Can you identify the mystery poet?

Here’s another poem from “Sad Songs from Hush River” available at offered in recognition of National Poetry Month. I wrote “On the Morn of Your Eulogy” as an exercise using another poem as a prompt.  My poem follows the structure of the original, including that of the title which is something like “On the Eve of Your Departure.”  Alas, I cannot relocate the inspiration and I am unable to credit the writer. Can you help? Do you know who the author and the poem might have been?  Suggestions appreciated.

Tell me you weren’t cracking up,

You had but the one suckling child

and you still held an artist’s brush with confidence

even hope.


I promised you by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

You promised me by your tired eyes that you were a well-tempered palette.

And all the planets promised both of us by your tired eyes that you still

perceived the colors of truth completely


Who could not go on living?


My pen will be glad to have been a record,

The brush to have been your lover,

I to have been blessed to touch the hem of your dress

in the quiet of evening.


The scout has lost his compass,

The sailor his anchor,

And I — I feel my mind eroding–ragged holes exposing a stormy sky,

That my time too is ticking down

That your daughter is more than a daughter, and the sun is more than a sun.


What is the word for tomorrow?

Going to Timmy’s with You


(after “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara)

Going to Tim Hortons with you is better than a drive to Borden, New London, Hunter River, even Ebbsfleet, especially in winter when the roads are drifting in and the RCMP are advising “motorists” -– a word left over from an era when a man wearing a fedora needed an “operator” to complete a call to the woman he thought was his lover—she wore red shoes, but we didn’t know that because all we see of her is in calculated film noir shadows, but wanting a simile, I’ll say the word is left over like cold pizza from the night before.

Coffee with you is better, here in town at a Tim Hortons that both of us could walk to, if we had to, We push the steel and glass door, find shelter from the wind and snow, find warmth, and the only mumble is among three young kids behind the counter, indistinguishable, not that we’re paying any attention, but we feel their infectious camaraderie, or is it the richness of their energy that animates them and becomes us.

And what could be better than an idea growing between us as we stare at the table top remembering the heft the old white porcelain mugs, familiar as cliché. We talk of social media and A-D-D growing in a Petri dish. Your expression, not mine.

What could be better than a bottomless cup and a clock with no meaning, a to-do list left somewhere I don’t know–I’ve looked in my pockets, my wallet–and I wish I had it so that I could check it at the door like a backpack carried into Wal-Mart, or a cashmere coat removed in another film noir and delivered to an officious man at the theatre who hands me a ticket with the number 72 on it. I think of other lists, one once important that fell into the snow and the ink bloomed like a watercolour wash over lettering that tried so hard to be a new language, transcendent and Zen-like as I held it up, lines of calligraphy vertical, the words sliding off like drops of snow-melt that will appear next month, or the month after, on the branches of the would-be forsythia in your back yard.

Time disappears except for that nagging thought vandalizing the back room where I store things like the car keys, sleeping bags, and the notion that I should go to Cornwall for a haircut. But not today. I forgive myself without telling you, because I want you to believe that there is nothing better than being here with you, or so I tell myself as you begin to speak of depression and a change in meds, and it occurs to me that I dropped the once important list that blossomed earlier this morning, and that with an effort I’m not prepared to give, I could reconstitute it. Almost.

What would it be like to look into your eyes without guilt?

What would it be like to see you clearly and to know in that moment of visual penetration, my own clean nakedness, beautiful and soulful, stainless with no implications of dysfunctional sexuality and no hint of that vocal crescendo that is Elvis’s doing it “my way”, or Rufus Wainwright doing it his way, with Cigarettes and Chocolate, but more like Gershwin’s piano concerto in f, the intensity of which is so, so American. In a good way.

And I ask myself, what can you see through a Thorazine glass darkly? Oh that you could dance the dance of Salome, toss down the veils and emerge through all that fog that hangs heavy in the valleys of your discontent. Would you see any sunlight in my eyes?

When you belittle the well-intentioned but ignorant and ineffective efforts of Nameless, our mutual friend, I find myself uncomfortable, feeling the hardness of franchise furniture–when you say, “Why couldn’t she have … I realize that Little League baseball is better, especially in July, in a small town in Massachusetts like Boxborough or Hubbardston, metal bleachers, sparsely populated by eager fathers. The green of the grass is better. The red dust on Zoey’s uniform is better. After he slides into second and wipes his hands on his pants. And it doesn’t matter who wins, even though I’m aware of the cawing of the crows in the background, but apparently it does matter to the punk dad who stands up and yells at the ump, “Take your head out of your ass, asshole. You would have seen that Carl tagged him good. Zoey’s out for Chrissakes.” I want to ask the punk dad just how do you take your head out of your ass when you’re an asshole, but I don’t.

I surface and hear the remnant of the continued complaint, “Why can’t they give her another job, something else to do where she can’t screw up as much … I turn my focus to the couple behind you, sitting in the corner—the middle-aged man and woman who walked in twenty minutes after we did. I know you didn’t notice. I try to imagine their home life, their story.  I see them losing a daughter, and that’s why they don’t care what others think of the way they dress. They’re as comfortable in their attitude as war veterans who join biker clubs. If only I could make you as comfortable in your own skin, say the magic word that would take down that totem print of ‘The Scream’ that hangs over your broken couch, and replace it with a window overlooking the Aegean, which is a far more profound and dramatic act than finding a word that fits more smoothly than “motorists”—a word fluid with soft consonants like ells.

Going to Timmy’s with you is better than writing a poem with the word “motorists” in it, which is why I want to acknowledge this moment, one more occasion of our connect/disconnect, you speaking in the past tense, and me writing, in my mind, in the present tense, and wanting ever so much to believe that my love for you has not diminished.


Excerpt from Sad Songs from Hush River. In appreciation of National Poetry Month, this and twenty other poems are available at Songs from Hush River

A special award of appreciation to the first readers to write reviews (can be short blurbs) of the book of poetry on the smashwords site.

Sad Songs from Hush River




Amblyopia, copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland — Undistorted, unaltered and usable home eye test charts for children are available at

Autumn cool, edge of ice on the playground puddles

we line up, first grade boys,

the girls on the other side,

waiting the morning bell the big double

doors to open to the red brick school.

Squinting into the light

I am “four-eyes” clumsy

heavy lenses in clear-plastic frames,

an opaque patch

remedial over one eye

so to teach the other one.

A fifth grader, older, bigger,

unconcerned about laws of the line,

comes up to me threatening in his presence.

Behind him, a flamboyant maple

gives up a few more of its crimson leaves,

drops them down

to the collection-in-progress at its roots.

He hawks and blow-guns a thick glob of spit

onto my face, my glasses,

the one clear lens and the opaque patch.

Helpless, I wish a barren wish

for a parent, an adult, a bigger friend

someone to make me clean again,

I remove my glasses, feel the glooey slime

in my fingers,

wipe them on my pants,

and know myself dirty the rest of the day.

Having made his introduction, he seeks me out

on other mornings, asks for my money

and I acquiesce

all my pennies,

even three nickels

sometimes a dime.

Days pass, the maple gives up being flamboyant

and I forget.

until he reappears

I stumble over my discomfort,

like stumbling over the pronunciation of a word

like “sharing” the meaning of which I’m now unsure,

something I thought I had learned.

I choose another, smaller boy;

go to him and ask, “What money do you have?”

No threat, I’m just bigger with a question.

He hands it over like he’s lost a game

and so on other days, I do it again.

One Saturday his mother comes to visit mine.

It has to be her ‘cause I recognize the boy in tow.

I am on the dead grass of the front lawn

watch them coming down the street.

She with an expression of determination and something more,

approaches, and with a wordless glance,

teaches me the feel of shame

before I understand

the reason for it.

My mother greets them at the door

they enter and I am summoned.

Why did I do it? they ask.

So I tell them of the older boy.

And in the telling I learn the feel of another word

long before the spelling.

Then it stops; the other boy no longer seeks me out

all the leaves are gone, we’re in winter jackets now

the skies flat November grey,

a dull-matte diffusion of light,

like heaven might appear

through the patch I am supposed to wear

remedial over one eye

so to teach the other.


Excerpt from Sad Songs from Hush River. In appreciation of National Poetry Month, this and twenty other poems are available at

A special award of appreciation to the first readers to write reviews (can be short blurbs) of the book of poetry on the smashwords site.

“And that’s why my grandmother’s legs are hanging on the wall.”

Walter Everett Burt the Barber

December 2014 – January 2015, our third trip to Victoria State, Australia, my second visit to Walter, the barber. Walter Everett Burt has the Brown Hill Barber Shop on Hummfray Street in Ballarat. The shop was full of waiting customers, all seats taken, late one morning when my son, son-in-law and I dropped by. One of us had to stand. But not for long. A haircut needn’t be a complicated affair, and each of the gents ahead of us was in the chair and out in matter of ten minutes or so.

Walter’s shop is well decorated. Lots of signage, most of it license plates from Australia to Alaska and points in between, but none from Prince Edward Island. The first time we visited, I noticed that Walter had quite a collection from New Hampshire, and that’s when he told me us of his North American connections. His mother was from New Hampshire and his father from Nova Scotia, from places we knew. Picking up the conversation again this year, he mentioned that one of his regulars was originally from Musquodoboit, a small village near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being able to pronounce the name of the village is half the proof needed to talk about it with some credibility.  A few minutes later, the man from Musquodoboit walked in.  Happy coincidence?

Eventually we got to the story of the legs on the wall.  “They were my grandmothers,” he said. “She was in the kitchen, and my grandfather had an accident and cut them off.” That was the short version otherwise known as bait. Who could leave it at that? We wanted to hear more.

“Well, they were getting pretty low on food, and grandpa said she had a good lookin’ shank.” We had a little laugh. Walter was teasing us and then he spoke more seriously. (You can see the legs above the swinging doors and the ‘Waikiki Beach’ sign.)grandmothers_legs

“He was a sawyer,” he said. “He had a saw mill by the house. That’s how my grandfather made his living. One day she came out to tell him that dinner was on the table, that he should come in and wash up. She goes back and then somehow the eight foot saw got away from him; you know, big round blade. It got loose and came off the mount and tore into the house. It ripped through the kitchen, cut her legs off halfway up her chest, cut through the next room and came out the front of the house.”

“My father was five years old at the time, his brother two. He had an older sister, and grandfather asked her to run to the neighbours which must have been two miles away,  and have them bring their car around. There weren’t too many cars in those days. In time the neighbour came and grandad picks my grandmother up and puts her in the front seat. Then he throws her cut-off legs in the back seat, and off they drive to the nearest hospital which was down in Exeter. There was a new bridge, and my grandfather said he was the first car to cross it. He was going so fast the police caught up with him and stopped him. When they looked in the car and saw my grandmother all bloody like that, and her legs in the back, they let him go.”

“Back in those days they didn’t do much. Just tied off the stumps. They threw her legs in the hospital incinerator. Granmother said she could feel her legs burning. She swore she could feel her toes, and the flesh burning.  When she was eighty, the doctors said they could do something. But by then, she said, ‘I’ve put up with it for this long.’ Those legs on the wall, that’s what she got by on.”

Now, a license plate from Prince Edward Island, we need to work on that and get one to Walter.

The Tree on Henderson Road

The Tree on Henderson Road - copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland

The Tree on Henderson Road — copyright 2015 Paul Vreeland


Three years ago (August 2011), my son and I were driving to his father-in-law’s home in Ross Creek. The sun was low in the ‘golden hour’ of afternoon sky when I saw this tree on Henderson Road. We stopped to photograph. Back in Canada, I processed the image. I worked with it again and again, but could not bring out in the image the magic of that moment. Returning to Australia in December, I knew I wanted to go back and photograph the tree. We waited for the sun to descend before heading back to Henderson Road. I think now, that maybe we waited a bit too long, which is to say that I’m more satisfied with the image, but not completely. Most probably, I never will be.


I’ve come to love the landscape of Victoria State because of the trees, particularly the Eucalyptus, more commonly known as gum. The ‘Tree on Henderson Road” is a gum, but I wanted a more precise answer. Without an arborist, the answer may be hard to come by because there are about 800 species. Australian writer Murray Bail isn’t one to waste that fact. In his modern-day fairy tale Eucalyptus (1998), a widower named Holland busies himself planting trees. Lots of trees. Lots of varieties. When his only child, Ellen comes of age and beauty, he informs her that she can only marry the first man to correctly identify each and every tree on the farm.  I’ll be looking for Eucalyptus, winner of the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and a New York Times Notable Book of 1998.

To say that the trees have character is an understatement; they have spirit. I’m not the first photographer to believe in trees. Continue reading

“When a thought of war comes…”

Is the world really getting worse?

I participate in two study groups. One is comprised of five friends, and our weekly discussions on ethics and spiritual identity are punctuated by personal stories of life’s lessons. We are inspired by the writings from Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, and our togetherness is rich.  This past week we were encouraged to reflect upon the statement:

When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. ~’Abdu’l-BaháArising to Serve_Chinese

The second study group I attend has progressed to the second book in the series entitled Arising to Serve. We are a group of about six who have been

together for some time. Our numbers and membership have varied over the years, but whoever is present at any given sessions shares his/her understandings after reading the material in English, Chinese, and Farsi, and our cultural diversity helps to ensure that we are learning from each other.  Last night we talked about peace and saw how even our intimate little gatherings are personally transformative and how they are also instrumental to our community-building efforts.

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions. ~Shoghi Effendi

While I have been familiar with the statement about the “thought of war,” the practice and mastery of the exhortation has been another one of those disciplines that from time to time has its moment in the sunlight of my otherwise cloudy attention. But this post isn’t about the regularity of discipline. Rather, I’d like to share a few recent insights about the statement—insights that beg the application of other disciplines.

I’ve taken up Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin Books, New York, 2011). It’s a surfeit of statistics and analyses, a compendium of reviews of modern research on the subject of war, and a personal narrative.  Sounds dry doesn’t it? But Pinker is a talented, if at times irreverent, writer, and I find the book is a compelling read. For example, I appreciate how he begins the chapter on “The Civilizing Process” by relating how he, as a child, questioned his parents when they informed him that he should not push food onto his fork with a knife. “I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder “Because I said so,” and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my resentment of the no-knife rule.” What follows is a brief introduction to a book by Norbert Elias,  graphs showing the decline in homicide rates in England from 1200-2000, an explanation of “cutting off your nose to spite your face”, a discussion of  what was happening in Europe as thousands of feudal states gave way to a handful of monarchies and as “A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions,” and subsequently the reason why we do not push our peas onto our dinner knives.  The next chapter, “The Long Peace” is where things really get interesting. I won’t give away the conclusion that is offered in the book’s title. That’s not my point. Pinker isn’t the only one who suggests that things are getting better. (More on that in a moment.) My concern is that “a thought of war comes” to me again and again and again on the hourly news, in coffee shop conversations, and whatever print media I set my eyes upon. It seems to pour in upon me, as I suspect it does upon you.

In his preface, Pinker writes:

This is a big book, but it has to be.[Indeed, 800 pages.] First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and the scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.

Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull pe0ple into a complacency… (p. xxii)

So perhaps by reading Pinker’s book, I am opposing a thought of war with stronger thoughts of peace. Isn’t that what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is telling us to do? Ah, but am I turning a blind eye to the truth? I realize that Pinker has his detractors, and that there are fact-based counterarguments to idea that violence is on the decline. Whatever the case may be, building peace is work, and the hardest work of all may be in my own mind. I take responsibility for my own reactions knowing that I can’t make presumptions about yours. (Although I am interested. Write your comments in the box below.) At any rate, this is where I am encouraged to begin–where we are encouraged to begin.  Our thoughts have consequences, as do the changes we make in our thinking.

Continue reading

Sad Songs from Hush River


I thought I’d give Smashwords a try. Here’s my latest epub offering.  Once more it’s poetry.

Hydrostone Quartet

and Mother-in-Law Suite

are still available for Kindle ereaders from

No Reason to Go Back

Colebrook River RoadWinsted is where I first became conscious of the notion of happiness. I was eight years old and walking up Walnut Street on my way to art lessons at the Beardsley & Memorial Library. A sunny, robin-and-forsythia spring afternoon, and I was passing the house where Stormy and Billy Phillips lived, long before Stormy walked out and was never seen again.

The moment spanned but a few seconds. I passed the house then crested the hill and eventually climbed the stairs of the library to the third floor where I was disappointed by my own poster paint creations.

Winsted is where, a year later, my father walked with me up Walnut Street and down to Main. We stopped by the Winsted Evening Citizen building and watched people pick up cans of Carnation Milk that floated out of the A&P on the raging flood waters that washed away the town. Carnation milk “from contented cows.”

[Photo: The old Colebrook River Road through “the village that disappeared” — “Sarah Harvey used to live over there.”]

I loved Winsted as an ignorant child and came to hate it as a know-it-all adolescent. I loved the Winsted that was noisy with the machinery of the hosiery company manufacturing woolen underwear and the Gilbert Clock shop that pumped out unreliable timepieces. I loved a Winsted with busy sidewalks and older men who had the time to stop and ask me who were my favourites, the Yankees or the Dodgers. And as a teenager I came to see Winsted as an inadequate town — a perfect place to grow up feeling inadequate, a perfect place to lay the blame. The Winsted I loved disappeared in the back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane, and the one I hated was resurrected from the stench and the debris as a two mile stretch of awninged stores and shops was replaced by four lanes of fast pavement. Winsted as a community nestled in the northwest corner of Connecticut somewhere of unimportant distance between the beauty of the Berkshires and the commerce of Hartford, disappeared in the blur of traffic passing through it. I think that being nine years old helped determine that event as a watershed moment, no pun intended. I think that my life wouldn’t have been so affected had I been six or twelve or twenty. Had I been of a different age, so I tell myself, I would have grown up with fewer hang-ups and dysfunctions. I’d be more socially adept. There’s the bitterness. The feeling of betrayal. I lost my coming-of-age innocence to a natural disaster and blame the Flood of ’55.

As an adolescent I heard rumors that Gene Pitney was from Winsted. Or maybe I heard that he had a girlfriend there, or maybe I made it up. Whatever. I believed it for the longest time. Gene Pitney grew up in Rockville, Connecticut, not that it matters, nor that anyone should care, because I am convinced that his 1961 hit Town Without Pity was about Winsted. To some that may be a lie, but I so wanted my town to have a claim to fame, a claim to something historic, something that would establish Winsted on the map of remembrance, like Springhill has the mine disaster, ‘cause to a kid, you’re a nobody if you come from no-ville. It would be a couple of years before Winsted native Ralph Nader made it on the scene, but as an activist bashing the automotive industry with his Unsafe At Any Speed, he wasn’t exactly a celebrity kids looked up to.

Since my mother’s stroke last November, I’ve made several trips to her apartment in Connecticut—trips that took me back to Winsted, if only to drive through it on my way to shop in Torrington, because there is little shopping that can be done in Winsted now. Where once there were dress shops, a delicatessen luncheonette, a couple of haberdashers and a cigar store, there is now a sequence of dilapidated and dusty store fronts housing wannabe antiques. There’s ABC Pizza on the east end of Main Street and Kent Pizza on the west end and in between are the landmarks of the Laurel Lanes bowling alley, Town Hall, Post Office and the movie theatre. Changes in signage and new coats of paint try to disguise the fact that Winsted has been dying for decades. The occasional person seen on the street may well be a ghost

Last month mom and I drove down Main Street for the last time. We were getting ready to move her to Florida and we went to buy packing materials in Torrington. Stopped at the light at Elm Street and Main, the center of town, she said, “The town has disappeared.” When she said that I thought of her own condition and how she has associated memory with identity. She knows that she is forgetful and she believes that her memory loss diminishes her. “With only half a memory, I’m only half a person,” she said, the idea of her own disappearance scaring her.

As I write this, I experience a moment of déjà vu. The fact is I’ve written about memory and disappearance before. I wrote about the disappearance of a house in Riverton.

During my junior and senior year of High School I worked afternoons at the Riverton General Store. Riverton is a small village on the banks of the Farmington River best known for the Hitchcock Chair Company founded in 1825. Hitchcock produced high quality replicas of American colonial furniture, and its factory showroom attracted tourists from noteworthy distances. Wives would browse the village, and the factory employees could see from their workbench windows, the husbands fly-fishing in the river.

John Kenney revived the company in 1946. He was a conservationist. Some years later John bought a defunct stone church in Riverton and converted it into a museum. He came to me one day while I was working in the store and asked if I would prepare rubbings of the gravestones in the church cemetery. Unfortunately the stones were weathered beyond the salvation of essential data.

I remember a day when a woman from New York State came into the store and asked if someone would take a table she had just purchased, tie it to the back of her car so that she could drag it up and down the street a bit so as to give it a more weathered and rustic appearance. She was frustrated that the salespeople at the factory, who were friendly enough, refused to do this ‘treatment’ for her. They had this thing about pride of workmanship, she said. “What’s that go to do with it?” she added, tossing up her hands. “I’m the customer. I know what I want.”

If it weren’t for my job at the general store I’d have few memories of Riverton. I got off the school bus there and worked afternoons, and on Saturdays I worked all day, walking the forty minutes each way from our house. By then my family had moved from Winsted to Colebrook, a ten minute drive down Route 8.

The walk took me down across the short narrow bridge over the Colebrook River and along the river road. I would crest a small hill by the Congregational Church and come down into Riverton center. There wasn’t much there but an intersection with the store, a gas pump, a post office, the chair factory, a couple of colonial homes, and across another bridge, the Riverton Inn.

Coming down past the Congregational Church I passed a house on my left, a house higher up on a hill. Relatively new, it had been built within the last 15 years. The steep slope of lawn would have been a challenge to mow in summer, but a joy for children sledding in winter. The house commanded the best view of the village, and since it was atop a steep hill, I could not see it in its entirety. My vision obscured, there was something of a mystery about the house.

Each time I walked by, I noticed a car parked at the top of the driveway. My vision of it was obscured as well as it was partially covered with a tarp. A sports car I believe. It was never moved. During the biannual visits I made to my parents when they were living in Colebrook, I often walked to Riverton and back, and for years I noticed the house and the neglected car.

When I visited in 2009, the car was gone. So was the house. Nothing remained but the blue cap on the well. “What happened to the house?” I asked. The house had belonged to John Eastman, and when his wife died, I was told, she willed that the house be razed. And so it was. The driveway pavement is still there, leading up the hill to nothing.

Why did she want the house destroyed? What could have been her motive? The questions haunted me back then, and I wrote that “Now I realize ever more profoundly that my mother is the only reason bringing me back to Northwestern Connecticut. One of these years, should I not predecease her, I will no longer drive down to her house in the woods.” Winsted, Colebrook, and Riverton will be relegated to memory, and with time, landmarks will be effaced, put out of recall’s reach. Riverton cannot call the house back to life anymore than I am able to remember every customer for whom I carried grocery bags.

What I recall of the landscape transform over time. Structures disappear, like the Hitchcock Chair Company that closed in April 2006[1]. John Kenney may have been a conservationist but he couldn’t save the factory from global economics. The showroom and the parking lots are empty.  The landscape and my memory transforms. There is both an outer and inner landscape, and I am unsettled when they out of sync.

And the house on the hill that is no more has much to do with this. Why does it bother me so? Would knowing the reason why the woman willed the house to be taken out of the topography bring me comfort? What would change? Did she destroy the house because she could not bear the idea of another experiencing the joy she had in living in it? Or did she suspect that the experience of anyone else would be second-rate when compared to her own? Did she do this because she knew the house could only exist as she had known it, and to hand it over to others would have been a desecration, a profanity? Or perhaps her life in it had been an unbearable hell and this was her revenge. When her body was interred, or her ashes scattered, so too her wood-framed and gyprocked temple retired. Respect, honour? Her commemoration is a de-memoration, a dismemberment.

I think about the house and feel a connection with the woman I do not know. She has joined partners with me, or with that part of me that has begun to forget about the people and places of my childhood. Most of the customers who came into the general store for their weekly shopping have moved away or are buried in local cemeteries. Through no act of volition, they have disappeared from my mind. The chair factory on the other hand … well I don’t blame Mr. Kenney.

But this woman whose house is no more has unwittingly and unknowingly conspired to remove one more piece from my landscape. No act of innocence, there is something sinister about what she has done. A suicide of landscape, it is an unnatural taking. She may have lived within the house, but did she not consider those of us who lived without, and that our histories are tied to a landscape of which the house was a feature? Wouldn’t she have done better to have bequeathed the house to time and the elements? I fear I will blame her decision for other losses and lapses of memory. When my mother departs this life, I will think of the house on the hill and know there is a connection. And yet, how ironic, in removing her house from the landscape of Riverton, she has fixed it more strongly in my memory.

“With only half a memory, I’m only half a person,” mom says while we were waiting for the light to change. The notion scares her and it scares me as well. It doesn’t sit right. I have been taught that, “…the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind.”[2] I focus on the “mind” part of that teaching. The soul has been likened to a light, and physical and mental infirmities as afflictions that intervene and prevent the soul from manifesting the full strength of its luminance. But I can’t grasp how the analogy works with the matter of memory. And I struggle with the concept that memory is not a physical quality but a spiritual attribute akin to virtues such as honesty and trustworthiness that we acquire in this world and carry into the next. While the powers of hearing, sight, touch and taste are corporeal, memory, like imagination and comprehension is spiritual. And if that be so, it’s difficult for me to accept that memory is everlasting, especially when I can’t remember why I’m standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open. How can I reconcile the loss of memory with the integrity of my identity?

In all probability, I will never go back to Winsted. I now have little reason to return. I moved out of the family house about the time US warplanes started to bomb Hanoi, and since then going back to Winsted meant going back to visit my father and mother. My father died in 2001 and last week I moved my mother into an assisted-living facility in Florida. My living connections to the town are no more. What’s left is a bank account.

Continue reading

Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

clip_image004Even the first epigraph is a hook. Thomas à Kempis. “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” A few months ago I read The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) by Will Schwalbe as I had promised myself. (See my blog posting “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity” — October 2012). Schwalbe does well to honour his mother and the relationship he had with her, particularly through their shared reading, but for me the book lacks depth. Schwalbe’s career as a publisher is both an “in” and a distraction; he’s not a common reader and I couldn’t identify with him. By contrast, Nina Sankovitch’s, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper, 2011) held me.

At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.

“To my year of reading,” I announced.

“You’re really going to do it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.

No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and the pain.

It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.

“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”

My mother suffered a stroke in late November, and I moved into her apartment in northwestern Connecticut to be close while she was in rehab working with the physio and occupational therapists. I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair in a pile of books (more like a mountain of books) by her bed. At the end of Tolstoy Sankovitch lists the 365 works she had read that year, and mom had checked off the ones she had read. Continue reading

Blogs by Fictional Characters ?

I like this idea posted in “The Writers Community” on Google+ by Teri Chetwood: 

I really recommend everyone try their hand at fictional blogging. That’s where you write blog posts as your characters. It’s not just fun, it’s good practice, you can build a following, and you can end up with enough posts to make a book you can self-publish. (Since it’s already been published, most publishers won’t touch it, but you can publish it yourself.) That’s what I’m doing with my upcoming collection of blog posts and short stories, The Fabulous Cornwall Sisters.