As the photo mural posted above shows, have seen a lot of tortoises this past few weeks, fascinated by their distinctive-as-a-fingerprint shell patterns. That said, have only been fortunate enough to come upon (pun intended) box turtles in congress once before, years ago. This morning, though, almost stepped on this coupling couple in the Bon Air woods, that glaring fellow clearly not happy with my iPhone intrusion – what’s his glare and her all tucked in peekaboo saying?
For example, Daddy sent me out
with a willow switch I didn’t need
to nudge the old Herefords
back to the barn.
Dawdling along a fence line
strung across the pasture ridge
everything in sight seemed to sizzle.
Then the clouds unclenched
a crack at my ear a tree crashing split
in the woods. I was right not to care.
Lifted my freckled face begging
the deluge, just daring the hand of God.
Bring it on, I cried, at the top of my game.
Bare-chested and streaming
cackling like a mad man
astride one endless instant
both poem and prayer.
snapped on woods walk with our pup yesterday….
Somehow had never visited the Green Mountain State, but spent the past week there giving lectures and touring around. Oh my how beautiful! Re this poem that emerged from a sojourn alongside Morey Lake.
Low hills mirrored
in water like glass.
A cloud sliver paces
Swallows swerve for bugs,
their paired reflections swimming,
brush strokes that underscore
the otherwise limpid calm.
Loon song evinces
a quaver in the curtain
chorus of those I mourn.
A yodeled incantation:
It is this way today
while you are here
and will be when like us
you are gone.
Hope you will take a few moments to listen to this wintry season tale, my first halting effort at audio recording one of my short stories. This one derives from my first job as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital in New York. One of the outpatients I treated there came in one day with a photograph of himself standing with arms outstretched as a perch for a row of birds. As anyone who’s lived in New York knows, one of the great wonders of the city is it’s many eccentric residents. He was certainly one of them, and in this story I tried to imagine what his life must be like. It’s included in my story collection, Last Rites.
At dawn on New Year’s Day a year ago, the phone rang to tell us that my wife Chris’ 99-year old grandmother Angelina had died just before midnight at the nursing home in Poughkeepsie, NY, where she had lived for a year with encroaching dementia, most of that year in isolation, unable to understand why her daughter and granddaughter, on the other side of the window, could not cross over for a hug. (Chris had lost her other grandmother Connie, age 101, in the first week of covid, before testing was a thing. She developed a respiratory illness of some sort and was gone in three days.) We still have not had a funeral for Grandma Connie, but the other side of the family was insistent about figuring out how to hold a funeral mass for Grandma Angelina. As her executor, Chris somehow made it happen in the first week of the new year. We drove up with the boys after work one night, masked up in a nearly empty hotel (this was pre-vaccine, you will remember) in New Rochelle, and the next day laid our dear grandmother to rest, after a socially distanced mass in the quaint Catholic church she had attended her whole life. At the gravesite, we dared brief hugs, and departed for home, after stopping for pizza (you can’t go to the old Italian neighborhoods of New York without getting pizza) and cannoli (same).
Waiting for the pizza, I noticed that President Trump was giving a speech on the tv. He seemed angrier than usual, pumping his fist. The staff rooted him on. As we navigated the maze of streets that lead to the George Washington Bridge and the Jersey Turnpike, powdered sugar from the cannoli speckling my suit front, news of trouble in DC began to interrupt radio music. By the time we got to the Delaware Memorial Bridge every station was talking about some kind of violent demonstration at the Capitol. Son Stephen, working Twitter in the backseat, said tear gas, people breaching the doors, lawmakers evacuating. I switched channels constantly. Piecing together a narrative from all the snippets as we drove was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle forming in real time. We curved around DC on the beltway, then with darkness falling, on I-95 South, noted a long line of Virginia State Police cars, lights on and sirens blaring, racing towards the city. It seemed that every vehicle around us, heading away from the U.S. Capital, was a jacked up pickup truck, some with American flags waving from the bed. The troopers were late to the party, the Insurrectionists headed home.
I say all this, writing at dawn on New Year’s Day 2022, in memory of a year that, frankly, started awfully. And having lived through the first nearly two years of the covid era, do any of us expect a whole lot different from the months to come? We’re all so tired, adapting as we can to pandemic management rules that seem to change daily, to political leaders who at best operate in a reactive mode, at worst aim to kill us all, and to everyday lives that are pinched on all sides. I do want to be cheerful, optimistic, grateful for all we have and can look forward to. I’m well aware that as a recently retired professor and natural introvert, working on a pair of books and masking up only for groceries and my weekly Meals on Wheels run, that I’m very fortunate to be out of the line of fire, with a wife who comes home from the hospital every day, takes off her mask, and cheerfully rocks out to Jazzercise on the tv, a dog who loves to walk with me in the woods, and sons who are quite resourcefully finding their way in the minefields of college and what comes after. Friends to zoom with, to chat with on the porch, my bicycle, my books. So stop bitchin’, right? Okay, will do. Let’s get on with it, see what this new year may bring. Let’s help each other when we can, practice that smile of the eyes above the mask we’ve been learning, maybe wake up to the fact that we’re all in this together, and hope, because hope is free after all, that this too shall pass.
Whew, boy, postscript after stroll in the woods with pup and my perennially glass half full (at least) wife Chris, where some of the stuff I’d written while she slept off our New Year’s Eve bottle of bubbles this morning sort of came up, and to which she replied, not necessarily in this order: (1) vaccines, (2) a President who cares about more than himself, (3) one son graduating college and the other about to, (4) my no longer having to grade stacks of exams, (5) we haven’t yet caught covid, (6) loving memorials for Grandma and a pair of close friends, (7) a 25th Anniversary trip to California where we saw family, hiked nearly every day for ten days (including in Yosemite), and no one got sick, (8) writing writing writing, (9) fun volunteering at FeedMore, Folk Fest, vaccine tents…., (10) getting tutored in woodworking by our friend Ken and building a table for Chris’ plants, a Little Free Library box, and a Walley World plaque for our friend Jeanne’s beach house, (11) collecting and publishing a dearly departed friend’s book of poems, and (12) did I mention we haven’t gotten sick yet? I stand corrected, grateful, and marginally less cranky. As Chris said, if 2022 can bring anything like that kind of good fortune and fun, then bring it on, eh? Wishing you the same!
Dawns on me that the day may soon come when central Virginia will see a winter without snow, and then another, and then before long snowy days will have become just a memory for us to bore our grandkids with. I’m going to make a hot chocolate, pull a chair up to the window, and, with our pup Buddy at my side, attend.
Sharing, too, a couple snowy day poems, the first by me, the second by Sarah Knorr, who loved snowy days so much. If you’ve written one, please comment back with it – let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
Halfway through 2021, I retired from teaching at VCU and set out on whatever this next chapter may bring. The books listed here (only three of which were actually published in 2021), have informed and inspired me along the way. Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:
Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War (Grove Press): I knew Gellhorn only as Hemingway’s second wife, but discovered her brave and brilliant war reportage while trying to process our pullout from Afghanistan. The essays in this book (D-Day invasion, Nazi concentration camp liberation, Vietnam, etc.) focus on the grunts and civilians, not the generals, and in every hard-won line Gellhorn’s love of mankind and hatred of what we do to each other gleams. Of late, there seems to be a much-belated effort to recognize female war correspondents. Gellhorn’s book, for me, was a revelation.
Ted Goia – Delta Blues (Norton): I have a wide bookshelf of musicophilia ranging from early jazz to post-punk, and have written young adult biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley. This book bowled me over. Goia is a masterful musicologist, who devotes a chapter to each of the leading pioneers of country blues, while weaving in pretty much everything known about the evolution of blues music from slavery days to the present (and making the case for blues as the lodestone of American popular music in general). He’s a dazzling writer. The chapter on Howling Wolf, whose childhood was a horror, is alone worth the price of the book.
Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Gob-smacked. You may think you know this story, but believe me, there’s a surprise on nearly every page of this beautifully written book that pulls together research from nearly every scientific field to tell the tale of how weakling bipeds on the plains of Africa raced to very quickly overrun the planet. It’s not pretty, but wow.
Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped from the Beginning (Bold Type): I launched into this 600+ page history of white supremacist oppression in America in 2020, during the Floyd-Taylor protest marches, and finished it early this year, having learned so much about how – since the 1600s – racism has served the masters, been encoded in law, and continues to color our lives today. I’ve read several books on this topic of late; so far this one’s my favorite.
Ted Kooser — The Poetry Home Repair Manual (U of Nebraska): Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, subtitled this book Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and it’s all that. So many instructional writing texts float on theory or fluff, but this one focuses on communicating one’s observations clearly and interestingly. I’m taking his well-grounded advice to heart, reworking some of my clunkier poems and enjoying the effort.
George Saunders — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House): My old friend, the author Paul Witcover, gave me two of the books on this list (dude knows me well). This one is a retirement present subtitled: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The master teacher here is witty, insightful author George Saunders, and the method is reading short works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol, glossed by Saunders to goose you along in better understanding the mechanics and the magic of fiction writing (like Kooser’s book, all in the service of clear communication).
Suzanne Simard – Finding the Mother Tree (Knopf). One of my fave books from last year, The Hidden Life of Trees, propounds a “wood-wide web” of nurturing communication among trees and other forest plants, which led me to this remarkable book by the scientist who discovered that network. She explains her forest experiments, devotedly studying nerve-like synaptic root systems, and promotes the notion of “mother trees” that have a sort of memory shared with saplings to protect them from disease and trauma. Clear-cutting, she argues, kills the mother trees, so new growth is weaker, less resilient, and prone to failure.
Jack Trammell and Guy Terrell – Civil War Richmond (History). You may know Trammell as the Democrat defeated by the aptly named Dave Bratt in a Virginia 7th District Congressional race. You may not know that he’s a noted sociologist and historian who has written 20 books. This new one, co-authored with Virginia poet Guy Terrell, digs deep into the maelstrom that was our sleepy capitol city during the Civil War, attending to untold stories of free and enslaved Black people, the wounded and sick, and those with disability or gender differences, while challenging what we think we know about where we live and how we got here. (Lots of gripping photos, too.)
Douglas Wolk — All of the Marvels (Penguin). As a kid in the 1960s, I haunted our local drug store for the early issues of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and pretty much anything Marvel every month. My kids have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that interprets those comics in interesting ways. So when my fellow geek friend Paul sent me this book, oh what a rabbit hole I fell into! Wolk says he’s read all 27,000+ Marvel comics; in this book he pulls together the key themes of what he calls the “epic of epics”. Fortunately, there’s an MCU app that stores most of these comics online. Currently spending way too much time on my iPad, re-reading the old comics to follow Wolk’s inspired guidance.
David Young – Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (Knopf). There is no greater poet than the ancient Chinese wanderer Du Fu (used to be Tu Fu). I have three translations of his work and always carry one with me on my own travels. This new version (2019) serves as a sort of memoir, the poems freshly translated, then arranged chronologically in sections introduced by notes on what the poet was up to at the time of their composition.
Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this very odd year! Share a comment, if you will, about your own perusals. Happy Holiday Shopping to you – let’s all buy this year’s holiday gift books from local indy bookstores – after all, Jeff Bezos is rich enough, ain’t he?
Here in Richmond, my favorite bookstore is Book People, owner David a kind and devoted bibliophile.
In Charlottesville, New Dominion Bookshop on the downtown mall is my go to.
btw, Washington Post’s list of Ten Best Books of 2021.