Stone Angels

I thank today’s reader who quoted Berthold Auerbach, the German-Jewish poet and author:  “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

 We all need something to help center us within the clutter (and sometimes the chaos) of “everyday life.”   Milwaukee poet and musician Harvey Taylor takes a pilgrimage each year to beautiful Lake Achigan in Northern Ontario.

Here is one of the lyrics that he has written there:

Swimming To The Island 

 

I’m visiting a special place… 

a tiny island, in a big lake— 

Dad and I swam here, from the shore,

the round-trip, a mile, or more.

 

The swims became a ritual,

Dad and me, and the seagulls—

sometimes the lake would turn choppy,

and make it hard to get back to the beach.

    

Memories…some of the best…

when we were Jeff and Britta’s guests—

it’s the last of August, Dad’s birthday,

and I’m visiting our special place.

 

Years ago, I brought Dad’s ashes, on a solo swim,

and left them under birch tree limbs—

he’d prefer that to a cemetery:

Lake Achigan, where loons roam free.

 

Today I came in a canoe,

paddling with my sweetheart, Susu—

we were sharing an apple, when three loons swam by,

then dove deep, while we shared a smile.

 

I’m visiting a special place…

a tiny island, in a big, big lake—

Dad and I swam here, from the shore,

all the way…then swam a whole lot more

 

Swimming, like music, like any intensely forcused activity, can still the mind. Like music, it is rhythmic. I was not lucky enough to learn to swim with a parent; it was forbidden; dangerous. As I wrote earlier (see August 9), I taught myself because I wanted it so badly.  In “directions for playing,” first published in Wisconsin People&Ideas, I explore that connection between swimming and playing music:

 

directions for playing

 

life should be lived legato* and

rock climbing sure as hell better

be legato for there is danger

leaving the ground on your own and

swimming is legato only because of

water which is very legato but not so much

as smooth crystal-linked ice or as staccato**

as rain beginning to pelt your head

                                                                       learning anything

including how to be married is staccato at first though

the goal is legato but that takes practice which hopefully

will stitch together the staccatos and draw

them tight to the point where the strokes

are not even seen beneath the surface or

in the seam

                                there are those who stumble

up the stairs to enlightenment young and never

look down and those who take to water as babes and can’t

remember when they knew anything but

legato

            the woman in the lane next to me with her smooth enjambment

between laps surely is one who started swimming when wet

behind the ears long after polio left its jagged blip on

the surface of some historical pool but for me learning

has been a life of sitting anxious on the edge and wanting it

enough to be willing to die if needs be while slapping

together staccatos hit or miss mostly not

getting it right rising and indeed plunging but not

in a good way though my crawl finally cobbled

together a compromise of air and water that

has got me eventually to the end

                                                                    and in the end

perhaps it’s not anything we do ourselves to connect

just life sooner or later tired of expressing as separate

particles rising then falling back effortlessly into waves

like that magician’s trick of stuffing scarf after scarf into a

fist then smiling and teasing out a billow of graceful knotted silk

or faceless paper-dolls with just the tiniest point of join

                    *in a smooth, even style without any noticeable break between the notes

                    **composed of abrupt, disconnected parts or sounds

                                          

To find that “point of join” is definitely easier in a calm, natural environment than in some of the war-torn regions of the earth that I wrote about in the last posting where I mentioned that Women for Women International helps to provide a “safe” place for women to learn.

 The daughter of a friend is working in Africa to create just such a place where the “dust of everyday life” can be transformed by empowering “children and youth in the slums of Uganda… through creative workshops, a school fees program, and a family mentality.” The name, “’Gujja Ting,’ comes from the Uganda proverb, ‘Gujjabagidde’ meaning, ‘If good things are happening there are a lot of good things happening,’ and on the other side, ‘If bad things are happening there are a lot of bad things happening.’ We represent the good side of the proverb Gujjabagidde. So we are Gujja Ting—‘Good Things!’”

One good thing leads to another.

Some have asked why it is that I continue to grieve for my sister after so many long years. The answer to that is complex, mysterious, and perhaps hard to understand for those who have never experienced as a child the sudden, unexpected death of someone close. I think this is why Donna Tartt’s book Goldfinch resonated with me so strongly: art can transform the guilt–the capriciousness–of survival (though I dislike that clinical term, there are times I have found it to be somewhat helpful). If we are alive, when those closest to us have died suddenly, and for reasons we cannot understand, it is common to feel “guilty” to be the one who survived, which, I guess, is a kind of grief. If you’re “lucky,” you can turn this into a responsibility to live, to make the most of life.

In this morning’s New York Times is an article about Manelos Glezos, who, at 92, still remembers his fellow Greek freedom-fighters from the 1940s. He says, “What you see standing before you is not just one person, but all of my comrades who are no longer with us.” “If someone didn’t make it, whenever I walked in the woods and heard the wind in the leaves, I would also hear it for them. If I was on the beach and heard the waves crashing on the sand, I listened for them. When I drank wine, I savored it on their behalf.”

When I was a five-year-old child invited to a birthday party, I would always ask for a second piece of cake to take home for my fourteen-year-old sister. By the time I got home, of course, it would be crumbled up in a wadded paper napkin. But she always seemed grateful.

On this beautiful September evening, sitting on a restaurant terrace having a delicious dinner with my husband of over 30 years, we drank a perfect pinot gris to each other’s health.  Born in “dry” Kansas, my sister never tasted wine. So yes, silently I savored it for her as well.

Survivor’s guilt is real. But it can perhaps lead to “good things happening.” This poem was written in the early 2000s and was first published in Trillium Review and is also in my chapbook Rescue Mission:

 

Survivor: Banking on It

                                    After many lives, maybe something changes.—Louise Glück

i.

She was my babysitter, bodyguard,

my buffer between me and our parents. In return

I brought her napkins of crumbled cake from birthday

parties, crayoned for her the letters of my name.

 

Had I not been held down

in 1952 and pumped full

of gammaglobulin I should have died,

would have caught the polio that killed my sister.

 

Before, I didn’t really know

that anyone could die; after, my body

quickly learned: stomach cramped and skin

peeled; to swallow and to sleep were perilous.

 

Hunched over my journal, I kept secret

what metaphors came to me as cure.

Re-caulking with words what had been nearly swamped,

poetry’s rites ferried me from death.

 

Pedaling furiously toward the piano teacher’s

house, practicing daily until they pried

me away, playing for time, my greed

for music’s waves carried me toward life.

 

ii.

Here’s a hard one: what happens, in the

end, to the art a survivor

creates? Is it carefully gathered in and

counted to pay life’s debt to the dead

 

for years cut short? the dead who spend,

alone, what passes for time? Has it

been enough to justify my

survival so far? How much farther?

 

Or is it just as carefully hoarded, talents

allotted to my next life, not

to have to begin again at zero, notes and

lines gifted to new fingers, new

 

voice, bearing compound interest?

I envy those free to improvise,

for the fun of it, a riff, a life, simple interest

coined and plunked freely into the collective.

 

But for me, creating is serious business.

Her sweet, empty mouth still hungers for my

crumbs. If I save anything for myself,

it’s to an unnumbered, sequestered account.

 

No one must ever know if, when, or

what I cash in.

 

No one must ever glimpse the furtive, unearned

joy I take.

 

Harvey Taylor, in another lyric, tells of a stone angel he visits on his way to Northern Ontario each year. Here’s the refrain:

Once upon a time, an angel turned to stone…

wings folded behind his back, stone feathers and bone—

his flying days are over…now he stands perfectly still…

in a little cemetery, writing with a quill

 

 

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