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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life is the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure. In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, you can find an archive list at the bottom of this page.

Monday, January 18

The Closing Flower

I love my back room with all my books and my computer and all the “stuff” that defines who I am. I can’t quite call it an office. It isn’t a library. Not a den. It’s sort of a combination of all those things.

I have pictures on the walls that I love—a print from Signals about a tall stack of books, one with a tabby cat admiring a lion in a mirror, a long one with seven kittens posing in top hats, a huge Jim Hansel print of an autumn scene called “At the Crossing,” depicting three pheasants near railroad tracks in back country South Dakota.

I have trinkets and knickknacks on bookshelves that have meaning only for me—a baseball from a game I played in almost seventy years ago, all the players and their positions listed with the date and score (We lost 3-2.); three ebony African figures we got with Green Stamps when we first got married; two soapstone horsehead bookends we bought in California fifty years ago; the brass coffee mug I was given when I retired from teaching; two ebony turtles we bought on an ill-advised trip to Mexico a decade ago; the trophy I won in a C-Division racquetball tournament when I was in my fifties; the signed photo of Arnold Palmer a student gave to me way back when; and too many other tiny things too insignificant to catalog.

I used to have many more books than I now have. I decided a year or two ago that I no longer needed all the books I’d accumulated, kept accumulating. So I sold a bunch during a painful garage sale, gave away a bunch to golf friends—all the books by authors I loved: the accumulated 87th Precinct series of Ed McBain, the Spensers and Jesse Stones and Sunny Randals of Robert B. Parker, the Harry Bosches of Michael Connelly, and even the most beloved of all, the Travis McGees of John D. MacDonald. And that’s naming only a few of my favorites. I also put out for sale most of the books I’d used when I was teaching. I don’t know why I’d transported all of them from New York to Arizona. Was I ever going to use them again? For one year I taught at Glendale Community College, but after that never again to teach English, never again to need books I’d used for that endeavor. There were the dozen or so books on the development of the English language, all the collections of poems by favorite poets and the books about poetry, all the collections of essays about authors (mostly American, a few English). Among the many books by and about Ernest Hemingway, I had a large volume of Hemingway’s collected letters. What to do with that? Who in the world but I would have any need or desire for it? I boxed up most of them and tried to give them to the English department at a nearby high school. They didn’t want them. Oh, that was painful. How could they not realize their value? Did they even know about the old Thrall and Hibbard Handbook to Literature? How could they teach English without it? Did they have the Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes? Or Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, in which they could learn that the group name for leopards is “a leap,” a “dampness” of babies, a “surplus” of lawyers, a “wobble” of bicycles? Couldn’t they use F. E. Halliday’s A Shakespeare Companion or The Dictionary of Classical, Biblical, & Literary Allusions? Had they ever heard about the collection of parodies in The Antic Muse? Did they ever get their students to laugh at James Russell Lowell’s spoof of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales? “His Indians, with proper respect be it said, / Are just Natty Bumppo daubed over with red . . . / And the women he draws from one model don’t vary, / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.” Oh well, it’s their loss. Or maybe it’s their students’ loss.

All those books and all those years I taught are now behind me. Sad. I look around at the books I still have. Here’s one I bought in 1958, The Praeger Picture Encyclopedia of Art. It’s a little worn, just like me, and it weighs about ten pounds, and it holds absolutely everything anyone would ever need to know about art. I have a lovely coffee-table book called The Art of Andrew Wyeth, and every now and then I take it out to look at Wyeth’s New England, especially that poignant image of Christina and her puzzling yearning for something on that distant horizon. I have copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake that I’ve had for at least sixty years, neither of which I’ve ever gotten around to reading, neither of which I’ll ever get around to reading. Why do I still have them? They’re a part of what it means to be a bibliophile. A true book lover can’t explain why he loves books, why he needs to have them even if he never gets around to reading them. Sounds a little obsessive/compulsive, doesn’t it? I have all of Hemingway’s novels, all of which I’ve read except for Islands in the Stream, posthumously published in 1970. Will I ever read it? I don’t know. But I might. And I can’t get rid of it in case I ever feel the need for Hemingway’s last novel.

I look around my den/library/office at all the books and little artifacts I’ve collected over my lifetime, and I feel a sense of completeness tinged with a sadness that all of it is so transient. Just as I’m also transient. I always read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” as really titled “Intimations of Mortality.” The older I get the more mortal I feel. I’d love to believe in immortality, but all signs seem to be against it. Wordsworth says, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream. / It is not now as it hath been of yore;— / Turn wheresoe'er I may, / By night or day. / The things which I have seen I now can see no more.” I realize that Wordsworth goes on to suggest that we will experience a return of that passion of our youth, that life really is a continuous process even after we, like Hamlet, “shuffle off this mortal coil.” But I can’t feel it. Everything that once seemed so important now seems so inconsequential. Even my wife and my children aren’t as important as they once were. I don’t love them any less. I just don’t need them as much as I once did. And I more and more identify with Eliot’s Prufrock when he says, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I’m now measuring out my life with things as equally mundane as coffee spoons. Every three weeks I reload my medicine holders with the many prescriptions I take, and they seem to empty much more rapidly than 21 days. Every night I put my dentures into a glass of water with one Polident tablet, each tablet coming from a sheet of six. And the sheet expires much more rapidly than six nights. And the box of 14 sheets of 6 tablets is emptied much sooner than 84 days. The relativity of time.

I now own more shirts and pants than I’ll ever wear out, a suit that I’ll never again wear. I find that I’m buying less and less of the canned and packaged goods for our pantry than I once did, simply because I can’t be sure how much I’ll need before I die. Friends and relatives are receding from me, either dying or simply moving away from my thoughts for them or theirs for me. Even the connections I once had here in Sun City West are disappearing as my activities diminish. It’s as though the world is folding in from the edges, growing smaller and closer like a flower shutting its petals with nightfall.

I chuckle when I remember a poem by William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis,” in which he tells us that even though we have to die, we should be consoled by the thought that everyone else from the beginning of time to the end of time has already and will forever share our fate. Everyone has to die. Small consolation, I say. “So live, that when thy summons comes to join / The innumerable caravan, which moves / To that mysterious realm, where each shall take / His chamber in the silent halls of death, / Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, / Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed / By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Pleasant dreams indeed!

So, I take refuge in my den/library/office and shake hands with the books I could never give away, admire lovingly the knickknacks on my shelves that transport me back to the time when I first acquired them. And I’ll keep counting out my days with coffee spoons and Polident tablets and prescription refills. Someday before I die, maybe I’ll even find a solution for the flower-closing universe. Get it to open up and allow me into some kind of immortality.

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