When I was a little boy, mine was the kind of toy box that contained a gyroscope, tops of various sorts, a microscope, magnifying glasses, bottles and bug collectors and other assortments of things that were not strictly toys, they were ways to investigate the world. If I reflect on it, I spent the vast majority of my play time engaged in a study of physics. Isn’t that what a frisbee is ultimately, a tool for the study of physics? Also a hot wheel car set upon a track with no power other than the size of the height of the encyclopedias I would concoct, to get the best run and series of undulations, right down to the last book, so that the car could make it to the end of the track that I had created through the living room and down the long hall way. Climbing trees, is a study in physics, so is riding a bike, ping pong, baseball. The problem with electronics is a video game is not a study in physics, it is a study in communication. I preferred the world when it was dominated by the former.
I have had a hard time of late finding anything relevant to add to the poems I have been sharing. It is hard to watch the world be ill, seriously ill. I feel like we are watching our planet spin like a gyroscope, on its axis, like it always has and we have assumed it always will. Suddenly it has begun to wobble and without our collective imaginations to get it spinning at the proper speed again, its at risk of falling over, motionless and emotionless. Is emotion an extension of motion? Does that mean it is an extension of physics, our physical selves?
I spent some time this week in unbridled play, sheer silliness, like children chasing after a ball. There was no point to the 2 hours other than to have fun. There was nothing profound about it, yet the time was utterly transforming for the emotions of the group. Everyone came away energized, excited, closer. Why don’t we play with our friends more? The great tragedy of the COVID pandemic is not just the millions of lives lost, but also the life lost of the living. We started seeing our friends as something to avoid, something we had to protect ourselves from, rather than the cure to what ails us all. Netflix and books and social media can not replace playing with your friends. Electronics can not replace physics. Physics is what makes the world go round. I think we have to re-imagine our futures, like Stevenson. But this time, let’s imagine a future without toy soldiers, without any soldiers. Let’s get the planet spinning again at its proper speed, sustainably, enthusiastically.
FYI – a counterpane is a quilt or bedspread.
The Land of Counterpane
Robert Louis Stevenson – 1850-1894
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head, And all my toys beside me lay To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so I watched my leaden soldiers go, With different uniforms and drills, Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets All up and down among the sheets; Or brought my trees and houses out, And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still That sits upon the pillow-hill, And sees before him, dale and plain, The pleasant land of counterpane.
“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
by William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)
Ay, thou art welcome, heaven’s delicious breath! When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf, And suns grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief And the year smiles as it draws near its death. Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay In the gay woods and in the golden air, Like to a good old age released from care, Journeying, in long serenity, away. In such a bright, late quiet, would that I Might wear out life like thee, ‘mid bowers and brooks
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks, And music of kind voices ever nigh; And when my last sand twinkled in the glass, Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
In the other gardens And all up in the vale, From the autumn bonfires See the smoke trail!
Pleasant summer over, And all the summer flowers, The red fire blazes, The grey smoke towers.
Sing a song of seasons! Something bright in all! Flowers in the summer, Fires in the fall!
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved: I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writes and readers.
In My Dreams
by Stevie Smith
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away, Whither and why I know not nor do I care. And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter, And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye, And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink, I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going, I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.
I was watching the documentary on Oliver Sacks on American Masters on PBS this week and remembering my enjoyment of reading his regular magazine columns in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I have read most of his books that he wrote and have always enjoyed the humanity he brought to his unique perspective on the intersection of neurology and the individual. What his final book, a biography, along with the documentary reveals, is his own humanity and the events that shaped him as a person, a scientist and as a writer.
What is remarkable about the documentary is that it peels back a protective layer of privacy into his personal life and creative writing process that I wasn’t aware during the decades that I read his work. Oliver Sacks writing is very much the product of a team that surrounds him, from a long time collaboration with a ghost writer/editor, his publisher, fellow writers who shared feedback and encouragement, other scientists, but most importantly his patients, whose stories and lives and diseases he chronicles with the focus always on the person, not just their physical manifestations of their illness. Oliver Sacks ideas on consciousness, creativity, memory and writing are remarkable in the their simplicity in some ways with his awareness on what makes us the same, not how we are each dissimilar, while recognizing that each and every one of us have a unique story, a singular life to live.
There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
This pandemic has forced many to think about our mortality and our lives. We have had to re-invent the ways in which we work and interact with the world, ways we see ourselves as productive, ways in which we relax, entertain ourselves. It has drawn a very harsh boundary around what we think of as our inner circle and the rest of the world. I fear that at a time that this worlds need to to band together collectively more than ever to solve nearly insurmountable problems that these past 18 months will forever alter the path of three generations of global human thought for most individuals in the wrong direction; away from an idea of shared sacrifice for the collective good and towards an over protective individualism. I fear that in our forced isolation of social distancing, the world has become a world of outsiders, people are something to be avoided and if we are not careful, feared. This new pandemic mindset of avoidance and individualism is one more rung on the ladder of challenges we shall have to overcome and climb over. I am reminded by Oliver Sacks example to look at the humanity of each individual not our collective and individual pathologies. See each other as singular gifts while mirroring back to us the parts of us that we see in ourselves. To err is to be human and to be ill is to be mortal. Can we take something good from this pandemic, an acceptance of illness as an inseparable part of being alive and focus on a supportive form of community that helps each of us on our journey.
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child.
A canoe has a bi-polar personality depending on how many people are in it, the cooperative nature of those paddling it and the amount of wind you are contending with and the direction from which it is blowing. It can be the most gentle cooperative vessel ever invented, or it can be the most unruly of crafts. In short a canoe is not for amateurs in rough, cold waters and rapids and yet it can be the best of all possible boats in the hands of competent paddlers and conditions.
Most canoes are not designed to be paddled by one person, except on those mornings and evenings in which there is not even a puff of wind and the lake or stream is a mirror. One person seated in the back of a canoe lifts the bow out of the water enough that the keel lacks some of its grip and it makes it easily influenced by even the slightest wind.
Enough about describing canoes, get out there and experience a canoe! And if you are fortunate to tip it over, while wearing your life jacket, be sure to enjoy the adventure of getting it back to shore, the water bailed out and a lesson learned about what you don’t want to do the next time. There is a certain zen like quality to paddling a canoe. Each person must keep their weight centered over the keel and relaxed. You have to keep your weight low, you need to slow down and be centered and present. As children at camp we were taught how to deal with a tipped canoe by tipping them on purpose in water close to shore under supervision and with life jackets on. I recommend if you have children or teenagers or adults who are first time in a canoe that you teach them those skills sometime in shallow warm summer waters, before attempting cold, fast moving water where you don’t want to tip, and if you do, everyone knows what to do. But its tippiness is what is part of the fun of a canoe, you have to treat it with respect, know its capability, acquire skill and agility with a pinch of bravery required.
I have been fortunate to canoe upon and alongside river otters several times in my life. A huge thrill and a connection with the wilderness that takes your breath away. Coleridge’s poem brings back pleasant memories. Since in the last blog entry I mentioned my fondness for the short film Paddle To The Sea, I thought I would share a link and make it easy to find if you remember it as well from 3rd grade.
The poem The Canoe Speaks by Stevenson below is one of those examples of rhyming poetry where the poet intentionally drops the rhyme for stunning emphasis and clarity at the end. Some of my best sonnets that I have written drop the rhyme in a spot because the exact word I want doesn’t fit the rhyming scheme and because it improved the flow and meaning of the poem. Remember rules are made to be broken with poetry. Dickinson is a master of going in and out of rhyme with devastating precision. Do you have a favorite poem that leaves a lasting impression because it is unpredictably changes course, like an eddy in a river in a canoe where the next stanza or couplet is unexpectedly different?
The Canoe Speaks
by Robert Louis Stevenson
On the great streams the ships may go
About men’s business to and fro.
But I, the egg-shell pinnace, sleep
On crystal waters ankle-deep:
I, whose diminutive design,
Of sweeter cedar, pithier pine,
Is fashioned on so frail a mould,
A hand may launch, a hand withhold:
I, rather, with the leaping trout
Wind, among lilies, in and out;
I, the unnamed, inviolate,
Green, rustic rivers, navigate;
My dripping paddle scarcely shakes
The berry in the bramble-brakes;
Still forth on my green way I wend
Beside the cottage garden-end;
And by the nested angler fare,
And take the lovers unaware.
By willow wood and water-wheel
Speedily fleets my touching keel;
By all retired and shady spots
Where prosper dim forget-me-nots;
By meadows where at afternoon
The growing maidens tropp in June
To loose their girldes on the grass.
Ah! speedier than before the glass
The backward toilet goes; and swift
As swallows quiver, robe and shift,
And the rough country stockings lie
Around each young divinity
When, following the recondite brook,
Sudden upon this scene I look.
And light with unfamiliar face
On chaste Diana’s bathing-place,
Loud ring the hills about and all
The shallows are abandoned.
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.