LOCAL VIEW –Dust Versus Crust–

Robert Frost wrote a poem I often recite in the winter woods, as it is short and easy to remember:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

This poem seems to typify the way a northern mind grasps at straws of beauty, in order to survive the general state of depression that deepens as the long northern winter goes on and on and on (and on.)

After Christmas, what holiday is there? New Years? What is that? Is turning a page on the calendar really worth rejoicing about? And the birthdays of defunct people, who had far more dignity than modern politicians, tends to depress me more than they inspire me, for I am reminded how dark our days are. And finally, you have to admit “Ground Hog’s Day” seems downright desperate, in terms of holidays.

Eventually we have to become self reliant, and display the sort of guts Robert Frost displayed, finding the beauty he shared in his poem. It was a dark day, a day he “rued”, yet he found something bright, not only for himself, but for me, (for he shared it with me [and countless others] though he never knew me).

It is nice to be able to share, but apparently some at Google do not think certain individuals, such as myself, should be sharing. If they feel a certain view is politically incorrect, (such as my view that arctic sea-ice is not going to be melted away by 2013 as promised, because it hasn’t), then they will seek to prevent people from sharing their views by artificially reducing the possibility their posts will be seen on Google’s search engine.  Power corrupts, and Google has apparently sunk to the level of a third world dictatorship, by virtually “disappearing” political opponents.

To be honest, I prefer being virtually “disappeared” to the reality version, for in many ways being unknown and unseen is everyday, for artists. Even Robert Frost went years without being well known, and many artists are simply not born for fame. Great singers have remained the cherished property of a small church choir their entire lives, radiating their beauty to a select few, making a poor congregation wealthy even as the world never knows what it is missing. This actually happens more often than not; the greatest comics perform before a crowd of eight at a backwater bar, as the wealthy go impoverished.

Despite obvious shortcomings, wealth and power tricks and fools people, and therefore those at Google deem it wise to stifle Freedom of Speech, and consequently live in a sort of self-created deafness. At best perhaps some think that, like members of Boston’s old, Puritan “Watch and Ward” society, they protect the innocent from some sort of “porn”, (by studying a great deal of it themselves). But the poor are neither as innocent nor naive as some suspect, and the soap that cleans a slum is not made by calling slums illegal, nor by making talk about back alleys be whispers.

In any case, where bringing up a topic such as “arctic sea-ice” once was a way to generate “hits” at a website, now it generates dead silence.

I find this a bit winter-like, and depressing. To share, and generate a will to censor rather than reciprocal sharing, is like being warm and catchinga cold blast from the north. It seems the upper crust is attempting to forbid sharing, in a sense denying the dust that delights, and leaving only a day “rued”.

The snow is glued to the swaying forest
And the northern blasts can’t shake any loose.
There seems no subtlety to this contest.
There is something solid in the crunch of boots
Across a frozen scene, something as starched
As the hairstyles of evening newscasters.
Where is the dust of snow falling from arched
Hemlocks, jostled by crows, that old masters
Wrote poems about? Is it too delicate
And too precious for times given to louts?
No, for the crunch of boots pontificate
Of a glue that was wet, before “Ins” became “Outs”.
Warm wet winds during the night, as I sleep,
Makes all trees birches, with oaths they must keep.

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Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against sitting in a warm penthouse sipping brandy. I’d do it myself, if invited. Nor do I have anything against an above-it-all attitude. (Brandy has that effect.) It is just that feeling above it all can result in one looking down their nose and becoming haughty, and sneering that others are mere children, mere dogs.

Be that way, if you must. The children and dog will not mind, as long as you leave them alone to play. The dog will play keep-away with a stick, delighting in the attention of ten kids running after it.

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Do you know what I think? I think those who scorn children and dogs are strangely threatened by the fact children and dogs have no real interest in money or fame, and would rather play in the snow than perch in a penthouse. Therefore they want to butt in and make children and dogs see they are important. They demand respect. They will outlaw sharing, unless you obey their rules.

But life goes on outside Silicon Valley. Alas for the Googlites, who make a winter without warmth, even in sunny California.

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LOCAL VIEW –Sickbed Sonnets–

We’ve had the ‘flu passing through our neck of the woods pretty severely this year, to a degree that not even my over-developed sense of humor can take lightly. When a local mother-of-four succumbs, the joking ceases. There is nothing like death to jolt people from their petty concerns. Things that seemed very important two weeks ago are not even remembered.

To a certain degree that was what my sense of humor was always all about. Things that people care deeply about, seen from a different angle, don’t matter a hill of beans. To some it is of paramount importance if Bobby asks Susie to the prom, but when both are too sick with the ‘flu to attend, all the fuss about what clothing matters becomes absurd. My mischief has always been to see the absurdity before the prom is cancelled.

I tend to be a good friend to have when you have been through a rough spell, and have lost the things that status-seekers crave. When you are a winner you have a girl at either elbow, but when you are in a losing streak they vanish, and people avoid you like you have the plauge….or the ‘flu. But I always had a soft spot for losers. Why? Because losers see beyond the superficiality of money and popularity and power, and know a person is still possessed of a heart and all a heart’s needs, even when they are down in the gutter. What really matters is deeper.

To get the ‘flu tends to be a reminder, a tap on the shoulder midst the hectic hubbub of ceaseless pettiness we call “important”. It is a reminder that we are mortal, and that our efforts to deal with death by completely avoiding the subject are going to eventually be in vain.

I think I was made especially aware of how fragile our worldly dreams are because my father suffered the indignity of getting polio at age 34, after going through all the trouble of becoming a surgeon. After college, after graduate school, after internship, he finally “had it made”. Then some stupid virus came and ruined everything. And although he fought his way back to being a top surgeon, he was a cripple. Like an athlete who has made a comeback, he was an investment with small print, like a loaf of bread with an expiration date in the near future.

Local football fans are facing the same expiration-date-inevitability as the heroic local quarterback has passed age forty. (Also he hurt his hand during practice before the “Big Game” this weekend.) Even heroes like Tom Brady face what the rest of us face, though he is doing it in the spotlight, and people speak of “Tom Vs Time”. The rest of us do it in dark moments of our lives, in sickbeds as we face the ‘flu.

For me the redeeming side of being sick was that it reminded me that there is something beyond the superficial stuff we tend to be too engrossed in. What matters when you are incapable of pursuing Money, Popularity and Power? It is what I call Poetry. Or perhaps Heaven.

Actually being sick was not all bad, when I was a boy, because it let me play hooky from school. Once the worst was past, I got to look out the window without getting in trouble for doing so. I got to avoid the schoolmarm-emphasis on worldly stuff, stuff that matters in terms of Money, Popularity and Power, and instead to just be dreamy, and roam the realms of heaven. I did not much like the part of the ‘flu that involved terrible aching and vomiting, but there was something to be said for a fever of 104°F, when it came to opening up vistas of unusual imagination. It was like drugs without the expense or risk of arrest.

Unfortunately my most recent bout of the ‘flu didn’t involve much fever, nor altered consciousness. Basically it was all achy muscles and upper-respiratory congestion,  which reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and makes you mentally slow. Worst was I was able to get up after a weekend in bed, as my wife stayed in bed a week, and this meant it was up to me to run the business, though I was definitely in an enfeebled state, and not truly recovered.

One thing I noticed about the upper-respiratory congestion is that you cannot produce as much heat.  It is like the damper for your inner fire is closed down. Your metabolism limps. When you stand outside, the cold sinks down between your shoulder blades. Likely the creeping chill could kill you, if you overdid it, so I used every excuse to keep the children at my Childcare indoors. I kept the place open, but we did not live up to our reputation as a place that focuses-upon and rejoices-in the outdoors. Heck, the outdoors is not worth dying for.

Not that it isn’t good to stir your blood, and cough the crud from your lungs, with some vigorous hiking, if you keep it brief.  But I waited until the wind died. Then, once outside, I kept moving even when the kids dawdled, impatiently striding back and forth like a captain on a deck. Also I built blazing campfires whenever possible, (though I suppose the smoke wasn’t good for my lungs). Lastly I fled back indoors as soon as I could. But I did get some photographic evidence that we did fight the ‘flu by stepping out.

The recent thaw resulted in flooding, but then winter froze the flood even as the waters sank back down, leading to ice left high and dry by the flood.

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The kids were fascinated by the formations, and rejoiced that they could shatter the ice without getting in trouble for breaking stuff. The air was filled with the tinkling smashes of what sounded like hundreds of champagne glasses.

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Then they burned off a lot of steam running and sliding

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And plotting ambushes of the the other children and teachers.

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But, to be honest, I did not feel my ordinary delight in watching children bring their heavenly wonder to a hike. The ‘flu had me at low ebb and I was barely able to tolerate the usual and typical misbehavior. Tolerance is a gift, and I was in short supply, and and bad words barely were restrained from blurting from my bitten lips. Tolerance? I could barely tolerate going to work. Someone had to do it, but I didn’t feel I was getting my proper share of pity for being the poor old geezer stuck with the job of pretending he was the the healthy one in a ‘flu epidemic. I had to pity my wife at home, and pity the parents who looked a bit green around their gills as they picked up their pitiful children, who also looked a bit green around the gills. But who pitied me?

In terms of what the government thinks matters, surely a ‘flu epidemic puts a dint in things like “economic recovery”. And for churches who care most about their collection platters,  a ‘flu makes the congregation less “giving” and more needy. In terms of “production”, and Money, Popularity and Power, the ‘flu is ruinous. It’s depressing, and exhausting, and all I did when I got home was open cans of chicken soup, and then collapse in bed.

It’s incredible how much time I’ve spent sleeping. My sleep schedule is all out of whack. When you crawl into bed at seven in the evening and don’t get up until seven in the morning, then there will be times in the wee hours you are staring into the darkness, watching the years pass before your eyes, and not necessarily feeling all that poetic or heavenly about what you witness.

Who needs that? Where was the poetry? Where was the sense of playing hooky from responsibility, and gazing out the window? Out the window was only darkness. So I’d thrash out of bed and stump downstairs and crank up the heat and make my computer screen my window. If I couldn’t manage the poetry, I’d let other poets do the job. I’d hop in my time-machine and travel to the time of the first Queen Elisabeth, and Shakespeare.

One thing that struck me was that, while Shakespeare was operating a theater and making money with his pen, for many poetry was a world outside of the ordinary interests in fame and wealth. There were no million-sellers, but rather manuscripts were copied by hand and handed around between friends. It’s amazing so much was preserved and later printed. Even Shakespeare’s works were on the verge of being lost, before the first folios were printed. The world of art existed in a universe all its own, beyond the control of the elite yet moving even kings and queens.

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Of course, one might say it was only the elite who had the capacity to write, but what fascinates me is the hints that the ordinary man was also interested in the poetry. Shakespeare’s plays were popular among the illiterate, and parts were memorized and recited on the street. People did not need to be literate to delight in doggeral, and there was plenty of criticism of both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the gathering storm in Europe. The common people had minds, and used them, even at a time when lives were short and cheap, and living situations were often squalid.

One thing I’d like to know more about was the thirst on the part of the illiterate to become literate. Where I now see all too much “dumbing down” going on in education, looking through my time-machine I seem to see there was an eager and powerful drive at that time to learn. Little schools popped up in odd places, and when people noticed a child had a mind open to learning, there seemed to be a real zeal towards educating that promising mind.

One way to measure the value people put on learning, and higher forms of thought, is to consider how expensive it was to mail a letter. A penny could buy a loaf of bread, or mail a letter. During times of famine the loaf was small and of low quality, and at the same time the price of a letter might rise up to four pennies, yet still people had a craving to communicate. Writing was so important that the English government even instituted penny postage as a law of the land. Why? What was so important about allowing people to write each other? Likely the wealthy realized promoting commerce would be good for business, and they could become richer. However greed alone was not in control. There were undercurrents of political opposition involved.

Robert Burns was unusual in that he became popular in the late 1700’s, and his death was greatly lamented in 1796 even as he died. Yet he was not stuffy, nor did he write above people’s heads. Here’s his “Epitaph On My Own Friend”.

An honest man here lies at rest,
As e’er God with His image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth;
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so inform’d:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.

One thing interesting to me, as I drifted along in my time-machine, is how much other poetry was anonymous. You can see perhaps only the slightest hint of a Jacobite sentiment in a poem by a Scotsman, but he thought it best to keep his name from being associated with a work. Or perhaps we see only initials, and wonder who the poet was. Yet the poems endure. Who was “R.A.D.”, writing from his sickbed in 1799?

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And who “G.H.D.”, writing around 1815? What made him reluctant to publicize his name? (Perhaps he was toeing some line the official church did not approve of toeing.)

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By the 1840’s the greed of the wealthy Scottish landowners had been made all too obvious by the Clearances and Potato Famine, and a Scottish church existed that refused all donations from the wealthy landowners, so that members would feel free to speak. Still authors kept quiet about their names, as they dared speak what seems fairly orthodox to us today, but was shocking at its time ( or shocking to certain wealthy individuals who deemed themselves above judgement.)

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And out of this soil rose the chronically unwell Robert Lewis Stephenson, long neglected as being a mere writer of children stories like “Treasure Island” and of horror stories like “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, (in the 1973 2,000-page “Oxford Anthology of English Literature” Stevenson was entirely unmentioned), yet a poet in his own right.

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He wrote his own epitaph for his grave, in Samoa, where he died in 1897,

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

And so, after this reading,  I’d go back to bed in the dark of night with bits of poetry gleaned from my sickbed time-travel, and a sense a hint of heaven was gloaming the dark outside my window, though true dawn was hours away. And perhaps that is something you need when sick: The idea of a life after death, after ruin, after failure, after being retired against your will and put out to pasture in some meadow uncomfortably close to the glue factory.

I didn’t much feel like rising at dawn. Extra rest seemed a good idea, but, as I said earlier, sometimes you are stuck with running the show. Though I’d rather dream out the window of existential topics, I was stuck with being the pragmatic pillar. Me! Of all people! I can’t tell you how indignant it made me feel. But there did tend to be a brief moment, just when the coffee and aspirin were kicking in, that I thought maybe I could whip off a sonnet. Maybe I could quit the dratted pragmatism just long enough to rhapsodize about other-worldly beauty. But just then my phone would chirp, and I’d be plunged into the banal.

This was particularly aggravating because I had made a New Year’s Resolution to focus more on writing and less on Childcare. In a most pragmatic manner I had inked out the decrease in income I’d endure, hiring more to work for me, and working less myself.  But the ‘flu makes a mockery of worldly plans. And it probably serves me right. Who ever heard of a pragmatic poet?

In any case, I often tell people I took my retirement when I was young and could enjoy it. I even went through a Gothic spell of morbidly contemplating death, which is an activity usually reserved for old men. Therefore I can’t expect to get another retirement, now that I’m doddering, can I? It wouldn’t be fair to those poor fellows who worked hard when young and now collect pensions. Now it is their turn to go through Gothic spells and behave like bohemians. True, they look a bit silly behaving that way at their age, (and it also seems to involve revolting amounts of Viagra), but they earned it, while I have earned the non-retirement I endure. (For all I know they may envy me as much as I envy them, for the grass is always greener on the other fellow’s grave.)

It was while glumly considering my non-retirement during this long, long week, that it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t need to write a sickbed sonnet. I’d already done it, back in my Gothic period, back when I was a happily retired man of twenty-one in 1974. Not that I wasn’t busy. I was involved in all sorts of unprofitable efforts surrounding a commune, and also running a landscaping business to scrape together just enough to get by on, when I suddenly was clobbered by a late May springtime ‘flu. None of my hippy friends rushed to my aid, as I think all assumed I was merely sulking in my room, and therefore I was abruptly alone for several days, and used the chance to write sixteen sonnets. Or, not exactly sonnets, but 16 stanzas with the rhyme scheme of ABCBADCDCDEFEFGG. Today I went up to the attic to see if I could find the old poem, and, though I couldn’t find the final draft, I did find, to my great delight, among spiderwebs and thick dust, the notebook holding the original draft.

Forgive me for sharing what in some ways is juvenile, but I think in another way the old poem holds the vision of heaven seen most clearly from a sickbed. (Some of the poem was written while having a fever of over a hundred.)

                 FEVER DREAM

10:00 PM
Bedridden, burnt by fever’s blaze,
I toss and turn within a flame
That warps all with wavering light.
Nothing seems to stand the same.
All is twisted to my wild gaze
That sees all routine and plans
Dissolve, as do day and deep night,
Confused to chaos as fever fans
The destruction of what I held
As real, knew was rock firm,
Trusted until mocking madness welled
Into my broiled brain, forced me to squirm
Half-asleep through unmeasured days
And, half-awake, war the night’s blaze.

All I knew to do cannot be done.
I cannot work, nor can I play,
And even thinking’s not the same;
When I wish green my thoughts flow gray
And leap, like thunder from a gun
Of ambush, and distort, forming
Abstracts sickening; somehow lame
Though nothing in my brain’s wild storming
Can be crippled, for nothing’s real
Enough to be believed. I know
Logically these sights are false, but feel
Panic, for they remain, and show
A tumbled world I can’t accept.
The clay conspires where I stepped.

2:00 AM
A tennis shoe has teeth, and grins
At me up from a cloud of red
And flaps his tongue with elegance.
I can’t remember what he said.
A scolding finger shakes, and pins
Me desperate. I can’t recall
And that is bad, and I can sense
It’s angry as it’s growing small.
One pink finger upon the black
Background, very small and terrible
For small it gains and will attack
And overwhelm the weak quibble
Of reason I scratch the black for.
Reason’s old lock fell from the door…

5:00 AM
O Morning’s first cool growth of green
Fills my window with wideness,
Distance and openness that destroys
Fever’s clamps, pinches and hot press.
Liquid birdsong cools the view’s sheen
Of clearness: So clean it wavers,
Flows green, joins the bird’s joyous noise,
Becomes taste a Cezanne savors,
Becomes a hand to cool my brow.
O the arms of wide open morn!
O to be rocked in a lullaby’s bough
And to give up, right now, being torn
By my mad mind. Now’s not too soon
To sink in the calm of a swoon.

7:00 AM
I wake again, and see the sun
An inch or two above the earth.
O I value ny short sweet sleep
Beyond all my measures of worth,
For rested I can face the dry run
Of fever time, of short wry naps,
Short gasps awake, and long times deep
In the world in between. Perhaps
half alseep, but without rest;
Perhaps awake, but without chores
To do or plan or beat breast
About. My fever’s chaining roars
Make be be free on a huge shore.
When was it I felt this way before?

8:00 AM
Three inches high, the sun is white
With a tint of rose, and it slides
Summer soft through my north window,
Slanting to the wall where it rides
Slowly downwards. It’s rose-white light
Slips as slowly as snails explore
When afraid, yet its a great show.
When have I felt this way before?
The light is a square, a pooled sheen
Of rich softness. An apple tree’s
Leafed twig bobs its shadow. I’ve seen
This picture move in a sweet breeze
Like this before, framed on my wall…
I remember now! I was small.

I was a boy and school was out
And suddenly I was set free
From all the routine I had known.
My parents did their best for me.
They gave me a room and stayed out.
They gave me books but no lessons.
Life’s painful rules I wasn’t shown.
I wore fine clothes and gobbled tons
Of food, but remained thin and wild
Through racing about the country side
And staying up late: A spoiled child
Reading books with dreamy eyes wide.
With school out my friends were gone.
Society-less, I journeyed on.

What painter touched those far, far clouds
Silver and purple? Who carved curves
And moved them, boomed them, in sky swells?
Who swooned those sweet swallows quick swerves?
When the shy flicker, who through leaf shrouds
And rich woods usually blasts
Wagging away from my slow stealth’s,
Flies sky high above tall trees masts,
Flickering above the valley’s bowl
From hilly wood to hilly wood,
Is it his soul, or my swamped soul,
That swoons? O! If I only could
Burst raves of song for his great flight,
His journey into giant light!

O those feelings! Sometimes at night
Out of nowhere they would appear
So marvelously I’d dash across
The room and in wild, sudden fear
Haul open the windows. My fright
Was so great I’d almost cry out,
But to who? About what? A loss
Overwhelmed me. I’d hold back my shout
And also the next day’s sung praise.
Who understands what fever-mad
Men babble about, or what their gaze
Sees, or knows? Its pitifully sad
For fear’s not squelched; Joy wilts inside
When men are afraid to confide.

Time forces the most dreamy child
To dream less, to repress the far
Flung mental mountains for whats’s real,
Or said to be real but will mar
The beauty of life; the fresh, wild
Spontaneous, child-like beauty
Of life, by clipping with sick zeal
The wide-reaching wings of wild, free
Thought, one wing light and one wing dark
But together beating out of night’s
Ignorance, driven by the heart’s spark
Towards the embrace of a Great Light.
When wings are clipped flight’s work is lost
As is black fear, but O! The cost!

A flock of birds squats by the sea
With every wing clipped, and each
With few fears. A great, sandy bar
Juts far out, protecting the beach,
And no bird has any time free
To do other than gobble food
That thrives beneath each rotting spar
And stone, in sand, and nicely stewed
In muddy low-tide pools. What fools
These gulls are! Their clipped wings
And all their inventions and rules
Are to ensure that they are kings
Of one small beach. For all their squawk
They’ve never heard of the Great Auk.

High in clouds the one Father Gull
Smiles on his fledglings who won’t fly.
He has ways to grow new feathers
On their wings, to patiently pry
Open the rusted lock of dull
Reason and dull rules from the doors
Of their minds. He changes weathers
And sand bars slip away from shores.
Disaster, death and fever strip
Old routines and customs, gripped tight
By the birds, away with one rip.
The wisdoms He gave to soothe fright
And ease growing pains they used to play
Wing-clipping games, so He sweeps them away.

Away! Away! I see wisdom
Scattered among tumbling clouds
And shaken birds rising as one flock
Shattered; wild, white wheeling crowds
Searching screeching upwards, freed from
Their illusion of paradise.
The Wisdom waits, and won’t talk.
Birds must find it with their own eyes
To realize what It’s always said
But logic’s lock is off the door…
Noon
I wake. My fever spins my head.
I’m tied in blankets on the floor.
The window’s light now frames my face.
I’ve drempt a dream I can’t erase.

All that I’ve learnt’s near nothing now.
What I knew as a boy’s now gold.
All my hard developed good habits
Are but good habits. I have told
Myself to do, and will allow
Myself to be pleased that I’ve done
What was needed…sometimes…but rabbits
Bound into the air. Big crows run
With the barreling breeze. Bent back
They still strive on, so I hurl
Quick joy up to the blustering black,
Feel fear, and only know that clouds pearl
Over, rolling slowly to sea,
And that is where I want to be.

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Ah, to be twenty-one again, when even getting sick was invested with such drama it could go on for sixteen stanzas!

LOCAL VIEW –Christmas Dispirit–

As a person brought up as an Unitarian, it was my understanding that all that was referred to as a “miracle” in the Bible had a scientific explanation.  For example, when Moses parted the Red Sea, it likely was that he just happened to be at the right place at the right time; it was explained to me that the sea often withdraws just before the onrush of a tsunami. The Jews crossed a low area at the right time, and when the Egyptians tried to follow, the onrushing tsunami got them.  Easy peasy. All explained.

There were other miracles harder to explain, such as Jesus walking on the water, and these events tended to be brushed away as exaggerations or lore. Or, if that sort of blunt dismissal seemed impolite, the miracles simply were not mentioned.

This attitude tended to be a sort of wet blanket on a lot that seemed wondrous to a child, including Christmas. It was as if some felt it was their duty to stamp out amazement. I recall the words “it’s only” were often used to dismiss the remarkable, as in “it’s only a meteor” or “it’s only northern lights.”

If I had to take a guess at what made this pragmatic dourness so strong an attitude in New England, I’d say that in the mists of the past (the late 1600’s) belief had spun out of control into the realms of hate, resulting in the witch trials New England is infamous for, and no one wanted to go back there again.

Also, because Boston had stood at the forefront of modern medicine for over a century, one nudged against a conflict caused by modern medicine challenging some traditional attitudes towards healing. Healing was formerly a wonder largely in the hands of God, but when “germs” were introduced as a new idea (around 1830) the idea that germs existed seemed to challenge God’s power and authority, (not that cleanliness wasn’t stressed, in the Bible.)  A hundred years later the discovery (actually a rediscovery) of antibiotics completely amazed people, to a point antibiotics were called “miracle” drugs.

Up until that point the prognosis wasn’t hopeful for sufferers of certain bacterial infections such as staff, tuberculosis, or syphilis. Whereas blood poisoning might kill you swiftly, (a president’s son died from a blister on the heel he got playing tennis, in roughly twelve hours), slower bacteria such as tuberculosis often caused a long and miserable death. Syphilis basically rotted the brain, adding madness to the prolonged misery. People nowadays can’t imagine the sudden change brought about by penicillin, especially when it was new and bacteria had no resistance. Hopelessly doomed people became well over night. It was as if Christ walked through a hospital, laying His hands on people and making them instantly well, only rather than a marvelous Man it was a little pill. There was a huge surge of hope and gratitude, and no one even thought of suing the doctors (for a while). Nor did people seem to remember to thank God.

Antibiotics didn’t cure viral infections, or cancer, but it was assumed a new pill would come along and cures were just around the corner. Anything seemed possible. In a sense there was faith, but now the faith was in pills (and vaccines) .

This belief-in-pills reached its most ridiculous levels in the field of psychology,  where belief-in-God was described as a neurosis or fixation, and the agony and ecstasy of spiritual search were explained away as being due to hormones and dopamine levels. Some of the pills handed out to doctors and by doctors as free samples are now known to have had horrific consequences, and are banned, but at the time the cure for a housewife’s depression was “mother’s little helper” and amphetamines, and suburban women walked around with eyes like locomotive headlights.

Children are observant and not as foolish as some think, and I was aware some housewives (including my mother) sometimes behaved a bit oddly, without understanding the connection to pills. But children accept a lot they are told without question, and I did learn to scoff at “non-scientific” beliefs at some early age without even thinking about it. I felt a lot of childish wonder, but it was largely about the latest scientific discoveries. Both the scoffing and the wonder seemed to largely come from my father, who was a surgeon.

Walking in the woods with my father was, for me, an experience in heaven, for he had a tremendous awareness of the interrelations between various plants and animals, (what is now called “ecology”, though no one used that word back then). He saw, or seemed to glimpse, a Whole, a sort of Oneness, and, without ever hearing the word “God” mentioned, I was enchanted and enthralled. (I never said “it’s only nature.”) Unfortunately these walks were few and far between. One reason the suburbs were so insidiously empty was because all the Dad’s were gone, being workaholics elsewhere. This physical divorce between the workplace and the home eventually effected marriages.

When divorces went from being very rare to quite common in the late 1960’s it didn’t make wives happier, and it only made the suburbs worse. It was around this time my mind began to grapple with the possibility something was missing. What was missing was obviously “Dad”, but there was something else, a sort of “spirit”, and it was especially noticeable around Christmas.

It did not occur to me I was on any sort of spiritual search. The very word “spirit” had negative connotations. “Spirit” seemed linked with superstition, and also with being childish, with a belief in a sort of Santa Claus. Instead, when I thought at all, I felt I was scientific, and after something science hadn’t discovered yet. Rather than an unscientific word like “miracle” I preferred the word “coincidence.”  I had noticed a glitch in the data that might suggest an undiscovered element, a sub-atomic particle, an unseen gravity (such as a “black hole”, which was just then being considered as a possible explanation for oddities noticed through telescopes.)

It was a very empty and gray time, as I remember. At age fourteen I spent a lot of time slouching around with a young Jewish pal nicknamed “Skeeter”, mostly grouching about how unjust young females were and how they should smile at us more, but also talking about other topics, including God. I recall talking about a media report “God is dead”, and deciding He couldn’t be dead because God was a concept, and a concept has no pulse or heartbeat, and therefore can’t be alive, and therefore can’t die. Also the media confidently announced scientists had “created life in a test-tube” (actually they had strung together a molecule resembling DNA), and both Skeeter and myself became depressed by that news, because if man could create life then God seemed strangely useless. Why this depressed us I’m not sure, but then, we could be depressed by just about anything at age fourteen, and these sullen moods tended to alternate with zany moods where Skeeter and I  bounded about like deranged gazelles.

When we were in slouch-mode we tended to walk with our hands thrust halfway into the front pockets of our jeans and our shoulders sharp and cynical. I tended to suggest things we might do to make the dull town more interesting, and Skeeter tended to supply the brakes. We did manage to go few places we should not have gone, without being caught, and did get in trouble at times, but those are stories for another evening. For the most part we walked and talked and did nothing. I often would scorn him for doing homework and getting good grades, and regaled him with tales of all the fun I’d had while he worked, and sometimes the tales I told were even true.

One secret crime I can now confess. The statute of limitations is up, after fifty years. There was a mysterious person in town who would sneak into the church, even after they began locking the doors to stop him. This person wildly rang the bell, for from ten to thirty seconds, often in the dusk before the sun was up in the morning. Skeeter could hear the bell, and knew it was me, but Skeeter kept the secret. He was a friend I could trust, and I told him other secrets I held close to my heart, which I told no one else.

As Christmas approached one year I began to ventilate to Skeeter all my mixed feelings about Christmas. As a Unitarian I was amazingly uneducated about what the holiday actually celebrates, because one thing about Unitarians of that time was that they didn’t need to go to church unless they felt like it, and in my parent’s case that was never. Or, to be more accurate, when I was small they did go on Christmas and Easter, and we did say grace before our meals, but they eventually dropped such archaic traditions. (Perhaps it only follows that their divorce manifested soon afterwards.) In any case, the reason-for-the-season was never talked about, and I was therefore learning in the dark. (Come to think of it, I learned about sex the same way. Back then some things were simply not discussed.)

It is really amazing what an ignoramus I was, but one thing about being fourteen was that I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know, and pretended I did know. Often this involved keeping my mouth shut and trying to learn by listening. Not that I always learned much by listening.

Besides my Jewish friend Skeeter I had a Catholic friend nicknamed Baffles. Like Skeeter Baffles was a good student, but he was so good I could never hope to lead him astray in the manner I led Skeeter astray. He wouldn’t go out walking under streetlights after dark with me. He was more moral than I was, and I think I was jealous, and with the weird logic of youth this made me want to make him jealous back.

What I liked to do was horrify Baffles by telling him, each morning at the bus stop, what I’d been up to the night before.  He largely scorned my tales as fabrications (and some were). After all, Baffles had known me since first grade, and could recall me arising for show-and-tell and speaking of the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton I vividly described finding in the woods behind my house. But he began to doubt less, once Skeeter could vouch for me. I think he didn’t keep my bragging to himself, and people in my neighborhood began to be more careful about drawing their shades, once they knew a couple of Peeping Toms were on the loose, for some of our scientific research did border upon voyeurism. However there were no sex-education classes in school back then, and how else was a fatherless boy to learn? In like manner, how was a boy who never attended Sunday School to learn about God?

One time I told Baffles I’d sneaked into the Catholic Church with my big sister, and we had drunk holy water from a porcelain sink by the entrance. With eyes like saucers Baffles told me I was not only damned, but just plain gross.  Another time Skeeter told Baffles Jesus was a Jew, and there was a terrific argument at the bus stop.

This sort of discussion didn’t seem to be getting me very far forward, in terms of my religious education. At one point I decided to sit down to study the Bible myself. I lasted around five chapters into Genesis, and was defeated by the first “begats”. Yet I did notice some change in mood, when I made the attempt. I liked the highfalutin language, the “thee” and “thou” of King James. Although to me Genesis didn’t make as much intellectual sense as dinosaurs did,  I sensed some change in the atmosphere. I also noticed it when I crept into the church to ring the bell in the pitch dark before dawn. I decided perhaps it was just a superstitious fear, such as the creepy feeling I got when walking by a graveyard after dark, but as a young scientist I parked the observation with the data I labeled “coincidence”.

As soon as you start talking about a “change in mood” and “atmosphere” you are in fact broaching the boundaries of science and entering the landscapes of art, but I hadn’t yet discovered poetry. Instead, when my heart felt unscientific stuff, I tended to express myself by lying. I’d brag about something I hadn’t actually done, and then feel ashamed about my dishonesty. It can be rough, being fourteen, especially when the only prayer you have heard was sung by a rock group called the “Animals.”

I didn’t get much understanding, even from Skeeter. I think that, if I had felt understood, my life would have been different. In the half century since I’ve noticed that after I’ve had a good talk with someone I have less of an urge to write. It is when no one listens that the yearning for fellowship undergoes metamorphosis, and a mere garrulity becomes poetry. In my case the process went through an intermediate stage of fabrications.

I suppose this occurs because, when your heart aches but you lack the ability to find the words, you enter the landscape of the subconscious.  When you have awareness but lack words you are in an ambiguous state, wherein you have awareness yet lack awareness. You have the awareness of a mood but not the awareness of the words, and the mind produces a dream, rich with symbols, which is factually untrue. When one states, “My love is like a red, red rose”, it is a baldfaced lie.

For some reason I don’t understand I was uncomfortable with lying. I didn’t go to church, so there was no religious reason not to lie; perhaps it simply wasn’t scientific to be inaccurate. In the years since I’ve met others who live lives full of lies, and they never seem the slightest bit troubled, but my lies disturbed me. I lied, and didn’t understand why I did what I did.

One time I was midst a self-created anguish over some girl I never had the courage to talk to. I’d gone to a high-school dance and never dared even speak with her, let alone ask her to dance, which begs the question, “Why did you go to dances?” (Good question. I dreaded them beforehand, was miserable during them, and felt humiliated afterwards.) Rather than going home after the dance I went on a long walk in the night, feeling the adolescent ache of one who wants to communicate but hasn’t a clue where to begin. I wanted to be noticed, and invented a story I wanted to impress people with. In my story I was set upon by hoodlums “from the next town” and fought a brave battle, but was knocked down and lay unconscious in the snow. To make my tale seem more true I put a tiny scratch on my face with a rock. Then I went and lay in the snow under the bedroom window of the girl in question, imagining I’d be discovered at dawn and….and then what? Comforted? I think that was my original scheme, but after laying in the snow ten minutes I began to question my own wisdom. After fifteen minutes I scientifically concluded snow is not a good bed-sheet to spend a night upon. I got up and walked home, (leaving an odd angel in the snow), and as I walked I muttered to myself about what a liar I was. (The word used back then was “phony”).

The next time I trudged with Skeeter he heard a lot of talk on my part about how I wasn’t going to be a phony any more. This likely made him wonder. He knew I was a liar, but also that sometimes I did what he didn’t dare, such as ring the church bells at four AM. He didn’t know which things I was saying were complete balderdash, and which were true. He likely should have bluntly inquired, “What were you doing that was phony?” He didn’t, which I appreciated, because that allowed me to be mysterious and keep him guessing.

The problem with strict honesty was that it stifled the urge to speak the unspeakable. The first tender shoots of poetry were stomped upon, as the hyperbole involved wasn’t absolutely true. Also there was no poetic mush involved in the idea of manhood back then. Rather than “coming out of the closet” about any tender feelings, one was suppose to be tough. I felt deep shame about crying at movies, and would spend time after a movie sitting in the dark, composing myself and drying my eyes, rather than revealing to anyone I had blubbered. It did occur to me that I might be being dishonest, denying my emotions in that manner, but when I became determined to be honest my determination made a fist. Pictures of me at the time show an unfriendly face, which I thought was manly. Mush wasn’t anything remotely desirable; and rather than “get in touch with” emotion I tended to feel it was wiser to “get over it.”

This denial wasn’t working very well, and was in some ways like a scab over a volcano, which was one reason I blew off steam pacing through the night with Skeeter. As we discussed how phony some people were and how unjust life seemed, Christmas approached, and puzzled me. Certain things made no sense in a world where toughness was seen as a virtue. One thing was that people who were greedy and selfish 51 weeks a year suddenly were giving. Not that small children weren’t greedy, but older folk (and at age 14 I was becoming one of them) became demented with generosity. What was that all about?

Another thing was the attempt on the part of families who were dysfunctional 51 weeks a year to be functional. This was especially painful to me because I never wanted my parents to separate, and now there was a lot of awkwardness and pain surrounding the holidays, wherein we came together without actually coming together. In my case we walked down to visit with my Dad at the Unitarian minister’s house. It was the first time I’d had anything to do with that minister.

The idea of nice things like generosity and togetherness are difficult  to accept for people going through a divorce, even when custody, child support, and property are not contested.  In my parent’s case every thing you can think of was contested. Even their individual sanity was contested. It was not a situation conducive to Christmas spirit, and in fact was tantamount to scientific proof Christmas was humbug, a farce, and phony. I had every reason to sneer and be a cynic, but at the same time I felt I was suppose to be tough; I was suppose to walk around smiling as if nothing was wrong.

And then there were all the lights. I had always liked the lights, and as a small boy used to stand close to them and gaze until mesmerized. The bulbs were bigger back then, and I especially liked the green ones. In a way difficult to describe it was as if I was peering into a crystal ball, and saw entire landscapes, but they were made of moods, like Beethoven’s music. But I was young and naive then. Now I was older, and peered at the darkness.

Even in the darkness I couldn’t escape the carols. They were everywhere, and all sung about stuff that made no sense. After all, as a Unitarian, Jesus was seen as a liberal politician, not all that different from Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. Jesus had been assassinated like Gandhi, while King and Kennedy were still alive and making speeches, and there was no big fuss made for the Birthdays of Gandhi or King or Kennedy. Why such a fuss for Jesus?

Last but not least was that I had, parked in my file of scientific “coincidences”, data which suggested that unlikely mood-events could occur on Christmas. One had occurred just the year before:

One of my most miserable pre-Christmases occurred in my boyhood, back in 1966.  My parents had separated, but divorce was rare back then, and very difficult even when both parties wanted it.  My father didn’t want it, but had vanished from the household and was fighting to save his marriage from afar, as my mother fought for freedom.  My mother felt I ought be protected from the details of their dispute, but I found it a sort of hell to have my father vanish, and have no explanation given.

This silence concerning the truth had been going on for a year and a half, and had made me a crazy boy,  and now I was thirteen and just starting to also go crazy with hormones. The misery I felt peaked during holidays, because holidays reminded me of better days, back when I was part of a happy, functioning family. During the dark days of December 1966 I found myself in a sort of private war.  It was invisible to others, but very real to me.

We had gone from being very rich to abrupt poverty, (by the standards of a wealthy suburb,) and I had no money, but had decided I would fight back and give presents even though I was broke.  I struggled to make hand-made presents for people, though my carpentry skills were undeveloped and I had no father to instruct me.  My fingers were bleeding and bandaged from my blunders.

One project had me on the verge of tears and rage.  I was endeavoring to make a pair of tiny hearts, as earrings for my mother, out of red cedar wood, but such wood splits very easily, and over and over, just when a small heart was nearly done, it would split in two and I’d have to start over. I only finished on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and trudged off to a gift shop a mile away to buy the metal fasteners that would turn the wood hearts to earrings.

For several days we’d been in a mild flow from the south, and the snowless landscape was grey under a dull sky.  Life seemed very unfair to me.  Other boys seven hundred miles to the west had a white Christmas, as a modest low swung north to the Great Lakes, but we were on the warm side and the weathermen on all three major Boston channels had said there was no chance of a white Christmas for Boston.  The snowlessness  seemed like insult heaped onto injury to me, and while I didn’t exactly give God a tongue lashing, I was extremely pessimistic about my good deeds ever gaining me any sort of reward.

However my irascible temper lashed out against the darkness by giving gifts, which must have won me a point or two upstairs, because all of a sudden nice things started to happened to me.

When I walked into the gift shop and timidly asked for fasteners, my pout and bandaged fingers must have touched the lady who ran the shop, because she took me under her wing and proceeded to not only sell me two fasteners, but to take me to the back of her shop, (where she repaired jewelry and watches,) and showed me how to glue the fasteners to the wooden hearts, and then got me a tiny box with a cotton square on the bottom to hold my earrings, and even wrapped them for me. I walked out of there in a much better mood, with the bells on the door jingling behind me, and then stopped in my tracks.  Big, fat snowflakes were lazily drifting down from the grey sky.

As I walked home through the snow it seemed absolutely everyone was smiling. The snow was lazy and seemed harmless, but then it grew more steady and swirled, and when I arrived home my poor mother was going through one of her attacks of worry, as my older brothers had gone Christmas shopping in her car. Fortunately I only had to be a thirteen year old male soothing a 42 year old woman for a short while, before my brothers appeared through the snow with her car unscathed, and all was well.

We headed off on foot to Christmas Carols outside a church a half mile away, and for some reason, perhaps due to the snow, rather than the usual thirty people showing up, a hundred-twenty-five showed up to sing in the increasingly heavy snow.  Just as we finished there was a flash of lightning, and long, deep, horizon-to-horizon roll of thunder.

As I turned to walk home, with the thunder still rolling,  a thirteen-year-girl who I secretly adored but whom I had no chance of dating, (as I was not only thirteen, and broke, but also a half-foot shorter than she was,) glanced my way with her face awed by the thunder, and when she saw me watching her,  she smiled an abrupt smile at me that just about knocked me flat on my back in the snow.  And at that point I decided miracles actually could happen, and life might not be so bad, after all.

There was more lightning, and we had around seven inches of snow before it tapered off at midnight. The weathermen were embarrassed, but did give the freak event a name. It was dubbed “The Donner and Blitzen Storm.”  Likely it was a “vort max” that “phased” with a “frontal low,” but, as it wasn’t a huge blizzard and set no records, record books don’t mention it much.  However guys and gals over sixty, who lived between Portland Maine and Philadelphia back in 1966, all seem to remember it.  It was a Christmas miracle,  private and personal, but given to many.

Having this sort of unscientific data in my memory-banks didn’t help me make sense of things. After all, I could dismiss it as “only a mood”. It had occurred back when I was only a kid, a whole year earlier. I’d grown a lot since then; a whole half foot. I was suppose to be beyond such silly, sissy stuff.

Yet as I stomped down streets with Skeeter, our shadows shrinking and lengthening and shrinking again in the pools of streetlight-yellow, on a December night of chilled fog, we muttered about our moods, using a scientific instrument fourteen year old boys own called a moodylator,  (also called a “heart”, by the unscientific). And abruptly I smacked my fist into my palm and said that this year would be different; this year I was going to get to the bottom of a mystery; this year I was going to figure out, for once and for all, what all the fuss about Christmas Spirit was about.

Skeeter then had the unusual experience of being a Jew hearing a Unitarian wonder about what Christmas was all about. As we walked through the foggy night he told me a little he knew about Jesus I didn’t know. (It tells you something about Unitarians, when a Jew knows more about Jesus than they do.) Somehow what he spoke was utterly dissatisfying. I can’t recall what the factoids actually were, but they struck me as being mere trivia, and my moodylator was going berserk, sensing something different.

As Skeeter and I trudged on through the cold fog I began to repetitively mutter, with increasing exasperation, “I just want to know.”  I got louder and louder, until Skeeter got a little alarmed and told me to shut up. I then lost it, and bellowed, “I just want to know!” and then turned away from the street and dashed off into the darkness, down the slope of a snow-covered field. The cold fog rose like a wall of black before me, and behind me I could hear Skeeter’s voice crying, more and more faintly, “Come back! Come back!”

Now it is fifty years later. Sometimes, as I write tales about me and Skeeter and Baffles, I wish I could hop in a time machine and go back to that time and appear in my own story, a sixty-four year old man giving a fourteen year old a bit of advice.

I can’t do that. Only God can be the Creator, appearing in the story He has written. And actually that is the unlikely event that the Christmas Story describes. It is a wonderful tale, even if you don’t believe it is possible, and it amazes me that so many are growing up today and do not know the tale. For some reason some feel telling the tale is politically incorrect, and that Christmas should be celebrated without mentioning what it celebrates.

And what is that? Well, the world was becoming dark, and into the dark there came a Great Light. That is enough to begin with. If you happen to know a fourteen year old who spends a lot of time walking and scowling, do me a favor, and just take the time to tell him the Christmas Story.

https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/12/12/christmas-light-in-darkness/

LOCAL VIEW –Thanksgiving For The Unrecognized–

Recently my wife and I took a weekend off, and basically turned off our cell phones so we would not need to face the people who demand our time, often without gratitude. Why are they not grateful? I suppose it is because people tend to be a bit egotistical, and feel we should feel privileged to even be dealing with them. For example, think of a little child agonizing about not making a grade school team. From their perspective making-the-team is important, and well worth our attention. If you are not careful, knowing about too many of these “important” issues, and arching your eyebrows in a sympathetic manner for each of them, can completely burn you out, so we took a break. Simply taking a weekend away was a sort of spiritual retreat, but there is a problem with such retreats: They must end. You must go back and face your worldly responsibilities.

I am always reluctant to return to humdrum reality, no matter how restful a spiritual retreat may have been. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot that is “worldly” is also petty. Pettiness is not merely in little children who agonize about things that will not matter, in the long run, but also pettiness is in supposedly adult people, like preachers and politicians, and in supposedly adult institutions, like churches and the U.S. government.

If I had my druthers, I druther would write poetry. When I look back to my school days, I see I was more interested in the clouds out the window than the chalk on the blackboard. The interests of schoolmarms were never as interesting to me as the interests of schoolboys.

Look at it this way:  If heaven is the goal of life, why should our focus be on the non-heavenly things called “the worldly”?

The people in the world who I am most thankful to meet are those who have a certain light in their expressions that suggests they are seeing something heavenly. True, in some cases the light is merely due to them thinking they are seeing an end to pain. For example, a poor person may buy a winning lottery ticket, and their face may then shine, because they think their problems are solved. But soon their eyes cease beaming, as they discover filthy lucre is not an end to problems, and often increases them.

The light I like more, in people’s faces, is more lasting, and is not associated so strongly with worldly desires for wealth, sex, power, popularity, and intellectual achievement. Instead it simply recognizes heaven as a reality that exists even if you are poor, sexually frustrated, powerless, ignoble, and suffering intellectual writer’s-block.

There are simply some people who see a higher Truth, and whose moods are not controlled by the worldly circumstances of their lives. Sometimes they are saints like Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, but sometimes they are people who you might think are entrapped by material success, but can be famous and wealthy without seeming to deny heaven exists.

Back in the early and mid Twentieth Century some of these people made decent livings as commercial artists for magazines. They produced the covers. Although it is true that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, the editors of books and magazines knew a good picture could interest the general public, and sought artists talented in that respect.

One of the greatest was Norman Rockwell. I’ve praised him often. But another great artist, when it comes to sketching heaven, was Maxfield Parish. Norman Rockwell actually idolized Maxfield Parrish, when young.

Maxfield Parish became rich, simply portraying mortal humans during the most heavenly moments of their lives. (From a box of chocolates:)

Maxfield Parish 1 ap25lgrubyrectfrd1

His pictures were so beautiful that, as a commercial artist, he was an incredible success. At a time when a new house cost $2000, he made $100,000 a year. However all the money the public paid him apparently didn’t make him fond of the public. How can I say such a thing? Because, while his earlier pictures show a fondness for humans and their human nature, about the time he reached my age he stopped painting humans, and focused entirely on the beauty of landscapes. After around 1935 he painted landscapes which, in my humble opinion, have an amazing beauty, (surreal without Dali’s distortion), and yet they portray a world devoid of humanity. He painted right up to his death in 1966 at age 95, but did not seem to think humans were beautiful and worthy of being subjects within heavenly landscapes. He seemed to forget the way he saw when he was fifty years younger, in 1906, and painted “The Lantern Bearers” for Collier’s Magazine.

Maxfield Parish 2 800px-Maxfield_Parrish_The_Lantern_Bearers_1908

It should be noted, as an alternative, that Norman Rockwell did not retire from humanity, even though he too was wealthy in his old age. He did seem to become less romantic, and more concerned with social issues of the time, such as school integration (retaining a hint of Romanticism).

Norman Rockwell Intergration The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwell

Which brings me around to the topic of myself. Which way will I go, as I approach retirement age?

When I was in my early twenties, and first noticed the difference between what Maxfield Parish and Norman Rockwell painted in their old age, I vowed I’d never become fed up with humanity. I would forever be optimistic, and never fail to see the beauty in my fellow man.

Well, I have failed. The first time I failed I was still in my early twenties, and I confess I have failed on multiple occasions since then. I have looked upon you, my fellow man, and seen nothing but rapscallions and self-serving mongrels posing as pure-blooded priests.  I mean, look hard at yourselves. Are you any reason I should feel especially hopeful about the future of humanity?

And do you know what saves you, more often than not? It is the fact I become aware I am looking in a mirror; I am projecting; the reason I am such an expert in bad behavior is because I practice it.

That isn’t any reason for hope. Rather it diminishes my faith in myself even as I lose faith in the world. What on earth is there left to have faith in? Am I not a complete pessimist? I, the very same man who once vowed to become an eternal optimist! Which brings me to the 1922 Maxfield Parrish cover for “Life” magazine:

Maxfield Parrish Rouge Indeed ori_268_2121346856_1137844_He_is_a_Rogue_Life_Cover

There was a contest to name the picture on the “Life” cover, and the winner was, “He is a rogue indeed who robs life of its ends, fostering doubt.” (Get it? “Life” becomes “If”.)

As a young man first learning this history I wondered if Maxfield Parish had such a trick in mind, as he painted the picture, or whether it was an accident, or perhaps subconscious. In any case, the winning title stuck with me, and any time I find myself becoming excessively pessimistic I think of the rogue in the picture above.

For the fact of the matter is that, even when we botch perfection, and all those we know botch perfection as well, there is a third Thing that you can have faith in, neither our self nor other humans.  Call “It” what you will, “It” saves us from plunging to complete ruin. Without “It” there would be no reason to call foul behavior “inhumane”, because in many cases foul behavior is very human. Whatever “It” is, “It” redeems us.

And how do we recognize “It”? We see “It” in what we call “heavenly”. “It” is in humor that allows us to laugh at our mistakes rather than curse. “It” is in the joy that lets us walk singing in the rain.

Gene Kelly, and Maxfield Parish, and Norman Rockwell, made very nice amounts of money simply hinting at the heavenly. However the people who have really been a great blessing in my life, and at times even have been life-savers, never charge the price of admission. They simply had, and have, joy in their hearts, and made me, and make me, smile on the gloomiest day.

More than money, more than sex, more than power, more than acclaim, more than inspiration, I value the smiles such people begrudge from my grouchy old face. For all the other things come and go, but remembered jests still make me smile even after fifty years. Those jesters, even if long lost,  are joys to remember, and be Thankful for, on Thanksgiving.

In the End of Ends a simple smile will crush the mighty, and defeat death itself.

Owen wrote, “I, too, have seen God in mud”
About the gruesome trenches, when men died
Like flies, (’cause two men, who shared royal blood,
King and Kaiser, saw war as sport, and tried
Out their new toys: Sputtering machine guns
And poison gasses).
                                         How could Wilford Owen
Write such guff? When Chlorine greened the sun’s
Rays and men writhed like sprayed wasps, men
He’d laughed with moments before, how could he
See God?
                    I suppose it was because God
Is everywhere. There is nowhere to flee
In life where Life isn’t. Beneath the sod
We do not know, until we go, but here
We delve no dark mines devoid of men’s cheer.

LOCAL VIEW –Hollywood Goes Prudish–

One odd coincidence my wife and I share is that our best friends were both born on November 21. Her friend is still alive, but mine passed away a decade ago. I always pause to remember him on November 21.

The day I first noticed him I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. It was in fifth grade, and teachers had decided we should be trained at an earlier age to avoid the old-fashioned idea of a “home room”. I’m not sure what was wrong with having a home, but instead some advantage was to be gained from marching from room to room to study different subjects. Not that the teachers were all that more skilled at different subjects. But likely they enjoyed teaching certain subjects more than others, and they thought such joy might infect the students. Wrong.

The simple fact of the matter was that my homeroom teacher was a beautiful young woman who I think was deeply in love (the next year her last name was different, and by June she was very pregnant.) By her very attitude she made learning be a joy. She could have taught a subject she knew nothing about, perhaps automobile mechanics, from an antiquated Model-T textbook, and the students would have been so enchanted they would have learned more than they would have learned from the most skilled automobile mechanic. I had the feeling her classroom was a cloud of love, and don’t think a single student disliked her; most seemed enchanted.

No other teacher stood a chance, and to be ripped from the presence of this joyous young woman, and placed in a classroom taught by a somewhat embittered old lady, who deeply resented that her favorite subject “history” was to be called “social studies”, was a very uncomfortable experience for me, as was the fact I was among students who I didn’t know, but whom were supposedly “at my level.” The old lady did catch my attention when she backslid and taught “history”, but when she attempted “social studies” it was apparent the subject was Pig Latin to her, and the entire classroom was confused, and my attention wandered.

For some reason these radical changes were not enacted at the start of the school year, but in late March or early April, when students are first hit by spring fever. Traditionally school ended at around this time, for children were needed back at the farm for spring planting, and all the wild energy would be put to good use. Instead, at this time, there was an attempt to “channel” the vital energy of youth in some sort of theoretically “socially constructive” manner. Eventually, decades later, they gave up and decided it was better to drug the dickens out of wild children, somehow thinking that frying their brains was better than tanning their hides, but, back when I went to school, education created a time-warp between corporal punishment and drug’s mind-control, when permissiveness and freedom ruled.

At this time my parents were still married, and I was an “untroubled” child, fairly obedient in my way, and making good progress in school. I hadn’t become the outlaw I later became (though I was no saint). As a good boy, I did stay away from the banned part of the playground in early April, where the mud was deep. However, as my attention wandered during Social Studies class, I saw the shoes of a boy who had broken this rule.

The shoes were so muddy they appeared about twice as large as they actually were. It was a most amazing spectacle. The mud was drying in the overheated classroom, and clods and flakes were shedding from the shoes. There was already enough dirt to plant carrots around the feet, and the shoes had only started shedding.

At this point the feet started moving about, as feet do when they are stared at for an overly long period of time. Instinct told me to glance up at the face the feet were attached to, and I met the glaring, challenging eyes of a boy just daring me to call him a pig. I didn’t. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. Instead I thought the eyes were as interesting as the huge feet. And, as I thought this, the eyes changed. When, rather than judgmental, I looked curious, they shifted from anger to surprise.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though it was a stormy one. The fellow was never ordinary, but perhaps being born on the cusp of a water sign and a fire sign makes for billowing clouds of steam and thunderheads, and I’ve always thought thunderheads are beautiful.

He always tended to be more daring, while I was more prudish. At that time the “frontier” young men challenged involved the dangers of sex and drugs, and he paid a heavy price for being daring. I probably would have followed in his footsteps and paid the same price, had my stepfather not tricked me into attending a school about as far away from sex and drugs as it was then possible to find.  (Dunrobin, in northern Scotland.)

One thing we were always able to share was our minds. It is difficult to say exactly how we did this, other than to say our talks involved a lot of symbols, or images, or gestalts. At times a most rudimentary image would communicate more than you might think possible. We’d be talking about some esoteric topic and he’d say, “You mean, sort of like salsa?” and I’d reply, laughing, “Exactly!” An outsider would have no clue what we were talking about, yet we could talk for hours in a strange sort of complete understanding that also involved vehement disagreement.

Looking back, I think one thing he liked about me was that I could tell him what it was like to do what he had chosen not to do. I could tell him what it was like to be a virgin and still date the-girl-next-door. I could tell him what it was like to be off drugs for months in northern Scotland.

In terms of drugs, I was a prude compared to him. He had a zest for the entire world of hallucinations and unusual perceptions. I did too, but also had the sense we were on dangerously thin ice. But I will say this: If you are foolish enough to take such vile substances, don’t do it with small minds. Don’t do it with people who can say little more than, “Yowza. Am I ever wrecked.” Rather do it with a mind who can describe in great detail the various avenues it is going down. To “trip” with this individual was truly a journey so enjoyable that, were it not for the Grace of God, my brains would have become as fried as his became, because I enjoyed talking and laughing with him more than anything else.

When I went to school in Scotland he went to school in Boston, and, (in those primitive times before the internet), we exchanged two or three letters a week. Mine described a mind off drugs, plunged into the English literature necessary to pass “A” levels, and his blearily traced the wild scene in Boston, involving many women and parties and running a college newspaper even after he stopped attending classes. Then there was a horrible postal strike in England, and we couldn’t communicate.

When we reunited after a year we were able to compare our minds in a way, and on a level, that most people can’t. In a way most people can’t imagine I think he saw I had, by sheer luck, come out ahead.

It seemed unfair. He’d had more guts, was more daring, but wound up damaged, in some mental way difficult to describe. Call it frustration, for that describes it best. My mind was clear and produced answers, while his was muddy and produced frustration. However his honesty expressed where he was at. I liked his amazing poetry, though he produced less and less:

“When you’re in the mud
All you see is mud.”

I think one of the most awful tragedies of my generation was that the better minds were crippled. Hallucinogens were described by one Native American, (who left the Peyote Church), as “a trickster.”  They promise to expand consciousness, but retard it.

I can say this now, at retirement age, because I saw the danger and backed away from that frontier, like a person backing away from a volcano’s crater because he sees the expedition’s leader succumbing to poisonous gasses.  Not that I didn’t inhale and suffer some damage myself. But I survived.

People tell me, “I never quit and I can still do what I could do.” At age sixty-four that seems to me to be a terribly sad statement. It is like Beethoven at the end of his life stating, “I can still write the First Symphony.”  A mind is suppose to grow, and reach a Ninth Symphony.  To stay the same is to stay stuck, and involves a constant frustration, which eventually breeds a subtle antipathy.

I faced that antipathy in my childhood friend, especially when I renounced our adventure into the world of hallucination and turned to God. (And there can be no denying I was a naive pain, when I first sought a different “high”.) Yet we stayed in touch, despite the distance that had grown between us. I suppose, when minds have been as close as ours were, there is always a curiosity about what the other is seeing, and where it is going.

Eventually it became obvious to my friend that drugs indeed were a trickster, but his brains were by then only a shade of what they once were. He then accepted his predicament with class, and even dignity, though to think as a “straight” person was an exercise in frustrating futility. He actually sought to stop thinking, by doing a Yoga that made his mind blank, and it seemed to do him good. Nor did he ever stop believing in the “high” things he’d seen as a mere teenager blitzed on acid, even when he couldn’t see them any more.

He died of cancer of the esophagus, which cut him down in a matter of weeks. One thing I’ll always regret is that we never had a final talk. I hope he didn’t think I’d tell him, “I told you so”, or some such useless thing. Probably not. I think many who die without telling many friends just don’t want to cause others pain. I knew many artists who died of AIDS in the 1980’s who vanished without saying any good-byes.

What would I have liked to talk about, during a final talk with a dying friend? I think it would be the beauty we saw together, even in the process of making the wrong choices. If you focus too much on the wrong choices you only become bitter.

This brings me around to the peculiar agony currently afflicting the so-called “beautiful people” of Hollywood and Washington D.C.  Their raging seems downright demented to me, and a sort of spasm of guilt and a paroxysm of shame, manifesting as disgust and bitterness. Apparently being “beautiful” is not so beautiful, after all.

Harvey Weinstein was seemingly the pebble that started an avalanche.  Behavior which once was seen as “sophisticated” is now called what it always was, “sleazy”.

When I went drifting through California more than thirty years ago I found most people felt the ideas now manifesting were prudish. I know this for I expounded such ideas, and was told I was prudish, wasn’t a realist, wasn’t sophisticated, was naive, didn’t know how the world worked, would never get anywhere, was behind the times, wasn’t hip, and was in fact ugly. I wasn’t one of the “beautiful people.”

What changed things? I think the actual pebble that started the actual avalanche was the election of Donald Trump. Popularity means a lot, (and at times everything), to the Hollywood mindset, and such a mindset is horrified to see popularity shrink in any way, shape or form. To have Hillary Clinton lose,  (despite some glaring voter fraud assisting her), was a message no amount of explanation could deny. What was the message? “You are not popular. You are not seen as beautiful. You are not admired, envied, marketable.”

It is the strangest thing to see the facade crumbling. In some ways it looks like one of those “swings of a social pendulum” you read about, where people run like indecisive lemmings from one cliff to another, basically brainless and merely following the mob. However in other ways it seems like common sense rising up in “flyover country” to inform Hollywood and Washington nobody is really buying their bull.

I think our world has paid a terrible price due to the “trickster” of sex, drugs and greed. It is easy to become bitter, thinking of the pain and the people hurt, like my old best friend. However perhaps it is better to remember that, before the trickster tricked, people were speaking of “Love, Truth and Understanding”, and those things were and are and always will be beautiful things.

What will be interesting to watch is whether people behave like witless lemmings, running from extreme to extreme, or whether they have actually learned anything. For there is such a thing that people develop called “discernment”. I would like to believe that the 48 years since the “Summer Of Love” in 1969 has actually taught the USA a thing or two, and we are moving from producing a First Symphony to producing a Ninth.

In any case, Happy Birthday, to my old friend in heaven.

 

HURRICANE IRMA SONNET

Above it all, I ride a soaring satellite
And see below a hurricane’s symmetry,
And wonder over the awe and delight
I get, seeing chaos create, so clearly,
An order, like stars in a galaxy
Swirling.
                    Surely the Creator’s might
Is seen in such art lifted from what, (to me),
Was a mess. Surely He can also make right
All our distress.
                                Yet I also know beneath
Those white curves is grief; families afraid
And huddled; roofs ripped off. A clean white wreath
Hides shrieking winds and shrieking men. What’s made
By the Creator then? It seems so odd
That down there they are also are thinking of God.

9:00 PM AST Wed Sep 6
Location: 19.2°N 66.3°W
Moving: WNW at 16 mph
Min pressure: 916 mb
Max sustained: 185 mph

Irma 8 vis0-laloIrma 9 avn0-laloIrma 10 wv0-lalo

From the “Guardian”:  “In Barbuda, where the monster storm first made landfall at 1.47am on Wednesday, according to the US National Weather Service (NWS), 90% of structures were destroyed. The report came from Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, in an afternoon press conference after he witnessed the damage first-hand. His visit followed a 12-hour communications shutdown from the island.”

So far there are no pictures I can find from Barbuda. I hate to admit I am slightly skeptical of Gaston Browne, who may be fishing for free funds. But the eye of the storm did pass directly over his island.  St. Kitts was to the south, at the edge of the hurricane force winds, but received the “storm surge”.

Irma 11 Hurricane-Irma-floods-damage-283040

People forget that even away from the eye of a super-hurricane, where winds are only at the strength of a “minimal” hurricane, you are talking about winds stronger than many have ever experienced. (Drive at 75 mph and then stick your hand out the window, for a rough idea.) Even without the flooding rains that made Harvey so devastating, the “Surge” can lift boats from safe anchorages, if their ropes are too short. Here’s another picture from St. Kitts. (Solar power didn’t save them.)

Irma 12 282942

Nothing to take for granted. Stay tuned.

 

LOCAL VIEW –Wink–

Here is a picture of children not being obedient. I told them to wait. They are vanishing into the distance. (Actually this is a zoomed-in part of a larger picture; you can barely see them in the larger picture.)

Kids in woods FullSizeRender

In a sense children are a lot like life. They refuse to follow the plan, and this can cause all sorts of different sorts of dourness to afflict us. One thing I’ve recently been noticing is the cure often isn’t words.

This is bad news for people like myself, who have invested a lot into the study of words. It is also bad news for people who don’t think talk is cheap, and make it expensive, such as psychiatrists. But again and again I’ve recently seen members of my staff, and the young parents who are my customers,  not only say a lot with a wordless gesture, but seem to solve a problem as well.

Solve a problem? Yes, because everything is stressed, and then, just by the way they roll their eyes, or give themselves a face-palm, they cause laughter to come to relieve the stress. This is bad news for the pharmaceutical industry.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon so much that I’ve started to study it. As it is beyond words, I don’t suppose I can find the words to describe it, but sometimes poetry is within a glance. We say a person “beams” at us.  It makes me think we should observe silence from time to time, for otherwise words, whether spoken or written,  can become mere yammering. Silence is golden.

Most recently I saw this wonder within a wink. Not a word was spoken. A person just winked, and my heart was eased by a good laugh. It got me thinking, and looking backwards across the years…

…Musing backwards to days I spent drifting,
When shaving and showers were luxuries;
When shopkeepers thought I’d likely be lifting;
When hunger made appetite easy to please
And downwind of kitchens was Oh so delicious,
I couldn’t help look unworthy of trust.
One look at me made policemen suspicious.
I practiced innocent looks, or got cussed,
But one day I decided to risk arrest.
I saw a bored girl in a black limousine
And as I slouched by I gave her my best
Roguish wink. I wish you could have seen
Her sour face dawn a recalcitrant smile.
It made being a drifter completely worthwhile.