurses, friends and relatives – assurance, then consolation.  A counselor had tried to tell her how she would feel, but she did not feel that way.  Not now.  And she was certain that she never would.

In this moment, she was free to feel in a way that might have upset or even scared those who said that they had only her interest at heart.  After all, John’s death could not be called tragic.  He was sixty-one – nine years younger than the biblical standard, but no one could say that he had been cheated out of his life – his death was unlike those of twenty-year-old boys, whose bodies have strewn battlefields in every generation; and unlike that of a thirty-five-year-old father of three who is killed by a drunk driver.  He had not suffered; he had gone from abnormally good health to death in only an instant.  And it was far better that, of the two of them, he had gone first.  He would never have recovered from losing her; she knew that.

They had never had children and had never taken steps to find out why.  She had wondered, of course, but knew that the tests would show one of them to be the problem and then where does it go?

What she had had with John was good.  It was better, by far, from almost every other situation that she knew of through her friends.  John worked.  He brought his paycheck home.  He helped with the housework.  He was never violent or vicious.  He never shamed or blamed her and the idea of another woman was ridiculous.

She closed the curtain and went to the burning hearth and took a poker and tapped the flaming logs at one end and then the other. Red embers dropped to the fireplace floor.  She took a piece of split beech from the box by the heart h– a piece that John had split – and fit it onto the fire.

What she had had with John was good.  It was good enough.  But she had sometimes wondered what else life might hold, if things had worked out differently.  She had no preconceived notions about it.  No real idea of what she would do differently, no long-lost high-school or college boyfriend.  She would never have taken that step – away from what had been obviously ordained for her, from that place in life where so many depended on her and loved her.  She had known women who had.  Those women would have never admitted to mistake, but any objective measure of their new lives showed misery not only for them, but for all concerned.

But now this change was forced upon her.  Now she could in perfectly good conscience contemplate the other.  What else was there?  Was there more?

Then the phone.  She looked at the screen and answered.

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Voices XXIII

 

 

After dinner she left the house through the back door and walked to the alley and past the old apple trees and surveyed the pasture before her and found the old path.  There was only a whisper of the hard-packed dirt left there in the grass. Was she only imagining that she had found it?  No.  As she walked the way before her seemed a faint magnet for her feet, bringing her on, step by step, in just the way she used to walk when her days were lighter, when she herself was as light as the wind.  All the world came into place, more with every step: the one tall pine there among the sumac and scrub oaks; the bed of the creek branch, black against the green meadow.  This was her place; her very spot.

She followed on, through a grove of oaks and to the edge of the hillside where she looked out again as she had before in those days when her dreams floated in the air everywhere and all the time like the songs on the radio.  It was twilight now and the sun was below the ridge to the west, leaving ribbons of scarlet and gold above.  And a breeze came out of the west and brushed her face and hair as if to lift from her all that the years – her ten years from home – had laden her with.

In that moment she remembered all that she once desired and thought again to herself that it could all be worth it.  She would try again.

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Morning Poem, January 12, 2018

 

What waits in the morning mist?

Is this evanescent fog,

Not solid, but not invisible,

Enough to give vague substance

To what once was

And what lives on in memory and effect?

.

Long before I walked these lanes

Lives were lived here and dreams dreamed

Look at the even line of jonquils there now in deep woods

Was that once a garden?

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Evening Poem, January 10, 2018

A Break In Winter

 

The warm winds stage a surprise attack

Creeping out, under cover of darkness

From the deep south and into these frozen hills

The snow and ice retreat in shock

And in the morning the air and earth are again soft

Strange and too good to be true

Like a respite from age itself

.

Without coat or hat I climb out of the shadow of the hill

At the top the late afternoon sunlight, level on the field

Meets me there

The breeze and the light run along the strands of spider silk

Everywhere in the low grass

Is something close to splendor

Just above, tiny flies born out of due time

Hover and arc in their short lives.

.

I breathe deeply and walk longer

Into longer shadows

We are twenty days past solstice

And I use up every new minute of daylight

Tomorrow the ice may return

But I have stolen a fresh taste of spring.

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