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 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/mark-strand.
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.”
The 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.