Summer Breeze

The chimney sweep’s come and gone, a half-moon shines, the marsh is turning purple and fall is in the air.

Ah, what a difference a day makes. Just another miracle of the life we take for granted, a life governed by nature and wicked, greedy, cookie-cutter men pulling diabolical strings. But why dwell on the obvious and depressing? Let’s keep it happy.

I suspected it pointless to sit here when I did noontime Tuesday to compose my thoughts following a muggy, rainy, thought-provoking romp. I had seen the forecast and knew better weather was on the horizon, a change that would likely alter my perspective. But trust me, somehow I’ll find my way back, a transition to those original thoughts. And besides, what’s a freakin’ day between friends? Bear with me.

So, yeah, here I sit Wednesday morning, having just returned from the same expansive green hayfield visited yesterday at the same time. One difference was that as I rose out of the first shallow dip and climbed the subtlest of slopes to the second double-rutted farm road I daily cross — Chub-Chub racing toward the narrow riverside cornfield carrying high and proud a fat yellow castoff cuke — and there, in the rich verdant distance stood a dozen or so gray geese, harbingers of a season the clear windy air smelt of. Then began my constant gourd games, those of innate curiosity, games I know well by now and become better acquainted with by the day, the week, the month, the year, then off to the grave I guess, not a thing you can do to stop it. My question of the moment was: How long before Lily and Chubby — both out of sight in the tall corn, probably chasing turkey scent they daily hunt so furiously — discovered the tall, still, alert geese I was trying to skirt as they stood cautiously content to let me pass?

My guess was that Chub-Chub would catch wind of them first. He covers much more ground than his 9-year-old mom these days out of sheer youthful enthusiasm and love of untethered freedom in vast acreage — woods here, croplands there, strips of trees, marshy fingers, beaver ponds, a rattling river, and scent scattered about like blithe spirits of the dead. No sooner had that thought passed through my mind and here comes Chubby, identifiable by his distinctive walnut-brown head and an off-center vertical sliver of broken white running down his forehead and nose, headed straight at the flock. Despite being more than 100 yards cross-downwind of the geese, he already had a noseful and was on a hell-bent mission from Satan, one that was not undetected by the skittish geese, who started getting fidgety and ran a bit before finally taking flight, Chubby right on their fanned tails. The birds flew over a hazardous paved road before circling back and Chubby wanted to give chase before I gave him an authoritative whistle to turn back. As he sprinted toward me, I extended my right arm out front like I had just pitched a softball, then pulled it slowly back toward my hip, a signal directing him to a familiar spot between my parted, standing knees. He arrived, stopped on a dime, spun an athletic half-circle and sat for a brief, panting, affectionate petting of his breast bone before sprinting off toward the cornfield. He disappeared and soon exited with Lily, both looking for me, their tails wiggling furiously in unison. Our walk had begun, a joyful bounce in both dogs’ step, mine too, under cool grey skies.

So here I sit, right where I left off Tuesday, sort of. Yeah, sort of. Always sort of. Depending, I suppose, on what I’m reading at the time. Yesterday it was Henry Miller, today Haniel Long, before that Cora Morris, prior who knows? Maybe Thoreau on birds, Joyce railing against the Catholic Church or education, our own Edward Bellamy’s utopian society, and on and on and on. I even have a fresh, unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s “Son’s and Lovers” sitting right here in the bookcase, found it on my weekly run through the Bookmill, a weekly stops. Seems I always find something at that old riverside gristmill, most recently a book I had not heard of in my Indian-spirituality study: “Stories From North American Mythology,” a rare 1924 hardcover published by Boston’s Marshall Jones Company. I paid dearly for it, a good purchase nonetheless, regardless of what my wife thinks. Hopefully someday my grandsons will sell it for three times what I paid, but I do hope they read it first. Really. You can’t beat the Indians’ way of thinking, in my mind. Just me. But let’s not digress. I could get carried away. Back to where it all began: noontime Tuesday, a warm rain falling, wet hair brushed neatly behind my ears after a quick shower following a snappy walk with the dogs around Sunken Meadow — the damp, musky smell overwhelming, a thinking-man’s air, thought-provoking indeed.

The image I couldn’t shake that day was a familiar, white, plastic, four-legged utility sink installed in the laundry room during renovation of my old South Deerfield home some 25 years ago. To that work station I took my messiest washing chores, half-filling the 20-gallon cauldron, squishing out a generous squirt of industrial-strength soap and going right to town on whatever it was I had to scrub, the shiny, brown, speckled linoleum floor underfoot no concern, so easy to clean no matter how splashy I got. As a boy I remember that same space as a dark, dirt-floor shed with a rickety, railing-ed walkway leading back to another worn, dusty but sturdy staircase that took a right turn up to the second-storey shed and the upstairs back door. But let’s not get distracted by distant Pleasant Street memories. That old shed has absolutely nothing to do with where I’m headed. No, just a flashback I decided to share before sketching the salient image that consumed me during that rainy ramble: that of pulling the plug from that utility sink and watching the water swirl rapidly down the drain, appearing to accelerate before concluding with a prolonged, disgusting belch not unlike the sound I make when playfully pronouncing the first syllable of a Hampshire County town first called Cold Spring, where Greenfield’s first minister, Rev. Billings, moved to town from.

The sight of water spiraling down a powerful upside-down cyclone in that old sink came to mind as I approached my parked truck and decided to hurry home and record my thoughts before they disappeared forever down that drain. Yes, it had gotten intense indeed and was, in my opinion anyway, worth capturing during these lean days of local sports activity in Recorder land. I didn’t even want to shower for fear my thoughts would flitter off elsewhere as they often do, especially when making discoveries during provocative reading binges. But I was confident I could recapture most of it. Who knew? Maybe I could even expand upon it once seated in my sacred little cubby of creativity, better still in winter with a toasty fire crackling behind me.

There’s no denying the impetus for my thought train was Henry Miller, that painfully honest and sometimes naughty 20th century American author I’ve been exploring again. Having blown through my first read of “The Books in My Life” and wanting more Miller, I dug out “Black Spring” for a second read in three years and was spellbound in the fourth chapter, A Tailor Shop, when, before 9 a.m., a robust knock on the dining-room door announced the expected chimney-sweep’s arrival. A pleasant young goateed chap with the devil in his eye, I enjoy chatting with him, winding him up, so to speak, a Vermonter to the core. In an hour the kid swept clean the chimney supporting two woodstoves — one upstairs, one down — repaired with a dab of stove cement a loose piece of gasket hanging from inside the downstairs stove’s windowed door, and was on his way to his next job with a $155 check for Friends of the Sun in tow. Oh well, beats the alternative, I guess. We all know the pathetic image: a couple of tall, lonely chimneys protruding like war ruins from a stone-clad rubble pit.

But enough of that, though, back to irascible Miller, an American literary giant few seem to have read. No, not even American intellectuals from the best schools, they focused instead on the likes of Updike and Kingsolver, Kidder and McPhee, McCarthy and you name it, all conventional voices who play by the rules, sell truckloads of books and have not nearly as much to say as Miller. In my mind, it’s not even close. I have read them all and they pale in comparison to Miller, a behemoth in a thin field of truly great American literary artists. I recall reading a Barbara Kingsolver interview a few years back where she claimed her novels were not autobiographical, just playful creations of her imagination. I didn’t believe a word of it, never will and — despite her status as a contributing editor for Orion magazine, which I faithfully read and hold deep reverence for — I have never read another word by her because of this perceived dishonesty. My feelings about her mirror the ones I harbor for a therapist or marriage counselor with whom I once spun off into convivial conversation at a party I attended with my wife. When he asked for my world view and I wandered into existentialism, he looked me square in the eye with a concerned countenance reminiscent of straight, stern classroom pedagogues I grew to know and hate, and said in a condescending manner that, “Existentialism is passé.” Never again did I seek him out for discussion or, when trapped, listen to a word he said. Conversation between us was pointless. He, a therapist or shrink no less, was a waste of time. Oh my! And he gets paid for his advice? Horrors! Oh well, I guess there’s always pills, if that’s the remedy you’re seeking: what I refer to as the impersonal, pharmaceutical solution; better still, the way it is.

I can’t imagine Henry Miller viewing existentialism as passé. No, the man was cut from different cloth, his novels all autobiographical, which he’s not a bit ashamed to admit. In “The Books of My Life,” he claims somewhere that fiction is always closer to reality than fact, which sounds about right to me. Plus it reminds me of something I myself often tell folks who respond to something I’ve written that touches them where they like being touched. I tell them that what they’ve read is only part of the tale, that the best stories can never be told. Well, at least not in the newspaper. Those stories are reserved for “fiction.” Yeah, that kind of fiction. Not Kingsolver’s brand. She makes it all up. Yeah, right!

Which somehow brings me to a dynamic late-night conversation I enjoyed with a European lady a couple of months ago. A German social psychologist teaching at a New York college, she had been through some of my musings in a blog attached to my inn website, recognized me as a political ally, and was anxious to chat, starting with, of all things, my education. She wondered what had soured me so on school. What were my most unpleasant experiences? When I told her I felt confined in the classroom, stifled by rules and regs, suffocated by structure, formula, the beaten path, bored by chalkboard drones who snored at their desks during tests, she totally understood, said the German classroom was much different, that critical thinking was a valued component of her education. In America, she said, standardized testing drives many of the brightest, most dynamic students and critical thinkers to the periphery, where they become intellectual outliers viewed by Boy Scouts and Chamber of Commerce men as eccentric, if not downright weird.

I admitted enrolling in college for the wrong reasons — to play baseball and carouse — went to tell her of flunking out, taking up land-surveying for a year and heading west on a Jack Kerouac journey starting in suburban Chicago and continuing west on a raucous joyride through the Midwest to Wyoming. There we stopped for a memorable weekend before descending to Denver on a Greyhound bus for a six-week Colorado Highway Patrol fundraising gig. Stranded there alone after my friend was fired, I learned more living six weeks in the dregs of Denver’s East Colfax Avenue than I could have learned in any college, I said. Not only that, but I could write a book about the one wild weekend I spent in Rock Springs, Wyo.

Though a card-carrying college professor, she smiled warmly, wasn’t insulted and opined that life is always the best teacher. In fact, she said she’d love to read such a book because, “That’s precisely what I study, you know, social psychology. My brother works on the clinical side. I can’t take it. Too depressing. Some of the best social psychology is found in literature.”

Well, that really sliced open a bulging artery that wanted to squirt blood to the heavens, not by accident, I would surmise. Remember, it’s what she does. So off we raced into dynamic discussion of Hamsun and Kafka and Zola and Nietzsche and Joyce. No, not so much as a mention of Henry Miller, who, though one of them, seems to be always left out. Had I mentioned Miller, though, her likely response would have been a shy, bewildered grin, like, “Who?” But Miller is a master of the psychological literary genre Hamsun is said to have fathered. A New York City man, he has plenty to say, much of it still relevant in bold, black letters, yet his writings were once banned in the English language and remain largely neglected. American students with fancy English and liberal-arts degrees have never read and barely heard of him. I know. I have asked many. The typical response is a blank, sheepish stare, a shrug of the shoulders and something like, “I don’t know why I haven’t read him.” I know why. He was kept from them, just like UMass tried to keep Hamsun from me. I just happened by chance to be lucky enough to have chosen a rebel creative-writing professor who had recently returned from Vietnam with attitude. Angry at what he had seen, transient and defiant, he kept Hamsun’s “Pan,” on our reading list over the objections of the English Department chair, and I have forevermore been the beneficiary.

Take this for what it’s worth, but my advice is to buy yourself a cheap copy of “Black Spring,” which Miller identifies as his best work, and read A Tailor Shop, about the one his father owned in New York City when he was a boy. A microscopic view of New York City society circa 1915, it’s a literary masterpiece, if you can comprehend it. If not, sad indeed, and predictable. Problem is your flock is furtively hidden by its sheep.

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