Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Little Less, but More

I don’t know where it happened.  It wasn’t like it was a flash or anything dazzling.  No thunderbolt of realization, no gigantic burst of synapses dancing, no ah ha, ummm, geez, or wow.  It was a slow percolation, a permutation, a sponge-like absorption, but from a source within, of acknowledgement that things were not what I had hoped for.  Maybe “hoped” isn’t the right word.  More like “expected.” 
Captain Crunch and the Wreck of the Peter Iredale
            Because what I “expected” was the ah ha, the ummm, the geez, and the wow. I even expected a few “oh no’s,”  “not now’s,” “stop please’s.”   I expected, stupidly I now realize, to follow in the tracks of Daniel Boone, Jedediah Smith, Brigham Young, John Wesley Powell, John Freemont, to become Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, William Least Heat Moon, Bill Bryson, or maybe just John Steinbeck or Charles Kuralt. I expected I would become the genius traveler and observer.  I expected that something wild would happen.  I expected danger; I expected travails, some sort of urgency, some sort of hard earned wisdom. You know, The Great American Road Trip, with the capital letters highlighting its iconic status, unrepeatable.  Indubitably unduplicatable.
            But what I have gotten was the continued story of my life.  Let me tell you right now what the story of my life is.  The story of my life is the story of the fairly pleasant slog.  Nothing very dangerous.  Nothing harrowing.   Something occasionally challenging, featuring a few random assholes who have made some moments unsavory.   Something generally charmed, featuring friends and family who are funny and forgiving, children who are cheerful and energetic, colleagues who are interesting and entertaining.  It’s a life somewhat out of the ordinary, but not unique by any means.  My life, and thus my trip this year through the United States, has not been a life of exhilarating highs, but then it neither has it been a life of debilitating lows. We are not finished.  We still have six weeks to go.  But I think the pattern has been established.
Knightsmama and Savannah Mayfield at The Deck
            I think that I have been living the life that most people establish for themselves when they “settle down.”  You find a lovely mate.  Maybe you have some children.  You buy a house; you buy a bigger house.  Everybody gets a room.  Everybody soon or later ends up with a bunch of electronic devices.  No, not sex toys.  Telephones and computers and game consuls.  Everybody has a sport or a hobby that the others witness and congratulate one another about. You make just enough money to pay for it all with a job that requires you to be about three quarters of what you might be if the world were more interested and had higher expectations.  Mistakes and accidents happen, and you get through them or you let them defeat you.  Sometimes, people get therapy and forgive each other.  Sometimes people stay angry or depressed and that’s their lot.  Then the younger generation grows up, and it all begins again.  It seems to be as perfect as things can be.  All that we could ask for.  But the truth is I want to ask for more.  I have asked for more.  However, I am either a chicken shit—a distinct possibility--, or I am a reasonably safe, attentive person, who has a wise aversion toward endangering myself and those whom I love. 
            I am having these thoughts, this day, in Fort Stevens State Park, outside Astoria, Oregon.  We have come to Astoria to celebrate Our Great American Adventure in the place where MeriwetherLewis and William Clark and their intrepid team of explorers settled for the winter of 1805-06 before turning around and heading back to the East Coast.  If you have been with us our entire journey, you will remember that our first major stop on the Caravan of Wonder was St. Louis, the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Western Expansion.  While in that area we visited the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where Clark trained his men, where Evertt Beidler has placed a dandy sculpture, “Proceeding On,” commemorating the importance of this triangular bit of earth.  I also stood before Clark’s grave in the same St. Louis cemetery where William Burroughs is buried.  In a week, after a few days in Olympic National Park, we will be turning the Caravan back eastward.   Compared to Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, York, and the others, I am living a little life.  But it isn’t their greatness that has put me into this mood.
Knightsmama and Rich Perin at Pok Pok
            It was Portland.  First, I should admit that I had my guard up as we approached Portland.  I put very little planning into the town.  I just didn’t want to love it or even like it because everyone, I mean everyone, always tells us how much they love Portland.  Portland is the place where people in Austin, sick from what Austin’s become, eventually go.  Portland: the one American city cooler than the city where I live.  So we visited it, and generally enjoyed it.
Let’s face it, as an English Professor and lover of books, I had to make my pilgrimage to Powells Bookstore (which is, I admit, so much more cool that BookPeople in Austin. There is no comparison). The only bookstore that compares to it is my memory of The Strand in New York City in the seventies.  Captain Crunch was literally jumping up and down in his excitement in this bookstore.   One evening, Knightsmama and I found our way to Voodoo Donuts, because it had been so oft recommended.  And I admired over and over the Columbia River.  Our campground was near the river; we drove along side it to Multnomah Falls; and we ate dinner one night floating upon it.  Somewhere I will write about rivers.  I have loved the rivers we have camped beside on this trip:  Mississippi, Ohio, Potomac, Columbia.  But with only three nights in Portland—and I was under the weather for two days with my first sinus attack of the entire year—what we experienced was limited.
So it wasn’t really Portland.  It was the two friends we visited there.  These friends go back to 1996.  In the spring of 1996, a bright, curly haired blonde spitfire of a student appeared in my creative writing class on the Riverside Campus at Austin Community College.  Savannah Mayfield was her name, a young single mother in her early twenties.  She was eager, sometimes I thought overeager as she continually challenged me to make my class life changing. She was full of questions, dreams, and expectations.  She made me a better teacher.  Well, she made her A in class, placed a poem or two in the college literary journal, and I thought moved on to greater challenges.  Little did I know that she had a roommate who was eager to return to school.  That summer they embarked on a three-week car trip across the nation to Massachusetts and Maine, and I fit into their conversations somewhere.  I know that because this roommate called me upon her return to Austin, gathering information to help her decide if she wanted to take my class.
William Clark's Grave in St. Louis
In the spring of 1996, I turned forty-three years old.  In the summer, after a two-year separation, I was a divorced dad with an eleven-year old son.  I had survived what some might call an energetic mid-life crisis.  I fell deeply and passionately in love with a married woman, who through thick and thin remained married.  I had been climbing the college’s administrative ladder but had become disillusioned. A year or two before, a magazine I edited had seen its time come and go.  I had decided that what I really wanted to be was a teacher/poet.  A little bit responsible, but mostly a free spirit.  Maybe, in my more egotistical moments, I desired to be a mentor to other free spirits. That July, I took my own road trip with my eleven-year old son, now we call him The Philosopher, to Eastern Tennessee and a family reunion. 
And so I began the fall semester, 1996, a free man in Austin, teaching my usual load, including one class in creative writing.  I was doing a little acting with friends Paul Wright and Margaret Hoard in Mel Kenne’s poem cycle, The Book of Ed, as the producers were showcasing it around town trying to raise money.  I was not very good and was eventually replaced when it was recorded for CD.  But I had fun while it lasted.  The house that I purchased, following the divorce, was renovated, and The Philosopher and I moved in. 
In my creative writing class were two special students:  Rich Perin, a young wild man recently arrived from Australia, and Colleen Waller, long and thin, all fresh from her automobile trip with my former student, Savannah. Both were exiting and intriguing writers.  Rich pulled from the oral tradition of performance poetry alternating between the thrust of male libido and caress of tender lyricism.  He became one of the most highly regarded slam poets in town and eventually placed second in nationals on a team from San Antonio.  Colleen wrote without the confines of a particular tradition but drew from a lifetime of wide reading, a little Mary Oliver, some Rumi, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Barbara Kingsolver, maybe.  I am guessing.  The power in her writing was its unrestricted honesty, unadorned. 
As time went on, Rich and I collaborated on artistic projects.  Maybe he learned something from me; with his influence, I certainly added more energy and danger to my lyrics.  He traveled the U.S. performing his poetry.  We have kept in touch sporadically, but I wasn’t too surprised a few years ago to learn he had moved to Portland.  I think Austin was too soft for him.  Eventually, Colleen Waller and I fell in love, conceived two children, married, inspiring each other for seventeen years now, and creating the Caravan of Wonder.  Savannah has continued to write. After some time in Santa Fe, she moved to Portland where she had become part of the community of healers, specializing in women’s health, massage therapy and life coach work.  And here for three days, we were all together again in Portland—Savannah, Rich, Colleen, and me.  A moment to celebrate, right?
Multnomah Falls
Certainly.  Celebrate we did with glorious meals at Pok Pok and at The Deck. One night we rode though Portland’s crowded streets in Rich’s early 80’s Cadillac, and the next we admired the sailboats cruising the Columbia dining al fresco with Savannah, her husband Bill, and her eight year old son, Liam. 
But, you know me, all this happiness comes at a price.  That price is contemplation and self-reflection.  My navel gazing these days has focused on the question:  What happened to the free spirit?  I thought going from twenty-three to forty-three was a large and momentous shift in being!  At forty-three, I was finally free to be whom I always thought I could be.  It took that long to emerge from the cocoon I had spun.  In two years, I will be sixty-three.  At sixty-one, I am traveling across the U.S. lugging an RV Trailer, taking in as much as I can take in, showing two of my children more country side than most Americans see in their entire lives, trying to digest the history and humanity of this nation.  What is this country?  Who am I in this country?
And what am I thinking now?  How safe all this has been.  How like a sixty-year old man I have become!  Eleven months into this adventure, it no longer seems like an adventure, but a way of life.  As carefully organized and arranged as any suburban tract life.  Where is my bravery?  Where is my energy?  My passion?  My daring-do?  My free spirit?  I am not asking where did the twenty-three year old go.  I am wondering where the forty-three year old disappeared to.
You know Emerson wrote an essay called “Circles.” I am not remembering it, here on the West Coast, in any detail. I have not googled it.  But I think he focused somewhere in it on that image of the circles made on the surface of a lake when one tosses a stone it in.  The waves proceeding out, stronger at first, then weaker, then disappearing.  Is this the image of one’s life changing moments?  Big waves.  Making big waves at first. Then lesser waves as time and distance do their thing.  Certain events in our lives make big waves.  A job, a marriage, a child, an affair, a divorce, a song, a book, a painting.  The stuff of great memoirs and novels is these rocks and the big waves they make. 
The Goodies at Voodoo Donuts
I thought The Great American Road Trip would be a large stone in the lake of my life.  I thought it would make me a new man, that I would return to Austin, changed forever, slightly unrecognizable. Free.  Freer.  Braver.  Full of stories of dares accepted, of dangers conquered.  But I think I have been wrong.  Instead, this trip is a distant ripple of the stone heaved into my slightly stormy life eighteen years ago.  Back then, in Austin, I decide to be a poet.  I begin teaching creative writing.  Savannah Mayfield registers for the class, enjoys it, encourages her friend Colleen to take it the next semester.  The big stone drops, and Colleen and I ride the waves together.  Rich Perrin emigrates from Australia and witnesses the splash.  Eighteen years later, we all find ourselves for three days in Portland, Oregon.  I am dense enough, dull enough, to wonder where that mid-life crises case of a poet has gone.     

Oh.  There he is, one hand holding Knightmama’s, the other pulling along a cane, strolling the paths at Fort Clatsop, the replica of Lewis and Clark’s winter quarters on the Pacific.  There he is in the Caravan introducing Dr. J. to the joys of oyster shooters.  There he is photographing Captain Crunch dancing in the Pacific waves at the foot of the wreck of the Peter Iredale.  He’s buying propane; getting a tire plugged; emptying the tanks of black water (human wastes) and gray water (dish rinse).   He is relaxed into little joys and tender duties.  It is not exactly what he imagined, twenty years ago, that sixty-one would be like. He had no idea then what events were about to unsettle the lake of his life.   It is not exactly what he expected, a year ago, the Caravan of Wonder to be.  He thought he was changing his life, not riding the waves of the life he already had.  Sure, it all seems to be a little less than he imagined, and sometimes a bit more.  

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Talking Heads:  "Wild, Wild Life."

Taking Heads:  "Once in a Lifetime."


  1. You have become a mentor and a friend.
    And my, I have been missing you deeply: your wise counsel, your sense of perspective and balance. I would add that you have also become an anchor, tethering many of us. Maybe in the small waves, you are having a bigger impact than you realize.

  2. wow. thanks for this comment. I think as writer types we grow used to needing drama, conflict. It's what makes a story. And then to find oneself calm and happy is very disturbing. Onward. Keep the light on. We will be home soon.

  3. Hi Lyman, this is Sarah Yost, Carlson's daughter-in-law. Sorry to post this as a blog comment, but I couldn't find any other way to email you (your AustinCC link doesn't work anymore). Would you mind emailing me when you get a chance? anenemity (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!