The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly. (Proverbs 20:27, KJV)
Two days ago, our next-door neighbors marked the birthday of the adult son they outlived. Yesterday, my wife’s childhood friend commemorated what would have been her son’s Bar Mitzvah. I feel for them deeply. And tomorrow, had he lived more than three days, our own son would have turned five.
It is a significant age in our culture — the beginning of more than a decade of compulsory education, and also therefore the end of the need for full-time care. It is when most parents place their child at the top of a long chute ending in adulthood, by taking them nervously in hand to their first day of kindergarten.
Late last year, in response to a wave of teenage suicides, the It Gets Better project reached out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gender (LGBT) teens with its simple message of encouragement. After five years of complicated grief, I am here to say it can get better for bereaved parents, too. I say “can” because I credit not only time but a number of important activities for bringing me increased solace, including: community service, counseling, meditation, nutrition, exercise, supportive friends, and, of course, writing. While all of this has helped, both in the moment and over time, it has not been some steady upward progression. Far from it. Some days, just getting out of bed in the morning is still my greatest victory.
“Hope is the thing with feathers”
Try courage instead
This Thanksgiving, I was keenly aware of my gratitude for an absent member of our family. Had he lived, our son would have been four years old. I am truly thankful for his brief presence in our lives, which activated my paternal instincts, and gave me a deeper respect for my own forefathers. The three days I spent with him in the hospital, and the subsequent years I have spent coming to terms with his short life, taught me something important about how to live my own life. My wife put it succinctly one morning: “You don’t need hope if you have courage.”
We admire saints and martyrs (including the secular ones) not because they hoped for success in their own lives, but because they faced the circumstances of their lives with a sense of higher purpose, and great courage. And while they often had visions of a better future, they were prepared to act courageously whether or not they would ever see these visions realized in their lifetime. Likewise, our American ancestors, whom we honor by feasting at Thanksgiving, may have hoped for a better future for their children. But it was their daily application of courage that I admire most.
I was talking with a friend recently about how perilous it may have been for our current president to have run his election campaign on a message of hope. Continue reading…
“Then what are we fighting for?”
-Attributed to Winston Churchill, in response to a suggestion that arts education be cut to fund the war effort.
There has been a furor over recent cuts in humanities education at the university level in America. Most of the counter-arguments for keeping the humanities alive play out the “transferable skills” angle. My wife, a piano teacher, knows these arguments all too well — that learning to play an instrument accelerates childhood brain development, and that music actually teaches certain kinds of mathematical reasoning (such as fractions). Likewise, with literature, English departments often underscore the importance of “soft skills” like communication.
But in the end, this line of thinking only lends strength to the argument to, for example, replace courses in Shakespeare with more practical courses in business and technical writing. It is also not difficult to imagine games designed by psychologists to more effectively deliver specific, developmental results than learning to playing Bach partitas ever will. Clearly, the argument that the humanities can deliver practical, bottom-line results is problematic. Why, then, are they so critical in difficult times?
I prepared my set for the Weird Words reading at the Beatrice Wood Center knowing two special friends would be in the audience. Although, as I say in the poem, I never knew their adult son, having lost my own son in his infancy, I feel a special connection with them.
One day, this poem came to me. I was nervous at first to share it with them. But they told me that they read it over and over in private. On that night, I read it to them in person for the first time. Needless to say it was difficult to keep reading through strong feelings. Kevin Wallace, director of the Center, videotaped the evening, and captured this moment.
Here also is the text of the poem:
Fugue is the first short book in the third volume of the Lost Horse Press New Poets Series. Bobo was born in Kansas and now lives in Indiana with her musician husband. Herself a “recovering musician,” Bobo writes about an ex-pianist’s relationship to her instrument, citing two definitions of “fugue” on the cover page — first, the obvious musical definition involving multiple voices playing a contrapuntal theme; second, the psychiatric definition involving a psychological flight from circumstances, manifesting like amnesia.
My beloved wife is also a recovering pianist. An injury in her mid-thirties brought her successful concert career in Europe to an abrupt halt. I know intimately that, whether the circumstances of prevention are physical or psychological, dedicating one’s life to the difficult task of becoming a successful pianist, then having to stop, can surface painful memories and profound questions. Bobo approaches these with an almost archaeological curiosity, interspersed with biblical grandeur, and scraps of dear-diary-like confession.
"Inconsolable Grief" by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi
The September issue of Salamander Cove focuses on love and loss. I am honored to have my poem, “To Friends Not Knowing What to Say” — which first appeared in Iota 85 — take its place alongside spare and stunning tributes by Chris Agee, Anna Ross, Dave Jarecki, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Jim Murdoch, Jamie Dedes, and Charles Bernstein. I found the juxtaposition of these pieces deeply moving, and applaud the editor for focusing her selection “not on the fact of death but on the depth of the sense of loss of certain special beings, or almost-beings, who are no longer with us.”
Longer poems are interspersed with short pieces from Chris Agee’s “Heartscapes” series, featured in his remarkable collection Next to Nothing. The effect is like that of Haibun, a form perfected by Bashō that juxtaposes a prose piece with a haiku, enhancing the reader’s attention to both the longer and shorter piece through the interleaving of the two forms. Here, too, I found myself pausing to find my breath as I made my way through this series of poems.