In the last few years, objective circumstances have not been particularly joyful, and yet joy breaks through regardless. That is because joy has nothing to do with circumstance.
Looking at Light
All my earliest memories are of trauma, a bare foot on a lit cigar, whacking my forehead on a stucco wall. No surprise, pain carves deep so the body might survive. Clear cause, clear effect, lesson learned. But not so
with joy, which arises when it will, unprompted except by the look in a beloved eye, by late light on the bay, by a far hillside in peak fall color, an old song on the radio. It hides in the everyday world, awaiting one’s awakening.
It comes not from the outside, rather from within. It arises from attention, from opening to this moment, letting grievance go, and obsession. Look at that light where tiny motes of dust are dancing. Just beautiful.
It’s a natural response to gawk at disaster, smashed cars, burning houses, crime-scene tape going up by the flashing lights of police cars. As Thurgood Marshall said, “I love peace, but I adore a riot.” And it’s true, right up until the disaster is your own.
I remember watching things burn. Dad would wake us up to go see. The California Fruit Market fire cleared out the corner by the bridge, then the Baptist Church burned , sparks flying up like prayers, the roaring as the steeple fell.
Fires beautiful and fires terrible – winter fires, a fairyland of icicles, summer fires hot on the face like midnight sun, red firelit steam and smoke rising. But then what burned was mine: the phone said, “Get to town. The printshop’s on fire.”
Having seen fire from the other side, what I recall are smells, burned plastic, charcoal, mildewed paper and cloth, water rank with leached mortar lime. I smell it still, opening a book saved from the debris. It will never fade. How loath I am to go back inside.
Anyone who started their driving career in the North Country herded a lot of junk from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Unless they had family money or a clandestine pharmaceutical business, rusted-out death traps were the only wheels on offer for the semi-employed.
Famous Cars of the North Country
I learned to drive standard by buying a 3-on-the-tree junker from a grinning North Country villain who’d laughed a hundred newbie college boy off his lot over the years. Grinding gears, lurching, stalling out at stop lights, ignoring horns, I somehow got it home.
I chose the already rusted-out ’65 Chevy laundry van to support my job efforts, delivering franchise pizza and playing roadie for a nine-piece funk band. At seven hundred and fifty bucks, it was my costliest (and ugliest) possession, the first of a fleet of them.
In the ‘70s we couldn’t afford more than a grand for any car, couldn’t afford village rents, couldn’t afford to run a big old farmhouse on our own. Necessity not socialism dictated a communal life. Which led to at least four junkers out by the barn.
None of them had batteries built for cold weather. A tray of woodstove coals slid under the oil pan might coax one to life, then jumpers and ether could fire up the rest. One needed a screwdriver to short across the solenoid. One just needed the crusher.
My parents gave us a clapped-out V-8 Ford wagon. We ran it near to death, then passed it on to Paul. When its gas tank fell out on the Parishville Road he chained it back up to the frame and kept driving. Nobody would park next to him in the lot at work.
One harsh winter we burned 40 face cords of maple by the end of February. More wood could not be had for cash, love or barter. We borrowed a snowmobile to scout out dry deadfall, but in the end we settled on tamarack, which burned green if you would risk it.
We dropped and limbed them back in the swamp, then figured on using the snowmobile for a skidder. But the ends of the logs augured in and it was no go, until we wrestled the hood off of John’s old Chevy Nova wagon and slid it under the end of the log. Voila.
In time we got straight jobs and bought our own homes, started buying newer cars with good rubber that didn’t need a box of sand in the trunk to make it out the drive. They had front-wheel drive and power steering, boring automatic gearboxes. Every one of them just like the last.
Insomnia gives one the chance to explore again all those guilts and anxieties that never seem to come to resolution, to go away or even fade. There’s a whole jukebox full of worries in the brain, and a windy night just keeps pumping in the quarters.
After a Windy Night
Wind blew in last night, moaning through pines, then blew out again as I tossed and turned, sweating up the sheets.
Some memories only come by in the wee hours: wrongs never righted, infatuations born of folly, long bouts of grieving.
Right back to childhood they run, but still keen as new, bleeding in dreams of raw embarrassment, spasms of pointless guilt.
So how, come dawn, does all this darkling thinking dissolve like sugar into morning coffee, just as if the night had never been?
And how, when wind returns, do they re-emerge, these slick worry stones, semi-precious pebbles ground smooth in the rock tumbler of time?
Secrets shared with the night (and only shared with night) tell us who we fear we are. You have yours and I have mine. Shh! Tell no one.
I’ve been kind of obsessed this spring and summer with how many sunny days have been made gorgeous by flotillas of high cumulus clouds. It is as if the overly-rosy memories of summers long past have been made manifest. Those summer memories all seem to involve being out on the river with family and friends on my father’s boat.
For years after cancer took my dad all I could recall was his final frailty. A pity really, because he was a hoot and took to summer gleeful as a child.
Now I recall him in a better light at the wheel of Hobson’s Choice, his lapstrake hull Lyman motorboat, out in the St. Lawrence ship channel.
He’s wearing a ball cap, pipe in teeth, clip-on shades flipped up to read a navigation chart half-unrolled upon the dash, happy as a man can be.
The wake is straight behind, islands dot the long stretch ahead, and the sun sinks toward the horizon amid puffy clouds that go on forever.
My night vision is getting too poor to enjoy this form of meditation from the driver’s seat, but there is a special form of peace to be had running down a smooth empty highway in the middle of the night. It is one of those times that rhymes with every other time you’ve looked out into the night from a moving vehicle, from childhhod ‘til today.
Driving at Night
Driving at night is the American form of meditation. While a far-off station plays music low on the radio the mind freewheels, sorting out the day then putting it away.
Conversation in the car at night is like Quaker meeting, where long spells of silence create space for one thing that really needs to be said, then after miles of reflection comes the response.
The car at night is asylum, personal space, intimate. The hectic routine melts away, making a way straight and smooth as this four-lane highway through the heartland.
Japanese knotweed, or Japonica, is a nearly unkillable invasive ornamental that will fight it out with the cockroaches and rats for control of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, I predict. Or maybe I’m just sore from all the digging.
In early September you can see why last century landscapers brought home Japanese knotweed. Atop the thicket of tall canes the long blooms blow like the white manes of green horses. Lovely, really – not needing weeding or feeding or pest control.
You see it around abandoned farmhouses spread up tight against walls and windows, obscuring the ground floor, filling in the yard, even pushing up through the hardpan of the driveway, shading out everything else that once lived: sedges, flowers, and shrubbery.
Behind our house in the village, it spread each spring back out from its redoubt behind a backyard neighbor’s carriage house to push beyond the fence, boxelders, and spirea, into our yard. And every year we dug, yanked, and mowed it back to the fence.
It was the gardening equivalent of making little rocks out of big. Pointless in the long run — you couldn’t get it all; nothing could. In the basement we would find pale sun-starved stalks grown between the sandstone blocks of the foundation, undiscouraged.
Moving out beyond the village brought no respite. There it was, flourishing amid the rubble of the old dairy barn. Each year since the stalemate has run, like trench warfare, one side or the other gaining a few feet. And each season I bust another shovel, digging.
The summer has gotten away from me. Between travel and a stupefying bout of Covid, I have not been able to write, or at least not well.
I returned to my vast archive of Listening Post essays, looking for a new poem hidden somewhere in all that prose. I found one that explored murderous rage and found that “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…”
Concerning the Cricket
The evening chorus and a bedtime book were beginning to work their magic, when he burst into his mating cry, one love-sick cricket stridulating his heart out to find a mate. Which would have made lovely music, were he not inside.
And close by, too, to judge by the brain-melting volume. And yet, indefinably nearby, in the way of very loud sounds from very small sources – on the windowsill, under the bed, in the closet, up in the drop ceiling – who can say where?
He would let up, from exhaustion no doubt, for a few minutes, just long enough for me to begin to drop off – then fire up the love machine again at maximum decibels. He kept this up all night until the softer and sweeter dawn chorus began.
Sleep being beyond me, considering a can of Raid, I read up on my maniacal chirper, learning that deep-fried house crickets were counted among Asian delicacies. Not that I was hungry, but deep-frying this particular specimen had a certain appeal.
As much murder has been done from the lack of sleep as has been done from greed, jealousy or revenge. In any event, death would surely have been his fate, could I accomplish the deed, if this abominable racket continued for another lost night.
But in the end I relented, sipping another cup of coffee, when I found him in daylight, small, pathetic, as exhausted as I was, outside the bedroom door. He barely stirred as I slid paper under him, dropping him into the singles scene out in tall grass.
Somehow I never managed to share this poem from “Light Year” on Facebook or in this blog. I come back to it now because it is central to the themes of my work-in-progress, “The Other Village,” a volume of poetry focused on the village and town where I have lived since 1957. It is more personal than my more descriptive pictures of life in the village over the decades, taking a look inside my family life. There are a few other previously published poems that fit into “The Other Village” as well. I guess it will need to be titled “The Other Village: New and Selected Poems.”
Elders on Sunday
When the elders come forward to lay hands upon their newest sister, the pews are left near empty. The congregants, grey and white as seagulls, lean in to hear the vows spoken, just as they have been spoken these past two hundred and some years.
After service, coffee hour and cleaning up, we come home to our empty nest in four acres of second-growth. The archaeology of a working farm is broken up by beech and pine, buried under sumac and vine, the dug well plugged with stone and rusted roof tin.
We settle on couch and chair with silver laptops open, me to edit an article, and you to post our little news to the feeds of friends. “Coffee?” I take your nod to the kitchen, fill the filter with local roast and lean against the sink to wait for water to whistle.
Watching our neighbor wrestle his pick-up, upsized for the life he used to lead, onto the road to town, I re-litigate this choice to stay put, rooted at the edge of rootless America. Here in this house a little too big for us, outside this village a little too small for us.
In the ’70s, we were ready to go. You proposed, “Cid and I could go Army on the buddy plan; you and Allen could live on base,” or, I countered, “We could move the whole shebang to Montana while Allen does his MFA and I set up a little press.”
We once thought a commune might raise a batch of kids all together, but then we bought this place instead — and baby made three. The collective scattered, the whole world moving off it seemed, while we stayed put to settle this nest.
You worked OB-GYN and I ran press on campus; you nursed on campus and I worked freelance, changing jobs instead of place until the girl grew, went off to sink her own roots into city streets. Natural for her to go; just as natural for us to stay.
Each year the students come and go like geese, pilgrims passing while we keep faith, keep house from falling into the cellar hole, keep going to high school musicals, gallery shows, meetings, church suppers, the movie house, the co-op.
“I have no thought of leaving. I do not count the time,” as Sandy Denny sang, except now and then, while waiting for the whistle, waiting for the brew to trickle through, before returning to place this mug of coffee by your side.
Bonus track: Sandy Denny singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”
Note: published in “Light Year” 2019 Liberty Street Books