The Four W’s and H – a poem

It’s all in how you look at it,
isn’t that what they say?
Not what you say,
it’s how you say it,
and even then, who can say?

On a particular day:
Maybe bugs got in the flour
or your kid pooped his pants
the remote control broke

and that guy came to the door.
Or the phone rang and rang.
She bent to kiss your neck.
The dog wouldn’t eat.
You stood up then sat down.

How could you have traced
or navigated all of that
when what we’re taught
is my own free will?

Failing to note
that strand of web
a tactile whisper at your cheek
alerts that eight-eyed wonder
up the line that never misperceives

to its one pure motive
cares not a whit for how
but is all about when.

Tinnitus – a poem

At first it seemed
real, the sound
snow makes in
falling or some
deep night tune,
awakened at the hoot
of an owl.

But it’s with me now
like a bad tooth,
payment due
for all those
concerts set to stun.

I know what it means
to communicate
this insistent single note:

Remember test patterns
on tv’s back in the day?

Says I’m here
I will whine
even when nothing’s on.

All day every day
that alarm.

It’s Rainin’ So Hard.

Such good fortune to have woods behind our house – the tall oaks and poplars and gum trees, the skinny pines — that the rain plays like musical instruments, improvising a rushing waterfall concert, punctuated by the runoff from our roof splattering the driveway and the bass drum thunk from gutter overflow on the rubber lid of our garbage can, all the percussion instruments played at once, so you feel as if you must be moving on a river gaining speed towards rapids, though safe and dry on your screened-in porch. Half the charm of listening to heavy rain, I think, is that paradox, the symphony coming in your ears says go, but you are stationary, and in the dark before dawn this morning, the rain itself is invisible, so sound is the only marker, amounting to a study in percussion. Steady and hard since I sat down at 6:30 (it’s 7:30 now), played as a drone, relentless, the pace unchanging, the weatherman says 4 inches in two hours, no doubt washing out low roads all over the neighborhood that have not already succumbed to the week’s previous heavy downpours.

They say you never hear the rain stop. That truism is accurate, I think. All week I’ve waited to disprove it, and all week I’ve been distracted, missing that moment when the last drip fell. But the weather radar shows an orange storm cloud nearly past us now, headed east towards the Bay, so in the next half hour this torrent should lessen, the timpani fade, as the sky lightens and the morning’s birds, sheltering and quiet now, rush out to greet the day. No breeze at all, the trees still as a frieze, but a lessening of the roar, a rebounding run, then a dimming again, the snare drummers switching from sticks to brushes, the vibraphonists tapping slower, with space between tinks, still the overall laundromat shugga-shugga, but it’s as if the storm has thought to pace its diminution to the coming of daylight. But of course, it was the storm cloud that darkened the sky so late on an August morning, and with its passing, daylight unveils. Glistening swatches of green emerge, and the dark trunks of the tall trees stretch upwards in a still life hallelujah.

One bird whistles a three-note trill and repeats, a flute introduced to counterpoint the drone. No answer yet from her sheltering companions. By now on a dry day the birds would almost be done with their breakfast jazz concert, hitting the feeder hard, flitting and singing to each other all across the backyard. Not a one yet. Oh wait, a shabby chickadee has come to the feeder, sheltering in its lee, shivering beneath its narrow awning, allowing one chirp, shaking its wet feathers, second guessing its courage in leaving the shelter of whatever tree holds its nest. How resilient these palm-sized feathered troupers! What a gift to sit here under the porch roof, listening more closely than usual and adding my own little tapping to the general roar!

Now we note the slightest breeze, the individual leaves trembling as if they too are the audience and not the instruments, rustling program notes at their seats, awaiting the conductor’s wand, attending to the audio-visual synergy that dims and brightens at the same time. They seem giddy in their trembling, the little bird still huddled at the feeder, the rain now, yes I can firmly state that it dissipates, while a flat gray light illuminates the yard, as if someone is slowly turning up a dimmer switch. A hummingbird zooms past. My coffee nearly gone, the day almost upon us, wavering streaks of wet gleam silver on the window screens, that good hollow thunk on the garbage can lid irregular now like a jazz man cogitating on the possibilities, working out a rhythm only he or she can follow.

For an hour this morning time stopped. Everything was a drone, intimating the swelling Om that speaks of Oneness and Nothingness at once. My ears sought out progression, rhythm, resolution, some inkling of movement forward, and my eyes grappled for light, grasping at its dawning gradations as a path back to some norm. You can see why suicide runs rampant in the Great Lakes states, where gray gloom hangs for months and rain falls steadily for days. Imagine the maddening deprivations of solitary confinement in prison. We are made for motion, we crave indicators of progress from here to there, if not in space then at least in the timely changes a day brings. Without that, caught up in the thrum and drone, a little panic sets in. I would feel it if I thought this drenching downpour was not about to end. If I couldn’t sense some variation at least, some shift of sound or light in the general clamor. It’s 8 am now and yes it’s brighter but the rain has not let up. Maybe it’s the caffeine, but I do sense an anxiety in my chest and a fatigue at listening so steadily, the way one might feel in the late hours at a raga festival, wishing I’d brought an edible.

I’m clearly not much of a meditator. I shy from the lessons this morning’s rain would share, can’t stop thinking my way through it, typing little observations, watching Buddy at my side with his head up attending with so much more of a zen poise. The chickadee is gone. The hummingbird is gone. The rain continues. I had hoped to hear it come to an end. For a moment there thought, ah, diminuendo, and of course the sun will come out eventually. But now I think it’s actually falling harder. So hard that it fogs the far trees, makes a rain scrim in the woods. Nearby a tree falls – ah crescendo, the cracking at its base a little thunder (there has been no thunder all morning), then the accelerating shush as the limbs slap through the canopy and down to a sodden thump, the heavy trunk settling in the loam. Foundations loosened in wet soil, leaning old grandfather trees upended deep in the woods, their roots revealed like tentacled hands, done with the work of ages. That was a change! The falling tree snapped me out of it, brought me back to attention. I can groove on the music again. The breeze has accelerated, tickling the leaves on some trees but not others, like a ribbon of breath snaking from limb to limb. I’ve been sitting her listening and typing for nearly two hours, and if anything it’s falling harder than before. What an unusual August morning! Poor Buddy needs his walk. I feel like dear Irma Thomas in New Orleans, “Counting every drop, about to blow my top, I wish this rain would hurry up and stop.”

Hell Day for a Fluco

It’s been nearly 50 years now, but August 10 still marks a day of terror for me.  As it may yet for all Virginia high school football players of a certain age – the beginning of two-a-day practices diabolically set smack in the most sweltering week of the summer.  I was a Flying Fluco in the years 1971-73, when our team finished district competition undefeated only to bow to the mountain boys from Strasburg or Madison in the Regionals.  Winning was a new thing for Fluvanna County back then.  Just a few years earlier, my brother-in-law Butch had been a college-recruited lineman for a team that lost most of its games.  But all that changed when Virginia realigned its football districts to better match high school populations, when full-blown desegregation finally kicked in (our county’s Black high school became the junior high school and everyone – Black or White – became a Fluco), and when a submarine engineer from Virginia Beach named Phil Browning decided to come home and take up football coaching at his old high school.

Coach Browning was first and last a man on a mission.  His quite simple philosophy had three components, plainly derived from the playbook of the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:  (1) you win games with defense, (2) you win games in the fourth quarter, and (3) you win games as a team.  This philosophy, taken to the extreme (Coach would have had it no other way) meant that in his first season the team occasionally punted on first down, just to get our fearsome defense back on the field; that two-a-days became brutally violent endurance sessions that left everyone bruised and spent, flat on our backs on the cool gym floor between practices; and that no one got off easy (one of the shameful moments of my life, one that still haunts me, was standing there agape among my equally dumbstruck teammates, while Coach whaled on his quarterback son Skip, who had shown the temerity to question him).

We were small (probably the heaviest among us my senior year weighed 180 pounds), slow (at least after our brilliant running back James Johnson fell to injury), and undermanned (by our senior year word of Coach’s horrifying practices had winnowed us down to 25 players, barely enough to scrimmage), but boy were we in shape!  Just as he’d planned, game nights were cupcakes compared to our practices. We feared no one, easily played offense and defense without rest (that senior year, most of us on the first string stayed on the field the whole game, even for kick-offs), and we were relentless.  We never bad-mouthed or resorted to dirty tricks in the scrum. We just ground down the opposing teams, big old farm boys left gasping in our dust.  We won some games 42-0.  As an example of Coach’s sometimes maniacal defense-first philosophy, after a few of those lop-sided victories, when the other team had somehow scored a touchdown, he kept us on the field after the game, or brought us back to practice on a Saturday morning, just to run ten wind sprints for every point the other team had scored.

Those of us who stuck it out across our three high school seasons were changed for life.  I know that nothing I’ve been through since has ever pushed me quite as hard, and every hardship I’ve faced has been answered by this photograph, from a day that all but crushed us, down on the old softball field a mile from school, where we trudged to practice twice a day.  We were all exhausted, dehydrated (back then it was considered “pussy” to drink too much water, and the water we did have was silted with salt pills), beaten by a relentless August sun, and stumbling about almost delirious.  On the day in this photograph, my friend MacLean Zehler collapsed into convulsions after practice, a victim of heat stroke.  He might have died.

One other key point in this jog down memory lane, our team was integrated successfully, whereas many of the teams we beat failed at that effort.  For instance, Prince Edward County is notorious for having briefly shut down schools rather than integrate, all the White kids migrating to a private academy set up just for them, which cut the school population in half.  Other teams clearly fought amongst themselves, were disorganized, and ripe for the taking.  Coach wouldn’t have that.  As an example, he loaded up his old blue bomber of a car with Black and White players alike, all tumbled in together after practice, and spent the next hour dropping everybody off at home.  This was the Vietnam War era, and he worked hard to get as many of us as he could into college, because the alternative was a plane trip overseas.

A couple years ago, after a high school Homecoming game, a few of us gathered at the house of former player Roger and former cheerleader Karen’s house to talk about the old days.  MacLean, now living out West, had come home to interview people about Coach Browning for a script he was writing.  I told him the movie had already been made, the classic Remember the Titans, with Denzel Washington in Coach Browning’s role.  But he turned on his video camera and watched in amazement as old Flucos recounted down to the play and how much time was left on the clock glory days of fifty years ago.  I haven’t seen that script yet, but I hope to soon (so c’mon, MacLean!). Meanwhile, like all my fellow Flucos of a certain age, I bow to August 10th in remembrance of bruises and triumphs past.

Meanwhile, Here in Suburban Richmond: an essay

In this morning’s New York Times a summary of the mistakes we’ve made here in the U.S. in coping with the coronavirus, which has put the lie to our already tattered notions of national pride. I feel battered on all sides, even though it’s been easy for me so far. A professor of occupational therapy with college junior sons, we were enjoying a spring break vacation in Kill Devil Hills as the nation shutdown in mid-March.  They closed the bridge to the Outer Banks the day we left, and that Monday, like teachers all over the country, I learned to zoom.

Our sons zoomed, too, in their bedrooms here at home. They’ve chosen all online classes for the first semester of their senior years and will be studying in their bedrooms again.  One – an ocean rescue lifeguard – has taken advantage of zoom to stay on until the tail end of the season in Nags Head. The other, a budding film-maker, has set up an online business adding special effects to music videos.  My wife, an occupational therapist in a free-standing polytrauma unit on the VA hospital campus, wears a mask all day, has helped 3-D print thousands of face shields, and has seen only one covid case in her building so far. I’ve had it easy, really, isolating at home, working with a half dozen students on their doctoral dissertations and capstones, tinkering with a couple books I’m writing, and cramming to learn strategies for teaching my fall lab course in what we call a hybrid (half zoom/half face to face) model. 

I only leave the house a couple times a week for groceries, hand-washing and squirting disinfectant, and scowling behind my mask at those with bare faces.  I get squirrelly, sure, but I’m an introvert, so that helps.  I read, I write, I ride my bike, I cook and mow the lawn, I blog and post to social media.  I’ve marched for BLM here in Richmond, with the old folks who haunt the edges of the crowd. On occasion, I Facetime with a distant friend and we’ve even had a couple socially distanced cocktail meetups on our screened-in porch.  We’ve been lucky, healthy so far.  Yes, my wife’s 102-year old grandmother died in March in her assisted living facility.  She’d been spry, even danced a little on her birthday, but spiked a fever and was gone in two days, back when there were no tests, so we don’t know.  As one son drily put it, “Even if it wasn’t the virus, something was going to get her.”  Eventually, I imagine, we’ll bury her beside Grandpa, but for now her ashes sit in an urn (she didn’t want to be cremated, but there was no other choice). Our other grandma resides in a dementia unit in a New York nursing home, well-cared for, but only able to wave with some bewilderment at family visitors through a window. A close friend died in late July of cancer.  The last time I saw her was in February, and not being able to visit her to say goodbye saddens me.  In my extended family, some have caught Covid and recovered at home. But like I said, we’ve been lucky so far.

I know, however, that a lot of our luck comes from our special privilege.  We have a roomy suburban home where we can all live comfortably in shutdown. We have jobs. I even have a job that allowed me to work from home this summer.  We’re on the same page about the virus, and look after each other. Yes, it’s worrisome that some others in my family and some neighbors distrust the science, have marched against masking, throw up their hands and call this the End Times, etc. Across the decade plus of the Obama and Trump administrations, politics have distanced us. Like so many others we’ve learned never to discuss politics at gatherings.  But now, when the only way to slow the virus and lower the death toll is for all of us to pull together (the way other countries have been able to do), it worries me more that we’re so divided, so confused, somehow making public health political.

But here we are.  I’m gearing up to put on a mask, a face shield, gloves and scrubs, and walk back in the classroom again in less than two weeks.  My students need hands-on labs in splinting, physical agent modalities, prostheses, movement therapy in stroke, and more, or our accrediting agency won’t let them graduate.  I’m in my mid-60s, so in a marginally high risk group.  Sort of wish I’d retired last year.  But instead I’ve agreed to stay on at my job until the end of the school year next May, because the state hiring freeze means they can’t replace me right away. 

I’m – I think the word may be – “trepidatious.”  We’re at least a year away from a vaccine reaching us all.  As I write this, more than 155,000 Americans have died from this thing, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, more are suffering disability in their recoveries. For now the university where I work plans to hold nearly half its fall classes face to face. If I had to bet, I’d say that we’ll be back to full-time zooming by Columbus Day. Meanwhile, thousands more Americans will die.

Why is it so hard for people to face facts? Why can’t our President lead? A couple months ago, I mused on Twitter, “Think of the lives we’d have saved if Ivanka had added masks to her fashion line?” What I meant, of course, was that if Trump had seen a penny profit in those masks, he’d have pushed them hard. But here we are. As he so famously said, “It is what it is.” I tell my students to roll with it, to be safe, and to recognize that this is a year they’ll be telling their grandchildren about. For now, like my boys, they look forward to graduating into a scarcity of jobs, even in the health care field. But they’re young and resilient, and as a friend posted the other day, remember in the late 60s and early 70s, young men graduated directly onto a flight to Vietnam. My parents turned from their teens into World War II. It’s scary, yes.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful, wouldn’t it be patriotic, if we could, as President Obama reminded us at John Lewis’ funeral the other day, turn towards each other? I mean, at the very least, think of the lives we could save.

Antidote: a poem

Confucius say
make a ritual
in order to attend
in order to focus
on what is needed
to calm enough to get
outside the blather
between your ears.

Make a meal and share it.
Taste and season as you go.

Pick up trash along your walk.

Turn off the phone and sit
and wait for what turns up:

maybe a hummingbird?

Next time you point and say
“You’re not the boss of me,”
scowl at that annoying mask
(while I pout back behind mine),

what if we consider
that even now that little
bee of a bird is gaining weight
simply from sipping flowers

to somehow brave the Gulf of Mexico
again so his race can go on?

By the Book: Rosemary Rawlins

I’m grateful to count author Rosemary Rawlins as a longtime friend. We met after publication of her powerful memoir Learning By Accident, which recounted her struggle in helping her husband Hugh recover from a brain injury suffered in a bicycling accident here in Richmond. The book is heart-wrenching, hopeful, true. It has helped so many people navigate the long months of brain injury rehabilitation in their own lives. Rosemary and Hugh came to lecture my occupational therapy students about this, we chatted, and thus began our friendship.

Over the winter my jaw dropped to read a second manuscript Rosemary was finishing, a work of historical fiction on a topic that might seem impossible to tell, the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields of the 1970s. Rosemary knows Cambodian immigrants who lived through that time, has visited Cambodia with them, has immersed herself in historical research, and she has magnificently condensed all of this into a riveting tale of one girl who comes of age across the years when Cambodia was tearing itself apart. By imagining the killing and the upheaval as seen through her innocent eyes, Rosemary is able to convey the personal, human cost of such brutality more powerfully than any straight history could. If you haven’t picked up All My Silent Years yet, it’s available on Amazon, or you can request it at your local bookstore. As they say, you’ll be glad you did.

All this by way of introduction to our By the Book interview:

What books are on your nightstand?

I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I often read two books at a time, alternating between them.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I read every day. It’s also a personal habit of mine to read each night in bed before I sleep, and the habit is so ingrained that I have trouble sleeping if I can’t.

My ideal reading experience takes place in a favorite cushy chair in my office, feet on the ottoman. I love being engrossed in a book on a rainy day, or reading at the beach in the early morning or evening when it’s empty. In the fall, I read out on my back deck.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like choosing a favorite child—impossible! But one book that has stuck with me for a long time is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, not only for the story but the beautiful writing. I found her characters to be extremely well developed and their voices so distinct that I fell into the story and never wanted to come out.

Your novel might be considered historical fiction.  Do you have favorite historical fiction books or authors?

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Tara Conklin (The House Girl). I also loved Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. More recently, I have read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys byColson Whitehead, two powerful stories.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?  Favorite villain?

Again, I could not pick only one, but for heroine, I’ll say Hetty Handful Grimke in The Invention of Wings, a slave girl called “Handful” with a strong will and memorable voice.

Here’s a quote from Handful in the book: “I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”

Favorite villain. The villains I cannot stomach are vicious slave holders and overseers. The tortures they inflicted on people is unimaginable and inhuman.

Character-wise, I’ll name Nathan Price, the Baptist minister in The Poisonwood Bible. He was rigid and abusive, a self-serving fanatical man who was cruel to his wife and daughters while acting pious and self-righteous. If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people hurting others in the name of religion.

Your first book was a memoir.  Do you have favorite memoirs or autobiographical authors?

I love memoir! On top of the dozens of remarkable memoirs I’ve read as editor of the Brainline blog site (I have a written several book reviews on the site and you can find them here), here are a few other memoirs that I’ve loved over the years:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl for its immense wisdom.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, for the beauty of insight before death.

Educated, by Tara Westover, a riveting family story where education is only one of the themes.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for its poignant depiction of a loving family’s dysfunction and how a child remembers that dysfunction.

Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls, for her humor.

Julie Barton, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. I am highly allergic to dogs, but I love them so much I get dog allergy shots. This book had me in tears until the end—a beautiful tribute to a woman’s best friend.

For my research on Cambodia, I read many riveting first-hand accounts of stories that occurred during the Khmer Rouge period including: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran; and First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s a raw, honest, and wildly funny book about Chast’s caregiving experience with her parents. I needed this book when I felt isolated and frustrated about my own caregiving antics. A friend gave it to me at the right time, and it had an immediate impact. I felt lighter, less alone, and saw my situation as more absurd than annoying. Sometimes, books are pure medicine; they remind us that there’s love beneath all the mess.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Beautiful, impactful, and important in these times.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

It wasn’t a book but it was words, so I hope it counts. My daughters arranged for all of the people in my life to write a quote or passage that reminded them of me, or that they thought I would appreciate, and I received the passages in a gift box. I open it all the time and read the slips of paper; each one is uniquely thoughtful and endearing. The gift means more to me than any other.

Are you a solitary reader or do you share your reading experience in a book club or reading community of some sort?

I read a book a month with my book club: Wine, Women, and Words. This group is made up of mostly retired teachers with a few oddballs like me, and we always have lively, intelligent discussions about the books we read together. I also attend a monthly Women’s Journey group that focuses mostly on women’s issues and spirituality.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

If you ask me this again in ten minutes, my answer will change. I’d like to have several dinner parties by genre and one with poets, but here goes:

  1. Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings),
  2. Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and
  3. Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. What makes a life worth living in the face of death to a young doctor and father facing a terminal disease? An exquisite exploration of the significance and meaning of life, of life choices and beliefs.

What do you plan to read next?

I just ordered Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kandi. I’ve been immersing myself in reading BIPOC authors to better understand recent events in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the way, here’s an interview I did with Rosemary about her new book. Enjoy!

Hummingbird Poem

My friend dying
on the mountain emailed
talk of hummingbirds
some of the last sweet
creatures she will see.

Wrote me last week not to worry:
“Only continuing my years’ long
evaporative process.”

In this season of our confinement
she sits with my friend her husband
on their porch and tears fall
with no more shame than the rain
spattering the trees.

She has planned it all with a kind of hope
that something like this would come along
some way to share it alone with him
no visitors to spruce up for, no pies
to nibble and throw out, no long sad looks
from those of us still breathing without gasps.

Her head cocks listening
at the flit, squinting eyes marvel
at the sliver tongue sipping
from the livid blossom’s drip.

All the thousand things that persist
as he cups her fuzzy head in one hand
to plump her pillow and she wonders
if she’s smiled in thanks but leaves it
over to trust because after all
that is what we have left
in the darkness in the naked world
when at last we surrender to sleep
and the next thing after that. 

She might be awake when hovering
for what seems like a pause
in time the little hummingbird
she could swear it
takes her measure
nods its glistening head
deftly turns its needled beak
like a pointer on a compass

and zooms away as if to say
the truly interesting
the nectar you seek
it’s over here come see.

Whitman visits Thoreau in Concord: excerpt

For some time I’ve been weighing the philosophies and the examples of these two primary Americans, whose ideas have driven so much of what we do and feel. Their ideas are so similar and yet crucially different in ways (I believe) that have warped our perspectives and driven so much of the civil difficulty we continue to face across the 160+ years since they met briefly – at Whitman’s home in Brooklyn. I’m working on a historical fiction piece that imagines them meeting again in Concord, where these similarities and differences play themselves out in a way that I hope expresses what I mean by that. On Thoreau’s birthday, today, sharing a section from the story:

“So this is your river, the Concord, is it?”

            “Of course it is not mine, nor anyone’s.  If anyone’s, however, then perhaps the indigenous peoples run off by the farmers so long ago.  You will find their name for the river felicitous.  They called it the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground.”

            ”I know it. From your book.”

            “Oh yes, I had almost forgotten.”

            “Ha.  And your mention, I do not pretend ownership of the word grass.”

            “Let us leave it at that, then, shall we?”

            “Ha, yes, leave.  Do you open your book, do you go back to it?”

            “I can hardly avoid it, the bulk of the edition insulates my attic room.”

            The poet pauses another moment on the bridge, chuckling at the slate blue surface, still as a lake, but no more than a ribbon of water in comparison to the mighty effluvial East River and the magnificent Hudson, America’s Nile, that embrace Manahatta back home.  He turns to see his companion already off and down the road, a stick man in soiled corduroys and a flat hat, stiff legs striding on as if he has forgotten his companion.  Well, no effort to catch up, after all.

            As he comes alongside, Thoreau continues his thought, saying, “Your book grows.  Why did you not make a new book entire of these other poems?”

            “Well, I have not said it, hesitate to speak it now, but….”

            He strides on, beaked nose leading like a divining rod, if anything picking up the pace, as if their conversation is only an aspect of his own private thought.  The poet ambles alongside, grinning at how neatly the man matches the acerbic words on his page.  He says, “I think it will be my only book, and it will swell across the years left to me.”  He hesitates, then says the words, “My American bible.”

            Thoreau doesn’t seem to hear.  He stops at a gated lane and beckons.  “Come.  Let me show you something.”  He opens the picket gate and turns down a side path through brambles, pausing to wave an arm across a plat of browning vines.  “If only you had come last week!  It was my annual melon picnic.  The community entire descends!  This year one watermelon required a wheelbarrow.  We carved it open with a crosscut saw!”

            “A melon picnic.”

            “Every year of my adult life, when I have enjoyed the freedom to garden.  It is a great labor, but a joy.  Here.”  He bends mid-row, reaching into a loamy burrow, “This one I saved in case you might come.  It will be our dessert today.”  The shiny green melon, hefty as a cannonball, easily fits in his knapsack.  “The garden seems to grow each year to fit the expanding renown of our picnic.  Like the loaves and fishes, I always seem to have just enough melons for the crowd.”  Thoreau shoulders the knapsack, turns to look directly into the poet’s gray eyes, as if to make some kind of point, adding, “May your American bible, as you call it, find a readership that swells alike.”

            They cross the railroad tracks and descend towards the pond, through regimented rows of Lilliputian trees, none more than waist high.  Spindly pines by the hundreds, interspersed with lindens, and a few oak saplings here and there.  They pause in a little open space amidst them, at a squared off depression in the black soil. Thoreau pauses, looks about, as if seeking a companion or lost in a private revery.  He gazes down towards the pond bank rimmed at this time of year with cat tails and calamus at this end.  Emits a sharp whistle and waits.  Oh my, this must be it, the poet guesses.  “Your cabin, it was here?”

            He barely nods, emits another whistle in a different pitch. 

            “But the reviews, they read as if you were far on the lost frontier!  And there is the afternoon train steaming by, and your Concord just this short walk!  And there on the far bank, is that a shanty town, too?”

            Thoreau frowns, says, “I call to my old pets, but they are long gone or they have lost the habit.  Yes, my retreat to the woods was here.”

            “But where is it now?  And the woods?”

            “All cut down since.  This was years ago.  We planted this grove just last fall to make a new wood that I fear we shall never live to enjoy.”

            The poet takes off his hat, bows his head ceremonially.  “Then I shall read your new book in reverence.  It will all be new to me as if imagined.”

            “Better for that, I think.  But it was real enough in its time.  Now the chimney bricks themselves have wandered off.”

            “So we have your book.”

            “Well, you do.  Here, have one.”

            It’s a slight thing, in a brown binding, opens to a pencil drawing of the little hut that stood here, just as the poet’s first effort opened to an etching of he himself, no name just the image to identify him.

            Whitman bends to his own knapsack to tuck it in, pulling out a second book.  “And one for you, too!  My third edition!  See how it grows!”

            “Indeed, sir!  Since the volume you gifted me just last year!  All new?  What have we here?”

            “Did Emerson not tell you?  We spoke of the new poems at some length down in Boston last spring.”

            “I fear he has said very little about them.  But we see each other only seldom of late.”

            “All for the best, I think.  Judge for yourself.  He wished to bowdlerize the lot, and that I cannot do.”

            “Ha, that he tells you!  He charges me to write with a fleshier zest.”

            “I fear his ideal might straddle our paths.”

            “To thine own self be true is the man’s oath, fleshy zest or no.”

            “Which I think he eventually came to see.”

            “In my case, too, I suppose.  Though I know it irks him.”

            “Where is the good reverend, I wonder?”

            “Down to Boston again.  You might have passed in your trains.”

            “Well, thank you.  I eagerly anticipate the wisdom of this new book.  Is this then what your letter intended, this new thing you would show me?”

            Thoreau removes his hat, bends to tug at his boots.  “Do you remember in Brooklyn you spoke of swimming at Red Hook, I believe, in the harbor?”

            “Every day that I can get there, yes, to this day!”

            “Well, I too swim.  Often of late walk a mile in the river up to my neck of a summer’s day.”  He steps out of his boots and stands to unbutton his shirt.  “So much of this new book was fished from this pond.  I would invite you to fully immerse yourself therein, so as to enrich its reading.”

            “Well, sir, then, you lead.”  The poet doffs his slouch hat, drops it atop his companion’s, and strips down in an instant.  The summer air so stifling when wrapped in linen and corduroy now fresh upon their skin.  Thoreau has already begun to walk down to the water, elegant in his stride, the poet thinks, as a red Indian, his flanks narrow as a boy’s.  He follows as best he can, tender feet hobbled by the pebbled path.

            At the water’s edge, Thoreau snaps off a reed and hands it to Whitman, snaps another for himself.  “You will require this,” he states, a glint in his steely blue eyes.  Then he toes almost silently into the water.  “Do not splash, you must slip in stealthy as a snake.” 

            The poet laughs, “Well, then, lead on, whatever initiation awaits!”  Ridiculous, to stand ankle deep in pond ooze, twiddling a stick, directed as if a child by this rural intellectual.  He had expected to sit in some stuffy parlor, nibble at corn bread, debate some point of the news.  Well the little man is far out now, up to his neck in the placid green lake, his beaked nose a pointer at the surface.  He said go slow, well then, yes sir, I follow as good as lead.

Love Over Fear? A reflection

When I wrote this poem last fall, using the 5-7-5 syllable haiku formula, I really didn’t have an answer to the question it poses. 

But it’s nagged at me.  I have a t-shirt worn to demonstrations that reads LOVE/fear (love over fear).  But the t-shirt doesn’t fully answer the question either.  Then I ran across a book by the popular philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum that goes directly to the point.  Here’s the cover:

Nussbaum writes:

“We’ve said from the outset that hope is the opposite or flip side of fear.  Both react to uncertainty, but in opposing ways.  Hope expands and surges forward, fear shrinks back.  Hope is vulnerable, fear self-protective.”

So by Nussbaum’s reckoning, fed by her deep reading in the classic philosophers and astute observations about popular fare like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the answer to my high coo’ed question might be:

If hate is just fear

spewed onto others then love

is hope in action.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this equation (or the way the new poem parses) either.  After all, doesn’t love often express itself best in situations where there is no hope, for instance in holding the hand of a dying friend (or in today’s climate, placing a hand up to theirs on a window pane)?  But I like the way Nussbaum’s definitions allow friction to operate on these heavily loaded four-letter words.  She describes how fear and hate, like sticks rubbed together, feed each other’s fire.  Hope and love, like palms rubbed together, warm the hands that reach out to touch.

So I’m thinking that hope and love, framed in this way, can be practiced as solutions to fear and hate.  When fear emerges, because of pain or misunderstanding or perceived danger, then hope can arise, too, perhaps aided by the behavioralists’ A-B-C (accept-believe-challenge) ritual, so that love can blossom where hate might have seeded instead.  For example, the coronavirus is deadly, terrifying and unpredictable.  But because it’s hard to hate a microbe, fear instead feeds on various strategies for hiding one’s head in the sand:  distrusting science, disbelieving the numbers, blaming others, and opposing the simplest efforts to combat the menace.  Fear can even lead to hateful rants in supermarkets by people refusing to mask.  The A-B-C approach to short-circuiting that fear with hope, as a path towards love, might read like this:

I accept that the virus is a sneaky killer.

I believe that I can take actions to protect myself and others.

I challenge myself to keep informed, stay home when possible, wear a mask in public, wash my hands frequently, and help others when I can.

The same model might fit so many of our personal, social, and political concerns.  After all, we live in frightening times.  But there is another word needed to complete this fear-hate/hope-love equation, and that is courage.  Is love, as my amended poem now reads, hope in action, or is something more required to act on these emotions?  Maybe courage is the linking word I’ve been looking for:  Hope feeds love feeds courage feeds hope feeds love.  Maybe, too, courage is love’s engine when there seems to be no hope.

So this: You can give in to fear, let yourself cower into hate; or look up with hope and brave love.  As the Jackson 5 sang in the midst of a time as tumultuous as the one we find ourselves in today:  “A-B-C/it’s easy as 1-2-3.”  Or is it?

PS – Here is a fascinating conversation from the Washington Post with a Black Buddhist gentleman on these same issues.