Saturday, May 8, 2021

Wish you were here

 "Mothers are all slightly insane," Holden Caulfield says at one point in The Catcher in the Rye. I always knew what he meant. It was never a quote that I puzzled over. In five words, he nailed it.

My mother holding me, age 7 weeks

Yes, mothers are all slightly insane, some more slightly than others. They're insane because they can never be certain, ever, that their child(ren) is(are) completely without harm. They are on some kind of alert twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Some part of them never sleeps. You can't be that attentive and worried for that long and not be slightly crazy.  Combine this worry with powerlessnessas soon as the boy or girl steps out of the house (out of the room, actually), they can't do a thing to protect them.
Holding her twins with me pondering. She had three children within eleven months

I think of my own mother, of her difficult life, and of her living alone after her divorce. For years. I think of all that she tried to do with that ache and pull toward her children. I think of her carrying that ache of loving me and that love unrequited, and how can you stand that day after day year after year? She used to say to me, "I get lonely for you, Richie."  I think of her probably feeling she hadn't been a good mother, and how that must have devastated her after worrying about us so deeply and so continuously.  I think of her bright, sharp mind, love of writing and reading and of her unblemished soul. 
In Old Greenwich, CT, sometime in the 1970s

It's too late to tell her that I love her. I tied to do justice to her memory in a piece called "The Wheaton Girl". She went to Wheaton College. "The happiest days of my life," she told me. I doubt she'd like it. She didn't want her weaknesses exposed, and who would? I wrote another about watching her hang out the wash when I was a kid. Still not right. I'm not here to say anything silly like, tell your mom you love her before it's too late. (Or maybe I am.) I'm just here to say to you, Mom, that you deserved better. But I can't. Because you're dead. I think about you every day. I hope you've found peace.
The only time my mother saw my daughter, Becky

Saturday, March 13, 2021

In the long run

 I was riding my bicycle one afternoon in New Orleans where I live.  Peddling down a street, I looked to my left, and I saw a young woman pushing a baby stroller.  She had that determined look about her I had seen on so many mothers’ faces all my life.  It was clear she had things to do.  I could see her mind working as she pushed her baby forward with a strong stride.  I slowed down, so that for a moment or two, I was traveling at the same speed as she.  I saw her take her phone from a bag attached to the back of the stroller.  She punched in a number, began talking, and continued pushing the stroller along.  Has there ever been a more capable multi-tasker in this world than a mother?  I’d seen this sight thousands of times, but this morning it gave me great solace and hope.  This mother was doing what mothers have been doing, in one form or another, forever.  This hasn’t changed.  Mothers are pushing strollers everywhere.  And they always will.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Owl & Turtle

I see that Owl & Turtle, a small, superb bookstore in Camden, Maine, is up for sale.  The news saddened me.  I imagine it saddened many others as well.  I hope a buyer is found.  How difficult to maintain a bookstore in these assaultive times, I can hardly imagine.  But perhaps there is an affluent book lover, or a daring one, or both, who would be willing to come to the rescue.  I hope so. 

The Owl & Turtle has been serving Camden for fifty years.  I knew it through its most recent owners, Craig and Maggie White.  It was Maggie who I talked to when I went to The Owl & Turtle.  Craig was usually working the cafĂ© to one side of the store.  I spent the last four summers in the Camden area, and I went to The Owl &Turtle as often as I could.  I loved going there. 

After you have experienced many bookstores in your life, you come to know, after a few minutes, when you explore a new one, if it’s the real thing.  If you have struck literary gold.  By that I mean that the books you see were chosen with learning and love.  That’s what I experienced after my first visit to the bookstore.  What book did I see in my initial walkabout in The Owl & Turtle that assured me I was dealing with the real thing?   It was A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. Now, here’s someone who knows their books, I thought.  Published in 1968, the book was taken by many to be one of the first American memoirs.  It couldn’t have been a best seller at that point, because it had been all but forgotten.  Yet, there it was.  Because the owners felt it should be there.

Spending time is a fine bookstore is like strolling through a city you love.  You walk down aisles, pause and gaze, a bibliophilic tourist, encountering new titles by names you may or may not know.  It’s exciting.  I never emerged from The Owl & Turtle without having learned something,  So, I go to a bookstore to be surprised and delighted.  I also go to a good bookstore to be advised.  And that is what Maggie did on more than one occasion.  I asked her to recommend a book.  Now, the simple fact is that too many book recommendations fall flat for me.  I sometimes want to question my friendship after reading a book a friend recommended to me.  Looking about at that books that line the shelves of The Owl & Turtle, I immediately trusted Maggie’s judgment.  A good bookseller is a sommelier for your mind.  She recommended Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford.  I read it.  I loved it. Trust, confirmed.

Now, her counsel will not be there when I come to Camden.  Nor will it be for those who live there and who visit.  I was thinking of how wonderful that bookstore that must have been in the winter months when its gets dark so early in Maine and when it’s cold and when a trip to The Owl & Turtle must have been so restorative.  I’m sure it was a refuge for many who live in or near Camden as they slogged through those winter days.  And what a way to introduce children to the mystical world of books and reading it must have been.  I’m sure there are many children who grew up there, literarily speaking.

It’s probably too late to implore Maggie and Craig not to sell The Owl & Turtle.  It probably came to that a while back now.  I can’t imagine how difficult it was to make that decision.  But it’s not too late to thank them for all that they gave anyone who stepped foot into their lovely bookstore. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

To those who don't lie

From time to time, I meet someone who says, "I never lie." 

I don't believe them.  Tempted to call them liars.  I do believe that, but too cute a reply.

I lie.  I lie in order not to hurt someone.  Of course, the truth isn't necessarily called for when not asked for.  But sometimes you're asked for it, and sometimes it's better not to provide it.  If she asks you, are you going to tell the woman whose food you were served at her home that it wasn't very good?  And if you do tell her it wasn't very good at allwhich is the truth, mind youwell, go live with the look on her face.  

But, hey, you can say you never lie.  Good for you. 

Someone asked playwright Tracy Letts what he says when he sees a play written by a friend that he thinks is awful and the friend asks him his opinion.

"I lie!" Letts said.  "I lie magnificently!"

I agree with what one of Graham Greene's characters has to say about this: "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit is a symbol for mathematicians to pursue.  In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

Of course, sometimes lying is despicable.  If the intent is to deceive, to cause harm, simply to gain an advantage, well, it's ugly.  Sometimes you have to tell the truth.  You're a coward if you don't.  I often fail here.  I lie when I shouldn't.  Not proud of that. 

I side with Tennessee Williams.  I trust his sense of morality.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche with some unsavory details about her past:

Mitch:  You lied to me, Blanche.
Blanche:  Don't say I lied to you.
Mitch:  Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.
Blanche:  Never inside, I didn't lie in my heart...

TW was the same guy who said the worst sin is deliberate cruelty.  And a lot of times a well-fabricated lie prevents me from being deliberately cruel.  In those moments, I'm content to be a liar.

A great friend of mine, who tells the truth faithfully more than anyone I've ever known, said to me recently, "I've made a vow not to lie to myself anymore."

Now that is a different story.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tom Petty and a life

I finished watching Runnin' Down a Dream, the panoramic 4 hour 19 minute documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, last night.

Not all in one sitting.

The 2007 film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich.  You know, The Last Picture Show guy.  

I knew virtually nothing about Petty and his Heartbreakers before this.  His music was not a part of my life.

The film is thorough, if anything.  It mainly consists if concert footage and interviews with Petty, his band members, and various well-known musical figures.  It's not a great film, in my view.  And fours hours is a long time if you're not a rabid Petty fan.

But the film is curiously addicting.  Because of its length, you are able to really get to know Tom Petty.  And his career, which began in the mid-1970s, and continued until his death at 66 in 2017.

What I gathered after imbibing this much celluloid is that Tom Petty was one interesting, admirable guy.  Brave and a man of great integrity,

Thinking about it this morning.  Two things.  First, the influence of seeing the full sweep of a life.  Or a musical life, because there is almost nothing of Petty's private life in the film. One can assume this was deliberate on Petty's part.  The most affecting glimpse is the material about his mother and his cruel father.

You see a life unfold, decision by decision, resolution by resolution.  Petty twice fought the music industry in David vs. Goliath encounters, and twice he prevailed.  These were nasty and prolonged fights, not mere skirmishes.

This nearly day-by-day accounting is sobering.  A life is an accumulation, and today is part of that accounting.  A life is all those todays.

What does my accumulation look like?

I don't like a lot of what I see.

Second thing.  Suddenly, Tom Petty is dead at 66.  Did he have regrets?  I have no idea.  But if the film is any indication, I would say: not many.

I'm 75.  

How much accumulating do I have left? Will it make a difference?

Friday, August 28, 2020

A walk in Charleston

I arrived in Charleston, SCor nearbyMonday.  On my way back to New Orleans.

Went into the city proper yesterday.  I'd been on previous trips but wanted to see how it looked with this shitstorm we're facing. 

Pretty place, early-19th-century century houses.  Enjoyable to walk, normally.  Scene of a monstrous church slaying in 2015.  Civil War started in the harbor.  I'm sure you know this.

The place was practically deserted.  Masks required, but half the few people I saw, wearing none.  Zero police presence, either on foot or in auto, to enforce.

The last time I walked here I had a companion, a woman I'd been with for three years.  My leaving her ached within me.  No place is the same if it can't be shared.  She liked Charleston.  

She walked with me in my mind.  I pointed out things to her.  "Remember this house?"  Or, "I bought you a hat here.  You liked it so much."  We went to the harbor, in my mind, watched the birds.

As Dylan says: I threw it all away.  

Even without her, it was sad walking the streets.  The life is squeezed out of the town.  Even towns can lose weight, become thinner, look wan.

I wanted to see one building, though, before I turned around.  

The Old Slave Mart.  I'd been before, taken a tour, but wanted to see it again.  

I stood before it.  It's odd, in a way, with a plate glass facade.  But the lettering above is not odd.  Reading the words "MART" on the building made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  As well it should. 

It's impossible to process, the fact of slavery.  As soon as I thought of what went on inside that building 165 years ago, my mind collapsed.

I walked away, interior fingers pointing at me.

Hardly any walk is simple, is it?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Notes on a courageous writer

Lacy Crawford. 

She published a remarkable memoir in July, Notes on a Silencing.  The book takes place, mostly, at St. Paul's School, a storied, elite prep school for boys and girls in New Hampshire.  It's a dark story of violation, cruelty and betrayal that is as well written and stirring as any memoir I've read in years.  

Crawford was 15 when she got a phone call one night from a boy at school she hardly knew.  He was distraught.  He said something had happened with his mother.  Would she please come to help.  She did.  That boy and another boy brutally raped her orally. She didn't know it then, but one result of this crime was she contracted herpes.

The book is the story of what happened before and after that night. 

Lacy Crawford is able to describe the machinations, pettiness and outright cruelty that flows through prep school dorms better than anyone I've ever read.  Having attended one of these so-called elite prep schools for five years myself as a boarding student, I can tell you that she has perfect pitch when it comes to describing the particular form of cruelty that arises from youth who come from money and privilege.

There is not a single drop of self-pity in this book.  You, the reader, will supply the pity, the outrage, the anger and the sorrow as you read this story.  There is much cowardice here, not from the author, but from St. Paul's and its administration and teachers.  Not to mention lying and, as the title suggests, attempts by the school to silence Crawford.  If you're like me, you will bristle, react viscerally, to the wrongs done to her.  They start with the assault, but they by no means end there.

Despite the dark story, Crawford's writing can be funny at times, dry and sardonic.  She also quotes poets, a writer after my own heart.  Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" gets her through some difficult times.  She quotes one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets at one point.  Anyone who believes in the guiding power of poetry will find evidence of that in Crawford's book.  If you find yourself stymied at times defending the arts, point the skeptics to Notes on a Silencing.

Crawford is wondrously adept with language.  She knows when the strong Anglo-Saxon word is required when writing about sex and when it just wouldn't be right.  She never spares herself in this tale and, to draw on an other poet, Theodore Roethke, she understands, as he writes, that nakedness is her shield.  Here I am, she says.  I'm revealing everything, my messy mistakes included.

Most everyone in the book is not kind to Crawford. "Kind" is a word she uses often, and kindness ranks high, if not the highest, on her list of admirable qualities in a person.  The few exceptions, the few people who are kind to hera female chaplain, a boyfriend of a few monthsbring much-appreciated light into this dark story.  Even a girl's brief arm around her shoulder is something Crawford never forgets.  

The courage?  After having told her story many times to people who doubt her and evenof course!accuse her of being at fault, Crawford decides, nearly thirty years after the events, to write about them unstintingly in a book.  She doesn't hold back onanything. She's married now, happily, and has two small sons.  On day, they will read her book.  She know this, of course. Yet, she proceeds. It's a beautifully written book and a humbling experience to read it.