the first night

April 25, 2011

September 13, 1980

the first night – getting there

on Broadway
cold gray sidewalk
under warm evening glare
of cool brown street lights
shadows of leaves

brown on hard blue
gray at night
knowing not where to turn

shadows searching for darkness

the eschaton flag

March 30, 2010

designed by Bill Stringfellow and myself
made by Cathy Payne, of Block Island

love, fish, scales of justice, the word
cross with a crown of juggling balls
at the center


March 30, 2010

(The word this week was supposed to be symbol. But the story got in the way. So many words, so little space. Perhaps next month.)

I’m late, or will be soon, and my mind is racing, ticking off mental lists, while hands dig in pockets for physical lists. 1 by 10’s. 1 by 8’s. Pressure treated. Yes. And nails, Dave’s bringing the nails, I think. I reach the bottom stair and the front door, my right hand grabs the handle, thumb poised to press the latch and swing it in, and I stop. I’ve never stopped before. I usually grab, press, and pull. And the door budges about a sixteenth of an inch, enough for the dead bolt to engage and my pulling motion propels me headfirst into the frame, my hand twisted by its own jerk and the sudden resistance.

And I remember, and I swear under my breath, at my beloved son, who has once again slipped down in the night to lock the door. “I don’t want to live in a locked house,” I fume. “It’s a nonnegotiable. A matter of principle. Identity. I will not live in a locked house. Damn it. Why does he do that?” I keep hoping, unconsciously, that he will become like me, and choose not to lock it, see the superiority of my ways. But he doesn’t. And every night, before he goes to bed, after Jo and I are in for the evening, he slips downstairs, turns off the lights and bolts the door.

This time is different. I stand with a foot on the stair, one on the floor, my mind full of dimensions, empty and calling for caffeine, and instead of yanking, I take the splittest of seconds and glance at the latch. The door is locked. Pulling on it will not change that fact. I will have to unlock it either way. I don’t want to hit my head again. I don’t want to swear again. I can just reach up and turn the handle. And I do. No fussing about identity or nonnegotiables. I unlock it and go on my way.

The locked door is evidence, a sign of my son’s presence, his instincts and inclinations, instincts that are understandable, reasonable. He is a strapping 21 year old now, but he was once a fragile baby who barely survived an underweight infancy in the streets of Calcutta. And as a tee-ball player on the rec. fields of Montpelier he was shocked and terrified by the horrific news from Barre of the girl who was struck and killed by lightning as she was out on the ball fields there. For years after his eyes would automatically scan the skies as he stepped out the front door, checking for signs of rain. He was the first off the field, the first in the car. Clouds, thunder, lightning, rain, death — all one threatening mix. “I’ll stay inside… Dad, you’re crazy, don’t go out there.”

And he’s had to endure, his entire life, his parents’ fixation on hospitality. Housemates, friends, strangers, candle-burning women’s groups, teens from troubled families — we don’t know the actual number of teens, but it must be well over a hundred, who have shared our home for short or long periods of time, kids who have used his stuff, his video games, and now want to borrow his laptop, kids who want to hang out with him in his room… and we continue do this, take in young people, one might show up this week, or tomorrow. And Vermont State legislators, and Mountaineers baseball players, and Pakistani refugees. Not to mention the “banjo geeks,” as he calls them, my musical friends who show up every week to jam in the living room. He’s put up with a lot, and has been gracious and generous. So I guess if wants to lock the door at night he can. It’s not a sign of moral failure, or spite. It’s just a locked door. And besides, his mother approves. She wonders more about me and why I rail at keys and locks. Clearly, we practice hospitality. Why the fuss?

For one reason. One year. One very long year at the very beginning of the explosion of homelessness in our nation’s big cities (the early ‘80’s) I worked on the streets of New York. The deeper I descended into the world of the homeless, of random evictions, and rampant gentrification, the heavier my door key hung in my pocket. It would burn against my thigh. It became the difference between “them” and me, between “them” and “us,” those of us with doors and rooms behind them, beds and bathrooms, sinks and kitchens; apartments, houses, places of work. We had keys. To the homeless the world is literally locked, a vast array of closed, locked doors.

Jaimen may have his terror of the outside world, of sudden death from the sky and perhaps some deep memory of his danger-ridden beginning. I had my rage against inhumanity, our inhospitality to the elderly and vulnerable, to the slow death by exposure and neglect.

I came to hate keys. And locks. To despise them. I may not be able to save the world but at least I can live in an unlocked house, that I can do. But I can’t. Because my lovely son (and wife!) wants to feel safe at night, and the latch makes him feel safe, even if it is only a feeling, even if the world is still full of danger and risk, of lightning strikes and earthquakes and social policies and attitudes that continue to marginalize and oppress certain people. Sometimes a lock is just a lock. He locks it. I unlock it. It ‘s a dance, a lock dance. I’m not saving the world. I’m not saving anybody. I’m just buying lumber and fixing porches and making bookshelves; and taking in teens from time to time. And Jaimen isn’t locking out the world. He’s engaged, on the verge of his own manhood, preparing to walk out that same door, clouds or not, lightning or not, to forge his own path and make his own way.

the breezeway

May 26, 2009

Bill had a “breezeway,” that’s what he called it, a narrow space between the house and what was originally the garage — about five feet wide and fifteen feet long. The previous owner had converted the garage into an office with large plate glass windows where the garage doors had been and had enclosed the breezeway in a glass and aluminum contraption with a storm door on either end. If the back door of the breezeway was unlatched and you opened the front it was likely that the back would suddenly swing outward with the wind that whipped up from the harbor. The doors would bang and clatter and you could hear the sucking and wheezing of the hydraulic closers as they fought the gusts and tried to pull themselves shut

reading through the four gospels
one after the other
each time hoping that Jesus
would come down off the cross
as if he could somehow learn
from the experience of the previous gospel
as if each time the story started over
there was a chance for a different ending

Matthew — he dies
Mark —he dies
Luke — again
one more chance — come on Jesus!
come on God the Father!
but no — in John he dies too
bravely, but willingly, passively
and abandoned by God

I remember the darkness,
the emptiness
the resurrection stories didn’t hold my attention
I read them quickly, skimmed them
anxious to get to the next gospel
to see if the outcome would change
they seemed unlikely and awkward
tacked-on happy endings
strange and not credible to an eight year old
who already knew that dead was dead
and they didn’t address the issues anyway

injustice, cruelty
that God would abandon
such a good and decent soul,
the loss
that we would be robbed of uncounted future years
of his teachings

resurrection as ad hoc afterthought
weak and transparent

crucifixion as what it is

Sometimes in the morning or evening when I’m in bed half-asleep I hear Jaimen at my dresser gently poking through the piles of crumpled receipts, business cards, envelopes, opened mail, and the months-long accumulation of the nightly emptyings of my pockets. Nails, drill bits, scraps of paper with names whose importance has faded as rapidly as the ink in which they are written. He’s looking for quarters of course, and he’s finding them.
It was my father’s dresser and I had done the same, only he had kept it much neater. One wooden box that held change, an ashtray for car keys, a nail clipper, and pocket knife; a pewter mug that held a few pencils and one or two good pens. My father liked to say that the FBI would train new agents to analyze a person’s character by simply examining the books on his or her bookshelves. He liked that story. It was one that not only was true, but also felt true. It made sense, it resonated with something already inside him, some truth he had already encountered. I wonder what the FBI would say about my dresser? Or his? Do they have a profiling system that could look at the contents of people’s pockets at the end of the day, and how they handle those contents, where they put them?
I would go to his dresser when my parents were out of the room and would take nickels and dimes too. How many depended on how many were there, and how many I thot I could take without him noticing. It was petty and for candy and I generally didn’t feel guilty about it. Without meaning to, I make it much harder for Jaimen to actually find the coins, but once found he can take as many as he wants assured that in all the confusion I will never know the difference.
I don’t think Jaimen roots around in my file cabinets. There is organization to them but even I have trouble finding things. There are far too many papers and most are incomplete or lead to other things that do not exist yet. The ink does not fade on these, not yet, altho some of the hopes that cling to them have.
My father did not have file cabinets or boxes of unfinished poems, essays, dreams and diatribes. He had and has a few regrets, he wonders sometimes about the day in 1942 when he stood on the beach, looking out over Long Island Sound to the, holding the acceptance letter from the CG Academy, about how his life might have been different had he chosen a different path. But he didn’t and doesn’t wonder overmuch and doesn’t exactly understand or admire people who do. He did have a desk and as far as I know he still has it and now approaching 80 years old the things in the desk, if not the same exact things, are the same kinds of things in roughly the same order and place as they were when I rooted around in it as a child. Neat, the drawers full but not stuffed, few works in progress or loose ends, many documents, certificates, records, a few keepsakes, some books about ships and the sea, and five manila envelopes, one for each of the children, that periodically thickened as our school report cards arrived. Those are no longer in the desk. My mother has long since given them to us; giving me mine when I married Jo.
Here’s something: the manila envelope that held my report cards had a name in the upper right corner, Miss Spence, the name of my first grade teacher, written in what must have been her hand. It was the first envelope, the one that my first report card had arrived in. It had fulfilled its original specific task and had been given the rare opportunity of a new one, a general one. All subsequent envelopes had been discarded, all subsequent report cards, including ones from my high school in NYC which had different dimensions, and SAT scores which had much higher pretensions, had all been fit into that first envelope. This is important. There is a principle at work here or several. Economy, inertia, grouping, the way subsequent experience loses its particular packaging and contingency and idiosyncrasies and is collected with similar experiences in some original experience’s envelope. The power and primacy of the first impression. And its arbitrariness. The kicker, for me, is that the original envelope, the one that is now general, that is now report card envelope, still has Miss Spence’s name on it. No matter how general a term may become, how big an envelope, it has a specific and arbitrary origin.
There was no change in my father’s desk, no money, so my searchings there were not about candy or advantage, but rather curiosity and adventure. There was something mysterious called a checkbook and a box full of blank checks. It had a magical quality that completely disappointed. You could write whatever numbers you wanted but there was some far-off agency that had to say yes, that had to approve. And if it did approve, it might not approve again because approval meant subtraction. There would be less the next time. It looked like infinite potential. It looked like a blank check. But it wasn’t. Or there is no such thing. It was a contingency, a nest of permissions and arithmetic. When I was older I heard a counter story, about a famous painter, who instead of paying his handyman cash for his work would simply sign his name on a scrap of paper and give it to the man. The fellow would take it into town and sell it for money to collectors and tourists. I don’t know if the story is true. It seems like it might be, like it could be. It bothered me. Something real but not applicable. Real but limited to the singular realities which surround the hyperfamous and their sycophants.
But there were real and applicable things in my father’s desk. There was a book about the mammals of North America and another about ships and sailing and the North Atlantic. And there was an envelope, another manila envelope, with a handful of papers inside. One was a brochure which featured a simple line drawing of a coat of arms. It had what looked like pigeons on it and I remember doubting it. I felt that it was made up by someone trying to flatter himself and his ancestors, but why flatter yourself with pigeons? Underneath the coat of arms was the family name, my family name, Wetmore. This was the Wetmore coat of arms, with pigeons on it. I found it unlikely and embarrassing, even as the name is embarrassing. Wetmore, Wetless, Witless, Dryless, Danny Dryless, Does Danny Wet-more than other people? Never mind that my middle name was Hancock. The brochure also contained several pictures of a large house in England, in the town of Witmore. These were not line drawings but copies of photographs. These were convincing even if the coat of arms was not. Whitmore Hall in Witmore, England ancestral home and fount of all Wetmores, Witmores, Whitemores, Whitmores and Whittemores the world around. The text boasted that the hall and the houses that had preceded it, built on the same site, had been continually occupied by the same family and its descendants since the Norman conquest in 1066. It also mentioned, somewhat elliptically, that there were Wetmores, Witmores, Whitmores, and Whittemores who were not descended from that family. This was puzzling and taxing to my young mind. How was one to know to which group one belonged? and where exactly did all those Wetmores, Witmores, Whitmores, and Whittemores who were not descended from the Whitmores of Witmore England descend from? Who would want to be a Witmore wannabe? But never mind. the point of this whole dresser/desk /envelope/ report card discursion is to tell you about another picture in that brochure in the back at the bottom, an aside or afterthot, and its short caption. It is a photograph of the basement floor in Whitmore Hall. The floor is composed of large rectangular paving stones, perhaps 2 1/2 feet square and in the center of the photo is a stone with a sturdy metal handle embedded. The caption indicated that underneath that stone was a never-fail spring and that that spring had been the water source for the hall and for the houses that had preceded it for a thousand years. The first house was built on top of the spring, and every subsequent house, ever grander, and now Whitmore Hall with its high ceilings and grand portraits of Lords and Ladies. I can remember looking at the handle and thinking about the water underneath. Thinking back on it now I recall a bicycle trip I took across North and South Carolina when I was 22 years old. One day I came upon a weathered barn with a horse holding its head and neck out a square open window, perfectly framed. By the time I found my camera and took the picture the horse had stepped away, withdrawing into the darkness. It is a beautiful photo of a weathered barn, with deeply etched grain in the clapboards and trim, bleached, blackened and brown with reminders of red paint still clinging here and there. The effects of sun, of rain, of time, of decay and intermittent repair, and the angle of light as I took the picture on that particular day. But it always the empty window which draws my eye. The barn is all frame, beautiful, but frame. And twenty-six years later, when I look at the photo the darkness is unchanged. The horse is still in there. I couldn’t see the water in the photo in the Witmore brochure but it was there, just beneath the stone, the stone with the handle, and it was moving, and had been for over a thousand years. And probably ten thousand before that, before the Normans, before Angles and Saxons, before Picts.The metal handle, hundreds of years old, embedded in a stone cut from some motherstone millions of years old, that metal handle was the indicator and the way in. In my father’s desk, in the middle drawer an envelope and in the envelope a folded paper with a photo of a stone with a handle, beneath that stone, water and the fount of all things Witmore. Literally and figuratively. A fount that is a fount. Water is flowing in my father’s desk and in my mind and somewhere, still, far off in England.

This was for me the first touchstone, before I knew the word ‘touchstone,’ or how badly I would need them. The first drinkwater even though I had already drunk plenty of water. Of course I still didn’t know from which group of Witmore’s etc. I was descended. So it might not have been my touchstone. Water from that spring may have never touched the lips of my ancestors, but some water did, from some spring or well and they were all from somewhere. There is a place on earth that we are from, we belong here, at least in principle. This is home.