Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dreaming It Off

Sun in My Eyes

About four times a year or so, Miss O’ takes the Lakeland Bus Lines out to Newton, New Jersey, and on at least one of these trips she will get to hear poetry read aloud by a group called The Writer’s Roundtable. These poets have in common a certain proximity to the Delaware Water Gap, a deep reverence for the natural world, and a punch-drunk love of words. Yesterday found the O’ass once again in a seat at the Betty June Silconas Poetry Center of Sussex County Community College (in an atrium of glass looking out onto a pond and woods) to hear her friend Chuck Tripi read from his new book of poems, Carlo and Sophia. (It’s available on Amazon from Cyberwit Publications, and you will so not be sorry.) It's a man in conversation, I think, with Wisdom, searching for meaning in the acts of a life, in encounters with the natural world, with his father, with the consequences of his choices. It's a honey of a read.

No sooner did I type that paragraph up there, than my old actor friend Pat Hurley called, and at my “Hello?” he announced without preface:  “Aging is like being forced to wear a disguise for the rest of your life.” And he proceeded to explain to me the agonies of being age 66 and trying to teach acting to young ones, work he finds deeply rewarding, as it turns out; and yet one is reminded of one's own decrepitude, what with all those strapping young humans in front of you each day.

His call was spooky, you see, because here is what I was about to write: Because I arrived early with my friends George and Jean to help set up the event, I was present as each and every member of the audience (mostly writers I've known for years) ascended the steps. I’ve been attending these events for, oh, six or eight years or so. And in those years are wide gaps for me, and this means I look upon each person here with rather fresh eyes. Aging, I must tell you, is always a shock. For as my friend Pat says, it’s a disguise, and one you cannot take off. Dimpled skin, silvering hair, odd growths on the skin, inexplicable limps, teeth that have become sort of outsized in some of those mouths, with gaps that have appeared (two teeth in from the molars, and you know this because they smile a lot, and that is something)—all of these are new and unwanted (and unavoidable) layers of covering for the (really rather youthful) persons beneath.

And aging changes not only the look of our bodies, but also the shape of our conversations. Retirement is a big topic, of course, but so (to my delight) is Tenure. Discovery. Continuance. Like my friend Pat, who has a whole new career in coaching high school students, my friend Chuck is 66 years old and, after a career as an airline pilot, he's a poet with a brand new book. My aforementioned friend Jean is 52 and she just became a tenured professor. We have history, sure, but also a future. (Pat told me about a dance concert given by the seniors at his school, and their way of honoring Miss Denise, the teacher, whom he hadn't seen in a decade—"and I looked ten years older and she looked the same.” And then Pat tells me more history of little theaters around the United States—Jacob’s Pillow, Lost Colony, Flat Rock. He's past, present, and future, too, as all of us are, in our aging.)

So here I learned that Judy, it turns out, has osteoporosis, “my spine is about to fracture,” she says, even as she runs the South Mountain Poets and edits new journals; and as Pat is “reeducating himself between aging spurts” through the New York Review of Books and the latest published work on acting technique, just so my friend George’s 59-year-old knees may be giving him hell, but he is about to (finally) finish hiking the rest of the Appalachian Trail this month—and Miss O’ at 49 (on Friday) self-published her first book last December and is working toward mounting a play—and what I’m trying to say here is that age is a fact of the life cycle but not the winding down of anyone’s life. The lights are still on, is what I'm saying.

Moment in the Sun

Miss O' at sunset in NJ. Photo by George Lightcap.

When you are old and gray and full of sleep, and all your meals must be consumed before 6 PM or the heartburn will keep you up all night; when your menopause heat surges are triggered by coffee, wine, and chocolate, and you suddenly seem to have no reason to live (ask Miss O’ how she knows); when you realize that the only people who will ever know of your talents and possible greatness are the sweet handful of people you have been sharing yourself with for decades now—that no greater fame will come to you in the face of the death you will meet much sooner, now, than later: What you do is go to a poetry reading by Chuck Tripi. Here is my favorite poem in the book, at least today.

Dreaming It Off

By Chuck Tripi

Maybe in a year of working too hard,
thirty, forty thousand miles on the car
home to job to job, nodding off, coffee,
the petering-out station loses you
in the middle of the number one song,
Band on the Run; you pull over.
You dream you are driving asleep.
Or you’re a little bit tight, maybe,
a couple of beers for the ditch
in the day when the cops could be nice,
knock you awake with a good idea.
Seventeen hours. I slept as if dead
at the Red Sky Motel, dream upon dream,
of trucks going by, the rocking whoosh,
of a vacancy, someone to accompany me.

from Carlo and Sophia, 2013,

Find Your Light

My friend Pat said today, speaking of a young student actor who played Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last week, “He can’t create a false moment on stage.” The best compliment you can get when you are acting is a compliment I can pay to Chuck. He simply has no filter, no need to deceive, and that’s what age and stroke recovery and being an artist when the light is fading are all about. Being honest kicks ass. It's us in our best light.

So last night after the reading—it was about 6 o’clock and George and Jean and I had had dinner and this was getting on bedtime for them—Jeannie said, “Honey, if you wouldn’t mind, I thought we could take a drive.” You see, if we took off on this clear blue evening in the May sun right now, we’d have time to drive up into the mountains and see sunset on Sunrise Mountain, or at Monument in High Point State Park, in Sussex County. The evening reminded all three of us of our summers at Bread Loaf in Vermont, where we’d all begun our Master’s program in English 23 years ago this summer—the place where we met, and where George and Jeannie fell in love. We three took a lot of drives in George’s old truck, Granny, along the dirt roads of the Green Mountains, and so tonight off we went again, from a place that was home.

We started out, entered various park drives (George is a living topo map, but don't ask me where we were), stopping at pull-overs and making our way to the top of New Jersey's land, the highest point in the state (hence the name High Point, ya dam' foo'). Of course, this being the United States, a giant pointy phallus called Monument has been erected on the spot, thus blocking the perfect 360-degree view one might enjoy should that article not be there. In order to see the full picture, the complete vista, then, you have to walk around the giant phallus on a concrete platform; and as you do this you listen, not to wind through the trees below, but to the high-flying American flag flapping its colors in a sonic orgy of patriotism. 

Is there a greater shame? Sometimes you just want to be with a mountain, but in America, we have to stick flags on the tops of peaks and declare the size of our national penis. And yet still we go, of course, grateful for the park, and the phallus does make it easier to find the destination, however rudely. On arrival, we could also see an American teen couple, a white Jersey boy and girl, with white sacks of junk food plunked down at the base of said phallic Monument, checking their iThingies and talking in “who’s cleverer” circles about their relationship, but they’re up here to see the sunset, too, so kudos.

And of course, we also had devices. Well, Miss O' didn't; she always depends on the kindness and techno ways of friends. And as we three took or stood still for photos on the rocks against the setting sun, and turned this way and that to watch how the lowering light was changing the colors of the spring buds on the treetops, the deep green grasses of the valley, and the mists of particulates in the air above the Delaware River and the mountains all around, we were aware that the full drop of the sun would take time, require patience. The temperature dropped; George went back to the car. Jean and I, though, rode it out (and the teens did, too; a passing family came up, and went down as quickly), and while at first the fade seemed to take forever, when once it was time, the end came quickly. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t seem to stop—just astonishing and comic, that sudden set, like a pratfall. And then…the rays of color kept on, and who could look away? Jeannie and I just stared and stared at the residual fan of light, the yellows oranges, pinks, lingering over the land, leaving so that a little of the sun’s light on this day could still light us a little of the way home.

Out on the road once again, I said, “George, I think I need a chocolate ice cream cone.” And no sooner said than we saw the neon cone sign of a creamery, and that sweetheart of a scooper girl at the stand said she'd stay open to make our treats. Back in the car, together, quietly enjoying our ice cream in the dying light, I think, “Yes, a lot of people have been dying; we are getting really old; writing is so much work, hiking is so much work, teaching is so much work, and yet we still have things we want to do yet, be yet, finish yet, for our own satisfaction.” 

At the last crunch of cone, George brushes his fingers, starts his engine, and off we go, into a starry cool night, out onto a mountain highway in spring; it’s a poem, this life, sometimes, even here at the time of sunset, with someone to accompany me.

Love to all.

Monument, High Point State Park, NJ. Photo by George Lightcap.

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