Follow this thread, if you can.
Yesterday, the shortest day of the year, or the darkest, if you prefer, I had the pleasure of visiting a friend’s house to briefly help celebrate his birthday, which coincidentally, this year, fell on the first day of Hanukah—a double celebration.
As it happened, my son, Leslie, was there working to install a magnificent marble fireplace—a fireplace, whose purchase, had resulted, indirectly, from my recommendation—a fireplace that would now grace the far end of their gigantic kitchen, that same kitchen where he had installed, to scale, a few months earlier on one of his money making trips North from LA, twelve inch crown molding—no small achievement with inch thick, inflexible crowns, in an old chateau style home that had settled a bit here and tweaked a bit there, leaving no wall plumb and no angle true—and he pointed out to me, as I might do, a visible seam I had not noticed before—a way of acknowledging reality, keeping one humble, holding the skill, with the limits and the knowledge of perfection, simultaneously.
My present to Richard—he had told me, “No presents.” Emphatically, he said “No presents!” –-and to his wife, Naomi, as they sat at the kitchen table and Les was anchoring the steel brackets, which would hold the bottom section of the marble in place, with his 18 volt cordless drill, was Willy Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus, spoken by heart from my heart—that very same heart that swelled to the bursting point those decades ago in a tiny North Carolina college town, at a tiny Presbyterian college, where a ragingly brilliant closet gay professor had given me the gift of hearing poetry spoken from the heart and then allowed me to fall in love with the words of William Butler Yeats.
Now, you must know, that Richard, the son of avowed communist parents, in the time of McCarthy, is a wealthy businessman. But you must know as well he is a lover of beauty, and within that love comes a love of language and he has always held me as a craftsman, which is how I first met him, working on his home, as a poet and as a parent—reflecting as a mirror would what he saw in me. And though, of course, we would and do disagree about certain things, political or psychological, we hold each other the way friends do, as fellow travelers. Now, finally, you must know, Richard, has born witness, with insight and sensitivity, to my fathering of Leslie through enormously difficult times and has become, himself, a kind of godfather to Leslie, in that old fashioned way that Robert Johnson describes in his autobiography, Balancing Heaven and Earth. That, for me, is a gift beyond measure.
So, you ask, “ Why? Why must I know these things?” Well, they are not essential, actually, but I put it to you this way to illuminate and to emphasize the heart connection that lay in my gift of those spoken words—a life time in the speaking of a poem—many lifetimes in the speaking and the hearing of those words, those magical words of Yeats.
Follow me now, as I leave Richard and Naomi’s after a scant forty-five minutes, as I get into my old ’85 Volvo wagon with the broken antenna and the consequent staticy radio signal, to drive North from Castro Valley to San Leandro and a Christmas Tea at the home of Kim Vanderheiden, the young, soon to be mother of two children, three year old Eli and a new little sister in March 09, artist and founder of Painted Tongue Press, teacher, entrepreneur, fellow printer, colleague and friend.
The radio in my Volvo is always tuned to NPR. Almost without exception, I only listen to NPR when I’m driving from here to there and back again, which means I frequently enter a story in mid-stream and that experience will regularly send me into cyberspace, searching for a link to a podcast of the story that grabbed me but left me wanting, wanting to hear the whole thing. And make no mistake, I am grabbed, I am moved by words and by music, these vibrations that enter me, through my ears and through my flesh and make me, in what seems like magic, who I am. Maybe it’s no magic at all or maybe everything is magic, I can’t tell. I simply know that’s what happens to me when I listen.
And yesterday, when I turned the key to start the engine, through the static I caught the voice of Brooke Gladstone, host of On the Media. She was in the midst of an interview with George Packer, The New Yorker writer who has recently edited a collection of George Orwell’s essays, in two volumes. She had asked him to read a passage from one of the essays—Such, Such Were the Joys, an essay, as best as I could gather, about his experiences as a young child in boarding school. Packer set the context. Orwell was describing an experience he had at the age of seven, I think. He wet his bed, regularly. He was whipped with a crop by the headmaster for this offence. After it was over, he confided to a friend that it hadn’t hurt. Somehow this got back to the headmaster who administered a second beating, so fierce this time that the crop broke in two and flew across the room. Packer then read this passage:
I had fallen into a chair, weakly sniveling. I remember that this was the
only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to
tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the
pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame
seemed to have anesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that
this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also
because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to
convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked
up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the
rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.
These words penetrated to my core.
And I held them there till later, after the tea, which had been a fun time touring Kim and Dave’s new home and hearing all the nightmare remodeling stories and speculations about former remodels and playing with Eli on the floor with blocks and a green glass marble and drinking eggnog and rum and sharing gifts with the others. Later I joined the setup crew for that glorious annual winter solstice co-ed sing at the Finnish Hall in Berkeley—this year, opened by Doug’s speaking, the way he speaks, the Neruda poem about the well of light and it only got better from there. Anyway, as we were setting up and I was with my singing companions, Orwell came back to me and I began to share the story. But my sharing was cut short by necessity—Doug needed to practice a few chants—test a few things out—set the musical stage in his own head a bit. So I said to my brothers, I’ll have to send it to you, “I couldn’t do justice to Orwell’s language, anyway.”
So I found the podcast last night, after I came home and e-mailed it, through NPR’s e-mail option to Richard Naegel, actually falling asleep during the process. I was quite tired after a day that had started early and included my Dante reading group where we are closing in on Paradise and have just met Beatrice, for real, across the river Lethe, there, with the griffon in that acid-trippy earthly paradise at the top of mount purgatory and the other Richard’s birthday and some hard lemonade and the Christmas tea and rum spiked eggnog and five hours of set-up, singing and break-down. Little wonder I fell asleep before I could hit, “Send.”
Are you with me? I’m not sure I can even follow all the connections or absorb all the miracles of life and technology that are so integrally entwined now in my day to day experience. Here I am sitting at a laptop pecking out my words as I talk to myself and by extinction of my own imagination to all of you, having just listened to the whole podcast and the second part, as well, which was not even aired yesterday and then looking with a search engine called Google (did you hear Roy Blount on the etymology of “google’, on NPR?) having just found the complete works of George Orwell and within that universe, having found and read the essay I heard spoken, through the static, by George Packer on NPR’s On the Media, while driving North on I-580, so enthralled that I drove straight through San Leandro and had to make a u-turn at Keller Avenue.
So darkness, there is, no doubt. Matthew is dead. Javion and Makai have lost a father. Hopelessness is abroad in the land. And that is on us in whatever ways we allow it to be—in whatever ways we are not the hope we wish to see in the world—to paraphrase Gandhi. On my star, last night, that I put into the well of light before we began singing, I wrote, “Hope is now.” And as we passed our stars to each other before closing, my star came back to me, telling me, “Hope is now.” I passed it on.
I have spoken of hope before, in Matt’s Ashes:
Matt’s life was a life of hope.
And where is that hope, now?
It must be in Javion and in Makai
for children are always our hope,
their eyes are so clear—
look, look into their eyes
and know, with certainty,
with not even a hint of doubt
that the hope we see there,
must be a reflection of our own,
that hope must live in us,
though our aging eyes weep
from our own suffering
and from the suffering and injustice
and the hopelessness we see and feel around us
certainly, our only task on this earth
is to nurture the hope in these eyes
in these souls of our children—
and make no mistake,
they are all our children,
our charges, our responsibility,
and again in America, land that I love
Time moves, relentlessly,
whether we will or no.
Bobby Dylan, some forty five years ago,
holding his acoustic guitar
strummed out the strains of
A pawn in their game.
And here, today,
I speak poem after poem
as I struggle to hold the grief,
the personal grief from another life
cut short by a bullet,
here in America, America,
land that I love.
And how does love manifest
if not through hope?
And how might we find hope
when all around us
are messages of such despair—
where children kill children
right here, right here in America?
For me, and this is just me,
I find my hope where I can find it—
in the stories I hear and tell,
the stories of people’s lives,
their struggles and their joys,
their sad times and their quiet times—
and hope lives in that connection,
that connection grows from an open heart,
that open heart, as far as I can tell,
comes only from the knowing of ourselves,
the knowing that we are no different from another
in our darkness as in our beauty.
And so, for me, my love of America
must manifest in hope
and hope is an active thing
a thing that must be worked at,
a thing that must be worked for,
a thing that, in turn, moves us—inside and out—
toward that vision we hold in our hope,
our own personal vision and our collective vision
our vision of a more perfect union—
with ourselves and with each other
and union is just another word for connection
and connection with ourselves and with each other,
as far as I can tell, takes work!
May the peace that passeth all understanding be and abide with you and yours, during this dark time, this holiday, this holyday time of the year.