Absent Place—an April Day—
To the Souls that snow—
Drift may block within it
Deeper than without—
Daffodil delight but
Him it duplicate—
Over The Land Is April
by Robert Louis Stevenson
OVER the land is April,
Over my heart a rose;
Over the high, brown mountain
The sound of singing goes.
Say, love, do you hear me,
Hear my sonnets ring?
Over the high, brown mountain,
Love, do you hear me sing?
By highway, love, and byway
The snows succeed the rose.
Over the high, brown mountain
The wind of winter blows.
Say, love, do you hear me,
Hear my sonnets ring?
Over the high, brown mountain
I sound the song of spring,
I throw the flowers of spring.
Do you hear the song of spring?
Hear you the songs of spring?
A Song of a Second April
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago,
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Of dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
There rings a hammering all day,
And shingles lie about the doors;
In orchards near and far away
The grey wood-pecker taps and bores;
The men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.
The larger streams run still and deep,
Noisy and swift the small brooks run
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
Go up the hillside in the sun,
Pensively,—only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” .
by Garrison Keillor
You made crusty bread rolls filled with chunks of brie
And minced garlic drizzled with olive oil
And baked them until the brie was bubbly
And we ate them lovingly, our legs coiled
Together under the table. And salmon with dill
And lemon and whole-wheat cous cous
Baked with garlic and fresh ginger, and a hill
Of green beans and carrots roasted with honey and tofu.
It was beautiful, the candles, the linen and silver,
The sun shining down on our northern street,
Me with my hand on your leg. You, my lover,
In your jeans and green T-shirt and beautiful bare feet.
How simple life is. We buy a fish. We are fed.
We sit close to each other, we talk and then we go to bed.
I have recently been forced to take my diabetes seriously. It’s a bit like an alcoholic telling everyone he’s an alcoholic. By doing so he hopes that everyone else will hold them accountable. The problem with diabetes, at least for me, is because I wasn’t diabetic for 54 years, everyone seems to think if I would just exercise a bit more, lose a few pounds and eat right it would be fine. I wish it was that simple. There is nothing simple about my diabetes. I wake up and before I have eaten anything my blood sugars are so far above my target that I start the day feeling like I can’t eat anything. If I use my blood glucose monitor as the green flag for actually eating there are days I completely fast and never get in the target range. It’s no way to live.
I like to cook, I like to eat. I am a decent cook. My relationship with food has completely changed in the past 3 months, and I feel betrayed. I feel like I can’t enjoy the simplicity of bread and cheese and a glass of wine unless I am going to ignore my blood sugars and the nagging of loved ones that something which was perfectly normal until recently is now some kind of violation of being a good person. Eating normal food in moderation is not a moral failing for diabetics. But the only way to be seen as virtuous is to deny myself even the most simple of things. Diabetes is like becoming a Catholic priest and having to swear an oath of celibacy, but in this case its swearing off the occasional treat of peanut M and M’s.
I refuse to be defined by my diabetes. I am going to make an attempt at trying to get it mostly under control, but my experience is doctors are only too happy to play the blame and shame game and watch your A1c climb year after year without really giving you all the tools to manage the disease because type II diabetes is considered a life style disease. But I’m not overweight. And I don’t eat a lot of sugars. My body just doesn’t make insulin anymore. So, I can decide to live like a monk and stop enjoying food or I can accept that this disease is likely going to kill me eventually. The good thing is its going to kill me really slowly, plenty of time to enjoy life and eat lots of great food.
by Robert Louis Stevenson
. . Come up here, O dusty feet!
Here is fairy bread to eat.
Here in my retiring room,
Children, you may dine
On the golden smell of broom . . And the shade of pine;
And when you have eaten well,
Fairy stories hear and tell.
The blue becomes you, mate; the day
becomes your sensibility.
(The motel room in Santa Fe
imagines the immense green sea –
and worse the knotty crodile
that lies and blinks upon the Nile
is resurrected in my head.)
The vase of flowers by my bed.
The light seeps in at dawn; the blue
pervades like shaded maganese.
My thoughts collapse before the hue
shed light upon your bare blue knees.
The ruffled sheet, the sun, your head.
The vase of flowers by the bed.
I am always intrigued by the mystery of why a poet intentionally connects his own work to another poet’s work. The lines, “and worse the knotty crodile/that lies and blinks upon the Nile” are taken from R. L. Stevenson’s poem Travel in A Child’s Garden of Verse. Davies is an Australian, and if some part of his poem originated from a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, then it makes sense as a traveler he may have drawn upon Stevenson’s imaginative verse for inspiration. That Davies choose that line specifically adds a sense of childhood awe to the imagery he creates.
As a child growing up I was fortunate to have parents that took us on long car camp trips. One of the epic trips was a three-week excursion when I was six years old that took us from Minnesota to Oregon, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Arizona, to Durango, Colorado and then back to Minnesota. Along the way we stopped at every National Park, or at least it seemed that way, often pitching our green canvas Coleman tent for the night.
The visit to the Grand Canyon on that trip remains the one and only time I have been there. But believe it or not that was not the highlight for me of the National Parks in Arizona. The little known Petrified Forest was to a little boy who still loves to find agates, the most mind-blowing side excursion of that trip. The petrified forest has these amazing specimens of literally entire tree trunks that over time were replaced by a kaleidoscope of minerals, turning them into literally semi precious gigantic stones that whether natural or polished were astonishing. As an adult, I have found a few small pieces of petrified wood in various places in the west, but nothing as colorful or spectacular as what was on display at the National Park.
How do we retain our sense of awe in travel that so filled our imagination when we were young? I think the key is to always take the side trip, slow down and pick up a rock or two. You never know what you might find.
As starts the absent dreamer when a train,
Suddenly disengulphed below his feet,
Roars forth into the sunlight, to its seat
My soul was shaken with immediate pain
Intolerable as the scanty breath
Of that one word blew utterly away
The fragile mist of fair deceit that lay
O’er the bleak years that severed me from death.
Yes, at the sight I quailed: but, not unwise
Or not, O God, without some nervous thread
Of that valour, Patience, bowed my head,
And with firm bosom and most steadfast eyes,
Strong in all high resolve, prepared to tread
The unlovely path that leads me toward the skies.
I had the good fortune to find in my local used book store a little gem of a book last Saturday. It is a limited edition, one of 200 by Melville Press. It is titled Prayers, (sometimes also referred to as Prayers Written at Vailima) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and has an introduction by Mrs. R. L. Stevenson.
Mrs. R. L. Stevenson begins the introduction:
In every Samoan household the day is closed with prayer and the singing of hymns. The omission of this sacred duty would indicate not only a lack of religious training in the house chief, but a shameless disregard of all that is reputable in Samoan social life…
What makes this small volume of prayer interesting is that if you read most accounts of Stevenson’s life he was an avowed atheist. He admitted to his parents that he had rejected Christianity by age 23, following his father’s inquiries into his membership into the RJR club (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) whose motto reads; “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.”
This would be the second time Stevenson had broken with his father’s hopes for him, the first when he had decided to not pursue a college degree in engineering and join the family firm in designing, and building lighthouses, instead choosing to become a writer. The second decision he felt an ever bigger betrayal in his parents eyes, becoming a godless bohemian. Stevenson wrote:
“What a damned curse I am to my parents!” As my father said “You have rendered my whole life a failure”. As my mother said “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me”. O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
So how does one reconcile this beautiful book of prayer published after his death, with his prior public statements as a non-believer? Is it a case of his wife trying to do a bit of postmortem PR on his behalf to rehabilitate his reputation for posterity? Or did Stevenson have a change in spiritual perspective late in life? Stevenson was sickly his entire 44 years. He would not be the first person who proclaimed loudly his rejection of Christianity only to have a change of heart when realizing that death was drawing near.
However, as someone who has been an agnostic his entire adult life, and yet attempts to write prayerful poetry, I keenly recognize that these two seemingly contradictory stances by Stevenson can cohesively co-exist. The language of reverence is the same for all religions. And even atheists may write a prayer of grace, including the word Lord, knowing it will make it meaningful to a broader audience. The word, Lord, a nod to their own admonition of uncertainty or certainty as for what or whom their particular Lord might represent in their minds, even if it is different from Christians.
Only Stevenson knows what he believed at the end of his life. He may very well have continued to reject some or all of Christianity, and at the same time used his skills as a story teller to pen prayers to make it possible to more fully participate in the community he was living.
Mrs Stevenson explains in the introduction:
“Vailima lay up some three miles of continual rise from Apia, and more than half that distance from the nearest village. It was a long way for a tired man to walk down every evening, with the sole purpose of joining in family worship; and the road through the bush was dark, and, to the Samoan imagination, beset with supernatural terrors. Wherefore, as soon as our household had fallen into a regular routine, and the bonds of the Samoan family life began to draw us more closely together, Tusitala (Samoan for storyteller, referring to R.L.S.) felt the necessity of including our retainers in our evening devotions. I suppose ours was the only white man’s family in all Samoa, except those of the missionaries, where the day naturally ended with the homely, patriarchal custom. Not only were the religious scruples of the natives satisfied, but what we did not forsee, our own respectability – and incidentally that of our retainers – became assured and the influence of Tusitala increased tenflold.”
These services were simple and would have sounded exotic to a former Presbyterian Scot’s ears, suitably unconventional to satisfy whatever lay in his own heart. They began by his son reading a chapter from the Samoan bible, then Tusitala saying a prayer, impromptu or from his notebook, modifying them to fit the needs of the day. Then came the singing of a hymn in the Samoan language, accented sometimes by the strangely savage monotonous noise of native drums from inhabitants close to his household at close of day, and then closing with the Lord’s Prayer, also in Samoan. Mrs. Stevenson writes, “many of these hymns were set to ancient tunes very wild and warlike and strangely at variance with the words.”
What better setting and mood for a man to craft his personal theology, than to take the foundation of spiritual beliefs from his upbringing and reshape them as a humanist in a foreign land.
On the evening before his death, the service was unusually short, and Mrs. Stevenson asked him at its conclusion, “What is it?” He replied. “I am not yet fit to say “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” I recognize that reluctance in Stevenson’s admission, my own doubts having silenced me into ponder on occasion at precisely that same line.
Mrs. Stevenson concludes the introduction with the following:
It is with natural reluctance that I touch upon the last prayer of my husband’s life. Many have supposed that he showed, in the wording of this prayer, that he had some premonition of his approaching death. I am sure he had no such premonition. It was I who told the assembled family that I felt an impending disaster approaching nearer and nearer. Any Scot will understand that my statement was received seriously. It would not be, we thought, that danger threatened anyone within the house; but Graham Balfour, my husband’s cousin, very near and dear to us, was away on a perilous cruise. Our fears followed the various vessels, more or less unseaworthy, in which he was making his way from island to island to the atoll where the exiled king, Matafa, was at that time imprisoned. In my husband’s last prayer, the night before his death, he asked that we should be given strength to bear the loss of this dear friend, should such a sorrow befall us.”
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Grant that we here before Thee may be set
free from the fear of vicissitude and the fear of
death, may finish what remains before us of
our course without dishonor to ourselves or
hurt to others, and, when the day comes, may die
in peace. Deliver us from fear and favor: from
mean hopes and cheap pleasures. Have mercy on
each in his deficiency; let him be not cast down;
support the stumbling on the way, and give at
last rest to the weary.