It’s strange to be home this Memorial Day week-end. We’ve spent almost every Memorial Day week-end for the past twenty-five years with college friends having a mini-reunion. Of course, for many years, we had to leave on Sunday, because I taught in South Carolina, a state which didn’t have Memorial Day as a state holiday.
And before that, I’ve often been in the D.C. area, where it’s difficult to avoid the memorials to the war dead. My Air Force dad made sure we understood that our freedom came at a real cost, a lesson that too many people seem to have skipped.
Nothing drives home the cost of war more than a visit to the Vietnam Memorial and seeing those 58,000 or so names carved into a black scar of granite.
How might our thinking about war change if we also added the names of all the maimed war veterans? What a cost.
And then there are the civilians. And the family members. So much wreckage on so many sides.
So, even though I’ve been enjoying my holiday week-end, there’s an undercurrent swirling in my brain. Of course, I want that undercurrent to always be there, so that I appreciate what I have, so that I appreciate the calm periods, so that I'm always on the lookout for ways to promote peace in the world.
I’ve spent the week-end book-ended by old friends of a different sort (Simon and Garfunkel fans, did you catch the two references in that sentence?). I’ve been listening to Paul Simon, old and new, along with Simon and Garfunkel.
I’ve been a Paul Simon fan from long back in every incarnation. My dad bought Bridge Over Troubled Water on the day that my sister was born. Yup, Paul Simon and I go way back--especially since my dad had the previous albums too.
If anyone ever asked me how I learned to be a poet, I’d have to give Paul Simon a lot of credit. His songs are the ones that taught me that good poetry should turn my world upside down and change the way I see that world. For almost thirty years, I’ve marveled at the lyrics to "Graceland." You might argue that the setting had to be the house of Elvis, which just happens to have that name. I would argue. He could have chosen just about any place, but he chose that one. And the song talks about grace of all sorts and a lack of grace (“She comes back to tell me she’s gone / as if I didn’t know that / as if I didn’t know my own bed”).
In fact, the idea of grace runs like a silver cord (chord?) throughout much of Simon’s work. Here’s an example from the wonderful, but underappreciated album, Heart and Bones: “Have you ever experienced a period of grace? / Where your brain just takes a seat behind your face?” (“Think Too Much”).
Other old friends: I’ve been rereading Jane Eyre, and happily I’m discovering that I like Jane the character just as much as I ever did. I admire her ability at such an early age to know what’s good for her and to hold fast to her principles. It’s one of the first times in almost 2 decades that I’ve gone back to works that were so essential to my dissertation. I felt a bit nervous, but it’s been a treat to discover that I still like them.
I also thought of this post by Bookgirl where she talks about wishing she could eliminate memories temporarily, so that she has the joy of reading books like Jane Eyre and not knowing how it's all going to turn out. She has a friend who said that we wouldn't understand the movie that came out a few months ago if we hadn't read the book and remembered the plot. Her friend is probably right. Still, it's an intriguing idea.
Of course, many of us journal and blog precisely so that we won't lose those memories so quickly.
I spent much of Saturday rereading some of my old paper journals. I’ve worried a bit because most of my journaling now happens online. I keep a paper journal, just in case I have some unbloggable stuff that I need to sort out. Happily, there’s not as much of that these days. What does it mean that so much of my life can be lived so publicly? Am I boringly stable at midlife? If so, let me pause now for a grateful prayer of thanks.
I did spend some time with the journal from the year 2005, unarguably the worst—WORST—year of my life, with the horrible hospital experience with my mother-in-law that eventually led to her death and the worst hurricane season I hope to ever experience. There were all sorts of losses that year: professional losses for just about everyone I loved, for example, and the loss of trees and the loss of faith in my surroundings and medical issues and aftermaths for my dad and sister (both happily resolved, but hellish to live through). This year, too, has shown that few of us are as removed from the apocalyptic forces of nature as we like to think.
I might write more about this experience of going back to read these journals, or I might not. But it’s sort of like visiting an old friend—me! I’m happy that I don’t read those journals and hate myself. I feel some sorrow, some wishing that I might have handled some things differently, some pride in managing to survive and come back from some real catastrophe. For the most part, I’m happy with my life choices, and that’s the kind of old friend of happiness that bookends my days now. It’s grace, in all the permutations of that word.
The Summer of Reading
2 months ago