Dear Winn – 6 February 2016

Dear Winn:
I think you know this, but sometimes its good to be clear. This is letter writing between friends, not a ping-pong game, so I don’t have to wait for you to hit the ball back before I return, the same goes for you. Capiche?
 
An old high school friend of mine died the other day. I say friend, we were really simply classmates. Then again, she may have considered me someone dear, its hard to know. As a shy, pencil-thin teenage boy I thought she was absolutely gorgeous. She was smart, funny, incredibly likable, plus she had the legs of a tennis player. Dear lord she was gorgeous. I wrote a poem about her, described her as “wild like sage.” That’s how I saw her in those days. I posted the poem online and some people thought I wrote it as a eulogy. The fact is I wrote that poem almost three years ago. I tried to remember what prompted me to think of her back then, but I can’t place anything specific. The mind is strange, isn’t it? The poem does work that way, but it was written long before she died. Maybe those are the best kinds of eulogies, the ones with blood still in ’em.
 
You know, people have labeled old Kooser as an elegist. I like that very much. I wouldn’t mind people saying that about me one of these days. I think I may have told you, I was in Nebraska last year, speaking at a conference, and I emailed Kooser and asked if I could buy him lunch and visit for a few moments one day. He graciously accepted my invitation, even suggested a quaint spot known for good pie where we could meet. I was so looking forward to that, then he wrote to say a book signing was scheduled for him on that same day, and unfortunately he would have to decline our lunch.  I was deeply disappointed. I wasn’t hoping for some Damascus minute with him, when just before taking a bite of pie he looked at me and descaled said, “I want you to keep the work of elegy going when I’m gone. Its important, John. Here, take my favorite fountain pen, and use it from now on in all your writings.” No, nothing like that (although that woulda been grand, huh?). No, I simply desired to be in the presence of someone who sees things sorta like I do. That’s not so much to ask, is it? I’m all for big rooms full of people with diverse viewpoints coming together to hash things out. I’m also quite fond of a booth with just one other person of similar eyesight, one who listens and softly says, “I feel that same way.” I get easily lost in some of those big rooms, always have.
 
Alright, enough for today. But not without two last things from Hugo. You’re getting a little Richard Hugo education via me, aren’t you? Don’t worry, no charge, pal. What are friends for? I did find out his coarse grandmother made him go to church (Lutheran). He hated it, always, couldn’t wait to run free from the old wooden building as soon as services were over. Get this, he was the only boy in his confirmation class, and to read his recounting of it, he just sat there and looked at the floor. Sadly, no gorgeous girls with tennis player legs to liven up the conformacion. But he wrote this in The Real West Marginal Way (a little long but very worthy):
A long time back, maybe twenty-five years ago, a reviewer in the Hudson Review ridiculed William Carlos Williams for saying that one reason a poet wrote was to become a better person. I was fresh out of graduate school, or maybe still there, filled with the New Criticism, and I sided with the reviewer. But Williams was right and I know now what he was talking about. It wasn’t some theory of writing as therapy, nor the naive notion that after writing a poem one is any less depraved. It was the certainty that writing is a slow, cumulative way of accepting your life as valid, of accepting yourself over a lifetime, of realizing that your life is important. And it is. It’s all you’ve got. All you ever had for sure.
 
I know you’ll stand before your friends tomorrow, and share the gospel according to Winn. I’ll pray for you as you do, that the time would be rich with elegy, and wild as a young girl’s legs. But I know, lord I know, that’s not always the case, huh? Still, I’ll pray for you. I believe we pray to become better people. I really do.
 
Coraggio.
John
 
 
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Dear Winn – 2 February 2016

Dear Winn:
Well, the girls have got their second snow day in a row. The school district actually called it last night, which surprised us all. But there was some sort of glitch yesterday morning in the text-notification system and evidently a number of parents didn’t know school was cancelled. I’m sure those parents voiced their displeasure. I’d of been miffed too, probably. The outfit I work for called a late start today – 11am. But we’ll see about that as the white stuff’s coming down like a mutha. 
 
You wrote this in regard to getting older: “It makes me want to speak things that are true and not dink around with goofiness.” That’s quite the line, my friend. I’m feeling that too. Although I confess there are days I am the goof in goofiness, which is likely what St. Paul was talking about in Romans 7, although (more confession here) the man does get thick on some pages, doesn’t he? Do you think St. Paul ever saw snow fall? Shame if he didn’t. Maybe that was his thorn, poor guy just wanted to see it snow, just once. And while maybe he did learn to be content in all things (I guess he was telling the truth when he said that), there was still this boyish ember of a dream inside him to taste snowflakes on his tongue, just once. 
 
But yes, here’s to the things that are true, which is an interesting stance in an age when every man, and every woman, does what is right in their own eyeballs. Its comical to me that on Groundhog Day, when at least some of the population is still fixated on a rodent’s shadow, that most of us are quite oblivious to our own, shadows that is. I believe it was in the writings of Robert Bly where I first came across the concept of shadow – those long repressed aspects of our personality that, after we pass a certain age, start to show themselves. Bly’s encouragement is to be-friend your shadow, and one way to do that is by using careful, physical language. I think about that when I see one of those bucolic scenes with a quote superimposed on it, something that sounds oh so spiritual but I usually find myself thinking But what in the world does that mean? Yep, a lotta un-friended shadow running ruinous in our nation that is no longer one.
 
You’re good about using careful, physical language. I appreciate that about you. Another poetic Robert, Lowell, wrote to “pray for the grace of accuracy.” Maybe that’s a good prayer for us both as we age. Maybe that’s a good prayer for us all.
 
I’m really enjoying Richard Hugo. When I said he’s helping me a little, I meant in a structural sense, not so much philosophical. I’ll share that piece when I see you in March. As far as the living goes, Richard (Dick) had a rough childhood, he drank a ton in his young man days, screwed around even more, had a bona fide meltdown while lecturing at the Iowa Workshop, and some other experiences of sorta sliding off the rails. William Matthews said “Dick was always homing” – always looking for home. It appears he found some form of that in later years, settling down with a wife named Ripley in his beloved Montana. Maybe he finally made a truce with his shadow. I don’t know, I need to keep reading. But I hope that.
 
I so loved what you wrote about your mom, about her making you sandwiches for lunch like she did when you were just a boy. That’s such a sweet story. I like things that are sweet – sweet tea, sweet cornbread (basically cake), and sweet stories about mothers who dearly love their sons and hope they don’t drink a ton or screw around or have meltdowns or slide off the rails, but they know we sometimes do. And yet still they love us. I know you must miss her, Winn. We’re all always homing, aren’t we?
 
Coraggio.
John         
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Dear Winn – 28 January 2016

Dear Winn:
28 January 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. I stayed home my freshman year and attended a community college on a super-sweet scholarship. Such an arrangement afforded me the opportunity to have lunch most every day with my parents. Now that I think about that it brings tears to my eyes. Did I even have a clue as to what a gift that was? I was home on the lunch hour that day, watching tv, eating Guy’s Bar-B-Q chips and drinking my mother’s sweet iced tea, when the television suddenly became a box of shock. I don’t remember us saying anything to one another, we simply sat (or did we stand?) and tried to believe our eyes. As best I can remember, that was my first national televised tragedy. My parents had witnessed JFK’s assassination coverage, the Kent State shootings, and others I’m sure. But that was my first, or at least the one that feels first in my memory. I believe our television was a Magnavox.
 
Will’s room has gone quiet again, the son back at school for the spring. He probably won’t be back home until the semester’s over. I’ve made an online acquaintance whose son is also off at college as a freshman. He sends me a note from time to time agreeing that yes, getting used to this is very hard. He said something in his last note about those people who say kids going off like that is the start of a new chapter. But he said for him its been like the closing of a book you’ve been writing and reading for so very long. He’s right. You’ll be there soon, pard. Hang on.  
 
God, sorry to be so Eeyore. I’ll liven this up a bit. I’ve started reading Richard Hugo’s poetry. I believe one of his books holds the key to a stuck place I’ve had in relation to some writing I want to do. I may tell you more about this later, but for now that’s all. Yep, its good not to give all your gold away, right?
Oh, man, I’ve gotta share these lines from Hugo. I thought of you when I read them:
Today, I am certain,
for all my terrible mistakes I did the right thing
to love places and scenes in my innocent way and to spend
my life writing poems, to receive like a woman
the world in its enduring decay and to tell
that world like a man that I am not afraid to weep
at the sadness…
Beautiful, huh? I haven’t read enough about Hugo’s life to get a feel for his faith or lack of. But I’m willing to bet when he wrote those lines that heaven hushed for a moment, and a voice as gentle as the morning spoke in the direction of Montana and said, “Oh how beautiful.” That brings to mind a favorite quote from Robinson’s Gilead: “In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” My gut tells me heaven hushed for that one too. And maybe that same voice said, “AttaMarilynne.”
 
I had a car insurance payment due today, car tag renewal due tomorrow, this weekend is grocerypalooza (every two weeks), I’m gonna have to break down and buy a new pair of cowboy boots (close to holes in my soles, which sounds poetic, but in the snow is no bueno), Sarah needs a new pair of glasses (overdue), and the Beagle’s up for litter of shots. Money’s always a concern. I try not to worry about it, you know, look at the birds and the lilies and all that jazz. But I still do, I guess because I’m not a bird, or a lily. But we’re getting our three squares and then some, plus everybody’s healthy (for now). So I’m thankful. But I still worry.
 
My birthday’s so close I can smell it. I’ll turn forty-nine, man. Forty-freakin-nine. It was just yesterday I was a college freshman watching The Young & The Restless with my mom on the days my dad had to be away at lunchtime. Yes, the epic of the universe, my good friend. Troy.
 
Coraggio.
John
 
     
 
 
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The Beautiful Never Go Far

It often takes a death
to create the noble sense
to stand still, to listen and observe
the glad and fearful story.
And so you do, you stop
and notice the day is clear as gin
and you’re alive not because
you’ve been living right
(you know better than that)
but rather because you’re alive.
And so you vow to write
more letters, to try to have some
style even if you fail, and to care about
something well done.
And so you stand on that ginny day
in your uninnocent feet with
a green wind out of the north,
miles away from an old friend’s grave
worrying and worrying the hope that
(as Hugo, inspired, put it)
the beautiful never go far.
 
 
 
 
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An Honest Man

It takes a certain
sadness to love your own
responses to things.
Some call this poetry,
but I’m not certain about that.
Just the other day I saw a
bay of coots on Flathead Lake
slowly swallowed by
snow falling quiet as a pulse.
The scene was so pure
I thought I might weep.
But there were others at the
window beside me, others
who might not know
what to do with a man’s tears.
I’ve found most don’t.
Oh voices say they want 
tender men but you let
tears start falling
silent as snow
and sphincters in the room
tighten like fists.
If you should doubt this,
ask an honest man.
 
 
 
 
 
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The Earnest Young Writer

She approached me as if I was
the good Lord himself and said
     Tell me the best ways to build my platform.
I sighed inwardly, having heard
that honest plea too many times now.
I caught her eyes and answered
     Its a hard business being alive.
     Find someone or something to love
     and love the hell out of him or her or it.
     This will nail down your failure, giving
     you something solid to say to us.
 
I went away grieved for she was young and
lovely, and now disappointed.
 
 
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Tracks in the Snow

 
 
 
 
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