A Time for Learning

The moment she stepped on campus, she told me, she felt like she was, for the first time in her life, at the right place at the right time.

This was where she belonged.

She could never be casual or contemptuous about this place, like the rich kids; nor treat classes as perfunctory, like so many others. This was it, this was learning, this was knowledge — this was the world she’d dreamed about since she was a little girl. And she wasn’t going to waste a moment of it.

Like all long-lasting institutions, colleges and universities mean widely different things to different people. To some, they are places of intense and wild socializing; to others, they are best known for the pageantry of sports and graduations; to still others, they are weigh stations between the servitude of living at home and the inevitable drudgery of a career. To her, though, this was a time for learning, and that was enough. Classes, professors, the library — this was what the university was, and she had only the vaguest awareness of things like sororities, sports, or, for that matter, eventual career concerns.

I went to an entirely different school, and was visiting a friend when we met in her school’s library. I was on a George Eliot kick, reading that library’s copy of “Scenes from Clerical Life”. She happened to sit at the table next to me to look through a copy of “Middlemarch”.

How could we not speak? Two people reading books by the same Victorian author, in the same place, at the same time, when neither was required to for any class was an event rare enough to merit comment, even among the shy — which she certainly was. But speak we did, and the conversation ended up lasting hours, and involved us leaving the library to drink coffee at a place she suggested.

It was a dark and wet fall evening as we approached her dormitory, and I had no thoughts of anything like kissing her before she stopped, put one hand on my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eyes.

I knew the signal.

 


 

Her school was only 45 minutes away from mine, but it seemed like an ocean. We were both over-carrying classes at that time; in addition, I was working three nights a week. I gave what I had to give, but, with her, it was like she had stored up a lifetime of passion and was letting it all loose on me, in those rare moments we could speak on the phone, or, maybe once a month, see each other. The moments were rare, as I said, but I was loving every minute of the ones we got.

It’s strange, looking back, how much of our time revolved around discussing literature. Neither of us had a lot of friends near us at that point in our lives, so, along with doing the things couples do, we talked, endlessly, about our other passions. On the few weekends we’d find, we’d spend virtually the entire time in the library or in my car, as I was not allowed in the dorm. And then, I would go back to my school, and it would be a long, long time until we’d see each other again.

The change (in us) probably happened gradually, but back then it seemed sudden. One day, when I had a chance to call, I didn’t; another day, when I did call and she had time to talk, she didn’t want to. Being the guy I was at that age, I thought maybe she’d met someone else, or an old love had returned to take her attention. That last part turned out to be true.

That old love was learning. We’d had our fling.

 


 

I had already graduated and moved away to start working when I got a graduation invitation from her. She had sent it to my parents’ house. I decided to go. When I had answered her note (giving her my actual address) she had let me know by return mail that she would meet me after the ceremony in front of the library.

How appropriate.

It was a warm day in late spring as I drove on to the familiar campus. Signs pointed visitors towards the graduation hall. I sat down amid the many family onlookers, not knowing where she might be when the graduates came in, but there she was in the program, Summa Cum Laude in the College of Humanities.

When the graduates did come in, I spotted her easily.

The guest speaker at her graduation was a former United Nations ambassador who said that the time for learning would never truly end, but that, after graduation, a new time, one for action, would begin. There was music, and there were student speakers, and there was the slightest hint of lilac blossoms in the air.

I walked next door to the library after the ceremony, and waited. I figured she would need some time with her family first, but, to my surprise, she came out almost immediately. She smiled when she saw me, and I couldn’t help but smile back.

I congratulated her on her accomplishments. She told me that she was staying on, with a full teaching assistantship, and the path was charted for her to get both her her Masters and her Doctorate.

Her family hadn’t come to graduation; they really didn’t see a need to spend the money for the trip, especially since she wasn’t coming home after. I realized that, on that occasion, I was her surrogate family; possibly because none of them understood what that place meant to her, and I had at least come close.

We spoke awhile about what we’d each been reading and various nothings. When I asked her, after a time, if she didn’t need to get back to her friends, she said that she probably did, so she thanked me for coming, and said goodbye. I watched her walk back into the crowd, the sun setting over the graduation hall.

A young couple walked past me, hand in hand, laughing.

The time for learning truly never ends.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

How Well We Know The Storm

What was becomes what isn’t, in an instant. Like sand castles we labor over as children, the waves come, eventually, and wash everything away.

We learn this young and throughout our lives, bitterly: from the broken toy that no one can repair, to the ice cream cone dropped on a summer sidewalk, and, eventually, to the fractured friendship that can’t be mended, the marriage that shatters, the life’s dreams that pass, and the loves we lose to death. Oh, how well we know the storm; oh, how much we come to fear each fresh approaching.

We have all known loss, but each new one is a surprise. We seem to be wired that way.

I’m sitting out on the beach this morning getting a head start on the weekend as I type these words, and a storm is fast approaching. Years ago, I sat out here with a girl I was dating; we watched the storm roll in, let the rainfall drench us to our skins, went back to my apartment, shed our wet clothes, and tried with all our might to shut out the more metaphorical storm our relationship was engulfed in.  It did not work.

We were over within weeks. All we both gave didn’t add up to anything that either of us really had.

 


 

You may not be aware of this — it’s been sort of buried in the news — but there is a presidential election about to be held in the United States. A few days ago, back home, I sat in an assembly, listening to a speaker from Washington D.C. make the least controversial prediction I’ve heard in this election cycle — namely, that someone unpopular was going to win.

There have been more words written on this election than on any other subject in recent memory; I have nothing to add to any commentary you have already read on the relative merits of any of the candidates. I have my own opinions, of course, based on the most reliable and complete information I can get as to what the state of the world actually is. In practice, people disagree on goals and priorities; on what has worked or will work; and even on what we might call “facts”. Politically motivated people have a tendency to present their particular facts in ways that omit any inconvenient other facts that might dissuade you from supporting their goals.

I too am human, as we all are — mostly — and I make choices as to who seems most trustworthy based on what I know and have seen personally. It’s a system that has inherent limits, of course, but I’d rather form my own opinions than buy them, no matter how many opinion wholesalers there might be on any given corner.
 


 

You may wonder what the two sections above have to do with each other: the first, a quasi-poetic reflection on the transience of life; the second, a brief commentary on contemporary political discussions. I discuss both here because, I’ve noticed the strange way we vacillate between awareness of our human limitations and acting as though we have none, depending on the type of discussion being held. Just yesterday, I heard two coworkers discussing the election, each holding wildly opposite positions on the truth about the two main candidates; within minutes, they were discussing instead the chili cook-off that had been held out in the park at lunchtime, and how subjective cooking contests really were – a point about which they were in complete agreement.

In politics, they each knew everything (although opposite things), on prosaic matters, they agreed that there might not be such a thing as knowledge.

 


 

Unlike my younger days, I’m not going to stay out here on the beach until the rain gets me (or my laptop) wet. How well I know the storm, indeed: it rains on the just and the unjust, as the book says – we will all feel it sooner or later.

All I can do, for now, is push it off a little later.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

The Knave of Diamonds

A November morning, and I was eleven years old. Home with the flu, coughing, sleeping, drinking tea with honey and lemon. Open, on the bed next to me, a weathered and ancient book: The Knave of Diamonds, by the largely forgotten author Ethel M. Dell.

This was not really a book aimed at eleven year old boys.

I was sleeping in this room so my coughing wouldn’t keep my brother awake. He had early band practice, and because he was a special little flower, we dared not impair his precious sleep. So, I was banished to this weird, cluttered, other room to sleep, the one with the rickety narrow shelf containing books from my mom’s childhood – books like this one. Boredom had impelled me to reach out the ten inches to my left and see what the book was all about.

I had chosen this particular book at random. The Way of An Eagle and The Lamp in the Desert were two other titles I remember being there — there had to be at least ten others.

Opening up that book was like entering some kind of anti-boy counter-culture. It seemed to be (and I’m going from memory, here) an endless cavalcade of girls flirting with boys while attending costume balls. However – and this was the dramatic part, I think – as the heroine flirted, she was torn between poles of worry: that she was perhaps being too girlish or maybe trying too hard to be grown up. The whole thing was completely incomprehensible to me at that age. I remember reading its opening chapters, turning pages, vainly hoping for a super-hero to appear or there to be a crime that needed an eleven year old detective to solve.

I won’t keep you in suspense: I never finished the book. I decided that coughing was a more interesting way pass to time.

My mom loved those books – in fact, she still does, at age eighty-five – but the romantic sensibility they embodied was a complete cipher to me. Nothing actually seemed to happen in the book — at least, nothing in the eyes of a boy the age I was.

I asked my mom, just last year, on the phone, what exactly it was that she loved so much about those books. She said:

“Well, you have to remember that we were genuinely poor and owned nothing… in her books, there was this entire world of romance, and intrigue, and riches… I remember that I read my first one when I was thirteen; my oldest sister* gave it to me the day she and your uncle moved away… they are silly books, I know, but, I still think of them as the greatest books in the world… think of it this way: I couldn’t change one thing about the world I actually lived in, but I could escape it, through those books, and live in a better one… one where I was not surrounded by squalor or worried about my dad’s drinking or where we’d get our next meal… or if we’d even get a next meal.”

Escape: it means everything to people who are imprisoned.

By the way, if you were to look up the (very successful in her lifetime) author of the aforementioned book, you would find that she was critically pilloried in her day for the twin crimes of writing escapist literature and making a good living at it. The critical mind has not changed much in the last hundred or so years.

I take the contrarian view, however: to me, escape is one of the greatest things the arts can, or ever could, offer. If literature always reflected life “as it is”, it would mean, for some readers, no chance of any kind to escape whatever prison they find themselves in. In 1945, at age 13, my mom didn’t need “The Grapes of Wrath” — she pretty much had the Great Depression thing down — she needed something to take her away from her life. I’m grateful that she was able to find escape through books like The Knave of Diamonds.

So: for all of you authors and illustrators of children’s books, read at bedsides all over the world; for all you writers of westerns, and detective stories, and romances, that take people away for a while from whatever stresses they face; for all of you people who make a movie, or a television show, or anything else that’s there simply to entertain people — for all of you and to all of you, I offer thanks. You may never get critical recognition, but you touch people’s lives – sometimes, you even change them, like that thirteen year old girl in upstate New York back in 1945, reading about girls attending balls, who dreamed of leaving poverty, and gradually and eventually did.

Speaking of escape, in a future blog post: how I escaped that horrible room.

 

* My mom was the thirteenth of fifteen children, and her oldest sister (my Aunt Grace) was twenty-eight years older than her. Aunt Grace probably got the book when it was new; before the depression, the family wasn’t as poor.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

Who She Was To Me

I was young, but not so young that I didn’t know what I was feeling. I loved her.

She was one of the most multidimensional people I had ever met: pure in heart, wild in imagination, quick in thought and mind. She was a popular girl, although she belonged to no clique or club; and though she was often light-hearted, sometimes sorrows fell around her face like her long blonde hair did.

We became friends simply because we sat next to each other in a sociology class where we were given assigned seats. She was unusual. For one thing, she seemed genuinely interested in the subject — which, at that age and in that place, was very strange. For another, she always smelled like flowers.

Well — I was a boy, of course, and she was a girl.

The word “love” in American English has a tremendous number of meanings. If I was to say to you that I loved her, and she came to love me, but we weren’t in love, because she didn’t love me that way and I was in love with someone else… would that make sense to you? It’s what we would have said at the time, I’m sure, and it made sense to us.

That was our final year at that school; her family had only come to town the previous year. She dated various boys in our class throughout the year; I had the same girlfriend for that entire period.

Ours was an almost instinctive fondness; I knew within minutes of meeting her that she was special, and, over time, she told me things that I wasn’t sure she ever told anyone else. However, the year wound down, and our time at that school was ending. She was moving back north.

It was the last day of the school year, and we said goodbye out on the bus ramp. We hugged each other, and found ourselves kind of hanging on for a while. We had never so much as shaken hands before that.

She was so full of dreams that some of them had spilled over into me — a virtual ocean of hopes, with several undercurrents of fear. She was about to head to a new state and a whole new chapter in her life, and I wanted, at that moment – more than anything in the world – for her to find those dreams and conquer those fears.

I loved her.

She looked at me as we let go of the hug, and asked, “So — do you think you two will get married?”

“I doubt it,” I said. “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. And these sorts of things don’t seem to really work out, do they?”

“Everybody here thinks you two are the perfect couple.”

“Well, we are going to try to stay together. She’ll be in school halfway across the country, though.”

“Don’t you love her?”

“Of course! But hell, I love you, for that matter, and no one thinks you and I will get married.”

“You? … well. I love you, too.”

We talked briefly about how weird the idea of class reunions seemed, then said our goodbyes, her blonde hair shining in the June sunlight, the smell of flowers only gradually fading.

 


 

Six years later, Saturday morning, winter, living in a dumpy mobile home with an old school buddy who was carrying in a case of beer and a newspaper.

“Someone from your school year died. Front page.”

I looked and read, stunned. Single car accident, in Michigan, family formerly lived here 18 months.

They used her school photo. Long blonde hair, smile full of hope.

A smell like flowers seemed to fill the room.

Tears coming to my eyes, I looked at that six year old photo, and it grew blurry beyond recognition. My roommate looked at me, concerned.

“I didn’t know you two were that close. I’m sorry.”

“You couldn’t have known.”

He sat down on a broken kitchenette chair and continued staring.

I had just gotten a Christmas card from her, and sent one. She was excited about life, her life, her future. I looked back at him, dazed.

 


 

How could I explain or describe the kind of love we had shared? Ours was not a romantic or erotic relationship; we were what people call “just friends”. But who she was to me was far more than contained in the usual social categories. I loved her: because she was who she was, and because I got to know her.

… Oh, but she was gone now, and so much she dreamed of would live on only in other heads. In lives that would never be – could never be – hers.

I was too poor to attend her funeral, which was the following Saturday. I drove over to the old school – the place was deserted – and walked back to the ramp where we had said goodbye. It was bitterly cold; there was no snow, at least. Just an empty parking lot with a hard wind blowing.

It didn’t smell like flowers anymore. It smelled like grief.

And I felt old, but not so old that I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had loved her.

Loved her.

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

Watercolor Alley

My father was an artist and a painter, and he worked in all sorts of forms. The walls of our home were decorated with my dad’s works: pen-and-ink, oils, charcoal, and watercolors. One of his paintings is in the room I’m in now.

It’s been more than eleven years since he died, and more than thirty since he last painted. He concentrated on music the last half of his life, and eventually stopped painting: starting in his forties, he had a business custom building and repairing musical instruments – he could play virtually all of them. So there just wasn’t time for painting anymore.

I was amazed by his paintings as a child; my own efforts to draw and to color seemed so meager. Truthfully, my own efforts at everything seemed pitiful and small. From an early age, I had just enough awareness to know I wasn’t really that good at anything. Having a father who was good at virtually everything served to emphasize it. (He had also been a college athlete and a pilot, among his many other accomplishments.)

To be fair, I was good at reading, but that isn’t really a thing.

I was also an ill-behaved and unruly child: bringing home bad grades for “conduct” was the most consistent feature of my thirteen grades worth of pre-college education.

At around age fourteen, I gave up trying to draw or paint for good. By that point, I, too, had transitioned to music, learning to play the piano passably well, although mostly focused on types of music that meant nothing to my contemporaries. I still loved painting as an art form, though, and would buy my father books of paintings by different artists for Christmas or birthdays just so we could sit and look at them together.

My father had originally majored in art in college with intention of being an illustrator (he ended up in the Air Force instead). He kept this special penchant for book illustrations as an art form throughout his life. Two of his favorite types were watercolor based: both ‘pure’ and ‘pen-and-ink with water color wash’ being techniques he particularly loved seeing when done well.

We would be flipping the pages of a book, stopping to look at an illustration, while he would say things like

“I love the way this is done… here, watercolors are used to suggest the kind of haziness your eyes might experience in bright fall sunlight. The shadows fall across the path in ways that bring the sunbeams to life, and the leaves have a texture that suggest moisture… can’t you can kind of feel what it would be like to be where the artist was?”

Watercolor Alley

My father saw order where I couldn’t see it: in fact, he saw actual things – colors, patterns – that I could never see. He lived the life of a neglected and misunderstood sort of genius, one who no one studies in college courses, or reads paeans to at public readings. He wasn’t cool, or fashionable, or known at all as artist, except by his family. But whatever he was enthusiastic about, he attempted to share it with us, his children: adding to our joy, helping us see what our young eyes struggled to see. He was, in a sense, trying to fashion our sensibilities into another work of art, another bit of beauty and order in this otherwise chaotic world.

For my father was artist, and a painter, and he worked in many forms: but the greatest of these was love.

 


 

Picture credit : © Juliasha | Dreamstime.com – Watercolor alley

 


 

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.

 

Viva… Poblano!

For any of you who may not know me, I’ve attached the above self-portrait. In real life, I am actually a cubist painting.

Since I normally write only poetry, and post multiple times a day as it is, I’m taking the Poblano challenge by writing essays instead. I am planning to post every day for the next month at this exact time of day* (5:55 PM US Eastern Time). It takes me forever to write essays, as I always have to go back in a hundred times and get rid subconscious rhymes.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, however; and I’m excited about reading the works of other bloggers. I’ve been reading many of your blogs for the first time these last few days, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

It’s good to be in a community of artistic people, each sharing a common sort of goal. I don’t know about you, but I’ve often felt, in my life, like I was strange, or different from everyone else for having the interests I do.

Of course, it’s hard not to feel strange when you are a cubist painting consisting largely of circles.

* Unless I randomly decide to change the posting time one Sunday, in which case I will no doubt add the note you are reading now.