Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar

220px-Paul_Laurence_Dunbar_circa_1890

He Had His Dream

He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam –
He had his dream.

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, ‘The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.’
He saw through every cloud a gleam –
He had his dream.

 

Paul’s mother had a dream too. An ex-slave, she taught herself to read just so she could teach young Paul. Paul was a stellar student and popular at his all-white high school in Ohio where he was elected president of the high school literary society. Mother’s dream was to send Paul to law school but lack of funds prevented it.   (My son really wanted to live on campus at NYU and assumed he’d go to Columbia Law School–we all have our dreams, don’t we?). Finances are a pain.

Paul ended up an elevator operator and though a good poet, he wasn’t very good with money and always ended up in debt. People liked his work, but poetry can’t always pay the bills.

Paul met a nice girl and married, but sadly three years later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor recommended whiskey to alleviate  the symptoms of the disease. We all know how this ends, don’t we? His depression and growing dependence on alcohol caused trouble between him and wifey. She left him and Paul died a destitute alcoholic.

 

 

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection . . .

039

The mystic chords of memory,  stretching from every battlefield, and the patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our  nature.

The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . .We shall nobly save or meanly lose, the last, best hope on Earth.” Abraham Lincoln

 

Note: Our foster girl is back and off this week of school so my visits here may be sketchy at best, but wanted to take this moment to remember the  men and women like Lincoln (and the Founding Fathers who some would like to forget(?!)) who made the United States an inspiration to all lovers of freedom.

Feeling How God Feels

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20)  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20) by Artemisia Gentileschi  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

I’m not God, but I play one in my novels. It’s no secret that my books are about flawed people who eventually get their acts together (as I’m an optimist). I think about Calvin’s idea of God choosing who to save. I’ve always hated this idea, but as a writer I find a weird parallel. Almost as soon as I think up a character I know if I’m going to save him or not. I’m not sure if it’s a decision on my part or just a sense, a knowing, that this character will move in the direction of redemption or in the opposite direction. All of my characters are jerks, wimps and selfish asses–so basically human. I love them. I create them. I fret over how they will get to where they need to go to be redeemed (I never know until I join them on the journey).

I fret over the other guys, too. The characters who seem bent on spiritual blindness, who do good things sometimes but for terrible reasons, who suffer abuse and have great excuses for being bad–but choose to stay bad. I root for these people, I do mental gymnastics to turn them around. I want them to change direction, but I’ve never been able to convince them of anything. Never once have I been surprised. I know from the beginning and it’s a sad thing.

I wonder if God is all powerful then why can’t he just change people. On a tiny scale I experiment with the same notion, but the resistance from the character is so strong and my coddling and begging make for a stilted story, an unreal outcome.

My untrained and insignificant brain knows more intelligent thinkers have better answers and impressive theories.

The past is my playground because fate and freewill matter little when looking back. Novel writing forces one to live in the present with predestination standing there at the finish line.

 

 

 

Reasons I’m Still Not Writing

Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .
Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .

When I wake up to this I tend to linger a little longer in the yard. Even the turkeys spend more time on their “deck.”

They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.
They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.

Before it gets too hot and guests arrive I pickle and can beets (my sister loves them so I grow and preserve them for her visits).

Pickled beets are pretty, don't you think?
Pickled beets are pretty, don’t you think?

The guests arrive and want to do farmy things. I’m all for help finding potatoes with my nieces.

The girls meet Clare, the crippled chicken and fall in love with her.

farm2 014

They love riding on the back of the truck,too.

farm2 076

We decided to get a few lambs and the day comes to pick them up. Goats don’t pee when in minivans, but sheep do. A lesson learned. Does anyone know a good way to get the smell of sheep urine out of carpeting?

Lila, Tyra and Becky lambs.
Lila, Tyra and Becky.

We also build a house for our new ram, Smash Williams. So while I’d like to say I write no matter what, every day without fail I really can’t. The sun sets and another Upstate New York evening enthralls me and my visitors.

075

We sit in the yard. Buck Crenshaw and his world wait for me to return, but for now I just enjoy reality.

Every Character Has an Idol

Every character has an idol–morphine, romance, money. My books are about idolatry. My life is about it too.  Idols are interesting and different and not usually little sculptures made of wood. They’re insidious and lurk in the shadows of our consciousness.

Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.
Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.

Here’s the list of idols I’ve worshiped over the years: Perfection, thinness, my children’s success, my husband’s perfection, teaching success, 100% non-toxic food and at the moment a “successful” writing career.

Maybe you worship youth and beauty?
Maybe you worship youth and beauty?

How do I know these are idols and not just good old fun passions? It’s easy because at some point they fail. They don’t do that thing I expect of them. They actually have no power to bring lasting satisfaction or joy. Have you ever noticed how short the time is between a good review and worrying about the next good review? Have you noticed that after a long day of shelling organic almonds to make the perfect almond milk for the tofu dinner your family will hate robs you of the joy of even having a family? Has it bothered you to find out that after all those years eating soy that it’s the most pesticide ridden crop in the US?

Are you a slave to your art?
Are you a slave to your art?

Here’s some of my characters’ idols: morphine, family, approval, money and beauty. Nothing wrong with that list of things. I love money, but it’s one of the few idols I don’t have. I’ve learned to live with it and without it. But take away my writing! Watch me turn ugly. Writing is great. The excitement, the passion and even the fear in it brings me real happiness–until I let it become my idol.

Instead of having fun writing about people stumbling towards something higher I fret over not getting enough time with my idol. I feel extremely pissed when someone I haven’t seen in ages wants to have a chat. I stay up all night designing covers for a book, but have no time for anyone else. I snap at people, I annoy them with my despair, I impatiently wait for them to get done talking so I can relate their words to my writing. I turn inward (it’s very dark in there, by the way).

Do your passions eat you alive?
Do your passions eat you alive?

As David Foster Wallace once said (and boy, did people get pissed) everyone worships something. What do you worship? Does it give you what you need? Just curious.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” David Foster Wallace

Painter Kenyon Cox

ob_9edbbc_kenyon-cox-an-eclogue

Cox, adamantly loyal to the preservation of the “older methods”, set himself in opposition to modern styles. In his 1917 book Concerning Painting: Considerations Theoretical and Historical, Cox restated his earlier feelings about the “Two Ways of Painting” saying:

For at least fourteen thousand years, then, from the time of the cavemen to our own day, painting has been an imitative art, and it seems likely that it will continue to be so. That it should, within a few years, entirely reverse its current, and should flow in the opposite direction for thousands of years to come seems highly improbable, not to say incredible. Yet we are gravely told that it is about to do this; that, at the hands of its representative element, reached its final and definite form, and that no further changes are possible. Henceforth, as long as men live in the world they are to be satisfied with a non-representative art — an art fundamentally different from that which they have known and practiced and enjoyed.[8]

Kenyon Cox, Portrait of Louise Howland King Cox, 1892. Kenyon Cox wrote his mother, "Long before I felt the thrill of love, I knew that she would make the best wife in the world for me if I should love her . . . When love came to add to the friendship and confidence, I felt safe and so we mean to marry as soon as we can." Wikipedia
Kenyon Cox, Portrait of Louise Howland King Cox, 1892. Kenyon Cox wrote his mother, “Long before I felt the thrill of love, I knew that she would make the best wife in the world for me if I should love her . . . When love came to add to the friendship and confidence, I felt safe and so we mean to marry as soon as we can.” Wikipedia

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.
Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.

Finding Your Fictional Characters in the Real World

Smile for the camera, Buck.
Smile for the camera, Buck.

Here’s my muse Buck Crenshaw minus his evil twin Fred. Not sure why his overbearing mother allowed a photo of Buck on his own. It would have been better for everyone if she had separated the twins more often. Together they tortured chickens, shook down weaker school mates for cash and taught William Weldon how to spell every word wrong for the town spelling bee.

Yes, Buck’s no angel. Note the sneer on his well-fed and handsome young face. He’s worse than his brother for being a follower of badness instead of being the leader, but can you blame him? His father is distant and his mother neglects him–allowing him to wander into the ocean as soon as he can toddle towards the waves. Fred takes guardianship of his twin with a mix of superiority and resentment in return for his brother’s willing accompaniment in all schemes and mischief.

I already knew what Buck would look like as a young adult, but I found this gem recently. How is it that the universe delivers the photographs of my fictional characters whenever I need them? God works in weird ways indeed–even out of the back of someone’s pick-up truck at a rummage sale.