I find myself thinking of a couple lines from Lennon's I Am the Walrus:
"Sitting in an English garden/Waiting for the sun/If the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain." I'm not in England, I’m in the upper US, and I’m not in a garden, I’m on the screened back porch. But the sentiment is the same. I’m wondering if the rain will ever stop on this unseasonably cool morning. Though it’s not really a bad thing. I’m listening to the drumbeat of rain on the roof and the gurgle and tinkle of water finding its way down the rainspouts. A few more ambitious birds call from somewhere in the trees, but most are laying low for now. Raindrops make uncountable concentric circles in a shallow pool of water that will once again be the back patio once the rain stops and the water finds its way through the spacing in the aggregate tiles.
I am appreciating the beauty that the outside can be in almost any context. Everything is so green except where it isn't supposed to be. There are a few spots of color in the lilacs and the few residual flowers (the names of which escape me) in the remnant flower bed left by the owners two transfers back. I understand this house, now modest by modern American middle-class standards, was once a garden showcase; all we found when we assumed ownership were old landscaping timbers and scattered rocks, and the above-mentioned flower beds.
And hostas. Lots of hostas, hardy and green, which I have from time to time transferred around the place so often sometimes I'm tempted to name the place "Casa de Hosta." Tiger lillies too, more perennials that won't die, that seem to thrive on neglect. I've put some of them in edge places where I don't want to mow. And in my rare ambitious moods I’ve also transplanted some ground cover plants around areas where the maple tree roots raise above the ground, so that I can avoid once again damaging a mower blade. That has the added benefit of adding shelter for the rabbits who make this their home.
I’ve put a circle of river rock around the cherry tree near the porch, small rocks of various types and colors, which stand out as individuals once the rainwater washes away the residual dust and gives them a temporary polish. Each of those rocks, shattered by relentless nature and time, washed into riverbeds by countless rains, has its own story to tell, of ancient fires and tumult, forgotten now or kept deep inside as their secrets, rocks gathered and shined by rivers, then mined and marketed by people. Though of course the rocks will long outlast the tree, this house, me, and the people who gathered them, and will no doubt last until nearly the end of time, till they wear down into their absolute constituent parts and vanish into the microcosm that underlies us all. Reminds me of another passage, from the Earth-Song in Emerson’s Hamatreya:
Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.
And on that cheery note I shall end. Unlike the rain, which seems intent on claiming today for its own. Perhaps I shall build a fire and contemplate the insignificance of things. Nah. I’ll do something so-called useful instead.
All of us, I suppose, have mantras intended to capture some concept or truth in a shorthand version. I know I do.
I also, BTW, have a mantra I rarely use and that was given to me long ago, when I took a course in Transcendental Meditation. After several sessions the instructor walked around the room and whispered a supposedly Hindi phrase into one's ear, to be kept forever confidential. I still remember mine, after 40 years, and have never shared it with anyone. Or, better said, I still remember the phrase as it seems now; I don't know its literal meaning and have no idea, and no way of knowing, whether the sounds I recall are those I was given. That's part of the magic of mantras -- we hone and shape them to fit our own understanding, regardless of their original specific words. A friend who went through the same class later became a yoga teacher and devotee of Buddhism. When he meditates now, he uses long-honored phrases of which he knows the meaning and history. But even he has never shared his TM mantra.
But I digress.
"Illegitimi non carborundum" is an especially popular mantra in legal circles, on T-shirts, ties, mugs, etc. Sounds impressive and it's supposedly translated as "don't let the bastards wear you down." It's actually a nonsense phrase of made-up pseudo-Latin, but the underlying message has helped me through some situations, and its truth has often been demonstrated when I temporarily forget it and lose sight of my path. The words needn't make literal sense if the message gets through.
Another one I have recently adopted is "Push! Push!" That phrase appears in my spinning class, when the settings on the bikes are especially difficult and there are still a few seconds left. The instructor usually shouts, "Come on. 30 seconds. Push, Push!" I may have said before that my first experiences in that class caused me to realize I had never before in my life pushed myself to a point at which I am uncomfortable. I and my therapist agreed it was/is a metaphor for my life and my struggles and disappointment. Instead of pushing beyond my comfort zone, I tend to sink back into it.
Only tangentially related, I suppose, are some of the old rock songs that pop into my mind from time to time -- and sometimes appear on the radio with uncanny relevance to the moment -- like Tom Petty's "I won't back down" or the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday: "She just can't be chained/to a life where nothing's gained/but nothing's lost/at such a cost."
I see mantras as signposts through life, mostly tailored to each particular life. I go through the day surrounded by sensory input, ranging from real-life things like that wren scolding in the backyard, the lovebird contentedly perched on my shoulder, the rabbit at the back door, the clear blue sky, to signs, songs, admonitions, billboards, snippets of conversation and, of course, pop-up internet ads; those are the signposts and symbols I pick out from the swirling myriad things that surround me. I have no awareness, obviously, of those of which I am unaware.
I don't suppose all mantras are for the best, and I don't doubt that there are some universal ones, but for the most part I see them as manifestations of myself and individualized signposts. To cite another mantra, "To thine ownself be true/And thou canst be false to another."
Mantras. Pearls of wisdom "honored [unfortunately] more in the breach than the observance."
Found this toward the end of the Field and Stream anthology my father had given me:
[describing the remains of a long-abandoned farmstead]
"Beside the doorstep was a lilac bush, almost as tall as the cottonwoods. He thought of the wife who had set it out, a little shrub then, and the husband who chided her for wasting time on such frivolous things with all the farm work to be done. But the work had come to nothing, and still the lilac bloomed each spring, the one thing that had survived."
-- Corby Ford, "Tinkhamtown."
Two things come to mind. First, the piece excellently captures the ongoing question of what matters. No one knows what the outcomes will be, and of course we have no idea if the farmer found his own value in his farm work, even if it eventually came to nothing.
The second thing that comes to mind has to do with the fact that my father gave me the book in his old age. When he was a young man he moved his family to the big city. We bought a house in what were then the new suburbs, and the tail end of an old windbreak comprised of tall, thin, Chinese Elms ran across the rear of our backyard. Under the largest of them a small lilac bush struggled to survive. Dad dug it up and moved it to the front of the house, where, the next spring, it bloomed, probably for the first time in many years, maybe ever. Dad always liked that bush, for that reason, and the last time I drove by the old home, years later, it still bloomed, outliving him. But I don't think he minded, and I like to think that, at the more spiritual level of things, the bush was grateful to him.
Thinking of that lilac reminds me of another bit of tiny history writ large. In an old farmfield near that same house I found an old farm wagon under a huge cottonwood, surrounded by tall grasses, smaller trees growing through its rusted wheels. That wagon always intrigued me -- I couldn't help thinking that once, years ago, the farmer or a farm hand unhitched the wagon at that spot, perhaps and probably intending to come back for it when it was needed, but it never moved again. A spot of history locked into place. The farmhouse gone, the barn nothing more than a stone foundation, but the wagon sat through the seasons, growing old but staying itself long after the rest of its world had worn away.
Odd what survives, and fascinating what stories they suggest.
Yesterday was graduation day in our university city, and the downtown streets were filled with young folk clad in robes and mortarboards, accompanied by various family and friends in their finest finery. Driving through that mass of specially-clad humanity made me think about uniforms.
I’ve never had much experience wearing an official uniform. Never on an athletic team -- in our pickup football games it was t-shirts, helmets of various color, and, if one were lucky, some sort of shoulder pads. I nearly had the privilege of wearing a military uniform, except for the intervention of one Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War draft was rolling along, in order of birthdates, and my month was coming up. I got my induction letter, and passed my physical, even though I presented them with a letter from my doctor telling them I had a heart murmur. “We didn’t hear it so you don’t have it,” said the draft doctor as he certified me healthy.
Then the aforementioned Tricky Dick decided the draft should be made more random and therefore fair -- he announced a moratorium on inductions pending installation of a lottery system. Then they did the drawings, my birthdate was 316 in a year in which they said they would go no further than 250. So I declared myself eligible, the year passed, and so did my risk of being drafted.
I suppose the closest I got to a uniform was my Cub Scout shirt and kerchief. I kind of liked that, made me feel official somehow, officially recognized and distinguished from the mass of third-grade anonymity.
I don’t think we have many “civilian” uniforms in our modern society. Two that I can think of are the vestments worn by most religious leaders, and the black (or sometimes gray) robes worn by judges. During my life I had the privilege of working with people who wore those uniforms. In both cases, I remember being in the changing room with both types, watching as they donned their designated apparel, chatting conversationally or business-like, and watching them transform from everyday people like me to society-sanctioned moral and religious leaders.
The church guy was our Lutheran minister, and I was both a friend a member of the church board. We sometimes hung out together and our kids were good friends. But the moment he donned the vestments a veil fell between us.
The judges I knew in a more official capacity, because I was judicial clerk for several of them . They said, and they meant, that the pomp of the courtroom was intended to respect the system and the role they played, not them.
A good example of that occurred one judicial day, when I clerked for a federal district court judge and we were involved in long jury trial. The plaintiff’s lawyer was an obnoxious jerk who tended to sneer at the judge or otherwise bait or direct subtle insults his way. Even turned his back once. The judge was a paragon of stone-faced solemnity. Then we took a brief recess.
I followed the judge back into the changing room as he removed the robe. He turned to me. “I should hold that son-of-a-bitch in contempt,” he said. But he didn’t. Instead, after an hour or so, when court was coming back into session, we stood in the changing room as he donned the black robe. The anger and irritation drained from his face, and he went back in as the same calm and imperturbable judge he’d always been.
I’ve always remembered that day and other changing rooms, how they served not only as places to change official attire, but also as points of transition from everyday folk to social symbols. I was privileged to see both humanity and the rising above. None of those people were saints, but all of them took their obligations seriously -- but not themselves.
I've got a book on my shelves that I've kept for years, through at least 4 moves, and I don't think I've ever read it carefully until now. The Best of Field & Stream, no further explanation needed. In the family in which I grew up, my parents had a tradition of giving one book (selected by my father) to each child as a Christmas present, every year, a tradition that continued long after we flew the nest. It was not until now that I realized what a wonderful tradition that was. I looked forward to the book, and they were always inscribed, either with my mother's ornate handwriting ("too beautiful to be legible" my father used to say) or my father's scrawl, which I inherited. Not a complex inscription, just the recipient's name and the year.
The Field & Stream book has no inscription, and I'm not sure why. I have my suspicions. It was the last book my father ever gave me, and I just don't think he bothered, for two reasons. One, he had suffered a stroke awhile before and didn't do things like he used to (though that doesn't explain why mom didn't do it, except that maybe she delegated it to dad -- since he always wrapped the presents she wouldn't know he didn't follow through). The other reason is that maybe the tradition had run its course, Dad didn't get to bookstores much, and it was time to let it go.
I never asked.
I do know that I was vaguely disappointed that he got me that book -- I'd been an avid reader of F&S in my high school years, and during my childhood and adolescence Dad and I did a lot of fishing, and so occasional (and unsuccessful on my part) hunting. But after adolescence came my years of rebellion and rejection of things I'd once accepted and shared with him. And the books he chose often seemed to track my changing values, though I should have paid more attention to the effort he expended. This book seemed so, well, outdated.
He died before the next Christmas, and I kept the book largely for that reason. Two days ago I pulled it out, desperate for something to read, and re-discovered something I'd forgotten -- the magic of good outdoorsy writing, and I relish the memories the book resurrected.
Like so many things, so many times, I wish I'd taken the time to read it much earlier and to thank him sincerely for it, instead of pro forma.
I also have a couple dog-eared old books that Dad had scored from used bookstores and read whenever he wanted something familiar and well-written. He tried to tell me about them, but I only half-listened, I had my own library and my own tastes. I thought. My next project is to read those books, in memory of him, and to hope that somehow, some way, my sincere apologies and sentiments reach him, wherever he is.
I owe him that much.
Separate names with a comma.