Monday, August 16, 2021

A writer's life

Truth is, I have a lousy memory.  No doubt it’s getting worse, but for all of my life I have been aware of not remembering stuff I thought I should.  How many times did I stare at an essay test question in disbelief, realizing in that moment my brain had gone completely blank on what the hell that question was even about.  And names?  Oh, goodness.  Faces I remember pretty well, and the sound of voices, but names?  After Christmas break I’d have to study seating charts just to familiarize myself again with the names of my students.  

But this lament isn’t really about loss of memory, but the value of being a reasonably regular intermittent journalist.   (How’s that for a tongue twister?  :-)   One more time: a reasonably regular intermittent journalist.

Translation: I do like to write.  Never really thought of myself as a writer, until the book, surely not a news journalist, but I’ve learned in my retired life that I can sit here at the keyboard all freaking day if the muses are whispering to me.  Yesterday I cranked out over ten pages of fiction while sitting on the back patio, bluetooth keyboard in my lap, laptop computer propped up on the patio table just far enough away that my computer glasses still kept my eyes in focus.   I gave up when it got dark.

I also just like to babble to myself from time to time in personal journal entries.  Some grow into blog entries like this one, but most just reside on a page or two, written perhaps in the middle of the night when a memorable thought haunts me to the point that I just go write.  This summer’s long-running journal entry, begun back at the end of June, is titled “Simply grateful,” in homage to a good buddy who is in a medical fight for his life, who ALWAYS signs off in emails and on FaceBook as Grateful Mike.  As a journalist trying to capture the flavor of the season, that lovely touch of living really got my attention.  

My seasonal journals can get a bit metaphysical, depending on how intoxicated I am at the time, but pretty often they record important stuff going on in my life.  This summer’s first entry briefly summarized our Hilton Head Island villa-buying experience, but mostly dug a bit deeper into what I am comfortable admitting to myself.  

Translation:   After a lifetime of contemplation, a few of those years under the care of a psychotherapist, I seek to write only the Truth in my personal journals.  And as a person who evaluates nearly everything he learns, when a clarification of a thought jumps at me, it’s best to get to the writing right away, or at least make a note on the pad on the nightstand for consideration in the morning.  Sometimes it’s just a dream and doesn’t amount to much, but sometimes it seems mighty damn important.  

“New” personal realizations to me are akin to the “layer of the onion” analogy in which when one layer comes loose, something deeper, that frankly might have been there all along, becomes visible/memorable.  It’s just that I hadn’t made the mental connection until that moment & I figure that’s pretty important.  

And that stuff, my friends, is what I consider a prime benefit of a writer’s life:  recording the really good stuff as memory jog so you can treasure the road taken, and those not, at later times along a journey only I am on.  

I guess what I’m hoping is that my computer journals plus my stacks of old handwritten stuff & my poetry notebooks will find a safe place to hang out until somebody deems them a worthy time capsule into an old school teacher’s lifetime — at least for those few family members who get bitten by the genealogy bug.   

PS:  Just to clarify that reasonably regular intermittent journalist thing:  summer 2021 journal entries so far:  27 June, 30 June, 27 July, and 10 August.  Ten word-processed pages, totaling about 3k words.  Might mention thirteen new poems reside in the 2021 poetry collection, plus a few dozen pages of romantic fiction that I’m just about too embarrassed to mention.  I want it to be erotica, but Cindy thinks it’s just juicy romantic fiction.  Hmm…

Today’s elder ideaPoetry is like a personal journal without the lock. 

Billy Collins

Friday, August 13, 2021


 One of the few things I’m enjoying about being in my seventh decade on this planet is the frequency of a joyful memory popping through my gray matter and then contemplating it over the rest of my day and sometimes longer.  The memory at the core here, unfortunately, came up while doing one of my least favorite things:  attending a funeral.  But as I have come to know over all these years, sometimes cool stuff can find root in sad or even ugly beginnings.  

    This particular side road found a wider horizon when I asked a friend after the viewing to clarify her comment that she had a list of songs she wanted to be played at her own life memorial.  In emails on following days those songs from Josh Groban, Diamond Rio, and Wicked were enumerated and then added to a computer playlist of mine for further musical consideration when time allows.  

I countered that so far there’s just one song on my funeral agenda, one by John Denver: “Singing skies & dancing waters.”  I’ve had that song on my mind for quite a while now, but as the old guy I am, I had the immediate inclination to go find it for a good listen and a little bit more meditation.  

Turns out “Singing skies…” was a song on the 1977 Denver album I want to live.  A few things immediately jumped up to consider.  First off, John Denver was a national treasure back in the 70’s, selling a ton of albums, doing concerts internationally, starring in television specials and a movie or two, like Oh, God!, and pretty much taking up residence in my heart.  I sang in a band back then, so when a Denver song made our set list, it was usually me who got the lead vocal.  Didn’t take me long to memorize all of  “Rocky Mountain High” and in fact, held that song as a mantra that lead to my first expedition West with my young Ohio family in, as you might have guessed, 1977. 

I was 27 years old that summer with the goal of not only seeing, but experiencing mountains.  Denver sang, He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before….  That was me, okay, though it would be a few more years before I actually applied for a teaching gig in Boise, thinking the City of Trees would be a good place to bring up two girls.  

While the idea of Idaho was energizing, too, it was that first drive across Kansas in our 1972 used Chevy Nova, fighting overheating on a very hot summer day, with the dream of Colorado mountaintops coming visible through a light high plains haze, that is still most precious to me.  Jenni was just 4 years-old then while Chris & I chatted about making a baby since she was about done at Wright State.  And we did!  Kelly became another lovely consequence of that first soul-searching expedition to the mysterious mountains that have called so many generations of Americans.

For my family in 1977, it was a couple nights camping in Estes Park, but the big deal was five days hiking up from Horseshoe Park to Lawn Lake, paralleling the Roaring River, that same waterway that would breech its dam a few years later, scouring out the mountainside while taking a handful of campers with it. Glad we went when we did.  

But in 1977, when John Denver’s I want to live hit the airwaves, it was still “Rocky Mountain High” that resonated with me on this family expedition.  And yet it was another song on that album that would become seminal in my life, but not for a few more years.  

By my early thirties, I was embarking on a Master of Humanities degree at good old Wright State that would not only give me a pay raise, but bring me to come to love Emily Dickinson, birds, and the Audubon Ecology Workshop in Maine.  If you know me at all, you know how important all those three have become in my life.  And in that midst, John Denver reached in to touch my heart yet again. 

To finish the MHum program, students were assigned an interdisciplinary project that sought to tie various elements of their study into a unique product.  For me that would be photography, a musical soundtrack, and content provided by Ms. Dickinson; her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd; and the Audubon Camp on Hog Island.  I had had some success creating two-projector synchronized slide shows, and used all of those skills to create “The Road past Amherst,” which documented the summer 1981 trip to Maine, this time including both Jennifer and Kelly.  Along with some “Music for Films” by Brian Eno, I picked the song “I want to live” from that very same John Denver album to finish off my visual story.  I asked a good buddy and band member to play guitar while I sang and did a harmony.  To date, my version of “I want to live” is the only solo song I ever recorded.  All the rest I still have from those lovely days are with all of our band, Collage.  

To round out that all-important MHum project, however, I added another element: a long four-chapter paper with a partially borrowed title:  The Epic of Hog: The Todd Bingham Family and the Establishment of the Audubon Ecology Workshop in Maine.  In that paper I took a look at how important Nature was to Romanticism and how the benefactors of Audubon’s Camp, the Todd Bingham family, were products of that metaphysical thinking.  And again, if you know me well, you know exactly where “my book” comes from.  I expect Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon to be available, at long last, summer 2022.  

So, 1977:  such a time in a young man’s life.  For me it was my first foray into an enigmatic but frightening wilderness, plus the beginning of a life-long expedition that would bring me another daughter, a master’s degree, some confidence as a writer, and the roots of an upcoming love affair with Emily Dickinson.  

And I am pleased to report that all that 1977 stuff still brings me joy.  

Today’s elder idea:  

An excerpt from JD’s “Singing skies & dancing waters”:

If my faith should falter and I should forsake you and find myself turning away, 

Will you still be there?  Will you still be there?  

I’ll be there in singing skies and dancing waters, 

laughing children, growing old, 

and in the heart and in the spirit,

and in the Truth when it is told.

Excerpted from the John Denver album I want to live. (RCA 1977)