Remembering Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

This is a photo I took of a farm that was once a thriving dairy farm just down the road from our farm in Northwestern Wisconsin.  I worked in that barn helping milk a herd of 80 cows and putting up hay in the loft.  Some 30 years later I revisited and this was all that was left, side boards flapping in the wind.  Bankers closed on the farm for debt, and the family who’d owned it for generations moved to town and did what they could to get by.

Remembering Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

By S.W. Cosgrove

Can you can go home again?
You can go to the place you once knew,
and it will be there
Just not as you remembered, not really

Prepare yourself with vague, misty memories of farms,
green hills, deep woods, and shimmering ponds, eagles soaring above
A big river pulsing over the rocks, under bridges, wandering through riverine sloughs
Catfish lying still on the bottom, unblinking, wary of the hook

The old river still runs deep, still carrying its waters to the sea far away
But the hills have been leveled and covered with subdivisions,
the woods cut and thinned with no eagle nests towering above
The ponds filled and blacktopped

Yes, you can go home again, but
it’s not your home, anymore
It’s home to others who may one day return there
looking for their old home
And it will be there, but not really

A Moveable Feast – master class in writing. By Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a struggling expat journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

ErnestHemingwayHadley1922 Switzerland

Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson in Switzerland, 1922

The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put away the notebook, or the paper, in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.

It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.

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Ernest Hemingway holding forth at a café in Paris 

 

 

 

Fly Away

cherry crumb cake

Fly Away

S.W. Cosgrove

While I was reading an essay on essays, sipping and inhaling the fragrance of a smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, the charry liquid washing down the last of my cherry crumb cake, a fly landed on the cake dish.

There were just a few scraps left, some crumbs and a drop or two of sugary cherry paste.

My first impulse was to flick the bothersome insect away, intruder, pestiferous fly.

But as I watched the little creature wax his translucent wings hopping over the plate, tasting here and there, I thought – lucky fly! What a find on this quiet evening: cherry crumb cake.

I watched the fly’s pleasure and greed at his unexpected, most wonderful treat. Possibly the best meal ever in his short life.

And I thought – that damned fly has as much integrity as any creature on this earth. Certainly in this room. Just earning an honest living and enjoying a nice supper, including desert. Cherry cake crumbs.  Pursuing a life of integrity.

He finished his cherry crumb cake while I finished my tea, then off he flew.  Fortunately, he didn’t send any of his comrades to finish the job.

I poured a whisky and returned to my essay on essays.

Balvenie12SB

Chop wood, carry water, shovel snow – a 20th century childhood on a 19th century farm

The farm I grew up on in Stillwater, Minnesota, was the center of my universe from the time I was born until my grandparents sold it when I was 13.  Development was getting too close to them – they bought another farm about 40 miles deeper into the northern countryside.  This change coincided with the natural break that came for me as I shuffled off childhood and entered teen turbulence.

The origins of the farmhouse were from before Minnesota became a state in the 1850s.  One of the first farmsteads in the St. Croix River Valley, the farm perched atop one of the highest hills around Stillwater.  From the front porch, I could see for miles across the valley, with Lake McKusick down below to the tree tops miles away above the St. Croix River.  A long, steep drive led from the winding country road – an extension of Stillwater’s Myrtle Street – to the house and barn.

farm and drive

The driveway was so steep that in winter it was often not possible to drive up or down after a heavy snow.  Try going down without shoveling and you could end up off the driveway in deep snow.  One side dropped off sharply into the sheep pasture.  If your vehicle ended up down there, out came the tractor or – if the snow was really deep – Old Bird, our Percheron draft horse mare, the biggest one horsepower you could imagine.  One of Grandpa’s friends thought he could make it up there after a snow.  It took them half a day to pull his pickup truck out of the fence and back onto the driveway – mainly because we had to shovel the driveway first.

Many a morning after a big snow, my Grandfather and I shoveled that driveway.  Grandpa was always up first to feed the stock.  His dictum was: animals eat first, then we eat.  No exceptions.  With a big snow, he’d be up extra early – usually by 4:30 – as water troughs had to be turned over to beat the ice out and fresh water pumped.  I often participated in this ritual.

I usually tried to laze around under the covers until 6 or 6:30.  Grandpa came in from chores and turned me out, saying every time: “You know, Steve, people die in bed.”  And I’d always reply: “Yes, but they sleep there, too!”  In the winter I usually slept on a massive overstuffed velveteen couch in the living room near the oil stove because it was too cold to sleep in the unheated rooms upstairs.  I’d run to the outhouse (no indoor toilet) for the morning ritual.  There’s nothing like a trip to the outhouse when it’s 20 degrees below zero to wake you right up.  I assure you: you won’t spend any longer in there than absolutely necessary.  While I was out, I’d stop by the hen house to gather fresh eggs for breakfast later.

Then we shoveled. Fortified with something hot to drink and a pastry, we trudged through the snow to the bottom of the drive with our oversize steel scoop shovels.  We then worked our way to the top, one shovel full of snow after the other, stopping to catch our wind, stretch our arms, and straighten our backs.  Grandpa showed me the most efficient way of shoveling the wet, heavy snow.  Here’s how it goes.

First, look at where you were shoveling from and determine where you want that shovel full of snow to land.

Then grasp the shovel from the handle on top with one hand, placing your other hand at the point on the shovel where you could maintain the most leverage when the shovel was full – in other words, determine the most effective fulcrum point so that you would expend the least amount of effort with each shovel full.

Next, plant your feet in a position that would allow you to swing back, bend your back, pick up a full load of snow in the shovel’s scoop, then follow through in one motion – unbending your back only as much as was needed to deliver that shovel full to your target area.

If you’d positioned yourself correctly, you could then take one small step forward or sideways as you were swinging the empty shovel back.  When your arms had reached the end of the backwards swing, you’d then be in position to repeat your actions.  The effect was like using the shovel as a kind of balancing pendulum, stepping back and forth, seesawing your way up the hill, down the path to the pump house, out to the barn, and back to the farmhouse.

The lighter and drier the snow, the better this worked.  Usually the dryness of the snow was also directly related to the temperature.  At 20 below zero, the snow was dry and left the end of your shovel in a flurry.  But at about 20 degrees above zero, the snow was heavy and tended to clump on your shovel.  We waxed our shovels before shoveling this kind of snow, encouraging the wet snow to leave the shovel at the end of the swing.

The dry snow and cold temperature made for the best shoveling.  You’d work fast enough to keep warm, barely breaking a sweat.

Oh, that wet snow, though.  It was far heavier than the dry stuff, and it didn’t like to leave the end of the shovel on your swing.  Sometimes it fell short of the mark and you’d end up shoveling it up again as you made your way – not efficient.  Soon you’d break into a sweat and have to take off a layer of clothing to cool down.  And pretty soon the heavy, wet snow would start to take its toll on your back.  It had to be shoveled all the same.

Shoveling the entire driveway took two to three hours.  Then it was back to the house for a big breakfast.  Grandma had been keeping an eye on our progress.  When she saw that we were almost to the top, she’d start the frying pan heating on the wood cook stove and get the water boiling on the gas stove.  By the time Grandpa and I had tramped the snow from our boots outside, left our outdoor clothing in the washroom, and cleaned up in the porcelain wash bowl in the sink, the air was filled with the alluring scent of eggs, bacon, hot bread or biscuits, and coffee.

Breakfast was a sit-down, family affair – a ritual.  No one at the table touched a bite until Grandpa was seated. We bowed our heads while Grandpa would said Grace.  Breakfast sometimes started with hot cereal – creamed wheat, creamed rice, or oatmeal, topped with brown sugar.  Grandpa and Grandma had their coffee, grounds boiled right in teh water.  I had hot chocolate mixed with cream – fresh cream skimmed from the top of yesterday’s milk.  Next came the main course.  This might be anything from smoked pork chops to thick sliced bacon to lamb chops.  There was also a big plate of soft-fried eggs in the middle of the table.  Both Grandpa and I ate three eggs each, Grandma usually only had two.  Sometimes there were potatoes, fried from last night’s leftovers.

Of course, there was bread and/or biscuits right out of the oven.  Grandma baked bread every day or two.  Grandpa wouldn’t eat store-bought bread.  Of course, all that was available then at the store was puffed-up white bread, which tasted like Styrofoam and had about the same nutritional value.  Grandma’s bread was whole wheat, light brown and somewhat dense, but fluffy inside that crispy crust.  I liked mine toasted.  So I’d cut an inch-thick slice, stick it with a long-handled cooking fork, take a cover off the wood stove and toast it over the fire.  Back at the table, I’d smother it with home-churned sweet butter and use it to mop up the remainder of the eggs and meat drippings still left on my plate.

It’s hard to imagine being hungry after that.  But if we were, there was always “smeckervesen,” as my German Grandma called it.  We had an orchard, and the apples would store in the cellar for most of the winter.  So Grandma would likely have some thick-crusted apple crisp available.  If not, the pantry was full of molasses or oatmeal cookies.

The big teakettle of water was always on the stove, too, moved to the cooler area to keep warm, and then moved to the hotter area to bring the water to a boil.  Often, a big pot of soup was simmering away, keeping just warm enough so you could always dip in for a bowl full.  It stayed there for days.  As we ate it down, Grandma added more ingredients – some lamb, some vegetables, some smoked pork.  Barley was usually the soup’s basis – my favorite.  To this day, I’ve never tasted anything quite as delicious.

The farm is gone now.  The hill where the farmhouse stood was leveled, divided into acre lots, and turned into suburbia.  There is no trace of the old place, except for a tall stand of trees my grandfather and I planted when I was a child.  Perhaps, on a chilly morning in early winter, with a dusting of fresh snow on the ground, a mist rises from the low-land pond that could not be filled, and the 19th century farm hovers on the horizon, ghost of winters past.  Gone, but not forgotten.

minnesota-farm

Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge – Robert Burns (1759–1796)

Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge

When chill November’s surly blast
Made fields and forests bare,
One ev’ning, as I wander’d forth
Along the banks of Ayr,
I spied a man, whose aged step
Seem’d weary, worn with care;
His face furrow’d o’er with years,
And hoary was his hair.

“Young stranger, whither wand’rest thou?”
Began the rev’rend sage;
“Does thirst of wealth thy step constrain,
Or youthful pleasure’s rage?
Or haply, prest with cares and woes,
Too soon thou hast began
To wander forth, with me to mourn
The miseries of man.

“The sun that overhangs yon moors,
Out-spreading far and wide,
Where hundreds labour to support
A haughty lordling’s pride;-
I’ve seen yon weary winter-sun
Twice forty times return;
And ev’ry time has added proofs,
That man was made to mourn.

“O man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all thy precious hours-
Thy glorious, youthful prime!
Alternate follies take the sway;
Licentious passions burn;
Which tenfold force gives Nature’s law.
That man was made to mourn.

“Look not alone on youthful prime,
Or manhood’s active might;
Man then is useful to his kind,
Supported in his right:
But see him on the edge of life,
With cares and sorrows worn;
Then Age and Want-oh! ill-match’d pair-
Shew man was made to mourn.

“A few seem favourites of fate,
In pleasure’s lap carest;
Yet, think not all the rich and great
Are likewise truly blest:
But oh! what crowds in ev’ry land,
All wretched and forlorn,
Thro’ weary life this lesson learn,
That man was made to mourn.

“Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

“See yonder poor, o’erlabour’d wight,
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful, tho’ a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.

“If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave,
By Nature’s law design’d,
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty, or scorn?
Or why has man the will and pow’r
To make his fellow mourn?

“Yet, let not this too much, my son,
Disturb thy youthful breast:
This partial view of human-kind
Is surely not the last!
The poor, oppressed, honest man
Had never, sure, been born,
Had there not been some recompense
To comfort those that mourn!

“O Death! the poor man’s dearest friend,
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour my aged limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
The great, the wealthy fear thy blow
From pomp and pleasure torn;
But, oh! a blest relief for those
That weary-laden mourn!”

Dharma. Billy Collins

Dharma by Billy Collins

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

The Visitor

A red-eye flight to Minneapolis after Christmas

“It’s about Mom.  She’s worse.  Doctor said it’s a matter of days.  Can you come back?”

My sister from the Midwest was phoning on this gloomy mid-winter’s night in the Puget Sound.  Rain chattering on the roof, a chill in the air.

“I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

I got on the phone, used my flight miles to get a plane the next day, and started packing a bag for Minnesota, where the temperatures hovered in sub-zero range and snow was forecast.

The past few years had been a rough patch for Mom’s health.  Back surgery in her mid-70’s, respiratory infections, and then a burst colon that went untreated too long, resulting in sepsis.  She almost died then.  The doctors wouldn’t even give her odds.  She had so many surgeries they didn’t bother to sew her up for three weeks.  She survived, minus a large section of her intestines, and against her wishes, was checked into a nursing home.

She hated the nursing home, so she packed her bags one evening, called a taxi, and went back to her apartment.  She was met there by Emergency Medical Services and transported back to the hospital.  Eventually, she got her way – as usual – and moved back to her home.  She lobbied for a re-section of her intestines some months later.  It was successful.  She moved out of her apartment north of St. Paul into a cozy ground floor condo in a wooded area closer to the city and set about making what would be her last home.

My daughter and I had been back to see her in December.  She was perky, laughing, joking, and telling us how much better she felt and how she loved her new home.  Her Christmas tree was fully decorated with ornaments from my childhood, tinsel shimmering, lights twinkling.  We left fully believing this resilient 82-year-old was entering a new, exciting stage of life.

She drove to my brother’s house for New Year’s dinner, despite it being 20 degrees below zero and icy streets.  A few days later she starting having serious flu-like symptoms.  Soon she was once again in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Her lungs were fragile, and she’d developed pneumonia.  Within days she was hooked to a respirator and was going in and out of consciousness.   And I was on my way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a red-eye.

I met my sister at Regions Hospital in St. Paul the next morning.  I could hear Mom’s raspy breathing before I could see her.  She was on strong pain medication, slipping in and out of a coma.  She blinked when I talked to her.  I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back.  My sister had made an appointment mid-morning with her doctor and a palliative care doctor.  As the oldest sibling, I was now part of the team on the ground.

The doctors cut to the chase – they’d tried everything over the past week.  Nothing was working; she continued to rapidly deteriorate.  It was time to move into the palliative care stage because survival was becoming less likely by the hour.  The pain was getting worse, she could not breath long unassisted, and they were draining her lungs of fluid several times a day with a chest tube.  She could pass any time, but almost certainly within a couple days.  She’d stay right where she was, in a quiet and naturally lit room.

The Death Watch

My youngest sister, with her young daughter and her husband, arrived from Hawaii.  So with my other sister, her daughter and her husband, who lived close by in Wisconsin, we were seven strong.  We worked out a plan so that at least one of us would be at our mother’s bedside from morning until evening.  My Hawaii sister’s family took that evening’s shift.  My Wisconsin sister’s family lived close by, so they drove home.  I was staying with long-time friends in Stillwater, where I’d grown up, just a half-hour’s drive from the hospital.

I had the next morning’s shift.  Mom was slightly responsive, so I sat or stood by her bed, held her hand and talked with her.  I just talked.  The old days.  The farm we grew up on.  The weather.  Politics (which she loved).  Kids now days.  She showed signs of recognition and comprehension.

I took regular breaks to walk around the big city hospital, get coffee, and have breakfast.  I was already a familiar face to hospital staff in this section, and they always greeted me with a smile and an offer of assistance.  I remember how pleasant Minnesota people can be.  Minnesota nice.

I put her headphones over her ears, moved a chair close to the windows, and sat down.  We were at the far end of a very large room with high ceilings on an upper floor of the hospital.  Thick curtains were set up to divide the room, or open it, as needed.  A wall of windows overlooked downtown St. Paul, its air frozen still in the deep winter sun, as if you could shatter it into a million pieces with a light hammer blow.  Smoke from the ventilation systems suspended in frozen puffs above the buildings.  No sign of even a breeze.

I put my head in my hands to cover my eyes and consider what was happening.  There is little you can do to change some things, but more that you can do to make it easier on everyone else.  I heard a rustling in the curtain between where I was sitting and my mother’s bed.

The Visitor

I looked up to see who it was.  But I saw no one.  I thought perhaps the ventilation system had disturbed the curtains, but there were no vents there.  There was no movement otherwise in the room.  No nurses, no staff, not even a voice.  All the activity in the section of the room beyond the next curtain was very hushed because in this part of the hospital, the patients were very sick.  Everyone was quiet, except for the lights blinking and a variety of machine noises.

I put my head back into my hands, and almost immediately I not only heard, but felt, the air around me begin to move.  At first it was a whispered breath passing my face, but then the air moved more turbulently, like a small, invisible tornado passing by.  I looked around and still saw nothing.  I went around the curtain to my mother’s bed.  There was no one there but her.  Somehow her breathing seemed steadier and she was resting, so I said nothing.

I went back to the window area and looked out again over the city.  Then I heard the distinct sound behind me of the curtains again rustling.  As I turned around, I saw them move, shimmer, from top to bottom.  An air disturbance seemed to come toward me, then the curtains stopped moving.  But in front of me air seemed to be moving, shifting.  I still could not see what was causing it, but I could feel it breathe on my shirt.  My face felt cooler.  A shiver went through me.  I could now distinctly hear wind rushing between canyons of fabric walls.

This is where my senses stopped being helpful in making any sense of what seemed to be pure energy moving rapidly, erratically, very close by.  It had mass that I could feel, but not see.  My logical mind kept telling me this could not be, that it was not.  But it was.  Something was.

There was another presence in the room that I could feel, but not see.  I reached out to try to touch it, and I took a step toward the turbulent air mass, but as I came closer, it moved away.  Then it was in back of me.  I turned, and now looking towards the windows I detected, not saw, but detected somehow the source of this presence.  It was at the top of the room.  It moved across the room, over the curtains, rustling them once again, then came past my mother’s hospital bed and around the curtains.

It was rapidly moving towards me.  I felt the force of air in front of it pushing on me.  As it came almost next to me, it dissipated.  Instantly.  As if it were never there.  The room became as it was before.  Curtains hanging languidly.  Not a sound except my mother’s breathing, and my heart beating.

I went to the bedside.  Mom seemed to be resting easier.  Before, I could see her fighting the respirator, with a grimace on her face, her hands clenched, her arms stiff has she braced against the IV’s taped into her.  Her breathing was still labored but steady.  The body tension had retreated.  She seemed to be slightly smiling.

My sisters and my two nieces walked in a bit later.  I could not begin to tell them what had just happened because I would not have known what I was describing.  I still don’t.

We started talking from both sides of Mom’s bed.  We kept the conversation natural so that we included her.  We weren’t sure what she heard, but it didn’t matter.  We just wanted her to feel our voices.

As we discussed the weather, the news, the ordinary and mundane, Mom stopped breathing.  She was breathing, then with one long exhaled breath, she stopped.  She was still.  She had died.  Her face was relaxed, and all stress left her.  She looked smaller.

“She’s gone,” one of us said.

“Could you please get a nurse?” I asked my oldest niece.

She was gone.  But to where?  Did she go with The Visitor?  Who was The Visitor?  What was The Visitor?  Did The Visitor come to check up on her?  Did The Visitor come to make her more comfortable?  Did The Visitor come to take her?  From where did The Visitor come?  Why did The Visitor make itself known to me?  Was there a message?

I don’t know the answers.  I categorize myself for the sake of convenience as spiritual, but not religious.  For now, I have only concluded that I had a visitor from somewhere else, a place I do not know.  I’m not in a hurry to meet this presence again.  Though maybe we all will in the end.

Rain Light – W.S. Merwin

Photo: S.W. Cosgrove

 

From W.S. Merwin’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, 2008).

RAIN LIGHT

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

“My Heart’s in the Highlands” Robert Burns

Robert-Burns-012

Arvo Pärt, Else Torp, and Christopher Bowers

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains high covered with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.