Crème Brûlée

I’d never had a taste. I thought I’d try
A different sort of thing, another way.
I saw it on the menu, so I said,
“The coffee, please, I think. And crème brûlée.”

He brought it to my table in a bowl,
Or shallow plate, or something, I don’t know.
Out on the road, and eating there, alone,
A book to read, and no place else to go.

The waiter took a type of torch to it.
He’d sprinkled something on it first, a bit
Of sugar maybe. Then the thing was lit –
It flamed, he put fruit on it. Like a skit.

It’s taste was fine, but in my memory
Performance art was what it seemed to be

(Another) Last Piece

Sometimes, you write something, and hit “Publish”, then an hour later, you decide that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, possibly with the word “you’ve” removed.

You mean that doesn’t happen to you?

That happened to me yesterday. Hence, a new post under the same photo, and with a similar title to the original, now destroyed, piece.


When I was first divorced, before my (now) wife and I started dating, I dated, consecutively, three other women. The last of the three was the strangest relationship I was ever in. It didn’t last but about two months, and it coincided with me doing about three months of therapy to sort through issues surrounding the divorce.

I’ve decided to write about that time here, every Monday, for as many Mondays as it takes. My desire to write about it is to some degree because the issues identified about me during therapy at that time have cropped up again recently.

The names of the people involved have been changed, as is always true on my blogs. Hell, half the time, the events are changed, too, and the outcomes. But I’m trying to recount the truth here. And the truth, frequently, sucks.


Looking back on that time, I feel disappointed in myself beyond my ability to describe. Disgusted with myself, really. In keeping with that mood, I wrote a short fictional piece yesterday about a woman who finds out what a scum her husband is. It involved pecan pie.

It, too, sucked, and didn’t even have the benefit of being real, or truthful. It was more just a reflection of how I was feeling about myself when I wrote it.

My complete inability to keep my feelings about irrelevant matters from spilling over into my writing is one of the reasons I became a poet. I look at poetry – and it is admittedly just one view of poetry’s value – as a realm where neither rules of syntax nor emotional nor logical coherence need apply. Which is pretty much me.

I also realize that, when the actual facts about my own life are laid out, it does not lead most people to conclude the same things I have from the circumstances concerned. Hence, I write far more coherently about other people’s feelings, which almost always make more sense to me than my own.


Last week, my sister let me know that my favorite teacher from high school had died. She was our neighbor growing up as well, and person number one I always think of in terms of me “paying it forward”, because she did so much for me that I could not pay back at the time: jobs, food, money, sympathy.

She and her husband and sons were all very tall people (she was about 6 foot 3), but lived in a very compact old house. In their kitchen, she always had sweetened sun tea, and whole meals and desserts ready to serve to whomever might come by.

She was originally from West Virginia, but had met her husband in Alaska, before ending up in Florida where we knew her. She taught a lot subjects, but I remember her best for teaching Humanities.

She loved jokes and puns, which made me a favorite student of hers, because I’ve been a random pun generator for as long as I can remember. There used to be a genre of puns called “Tom Swifties” where the joke was always structured to be in the adverb, as follows:

  • “This soda has gone bad,” he said flatly.
  • “We should go camping, she said intently.
  • “What was Stallone’s nickname again?” he asked slyly.

… and so on.

I used to generate pages of these things to give to her, for no other reason than to see if I could do it. She would then read them to other classes, which greatly lessened my already non-existent high school popularity.

She loved literature, and poetry, and plays, and music; since I did, too, that was another point of connection. She got me my first piano playing job (at the church her family attended).

I last saw her a couple of years ago when I was in Florida to visit my elder son. She seemed the same as always I’d known her: tall, energetic, jovial. Even in the face of overwhelming sadness at the untimely death of her younger son, she radiated a sort of universal love.

And the pie and the tea were still delicious.


A little house
Near Lion’s Park,
Just up the hill
From where kid’s voices ring
As they swim in summer

A garden and a fig tree
In the back

A house filled up with
The smell of books
And hospitality

A kitchen stocked
With meals prepared
And frozen, ready to be
Served to whomever
Might happen upon the door

A house where
Every inch of space was used,
Not cluttered, but
Not wasted, either

Love, as though
From its original source,
Poured out in tall glasses,
And where the last piece of pie
Was never given
Grudgingly

Rainbow Colors: Indigo

There was a fish pond in front of the Episcopalian Church down on the beach where we were to be married. We were headed there, under a bright September sun, for pre-marital counseling. Being a few minutes early, we stopped to look at the beautiful fish. It was a very bright day, the white sands reflecting the sun from every direction.

Father Ed’s study looked out on the water; he greeted us and motioned us to chairs. I’d always liked Father Ed. He was very direct. He impressed upon us the long-term nature of marriage. He asked a lot of questions; and since both of us liked to talk, he got answers.

At one point, I stood up and walked over to his window. There were a few palm trees and some white rocks.

The day is white and indigo
The years are long and can’t be known;
For all we have’s the pond we swim
As distant (maybe) sails are somewhere blown


It was September, again, six years later, and raining hard. I sat out on the carport, watching the water deluge down the driveway and into the street. I saw her car round the corner on to the street and pull into the empty space in the two car carport. I walked around to get our three year old son out of the safety seat in the back of the car. She didn’t get out of the car, or roll down her window, she just spoke to me without turning her head:

I’ll be in Europe for three weeks. I’ll try to call at night when I can. I left a number at the office I can be reached at if there’s an emergency.

He was asleep in my arms. I closed the car door, and she pulled back out into the rain.

The world is dark and indigo
But for you than me;
I hold you sleeping in my arms
And wish that I could spare you from
A pain you never caused


It was a Saturday afternoon in April of this year that my now-wife told me a young couple was coming over for premarital counseling. I was spending the day writing, so I told her I would be in the back room. It was a bright beautiful day, and it reminded me of the day I had gotten premarital counseling before my first marriage, all those years ago.

The young couple came: they were both nervous and excited. I slipped back to finish my writing, hearing them leave several hours later. After that, my wife left to go to see her mother, and I, having noticed that bright colors had appeared out in the yard, walked out back to take in the view.

I stand there, realizing: for someone like me, if I could not actually see colors like these, I could not possibly imagine them. Even for those of us who cultivate our imaginations (and many of you do so to a far greater degree than I do) life is largely a series of unimaginable happenings, things far beyond the little ponds we think we’re trapped in. I never could have imagined getting married, or having a child, or getting divorced, or getting remarried, or the life I live now.

I hope I’ve learned some humility through all of this: for what I thought I knew, I didn’t, and what I thought was important, largely wasn’t. So the same might be true now. I can only do the best I can to add whatever colors I am here to add.

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

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

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 —