Highways, Highways

The many hills, the turning miles,
Complaisance in the summer sun;
A hundred tears plus twice the smiles,
The everything, the anyone

The streets of friends and would-be friends,
The cul-de-sacs of turns gone wrong,
The highways, highways everywhere
That lead us far and keep us long

I see your face in truth-filled dreams,
The warmth and light you give, my friend,
As highways, highways, bring us back
And to each other’s side again …


I know the route. Turn off the highway onto Broad Street. Follow that out of town to the county road. Turn off of that onto a street with no sign, but a red barn, and from there onto a dirt road that leads here.

I first came here for a wedding rehearsal more than thirty-three years ago. I was twenty-two, and the wedding was of two friends: one new, one I’d known since childhood. For the first time in my (then young) life, I had not been asked to provide music; instead, I was in the groom’s party. I had come to know the bride-to-be in the previous year, and I loved her in the same way I loved my old friend — without thought, really, because love was like breathing in those days. I just did it.

The wedding the next day was very beautiful. Later in the day, as we watched the newly married couple depart under a beautiful country sky, I took in the scenery, breathed in the air, and thought  — remember this. This day, these feelings. Remember this joy.


Twenty years later, I remember driving to this same church under very different circumstances. Her brother had been murdered.

She had two brothers I had known for years; one very refined, one very much a quiet country type. It was the second one who had died; he was involved in recreational drugs, and a fellow user killed him in his own home, the little trailer around the way.

The church was filled with mourners at the funeral; her parents, her other brother and his wife and child, and a large group of cousins were among the large family there in front. I was with a group of her husband’s old friends, all of whom had attended their wedding decades before, most of whom stayed an extra day or so.

Death is the great dividing line, and it often divides even the survivors, if they allow it. We clung together then in support of our friends, knowing we could not possibly really understand the insupportable weight of their grief.

With maturity comes the illusion of human control; but life teaches us otherwise, and the one thing left we can control – love – is the only recourse we have worth pursuing.


About five years after that, I drove up here again, this time for no reason at all. (We live about ninety minutes away.) It was a Saturday during the fall, and I had taken a series of roads I’d never been on; when I realized I was nearby, I drove the familiar route out to this church.

I got out of my car and could hear the University of Georgia football broadcast coming from a radio nearby. It was a cool autumn day, and Georgia was winning, I believe. I could hear voices of people listening to the game.

On a whim, I drove over to my friends’ house, but they weren’t home. I left them a note I wrote on an envelope from my car’s glove compartment, telling them I’d stopped by and hoped they were well, then left to do more wandering. She called me about two hours later, and we caught up for a while, they I talked to him for another thirty minutes or so while I was driving. They both had started new jobs, and were planning an annual summer party they wanted us to come to next year.


The fourth year of their summer party was last year, but there were more no-shows than attendees; one couple from central Florida made it, and I made it, but no one else showed. One couple had even called them from the road, then inexplicably changed their destination.

Who even death cannot divide, time often can.


Three days ago, I read on Facebook that her mother had passed away. The funeral was to be on Wednesday, so I scheduled time off work to go. I left work and made the familiar drive up here, following the route I’ve come to know so well.

I am the only one of the old friends here, but then I’m the only one who lives close by.  I provide whatever solace I can through the act of showing up. I murmur words of sorrow, we hug each other, and I walk outside the ancient country church, blinking at the light and through tears, wishing I had answers I’ll never have, and that no one ever has, because they are beyond us.

We all get tired, and one day, we lay our heads down to rest, and don’t get up again. Love and life go on, but without the once-living and once-loving.


… There’s sorrow that’s beyond beyond
We walk within it every day;
The bliss of ignorance is this –
We don’t see things turn out this way

But love still travels where it can,
And does its best to do its part —
The highways, highways of the soul
The dirt roads of a broken heart

We now know battles will be lost,
And yet we all must do our best —
To love while we have love to give
Until, at last, we take our rest

The clouds above go sweeping by,
The trees stand silent on the way;
The church stands sleeping in the sun,
While living folks go on
About their day

Interlochen

(First published December 2013. – Original title, “A Precious Gift I Didn’t Know the Cost Of”)

In 1975, when I was thirteen years old, my parents paid for me to attend Interlochen National Music Camp, there among the lakes of Interlochen, Michigan. I was there to study piano with Ms. Peggy Erwin, a famous piano teacher from Coral Gables, FL. I had the summer of my life there, enjoying drawing classes (I drew prodigiously in my youth); attending theater, ballet, opera (which truthfully I did not enjoy at age thirteen), and symphonic concerts; and, of course, studying and practicing the piano. I made friends, saw sights, got exercise, had a sick weekend at the infirmary, attended church, developed unrequited crushes on girls, and brought back a lifetime worth of memories. I also cemented a lifelong of love of classical music, live drama, and the arts in general.

I was there for ten weeks, and didn’t really get homesick until about the eighth week. I wrote very detailed letters home, describing the place and what all we did, letters my mom had until very recently when she gave some of them back to me.

When my father had retired from the Air Force four years before, we had moved into a three bedroom ranch-style house on the opposite end of Florida from where Ms. Erwin lived. The yard that came with that house was odd in that it included an empty lot next door and half of an empty lot behind the house. A year or so after we moved in, my dad went away to school for 10 months, and when he came back, he used the half-lot in the backyard to build a workshop for his new business: custom-building and repair of musical instruments. The empty lot next door he used for a great labor of love — a garden. He grew fresh strawberries, onions, tomatoes, watermelons, and I don’t remember what else in that garden.

That empty lot yard was kind of important for another reason. It contained half of our semi-circular driveway.

When I returned from camp, my parents had sold the lot next door. It was weird because a fence went up and we no longer had a semi-circular driveway: we had a quadrant. Easy to drive in, but clumsy to back out. I thought my dad would miss his garden, but he said it was so much trouble keeping the squirrels out that he was relieved to be rid of the nuisance.

I didn’t think much more about that empty lot; the people who bought it never built anything on it during the remaining years my parents lived in that house – nor has anyone to this day, to my knowledge.

Around 1996, my parents had decided to sell the house and move to Arizona. My whole family gathered there. There was my older sister and her boyfriend (now husband), my older brother, my (now ex-) wife, my 10-year-old stepson, and my 1-year-old son. We were going through boxes of old pictures, and my ex, who was a very inquisitive person, was asking my mother questions about the photos.

“Now where was this taken?”

“That photo — was from the lot next door, back before we sold that. We had a garden there we loved to work in, and that was taken when were getting ready to bring in our first strawberries. They were so good, so fresh.”

“Why did you sell the land?”

“To pay for Interlochen.”

I was stunned.

It had never occurred to me as a child that my parents made financial sacrifices for me or for us. I knew that there were things we wanted we could have, other things we wanted we couldn’t, which seemed par for the course. But it had cost my parents quite a bit to send me to that place, and the eyes of a thirty-four-year-old man saw it very differently than a 13-year-old boy had.

“I never knew,” I told my mom. “I didn’t realize you had to sell land so I could go there.”

My mom laughed a kind of joyous laugh.  “You had the best time there. Probably no week of your life went by for the next five years when something wouldn’t remind you of that place. Best money we every spent on you.”

In my teens, I cared a lot about myself and my friends; by my twenties, I carried about very little else, and I blamed my parents for both their shortcomings and mine. I am truly ashamed to think of the way I sometimes spoke to my father; and it saddens me greatly to realize the poor return they got from me for all of the time, love and money they invested.

Still, that summer I spent at Interlochen was one of the great formative experiences of my life. My parents gave up a lot — literally — so I could go. The only thanks they got from me for years were the excited stories I would continue to tell about the place. This made it all worth it to them, something I understand now as a parent.

When you love someone, you don’t do things for them for the thanks; however, it’s the love that gives that’s the most precious gift, even more than the things love gives.

I just wish I’d known that.

 

Anxiety and Creativity

[Note: throughout this piece, I use the term ‘anxiety’ in its original, and not its psychiatric, sense. – Owen]


“Creativity begins with limitations; anxiety begins without them.”

– Me, about ten seconds ago


similitude

you’re so like her
in exactly
no ways at all —


I’ve been working in a poetic form that consists of a four-syllable title, then 3 lines of four syllables each. I call the form “444” because I’m original like that. If asked “why not 4444,” it is because the title is frequently (but not always) a repeat of one of the lines of the poem.

The main point is, I am artificially constraining myself by form before even starting on the actual words of each poem.

If I begin writing with an infinitude of possibilities, I have a hard time beginning, so I set arbitrary limits in order to constrain possibilities and limit anxiety. Nothing fosters anxiety quite like having infinite possibilities. This can be seen virtually everywhere in modern life: anxiety has grown as possibilities have multiplied, and our decision-making apparatus is overwhelmed by having to evaluate more than it was designed for.

Take, as an example, listening to music. One can (assuming access to the Internet, which is, indeed, an assumption) listen to almost anything one has ever liked to listen to. This makes choosing rather difficult, as an environment lacking constraints is not where our choosing mechanism is optimized to work. Most people I know don’t just like music, they love it, and the amount of music they love is very great. From the early days of MP3 players, shuffling and randomizing functions became crucial, as it removed the paralyzing influence of having too many choices, and returned things to more of random state — something like radio was, although it is best to remember that radio was a relatively short-lived technological phase. The fastest growing music services are the ones that choose for you, once some “seed idea” is given to it, or that decides based on what you last listened to. We’re happier not having to choose.

For most of history, you typically only heard the music that either you could make, or that people you had access to could make. That kind of limitation is largely gone today. I learned to play the piano to some degree because it allowed me to hear music I could not hear otherwise; I never enjoyed being a performer. Hearing solo instrumentalists has become more of a rarity during my lifetime, as the need (i.e., demand) for them has become considerably less. Many churches, for example, have abandoned single instrument players (pianos and organs) for the sounds their congregants are more accustomed to, namely, bands of players.

It is viewed as a truism to assume that whatever we like, we need more of, and that whatever we like best should be available in infinite supply. I don’t see any way around this tendency, as setting limits on what is enough or too much for people seems beyond the wisdom of any person or group of people. However, given the proliferation of anxiety-ridden people in the modern world, we may need to learn new coping mechanisms.

“Discipline of mind” is the solution most frequently offered; however, it does not work for many of us.

In examining my own life (I’m 55 years old) I find the following oddities about the past versus the present:

  • When I had fewer choices, I read more, and better.
  • When listening choices were more scarce, I enjoyed music more.
  • When they were harder to come by, I enjoyed personal interactions more.

Because each of these things is (to some degree) available without having to make an effort to get them, another part of our innate choosing mechanism is removed, that of what we like well enough to work for.

There’s a big difference between who you’ll be friends with and who you are willing to make an effort to be friends with; if we expend no effort, do we really have friends? If they expend none, are they really friends with us? Perhaps not and perhaps so; however, there is no denying that part of our evaluating mechanism has been undercut, which increases anxiety.

I have been writing, over the last two years, a series of “poems” I call “sketches” purporting to be conversations between my wife and me. These are characterized by four elements, three of which were random choices I made in order to facilitate writing them:

  1. They are always based on actual conversations we have had.
  2. I changed my wife’s profession to that of painter within them. In real life, she is a Christian minister.
  3. “My wife” in these pieces is childless by choice; in real life we have five children between us (albeit none together) and two (with another on the way) grandchildren.
  4. I (almost) always use the model whose picture I have affixed here. My wife looks absolutely nothing like her. I’ve even made a running joke out of the wife in the poems commenting on how this model looks nothing like her.

The last three things are entirely arbitrary, but the constraints they set actually aid the writing process. These pieces are never about our kids, because that’s off the table; that makes them about us. I’m limited to conversations for which I can find a corresponding picture, so everything we talk about is not right for this form. I made her a painter because there was a series of pictures of this model as a painter; however, that allows conversations we have about her career to be seen in a different light. And so on.

I realize that what works for me might not work for any given person reading this, but the principle of using boundaries to aid in creativity and limit the inherent anxiety in the creative process may have some value; at least, that is my hope.


anxiety

without limits,
so much to choose:
can’t really start

The Train Tracks of My Mind

I often write essays that seem to be one, two, or three sentences long. I use Twitter and Facebook to post them, many times, but here, I thought I’d collect some unused ones that are vaguely related thematically. – Owen


The cycle is perpetuated when you believe you must give in to hatred in order to defeat hatred.


Many philosophies exist simply to justify what people already felt like doing.


It’s hard to forgive people for not being the people we imagined they were. They often had no way of knowing this, of course, but that doesn’t stop us.


When I was twenty, a good friend of mine and her much older husband had their first child. Seeing her with the child, I wrote one of my first songs, the lyrics of which were:

Day is done
And you can’t know
My lovely one
How I live for you
The heart is true
And it’s in your smile
I’ll rest awhile
And sing my love for you

Dream away
At the closing
Of the day
And it’s hard to say
It’s hard to say
Why we spin our lies
And waste our lives
And hopes and dreams away

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Be my world
Golden girl
Close your eyes
And sleep

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Be my world
Golden girl
Close your eyes
And sleep

Treasure find,
Angel mine,
Best I’ve found
Love come down
Close your eyes
And sleep

I think I can sit down and remember this song all these years later – well enough to play and sing it – because I still remember how I felt seeing her with her baby. “Her baby” has children of her own, now, by the way.


Me, at sixteen: For all girls talk about how they want a guy with a ‘sense of humor’, they really mostly like guys with good bodies, good hair, and good teeth.

Met at fifty-four: I was right


My father used to talk about a subject even after you thought he was done. My ex-wife would try to interject herself after ten minutes or so, at the first sign of anything like silence, but he would start up again. She asked me about it later.

“The train tracks of my father’s mind don’t really have stations. That train doesn’t ever really stop.”

He’s been dead now for eleven years, and I realize: I’m pretty much just like him.

And it’s the same train, in a way.

Tomorrow and Today

“You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

– reputed Navajo Proverb


And aren’t we all — pretending to be asleep, pretending we don’t notice what is going on around us, or even, because of us.

To live is to change, and to refuse change is to give up life. In fact, death being exactly that – the inability to ever change again.

To finally awake, we must cease to pretend we are asleep.

Apartment

Empty now,
The carpet filled with
The remnants of your loneliness —

For two and a half years,
In and out of rehab, and back to this
Five hundred sixty eight square feet

You’d finally a job
After eighteen months of nothingness,
Recently giving notice

And now, off to try your luck in
Another state

And what have I done?
I’ve paid for things
This apartment, power, phone,
Medicine, a doctor, a counselor,
Food, gas

Until such time as
You were able to pay for
Everything but the apartment
The medicine, and the counselor

I walked with you,
Talked with you,
Invited you over

But what is a father
But the repository of a daughter’s dreams
And the storehouse of a son’s resentment?
With you —
Stuck between the two

Empty now,
The air heavy with
The weight of your loneliness —