I had taken Avery’s chili dinner to Sarah and Tracy, and read picture books with Gabe. Dealing with cancer treatments, they appreciated the meal. Arriving home, I could smell that Dad had gotten dinner ready: grilled bratwurst, baked squash, boiled cauliflower, sautéed onions—a feast! Forking a brat off the grill, I noticed a foreign electrical cord connected to the grill. Looking under the grill surface into the drip pan, I saw the correct cord, where I had stored it, covered in hot grease. I commented my relief that the foreign cord had worked, and lifted the grill surface to retrieve the hot, greasy cord. When Dad saw he had grilled not only the brats but the power cord, he let out a dismayed “Oh shit.” Not in anger, but in chagrined exasperation that he likely had ruined my cord. “I feel so bad I cooked your cord,” he lamented later. I told him not to worry, that now we knew other cords would work, and anyway the cooked cord looked no worse for the grilling. Nothing had melted or burned. I suspected when cooled and washed up, the cord would work just fine. And now Mom and Dad know I store the power cord inside the grill unit when not in use, where understandably one would not think to look for it. And the bratwurst were grilled to plump juicy perfection.
Mom and I are recycling buddies, distressed by the thought of recyclable paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal cans being dumped by the billions into landfills. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable: each can recycled results in a new can. We fill two large green recycling containers throughout the week, and set them by the curb on Sunday night for Monday morning pickup. Even the toilet tissue tube is remembered. If the wind is blowing on Sunday, we wait for early Monday, because during one storm all the containers on the street blew over, sending recyclables sprawling across the neighborhood. E.P.A. reports that Americans discard more than 2,000,000 tons of aluminum cans each year—that’s 40 billion pounds, enough aluminum to rebuild the nation’s entire commercial airline fleet every three months. I am astounded that we dig the stuff up out of the earth, refine it, shape it into packaging—all at huge cost—and then use it and throw it away so more of it can be mined at huge cost. About 30,000,000 tons of plastic go to U.S. landfills each year. To me, it makes so much sense to reuse these materials. I choose to stow my cynicism about the American recycling industry, hoping it becomes more robust instead of diverting our recyclables to the landfill. Anyway, Mom and I have fun saving our clean recyclables for the weekly recycling truck. My sister Megan takes our glass bottles to a glass recycler. We like to believe we are doing something good for our planet.
Living now with my parents, I cannot fathom the reality that we had no family gatherings with Mom and Dad for 18 months due to Covid-19. My sister Sarah grocery shopped for them every Saturday during those months. I cooked for them on occasion. We always wore masks and washed and sanitized our hands and kept our distance—no hugs (except for “air hugs”). My siblings called Mom and Dad frequently, sometimes daily. Sarah, as a speech pathologist, works at a critical care facility with people who suffer from conditions affecting their communication and swallowing. While donning head-to-toe personal protective equipment, she watched Covid rage through her patients, ending the lives of too many. My siblings and I all understood and respected that if Mom and Dad contracted Covid in their aged and weakened conditions, we likely would lose them, as so many thousands lost members of their families. To keep them safe, we did our little part to stop the spread, following all the recommended precautions, putting philosophy and politics aside in the interest of safety. Mom and Dad received their first Pfizer vaccine at a huge convention center. Hundreds of old and infirm people stood for hours in long lines, walking from station to station around the entire perimeter of the hall—fully a mile. Dad thought his cane would do, but shortly into the ordeal he confided to me, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” I had him sit down while I ran for a wheelchair. They received their third shot this week at a local health department facility, walking 20 feet past the front door to their seats, with no wait. What a difference between the two experiences! But in all three cases, the nursing staff were so kind and pleasant and helpful. After all the family members were fully vaccinated, we began to visit again. My sister Jeanette recently came to visit from Arizona for a week. We cooked together and played Scattergories and drove to see the fall leaves in the mountain forests. And we broke out the fall crafts: wood pumpkins, a harvest-themed wreath, and a tall scarecrow. My niece Amy joined in, painting the eyes black and the nose orange. How grateful we are to be safe, healthy, and together again.
My first ever attempt at a wreath.
“I wish I could do more for you,” Mom lamented one recent afternoon. “I am so sorry for all the mistakes I made as a mother.” For a moment I stood stunned at the revelation of my 82-year-old mother’s insecurity, especially as incongruous as it was with my memory of reality. Mom gave her whole soul to being a mother. Hot whole-wheat gruel steamed on the table before school, and she served a delicious dinner at precisely 6:00 p.m., every day. She washed by basketball socks and took me to buy my first pair of Levi’s. She gathered us every Sunday afternoon to play games—PIT was a favorite, with six kids clamoring cacophonously for “wheat!” and “rye!” and “barley!” The family car ran night and morning with rides to and from marching band practice, piano lessons, and early morning Bible class. I sat at the kitchen table one evening struggling with my homework, trying to remember the Spanish word for pain—dolor. She surprised me by bursting out protectively, “You know: dolor, just like Delores!” referring to my painfully unrequited infatuation for a girl at church. I never again forgot that word! She nursed me through dozens of ear infections and serious injuries followed by surgeries and staff. She organized a family vacation to the magical woods of Maine, and I have loved loons since. She even gave me an enema (my most embarrassing life memory) when I writhed from what the doctor arrogantly insisted was constipation but was in truth an appendix about to burst. And at 82 she says good-bye with “I can’t wait to see you when you come home!” and greets me after work with “There’s my boy!” Once again she is providing a safe and comfortable home for me, and listens without upbraid to her children in all their multitudinous troubles. “What mistakes?” I asked her sincerely. “I cannot remember any.” Even were they present, and I presume they were, they are long forgotten. We six siblings, and our numerous offspring, all cherish her. It is our turn now to wish we could do more for her.
I have said good-bye to Settlement Canyon and my seven-mile mountain bike ride. I knew every rock and root of the Dark Trail, every low tree limb and snagging wild rose. How I loved that trail. I rode that trail with Hannah and my sons Brian, John, Caleb, and Hyrum during the exile years. I have ridden in snow and mud and scorching heat. I have ridden past meadows of sego lily, taper tip onion, and glacier lily. I have ridden with pronking deer and flustered turkey and migrating tarantulas. And there was that day I startled a merlin with its taloned prey still dripping blood. The Dell in Sandy is close to my new home, but its deep sand sucks at my tires and the river cobbles buck me off. Dad used to run in the Dell, a nature area with deep sandy ravines and a small stream. He knew well a family of red fox, which he adored and once fed with rotisserie chickens from Smith’s. He also rode for miles and years on the 50-mile Jordan River Parkway, as have I, catching frequent glimpses of the slow river with its great blue herons and its beavers. But today I gathered my courage to explore, and ventured into Corner Canyon, an area of steep gambel oak gullies in the Wasatch foothills. The Draper Cycle Park proved an excellent place to warm up, with its short training flow trails and pump trails. Then I rode three miles up the Corner Canyon trail. Having thus relished two delightful hours, I flew down a blue-level flow trail named “Limelight,” the last 2.5 miles of the Rush trail—very fast, moguled, banked, and flowing (all the more fun for the names of the song and the band). I felt very happy as I drove home, hosed off and stowed the bike, and greeted Mom and Dad. “Tell me all about it,” Mom enthused, having worried the whole morning that I would crash (again) and hurt myself (again). “I’m done going crazy fast and drifting and jumping,” I reassured her. But it was impossible not to enjoy the speed.
Dad stubbed his fourth toe against the couch at three in the morning. The toe pained him badly and turned black and purple. “I think I’ve broken my toe,” he announced to me the following day. Poor guy, I thought, there’s always one more thing. Fortunately, his regularly-scheduled podiatry appointment was only three days away. The podiatrist was so considerate as he clipped and ground, bandaged and lotioned, stockinged and shod. Childhood polio and 20 years of marathon running have taken their toll, eliminating ligaments and mashing bones. Was all that jogging and marathoning worth it? As a teenager, I saw Dad taking his pulse one evening. “Twenty-eight!” he cheered. His resting heart rate was about 30 beats per minute for two decades. I wondered how many heartbeats his exercise had saved him over those years, and if he were getting good use of them now at 85. His own father died of a heart attack at 59, before I was born. One Saturday morning in New Jersey, Dad did not come home from his 20-mile training run. I knew roughly his route, and Mom sent me in the station wagon to find him. That long run on that hot humid day had been too much, and I found him walking on Cranberry Road miles from home. I gave him a thermos of cool water, and we stopped at Claire’s market for fresh sweet corn on the cob, Jersey tomatoes, juicy peaches, and the most delicious crenshaw.
I spent the morning researching stair lifts, also known as chair lifts, the makes and models, the Acorns and Brunos, leasing verses purchasing, wondering if it were time to make that move. I hear Dad grunting on every step, and Mom wheezing at reaching the top. Sitting with them in their bedroom, I shared my research, and asked them what they thought about the idea, and the timing. Dad acknowledged that climbing the stairs is hard for him to do, but he can do it. He worries that once he stops doing a hard thing, he will lose the ability ever to do that hard thing again. He thinks it best to keep on exerting, fighting even, doing everything he can to be strong and capable. Mom and Dad had been going to the rec center six days a week before Covid shut down the nation’s gyms. They would make a circuit through the many machines, strengthening back and arms and legs and heart. He wants to go back, because his muscles have become soft. He knows he will be starting over again. I, too, seem to be always starting over after some injury or event (like moving) has knocked me out of my exercise routine. I used to become discouraged about always starting over, but now try to be grateful I have the opportunity to start over, building on yesterday’s strength, and to keep working at life’s challenges, believing that every effort at living ultimately is strengthening and redeeming. So, Mom and Dad said no to the stair lift, for now. Dad wants to keep working as hard as he can. He is not being stubborn about the stair lift, or walking, or working in his yard to the point of collapse (literally, like today, when he sank to the grass on shaking legs that just would not hold him up anymore, and crawled to the brick mailbox to claw his way back to his feet, while I stood inside obliviously baking a guava cream cheese tart, and how did no one driving by see him lying on the grass?). No, not stubbornness. Instead, he is fighting for his independence and his dignity and his strength, fighting for his life. That example I can absolutely respect and emulate.
Sunday church services focus on what we call “the sacrament” in my Church. The sacrament consists of small pieces of bread and small cups of water, one of which we each eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus. After Covid-19 forced churches to close, Church leaders authorized the men of the Church to use their priesthood authority to provide the sacrament at home to their families and others. While the church buildings are again open for in-person attendance, Mom and Dad have been too weak to go. How pleased and privileged I felt to use priesthood authority to prepare the bread and water, to kneel and offer the prescribed prayers, and to distribute the sacramental emblems to Mom and Dad. After we partook, Mom looked up at me from her chair and said sweetly, “Thank you so much. That was very special.” As a threesome, we discussed how the sacrament serves several purposes. We remember Jesus, his infinite loving sacrifice for us, and his ongoing atonement. We covenant anew to obey God’s commandments, and to love and serve our neighbor. We recommit to repent and to strive to be our best selves. And we express our gratitude for our life and blessings. After our intimate church service, we broke our fast and enjoyed leftover creamy vegetable soup and toasted ciabatta.
After more than a month, I finally managed a bike ride, not on a pretty mountain trail, but on the neighborhood streets. What lay beyond the mechanized gate was a mystery to me, though hundreds of noisily cars and trucks come and go daily, each stopping to provide identification. The guard raised the gate with a friendly wave, and I passed into Pepperwood. I rode on quiet winding streets with quiet expansive yards and quiet splendorous houses, pushing up steep hills and careening down—the radar speed limit sign clocked me at 29 mph in a 25-mph zone. I pondered on the Pepperwood privilege even as I admired the expensive yards and houses. Lincolns and Cadillacs in the driveways. Tennis courts and pools in the back yards. Turrets and wrought iron fences. I am uncomfortable with money, perhaps because I don’t have much. I do not begrudge these people—I know many of them, and they are law-abiding, religious, and kind—but I cannot help comparing their power and privilege with humans of equal worth who have none of this wealth. But then, am not I also privileged, riding my mountain bike on a paid holiday with a salary and insurance and a 401(k)? Yes, I am. Privilege is no single condition, but a spectrum, a sliding scale, a degreed thermometer, and we are all both blessed and cursed with it to some degree. This is what we must beware: privilege turning into pride. Pride is humanity’s downfall. Such were some of my thoughts as I sweated uphill and thrilled downhill and watched for cars zipping out of driveways and watched for mule deer pronking across the narrow streets far inside the gates.
The Suburban key would not come out of the ignition. It was soundly stuck. And the gear shift handle flopped around incongruously, like an odd-angled broken arm. The accident in 2018 had totaled Dad’s beloved Suburban, 20 years old, and had just about totaled him. The force of the collision snapped his scapula clean in half—an excruciating injury with a long and painful recovery. Once he began to heal, he joked with his grandchildren that he had broken his “spatula.” Dad could not bear to say good-bye to “my faithful Suburban,” which had crossed the country and pulled trailers and carried the family and the kayaks and the spring-bar tents to extended family reunions. So, he kept and fixed his car, which is as good as new. Almost. With the key now stuck in the ignition, the battery drained and died. We tried the lawn mower battery charger, to avoid a tow to the dealer. Eight hours later the large car battery still had zero charge. Our neighbor, Terry, hooked up his 15-amp charger, which zapped the Suburban battery to 100% in 30 minutes. Dad’s first Lyft took him home from the dealer while the car was being fixed. The repairs accomplished, his faithful Suburban once again sits in the garage, ready for grocery shopping, hauling bags of bark chips, and taking a Sunday drive to see the reddening leaves of Fall.
After unfairly losing a big case in court in 2009, I knew that my stress would be the death of me and that I needed to change my lifestyle. So, I signed a gym contract and resumed my strength training and cardio workouts after a several-years hiatus. But with my new two-hour commute and duties at home, going to the gym has become impractical. “Unrealistic” is a better word, since 5:00 a.m. might be practical, but not realistic—it simply is not going to happen. I paid VASA’s unfair exit fees and said good-bye to the gym. Mom and Dad regularly ride their stationary bicycle, and I have resolved to ride it also, and to maintain my core-strengthening regimen: all praise the plank. I also strain at elastic bands to strengthen the shoulder I injured in a mountain biking accident. The floating clavicle of that separated shoulder will not let me do push-ups. But Dad showed me how he kneels on one carpeted stair and pushes off against a higher stair in an angled push-up, and I found I could do the same with small discomfort. I still ride my bike in the local canyons, but have slowed down and never take the jumps—my nearly 60-year-old body no longer bounces without breaking. After one wreck with four broken ribs (2017) and another with a level 3 shoulder separation (2019), I simply cannot take another fall.
Nothing interesting happened today. Nothing exciting. Nothing fun. Nothing new. Nothing much. I have told my children that much of life is uninteresting and unexciting. If they live their lives in search of constant excitement, they will live lives of frequent disappointment. Life is mostly maintenance, not meant to be consistently euphoric. But life can be consistently satisfying and fulfilling. When the big exciting events of life are few and far between, we can turn our attention to the little things, where we will find the happiness of a smile, the pleasure of a delicious flavor, the kindness of a Hello, how are you?, the insight of a book passage, the deepening release of forgiveness. From this vantage point, the mundane can become miraculous. Not that the event has changed, but rather the way we see it. My daughter Erin introduced me to the daily discipline of finding the miraculous in the quotidian. During a challenging period in her life, she began to search for her life’s miracles, and wrote them down in a daily Miracle Journal. As I entered into a prolonged arduous period in my own life, I took her example to heart and began a similar search, recording daily the little miracles. And I discovered a previously unperceived abundance. Any particular day can leave you or me not wanting much to live, but upon a sincere search, we can find real miracles, or events of goodness and light. And, of course, there are no little miracles, for the very nature of a miracle is to be divine and life-blessing. While not loud or blaring glaring, all miracles are grand. After a particularly grueling day of work and stress and drama, I arrived at home and found Dad sitting in the back yard patio, contemplating the grass, shrubs, flowers, trees, and mountains. “Hi Dad,” I said simply. “Rog!” he called out. “I’m so happy to see you!”
Music is always playing at Mom’s house. As a boy, I awoke on Sunday mornings to the sounds of Bach and Brahms and Beethoven filling the house. I associated music with Mom, and with home. On my 15th Christmas, she introduced me to Aaron Copland, whose music was the first to stir my soul in otherworldly ways. I learned to change out dull needles and set the stylus on the vinyl track I wanted to hear. Now, instead of one side of an LP, she places five CDs in the player, and pushes play for five concert hours. I hear the bossa nova of António Carlos Jobim, Von Williams’ Fantasy on Greensleeves, the symphonies of Mahler and Janáček, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet scores, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, Barber’s concerto for violin, the virtuosic guitar suites of Villa-Lobos, Arty Shaw’s swinging clarinet, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. . . . I love them all. Her collection has inspired my musical loves, and I have lately expanded her eclecticism with Ceumar, Tó Brandileone, and Cainã Cavalcante, brilliant contemporary Brazilian artists. Music has some mysterious power to move us and to fill the corners of the spirit reason alone cannot seem to reach.
I was in a hotel elevator, at a conference on domestic violence prosecution, in Provo, Utah, when I learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. The scheduled speakers yielded to the television screens as we watched, stunned and horrified. Twenty years later, I walked amidst 2,977 American flags planted in a field, a Healing Field, in my new residence city of Sandy. Each flag had a tag with a name and a story of where he worked, how she was loved by family and friends, what their hobbies were, their age, their loved ones, and the location of their death: World Trade Center; Pentagon; Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. I read a hundred or so tags on flags flying for the people who died on 9/11/2001. I had dressed in a jacket and tie, thinking it fitting. The next day I drove Mom and Dad slowly around the field, twice, because they couldn’t walk, but they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, and I told them about the persons I had read about—the Flight 93 pilot, the World Trade Center trader, the Pentagon general, the child traveling with her mother, the secretary, the cook. And the next day I descended on the field with 300 other volunteers to remove the tags, roll up the flags, and yank the three-foot rebar from the ground, one each for 2,977 persons, including 411 first responders, whom we have promised to always remember. I rolled flags and yanked rebar with people aged from 10 to 80. One of the octogenarians poked me with the butt of a flag, and apologized, and I joked, “You know, I have always been told to watch out for pretty ladies rolling up American flags,” and she laughed. A small older man followed me and others as we pulled rebar from the ground, carrying heavy stacks of the stuff to the flatbed trailer. I called him “Rebar Man” but his real name was Ishmael Castillo, a brawny little man with a big soft heart who came to help. I thanked the organizer, and he gave me a 20-year commemorative bronze medallion. I saw the Alta High School NHS photographer looking in the now-empty field for his lost lens cap, and I asked him if he had received a 9/11/2021 medallion, and gave him mine, because I had bought one for myself on 9/11. “That is amazing,” he gasped his thanks. The empty field will endure, now, until 9/11/2022.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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)
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:
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.
One Night in Maine
Don’t snap it.
Sweep a smooth long figure 8 and gently lay down the leader.
Your mayfly will hover then rest on the water, the last of the length to touch.
If you snap, you will break your knot and lose your fly.
Imagine 600 feet per second.
That’s it. That’s better.
Lakeside grass is smashed here where bear sat munching meager blueberries in morning’s mist.
You may pick a few for tomorrow’s pancakes, but leave the rest for our friend.
The lake glows burning amber with the sun behind the pines, our water glowing and still, and mayflies dance and bob, and aquatic creatures leap and slap and leap and slap.
A silhouetted loon swims low in a patch of smoldering amber and sings the saddest haunting song laced with hues of joy and reconciliation.
A lion sits on my bed, a little lion, named Little Growler. He clambers onto my pillow each morning after I make the bed. Hello Little Growler, I say. He guards the small house all day. And he shuffles off to his secondary perch when I draw back the blankets at night. He does not demand anything of me. He does not growl or bark or mewl or drool. He does not whine or glare or fume. Little Growler came to stay when I moved away. She brought him with her one day and introduced us. She knew I was alone now. She was 9.
When she turned 10, Olaf skated home with us from Disney on Ice. He joins Little Growler with a grin that refuses to dim. Pooh Bear with his round rumbly tumbly completes the trio, wandering in from California when the girl was not quite 2 and we met a giant Pooh and a giant Tigger and they happily squeezed in with us in a photo of the family: together.
I wave to the threesome at night – company in the dark is comforting – and manage to smile and say Good night little friends and remember Hannah at 9 and 10 and 2 and know we have had some happy times and I am not irreparable and I am very much alive and moving into something mysterious and beautiful and that Little Growler will be perched on my pillow when I come home at night.
They Fell from the Sky
Hundreds of them. Eared Grebes. The birds precipitated from inside crystalline clouds where the sunlight flashed in an infinity of ice atoms swirling and refracting in a frozen explosion of brilliance, as if the sun raged coldly right there inside the clouds. The birds became utterly hopelessly disoriented in the icy intensity, blind, not knowing up from down. Hundreds of grebes dropped from the mists to bounce into buildings, cars, trees, yards, and parking lots. And there she stood, unmoving, in my parking space, her olive-brown feet stuck frozen to the ice. My office key made a crude chisel for chopping around her toes – they bled and flaked skin already. I wrapped her in my coat and sat her in a box by my desk, with cracker crumbs and a bowl of water.
The children begged to open the box and see what was scratching inside, and exhaled exclamations of wonder when they saw. What IS it? She’s an Eared Grebe. Look at her pointy black beak, her long flaring golden feathers that look like ears, and her crimson eyes. Do you know what you call a group of grebes? A Water Dance! Can’t you just picture the family flapping and paddling and splashing their delighted dance on the lake?
What are we going to do with her? Can we fill the bath tub? Our grebe paddled around with obvious enthusiasm. What are we going to feed her? How about fish! Tub-side with a bag of goldfish, the children clamored for the privilege of feeding their bird. Our compromise: eight hands held the bloated bag and poured. She darted after the fish in a flash of black and gold and red, a little paddling package of magnificence. Look at her feet – no webbing. Look at how her toes unhinge with little retractable paddles. Wow! came in whispers.
That needling question of what to do with the bird in the bathtub? We would try a nearby pond, and hope for the best. The children watched her swim away and they looked sad and happy and I sensed how singular a blessing to have welcomed that bit of living feathered grace into our human home, to release her willfully, to be moved by her wildness and beauty. And I hoped a small sliver of that exquisiteness would stay behind in memories of hinged toes and golden ears and red red eyes, and of creatures that dance on the water.
Our, Angel Gabriel
It was an unseasonably warm winter afternoon when Angel Gabriel came to visit. I was baking bread for his great-grandparents who sat thin-jacketed watching him lead my angel sister toward the enormous long-needled Austrian pine – she carried a five-gallon bucket that could have carried him – where he hunted his favorite treasure: Continue reading
The Wrong Shade of Blue
On my desk stands an assortment of cheap pens, conference swag stamped with the names of cities and malls, colleges and garbage haulers, hospitals and law firms, architects and engineers and janitors. Some are fat and uncomfortable to grip, like writing with a broomstick. Some scratch the paper with stiff unrolling ball points. My favorite boasts a three-inch ruler, a level, and a screwdriver bit in the top: the engineer. The pens rise from a rough clay jar we turned so awkwardly on a wheel when we were together and laughing and making a memory – Continue reading
This was his modus operandi:
arriving at a mountain lake and settling the family with picnic baskets and chairs and tackle boxes and poles, our father walked the perimeter, heading off on a trail if there was a trail, through bushes and over-and-around tree trunks if there wasn’t, to scout the best fishing and to gather perspective of lake and forest and meadow and bog and picnicking family from every vantage point to find what he could find. He looked small on the opposite shore Continue reading
Just Like That
Not one prosthetic leg, but two—two metal legs where shins bones had been, fibula-flanked tibia, and metal feet filling running shoes laced tight and carrying bone and muscle and steel around the gym. I did not pity him, but I did pity him—I couldn’t help feeling sorry that something violent had taken his legs, his shins, his ankles, his feet. It could have been an improvised explosive device disguised as a cardboard box along the side of an Iraqi highway. It could have been a land mine in Afghanistan. It could have been a pickup truck rolling and rolling cab-crushing rolling down an embankment into cattails and reeds. My curiosity couldn’t help but wonder. He moved down the line of upper-body machines, hip flexors lifting metal in a slightly mechanical gait. Men—guys—simply do not speak to other men at the gym, except for the group that ripple and strut and those that come as friends and spotters, for fear perhaps of misunderstanding or offense, or to project a cool stoic toughness, or to avoid the embarrassment of slack-muscled bald-headed types like me intruding on their pounding blue-tooth buds. I did finally figure out a way to be friendly without being weird, playing to vanity by asking for tips for this muscle or that, and usually they were friendly, except for one hulk who sneered It’s all in the genes… which I guess meant I owned unfortunate DNA. But asking the man with carbon-metal legs for tips would be an obvious ruse for selfishly satisfying a shallow curiosity.
Grandpa Charles had worked in the vast shunting yards of the old Rio Grande, getting cars where they needed to be, cleaning, inspecting, greasing, working levers and switches and leaping over couplings and tight-rope-walking tracks and a general hopping about, with frequent reminders that steel is unforgiving, until that day an inattentive engineer lurched a car and crush-killed Grandpa Charles. Jesse lived alone for long decades after. And the grandkids never knew Grandpa.
I walked up to him anyway, taboo and all, because I refused to be afraid of being friendly, and I said Hi and told him I think it’s awesome you are here living your life and that I was not asking him what happened, but I’m sure you suffered terribly and I’m sure it took courage to walk again and live again and choose to be strong and fit and social and I admire and respect your strength in adversity and he was nice and I felt happy and relieved and he told me he had been working in the railyard at an industrial depot that used to be an Army depot when he met a spiteful unforgiving train that lurched at him and his legs were gone just like that but he didn’t die and he decided to live again and I told him I would try to do the same when life got hard for me, and he said Nice to meet you, too.
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.
Teasing Daddy’s Ear
I have been watching a man at church, sitting in his cushioned pew. His child sits belted in a wheelchair because she cannot use her legs at all and would flop to the floor if unrestrained. She is motion, her arms and hands fluttering around and her head wagging and her tight long ponytail swishing violently as if warding off some invisible and pestering thing. Continue reading
Life was about to begin for me when on a TWA jet I poked tentatively at the soft walls of the tight round room of my mother’s womb. And after quick-passing days she deu à luz (gave the light) to me. Fifty years later life ended. Books describe divorce as a kind of death, for its permanence and its depth of loss and grief, and perhaps Continue reading
Whence Come these Lullabies
I once composed lullabies.
I suppose they began when my three-month-old baby, my first child, spiked a 103◦ fever, and I was frightened and he was sick and miserable and frightened. And I cradled him and rocked him for hours in my aching arms gently and rhythmically as I breathed and whispered unconnected assuring words that began to connect and to coalesce with the rocking rhythm and began to hiss forth with sympathy and hope and desperation: Continue reading
Merlins and Holy Ground
Dark Trail earned its name for the tree canopy that shades and darkens its travelers. Gambel oaks. Mountain maples. Box Elders. Orange lichen clothes their trunks as they arc over the path. I ride a round-trip seven. The higher I go, the prettier the canyon, campsites yielding to firs and aspen groves and snow pockets still in June. On Independence Day I launched from a mogul Continue reading
These rusting tracks still rumble with the rolling weight of history, of capitalism’s commerce, of hobos leaving home leaving family to find money because they had none and would find none neither though hunger compelled them to try, of kine and swine heading to the slaughterhouses to spill their blood and feed a nation, of starry-eyed boys and beaten-down men who knew there was a better life out there somewhere, at the wherever end of the tracks. With an ear to the cold steel, I can hear the scrape of the coal shovel Continue reading
Mr. Whitlock’s Physics Class
New Jersey. East Brunswick. High school physics class, with Mr. Whitlock. (Mr. Whitlock was the band teacher, not the physics teacher, but they were both 50ish and ancient and pudgy (like I am now), and they were both nice to me, and I can’t remember my physics teacher’s name, though I wish I could because he liked physics and he liked us. But I cannot recall his name, and his picture is not in my high school yearbooks: he must repeatedly have dodged faculty picture day. So I will just call him Mr. Whitlock for now.) I was a high school senior proudly registered for physics class. The olive chalk board was full of Mr. Whitlock’s arrows on arcs and sine-cosine frequencies and equations with X and Y and Z and other wondrous letters and symbols with hidden meanings. I was enthralled. While the class title was merely Physics, to me the exciting subtitle was Relativity, Cosmology, Forces, Theories of Everything, and other Cool Space Science Stuff. A willing sponge, I was eager to soak it all in. That same year Cosmos erupted into my existence, by Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and cosmologist with the deep nasal “billions and billions.” I believed everything he said because it was the science and the truth of the universe. That is what physics class was all about, right? But while I adored and worshiped the ideas, I choked on the math—why is it always the math?—and I tripped over the translations of the pretty arrow-arcs into unintelligible long lettered mathematical formulae. And I came quickly to understand that I did not understand and might never understand the mathematics of physics, despite the fact that I received an “A” in Trigonometry class the year before because I had memorized the equations and aced the tests and then forgot everything, the day after finals, because I had never understood the mystifying logical language of mathematics.
The inexorable dreadful day came when I carried home my report card, folded neatly in a 6×9 manila envelope, and we formed a line at the dinner table where Dad sat at the head before dinner, and we handed him our report cards, one at a time, me the oldest and me the last, and oh how slowly he opened the envelope and drew out my first-quarter report card and unfolded it and slowly and dreadfully scanned the straight As, with the C at the bottom, my first C in history, the C in physics, my favorite and impossible class, and he looked up and said simply, “Is this going to continue?” But as I stood sickened and sweating, my insecure scared self supplied this translation: This is the best you can do? I thought you were smarter than that. I expect more of you. A C, not being an A, might as well be an F. F-F-F. Failure. You had better do better, son. Dad meant none of that, of course, though he was and is the best smartest strongest man I knew and know, though his question simply revealed his own exhausted mind as lawyer clergyman handyman father-of-six, though my report card C was simply a small temporary bare blip of a fact, a diminutive letter written in a tiny box in a narrow column of my life, and meant nothing at all whatsoever about me and my value and worth and intelligence and my sense of wonder for the scientific world. Dad’s question was simply a worry for his son and a hope for his son and an offer to help his son if he could. I see that.
Please do not ask me why I majored in physics in college. Please don’t. Though if you do I will answer simply that I love cosmology and relativity and theories of everything and other cool sciencey spacey stuff. I just could not do the math.
(Painting “Galaxy” by Roger, though I’m hesitant to claim it.)
Roger Evans Baker 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.
Curtains and Veils
Only a cloth curtain separated the little boy’s anticipation of surgery from my own. But he was only two and didn’t know what was coming and had two kind parents who spoke in cheerful optimistic soft voices and kind nurses and kind doctors who smiled and were soft and kind.
I am always very careful to say nothing when awaking Continue reading
A Tree to Remember
At the time, I felt proud and childlike and utterly cheerful to plug in the new two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree with multi-colored lights pre-strung—just slide it out of the box and plug it in—and skirted with a checkered flannel pillowcase hiding three plastic feet. I hung fragile little ornaments I keep in an egg carton. This lighted loaded twig brightened my living room, a quiet understated new friend demanding nothing of me, content to glow and keep me company. Continue reading
That was the morning I awoke late and feeling groggy and foggy and depressed and sluggish, as in, like a slug. And I had been feeling so well. I will never take melatonin again at one o’clock in the morning, or for that matter at any other time of the day or night again ever. Which I also said the last time this happened. The tablets I have flung in the trash, and the bottle tossed into the recycling box for the next time I visit my parents, who have a giant green plastic recycling can the city empties Monday mornings. Saturday is a good day to do the laundry, I shrugged,
Prayers of the Weak and Powerful
Our Father who art in heaven. Since I was about 12 years old, or maybe nine, or four, my prayer preamble has been “Dear Heavenly Father….” But I may in my lifetime have spent more time wondering about prayer than praying, though I am beginning to wonder if there is much of a difference. Mostly I ask whisperingly What is going on here? or sometimes utter an exasperated What in Heaven’s name is going on here? or on occasion send a belching What the hell is this? I kneel bed-side or sofa-side, like I am supposed to, though periodically on only one knee because it is more comfortable and because sometimes kneeling on both knees just takes too much out of me and I just cannot do it, and I bow my head, like I am supposed to, to show respect for deity and all that. And I say, Dear Heavenly Father . . . What is this all about? Continue reading
Jam and English Muffins
English muffin halves, toasted crisp, with butter and blackberry jam. When I wake up irrevocably at one-something o’clock in the morning, bladder bursting, feet tingling, back twisting, stomach chafing for food. I just know. I know that to wind back down I have first to wind up. The perfume of burnt bread wafts soothingly and intoxicatingly from the toaster. In sleepy waiting reverie, the harsh click of the popping-up startles. First the butter—used because it tastes richly divine, and why eat at all unless the food pleases?—then the blackberry jam—not too much—or maybe strawberry—I like to alternate. One smallish crispy bite of muffin. One sip of cold whole milk. Slowly. Savoring. One lamp lit to illuminate the book, and the fleece covering bare cold feet and other bare skin and undergarments. A bite and a swallow. Mmmm. Since I’m up anyway, awake and comfortable, enjoying a muffin for two minutes, I might as well read. Brian Doyle’s enchanting, funny, touching essays are right for this quiet moment and are just short enough and just long enough to finish with the last bite and sip. I read about hummingbird hearts the size of pencil erasers, and blue whale heart chambers the size of a room a man could walk through. I read of heart surgeries and the fear of loss and the pain of loss and the reconciliation to loss. I read of love and beauty and whimsey and the mystery of a loving soul. I read of how parents learn to live for their children, to see in their children the heights of heaven and the depths of anguished concern and the desperation of loss and the ephemeral and the letting go of what cannot ever be possessed or controlled. Or I read from the Bible: about Paul telling the Romans and Ephesians and Philippians and Colossians and Hebrews about that man Jesus, full of grace, the very Son God of the Father God, full of grace, full of truth and light. Or I read in the Book of Mormon about whole civilizations who turn from the God they know, turn intentionally away from him and his simple system for personal and societal peace and happiness—why would you reject what you know and love, all the truth and peace and light and joy, only to exterminate each other in a tempest of rage and blood and hate?—or the account of Jesus coming to them, descending, beaming his glory, radiating his light, his scarred palms outstretched for them all to feel and to witness forever, this Jesus come to teach and to correct, come to comfort and to heal, come to establish his order on earth. Finished with the food, and the word, I snuggle into the fleece and the couch and work to think big divine universal thoughts, but all I can achieve is to almost understand something bigger than this big small world, all I can manage is to almost feel by mental reaching touch the grand blinding serene Mind hanging out behind the veil of the infinite universe, that Creator, and the elegant laws of the cosmos and the evolutionary laws of life and DNA and of the amazing simple brilliant law of love, love one cannot measure on a scale, love one cannot reduce to an equation, love that is the greatest force in the universe for hope and for reformation and for redemption, love that allows forgiveness and invites a stretching reaching higher farther vaster than we thought possible… Sweet respite, this, these tangible almosts… Knowing I cannot ascend, yet, to where I wish, yet calmed and satisfied and inspired and touched, and fully awake, I know I can descend again now into sleep, and stay asleep until morning, though I do have to brush my teeth first.