A song of myself?
It is quite a task to ask me for one on this night,
Having so recently failed to achieve what I wanted to achieve,
In school, in music, in sports, in service,
But I suppose it must be sung,
A battle-song as well as a sweet, introspective tune,
A question of what could be,
A hope for the future.
But hark! You, sweet reader, have heard enough dirges, I’m certain,
As the funeral march is the most popular song going in these grey, still days of December,
So I will turn instead to the window,
And, opening it, you can see what is inside my mind.
I wish you could have come some other time,
When my soul was not in the slow turmoil it is now,
My personality ground away by the world I have given myself and the work I have done,
But alas, here is a work in progress.
I will do my best, then, to rearrange the furniture, dust off the cabinet, and fix you a drink.
This mind is big enough for two, my friend, and if I have plied my trade well enough,
This window I have written will be easily large enough to let you come inside.
You are my honored guest, and I pray thee will enjoy my company on this warm winter’s night.
Two men meet at the top of a mountain.
The mountain is a sanctuary for men.
It shadows the vast forest, which blankets this part of the earth,
It displays the Sea of Eden, God’s gift to men, on the other side.
“Hallo!” says one. “How about that climb?
It was definitely something, up and up and up,
Never knowing how much farther and how much longer,
Jumping between jetties and hanging on to the mountainside for dear life,
Rocks and men crumbling and dropping back down to the ground,
Vowing never to look back at the mountain for the rest of their lives,
But it is finished! And I feel wonderful about it.
Throwing everything I had into the effort,
Willing myself farther than I ever thought I could go,
Emerging a far better and stronger man than I was.
And you, dear friend, how was your route?
Are you, too, glad for the effort?”
“I wouldn’t know,” says the other man.
“There was a rope elevator in the back,
So I had a free and easy ride to the top.
Congratulations to you, though.”
The first man, still winded from his journey,
Turns away and swallows the air in disgust.
“Congratulations to you, though,” he mutters.
“And here we are on the top of the same mountain,
Looking at the same beautiful sea.”
Then a thought strikes him,
He smiles, and he speaks:
“Well, we may be on top of the same mountain,
But I have the better view.”
When I was in kindergarten at Peter Rabbit,
And that was a great many years ago,
My best friend was a boy named Bobby.
He was not a pothead then (and – psst – he only pretends to be now),
A boy with shiny black hair and dark skin,
A particularly imaginative boy if not a particularly large one.
As far as children go, we were friends among men.
I remember once I had a strange illness,
And though I do not remember the name or the symptoms,
I do know that I was not, not, not, under any circumstances,
To eat a peanut buttery and jelly sandwich,
So, of course, my mother packed me the forbidden sandwich, and I ate it.
That afternoon, I went to Bobby’s house and we played his Atari,
A truly classic invention and the grandfather of game systems,
And we sat on a newly clean carpet, which Bobby’s mother had installed.
In the midst of a particularly exciting racing game,
The kind that is so invigorating that it makes your stomach churn and drives you into the throes of competition,
Willing yourself to best the other man’s effort and wagering your heart and your manly honor on every turn,
Yes, my friend, during one of these races I felt the excitement deep in the body’s smoke alarm,
That part of the chest where, when you feel something pushing upward on it,
You think in red flashing lights and realize your throat is just a fabric door-flap,
It cannot surging fury of a stomach that has had enough peanut butter and jelly,
That soon the great flood will flatten the town and you had best run to the exit sign.
Alas, alas, I did not reach the water closet soon enough to control the flood damage.
O peanut butter sandwich! O my soul!
Thou didst do me a great wrong, O my soul,
For there, in a Jackson Pollock spray of color,
Was my own sickness painted all over a fresh new canvas.
“And I just paid to clean this carpet,” I recall Mrs. Burns saying,
Sitting next to her friend and appraising my work.
I offered to clean it, but she refused.
(It would not be the last time I ruined a new carpet,
For some years later I would make the same error in a man’s new car,
Spitting up Cherry Coke and much, much more after hearing that classic joke of boyhood,
“What do toilet paper and the Enterprise have in common?”
“They both orbit around Uranus picking up Klingons!”
Ah ha ha! A grandly sophomoric joke, indeed.)
Thus, thus, gentle reader, as you can clearly see,
I have been in debt to Bobby Burns all my life.
While I have not been back to his house in eight years now,
I have certainly made sure than a token if me is always there,
Somewhere, in some molecules sticking to that carpet.
I suppose that the moral of this story,
(And by God, if I can derive a moral from throwing up all over my friend’s game room,
Then I am certainly a brilliant man!)
Is this: Do not pretend to be well, when you really are ill,
Watch what comes out of your mouth at friends’ houses,
Do not question Doctor Mom,
And never, ever give your children food and then tell them not to eat it.
A true man could never pass up a good sandwich.
Whew! It is a grand thing, but I am still at it,
And even now in better humor.
Here, let me tell you why I was so sad at this song’s beginning –
Today I learned that my honors physics teacher,
That champion of the grades-don’t-matter philosophy, Mr. Thomas,
Today gave me news that my semester grade will be an A-,
(My grade by percentages would be 94.5%, but Mr. Thomas deals only with 12-point scale – leaving me an 11.25 – and now pithy percentages,)
And this being the only A- of my high school career so far, it is hard news,
Having spent two years striving perfection, and now coming up short.
One day, my friend – one day changes all,
In one day, kingdoms rise and fall,
Millions of people enter the world, and millions leave it,
Somewhere, perhaps, a small occurrence, a smile or a laugh or a phone call, alters a life or saves it,
And this person, given a new lease on humanity, goes and changes other lives, and so love multiplies and humanity is better for it.
What a miracle it is, this desert life!
Even when we seem isolated and insignificant to the world as we know it,
There is always some chance that one person, one student, will find us inspiring,
And they will be happy because of us,
And they will change the world because of us.
There is this hope, and for me, there is another thing,
And it calls to me day and night, I toss and I turn and I wonder – is this true, is this a cry for attention, a futile dream? What is it?
And this is what I hear –
I am going to change the world.
Once upon a time, we were riding in the car,
…rrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrr, I hear it now…
My little brother’s stomach was making the same noise,
So on that afternoon he became an activist.
“We want Burger King! We want Burger King! We want Burger King!”
Then he paused, as if a massive wave of profundity had driven him into the sand.
Seconds later, he picked himself up off the beach, dusted himself off, and began anew.
“I want Burger King! I want Burger King!”
If only the world’s revolutionaries were so honest!
“Mark the power of words!” said the great man to his audience.
“You have no idea of them sometimes, you laugh, even,
But truly, the expression of thought in writing can make all the difference in life.
A few weeks ago, I was prosecuting the case of a man in Marion County,
A man who had wheeled around a bend and shot a pursuing policeman,
And it was my great duty to bring him to justice in the court of law.
The defense said the man had fired behind himself and randomly hit a policeman,
That the trial should be for manslaughter, not death-penalty murder.
Here, though, I rediscovered the power of words, my students,
And in doing so I delivered justice to my community.
Using the forensics as evidence, I built the surging tide of my case,
Then I flattened the criminal with a torrent of English.
The man clearly had murderous intents, I said, due to his spray of bullets:
He created a ‘field of fire,’ a ‘leaden rain,’ a ‘kill zone.’
And then the conviction was mine, my brothers,
And another thug was pulled off the streets by the diction given to me by my alma mater, Princeton University.”
All were impressed save I, and no matter how I turned it over I could not reconcile myself with this dread truth:
“You have used your power of words to send a man to his death!”
But alas, none heard me, and our culture of death lurched onwards on celluloid wheels.
Poetic justice, they say, is neither cruel nor unusual punishment, but I say it is vengeance.
These are simple gifts, these warm, humid nights,
Especially when winter is banging on the door behind them.
Have you ever walked in the woods at night?
I have, I believe, but it was long ago.
I live in an open, empty place now, a converted cornfield transformed into an upscale neighborhood.
There was once a forest down the street, the last, dignified bastion of nature within two miles,
But all the life was shaved off the earth there,
The neighborhood will be called “The Woods.”
Still, though, I have fond memories of this place,
Of walking in the heavy rain and feeling the hand of God smash against me,
Of bending over and pulling clumps of wet leaves out of the sewer so the water could flow into it,
Of reluctantly walking in after my mother opened the door and shouted,
“James! Get inside before you get struck by lightning!”
Thank you, mother, but I suppose I never told you where I was one night last year,
Walking into a hot summer storm, stripping off my shirt, wandering up, down, up, down the street,
Drinking the rain, feeling life flow through my veins as never before, and knowing it,
Saying nothing, but wondering in the back of my mind, “Well, I will have to put this into writing some day.
This is what writers do, or at least what they should do.”
Then, having finished my communion with nature, I walked inside and took a warm shower.
I remember looking just under the showerhead, seeing the white panels on the wall, then the memory ends.
Nay, mother knows not of that time, or of the fog,
Waking up early, stepping outside into the darkness and going for a run,
Circling around the hills in the thickest fog of the year,
The world asleep, a tomb and as cold as one,
The lampposts of the fire station lighting my way through the mud,
Along with the occasional swimmer mother’s van slipping down the street.
The only sound in that blanket was my footsteps, wump, bump, wump, bump,
Echoing across the earth and disappearing in it,
Just as the earth envelops everything eventually.
Few are the men who see things in the low tide,
That vulnerable time in the morning when everything seems dead but is really on the verge of waking,
The soul’s midnight, as a man far wiser than I once said,
That time when all seems lost but the way out of the darkness is just around the corner.
How many have thrown their lives away at this time?
How many would if they knew these early morning hours?
Would we still have these with us if they knew it happened to everyone and was nothing to be ashamed of?
The weak people deserve our attention as much as the rest,
Every man who strikes a killing blow against himself strikes one against all of humanity,
As another great person, a new and completely unique package of thoughts and gifts and talents, is buried in the ground and never shown to the master again.
This nature, have I been trained to love it, or did I train myself?
Often I cannot tell where the books end and I begin.
Certainly my love of nature came not from my family:
My father, the lawyer, who started his own businesses at the age of 12,
My mother, born and raised in Long Island, New York,
And certainly not my grandmother, the strongest woman I have yet met.
Once, when my grandmother was driving with my little brother,
A squirrel hopped in front of my grandmother’s car, daring her to hit it,
And she had no second thoughts, plowing right through it with her Sport Utility Vehicle.
“Grandma! You just killed a squirrel?”
“Ahh, that’s OK. There’s a million of’em.”
Yes, if anyone taught me to love nature, it was definitely the Boy Scouts.
My family has not spent much time with it recently.
I once dreamed of walks in the woods,
Indeed, the dream of it was the hope of my summer not so long ago.
In my dream, I would walk in the woods with a girl,
A young woman with beautiful brown hair and a face sprinkled with freckles, like cinnamon on French toast,
A smile that would melt me like butter, a cute blue sweater and jeans,
Good sense (a thing I lack), good humor (which I do not lack, I hope), and a true friend.
A walk in the woods with the ideal woman, quite a thing,
But though the picture of my ideal life and my ideal relationship is always changing,
And sometimes it entirely disappears from view,
I think I will be quite all right, and things will come around my way in the end.
For now, I love nature and I love the woods.
In the woods there are no men, and in the woods, to me, there is peace.
Now I sit, nothing else pressing on my soul,
Thinking of the song I have just sung.
My heart is in the woods now, gentle reader, and we are walking together in them.
I veer off the forest path now, seeing a tree in front of me,
I see a branch hanging off the tree, and I pull it down to my level.
The tree swishes and leans forward in response,
The branch offers some resistance, but it is young and supple,
It bends but it does not break, as a good branch should.
Truly a woman is much like a plant in this,
Her flexibility only increases her strength.
She has this as long as she is alive, for women and trees both grow for many years,
They stay strong through countless pains and countless seasons,
And in the end they are the most respected of all in the things in the forest,
As were Elizabeth and Victoria of England, Hester and O-lan and my grandmother,
And above all, Mother Mary, who has been a source of strength to men and women for two millennia now.
I bend the branch now and look at the leaves,
Each is fresh and green and unique in a way all its own:
Water shivering and dancing on a hot stove,
An ice sculpture, as beautiful as life itself and just as fragile, immortal in its mortality,
Speaking to a group of people about service to others and calling it the “popcorn of the soul.”
My life is less than a quarter gone,
These thoughts are only the beginning.
In a year, or even a week, I will look at this song,
And I will say to myself, “Holy cow! Did I write this?
The thinking, so elementary! The style, so rough!
I am glad that my writing has improved as much as it has,
Or else I would be in truly dire straits.”
Then, a year later, I will look at the improved writing of a year ago,
And I will say exactly the same thing.
But then, is this not life? I embrace thee, life, and I love thee!
Truly there are no Chosen Ones in the world.
I used to wish people could look in my eyes,
And the mere sight of me would resonate deep within their soul and they’d say, “He’s the One!
There is the man who would save the world.”
I always imagined that they said these things to Whitman,
That all the “great men” sparkled and crinkled like aluminum foil wherever they went,
And people could always hear them coming and hope they’d make it into the story somewhere.
I think, though, that I was just playing too many video games.
In video games, the hero can walk into people’s houses and take their stuff and it’s perfectly all right,
Everyone magically knows the name of the hero wherever he goes,
And if the hero changes his name, everyone is alerted of the new one,
As if everyone has invisible telephone receptors in their heads,
The media giving public service announcements of people’s names everywhere they go.
Then again, monsters that live in the wilderness carry money and gold rings in video games, too,
So perhaps they’re not the most accurate judges of what humanity is like.
How odd, too, that I always come back to this thing, this dream of greatness in writing.
Is it a delusion, a desire to be accepted as intelligent and useful?
Or is it a calling? You cannot tell me, gentle reader,
Indeed, only the Father can, and I’ve always been somewhat afraid of his judgments.
Catholic I am, but also human.
To be a priest? This question forever nags at me:
I do not think I am suited for the job,
So perhaps it is just a reminder to serve God, but I know not.
To be a teacher? This too has occurred to me,
An English teacher, even, though you laugh,
But I would not know if I loved it until I tried it.
Then I wonder again, perhaps by always coming up short,
A 3.99 GPA, the fastest non-letter winner on the cross-country team, a perpetual 2nd chair in music,
God is showing me that high school is not truly my life.
I think there is something inside of me, but I am scared to death about what it is.
What do you think, my friend?
Is this the right way, or should I look elsewhere?
This much I know: I must do what I love,
And not concern myself with miracles.
Walking on water is easy until the first step off the boat.
Now it is twelve hours to seeing you again, gentle reader,
And while I would love to continue, it is simply not a wise proposition.
There are things left for me to do.
There are papers left for me to write,
Tests left for me to study for,
Sleep left for me to get, somewhere.
There is still much left for you to do, as well,
Songs of others you have yet to hear, and these from other troubadours,
All the songs beautiful and unique, and most of them less verbose, I am certain!
I hope, though, that you found this a great song,
And if you found the memory somewhat familiar,
Or at some time felt you had sung the same song before, perhaps in a different key,
This, this would be the greatest compliment to me of all.
Oh, and I do hope I did not fail the assignment.
Now I close the book on the semester,
And you and I, gentle reader, we walk out of the forest and back to my car,
And as we drive back to my house, look!
There is the mountain, the great peak that we all must climb some day.
Some day, when our earthly work is finished, we will see the top of it, you and I,
And then we will dive off it into the Sea of Eden and in the water we will return to it,
The world before the fall! And then we will see true beauty, for all here is but shadows and dust of what is to come,
And what is to come is not yet here.
So I open the window again and let thee out of my mind, and as you leave I call to thee, gentle reader, good friend, noble companion,
“Good night! Good night! A thousand good nights.”