Quoting Pat Conroy

I’ve been reading more Pat Conroy. I continue to be impressed with his ability to tell the story and to talk about his life and the lives of others entwined with his. Mostly, I treasure and envy his awesome craft of writing, his vocabulary, and how smooth it flows as I read. I have no right to judge the writing of anyone, much less a man with such a gift.

What I feel as I read his words is not so much judging (as in “love it”). It is about me and my experiences, feelings, and thoughts about a man who was born less than one year before I was; who grew up when I did, but under very different circumstances, and who seems to have lived a life that I oddly, but resonantly, relate to in many twisted and indirect ways. Autobiographical fiction; strangely, I get it.

Except for graphics, the following quotes taken from his writings are my notes. Any error is mine. This was me stopping the flow of my reading to write down Pat’s words. Cuz, picture it, me saying “wow” while reading and then grabbing my notebook.

I have been using Public Library e-books lately, so I cannot highlight as with paper books or on my Kindle app. Yet, writing them down in my notebook may be better for increased mental indelibility and the likelihood of my sharing.

I grouped these by category and added my comments. I realize that context is lost by such grab-and-go’s, but I like them. The photos and memes are not my work, except to click “copy as.”

About writing, reading, and writers

“Fear is the major cargo that American writers must stow away when the writing life calls them into its carefully chosen ranks.” (Agree. I do. I must.)

“…nothing is more natural in his (Tolstoy) world than the mysterious and necessary attraction of men and women…their attraction for each other and impending marriage seems part of the design of the Universe, as right as the stars that make up the belt of Orion.” (Pat read War and Peace three times.)

“Teach me how to die.” (This is one of those phrases when I think, “I wonder what he meant?” Context!)

“I want to always be writing the book I was born to write.” (Exactly.)

“But I’m speaking of all the yesterdays that will not come again.” (Old guys say cool shit like that.)

“…that I get to live in the Old New York Book Shop on the night of a book party.” (This was Pat’s idea of heaven after he died. That book store is no longer there, but it was a big deal to him. Do you have a place like that? A memory so profound and pleasurable that it would do for a permanent state in an afterlife?)

“Nothing is more difficult to overcome than a childhood of privilege….” (Or abusive parents.)

“My childhood taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers of love….” (I intend to use this when I write more on the paradox of love.)

“We got some things right.” (About writing, the publishing writing world, and himself.)

Regarding Norman Berg, Pat’s friend and book rep., “He was a hard man who dismissed fools without conscience or regret…. He was an easy man to dismiss, and a hard one to love.”

“Know everything. Feel everything. That’s your job as a writer.” (Said Norman Berg to Pat, quoted by Pat.)

“The tribe is contentious, the breed dangerous.” (Regards writers and why he claimed to have few friends among them. Pat Conroy had many friends, and many of them were writers. I don’t really know enough writers to have an opinion, but the ones I know, while seemingly neither contentious or dangerous; most are unapologetically opinionated. Norm Berg’s job description?)

“The world of writers was a snake hole, a circle of hell – a rat’s nest and a whirlpool and a dilemma – not just a world.” (Pat was opinionated. I wonder how he felt about French writers? See is time in Paris, below.)

Pat’s youth and college days

“Two pillars of authority, patriarchal influences shaped my childhood. Dad and the Catholic Church. Punishment of anarchy. Contempt for anyone different.” (Mine, too.)

“There was an amazingly limitless capacity for ruthlessness at the heart of the family of man.” (Regards all of life, but learned from the plebe system. This is from The Lords of Discipline.)

“What will this make of me? A man, or a monster?” (Regards surviving his freshman year in college)

“A prize that exacted an awesome tithe of spirit from those who loved it.” (The Lords of Discipline)

“It was sublimation and surrender to the efficacy of denial.” (Pat had something specific in mind, but I can apply this to so many times in my life.)

“The history we are born into always seems natural when we are young, but it seems misshapen and grotesque as the winter years come upon us.” (I have had similar thoughts, but my experiences were a little less profound.)

New words for me

Three of many words I learned and liked reading Conroy: décolletage, oleaginous, and unctuous. (I am smiling and could go on and on and…)

His time in Paris

“Parisians and polar icecaps have a lot in common except that polar icecaps are warmer to strangers.”

“France is the only country in the world where friendliness is one of the seven deadly sins.”

(To be fair, Pat loved his time in France and cherished the memories. But why deny the French acting so “frenchly”?)

 

In our reading life, we must look both ways.
In writing, mind the damn gaps.

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Am I Too Old?

I see my reality very differently

Am I too old?

How old is old enough?
am I too old to feel young?
am I too old to run and hide?
am I too old to care?

How old is old enough?
am I too old to want to know?
am I too old to love someone?
am I too old to care?

How old is old enough?
am I too old to feel you near?
am I too old to call you babe?
am I too old to care?

How old is old enough?
am I too old to dance with you?
am I too old to share your passion?
am I too old to care?

I am not yet old enough,
so dance me to end of time.
Still I see the fairies dance,
for your love is always mine.

by bill reynolds 7/5/2017

To live long and prosper, look both ways and mind the gaps.

Forever Young!

Mother’s Happiness

I know little of what my parents thought about any deep subject such as a philosophy of life or their world view. I managed no more than hints or rare tidbits. Regarding my father, I remember too much of the bad and little of the good. The opposite is true of my mother.

I remember more in Mom’s case, and most of it good. The few bad memories were usually not her doing. Mom may have had her share of bad days, but I can’t remember one that was her fault.

My clearest memories are the pleasant ones about our overall relationship. We were close. Not in the best of friends sense you may hear some parents brag about. Mom was my parent – not my friend.

As a teenager or young adult, I would have railed against being called a “momma’s boy.” I now look back on our relationship with pride.

My mother protected me, mostly from Dad, but also from a few other things. Oddly, not from bullies. If I developed an early skill in dealing with them, it was avoidance. Later in life, my approach was more direct. Conversely, she liked telling people how she often broke blood vessels in her hands spanking me. I don’t recall any of that.

She and I argued our share. I was a momma’s boy – not a good or obedient boy. There were times when I was disappointed in her for not coming to my aid. Looking back, I now realize how right she was.

When she did help me, she did it her way. She helped me in a manner that permitted me the dignity of learning difficult lessons the hard way – which was apparently my preference. When she felt like I needed to learn a painful lesson, she gave me the space I needed. I now realize how difficult that must have been for her. My mother’s love for me, and mine for her were never in question.

When Dad’s health was declining and she felt like she needed to help him, she postponed action on the lump in her breast. After his death, she moved on to her own health care. Everything she did during the period of that treatment, she did with the occasional assistance of her sister. My sister and I lived too far away to be of much help.

While Mom was a long-term breast cancer survivor, the invasive disease brought on her death only after she decided to end most of the treatment.

But years before that, the spot on her lung had been removed and she was recuperating in the hospital the day my flight from Texas arrived in Pennsylvania. Walking down the hospital hallway, the sounds and smells were unique. I would know where I was had I been awakened blind.

As I walked down the hall following the directions I’d been given, I knew I would take the next right into another hall, then right again into her room. I anticipated walking in and finding her groggy and sore from the surgery. I envisioned her smiling up at me, weak and tired. I turned the corner.

The window at the end of that hall looked down on the hospital’s parking lot. Its sill of hard tile was about a foot deep. My recovering mother could easily sit there and gaze down to the parking lot, watching for me.

When she heard my voice, she turned her head and saw me walking toward her. The day after surgery, my 70-something mother jumped off the sill and started running toward me. Mom drove her five-foot-tall frame hard against me, wrapped her arms firmly around me, and then pulled my face down and kissed me.

After I suggested that she get back into bed, we walked to her room and she slid back onto the sheets and pillow. Mom was excited and chatty. She was always happy to see me. But on that day, her response was overwhelming. The doctors and nurses kept Mom alive. All I had to do was walk down the hall at the right time. I became the star of her show. I will always remember how happy she was to see me that day. I’m glad I could help.

Happy Mother’s Day to moms everywhere.
Look both ways and mind the gaps.

Y – Yolonda, To Our Life (NaPoWriMo #28)

Yesterday was Yolonda’s birthday. I wrote this poem for her, to her, and about us. Lordy, we were so young the day we married; a long time ago on a planet far, far away.

 

Age 19

 

To Our Life
by Bill Reynolds

You’re at the core of my life, the blood of my love.
Together for years, we performed so many acts
With so many roles we’ve held as a pair, line upon line,
We’ve both been there, one with the other,
searching for truth.

Unknowing what another play might’ve been,
We know what this was; and now we see what it is
Like pearls on a string, between two people in love
Our years remain, foundations of that same love,
And discovery of truth.

We built this world, one moment at a time.
Moments we recall; and some too long forgotten,
Our time together, creations of a living world,
The past is our present, our present the future.
And pacing our life, acting on truth.

Burdens of life did task our endurance
As humanity’s frailty tested our love.
All while building great passion and strength,
Nothing in the future can bring change to our past.
Stumbling on stones, finding more truth.

Love is not work, not a great task
While true work of the universe, it just might be,
Not as a choice we make, nor a feeling we have,
Love is just that, love is simply love.
Love never dies, nor shall this truth.

Happy Birthday, My Love; blessings to you,
A toast to your life, how happy you’ve made me
By being my wife. I’m glad I found ya.
We all love you., my dearest Yolonda.
A love discovered is finding a truth.

Road Trip Ready

 

Live long, love well, seek truth and happiness. Keep looking both ways, and mind the dangers lurking in the gaps.

Battling Bastards III (Ben Steele)

Battling Bastards III (Ben Steele)

Reading or writing about events like Bataan, we often focus on man’s inhumanity to man – that dark side of our nature, which we often shun until memoir time. Throughout known history, our capacity for cruelty is well-documented. Genocide (killing to eliminate a group, race, ethnicity, religion, or language) is too common. While respecting victims of atrocities, I want to focus on survival, with one survivor in mind.

Ben enjoying it.

When survivors tell their story, they become windows to history, guiding and motivating our chant of never again. From their dark stories, we learn to prevent future atrocities. On the bright side, survival stories are inspirational. What others endure, survive, and subsequently achieve are symbolic of human resilience: that remarkable human physical and spiritual asset.

I discovered Benjamin Charles Steele long before I met him, as I was feeding my curiosity about Bataan by reading books. I only read five. “Only,” because so many books and articles have been written about the Death March, many by survivors or their families.

 

One of those books, Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, focuses on Ben’s story. While the Normans included much more within the pages of their ten-year project, they trace Ben’s life experiences, particularly during the war years. I recommend it.

 

My signed copy

Born in 1917, Ben Steele grew up on his parent’s Montana ranch. The family lost the ranch during the Depression Years, when he was about 15. Ben continued to work as a ranch hand, which interrupted his education several times before he finally graduated from high school in 1939. The following year, Ben joined the Army Air Corps. Eighteen months later he was a prisoner of war (POW) in the Philippines.

Ben may have developed a passing interest in art when had delivered art supplies. But, he had little exposure, and no formal training. Ben received his formal art degrees after the war.

For much of his early POW time, Ben was ill (Beriberi, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria). He worried about adding mental illness to the list, as so many others had. So, he began to draw. Risking severe punishment or death to stay sane, Ben started a self-prescribed therapy to fight off life-threatening melancholy. He had seldom drawn anything during his life.

Feeling guilty about my unused art supplies.

Unknowingly, from his sick-bed in the wretched Bilibid Prison, he was launching a seventy-four-year, successful art and teaching career. This late high school graduate, Army enlistee, and future college professor, was barely hanging on to life. While starving and hardly existing in some of the bleakest living conditions imaginable, Ben used charcoal and sticks to do his first primitive drawings.

“I used to sit there day after day. I thought I’d lose my damn mind. I wanted something to do, so I started drawing with anything I could find to draw with. I’d draw on walls. People around me said, ‘Why don’t you draw the guys? You know, there are no photographs taken of this stuff.’ So, I started drawing stuff around the camp and sketches of people and portraits as close as I could. I wasn’t very skillful.” ~ Ben Steele

Eventually, Ben was moved to mainland Japan where he worked as slave labor in coal mines. The only two of his original drawings to survive the war were done there. The original drawings he did in the Philippines were in the possession of a fellow prisoner, catholic priest, and army chaplain, named Father Duffy. When the ship Duffy was on sank, the drawings ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, as he recovered in a Spokane, Washington, hospital, Ben reproduced his lost drawings from memory (part of his therapy).

When the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Ben worked 75 miles south. He heard the blast. Soon the war ended. Ben and others were on the road home and toward recovery from the three-and-a-half-year ordeal. Ironically, some survivors eventually fell victim to mental and emotional problems resulting in suicide, death from substance abuse, or other such maladies. However, most survived, and I was fortunate enough to meet some of them.

Once a cowboy….always…

When Ben’s art was displayed in a building on White Sands Missile Range in 2011, I was there for my last Death March. By then I’d read Tears in the Darkness, and other books about Bataan. So, I knew Ben’s story.

When I went to see the art the day before the March, Ben was there. His daughter was escorting him in his wheel chair – he was 93. We shook hands. He signed my book about his art and we talked, mostly about his life as an artist.

I immediately knew I was talking to a Montana cowboy, who happened to have been a POW, college professor, well known artist, an American hero, and a witness to much about life’s realities.

At his core, this happy man who was pleased with life and was the same cowboy who joined the Army Air Corps 71 years earlier.

“Little things that probably bother a lot of people don’t bother me. I figure I’m probably living on a little borrowed time, and I’d better enjoy it!” ~ Ben Steele

Another WWII veteran I knew, Joe P., said virtually the same thing to me last year. Both men died in 2016, in their late 90s after living full and happy lives. Perhaps their life choices were reflected in the last three words I quoted from Ben, “…better enjoy it!”

Life has its ups and downs; reality in art, literature, history, and personal stories enable us to look both ways, to the dark, or to the light. Enjoy life, but mind the gaps.

Nano Rebel – The Big Picture

My Analogy

art-memoir-analogy3Let’s make a pencil drawing.

As we create this drawing, our personal art, we move the pencil across the page. As it leaves lines and other marks on the page, let’s say those marks are in the past – our past. We are creating the art, but we drew the lines and made the marks, past tense.

We can see the pencil point. The tip is touching on the page. We may look directly at it, or not. That small point of contact with the paper represents our present time — now. It’s in that brief instant of time where we live. We may look at the past marks, or we may focus on the pencil on the page. We may move it in any direction, going fast or slow, applying firm of soft pressure. We may even lift the pencil from the page and move it to a different location.

art-memoir-analogy1

As we move the pencil, the point joins with other lines on the page. Our present reaches into our past. As our vision unfolds, we make plans for where the pencil will go next, how we’ll maneuver it, how we apply pressure to it, how we will lift it off, and return it to, the page. As our drawing takes form, the page fills with marks and lines.

The blank part of the page is the future. We think about and plan our next moves, or we allow our hand to be guided by external forces, moving us into our personal future.

We keep looking to see the entirety of the drawing. We consider the past lines in light of our future plans. We make decisions to move lines in the present to be tangent with, or to intersect lines of the past. Thus, we create a new future that mingles with, and eventually becomes, our past.

We erase. We change it. We keep looking at our whole life as art. As we move in closer and back away to change our perspective, we begin to see the big picture of our life.

art-memoir-analogy2As we draw, we feel things: love, anger, spiritual things, and the passions of life. As we experience our feelings, our work of art changes. Those emotions travel to our hands to control the pencil that is drawing our life.

We learn as we draw. What worked? What didn’t? Where did we succeed and what were our failures?

As we fill the page with marks and lines, there are more lines and less white space. We are running out of places to make our marks. We don’t know how many more lines and marks that we can put on the page.

Our drawing, our art, our life. It’s on the page, or is it?

Mind the gap.

art-memoir-analogy4With 10 days of Nano remaining, I’m rolling along with my memoir. Finding memories and searching for lost feelings. It has helped me to keep writing in a searchable chronological order, so that as I recall things I want to add; I can find the right place to write (draw?) those memories.

Now, with over 34,000 words, I can tell that I may have to run this stuff past some involved eyes before I consider asking anyone to read it for feedback. Along with trying to write over 1,500 words a day, I’m reading Writing is My Drink, by Theo Pauline Nestor, and Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.

Have you ever tried to write your life story as a fairy tale? I have. Try it sometime.

art-memoir-analogy-5“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” ~ Oscar Wilde

To see your life story, look both ways.

Free from Religion

atheism8

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. ~ Soren Kierkegaard

Talking about this is difficult enough, but putting my spiritual story into words has been a challenge. It’s 70 years long. While details are normally important, I cut them out because there are too many. I’ll save the “rest of the story” details for a memoir.

I grew up Roman Catholic–I prefer Irish Catholic. In parochial elementary school (K thru 8th grade), I was taught by nuns (Sisters of Mercy, who had none). That was a lot of church and religion. Then, I attended public high school (9-12).

Around age 13 or 14, I would leave home for church on Sunday mornings. But, I would go play pinball for an hour and then walk back home. Maybe I believed in god as a teenager. Because of the way I lived then, I don’t think I did.

My friend Jack and my girlfriend at the time, both attended the Episcopal church down the street. I started going to the youth group there, but my participation there had nothing to do with religion.

Following high school graduation, I joined the Air Force at age 18; I met and married a girl in Texas at age 19; graduated from college and started having children by age 25. Two years later, I was back in the Air Force and flying B-52s.

While I sampled some other Christian denominations during the 70s, I also ventured back to the Catholic Church for a couple of years. We had our marriage made official (sometimes incorrectly called blessed) in the eyes of the Church.

We had three children in the 1970s: boy, boy, girl. While we played on the Pope’s team, the boys were baptized. The girl was born in 1978, but she was not baptized Catholic.  So we must have stopped going to the Catholic Church before mid-1978. By that time, my wife and I decided that Catholicism was not working for us as a family.  Perhaps the anti-Catholic sentiments in her family contributed to her part in that decision. My wife and I always wanted to have a church home for our family. So, we kept looking.

The 80s decade began with us living on the island of Guam for two years. We seldom went to church there. Then we moved to California where we attended a Methodist church. That went well for a long time, and our daughter was baptized. However, our try at Methodist fell apart after the Methodist leadership decided to write political letters. They had no right to speak for me. Eventually, other distractions overwhelmed us, and we stopped going.

We next moved to San Antonio, Texas, then to Oklahoma. From the mid-1980s through the mid-90s, we participated in no religion. While that time was among the most difficult of my life for purely secular reasons, spiritual help would’ve been welcome.

About 1997, we again tried religion. This time it was the First Christian, or Disciples of Christ, denomination. During that time, I was reading books about, and trying to learn about, eastern philosophy and religious thought (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.). That led to my reading of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. I was spiritually moved by that book, by him, and by other mystics. I considered myself a searcher in the spiritual sense. I was looking for something and trying to understand what I was going through.

In 2000, as we prepared to move back to San Antonio, I told my wife that I intended to go back to the Catholic Church again. Her response was, “Good. I think I’ll go with you.” We did, and this time she became a confirmed Roman Catholic, which means she joined the Church through the sacrament of Confirmation.

We did everything to be good, active, participating members of our large Parish: pray, pay, and obey, as one guy called it. If there was anything we could do, we did it. We went to every adult religious education class, and we participated in many other “ministries.” I ended up teaching those adult classes and I added several lessons to the curriculum, including a critical one called, The Problem of Evil.

I read all of the Bible and started adult Bible Study classes. I did all the lesson plans and taught every class for years. I also taught children’s religious education classes.

I applied to be ordained as a Deacon, but later withdrew my application for a variety of reasons. One was time, and becoming a Deacon required a multi-year program. For two years, I was a member of the Parish Council, then I served as its President for two more years. We were in the top five percent of financial donors to the Parish. My oldest son was married in the church. We did it all. My wife was also employed as the Parish Office Manager for more than 10 years. After she retired, I applied for and received a job promotion that required a move to Florida.

Before we moved, I began to realize that my twelve year immersion into the religion and church of my youth had crystalized within me what I was trying to avoid. I was deeper in doubt. Oddly, it was like I knew too much. I began to realize that I didn’t believe any of it. I felt unfit for any religion because no matter what I did over the years, I did not believe what I professed. I couldn’t. I don’t do hypocrisy well.

I was not ignorant. By 2012, short of most clergy and some long-time apologists, I knew as much about the Christian faith and many other religions, as any layman–more than most. For the next two years, I pondered my beliefs and all that I had put myself through. I am a… I’m… what?

I no longer considered myself a Catholic, practicing or otherwise. I was peeling away the nonsense and discovering my personal truth. I knew the answer, but I avoided it.

I watched a documentary about former ministers who are now atheists. Some were still ministers. I was in awe of their courage. I couldn’t imagine doing that. I still can’t. That’s when I knew I was going to come clean. But how? When? As what?

I probably have not believed in god since I was about 12, but I kept trying. I couldn’t bring myself to write or to say words contrary to belief. I didn’t want to tell anyone. For a long time, no one asked. About three years ago, I did volunteer to a coworker, “I don’t believe it—none of it.” He’s an apostate Mormon and told me that his father, a life-long Mormon, eventually said the same thing.

Question One1Retiring and moving to the Seattle area provided time for me to consider my beliefs in greater detail. I read more about atheism, and I started to write about it.

Then, a few months ago while meeting with my writer’s group, one lady asked me, “Do you consider yourself an atheist?” I didn’t answer the question right then. After more thinking, I knew that I had to say it. So, days after being asked, my answer was yes–I am an atheist.

I gave up on religion because it never worked. Perhaps it never worked because after I reached the age of reason, I never believed again. I wanted to believe, and I wanted it to work. Now, I know that was impossible. I accept that, and I’m pleased with the outcome.

give up religion

I have few regrets about any of my life-long spiritual journey. However, I do regret that so many people consider atheism a dark, bad, evil thing. It’s not. Admitting my atheism freed me from the last of my self-imposed, people-pleaser bondages. Now, I need to find a pinball machine for Sunday mornings. Free again, at last.

May your spiritual journey lead to discovery of your personal truth. Let no one place limits on your life, so that you may grow and learn. We need not fear the truth revealed to us, by us.