At Cemetery Ridge

[Originally published November 6th, 2016. S.R.]

I’m not alone at Cemetery Ridge this morning. There’s a thirty-year-old man here with what appears to be his ten-year-old daughter.

She lays a bouquet of bright yellow roses on a grave. As gray as the morning is, they stand out all the more. The only other color is the girl’s deep red coat.

He puts his hand on her shoulder, as she begins to cry, uncontrollably. He puts his arm all the way around her, as she sinks to her knees, and he follows.

I can’t stare at them anymore, it feels indecent. Instead I wander on from where I was visiting (my father-in-law’s grave) to some of the other friends we’ve lost these last years. One grave, a particular woman who I knew as a singer, is over where the trees grow thorny and wild. The gray and desolate morning only makes the trees look wilder.

This cemetery has a name, of course, but for as long as I can remember, people have called it “Cemetery Ridge”. This hill slopes down on the other side of the trees, and I can see the gray town in the distance. I visit this grave, and then two others, finally heading back to my car.

In the parking lot, I see the man and his daughter approaching their car. To my surprise, there is a woman wearing sunglasses waiting for them within it. I had assumed from what I saw that the man had lost his wife and the girl her mother; but, apparently not, as the woman has obviously been crying in the car. She’s holding a sort of shapeless stuffed animal.

Oh my God, she lost a child. The little girl lost a sibling: a sister, maybe, or a brother.

Now, my eyes are filling with tears. At that exact moment, just as the man finishes helping his daughter into the car and the arms of her mother, he turns and sees me, tears streaming down my face; and I could tell, in that brief moment, that he was concerned about me, and whatever grief might have brought me to this place.

His grief was my grief. My grief was his grief.

They leave within moments, driving slowly away. I stand by my car as a gray wind blows across the ridge, moving the leafless trees.

 


 

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.

 

Although

Although I speak,
My light was meant to listen;
Though I might sing,
My body’s meant to dance —-

We’re really made
Of more than our intentions:
Choice, place, and time,
Those spawns of circumstance,

Design the game,
The rules that we must move in.
With glimpses few
Of what’s outside the lines —

Although I write,
My light was made for silence
In worlds beyond, which baffle

Our designs

At Twenty

(At twenty, she was everything to me)
  She lay out in the warming April sun
(At once, both remedy and malady)
  To bask as though the summer had begun
  Or maybe, just for her, the only one.
(I loved her with a love both strong and true:
  And she was like, ‘just who the hell are you?’)

  In college: she, a princess and a star
(I was a jester, a nonentity)
  The light of any class and ev’ry bar
(I had no me, no real identity;
  Just hopes for virtue, and for devilry)
An April when the world was hers to hold
And fleeting touches turned to lasting gold

(I died at twenty much more than I lived)
  She was both perfect heart and vanity;
(I never had the knack, but had the gift)
  She grew into her mind, and her humanity
  Soon blossomed into balance, hope, and sanity.
(While I went on to madness, and to rue:
  At twenty, that was all that I could do)

Along the Pure Blue Sea

She walks along the pure blue sea
As happy now as she can be;
For she is finally, finally free –
She’s finally free of love and me.

She once bore all the fetid weight
Of marriage to a damned ingrate;
A saddle carved by love and fate
To know her but to not relate.

But one day, she woke up to this:
That ignorance is hardly bliss,
And men who are not worth a piss
Are better off to just dismiss.

She walks along the pure blue sea
As happy now as she can be;
For she is finally, finally free —
She’s finally free of love
And me

just once and all

just once and all that’s known would be

forever in your heart and eyes

a touching slowly turning soft

a time to feel without disguise

 

when close the world is sealed and still

and trust gives way to mouth and skin

just once and all is all at once

to drop the veil, and let me

in

a bit of some untangled truth

a bit of some untangled truth:
that’s all she needs to set her free —
a word of love that’s really meant;
some kindness, and some honesty —

a touch of some unvarnished hope,
a chance to be, a place to grow —
a bit of some untangled truth:
to have, and hold, and really

know

The trains don’t run…

The trains don’t run, but her stampeding mind
Goes endlessly in circles. So she sits
Out on the tracks, past words untrue, unkind,
Surrounded by a buzz that never quits —

To live, and then relive, the same few days;
To hear, and then re-hear, the same old words —
She can’t escape a world grown out of phase,
Even among the birches, and the birds.

That’s how a haunting works: within the head.
External ghosts can always be ignored,
But inner spirits go where we have fled,
A cargo that we always have aboard.

And love’s not coming back, not coming back —
The trains don’t run, but she’s still on
    the track

{… time stopped …}

time stopped that day
and it has never really started moving since

it was like
part of him broke, and
he’s just been kind of…
drifting

desire
is the yearning to have;
love
is the yearning
to be worthy of

and there is no more desperate hopelessness
than genuine love felt by
an unworthy

man

The Flower That Once

At lunchtime, I see her sitting down by the river. Who she is, I do not know, nor will I ever.

I’m not really a “people watcher”, at least as that term is typically used where I live. People watchers around here are a very judgmental group.

I do wonder about people, though; what stories they could tell me. Among people I actually do meet, I have something of an ability to draw stories out of them, I think mostly because, I’m interested.

I finish my lunch and go. I’ll never know what her story is.

As I’m driving away, a stanza from the Rubaiyat comes to mind:

“Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”

Where I Come From…

I grew up in Florida, in a flat country near the Gulf of Mexico, spending most of that time near or on the bayous that feed the bay that then feeds into the Gulf. Because we were on the far side of the bay for most of that time, trips to the beach were common, but not frequent. The bayous, on the other hand, were every day things; we drove over them, past them, walked by them, swam in them.

On the map linked to above, the bayous are the little fingers reaching inland from the bay. You can see them around Fort Walton Beach (where I lived when I was very little, then again in my 20’s) and Niceville (where I lived near the rest of the time, and went to high school), in a tiny town called Valparaiso.

I was not, as a child, renowned for my cheerfulness. I loved the water, though; swimming, skiing, diving — whatever there was to do in water, or on water, I liked it. Given the climate, those pursuits were usually available something like 6 months per year.


My parents had very strong and definite views on ethics and morality. They hated racism, or any other type of “superiorism” of any kind. My father’s family was from the branch of the Republican party whose main purpose had been the elimination of slavery, and then the fight for equality under the law for the entire citizenry. My mom had grown up in abject poverty, and her sympathies always lay with the downtrodden. She was (and is) a Democrat, and while she and my father joked that they cancelled out each other’s vote every election, they came from much the same moral view, which was why it worked.

Again, and for entirely different reasons, neither of my parents drank alcohol, smoked, or used profanities or obscenities of any kind. For my mom, it was her reaction to having grown up with an alcoholic father and abusive uncles; she was the only one of of her family (fifteen children in all!) who didn’t drink or cuss. 50% of my father’s family turned out to be either ministers or missionaries, so they approached teetotalism from a different angle; nevertheless, it was another area of compatibility between my parents.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there was anything “different” about my parents. Since most of my friends (already) drank alcohol by age sixteen, and since their parents all did, and since no one had parents who didn’t swear on occasion, I realized my parents were unusual in this regard. My father’s career as an Air Force officer had suffered (considerably) due to his not being “one of the boys”. But he did what he thought was right and took the consequences.


At the age of about seven, I came home from school and repeated an ethnic joke I’d heard at school. I’d never seen my parents so angry. I’ve never told or countenanced another once since.

To my mother and father, making ethnic distinctions of any kind, for any reason, made you no better than the Nazis. And millions upon millions of people had died, horribly, to defeat them.

“There is no difference between anyone and anyone else,” my mother told me. “Same God, same worth. No difference.”


Just in case you think this turns into a tale about my parents’ ultimate hypocrisy — it does not. My sister, who was the oldest of my parents’ three kids, dated boys of every race and creed, and my parents welcomed every one of them. They lived exactly the way they talked, and they treated everyone the same.


If you go back to the map linked to, above, you can find Eglin Air Force Base, in between Fort Walton Beach and Niceville. That had been my father’s last duty station before retiring from military service. We lived on the base for 5 years, on a street called Bens Lane, which is actually on the map. We would have been in that house between the ages of 5 and 10 for me.

One of the most common experiences I have heard people relate in my lifetime is how small things seem once you grow up and go back to where you came from. You know, small trees, small backyard — things that seemed huge when you were a kid.

I myself, however, have not had that experience. Things seem pretty much like I remember them being.

The main difference I have noticed is the difference things like Google Maps has made. Geography to me, as a kid, was one of the most fascinating and mysterious things in the world; I always thought there might be another street, another hill, another creek I didn’t know about, because there frequently was. Satellite mapping has removed all the mystery from geography in a way I find very sad. No countryside I travel through seems as exotic as it once was.

Discovery is one of the things we are built for; the modern world is one where discovery is difficult, as everywhere we go, we find the signs of others who’ve been there before us, and who’ve left little for us to explain or understand anew.

Writers, artists, and musicians struggle with this, of course; the feeling that things you might want to say have already been said is an oppressive (and depressing) one.


If you were to ask me where I come from, how would I answer?

I could answer my describing the geography of the part of Florida I grew up in.

I could answer with stories about my parents: either their ideas, or the way those ideas worked out in practice.

I could answer with stories about how the world I came from is no more; something true for all of us, even if we were born yesterday.

But the fact is, where we come from is only part of our story; it is our interactions with our surroundings and circumstances that make us who we are.

And Google has yet to map human souls.

A Beautiful Failure

And then, there are those days when clarity arrives; when you realize that what-you-really-want and what-you-thought-you-wanted are two totally different things… divergent things, really.

There are those days. “Epiphanies” they are sometimes called.


For almost the entirety of this last year, I have been battling insomnia. My own particular form works like this: I go to bed and I fall asleep; however, far earlier that might seem healthy, I wake with a start and am unable to get back to sleep.

So I get up, go to the gym, come home, and write… like I am doing right now. This particular morning, my “wake-up time” was 2:45 am. (I am writing this three days before it is scheduled to post.)

It’s not hard to figure out what it is that wakes me up at night, because it is (almost) always the same thing: thoughts about work. In real life, I work in a little place called “Corporate America”, and where my job responsibilities directly effect thousands of employees, millions of customers, and millions of shareholders. A short description would be that I am the person at my company responsible for knowing everything that is going to happen before it actually happens.

So, no stress there.

A couple of days ago, I was approached about going back into the area I started out in with the company. It would mean leaving the “futile attempt to be omniscient” division, instead working in the “actually helping human beings” department.

You might think, by those descriptions, I would have immediately jumped at the opportunity when it was raised, but I did not. My honest initial reaction was to try to figure out first whether or not I had failed at the job I’m actually in.

As I proceeded then to discuss this with my wife, two of my co-workers, and one of my best online (blog) friends, their reactions were virtually unanimous: take the new job, it’s a godsend, this job is killing you.

This job is killing me?

“Yes,” says one of my coworkers. “I’ve seen what it’s done to you this last year. I hate seeing you like this.”

I won’t belabor the point here, it is my intention to take the new job. What’s interesting to me is how much my obsessive desire to be “good at” whatever I happen to be doing has resulted in unhealthy or even warped thinking. I didn’t seek out the job I happen to have now; I was chosen for it. I’ve been aware of having some shortcomings in the position. I should have immediately jumped at a chance to do something I know I love doing, but I hesitated because I hate to think I “failed” at anything.

And yet, by normal standards, I’ve “failed” at a lot of things. My first marriage. Being a father. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.


My first really large failure — at least, in my mind — was at age eight when I realized I was never going to be a great painter.

I was taking painting lessons from a tiny woman who had an art studio and taught something like 30 students. I had it all worked out in my head: I was going to be a world famous painter. So I listened carefully to all her instructions, and applied myself diligently. Only…

I have no eye, and I notice almost nothing, visually. I was horrible, really, but it took awhile to dawn on me. However, dawn on me, it did.

I loved paintings. My father was an artist, and I wanted to be like him; I just didn’t have it in me.

After a year of lessons, my art teacher had an “awards ceremony” (this was 1970, in case you think such things are only a recent phenomenon) where they gave out awards like “best still life” “best human figure” “best use of color” and so on. Eventually, everyone in the studio had an award, except me.

Oh, but she had thought of one. I received the “Most Original Style” award, which was a polite way of saying “what the hell is that you just painted”?

So right after the ceremony, I quit. I told my parents I didn’t want to take art lessons any more.

They argued, as some of you no doubt may try to do, that having an “original style” is what all artists strive for. Yeah, well, I wasn’t striving for it: I wanted people to be able to tell what it was I painted.

My parents asked me to reconsider and stay at it. I was obdurate: I wasn’t going back. They relented.

I did regret it, later, but in a weirdly ambiguous way. I regretted the loss of my dream of being an artist. I couldn’t really regret quitting lessons, because, I was a horrible painter.

Epiphanies don’t always make you happier at first.

A year or so after that, I started piano lessons, and that was much more my thing. So then I was happier.


The Beautiful One, who is peacefully sleeping right now on our bed, wants me to take this new job and find some peace of mind. It is my intention to take the job; as to peace of mind, that remains to be seen.

In this very room is one of the paintings I painted at eight years old. It’s not a great painting, but it’s a beautiful kind of failure: a still life painted with that combination of dreams and illusions that make up human hope.

So here’s to beautiful failure: for while failure is inevitable, in many ways, the desire and search for beauty, truth, and goodness are what really matters.

What I’ll Never Know

I saw you at the coffee shop,
As beautiful as you were when I met you,
And though it’s years since last we met,
There was no way that I would e’er forget you

We spoke of all the things we love:
The people and the places and their glories;
Just two old friends who chanced to meet
And spent a happy hour swapping stories

So many things that we tried to recall

It might have felt like we had said it all —

But what I’ll never say is that
I really was a fool,
And what I’ll never talk about
Were all the times, in school,
I had the chance to tell you, but
I never gave a clue —
Now, what I’ll never know is how
It would have been, with you

The rain was falling, outside, and
You said that you had better get on moving;
And all of it came back to me,
The days I wasted, posturing and proving

To no one in particular,
That I was all that any girl could want;
And watched the good one slip away,
In secret dreams, a specter there to haunt

It isn’t that I want to change the world

It’s just – I knew a boy who loved a girl –

Now, what I’ll never say is that
I really was a fool,
And what I’ll never talk about
Were all those times, in school,
I had the chance to tell you, but
I never had a clue —
Now, what I’ll never know is how
It would have been, with you

I had the chance to say or ask,
Or maybe, just — to do —

Now, what I’ll never know is how

It would have been

With you

Frozen Farm Track At Sunrise

I love the picture affixed to this essay. I feel like it’s a picture of place I once was, that I remember vividly, even though… I wasn’t ever there, and my memories seem made up. Many of you will (correctly) think I’m crazy for reacting this way, but some of you, a special few, will know the feeling I’m describing.

Blogging: bringing the disenfranchised together, one weirdo at a time.


I frequently start with photos as inspiration for posts; I purchase almost all the images I use from Dreamstime.com. This particular photo is by a photographer named Kevin Eaves. He’s from the UK.

I mostly write poetry; it turns out, there’s a word for poetry inspired by painting or photography or other arts, it’s called ekphrastic poetry, and the process itself is called ekphrasis.

I know you come to this blog primarily to learn obscure Greek terms for things, so I oblige.


She wasn’t awake yet, so
I dressed and left to take a walk,
Looking at her, a lambent miracle,
Still asleep in the old farm bed —

The type of terrain was
Strange to me; I come from
Flat beach country, where
Hills are few, and snow is
Never

The air was cold and bracing, and
I could see my own breath in steam

What a night it had been

What a surprise all that was

What beautiful country it was, as
The early morning light hazed gray
Over the winter landscape

And it wasn’t even love, it was
Just the joy of knowing
Love might be

Possible


Love is its own excuse, of course: we love because we love to love.

That I love this photograph is an oddity, perhaps, but it is a fact: I love this picture.

The Meaning of Power

My second semester in college, we had a bet as to who could get a higher combined grade in chemistry and biology.

She won.

She was always better than me in math; even though I was a math major, I knew better than to bet her on that. I thought I had a shot in science.

I had to pay for dinner and a movie of her choice as a payoff to the bet. She steered me into a little known (at the time) film that had just came out, one called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

What a great movie that was (is).

For any who might be wondering, it wasn’t a date. I was honoring a lost bet, one I had tried very hard to win. She was, I had to admit ruefully, just smarter than I was.


My best friend had dated her at one time. I never really looked at her that way, at least, not seriously. We were friendly sorts of rivals, I guess. Although, the rivalry seems rather one-sided, looking back. I was the Washington Generals to her Harlem Globetrotters, for any who might get that reference.

She transferred on full scholarship to a university in Texas, where she majored in nuclear physics. She told me in later years that she had the jarring experience of running into people there who were smarter than she was — something she’d rarely encountered where we grew up. Still, she did well, and graduated into a lucrative profession in which she’s still employed to this day.


I saw her, last year, by a completely freak set of circumstances. She spotted me first, and came up to me.

“Owen? Is that you?”

“Kathy? Oh, my God, what are you doing here?”

“I’m doing some consulting for the power plant down in Baxley. We’re up here for… well, it’s a long story.”

Since they were going to be in town for the weekend, we decided to meet up for lunch the next day and get caught up on each other’s lives.


After some pleasantries, and conversations about marital statuses (both on second marriages), kids (her three, me five), and grandkids (me two at the time, her first one due soon), we started talking about our jobs.

She was surprised to hear I ended up as an actuary. “I always felt like math wasn’t really your thing,” she said. “I mean, not like it was for some of us. You had music, and the arts and all that stuff.”

I told her I still did. I asked her if the profession she was in had a lot of women in it, and if not, was that a particular challenge?

Apparently, I had asked the right question.


“Of the handful of us who did post-graduate work,” [she has a Ph.D] “I was one of two girls. The boys there treated us fine, I mean, it was college, so, raging hormones and all that, but no one was a pig, if you know what I mean.”

I told her I probably did.

“When I started working part-time, it was 1986; since I didn’t finish my degree until late in 1987, I didn’t get a full-time gig until the next year. So that would have been around thirty years ago. My first boss, had, um — ideas about my ideal use that would have shocked me, had I heard them expressed in words; as it happened, he didn’t feel the need to use words. One night, when we were working late and the only other person still there left, he attacked me. I mean, physically assaulted me.”

“What did you do?” I asked, although, having known her growing up, I had an inkling.

“I almost killed him. I bashed his head halfway in with a stapler. I mean, I had learned self-defense growing up, you know my dad, he insisted on it, and I just grabbed the first thing I could reach. But I didn’t just hit him once. I hit a few extra times for good measure.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, better than you’d think. I didn’t get in any trouble, and he got fired.”

“Well, that’s surprising. I thought this was headed toward you getting in trouble for him attempting to sexually assault you.”

“No, that didn’t happen, but, here’s the thing: I was lucky. If he had grabbed me from behind, or I didn’t have a weapon right at hand, or, any number of other things, it might have turned out differently, and that thought kept me awake for months, for years.”

I told her I was really sorry to hear that.

“You know, I’d always heard that rape was more about power than sex, but I never really understood before that.”

“Did you have other experiences like that? You’ve been in the business a long time.”

“Oh, yes, and I married two people from the business. I was never assaulted again, thank God, but I went through my share of innuendo and inappropriate jokes and salacious hints, and so on… You know, I thought guys in this business, with a lot of education would be more …”

“… civilized? Enlightened?”

“Yeah, both.”

“Did it sour you on the business?”

“No. I love this work. The entire country depends on power, and we produce it. I know how it works, and I’ve been able to make it work better and better over time.”

We went on to talk about her son for a few minutes, before returning to the subject above.

“Some men are pigs, is the way I look at it. And by pigs, I mean, whatever is in front of them, they feel entitled to, and will just take, if they can. Right and wrong don’t enter into the way they look at things.”

“Some women are pigs, by that definition,” I said.

She smiled at me.


“How was lunch?” my wife asked when I got home.

“Interesting. We talked a lot about power.”

“Nuclear power?”

“All kinds.”

Entrance

​A friend of mine asked me to write something that could be used at her wedding in place of the traditional bridal march. She wanted something softer and sweeter, and described to me how it would be used for her little flower girl and her, with the ceremony to be held outdoors in a garden.

I gave it the imaginative name “Entrance”, playing on the fact that two different english words are spelled the same way, one meaning “to enter”, and the other meaning “to hypnotize or enchant” — both of which seemed apropos.

Below is that song, in all its no-fidelity splendor.


Throwaways

For those of you unfamiliar or newly familiar with my work, I am primarily a poet.  While writing, I occasionally write lines that don’t seem to go with the piece being written, but that I like for whatever reason, and set aside for future use.

Below is a collection of such lines; they have been on the poetic shelf for so long, I’m pretty sure no poem is going to walk in and claim them. Ergo, the following “throwaways”.


I love the world of politics, because

I’d grown weary of more traditional clown makeup


What we don’t understand

We tend to despise;

Yet what we truly we despise

We feel we fully understand


love is a beautiful morning;
those who miss it
are very possibly
overly concerned
with bed


… the bullying boots of pseudo-morality,
raining down kicks from the high ground.


she’s always kissing shadows;

it is as if to say,

the only thing left real is her

so it’s the only way


self-righteousness:
the nation’s one truly
renewable resource


I never understood girls.

At all.


we’ve replaced boredom with anxiety

moving back one letter, alphabetically


Yes, I make music few will want to hear,
And I pen poems few will want to read;
But I decided, when I was quite small,
To keep on playing, even when no one was watching.


He was considered “quite a catch”

And yet, she threw him back.


hey, friend,
fall in love with this mailbox
and see if it loves you back


She got the House of Commons:

She’d wanted the House of Lords


I could never be handsome, but
I could still be honorable


Humans: treat humans like humans

Once, We Flew

This was a very busy airport at one time.

If I close my eyes, I can remember this ramp, with cars and buses, honking; people loading and unloading suitcases; families, visitors, good friends, old friends.

Opening them, the wind is blowing in from the north, cold and hollow. There’s nobody around for miles.



Airports are, if you think about it, one of the pinnacles of our civilization in terms of technology. And, like all of the most breathtaking and amazing technologies, within a generation or so, we pass by them without thought or remark. In fact, air travelers these days probably think about the inconveniences of air travel more than the miracle that is flying, roughly in a ratio of 10,000 to 1.

Except for children, of course, who crowd up to windows at airports and in planes to look at the things adults and teens are too distracted to bother with.

As jaded and indifferent adults, there’s even a part of us that views our ancestors as being something like children for getting so excited over things like airplanes and flying. Which is indefensibly wrong, of course. It is we who have come to view things poorly through the distorting lens of abundance.

To whom much is given, much is taken for granted, it seems.



Once, we flew out of this airport: many of us, heads down, minds preoccupied, harried, distracted. When it closed, it was articles in the news, and hand-wringing, and council reports; followed by fences, and barbed wire, and cracks in parking lots and runways. Now I stand here in the presence of ghosts, as I am most places I go these days.

It’s like the little store or restaurant you used to love that closes one day, where you find yourself wishing you’d gone a little more often. A friend you lost, a miracle — one you should have appreciated more, while you still had the chance.

But we are built to live, not necessarily to live wisely. Yes, once we flew, and perhaps we will fly again in dreams; but the sun is going down, now, and all the ghosts I hear in the wind are telling me it’s time to move on.