Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
 

Comments always are welcome.

Ashe-Choo!

The scourge of the Texas Hill Country ~ Ashe juniper releasing pollen

Overwhelmed in kindergarten, we wouldn’t have dared to jeer at anyone. In first grade, we began forging alliances, sending our boldest competitors into the fray and encouraging them from the sidelines. By second grade, we were ready to join in the fun, taunting even fifth and sixth-graders with our generations-old insults:

So’s your old man!
Your mother wears combat boots!
Liar, liar, pants on fire!

In time, developing vocabularies and an increasing appreciation for word play moved us toward more complex insults:

When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes, and said, “I don’t need one!”

As our ability to lob or fend off good verbal assaults developed, we became unknowing participants in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond: a tradition maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time.

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” (Oscar Wilde)
“He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” (Sam Houston)
“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” (Mae West)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)

When Lady Astor remarked to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” Churchill famously replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Churchill spared no one, as George Bernard Shaw learned after telegraphing Churchill to say, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Completely unfazed, Churchill sent a message of his own. “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second – if there is one.”

Despite being attributed to Dorothy Parker, one of most trenchant and oft-quoted bits of snark in recent history actually was embroidered on a sitting room pillow belonging to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

No group sat next to Longworth more willingly than many of our best-known novelists and poets. T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, “[He] has a mind – a sensibility -so fine that no mere idea could ever penetrate it.” Robert Browning endured Gerard Manley Hopkins’s assertion that, “[Browning’s] verse is the beads without the string,” while Austenites no doubt recall Mark Twain’s observation that “Jane Austen’s books…are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Even William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway felt it necessary to trade insults. Faulker once observed that Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

Chafed by the criticism, Hemingway responded, “I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which, if you arrange then in the proper combination, you make it stick.”

Given today’s general loss of vocabulary, the promotion of crude and vulgar language by celebrities, and the tendency of social media postings to resemble grade-school level banter, artful insults are hard to find. Nature, on the other hand, continues to perfect the form. Each spring she offers up wordless taunts in a form difficult to counter: the impertinence called pollen.

In Texas, spring pollen season begins early. By December or January, the tree variously called mountain cedar, post cedar, or, more properly, Ashe juniper begins to develop tiny, amber-colored male cones. When conditions are right, pollen-covered cones blanket the trees, drooping the limbs with their weight and making the hills glow an unearthly orange.

Ashe juniper cones ~ photo by Bob Harms, University of Texas

As the wind rises, great clouds of pollen are released to drift across a broad swath of Texas, as far south as the Rio Grande and as far east as Beaumont. If conditions are right, you can hear the sound of the trees releasing their burden into the wind.

Newcomers to Texas can be forgiven their assumption that references to cedars “popping” are hyperbole, or perhaps a folksy figure of speech. In fact, the ‘pop’ of the cones can be audible, and the ‘cedar smoke’ that results — clouds of a particularly nasty pollen — are nothing to sneeze at, even though multitudes do sneeze because of the ghastly allergy called ‘cedar fever.’ Most don’t develop a true fever at all, but that’s small comfort given the severity of other symptoms: itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and wheezing, and major sinus infections.

Rusty Hierholzer, Kerr County sheriff, captured a release of the trouble-making pollen on video.

Mountain cedar, aka Ashe juniper ( Juniperus ashei) releasing pollen

In a passionate and humorous Texas Monthly harangue on all things cedar, Joe Patoski pondered the phenomenon:

I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.

As do we all. Some barricade themselves in their homes. Others buy stock in antihistamine manufacturers. The writer J.Frank Dobie famously left Austin every year when the pollen began to fly. As his biographer, Steven L. Davis, recalls:

Dobie suffered terribly from Cedar Fever, the winter allergy outbreak that afflicts many Austinites. For years he had made himself scarce during pollen’s peak months [and] had long arranged his university schedule so he could teach his “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course in the spring, after the pollen had died down.

Given its ability to annoy humans, as well as its disputed reputation for hogging water, it might seem tempting to pursue on a state-wide basis the course taken by some individual landowners: eradication.

But Ashe juniper is native, and an important part of the regional ecosystem. The tree provides shelter for a variety of wildlife, and nesting materials for  the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Deer, raccoons, gray foxes, coyotes, and jackrabbits consume the berry-like cones, particularly when other forages are limited or of poor quality.

Ashe juniper berries

American robins and cedar waxwings, common winter residents in central Texas, feed on the berries as well, and the trees help to limit soil erosion on steep canyon slopes and in areas where vegetation is sparse. 

Host to the Juniper hairstreak, a green-winged butterfly that feasts on its leaves and nectars on native agarita, ‘mountain cedar’ also provides a rich environment for the native plants that thrive in its mulch.

Texas juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus castalis) nectaring on milkweed

As February gives way to March, the amount of cedar pollen decreases, even as oak and pine pollen increase. Elm, ash, and willow already have begun to add to the mix and soon, as spring unfolds across the country, the sneezing and grumpiness will commence in locations as widely separated as South Carolina and Oregon. But if the thin, greenish-yellow veils covering patio tables, mailboxes, sidewalks, and cars are as insulting as they are inevitable, they bring a certain beauty as well: the aesthetic appeal of pollen swirls on water, and the equally pleasing swirl of a new season into our lives.

Oak pollen abstraction

 

Comments always are welcome.
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

A Little Less Dazed, A Bit Less Confused

Remembrance of technologies past

While the advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, it’s changed the way we view them as well.

Today, we’re awash in photos, but not so very long ago their relative scarcity gave rise to traditions that already seem old-fashioned: carrying family photos in a wallet; creating physical photo albums; trading annual school photos with classmates. Continue reading

Scraps and Reality


Roger King probably wouldn’t have stopped to untangle this coil of rusty barbed wire, but if a fellow had dragged it into his salvage yard and offered it up, I doubt he would have turned it down. A stroll through the buildings on his property suggested he rarely refused anything. Piles of sheet metal, ceramic insulators, lengths of angle iron and rebar, old appliances, and Mason jars filled with fasteners huddled everywhere. Occasional oddities showed up as well, helping to keep things interesting: an armadillo shell; a set of paisley chair cushions; a bird cage painted green and filled with red plastic geraniums.

Born in San Antonio, Roger served in the Navy during WW II. Then, he and his wife Mollie opened a scrap metal and demolition business in northern California. In 1970, he sold the business to a nephew, moved back to Texas, and opened King’s Salvage in the town of Comfort. He loved to tease his customers, and was willing to have a little fun with people who didn’t know him so well. Asked what he did for a living, he’d often grin and say, “My wife and I are in the iron and steel business. She irons, and I steal.” It was his signature line: so well known that it was printed in his obituary.

I spent more time than might seem reasonable at King’s, looking over the rusted bits and odd-shaped bobs while attempting to divine their original purpose. It was, in certain ways, an extension of childhood habits. Long before I began frequenting scrap yards, scraps filled my life.

Some of my earliest memories involve table scraps: egg shells, vegetable peelings, and fruit rinds gathered for the chickens; bits of bread for the birds; turkey carcasses picked clean and carried away by raccoons.

Occasionally, leftovers returned to the table in the form of scrapple: bits of meat cooked with corn meal, shaped into loaves and sliced for frying.  Scrapple wasn’t our custom, but Grandma was more than willing to borrow good ideas from her German and Czech friends. Scrapple was a very good idea, and paired with fried apples, it was a double delight. “Scrapple and apples,” my friends and I would shout, gleefully. “Scrapple and apples!” We laughed at the sound of the words, and we loved the sweet and savory pair that tasted of autumn, comfort, and home.

Other scraps, more long-lasting, provided a different sort of comfort. Every home contained boxes filled with bits and pieces of fabric that remained after making dresses, skirts, blouses, and shirts for family members. Snipped into tiny hexagons or squares, the fabric was transformed into building blocks for what my grandmother called scrap quilts. Some called them pieced quilts, but in either case they were treasures: hand-stitched with skill, patience and love. 

Every year when the weather cools, I open the cedar chest and sit in the fading light, tracing my childhood through patches of fading color: a mother’s sundress; a grandmother’s apron; my favorite playsuit; the shirt my father wore when, desolate and brimming with tearful despair, I begged him not to abandon me to the terrors of summer camp.

Later, souvenirs of those not-at-all-terrifying weeks — the postcards, the pressed flowers, the mimeographed sheets of song lyrics – went into the first of many scrap books that served as collages of the passing years. Like the bits and pieces of scrap metal sculptor Lyle Nichols brings to life at his Colorado studio, their original purpose remained clear, even as their selection and combination created an entirely new vision of reality.

Looking at Nichols’s horse, thinking about leftovers for supper this evening, remembering that it’s warm enough now to put quilts away for the summer, it occurs to me that every bit of life we call scrap is valuable, and worth cherishing.

Scraps recall real meals, lovingly prepared. They intimate the cut of real clothing, patterned and stitched by human hands. They embody authentic experience: photographed, clipped, and pasted by the hands of those who knew which experiences were significant and which were not: which demanded saving, and which could be released without regret.

The best scrap, it seems, is grounded in reality, capable of stimulating memory, and able to contain an entire universe of experience within the tiniest shred of peeling or fold of cloth.

To the extent that writing is grounded in fragments of thought, a scrap of memory, or a pile of trimmings from from a vibrant and imaginative reconstruction of reality, it belongs with our quilts and our leftover meat loaf. Pulling words from from a pile of paragraphs; reworking paragraphs as though forging metal art; piecing sentences together with prepositional stitches and conjunctive thread; snipping, framing, and pasting images as if into a cherished book — all of this is beautiful, nourishing, and worthy of regard.

Few authors have understood the shimmering potential of mental scrap, the beauty of leftover experience, more clearly than Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa. After Pessoa’s death, a trunk filled with thousands of scraps of paper was discovered with his belongings. Among the unpublished poems, unfinished snippets of prose, and assorted other bits of writing was his thrilling and mysterious The Book of Disquiet, the source for this hypnotic sentence:

 I ask and I continue. I write down the question, I wrap it up in new sentences, I unravel it to form new emotions.

Published fifty years after the author’s death, the extended diary fragments which form The Book of Disquiet represent the autobiography of Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s remarkable “heteronyms,” or alternate selves. Each of these selves, nearly seventy or more of them, functioned autonomously as a fully developed literary alter ego, with a deeply personal voice and vision. And yet, the scraps remained just that: not unlike the pile of notes that covers my desk, scribbled on the backs of envelopes or grocery store receipts.

Why would a writer do such a thing? Pessoa suggests one answer:

I’m always horrified whenever I finish anything. Horrified and desolate. My instinct for perfection should inhibit me from ever finishing anything; it should in fact inhibit me from ever beginning. But I become distracted, and do things.

Reviewer Tricia Yost once suggested that Soares’s diary speaks of  “Lisbon, literature, monotony, dreams and much more.” But, she added, “in the final analysis, the minutiae of life is made heartbreakingly beautful.”

The minutiae of life. Fragments of experience. Scraps of remembrance, well-trimmed and basted into patterns of prose. Poetry tasting of sunlight and oranges. Strands of rough and barbed experience, unraveled and re-coiled. Tailings of thought, and half-formed questions, waiting to be asked.

All are there, waiting in the trunk, behind the door, beneath the surface of memory. Perhaps they are waiting for us to become distracted, and do things.

Comments always are welcome.

Remembering Ismael

Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.

Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain,  insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.  Continue reading