The Beautiful Boy

Golden boy by steven powell on FlickrIt’s barely even summer and already, in our house it is the Summer of the Guys.

Our son is thirteen now, and in the last few months, the world has opened to him: he and his two best neighborhood friends start planning the day almost as soon as it has started.

Freed to stay at home alone while his younger sister is at camp, he can ride his bike to tennis clinic at the community pool, then pedal back to join the guys for an afternoon of critical dissection of the late 1990s/early 2000s television canon: Frasier, The Office, Everybody Loves Raymond. (Yes, there’s a parent around.)

They flop across floors and sofas, legs sunburned and mosquito-bitten, then turn on a dime, deciding to head down to the neighborhood creek for a hike or off on a bike ride up the steep hill where our troubled local hospital looms, underfunded and un-reimbursed, its helicopter pad beacons flashing white, red, and green.

“He neither toils nor spins,” I once heard tell of a Mississippi Delta lady’s quip about her son, and I look at these boys and I often recall that anecdote. I study them with an almost anthropological interest, and it strikes me that masculinity is something precious and we do not treasure it enough. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Fawn”

Narrative poetry has its special challenge: how does it differentiate itself from prose? David Mason’s story of his family’s relation to a dying fawn does this in several ways. First there’s the iambic pentameter beat carrying us along. Then wordplay, beginning with the opening line: “The vigil and the vigilance of love.” There’s the internal rhyming of cracked… black… back in the description of the dying fawn on the kids’ garage floor: “And there, quick-breathing on the cracked concrete, / a wounded fawn’s black eyes looked back at us.” There’s the alliterative “b”s in “Our father brought a blanket from the house, / a baby bottle filled with milk…” There’s the return, toward the poem’s end of “The vigil and the vigilance,” encapsulating the meaning for the poet of this childhood incident. There’s the condensed account, in the poem’s two penultimate stanzas, of the family’s later falling apart, captured in the brief images of his parents separating as “desert and woods.”  Finally, there’s the pensive philosophy of the final verse: years as “a winnowing of lives”; the remembered togetherness of feeling, around the dying fawn, “the silence intervene like weather.” All in all, “The Fawn” is a poem I treasure as a narrative reflection on the poignancy of life itself.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Preaching the End of the World

For my husband, Brian Jarboe

I learned the news that guitarist Chris Cornell’s death had been declared a suicide on Thursday, May 18—which also happened to be the fourth day in a row I had not managed to get over to the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant prescription.

Which meant that I had not taken my medicine for at least four, maybe five, days. I felt vaguely apprehensive about the prospect, for sure, but I’m not a major sufferer and the dosage is low (Sertraline, 50 mg).

In fact, I was amazed at how relatively “normal” I felt, after all. It was a busy week at work with some scary tasks I had to accomplish, amid the usual hours of driving in traffic. I found myself taken over by a rush of passionate energy, in which every word, every moment, everything I had to do, seemed as though it were falling into place, as orderly and infinite as tiles in an Arabic mosaic.

You’ve probably already figured it out, but I was just a wee bit hypomanic.

When I heard the news report—mere hours after Cornell had been found dead in his Detroit hotel room—I was threading my way through D.C. streets in my ragged Volvo on the way to my eight-year-old daughter’s piano recital.

And when I was finally there, sitting in a hot basement stuffed full of parents, and a girl, maybe ten, began singing and playing along to “Burn” from Hamilton, tears started running uncontrollably down my face, and I realized my folly, the delusion I’d had of my own invincible efficiency. [Read more…]

The Landscape of Grief

a purple tinted image of a little island in a lake surrounded by deep green, hilly land on the edges. the image is very foggy, hazy, looks wet. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I drag my three children outside for a walk. They are too young to understand how desperately I need to take advantage of the warm weather even if it’s a landscape of dormant fields, melting mud, brittle gray plants that line the bridge and sides of the road, a bright red barn against yellowed grass.

Lest I get too excited about the lack of snow and cold, my husband reminds me that this unseasonably pleasant winter in the Midwest is the result of global warming. I guess we both have our ways of grieving.

This is our first day back in Illinois after spending a week in Texas to grieve the loss of my father. We’ve eaten too much or too little depending on our body’s responses to stress. We’ve laid flowers on his coffin and wept over him in a gravesite service that he might’ve hated, but was one that his daughters and wife needed. Then we mourned him at a church memorial service that he planned before his death, writing his own obituary and the opening remarks he asked my husband to read, ones that unapologetically deflected attention away from himself.

But we three daughters inserted ourselves into his plan, a plan that didn’t necessarily include our grief. In this midst of his intellectual, cerebral, worshipful funeral, we spoke of him in ways that might’ve touched him but also might’ve confused him.

In his effort to plan his truly humble memorial, he didn’t sidestep our grief to be unkind; I’m sure he knew we’d miss him terribly. Maybe he thought that if he could deflect attention away from himself, we wouldn’t be so sad. But what he wouldn’t have guessed, or what might’ve annoyed him, was that most people that came to honor him wanted more of him. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “In Tandem”

a blurry shot of a rim of the top of tree branches on the bottom of the image, with a giant white sun sending rays out from the center of a black sky, rimmed with a halo of light.Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]