Mom received an invitation from one of the women of the Church. It was fancy, with vinery winding around the pretty graphics and text. An invitation to a Relief Society Garden Party. The Relief Society, established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1842, and reestablished in 1868 after the “Mormons” were driven from Missouri and Illinois into the wilds of Utah Territory, created a “temporal and spiritual ministry” by which the frontier pioneer women cared for each other, Church members and not. The Relief Society organization, tradition, and mission thrives today, both with weekly meetings and countless acts of ministering to one another by over seven million women—a great worldwide sisterhood. And here was the Garden Party, 179 years on, with 60 neighborhood women converging on the designated garden. I dropped Mom off at the driveway and watched her gather with the welcoming throng. She beamed as she walked through the front door three hours later, happy, refreshed, built up by camaraderie and love. Dinner had consisted of a huge salad bar spread over several tables, plus one for desserts. She loved visiting with the women, her sisters, and particularly enjoyed those who beamed cheer despite personal hardship. For that is what we do: we take what comes and help each other through with smiles on our faces, sustained by a faith that all will work out in the end.
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
The negotiated terms of my ouster included me rescuing my children’s artwork from the attic storage closet. I wanted these paintings displayed and my children honored. They had made oil, acrylic, and collage paintings on old plywood, cardboard, canvas board, and posterboard. Many pieces were very good. Determined, I took a framing class at the Tooele Army Depot morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) facility. I learned to measure and cut the mats and the glass, assemble the frames, and apply the backing. I felt joyful and proud to hang these excellent art pieces on the walls of my apartment, which my father came to call my “art gallery.” They included scenes of Lisbon streetcars, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor, the romantic streets of Paris, African villages, Korean dancers, and New York City street corners, plus a Panda Bear and a Great Blue Heron. The most venerable painting hanging on my apartment walls was an oil Dad painted in the 1950s of two children, a boy and a girl, walking hand-in-hand down a forest path. To move them safely, I wrapped these jewels in plastic and stacked them carefully in the Mom’s and Dad’s basement. After two weeks, I found myself ready to decorate my two rooms, too small to accommodate all the paintings I had framed. And I suddenly found that my connection to them was touched with old despair. For now, I will gently store them to await a time of greater healing and permanence, when I will take them out and again proudly display them. Now is not the time or the season. They are like so many priceless museum pieces wrapped in protecting plastic and stowed in crates, awaiting their grand retrospective. In the meantime, I have hung in my rooms several of Mom’s beautiful needlepoints, prints I bought on various trips, and the old oil of two children walking through the woods, holding hands.
On the way home from work, I stopped to buy a big bottle of Round-Up herbicide. Those pesky weeds keep popping up in the shrub beds and under the pine trees. Virginia creeper seems impossible to extirpate. As a teen, Dad taught me to mix concentrated pesticides with water in a three-gallon pressurized spray tank. With rubber gloves and a long sleeve shirt, I mixed the poison and sprayed the fruit trees against aphids and borers. Dad strictly instructed me never to get the pesticide—especially the concentrate—on my skin, and if I did to wash immediately with soap and water. He told me how these chemicals had killed people who touched them, or breathed their vapor. I took his word for it and followed his instructions carefully. A decade later I came across a first edition of Rachel Carson’s 1962 masterpiece Silent Spring, and carried it around for another decade before reading it. The book exposed the pesticide and herbicide industries for the dangerous nature of these chemicals to humans, animals (think DDT and Bald Eagle eggs), and ecosystems. Of course, all those chemicals have since been banned for home use because they, in fact, killed people. I am still careful with Round-Up, not spraying on a windy day, and washing with soap after. How glad I am that sensitive, smart, and courageous persons like Rachel took on the industrial complex at great personal sacrifice to share messages of truth larger than themselves. To introduce my book Rabbit Lane: Memory of a Country Road, and in admiration for how Rachel changed the world, I wrote this poem, expressing my sentiments 50 years after she penned hers.
not silent quite.
the growing hum
After I organized my home office, in the former guest bedroom, I received an email from Dad asking if my red office chair held sentimental meaning to me, and, if not, perhaps I should consider getting a new office chair. I bought the cushioned red cloth chair thirty years ago as my writing chair. I sat and rocked in it eight years ago as I typed the first, second, and final manuscripts of my book, Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road, as well as my volume of recent poetry, A Time and A Season. The red cloth has faded, the spring has stretched into a permanent recline, and the paint has been scratched off the wood arms. For years my son Brian used it in his room at his desk; daughter Erin also enjoyed the chair, and repainted the wood arms and legs. But it is showing its age, and Dad thought it might not represent me professionally on Zoom. Time to let it go. I asked Brian if he might like his childhood chair, and he replied in the enthusiastic affirmative. I will miss my old red chair, but it was starting to hurt my back, and I’m so glad Brian will enjoy sitting and rocking in it as he writes his poems and creative non-fiction essays and reads pictures book to little Lila. The old red chair will fit his MFA nicely.
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
During a visit to Gilbert, Arizona to see my sister Jeanette, she took me to a state park near Sedona, high above the desert, with a little trout stream flowing through the pine forest. On the park lawn grazed a squadron of pig-like creatures called collared peccaries, or javelinas. I asked a uniformed park ranger about them—he told me javelinas are not pigs at all, but a cross between an old-world swine (which is a pig, I thought) and a new-world raccoon. I stared at him stupefied, wondering if were joking. Sadly, he was perfectly serious. Of course, such a cross is genetically impossible, for the same reasons a dog cannot breed with a cat, or a chicken with a rabbit: impossible. (Idaho does boast its jackalope, a cross between a jack rabbit and a pronghorn antelope—Google it.) On another visit, Mom and Dad brought back a life-sized rusted metal javelina that sits quietly on alert, on their front porch. When the Deseret News stopped its daily circulation, opting for online distribution, Mom and Dad subscribed to the New York Times, which is tossed every day out of a car window onto the driveway. Leaving the house for work in the morning, I noticed the newspaper, bagged in blue plastic, sitting on the javelina’s snout. I asked Mom about it, and she whispered simply “newspaper elf.” Another morning, I saw from my home office window a man crossing the driveway. Ah, so he must be the newspaper elf. But on Saturday the newspaper was in the driveway. “The newspaper elf doesn’t work on weekends,” Mom explained cheerfully. “We have to go and get it.”
Mom said to me soon after I moved in, “I’m old, and I can’t do much, but I can do laundry and I like to do laundry. Would you let me do your laundry? I would like to do that for you.” I felt inclined to decline, and demurred. Dirty laundry is a sensitive subject for me. Returning from a five-month separation in 2014, I gently insisted on doing my own laundry. Home from my eviction, I found I could not allow her to handle my dirty laundry, though she wanted to. I could not let myself be vulnerable in that way. Now, with my mother’s request, I am trying be vulnerable enough to allow her to do something for me that she can do and wants to do and likes to do, even though I like doing it, too. For me, separating the colors from the whites and putting in the soap and running the machines is fun. And I like folding the clean clothes and putting them in their organized place. With Mom’s offer to wash my dirty clothes, I have come full circle to my childhood. Mama is taking care of me again. How tender that she wants to. After thinking it through and breathing deeply, I said to her, “Mom, I would be very appreciative of you washing my dirty clothes. Thank you so much for offering.”
In July, just before I moved, Mom told me about how she and Dad sat in picnic chairs in the driveway every evening at 8:45 to watch the sun set, enjoying the colorful clouds. I texted her one night that I would go stand by the apartment complex fence at 8:45 to see the sun set over the Tooele valley, in solidarity with her. While she gazed toward the Oquirrh mountains to her west, I looked toward the Stansbury mountains to my west, each with peaks over 11,000 feet. As July moved into August, our sunset time came earlier and earlier, today already at 7:45. Sitting there in the driveway, the three of us, on our picnic chairs, we waved at neighbors driving or walking by, talked about the day’s work and news, and admired the brilliant colors. With the worst California fires in history, Utah’s sun became an orange-poppy sphere that we could stare at without discomfort for the thick smoke. As the sun dipped behind the mountains one evening, Dad announced, “I can see Venus!” I looked and looked for several minutes, but could not see the “first star.” His cataract removal and lens implants seem to have given him telescopic eyes at age 85, while my 20-20 eyes (thank you Lasik) still searched for the pin point. As the sky darkened, Mom told of when she was six years old and sang at a neighborhood talent show, in the church building, and for the occasion her mother made a dress for her out of rolls of white crepe paper stitched together, with red paper trim and pink paper hearts. Then Dad led us in a round of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and told me how wonderful my mother is (which he tells me every day, and she is). Soon the automatic sprinklers popped up, and the quarter moon shone a rich orange through the smoky sky.
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
One of my purposes is to make mealtime easy, healthy, and pleasant for Mom and Dad, by cooking dinner for them. For two years I have enjoyed cooking for them occasionally on a weekend. Now it can be every day, if wanted. It brings me pleasure to bring them pleasure. I have always wanted to learn to speak French and cook French. I study French lessons on Duo Lingo once or twice a week—I may become competent in ten years so. And after watching Julie & Julia in 2020, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This week we enjoyed (1) quiche in a buttery shell with green onions, mushrooms, spinach, and ham, (2) salmon soufflé, (3) crêpes with Splenda-sweetened fresh fruit and almond whipping cream (for my son Caleb’s 22nd birthday “cake”), (4) carrots and parsnips glazed in a buttery sweet sauce, and (5) cream of mushroom soup, all from Julia’s book. I have fun cooking delicious, appealing food, and we all enjoy consuming it. The recipes were hard at first, but have become second nature with repetition. Dad sent me an email today, “I will be cooking dinner tonight.” These six words implied so much: (a) I can cook, too; (b) I want to cook, too; (c) I love to cook, too; (d) I can do things; (e) I want to share the load; (f) thank you for your cooking; (g) I want to take a turn; (h) I want to do something nice for you like you do for us; and, (i) isn’t it wonderful how people take raw ingredients and make such creative, delicious dishes? So, tonight he cooked delicious “saucy pork burrito rice bowls” with ingredients and recipe provided by Hello Fresh. When I asked if I could be his sous chef, he said sure. As the three of us sat at the table with our fragrant rice bowls, Dad remarked, “We made this, together, didn’t we Rog!” We did. And it was very tasty.
I ducked under Austrian Pine boughs to step around its trunk to prune the Arctic Willow. The blunt end of a lopped pine bough jabbed me hard and square on the temple. I swore, thanked God it wasn’t my eye, and trudged off for a saw to cut off the offending limb. Dad’s neighbor, Terry, regularly shapes the enormous Blue Spruce that sits just inside his property line. One day he decided the bottom boughs were too low, and cut them all off to a height of about eight feet. A little aggressive, I thought. But Dad chose to admire how the pruning had opened up the view of the neighboring yards, “park-like.” We looked at the Spruce’s companion Austrian pine on our side of the property line, and decided its bottom limbs drooped too low. We had to duck to walk under them, and Dad hit them when riding his lawn mower. He consented to me providing a “slight haircut” to the pine. Underneath their canopy, I discovered a mass of dead limbs invisible from outside. I lopped off all those I could reach. I carefully pruned the lowest hanging limbs, lifting the canopy bottom up a couple of feet. The result looked natural and less cluttered, bringing a better balance to the landscaping. Mom and Dad were really pleased. Following my normal clean-up routine, I snipped the boughs into short lengths that could be compacted into the garbage can, which these days seems to be filling up long before pick-up day.
Preparing for the move, I wondered which room would be best for my bedroom. The basement bedroom is my favorite guest room because it is cooler, darker, more quiet, and more private—cave-like. The west-facing room with its big windows grows hot in summer. The other room has four bunk beds for when the grandchildren were younger. I decided that the basement would not do: if something went wrong in the night, I would not be able to immediately hear and respond. I consulted with Mom and Dad, and we decided to take the bunk beds down and move my bed in. They offered to let me use the larger (hotter) bedroom for my home office. The ceiling fan and window blinds will ease the heat. How gracious Mom and Dad were to volunteer this arrangement—it will work beautifully. The bedroom is simple, with my bed, dresser, and nightstand. The office has the only other furniture I brought: my 30-year-old first-ever kitchen table that my daughter Erin later refinished with black legs, dark wood-stain top, and painted flowers and vines, for my desk—at this desk, I typed the manuscripts of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road; a wood filing cabinet; a glass-doored book case for my current journals, writing projects, and reading list; and, the tall driftwood specimen Dad carried off Mount Timponogos in the 1950s and transformed into a gorgeous lamp. It sits on my great-grandfather Baker’s low, round, oak table with lathe-turned legs. I feel like I have come home.
When church services ended, Mom led me to choir practice, held in the home of a neighbor. The director was thrilled to have a new bass, and gave me a choir folder with my name on it, filled with favorites like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Consider the Lilies, and John Rutter’s I Will Sing with the Spirit. Mom was the ward choir director when I first started singing at the age of 12 in our New Jersey ward. I learned from her so much about the beauty, complexity, and dynamics of choral singing and conducting. She held this position for nine years. In my forties, I was asked to direct the choir in my Utah ward. I borrowed Mom’s choral music library, cleared the mental cobwebs, and put to work all the knowledge she taught me decades before. At the same time, I sang in a wonderful Salt Lake City community choir, learning even more. I have not sung with the church choir for a long time. While choral singing can be uplifting and therapeutic, too much pain kept me away from people for too long. I am happy to be singing again in the ward choir. And as Mom expressed in choir practice today, “I am so grateful to be singing.” Amen.
We drive 200 yards to church—walking is just not an option. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First, a little context. Our local church units are called wards. The ward one attends depends on where one lives. So, moving from Tooele to Sandy, my church record was transferred from the Westland Ward to the Crescent 18th Ward. A bishop presides over each ward. Every ward member is given the opportunity to contribute to the ward’s functioning (e.g., teaching youth classes) and to minister to the ward’s members. All ward members serve voluntarily, without pay. My first Sunday in the new ward, the bishop stood at the pulpit and invited to stand, telling the congregation of several hundred that I was new to the ward, and that I had moved in with my parents to help take care of them. As I stood up, I resisted the almost irresistible urge to tuck in my shirt and pull up my slacks. I am what I am; let them see me. I felt the unusual nature of my situation: an older single man moving in with his octogenarian parents. And I was sure Dad felt chagrined and being identified publicly as needing to be “taken care of.” But these are all good people, many of whom approached me after the meeting to welcome me enthusiastically into the ward. “I’m Brad.” “I’m Ann.” “I’m Bishop Callister.” “So glad to meet you. Your parents are such wonderful people.”
John Wayne stayed in Tooele, and Hannah went with her mom. But Brian and Avery came and to help me unload the truck. Lila (almost 2) ran around talking and playing and exploring and shyly approaching Mom and Dad, her great-grandparents. I had communicated, I was sure, with Mom and Dad about where I thought it best to store my belongings: in the main basement room against the east wall. In fact, I had not discussed it with them. I had only imagined discussing it, and had fabricated, apparently, a memory both of the conversation and of their assent. But this was not the storage location they preferred: putting my stuff there would turn their family gathering place into a storage room. I was stunned, not at their preference—it is their house and their space, and my obligation and opportunity to respect them. Rather, I was stunned at my having transformed the fantasy of my unuttered thoughts into the reality of a memory of a conversation that never took place. Dad pointed me to a small unfinished area of the basement I was confident would not fit my belongings. But I did some quick organizing, laid down my 2x4s, and got ready to bring in the boxes. I applied a wide strip of amazingly adhesive plastic down the stairs to the basement and up the stairs and down the hall to my room. I did not want the boot traffic and black dolly wheels to ruin the light-colored shag. Clanking down the stairs with boxes of books on the dolly was a chore straining our arms and legs and back. Brian and I were sore the next day! On the moving-in side, Brian and Avery were my heroes. By night’s end, I was, simply, exhausted, took two Aleve, and fell like a boulder into bed. But not without remembering sheepishly my first new-home blunder, committed before even moving in. I will need to be extra careful to clearly communicate so as to navigate my space while not infringing on theirs. Fortunately, Mom and Dad are generous, flexible, and forgiving.
Moving day finally came. I rented a 16-foot Penske truck from Home Depot, with a dolly—I was not going to schlep all those boxes of books one at a time. My son Brian (31) and daughter Hannah (15) volunteered to help me load the truck. I had been so focused on packing and cleaning that I neglected to ask for help loading the truck. Brian brought a friend he met years earlier in Oklahoma during his church missionary service. His Chinese name sounds like John Wayne, and he invited me to just call him that. Brian, Hannah, and John Wayne were heroic! We loaded a thousand boxes (actually 100) and a few pieces of furniture I am keeping. Most of my furniture and household furnishings I am leaving for Brian and Avery to use, since I will not need them (or have room for them) at Mom’s and Dad’s house.
Many poignant thoughts struck me as I drove the big truck away from Tooele to Sandy. (1) I am mourning leaving my apartment—my home. No matter how good the new circumstance, we often grieve the circumstance we leave behind. (2) Living alone in an apartment after 27 years of marriage was not my choice. But making that apartment my home was my choice. And I made it a beautiful, comfortable, safe, peaceful, happy home for myself, and for my children when they came to see me. (3) I struggle with transitions, that place of belonging neither here nor there, neither now nor then, of belonging to no place and no time. I am glad this transition is ending. (4) The last day in one place is as strange as first day in another. (5) I did it! I made it! I lived alone for six years after a traumatic divorce. And I made it through. Intact, even! Stronger! I emerged from a long, dark tunnel of trauma into the light of life and love, and even created my own light along the way.
I have kept a journal since I was a teenager in the late 1970s. My journal isn’t a diary of daily occurrences, but a collection of documents containing my thoughts, insights, struggles, joys, accomplishments, activities, and feelings, and those of others with whom I am closely connected, mostly family. All these documents go into one-inch black three-ring binders, the dates printed on the spines, lined on my bookshelves. Continue reading
My church encourages its members to have on hand one year’s supply of food in case of emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic affirmed that food storage isn’t a fool’s errand. After being counseled my whole life, and after six months of Covid, I finally started acquiring food storage. Not just staples, but things I would enjoy and that would be good for me. Canned: refried beans; sweet potatoes; mackerel; sweet corn; green beans; mandarin oranges; spaghetti sauce; diced tomatoes; black beans. Baking: flour; sugar; brown sugar; baking powder; corn meal; cassava flour; vegetable shortening; a gallon of vegetable oil; a gallon of corn syrup. Spices: garlic; onion; cinnamon. Bouillon cubes for chicken and beef broth. Pasta: angel hair (my favorite). Bottled water. Powdered milk. A stove in a can. Two hundred tea candles and pint-jar lanterns. I hope I don’t have to find out how long these stores, combined with their own, would last Mom, Dad, and me. But I have them just in case, in boxes, on shelves in Mom’s basement cold storage room.
My son, Brian Wallace Baker, a recent MFA graduate in creative non-fiction and poetry, wrote this kind post as a gift to me. I am deeply touched and grateful. Brian’s post:
As a writer, I think a lot about other writers, how some get big book deals, big prizes, and how even these writers aren’t household names. And it’s rare for a writer, no matter how popular, to be remembered beyond their generation. Thinking about this has made me realize that fame and success have little to do with being a good writer. There are so many good books out there, and more being written and published all the time, and most of them will have relatively small audiences. And that’s okay. I’ve learned that good writing has a lot more to do with changing hearts than it does with seeking fame and fortune.
I highly recommend this book. Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road can be purchased here: Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.
Thank you, Brian.
(Photo by Brian Baker.)
I packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
I work as a municipal attorney for a small Utah town, advising the elected Mayor and City Council, the Planning Commission, and City department heads. This has been my work for 28 years. I rarely plan my days, which unfold in a never-ending series of problems and challenges, demands and crises. (I disfavor the word “crisis,” which takes a mere situation and elevates it to a crisis, with all the increased stress of a crisis, instead of making the same situation simply something to solve.) Working 50 hours a week in Tooele, plus ten hours of commuting, would hardly be conducive to fulfilling my primary purpose to care for my parents. For the plan to work, I would need permission to work a flexible, non-traditional schedule. Again, I solicited family prayers. I presented my plan and my proposed schedule to my boss, the Mayor. She enthusiastically approved, and even thanked me for choosing to help my parents at this point in their lives. I will work four partial days a week in Tooele, plus remote hours from home on those days, plus working remotely from home on Fridays, and when needed on Saturdays. I will still attend City Council meetings on Wednesday nights—after a career of some 5,000 Wednesday-night meetings, I see my week as Wednesday to Tuesday instead of Sunday to Saturday. Anyway, this schedule, hopefully, will allow me both to work full-time and to be home enough to make a difference for Mom and Dad. To my eye, this is another miracle. If the schedule itself is not, the kindness certainly is.
For me to implement the plan, I would need at least two miracles. I consider a miracle to be a desirable occurrence which is beyond human ability to create, brought about by some benevolent force, providential or universal. In my belief system, miracles have a divine origin, manifesting a loving Divinity. The first miracle I would need involved my apartment lease, which I had just renewed for another year. Should I vacate early, my landlords could accelerate the remaining lease payments and demand the forbidding sum of $12,000. An absolute impossibility. I asked my siblings and children to join me in prayer to soften my landlords’ hearts, to allow me to vacate early. I wrote to my landlords about my situation, and my reasons for moving. They responded quickly, agreeing to let me leave without penalty. Coincidentally, my son Brian and his wife Avery and their darling daughter Lila (my first grandchild) had decided to move from Kentucky back to Utah, to be closer to family. But they had not succeeded in finding a place to live. Utah is experiencing a persistent housing gap, with about 50,000 more families looking for housing than there are houses to buy or rent, and with soaring prices. Not only did my landlords agree to let me terminate my lease early, they agreed to allow Brian and Avery to sign a lease for my apartment. And because I will not need my furnishings at Mom’s and Dad’s house, Brian and Avery will step into a fully-furnished and decorated apartment at no additional cost. As these two critical pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I gave thanks in prayer for the blessings. An elegant, perfect, miraculous turn of events. Only one more major miracle was needed.
#5. My sister Sarah bought Mom and Dad a Facebook Portal, although they struggle with technology and do not want “a Facebook.” The Portal sits like a small TV screen on their kitchen table. Having my siblings’ blessing, I felt an urgency to talk with Mom and Dad immediately about my proposal to move in with them—so many puzzle pieces would need to fall into place in the right order—but I did not want to have such an important conversation on the phone, and right then I could not drive the hour each way to visit them in person. Why not use the Portal? When Mom and Dad answered, I saw them sitting big as life at their kitchen table. They lifted their heads slightly from looking through scalloped bifocals. They could see me at my desk in Tooele with my law certificates, plants, books, family photos, and Van Gogh paintings around me. For me, too, the bifocal tilt. I explained my concerns about their welfare and my proposal to move from my home to theirs, to help them live comfortably and safely in their home for as long as they wished. I mustered my most persuasive presentation, anxious about how they might react. Happily, Mom seemed relieved, and said simply, “Thank you, son. That would be wonderful.” Dad seemed grateful, but concerned—for me. We talked things through—my move, my commute, my work, my parenting with Hannah—and they agreed to the proposal. The plan was now in motion.
#4. Despite my conviction of needing to help Mom and Dad, I had to make sure my siblings agreed with the plan. I wrote to my four sisters and only brother to express my concerns for Mom’s and Dad’s health and safety (concerns they all shared), and to seek their blessing for me to move in. As a career municipal attorney, I have seen too many instances of children and grandchildren moving in with their parents and grandparents, manipulating them, taking advantage of them, and taking their money and property. Though my siblings know I am not such a person, still I felt it necessary to have their consent for me to assume such a trusted position with their parents. All five wrote back to me with love and gratitude and support. Megan wrote, “I support you 110%.” Carolyn wrote, “We are behind you.” Sarah, Jeanette, and Steven also gave their enthusiastic support. I knew that with their love and trust, perhaps I could do this. Their blessing in hand, now it was time to consult with Mom and Dad.
#3. The need is now. I am pondering the circumstances of my availability to leave my own home and to live with my parents in theirs. I find myself divorced and living alone. My seven children are mostly raised, with the youngest learning to drive. Five years have been sufficient to transition out of the trauma of exile and isolation. In those years I focused on healing, and too much, perhaps, on my own life, my little knick knacks, my art on the walls, my books, my mountain bike, my blog, my baking, my time, my my my . . . . It is time, perhaps, to look more outward, more toward the welfare of someone other than myself. And it is time for me to be available to do what I can do. My siblings are dedicated, loving persons, and could do so much better at caregiving than me. They already do so much. But they are not available to do some of what requires doing. I am available. So, the privilege and the responsibility are mine, and I cheerfully accept.
#2. I had planned to move in with Mom and Dad, if need be, in about a year, after my lease expired. But the evil lawn mower incident convinced me to move immediately. Dad loves his lawn: a source of pride and joy and exercise. Monthly fertilizer has yielded a deep emerald green turf, which Dad cuts twice a week on his riding mower. Plus: string trimming, driveway edging, shrub shaping, limb pruning, and dandelion digging—spread throughout the week in manageable increments. The push mower is for the corners the riding mower won’t reach. When Dad was pushing the mower downhill toward the garage one day, it ran away from him and dumped him on the concrete driveway. Providentially, Dad broke no bones. I knew that a broken hip or leg, or a blow to the head, could have been the beginning of the end, with long-term convalescence away from home. When they told me what had happened, I received a sudden conviction: now was the time—immediately—to move in with Mom and Dad and do what I could to keep them in their home for the remainder of their days (may they be long).
Courage at Twilight: An Introduction
Day #1. I knew the day would come. The day when my vibrant marathon-running violin-playing father and mother would grow old, grow feeble, stumble and fall. And I wondered how I could feebly stumble in my filial role to give them care. I am older than I thought parents could get, and certainly not me: a near-60 divorced lawyer writer mountain biker. One day it became clear the solution to the problem was to move in with my parents and provide for them the best care I knew how. And I knew writing would help me understand the experience. Join me as I travel this unfamiliar road, through short daily vignettes, to contribute to the quality of life of my aging parents, and to make sense of my life as they journey toward their life’s end and beyond.
August 1, 2021
My subject today is swearing. And cussing. I am writing not about profanity in general but my own too-personal relationship with four-letter words. Of course, my church weighs in decidedly against profanity, and my parents reinforced this teaching in our home. Not what goes into my mouth defiles me, but what comes out of my mouth. Jesus taught this truth one thousand nine hundred and ninety-five years ago, thereabouts. Defiles . . . and defines. I grew up knowing that swearing was bad, and I did not want to be bad, so I did not swear. Then one day Continue reading
Assault with a Deadly Weapon
Well, children, that was my very first trial. Assault with a deadly weapon. What a disaster!
* * * * *
“Here are your cases for the week,” the secretary sighed, bored. “You have a trial today. Have fun.” The other prosecutors cheered when I was hired because hundreds of their cases shifted from their desks to mine. I was so new I had to ask directions to the courthouse. I drove my grandma’s 1970 v8 Chevy Nova—it purred in idle and roared on demand.
I first saw that first case on the day of trial. Continue reading
The Colonel invited the Mayor and her staff for a day-long tour of Dugway Proving Ground. Finally, I would have the chance to pass through the heavily-guarded gates and see Utah’s legendary Area 52. “Let’s get a few things out of the way,” the Colonel began. “Yes, we have the aliens. Yes, we have the UFOs. And, yes, we have secret tunnels connecting us to Area 51.” I knew, of course, he must be joking, of course, but he was a U.S. Army Colonel, Commander of the nation’s advanced biological and chemical weapons defensive testing facility. “I’m joking, of course.” Continue reading
Learning to Speak Goose
Kayaking for the two-dozenth time on the same stretch of the Jordan River, a natural phenomenon new to me showed itself as I paddled along upstream. The river is full of such surprises, which it gives me the honor of witnessing, a few at a time, so as not to overwhelm my feelings of wonder, and not to dull my sense of the miraculous. A gander, a Canada Goose, led a small pre-fledged gaggle of goslings upriver, the mama goose in the place of caboose. I approached them carefully, paddling slowly against the current, to say hello. And they responded by gathering speed and flicking their beaked heads nervously this way and that. Though of course I had no intention of hurting them or frightening them, or even teasing them, nature dictated that they fear me. And rightly so, for I am sure I seemed to them a giant malevolent alien goose-hunting weapon-wielding creature, easily capable of ending their lives. The gander knew I was gliding faster than he could ever swim, and abandoned his effort to outpace me. Switching strategies, he prepared for flight—a smart plan, with a good chance of success, since he could fly infinitely faster and higher than I could fly, though I wondered about his abandonment. But he could not seem to launch, instead flapping his wings loudly and frantically on the water, as if hurt.
That Mr. Gander sure tricked me. He fooled me good. His antics made focusing on him irresistible. Finally yanking my attention away from the frantic papa goose, I looked back to the mama goose and goslings to see how they fared, but saw only fading ripples. They were gone, disappeared, and did not reappear while I sat and drifted, befuddled. Resuming my upstream slog, I almost failed to notice the same number of goslings of the same age and fuzziness ensconced safely behind a leafy branch hanging low over the bank, some one hundred feet from the dive: clearly the same goslings who gave me the slip while I focused on the feigning father. That gander had drawn my whole attention to him, for the sake and safety of his little ones, his progeny, and his mated partner. I had failed to understand that by slapping his wings on the water he was signaling his objection to my invasion of family space, and warning me to keep away. I had ignored his clear Goose-speak (I really need to learn Goose), and he had water-slapped away, not abandoning his family (of course), but protecting his family. I will keep my distance next time the wings beat on the water, and respect the family space. The Jordan is goose home, after all, and I am just a curious occasional uninformed rather rudely interloping human, who doesn’t know the language.
(The Jordan River, named by 1840s Mormon pioneers fleeing to Utah from religious persecution in the frontier United States, flows north from the freshwater Utah Lake into the vast fishless Great Salt Lake, reminding the refugees of the homeland of their God Jesus.)
Black Ice on the 72nd West Bridge
November 13. A Thursday night in 2014. And John calls.
Dad, I hit some black ice and rolled the truck.
John, who was born in my bed after the big doula yanked behind her knees and pivoted her pelvis to get him out of there, all purple.
Are you okay? Are you hurt? What happened? Is there anyone with you? Are you hurt!!
I’m okay, Dad. I’m with some firemen. Can you come get me, Dad?
We’re leaving right now. If the truck will start, hop back in and keep warm.
Dad, I am not getting back in that truck.
Okay, I understand. Stay warm. Stay with the firemen. Don’t worry about the pick-up.
John, who the nurses wheeled away for the surgeon to dig a tumor out of his arm at Primary Children’s. They filled the void with paste made from crushed cadaver bones, and the arm grew rock-climber strong and tae-kwon-do blackbelt tough.
There he was, by the fire truck, its red-and-white flashers blaring over the dark landscape. After hugs and are-you-sure-you’re-okays, I searched for my white Chevy Cheyenne pick-up truck, and found it, crushed and mangled, at the bottom of an embankment resting against tall reeds and rushes. It glowed in the night in flashes of red.
I don’t know what happened, Dad. I wasn’t speeding, honest. There was no snow or rain or fog. When I started to cross the bridge the truck just slid side-ways and rolled and rolled and I crawled out and the fire truck came and I called you.
I stared hard at the pick-up then turned to John with a choking love and worry, knowing now he should not have walked away from that truck. I side-stepped down the hill for a closer look. The cab was crushed. The windows smashed. The doors twisted shut. How did he even get out? And I am carrying little John in one arm while the other wrestles the 5 hp garden tiller. And we are loading logs on the hydraulic splitter and stacking and stacking that winter’s wood. And we are assembling the bouldering wall he designed. And we are pedaling our mountain bikes seven miles up the canyon’s Dark Trail. And he is guiding his frightened little sister up the rough multi-pitch rock.
How did you get out, son?
I don’t know, Dad.
And I am stupefied and paralyzed with the horror and grief of what might have been and should have been and nearly was, but wasn’t. And I am stunned and speechless with the mystery and miracle of what is.
“How does this work?” I asked at the wrecking yard. “You give me the title, and we waive the tow fee and the storage fee.”
Done. On the drive home I stopped at the scene. There were the tracks of the front and back tires sliding at an angle into the gravel shoulder. There were the launch marks where the truck left the ground. There was the crash point where the cab struck and crushed, and the gouge where the side mirror dug in. And there were the roll marks and roll marks and roll marks. I had turned tracker, reading the scars in the soil and the fractured grass straws. The only mark on his body was the striped seatbelt bruise.
There the truck had sat, after three complete rolls, the crushed and mangled truck, the truck John was not getting back into to stay warm, the truck he does not know how he crawled out of. And tracking back up the hill I picked up the coins from the spare change bin and the rearview mirror and the individually packaged Lifesaver mints for driving with dates and the loose axe head I found at the county dump and thought I might re-handle but never did – all flying around the cab, around his skull – and his Black Diamond beanie which cushioned his head when he broke the driver side window, and lots and lots of pieces of windshield glass. And I gathered it all up and saved it to remember the blessing of my boy crawling out of that crushed and mangled pick-up truck. And now he is married to his sweetheart and they hope to bring babies into this world to love and teach and guide as they grow. And I am stunned and speechless – still – with the mystery and miracle of what is.
John and Alleigh Baker (August 2020)
Bless You, Keep You
We converged on Atlantic City, from every high school in the state. Not to gamble or surf or sunbathe: we came together to sing. I practiced for weeks for the tryouts, and somehow, with my teacher’s encouragement and training, the judges selected me: to sing in the New Jersey All-State Chorus. Three days in Atlantic City in 1980, rehearsing, perfecting, bringing together pitch and tempo and nuance, four hundred voices moving together as four, like the ocean in its swelling and racing and tumbling and calm. We gathered for dinner in the ballroom, the first night, seated and hungry at round tables with white tablecloths. I was accustomed to prayer in my home over steaming meals, asking the Father in the name of the Son to bless the food for our nourishment and health and strength and wisdom and protection, though I did not expect prayer would be offered that night at the hotel in Atlantic City – would one say Lord Jesus or Adonai or Allah…? Would one say Amen? But then the room eased into spontaneous song, a prayer sung, without accompaniment, only song. Soft and gentle. The Lord bless you and keep you. I did not know this hymn. I had never heard this hymn. Slow and reverent. The Lord lift his countenance upon you. How could I never have heard this melodic sweetness? From the first notes I felt swept away toward some immense imminent mysterious culmination of Beauty and Spirit. Even the syncopated coun-te-nance trickled into a soft pool of silence suspending the line in time, bridging to the next but savoring the sound of now before moving on. Lifting and lofty. And give you peace. And give you peace. A Numbers 6:24 blessing pronounced upon the children of Mosaic Israel. An anno domini 1900 blessing of peace composed by choirmaster-professor-dean Peter C. Lutkin. An offering of peace composed for the first American a cappella choir. And here we were, an a cappella choir of 400 souls singing his benediction. The Lord make his face to shine upon you. And in that moment the face of God and the love of God and the beauty of God felt so exquisitely real. And be gracious. The Lord be gracious unto you. And I knew God was gracious for allowing me to receive this song. And all of this lyrical melodic harmonic beauty presaged a chorus of the glorious folding swelling four-voiced sevenfold A-m-e-n rising to permeate the grand hall and press against constraining ceilings and walls, hovering, hovering, and slowly settling with one long low final A – m – e – n – softly upon the soul, the beautiful wave foregoing its crash and roil to resolve imperceptibly into receiving coastal sands. And as the sound waned, I sat bewildered and weeping, and wondering what miraculous extraordinary thing had just graced the world, and the utter hush that followed.
Enjoy this inspiring two-minute rendition of Peter Lutkin’s benediction The Lord Bless You and Keep You sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Lead photo by my son Caleb James Baker of southern Utah (c).
Car Wash at Yankee Stadium
He took us boys to the new stadium to cheer for our baseball team, the New York Yankees, and our favorite slugger-star Reggie Jackson. We brought our mitts for long foul balls and dreamed of aromatic hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard. He drove the biggest, longest, squarest car I have ever seen or sat in, his Lincoln Continental Town Car. At a red Bronx semaphore near Yankee Stadium, tall lanky dark men in white tank tops emerged from their bivouacs with buckets of soapy water and squeegees in both hands and hurry in both feet. Without inquiry or consent they washed and wiped every window on the enormous car, even the two little luxury-liner portholes. “You don’t say no,” Leon chuckled to us over his shoulder. “And you had better pay.” He did not say No. He did smile and say Thank You. And he paid. And he drove away and told us of a driver who said once “I don’t want you to wash my windows” and who got his windows washed anyway and who pulled away without paying and who got his windows smashed. He stamped a period on the story: “You don’t say no.” And his story stamped on me a fear of Black men with squeegees and clubs.
Sundown on Sunday on the Washington Bridge mid-town, and the Audi breaks down, and two white kids are standing scared by the Audi with its hood up and steam hissing, and wondering what to do, and wondering how long it will be before they get mugged on a Sunday night in New York. And this old Puerto Rican cabbie stops to see what’s the problem. A hose is cracked and steaming, and the brown cabbie takes me searching for an open auto parts store on a Sunday night with the sun going down, and store after store is closed, of course, but he keeps driving me deeper into mid-town and up into up-town and finally we find an open store, and it has the right hose, and I buy it. And the cabbie talks with me about my family and his family and my life and his life and my job as a student and his job as a cab driver and takes me back to the Audi and we clamp on the new hose and the car starts right up. And the cabbie smiles and waves good-bye and says buenas noches and will not take the money I am holding out to him, and he drives away and is gone. The nicest man I ever met. An old brown man helping a couple of scared white kids in trouble in Manhattan.
Sorting people, brothers and sisters, by the colors of their skin, by the shapes of their noses, by their eyes slanting up or down. Measures absurd and obtuse to weigh human worth! The squeegee washers want what I want. And the cab drivers and bakers and shoe shiners and hot dog sellers: they want it, too. They want family and love and affirmation and security and opportunity – and fairness. So, if you are looking for me, you might find me driving around town looking for brothers and sisters whose hoses are cracked, and taking them to find the open store, and we will chat and chuckle, and I will accept their thanks, but decline their green, with grace.
Roger Baker is a career municipal attorney and hobby writer. He is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
Gunshot at Grandma
Grandma recounted how the revolver exploded like a last horrible heartbeat, how the bullet breezed her bangs as it bansheed by, and she showed me the bullet hole in the bedroom door, the door to that space where lovers should love with gentle minds and searching hearts. The blue-hats told him knowingly to go “walk around the block” and “cool off,” as if overheating were his problem and all he needed was a little cool to salve the steam, but they would not see that the radiator was cracked and fouled.
In the mists of memory the boy came home from elementary school to an empty house and mixed flour with salt and cold shortening and cold water, and stewed a handful of raisins, and baked a raisin pie, and nibbled as he sat in the overstuffed chair and rocked away the silent hours. The butcher knife leveled at the boy now a man because he dared to say no more hitting and to stand his ground and stare the knifer down and say No More Hitting! until the tyrant dropped the weapon and walked away. There was thereafter no more hitting.
Grandma stood with me by her bedroom door as she recounted the revolver, and I cannot say for certain, now, whether the bullet hole was in that very door or in the vision of the storied door branded in my brain, in another bedroom, in another house, in another city, in another time, my vision of her memory merged with the immediate door of here – and I knew it did not matter, for the hole in the door was real, and the breeze of the bullet was real, and the ear-bursting bang of the gun was real, and the grimacing man was real, the overheated man steaming from the unbearable burden of her, my Grandma, making it her fault she was nearly murdered in her own bedroom. To murder was not his purpose, of course, rather to compel the belief that he could and would if she stepped out of line. To make her cower.
My Grandma (1909-1994)
Roger Baker is a career municipal attorney and hobby writer. He is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
Windmill on the Coast of Portugal
Whistle and whoosh come from the aged acrylic, old plywood behind, the building white and blue, though the eight arms stretch suspended and still, hung on my wall in a frame, and I remember these thirty years yet. Clack . . . Clack . . . Clack . . . round and round turned the granite circle stone, heavier than heavy, lifted once with a wooden windlass crane to the third-floor attic where eight men heaved and pushed and positioned this stone atop another: only the upper stone turned. And the clacking stick jiggled the chute and the wheat stones drip-dropped into the center and ground and gristed into white farinha powder to mix with water and yeast and salt and oil to ferment and bloat into the steaming aromatic crisp and chew of bread. The noise of fitting wood cogs and turning and grinding stones heavy as mountains and the incessantly clacking stick, and outside: the sails, four of them, white canvas, catching the Atlantic and whooshing wildly around with insistent hurricane power, and I knew if I stood errantly and a long arm struck, I would be flung clear to Madeira. And the jars, those terra cotta jars, an angry orchestra of clay shrieking in thirds and fifths and octaves as they led the sails and followed the circling sails. I did climb the stone stairs inside the round stone walls to watch everything spinning, the cogs and the wheels and the stones and the central beam – even the roof rotated to bring about the sails – with clouds of choking kernel dust – that central beam one foot square pointing a mile toward the sea, the great roiling ocean of Magalhães and Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu from whose ship sterns the lusty homesick men watched the sails shrinking and waiving interminably, the shrieking jugs weakened to whispers and then gone, the tiny sails waiving in circles to the big caravel sails on the sea.
(Title painting by Erin Baker)
Half the Student Body
“If we had known the severity of your handicap, you would not have been admitted.” That is what the law school averred, in 1960, when he was wheeled into class – speaking intentionally in the passive, because he could not wheel himself, nor could he write or type, turn the pages of his textbooks, raise his hand in class, feed himself, or use the restroom. “We don’t have the facilities for you.”
Our anger was a fury sparked by profound injustices.
And with that rage we ripped a hole in the status quo.
But having arrived somehow at the school, he kept rolling on.
I call for a revolution that will empower every single human being
to govern his or her life.
Roommates hoisted him to the floor and turned on the shower so he could roll around to bathe. Women gathered at his door each morning to greet him and push him to campus. Law students took long notes longhand, holding them up for him to memorize one page at a time.
Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.
At the phrase “I need to” Nelson took him to the restroom, lifted him from his chair, lowered his trousers, clasped him from behind to hold him up at the urinal, or set him on the commode, then tidied and dressed him and took him back to class.
I am different, not less.
Sitting at a study table, when he sneezed from a cold, his head flopped over and hit the table with a bang. He lifted his head just in time for another sneeze and thump. A clang every time. One could not very well hold his head all afternoon in anticipation of a sneeze. The sneeze simply erupted when it wished, with a heavy clonk on hardwood.
I’m already healed. Just because I can’t walk doesn’t mean I’m not whole.
He graduated from college. He slogged through law school. He was their friend, and they were his friends. They helped him: half the student body. He ennobled them by inviting them to join him on his journey.
When everyone else says you can’t, determination says, YES YOU CAN.
A student in a wheelchair, whose name I never knew. He graduated from that law school where they tried to tell him No. He became an attorney in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. And he married a lovely girl. And he fathered dear children. And he lived a life full and long.
Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.
Quotations from these Powerful Able-Disabled:
Roger is a municipal attorney, homebody poet and essayist, and amateur naturalist. Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.
Jordan River Cantor
Tonight I kayaked on the Jordan hoping to see a beaver, for lately I have noticed bits of beaver sign, like newly-gnawed box elder bark, and willow stems sheered with a single toothy slice. Porter’s Landing offers a rubber launching mat, a picnic table pavilion, and a merciful portable toilet: I put in there. I paddled hard upstream, tense and anxious for wanting to arrive, to see a beaver. But I regrouped and reminded: when I want to see wildlife, I must release my need to see wildlife. One cannot ever coerce an encounter: one must allow to happen whatever wishes to happen. Soon I settled into a smooth rhythmic stride.
Garish orange-black orioles chittered at me from the treetops. Goldfinch on an eye-level branch watched me paddle by. Great blue heron glided slowly in, dangling long gangly landing gear. Cormorant, oil-black, rounded a bend low over the river then veered sharply away. Kingfisher kept a hundred feet upstream, scolding with each irritated launch. Canada Goose parents with six fuzzy new goslings paddled single file, an adult fore and aft. Wild iris sprouted in clumps near the bank boasting delicate butter-cream flowers. The river was calm and beautiful and slack and dark as the sun began to sink.
One hour upstream would see me back just before dark. And at that one-hour mark a willow switch swam slowly against the current and stopped at a grass-hidden bank. I glided slowly by, and there sat a beaver, upright on her haunches in the shallows munching. A beaver! Alive and real and close and wondrous – two famous enormous buck teeth, long tawny whiskers, tiny black-bead eyes, little round ears, rust-red fingers holding the branch just like I would hold a branch. She chewed quickly and loudly and contentedly, completely unaware of my ogling. But when she heard me she straightened and turned slowly and dove, nonchalant, and as she dove she raised her tail lazily and slapped the water with a cross crack.
My encounter with the beaver felt beautiful and personal and honorific and close. I will take Hannah tomorrow. We will ride our bicycles on the riverside trail, and I will show her where I saw the beaver. We will sit on the trail above the bank and munch our sandwiches and whisper to each other until she comes.
I hope to see you soon. Love always,
Caymmi crooning How sweet to die at sea, singing the anguish and longing of the fisherman’s widow and mother and child. On the green waves of the sea. Painting with his guitar. Sculpting with song. He sings the good souls of the penurious pescador, fishermen, uncut gemstones, too often squandered at sea – singing the unsung. He made his bed in the bosom of Iemanjá, the great sea goddess of African Candomblé. Take a four-logged Asian jang, add logs five and six for a Brazilian jangada, a poor man’s fishing skiff. Launch at sunset into the surf and the curious sail hauls him out 75 miles, six logs and a sail and a fisherman, inconsequential specks on an unending ocean, under starlight, under storm. The ocean wrenches his soul toward fishing. Watch over our pescador, Lady of the Sea. Bring our boy home. His name is Chico Ferreira e Bento – my Chico. Bring his jangada home. And the storm arose and the ocean swelled into roiling liquid mountains and that little flat raft bobbed and dipped and splintered and flung Chico into the bosom of Iemenjá. And his jangada, the Pôr do Sol – Sunset – tumbled to shore two days after, with no Chico, with no Chico. When the fisherman leaves, he never knows if he will return. His mother kneels in the surf, Crying as if not crying. Logs fastened with hardwood pegs and hemp fiber lashings and an upstretched sail of stitched cloth. The fisherman has two loves: One on land, and One at sea. On a plywood square a student poured glue and meted colored gravel carefully for a sandy surf and a tumbling blue and that creamy sail turned upward to the sky, wind-bent and heavy, and the brown fishermen working nets and lines and paddle and sail. The glue and the gravel lie fixed but I hear the water flowing and the sand shifting and the men whistling about the big fish they will heft home for their Chiquinha and Iaiá, their children, to eat, and the big fish they will sell for food and school books and a trinket or two on their birthdays. I went for a walk one day, and every path led to the sea. He who comes to the sea will never wish to forsake her. Sail home, Chico: sail your jangada home.
Artwork above by my father, Owen Nelson Baker, when a post-graduate student in Brazil.
Caymmi released his LP Dorival Caymmi E Seu Violão in 1956, each song a story of the hopes and griefs of poor Brazilian fishermen and their loved ones, and of the ocean’s capricious waters, both treacherous and divine. I still have the old vinyl LP, pictured here. These songs have stirred my soul longer and more deeply than any other music. The italicized lyrics in the essay, above, are my translations from the Portuguese. You can hear some of Caymmi’s folk songs here:
An Essay on Reptiles
by Amy, age 9
I am going to tell you my opinion about why you should own a reptile. First, some reptiles are smart. Reptiles that are smart could be a bearded dragon, a snake, and a lot of others. Next, there are lots of reptiles you could choose from. You could own a bearded dragon, any type of snake, a frog, or any other type of reptile. Last, reptiles are very cute. All of the reptiles in the whole world are cute. I hope you like my opinion about reptiles. I hope you learned something new, maybe you found a reptile you want, and maybe you even found a reptile you’ve never heard of. I hope you have fun with your reptile if you ever get one.
Needles and knives. Maori face chisels. Dark ink and scars. Tattoo – from tatu of Tahiti, tatau of Samoa, Tongan tatatau – from the tapping tools of tattoo. Symbols of virtue and strength worn by warriors and kings, mariners and queens. Tattoo from before prehistory. Tattoo for souls lost, and found. Four inked stories in swirls and silks and symbols, the what and why of four lives, seeking and finding, declaring this is me. Their lost-and-won battles, their peoples, their idyls – in tattoo. These four I know and admire. These four I love. My canvass is empty: I wear my scars inside. These four exhibit their beautiful selves in tattoo. Ways to be.
Paul and His Victory over the God of Death
I had wanted a tattoo for years, but couldn’t decide on what I wouldn’t regret. We weren’t happy together, and when we separated, I should have been happy alone – I was free – but the darkness closed in and accused, “You’re a failure. Failure. You don’t matter. You should just kill yourself.” Why is suicide always on the table? I don’t want to die. I drove down dark streets fighting with the voice that wanted me to end it all. And then, there was the parlor, and he said he had a cancellation so he had time for me, and I knew, finally, suddenly, what it was to be. I want these words and I wrote them on a paper scrap, and he said, Sure, but we’re going to make it art, not just words, ok? Okay. I might have given in, given up, but everything fell into place and the words came, the words that saved my life, and today I wear these strong words: What do we say to the God of Death? Not today! I don’t know where they came from, they just came, like electricity, like a bright light, like instantaneous knowledge: a revelation. And I felt whole. And I knew I mattered.
Todd the Bear
Dude, I am the bear. I always walked through life’s pine-tree wilderness alone, not needing anyone – or so I thought – and all the time I felt sad and worthless and flawed and needing others desperately, and clawing my way through the thorny crushing wild. I am still that bear, but I no longer walk alone. My loved ones: they are the birds overhead always. I know I am not alone. I know I can make it. But I am still the bear, and I have to make my own way through this dense forest. The paw prints on the path are mine – no one makes them for me – and the directions I travel are mine. The choice is always mine. The path unfolds before me even as I choose it.
Sione’s Island Home
Io. This tattoo is my island, and my family and my clan. My family name means We who carry Kings on our Boats on the Sea. These sea turtles are symbols of my island. These are my people, who fish and sail the sea and climb the coconut palm barefoot and grind the meat and press the milk and drink the ground kava and remember the sacrifice and sadness where the tree first grew. These patterns here, we put them on the big tapa cloth with black hibiscus dye and red hibiscus dye. I am in my people and my people are in me. Io. Malo.
Liddy, Her Angels Entwined
I wore a tiny silver cross, wore it always in faith and in supplication for those I loved, for those I wanted to see protected and blessed, a silver cross on a silver chain around my neck always. One day I sent it to you, my silver cross, to you, because I just knew you needed something special from me, that the tiny silver cross would be your blessing now. And I wear these angels, gently entwined, entwined in the idyl of love, enwrapped in the gift of each other. I wear these angels like I wore the cross, to believe down deep, to cherish, to remember that love is the key, the only key, to that door in the sky. These angels I wear for you – and for everyone – and for me.
Prayer was opaque. Holy writ just words. I did not know where God was. We lifted things from the cardboard box, cupping them like fragile hatchling chicks: ukulele – senior yearbook – prom photo – drawings and doodlings – Church worthiness card – Eagle Scout medal – employee-of-the-month certificate – Godzilla action figure – hoodies and pajamas, smelling of him, a good clean smell. We planted a linden tree, tall and straight, ringed with daffodils. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t have any sharp edges. Not. One. The only thing I hated about him was that he hated himself. I have to wonder if one more text, one more call, one more conversation or smile or hug might have tipped the scales. You slipped a letter in before the casket closed and asked him to remember playing Legos in Grandma’s basement and having play fights with Godzilla. A small thing, you said. I am numb and sick and angry and sick and numb. A man told me once, I am going to walk through that door, and when I do, the darkness will not come through with me. And the man walked through the door, and the darkness had to stay behind. Fight to choose light over darkness. Always. But our boy was not that strong, yet. A finger twitched. A demon slug. In the end, all we can do to make a difference in this world is to love. In your quiet times, you will feel a sweetness in your heart, a soft presence, and you will know it is him. And then, that Church conference on YouTube with the whole world watching during Covid-19 and the audience stayed home to watch and the tabernacle choir stayed home to watch, but recorded choirs sang from conferences past: and there he was, on the back row by the big organ pipes in his black suit, singing and singing and alive! Our angel alive and singing.
This piece is a word collage gathering the expressions and feelings and images of many family members surrounding our beloved Korey following his death by suicide. We love him, and feel him with us still, and always.