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The Last Flowers of the Season.

27-Sep-18

Vance Kuhner’s Eulogy for Mary Costello.

27-Sep-18

[This is the eulogy that my brother, Vance Kuhner, gave at my mother’s funeral on Saturday, September 22nd.]

Mary Costello as a teacher at P.S. 66.

 

My name is Vance Kuhner, and I am Mary Costello’s son. I am not here today to mourn the woman I called Mom, or “Kid,” the woman most of you knew as Mary, some as Oma, some as Aunt, maybe some of you as Rose, or Sister Richard.

A week ago on Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary left this world, and those who knew and loved her were instantly heart broken. It was hard to understand why this world had to lose such a ray of light.

But that’s not what Mary wanted. So I stand here today with great joy, as she wanted it, to tell of a Christian life well lived.

Mary’s life was taken by cancer. Everything happens for a reason, it is all God’s plan. That’s what I kept telling myself while I watched my Mother suffering. But it is easy to question everything when you watch someone you love in so much pain. I had prayed for a miracle. But what I did not realize was that the miracles were all around me.

The morning after Mary died, Sunday’s Gospel told the story of Jesus telling his disciples that he was leaving them, that he had to fulfill his mission, and that his mission included dying for all of our sins. When Saint Peter tries to stop him, He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” And I realized that I was falling into the same trap.

That is the power of the Adversary, of the deceiver. He attempts to thwart God’s plan. He sows the seeds of despair and hopelessness, and attempts to make us question God. It was he who put my Mother through such terrible suffering over the past nine months. It was he who attempted to make her turn from God. And it is he who tries to make us despair over her passing.

But he misjudges us, and he certainly misjudged Mary Costello. This was a woman of faith, who lived by the Gospels as best she could. This was a woman who lived the Christian beliefs of charity, faith, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. This was a woman who dedicated her entire life to making the next generation better, to helping her friends, to raising her descendants. This was a woman who was never fooled by the Adversary, and found a way to work ordinary miracles every day.

When I asked my mother what she was most proud of, she said, “My children and grandchildren.” No one denies that she was proud of John, Mary Kate and I, and adored Ian, Kailey, Anna, Aurora, Brian Trip Three Sticks, Mairead, Mariah, John, Mary and Eva. We all know that she loved her two daughters in law Ellen and Catherine, and her son in law Brian. She considered them all her daughters and son. I said, okay, Mom, great answer, what is number 2? She said, “I was always proud of my ability to get through all of the challenges that life put in my way.” I call those her ordinary miracles.

Now, I think we can all agree that they don’t make miracles the way they used to. In my life, I haven’t seen anyone part the Red Sea, or ride their cloak across the English channel, but I did get to witness Mary’s ordinary miracles every day.

Because Mary’s life was fraught with challenges.

After a tough childhood in the Bronx, Mary moved to Queens, where she started her love of adventure and the outdoors with her friend Helen Schombs. She traveled a bit, worked with the Crow Indians on their reservation, and even took some flying lessons. But she had committed the sin of falling in love with my father. She tried to be a nun, but left before taking her final vows. She then went back to my father and they had me, my brother John, and my sister Mary Kate. This estranged her from her immediate family for a number of years. And my Dad was just about the worst provider that you could imagine. During those first fourteen years that they were together, life was tough. She averted disaster on a daily basis. It is now legend how we got to stay in a house that we did not own for twenty five years, how she held a collapsing ceiling together with a bottle cap and a screw, fixed plumbing with 2 liter Coca-cola bottles and old bicycle tires. How she put in a wood burning stove so that we would have heat, how she did without a hot shower for ten years. How she paid for Christmas presents with crafts that she hand sewed, how she waited tables at night after putting us to bed, while never missing a school trip or PTA meeting. How she went to night school and got a Bachelors and Master’s degree with straight As, putting all of us to academic shame. How she singlehandedly found a way to send all of us to Manhattan to Catholic High Schools and to three prestigious colleges (well two prestigious colleges and Fordham).

All of this she did, with a smile on her face, and a positive outlook on life. Ordinary miracles.

When I asked her how she got through those days, she told me, “with the grace of God and the help of a few good friends.” And God did send my Mom good friends. These were the angels in her life. People like Barbara Valis, Cookie Helmeyer, Jeanette Lalli, Jackie and Jimmy Variale and Howard Levardsen. She also had great neighbors who always looked out for us. Neighbors like Bea Delise, Anne and Jeff Kelly, Nicky and Angie Plackis who were always there to help us growing up. More ordinary miracles.

After she got through school, she got a job as a New York City school teacher, which was clearly her vocation in life. There she took her contagious spirit of exploration and learning to hundreds of children, showing them a bright future of what their life could be like. She was known for riding her bike to school, her mean lay ups in basketball that she never missed, and her determined spirit to give her students a well rounded liberal education. I am sure she was also known for those great hats and sunglasses, which were her fashion. She took her pupils into the woods, be it Floyd Bennett Field or Frost Valley, and exposed them to God’s everyday miracles that were all around them. It was there that she became close friends with Cathy Depalo who has been at my Mom’s side through thick and thin ever since.
Once she got the three of us out of the house, the next phase of my Mom’s life centered around adventure. She travelled extensively, Europe, Africa to include safari and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, South America to include Machu Picchu, Asia, to include the Great Wall of China. Her love for adventure, and her ability to find God in the outdoors, be it a desert plain in New Mexico, or a mountain peak in the Catskills is something that spoke to her faith and her relationship with God. She would bring her wild adventure stories back home to the place she loved most, Richmond hill, N.Y. It is funny to me that my Mom went all around the world, shook hands with everyone, but could not find any place that she liked better than Richmond Hill, N.Y. It was her home sweet freedom. I think God sent her to Richmond Hill for a reason. It was his plan, and the reason that she could never leave.

Was she a good friend? To quote the genie from Aladdin, You ain’t never had a friend like Mary. I am sure that everyone in here can attest to the fact that my Mom’s home on 115th Street was a hub of constant activity where everyone was welcome. The inside of her house was like a museum of curiosities from places throughout the world that she had travelled. She didn’t only collect things from all around the world, she collected friends. Who else enjoys travelling on Amtrak, because she enjoyed the conversations with people she just met? Mary loved her friends, and was the type of person that could always be counted on in a pinch, or if you just needed a kind word. One of my high school friends said, you always knew that Mary was on your side, even when no one else was. She threw a great party, which might be on some anonymous Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever she could gather friends and family to the house. And she could make a feast for ten out two chicken breasts and a loaf of Italian bread. Or in a pinch, that perfect popcorn. Ordinary miracles.

Was Mary a Saint? Far from it. In fact I would be afraid that she would come out of nowhere and smash me with a wooden spoon if she thought that I was going to stand here at her funeral and profess that. But what she was, what she is, is a Christian.

I spoke to you at the beginning about the Gospel. About the Adversary and the way he tries to subvert goodness, and take away what God has given us in life. And how he makes it so that we cannot see the goodness in everyday life. Mary worked small miracles every day of her life, and Mary displayed her Christian faith for all to see. Especially the Adversary.

So he sent her cancer.

It may sound trite, but cancer never had Mary, Mary had cancer. She never missed a step, even though she was constantly in great pain. She took no treatment, as it was terminal, but still found a way to go on her walks through Forest park to be with God, to let her friends come over and to visit them and to go on our family reunion vacation, to be with her grandchildren. She looked to her faith, and found a way to beat the deceiver at his own game. So I will tell you that in the end, she beat cancer.

But it was hard to watch her in pain, especially over the last week. John, Mary Kate, Cathy Depalo and I took turns helping her to get through the day. In the last days, she lost her ability to communicate. She was confused, scared, and in agony. But her faith never wavered. She called out to God to take her and asked God for his help to get her through the transition to heaven. As the adversary attacked, she countered with faith. At one point, Saturday morning around 3 A.M. before she died, she mustered whatever strength she had left, and dragged herself with me in tow from the living room where her bed was to the sitting room where she had an ambry. An ambry is a place where Catholics hold holy oils for the anointing of the sick, or baptisms. When we got there, she fidgeted with the key for a couple of moments, like she was trying to get something out. And then came back to me for an instant. She looked at me, with pained, exhausted eyes, and said, “Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive. Forgive everyone forgive.”

She then collapsed into my arms, and I carried my Mother back to her bed, where she never spoke anything again.

Her last words were that of the most important of our Christian values, forgiveness.

You left us Mom at 7:20 that evening. In relentless pain and gasping for breaths, with Mary Kate on one side and me on the other, you released the burdens of this life and went to be with God, your father Francis, your mother Helen, your sisters Helen and Margie and your brother John in heaven, who I know that you have missed every day for fifty three years. And even in death you taught us one last time about Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness.

She wanted me to tell you all not to mourn. She wants you to be happy that she has gone to be with God. She wants you to look forward; and know that the best way to honor her memory is to give charity, to be faithful, to live a life of understanding, forgiveness and acceptance. She wants you to know that she will always be here for us, in nature’s ordinary miracles, be it in the whispering of the wind through the trees, the crash of a wave on the ocean, the rushing of a stream, the patter of the rain, or the falling of the snow. And she wants to remind you that when life gets tough, you should find a way to produce those ordinary miracles, like she did every day.

I love you Mom.

Gendering Three Little Pigs.

08-Mar-18

I’ve now just recently read two different retellings of the Three Little Pigs story for children which both recast the tale as one of gendered virtue: in each retelling, the wolf and the two unwise pigs are male, while the wise pig, who builds a house of brick, is a female.  That the tale was retold in precisely the same way was striking: not an all-female version of the story, but specifically one where the bad and the unwise are male, and the virtuous and provident are female.  One is called The Three Little Pigs, by Emily Banks (published by Scholastic), and the other The Three Little Javelinas, by Susan Lowell (published by Cooper Square).

I don’t see any good coming out of stuff like this.  I think it’s every bit as bad as recasting the tale to make all the bad or unwise characters female, and the island of virtue male.  It seems shockingly stupid to raise our daughters and sons on this, from before they are even aware of what we are doing to them.

Editing In Medias Res.

01-Feb-18

I’ve taken on a new job, editing the Paideia Institute’s new magazine In Medias Res. That site naturally has already seen a fair amount of my prose, and hopefully will continue to do so in the future. For an introduction to what it’s about, please read the first editorial.  We’ve only just begun, but there are about ten pieces up there already, and more coming.

The Journals of Jean Sibelius.

21-Oct-17

At a certain point in my college career I stopped worrying very much about my classes, and decided to get my education directly from the university library.  One of the books I read at the time was Erik Tawaststjerna’s monumental three-volume biography of Sibelius.  I often find that great musicians can also write, but Sibelius particularly amazed me.  The excerpts from Sibelius’s diaries quoted in the book formed one of the most sensitive, eloquent, and accurate depictions of the inner life of an artist I had ever seen.  They still strike me that way; and I truly believe that at some point a slim little volume of Sibelius writings on the life of an artist would be most welcome.  They capture both the divine exultation of inspiration, and the acute despair of the fundamental inner artistic emptiness which drives it all.  Plus all the usual problems with family, self-doubt, critics, and (of course) money.  Sometimes the emotional extremes become funny – funnier even when the dates are put in (these alas lack dates), because you see that he can go from believing himself a god to hating everything about the universe in a single day.

“A wonderful day. Have forged a little but dreamt of even more. The atmosphere this evening was magical, but – always when stillness speaks there are dreadful overtones, the terrifying creatures of eternal silence.”

“My domestic harmony and peace are at an end, because I cannot earn enough to supply all that is needed, let alone pay off my debts. I find it impossible to harmonize what is right for me as an artist, with a necessity to produce income. Take for example my second symphony. It has brought fame and credit to Finland on countless occasions but it cost me 18,000 marks to produce it, and I’ve earned from it only 1,500. My debts mount with every symphony. Surely I was not sent into this marvellous world just to pay off debts.”

“I no longer feel at home in the city; my solitude begins. But the strongest and deepest feelings come to me when I’m alone. I’m at work on the development of the first movement, trembling. The fourth will be a psychological symphony. A symphony is not a composition in the ordinary sense of the word. It is more an inner confession at a given stage of one’s life.”

“The miracle that I am waiting for will never take place. I crossed out the whole of the development. I cannot work properly. Why these empty moments? I suffer so much that my heart bursts in my chest. Where do they come from, these tensions of the spirit, and the pain?”

“Fashioned the second part, marvelous day. Poetic. Life is waiting, this wonderful life that I love so much and which is yet so difficult to live. Don’t lose the sense of life’s pain and pathos, listen to your own inner voice and go your own modest but sure way. You won’t be any the worse for that. May I just live long enough! – for now I’m sure of my artistic path.”

“The fourth symphony is breaking through the clouds in sunlight and power, the Himalayas again. Everything bright and strong. Worked like a giant, the compulsion, the compulsion to write what is ultimately and forever right.”

“Always I’m alone. Alone at home, alone in Helsinki restaurants, alone on the road and alone on the train, alone. Wherever I turn it is black. But nevertheless I would not change with anyone. I worked with appalling effort – a life and death struggle with the symphony. I wonder how the third movement will work itself out, everything is in chaos and I need to concentrate. Lived in the illusions of youth. In the evening, a wonderful atmosphere – marsh mists and the gentle breeze.”

 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

01-Oct-17

Reading the unabridged 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is a lot longer than I thought it was. It also has a smattering of Latin, and pages and pages of delightful marine-biology nerding out.  Due to translation problems – and as far as I can tell, occasional wholesale alteration of the original French text – it is also occasionally unintelligible. “That day they brought up curious specimens from those productive coasts: fishing frogs that, from their comical movements, have acquired the name of buffoons; black commersons, furnished with antennae; trigger fish, encircled with red bands; orthragorisci, with very subtle venom; some olive-colored lampreys; macrorhynci, covered with silvery scales; trichiuri, the electric power of which is equal to that of the gymnotus and cramp fish: scaly notopteri, with transverse brown bands; greenish cod; several varieties of gobies, etc.; also some larger fish; a caranx with a prominent head a yard long; several fine bonitos, streaked with blue and silver; and three splendid tunnies, which, in spite of the swiftness of their motion, had not escaped the net.”

Gymnotus inaequilabiatus.

Gymnotus inaequilabiatus.

Review of a New Biography of Thoreau.

10-Sep-17

The University Bookman decided I was the right guy to review the new Thoreau biography, presumably because of all these years living off-grid and the defense of Thoreau I wrote when The New Yorker published its scandalous, fact-free attack on the man.  So I read the biography – a nice one, by Laura Dassow Walls – and penned a review, which you can find on their site.  In general, the more I know about Thoreau as a man, the more I admire him.

Temples The Shape of the Sky

08-Sep-17

I don’t quite remember the year or the date, but at some point I saw on PBS Mikis Theodorakis’s oratorio To Axion Esti. The force of the performance, however, I do remember. It started with a bit of orchestral chaos, and then a chord, and something that sounded like the voice of a lonely, mournful God, calling all the life of the universe into being. The singer was a gray-haired, comate man of incredible intensity – whom I now know must have been Petros Pandis – memorable even from a distance of decades. As a poem of the Creation it resembled Sibelius’s Luonnotar, but it was better than Sibelius’s Luonnotar. It is one of Theodorakis’s “metasymphonic” works – mixing classical forms with Greek popular music, and featured not only an orchestra and chorus and soloists, but Greek pop instruments and Greek pop songs. Some of the poppier elements I didn’t like – there was a charming crooner performing who looked like a Greek Captain Kirk. But like much Greek pop music, there was no doubt that the Greeks themselves in the audience loved it – the music was indeed popular. At some point – in college, I presume? – I found a recording of the piece and copied it onto a cassette tape.

At the cabin it’s my custom to cut paths to the house using an electric weed trimmer, and while I’m running the generator, I figure I may as well run the stereo as well, and fill the mountain air with music. My cassette of To Axion Esti came to the top of the pile, and I’ve been listening to it somewhat obsessively ever since.

I still don’t know much about the piece – I don’t have a full text for it, and I don’t know what most of it says. When I was younger I knew that it had flaws as a piece of music, which I still find true. At that time I was immersed almost continually in the greatest, most perfect works of art the world has ever known, from all ages. So of course many modern works seemed flawed in comparison. But I recognized then that Theodorakis had the same kind of power and depth that the old artists had.

That power and depth now seems all the more valuable to me, as I see so much artistic material that lacks it. At the cabin I am daily surrounded by a world that seems so much more beautiful than most of our cultural productions.  Though not all of them. The best work is still good and meaningful, even when the sun is rising over the mountains and the clouds fill the valley down below, or when the wind stirs the woods and the stars peep through the leaves.

I find myself curious about the poet of the oratorio, Odysseus Elytas. He supposedly modeled this work on the Byzantine liturgy, alternating between poetry and prose, ancient history and daily experience, sublime contemplation of the creation and deep searching of the inner life. The one segment of it I have a text for seems to add to the music rather than detract. I’m not completely sure what “temples in the shape of the sky” really are, but I like the phrase, as it calls up the holiness of all that is under the sun. And I’m impressed at just how much power modern Greek can have, with the long, long history of its words and the infinite associations they all have.

Ναοί στο σχήμα του ουρανού
και κορίτσια ωραία
με το σταφύλι στα δόντια που μας πρέπατε!
Πουλιά το βάρος της καρδιάς μας ψηλά μηδενίζοντας
και πολύ γαλάζιο που αγαπήσαμε!
Φύγανε φύγανε
ο Ιούλιος με το φωτεινό πουκάμισο
και ο Αύγουστος ο πέτρινος με τα μικρά του ανώμαλα σκαλιά.
Φύγανε φύγανε
και βαθιά κάτω απ’το χώμα συννέφιασε ανεβάζοντας
χαλίκι μαύρο
και βροντές, η οργή των νεκρών
και αργά στον άνεμο τρίζοντας
εγυρίσανε πάλι με το στήθος μπροστά
φοβερά των βράχων τ’αγάλματα

(Άξιον Εστί,Οδυσσέας Ελύτης Βραβείο Νόμπελ Λογοτεχνίας 1979-Μουσική Μίκης Θεοδωράκης)

Temples in the shape of the sky
and beautiful girls
with grapes in their teeth, I needed you –
Birds on high lifting the heaviness of our heart
the deep azure that we loved!
They are gone, they are gone.
July with its garment of light
and stony August with its small uneven steps
They are gone, they are gone
and deep beneath the earth clouds gathered, throwing up black gravel
and thunder, the rage of the dead
and slowly moaning in the wind
they came back with their chests thrust out
fearsome statues of rock.

Twenty Months.

01-Sep-17

Catherine has taken the children down to New York City, stopping there briefly before heading west. I am left alone in the cabin for the last few days of summer. After Labor Day I will join Catherine in Ohio, where we will spend the final month of Catherine’s pregnancy, awaiting the birth of our third child. In theory this interval of a few days gives me a little space and time to write. I find I am much more disciplined about such things now. Though I am working full-time at the plant nursery, and commuting almost two hours a day to get to work, still having just a few hours in the evening is so luxurious, and the chance to sit and think with my words so pleasurable, that I am sure I will be writing and productive.

But the thing I find myself wanting to write is not the book I am working on. I want to write about my family. I want to write about the twins. I want to write about this moment in my life, because I am aware a new chapter has arrived, and everything will change. For the past twenty months it has been just the two of us with our boy and our girl; and there has been a kind of perfection in it, a balance and a symmetry and a completeness that I have noticed again and again. In the pictures of the four of us there I am with a baby, and there is Catherine with a baby; when we sit down to dinner one baby is on my lap, and one on hers. We are the Family Square, and while Catherine and I both like the abundance of a larger family, there is something archetypal and powerful and desirable about what we have now, and I feel it.

Kuhner Family

Having boy-girl twins has made me feel closer to the fact of female and male; I feel it as a kind of pleasure and richness. It so happens that our twins show many typical features of the sexes. John is taller, and heavier, than his sister; his body is thicker and more muscular, and his voice deeper. Picking him up, his stout, powerful little body is a pleasure to feel against mine; but then picking Mary up is another kind of pleasure, she feels light as a feather, more elegant, as if stripped down to essentials. Though in fact only three pounds separate them, everyone who picks them up notices the difference; it is as if she carries her body in a completely different way. Mary has beautiful hair, in a range of shades from tan to yellow to white, curling at the ends; it is one of the most beautiful substances I have ever seen in nature, refined and delicate, like spun sunlight. John’s hair has yet to get off his scalp; one person castigated me for not letting his hair grow the way we let hers grow, as if I was forcing him into a kind of military masculinity. But he’s never had a haircut: it just so happens that right now nature has made her hair long, and his short.

They are fraternal twins, and hence no more similar than any other brother and sister, which is to say, not necessarily all that alike. Mary loves being tickled, being thrown up in the air, and physical proximity: she does not sleep well without another body near hers. She is mercurial and ever-changing: she cries more than John does, but when she is happy – which might be thirty seconds later – she does it with her entire being. When she is really joyous, she throws her mouth open and shuts her eyes with pleasure. It seems harder for John to have such abandon; he smiles when tickled but seems to enjoy also the moment it ends, when he is back in control. People always comment on how serious his face is. He is capable of longer focus than Mary is, and enjoys inspecting the books of Mitsumasa Anno with me, lingering over detail, while Mary tries to grab the book and zoom furiously from page to page.

I have no idea how any of these traits will affect their later life, or if they will at all: I’ve never been this close to any child before, and I don’t know how childhood translates into adulthood. All I know is that I enjoy being with my children, and I am proud of them and love them. I love noticing things about them. Sometimes I dream about where their personalities will bring them, but I try not to read into things too much.

More than one of my contemporaries has told me something like, “John, you’re not going to believe how much you will love them.” But that I love them hasn’t surprised me. I was ready for that, and I have known what it is like to love people. What seems more surprising to me, and what I’m a bit less used to, is how much they love me. When I come home from work, I whistle as I approach the house and they come to the door, shrieking with excitement: “Dada!” At times I find them looking at me with what seem gazes of absolute love and admiration, of a kind I’m not sure I’ve ever received before, not as an adult anyway. I know it will get more complicated later – perhaps in just a few short weeks, with the arrival of the third child – but at twenty months, I feel I can say, “I haven’t messed this up yet.”

I heard another parent of twins say, “I don’t think I remember anything from the first two years – it was all just a blur.” I don’t think that will be the case for me. In fact, it seems like we have made enough memories in these twenty months for two lifetimes. They were born under the eyes of Mennonite midwives, and then Catherine’s family arrived with a big dinner for us, and the two little babes were passed around the great assembly; they snuggled against us all winter, but their senses began to blossom as spring arrived; and then we went to Italy, where they were welcomed and celebrated everywhere. They climbed Giotto’s belltower and rode in a gondola. We held them up to the Capitoline Wolf and let them splash in the Trevi Fountain. They have been to twenty states – have ridden on swampboats with Cajuns, standing at the prow, feeling the wind; have been to a wedding and funeral in Michigan, visited the Pope’s Latinist in Milwaukee, and sat picking flowers in the largest stand of Phacelia in the world during springtime in the Smokies. They’ve played with the gravel on top of the highest mountain in the Catskills. They’ve spent a week in Bushrod Washington’s mansion. They’ve learned to pick their own blackberries, walking to the bushes themselves and (after about two weeks of training) picking the ripe ones, knowing that red, for blackberries, means unripe. They’ve been to the zoo (they liked the bird house most of all) and the aquarium (“Pish!” they cry out, seeing them in the tanks), ridden the subway and been to the Museum of Natural History. They’ve had two weeks where we spoke to them only in Latin. They’ve camped by the Shenandoah and lived in the woods for seasons at a time. Just yesterday they walked an entire mile to a neighbor’s house, all on their own. I could scarcely believe they made it so far. (We did need to be driven back). But we’ve had them walking a lot. They follow trails in the woods, even obscure trails, very well even without my help, and they can follow my lead through the woods precisely – going around a tree when I go around it, touching a rock with their feet if I do it first. When we say grace at dinner they put their hands together to pray (which they love). They’ve been to mass I think every Sunday of their lives, including one Sunday when the Pope said the mass, and then came over afterwards to bless them both (John slept through the whole thing).

Indeed, when I think back on these twenty months, the amazing thing to me is that they won’t remember it – at all. It’s been so memorable. To me it seems like I’ve poured myself into them for the last twenty months like I’ve poured myself into no one else – probably not even my lovers, for though love always desires this kind of self-giving, we adults are not so available and present to each other as children can be. And yet – after giving myself to them as I have given myself to no one else – if I died tomorrow, all my children would ever know of me, in later years, would be a void – an empty place where a father should have been.

“It goes so fast,” every older parent says to me. “You can’t believe how the time flies by.” I have to say, I haven’t experienced the acceleration of time – to me, the past twenty months have seemed to be about twenty months in length. Indeed, I feel almost the opposite: how slow, how deliberate, how graded it all seems, this process of humans growing up. When they were six months old, they were little philosophers, who wondered at everything, who saw red and stared fixedly at it, trying to discern what redness was; but then philosophy passed at nine months, and they wanted fun: they wanted levers to pull and buttons to push, they wanted adults to make funny sounds and they wanted to push around toys with wheels. Just now, in the past month, they have a new pleasure, the pleasure of words, and knowing what things are: we walk down the driveway and, “Mud!” they exclaim, or “Rock!” Their emotional intelligence also continues to grow: they console each other now, and offer each other things; but there is so much more complexity – decades more of it – awaiting us. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fast about the process.

But the slow pace of human growing makes it all the more suited for savoring. My mother told me this many times: “You don’t really remember your own childhood; the time you really enjoy childhood and understand it is as a parent.” In the past two weeks, I have been at times alarmed by how much time I have been spending in the blackberry patch – where they want to go pretty much all the time. But it is beautiful to be there with them: probably an economist could come tell me that since blackberries are cheap at ShopRite, I should just buy the kids a few packages of them and go do something more productive. But the economist is wrong. In fact, as I was doing it the other day, I wondered which writers would understand the importance of going out with your children to pick blackberries. Henry David Thoreau, preeminently. Vergil. Homer. Wendell Berry. Probably Dickens. But not many others. Most have had better things to do than attend to little children.

At times, of course, enjoying it all is difficult. There is a lot of work, and it takes a toll. We presume the workload is quite a bit worse with twins – we certainly find having only one child to be pretty easy, in comparison. Looking at pictures of the birth just last night, Catherine shook her head and said, “We looked so much younger then – and that was only a year and a half ago!” I didn’t want to say it, but I was thinking the same thing. We both have a slightly battered look now. Mary in particular is a bad sleeper, and I find myself walking through the woods to get her to sleep (which works, but sometimes, at the end of the day, feels very burdensome). Both are still nursing, and Catherine is committed to weaning them naturally – i.e., whenever they lose interest in nursing. But that shows no sign of happening, and it has grown increasingly taxing on Catherine. I have worried more about money in the past twenty months than in the previous forty years. When I think of all the diapers changed, the putting pajamas on screaming kids, feeding them meal after meal and snack after snack, the constant effort to keep them happy and entertained and learning, the time spent teaching them manners and empathy, the broken dishes, the unexpected messes, the wailing and crying as if it was incumbent on them to mourn for all the grief of the world, the lugging them and their things, cleaning and bathing and everything else – it becomes clear to me that all of us, myself included, are living lives of the basest ingratitude toward our parents. It is an absolutely unpayable debt, and we live in complete ignorance of it until we have children ourselves.

But as parents it is useless to think that way. Raising children has to be its own reward, and indeed it is. God perhaps, or Nature I suppose, gives us this feeling: indeed I feel grateful to my children for the time I have been able to spend with them. I think they are beautiful, and for whatever reason – call it superficiality – I love to be around beauty. I also think they are wonderfully made; I think they understand far more than most people believe, and they respond to intelligent, mature treatment – as long as you understand their limitations. In fact, I am impressed at how energy and ingenuity are rewarded in parenting, perhaps more than in any other field: reasonable, well-expressed excuses are useless with toddlers. But energetic ingenuity can make a day with a toddler a wonderful thing. Sitting at a table in a restaurant for fifteen minutes waiting for your meal, can you turn that one napkin in front of you into an endless source of amusement? Or will you just sit there patiently and wait for them to start throwing the silverware onto the floor? You learn the art of changing the topic – as they reach for the fork, you cry out, “Look at that birdie outside the window!” And as immature and as annoying as they can be at times, they are still well made. Walking with a crying baby in the woods, if I pull up short as if in alarm, they instantly – instantly – become silent, and look where I am looking, to find the danger.

Goethe wrote a most excellent novel called Elective Affinities, based on a set of chemical experiments he had been party to, which showed that two stable compounds, when put in each other’s presence, could each break apart and recombine, as if the elements involved saw a better partner for themselves and elected to take the opportunity. He uses this as a metaphor to explore marriage, personal connection, and, ultimately, fidelity and infidelity. A similar principle is at work with any new addition to a community: all the old relationships are changed by the new presence. We don’t know how the new child will affect our family life: all we know is that things will change. But I feel grateful to all involved – to Catherine, to our twins, to God – for what we have had so far.

For Trinh Huynh, A Good Friend.

06-Apr-17

Trinh HuynhWe live in an unusually violent country, and death by firearms shows up in all of our actuarial tables as a relatively common way to die, so it stands to reason that as you go through life you will eventually have friends who get murdered. And my friend Trinh Huynh became one of them. As of this writing, I have available to me only the barest facts: on 7:40 a.m. Monday morning, she was walking along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta when a man came up behind her, put three bullets in her back, and ran away. There were other people on the street, whom the man did not kill, so she was apparently his particular target. As this took place downtown, numerous surveillance videos showed the man walking toward the murder scene and later running away from it. No information has been passed down as to why she was targeted, though as we go to trial I presume some kind of motive will emerge. A man with a previous criminal record was taken into custody shortly after the shooting, with the murder weapon in his car. The fact that he seems to have taken little thought about concealment or escape seems to indicate either purpose – he wanted to commit this murder publicly and go to prison for it – or insanity.

Trinh was a wonderful, quirky, loving woman, and I’m sure there are people out there saying they can’t imagine such a thing happening to her. I can’t say that; in fact I think that out of all my friends, she was one of the ones I would think would be most likely to get into trouble. This is because she had courage; seemingly infinite supplies of it, and when you meet someone who has it, you realize just how unusual a quality it is. She was tiny, never much more than a hundred pounds, and she went all over the world, and though she was a corporate lawyer and could have travelled however she pleased, she usually Couchsurfed, staying in strangers’ homes. I believe she also did some “woofing,” working and staying on organic farms. “I don’t wanna just stay in some hotel that’s boring,” she would say in her thick Georgia accent that always was so charming given her Asian background, “I wanna do something real. Meet people, do some work, see something different. Those hotels are all the same.” I don’t know how many countries she visited, but it was a lot.  On the Internet I see a little tribute to her from a man who met her in La Paz and then ran into her again in Buenos Aires and Ireland.  Sometimes hearing about her travels – she went to a lot of places – I would think, “This woman’s crazy she’s going to get herself killed.” She was also not shy. She was the kind of person who would pick on someone who was trying to cut a line. She didn’t put up with anything unfair. This is my nightmare scenario for her death, in fact, that maybe it all just came from a fight she started at Wal-mart or something with the homicidal maniac trying to cut the line: “Hey buddy the line’s over here,” I can see her calling out. “See all these people here? Yeah. They’re waiting, and they were all here before you, so get to the back of the line and wait your turn.”

I first saw Trinh during my first week at Princeton, during an event called the Cane Spree. This was half barbecue, and half barbarism. It had grown out of a barbaric custom which was still maintained: freshman and sophomores would wrestle each other to gain sole possession of a cane placed into their hands. It was the custom for freshmen to step forward first, and then for a sophomore to take up the challenge. Trinh stepped out. As I have said, she was never big, but her eighteen-year-old self looked like a child: she may have weighed eighty pounds then. The crowd cheered and laughed: Tom Thumb had come out as the Champion of the freshman class. The referee looked to a sophomore to answer the challenge. After a few moments, out swaggered a huge woman, a beefy, burly field hockey player, who was more than twice Trinh’s size. The crowd groaned. It was so patently unfair a match, and so unsporting, that it showed in an instant how far Ivy League sport culture had descended: this woman had seen an opportunity for victory, and victory was more important than a fair and fine contest. Trinh herself threw up her arms, and for a second looked as if she would try to melt back into the crowd, but she stopped herself and stayed. There were no rules suspending an unfair match, and so the two women grabbed hold of the cane, and the referee began the match.

What followed was the longest contest of the whole day. That is not to say it was even: it was totally one-sided, in fact. The field hockey player would jerk her arms one way, and send Trinh flying that way, and then jerk her arms the other way and Trinh would go that way. But she could not get her to let go. She dragged her along the ground, through the mud, and then tried a swift jerk to get the cane away, but Trinh’s entire little body would go flying wherever the cane went. She tried to step on her with a foot, and pull her body away from the cane, but Trinh would scoot out from under her feet and kick at her. Once the hockey player made a massive lunge to dislodge the cane and failed, and Trinh responded with a surprise counterassault; the field hockey player’s fingers visibly loosened from the cane, and the crowd, which had mostly been moaning and groaning in pity, went wild with excitement; but the woman’s fingers reclasped the cane just before Trinh made a last-gasp effort to take the cane, using up every ounce of energy she had left. But it wasn’t enough. The other woman got on top of her, buried a knee in her chest, and ripped the cane from her hands. I was surprised Trinh’s arms didn’t come off with the cane.

That fall it was my good luck to be placed in a room of intellectually curious and sociable roommates. One of them, Alex Heneveld, was a math genius, and half the college’s engineers and mathematicians would come to him for help with their problem sets. He was also taking Mandarin, and our room became a hangout spot for anyone in beginning Mandarin as well. Trinh was one of the people taking that class, and one evening, in she walked: that woman from the Cane Spree. Of the people I met, she stood out for her humor, frankness, and general willingness to share. What was not obvious at the time, but would become so, was her loyalty and capacity for friendship: she would be my friend for the rest of her life.

Some of my best memories from my whole life were the weeks after we had turned in our theses, senior year. Trinh would show up at my room with her 200g glow-in-the-dark frisbee, a heavy, long-distance slinger, and we would proceed to Cannon Green where we would throw that thing for hours. She taught me how to throw forehand using an unusual technique which involved flattening the disc against your forearm, which taxed the elbow somewhat but provided a very reliable throwing angle. She was an expert at it herself and it was a real pleasure to see her send that frisbee from one side of the Green to the other. Afterward I heard from the late Bob Fagles that he would watch us in between work on his translation of the Aeneid, from his window overlooking the Green. “Your friend,” he said, “throws beautifully.”

When we got tired we would sit under the ash-trees there and talk. She would look for four-leaf clovers. I would look a bit too, but once I got past about a dozen plants I was done looking and would just want to talk. But she would keep going: “Found one!” she would call out. Usually other people would have joined our little group, people we had intercepted coming from the library or Chancellor Green or Nassau Street, and I would be deep in conversation with them while the hunt for good luck continued. “Look at this one this is a perfect one. Come on now, who else do you know who can find five four-leaf clovers in fifteen minutes? That’s damn impressive if you ask me.”

They’re all gone now – Fagles is gone, Trinh is gone, even the ash-trees, which I think were the oldest trees on campus, are gone now.

I visited Trinh in Atlanta not long after my divorce. “If I ever see that guy,” she said, talking about my ex-wife’s lover, “I will kick him in the balls. I’m serious. Splat. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what he deserves. And if I see your ex-wife, I’ll REALLY kick her in the balls.” I don’t think it would have been very useful in practice, and now I’d really recommend a different course of action entirely, but at the time all I wanted to hear was that kind of loyalty.

I don’t remember if it was on that visit or a previous one when Trinh dropped me off at her mom’s place to spend a few hours there. “I have an errand to go on but you’ve got to meet my mom,” she told me. “She’s gonna love you.” I knew her mom from a very impressive picture that Trinh used to bring with her wherever she lived, of her mother in the center with her five daughters all around. They were all individually very strong people, but the picture of all of them together made it clear just how remarkable a family it was: together they radiated power and vitality.

I thought Trinh’s mom might want to have some long thoughtful conversation with me (what else am I good for, in the end?), but it was otherwise. Trinh vanished to go do her errand and her mom (who spoke English poorly, in fact) dragged me down to the karaoke machine in the basement, where she insisted I sing with her. It was quite a setup down there: she had the karaoke videos and everything, of various Asian couples walking along the beach and riding horses and having candlelit dinners, and the lyrics would come right up on the screen. In the end she determined that Bee Gees songs were my best, and along with a few dozen other selections, we did “How Deep Is Your Love” together about five times before Trinh got back. Trinh had known this would happen, of course, and chortled devilishly to herself as she inquired about her time with my mom. “My mom requires human sacrifice,” she said, laughing. “I have to feed the beast: I have to find her karaoke victims. She’s crazy about it. And with that 80s stuff you do, I was sure she was gonna love you.”

“If you had told me beforehand I could have thought of some good stuff to do a little easier.”

“No it’s all about the element of surprise. You get dragged down to some basement in Georgia with some crazy Vietnamese woman to sing Bee Gees songs, and you don’t know if you’ll ever escape.” She thought this was the most hilarious thing ever, and in fact, it was pretty funny.

Trinh volunteered for the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, which provides legal help to immigrants and refugees, especially those who have been the victims of crimes, and when the refugee controversy first flared up a few years ago she was very outspoken about the fact that she felt that this country had room for refugees. She herself had come as a refugee from Vietnam in 1979 when she was three years old, fleeing first to Indonesia where she was held in a refugee camp and then making it to America. A picture taken of her in that camp in Indonesia is just about the cutest thing you could ever see, and she made the point clearly: “’This is the face of a refugee. I am proud of my refugee status. I am thankful for the opportunities this wonderful country has afforded me and my family. I would not be here if the State of Georgia and this country had closed their doors and hearts to my family. I think this great state and the US have more love to give.” She’s right, of course.

The last time I saw Trinh was at a wedding party held at my cabin in August of 2015. She came up from Georgia and wowed everyone with her combination of intelligence, humor, and boldness. “Your friend Trinh,” people came up to me to say, “she’s really cool.” She showed up, pitched her tent in my field, and involved herself in all the details of the party planning, food, music, everything. I always leave the planning til the last minute of course and her help was invaluable. She admired the flowers in my garden and in short order she had made about twenty different flower arrangements which she distributed throughout the property in mason jars. I typically have flowers at my cabin, so I’m used to making arrangements of all sorts, but Trinh did something I had never thought to do in eight years here: she not only used the flowers for the arrangements, but used large quantities of the hay-scented fern which surrounds the house. As soon as I saw how beautiful it looked, I couldn’t believe I had never thought of using them. And no one else had either.

While there, of course Trinh was the life of the party, and into everything. My wife Catherine thinks that pants with zip-off legs are just about the most absurd and funny thing on the planet. I happen to have several pairs of pants like that, which I use for hiking. If it gets too hot, I just zip the legs off. I go through a nettle patch, I zip them back on. Catherine thinks this is ridiculous. I guess zip-pants are never going to become high fashion. Somehow or other Trinh found this out, and seeing that I was wearing these pants, she walked over to me, grabbed my pant leg, called out, “Hey, Catherine, look at this!” and proceeded to zip and unzip the pant leg over and over again, saying “Whoah, so cool!” Catherine was so pleased that someone else had thought these pants were notably absurd, and Trinh just laughed and laughed.

Trinh brought me a lovely wedding present: a pair of brand-new frisbees. Someday my kids are going to learn to throw them the way Trinh threw. But I know that all the little things we do to keep alive the memory of the dead in the end do not add up to the original sum; and in all these instances, I fall back on religion, and the dearest hope of thinkers of all ages, that the Power which produced all these lives may be able to restore them. Until that day, I am just left with a sense of how criminal it truly is to take a life in this way; how terrible it is that man should destroy something he cannot by all his exertions ever bring back.

I’ll be heading down to Atlanta this weekend, to celebrate her life. She was a beautiful woman and a beautiful friend.

Time

19-Mar-17

Sitting at a desk in my mother’s house to write, my daughter gave me perhaps thirty seconds before she followed me and crawled into my lap.  As I pecked away, now onehanded – whenever I tried to use my right hand it would get in her face a bit, and she energetically would thrust it away – she started picking cards off the desk, sorting and shuffling them over and over.  When my attention wandered, I saw that they were laminated mass cards, of the sort given out at wakes.  Little Mary enjoyed playing with them, moving them from her hands to her lap and back again, sorting and shuffling them, running her fingertips along their edges, putting them to her lips.  I looked at the names – these were the men and women I grew up with.  Neighbors, family friends, my father, my grandmother.  How strange it is to see a new generation grow amidst these reminders of the ones who are gone.