How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 36
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Riley
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Case Study No. 2 — The Life of Riley
When I met Riley, in 1995, he was living in a charming duplex — one of three that surrounded a grassy courtyard, where there were eucalyptus and grapefruit trees and flowering shrubs. By September of 1996, he — and his plants and antiques and yellow Labrador retrievers — had outgrown the small duplex, so he bought a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul-de-sac near a park in the central area of Tucson.
Riley and I had much in common: Both of our fathers had the name “Horace,” neither of us had a spleen, and both of our mothers were antique dealers. It was from his mother, Rachel, that Riley inherited his love for antiques. Rachel had given him, or he had bought from her, many of the chests of drawers, art prints, rugs, pieces of crockery, and century-old bottles he collected… although, when I was living in Tucson, he and I spent a great deal of time at antique fairs and in antique malls, and his collections have probably doubled in the fourteen years I’ve known him.
Riley is not what you’d call religious, though he almost unfailingly practices the principles set forth by Martin Buber in his 1923 book I and Thou. (See Lesson 33.1, “What Do You Want?”) He beholds the world, in all its particularity, with reverence, although he does not care for cats and he has periodic attacks of road rage.
Here is an example of what I mean by reverence, as it applies to Riley:
I have an oak rocking chair, a modest little thing that has served four generations of Campbells. The chair had been smashed to smithereens (“shattered fragments,” from the Irish Gaelic smidirīn, diminutive form of smiodar, “fragment”). I would estimate that this chair was in at least twenty smithereens, some of them no larger than a toothpick. I had given up on finding someone to repair it, but I kept the pieces anyway, in a grocery bag.
Riley took the bag of shards home one day, not long after we met, and brought the chair back to me in one perfect piece within a week. If you could see it, I would defy you to find any trace of smithereen. With the limited tools then at his disposal (he now has a large workshop and a respectable, manly set of tools), he put every fragment back in its place, seamlessly. He had had to replace one of the curved back pieces, but he chose the oak so carefully and stained it in such a way that it is impossible to tell the replacement from the corresponding back piece on the other side.
There was a small, dark, discolored area on the seat that, as far as I knew, had always been there. Riley said, “I could have fixed that, but it’s part of the character of the chair” (or words to that effect). “The character of the chair” — What a concept! Riley taught me to see into the souls of inanimate objects.
Living in southern Arizona, Riley can garden year-round. When I visited him recently, he took pride in showing me the new raised garden beds, the brick walkway between them, the automatic watering system, and the handmade compost bin. That’s another thing we have in common: We can ooh and aah about compost.
In precisely the same way, he approached the restoration of a broken-down Hoosier cabinet and the reconstruction of an Eastlake bed (similar to the one pictured above), converting it from three-quarter size to full size.
I think he must have been a Druid in a previous life, because he has great reverence for wood, especially oak, and for all growing things, whether they’re in pots or in forests. There are dozens of potted plants in the house and dozens more on the covered patio. The vast majority are from cuttings he took from his own plants.
A little scary
In 2001, my sweet Monica, a medium-size mongrel my boys and I had rescued from the Humane Society, died at the age of 13. Riley buried her — reverently — in the bit of yard west of his house and planted three rosebushes over her grave. The roses are the color of coral, and they flourish every year. Riley has planted mesquites and acacias, asparagus fern and ivy, prickly pear and jalapeño peppers in the large back yard and the smaller front yard. Everything grows for him. He would no more neglect the care and feeding of a plant than he would of his yellow Labradors, Truman and Dani.
Riley sometimes refers to himself as “anal-retentive,” but he’s not, really — not quite, just as he is almost but not quite a perfectionist — because he can laugh at himself. Every job he undertakes — from making salsa to building a bookcase — is done lovingly and systematically, and he never hurries.
There is, however, a teensy suggestion of anal-retentiveness that is evident in the storage of his clothing, which is regimentally folded, or hung, according to type, color, and so forth. It’s a little scary for someone like me, who can never find socks that match.
More Riley facts
Riley always pays his bills on time and he never spends money he doesn’t have.
He knows the names of all the members (and the instruments they played) of every blues or rock band that performed from the 1950s through the 1990s. He owns, I am guessing conservatively here, 120 blues albums on CD.
He has a complete set of books by Mark Twain, signed by Mark Twain.
He was something of a rogue in his youth, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.
He is loyal. If you become Riley’s friend, you are Riley’s friend for life. Every spring, until recently, Riley went with five or six other men on ten-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon. He is one of the younger guys; several of his elders have developed back problems or knee disorders, so most of their hiking these days is done in the mountains that surround Tucson.
Riley has a graceful, athletic, quietly reassuring way about him. He is confident but never (hardly ever) arrogant. Without having to work at it, Riley lives more poetically than almost anyone I know. As his mother once said to me, justifiably proud of her son, “Riley is a gentleman, literally, in the best possible way — a gentle man.”
When he’s not at work or on a hike, you might find him refinishing furniture in the workshop, mulching the garden, reading science fiction, or (in season) watching college sports on television. Sometimes he takes Truman and Dani for walks along the dry bed of the Rillito River (there’s a trail about a quarter-mile from his house).
The Wallace Nutting photos, shown above, are typical of the kinds of framed prints Riley favors. He has dozens of prints of that ilk, including several Wallace Nuttings, usually in lovely antique oak frames. But despite all the art, the antique furniture, the valuable glassware (which I won’t even begin to describe) and pottery, and the lovely old rugs, the house is neither museumlike nor cluttered. It feels, and looks, comfortable, soft, pleasing in every way… unless you are allergic to or don’t like dogs.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 33
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 …
Case Study #1: Living Poetically
None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.
Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.
Irene the Artist
She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.
During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,
(French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia
Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.
Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)
As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.
Gifts of the spirit
Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.” She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.
She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:
- Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
- Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
- Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
- Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.
Irene of the generous spirit
Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.
Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.
The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.
I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.
Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.
Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.
Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat, hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.
Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.
(1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia