Goodbye to Another Old Friend

V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose celebrated writing and brittle, provocative personality drew admiration and revulsion in equal measures, died Saturday at his London home, his family said. He was 85.

With those few words, images and memories flooded my mind. It’s about 1980 and I attended my first writers’ conference, AAPP, in San Antonio with another writer friend, Bill. He knew many of the men there and our table crowded with them, telling alcohol-induced stories, one over the other, laughter rolling through the air with whorls of cigarette smoke. V.S. Naipaul one of them. A slew of well-known writers, one particularly, whose name I can’t recall, but a great bear of a man whom I coaxed onto the dance floor. He danced like a bear, but a laughing bear.

Naipaul was quieter. At one point, I found myself sitting beside him, and he told me stories of Trinidad in a quiet voice, almost as if they were painful to recall. What I remember most was his beautiful accent, an island patois varnished and overlaid by proper British English. Perhaps only patois could bring back the island stories, complete and whole again. I never heard brittleness in his voice. Sadness, yes, it showed up in his writing, too. Perhaps the brittleness was reserved for his battles with the world.

Some months later, maybe close to a year later, I saw him again at a conference in Connecticut. We walked the grounds and talked. I suppose if I dug through my journals of that time, I could find details of what we talked about. Mostly writing, I expect, and the demands of that life.

The Connecticut trip was the impetus for my move to New York City later that year. Naipaul and I kept in touch by mail for a few years, but then he moved or I moved or maybe both, and we lost touch. That was about the time I went to Mexico to live. As I’m a letter-saver, somewhere in my cavernous files there may yet lie one of his.

I suppose this is now the part of life I’ve come to–the part where old friends and acquaintances die, and unless he or she is famous or a family member, often I don’t know. They lie in my past, still alive, still telling me stories when I run across a letter or an old piece of writing, or even, on those few occasions, when I see a newspaper story.

And for that I am grateful. It brings a patch of my own life back in focus, and I smile as I tell a story for someone else to remember.

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Goodbye Old Friend

I said goodbye to an old friend, today. A loyal friend for nearly thirty years, through moves and changes and chaos. Old Friend has just kept being there for me and kept working. This is its story.

In 1990, after three years of living in Mexico, I returned to the United States and moved to Washington D.C. My son, Stephen, was living there, too, which made the move easier.

After renting a studio apartment off DuPont Circle, I retrieved my life in storage and set up a home. While I had a lot of books, I did not have a bookcase, so Stephen, being a tool man, build a sturdy one, 3 1/2′ x 6′, with copious room for my copious books, and with a gap in the middle of about 20″, which he filled with the Orion television for my birthday.

When I moved to Santa Fe three years later, I moved both television and bookcase and set up housekeeping in a 600 sq. foot adobe in Seton Village outside the city. Miraculously, the bookcase fit between the front door and the steps down to the kitchen. I stayed in Santa Fe for five years. A record from my usual three years here and then move pattern.

After Santa Fe, I came to Kansas City, Cliff and I bought a house, and the Orion went on the same bookshelf in the large bedroom which also serves as my workout room. A year later, Stephen moved here. By that time, we’d dispensed with the rabbit ears, hooked up cable, and attached a video player for the years of saved workout videos I own…which, as a matter of convenience, are also stored on the bookcase. We have, in fact, years of movie and workout videos. A VCR, even in this day and age, is valuable.

And now we come to this summer’s birthday. I came home from some errand or another and went to the bedroom to change clothes, only to discover a new 19″ flat screen sitting where the old Orion used to sit. Stephen had once more bought a television for my birthday. The new flat screen came with a new remote, which I also had to learn, but that’s another story.

It has taken a month for me to release the old television, however. It sat in my writing room, until today, we finally carried it to Best Buy for recycling.

You see, that Orion held stories–Stephen and me watching t.v. as we ate a meal together at my little studio apartment in D.C.; watching “Nothing Sacred” with Cliff in the adobe, a favorite television show, alas no longer with us, either, as we snatched a quick dinner before evening services. Me sitting in front of the television one year, crocheting stars for Christmas ornaments, fire in the fireplace, which ornaments I sent out to family and to my best friend, Cynthia, who is no longer with us. The Orion was part of that history.

………

We moved the Orion out to the back seat of the car. I kept trying to give it away; although it still worked, no one wanted it. I could not just trash it.

And so my dear husband, who understands my connection to memories, said, “Why don’t you take a picture? Then you can keep it.”

So we drove to Best Buy, turned the Orion to face me, and I took our picture. Together, one last time.

 

..

 

A reprint for The Solitary Watcher

Since some were unable to read from the electronic version of Still Point, here’s the essay. You might, however, want to go in and look at the visuals. The editor, Christine Cote, does a remarkable job.

The Solitary Watcher

Solitary and lonely are not the same although often confused. It is possible to be lonely when one is solitary, but it’s also possible to be un-lonely, in other words, content. A loner, perhaps one could say.

I grew up in an old and solitary farmhouse on the Great Plains of Kansas with five siblings, two parents, and a grandfather. That’s hardly a lonely life. And yet, as I look back at my childhood, I see myself solitary, wandering pastures, or out on a tractor, alone, plowing a field. Being left-handed and a dreamer, my solitary times often included falling over or off, in one way or another, and once tangling a plow in the fence and tipping both plow and tractor. Those sorts of tasks rarely meshed well with solitary dreamer.

Sitting by a window, staring at our backyard’s willow, the small fountain, the grass, or up on the farm, which we yet own, and staring out over the tallgrass prairie, works well for me. I’m reminded of the joy Thomas Merton took in his solitude: But my chief joy is to escape to the attic of the garden house and the little broken window that looks out over the valley. There in the silence I love the green grass.

Of all the things Merton knew and taught and wrote, solitude was the breath in his life.

Some of the earliest stories about me, from when we lived on a farm in Arkansas before we moved to the Kansas farm, tell of my wandering spirit, especially when I’d go visit Miz McNeil who lived on the farm next to ours. We left Arkansas sometime around my fourth birthday, so my wandering habit began early.

Miz McNeil grew peanuts. I loved peanuts—for that matter, still do—and Miz McNeil fed me peanuts when I visited. Peanuts roasted or boiled in the shell. One day, she decided to send me home with a supply, so she levered peanuts into my pockets; however, I had holes in my pockets, and do to this day from jamming my hands in too fast too often. The peanuts went into my pockets and out the holes and down my legs to shower around my feet.

Miz McNeil, clever woman, tied strings around the bottom of my pants legs and kept filling my pockets with peanuts until both pant legs were filled. Probably laughing as she did so. I waddled home. These were roasted in the shell peanuts, if you’re wondering, as boiled peanuts can get soggy.

On the Kansas farm, across the field west from the house, I’d wander down to the spring where Dad’s Uncle August and Uncle Louie once built a still. Three stone walls were all that remained. But the spring was there, and a pipe, pushed by an unknown hand into the bank at water’s edge, poured cold fresh water into my cupped hands. Matted pads of watercress grew in the pools between rocks. I carried a plastic bag in my pants pocket for those trips. If I brought home fresh watercress for Dad, he forgave my absence from whatever work was going on.

I learned to watch the sky from those wanderings, and the way light shifts and slides over a wheat field ruffled by wind. Annie Dillard says it best: There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind. When thunderheads piled at the horizon and the light turned thick and coarse, it was time to head up the hill to shelter in the safety of family and house as the energy could turn wicked and threaten in the space of moments.

Solitude becomes more pricey in a city, but it’s possible. When I lived in New York, I had a small apartment on the second floor of a brownstone on West 85th Street. With windows. I’d sit with my first coffee as early sunlight tipped over the edge of the women’s residence across the street. The building, while long, was no more than three stories, and I’d watch from my solitary perch as women left in summer dresses, unencumbered, or in fall’s blustery wind, umbrellas tucked under arms.

One morning, a fierce storm tossed the branches of a small tree growing in a small patch of earth at the sidewalk’s edge. The tree survived the storm, but trashcans were tossed into the street. Trashcans in New York lead perilous lives.

Poets know solitude and weather: The four elements doze and wake./Who knows, behind the dark cloud/a small star may be playing. Adam Zagajewski. I met him once, at a reading, in a press of people and space. No time for anything but a thank you. He was kind. He signed his book for me. But I have his wanderings and his words for company.

Zagajewski liked walking in cities, too. I lived a half-block from West End park so could walk solitary among trees, but walking the sidewalks, pausing to look up at glowering gargoyles perched on ledges as people-streams sloshed around me, was just as alone. It’s easy to feel alone in a city. The iconic painting, Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper shows it. A couple sits at the coffee bar, not looking at each other, a single man sits apart, his back to us, and the barista bends over an invisible sink.

But I prefer walking country roads. The only thing to watch for is a blacksnake, its head lifted on a twig, sunning. Blacksnakes, our dad taught us, are a farmer’s friend. They eat rats. On a country road, I can allow my thoughts to wander in time to my steps. I watch for the red-winged blackbirds crossing my path, for the meadowlarks skittering away in the prairie, for the white-faced cows, lifting their heads from grazing to look at me, curious.

I watch the sky and the light to know when it’s time to turn back.

The End

 

 

A New Essay, published

Hello friends, yes, I’ve been noticeably absent these past few weeks. Please forgive.

Here’s the URL to Still Point Arts Quarterly in which one of my new essays, The Solitary Watcher, was published. The page number is #108, but this is a lovely journal and worth wandering through.

https://indd.adobe.com/view/079422c8-7515-4879-a5f1-6719401ee229

Enjoy! And hope your summer is going well.

Janet

My Least Favorite City (although you wouldn’t know it from the photos)

 

I’m staggering back to what passes for normal after a week in Las Vegas. As a rule, I love cities: the structures, people, old shops, twisting roads. I do not love Las Vegas. It’s miles and miles of sameness: same style of houses/same color of houses/gigantic, confusing, under-construction-everywhere freeways/and impossible to spot landmarks (all streets/houses/shopping areas look the same–thank goodness for Google maps!). However, our grandson was graduating from a grueling year of nursing school and flying back and forth to San Diego where home and wife and newly born son were, and we are proud of him.

Ergo. La La Las Vegas.

Cliff and I ran away from the family one night and went to The Eiffel Tower Restaurant in the Paris Casino. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, I can deal with the city. And when I’m graced with exquisite food, I’m even nicer.

The tower restaurant has floor to ceiling windows and Cliff reserved a window table across from the dancing waters of the Bellagio; the same dancing waters made famous in various movies, especially Oceans Eleven and twelve and thirteen. At any rate, we had a ringside seat to dancing waters without having to stand with throngs of people on the sidewalk.

And the meal was extraordinary. I chose Dover Sole and Cliff, Veal Medallions. We shared a spring greens salad, which, instead of being in a bowl, was heaped inside a ring of paper-thin slices of zucchini, and a final souffle desert. And champagne and a perfect Negroni. Oh. My. Goodness.

Here’s the video that drew us in – watch it all the way and you’ll learn from a master chef how to make a perfect Dover Sole. You’ll also get a better view of the restaurant in general.

The first shopping trip we made after coming home? Trader Joe’s for Dover Sole. I followed the Chef’s directions from the above video. Not quite the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, but just as good and quieter.

So, all in all, a lovely dinner which, along with a fine grandson graduating from a tough program with a 4.0 and an eleven month old great-grandson and his mamma and visiting with son and daughter-in-law, made Las Vegas worth while.

Maybe that’s also why I’m still recovering!