“Live in the layers, not on the litter. . .” (Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006)

My Big Horn Mountains - tectonic uplift

My Big Horn Mountains – tectonic uplift

Stanley Kunitz was 73 (three or four years older than I am now) in 1978 when he wrote his poem “The Layers.” He lived another 28 years and died in 2006 at 101. Remarkable by almost any family’s stats.

My mother lived to be 92, my father lived to be 97 and His father lived to be 92. I could continue the list of my close relatives who lived to be nonagenarians.

By the laws of averages and statistics, it seems to me that I may be hanging around here for some time (I’m only 69). Given simple genetics, I have some time left to enjoy myself—or do something, at any rate.

I want to spend more years in the mountains. The real, majestic, overwhelming mountains. Mountains like the Big Horns in Wyoming, at the western slope of which I lived my first five years. Or the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, in whose shadow I lived for 11 years.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I am not who I was though some principle of being myself remains.

Of his poem Kunitz said,

“I wrote ‘The Layers’ in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends. . . I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work.”

He went on to say that the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him in a dream. I suppose if one is a poet, lines appear in dreams.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

If I think about the tribe of friends and family I’ve had in my life so far, I understand the notion of the tribe scattered. I’ve been watching a TV program about the geological history of Australia. I’m fascinated that the geologists and zoologists and anthropologists can look at layers of rock and decipher the ages of fossils they find there (I’m fascinated that they can pick up what appear to be scattered rocks and put them together to form a dinosaur fossil).

My beach at Winter Island

My beach at Winter Island

The earth has—apparently world-wide—a layer of what used to be soot (it’s black, at any rate) that has been compressed into rock. Geologists find it almost anywhere on the earth they look. The residue of earth’s crash with an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Anyone who knows even the little I know science/evolution/geology knows about the great Yucatan Asteroid Smash, a cataclysmic event. And one which is revealed through the constant movement, the uplift, of the earth’s outer shell (made up of the “layers”), the tectonic plates.

Stanley Kunitz (as poets do) gave me a new way to think about the layers of the earth—the layers of my life. Childhood. Teen years. College. Floundering. Graduate school. Failed marriage. First partnership with him. Second partnership. College teaching career. Third partnership. More graduate school. University teaching. Topsoil. Retirement/whatever.

My favorite geological wonder is the uplift of mountains. How do the tectonic plates move? Is the uplift sudden and earth-shattering, or slow and deliberate (apparently it’s slow—the Andes, I’ve read somewhere, are getting taller by a milli-inch every year)? I want to know the mountains.

The uplift, the earth-shattering experiences of my life (yes, I am a drama queen). Moving from Nebraska to California for college. Getting married. Moving to Iowa for graduate school. Getting divorced. Moving to Massachusetts to be with him. Then the next him. College teaching. The real him and moving to Dallas.

The uplifts, the layer-shattering experiences of my life seem to have involved moving from one place to another.

Or simply visiting one place or another.

The greatest tectonic uplift of my life was my first trip to Palestine in 2003. Nothing about my life was unaffected by that experience. All of the layers were dislodged.

OK. I’ll stop with the (by this time over-done and corny) metaphor.

I understood there for the first time how costly, how inestimable human life is. I realized for the first time the meaning of one sentence I learned from the foundational “layer” of my life. The way I learned it first was something about losing your life to find it. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 16:24-26. I met people in Palestine who

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. . . Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way. . . to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

I met people in Palestine—Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Rafa, Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron—who know about keeping themselves but losing everything. I’ve purposefully left out the phrases in the quotation that make it explicitly “Christian.” I know some of my friends would have visceral negative reactions to that. They’re missing the point.

I’m not saying people who know about losing everything (the shattering crush of the “tectonic plates” of their lives) and saving themselves don’t live elsewhere. But most of the people I met in those places, especially the Salsa family in Beit Sahour, showed me (I still have not learned the lesson well) what little is worth “. . . trad[ing] your soul for.”

Of course, the Palestinians have been forced to learn. But they have learned. Those whom I met in 2003 and again in 2009 know about the value of life in a way almost no one else I know does. They know how to live in the layers of their lives, not in the litter around them—even the cataclysmic earth-shattering events of their lives.

“The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Memories that serve us well

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

The Platte River at Kearney, NE

Today is my sister’s 63rd birthday. I can’t say I remember the day she was born, but I have many memories of the time leading up to her birth and the momentous events in our family with her as one of us in the two or three years following.

The day our parents told my brother and me we were going to have a baby brother or sister (in that misty past we could of not, of course, know which), he and I were piled on our parents’ bed early in the morning. A wondrous and mysterious time.  And then the months of waiting—my first awareness of the passage of time. In the middle of that time we moved from Worland, WY, to Kearney, NE, it seemed to me in order for the baby to be born there.

When she was born, we already had a girl’s name chosen. I don’t remember what name we had chosen if the baby was a boy, but we knew that a sister would be named Bonnie after our next-door neighbor in Worland (perhaps my brother’s true first love), Bonnie Bailey. The Baileys were our best friends. They had a cabin at Meadowlark Lake up in the Big Horn Mountains they let us use so Dad could fish—of course before Bonnie was born. But she did see Meadowlark Lake at least once when our family went there on vacation when she was five or six years old.  I don’t know for how much of their lives our parents kept in touch with Bonnie Bailey’s parents. I think it was one of those longtime friendships that gave stability to our parents’ lives.

Meadowlark Lake reality in memory

Meadowlark Lake
reality in memory

Memories. Funny things, they. I have not seen Meadowlark Lake for perhaps 60 years, yet I know what it looks like. When I googled “images,” I knew immediately which were Meadowlark and which were some other Wyoming mountain lake erroneously labeled. Memories. How can I know that?

I’m not going to travel down the path of “Kids today don’t have the same wonderful experiences we had—they are too enmeshed in virtual reality to understand real reality.” I could. I have done so before. However, I wonder—I have no way of knowing, so even my wondering may be missing the mark. Do families today have time together doing nothing as we did? I remember distinctly walking by the water at the edge of Meadowlark Lake and simply whiling away the time. And having fish for dinner, caught and cleaned by my father and prepared by my mother. The cabin was simple. Plain. Not very comfortable, as I recall. And I was not comfortable. I did not like camping. I am not and never was the “outdoors man” type.  And we squabbled. However. . .

My sister is a cancer survivor. She is not finished with the ordeal. I don’t know how she or any other cancer survivor does it. I have a hip injury that has been a pain in my ass for three months now. The pain depresses me and makes me even grouchier than normal. I don’t know what I would do if I had a significantly debilitating condition.

Here comes my usual leap of logic, the one that I’d tell my students to avoid, as I say here often.

I have written before in greater detail than I intend to here about my experience of (shall I go all the way and say it?) the ineffable, that which I cannot explain and you could not understand if I did. The few times I have ever felt at one with that which I cannot explain were in some way connected to being (usually alone, but not always) in some beautiful place away from the noise of the city.

Our parents, Bonnie’s, and our older brother’s, and mine, made sure we had time when we were kids to do nothing. To notice. To simply be in the world. Especially in the natural world. I don’t want to make this seem idyllic or rapturous or blessed with any other “spiritual” condition. We were not a family living together in lofty awareness of anything.

But tucked away in the backs of our minds are pictures of beauty, are experiences of simply being. Being close to the world as it is without the layers of stuff we humans construct to keep us all chugging along together. My sister’s late husband was dedicated to helping others make that direct connection. And I’m pretty sure having experienced that direct connection is at least part of the explanation for my sister’s ability to go on in the face of odds that would have defeated me long ago.

Or, perhaps, that connection will serve me well someday, too.

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

Looking east from Worland, Wyoming

“Unto the hills around do I look up. . .”

Scotts Bluff National Monumentpainted by Ruth Wright

Scotts Bluff National Monument
painted by Ruth Wright

  • In 1945 my parents lived in Douglas, WY. The town is situated at the foot of Laramie Peak on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River.  I was born in Douglas.
  • In 1945 our family moved to Worland, WY, situated about midway between the Grand Tetons and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
  • In 1950 our family moved to Kearney, NE. The city is situated near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers.
  • In 1952 our family moved to Scottsbluff, NE. The city is situated at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the North Platte River.

From the top of Scotts Bluff on a clear day, one can see Laramie Peak, about 120 miles to the west.

  • In 1960 our family moved to Omaha, NE, situated at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
  • In 1963 I struck out on my own to go to college at the University of Redlands in Redlands, CA, situated at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio sixty miles east of the California Pacific ocean beaches.
  • In 1974 my late ex-wife and I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, situated on the Iowa River on the (former) prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • In 1978 I moved to Massachusetts and lived for seventeen years within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, situated at the base of Cowboys Stadium.

A few days ago my sister and I took a day trip up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fifty miles east above her home in Rancho Cordova, CA.

As a wannabe writer and sometimes musician who lives in fantasy more than reality I have been, for most of my life, affected by prominent- preeminent- overarching- glorious geological formations. Until I left home, I lived with my family in a series of towns and cities that have a direct connection through their proximity to the Platte River. I have always (with the exception of my time in this place where football stadiums have replaced natural wonders) lived in close proximity to rivers, oceans, or mountains.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak

But, it’s the mountains.

I have mountains in my blood. And that’s the truth. For all of us, I’ve come to understand. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” my father would have said, quoting Psalm 24. The earth and all of us who dwell herein are made of the same stardust.

Today I am in mourning. Partly the mourning of being older than I was yesterday. Mourning (not regretting) the loss of ability to move and think and laugh and love as I could even five years ago, much less ten or fifteen. Mourning the process of being forced to retire a year earlier than I had hoped.

“Retire” is an odd word** to use for what SMU has decided I must do. “To retreat.” Dean Peter Moore believes it is best if I retreat. Retreat from what into what? I must ask. Oblivion? Is that what sixty-eight year old men do?

Retire is an odd word to use for ending one’s career. Or is it odd? I shall retreat. Yes, I shall retreat into safety, into the “everlasting arms” of the mountains—of the stardust from which both Laramie Peak and I are made.

I will retreat there soon enough. Perhaps my retreat is already complete. Perhaps it began the day I was born. Dean Moore only believes he has control over my retreat. In our arrogance we all believe we have some sort of power. It’s the illusion that drives us to “work” to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Most of us pay lip service to a “god” or some other force to which we have sworn allegiance. We say we believe that force has control over our lives.

And then we act as if we have some power over the stardust of which we are made—and, more pathetically, over the stardust of which others are made.

I have little use for the language that John D. Campbell invokes to praise his particular god. However, I am coming to understand the truth of his image. I do lift up my longing eyes to the hills. My language—as I come to say here nearly every time I write—is no better than Campbell’s. Different but not better. How can it be? How can any of us explain our certain knowledge we are made of the same stuff, the exact same stuff, of which Scotts Bluff is made. My comfort is knowing that my retreat there is certain. It began the day I was born.

“Remember, O Man, of dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

“Thanks be to God.”
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**retire:
1530s, of armies, “to retreat,” from Middle French retirer “to withdraw (something),” from re– “back” (see re) + Old French tirer “to draw” (see tirade). Meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1530s; sense of “leave an occupation” first attested 1640s (implied in retirement). Meaning “to leave company and go to bed” is from 1660s. Baseball sense of “to put out” is recorded from 1874. Related: Retired; retiring.
**retirement:
1590s, “act of retreating,” also “act of withdrawing into seclusion,” from French retirement (1570s); see retire + –ment. Meaning “privacy” is from c.1600; that of “withdrawal from occupation or business” is from 1640s.
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Dana Levin has written this post as a poem that says what I am trying to say ever so much better. She has language artistry I do not have.

Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains