I dropped off my daughter at UVM and took a short stroll through the Burlington mall where all kinds of memories returned—being with my childhood friends. Something about the beige tile floors, the shades-of-beige walls and the nostalgically manic Christmas decorations. I know that if I’d bumped into my friends, even thirty years later, we would comfortably pick up where we left off. There’s something about childhood friendships, making us more like brothers or sisters, that can only happen among children. We weren’t mall rats. We lived too far away. When only visited to shop on holidays or to see a movie. We always burned our allowances playing video games. All this is to say that going to the mall meant being with friends; and every mall, in those days, was a kind of world’s fair. There was no internet. Going there meant seeing everything that was the newest technology—and girls. I miss the mystery of girls. I miss wondering when a beautiful girl would want to sit next to me—that girl, you know, who would make me forget all about my friends.
There was something about those years—grade school and high school. That’s not to say that I have good memories of ‘school’. I’m sure that I “suffer”—quote unquote—from ADHD Daydreaming. Even now adults sound like they’re in Peanuts cartoons. I can’t listen to anyone talk more than 1 or 2 minutes. Forget poetry readings. Any shiny object—word or association—sends me off like a witless crow. I feel bad about that because, after all, I’m a poet. If I’m reading I will daydream words that aren’t there, and while writing too. They’re very often striking mistakes that I turn into poetry. Squeezing a thumbtack keeps me focused. I’m not joking. In school, I was the kid drawing and/or staring out the window—watching the weather go by and getting Cs and D minuses for grades. I was always picked last. For good reason. I was the loopy kid in left field staring at the clouds. I was recommended to the school psychologist because I never wanted to play with classmates in the playground. I wanted to be off by myself. I didn’t start talking until I was four years old. I did all my talking in my head. That also landed me at a therapist’s office. The amazing thing about ADHD Daydreaming, if that’s what it is, is that I dream up story ideas faster than I can write them—and everybody wanted me to be the Dungeon Master. But there was something about those school years—when I wasn’t in school.
The Putting Away of Childish Things
I remember reading this sentiment time and again when I was growing up. There was childhood and there was manhood. And it is an impoverished man who cherishes childish things. I believed it. And even as a child was saddened by that. Now, with a half century behind me, I can firmly say that all those manly writers who spouted this advice were blowhards—complete blowhards. They can take their grown-man’s wisdom along with a swift kick in the ass. I have not put away my childish things and couldn’t write poetry without them. I couldn’t write my fanciful fables, fairy tales, short stories and novels without all those childish things. If you’re still a kid—think twice before you give away your favorite toy. I still have my Space 1999 Eagle Dinky Toy.
If I Had it to do Again
I wish I could relive almost every part of my life. I used to think that the car didn’t move but that the Earth rolled under it. The gas pedal and steering wheel dictated how fast the Earth moved and in which direction. Later I wondered if time was like that. Maybe we don’t move through time, but time moves through us. I don’t know what the difference is, but that got me thinking about doing it all over again. In my latest novel, North of Autumn, the Librarian of All Things, met by the main character Zoē, offers Zoē an altogether different understanding of time. She asks Zoē to imagine that time isn’t like a stream at all. Time doesn’t have a direction. The past can be changed as decidedly as the future. She says, imagine that time is like the surface of a pond and that every mote of consciousness is like a stone thrown onto its surface. What we perceive as time are the countless ripples of consciousness, among all beings, flowing outward from each and in all directions. When I was eleven, I had Near Death Experience. I remember being shown everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen. It was all so simple, obvious and beautiful. I wondered how I’d ever forgotten.
The Devil Wants to Know
I love the Devil, not the devil of Christian mythology (the devil that the middle ages and Milton turned into a run-of-the-mill feudal Lord) but the far more fun and clever devil of folk and fable—the trickster and troublemaker. In North of Autumn and Tiny House, Big Mountain I tell stories about God and the Devil. God always means well, but whenever God tries to do something nice for all of us, it ends in disaster. The Devil, on the other hand, is the trickster who has no faith in humanity and loves to trip us up, but whenever the Devil tries to meddle in the affairs of human beings, it all ends splendidly and happily. This brings about no end of frustration for both God and the Devil. One of my favorite stories is a Taoist fable in which every bit of fortune ends in disaster and every disaster leads to good fortune. How do you know that’s a good thing? How do you know that’s a bad thing? In the Yin-Yang symbol, a white dot appears in the midst of the black and black appears in the midst of the white.
I’ve been reading Shakespeare, sort of as a break before starting my next novel, and reading Jane Austen (research) for my next novel—called Writer, Writer. I came across a passage from each that I have to pass on. First, from Pride and Prejudice:
~ “Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty verses they were.”
“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There was many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love?” p. 36-37
And here I thought it was me. In my experience, nothing drove off love like a poem. The better the poem, the more effective at nipping love in the bud. My reasoning is this: Any girl to whom I gave a poem probably assumed that the effort needed to write the poem bordered on a marriage proposal—especially if it was only an acrostic Shakespearean Sonnet which spelled out the girl’s name. Yes, I really did this. It took half an afternoon to write the sonnet and five minutes to end the relationship. Moral: If you want girls, forget poetry. Learn to play the guitar. Then I ran across this while reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” III.ii.163
Foot note: Alluding to Pythagoras’s transmigration of souls and to the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming cats to death.
I had no idea that a rhyming Irish bard could kill cats. Having a thoroughly Irish name and fancying myself a bard, I sat at one end of the kitchen table and my unimpressed cat at the other end. I recited my rhymes and my cat’s tail twitched. After an hour or so, and after the one hundred and thirty-second canto of Spencer’s Faerie Queene, my cat trolled me by licking her posterior. I gave up. Clearly, having an Irish name and being of Irish descent is not the same as being Irish. Also, it’s possible that Spencer isn’t Irish enough.
The Devil’s Proposal
I met the Devil at the mall. I always recognize the Devil because there’s always something off. In this case he was wearing a solid wool scarf. No Vermonter would do that when there’s plaid flannel to be had. I sat next to him and we both watched shoppers come and go. He was no doubt up to some mischief. “You’d like to do it over again,” he said.
“Tragic that we only get one life,” I answered.
“May you do, maybe you don’t,” said he. “Maybe there’s no me, no God, no afterlife. You die and your heirs—” The devil inhaled with pleasure. “If you love the Devil, don’t write a Will. I beg you. Don’t write a Will. Leave it to your kin and probate. But as I was saying: Maybe you drop dead and go to Heaven or Hell? If you’re looking for malls by the way, they’re all in hell now; but maybe you don’t believe in heaven and hell. What about reincarnation? That one is tricky. Consider all the nauseating whining about not remembering past lives. ‘If we’re reincarnated, why can’t we remember anything?‘ The whining is insufferable. But what if you could? What if you could remember everything? Wouldn’t every life be another episode in the same miserable sitcom?”
“Surely you didn’t come here just to vent,” said I.
“Do you see that woman just now exiting the chocolaterie. God rewarded her. She won a tidy sum playing the lottery. God’s bounty is infinite. She buys chocolate—good chocolate. Expensive chocolate. Little does she know that her little Pomeranian, her dearest and faithful companion, will be dead because of it, having run off with her Fair Trade, Oganic, 100% Chocolate chocolate bar—pure poison if you’re a Pomeranian. She’ll spend the sum of her winnings trying to save the little beast and I will get the blame for it.” The Devil sniffed. “It might have survived the chocolate but it won’t survive being run over. Meanwhile, do you see that horrid man berating his wife and children? Hurry, he scolds! Hurry! He shall go drinking tonight and I shall reward him for it, baleful scourge that I am. He shall total his Tesla, newly acquired, and he shall be fired by his investment banking firm. But, lo and behold, while at the hospital a tumor will be discovered! It would have killed him within the month. The tumor shall be removed. This horrid man, so shaken by his brush with death, will give up the bottle, his life of high finance and devote himself to his family. God’s bounty is infinite!—they will say. God works in mysterious ways!” The Devil sniffed again. “All because the fool swerved to avoid a horrid little Pomeranian with a chocolate bar in its mouth.”