I saw a man sitting in Tampa’s bustling shopping mall known as the International Plaza. He had a book at his side called Higher Consciousness. He was asleep.
I am living in a pink place. It’s made of tin and vinyl. The palms out front have nasty little needles under the graceful tropical postcard billow of drooping fronds. There are minuscule ants in the bathroom. Could larger ones, perhaps enormous ones, be far away?
I am startled when I see that Nikolai Gogol, a ghost, and a thin man have wandered in through the Florida room to console me, knowing I am disoriented by the 94-degree October heat and feeling lost. Last time I met Gogol, I was reading “The Overcoat.” Too bad I never finished it. (Hell, it’s short! What’s my problem? )For a moment I’m thinking I’m having a dream, or that Gogol is a pop-up and I need to delete him. I laugh when I tell him that and I apologize. He just laughs, too, one of those Russian laughs. His ghost has an enormous moustache but doesn’t have much to say.
“Come away with us,” Gogol say to me in Russian and I find out the thin man is his interpreter. He translates for me. He has a nice voice. “We’re heading towards the Obukhov Bridge,” Gogol says through the thin man.
“Stay a while, please,” I say. “You and the ghost and you, too,” I say, pointing to the interpreter. (He is so very thin, and so pale. I’m hope he’s using sunscreen. I’m thinking to myself: I don’t like it here and maybe I should go away with these folks. But it’s almost Halloween, I’m new in this mobile home park and there will be kids coming Trick-or-Treating and I don’t want to disappoint them. I could have the ghost hand them their little Snickers bars. (I don’t know if the ghost speaks English. The interpreter could handle that, in case the kids want to chat. I mean, how often to they get to see a real ghost with a huge moustache? The moms and dads would be impressed, too. They’d say, ‘there’s a really neat guy in Lot 46 who’s got a Russian ghost staying with him. With a big moustache, no less.’)
While I’m thinking all this, there’s a knock at the back door to the little back yard. I open it and it’s Scott Fitzgerald, looking very hot in a very nice gaberdine jacket. He’s loosened his tie a bit. I’m wondering, did he jump the fence? Is he pulling some kind of Gatsby on me? If so, that’s fine, that’s totally okay and very amusing. He sits down in the parlor next to Gogol and the ghost. I get the sense they’ve met before, somewhere. Maybe in some library, I’m thinking. Gogol introduces Scott to the ghost. Scott extends his hand, then everybody laughs, including me. Ever shake hands with a ghost? (This may be that day for me.)
Scott is fanning himself, though I’ve turned the overhead fan on. “So we beat on,” he says with a sigh, sort of out of nowhere, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I appreciate him saying that. What a nice thought! The day is hot. A torrid, sultry fall day that in another colder clime tilting toward winter would be called Indian Summer. That’s where I want to be — sort of like where these folks are from, or where Scott is from — Minnesota. Or New England, where I’m from. Cold country, though not as cold as Russia. Here, it’s just another day in Paradise Island or Island in the Sun or whatever they call this place. And it’s a hot one, too. I like the idea of going to Obukov Bridge, or of being in a boat with Scott, both of us just deciding not to row against the current; just letting ourselves go backwards — into the past. And I’m thinking I’m going to like the past much better than the present.
So, I’m happy with this little assemblage that’s come to see me and cheer me up after my terrible afternoon in traffic, searching for a Publix Supermarket and wheeling up and down the aisles looking for bread crumbs and grated cheese.
“I hope you’ll all stay for dinner,” I say. “I’m having fried chicken. Then, if you like, we can go down to the pool. The women are playing pinochle later on. Any of you play pinochle?” (I hope they can’t tell I’m losing my mind. It may already be gone. )
With that, they all politely declined, and say they’ve got to be going. I shake every hand, including the ghost’s and the four of them depart through the Florida room, past the palms and out to the rows of tin houses, probably headed for Obukhov Bridge. I want to be polite and shout out if any of them needs the bathroom — until I remember the ants. I think I saw a roach in there, too.
I want to go with them, actually. I’m just not a Florida person after all. It’s blindingly sunny out there from a bright sub-tropical sun and there are mountainous Florida clouds overhead. But I watch as the Gogol/Fitzgerald party is abruptly swallowed up in a sudden darkness when they’re barely twenty yards down Caribbean Way. Poof!
So, I say to myself, I guess I’ll shore this fragment against my ruins. That’s a little something I learned to do reading “The Waste Land.” Shore little bits and pieces — old fragments — against my broken up old ruins. And I’m realizing why April IS the cruelest month — and here I am where it’s always April, except when it’s July, like today.
Then, feeling pretty alone without Gogol and Scott and the gang, I just decide to be grateful and recite a little Shakespeare to myself and pretend it came from my just-departed guests:
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.
That’s from All’s Well That Ends Well. Yet another fragment to shore against my ruins.
Shantith. Shantith. Shantith
How’s that for ending well?
Unfortunately, I don’t have my copy of that famous “Greeting.” And, I believe, it was, for some reason, “greeting,” not “greetings.” Was that some bureaucratic effort that was allowed to stand for generations. I’m talking about my draft notice. And if I don’t miss my guess, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the day I reported for the draft at the Selective Service Office at the corner of Byrd Street and Columbia Road in the old Dorchester Municipal Building, where there was a basketball court upstairs and I forget what else in that grim edifice, which still stands today.
I need to get in touch with Larry Donahue today, and the day is already well advanced. He has, in the past, reminded me of this day. Larry and I met after so very many years when I was covering Ted Kennedy’s funeral and he was in the long line of mourners out at the library at Columbia Point. We’d arrived the same day at the draft office, along with some other draftees. We’d gone to the sprawling old Boston Army Base on the waterfront, been sworn in, boarded a bus for Fort Dix, rode through the night, wound up in different platoons of the same basic training company, both been sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia for Military Police training ( not our choice, but a blessing, considering many draftees wound up in the Infantry — then in Vietnam, a war that was still raging.
Then Larry and I were both assigned to the ASA company on Kangwha Island, Korea, came back on the same plane after fourteen months and both got off the bus in Seattle, civilians again. I would see him twice out at UMass where he was a student thereafter, living with his wife. Then, never again until the Kennedy wake.
I have many memories — many bad, some good — of the basic training experience that commenced fifty years ago. And I probably wondered if I would live fifty years to tell of it. Well, here I am. Grateful. Other than Larry, I’m in touch with only a few other veterans of that period. I think I’ll try to reach out to them. It feels as if I should be marking this occasion — but, then, I’m marking it here, in my 19 Cent Notebook which, so far as I can tell, no one reads.
Oh, well. Thank you, God, for letting me live all these years. May I cease making a mess of things and be free and healthy and maybe even happy for what remains for me.
I will ignore all the news, political and social, as I sit quietly on this Friday morning (10/25/19) writing in my 19 Cent Notebook in my corner of my tin house in Lot 46 in Largo, Florida. News is noise, especially when it blasts into every corner from the flat-screened amplifier that is my Panasonic TV. It is silent now; just a big black tabula rasa. I might turn it on for the World Series tonight.
I browse in my personal library — half of which I purged, half saved — and come upon that wonderful and renowned Harvard child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles and his Harvard Diary. He is still, so far as I know, living and hopefully writing among us here on earth. I should write him a fan letter. I should do it quickly, because he was born in 1929, which means he’s 90. Dear God, he might feel ready to go Home. Or maybe, God knows, he still has work to do.
I’ll do some of his work for him this morning by propagating some of his thoughts about a writer we both admire. That would be another doctor-turned award-winning novelist and Catholic convert: Walker Percy who went home to God in the spring of 1990. Percy — Doctor Percy, we’ll call him just this one time, for he prescribed wonderful remedies through his writing — was Louisiana-born and chose to remain there unpretentiously and obscurely all his life, specifically in the city (or town) of Covington, which he called, “the perfect non-place for me.”
In Dr. Coles book, Walker Percy: An American Search, he writes that Percy “saw the emptiness, the shallowness abroad in the land; he saw the ‘quiet desperation,’ if not the noisy despair. He saw the confusion, covered by hustle or bustle or faddish commitments, one after the other. He pronounced himself lost, said that to acknowledge so was at least a first, and thoroughly necessary, step. Those who are lost and don’t know it are in even greater danger. And, like anyone lost, he was not only seeking a way back (seeking to find himself), but he was also upset, anxious, angry. ”
Dr. Coles notes that the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was among Percy’s intellectual forebears. The books I “purged” before my recent move included my paperback copy of Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award. I’d already read it more than once, beginning in high school, puzzling each time, admittedly, over its more intellectual content, being as I was — and always will be — a lightweight reader of some heavyweight scribes. The novel’s translated epigraph comes from Kierkegaard’s book, Sickness Unto Death. I repeat it here: The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.
In other words, as Coles gathers from Percy, we often go to the multiplex or mall or otherwise busily or amusingly occupy ourselves, unaware that we are just distracting ourselves from the reality of our faithless emptiness, selfishness and hopelessness.
At this point I must note — making an evangelizing “plug” for my cradle faith and the faith of my spiritual forebears — that Percy, sometime after tuberculosis forced him out of his medical vocation and before becoming a writer, became, as I noted, a Catholic. (He’d been raised, I believe, a rock-ribbed Presbyterian.) And while he was always clearly an intellectual, it was the quiet witness and example of a Catholic college roommate that began his journey into the Church — that and, of course, grace.
In an essay entitled, “Why Are You A Catholic?”, Percy gives many intellectual reasons for the choice. But, he adds that, when the question was put to him more or less directly, he usually replied, “what else is there?” That must have come as a jolt to his interlocutors, inciting them to laugh dismissively and walk away, or ponder the notion that something so seemingly paltry as religion might offer propositions even a man with Percy’s great mind could find persuasive.
So how does a writer who repeatedly found himself diagnosing the world’s and his own despair square that experience with the tenets of something so easily caricatured and dismissed (in Percy’s words) as “red candles and beads and priest in a box”?
Well, here’s some of what he had to say about that:
…people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.
It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos, which itself is understandable by natural science — this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a lost of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which , in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.
As I mentioned, Percy died in 1990. I submit that the last twenty years have more than confirmed his diagnosis. We have seen a revolt even against biology, with souls whose sense of dislocation has driven them to try to climb out of their own skins and into another gender. (I guess I’m lucky my sense of dislocation has only prompted me to change geographic states, for better or worse; it is the “geographic cure” a late, lamented spiritual mentor warned me against as a teenager.) As evidence of our rage — political and social — just go to the Twittersphere. Sentimental thinking, meanwhile, infects even the most harsh and violent cinematic and literary modern narratives and social movements, giving evidence of a universe governed by feelings and emotions, not to mention a child’s willful need to have what it wants when it wants it. Dr. Coles, the compassionate child psychologist, author of Children in Crisis, has certainly seen the recalcitrant child in all of us.
In his 1982 essay, “The Psychiatric Stations of the Cross,” Coles tells of a young medical student dying of cancer, visited by a Catholic priest, who instead of speaking to the patient of gospel truths, commenced a relentless psychological inquiry, asking how the patient was “feeling” and how were his “spirits”? How was he “managing?” (Herein, find evidence that even alleged “physicians of the soul,” including generations of poorly-formed Catholic priests, have contributed to our malaise.) Coles, who visited the patient/doctor after the priest, found him in a rage. He’d wanted to the priest to talk to him about Heaven, Hell and Redemption.
Coles acknowledges the priest was likely just being discreet and well-meaning. ( I can’t find it in my heart to be too tough on him.) But once upon a time ( in those lost generations of faith over which Walker Percy performed a funeral oration), an evangelical fervor and fire in the priest’s soul would have overridden discretion and his need to recite only some “psychological” Stations of the Cross. Especially if the priest knew the patient was Catholic, or, at least Christian, as was this patient. Even non-believers might want to hear more than psychological banalities at the hour of their deaths. How, asks Coles — as, I believe, Walker Percy would ask — did psychiatry gain so much moral authority, even among the clergy?
The priest was about to leave the dying medical student’s bedside when the student asked him at least to read to him from The Lord’s Book. Obligingly, the doctor opened the Bible (let’s hope he had it with him) and read from the page that happened to be there: Psalm 69.
And there is the Good News, in which Coles found an act of grace, as would Walker Percy had he known of the incident. For Psalm 69 reads, “Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deprivation, where the flood overflow me.”
Let’s meditate on that, along with Dr. Robert Coles whom I pray is still with us at this hour just as faith tells me Walker Percy is sharing the moment with us and with his God, as I finish here on this Good Friday Out of Season — in this autumn of the world’s unending anguish.
I am here by choice. I am here by mistake. I am here, not for good. I am here. I am here, as I have been here many, many times before.
Sun and October Florida shadows come in through the blinds. This has been home before. I am here.
There is still a faint smudge of soy sauce on it, the tiny strip of paper that bore my fortune, formerly nestled in the shell of one of those barely edible cookies with the cardboard texture. I don’t recall the date I got it, but it would have been some time late in the summer of 1979. I’d finished my meal at Yung & Yees on Church Street in the heart of Harvard Square, after which I cracked open one of those coiled-up wafer that arrives unfailingly with the bill — an enduring novelty of Chinese eateries.
Ah, The fortune cookie! Mine read: YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.
I’m about to tell you why that little missive from out of Y & Y’s kitchen aligned so coincidentally with one of my life’s major changes. It made for a remarkably poignant moment for this otherwise thoroughly orthodox non-believer in any kind of fortune-telling.
Surely you’ve cracked open a few fortune cookies of your own; been bemused by the content. Those “fortunes,” for generations now, have been bland aphorism or trite faux-Confucian Words of Wisdom ( i.e. “a labor of love is a labor indeed”). I got one not long ago that was a variation on the philosopher Descartes’s famous nostrum, “cogito, ergo sum.” Reading like a translation from the Chinese, it said, “I think and that is all that I am.” Who knew the poisonous legacy of Age of Enlightenment would turn up in fortune cookies?
It’s occurred to me that mass producers of fortune cookies took the measure of our litigious, post-religious age of fragile psyches and rampant superstition. They decided against dispensing even seemingly harmless life forecasts. The better to avoid lawsuits by troubled souls who take their fortunes far too seriously, e.g., “you will soon find true love and happiness.” The disappointed-in-love might do something truly UNfortunate to themselves or others, God help us. I’d wager a few palm-readers or mediums have been hauled into court or faced death threats.
Of course, fortune cookies in those Chinese emporia go with the beaded curtains and plastic kitsch. Crack it open, read the fortune, smile, eat the fragments (maybe) and leave the fortune for the busboy.
I forget whether it was lunch or dinner for me that day at Yung & Yee’s. I had things on my mind. I was 32, unattached and holding a Boston University graduate degree in Broadcast Journalism. I was at the end of a memorable, if unremunerative career as a newspaper reporter. I’d been five years in a rent-controlled studio apartment north of The Square and was due for a rent increase. I’d been waiting for word on my effort to secure a television job — it would be my first commercial television job — in Florida. I knew Florida only from postcards, supermarket citrus product and those long-ago bus advertisements inviting us to ‘come on down.’ And, indeed, I’d ‘gone on down’ for the first time the previous May to visit a former Cambridge roommate. I’d been enchanted by the florid, sub-tropical American life among gentle Atlantic breezes along Biscayne Bay, the lively, trendy neighborhoods of Coconut Grove and the colorful Cuba-celebrating streets of Little Havana. A Miami television reporter was not immediately within reach for a beginner in TV news. I’d have to work first in a smaller TV market. So I’d gone looking for work during that short stay and reached out to people at the CBS-affiliate with the whimsical call letters WINK-TV across the state in Fort Myers. I’d been told to stop by for an interview. Accordingly, I rented a little Chevrolet compact, driven west across the wild, watery “river of grass” known as the Everglades and met with an avuncular and endearing retired Pittsburgh sportscaster named Tom Bender (Lord rest his soul). He was then the acting news director at WINK. I’d shown him my video resume reel and gotten a favorable reaction. He gave me hope of possible employment. So I was waiting for word….
I was still waiting on that summer day in ’79 when I cracked open my fortune cookie. There it was: YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.
Days later, word came: I’d been hired by WINK on Florida’s west coast, aka, A LAND OF SUNSHINE. My commercial TV career began there in stark humidity and some sunshine. It was the culmination of a drive south pulling a Uhaul trailer with my non-air conditioned ’75 Dodge Dart. I was stalled briefly at a motel in Savannah by Hurricane David, a relatively minor storm that gave me a chance to ponder the coming changes in my life. My first day on the job at WINK was September 10, 1979. Florida was a bit of culture shock. I’d half-expected that.
Much has transpired in my life, many reversals of fortune and some blessings — best among them, a son — since that first time in The Land of Sunshine. I’d work there again — twice at WTSP-TV in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay’s 10, as they are known.
And now, in semi-retirement, here’s the unsettling and mysterious and surprising part: I’m back to Florida — for the third time, lock, stock and barrel — for financial and other personal or ultimately, and frankly, uncertain reasons, having surrendered a beautiful townhouse in Lancaster, MA that I miss terribly, along with life in Central Mass where I was in fairly easy reach of my old Boston and vicinity stomping grounds for wakes (sadly) and for impromptu reunions with childhood friends from Dorchester. Not that there aren’t many Boston natives and old friends here in Florida. Some days it seems the State House golden dome is right above the palm trees. But there were all those new friends from the past two decades in Clinton and Lancaster, MA, and the guys on early Saturday mornings at Lou’s Diner…. And I’m living, at the moment, in a mobile home in central, hot, swarming Pinellas County. The mobile home is — pink.
No, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here this time. I suppose it’s a long story, as if this story isn’t already long enough. Ultimately, I think I’ll be back in the cold and sleet and high prices and fraught New England politics — for a final chapter. For now, I’m back in the standardized, sun-baked, palm tree – accented land of six-lane traffic. Oh, yes, there’s far more here than that, and much that is wonderful and beautiful, most especially including old friends and colleagues from my old Florida days. And the Gulf beaches.
But some wild restlessness, some outsized fear of dwindling funds probably drove me here this time. What retiree hasn’t been battered about by such fears? That’s part of it, anyway. As I said, it’s all rather uncertain. Sheer — fearful unrest. And homesickness, so recently after leaving home.
Home is where the garbage is, said the rat. Along with baggage, we acquire a lot of garbage in our lives.
But I spared that little old strip of paper — that fortune — the fate of Yung & Yee’s garbage pale. It’s yellowing under plastic, reminding me that what’s truly elusive in this life is that true Land of Sunshine. I’m still looking….
Friends and Fellow Countrymen (or, Countrypersons)
It is October 17 and two days after the Democratic Debate. I know how many of you feel about Trump. But can you really embrace any of these other people or their ideas? Independent, Democrat, Republican — can any of you give me a good idea why any of these will do, or WHAT they will do that would not set back our economy and obliterate the rights and concerns of social conservatives such as me?
I suppose this should be a tweet, but, God knows, there have been enough tweets already.
And who’s reading anything I write here anyway?
If you’re wondering why very many Christians support Trump, despite his vulgarities, infidelities and evidence of his moral divagation, consider the vexed question of “conscience rights” that, in the mind of those same Christians, have been challenged or trampled on by previous Democratic administrations. Trump has been their defender, judging from his words and actions. (Remember,too, that Christianity, properly understood, is a refugium peccatorum, a refuge of sinners. I’d say Trump qualifies, provided he doesn’t knock over the lamp in the catacomb.)
There’s easy evidence of the great threat to a widely understood concept of religious liberty and conscience rights in our Democracy. — and a fierce ongoing debate over them. Powerful forces, inside and outside some religious circles, take a more liberal view of things like gay rights and abortion. It’s all swirled up in the “culture wars,” which are at heart, religious-cultural wars. This hardly needs stating, but I state it here for the heck of it. Consider the narrowly decided U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting bakers, printers and florists, to name just a few professions.
According to the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, a Catholic nurse in a Vermont emergency room was ordered to assist in an abortion. A Virginia teacher was fired for using the wrong pronoun with a “transgendered” student (the Catholic Church and other religious bodies believe transgenderism is unnatural and harmful to those who seek to alter their sexual identity). A Michigan pharmacists lost his job after refusing to dispense an abortion-inducing drug. Again, according to The League, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and Catholic schools to hire those who identify openly as gay. I confess I haven’t checked an ACLU site to confirm this, but, from my memories as a reporter, I believe it to be the case.
So — look for religious liberty to be a burning issue in any debate between Trump and the ultimate Democratic nominee. And consider the possibility that even many Democrats may be conflicted on this score.
We can be very sure, based on his recent statements, that Beto O’Rourke is not among them. And he is not alone among those who believe religious, and specifically Christian citizens should leave their religious convictions in the pews. Once out in the public square, they must march in the liberal’s parade.
I’m always reminded of that old quip by Ukrainian-American comedian Yakov Smirnoff: that it was perfectly alright to practice your religion in the old Soviet Union, as long as you didn’t disturb the other inmates.
And I am aware of at least one American father who went to jail overnight for wanting to be the gatekeeper of what his child was forced to read at school. This was in Lexington, Mass some years back.
A night in jail isn’t exactly a trip to the gulag. But I’m reminded of the late Chicago Cardinal-Archbishop Francis George’s now famous quote:
“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”
Old reporter’s adage: time will tell.
I write, to be (somewhat) clear and in order not to be (totally) misunderstood, not of Trump, the socialist barbarians challenging him or of any particular brand of politics. Rather I reflect briefly on this Saturday morning ( 10/12/19) of the weekend on which Blessed John Henry Newman will be canonized, upon the barbarism — social, political, moral — that is always with us and within us. This has been prompted by a random re-reading of Baylor University Theology and Literature Professor Ralph C. Wood’s monograph on Flannery O’Connor (Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.)
Wood notes that O’Connor, a Georgia native and Catholic, proffered Christianity — even of the fundamentalist variety — as “a divine remedy for the perennial human malaise.” Europe, and much of the rest of the west, is in the process of weeding Christianity out of its civilization. Professor Wood notes what St. Augustine, in The City of God, had to say about that — that evil corrupts “not chiefly individuals but rather civilizations.” Rome believed its civilization to be eternal. The Visigoths put an end to that notion. But so did Rome’s economic, moral and religious corruption.
G.K. Chesterton (quoted by Wood) believed civilizations dwell alongside barbarism, contrary to our notion that the human species has risen steadily from the primordial mud . (For my part, I’d say American life and all of us who live our American lives are currently stalked by wild, ravenous beasts within and without. But I concede that one American’s barbarism is another’s idea of civilization. You have only to go to the internet or the movies to be convinced of that.)
We’ve relied heretofore on “simple majorities” to protect the received traditions and inherited wisdom that are the vanguard of civilization, Chesterton adding, “the civilization sometimes spreading to absorb the barbarians, sometimes decaying into relative barbarism, and in almost all cases possessing in a more finished form certain ideas and institutions which the barbarians possess in a ruder form.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, first published in 1925 — between the barbarity of WWI and civilization’s horrific relapse into WWII.)
At the moment — or, perhaps, once again in our history — civilization is looking exhausted. I know I’m exhausted, and have no one to blame but myself. How about you?
Meanwhile, what does soon-to-be-canonized Blessed John Henry Newman have to say about this? Volumes! But all I can remember right now is his prayer, “lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. The night is dark, and I am far from home.”
This September day — September 23 — will always be a sad day of remembrance for my family. But before I get to the reason for that, some thoughts about the meaning of any September day….
Near the end of my career — it’s appropriate, given my subject matter here, that it would come near the end — I did a piece about the month of September, its resonances, it’s moods, its bittersweet positioning in our lives as a bridge between seasons. (Now, if you just chanced into this site like an early autumn leaf twirling down randomly in someone’s yard, I should tell you that I was a television reporter in my working life. The “piece” I refer to was a “story” or, in TV new parlance, a “package”. And while it is rare that a news reporter is allowed a fill up a big patch of valuable time with a “package” full of personal ruminations, I was so indulged by my managers, for which I remain grateful.)
For one thing, September has obviously seeped into multiple songwriters’ subconscious, because, as you may have noticed, there have been so many songs written about this month — more, it sometimes seems, than April, May or June whose crocuses and rosebuds have long supported the themes of re-birth, young love and the seasonal charm of Paris. (True, in T.S. Eliot’s “waste land” April is the cruelest month, but that lives on as a jolting and nicely executed act of poetic inversion.)
People sing of Autumn in New York and Autumn in Vermont, when the leaves are gold and beautiful. But in September, while the leaves begin to turn, summer breezes and summer temperatures seem to prolong, confuse and taunt us with a lingering sense of the vacation season just past — even as the flowers whither, the summer clothes and beach chairs get put away and the jackets come out for the first chilly days — and darkness comes earlier and earlier.
Therefore, the songwriter’s mood at the onset of this month, inescapably, might be somber. In my “piece”, speaking of pieces, I rolled in pieces of the familiar September songs — “September in the Rain”, “September Morn”, “September of my Years” as my photographer gathered shots of me wandering meditatively through Boston Common in a trench coat. I hoped for him, on that September day, it would be a happy diversion from a videographer’s usual round of car wrecks, train wrecks, politicians, criminals, criminal politicians, political train wrecks…etc.. The daily junk of every season. I believe he enjoyed the break — especially when I got a bunch of children from Boston Children’s Theater dancing to Earth,Wind & Fire’s “September”, a bouncy bit of musical funk I’ve always liked — conveying, as it does a less lachrymose spirit for the first month of autumn.
The most famous of the September songs is “September Song”. Kurt Weill wrote it and a wonderful Berklee College of Music professor named Jimmy ( who’s last name I will insert here whenever I locate or remember it) sat at the piano and explored the mood-adjusting chord shifts for me, from hope to sadness. The lyrics follow those shifts:
But it’s a long, long while
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September
The lyrics takes us forward. We pause, as does the melody. We look back, we look around….
And the days turn to gold
As they grow few
Pause. Memories, both harsh and tender, rush in.
And so do they rush in for my extended family on this day of September grief:
That’s because my sister Anne died of pancreatic cancer three years ago, September 23, 2016. I got the phone call as I sat waiting in a lawyer’s lobby — waiting to sign papers to buy the townhouse where I sit writing now. It was a September moment — sorrow, not unexpected, at the precise moment I’d found a plateau safe from a torrent of tormented circumstances….
My life had been unsettled for several months following my end-of-2015 retirement. Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, having bid my 17-year workplace goodbye, I’d driven nervously through nights of rain to Florida where the prospect of some sustaining work for extra money awaited me — or so I thought. Extra cash would be necessary, I thought, to make retirement possible. But I sold a mobile home there and drove back when those prospects didn’t pan out. I stayed three months at my friend Diane’s cousin’s house west of Boston, where there was another prospect for free-lance journalism or broadcast work. In Massachusetts, I assumed I’d absolutely have to work to make ends meet. Ultimately I wound up driving back to Florida — to Diane’s son’s little white beach house in the Florida Panhandle. This unexpected retreat became necessary when it was plain we were staying longer in someone else’s house than etiquette and two rambunctious dogs would allow, and when it was also plain work wouldn’t be coming my way any time soon in my home state.
What followed, briefly, was a period of peace and refuge facing the Gulf of Mexico among migrating Monarch butterflies — until a hurricane temporarily forced an evacuation inland to Greater Atlanta and the home of one of Diane’s other sons. When the storm passed, we returned to the beach house, relieved to find it still standing, though the waterfront road was completely gone.
All this while Diane was skillfully working to secure a beautiful townhouse back in Massachusetts, one town over from where I’d lived before retirement. Ultimately, that led to yet another drive north — and that moment sitting in the lawyer’s office, waiting to close on this, my current home — at least for a few more days.
I recall, after that September 23, 2016 closing, walking out into downtown Worcester, Mass. The September day was a mild day of muted sunlight. The air was absolutely still. No breeze, no city noises. It was peaceful. My sister, after a brief but intense illness, had died quietly among her husband and children — back down in Florida. She, too, was at peace. My return to Florida had allowed me to visit her one last time. I last heard her voice over the phone while sitting outside a little store in the Panhandle. She was serene, resigned. She would have been 78 that December….
As they grow few
Now, once again, I’m moving. Don’t ask why. Finances, yes. Sitting surrounded by half-filled boxes, preparing for the movers on Thursday, I am wondering, has a September restlessness nested permanently in my soul? Why am again uprooting myself? Why am I leaving this beautiful place? I’ll pray about that, just as I prayed before making this decision — a decision to return to Florida where the Septembers are intensely humid in my memory ( l lived and worked there a full ten years in my career). But while I was able to do free-lance work here, that work has completely dried up. I was lucky to this point. In Florida, I think I can get by with little or no extra work. I’ll see….
But I know this. I know I’ll be back among old television colleagues and Florida friends and relatives who’ve relocated there — and that finally, I’ll be able to visit my sister’s grave in Sarasota. And visit with my still-grieving brother-in-law.
And these few golden days
I’d spend with you
These golden days I’d spend with you
And that, for now, is my particular September Song.