Like so many things, it comes when I have given in, given up the search, released the desire, turned my attention elsewhere. It comes in crumpled-up moments – in splintered, fickle doses.
It’s as if my expectation of it is the very thing that prevents it. I might be on the town running errands, ticking them off the list one by one, when something else happens, something unplanned, something unscheduled, a canceled appointment that cracks open a half-hour like a chest of impossible jewels.
This is how it comes to me. Not on my knees begging, no, but rather when I have laid down the obsession gently on the ground and carried on.
Yet even then, stillness (like an alley cat or a bird or a whale or a poem or sun on a cloudy day) might show itself, or it might not.
May I see through the dark, without even looking.
May I hear above the noise, without even listening.
May I know beyond a doubt, without even thinking.
May I trust in myself, without even trying.
We live in the crook of fortune’s flexible arm, an arm that winds up at a predetermined and rigid hand. We live both sides, both ways, each a tiger, surveying from ripples wound about the tightened stake of natural selection.
We’d love a look at the other side without going through, a rare and much sought-after mystical optometry, but it’s better not knowing.
We live as long as our hearts pump blood and not a minute longer. Science reclaims us when the coast is clear, our little magic motor shot.
Then we exit through the door, move down a new path, maybe without a top or bottom, maybe without sides and in-betweens. There are no maps or manuals, though we have spent our lives hearing about the place.
Sometimes a rainstorm reminds me to sit in easy solitude as you have shown me. They might assume you were once a bohemian clown with squash blossoms braided around your ankles, the way you lean back and cross your legs, bringing that demitasse cup to your lips, followed by a forkful of smoked cheddar omelet with saffron and wild scallions. They might assume I was a one-eyed raven sitting atop a totem pole beneath frayed curtains of gray cloud.
Sometimes a rainstorm puts me in the mood for bread and butter, stew and beer, after which I madly wipe the table clear like Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces famously ordering a sandwich. Then I unroll the scroll of an old tattered map with torn edges, eyes burning like a gold-prospector’s, at which point I try not to forget that empires only do two things: rise and fall.
Dear Diary, rainy morning, early, dreary. The light coming through the water’s surface was the loveliest I’ve seen. I’m exhausted, drained. Aphrodite took it all out of me, then she took me on a wooden ship and showed me the absurdities of Men. Now the mermaids are upon me again, but this time my hair has grown white. I never wanted the mermaids, but do you think my brother cares about anyone but himself? Even my prayers are swollen. A flaming heart is like the milk of a flower, and the feathered followers of nine-hundred moons take shelter in the shadow of Fate’s wings, throwing themselves upon their dreams of Achilles, as if the dreams were swords.
Mary, who helps us remember tenderness when we find an insect on our pillow, or a bat in the house.
Mary, who reminds us of a hundred walks in the wilderness, even as we stare at lamp-lit sheetrock and worry about work.
Mary, who tells us what we knew the moment we were born but have forgotten.
Mary, who makes us feel less alone beneath the ripening grapefruit moon.
Mary, honor student of botany, biology, ornithology.
Mary, whose words are chosen and ordered as if by a kindly saint.
What have I learned as muddy wet earth became sun-baked became leaf-covered became snow-buried became muddy wet earth? What have I learned by paying attention to Nature (not learning the names of things because they are just names) and in my mind separating out its cycles from the implicit order of Man?
I learned nothing, but there are a million Somethings in the onion of Nothing. There’s the fluid character of Change Inexorable. There’s how Time swells collapses constructs deconstructs reconstructs, how it breathes outside of the bubble containing everything available to our senses, beyond the burdensome clanking chains of reason. Like Art or a poem or a sad old folk song, there is so much more to it. (You see more out of the corner of your eye than when you look directly at it. The corner is less critical.) There’s all the vast open possible space existing in the soul, but due to the limitations of human language and the interference of emotions produced by the brain like radio signals, the only open road to communicating about that space is paved with Music and marked with Art.
So: may we become creative heroes crusading for Art, and master the recipes for carrying on through non-filtered eyes with mountain-goat determination and armadillo grit. Through the gates of all worlds steps the Creative Hero – sometimes a saint among his people, sometimes crucified, sometimes both. May we feel called upon. May we know it is our time. May the great Deja Vu of mythical purpose swallow us into its belly and digest our dreams. May we splatter the world around us with paint music language and the million Somethings. Might as well. When the great silence comes, maybe it’ll make it easier to let go.
I wrote this poem to honor Constance Person, my English Lit teacher in my senior year of high school. It was a large class and she always had the desks arranged in the shape of a square with an opening near the chalkboard. But she spent most of her time in the center of the room, walking and talking. Mrs. Person was getting along in years. I found out she retired the next year, and count myself fortunate to have been one of her students.
Always in the center, whirling, twirling, setting minds ablaze with gushing sparks of knowledge and experience. Little exterior, towering interior. Next thing I knew you stood behind my desk, your hands upon my shoulders as if you were driving the idea of what I could be, letting out the clutch.
You addressed the class, gripping me. A boy slides down in his chair, feverish, cloaked in black. A boy’s heart cries out Mercy Mercy Mercy!
Your confidence unfolded my aching awkwardness like a family heirloom or a fragile cloth or drooping flower petals, now freshly watered with the drops of your uncompromising faith and certainty – petals that now turn back toward you as if you were the sun.
A man stands up. A man says thank you.
In our little country house in the sopping-wet Willamette valley winter, heat radiated from the woodstove as my mother rubbed a cast-iron pan back and forth upon it, one hand holding a lid down tight to make popcorn the old-fashioned way. I’d lay on the floor and play with the cat, listening to my mom’s old vinyl record “A Christmas Carol”, featuring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Mom would tie little bundles of cinnamon sticks with red and silver ribbon, nestling them among the boughs of the tree. She would press cloves into oranges, covering their entire surface to make pomander balls. I lit candles, and an old kerosene lamp, and mom put up Christmas cards from the thirties and forties all over the house. We always had a real tree trimmed with old-fashioned ornaments, and a wreath upon the door. My mother’s holiday aesthetic was a fusion of country-living, bohemian, and vintage.
We’d always open one present on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d go to church, sometimes not. Every year we’d drive around the well-decorated neighborhoods looking at light displays and singing carols together in the car. Then, on Christmas Day, it was off to my great-grandparents old farmhouse, over the hill and through the valley, where I would feast, play, and listen to the way old people talk to each other.
I grew up in a food stamp house, allergic to milk, with a vegetarian mother and no television. Books, cats, and a hugely-overactive imagination were my entertainment. Once a week my mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all. I’d lounge around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks. Oh, I had my soy cheese, my Rice Dream “ice cream”, and my trusty jar of unstirred Adams peanut butter, but it just couldn’t match Grandma’s house.
Grandma Ruth’s house was a little slice of heaven. She had everything I deemed to be most important in life: every Dr. Seuss book, a pool table, an awesome collection of old 45’s, a television, and a fridge full of meat. She would fry me kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausages), give me liverwurst for lunch, and feed me pot roast for dinner. Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it – the davenport, and watch Dukes of Hazzard and the A-Team. Just everything a growing boy needs.
Grandma Ruth always had a twinkle in her eye. She’d make herself martinis, dance around to old boogie songs in her robe, and whoop my ass at billiards. “Not enough,” she’d always say, referring to a lack of English applied to the cue ball. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot. There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash that said “Baby Ruth” on it. Sometimes she’d drink a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, snoring fantastically. And don’t think she was afraid to use the shotgun in the closet when a mole went to work out in her yard.
Then I’d go back home where there was no meat, no TV, and no money. I didn’t mind though. I loved my mom; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair. Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes. I guess I didn’t hate being the only hippie kid in a three-classroom rural school, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it irritated me.
In winter I’d build a fire in the woodstove before I left for school, so when mom got up there would be some warmth tip-toeing through the little house. In the summer I’d sit out on the front porch and eat granola with juice in it. I got tired of soy milk and rice milk, so I tried it with juice: orange (not bad at all actually), apple (a little weird), and grape (yuck). Having such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “a food taster”. One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I ended up being at home alone with it. Me and the fudge, we became pals. I slowly and methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care. I was incorrect in my thinking. I also puked on a shrub and it died.
My mom and I spent a lot of great times together: movies, swimming, hunting for seashells on the beach, driving around at Christmas looking at the lights and singing songs. But when she got cancer everything changed, then changed again, and again. Cancer is mean-spirited that way. It makes you think things are getting better, gives you glimmers of hope. Then it bounces back into the center of the ring and knocks you out cold. I was really mad about it for a long time. Mad at her, mad at cancer, mad at life and the world. But as I stood on a high cliff scattering her ashes over the Pacific Ocean, I was sorry I’d ever wasted a minute being mad at her, wishing instead that I’d used every scrap of time and energy to get to know her better, and understand everything I could about who she was.