Journal: Blind Joe Death

February 6, 2022 7:39 am Last Homely House (reading room)

Sunday. Foggy February morning. Quiet at the Last Homely House “east of the sea.” Audio world this morning: John Fahey, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Side A, Track 2: “Orinda, Moraga.” The tune always calls my thoughts to the Old Ground in California. No regrets. Those were blessed days. So are these—quieter, gentler, but still sustained by grace. The winter mist reminds me of other vaporous mornings at St. Mary’s College as I meandered under leaden grey sunrise to the cafeteria for breakfast—where my friends whispered muted morning words over coffee, eggs, and toast. After murmuring my own half-asleep words I was off to early daylight Shakespeare with Bob Hass. Student days. Fifty years past.

This morning Stephen King, a different literature. The Dark Tower 3: The Waste Lands. Gunslingers, giant robot bears, murderous choo-choo trains, and magic doors to other worlds.  Here in the Pacific Northwest I am not living in a waste land. Tall pine trees wait like guardians in this misty air. The ravaged world of crazed humans seems far away yet akin to King’s peculiar tales. The Last Homely House is a place of cool contemplation. This is my home. My center. This is New Ground. It has taken four winters for me to settle into it the same way I dwell under my blankets at night. This is my place of rest. It holds the past. It contains the present. It becomes the future day by day.

These words are Sunday morning contemplation. Self-sermons. As I write, Fahey is picking out “Bicycle Built for Two.” The itinerant guitarist is buried not far from here, in Salem in a non-descript cemetery in a non-descript grave. He died in poverty and ill health. I visited his resting place a couple years back. I need to visit again. I’ve heard the voice of his guitar countless times over the last half century. It’s a reliable comfort.

Each day I have time to wait for my voices to arise. One is here now as I write this. A different voice from Deejay, Elder Richard, Young Richard, and Kid Richard—the characters that inhabit my new writing project. This journal is my practical voice—the laidback amiable speech of an aging grateful man who lives with an open heart and mind. Settled, yet still aware that life can change to tragedy in an instant.

The source of my voices always has been literature. From the very beginning: Dick and Jane. The Cat in the Hat. Aesop’s Fables. Winnie the Pooh. Hardy Boys. Tom Swift Jr. Poe. H.G. Wells. Robert Louis Stevenson. Jack London. Isaac Asimov. Arthur C. Clarke.

And then—Tolkien. Life change. Desire to write. Read. Read. Read. Especially on Sunday mornings like this one except then living in a new house built in lima bean fields that were giving way to tract homes—parcels sold by the children of farmers who were dying off. I’d go paperback shopping with JS at the Book Nook or ride my bike to the Oxnard library on Saturdays to find more science fiction. Also Dickens, TS Eliot, Orwell, Conan Doyle. Meetings with JS at the Patiogon, our name for his parent’s sheltered back porch where we would make up stories. Now we meet on Tuesday mornings over the Internet.

All I wanted to do was read and understand how books functioned. No argument about what to study as a college student. My parents let me read as much I wanted. No questions asked. They never asked “what are you going to fall back on?” Dived right in. I lived in pools of words, swimming in them. Chaucer. Milton. Shakespeare. Then wham!—James Joyce: Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home. Yeats: O may the moon and sunlight seem / One inextricable beam / For if I triumph I must make men mad. Blake: I will not cease from Mental Fight.

In the background always SF/Fantasy/Mystery. Saki short stories. Chekhov. Summer of 73–reading War and Peace on a cross-country trip in the back of Dad’s ugly Cadillac and the sudden realization that my mind was my own, unchained. Impossible for it to be caged even if I was taken prisoner like Pierre Bezukhov.

On to my own life from there. Living in Bollinger Canyon. Constant reading of spiritual texts. Alan Watts. Aldous Huxley. I Ching, the Wilhelm/Baynes translation. Jung. Campbell. Poems. Gary Snyder. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Stories and yarns: James Clavell Shogun. Late Dickens—Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, novels that verged on modernism.

After I met Candace: Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, Yukio Mishima, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann—literature I was never exposed to in college. Quiet nights where the two of us read by the fire in a silent house as John Fahey played The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death in the background there as well. Living our Way of the West while the horses nickered in the back yard and views of Hunsaker Canyon sunrises and sunsets blossomed at the ridge behind a house that no longer exists.

Then children: reading to them aloud from Golden Books and all the books Candace and I had read as kids. Quiet evenings in Lucille Lane with all of us absorbed in a book. I turned to Faulkner. History. The American Civil War. Page Smith. Mark Twain. Jack London—this time the novels and stories I didn’t know. Martin Eden. The Star Rover. The Red One. The realization that Jack was writing science-fiction and mythic fantasy. So many books. I can’t remember them all. I have lists in my archives.

Reading on BART on the way into the City to wrestle with technology and earn my lucre. More Zen—translations by Thomas Cleary. Always more poems. Deep Time stuff: Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—a recognition that I was an Integral guy. Linkages and fragments fell into place. Self-published Full Canvas. Assisted JS with first drafts of his early books. Photography came back and that got connected as well.

Tragedy. My world fell apart. Losses: friends, in-laws, spouse—end of their days. I was drop kicked out of the Real World. Three years of putting pieces back in order, integrating them again. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Landing here in the Pacific Northwest at the Last Homely House, my bookshelves loaded with gems from the past and books yet to be read. The whole house is my library. Some volumes are penned with inscriptions by my lost ones. Also shelves crammed with recorded music—compact discs and vinyl treasures constantly rotating. Billions of musical notes in my mind like all the billions of words.

My own words are emerging because I have the time to listen to the voices in my imagination and put them in the computer. Winterland Nights in 2020. An ongoing book about the Beatles unlike any Beatle book ever written, I hope. I write for Boomers who love old music. Write what you know. My own words rising out of a lifetime of learning. There’s still time. Make haste. Time to do some transfiguration of my own.

Here I go.

No Confirmation Required

January 18, 2022, 5:24 am Last Homely House (reading room)

A thought: doing things for the sheer joy of doing things. No reason other than the making. Gathering thoughts, visions, and emotions together into forms of art: words, images, sounds, some organized and others random. All of that with no expectation or need of validation other than the doing of it. No transactions. No monetary gain. No emotional return. Only the process. No goal other than the creation.

Is that purity or reality? Is it a rejection of profit and motive or is it the actual core of creativity? If it is the latter (and I believe it to be) then how does one live in a culture like ours where confirmation is measured at best by the temporary pleasure of ego stroking and at worst by the shallow endorsement of monetary worth? Because any way you measure the result of the process, all of it is impermanent, even the doing. Eminent art that endures through centuries is dwarfed by geologic time. Bach and Shakespeare will not survive the heat death of the universe and the end of entropy.

No—it’s all in the crafting. In the pure grace of it. The fun of it. The joy. For some reason that I’ll never fathom, that is where I have arrived. In fact, where I have always been from the beginning.

These thoughts arrive after an hour of meditation, which came after another 4:15 am wake up out of a dream that was so utterly stupid that I gave up trying to sleep. (My rest had already been punctuated by wakefulness.) In the dream I needed to catch a ferry to “Alameda” and after walking slowly across a familiar beach (recognizable from countless other ludicrous dreams) and through a rundown casino populated by sinister criminal characters and worn down down on their luck folks standing in long queues for no evident purpose, I looked across a hopeless, ugly, colorless landscape that revealed no path to my goal. It was not an alameda, no promenade shaded by trees. I awoke swearing—angry at the dream because it was hopeless and meaningless.

Yet I am encouraged by the realization of joy having nothing to do whatsoever with our cultural madness. What I do here in this journal, what I do in the studio, as well as the actions I take during the day in sustaining my existence here in the unconventional and mystical Pacific Northwest require no validation. They are things in themselves. Ding an sich. As they are, they are what they are—Isness. Little bits of the Kosmos. That’s all. Not quite Kant—but also more than Kant. Numinous, not philosophical. Reality, not sophistry.

Perhaps all my experiences are a lingering dream, sometimes stupid, sometimes sublime, cresting to moments of elation when my heart opens to everything and words do not suffice. My past is present. My future is unclear, but overflows with hope and gratitude. Everything I do is a totem from the day before, revealing a path that meanders to the next present moment.

The poem of the mind in the act of finding   

What will suffice. It has not always had   

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what   

Was in the script.

                               Then the theatre was changed   

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Of Modern Poetry, Wallace Stevens.

Getting Back

So what about that new project I hinted at way back on December 9? I can tell you a few things about it in the hopes of piquing your interest. It’s called Getting Back and it’s a memoir of my life as a Beatles fan. I realize that sounds nebulous but I can’t say anything more specific about it at this time, even though more specifics are available. This post is a bit of a teaser as to what kind of a book will be produced.

The project has been in gestation since Thanksgiving, a little over a month ago. During the recent weeks I wrote a 10000 word draft and realized that I was writing the way I had composed Winterland Nights, and it wasn’t working for my new subject. I didn’t want to write in the manner I had used before. I took some time to think about it, and gave myself permission to do something radical, which I also can’t be specific about because I don’t want to create expectations or spoil the surprises. All I will say is that it is a memoir and it is anything but a traditional narrative, yet it’s not quite metafiction. It’s a hybrid of some kind. (A meta-memoir?) It’s also hilarious (at least it makes me laugh), light-hearted, and bright, but is not mesmerized by its own cleverness (something that I hate and try to avoid at all costs). I hope it will be an atypically refreshing tale, unlike any other book that has been written in which the Beatles are a major topic. Certainly it’s not like anything I’ve ever attempted before.

As I have worked on it these last few weeks I’ve realized it will be more complex than I originally considered when I said to myself that I wanted to “write about” the Beatles while watching Get Back. That’s a daunting idea—there have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of books written about the Fab Four over the last fifty years, but I’m perfectly sure that there’s nothing out there like this project. I’m not trying to hype it here. I have read many Beatle-related books over the years and I am catching up with many more as I research this project. Many of them go over the same old stuff, sometimes from different angles, or explore minutiae, or express critical opinions (yes I said opinions) most of which are uninteresting, to me at least. I just finished reading two books, one which said that “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was one of the most creative tunes the Beatles ever produced (which it is), and another which called it a hackneyed waste of time (which it is not). I can assure you that Getting Back will have no such nonsense in it. 

Without giving the whole store away I can say this: one of the themes of the project is creatives working together as a group. The Beatles were a pop group that became a rock group, perhaps the most archetypal pop/rock group of all, not only because of their success, but because of the way they worked together. The Get Back film makes this clear. I would go so far as to say that Peter Jackson’s film requires a complete reassessment of not only the sessions that led to Let It Be but the incidents that led to the group’s dissolution, and everything that happened afterwards. Getting Back is my version of that much needed historical revision, from the perspective of an elder looking wistfully and imaginatively at how his life was changed the moment he heard “She Loves You” as a ten year old boy in 1963.

The Beatles set the basic pattern. Most popular music groups form this way: several friends form a band and make some songs, they rehearse, and then they play them for people. They get popular locally and work their asses off, then they get picked up by a manager, a producer, a record contract. Then, if luck is there and there is a resonance with the social culture, they sell tons of records. If not they find other jobs. If successful they make more records and tour. Along the way they get ripped off which, if they become monstrously popular, they are not aware of, not right away anyway, and legal follies begin. Then they break up because of stress, drugs, disinterest, or death and reform with other musicians perhaps with similar success—or they lose their musical chops, fade to irrelevancy, or spend their time doing reunion tours. That’s it roughly. The whole process is based on people working together. That’s why they call it a band or a group.

However, creatives like myself who write words are loners. Writers never write as a group. In rare cases there may be a collaboration of some kind (or an editor) but 99.9999% of the time we write alone in our offices or studios. We might participate in ad hoc creative writing groups with other writers, or attend graduate school and labor on an MFA (in which case they are in groups/classes with other writers). Even then the actual writing of the words is a solo task. Alone, with pen and paper, or a computer, or whatever, wherever.

The writer’s audience, for the most part, doesn’t experience the writer’s creation until after it’s complete. There’s a big difference between “I wrote a song last night—would you like to hear me play it for you?” and “I wrote a 150,000 word novel over the last year—would you like to read my semi-edited draft?”

Speaking only for myself as a writer, I start with an idea. Who knows where the idea comes from? In the current case it was because I watched the Get Back film and realized that it had been decades since I had thought about the Beatles and how they affected me when I was a young man. Jumping from “hey, that’s what I want to write about” to how do I do it? is a whole phase of the process, the first stage, which I call Rehearsal.

That label is not mine, by the way. It comes from Roy Peter Clark in his book Writing Tools, specifically Tool #41: Turn procrastination into rehearsal. Simply put, in a large writing project (maybe any writing project) you have to have some kind of plan. How that’s done is up to the writer, maybe an outline or a mission statement of some kind. For me it’s useful to not start the daily grind of writing until I have a surfeit of information roiling around in my imagination, and after I’ve organized all that stuff so that I know where I’m going, like following a map. The writing can change the map, often for the better, so I also throw a lot of words away during the second phase, which I call Creation. (The last phase is Consideration, but I’ll describe that in a later post.)

So to answer my own question (what about that new project?) I’m getting close to the end of the Rehearsal Phase, and thus my outline/map/plan is almost complete. Eventually I’ll have more information (or hype) for you.

All that being said I also want to mention that from here out the blog content will broaden into other areas. I certainly can’t post here regularly about a book that doesn’t exist yet (or post from the draft) but I will be writing short pieces about what I am discovering in the Rehearsal phase, and some photographic related things as well.

Happy New Year to all. Sign up below to get notifications in your email when I post and email me if you have any thoughts on this new project (or anything else). 

Myriad Things Awakening

August 12, 2021, late afternoon of a warm day in Oregon. I’m sitting in front of my television watching the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees play nine innings of baseball at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The sun is setting there—the evening sky opulent. I visited that place nine years ago and sat in the little grandstand with my wife who, true to character, tried to remain unimpressed. My daughter and I walked leisurely around the bases with our arms around each other. As I watch the game unfold those visits seem indistinct—then the present moment merges with beloved past and my memories come into focus.

The vision: baseball at dusk—the light changing subtly, from blue, to violet, to sable, as the field lights cast astigmatic haloes above the grandstand. The wind caresses the emerald cornfields and despite the grating monochromatic voice of Joe Buck clumsily exorcising the enchantment from the scene, I am filled with the inexpressible feeling I always have in my heart at the end of the film Field of Dreams—the camera rising at twilight while Ray plays catch with his father and all the car headlights line up and extend to a forever distant horizon. My heart breaks and heals all over again. Gratitude rises. Grace descends.

The image of that major league game in the cornfields has been in my mind for three days, and it still lingers. Today is cooler in the Pacific Northwest. I can hear the horn of the Amtrak Cascades train as it crosses the intersection of Harmony Road and Railroad Avenue. A tractor orbits the infield in one of the baseball fields here, pulling a sledge and leveling the infield—tufts of dust drift behind it. A dog yaps, far off, barely audible. There are no humans around me except for the pilot of the circulating tractor, its engine whining in a wavering glissando, punctuated by the sputtering exhaust. All these myriad things are appropriate to my introspective mood.

Over the past few years I’ve watched the landscapers lavish attention on these grounds—especially on the ball fields as they are primed for autumn Little League tournaments. Field preparation is as much a part of the ritual of the pastime as the action in the baseball diamond. I always observe closely during the break between innings at a ballpark—the ground crew waltzing concentrically around the infield, dragging rectangular metal rakes behind them, smoothing out the divots and ruts created by the spiked soles of the players’ shoes, wiping away the past to create a clear view of the present.

I reread Shoeless Joe after the White Sox – Yankees game. It’s a beloved book, a classic of magical realism. I read it every few years. The style blurs the edges of reality with a hazy tinge of fantasy. The writing is a bit over the top. Yet the story is spellbinding, and the first-person narrative is impeccable, despite the extravagant prose. The literature of baseball is often full of embellished language—legends are best expressed in hyperbole after all.

Baseball transforms to folklore adroitly. Witness last evening, August 14, in Phoenix, Arizona as a young rookie threw a no-hitter in his first major league start. That hasn’t happened since the year I was born—1953—and has occurred only twice before that.

Tyler Gilbert, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who recently worked as an electrician in Santa Cruz California, joined Bobo Hollomon (1953), Bumpus Jones (1892), and Theodore Breitenstein (1891) in the record books as an unlikely champion who somehow pulled off a feat that is celebratory and triumphant even though it produced nothing of importance in the daily standings. The D-backs are mired in last place, 38 games back in the National League West, and there were very few folks in the stands at Chase Field. That the result of the game was grander in its consummation than its pragmatic result is of no importance. It adds a gentle tone of irony to the tale.

Tyler’s no-hitter was palpable magical realism in a sorry-sad-sack world. It wasn’t made up by an author and decorated with language. Magic occasionally merges into the common world of reality and reminds us that if we pay close attention to our own day to day story, we’ll discover many mystically credible moments that garnish our lives with spices of surprise and joy, though they are not as public as that no-hitter. All we have to do is be open to seeing them. Then they reveal themselves. 

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryū Suzuki quotes Dōgen Zenji: “Time goes from present to past.” Suzuki Roshi also comments, “This is absurd, but in our practice sometimes it is true. Instead of time progressing from past to present, it goes backwards from present to past.”

Time progresses in both directions. The past and future are with us here—right now. The trick is to calm the mind in order to see the past as the present rides on top of it like a palimpsest. As I watched the game unfold next to the cornfields of Dyersville under the gradually shifting light of a meditative sky, I was in the present, and my heart was in the past—walking the bases with my daughter and watching the enigmatic face of my wife as she sat in the same grandstand that Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, Kevin Costner and the rest of the cast of Field of Dreams had graced years before the day she rested there.

If you build it they will come—and we did. Ease his pain—and mine was cleared.

Time moves as we journey within it. Dōgen Zenji also said, “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”  Those myriad things are life as it is, the Big Mind that is everything—baseball, twilight, dogs barking, gardeners leveling the infield, train horns calling. It’s all divine, but the holiness is here now, not in some other place that is invisible and unattainable.

These words are not enough to encompass what I’m thinking—now in the present and before in the past, in both directions, when I came forth as a child, a husband, a father, a technical worker, and today, a widower and writer-mystic. When I pay attention, things as they are and Big Mind are God. Occasionally I am wise enough and blessed enough to see them disclosed.

We are all our own legends. In the future we will be in the past. Our times will live in that not-yet-present-future like fables. Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.” Perhaps in fifty years someone will do so, and these words might then awaken like all the other marvels that continually arise and deliver us from sorrow.

There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.

Celia Laighton Thaxter

Photos by Richard Gylgayton

Notes on the text:

Where I Lived: 4

I Am My Own Stalker

Night. The Wolf Hour. I wake from a nightmare—stabbed in the heart from behind by an invisible assailant. Is it me? Am I murdering myself? Is it my shadow—my own bag of darkness?

I sit up straight in bed. Sweating. Breathing hard. I don’t think I screamed when the knife entered my heart. Wailing and shrieking can halt abruptly in dreamland. Now wide awake, I begin the return passage from my nocturnal descent into Hades.

I resume self-analysis each time this katabasis occurs. I’m being stalked by archetypes—nothing personal— simply more communications from the subterranean places in my psyche. My own myths are mashed up with the ancient stories. I can’t tell the difference, not when I’m asleep. The similarity is ambiguous, outlandish, unnerving. I’m not meant to be Odysseus every goddamned night. No one is waiting for me to come home from endless war. No minor goddess has turned my friends into pigs—my friends are better behaved than Odysseus’s minions. Perhaps somewhere, someone is weaving my funeral shroud, but I doubt it.

The balcony door is open. The light from the quadrangle below my second-floor room of De LaSalle Hall illumes the slender, sheer curtains hanging over the threshold. The only sound is my roommate breathing as he sleeps in his own bed. I remain as quiet as I can. He is a premed student. He has a biology exam scheduled tomorrow morning. I don’t want to disturb him. He was kind enough to snooze elsewhere a couple of nights ago when a friend slept with me. I owe him the favor of silence.

You could be my cavalier servente, Donna whispers during the hushed hours of that recent evening. My Italian studies from my freshman year have worn off, yet I knew what she meant—lover, suitor. The remembrance lingers. Light from the quadrangle also passes gently through the drapes that night. I know in my heart that she will never be my Penelope, but my mind gives credence to the prospect from time to time.

My brain wants to believe in a lot of things that never come true—that are not factual—legends, fables, and fairytales. Even objective events are comprised of fantasy elements, so it seems, and I think—is there really any difference?

I realize I’m talking to myself again, the thoughts bursting artlessly from the volatile neurons in my cerebral cortex. Random words tumble in my head like sinister mantras as I discard my nightmare and leave it behind. The alarm clock face glowers: 3 AM. I remain awake. I pull the covers over my head and read by flashlight. Maybe there will be a rosy fingered dawn, but I really don’t give a shit.

The last days of my senior year are floating around my face like gnats. There are not many hours left to me at my nurturing mother of studies, my alma mater—St. Mary’s College. Four years gone by. I have no idea what to do next. At this moment what I know is this: Donna, my friends, and my beloved mentors and teachers, will be far removed for many months, perhaps years, maybe forever, and like that fucking Ithacan I’ll be trying to find my way home. He was delayed because of his own hubris. I’m not sure where home is anymore. He also had assistance, but Athena isn’t my type, nor the other way round, so I’m on my own.

My four years of undergraduate lotus eating start and end with Pink Floyd. Bookend performances bordering either side of that chapter in my book of days.

October 1971, Winterland Ballroom, Post and Steiner, San Francisco

The music changes again—we slip deeper into the submarine sea. While the keyboards create a backdrop of soft whispers and moans, the guitar mimics the sound of crying seagulls gliding on a canvas of air. The cries cease, and for a few moments we are suspended, as if we are in a roller coaster that has climbed to the top of a peak, anticipating the proper moment to race down the other side. The music keeps us in suspense at that moment of hesitation as a chromatic chord pattern begins a repetitive loop, not resolving, holding the ride in stasis. Then the guitar rings out with a flourish, and we slide down the steep side of where we had been poised. At the bottom we rest and a solemn guitar solo guides the music to a lingering, slow fade.

The audience is silent. We are unable to immediately break the enchantment that has been cast upon us. Within moments loud cheers and applause break out. “That was ‘Echoes’ which is on our new album, Meddle. Thank you and goodnight.” The house lights come on and I blink in the incandescence of what seems like unexpected daylight. The audience cheers and demands an encore—I amble closer to the center of the stage.

A few minutes pass. Pink Floyd comes out on stage again and the house lights dim. Vibrant noises erupt—an opening section of wild, senseless sounds. No melody, no rhythm, no harmony, only extravagant squeals, squawks and thumps. I hear voices yelling within all the commotion. The effect is frightening and uncomfortable. It grows to a climax. There is no music to hang onto and I am lost until a drum pattern emerges and begins to loop. It’s a rational sequence of rhythm that I can grasp, but the noises continue over the insistent percussion.

Roger Waters stands on the edge of the stage directly in front of me and beats on a pair of cymbals mounted on stands, one on either side of him, his face filled with fury as if he is losing his mind. I close my eyes. I can’t stand looking at him. Someone is beating the huge orchestral gong next to the drum kit. My mind is urging me to head out of the crowd, but instead I keep my eyes closed and concentrate on the drum loop.

Before the end of that final semester, Donna and I travel to Daly City for another Pink Floyd show. We drive over the Bay Bridge in her yellow Triumph TR4. I fill the gas tank after she picks me up at the campus, paying for the fuel with Dad’s credit card, which I have never used. “Only for difficulties,” he had said. I consider last minute tickets and an opportunity to see Pink Floyd as a necessity resembling an emergency, so I use the card. I check the oil in Donna’s wheezing beater of an English sportscar. I add a quart. The engine stops clattering like a sewing machine.

This is my third experience of a Pink Floyd live show—The Wish You Were Here Tour. The album won’t be released until the following September 1975, four months after I graduate, when I’m living at home making desperate plans to return to the Bay Area. Thus, on April 12, as we walk through the livestock-fragranced halls of the Cow Palace to our nosebleed seats, far from the stage, I don’t appreciate the synchronicity of the LP’s title, or the magnificence of the universally treasured song it becomes. There’s also another irony—the first two songs in the set, “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta be Crazy,” are later retitled “Sheep” and “Dogs.” The absurdity cycle is completed when those two songs are released in 1977 on an underwhelming album—Animals. Tonight, the audience is teeming with human beasts, and I don’t need those elongated, strident tracks to alert me to that circumstance.

The experience is totally unlike the Winterland presentation. Back then only a few hundred people sat on the floor of an aging ice-skating venue. Tonight, it’s a sold-out show for 16,500 space cadets, presented in a cement hulk designed for rodeos and auctions. The gentle glow of hashish and mystical entheogenic hallucinogens dispersed through a rapt throng of attentive listeners in 1971 has been replaced by a raucous mob of alcohol fueled nitwits tossing fireworks into the air haphazardly during the music. The band of serious English musicians, then virtually unknown in America before the release of Dark Side of the Moon, has evolved into a harried group of famous infighting individuals fronting an enormous stage and special effects spectacle. This is the third concert in a tour that consists of 29 shows, and I sense they are already exhausted and weary of their unexpected success—as well as making gobs of money for cocaine-addled record executives.  

That show at Winterland is my first rock concert. I know nothing about the band. After Pink Floyd play “A Saucerful of Secrets” I think that there is nothing but possibilities of enlightenment for me during the next four years, despite Roger Water’s menacing face hanging above me like a demon as I belly up to the stage. There’s no doubt that I was forever altered during “Echoes.”

In 1975 the Cow Palace performance is a vacuous spectacle. At the end of “On the Run” a fake airplane suspended from a wire directly above us, discharges pyrotechnics from its tail, flies rapidly above the audience, over the stage, and vanishes in an explosion of light and madness backstage behind the band. It’s symbolic of the grief I am feeling about finishing my four-year trip through higher education, and the end of the transitory installment of erotic ecstasy that transpired in my life that final Spring. The crowd roars its approval of the special effect, but I’m not sure they would understand my metaphor.

Forty-six years later my brain still has faith in all that happened to me then, awake or asleep, even though the encounters of that young man have become personal folklore—the rootstocks and rhizomes of a seasoned amateur mystic, or at least a youngish-looking retired geezer. I remember so many elements of those days: that dream, one of many metaphorical stabs of the knife—Donna’s supple voice speaking to me in my own bed as we held one another—the fresh journal I began after graduation, written in green ink bewailing my loneliness—my father excoriating me for putting a tank of non-emergency gas on his credit card—and the eerie absence of my cherished friends.

“Oh, how I wish you were here.” When I finally comprehend the song it practically kills me.

In 2018 while I prepare to depart California in an attempt to control the continual spontaneous appearances of the reverse-memory telescope and the unexpected recall of recollections, I drive to a financial appointment near College Avenue in Berkeley. On Tunnel Road the timeline demands my attention—and I remember: that night on the way to Winterland, near the Claremont Hotel, the friend who sells me the ticket and gives me a lift, picks up a date at an apartment building not far from where I’m going now. I recollect shopping in the Elmwood district at Sweet Dreams with my wife, buying stocking stuffers for the kids just before Christmas—and further back—arguing with her vehemently about the merit of Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers after viewing it at the Elmwood Theatre. (He’s a hack! she says, just to piss me off. Yes, she knew how to pull my chain.)

On and on—the telescope reveals everything in the underworld deep-time passageway while sneaking up behind me—murdering me with the power of remembrance. It demands that I live in my past. I don’t want to stay there.

I left the college utopia in 1975. I left the Oxnard home in 1976. I leave my Bay Area home, and California, in 2018 for the Pacific Northwest.

Now I exist in a cerebral river slowly drifting downstream. A lazy river like the Ohio in Pittsburgh, formed by the Monongahela and Allegheny. Rivers of gentle power like the Columbia, not far from this house where I write. My memories are like those rivers—my childhood and adulthood have merged into one moving stream. There is no tension of memory anymore. No more sudden dream-death. I move from shore to shore and crest to crest and tide to tide, sampling my life from pools of water, and examining the specimens with poetic license. Through the impulsive ascendence of gratitude and the willing descent of grace, bonds are reforged with the living and the deceased.

Grief for the good times as well as the bad—that’s the price I pay for my travels on this waterway, my coin to Charon. It’s an equitable fee, all things considered, though I still sleep warily, and like the Ithacan, I return safe and sound each morning. One day I will hand over the last change that remains in my pocket. In the meantime—River. Water. Spirit. Written words, then and now, are my testimony.

Allow the art you make of your life to beguile the Moon to wander to your bedside and start to talk.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree

Notes on the text:

Where I Lived: 3

Dental Health, Mental Health

College Boy

I’m standing in the parking lot outside Justin Hall, my assigned dormitory at St. Mary’s College, and watching the people I love most recede in the distance. My parents and brothers are driving back down Highway 101—364 miles ahead of them. Dad will remain behind the wheel the whole way back down to Oxnard. As they enter the car another freshman student is instructed by his mother in a strident, wailing voice: “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” I can see the poor sod cringing. The phrase becomes a sotto voce running comedy gag for my dad and mother each year I leave for college at the end of the summer.

Homesickness arises instantly, mixed with liberty—of a sort. The weather is warm, verging on hot. I’m not used to heat like this—not at all like the climate two miles from the sea in Oxnard. It’s Saturday of the Labor Day weekend 1971. It will remain hot for days, until Tuesday when I start attending classes. There are three whole days to fill up in the meantime and I don’t know anyone. I return to my room and my roommate appears with his folks. I dig into my pockets for loose change to call my Southern California friends because I’m lonely. I start a new journal. The weather cools. My college years begin.

I’m in another safe zone, for a while anyway. Love and death eventually intrude into this Catholic utopia. Meanwhile there is study and books, guitars and music, marijuana, beer, wine—and hallucinogens. Also, questions: will I be drafted? Will I find a girlfriend? What will I do with my life four years from now?

I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere. No need to repeat the plot—but here I allude to the ambiences: the weather outside me and the weather inside me, the owls resting and nesting behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin above the entrance to the chapel, the endless classroom conversations and my inability to participate in them for the first two years, the burning passions and ambitious silliness, the foundation of lifelong friendships—all of that active in the confines of a cramped campus populated by less than six hundred students, all developing into men and women simultaneously.   

I move from a life as a Pacific shoreline boy with a three-speed bike that takes me to the Oxnard library once a week to an inland weekend hiker who lives for hours each weekday in the campus archive of books and reference materials. From cool air and beaches to hot, dry hills and oak trees—weeks of rain and fog in the winter leading to glorious, blossoming springs. Classes during the day, interspersed with reading and writing, then late-night parties.

St. Mary’s College – 1971-1972

It is not the place my father assumed it would be. When St. Mary’s College began admitting coeds in 1970 they went all in with the decision—not much in the way of monitoring. No sign outs and sign ins. The only separation is by dormitory floor, one of men, one of women. I have no idea what’s going on. There’s no nightstand next to my bed let alone a one-night stand in it. Hormones are seething all around me. In high school the girls wore staid uniforms. Here they sun themselves in shorts and bikini tops.

When I’m not thinking about women, sex, and love, my imagination and soul are fed with a steady stream of learning the lesson of how to learn, not only books but the bibliography of daily life—not only becoming acutely aware of my credulousness, but also my anxiety of saying anything in classroom participation. St. Mary’s is a seminar school. No lectures—instead there is reading, writing, talking. Teacher after teacher says to me “you say nothing in class and then you can’t shut up in my office—why not say something to your peers?”

I want to be brilliant, but I’m lazy and easily distracted. I want to write well, but I have no discipline, so I churn out run-of-the-mill papers about poetry and make a damn fool of myself in my creative writing class without even being aware of it. Chester Aaron, the creative writing professor, encourages me, despite my cluelessness and my inept prose. By the time I’m a senior I’m more serious—I write a science fiction novel during an independent study as he mentors me. The truth is, he has much better things to do. He’s about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical on a sheep ranch in Marin County and wants me to hurry up and finish so he can leave a few days early and get his next book started. I don’t know that for years, not until I read Garlic Is Life.

Five decades later a copy of the St. Mary’s alumni magazine arrives in my Oregon mailbox bundled with a sales flyer from Costco, the gas bill, and a book about Mary Magdalene. I flip through the color periodical and read the latest updates: a new library in the planning stages, a science professor’s reception of a grant to unlock the benefits of algae, the announcement of a fellow classmate’s induction as an honored affiliate of the brothers of the Christian Lasallian schools. All good news of note decorated by photos of the campus.

The reverse memory telescope materializes again, and the tension of memory tugs the years together, squeezing out the unimportant flotsam and jetsam of half a century as I turn the pages of the periodical and recall the essential juice of my four years as an undergraduate. I lived there, I say to myself. That was my youth.

I can’t resist the final page of obituaries—I’m at that age where I peruse the list of in memoriam announcements—some folks younger, some older than me, listed in tiny typeface. This time no one from my class, no one I know, until I spy a listing for “Chester Aaron former faculty” and the memory comes back—

—that warm spring afternoon when he speaks of his time in the 70th Armored Infantry Battalion and the liberation of Dachau—his unit is one of the first to arrive. The silence in the classroom weaves itself around his spoken words as he tells the tale. We barely breathe as he describes the shocking and inhuman sights—his personal newsreel images—piles of corpses, his description of the stench—

“The flatcars and the boxcars were filled with bodies—pieces of bodies, chunks of bodies…they were wearing pajamas and so forth. Hundreds and hundreds lying dead or dying on the floor of the barracks…a little girl…came out of the barracks looked at me and said essen, essen…I had a can of C-Rations in my backpack. And I opened it up, and I picked her up, and I sat down, and I fed her with my fingers…She took about three or four swallows and died in my arms…”

The classroom windows are open—there are birds singing. I hear the call of voices in the tennis courts, smell the lush scents of spring grass and blossoming lilac gliding in the breeze as Chester’s tenor- baritone voice emerges from his round, bald head, the border of white unruly hair around his pate like a wild tonsure, the steady gleam in his eyes hot with anger.

All that instantly. A flashback. Unexpected. Intense. Humbling. Then and now.

A few years after my wife dies I suddenly recall Chester. Something I read on the Internet about garlic brings him to mind. He has retired to a farm in Occidental, California where he grows exotic varietals of garlic: Yugoslavian Red, Brown Tempest, Spanish Roja—stinking cloves with civilized names—Creole Red, Romanian Red, Incelium Red. I think of looking him up before I migrate to Oregon but can’t find the time. I discover a YouTube video filmed at his house. I remember his voice and his countenance. I really should thank him, I say to myself. It’s only about eighty miles up 101. Go!

But I don’t. I miss my chance.

At St. Mary’s while in his fifties, Chester looks exactly like a guy named Chester—the same way my Uncle Max was a ringer for a man named Max. But Chester is not soft and fat, waving a cigar around held loosely in his stubby fingers like Uncle Max. Chester doesn’t smoke. He is substantial. He is genuine. Maybe it’s his nose that makes him larger than life—after all it’s the first thing everyone notices about him. The cowboy boots and denim work shirts add to the masculine impression. More so it’s his smile, the firm voice, and the manner in which every spoken word is like a phrase from a story he is constantly writing aloud that makes him authentic.

The words of encouragement and the laughter and his endless patience with me—even after I make a clown of myself by writing an ill-conceived satire about him as a final assignment that first year—those elements fashioned a generous teacher and storyteller. He is an outsider—the only Jew on the faculty of a Catholic liberal arts college. Chester projects the auras of a boxer, a carpenter, or a farmer. In fact, he is all of those at various times in his ninety-six-year life.

After I read the notice in the alumni magazine I look for an obituary on the web. “Chester deeply touched the lives of many through his writing, teaching and mentoring, love of garlic and animals and his friendships. He will be greatly missed.” Modest words. Simple truth.

I realize I’ve not read much of what he wrote and published after I left St. Mary’s. I spend time catching up and read his first book, About Us, long out of print and now self-published. The story of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania between the two world wars—his family. Also: Symptoms of Terminal Passion, Black and Blue Jew, and his books about garlic that mix memoir and recipes, Garlic Kisses and Tasty Hugs and Garlic is Life. None of these published by what one would consider a major publisher.

I find a short story, The Female of the Species, in which a much-loved wife dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. A pair of mated hawks also die in the story, and I think of my own wife and her love for hawks—how she collected feathers from the side of the trail when she went horseback riding. I think, Chester, how the hell did you know? How did you know?

I want to kick myself for not seeing him before I left California. That’s a phrase he used often, “you need to kick yourself in your ass and get the work done.”

In Garlic Is Life I find this passage about his St. Mary’s experience: “My colleagues, residents of the academic world since they were teenagers, considered me an interesting but somewhat eccentric mutant.”

I read elsewhere that he considered most of his students lazy, sloppy, and unimaginative—and I think that he is writing about me—one of those students who hopefully concludes I think I have a book in me—someone who assumes that urging words out of the imagination is an easy line of work—effortless validation leading to notable adulation. Wrong. Chester makes that clear. It’s all “process and craft” and “damned hard work.” Just like farming and building furniture. Or knocking the daylights out of someone with a determined left hook.

What do I know about work when I am a student? Not much. I haven’t experienced anything profound. It’s been five decades since then. After loss and a move from California, a new life, plenty of time, a hundred or so books read every year, piles of poems written and stored safely where no one will ever see them, an intermittent journal, one single self-published memoir about rock and roll—and two daughters, a 35-year marriage and subsequent widower-hood—I remember his lessons, his laughter, and now it’s too late to say thank you and know that he can hear me say it.

I find this statement in an interview with him conducted when Female of the Species is published in Symptoms of Terminal Passion:

“More and more, as I grow older and older, I have somehow gained the strength and courage to tell the literary establishment (meaning publishers, editors, agents, established and therefore powerful writers) in San Francisco and New York to kiss my ass.”

Chester Aaron – Writer and Human

As we used to say in the Seventies: “Right on, man.” He’s in his eighties when he tells the late-stage capitalist publishing industry to worship his gluteus maximus. By that time, he’s written and published—one way or another—twenty-five or so books. With no agent.

He never told me to “write about what you know” specifically. But that’s what he did, spinning his personal experience into fiction— sincere fiction that reads like memoir. That’s the lesson. Learn how to learn and then write about it. Turn life into literature. If the established minions of the publishing industry don’t want it, tell them to kiss your ass.

I almost fail that freshman year. Not so much grade-wise—I manage B’s and C’s, though I get a D in Epic Poetry because I forget to set my alarm and sleep though the final exam, then run around the campus looking for the professor so I can set a time to retake it. That doesn’t happen because he has already left for the summer. My failure is all about my lack of confidence, my anxiety, and my existential confusion.

When I get home for the summer and my grades arrive, Dad expresses his disappointment by telling me that if I don’t get a haircut he’ll stop paying my tuition. I acquiesce unwillingly. It’s unfair. After all, I did manage to brush my teeth.

Notes on the text:

  • My reference to “I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere” is to my recently published memoir Winterland Nights. More information is available here.
  • On January 10, 2013 Chester was interviewed by Celeste Brasuell for inclusion in the Veterans History Project of the U.S. Library of Congress. The entire interview is printed as the Afterword in his short story collection Wars and Peaces. The text in this post of his memories of Dachau is taken from that interview. I think Chester would have appreciated the use of poetic license. I also wanted to be sure I quoted him accurately.
  • An article on the St. Mary’s website entitled Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron Remembers Horrors of Holocaust states: “It was only six years ago that Saint Mary’s College Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron allowed himself to remember the day he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.” However, my memory of Chester speaking of his experience on that day in 1971 or 1972 is quite clear, and I have verified it with another former student who was there.
  • A link to Chester’s obituary on


Where I Lived: 2

Westward through Hell

Faithful Ugly Car – 1963 Dodge 330

Summer of 1966, somewhere on Interstate 8 between Gila Bend and Yuma. I’m in the back seat of my father’s black Dodge 330 4-door sedan. The faithful, ugly car has carried us west across the country on the burgeoning Interstate Highway System four times, but there’s no return trip planned today. The destination is not a vacation. We are cruising to a new home, my father at the wheel, as always, piloting us to a concrete destination that he dreamed up in his imagination, with my mother’s agreement.

The air conditioning is failing. There’s a trace of frigid air emanating from the front vents, but not much. It’s 104 degrees outside. I touch the warm glass of the window. Mom wants to stop and give us water. Dad says no. Maybe he thinks the car will heat up too much and that we will all be baked alive before we get to Araz Junction and the bridge into California that crosses what’s left of the Colorado. The river is dammed six times south of Hoover. I’m cooked already and feel damned as well.

There’s water in the trunk of the car, but instead of fighting with Dad over a short halt, Mom hands out cans of unrefrigerated orange soda to us—the only liquid she has in the car at the moment. Lukewarm, sugared, vile—I drink it down like a parched sailor in a lifeboat on a salty sea. Immediately I want to throw up, but I don’t. I’d rather die. Dad would be sympathetic, but then I’d hear it as a tale told to his friends to embarrass me for years. No way will I let that happen.

As we speed down the brand-new interstate the road passes through a cattle ranch stretching to the horizon on either side of the road and into the distance ahead of us—a brownish ocean of undulating livestock. The reek of cow shit and my own fear enters my nose. I am breathing thickness and sickness. My head is spinning.

“Oh my God,” my mother says. “What a stench. Stinking old cows.” She waves her hand in front of her face as if shooing away a cloud of invisible flies. My mother never uses the name of the Lord in vain, something my father monitors in his children’s speech—something I am careful to avoid. Dad remains silent.

I am fed up with all this travel, weary of being cooped up in the back of the car—three days now. We are in a hurry and not stopping to see the sights. I already miss my Pittsburgh pals. I’ll never see them again. I hate everything.

Then my father turns around and leers. His wayward eyebrows bristle. He’s going to say something he thinks is funny, I can tell.

“This is what hell is like!” he says, and turns back to watching the road. All that’s missing is the “bwa-ha-ha.”

One Year in San Diego

Smart Assed Kid

Sun and Mexican food. Bicycles at last. Long road trips to watch the sun rise over the Anza Borrego desert. No more snow. Shorts in the winter. Picnics. More Catholic school—School of the Madeleine on Illion Street. Brown uniforms for the boys: short sleeves for First through Seventh grade, long sleeves and black ties for eighth graders. Plain plaid skirts for the girls. We arrive in late summer of 1966, and the local stores are all sold out of long-sleeved shirts. I receive a dispensation for my bare forearms, yet still wear the tie, which creates a rumor that I am really a Seventh grader who has advanced because of his academic qualifications. This marks me as an outsider. I am treated as such by my peers. I flunk math, but not intentionally.

The church is on the side of a mesa—a view of Mission Bay, the vista like something from the utopian science-fiction novels I love. Years later I look at it again through the reverse memory telescope—so tiny, so ordinary. But the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent is right there before me, and the desert and my father’s Edward Abbey dreams are not far from home. Daytime road trips on the weekend. Burgers on the grill. Family times.

A rental house on Cowley Way where I can hear the neighbors drinking and fighting at night. My closest friends are outcasts like me—now nameless, I cherish them. There are guitars in the house. My father is unhappy, beleaguered by his boss, a stupid man named Carl, whose girlfriend is English and sweet. Carl owns a yacht. On random Sundays we steam around Mission Bay in a cloud of diesel exhaust, a brief excitement. A day trip to Ensenada, Mexico, before the borders became impregnable without passports. Another to Tecate, where my guitars originate.

Our roots never take hold in that cultural soil, save for cuisine. Tacos and tostadas, not just from taquerias—a recipe from Sunset magazine that my brother still occasionally rustles up in my kitchen. Food that always leads to the redemptive chant today: “Thanks Dad and Mom…” Can they hear us on the other side? After a year we scurry north. To Oxnard.

Oxnard. A name right out of the Firesign Theatre’s “Funny Names Club of America,” christened by the town’s founder, Henry, who built a sugar beet processing plant there in 1897. Frustrated because bureaucrats couldn’t determine why Henry wanted to name the town after the Greek word for sugar, zachari, he named it after his family. Civic debates over changing the name ensue repeatedly.

Field of Beans

Reading Road and Track

A brand-new tract house in the middle of lima bean fields—the local ranch family is selling off the family agricultural estate to developers. I can see over the back fence and watch the harvesting—bulky, rumbling machines running all day and night that keep me awake. Another steampunk sci-fi vision.

As months and years pass more homes are excreted onto the rich soil that have been fertilized for decades with chicken shit. Advantageous for gardening. My parents plant citrus trees, cacti, and succulents. I can still hear neighbors fighting—it seems that California is filled with unhappiness. I keep to myself. My brothers play ball in the suburban streets.

My dad never wears tennis shoes—in their place leather Oxfords tied with thin shoestrings, black socks that fall down around his thin ankles, revealing his pallid skin. Thankfully he never wears shorts. My mother, patiently silent, puts up with my father’s crazy schemes.

“If you don’t have anything good to say about someone don’t say anything,” she teaches me. It seems wise then. I know it is now.

Smart Assed Father of Kid

In August 1967 there is a day when Dad registers me at the local Catholic high school, not long after we move into the new house. We sit in the principal’s office. Behind the desk a priest, Monsignor Joseph Pekarcik, ex-Marine. Wire-rimmed glasses. Stern gaze. No grin. Curled grey hair like soap-scour pads. Next to me my father, a patriarchal smirk on his face. As they engage in autocratic small talk, I sit in a chair feeling unimportant and diminutive, as if I am being reduced in size due to the power of the invisible super-vision shrink ray transmitting from the priest’s totalitarian eyes. I think that if he smiles his cheeks will crack and his face might fall off. Wisely, I keep my mouth shut, rebelling internally.

He says to my father, “Mister Gill, how do you supervise your family?”

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” My father responds as if they are old friends sharing a secret handshake and winking at one another. I wonder what Mom would say if she heard that—she’d laugh in his face and require that he make his own dinner.

Monsignor Pekarcik nods approvingly and scrutinizes me again. He knows he’ll have no problem with me. I spend four years avoiding him while he catches genuine miscreants, sneaking up behind them while wearing thick-soled silent shoes, curtailing their felonies—violations of the dress code. “The heels on those boots are too high, Mister, and those pants are too tight. Go home and change them. Now.” 

Once again I don’t know anyone on the first day of my freshman year. Two parishes feed eighth graders into the high school. Everyone is confused—I seem to have come from some other country or planet. Yet in a few days I realize my family will remain here in this agricultural town for an extended time as it transforms to a Los Angeles bedroom community. The outlandishly named city becomes my first hometown, despite the crop dusters buzzing around the neighborhood. Here I make lifelong friends—not nameless and forgotten, still with me fifty years later: John, Tony, Marie.

No Sense of Fashion

I become a high school scholar, the pampered eldest Catholic boy—both my siblings are enrolled in public schools. My parents never speak to me about money. They never give me much of it either, but once again we seem flush. My dad finds a job in a camera store, builds a business selling high-end stereo gear and classical audiophile LP’s. Eventually my mother works as a secretary. I find baby-sitting jobs in the neighborhood for paperback book money.

Riding my bike to the public library is unalloyed joy. Freedom in the stacks as I search out science-fiction, dreams of future cities in my head—domed or doomed. Asimov, Clark, Bradbury—Heinlein not so much. Mystery and detective novels. World War 2 naval history. My father subscribes to Road and Track. I devour every issue, following Formula One in Europe, while helping him rebuild Alfa Romeo sports cars in the garage.

On weekends, road trips to Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest. Racing down the long straightaway of Gonzales Road, my father behind the wheel. “Don’t you dare ever drive like this,” he says—while driving like that.

At the end of Gonzales Road, the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent. The smell of the sea. Occasional fog. On clear nights, stars. Sometimes, sporadic explosions of aborted rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base 100 miles up the coast—the vapor from the blasts hanging like florescent blossoms, unfurling smoke and fire across the setting sun. C-5 Super Galaxy cargo jets rumble and roll over the house on final approach to Oxnard Air Force Base.

In 1969 men land on the moon. My father scoffs, I’m not sure why. I have nothing good to say to him about his cynicism, so I ignore him. One year earlier America burns. Martin Luther King is assassinated. In June I listen to Robert Kennedy speak after winning the California Democratic primary. Then another shot from a gun while the harvesters churn more lima beans from the ground and houses grow in the fields overnight.

In the background of all of it my transistor radio and radio station KBBY—Beatles, Beach Boys, The Who, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin. All surreptitiously received through a small earpiece. I am in a safe zone—protected, loved, nurtured—even though the country is falling apart, and thousands of soldiers are dying in a pointless war in Southeast Asia.

My father tells me I’m going to college. Sounds good to me. Has to be a Catholic College though. I apply to Loyola in Los Angeles, Santa Clara in Santa Clara, and a small liberal arts college in Moraga—Saint Mary’s College of California. I am accepted at all three. Dad and Mom arrange for tuition, and I help out with a small scholarship from the State of California.

January 1971. Dad and I travel north to Moraga to see the campus. A rainy, foggy day. The place seems like something out of my own moist, murky, romantic dreams—redwood trees, owls, rain, and…coeds. I adore it, and it’s as far away from my dad as I can get.

The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around.

Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action

Where I Lived: 1

Deep in the white heart of Pennsylvania, a little town that had no dreams. Houses crushed by snow in winter, eroded by the lack of creative fire. To no other place on earth have I given greater joy on leaving.

Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a child. The memories are clear: my father’s Pontiac Star Chief convertible, the bats in the attic above my bedroom, the first day I had to climb onto a school bus and attend first grade in a brick building across the street from Saint Patrick Catholic Church. A boy was accidentally hanged in the school yard while playing Cowboys and Indians, though it didn’t happen while school was in session. I had no idea of mortality then. The tragedy didn’t register.

A day in second grade watching Al Shepherd’s lift-off, broadcast on a tiny black and white TV set. The Space Age rising while I was growing up in a region that never changed and is now the ailing heartland of an America that never got back to the moon. Today my brother and I chant aloud: “Thanks, Dad for moving us away from there…” We were still a few years from migrating to California, but the first stage of leaving that rural slough behind by a shift to Pittsburgh was a day of liberation, at least in hindsight.

The city on three rivers had cleaned up its act. No more darkness at lunchtime—when the opaque sun was trapped behind an impenetrable cloud of smoke produced by steel manufacturing. I’ve seen those pictures in books, but by the time we moved the mills were cleaner. Perhaps the toxicity was simply hidden. Both of my parents died young, my mother from cancer, my dad from a bizarre nervous disease that was never successfully diagnosed. I’m convinced their health was permanently impacted by the paper mills in the small towns where they grew up. We moved before my health was ruined.

Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mom.

Baptist Road – Pittsburg

To my adolescent eyes Pittsburgh was elegant, our home on Baptist Road a noble castle made of stone. If I returned today it would be revealed as modest. That is the circumstance of memory—the old past is vast when it is new, and diminutive when it is visited in the future present—like looking through a telescope in reverse.

Yet in Pittsburgh there was little sense of natural geography—no mountains, no coastline, no sense of immensity. Three summer trips across the continent from 1963-1965 gave us all a taste. Mom and Dad sensed the radiance on the coast—Ansel Adams’s Range of Light illuminated the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion—and called to my parents.

We were rich, though not monetarily. My parents agonized over the mortgage, always paying on time. When Dad lost his electronics store downtown after the block was condemned for the construction of the US Steel building, we wandered to California and left Pennsylvania behind—aunts, uncles, cousins, my father’s mother, and family friends. We took my mother’s photo scrapbook with us. I was uncertain about that move. I had buddies and did not want to leave, but today I am still gratefully living under a Pacific sky.

When we are children our passages are not the results of our own decisions but those of our caretakers. As adults we live with the consequences of our own decisions but more often those choices are again the result of unforeseen events and losses that become opportunities. We are never in charge.

Art, in its broadest sense, is about connections, not distance.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree


In a world where, as one poet says, “people seem to speak to each other mostly for profit,” it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.

The Art of Voice – Poetic Principle and Practice, Tony Hoagland

There was a time when endless days of rain made me sad—but no longer.

This is my third Oregon January. I am accustomed to the climate now. I enjoy walking in the rain—primarily because there are fewer people. I’m not a curmudgeon, but these days I find my fellow humans to be a distraction. It’s a side effect of the pandemic. How can I be fond of people and treat them with my normal friendliness when they may actually be a threat to my life because they refuse to wear a mask?

I can’t suffer fools, not gladly. I used to be forced into doing so—in professional life one has to get along with people simply to survive. But no longer. I’m free of that. Instead, I muster the patience required to move aside from the unmasked people that jog by me on the narrow forest paths of Mary S. Young Park State Park along the west shore of the Willamette River, trailing their possibly infected breath behind them invisibly. Do they actually observe anything as they run? Do they smell the clean air? Are they happy? I never see them smiling.

I suspect they are running from something.

I know I can’t outrun anything, physically or metaphorically. Sometimes when I walk in the rain, I lower the hood of my jacket and lift my face to the moisture. It seems reasonable to do that—as if I am having a conversation with another aspect of the higher power. OK, I get it, I say to myself. Rain on my soul and heart. Awaken me. Thank you.

I don’t run from those random interludes of grace. I embrace them. I can hear the rain falling, see the water running everywhere in streams and rivulets, and recall that my body and brain are mostly made of water and that electricity dashes through the tissues of my flesh and the soft matter within my skull. Nature is inside me. My soul is moist here in Oregon, swelling after dry years in California.

There is no fever within me now. Many memoirists write about trauma. Is that why they have an audience? Because the reader can say I hear you brother/sister. Been there. I have not been maltreated. My only distress is that of grief, and it has calmed through the passage of time—but I try to understand the suffering of others. Doing that is easier than bearing fools.

I wonder who my audience is, and if I had one, would they experience what I write in the same way? My story is not exciting, not filled with triumph—but is that an attraction? Does anyone really want to read a memoir by someone who came from a functional family enhanced by love, faith, and normality?

There really is no answer to that vexed and unanswerable question. I write because I write. There is only the need to get the voice up and running and let it speak—that voice that needs to be released, not for any other reason that it requires to be released.

The writer understands, at least unconsciously, that the voice needs to tell a story, and create a journey—perhaps fictive or true or both. It is an intimate act. Writing is the most private art. It’s a direct connection between the electricity in the writer brain to the reader brain, and the mystery is that neither side can experience the connection at the same time. It’s a malleable, mental illumination that can’t be measured empirically, and that can’t be denied as a mere hallucination or fantasy because it is not reducible to anything other than the closest thing that we have to mind-reading or casting thoughts into each other’s heads.

It’s an aspect of the human experience of the spiritual creatures that we really are—locked into our own ego-skulls, lonely and craving companionship. Poets, writers, playwrights, wordsmiths of every kind—perhaps even those who write shopping lists occasionally—tell a story, simply because it desires to be told and because writers live within their own metafictive worlds.

That’s the basic truth of literature. Writers have a voice. Readers search it out. No one can explain that in the same way that we can talk about calendars, longitude, latitude, chemistry, or any of the touchable sciences. The voice vaults from Imagination.

I’m mortal. Anything I write will be left behind, but who am I to think that anything I create, no matter how lucid or beautiful, is really of any great importance other than the expressions of a spiritual being who was given the gift of human experience?

I can’t deny the rain in January, or the fact that a half million Americans are dead from Covid-19, or that I can’t travel anywhere because of the pandemic—nor the fact that there are so many fools in this world requiring that I bear their existence so I can work on my own compassion and patience, hopefully compensating for my own foolishness.

I am living in my own metafiction. The rain is falling. There’s a break coming up soon. I will walk and remove my hood and await the voice, which is always there, riding on the atmospheric river, and flowing from my soul. It’s what I do, and I’ll keep at it.

Willamette River – Mary S. Young State Park – Photos by Richard Gylgayton

Note on the text from Wikipedia.

Anthony Dey Hoagland (November 19, 1953 – October 23, 2018) was an American poet. His poetry collection, What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Wikipedia article about Tony Hoagland

Poems by Tony Hoagland at the Poetry Foundation

Grace and Memoir

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing

Ephesians 2:8
King Tide at Seal Rock, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Grace exposes all our gifts, both those we hold and those we have lost. Love enters our life through grace. The certainty of grace is gentle and subtle, and explaining it might destroy it, like locking a butterfly in a tin box.

I can only try through example: my brother and my dog are in the house with me, sharing my life in Oregon. They both appeared into my life unbidden. The giver of those two gifts is much greater than the “I” that is aware of the gift. In fact, the temporary identity of my ego is so busy with unimportant things most of the time that it is generally unaware of the love and grace that the giver constantly provides.

Perhaps that is why when I am cognizant of grace because I have taken the time to be mindful, my heart opens, and I feel a concentrated emotion that I also cannot describe. The inability to explain it is not because I do not have a talent for creating sentences. It is not that more words would help, it’s that all of them are inadequate.

The explanatory impossibility exists because the gifts are too considerable and generous for me to understand in the way that we normally define perception, like other inexpressible things: a sunrise, music, the laughter of children, and friends who have appeared and joined me on my travels.

When Saint Paul says “this is not your own doing” he is speaking of the giver: the gift of God. I know that there are those who may read that and shake their heads in dissatisfaction with the proper noun. We live in an empirical and materialistic age, where most of what occurs is described through pragmatic, rigid terms. I don’t deny that, nor do I reject it.

Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

I carry both the pragmatic and metaphysical viewpoints of the world in my consciousness. But as I have grown older and realize that most of my life has already been lived, that sensation of the gift of grace has existed consistently and I have to accept that there is something undefinable that provides all the love that has sustained my life.

My own experience tells me that the higher power cares for me. The realization is not attached to any specific belief or faith. The tradition in which I was raised is as human as anything else, thus it is filled with error, confusion and the projection of power, both at the institutional and personal level. The traditional Western churches lost their way long ago. Today we see some of them (far too few) realizing that and attempting to change. What I am describing has extraordinarily little to do with religion as we commonly understand it. The appreciation of grace is devoid of dogma, authority, belief, rituals, or tribal relationships.

I am not making a case for anything specific because what I speak of is indefinable—except for the simple fact that when I take time to reflect, I can see moments when there was something significant at work that could not be measured. It was, and is, simply there, especially when the events of my life were arduous and filled with sadness and stress. At those times I feel beneficence from outside of my small self.

When my heart fills with wonder, when I surrender to the actuality of grace transforming me in small and detailed ways in a world that appears to be out of control—that is when I feel the human condition most vitally.

I am learning my own past all over again. I am examining the years I have already experienced and rediscovering the moments of grace of which I was unaware. In so doing I am more sensitive to its frequent presence as I live through the latter stages of my life. The harsh world we have created obscures the simple miracles that actually sustain us. Yet they are there and when the veil falls we can perceive them with gratitude and read our own story.