Beaches and sheet music

I went to the beach with my family this past Sunday, along the Great Lake Ontario. Leaving just as dawn was young and “gold” as Frost my say, my parents and I wound our way up through yawning, rolling fields of wheat, small towns, and scrubby forest. A sleepy fog crept among the trees. Thin clouds filmed the still-blue sky.

Lighting our fire, the lake rolled in and out with a quickened breath that surged beneath the quiet landscape.

By the time my nephews, sister-in-law, and brother came by in frames of car-bundled excitement, the fire was roaring, fed by driftwood and briquettes. Oakley, the middle child, chased the gulls, while Henry, the oldest, joined Charlie, the youngest, at the lake.

“Is this salt water?” one asked.

“No, fresh,” said my brother.

I sort through a box of old sheet music–show-tunes, vaudeville, Chopin, folk–that my great uncle Harry left. Getting his piano, I got the music as well. The piano is a beautiful Steinway & Sons, which Harry picked from a line of pianos over 50 (or is it 60?) years ago. It’s getting old, but the touch is light, fluid, and responsive. And it holds its tonality well. Especially for its age.

Sometimes I play chords, stretching or shrinking them, like one might crinkle or stretch a canvas, listening to the echo, listening to the piano speak. It has a good voice. Mellow. Old. Lingering. I listen to hang in the air like a space of sky.

I wonder what it sounded like as he played. If the resonance changes, like singers who age.

As the day went on, the beach got busy. I love the way beaches are a wash of humanity, all jumbled together. No parking spaces. Just chairs and towels and blue plastic shovels strewn about. Just broad sandy expanse, water, and the dunes that mark the division, laced and piled with fragile plants.

Families form pockets, some an inward-turned island of chairs, others lined up with the ocean like a proscenium in a theater, others forming thin crescents. Others simply stuck and piled like spilled tops.

Helped by their father, my nephews build a castle, relentlessly scratched and dragged at by the water as they fight back with ditches and walls. The current doesn’t roll in or out today. It laps the edge of the walls, seeping now and then into the bailey, like an infiltrating army.

I build levees alongside to help defend the structure.

As we rest, other children use the structures as parking spaces before jetting out into the lake, racing in a flurry of splash and foam.

I sort through the old sheet music, the acid-laced paper frail now. Brittle and old, with the musty mark of attics and old boxes. I don’t need most of it, though I’ve grabbed a few. But still, to hold the sheets, feeling their age and the connection they have to my great uncle, I feel something. Perhaps nostalgia. Perhaps happiness. Perhaps sadness.

I’m not sure if it’s me, or the papers, or the two of us opening up this moment. But something, someone is.

Meanwhile, my father helps “Kevin the Junk Guy” load up Kevin’s rickety, paint-peeling truck with “scrap and crap,” as Kevin once called it. Kevin is mustachioed, with a frizzy wave of gray hair and surprisingly thin legs. He talks in a husky voice, but is excited. He likes metal. And he likes to discuss the odds and ends that pass through his hands, passing though.

My three nephews continue to alternate between lake and sand. Between constructing castles and joining the water in their deconstruction. My brother is a good father. He takes them out, and they toss a Frisbee in wayward angles over the surf.

On the shore, I read Kenneth Burke and people watch. But sometimes, when Oakley wants to, I show him how to build a strong wall. I show him how to get the right texture for the sand–not goopy slop, but not too dry either. We pile, mound, pack, and–now and then–destroy our work.

Stepping back, we look at it.

“It looks like a nose!” yells Oakley.

He makes sneezing sounds and jumps off, into the water. Slowly, the walls crumble with his footwork. But he is happy. And the lake rolls on, breath by breath.

I never met uncle Harry, but I’ve always looked up to him. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1912 and worked as a chemist. But he was also a piano player. Played vaudeville and for the local ice rink, a portrait of Shakespeare and Company atop his piano, or so my dad remembers, pausing on the edge of a room, listening to him practice.

He was a quiet man. Intellectual. A little gawky and lean with glasses and a high forehead. He never married, but didn’t die a bachelor, having finally met someone. The house he lived in was large and stable, yet quiet and practical.

Playing his piano and going to Syracuse University for my PhD this fall, starting orientation tomorrow, I feel the poignant connection holding that paper. A sense of being home. Or at least having a sense of history and the sort of stability that brings.

I brought in a book of sheet music, while Kevin took the rest for his mother.

Oakley decides to destroy our castle, “like the water!” he says. Layering buckets, I (sadly) watch our handiwork dissolve back into the pulp and etchings of an active shore.

I consider St. Augustine and the Trinity. Walking along the beach, contemplating of three beings as one being, he sees a boy trying to fill a hole with nothing but a small pail. That’s absurd, says Augustine, you can’t move the ocean with at bucket! The boy replies, If I can’t do that, then how can you understand God?

Meanwhile, Oakley layers the last bucketful of murky lake water on our crumbled “castle.” Our work finished, we step back.

“Thanks uncle Bretty, I like making castles with you.”

Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

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Starlight and renewal

Sometimes, when I’m tired or lost I look at old writing. It reminds me where I camestars1.jpg from, what has always mattered, and where I ought to go. Today, as I struggled to write a blog post, I sorted through old files and notebooks.

I found this, a reflection from fall of my junior year. It was a hard semester, as I’ve referenced before, but it many ways, it set my foundation. In the midst of that darkness, I found my passions and insecurities. I found my self.

I think this particular reflection captures a lot of that. It also hits at the seed that inspired this entire blog: the fusion of life and philosophy that makes “backyard philosophy.”

I repost it in full below, only edited for grammar. We all need reminders now and then.

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Feeling “at home”

I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, House picturescouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.

I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.

The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

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So another year’s gone by…

David Copperfield and Co. celebrate the New Year
David Copperfield and Co. celebrate the New Year

Two summers ago, my high school friends and I hit the road through New Hampshire, climbing a mountain, going to a theme park, ghost hunting, and staying in sketchy hotels and campsites in the White Mountains.

The state motto for New Hampshire is “Live free or die,” taken from a toast Revolutionary War hero John Stark wrote for the 1809 anniversary to the Battle of Bennington. Poor health prevented his attendance to the anniversary, but his words penned and mailed have endured:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

I saw the words on the roads in front of us, emblazoned on license plates and signs, and they’ve stuck, always on the hazy edge of consciousness. Live free or die. They’ve become my own motto.

I leave this year laden with memories. Despite difficulties, it’s been the best one of my life so far, because it’s the first year when I’ve felt fully alive.

Continue reading “So another year’s gone by…”

Dredging the self

This Monday, I dug up a crate of my old writing from my parent’s cellar. Journals,

Ah yes, my high school self...
Ah yes, my high school self…

poems, old short stories, math notebooks lined with marginal musings. Anything I could find. I fished love letters from my closet and photographs from my mothers’ desk, piling it all up like autumn leaves on my bedroom floor.

For a few days, I dug trough the stack.

OK, so “stack” may be a little exaggerated. But it’s a significant pile. I’m reread it all to revisit those hazy landscapes of my not-too-distant childhood, verifying events and reviving old memories, all in a pointed search of self.

I’m writing a memoir for my Honor’s project. I know I could half-ass most of it. But I’d get nothing from that besides reams of pleasant-sounding pulp. I don’t want that.

I’m after my own self, after all.

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Reflections in an empty cafe

Okay, so the cafe isn’t quite empty. It’s got a few green-shirted workers sweeping the

Cafe La Verna, as pictured on St. Bonaventure’s site.

floor and standing around balancing on their heels. But it’s almost empty.

A gray drizzle shadows the campus outside and a warm fire flickers nearby, giving the illusion of warmth. Most of the students have left for break or are elbow-deep in packing. I’m staying to work and reflect. It’s been a busy few weeks and I need to catch my breath, write my thesis, and sort out my post-graduation life.

A few thoughts swirl in my head. Last fall, I sat in this same cafe for 12 hours. It’s a campus-bound Starbucks with earthy colors and cozy chairs called La Verna, a place where time slips away unnoticed and people pass through like birds in migration. Grounded there for so long, I felt like a rock watching the seasons change.

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Nursing home

The nursing home smelled of stale urine and had the wallpaper of a 1970s mental home, with calm colors and a bland boarder of flowers. An elderly lady clutched a baby doll with blue eyes and a prim smile as she rolled her wheel chair down the hall.  

“The baby’s smiling at you,” my uncle Matt said, pointing to the doll with a quiet chuckle. 

I smiled. Televisions droned in the background, filtering into the hall from open doors and an alarm sounded. 

“What do you think that alarm is?” my dad said. 

“Someone probably trying to get out,” said Matt with the same quiet chuckle. 

My dad nodded. 

A young nurse with blond hair pulled out of the room. Without smiling she said, “All set.”

We walked inside. My grandfather smiled as he saw us enter. He wore a blue woolen cap, khakis, and a striped blue shirt. His face looked like putty molded into a face–sunken cheeks, eyes dazed, mouth loosely hanging–and his body had skin stretched taut over thin bones. He was gray and tired. I shook his hand, a vague clasp that hung in my palm.

“Hey Grampa, nice to see you,” I said.

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