Tag Archives: stories from youth

Art and Memory

“A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened “(Albert Camus).

I

I’m now well, but for years I wasn’t. I lay in bed day and night in an upstairs room in a silent house alone but for my son’s cat Monty beside me to my left cat-114629_640and my dog Jack to my right: my beloved companions. I watched no TV, listened to no radio, read no newspapers, and heard no music.

From that bed I could see out the bedroom windows the crowns of a grove of tall, flourishing trees.  I watched on the trees the seasons change, the leaves brilliant, blinding green in spring, crimson and gold in autumn, brittle and curled when they came to rest on my window sill. Some winters there was more snow there on the branches of those trees than other winters.

Unable to write anymore or to read the books I loved or live a physical life. I decided I would not waste time wondering why what had happened to me had winter-1153669_640happened.  I would have to stay alert and live a life of the mind, and I set a project for myself. I would reconstruct my life to date through my memory. From that bed I would flee into solitude and journey backwards in time.

We set the dead aside as though we have no need of them. But I wanted to pluck out of the long ago the people who had populated my world when I was growing up. I had lived among them and knew their gestures. I had heard them speak so many times, and wondered greatly about them. But I didn’t know who they really were, didn’t know what their days and nights had been like. I realized that if I wanted to be with them, though most had died, I would have to discover them in myself where they all still lived.

I was growing older. My children were gone now—my daughters Stephanie and Alice and my sons Evan and Eli. Their laughter no longer brightened the house. I didn’t know what would become of me. But I wanted to see things as they were before forgetfulness mounted and memories faded and were lost or my life ended and the memories I had assembled ended with me.

I longed to walk through the house where I had grown up and to look out on the street and see the wealth of familiar things that were before me every day days-and-nights-pic_copyin my youth, no sights as dear to me as what I saw from the kingdom of my porch. I wanted to hold my father’s hand again and look into his kind eyes. I wanted to revel in everything–the hum of voices, the smells of night air, those early-evening hawks floating above my house and tucking their wings in to their bodies and diving like falling kites, the taste of my mother’s dinner in my mouth, the sight of her trying on a new hat, and of my younger sister Sharon—my pal–who died so young as a little girl coming up the stairs in her favorite beige coat with a fur collar as I remembered her.

I decided I would try to remember accurately and when I was able to write again, if ever, I wouldn’t lie about what I had discovered because in writing or painting—or acting–one should never lie.  Russian Anton Chekhov said, “Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood.”

And so hour after hour, again and again in my search for truth I burrowed back into myself and evoked the days and nights of my childhood. I notebook-86792_640remembered as well as I could what I had experienced myself and what had been told to me. When there in that room  I came upon something that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t explain, or didn’t remember clearly, or couldn’t possibly know, I relied on my imagination.

My father’s brother died tragically and violently, and my great uncle was a war hero under enemy fire–a rescuer of wounded men–and too, died tragically. I thought about them so many times—of the stories of them I’d been told–and decided that what I’d been told must be incomplete. So I inferred what their real stories were that I hadn’t been told. I concluded that my uncle, that troubled and most charming man we all loved, must have let himself be murdered.

Loneliness, solitude, and isolation are at the core of a creator’s life as they are of a sick person’s life. I learned to adjust to them because I had no choice. I became an expert on despair and pain during that period—despair that is beyond despair, pain beyond pain.

II

At first my remembering was over in a few minutes and was very general and unclear. Memories were there in my mind and then slipped away. I might be distracted by a sound: a storm wind blowing wildly through my trees, or a siren. But then I slowed down and focused intently and remembered in finer and finer detail.  At first I might remember being six and feeling again that tingle of anticipation—of joy– I always felt in my boy’s strong body–my arms, handsmy legs, my fingers–and climbing flights of thickly carpeted stairs with my family—my father in front of me, my brother John behind–and entering an apartment. Then I would remember a hallway; then in a glass case that was taller than a man my Aunt Sarah’s menagerie of little colored glass animals, a rearing white unicorn, a red deer. Then the smell of turkey. It was a holiday. We were all happy.

Detail is the secret of remembering, I discovered–details and details of details, a multiplicity of details, as it is the secret of all the arts when they are done beautifully, a preciseness of vision. That was an important revelation. “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender).

III

My life, like yours, has been carried away by passing days. But time doesn’t disappear absolutely, gone forever, but remains inside—every image and horizon-768759_640impression once experienced is waiting patiently to be retrieved—“those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash…which seem to be of no consequence…which live in our minds and hearts forever” (American novelist Thomas Wolfe).

Over and over, hour after hour, day after day I was moving in closer, backing up and rethinking until I was satisfied and could say, “Yes, yes, that is how it was when I was a boy. I’ve gotten it right.” I did that carefully. I had all the time in the world because I didn’t know if I’d ever be well and wasn’t in a hurry.  I didn’t know if I’d have what it takes to transform memories into meaningful images and words, into art. But I was growing more confident now that one day I would.

Night would be falling before I heard footsteps on the stairs and a door opened and I could answer the question I’d waited so eagerly for all day: “Hello, dear, what did you remember today?”

Time passed and I was well again. Then I left that room.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Filed under Artistic Integrity, Artists, Growing Up Stories, Memory, Personal Stories, Writers

Serendipity in a Creator’s Life

My journey on the life path of the writer (you may be on a creator’s life path too)–studying writers and the writer’s life, and writing and reading a great Road with the-sun-470317_640deal of my time, setting writing as a high priority in my life; thinking of it all the time; sacrificing for it—was shaped by serendipitous experiences which are probably not very different from yours.

In the third grade when I was seven, the teacher, Miss Gross, stood at the front of the room and read to the class my theme–I’d described playing football. I’d said when I was tackled “I fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar.” Miss Gross said to the class. “David has used poetic language. He’s written what’s called a simile.” That single little event—her saying that and showing admiration for those few words,  and making me feel that it was somehow worth commenting on—immediately sparked something in me, let something  break free in me.

David youngRunning home down the street after school feeling wonderful and liberated—when I was young I was almost always running–I decided I would become a writer if there were such people and make similes as often as I wanted all the rest of my life. Miss Gross then encouraged me and worked with me and nurtured me. She arranged for my stories and poems to be published in newspapers and magazines. She asked me to apply myself and work hard at the writer’s craft. I was awarded first prize in a regional essay contest.

What if there hadn’t been a generous, giving Miss Gross in my life? What if she hadn’t been that kind of extraordinary teacher who holds students in highest regard and inspires them to aim high? What if she hadn’t cared enough to help me?

At about the age of nine I happened to be playing in front of the TV instead of playing tag outside with my brother and sisters when an old black and white English movie came on.  I knew nothing about acting, but there was one actor Laurence Olivieron the screen who I could see was doing something remarkable. He was just different, unlike any of the other actors, though I couldn’t say how. But I could see that something right there on the screen. What he was doing, how he was acting, the impression he was making made me feel a sensation which I now know was awe. I realized I was watching some exceptional thing I had never seen in movies before, in my life before. I pointed to him and asked my mother who that was. She was a movie buff. She knew. “That’s Laurence Olivier. He’s the greatest actor in the world.” Even so young I had recognized supreme mastery, the highest attainment of an art.

I decided that I wanted one day to be able to affect people the way his performance had affected me—he had made me gasp. And I thought the best way to do that was to write things so beautiful that people would gasp too. A major event for me in college involved another teacher, Dr. Hunt, a well-known visiting professor of creative writing who one day read to the class a piece I’d written. (The assignment was to describe a person by describing a piece of clothing they were wearing, and I wrote “My Father’s Corduroy Jacket,” the best writing I’d done to date.)  When she finished reading, she said, “A teacher waits her entire career for a student who can write like this.”  She had me visit her in her office and helped get my work in a prestigious literary journal. So there was my second encouraging Miss Gross who happened to be on the faculty for one semester—the same semester it fit my schedule to take her class.

To create beauty—to write beautiful poems and stories—I decided depended on how moving the subject was and also the beauty it was expressed with, and Writing near a treeI placed a great deal of emphasis on the imagery in the writing.  In college I’d read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” and was greatly impressed with its beautiful language. I never forgot Hopkins and years later (before Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble) I had the urge to read a book studying his imagery so that it might affect my imagery. Wherever I traveled—and I did extensively, big cities, small towns–I visited new and used bookstores and in every bookstore I browsed for such a book, but never found it.

Once I was to give a speech in Rock Island, Illinois. It’s a small city in the western part of the state that I had never visited before. I discovered that the hotel I was to stay in had just been built and had opened its doors only a few trash-25081_640days before. It had hosted a conference for fire fighters. The attendees had left just the day before. The event at which I was to speak came next. I arrived at midnight and was given the only available room. I laid my bags on the bed, and then noticed something in the trash basket. Apparently it had been left by one of the firefighters and the maid had overlooked it when she cleaned the room.  There it was: a full-length book on the imagery of Gerard Manley Hopkins—another serendipitous event, the only available room, a fire fighter who liked Hopkins too, and a maid who’d forgotten about a trash basket.

Years later I’d been writing and researching fifteen or sixteen hours a day for many months to meet a book deadline, neglecting my wife, neglecting my children, concerned only with putting enough words on a page to satisfy me—words, words, words, words, words–an abstract existence. Everything, every experience that would go into the book had to be translated into language.

That night I’d had it; I couldn’t work another minute, stoic though I am; could not pull from my agonized brain another word. I quietly so as not to wake anyone left my home at about 3:00 a.m. and walked the Chicago streets trying to decide if I wanted to continue leading a grueling, neglectful life like that or follow a more conventional life, committing myself to “a regular 9-5 job.” It was a cool, pleasant night—very dark—with a soft, filmy mist in the air. Should I continue a writer’s difficult life?  Should I just finish this book and give it all up?

Then I noticed ahead of me something on the sidewalk precisely in the middle of a pool of bright white light cast by a street lamp, as though it had somehow Spotlightbeen known that I would find my way to that little street, and that object—whatever it was–had been placed there as though in a spotlight very carefully for me and me alone to see. I went to it and bent down and picked it up. It was a book—of all things a book–not a glove someone had dropped, or a scarf, but a new, thick hard-cover book. You see: I could not get away from the written word. I took this as a serendipitous sign that like it or not a writer’s life—imperfect, isolated, and much too demanding–was my identity and that it was futile for me to think writing would ever not be at the center of my existence.

It was a waste of time to imagine that I could ever get away from a life that had been shaped by Miss Gross, Laurence Olivier, Dr. Hunt, a literary fire fighter and forgetful maid, and the lesson of that book left for me in the pool of white light late at night on a Chicago street.

I’m sure you’ve had similar serendipitous experiences steering you straight to the craft you love and will always love–your writing, painting, acting, dancing, singing. And if you have the time I’d love to hear about them.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

www.mentorcoach.com/rogers

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Becoming an Artist, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, Personal Destiny, Personal Stories, Self-Direction, Serendipity, The Writer's Path, Writers

Awakened to a Waiting Destiny

Throughout all my grade school and high school years the only things I could think of that distinguished me in any way at all from my classmates was my David youngability to write a decent composition and to run faster than all but  one other boy my age in the city of Chicago. I realized those abilities weren’t in the grand scope of life all that earth-shaking. In most other areas I was about average or a little above or a little below. I was shyer than most and much less inclined to study than most. My report cards usually said, “Needs to apply himself.”

Yet I remember that one day in the fourth grade as I was standing in line the thought came to me forcefully and abruptly that something quite possibly extraordinary was up ahead for me in my life. I was stunned. After all, I wasn’t much to speak of. So why was I being singled out like that?  But BOOM, there it was, a secret promise life was making to me–a pact was being made, a deal struck, a bargain arranged between an eight year old and the life he would later lead, a waiting destiny. I knew I should keep the experience to myself and not divulge it to any living person lest they think I was crazy, or a braggart, or most reprehensible of all, that I’d gotten too big for my britches.

I managed to keep this strange experience to myself for more than thirty years, never telling a soul, but never forgetting it. By accident it popped out of my mouth one night while I was speaking to a large audience. I’d been excited. I’d been in a groove. My spoken words had gotten ahead of my thoughts. As soon as it registered on me that I’d just divulged my secret experience I felt embarrassed. I was a professional, but I’d gotten off the topic and I wasn’t supposed to do that. Who was I to think that what had happened to me would be of interest to 6,000 strangers? I wasn’t that important.

But all around the auditorium—to my left, to my right, in front of me–I could see people smiling and nodding. Some had tears in their eyes. While describing people-545549_640my hidden childhood revelation I’d been describing theirs too! The cat they too had been holding in secret was finally out of the bag, and they were relieved to find they weren’t alone. We talked into the night, men and women, some young, some older, some confident, some timid telling their story as I’d told mine, often for the first time.  We were good friends now.  We had a lot in common. What a night.

Since that day I’ve often described my premonition to audiences large and small to see if anything similar had ever happened to any of them. So many people confess to having had that same sudden and overwhelming sensation of being selected for something specific that’s going to happen and will benefit them and perhaps many other people too in important ways. I’ve always suspected that for every person in the audiences who has the courage to raise a hand and admit to having had the identical experience, there are others who have reservations about appearing too big for their britches or divulging such secrets.

So what I realize now is that at some point in many lives there’s an experience foreshadowing a destiny that’s waiting and calling for us. We’d been selected highway-498304_640for a particularly exceptional undertaking and are being told about it—given hints and notifications that life is holding fruition in reserve, and that something worthwhile and wonderful in the swift flow of time is in store for us. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a fantasy or an empty dream, not mystical, not otherworldly, but a fact as real and as solid as any other fact. A hard and fast promise of what at last we really will become.

However modest and self-effacing you are I think you have the feeling that you are special and that you’re supposed to enjoy a life that’s also special. You know with no doubts whatsoever that you’re intended to lead a life that has meaning and to do significant things. You realize that you must hold steady to that goal, undeviating, even if you haven’t achieved it yet and don’t know exactly what it is, or when it will appear, even if from time to time you’re afraid you’ll never achieve it.  When this awareness of a waiting destiny strikes you it’s an intimation of things that surely will come.

Even as a boy I knew that.

 

© 2016 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:

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Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Expectations, Goals and Purposes, Personal Destiny, Personal Stories

Angie

woman-259004_640(Appeared previously under a different title in East on Central)

A few afternoons a week when I was twelve I performed odd jobs for a small neighborhood grocery store with a creaky wood floor and a big bay window called Angie’s.

When I had a delivery to make I brought my red, hand-painted-by-my-father wagon around front and put the load in. Then I would charge, bound straight for glory down the narrow little streets whose every bump my wagon was friends with and had crisscrossed a thousand times, until I had turned a corner or was otherwise out of sight of Angie’s husband Mr. Costello, who spied like a penitentiary guard from the top step of the store to see if I was slacking off.

I treasured my escapes to my happiest world that waited as loyally as a dog outside the store for me. I loved being out on the familiar streets alone, on my own, free, with no adults to burden or restrain me, and there like a person entering a garden after a long illness, relished being reunited with the hallowed fresh air and sunlight, the glorious shades and shapes that festooned this, the tiny patch of the earth that Fortune had so generously allocated to me, and the sights that pleased my eyes, and sounds beyond number that sang in the streets like minstrels.

Delivering groceries was my favorite chore because it liberated me from Mr. Costello, whom I considered diabolical. Otherwise I would have to sweep the floors or shelve cans while Mr. Costello hovered menacingly over me, scowling and cursing, “Don’t do it like that kid, damn it, do it like this,” or, “Boy, turn the friggin cans so the customer can see the nice picture of peas on the front.” I didn’t think Mr. Costello despised me any more than he did anyone else since he treated everyone so miserably, without discriminating, including Angie–especially Angie.

Almost all the people I delivered to were feeble old widows, worn to weariness by a long life and loneliness. They led quiet, solitary lives, having years before given up hope of leaving their apartment for fear of falling and being hospitalized and dying there alone. They had thin, emaciated hands with long fingers and translucent skin that was traversed by long knotted blue veins. They walked with backs bowed and in a slow shuffle—despondent women in perpetual mourning. Their slippers made shy whispering sounds on the carpet, and in the air about their apartments hung the stale and unmistakable odor of a human life approaching its end.

Most every afternoon Mr. Costello, who had committed so many wrongs that it was impossible to remember a fraction of them, would go into the bathroom in the rear by the freezer and come out gussied up in dark silk shirts and two-tone shoes and brilliant yellow or pink ties. Smelling of sweet cologne, he would leave the store, walking in an arrogant strut. Then I would stand behind the shelves and watch Angie—singing softly to herself, swaying, dancing–as she glided, a seraph, through the narrow aisles. She was young and lithe; Mr. Costello was so old.

Beautiful, Angie had such fire in her spirit that I felt it flaming out to me when I approached her. It singed me like molten tongs. She smiled with such sweetness, gentleness, guilessness, and goodness that it broke my heart. She was to me an Egyptian queen, and her hair, her voice, her hands, her presence, brought something into my life which I knew to be love.

Because of her my life was purer and more beautiful, and when I stood close to her I could not breathe. When I dreamed, it was of her. When she was left alone by her husband, those were her hours of splendor, when she was set free and her spirit soared and she became the woman she truly was. But when he returned at sundown the day seemed to die and she surrendered and was transformed into a captive again.

One afternoon after he had chastised me for being a dime short on a customer payment, and I had accepted his wrath wordlessly, terrified to speak, Mr. Costello left the store. Angie came down the stairs to the basement where I was weighing potatoes. In the dim half-light of the single overhead bulb, I looked at her lovely face and her large round breasts confined in a green cotton blouse.

“Don’t let him scare you,” she said.

I longed to ask, “Why don’t you run away?” and to thank her for her kindness. But being a child uncomfortable with both adults and words, I said nothing. She came close and held my face between her soft palms and kissed my lips. Then she touched my shoulder with her finger and turned and went upstairs. Soon I heard the little chime on the front door and Mr. Costello returning early and grousing that Angie had been sloughing off. The bread racks, the cases of produce, and soup cartons hadn’t been touched.

pull-25799_640Out on the street on a delivery one afternoon I met Red Martin. In the air was a hot, summery, sleepy, syrupy feeling. The cicadas were out in great, noisy numbers and the neighborhood panhandler dozed contentedly in the shadows in a doorway. Red was a tough boy with hair of fire. We stopped on the sidewalk for just a few minutes, maybe only seconds, only long enough for Red to say, “Going to the playground. Feel like coming along?” and for me to reply, “Gotta work.”

“See ya,” Red said, and hustled up the street, tossing a baseball in the air that he raced to catch in his mitt.

“See you, Red,” I called after him.

On the way back to the store after the delivery, my wagon rattling noisily without a load, I realized that what meant so much to me–Angie’s kiss–was meaningless to her. She would surely forget it as quickly and completely as she would had she petted a kitten.

I didn’t know then that my memory of that one moment would accompany me through all my life like a medallion that I would take out from time to time to admire, that once in a while something would remind me and I would wonder whatever had become of her, would wonder if we are ever granted a reprieve from our mistakes or must spend the rest of our lives paying for them.

Billy Henson came running down the street and stopped me just about where Red and I had talked ten minutes before.

“Did you hear what happened?” Billy said.

“What?”

“Red Martin died.”

“Red Martin,” I said. “I just talked to him. How could he be dead?”

“All I know is he started running out by the pitcher’s mound and fell down. His head hit a rock or something and he was dead. They say he died when he hit the ground. Anyway, he just died. He’s dead.”

Red Martin, I thought as I walked back to Angie’s, Red Martin. I had never really liked him that much, though I didn’t remember why. But I was remorseful and reproached myself now that he was dead. The realization that life was so uncertain and that for the first time death had come near to me and would again filled me with awe.

Somehow, I thought, approaching the store, a death should be a more momentous event, something should change as a result, something should be different; the world should take note. But everything in my world of those streets, those sounds, those sights, those people, was the way it had been before. Everything the same–except for Red.

Those same familiar streets shaded by the same cool poplars and elms, same cars slowly passing, same neighbors coming and going, same pungent smells of bubbling tar where muscular shirtless sweating workers with colorful bandanas toiled in the torrid sun, same red wagon buffeting noisily behind me; my returning again to Angie’s where cruel cologne-smelling Mr. Costello with his afternoon girlfriends and two-tone shoes and string ties would continue the daily torture of his wife. And where Angie would slowly metamorphose into one of the decrepit dying women I delivered to, and would sing gaily in the aisles of that little store like a bird lovely in its cage until the last end of her days came, as Red’s had come, and mine would come, and everyone’s would come.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Growing Up Stories, Personal Stories

Days End: A Story of Courage and Love

sunset-190922_640Far below me, a woman as tan as tree bark lay on her back on the sand. White-tipped frothing waves came in from the ocean, and life went on down there.

I was looking down from the high balcony of my sister Sharon’s hospital room. Sharon was in bed in the room behind me–not asleep, yet not fully awake, but in a dazed state between because of the morphine they gave her all through the day and when she called for it at night. Her pain was very bad.

I watched as a few hundred feet away people in white outfits played tennis on green courts on the roof of a tall pink hotel. I knew they should not be blamed for their happiness, any more than Sharon for her misery. But I was thinking that somehow it was unfair that they were running so, graceful and strong, close enough to wave and smile at me while her disease had spread through everything. Everything was gone.

I had seen on the floor of her kitchen the scale that was there to measure the dwindling of her existence, and sheets of paper on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the wall that recorded it: ninety-eight pounds, ninety, eighty-eight…, and a calendar that had Xs on days she wasn’t healthy enough to work that in recent months had become all Xs. Against a wall was a full-length gold-framed mirror that had once held her face and her shape as she turned to adjust a blouse or straighten a skirt. The mirror was dusty.

All that remained now was the steady withering of her small, faltering body, the daily indignities, the terror and inconceivable loneliness of dying, the sorrow of leaving this world. When I stood over her bed that late afternoon she looked at me with shamed eyes and said, “I’m a mess aren’t I,” and my heart broke. What could I do but tell her she was still beautiful? How will I ever remember without pain her looking up at me so gratefully and saying “Thank you brother,” as I handed her a glass of water?

Her mind was in a tangle because of the morphine–sensations and floating dreams blended together like a band of swallows swooping and falling and words from the voices of people slipping in sideways, echoes of words, as words spoken in a museum closed for the night might sound, or a murmur, or just splinters of sound descending like coins in a pool. Images were loose in her mind of such memories as that of an ironing board, a dress with a faded floral pattern, a photograph of her sitting at a desk smiling, then the suddenly remembered sensation in her finger tips of peeling an orange or pulling strands of hair out of a brush. And all the while she was a sponge soaked with emotion: love and despair and courage and fear.

At times she felt she was merely a body beyond repair, but there were moments of great clarity when she realized she was truly a person. Then she became suddenly proud and triumphant: “I am alive. I am a human being. I am still of value.” And then shortly the dreaded thought returned: It will end; soon it’ll end. It was all so sad, she thought: the sun would last, the earth would last, and there would always be stars, but not she. She was greedy for life–another day, another hour–but didn’t a person so young have a right to be? Only thirty-seven. There should be more shouldn’t there? Above all she mustn’t lapse into self-pity, mustn’t wail, “Help me please, I am suffering.” That was all there was to it, she thought, the only victory, as outside in the priceless world flamingo clouds drifted by.

The room was regaled in yellow chrysanthemums. Sunlight spread across the balcony and the warm breeze thronged in as visitors arrived to pay their respects. Sharon wasn’t resentful or jealous of their good health, that irresistible glow they had, that incandescence, and looked forward very much to their bringing their good cheer and love, smiling like children, she knew, to keep her spirits up. Someone told a joke that was followed by laughter. How hungrily a person’s thoughts swarm over joy among sorrow.

When visitors were talking among themselves she lay back, listened, and felt one of those hundreds of emotions for which there are no words. She knew some people thought compassion was a useless emotion, but she thought it the kindest. It didn’t alter the fact that soon her life would end, but yet there were glimmers of light just knowing that one person could care so much for another, asking nothing in return, opening a secret door and entering on the private island on which the other person lived, and then you and they weren’t so lonely, if only for that time. A nurse slid a thermometer between Sharon’s lips business-like, glanced at her briefly and impersonally and with cold, gray, restless eyes gazed out at the sky while she waited for the thermometer, took it out, looked at it, and said, “One o one, not bad at all.”

How do you explain life? What does a person live for? Sharon wondered as she was turned over, grimaced, and was sponged. You expected the answer to become clear if you lived long enough, and to be profound: the meaning of life was X or Y, perhaps Z. It was a question worth asking. It was probably joy. Yes, that was it all the time: the joy one feels. And she had known joy. No one could say she hadn’t known exquisite joy.

A doctor she didn’t know then came into the room to see her, and looked at her, looked at her eyes, and jumped back as though he had been punched, and said, “I feel your power coming out to me. You have a very strong will.”

 

It was the silence that settled as softly as pollen on the hospital room when toward evening everyone went home that I will recall. “I remember once when,” Sharon said, thumbing through her stack of memories. Suddenly she said, “Do you remember that summer day at the lake the wind was so wild and the waves were as tall as buildings, the library when I was looking for a book?”

That day when as children—she eight, I ten–we inhabited our bodies with inexpressible joy, she on the sand holding my hand, laughing. Suddenly a wind picked up and into the air flew a thousand birds. Clouds raced each other headlong across the black sky, and wave upon wave –a procession of liquid walls—rose and rose and rose majestically, ascending one after another like great hills of water that then lunged and plunged like a field of gray-green wheat bowing under the wind, shattering on the shore into a multitude of broken stars. Hills of water that seemed to pause for a long moment at their fullest height and then to crash to earth with the sound of artillery, our hearts beating with excitement, with awe, with fear, with terror. Just a moment before there had been not a breeze, not a breath of wind, but now all the wind in the world seemed to be concentrated on that strip of earth– a lion of a wind, unleashed, untamed, cool, cold, with a bite and sting, bringing–pouring in to us–the odors of water, of fish, and of the wind itself, the steady hoarse roar of the foaming waves filling the air like thunder, my losing then all sense of physical existence, being liberated and free. Behind us bathers took their children’s hands and dashed for the shelter of the beach house, and strong men dragged rowboats higher up onto the beach away from the surging water, leaving behind ruts in the sand. Nothing was the same; everything in motion, everything in flux, everything changing: wind, waves, sky, everything. That same day she stood on tip-toes on a stool down the aisle in the stacks at the library, reaching for Little Women, and watching her I realized in that instant that she was irreplaceable; I could not do without her.

How fast life goes” she whispered weakly. “It isn’t much longer than a mosquito’s life. Why does it go so fast?” The world is such a huge, well-traveled place; yet when the end of a life nears, all distances collapse and it comes to that: a little room, a little bed, a pair of eyes looking on, someone weeping.

The pain had flecked Sharon’s black hair with white and it was short from the treatment and no longer long and flowing. Her once-pretty face was gaunt, her cheeks gray, her body tired of suffering. Her long pianist’s fingers were so thin that her ring had slipped off and was lost. But there in her gray, lonely, fading beauty there was still about her that same gentleness you could ruffle with your breath, the same fury in her fierce eyes, the same poise, and the same mystical elegance.

Night came; the day was gone. Over the city shone a blue light and the chrysanthemums stood in a black vase on the table. Beyond the glass door and beyond the stars was darkness upon darkness. The faintest light lay on her face, and on that face was neither pain nor resignation nor fear nor sorrow, but peace. I placed my hand flat on her chest–she could feel pain no more–and she opened her eyes and looked into my face with a gentle sweetness. And then looked down at my hand and placed her left hand lovingly upon it.

 

I only regret that I was helpless to shape into words all that I was thinking of her and hoped she understood how I loved her and how I would carry with me and cherish the memories I have of her, that every year I would commemorate her birthday; that whether I am bending to tie my shoelace or asking for a fork she never leaves my thoughts. In my mind all my life I will see her long black hair flaring in the wind that day with the wild waves bursting, our lives passing, changing, and flowing like those waves; her dying young.

I felt such tenderness toward her that could I, I would have died for her and was so regretful that I could not suffer her pain for her, and was powerless to help her, and that she is now gone entirely from my life and from this world. Until I die I will feel the immense weight of grief for her and now I ask her forgiveness for any sadness I ever caused her through thoughtlessness or selfishness; and wish her somehow to know that I intended no harm and am so terribly sorry.

 

In the parking lot I saw Sharon’s favorite nurse and called to her and caught up with her and told her of my gratitude to her for the great gentleness and goodness she had shown my sister. I told her I would never forget her kindliness and thoughtfulness, and that I would think about her in the future and would never forget her. She told me what a good patient Sharon had been, how she had never complained and was always so nice and had good manners, and how it made her very sad to say goodbye to her.

I did not know as a boy that memories of that day at the lake, though intangible, would persist through all the successive years, nothing as real. Or that our lives would change so immeasurably as had those waves under that wind.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Days and Nights of Youth: An evening in August, years ago

“And if I were standing in the middle of my people
Age would go from me and I would be young again.”
(Translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory)

Days and Nights pic_copyChicago’s Sheridan Road ran parallel to Lake Michigan, as it does today, and when you walked down it in those days you heard the sounds of the traffic mingling with the lapping of the waves on the beaches. From the beaches on clear days you could see on the horizon’s edge the western shore of Michigan to the east, and out on the lake low in the water turgidly-moving barges carrying loads of ore down from Minnesota to the steel mills of northern Indiana.

On certain afternoons in July and August the sun bore down on the sand so intensely that it was painful to walk on it, so men dashed to and from the tumbling waves carrying their squealing little children in their arms. One by one all the great industrialists’ mansions that lined the street were torn down and the beaches were filled in and replaced by closely-packed massive and towering apartment buildings with hundreds of verandas which were far more impressive architecturally, but far less beautiful.

Few people remember the mansions or the beaches, but most believe that the high-rises have stood there forever. Now when you walk down Sheridan Road, the traffic is so heavy and the water so far away behind the buildings that you can no longer hear the waves.

Three blocks to the west was Edgewater, a miniscule street slung like a hammock between a quiet street to the east and a busy street to the west. There I lived quite happily in a moderately dilapidated apartment which I shared with my parents, two sisters, one brother, two blue parakeets, and a dog.

Along the street stood nearly identical sturdy brown brick two and three-flats with large, clean lace-curtained windows in the front and small open porticos decorated with terra cotta flower pots of various sizes. Inside the apartments the ceilings were high and the rooms were laid out more or less the same as ours. Those buildings were interspersed with squat, frail but fearless homes of families of two, five, or eight children and were concealed from the late morning or afternoon sun by tall trees. In the back yards and on the front lawns stood shady poplars and towering American elms whose profusion of leaves, singed and curled by the blistering summer sun, hung parched and brittle, and shook like tinsel when the leaves fluttered in the wind.

The morning sun revealed rectangular lawns that, except when snow obscured them, were always closely cropped and tidily trimmed as though meticulous angels appeared every night to care for them. The hedges that hid modestly in the shadows were as neatly shorn as boys’ fresh haircuts, and the flowers in the beds were tall and brightly-colored. In late autumn the brilliant orange, crimson, and yellow leaves that had been liberated from the trees by westerly winds scampered wildly, crisply, and noisily along the pavement and adorned the lawns like jewels.

On no particular schedule—or none we were aware of—from down the alley emerged the gray rag man sitting high atop a complaining horse-drawn, creaking wagon, his voice preceding him as he called “Rags, old iron.” As the wagon neared, you heard, faintly at first, and then more purely, the rhythmic, hollow clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of the shod hooves of the old gray horse whose head hung low and swayed slowly to the rhythm of its gait. Then you heard it snort as it struggled futilely with its bit, and saw its huge protruding brown eyes glazed with an expression of weariness and sorrow, and the sunlight shimmering off the sweat that coated its flanks.

In the early evenings as though all in unison, the regiments of gray, strong, working men, pensive, plain, godly men—the fathers—passed down the street in orderly array, returning to those of us whose entire universe extended no further than the ends of that block. After dinner when the weather was good the fathers–some in gaudy suspenders, to a man seeking peace–left their families and went alone outside in the yard to smoke. The glowing tips of their cigarettes or bowls of their pipes hovered like red ornaments suspended from invisible strings in the darkness. The men nodded cordially to one another, but only rarely went to their fences to speak.

They stood stationary and solitary in the middle of the yard gazing up at the dazzling field of glinting stars, being reminded of their own inadequacy, their own insignificance, feeling in themselves the overwhelming rapture and wonderment of being alive on this earth on this night that they would try to convey to another person, but would forever be unable to. After a little they shredded their cigarettes or tapped out their pipes on the soles of their shoes and watched the tiny embers drift to the ground. Then they went back inside where the light was bright and the rooms were noisy with happy children.

On especially sweltering summer nights one by one my family evacuated the stifling apartment and sat together in a little cluster on the wooden front stairs. There every summer evening without exception I fell under the spell of our little street. I watched the flight of night hawks circling high above chimneys and sweeping down like kites. My eyes settled too on the entwined strands of ivy on the trellis next door, on the blinking traffic lights and long beams of headlights spread like cream on Ridge Avenue, the yellow-glowing lamp lights in the windows of neighbors, and the demented boy who rode the street at nights with his little dog in a paper bag in the basket of his bicycle. And if our luck was good, down the street came what we were all wishing for: a breeze. Then the multitude of closely assembled leaves trembled on the trees that were tinged with moonlight.

The six of us were frugal with words on those evenings, parceling them out sparingly, as though they were precious things that needed protecting. When we spoke among ourselves it was not of topics momentous or memorable. Serious subjects were best saved for visits to our stairs of my father’s family–Welsh of course, with musical accents and exotic names, all of them worldly enough to speak on most any subject with some professed expertise. They always came bearing a vast stock of stories and bits of song and strong opinions that differed markedly from one another and were bickered over turbulently, but in a generally agreeable and forgiving manner. Sometimes too, other visitors came to sit with us.

Whenever anyone on those stairs spoke, I listened intently to the words, the silences, and the breaking of the silence, the short sentences and the longer, the soliloquies, the jokes, comments, stories, exaggerations and wild tales of utterly impossible events that there was an unspoken agreement to play along with but not for a minute believe. Sometimes I understood what was being discussed or commented on or observed, but often I did not. When I did not, my attention drifted and the words dissolved into a hum and became merely sounds.

Then I thought that perhaps when I was older and my time had come I would understand everything or most everything of which these people spoke, that meanings to which I, as a little child, was not privy, would then become clear to me, and I too would be able to speak fervently of them. At times the words the adults uttered came accompanied by a gravity or sadness that frightened me—talk of war and defeats and death and deepest sorrows. But soon someone usually said something that brought laughter all around, and I laughed with them, not knowing what brought them that flash of joy. But I shared in it, knowing that it was good and that when they were happy I was happy.

Too soon the deepest darkness arrived–imperceptibly, as if we had been inattentive and without our knowing it had descended stealthily from its source or risen from the earth to wrap itself around us. Street lights, old and sunken into the ground and standing precariously like drunken sentinels wearing metal caps, then lit and cast yellow cones all down the street. Swarms of flitting fireflies carrying their little lanterns behind them appeared and hovered like tiny intermittent airborne embers that speckled the night like the amber tips of matches. Once aloft on their nocturnal flight like winged magnets the fireflies drew their tormentors–my brother and other giddy children and me. Powerless against our quick hands, soon they were assembled like congregants in a glass jar which glowed like a church in the night.

 

The twilight sinks and the evening wanes and the intense heat cools and the street becomes warm and peaceful. Soon from our visitors emerge the end-of-evening yawns and “oh-my-goodness-how-time-flies,” and they pack up and leave for home. We say goodbye and they are gone. My family is alone now, all of us speaking in drowsy tones. We hear the nightly chants of the sleepless crickets from under the porch and in the hedges and see neighbors hurrying home. It is the end of this day.

My mother flutters her fingers and says, “Well, it’s getting late” with a sigh that conveys that she is weary, and my father says, “Now heed your mother children.” While still able to, I cast one last long look at the people who share this place with me. Somehow out of God’s grace and for reasons I will never fathom, they have been sent to dwell in this house for a time and to be the objects of my love forever. We children moan as pathetically as we can to be granted a few minutes more of wakefulness, but despite our protests we are ushered inside.

I lift the window shade slightly and see, overhead, a splinter of a moon and protective stars attending us. There with me in that bedroom is my brother sleeping, and there are my sisters sleeping. I am sheltered there in that sanctuary of my youth, safe in the protective hands of my parents and the Lord. My life will never be as free of complications and contradictions as then. There is no need yet to try to muddle through a life I do not fully understand.

It is now a time of resplendent picnics and sunny beaches, a blessed period of my life when pain is a stranger to me and I am immune from suffering. I lie remembering the day as I will remember it forever–a blistering journey to the cool of evening. And trying to peer forward into time and see how I will be as a man, I wonder what this life holds in store for me and if I will live mine creditably enough. I study my hand suspended in air like a gray and familiar bird. I whisper, “That is me, me,” and with that thought something stirs deeply in me that all my life will be inexpressible. And then I make a wish that things will never change, but will stay as they are forever.

 I am told that my mother and father are deathless, my brother and sisters are deathless, and that I am deathless too; that there really is no death and we endure everlastingly and that time is an illusion. But I know that my life as it is now will end. I know that we in my family are seeds that will be cast on separate earths, that we will be drawn apart to live our lives there to the end. And that too soon those people I intend well toward will pass away and leave no trace but in my memory. That the day will come when I will never again sit on those stairs with my beloved family on an evening in the heat of summer.

After a while the faint sounds of spoons against coffee cups and the low drone of speech floating from the kitchen cease and my parents go to bed. Of my family I think in my child’s way–they are all of them–each of them–good people, devoid of malice, and I am blessed to be among them. Why, I wonder, have I been so favored? “Dear Lord, keep these people safe, and please treat them kindly. Spare us please from pain or so apportion it so that none of us is asked to bear more than one should be required to.”

Silently I pray, as always fast, “God bless Mom and Dad and…” and I fall to sleep beseeching God. The day ends then, and I dream, and in a moment another dawn breaks.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

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A Strange and Perplexing Disorder: My Mother and Emily Dickinson

MomScan_20140825 (3)Sometimes we are oblivious to the serious problems people we know are having. And when we learn about them sometimes we’re shocked. As shocked as some people reading this post, one of my growing up memories, will be.

In high school I won an award and there was an assembly. Sitting on the stage, I looked down at the faces in the audience and there in the third row was my mother. My eyes stung with tears, I was so touched by her being there. I thought of the courage it had taken for her to come alone. Under my breath I whispered, “Good going Mom.”

When you are an agoraphobic you are one of a miniscule portion of the world’s population, and you seem terribly odd because the simple act of leaving your home alone fills you with helpless terror and requires great bravery on your part. And so you are odd, and that is no secret to you. But you try to hide the fact.

You are a person of considerable mystery. Your problem is the least talked about and least understood psychiatric disorder. And the most difficult to treat.

“You’re afraid to leave the house? What do you mean?” (They are stupefied. You really can’t mean that.)“It is very hard for me.” (You are understating.)

“Yes, a person can get hit over the head or robbed these days.”

“Those things don’t scare me in the least. I can take care of myself.”

“Then what are you afraid of?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Very much.” (Because it seems so weird to me.)

“Most of all of the space out there—the immensity of it.”

“But I’ve known you for years and I’ve seen you outside your house many times.”

“But have you noticed that I’m never alone?” (My husband is with me, or my wife, or a close friend—someone I can put all my trust in.)

When you are out alone in that immensity you sweat, you worry, you feel faint, and you have difficulty breathing. At times the tension builds and you feel that any moment you will scream. All that’s being asked of you is that you go alone down the familiar street to the familiar train station and catch a familiar train and go to the doctor, and then return home again in two hours. You go over and over meticulously in your mind the details—the steps–you must carry out before you can open your front door again and set foot into the sanctuary you feel you never should have left. First walk down the street to the station, (That’s not so bad, is it?), then sit in the waiting room (Be ready; you will be afraid), then sit in the train looking out the window, then…Then on the way back, everything in reverse.

The problem is the mind. The mind is the trap. How can you master the mind when there is nothing to master it with but that same mind that is not perfectly well?

It is now time to leave. The door opens—the assault of the open air–and you mutter to yourself, Be strong. Then, hours later when you have completed the dreaded journey and are safely home again, everything in that domain welcomes you back—the refrigerator, the dining room furniture, the light fixtures.

My mother never as an adult saw the interior of a grocery store or a butcher shop, but called in the family orders item by item and had everything delivered, did not shop for clothes for herself or us except by mail order, did not take her children to doctors or dentists, but had them go alone, never walked down one flight of stairs to do the laundry in the basement, avoided crowds and never went to circuses, zoos, ballparks, libraries, playgrounds, beaches, concerts, or museums, and avoided elevators and all other enclosed places.

When you are as she, you often say after sleepless nights of anticipating opening the door and leaving, “I would give anything not to have to go. Can you please come with me?”

“NO (a stern voice), you must go alone. You have to master this thing. You have to do what you don’t want to do. That’s the only solution, the lone treatment. Do what you don’t want to do.”

I’m sure my mother never realized she was sick. My father never expected her to be any different than she was, and never all his life mentioned her affliction, nor did she ever speak of it, nor did we, her children. It was no less a part of her than her arm, and if a person’s arm is deformed, you never bring it up. When my father took her outside and stayed close to her–as though they were attached by a string–no one would have known that were he to leave her side– absentmindedly in a parking lot, for example–she would to some extent have lost her mind.

Yet, she was in love with the world–the glitter of lights and the sunsets and the dawns; the shades and shapes. Her absence from it made it all the more beautiful to her. She marveled at people; how they seemed so blasé and reckless out on the streets–as impervious as rocks.

I think to her the apartment in which she sought refuge and dwelled so happily was a garden glittering with precious stones. In it, keeping her company when everyone was gone, might just as well have been hummingbirds and blue jays and lilies of the valley and Roses of Sharon– bird baths and white columns and caterpillars. Utensils were rubies, chairs diamonds, books emeralds, toys on the floor scattered sapphires.

In that tiny domain she darted like a thrush among the five rooms, lifting, sorting, storing, repairing, pushing, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, wiping, washing, drying, folding, spreading, fluffing, rushing, straightening, puttering, submerging dishes in bubbly water–working, working, working–confident, capable, efficient, masterful–the queen of our lives. She was the center of the family about whom everything orbited and whose sweetness, gentleness, caring, affection, and kindliness she shared equally among us, and which filled every crevice of our home.

Everything she needed to exist contentedly was within reach–a tiny, perfect world—we, her family, walking through rooms, or sitting, or coming in or going out the doors. It was clear that on certain days each moment in that apartment and whatever happened therein filled her with inestimable joy. Then she might have thought:

If all the griefs I am to have
Would only come today,
I am so happy I believe
They’d laugh and run away.

If all the joys I am to have
Would only come today
They could not be so big as this
That happens to me now.

It was very near her thirtieth year that Emily Dickinson deliberately decided never willingly to leave her home again. She had been a prolific letter-writer since childhood, but letters subsequent to that year became more important to her than they are to most people because they were her “letters to the world,” and the replies she received were her sole means of escape from the imprisonment she had chosen.

She was as out-of-touch with the world as my mother. The news from “out there” came second hand to them. It was not something they experienced directly. Dickinson had no interest in the Civil War—the period of her flowering– and no interest in contemporary writers. It is doubtful she read a single poem of the other living American poetic genius, Walt Whitman. Eventually, Dickinson refused to be in the same room as visitors, her isolation now complete.

Were my mother a poet, she too might have written:

The soul selects her own society.
Then shuts the door.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Origins of My Growing Up Stories

 

The Decision to Plumb My Childhood

David in a leather jacket_copy2We set the dead aside as if we have no use for them. But I wanted to pluck my people out of time, to borrow them from eternity for a little while, to explore their worlds and to finally understand them. I had lived among them, knew their every gesture, had heard them speak so many times, and wondered greatly about them. But I didn’t know who they really were.

I longed to walk through the house in which I grew up and to look out on the street and see the wealth of familiar things that were before me every day in my youth, no sights as dear to me as what I saw from the kingdom of my porch.

I hoped to find as they had been, the people who had populated my world–to be among them again, to feel for them tenderness and pity and regret. I knew that time hadn’t disappeared, but had remained inside me. I realized that if I wanted to be with them, though most had died, I would have to discover them in myself where they still lived.

I wanted to see things as they were before my memories faded, or I died; to recapture the enchanted past; to walk the streets and beaches of my youth whose minutest detail I knew I would find waiting for me. I wanted to hold my father’s hand again, to look into his kind eyes. I wanted to revel in everything–the sounds of familiar voices, the smells of night air, the traces of my mother’s dinner in my mouth, the sight of her trying on a hat; my dead sister Sharon coming up the stairs–all from a time that was so happy.

I wanted to reconstruct my life by traveling backwards in time. I hoped to find there the origins of my mistakes, some indications of why I was now a person alone in a house by a field. I wanted my memory to rescue me from this house; to reveal lessons I had forgotten and must learn again that would help sustain me.

And so hour after hour, again and again, I remembered the days and nights of childhood. I remembered what I had experienced myself and what had been told to me. When I came upon something that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t explain, or didn’t remember clearly, or couldn’t possibly know I used my imagination.

At first my remembering was over in a few minutes and was very general. But then I slowed down and remembered in finer and finer detail. Detail is the secret I discovered– details and details of details. Over and over, hour after hour, moving in ever closer, backing up and rethinking until I was satisfied and could say, “Yes, that is how it was when I was young. I have gotten it right.”

I wanted to do this very carefully; to take my time and not be in a hurry. My whole life had been a battle with time, but time doesn’t die absolutely, but remains in memory. The recreation by memory of impressions which later must be transformed is the essence of every work of art.

When my mind was free in time I had the impression that I had entered eternity.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

 

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