A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

Of Time, Thomas Wolfe & Me

[The Thomas Wolfe House, Asheville, NC. Photo is mine]

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas,”…

You, my readers, have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that quote in a blog or short story. Now, I sit in the 9th floor room of the Marriott Renaissance in Asheville, North Carolina. Just steps away from the hotel front door is Thomas Wolfe’s House. I can feel his presence. The quote puts into clarity the feelings I’ve always had about everyone’s shared history and the unbroken continuity of human relationships. I must be careful. I must be wary. Something I say or do, however small, will set in motion a chain of events that may not be apparent for a hundred centuries.

I grew up in Owego, New York, a small town in the south-central part of New York State. I am not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that that is not my home anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve moved away. But something deep inside me tugs away and whispers in my ear: “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

The spare, nearly naked choice of words…the sentiment…I’ve felt this too.

Many years ago Bob Dylan wrote these words:

“…she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul…”

–“Tangled Up in Blue”

That’s the way the writing of Thomas Wolfe strikes me. The man knows me. He understands me. He has seen into my heart and he writes words that are usually just out of the touch of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue or just behind my eyes, or only in my dreams…on the rare midnight hours when I do dream. Dylan, of course, has the same effect. But this post is not about Bob. It’s about how Wolfe’s books reflect my take on life. The titles of his most popular novels are ones I would have chosen.

-Of Time And The River

-You Can’t Go Home Again

-Look Homeword, Angel

[The Angel. The inspiration for Wolfe. Now located on a private plot (not Wolfe’s) in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC. Source: Photo is mine]

I’ve read a fair number of books on the craft of writing and I’ve learned how the story arc is supposed to play out in fiction. The secret to almost all stories is the “Hero’s Journey”. Most, if not all, great tales use the common archetype: The protagonist sets out on a journey, he/she must overcome challenges (conflict)…the ultimate goal? To Go Home. Everyone wants to go home.

[Cover of a new edition. Source: Google search]

Examples abound: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, Odysseus wants to return to Penelope in Ithaca and most of the characters in Game of Thrones want to go home, wherever that is. For many years, Owego, NY, was that lodestone. And to some extent, it still is. I was happy growing up in that small river town. The cemetery on the hill. The river. The backyards. The children attending St. Patrick’s playing in the school yard. Standing on the Court Street Bridge and looking down at the Susquehanna River ice floes crash against the abutments. The autumn leaves that covered the Bluestone sidewalks. The smell of the burning leaves, back in the day. The snow piles. The smell of newly mown lawns.

It’s been said many times: “You can’t go home again”. In my late middle age years I went home again, to live. It was an act born of necessity. But, I found the adage true. You really can’t go home again.

But the urge surfaces every so often, when I’m not looking, when I’m not listening. The urge to go home.

In the end, though, where is home for me? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the root cause of my restlessness…and my loneliness.