Thursday, December 19, 2013

Almost Anxiety But Mostly Gratitude

I keep wanting to move the narrative of the trip down the road a bit, but I keep getting pulled back to New York.  It has been over a month since we left Jersey City and made our way to Central Pennsylvania, then Philadelphia, then the Washington D. C. area, and then Central Virginia.  But my memory links are still in New York.
Hudson on Croton
            Back in 1982, when I was still in my twenties, barely, I lived for one summer in Pearl River, New York, up the Hudson a bit, and over near the northern New Jersey border.  I worked as “Writer in Residence” at the Henry Kaufman Campgrounds running a couple of workshop classes, at minimum wage, for retired Jewish folks. It was a job that I was perfectly unqualified for.   Wayne Gordon and Jeanne Nelson, two very kind people from my Texas A&M days a few years earlier, brought me up from Texas because—I don’t know why—they are kind people and knew this Texas-bred Southerner needed to be civilized a bit. It's been a long time since I have seen them.  Maybe someday we will be able to arrange a meeting somewhere.
            But this broken relationship is not the reason I am writing this.  At this moment I am remembering sitting in the screened in balcony over the porte cochere of the beautiful house centered in the camp.  We were told that the house and land once belonged to actress Gene Tierney.  The room was large.  As I remember it though the fog of years, windows covered with screens ran along three sides of the room.  I arranged a couple of desks up there, maybe a card table.  I had a typewriter. Let’s say it was a Royal manual, but it could have been an electric typewriter of some sort.  But I hated electric typewriters.  I have heavy or careless fingers and tend to include numerous random characters in every typed line.  Manual typewriters slowed me down and refused to be so sensitive to my eager touch, which is, in the long run, a good thing.  A huge fir stood outside the window down the drive about twenty feet.  I mean, huge, fifty feet tall.  Quite unlike anything one sees in Central Texas.  It was the kind that folks decorate with Christmas lights and everyone goes ooo and ahhh.  Except, of course, I was there in the summer, and this was a Jewish Day Camp. 
            I had a wonderful summer in that room.  Most days I would enter eightish or nineish, leave for my classes and then lunch, return and leave fiveish.  While in the room I worked on editing the letters of Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek, a job I had because William Owens had asked me to help with that task.   Owens was a writer living in Nyack, and I still believe he persuaded Wayne and Jeanne to provide me with my sinecure.   I had met Bill in College Station a few years earlier, when he was writer-in-residence.   Having once taught at A&M before World War II, Bill returned as an honored son after his distinguished career as novelist, folklorist, and memoirist, and as a professor at Columbia University and Dean of its summer school.   It was a glorious summer.   When I returned to Austin to my job at Austin Community College, the book was more or less ready to deliver to The University of Texas Press, and was published in 1985. 
Marker for William A. Owens
            I have two other substantive memories from that room.  One late July afternoon, I realized I was going to return to Austin and marry a woman named Francine Taylor.  She and I had known each other for several years, but had just begun dating the month or so before I moved up to New York for the summer.   The attraction, obviously, was strong, and it was literate.  With the influence of Bedichek’s literary correspondence, Francine and I typed each other long letters two or three days a week.  Since, at this moment, I am sitting in the Monster a few miles outside of Charlotteville, Virginia, and the letters are in a file boxes in a storage facility in Austin, Texas.  I cannot tell you what was in those letters—even if you cared.  Francine and I shared a deep affection for New York, Woody Allen, books, art, music, and each other.  I suppose we recalled to each other what our days were like, and what we hoped for in the future.  But I remember vividly one day, sitting in this writing room, a joy descending upon me, that made me jumpy and in need of moving my body.  “I’m going to get married!  I am going to get married!”  Whether I was reading a letter from Francine or writing one to her, I can’t remember.  But it was a moment of ecstasy, as if clouds had parted and my future, which had always been something peripheral and unfocused, suddenly now was written out clearly in sentences simple and direct.  

            The second memory is more philosophic than romantic, and is on some level quite contradictory to the essence of the first.  One day I decided that all unhappiness rested in ambition.   Did this realization grow from my work in the Bedicheck letters, I do not know.  In his early life, Bedicheck came under the influence of the late Tolstoy and Henry George.  He bounced around from job to job until he became involved with the University Interscholastic League where he made his career.  As a young man, he desired fame and fortune as a writer, but eventually plied that skill in a newsletter for his office, until his late sixties, when he wrote his first book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist.    Was it the positive side or negative side of his story that brought me to my realization? I cannot remember.  But the idea is a simple one: one has ambition only if one wants to change one’s status or station in life.  If one turns this equation on its head and exiles ambition, one can be satisfied with where one is.   No ambition equals no dissatisfaction; no dissatisfaction equals no ambition.
Over the years, I had flirted with such ideas, reading medieval philosophers,  Carlos Casteneda, Herman Hesse, the existentialists, Walt Whitman (“I would go live with the animals”) and Graham Nash (“Our house is a very very fine house”).   It was a hippy boy’s dream, sitting in this sparse room, with the beautiful view, living simply on room and board provided by friends, in weekly contact with a caring mentor, in correspondence with a woman who loved me and was waiting for me to return home, where I had a decent job teaching in a community college in a wonderful city.  You know how it goes:  “Forget all the bullshit, man.  Take it easy.  You don’t need that daily dose of crazy vibes radiating from all those people caught in the system.  Relax.  Be cool, dude.”

On November 1, we left the Monster parked in a beautiful campground that juts into the Hudson River, the wide calm waters not 100 yards through a few trees from the trailer.  We drove down Highway 9 through Ossining, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and into Nyack.  In some ways, Nyack, along the river, is a perfect little town, quaint and attractive to New Yorkers who want an afternoon out of the city, and cozy and walkable for those who live there.  We enjoyed part of the afternoon being tourists.  We ate a lovely lunch at the friendly Art Café over Israeli salads and sandwiches.  We mailed postcards at the cutest old-fashioned post office, visited a bookstore that had more book piled higher than I have ever seen, wandered into a back alley and down into a basement in search of another bookstore, this one closed.  Knightsmama bought chocolate in one store, and Captain Crunch and Dr. J. purchased small amounts of bulk candy at another. 
But most important for me, we walked several blocks off the main drag over to Grace Episcopal Church, wandered around the beautiful ground, still green, but not for long, the finger tips of fall beginning to loose the grasp, and found the Columbarium where reside the ashes of my late friend and teacher, William Owens and his wife, Ann.   I guess, maybe, the last time I was in Nyack was in December 1990 for his funeral, in this same church. 
For a time in the late eighties and early nineties, when I was part of what was called The Men’s Movement and published and edited MAN! Magazine, the topic of mentors and mentorship was very important to me.  Nowadays, we hear the term dropped, lifted aloft, batted around a great deal.  Everybody’s volunteering or being paid tiny stipends to be a mentor at work or in some disadvantaged school.  But like every magical and wondrous thing that becomes institutionalized and codified and compensated, the concept has lost its teeth. 
But this was my experience.  I began graduate school at Texas A&M in English, a bit dreamy, naïve and unskilled.  My last semester at the University of Texas I discovered I did not want to be a high school teacher.  My brother-in-law knew a professor at A&M that taught Southwestern American Literature, a la Frank Dobie.  So I applied at A&M, and was accepted.   I was curious and serious in a romantic manner, and quite pre-cynical about writing and the writer’s life.   My first essay there for that professor of Southwest Lit was based on Carlos Casteneda’s Journey to Axtlan, blending in books by Dobie, Bedichek, Mary Austin, and others.   In spite of receiving a B on the paper, I perceived no reason why I should not grow to be a famous and highly regarded writer.   I believed in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and I believed these values would distinguish me.  I am pretty sure, however, that there were professors who were not so convinced of either my intelligence or my future prospects. 
Then William Owens was asked to be Writer-in-Residence for the spring semester of 1976.   He had recently retired from Columbia University, where he had taught since the late forties after he returned from serving in World War II.  In Texas, he was well known for his work in Texas folk songs, and for his fiction, much of which incorporated his studies in folklore, especially African American traditions and music.  His 1950 book Slave Mutiny was the basis for Speilberg’s Amistad.  In 1976, he had just published his third book in what would become five volumes of family history and memoir.  The first volume of that series, This Stubborn Soil, is still in print and highly regarded.  Of course, I knew none of this at the time.  What I knew was that he had written a book, Three Friends, about the friendship of Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Webb.  One day, an older graduate student and I were shooting the breeze.  He mentioned that the head of the department had asked if he wanted to be a TA for the visiting writer.  He seemed uninterested, so I asked, “Would you mind if I let the Chair know I was interested?”  The rest is my history.

William A. Owens

For the spring semester, then, I ran errands for Owens, tracked down references as he revised his Texas Folk Songs, transcribed tapes he had made of interviews of Bedichek, Dobie, and Webb back in the early fifties.  I taped his lectures, and those of visiting scholars such as Henry Nash Smith and Gay Wilson Allen.  He introduced me to his wife, took me to dinner, introduced me to his daughter who visited from Princeton, I believe.  And we took the occasional road trip to talk with the last representatives of an immigrant  culture in the state.  I brushed up on my knowledge of Texas wildflowers and birds, read as many of Bill’s books as I could, and basically did what I was told to the best of my ability.  Which I suppose was good enough. 
            That began a fourteen-year relationship that included visiting him in Nyack, meeting him at conferences or talks whenever he was invited to Texas, sitting in on his summer creative writing class at the University of Texas, driving him between cities when he visited, and living in the American History Archives at the University of Texas for a couple of years while we edited the letters of his mentor, older friend, Roy Bedichek.  Then through his influence and connections, I got my first paying writing gigs at The Texas Observer, Texas Humanist, and Dallas Morning News.  I never shared my poems with him, which I was writing only occasionally, but we wrote letters, and I sent him a few early attempts at what we would now call “creative non-fiction.”  I thought of them as autobiographical fiction.  

And I became a sounding board, I am guessing, for everything he wrote as he produced two more volumes of memoir, which were published, and a book on writing that was never printed.  He was attempting to write a final volume of memoir in his early eighties as Alzheimer’s began to remove him.  This one included memories of the painter Grant Wood, whom Bill had served as menial helper.  On one trip to visit Bill,  we took the beginnings of this manuscript to a copy shop.  There, we had three nice stacks for him to work from—he wrote on a manual typewriter and literally cut and pasted manuscripts together.  That’s the way we did it back then.  When I return a few months later, he and I sat on the floor of his living room in Nyack one entire afternoon re-collating the manuscripts.  He seemed to be puzzled and confused by the process; I certainly did not understand then what has happening to my friend’s mind and talents.
            So on November 1, my family and I strolled through Nyack and found the brass plates that simply noted Dr. William A. Owens (November 2, 1905-December 6, 1990) and Ann Wood Owens (April 7, 1922-January 30, 1991).   So far on this adventure, I have visited many graves.  I have stood at the side of markers for grandparents many generations removed, and I have made pilgrimages to the graves of my or my culture’s heroes.  I wish I could say these are deeply transformative moments, but generally I just stand around, shuffle my feet, look at the sky, the trees, the marker.  And there is usually a moment when I recall what I know of that person or what I appreciate about his or her accomplishments.  At Bill Owens’s little brass plate, tacked to a flat stone atop a short wall, I almost wept.  Almost, because Knightsmama was wandering the garden taking photos, and Dr. J and Captain Crunch were expressing eagerness to hurry on.  Yet, I sat on a wooden bench and almost cracked:  then promised myself that I would allow that crack to widen later. 
            As I wrote in an essay published in MAN! Magazine back in the day, Bill Owens became, in many ways, my second father.  Many parents are different these days, but, as I remember my father’s encouragement, it went something like this:  “You can be a success, but I expect that you will fail, because you are a fuck-up. So surprise me.”  Whether my father meant to give me that lesson and impression is debatable.  I ponder this possibility often.  By the time my father could have changed his advice and tone, I had moved beyond him.  I figured without really knowing what I was doing that, if my father wasn’t going to help me become what I might become, then I would find someone else who would.  Bill Owens was that person.  His encouragement was expressed differently:  “You are doing good work; keep it up; here is the next thing you need to know.” 
            So my little soul quake while I sat beside Bill Owens’s resting place was a brief vision of a twenty-something kid struggling to find secure footing in unfamiliar territory.  I slipped, I fell, I failed, but when I looked up there was a hand helping me back up and a face that was smiling and encouraging.  What would have happened to me if Bill had not been there?  I suppose the answer is that things would have been fine—just in a different way.  However, what I am today, for good or ill, but I think mostly it is good, includes the psychic DNA of William Owens.  He is the most important adult I ever came in contact with.  In him, I could see what I wanted to become; but just as important, in me, he could see in me what he had once been.   He had once been a young man with an inchoate ambition to be something other than what he was born to.  His struggles from cotton farm to Columbia University were far greater than anything I could ever have imagined.   But we were both haunted by the same questions:  “Who am I?”  “Who are my people?”  “What is this world I live in, this time, this place?”  “How do I remain true to myself in this world?”  Bill came to answers more profound and more beautifully expressed than I, but I am glad to have shared the road with him. 
            I began writing this blog thinking I was exploring the idea of success, the lack of it, and something called “status anxiety” and maybe I have touched on that subject.  But I feel like, instead, I have written about gratitude.  I made a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the man who altered greatly the man I have become.  He was the embodiment of the man I imagined, hoped, I could become.  I failed at that.  Fine—but I came closer than I would have without him.  I was able to say “Thank you.”  And I imagine he heard me.

            Then on November 2, something just as special occurred.  The Waller Grant traveling show shared dinner with William Owens’s son and family.  David Owens, his wife Ann, and their two daughters live in a magnificent house overlooking the Hudson.  David and Ann very kindly invited us for a wonderful evening of great food and wine.  In these blogs, I am not writing about the visits we make to friends because, well, this blog is my thing and they did not ask to be part of it.   So I will just say this—David is just as gracious and kind as his father.  There is no reason in the world that required him to host this traveling zoo.  But he did and we are all deeply grateful.  Another sweet memory for me about Nyack and Pearl River and the Hudson River Valley.  I imagine his father, who would have been 108 that day, November 2, maybe smiled.


Soundtrack.  James Taylor:  "You've Got a Friend."

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