Friday, November 23, 2018

The need

I walk down the hallway to the class I'm going to teach today. A colleague, a woman in the administration, stops me. She asks me how I am. Reflexively, she puts her hand on my forearm. The touch, nonsexual (in so far that a woman's touch ever can be) is so welcome. The feel of intimacy. Of her warm hand on my arm. However briefly.

I once knew a woman, many years ago, (how can I be saying "many years ago"?) who said to me, "It's not good to go a single say without being touched."

How about weeks? Months? Even years? This goes for men as well as for women, of course. But I don't talk to the men I know about this type of thing. I have talked to women about it, though. Usually, women my age (seventy-three) or round about. Many of them admit the need, but have given up on being touched. They've given up partly because they are tired of dealing with failed relationships and lousy men. "Too many jerks out there," one woman told me. "I'd rather be alone." Or something like that.

Yes, I see that. But something essential dies when we give up on the idea of being touched. Of sitting next to someone on the couch, bodies glancing. Of walking into the kitchen and placing a hand on his or her shoulder. Of putting your arm around him or her in the movies. Of getting into bed and feeling the warm, loved body next to you.

To live a solitary life may be better than living with someone you can't stand. Grant you that. But on the other hand, living alone, as a way of life, is not good. Or natural. Or healthy. Say what you will. Of course, do what you want to do. Free country. Individual choice. But, you know, bullshit.

Without touch, I can feel myself withering.

On my way back down the same hallway at school, I greet a woman from another floor I haven't seen since the college break. We embrace. "Happy New Year," I say to her, my arms around her, feeling her hair against my cheek. Her. I can feel that both of us hold on for a few seconds longer than collegial protocol. She's alone. So am I. Though it remains unspoken, we both know we don't want to release. But we do. Because we have to.

Sustenance, briefly. 

The thing with feathers

The term "bird watcher" seems to imply someone overdressed in khaki fatigues, wearing a floppy hat, with an enormous pair of binoculars drooping around his or her neck, a notepad in hand, in which she or he, in ecstasy, scribbles down the latest sighting of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Profession: librarian or accountant. I mean, really, who would spend a day squinting up into trees for a possible furtive glimpse of a bird when they might be off mountain climbing, running rapids or just walking on the beach?
Scarlet Tanager

I would. When I lived in New York City, I loved the ten or so days when birds were migrating north (spring) and south (fall). You could go to Central Park and see up to thirty or even forty species of birds in a single daytwenty or so species of warblers alone. Birds, and most especially the songs of birds, make me feel optimistic. (Emily Dickinson used birds as a metaphor. The title of this post is hers.) These days, like all of us, I sorely need a strong dose of optimism.  At 73, even more so.  With birds, I get that.  When I was a boy growing up in in southeastern Virginia, I would wake up to the sweet cadences of the song sparrow.                              

You can ask the question, why do birds sing? I'm sure there's an answer. But how do you answer the question, why do birds sing beautifully?
Prothonotary Warbler

I'm like any person who has ever watched a bird defy gravity. Not only that, but make a mockery of gravity, with sharp dips, pivots, swoops and dives.  It's no wonder that when in a dream you're flying, it always feels exhilarating and, in therapy, is always a positive sign.

For me, though, it's the hues of these birds that make me crane my neck, searching high in the branches, for hours. To see, even for a few seconds, the deep oceanic blue of an Indigo Bunting or the fierce black and yellow of a Magnolia Warblergo ahead, make my day. These photographs go some way to explaining the thrill, but you have to catch the glimpse in the wild, catch the appearance of the bird perched high in the treeso much color in so small a form!to get the full charge.

Sidebar:  Sometimes, there is an advantage in going to the dentist.  In the waiting room today, I found a copy of the new National Geographic.  In it, there is a elegiac, concerned essay by Jonathan Franzen, "Why Birds Matter."  I urge you to read it. I actually think he answers the question, in prose that soars like the creatures he describes.  
Indigo Bunting
Magnolia Warbler

I live in New Orleans now.  When I talk to people about Hurricane Katrina, time and time again I hear the same thing, "It was so quiet after the storm. You didn't hear a single bird singing." How, then, could you feel even the slightest bit of optimism? I can't imagine.  Because, in Emily Dickinson's words, the thing with feathers ishope.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


I am thankful most for my beautiful daughter, Becky. The best thing to happen to me in my life is being the father of this radiant, brilliant young woman.

I am thankful for being alive. For my good health.

For light; The English language; olive oil; Thoreau; letters (writing and receiving); pencils; walking; kissing; travel; reading; Hemingway; museums. 

For laughing; storms; Paris; writing; birds; learning; the ocean. For outdoor showers; Maine; surfcasting; Henry Miller; Willa Cather; Flaubert's letters.

For peaches; the moon; The Great Gatsby; Southern food/soul food.

For music; M.F.K. Fisher; Giotto; books; Van Gogh; French bookstores.

For the sound of rain; dogs; New York City; fall, winter, spring, summer. For walking in Paris; Ralph Ellison; Velรกzquez; Verdi.

For my sister; snow falling down; road trips; going to sleep when I'm exhausted; tea; kayaking. For Van Morrison; the Italian language; my bicycle; Michelin maps; Francois Truffaut; tomatoes; tall, slim pine trees; Tennessee Williams.

For old docks; going barefoot; women in summer dresses; friendship; work; porches; the songs of birds; Balzac; my body, every supple, practical, miraculous part of it.

For sight.

For garlic; Cole Porter; West Fourth Street in New York City; Paul Lynde; libraries; the smell of hay; sweat; the Seine; Rome; the stillness of early morning; Pablo Neruda's poetry.

For Langston Hughes; Greenwich Village; warblers; kindness; pastrami; bellylaughs; breathing; Lucinda Williams; the smell of suntan lotion at the beach; dusk; coffee.

For brilliant sunsets; Central Park; Wellfleet oysters; stretching; friends' voices; affection; holding hands with a woman you love; the release of crying; watching my daughter grow up; John Lennon; truth.