“A Life In A Thousand Words” By Jim Surkamp (1082 words)
A Life in a Thousand Words (Through 1992)
Reprinted courtesy “The Colgate Scene”(Nov., 1993)
Somewhere walking on the squeaky Hamilton snow under a cold, clear, starry sky, the foundation is laid. My foundation was made in part from Kant, Kirkegaard, Zorba the Greek, the Doors, the Chambers Brothers concerts, Paul Tillich, the 1968 sit-in, Tom O’Brien reading “Howl” at graduation, the smell of stale beer on Sunday morning, and Fred Busch’s Core class.
I dug deeper into the Philosophy and Religion readings for answers because I was temporarily parent-less with my mother dying of cancer and my Army colonel, West Point-bred dad fresh back from a one-year tour in Vietnam My draft lottery number was 22.
The relief in 1971 of work-a-day life in Spring Valley, New York with my wife, whom I met on the first exchange to Colgate from Vassar, was welcome. We both enjoyed mastery of the difficult – me as in investigative reporter at The Rockland Journal-News, she teaching high school.
Eventually I was commuting into New York, feeling more and more, as Bob Dylan said, like something I invested in. Looking out the commuter bus window in Lincoln Tunnel gridlock, Jersey side, one Friday evening in December, I didn’t see Manhattan’s bejeweled skyline. I saw the shadow of a thin, tired man.
In May, 1976, I gave my wife almost everything and with the pain of divorce began a new life from my apartment in Manhattan working now for ADT, the international fire and theft protection company, eating a trail mix of quotes like “Follow Your Heart” and “If Life Bores You, Risk It.”
The next few years were ones of wonderful expansion, colorful people, meditation, reading, starting a greeting company, called Squiggles, researching for American Heritage and Money magazines. I felt like a blind buried seed stirring to the call of a warm, unseeing sun.
On June 22, 1980 – a sunny Sunday – I started scribbling on scrap paper at curbside in Hoboken, New Jersey what I had learned so far. That evening I typed my notes and called the seven pages “All I Know, All I Am”
I felt freed.
On April Fool’s Day, 1982, after donating my company’s greeting cards to Riker’s Island, I stuck a sign out at 72nd Street and Broadway, got a ride with a lawyer and headed into the unknown. Early the next morning, at a remote toll booth in western Massachusetts, a big draggy car finally pulled over. Pushing some of the litter away, I got in.
As the dog sat on me all the way to Boston, I listened to this truck farmer from Maine, Victor Blessing, who asked me up to his truck farm to work the next month.
Landing in an empty cabin in the deep woods of Maine after eight years in Manhattan was like stepping through a looking glass. Wolves howled at night. I knew a key to making this move to the country permanent would be to begin learning income-producing skills.
I heard about a remarkable sub-culture of families throughout New England who prune trees and pick apples. The exhilaration of this new life of hard work and broad vistas is most intensely felt after the last day of picking, when you’re just happy to be alive.
At Turner, Maine in 1983, with our station wagon loaded with ladders and boxes of drops, I remember stopping by the owner’s house to say good-bye. I slipped away to say good-bye to the orchard where I had picked thirty tons of apples.
Wellwood orchards, Springfield, Vermont
I saw endlessly expanding scenery: mountains in dimming autumnal grandeur, distant glasstop mountain lakes, all suffused in softly thunderous gusts of win. The sharp white steeple in Turner was a mile away but you felt as if you could reach out and touch it like a feature in a painting.
Later, in the car, I wrote: “See blessed Land and see Immensity. Hear blessed Land and Hear Thunder in Immensity. Behold blessed Land and Immensity and Thunder with all your heart, And be Broken in the Right Place, Become a River in blessed Land, Become One with the Soul of Souls.”
I hitch-hiked in 1984 out to California, worked six weeks in a plant nursery in San Luis Obispo, discovering Emily Dickinson and Buckminster Fuller on days off at the library. Sleeping on different soils of fifteen different states under the same old starts drew me into the core of myself, into the core of life.
I found peace of mind grows anywhere and what dies is fear.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia was growing into home for this gypsy since I was picked up hitchhiking in McLean, Virginia in December, 1982 by author Peter Tompkins, who asked me to house-sit in his 200-year old farm here.
After the first winter in an unheated farmhouse surrounded by a thirty-inch snowfall and a sheepdog named Docile, I got involved in all sorts of community work, knowing that honesty, tact and generosity are the keys to acceptance in a small town.
My mother’s death in 1969 took meaning in October, 1984 when I joined Hospice in Martinsburg, West Virginia. and gave nearly one thousand hours a year for five years.
In 1990 I started the Grief Support Network, Inc. which helps people with death losses, including a special service for murder survivors. This tax-exempt group refuses donations from those we help. It’s our own simple gift to the community. In seven months 110 people came 330 times to our support groups. I stay in touch with about 200 people, regularly with about 100.
Time has taught me how to listen to grief and rage, giving insight rather than turmoil of my own. I tell people to use their good memories to deal with the bad memories to follow their heart, to cope until insight comes, to hope till hope creates.
I can’t really say why I’ve been happy living on less than $4,000 a year for a decade. No car. No debts. Work for rent at a farm. Income from selling my historical videotapes and audiotapes which I produce with a cable television company, apple picking, and contract work from archaeologist to document his digs, seems to be enough.
My friends are true. My health is good. I go to sleep actually looking forward to tomorrow. I’ve listened to too many people tell me on their deathbed the things they wished they had done.
I believe the best preparation for death is to live like there is no tomorrow. And a life given away generously over the years cannot be snatched away from us in the end.
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“Immortal Essence: The Life and Writings of Danske Dandridge, Poet and Nature-Lover”
copyright, 2000, James T. Surkamp (adapted from the works of Danske Dandridge) Danske Dandridge
1. “TITLE” TRT: 0:06
“Immortal Essence by Danske Dandridge”
2. “THE PRELUDE” TRT: 2:48
“What is astir where the shadows are dense?
Something that baffles the curious sense;
Something that shimmers and whispers and sighs;
Something that glimmers to far-reaching eyes;
“The Shape of a song, or the Soul of a stream,
Or a Being awake from a beautiful dream,
Is pulsing and stirring and making prelude
In the reverent heart of the reverent wood.
“Is it a word that I never have heard?
Is it a hint of a jubilant bird
That never was hinted before?
“Oh! what can it be that is new in the wood;
That thrills with its meaning, but half understood,
A rapture and more?
“A sound is created that never the breeze
Has carried till now through the city of trees;
Fresh tidings from God; a new message is sent
Through I know not what delicate instrument.
“And I would I had senses as fine as a sprite,
To hear and interpret the message a-right:
But I think, oh, I think, as I fall on my knees,
God is walking and talking again ‘mid the trees.
God is walking and talking again ‘mid the trees.
3. “CLOUDS” TRT: 6:06
“The day is closing. It has been a golden day; full of rest. Now I must go and tend my flowers.
“Sometimes when confined to the house by illness, or on stormy winter days, I have felt as restless as a caged wild animal; but out-of-doors, I am in my proper place, like the free wild animal in the jungle.
“I am so glad that we have had a heavy rain, because I was beginning to feel quite wicked about it. It began when I woke up early this morning. The sound of the patter of the big drops on the tin roof of the verandah outside my window was such an unusual one that I could scarcely believe my ears. It seemed too good to be true. Soon it became a steady down-pour that has washed away all my discontent. It rained until one o’clock, softly but sufficiently. One such rain as that a week would keep the garden fresh all summer.
“I am glad that I can dig and plant and weed, as much as I please, and shock nobody, not even the gardener, for I am the gardener, myself, and not easily shocked at that. And I am sure I enjoy my flowers all the more because I have prepared cradles for them, and assisted at their birth, and helped them at every stage from tiny seedlings to lovely, blossoming maturity.
“One sumptuous Oriental Poppy, fully eight inches across, has just unpacked her thin silk dress of flowing vermilion. It is the one note of brilliant color, the high light that the picture needed. This blossom, erect on a stalk four feet in height, has six petals, while the others have but four.
“The Poppy is a very careless packer. Her fine dress came out of its trunk in many crumples, which take her maid, the breeze, several hours to smoothe. But she does not care, beautiful, disorderly creature that she is. Oh blessed people who see their gods spring up in their gardens!!”
“If any flower were worthy of worship it would be the Madonna Lily, also called the Annunciation Lily, first brought to earth, according to the legend, by the angel who came to prepare Mary for the Saviour’s birth. This Lily is the type of passional purity, not passionless purity, which is a poor tame thing. The warm throbbing purity of the innocent young girl is a different thing , and a better thing, according to my way of thinking, than the cold chastity of the nun. This is what the Lily typifies, this passional purity, with its rich fragrance and unspotted whiteness.
“The Cinnamon Rose is always the first to bloom at Rosebrake. A pretty little Scotch Brier is the second. . .And the Hollyhocks have proved that they too, have heroic souls; only all the best clumps have been eaten by the cows who have developed an extraordinary appetite for Hollyhocks.
“I wish I could tell my flowers how much they help and comfort me and yet, who knows? Perhaps they understand? They look as if they did. Yes, yes there is certainly an understanding between us. I love to water them most when they are in distress. Do they not breathe lovely confidences into my ears every day? And do I not open my heart as freely to them? No one who has a garden of flowers to love and be loved by, need complain about being misunderstood.
“When I go to the garden with my troubles the flowers know just what to do. They don’t say a word, they don’t torment me with senseless conversation. They just look at me, and their beauty makes me forget my cares, and their smiles restore me to cheerfulness, and their fragrance refreshes me, and strengthens me to bear what I must. And so I go away serene again and thanking God for my garden. Surely ugliness is the only sin of which flowers are capable, and that is usually man’s fault, who will not leave Nature alone.
“If I could carry out all my fancies I would have garden parties when certain flowers were in bloom. In May, I would have a Violet fete, a fete of Roses in June; and of Lilies in July, and perhaps a fete of Yuccas on some moonlit evening. In November, I would invite all my friends to a Chrysanthemum party. The tables should be set on the lawn, and decorated with the flowers of the day.
4. “THE PRIMROSES AND THE ROSES” TRT: 3:03
“Last night was a beautiful one. The moon was in her second quarter, and the sky was mottled with fleecy cloudlets. We counted thirty-eight buds on the evening primrose, ready to unfold. All the family, some house guests and a caller were there to enjoy the pretty spectacle.
“About half-past seven the show begins, and we take chairs in the orchestra circle, to watch the performance.
“One after another, then two or three at a time, the buds neatly rolled in their long green calyxes, began to stir, to swell to burst slowly open. The calyxes fell back with a graceful movement. There was no hurry, and no delay. The whole plant was in tremulous motion, although there was no breeze. At last she stood arrayed in the full glory of her blossom-hood, and a delightful penetrating odor diffused from every delicate flower. The flowers are pale lemon yellow.
“This is only one of the many pleasures for which we have to thank out garden; pure, elevating, refined. Every night for a long time to come there will be more blossoms, for there seem to be hundreds of buds.
5. “BE” TRT: 3:19
“I can see great streams of people going up the state road in front of Rosebrake to the Agricultural Fair a half mile away. A great crowd is not an enlivening spectacle especially when it is a crowd of hard-working, stolid, farmer-folk, honest, worthy, farmers and their wives. Every one is hot and tired, and begrimed with dust. Women carry lunch baskets, and heavy babies. The young girls drag their best white skirts in the dust.
“It is a very quiet crowd. All look as if they were seeking something that they cannot find. The middle-aged women wear large, black, straw hats, and black cotton dresses hang limply around their shapeless figures. I sat a long time watching them. Some little boys and girls and some of the Negroes were the only ones who looked gay.
“The farmers all have a patient, dogged air, like their own cattle. They work so hard. They have so little. Yet they seem happy enough in their own homes.
“The crowd was overawed by the crowd. I think that was it. The expression of a city crowd is much brighter, gayer, and more reckless. Used to contact with strangers, such contact no longer depresses, but exhilarates. Men and women, like precious metals, are brightened by friction. But country people are like metals in the rough.
“After watching the crowd a long time without seeing one mature face that expressed hope or happiness, I felt overpowered with a sense of the nothingness of all things. I could no longer see the sunken, sun-burnt cheeks of the men, their mouths stained with tobacco, their coarse store clothes, the ample figures of the elderly women with their stolid, care-lined faces, or the fresh thoughtless countenances of the young men and women, except through a mist of pity and hopelessness. Pity is good, but hopelessness is useless. So I came away.
“O strong oaks, O blue mountains, O winds of heaven, O infinite mysterious sky, how holy, and how healing, and how hopeful, you are, after that!! Dear men and women! The universe belongs to you. Look up, and be helped and comforted.
6. “SILENCE” TRT: 3:35
“Come down from the aerial height,
Spirit of the summer night!
Come softly stepping from the slender Moon,
Where thou dost lie upon her gentle breast,
And bring a boon
Of silence and of solace for our rest.
“Or lift us, lift our souls to that bright place
Where she doth hide her face;
Lap us in light and cooling fleece, and steep
Our hearts in stillness; drench in drowsy dreams;
Grant us the pleasant langour that beseems
And rock our sleep.
“Quell thy barbed lightning in the sombre west;
Quiet thy thunder-dogs that bay the Moon;
Soothe the day’s fretting, like a tender nurse;
Breathe on our spirits ’till they be in tune:
“Were it not best
To hush all noises in the universe,
And bless with solemn quietude, that thus
The still, small voice of God might speak to us?”
7. “THE STREAM AND I” TRT: 2:09
“We ramble on, the stream and I,
Still singing, still companionless.
We run to find, beneath the sky,
Some arid spot, some life to bless.
The brook is dreaming of the sea;
But I, fond spirit, dream of thee.
“The brook’s bright waters flow and flow;
All lush and green his track appears;
And it is given me to know
Some choral of the chanting spheres.
Our lives are tuneful as the birds,
With rippled song and gentle words.
“And if, sometimes, we lurk apart
In secret grot or covert dale,
To bide a space and gather heart,
“Anon we’re laughing down the vale.
Through rain or tears our forces swell,
We find the sun and all is well – all is well
“Through rain or tears our forces swell
We find the sun and all is well
“The stream and I.”
8. “STEVIE” TRT: 1:42
“Although its residents abuse Shepherdstown very much, and are frequently heard to wish passionately that they lived anywhere else, yet it exercises a curious fascination over all who have once found it out come back to it again and again.
“But I call Shepherdstown gruesome because it keeps up the old custom of tolling the church bell for a funeral. The biggest thing belonging to Dawdleton, or Shepherdstown, is its graveyard, which lies on the turnpike between Rosebrake and the village. The farmer folk for many miles around lay their dead in this old grave-
yard, and deaths so common that one or other of the seven church spires announces a new one nearly every day. You pause involuntarily in whatever you may be doing to count the strokes. What with the rows of tombstones in full view from my hammock, and with all this tolling, I am in no danger of forgetting my latter end.
“This custom of Shepherdstown does not tend to promote hilarity in its inhabitants.
“Ah me! My thoughts go back to the time when there was a little boy here to fill the lonely old house with joy. One day, he was helping “Aunt Kate,” and he said to her:
“Tell me somsin else to do for you Aunt Tatie, I’m twyin’ to be a little Twistian child. I know I’d like it.”
9. “AYRE” TRT: 0:54
“Ah Stevie, Stevie! You have long been a heavenly child. Do you like it, dear, do you like it?
“I spend many lonely hours, and if it were not for the baby, and the kittens, and the garden, I don’t know what would become of me. With these blessings, and a few books, the world may be forgotten.”
10. “WINGS” TRT: 2:32
“Shall we know in the Hereafter
All the reasons that are hid?
Does the butterfly remember
What the caterpillar did?
How he waited, toiled, and suffered
To become the chrysalid.
“When we creep so slowly upward;
When each day new burden brings;
When we strive so hard so conquer
Vexing sublunary things;
When we wait and toil and suffer,
We are working for our wings.
“When we wait and toil and suffer,
We are working for our wings.
“How he waited, toiled, and suffered
To become the chrysalid.
“When we creep so slowly upward;
When each day new burden brings;
When we strive so hard so conquer
Vexing sublunary things;
When we wait and toil and suffer,
We are working for our wings.
When we wait and toil and suffer,
We are working for our wings.
11. “HOPE” TRT: 2:21
“Ah me! what battles I have fought!
I would I knew the rune that lays
The swarming shades of weary days
That take the lonely House of Thought!
“A restless rabble, unsubdued;
A wild and haggard multitude;
Distorted shapes that spring from tears,
And torments born of wedded fears.
“Sometimes, amid the changing rout,
A rainbowed figure glides about,
And from her brightness, like the day,
The whimpling shadows slink away.
The whimpling shadows slink away
“I know that lyre of seven strings;
The seven colors of her wings;
The seven blossoms of her crown; –
“Where violets twine for amethyst;
Small lilies white as silk-weed down;
There myrtle sprays her locks have kissed;
And pansies that are beryl blue;
And varied roses, rich of hue;
With iridescent loving eyes
Of buds that bloom in Paradise.
“Come often, thou eternal child!
“New-string thy lyre and sing to me.
“Thy voice ecstatic, fresh and wild,
Enthralls each dark-browed phantasy
Enthralls each dark-browed phantasy.
“Beyond the walls she bids me peer
To see a Future, dim and dear;
“Sweet faces shining through the mist
Like children waiting to be kissed;
“A lovely land that knows not pain;
Atlantis land beyond Life’s main,
“Where we who love may love again –
Ah me! Is this beyond the plan
Of God’s beneficence to man?”
12. “SYMPATHY” (Piano solo) TRT: 2:44
13. “BOOKS AS MEDIUMS” TRT: 3:46
“When I go out to the hammock in the leisurely afternoon, I debate within myself what spirit shall be my companion. Books are mediums, and by them we live in communion with the spirits of the absent or the departed.
“For the garden I want very choice company. Jeffries, Thoreau, Burroughs, and among poets, Chaucer, Spencer, Wordsworth are favored guests. My test for a book in the summer is – Will it do to read under the trees? Almost all good poetry is adapted to out-of-door reading. All that rings false or hollow, all novels of fashionable life, or ignoble ambition are as out of place in the grave and reverend company of trees as a painted and bedizened woman of the world would be.
“History cannot peacefully be read in the hammock because it is too harrowing. The grove is no fit arena for marchings and counter-marchings, massacres, and bloody victories.
“I choose my companions very carefully for this, my hour or two or peace, after the work of the day is over. I do not want any book that would jar the quiet harmony of sky and cloud, and tree-tops, or disturb the brooding calm of the hills.
“Pure, not too strenuous love stories gain a fresh charm read in this manner, and so do fairy stories and romances, for which I still have a weakness. I think I will have to complete my shelf with children’s books, such as Hans Christian Anderson, and Hawthorne’s Wonder Book, and Mrs. Ewing’s stories, at least the most cheerful of them. After all, we have to go to the children’s bookcases for cheerfulness nowadays.
“It has not yet become the fashion to write pessimistic literature for them, thank heaven! When children’s books become morbid, I will no longer have any hope for the human race.
“Lillian Whiting says that it is everyone’s duty to be happy. The young ladies scour the country in search of Amusement going ten miles to a dance, and coming home to lie in bed all the morning. I stay quietly in my hammock, and not Amusement; but better far, her sister, Enjoyment, comes to me unsolicited. She floats on the swan-white clouds; glows in the sunsets rises in the pages of books. She closes my eyes at night, wakes me up with me in the morning, and her other name is Content.”
14. “DREAMS” TRT: 2:55
“Run with me, elves, and lay me on that bed
Bud-strewn beneath my cirque of sister trees,
Where – through the young Moon hath embroidered
Faint soothing-spell in silver traceries;
Run with me, for I feel the need of dreams;
Earth palls, and naught is fair but that which seems.
“Fashion thin horns of blossom-tubes and blow;
Tinkle the lucent pebbles of the rill;
Fetch me a mating bird to twitter low;
Spin sounds of night, fine-drawn, remote and shrill;
“And let that elfin whom I hold most dear
Whisper a certain name within mine ear.
“Then, while I sleep, the very tender Moon
Ne’er dreamed such sport with her Endymion,
Nor any love-rapt mortal, late or soon,
Such snatch of rapture from the Immortals won
“As I, that, waking, have become so dull,
But in my dreams, so glad and beautiful.
“As I, that, waking, have become so dull,
But in my dreams, so glad and beautiful.
15. “BIRDS & FLOWERS” TRT: 5:32
“Being alone I am quite happy today. I am generally happy when I am out of doors, with nothing at all to worry me, and when the birds sing, and the air is sweet. It’s so beautiful here today that I can do nothing but take deep breaths of joy. The many birds that are as happy as I am do not seem to find me in their way. They are so used to my presence that they go on with their daily avocations as if I were quite in the family.
“The cat-bird comes to give me all the gossip of the garden. I love the Carolina wren. He is such a dear little dunce. He has a stock repertoire of at least a dozen songs or sayings, all equally artless, not to say idiotic, and he seems equally pleased with them all. He reminds of a man who will be singing snatches of songs all day long, although he has no ear for music and is never in tune. They have built themselves a nest inside the shutters of my sitting room window and do not care whether they are twin souls or not. Twin souls, the philosophers say, seldom find each other, but in some happier star. Is it not a pity that we are such complex beings?
“Almost all the country homes in this County and quite all the towns are spoiled to sensitive ears by the sharp, quite incessant chirp of the English sparrow, that wretched little intruder that makes me think of Poe’s lines: “They are neither man nor woman; They are neither brute nor human; They are ghouls.”
“If they are not ghouls, they are imps, not worthy of the name of birds. They only typify the worst rabble element of a great people. They think they own the earth; and they want all the best places in it; and they rob and quarrel, and fight, and are, cruel, and I don’t know anything good about them at all.
“Every spring we open a campaign against them, and give no quarter as long as a male remains on the place. We shoot them, and we broil them, and eat them on hot buttered toast. They are fat and juicy with rapine and plunder of our gardens. In eating them, I have learned to understand the pleasure that cannibals take in devouring their enemies.
“A blind man could tell the time of year in this garden from earliest April until the last fragrant flowers are killed by frost. First comes the Almond blossom, late in March or early in April, followed quickly by the blossoming Plums … Sweet odors have a great charm for me, and I am a sort of epicure of perfumes. I make pot-pourri with which I fill jars, and set them in every room. I stuff pillows with prepared rose-leaves, and also with aromatic Pine needles. I buy essential oils and experiment with them, and make my own toilet waters.
“The other day I gathered a bouquet of fragrant flowers. These were Lavender, Lemon-Thyme, Melissa Balm, the aromatic Caryopteris, Lemon-Scented Verbena, Petunias, Mignonette, a belated Rose or two Sweet Alyssum, and some Saponaria, which is a weed in the Wild Garden. To this was added a few sprays of Sweet-Brier, and leaves of Rose, Lemon, and Nutmeg Geranium. It was a rare medley of odors.
“Just now there is such a blending of rich colors in the garden that the blind man might be puzzled to distinguish between them. That spicy whiff is from the group of hybrid Sweetbriers. Under my window the Mock Oranges are almost overpoweringly sweet . . . If I stray beneath the Paulownia tree, the blare of its purple trumpets overcomes me, and I must beat a hasty retreat. This is perhaps an idiosyncrasy, as I never heard of anyone else who was made faint by its heavy unwholesome exhalations.
16. “SOCIETY FOR SUPPRESSION OF NUISANCES” TRT: 4:49
“I wish that a Society for the Suppression of Nuisances could be formed in every country neighborhood and that it would take stringent measures to supress the Unwelcome Guest. In this part of the world the doer of one’s house is supposed to be always wide open to all comers. We have to keep up the traditions of our ancestors before the war and because the southern planters were flooded with visitors all summer, we, too, in spite of changed conditions of things, must observe the sacred laws of hospitality, however inconvenient they may be. In the North they are wiser than we, and do these things better. You are invited for a certain number of days and you don’t overstay your time. You don’t go unless you are asked, and, presumably, you are not asked unless you are wanted.
“It is far otherwise with us. If a relation, no matter how distant, or a friend of a relation; or a friend of a friend; or a friend of a friend’s relation, comes within fifty miles of you, you are bound to invite him or her – it almost always her – to your house for an indefinite stay. The cook may be ill or non-existent; the children may all have the measles, you may be half-dead yourself, but no matter. Nothing matters, except that the laws of hospitality be not infringed.
“When your guest after driving you to the verge or over the verge of nervous prostration, finally wearies of you, and proposes to depart in search of new victims, you must set your teeth and urge her to stay as if your future salvation depended upon it.
“When you have guests you must not leave them to their own devices an hour. You cannot go and shut yourself into your room for a quiet morning’s work; you cannot laze in the hammock through a long afternoon; you must exert yourself to be entertaining every minute of the day and half the night, except when you are preparing delicacies in the kitchen over a steaming stove. It is always the hottest weather that the Unwelcome Guest makes her appearance.
“It is so easy for husbands to be hospitable!! When time is up, he insists upon a longer stay and that so urgently that he will not take no for an answer. He does not have to keep house, nor instruct the cook in the art of dessert-making when the kitchen thermometer marks 98 degrees. He is only conscious of an agreeable listener to the stories his wife got tired of so many years ago. And he enjoys eating the desserts.
“The Unexpected Guest is almost always the Unwelcome Guest.
“The wish to escape from the untimely visitor has often inspired me with the desire to live in a tree. Everyone should have some safe refuge from the cares and trials of housekeeping. If I could manage it, I would have a secret stair built in the heart of our giant Oaks, which should lead to an eyrie at the summit, hidden from all eyes. Into this peaceful nest I would disappear upon occasion; say just as undesirable carriage wheels were heard approaching the house. From my airy perch I would calmly survey the coming and going of the curious, myself unseen, unheard. How cool, how care-free, how bird-like! I would be, in my safe seclusion! I am afraid I should burst into song for very glee and thus betray my secret.”
17. “THE FAIRY CAMP” TRT: 1:58
“What did I see in the woods, to-day?
I saw a fairies’ gypsy-camp.
The tents were toadstools, brown and gray,
Among the bracken, soiled and damp.
I called on a cowslip ‘mid the green,
“And borrowed a bit of fairy gold,
And then I found the gypsy-queen,
And so I had my fortune told.
“Ah, yes, she told me a secret true,
“That wild-eyed gypsy, brown and red!
But I may not tell it out to you,
“For that would break the charm, she said.
And if you seek them by yourself
You will not find that strolling band;
They have pilfered the wild bees’ hoarded pelf,
And flitted away to another land.
“What did I see in the woods, to-day?
“I saw a fairies” gypsy-camp.
The tents were toadstools, brown and gray,
“Among the bracken, soiled and damp.
I called on a cowslip ‘mid the green,
And borrowed a bit of fairy gold,
And then I found the gypsy-queen,
And so I had my fortune told.
“Ah, yes, she told me a secret true,
“That wild-eyed gypsy, brown and red!
“But I may not tell it out to you,
“For that would break the charm, she said.
And if you seek them by yourself
You will not find that strolling band;
They have pilfered the wild bees’ hoarded pelf,
And flitted away to another land.
18. “MOONRISE” TRT: 5:26
“Last night, I lay alone in the darkening garden. It was very still except for the shrilling of the crickets and cicadas and the beat of hoofs and rolling of wheels on the high roads, that came up to me, softened by distance.
“The head of the house was away; the servants had gone to their cabins.
“The moths flitted about the Evening Primroses and the Four-o-clocks; the climbing Rose on the fence bloomed in many white clusters, with a faint odor of musk. The Jasmine near by made the air heavy with fragrance, and many groups of white Speciosum Lilies and white Phlox glimmered in the growing dusk.
“It grew late, and I waited for the moon to rise. She came at last, sending her white radiance in advance, blanching the thin clouds above her in the eastern sky. It seemed a fire on the mountains at the first glimpse of her. Slowly, she rose, shedding her waning light upon the garden.
“The night was so beautiful and so calm, that I felt awed. And as I lay in the stillness, I thought of all the old house had known, and of my life there, step by step. How I had played under the Oaks of the grove, and wandered about the fields with my brother, all the long careless days of childhood.
“We invented games for every part of the place, a special one for the back piazza, another for the front verandah, a most exciting one called “Deer and Lion” for the upstairs passage and communicating bedrooms, on rainy days. The rock-brakes in the fields were our kingdoms, and a field of corn a mighty unexplored forest in which we lost our way.
“And then they all came back to me, all the dear faces that I had loved, long since, and lost awhile.
“The garden was peopled with them, my friends of the long ago, they were all there, father mother, sister, and radiant child, and many others, friends, playmates, teachers, They moved about softly, with gentle steps, they filled the circle of vacant chairs by the hammock, left by the guests of the afternoon.
“I was not troubled nor afraid: The dim white figures came and went so tranquilly, they smiled at me so tenderly, and all their faces wore a look of pitying love.
“It was an exalted dreaming, but it seemed to me that each one had brought me a blessing, and that I received consolation and uplifting from each.
“I thought of the broad charity, the warm-hearted generosity, and unsullied honor of one; the beautiful helpfulness and unselfishness of another, the brother’s heroic spirit; the sister’s nobility; and the joyous innocence of the child. And I besought them to help me to grow every day worthier to be one of them. They nodded gravely and kindly, and then it was as if they joined hands and sang together, words of heavenly promise and benediction.
“They faded slowly away, up, up, where the white clouds waited for them, and the pure voices sounded fainter, and fainter and I awakened from my reveries, and went very slowly and softly into the house, and left the old garden to watch, in the moon’s company, through the tranquilly summer night.
Copyright, 2000, James T. Surkamp a combination of writing by Danske Dandridge.
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These poems by Danske Dandridge were arranged into song and recorded and performed by Terry Tucker. Ardyth Gilbertson vocalist. Called “A Lantern in a Poet’s Garden.”
WHAT IS “THE DANSKE MAGIC”?
Danske Dandridge’s writings take root slowly – on spring’s eve. A rose root is to soil as a brilliant word-stroke is to an unlit mind. Only the best, most precious enter Danske’s secret garden. A phrase is turned and we wait.
She has been, since she died, a unique puzzle piece taken from the rich landscape of her historic region. All too different to fit anywhere well.
Danske Dandridge was hailed by some as the greatest of poets; by others, a spinster of “dainty,” crumpet-poems, one washes down with tea. The blinkered latter lot cart-wheeled over her oceanic, moonlit railings, assuming them lapses – not in their own fumbling grasp – but in her lady-like manners. If she did not meet their expectations, it was because her expectations were much higher. Victorian culture-police gasped when the more primitive Danske bristled at cabin fevers, “like a caged wild animal.” Even more insidious was the damage of being mis-filed by the “Harper’s” reviewer, squandering praise on this “Dane’s excellent second language.” (She was born in Denmark while her Virginian father served as his nation’s first ambassador to that country).
For me, it began twelve years ago with an article in the local “Good News Paper” by Alexandra Lee Levin, a distant relation of Danske’s, who tipped open, for a peek, the heavy, oaken lid on this fairytale world. Then another associate, Dr. Bill Theriault, appealed to my researcher’s love for new troves of value, telling me she wrote some 200 gardening articles to add to her three history books I know and use.
My pilgrimage to the some 10,000 documents called the “Bedinger-Dandridge Collection” at Duke University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Division tore off the veil and revealed a trembling, brave, extraordinary woman. Her diaries are present, direct, blunt, droll – all pulsing with an aching heart, wishing for a world beyond and all seamless beauties. As I whispered her diary entries into a micro casette recorder, I felt as if this glistening, shadowy world and Universe was beginning to take me into its enchantment. I was becoming a member of the Dandridge family – Totsie, Stevie, Stephen, Serena, with Tom and Charity Devonshire lifting “the heavy end.” They all mixed the mundane, ethereal and every day at the stately home called Rose Brake – coping within “moderate means.” The enchantress herself, with Tom behind the spade, waved into being a grove of oaks, a garden with over a hundred varieties of roses and over 500 species of tree and plant life until Rose Brake was a kingdom.
I’ve seldom found anyone whose faded, pencil markings can still make me laugh and cry from the remote distance of a century and a day’s drive from their homestead. Rose Brake lingers in the mind’s eye just above the still-standing, garden-less home, a magical world Danske left for us, to tend its unfading flowers, a secret garden of our own.
– Jim Surkamp, Director/Producer
Thanks to the Shenandoah-Potomac Garden Club, the West Virginia Humanities Council, the Arts and Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts; the Boarman Arts Center and its director, Patty Perez, for sponsoring these grants; Dr. Linda McCurdy, the director of Duke’s Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts; Dr. Bill Theriault; Mr. Leon Washington; Ted Goldsborough, a descendant of Ms. Dandridge; Graphic Designer Shane Brenizer for his unforgettable poster; and Emil Loomis, who looked over Danske’s writings with a visually trained eye and master gardener’s sensibility.
Danske Dandridge Facebook page (poems biography)
The Spirit of Shepherdstown – Danske Dandridge (in her own words, mostly) by Jim Surkamp
1 – I am inspired tonight. Poetic numbers swelling from my soul will have their vent. Tis my destiny to write – NARRATOR: She is about five feet two inches in height, slender figure, carries herself very gracefully, has a very small head, beautiful brown soft hair, dark complexion, gray eyes; soft, low voice, very sweet and full of feeling and a quiet, low but very casual laugh; her eyes are very expressive and in constant use.
2 – Prefers Thackeray, Dickens, Jean Ingelow, Tennyson, Longfellow. . . Evidently has a quick temper, but is generally of an easy disposition. . . . full of Mischief. Caroline “Danske” Bedinger was born in Copenhagen on the 19th of November, 1854. She was the youngest child of Henry Bedinger of Virginia and Caroline Lawrence of Flushing, New York, an offspring of two strongly individualistic families – the little girl destined from the cradle to charm her fellows all unconsciously.
3 – She swayed those she met with a subtle way queer to some, denied to others, but inborn and ineradicable as the years go by – and I suppose after years eternity will but carry on the beginnings of individuality begun here on earth – rolled, beaten, tried and tested during our earthly years. Two years before her birth, the Honorable Henry Bedinger had been sent as the first minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Denmark with the special object of negotiating a treaty with Denmark’s King whereby American ships should be allowed to enter the Baltic through the straits, free of duty. Late in the evening a shy man would often emerge in the King’s court seeking Henry Bedinger for a chess game – Hans Christian Anderson, the children’s story spinner.
4 In November, 1858, Henry Bedinger had indeed come home to Shepherdstown and his family to great joy. Daughters Danske and Mary watched from a window from their home at the southwest corner of Princess and German Street. In the center of the street that November night was a huge bonfire, and her father’s joyous, speechifying face shone in the hot blaze making his old friends cheer more and more. Then, his daughters noticed the adults in their house had become silent, huddled. Their father, after six years in Denmark, had come home. Without warning pneumonia had taken him.
5 Danske remembered him distinctly. She was her fathers’ pet, his “little witch,” and he gave her the name “Danske,” – meaning “little Dane” – because she was born in Denmark and because in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act II, Scene I Polonius told Reynaldo – LORD POLONIUS You shall do marvelous wisely, good Reynaldo, Before you visit him, to make inquire of his behavior. REYNALDO: My lord, I did intend it. LORD POLONIUS: Very, well said; very well said. Look you, sir, Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
6 Danske’s mother, as a widow, with her three children, had built an addition to an old house south of the village with woodwork of black walnut so common in those days, and there she took her young family just before the storm of the war. She let the storm roll over her head in Shepherdstown with friends – rather than retire in safety to family in Flushing, New York The Bedinger children also seemed to have taken to writing books as ducks to water They all complained that paper was too scarce and too “hard to write on,” but they utilized every scrap that came to them. Danske’s foil was poetry with a few romantic stories for good measure.
7 Minnie, I’m told, was fairy tales, with which she could enthrall her younger brother and sister. “Danske,” was already a prodigious writing talent. Of little Danske it can be said “the ink was in the baby: she was born to write a book,” and she was. It was not long out of the cradle before she began to wield her pen. As she presented a book of original poetry, “A Present” to The Hon. A. R. Boteler with a note in the book saying that he must excuse the writing, as the paper was hard to write on, and compared to Shakespeare and Milton were not so good either. Another note calls attention to the fact that the “thee”‘s and “thou”‘s are customarily used instead of “you” s in poetry, and apologizes for a few “you’s that had slipped in.
8 NARRATOR: The date is now 1962 ARDYTH: To my cousin Netta Your cheeks are red as the rose That in the garden doth repose, Surrounded with its lovely foes The queen of all the flowers NARRATOR – Danske wrote in her diary: Poplar Grove April 4, 1862 Danske only 8 years old. As this was done in a hurry it is not straight and written well.
9 Minnie My sister is beautiful as a summer’s day My sister she is as beautiful as a flower in May I also love my Sister dear. I love her Yes My readers hear My name is Danske Bedinger And on this page you see The name which I so much adore The name is Harry Lee Then do not scorn me when I write This little song for thee Thou art my heart’s true delight My darling Harry Lee
10 Then take O take this little note I meant it but for thee And do not scorn me when I say My darling Harry Lee NARRATOR: When, on September 19th, 1862, Poplar Grove, their home, was the center of random artillery shelling from Federal batteries on Maryland’s Ferry Hill, all of Danske’s family hurried and became safely ensconced in their cellar. But seven-year-old Danske stayed behind despite the family’s pleadings to join them in the room below. Finally she closed her reading matter, R. M. Ballantyne’s ‘Coral Island’ and remarked:
11 ARDYTH : ‘Now I can tell my descendants that I finished a book during a battle!’ NARRATOR: Gaining in wartime sophistication – the three Bedinger children watched an artillery duel from their porch called “the Gregg Fight” on July 16, 1863. ARDYTH : A brigade of Federal Cavalry had been encamped on our place for several days. An officer borrowed from Mrs. Bedinger upon request a book from our library – Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Minstrel. About noon we heard artillery firing in the distance.
12 The Federals immediately prepared for battle, the men dismounting to fight as infantry. They had several guns with them – perhaps one battery – and these they placed on the crest of a low hill about one hundred yards south of the gate of the Grove on the other side (west) of the pike. We sat on the back porch, and looking through the front hall could plainly see the fight on the extreme left. The Confederates drew nearer, and pretty soon there was a lively artillery duel. We were on the porch just out of the direct line of the firing, until the Union battery was struck and silenced by a Confederate shell.
13 My mother was thinking that she would never see the book again, but just at dusk an orderly rode up to the house with the book in his hand and saying that the officer who had borrowed it was in an ambulance at the gate and wounded. NARRATOR: The date is now August 22, 1864 – Federal Gen. David Hunter ordered the burning of Bedford, the childhood home of Danske’s father, near Poplar Grove. The hewn timbers of her childhood home still smoking, 54-year-old Henrietta Bedinger Lee, her 20-year-old daughter, “Netta” and the 54-year-old, freed family servant, Peggy Washington, sought refuge at Poplar Grove. Nine-year-old Danske heard their waves of sorrow and anger:
14 and young Danske wrote of it: ARDYTH: To Hunter: O cruel serpent. King of scorpions thou. Curse on thy barb’rous act! May never the Goddess of Pity send her smile Upon thy blasted heart! Behold on yonder verdant hill a house once stood. It was the house of love, of peace and glee. How soon that home was rendered desolate By whom? Oh Hunter ’twas by thee!
15 NARRATOR With so many soldiers passing, food was scarce in the Grove and the family lived largely on cornbread and dried apples. Once, little Danske’s health was very bad. She was smuggled through Yankee sentinels along the Potomac and then in a sleigh to Baltimore and to a celebrated doctor there. On the return journey they waited ’till midnight at Douglas’ Ferry Hill for the boat that was to ferry them across. While waiting I am told little Danske feasted on the books of Captain Douglas’ fine library. The children also had a private governess a Miss Griffith who must have been a highly competent teacher and their eager minds developed rapidly.
16 NARRATOR: After the war at Miss Williams’ school, Danske graduated at the head of her class, completing six years of boarding school education. ARDYTH: Tuesday – Missed no lessons. Got two letters, one from Harry and one from Minnie. May go to Staunton to have my teeth fixed. Mrs. Meade has consented to it. It is all arranged. On Friday I will go. How glad I am. We all went to a concert tonight. I walked with Minnie Mahee. It was only 55 cents and well worth it. When we came home I had a grand fuss with horrid Irene as I of course took up with Minnie Mahee. Played croquet in evening.
17 Why can I not lift the veil that hides my future, just a little way Alas! I am inspired tonight. Poetic numbers swelling from my soul will have their vent. Tis my destiny to write. NARRATOR: From a Letter from Willow Bank, N.Y. Nov 16, 1870, Dear Young America Magazine editor: ARDYTH: I have a proposition to make to you of which I have been for some time thinking . It is more nor less than to offer myself at moderate terms as a regular contributor to your pretty little magazine.
18 I flatter myself I know just what you want – sensible, probably and amusing stories, or improving bits of knowledge, and with all due modesty I may say that I shall do my best to please you if I am employed. Wednesday – August 9, 1876 – This is the morning of the great eventful day. Last evening we were to have a Rehearsal. I am to be a bridesmaid and the groomsman chosen for me is Mr. Stephen Dandridge and they say he’s the handsomest and most fascinating gentleman of them all! NARRATOR: (A. S. Dandridge III) August 18, 1876 – Dear Miss Bedinger
19 I am afraid that I have done something to worry you and though I do not know my offense, I am so sorry. Will you not show your forgiveness by letting me take you to the Leavells on Tuesday? Respectfully, A.S.D. ARDYTH: September 1, 1876 – he begged me to take him out under the apple trees. We strolled around and at last sat down under a spreading tree on the grass and O how happy we were! Dear Steve, I believe he loves me with all the warmth of a very deep and very passionate nature and O how different he is from poor Francis Greene.
20 NARRATOR: In her diary, Danske wrote: May 3, 1877 – Married April, 1879 – Moved to the Grove with their infant first born, Serena. ARDYTH: I was a very young wife then full of zeal and ignorance, and I was so callow as to invite a house-full of ministers and friends to come and stay with me through Council. The babies were small. I had a good-natured but very inefficient nurse. Council began. All the guests came and brought their friends with them.
21 We kept open house. This cook sat in a rocking-chair in the kitchen and cried. Her baby was old enough to be in mischief every moment and its lungs were strong. The cook cried and all the babies cried, and the nurse and I cooked and the Council wore its weary length away. I gave the Bishop a dinner, I believe, but most of my recollections of that weird time are compounded of never ceasing backache, headache, and a choice assortment of other aches dispersed about my wretched person and of utterly sleepless nights. There was a sense that the foundations of everything were giving way and that I had nothing to cling to, to save me from some frightful abyss.
22 The Council took place in smiling June and in tearful April I was at last carried to a hospital. Not a minister shall enter my house, except over my dead body! I am not afraid of all the ministers of the world now, for I shall be visiting the Congressional Library, the Botanical Garden and reveling in ferneries, rockeries, books, and flowers. Happy Happy me!
23. ARDYTH: When I began to be interested in gardening I planned a retreat that’s to be of animal loveliness. How easy it is to have such a garden in one’s heart!! 24. The Shenandoah Valley Rail stopped for me at steps behind Rose Brake. In Washington, I could research on botany and my ancestors and enjoy the friction of daily life of the city. Davenport agreed to give me the diary of my great-uncle, Henry Bedinger, from the Revolution. The little farm was then a natural forest of old oaks and tulip trees some of them eighty feet and a hundred feet, and girthing from fourteen to nineteen feet. We turned out the grazing cattle and to give a chance for the native Virginia creepers to turn many rock brakes into beauty.
25. Tom Devonshire, a short strong African man who fought for the North in the late war, assisted during these days of splendid reformation.
26. The sound of the patter of the big drops on the tin roof of the verandah outside my window was such an unusual one that I could scarcely believe my ears.
27. The Poppy is a very careless packer. Her fine dress came out of its trunk in many crumples, which take her maid, the breeze, several hours to smooth . But she does not care, beautiful, disorderly creature that she is.
28. Oh blessed people who see their gods spring up in their gardens!!
29. Do they not breathe lovely confidences into my ears every day?
30. Surely ugliness is the only sin of which flowers are capable, and that is usually man’s fault, who will not leave Nature alone.
31. NARRATOR: Writing in her diary: ARDYTH: September 11, 1883 – Margarette Lippincott visited and showed me her poems and I began to write poetry again.
32. NARRATOR: Danske’s poems written between September 1883 and February 1885: January 1884 If We Could Look and Assess The Years, April 1884 The Empty Heart, July 1884 Carrier Doves, Two Hours Under The Greenswood Tree by A Civilian, August 1884 A Lament for Sidney Lanier, I Will Not See Thee More,
33. To My Husband When Baby Died, Four Leaf Clover, To My Comrade Tree, October 1884 When I Have Lain In The Wood, Separation, Knight Errant, Comfort, November 1884 Chrysanthemum, The Vision, The Trance, Spring Song, Beulah,
34. Affliction, Prayer for a Tempted Soul, Shadowland, December 1884 Wings, The Lover in the Woods, Suppose January 1885 Lost At Sea, The Dove in The Field, The Doves Play On,, Some Children Playing My Companion, February 1885 Aspiration
35.ARDYTH: February, 1885 – My first poem published by Godey’s! To fully enjoy a summer out of doors one should not take a daily newspaper. We are put here for such a little while. Why should we hate, and vex, and trouble one another? How much better it is to raise wheat and cabbages peacefully, than to go and lay waste other people’s grain fields and cabbage patches.
36. All the morning. I stay quietly in my hammock, and not Amusement; but better far, her sister, Enjoyment, comes to me unsolicited. She floats on the swan-white clouds; glows in the sunsets rises in the pages of books. She closes my eyes at night, wakes me up with me in the morning, and her other name is Content.
37. NARRATOR: The date is January, 1897 ARDYTH To Memory – I have known thee when thy mood is black; When wild Regret had clutched thee, as a prey; And I have marked thee shudder, looking back. . . Sometimes he would swing himself up to a tree-branch and gaze down with his face of loving interest on the little children with their readings. He would say: “They are like fairies.”
38. (A neighbor once said of him:)) ARDYTH CONTINUED: It makes me happy just to see him about as he hunts with his dog in the fields. He looks so holy and sweet and bright. He would seem more a child of the skies than of earth as he used to lie for hours on the grass with his face upturned to heaven and radiant with the thoughts within from which came such rich fruit. And almost his last word to me was to ask me if I were warm enough and to beg me to draw the cover over my shoulders when I lay down upon my cot in his room.
39. NARRATOR: THE NIGHT-WATCH by Danske Dandridge ARDYTH: A shrouded woman sits through the dark night Upon the old roots of an oak, alone; She hears the wind; she sees no point of light: She rocks herself, and cries, and maketh moan.
40. The night grows wilder, and the owl is out, The field-mice tremble to his shivering cry, The mad wind beats the homeless leaves about, Thin shapes of evil souls are hurtled by. “O little form that I may never fold! Beyond my empty arms my baby stands: NARRATOR: Danske wrote: (A Winter Snuggery Many winter days are dark and stormy. It rains; or it snows; or the wind howls; and the outer prospect is comfortless. Being obliged to spend a winter in the country for the sake of the health of the children,
41. I determined to have a room in which they would be able to play without disturbing the elders, and where they could always feel at liberty to invite their little friends. It was to be, pre-eminently, the children’s room, but it proved so decidedly the pleasantest room in the house, that the grown-ups were found there as often as the little ones. . . . I will describe the furnishing of this simple room, that you may see how little is required to make such a snuggery – the old Baghdad couch-cover in its five stripes, a dingy old battered mahogany desk and a stained lop-sided centre-table. Every member of the family contributed some treasure.
42. Last of all the flower table was brought and put in the south west window and some Fern, and Palms, and a few Begonias set in the opposite window. So the play-room has become the plant-room as well, and is the most comfortable room in the house. It is time to order seeds. I write to publish my poems and, with that money I buy seeds for our collection of over a hundred varieties of roses that delight us for seven months of the year.
43. The Goodman has become a confirmed idler, I fear and in vain spent all my own energy in trying to persuade him to take his place with the workers and lift us out of poverty into which we have fallen. My own small income alone saves us from destitution. His chief delight is to discuss politics with his cronies in the little village. I often wonder that I am so good to him. He has made my life terrible – and yet because he is affectionate I am fond of him – I cling to him.
44. Yes, the sweet summer lingers still; The hares loiter on the hill; The year, a spendthrift growing old, Is scattering his lavish gold For a last pleasure. The robins flock, but would not go; We share the word with footsteps slow, In sober leisure, Or sit beneath the chestnut-tree, Our hands in silent company. Not yet, dear friend, we part, not yet; Full soon the last warm sun will set; The cricket cease to stir the grass; The gold and amber fade away;
45. When one wearies of the rich yellows and reds of the autumn garden there is nothing so refreshing to the eyes as a bed of cool white blossoms with a setting and backgrounds of green. The collection of shrubs, trees and plants has been formed gradually until the little arboretum now boasts of more than five hundred varieties of shrubs and other plants – all very beautiful results that can be made with a very small outlay of not more than thirty dollars and the help of Tom and Charity Devonshire. NARRATOR: The Beginning of a Romance
46. He gazed as he would read my soul And I – the flowing skies — But through and through, in every pulse, I felt those gazing eyes. The sun had set – and yet -and yet We sat beneath the stars He stirred – his breath came fast – he said “Sweetheart let down the bars.” It was a wild and lonely hill, And in the long grass at my feet You lay: the breeze was almost still, Poising on airy wings, and sweet With clover breath of resting cows; The light fell softly through the boughs; That light was dear for dear Love’s sake: ‘T was there our hearts began to wake.
47. NARRATOR: A Young Attraction I do not wish to be free, nor to marry Reinhold – poor unhappy wanderer that he is. I told Reinhold not to mention when he wrote to me that he had seen me in Washington. Steve does not know that. I let him come to see me. I do this because I must have some friends and interests apart from the dull routine at home or lose my mind. I could not be without some friends. And Steve is so jealous and so overbearing and so unreasonable. He expects me to endure a life of terrible loneliness year in and year out during his life. I tried it twenty years and more I have tried it and I have no strength to go on.
48. Usually Steve insists on showing him Reinhold’s letters. He has no right to do so. Because he tricked me into an unhappy marriage. I deny absolutely that he has any right over me. I am free to do as I please. Poor Steve O if we only had money enough to live, in the city, or in some pleasant neighborhood. He was raised with servants on every hand, even once having his shirts pressed and ironed when he was a soldier in the Rockbridge Artillery. How glorious it would be – a lovely life could still be if a man, young wealthy and handsome and a count adored me!
49. William Lucas writes that Count Von Rosen is an imposter. He said the true Count confronted him in Court. Of course I cannot believe a word of all this and yet there is certainly something mysterious about his behavior. May God help me. I ought to be happy or at least content for my husband loves me dearly.
50. God forgive me for being so restless and disconnected. I must take up the burden of life again as cheerfully as I can. Alas! The days go on, dear; How dulled the daylight seems, Since you went down the road, dear. And left me to my dreams Left me to bear my weary load As I toil after, down the road.
51. NARRATOR: “To my Comrade Tree by Danske Dandridge ARDYTH: Are you glad, my big brother, my deep-hearted oak? Are you glad in each open palm-leaf? Do you joy to be God’s? Does it thrill you with living delight? Are you sturdy in stalwart belief? As you stand day and night, As you stand through the nights and the days, Do you praise?
52. If one wishes to be taken into the intimate confidence of a great tree, and to get the full enjoyment of its strength and beauty, she should lie upon her back on the greensward beneath it, cross her arms under her head by way of a pillow, and let the eye climb slowly up the mighty trunk from root to topmost limb. Thus I have lain beneath an ancient White Oak; thus watching the infinitely varied play of light and shade through the dense foliage; thus noted the delicate tracery of the leaves against the blue of the sky and learned by heart each wrinkle of its rugged bark.
53. This is the way to study the varying characteristics of trees, and to learn many a sylvan secret only revealed to the real lovers of nature, upon whom she has graciously bestowed eyes to see and the heart to feel her beauty and her mystery. I have spent a summer afternoon moving slowly from trunk to trunk from Oak to Maple to Sour Gum, from Gum to Walnut, and then to Ash, to Poplar, and back again to the old White Oak, most satisfying of all. Sometime the sun would smile upon me through an opening in the boughs, or a light-hearted vireo warble a lullaby; the orioles whistle plaintively;
54. the friendly squirrels pretend to scold, and scurry away from branch to branch, only to hasten back to peep again and drop a tiny acorn on my cheek. The great white clouds sailing far overhead; a distant hawk leisurely cleaving the air on his strong wings; a few drops from a flying scud – all these become stirring incidents, fraught with healing and refreshments to the heat-worn and weary brain of the house-dweller. Should the eyes close into delicious slumber the great tree stands guard over its puny visitor, filling one with a sense of security and of being cared for as by a mighty and gentle nurse.
55. Play on my soul, thou Spirit from the skies! And with me rise Far o’er the tops of upward gazing trees; That I, before so mute, Transformed, become thy lute, May learn the secret of all harmonies. Be seated in a warm love-light; Play tenderly, and, from some tranquil height, Drop down clear notes of peace to men below: O strong oaks, O blue mountains, O winds of heaven, O infinite mysterious sky, how holy, and how healing, and how hopeful, you are. Dear men and women! The universe belongs to you. Look up, and be helped and comforted.
56. NARRATOR: The year is 1900 We are having our summer drought and the flowers hang their heads sadly and give me sickly smiles, which make my heart ache. We go around with our watering pots and give them drinks and try to persuade them to live a little longer and they do their best. I have more faith in Totsie’s prayers than my own, Totsie is three years old. I took her around the withering garden the other day and she said: “I will ask the dear Lord to give them a little drink of water.”
57. So she did. And whence woke up from her afternoon nap, behold, it was softly raining; but, alas, it was such a little drink, and they want to be shower-bathed for two or three days if they are up to be restored to health You have probably noticed that Totsie, though not yet four years old, does not talk baby talk. Her pronunciation is usually remarkably accurate. Indeed we are never more surprised than we find our children brighter than ourselves. Totsie is beginning to puzzle her small head over denominational differences.
58. “I’m not a Luthering, Mamma,” she said yesterday. “I’m a Christching.” Then after a pause, she added meditatively: “I look like a Mefodis, but I’m not. I’m nuffin but a Christching.” “Mamma, if you’d give me a little whipping, sometimes, I’d be as good as you think I ain’t.” Bedtime – Totsie was safely in her crib, and very tired and sleepy that night when the subject of prayer was introduced, and I told her to ask the dear Lord to take care of her through the night.
59. “O, Mamma. He’ll do that anyhow!” and she turned over on her side. ***NARRATOR: Bedtime (breathing) O Mercury, lend me your twisted staff, And lend me your winged shoon; For I would away, like a shooting- star. To the other side of the moon ; And find me a little wee world alone, A tiny planet to call my own. Where song-birds wanton, unscathed by man. And sing as never an earth-bird can;
60. Where streamlets murmur: “Forget, forget! ” And never a tear has fallen yet. There would I fly in each vex’d mood, To rest in the bosom of solitude. NARRATOR: THE WOOD DEMON Within this wood there is a sprite; He blows his horn both noon and night; He blows his horn both night and day; But once he blew my soul away.
61. He has a lyre; he has a lute; He has a viol and a flute. Airily O Airily One day I loitered in the glen, Apart from sight and sound of men; Afar I heard the elfin horn – Alas! that ever I was born! I saw, as softly I drew nigh, What ne’er was seen by mortal eye; I heard, and still at times I hear, What ne’er was heard by mortal ear. But when I saw the blood-red flower I felt the demon’s eerie power, And when I heard that luring strain I knew I ne’er might rest again.
62. I leave my home, my children, all, To follow where it summons me, Airily, O airily. When from the forest I return, My pulses throb, my temples burn. “O Mother dear, your eyes are wild; You tremble,” cries my fairest child. “Your face is drawn and pinched and old; Your head is hot, your hands are cold. O Father, Father, much I fear, It is not well with Mother dear.”
63. Upon the eve of holy-day All weary on my bed I lay, (Sure never yet in woman’s breast, Beat such a heart of fierce unrest!) When, as I wept to give me ease, A summons floated down the breeze; It was the demon calling me, Airily, O airily. My good-man was away from home. I said: “Alas! mine hour is come.” I rose, I heaved a piteous sigh, I said: “Mine hour is come to die.”
64. I kissed my children, one by one, I gazed their sleeping forms upon; But when I kissed my fairest child, Her cheeks were wet, her eyes were wild; My little maid who might not sleep Because she heard her mother weep. I threw the casement open wide, Nor knew that she was by my side. The moon was very near the full, The scudding clouds were white as mull. With softest tread of naked feet, And little heart that beat and beat, Through the dark forest, piteously, My fairest daughter followed me.
65. At length I reached the charmed ring Wherein that demon sat to sing; His lark-like strain was sweet to hear, And slowly, slowly, I drew near. It was a hollow, dark and dern, With tumbled grass and tangled fern. Again I smelled the blood-red flower — Ah me! it was a fearful hour. He held me with his gleaming eye, I had no power to speak or cry. I sank upon the matted grass, And waited for my soul to pass, The while he sang my threnody, Airily, O airily.
66. I looked my last on south and north, My spirit striving to be forth; But, as I closed my glazing eye, I heard my fairest daughter cry: “O Mother, Mother, do not die!” I heard my fairest daughter say: “O Mother, Mother, rise and pray!” Without the ring of charmed trees My child she fell upon her knees. Her face was white, her feet were bare; Her hands were clasped in fervent prayer; Her locks were loose upon the breeze.
67. She prayed, her voice was weak with fear: “O Jesus, save my mother dear!” Just as the precious name she said, The demon paused, and reared his head; A discord marred his dreamy strain; He writhed as one in mortal pain; He threw his horn upon the path, And fled as one who flees from wrath. He left his lyre, he left his lute, He left his viol and his flute. The blossoms drooped as in a wound; They turned to blood-drops on the ground; And where I lay, beneath his tree, The dripping blood-drops clung to me.
68. My daughter sobbed, her voice was low: “O dearest Mother, let us go!” She stooped, she raised me by the hand; Her presence gave me strength to stand. The moon had set; the way was drear; We shook with cold; we sobbed with fear; But softly, softly, all the way, The maiden did not cease to pray; And when the dreary night was past We knelt together, safe at last. The day, the holy day was born; It was the blessed Easter morn. And now what more remains to tell? My fairest daughter prayeth well; She prayed my spirit free from spell.
69. But I was weaker than a child; My looks were strange; my words were wild; For many days my fever raged, By thoughtful tenderness assuaged, For woman-like and skillfully, My blessed maiden tended me.
70. My research furthers. I ascend the train when it stops for me at the eastern end of Rosebrake, that we have renamed Poplar Grove – toiling in the vineyard archives of Washington fulfilling my dreams and harming no man. Steve likes to hitch up our old horse to the buggy and go to the village with Serena, the only of our children who remains. NARRATOR: After what she called “Ten Perfect Years” in which she gave birth to her first two children, Serena and Stevie, Danske turned, at a friend’s urging, to write in earnest.
71. Danske published two volumes of poetry in the late 19th century: “Rose Brake,” and “Joy and Other Poems.” They were widely acclaimed. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier included her poem, “The Struggle,” in his anthology of great poetry covering a 400-year period. She also wrote an estimated 200 gardening articles or letters to magazines, such as “Garden and Forest.” She created, with the help of her African-American gardeners Tom and Charity Devonshire, a fabulous garden with a hundred varieties of roses along with innumerable others types of plant life.
72. She also wrote four books: “Historic Shepherdstown,” “George Michael Bedinger: Kentucky Pioneer”, “American Prisoners of the Revolution,” and an unpublished manuscript about General St. Clair. Her progression away from poems, to garden articles; and finally the dryer, more dispassionate study of history, mirrors the timing of the deaths of two of her children, 16-year-old Stevie and 12-year-old Dorothea, or “Totise.” Their losses seem to chart her gradual withdrawal from any writing that is emotionally intense and vulnerable.
73. ARDYTH: One night last summer I sat a long time on the piazza in the moon-light, when everyone else was asleep. And I noted how much more beautiful the grove and garden looked in that dimness than in the full light of the sun. The day aspect of the place was like a fair woman – healthy and human, but at night she seemed to change places with a celestial being “from some happier star,” transfigured into ethereal love-lines and grace. The Japanese have a pastime which they call “moon-viewing.” What a delightfully fanciful people they are!”
74. Indeed, I said to myself, I have one already, but it is susceptible of much improvement. A Moon Walk should be elevated, if possible on the ridge of a hill, so as to command extensive view of dale and upland distant woods and sleeping mountains and plain and a part of distant hill. Nothing is needed to make complete the Moon Walk but some groups of large white flowers here and there amid the foliage on either hand to emphasize the whiteness of the light.
75. Yuccas are the best plants to use for this purpose. I have already a large group of these plants. I shall plant them in scattered clumps next fall among some evergreens to the west of the Moon Walk which runs nearly due north. They are to come from the old garden by which I mean the ancient vegetable gardens back of the house, where they revel in rich soil and on grassy glades send up flower stalks as tall as tall men. I am well aware that the ideal Moon-Walk should be conducted to a clear sheet of swan-haunted water, with Lilies and Arums and beds of Iris and Reeds . . .
76. ARDYTH (sing): We talked together, you and I; It was a queenly night in June; Low hung the moon in yonder sky, And on your cheek low glanced the moon. Your gentle hand was mine to hold: My ill-fed heart began to speak; And ever, as the tale was told, Dear friend, the moon was on your cheek.
77. NARRATOR: Fearlessly, into the Unknown Go forth, thou little soul. Launch out upon the trackless sea, Nor wind nor stars pilot thee Alone, alone alone!
78. Thine is a helpless plight thou canst not turn thy helm, Nor reach the harbor any more thou driftest to an unguessed shore, Dark, dark the night Yet launch and take no care; For what can care avail? In the dark void, the awful space, Where wand-rest thou to find thy place, thy God is even there. NARRATOR Danske died June 3, 1914 with no will. A gun went off at the house, with no one in the family home but bed-ridden Danske.
79. Some of the town’s waggier tongues punished Danske for her aloof unconventionality calling her “crazy”, the price for eschewing her quota of church picnics. Husband Stephen died about a decade later. He had fared much better as a delegate in the state legislature and was admired as a fine orator. Their artistic daughter Serena, also called “Miss Violet,” wore jodphers daily, herded sheep, each named after an American President and even wrote a long essay called “Sheep I Have Known. Another favorite essay of Miss Violet’s was titled: “Making Hay With the Ball Team.” She served the town’s poor with free milk daily from her cows, would live out her life at Rose Brake accompanied by her cousin Nina “Miss Nina” Mitchell – two of Shepherdstown’ most beloved denizens for all time.
They all live on in the wind.
Following is the above text but in audio form with faint music and fx background (draft)
Danske 1 beginning
Danske 2 up to Intermission
Danske 3 Intermissionthru nuisances p. 66
Danske 4 to just before The Wood Demon
Danske 5 The Wood Demon to the end
More original sources (Danske’s writings):
The sun is setting on the halls of Hospice in Martinsburg City Hospital In West Virginia
It’s five o’clock. Nurses and a volunteer place trays of food in the six rooms where eight people stay. As night falls, hall lights go on. Fluorescent tubes hum. A visiting family prepares to leave after an afternoon with “Mom.” The elevator doors close. The mother, who has, cancer, is alone again. The day with the family has been special for her. They all had a “picnic” in the Hospice solarium. Everyone was there. The mother saw that they cared. All these precious moments she would perhaps relive in the darkness of her hospital room.
She turns over in her bed and drifts into sleep. Memories like waves wash up long forgotten relics and times reaching back to childhood, weddings, senior proms, first tricycles, first communions, spankings, birth of the first child, first kisses, teenage crushes, overdue expressions of love, stayed-with challenges, neglected hurts, and funerals. With the darkness of night, all these memories, near and far, seem near. Sometimes the austere truth of her approaching death rises in her imagination like the full moon.
A hospice volunteer calls this the Work. Everyone who faces death must face ultimate personal helplessness. And quiet evenings alone such as this surmised evening experienced by this mother of two are the time when the best work is done. Lying helpless at death’s door forces you to reach out for new sources of strength. For the cries, curses, and sorrows to lead to an acceptance of one’s death is to be purified by a white fire.
Two of the great keys are the words: “I love you for who you are and what you face.” And “You are never alone in spirit.” In being involved or near the deaths of about sixty people over fifteen months, there are moments lived that make me grow in the sheer act of remembering them. Like the mother, I remember in order to grow.
There were the deep, dreaming eyes of the eighty-year-old African-American woman, triumphantly and savoringly whispering the 26th Psalm to herself.
There were the dimming eyes of the man who died quietly without his wife of sixty-four years being there.
There was a dear friend and fifty-seven-year-old woman who pulled loose a catheter from her arm and walked out in the night-time hallway to find “Daddy.”
There remains the memory of the leathery hands of the tough-looking man who gently folds the blanket and sheets of his fatally-ill wife as if they were the hem of his princess.
The nobility that surfaces so often in people facing death has made clear to me that one could spend a lifetime learning and growing in the midst of dying. This is because the truth you seek in the secret of death lies right at the heart of what it means to live every day.
For me, it’s the discovery that a life devoted to relieving suffering where you find it leaves a person emotionally “wounded,” which translated to French means “blesse'” or blessed.
The heightened awareness achieved by many very ill people is unsparing and sees first and foremost whether you really, in your heart, care for them as a fellow human being. The great challenge of hospice is that, at the rock bottom, you must stand completely naked, in a spiritual sense, before this person, or you tend to fail.
You must be willing to connect with that person personally and as a friend and nurture that bond .
Conversations between friend of dying friend are closer to the bone, but not rough in their import.
Perhaps the best preparation for death is to live life like there is no tomorrow. And the best resources to a person dying at death’s door is a rucksack full of sea-shell like memories.
Death can be made hollow by the person who is more wonderful than death is terrible because life that is given away over the years cannot be snatched away in the end. The generous person’s form returns to dust, but the person lives on as a parable that is told, and re-told and re-told.
It seems the Twin Towers never existed, but in our dreams.
I walked to work on lower Broadway one crisp autumn morning, grown-ups everywhere pointing at some speck way, way up.
A man was dancing on a high-wire between the tops of the Twin Towers. For an hour . . . weightlessly, fearlessly. Phillipe Petit gave this and all New York shared his soaring bliss.
The Twin Towers beckoned him to “walk” to God’s very doorstep.
I was so excited two years later when my company, moved to the 92nd floor of One World Trade Center. With a shoe propped up, I would gaze, while on the phone, at the tiny tall ships in the river, small planes flying below, the Jersey plain with a patch called Newark.
You saw every day, glistening currents reaching for the Atlantic holding a little trinket: the Statue of Liberty.
Unforgettable still the one golden sunset: a spill of liquid gold conquering a gray-blue, world. Everyone was drawn to the window, as the South Tower smiled an ultimate orange.
“That’s the 92nd Floor, One World Trade Center,” I used to say on the phone, an address Caesar would love.
Spilling with the other salmon off the escalators, I’d stride across the great blue carpet to a tall mighty elevator that zoomed to the 78th floor. (I once walked right into my own image in the mirror-like side panel!) .
But every single day – once – I’d think – this is too high.
This sky-borne mansion groaned and swayed. Lightning lashed it. “Towering Inferno” was at the movies.
Then I saw that day on television that wild, black horse of a devil-stew crashing to earth, crushing thousands of people unto dust too soon and wrong – and I was remembering.
Forty people on the 92nd floor at 10:26 AM were breaking windows where my desk had been as flames approached. Then at 10:28 came the black horse.
No one in the North Tower above the 92 floor – and the 92 floor – lived. Everyone below the 92nd floor – lived.
The Twin Towers, fulfilled their mission, returned to the gods, now just a memory and a hole where there was greatness and grandeur. They were a strange god that inspired one man to fly like a bird, while thousands swooned; and transfixed a few to blow it all to hell while billions wept.
Video: 9-11 World Trade: Exhibit #P200336, “They Are Us” By Jim Surkamp (5:03)
By admin on February 4, 2012 in Jim Surkamp’s Writings
Music is courtesy of Stephen Schneider from the CD “Momentum.”To view 9-11 World Trade: Exhibit #P200336, “They Are Us” By Jim Surkamp,
NOTE: Professor Kevin Williams of Shepherd University made DMN possible with his skill and dedication in co-creating the sound design of Don’t Mean Nothin, in addition to his sound engineering work, already noted below. – JS
The night of the two twisted but lovable blondes – as lived and remembered by Jim Surkamp
At the toll booth at Trenton around nine at night, May, 1982. Dark, a silhouette of a big road warrior hotel about a mile away, the sickly light of the bank of toll booths is over my shoulder. No rides.. Hitching after dark always brings out monsters, they probably think. I’m hitching from New York after hitching all day to there from my sister’s place in Boston.
It’s Friday evening, the blonde guy who drove me there from the foot of the ramp to the New Jersey Turnpike in Hoboken worked in the World Trade Center, about mid-twenties, starched shirt and tie. Mentioned en route here that he had taken some quaaludes and was feeling pretty, ah, you know? I hadn’t learned diplomatic thank you’s yet as a three month old hitch hiker. About three times he reached down to the stick shift in his little car and twice I noticed he let his hand brush infinitesimally on the left upper thigh of my jeans. Years later I thought, “Don’t wear tight jeans when you hitch. Don’t hitch at night.” The long, spirited Mr Chips scarf might have sent the wrong message to motorists sizing me up. I get the horny guy.
As I had gotten out of the car with a kind of studiously detached demeanor, I shown him all my agape love and acted deaf when he said: “Please.” He finally said he wanted to have some sex. Oh. “Thank you, but no thanks. Take care. Bye.”
So I was prepared a little for Chris who pulls up in this big heavy breathing, red horndog American-made monster, sparkling new. Later I figured someone rented it – but not Chris.
I get in, say “Thank you.” Say my name, where I’m going, to defuse things. Chris is about mid-twenties, short blonde hair, in jeans and a short sleeve top. Kinda attractive.
“I’m Chris.” She said, not listening, looking out the back and saying out loud to her self. “The state police are lookin’ for me.”
It seems “Ebony and Ivory” bathed our front seat as we rolled south, for me McLean Virginia, she Aberdeen, Md., where, she explained, she needed to get there to get some heroin, which she injected into her neck. She was really needing. Someone told me later that heroin addicts are pussy cats except when they’re strung out. I decided to be very nice, to help keep her centered, mellow for the trip.
The I Ching says: “Do not woo” – good advice for hitchhikers. Just being there is perfect.
We stopped at either the Walt Whitman, Clara Barton or Kilmer rest stop for gas and we sat at the counter for something to eat. Chris told me she used to be a waitress. Then, she smiled: “But now I sell my body.” Ahh. The car was her last customer’s unsolicited bonus offering, at the big road warrior hotel no doubt, where he’s deciding who to call. (His wife?)
It’s later and later. I just am quiet. After Delaware, Chris sees I’m not a customer. Her talk about wanting me to go to Aberdeen with her to see her buddies wore off long ago. She injected hers in her neck.
We both look ahead as Ebony and Ivory plays once again on the radio. “Living in perfect harmony.” Our theme song.
We commune cadenced by the pulsing yellow line.
She said something about her child who lived with her mother.
Somewhere on this spring, balmy night Chris got off at the Aberdeen exit, told me to start in the morning at the exit right up there to the right down the road to get back on the road.
Pulling my bag out of the back seat, I looked in: “Thanks Chris.” and very softly I added: “Your child needs her momma.” Somehow I think it should be called the night of the twisted but lovable blondes.
In September ’85, I headed up the Jersey turnpike, wearing big horn-rimmed glass, white pants turned up with a drawstring for a belt, and flip flops, designed to attract real trouble.
It was slow going and I’d gone only sixty miles in maybe two hours. I hitched, my thumb out, rocking on my flip flops as cars stonily passed in numbers. Taking my cheerful inviting smile as only proof that I actually liked being insane.
I also wore my striped shirt with the personally sewed-on, bright un-matching buttons, humming my assuring “My Favorite Things.” under my breath and when more tired, “Ohm mani padme hmmmm.”
Hot, very bright light, slight grade up, leading up to me across from the big rest stop in northern Delaware. Plenty of time to look me over. A sign a little too small saying “NYC.”
Then there came the one named John. I got in. “I’ve been there a long time. Thank you very much.”
“It’s the glasses,” John said. He had unkempt blonde hair, heavy physique, tee-shirt and was comfortable within an enclosed area filled with Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s album/tape – “Brain Salad Surgery.”
“People think you’re a weirdo,” he offered, throwing me just a glance, suggesting that he’d seen much worse.
He talked a lot. “Dat-a-dat-a-dat-a-dat-a.” About the first time he tried out a motorcycle, flooring to 100 miles an hour “to get out the carbon.” How dad gave him a $10,000 college loan for his tuition which – he seemed to strut sitting in the driver’s seat – he partied away in two wasted forgotten weeks of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Almost as good as the time he went in the bar in New Orleans with the New York Giants on the tube
playing the New Orleans Saints and John told everyone that Kenny Stabler was a “faggot.”
“I’d just go up to the biggest, dumbest guy and punch him. It’d be great. We’d break chairs. But when the knives come out,” John said piously.” I leave.”
Good boy John. The huge swaggering bass of ELP’s version of “Peter Gunn” and screaming fans filled the car and sailed out on the breeze as John talked straight ahead, non-stop, his arm resting on the open window.
I noticed I said something or nothing only when John needed air. We stopped for gas at a rest stop with the Big Apple in the twilight distance. I saw John with legs moving around quickly talking up the gas guy, like an old friend.
I was going to Staten Island because he was. It was where he grew up. They’d be glad to see him I’m sure.
John thought a ride on the Staten Island ferry would round out my experience and persona well. I never argued with John. We shook hands gave each other a look meaning the trip was a real thing, worth remembering.
I tipped a wave as he roared out in reverse, in a manly way that wouldn’t disgust him. I wouldn’t know him to see him now, especially the far side of his face and body – especially if his mouth was closed.
Somebody might have to identify him at a morgue someday. I paid the famously cheap fare, hauled my bag over the turnstile and walked ahead to make the readying ferry, bobbing on the roiling ocean water, the warning horn blowing.
It had a calming effect on me. We shove off.
I stood with my upright, bag considerately between my legs, me should-to-shoulder packed tight with people, eyes down, mouths closed, affected a little by gravity – so different than my wild ride with a man almost too alive. Mannequins in storage.
The sun flashed off the great towers of lower Manhattan and the choppy waves and cool hissing mist crossed all our beholding silent faces. We rose and fell as this great dream came closer.
They all just barely noticed the guy with the horned-rims and flip flops with an army bag, involuntarily imagining what the journey was. I had El Dorado at my feet. Tomorrow I would be in Boston.
(In this article I focus, for greater clarity, on just deaths by illness of an older person with blameless medical and personal support. Murders, drunk-driver deaths do have many, many other real issues beyond the death itself).
A death makes us face the frightening Unknown, which surrounds us in life and awaits us in Death.
Repeatedly face your deepest fears and they lose their sting. The most enslaving fears are of the Unknown, a painful death alone, being forgotten, and the horror that life includes. How do we accept life’s horrors with equanimity and grace?
The Dalai Lama, when asked why he could smile so much in a world full of famine and pain, smiled: “What do you suggest?”
The experienced and wise would also reply: “I have felt every fear I once feared. I am free.” They have conquered fear when they say: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and almost everything is the small stuff.” “All that matters in the end is that you have been well-loved and loved well;” and “You have to learn to take the good with the bad.” The Serenity Prayer is the very badge of earned fearlessness.
Ted Hughes, the now deceased poet laureate of England, mirrored my own struggle with the Angel of Darkness. I was young, with my mother dying, my father just back from Vietnam. I inched blindly toward knowledge:
“Water wanted to live. It went to the trees, they burned. It came weeping back. They rotted. It came weeping back. Water wanted to live. It went to flowers. They crumpled. It came weeping back. It wanted to live.
It went to the womb; it met blood. It came weeping back. It went to the womb. It met knife. It came weeping back. It went to the womb. It met maggot and rotteness. It came weeping back. It wanted to die. It went through the stone door. It came weeping back. It went searching through all space for nothingess. It came weeping back. It wanted to die. Till it had no
weeping left. It lay at the bottom of all things. Utterly worn out, utterly
Like Mister Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” one goes
to the heart of darkness, faces “the horror” and goes beyond it to personal
glory and redemption – fear-free.
And nothing launches us on this journey for truth more surely than the
searing blow of a loved one’s death. “Kindergarten Values” implode.
Editor and Dr. Charles Figley’s masterful two-volume “In the Wake of
Trauma,” explores “the illusion of invulnerability” – the notion ingrained from kindergarten and before that, if we are on time, cheerful, honest and
hard-working, then we are entitled to be happy.
Renown Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn scoffs. He says if you seek
happiness on the outside, saying “IF I do this-or-that, THEN I will be happy” – you will not find happiness. “You must get in touch with the ultimate dimension of your being instead,” he says.
The “if/then” crowd are the Inexperienced; a death loss changes that.
Even C.S. Lewis appears to have sought to defang his fear of death by
trying to render it a mere topic for discourse. When his beloved wife died,
he wrote in “A Grief Observed” that he didn’t know grief is so much like fear. Writing about life and death to master and control them didn’t lessen his pain when all-conquering death exploded in his own home.
Ever illusion-less George Orwell, by contrast, wrote for the wise and
experienced: “Being human is being prepared to in the end be defeated
and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s
love upon other human individuals.”
A conceited outlook based on entitlement deems misfortune as
punishment aimed at the unworthy. The Inexperienced seem to need to assign blame to prove the world is just, rational, and controllable.
An Inexperienced widow or widower concludes their husband or wife died
because someone didn’t do their job: the spouse didn’t do enough, the doctor didn’t do enough, or God didn’t do enough.
Obsessed and alarmed, they ask: “Why me?” Or play the never-ending
“If-Only” game. Parents, especially mothers, of those who die young, easily do “If-Only” because of their many years of habitual fearing for their children’s safety. One woman in my support group blamed heself for her son’s murder in Los Angeles after he tried to stop a gang from stealing a truck. She said: “I knew something bad would happen the day I said goodbye to him at the airport.” It was just her general fear of the Unknown which she later reshaped into a lifetime supply of self-blame.
The Inexperienced can’t accept that like birth, death, in the most
important ways, is as natural as a snowstorm and just as blind.
You have to think you are the center of the Universe to think tragedy
is personally addressed to you.
Typically the Inexperienced soberly concludes: “If God lets this kind
of thing happen, I don’t want that God.” Consider instead Etty Hillesum,
writing her great work “An Interrupted Life,” as the Nazi SS approached her
apartment flat in Amsterdam: “I have found that God is not accountable to us.”
We can drain this swamp of fear by meditating on the painful
simplicity of death, that the only place our decisions have any dominion is the here and now, and that the only sanctuary we have is in our mind. But it
sometimes needs to be fumigated.
We learn from the greatest people among us such as Mother Theresa, the
Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hahn. Each urges us to love and live, here and
now, not sweating the small stuff.
Thich Nhat Hahn had been leading efforts to rebuild bombed villages
during the Vietnam war. A village was leveled for the fourth time. He buried his face in his hands. To a concerned friend, he said “I am breathing on my
anger. I am taking care of it.”
Mother Theresa dismisses “Why’s” and inaction: “People are
unreasonable, illogical and self centered – Love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, do good anyway. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies – succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow – do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable – be honest and frank anyway.”
The Griever of death focusses on each day as it comes, building a
greater sense of control and dominion, fed by love and hope.
Keeping grief from panicking, running throughout the Universe for
reasons is the first step. If we are willing to go “through the stone door,” time takes all remaining steps for us. And grief from death will relax into
“It went searching through all space for nothingness, till it had no
weeping left. It lay at the bottom of all things. Utterly worn out, utterly
Mastering fear is to accept the horror constructively making the
unknown known, so it doesn’t become a wicked undertow to the sparkling and turbulent flow of life.
Sarah and the Puzzlemaker by Jim Surkamp
WATCH THIS ON SFARI AND OR FIREFOX. THE CHROME BROWSER MESSES UP THE VIDEOS. SORRY AND THANKS – JS
Once upon a time in the land of Landever, there was a man who traveled from village and town saying things that were – well, puzzling. And because people didn’t know what to make of this nonsensical, contra-sensible man, he became know throughout every village and town as – The Puzzlemaker. One day in the village square of Landever City, he announced: “Since you people do not know what to make of me, I’m making myself your king! And since the people really did not know what to make of him, they said: “Okay.”
2 The very day he put the crown of Landever on his head, The Puzzlemaker began to make rules – lots and lots of rules – that were, well, puzzling. He put a tax on laughter. Daydreaming was outlawed. He decreed that when people needed something – anything – they had to wait in a long, long line. They had to. The Puzzlemaker said: It’s the law. Puzzling laws, and a puzzling king, too. The people felt a darkness descend upon their villages and fields. It was a darkness they didn’t understand, a darkness they had never seen before. A few children saw him for what he was. They sensed the Puzzlemaker was playing a game, a terrible game to darken and confuse the very souls of the good people of Landever. One child, namely Sarah – felt The Puzzlemaker did not know great truths. One day at dinner with her father and mother, Sarah finally burst out: “The Puzzlemaker is wrong!!!” She paused and said it again: “The Puzzlemaker is wrong!!”
3 “What is right?” her father asked. That night in bed before sleeping Sarah pondered her innermost secrets, those of Eternal Light, the proof of her innocent trust and love of Truth. She thought: “I must see through the Puzzle. The Truth is always, always as simple and clear as day. Truth is never a riddle, never a Puzzle.” That night she dreamed, among so many things of a wondrous shape. it was more beautiful than any earth words could express: a fine, crystalline network of streaming light traced with violet, red, rich green and pale blue. It was a Living Ancient Fire. To behold its shape made her free and at peace. She felt at one with her true self. It was as if she were facing the sky and saw the thunderclouds flee, revealing a starry heaven, endless and deep. The next morning Sarah jumped out of bed.
4. “Now,” she thought, “I really have something to paint.” Picking up her finest brushes 4 she dipped them into her paint pots and began to paint the Spirit of Eternal Light around and within her. When it was done she ran into the kitchen. “Mama!!! Look!!! Papa!!! Look!!!” They were stunned at first. Then they became overjoyed at the sight of the beautiful, noble and crystalline form that Sarah had painted so very, very well. Gazing upon her painting, Sarah’s father said: “I feel like the river in spring when the ice breaks up and floats out to the sea. He shook his head: “I’ve been frozen so long, Sarah.” He was becoming himself again, thought Sarah, like before The Puzzlemaker puzzled him. “The Truth is always so simple and always clear as day,” she sang. Full of joy, her father and mother put Sarah’s painting on top of a pole. Proudly waving their vision-flag, they all went dancing and singing to the very center of Landever City where Landeverites were gathering for market. While startled faces peered out from every window, Sarah tore down the banner
5 bearing the grey-colored Royal Puzzle from the flagpole in the market square. They raised in its place the wonderful sight of Sarah’s Living Ancient Fire Crystal. People could see it from their windows and even distant fields. The faces of Sarah’s friends lit up with amazement, then joy. More and more children joined, then their mothers, then their fathers, then their uncles and aunts, grandparents, and neighbors. It was really noisy and happy. They were dancing, laughing, hugging and truth-telling, a sight unthinkable just the day before. Now, puzzles don’t stand up too well to Joy. Never. Not far away, the Puzzlemaker could not help but hear the singing. He sagged in his throne, depressed. “Not everything is puzzling, Sire,” whispered a gentle guard. Yes, the Puzzlemaker was depressed but now he was depressed because of how bad he had been to all the Landeverites outside. 6 Being Supreme Puzzlemaker had, yes, become very very puzzling, even to the Puzzlemaker himself. He went out to his balcony overlooking the gaiety. “At last,” he said, “I see how unpuzzling life really is.” He said to Sarah meekly: “Can I join you?” “Sure” said the thousands all at once. And so he did. Sarah loved how much noise and fun she had created with her dream and vision flag. The sun shone glorious. The Puzzlemaker changed his name back to the name his mother had given him: “Joe.” And for centuries thereafter all the people under the same big sun had the power to never, ever become puzzled again. copyright, James T. Surkamp