Time and tide


There were two more this week – former First Lady Nancy Reagan and legendary Beatles producer George Martin. Mrs. Reagan, I didn’t like, but I was still impressed by the array of people who showed up for her funeral, including President and Mrs. Bush, Rosalyn Carter, Michele Obama, and even Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer. As for George Martin, I’d long thought of him as a genius – the man who lifted to greatness such songs as “Yesterday,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I all of think of this week was 1) OK, I was just starting high school when The Beatles split up, but still 2) George Martin was 90 years old? 90?!

Friends and I have talked about which celebrity deaths would be front-page news and probably the lead story in The New York Times. I’m talking about folks who die of old age, not your John Lennon and Princess Diana-types who die suddenly and way before their times. I’d say the Pope and Queen Elizabeth and Fidel Castro and the Dalai Lama, for sure, and all of the former presidents — Carter, Bush, Bush and Clinton.

After that, it’s a mish-mosh of names, possibly consigned to the bottom of the front page, some of them possibly “above the fold:” Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, Warren Buffett, Chuck Berry, Willie Mays, David Rockefeller, Kirk Douglas, I.M. Pei., Billy Graham, Dick van Dyke, Dan Rather, Hank Aaron, Doris Day, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Betty White, Barbara Bush, Ralph Branca, Gloria Vanderbilt, Hugh Hefner, the other Pope who’s still alive, Tony Bennett, Sidney Poitier, Jerry Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Neil Simon…You get the idea….There are dozens and dozens more.

But I’m at the age when the deaths of ordinary, run-of-the-mill celebrities – sometimes even “celebrities” in quotes – have made me very aware of the passage of time. George Martin was one of those. But I was also just a little disturbed to learn of the deaths of Pat Harrington, the handyman from “One Day at a Time;” David Bowie, of course, but also Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, both of the Airplane; Frank Gifford; E.L. Doctorow; Leonard Nimoy; Leslie Gore; and, oh my God, Abe Vigoda, and Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and even – how could it be? – Yvonne Craig, the original Batgirl on TV.

Part of this, I suppose, is that I’m afflicted with baby boomer syndrome. When Roger Daltrey sang “Hope I die before I get old,” I guarantee you that he didn’t think he’d ever really get old. The youth culture really started with my generation, and now my generation is getting old. We used to read the birth announcements, the graduation announcements, the help-wanted ads, the wedding announcements. Now, just like our mothers and fathers before us, we read the obituaries, and shudder just a little when we realize the people our age – and younger – can and will die. Which is a real bummer.




Songs of Ourselves

I’m pleased to report that Blue Heron Book Works has just published a new anthology, “Songs of Ourselves,” which features a variety of personal writings works by 24 different contributors  — including a collection of essays by me on death, mortality and bygone lives remembered.

My contribution is gleaned from a larger book project, still in the works, titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” a title inspired by a 1920s-vintage newspaper headline describing the death of one my ancestors, 23-year-old Thomas Crooks — my great-uncle on my mother’s side.

Young Thomas had met his fiancée for a picnic lunch, and was returning to his job at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill in Yonkers, New York, my old hometown.  According the newspaper account, “As he was returning to work, he turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ ” Within a half-hour, my ancestor had “fallen” into a vat of acid used to cure the fibers used in the carpets. He died soon after at a local hospital in the arm’s of his devastated mother — my maternal great-grandmother.

Two of the essays I contributed to “Songs of Ourselves” contemplate the awful fate of poor Thomas Crooks.

Sounds kind of gloomy for holiday reading? Not really. My contributions to the anthology aren’t grim. They’re sometimes melancholy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nostalgic, and mostly a celebration of life — and the fact that I wish it didn’t have to end.  I think it’s a perfect reading material for sitting in a comfortable chair — by a crackling fire, perhaps, or sitting near a window as snowflakes swirl and the winter winds whirl — and thinking long, long thoughts of a long, cold winter night…

And that’s just my contribution! “Songs of Ourselves” features an impressive array of works by 23 other very talented writers representing a variety of voices and experiences that would impress even the good gray “Songs of Myself” bard himself!

Here’s how to order the book from Amazon:




She walks these hills…

Now, thinking back, I keep hearing that haunting song, “Long Black Veil,” and especially this part of the refrain: She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail…

As far as I know, there are no graveyards at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which occupies what was once a horse farm, outside of Lynchburg, Va. But it is, indeed, located atop a windswept hill, and it was nighttime, very late into the night before Halloween, actually past midnight, so it was already Halloween. And – who knows? – maybe there’s an old farm family’s graveyard somewhere in these fields or woods.

The writing studio I was assigned is more remote than some of the others, which are spread through a sprawling former horse barn. This stands alone, a small cottage. There are woods behind it, then a rural road, and then railroad line used by freight trains that rumble and roar down the tracks more often than I remember from previous stays.

And there are sounds. The hooting and screeching of owls. The yipping and howling of coyotes. The occasional shriek of what sounds to me like a bobcat. And, with the windows open on a cool October evening, there are the things that go bump in the night – weird thumps, unexplained creaks and even, a few times, what sounded like the footsteps of somebody walking right outside my window, although a quick look outside showed that there was no one there and that it was probably just a sound conjured up in the mind of writer who was sitting by himself, in a small cabin, at the edge of the woods, near the freight-train tracks, on a dark hill in Virginia, with no one around, on the eve of Halloween.

There are explanations for all the familiar creepy stories that make the rounds at Halloween – or else they’re so outlandish, told so many times as stories that “really happened to the cousin of my college roommate’s best friend,” that the stories feel safe to tell or hear once more: the ghostly hitchhiker… the babysitter who gets creepy phone calls from inside the house…the life-sized clown statue in the corner (“WHAT STATUE!,” the freaked-out parents scream at the babysitter over the phone. We DON’T HAVE a clown statue!”).

But what about when something really happens? When there’s something that’s not just some urban legend or passed-down story? What is there to say and what is there to think when it’s long after midnight, on the night before Halloween, and the crescent moon is bright, and you go to your cabin door and look outside — and there you see very clearly a slow-moving, misty form gliding softly across the lawn.

You look at it once. You look at it again. And the vision takes shape, and you realize it is a woman in a flowing white dress, and at first you wonder if it’s one of the other artists and writers staying at this place. But it’s late, and the studio across the way is unoccupied, and you just know that this figure – this woman pacing slowly in the moonlight – is not one of us…at least not anymore.

She’s a vision, she’s a glimpse of something we can’t explain and might regret explaining if we could, she’s a spirit or a ghost or some goddamned thing that I can’t explain, and if you have doubts about whether I really did glimpse this woman who walks these hills in a long white dress, then tell me why I went to the cottage door at just that moment. Tell me why I opened it. Tell me I was just hearing things. Tell me that it was just my imagination, that no one really rapped, rapped, rapped at my cabin door.

Where late the sweet birds sang

There’s haughty glory in October days. The regal deep blue skies, the cool crisp breeze which commands and demands our attention, the grand gestures, the rich royal colors…nature’s crowning glory. It’s my favorite time of each year.

But melancholy, too, has its time in the turning year. Leaves go from green to gold to brown. Hibernation beckons.  Fire gives way to ice. Soon enough we’ll crave the heat. No sweet showers pierce down to the root. The deep freeze awaits us — and (we are reminded each autumn) we can run but cannot hide.

Shakespeare knew this:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The passing of seasons, love lost and love found, birth and life and death, and one last leaf which clings to the limb but then at last ungrips, gone with the gust, gone with the wind.

From the cradle (of American literature) to the grave

I love visiting the place, even though it’s always really dead. I’m talking about the venerable Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., and specifically the section called Author’s Ridge.

Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts (including Bronson and Louisa May) are all buried in graves so close to each other (Hawthorne’s right across the path from Henry; the Alcotts are a few steps down from the Thoreaus; Emerson’s a little farther down the lane but still nearby) that they can chat to their transcendent hearts’  content without ever having to raise their voices (Keep it down, Alcott and Emerson…your neighbors are trying to get some eternal sleep!).

Here’s (Ralph) Waldo (Emerson):

And here are the graves of Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott:

It still absolutely amazes me — I’m filled with awe, truly — to realize that the earthly remains of the authors of “The Scarlet Letter,” “Walden” and “The American Scholar” are all within a few hundred feet of each other. Even more thought-provoking for me: Emerson and Thoreau themselves trod that shady path when they were among the quick, Emerson to speak at the dedication of the cemetery when it opened and Thoreau for the burials of his parents. I stand there and I’m quite possibly standing in the very footprints of two literary gods.

A final note about these grave matters: Thoreau and Emerson are both buried in family plots. Henry’s modest marker is small and low to the ground. The inscription says “Henry.” Emerson’s grave is marked by that huge marble boulder, with his name in big letters and a quotation from one of his poems:


Paint by numbers

Roman Opalka
I guess “paint by numbers” wouldn’t be an accurate description. It was really painting with numbers or just plain painting numbers.

Roman Opalka, who dipped his brushes in the paintpot of infinity, died a few days ago at age 79, which means that either he didn’t make it to eternity and forever…or he’s there now.. or he’s still progressing along his endless path toward some never-reached destination.

About fifty years ago, you see, Roman Opalka, living in Warsaw, began a painting. Using a fine-tipped brush, he began painting numerals on a 4-foot-by-6-foot canvas, white numerals in straight rows on a black background, working from top left corner to bottom right corner.

And that’s what he did for the rest of his life. Each canvas after that continued the sequence of numerals. By 2004, he had reached 5,500,000. Five-and-a-half million!

According to his New York Times obituary, in 1968 Opalka took a major step — he changed the backgrounds from black to gray.

In 1972, after he passed 1,000,0000, he began gradually lightening the gray with white plait until, by 2008, he was painting white numerals on a white background. In 1972, he also began saying each number into a tape recorder and took snapshots of himself in front of each completed painting.

Each painting had the same title: Opalka 1965/1 — ∞.

“All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity,” Mr. Opalka once wrote. “A single thing, a single life.”

What was it all about? Our journey from here to infinity…or eternity…or oblivion.

“Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance,” Opalka once explained. “We are at the same time alive and in the face of death — that is the mystery of all living beings.”

5,500,001…5,500,002, 5,500,003, 5,500,004, 5,500,005…et cetera.

Life’s fleeting moments (or slip, sliding away)

Rocky shoreline at Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island in Jamestown, R.I., on Narragansett Bay

It’s not true. When your mortality is suddenly looking you straight in the eye and staring you down, your life doesn’t flash before you — at least for me, it happened so quickly that I hardly knew it had happened.

We were visiting Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island near Jamestown, R.I. It was an impromptu visit — we were driving around that lovely island when we spotted the park, with its classic lighthouse and rocky shore along Narragansett Bay.

We decided to walk down onto the rocks. Other folks had already done it — some were sitting there reading books or admiring the view; others had towels spread out and were sunbathing.

We headed slowly down toward the water, being very careful about where we stepped, very wary of slipping and falling and getting hurt on the rocks.

And then I slipped. My feet flew out from under me and I was aware that I was sliding down an incline. I heard my companion shout out my name.

And suddenly I found myself underwater. I felt my head make contact with a smooth rock — the impact, luckily, was apparently cushioned by the water.

I popped up to find myself in a deep narrow crevice that had been carved out of the rock by the waves and current — a space maybe about six feet around. I was standing on slippery rocks in water that was about chest-high. The ledge I’d fallen off was at least two feet above my head, and so were the surrounding ledges.

My companion, who at first could see nothing except that I’d disappeared, shouted my name again and then shouted frantically, “Where’s Roxy!”

She couldn’t see me. But she could see a pink leash floating the water. Roxy’s a tiny little puppy, half-dachshund and half chihuahua. I’d been holding her to my chest as we walked down the rocks.

Where was Roxy? I turned my head and there she was, looking scared but doing the dog paddle, treading water in what was certainly her first-ever swim — and an unexpected one at that.

I got hold of Roxy and handed her up. So one of us was now on dry land — or rock. Me, I now faced a new problem — how in the world was I going to get out? I could reach the stone ledges by stretching my arms upward, but the rocks were slippery and there was nothing to grab hold of — and the bottom was slippery and sharp rocks were nearby. It was definitely time to get help.

Within a minute, two men were there, looking down at me worriedly and taking stock of this unexpected scene. The three of us decided it might be too risky — for them and for me — to try to pull me up while they lay unsecured on the slippery rock slopes.

There was one option short of calling 911: Seeing if I squeeze through a narrow passageway, moving about six feet in the direction of the shore, toward the water. If I could get through there, I might be about to pull myself up onto the somewhat lower rock ledge.

I squeezed through sideways. Then I pulled myself, bracing my legs again one rock wall while boosting my body up onto a flat rock on the other side, then rolling onto my stomach and crawling up to a drier, safer rock.

And I was perfectly OK — a bit shaken up, bleeding from bad scrapes on both of my forearms. I was absolutely not quite OK when I realized how fortunate I’d been — if I’d slid an inch or two in either directions I’d have crashed into rocky ledges; if I’d tumbled over head-first, I’d most certainly have hit my head.

Over the last few years I’ve posted a series of essays here titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death.” Is it possible to have a premonition after the fact? Or maybe it might be more accurate to use a phrase that’s the title of a book by Edmund Wilson — it was a work of literary criticism, and it had nothing to do with death or mortality, but the title fits: The Shock of Recognition.

Funny, too, how such mundane thoughts come to mind in the most serious moments. As I walked carefully up the rocks, checking to make certain I really hadn’t broken any bones or cut the back of my head, I had an image of the opening credits of an old TV soap opera. There was a close-up of an hourglass and a narrator’s voice declaring ominously and with great authority: “Like sands in an hourglass…These are the days of our lives…”