If I were born in Iowa I should have
become an author,
which is very different from a writer
or even a poet;
for the long winters would force
complicated plots descending
down snow banked, gloomy ways
with just flashes of light
passing so quickly they first blind,
then force you to wonder if they
were real at all;
Iowa doesn’t beget writers, for their
ways are hurried,
whiplashed barrages of shallow
persons with ironic twists
turning into ever more ironic
turns in the helter-skelter ways of
cities like Chicago which has more than
its share of such people – writers as well
as persons too busy
complaining about what is
considered normal in Iowa that
it is become their sport;
now a Minnesota birth would surely
encourage poetry, but usually
the kind that rhymes with
because, let’s face it,
in the confines of cabins those
tight circles of rhymes
come easily as a neighbor
with a hot dish
ringing the door chime, or,
maybe, it would be of
birds on fences, cows a-lowing
in a nativity
outside the Twin Cities,
the wisdom of matches
cobbled from life’s woods near
Emo, or how quiet
farmers are the salt of
the earth, no doubt in part due
to the pickled herring;
yes, it’s easy to see what I
would be if born in Iowa or Minnesota, so it’s
too bad I’m from Indiana.
I drove through the rows and rows of
look-alike domiciles, with alternating
sprawling industrial parks and ponds
retaining run-off from acres of blacktopped
lots, ribbon striped but vacant – hopeful
for business; hopeful for money to upgrade
to a bigger, better look-alike because won’t
that make everything better. Through
Rockford and beyond, past Winnebago
where I know people but never stopped
myself; and along the bypass around Freeport
where we used to stop for soft-serve, dipped,
by the roadside but not anymore; that
makes me sad and it closed down like so
many businesses bypassed. The story is that
a woman named Elizabeth was so wealthy and
generous she gave free portage to those
seeking a better life – any life – in the Illinois
gold rush of the nineteen hundreds and the
next town earned her name; there was such
a thing – the Illinois gold rush – that drew
immigrants of all colors and flavors, and some
settled and dug and died and are buried in
Lutheran and Catholic cemeteries (because
Consecrated ground matters in death just like
in life) all along the ridge known as Terrapin
toward Galena and they’re still buried there
today. I drove slowly through Woodbine
because it’s a speed trap and more slowly
through Elizabeth – it’s always been only seven
hundred people living there because so many
born and raised there don’t stay there and
that might make some mothers sad but I’m
sure some are happy; a couple pick-ups slow
and turn off into farms with porch lights lit,
with fences needing mending, calves in a nearby
pen and an Oldsmobile on the front lawn with
a For Sale sign on the window, and they’re
asking for Best Offer. The road slopes and
turns over and around the most variegated
terrain of Illinois; two lanes in the binary
back-and-forth of this driving life where
west is sometimes north or at least northwest
and no compass tells you more than the
highway, passing by the homes of real
people happy and sad at the same time
with two hundred channels of cable of all
the world out there but not here. I drove
this road through the lives of so many who
knew exactly where they were and I knew
nothing more than the wheel in my hand,
the mirrors showing the fast fading of what
I’d passed, and what’s next hidden beyond
the next ridge; and so I drove on, and on…
They’re wrong – there are no soft winds that
blow anymore, no gentle breezes which refresh,
although the sun does, at times, warm old bones;
those moonlit nights all blur together in darkness
racing cataracts into dullness, and no calming
sunrise greets me after a sleepless night as I stand
in the kitchen facing the east window wondering
why every day is more difficult than the last and if
this coffee at five am will keep me up tonight; so
romanticize and wax on eloquently as I eat my
oatmeal without sugar or butter and wonder if
living longer than my savings is such a better thing.
It is well known, and beyond any doubt
that gifts I receive are not received well;
I refuse my occasions whatever they’re about
making ordinary gratitude into a living hell.
I love well enough, and give well enough too,
remembering generously beloveds’ occasions
but can’t stand to be told, “This one’s for you!”
and eagerly I seek out all types of evasions.
Theories abound regarding this my sour
disproved one and all by my joyous ardor
toward others’ occasions of celebratory hour
yet refused personally when pressed the harder.
The Apostle said God loves a cheerful donor
but ’tis also more blessed to give than receive;
for my part I’ve chosen to be the more owner
as difficult as it is for my friends to believe.
Holidays and the anniversaries of my birth
are hardly worthy of expense and sanctification
just because I continue to draw air on earth
does not require my beloveds’ acclamation.
Return all those useless trinkets and baubles,
unneeded ties, shirts, belts and ill-fitting hats
and do so with understanding, eschewing squabbles
since my cause is beyond all subtle caveats.
Can it be, truly, what is deserved
by a four year old child? The cells
distorted and deteriorating inside,
from inside her bones still soft in
youth, but fragile from birth, some
signal isn’t working, white cells
that won’t mature, too full and
crowding life from within; the
word everyone uses is ‘acute’ – a
bad and unwelcome thing with
too many synonyms to count, all
bad and unwelcome things with
a mysterious origin that no one
knows so there’s no one to blame,
except God; she only has strength
to smile through dry, cracked lips,
her skin is taunt over diminishing
features and only her cheeks show
her adolescence, while adults are
masked to protect her from what’s
always worse, more tiring, more
frightening; it hardly seems right
she is unafraid and just needs to
rest, while everyone around her
is just terrified and can’t.
It took another one of those long, drawn-out movies,
filled with context and back-story and pathos (whatever
that is, I’m not sure but people say I should feel it
even if I don’t know what counts as pathos or I’m
dead emotionally) to reach the plot twist – the cliche
moment when the grass is not actually greener,
the road easier, or happiness happier for those we
were told to envy or blame, and I’ve lost another
two or three hours to unlearn and relearn what
everyone worships about worshiping creativity
because it helps us escape from escaping reality.
They say that for a famous man
it is unusual to know so little about his youth,
what it was like in Hodgenville,
when did he grow so tall and gangly
and did other children mock him and
why he was so fond of the axe,
and what of the rusticness of his birth
in a log cabin, or the sadness of his heart
when his mother died when he
was just nine years old,
and what he learned in just one year
of schooling that made him think
he could just show up one day
in New Salem and make it the land of Lincoln;
I tell my children they aren’t this lucky
because we wrote down everything
they did and said and photographed
their first and every step
with such duty that they can’t
escape their past
so they shouldn’t even try.
I never knew the name of the man in the red vest,
dirtied with iron dust from sorting through the nails,
clipping lengths of rope or showing a man how-to
just about everything there is to-do that drove them
to the hardware store early on a Saturday morning,
every Saturday morning with my father who looks
and carefully lingers, picking through nuts and bolts
waiting for our turn to ask about the broken part
dirtying my Dad’s palm and me wondering why
my Father who knew everything didn’t know this;
I stared at the man’s boots that looked like
they were never new, his navy blue pants with a
bottom inch turned-up into a cuff holding sawdust
as he told, then showed my Dad the how-to to-do
and I nodded along with them like I understood it all;
I never knew his name, but it might have been God.
“Death cancels everything but truth.” – William Hazlitt
Wedding or funeral—which would we rather attend?
That’s an easy one, right?
Something else Solomon said was that it’s better to be at a funeral than a wedding.
Why? Three reasons (and none of them are jokes about marriage, like the either/or question: Are you married or happy?). First, everyone dies—it’s when, not if. Second, it’s wise to admit the first reason and foolishness to laugh when it’s time to mourn. And third, the outcome of honest mourning will lead to a better way of living.
Instead of ignoring death, we’re to become comfortable with it. With what death means.
Death means we’re alive.
To paraphrase Descartes, We die therefore we’re alive.
But there’s a difference between death and dying. Dying is often horrible and painful and harmful to those around—its’ agonizing and impoverishing. While death is closure.
It’s the denial of death that’s debilitating. It’s a form of fear that accentuates itself – it feeds off itself. Avoiding death reinforces the fearfulness of death. When we think about happy things to crowd out the sadness of death those happy thoughts become linked with the refusal of death.
And when we refuse death we’re refusing the opportunity to live.
Refusing death is like attempting to stop time. That’s how we lose life.
We lose life by disregarding the experience of time.
But holding death loosely—a loved one’s or our own inevitably—seems to trivialize the value of life. So we grasp at everything and anything representing life, whether personally in extreme emotional or physical stimulation or vague, symbolic representations we associate with life. Birth. Youth. Energy and vitality. We fear loss.
And depression. We fear depression.
According to common wisdom the ‘red flag’ of depression is thoughts of death. Actually the refusal of death is leads us to the either/or of ignorance or suicide, literally, when taking one’s own life is the honest option of the two. It’s a new martyrdom.
Suicide is a resignation to the future being worse than the past, often because of the past. And the present is regarded as worse than what is unchangeably the future.
But is the future inevitable?
The most unfortunate determinism of life is the inevitable experience of abuse (an extreme illustration of the ordinary). Ironically and predictably nine-out-of-ten who experience some form of abuse in childhood reproduce abusive behaviors in adulthood. The abused continue in abuse.
It’s not time for the inevitable; it’s time to question it.
The past isn’t altered but it’s open to a different reading. Most of what has happened, happens to us. Accidents of birth—when, to whom and in what circumstances; female, male, black, white, brown; rich, poor. We don’t choose these things. That’s the truer truth.
We didn’t choose these things, and we can’t change these things.
Why, then, is guilt our typical response to things unchangeable? Guilt is supposed to show humility, but this humility for being born a human isn’t humility. It’s
The alternative? Living without apology.
Is there another way to tell our story? Another way to account for what’s happened to us and what we’ve done with our lives?
Narrating our story differently, narrating our tales with an eye on what’s next, is a good practice. Instead of an unchangeable past leading to an unalterable future we can find an alternative.
This is our alternative. It’s time to become better interpreters of our own life, and of time.
By its very nature the moment, this moment, is transient. It cannot be grasped. It always dances between past and what’s next. It’s timeless.
And it’s also what’s next. It’s not the future, it’s what’s next.
There is no simple, direct, uninterrupted line between past, present and future. Calling that’s next ‘the future’ gives it a singular, closed and inevitable meaning. It cannot be changed. The only human response becomes resignation to it, and passive aggressiveness as a lifestyle.
An unchangeable past leads to regret (when married to guilt) but an unchangeable future invites worry and inevitable failure.
It’s time, not simply to change the future, live in the moment, or even accept the past.
There is an alternative. There is an option.
It’s time for the truer truth.