Singing Plainsong

Haunted by passing time

Haunted by passing time

If given the choice, I think I would prefer to die towards the end of winter during that bleak time when you think that the cold and snow will never go… when your bones will never warm… when if you fell, your bones would splinter into icy shards. But I shouldn’t wait too long. I’d have to die prior to the Spring Equinox. If I made it to the equinox, I would probably take heart and want to hang on until Spring.

Living as I do in a small mountain community with a goodly number of retirees, I watch my friends and neighbors’ decline. A fractured hip here, a knee repair there. And at 8,000 feet, many friends have left for lower elevations or warmer climes. The passage of time is always in my face.

Unhappily this past week, two of my favorite writers died. On Saturday, November 29th, Mark Strand passed. He won many awards to include his being named Poet Laureate in 1990, and with the publication of Blizzard of One, winning The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1999.

Most critics found his writing self-absorbed and bleak. The day following Strand’s death, The Poetry Foundation printed his poem, “The End.” The first stanza of that poem reads: “Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end, / Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like / When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end.” I find these lines unvarnished and universal, not dark. You can read the poem in its entirety by going to

When questioned about his tendency towards darkness, Strand replied, “I find them [my poems] evenly lit.” Despite his awards, Strand felt his insignificance. In his poem “Keeping Things Whole,” he wrote: In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”

2012 09 02 Rosita 016The second writer to die last week was Colorado’s own Kent Haruf who lost his battle with cancer on Sunday, November 30. At 71, Haruf was too young. (I write this because I too am 71, and Haruf and I share the same sun sign. Is the writing on the wall?) Haruf is best remembered for his novel Plainsong which was a National Book Award Finalist. Was he bothered to be runner-up, not the winner? I think not.

Haruf’s work is set in the fictional small town of Holt on the lonesome, high plains of Colorado. On a clear day, you can see forever. Holt is the kind of town where you have to make your own music. No rock star would linger long in Holt. If his tour bus broke down and the one garage was closed, the musician might stay the night, but he and his music would move on by morning.

After the acknowledgements and before the story of Plainsong starts, Haruf defined “plainsong” as “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” And there you have it – Holt is a small town populated with small people doing small things – no one is about to win the National Book Award, but Haruf celebrated the humanity to be found in small people in small towns. My copy of Plainsong lies next to me. I will honor Haruf and reward myself by reading the novel again. As a reminder of sorts, that we don’t have to be winners to make music.

At present, I am working on a family history  – not a genealogy  but stories passed down from my parents and grandparents. I have some reservations about his project. Needless to say, my version of the stories will never match those of other family members, each of whom saw events through a different lens.

In time, I will come to my story and at that point the work will begin to look like a memoir. I have a problem with the word “memoir.” Shouldn’t a memoir be reserved for politicians, musicians and diplomats? People with name recognition and writers with credentials? People who have won the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize?

Haruf’s plainsong folks and Strand’s introspection, spur me on.  Without credentials or name recognition, I will write small and those who read my story may recognize themselves. Perhaps they will be inspired to write their own story.

I like this sculpture. Rather than death lurking below the surface, we have the great reveal after death.

I like this sculpture. Rather than death lurking below the surface, we have the great reveal of life after death                         through stories.


About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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2 Responses to Singing Plainsong

  1. 2000detours says:

    I suspect memories are made in dramatic moments but life is made in-between. In what you call Plainsong and what I, being of a Catholic persuasion, think of as Ordinary Time. I’m very fond of small towns, small stories and writers without credentials. Your book will be amazing.

  2. timeout2 says:

    Like everyone else, I have experienced a number of dramatic moments, but some epiphanies come in quietly on tiptoe wearing slippers. As Christmas approaches, I think of my following The Quaker Quest some years ago when we were living in London. The Quest is a one night a week, six-week introduction to the Quaker Way. I found the “classes” informative and over the six weeks, I did learn to sit in silence for an hour – terribly difficult the first week but increasingly easy as the weeks went by. After graduation I attended services at our local church for a couple of weeks, but when we came to Christmas, I called it quits. Music! I missed the music. Filler for some – essential for me.

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