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


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.


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


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 —

“dreaming is free”

dreaming can be all we have –
reality gets turned to dust
when here among the vagary
and ruins of our crumbled trust
we find shortcomings, weaknesses,
and darkness that none else may see;
but there is hope, or can be, since
dreaming is still free

there’s what we mean and what we say:
we stumble o’er each “should” or “must”,
and wander in complacency,
each boom turned into one more bust;
we find shortcomings, weaknesses,
and limits in locality –
but there is this: a different us
for dreaming is still free

it’s dreaming makes us better than
whatever past transgressions be —
for love is thought turned into act,
and dreaming
is free

There are a lot of cover versions of this song, but I really like the very straightforward version below:

When I met you in the restaurant
You could tell I was no debutante
You asked me what’s my pleasure
A movie or a measure?
I’ll have a cup of tea
And tell you of my
Dreaming is free

I don’t want to live on charity
Pleasure’s real or is it fantasy?
Reel to reel is living rarity
People stop and stare at me
We just walk on by,
We just keep on

Feet feet, walking a two mile
Meet meet, meet me at the turnstile
I never met him, I’ll never forget him
Dream dream, even for a little while
Dream dream, filling up an idle hour
Fade away, radiate

I sit by and watch the river flow
I sit by and watch the traffic go
Imagine something of your very own
Something you can have and hold
I’d build a road in gold
Just to have some
Dreaming is free

Dreaming is free

Dreaming is free

By – Deborah Harry & Chris Stein

Rainbow Colors: Red


Wandering through life as though dreaming, each landscape one in a constantly shifting kaleidoscope: the world turns red, and this red means desperation.

I don’t know this forest, but the color is out of season, and cries from the unseen birds above echo in a isolated and desultory way. I’m desperate for a way out, but, I can’t find one; I would blame myself for being here, if the concept of blame had any meaning in this place. The world has turned red, and this red carries tinges of anger – a hopeless sort of anger, but anger, nonetheless.

I think I’m being followed: but all there is out here is time, and time stopped following me awhile ago – I couldn’t say how long, of course. Fear and panic are loyal companions, and loyalty is a precious commodity – or so I seem to recall.

The world turns red; the red is everywhere, and I —  desperate, isolated, and angry — am nowhere.


He slowly poured the wine into each glass, taking in the moment. He couldn’t believe he was here, that they were here. But there she was; and as he handed her the glass, the red liquid shone in the candlelight, and he knew — this was real, and beyond real.

Some moments just blaze up in red, and when they do, they never really burn out.


So how do artists make a truth
That others cannot see?
Since when did colors blaze out there,
But not in you and me?

Why is the passion in the paint,
In stroke, and space, and line —
And how can art display more love
Than any


“The world is hard and cruel; but we don’t have to be. We don’t have to be bitter, and we don’t have to waste any of our energy protesting fate.”

That’s what she told me.

“Yes. In my experience, fate makes a very indifferent audience…. but see: the sun rises red; and the red in the flags outside, and in our veins is one and the same. Life flows and ebbs, ever red: just as the sun may glow yellow during it’s heyday, but starts and ends each day colorem rubeum.”

I see her there, beautiful and stately in her white robe, with red trim, and I see, and know, that while illness can take our energy, our bones, our muscles – even our lives – it never can destroy what is truly beautiful in us, so long as those who have experienced it can share it. And others after them. There is one love, one blood, one common humanity.

One love.

One blood.

One common humanity.

Between the Cracks

Outside the storefront gym this morning,
Dressed in veteran’s clothes –
He asked me to sit down and
Talk with him

Though filled with trepidation of
A man deep in the throes
Of anguished chaos there
Within the dim

He told me of sonatas
He had played with some aplomb;
The manic and the squalid
All around

Of the appulsive nature of
The flower and the bomb;
Of flagging serifs buried

Each branch of quasi-servitude
A hailaj of misfortune;
Disaster in the starlight
And the dusk

A cudgel filled with truth,
A chance to firm reclaim his mission,
Behind venetian blinds
And manners brusque

But now, he’s just some weirdo,
Some lost schlump alone and homeless:
His only perq’s, a blur
Of rain and brass —

The medals he received,
No more than dark metallic twilight,
Another parvenu
Left in the grass

And soon, the leitmotiv he saw,
A world lost in tomorrow;
A sidewalk for a home,
A parallax —

And by the sunrise, too, I saw
The ersatz life of soldiers:
Who live on asphalt, lost
Between the cracks

(The idea for this post comes from Holly, and it ties together all the words I used in the A-to-Z challenge this last month.)