My Favorite Poem

I love poetry. My favorite book of poems, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, rests quietly with other volumes between a pair of bookends above the bookcase to my right. The original copy I read years ago in the Redemptorist Library was subtitled “Poems for Men.” I studied the collection from cover to cover and was so enthralled with it that I gifted each of my sons and my son-in-law a copy that Christmas. I wonder if any read it …

Robert Frost and Tom Dooley

The book contains six poems by Vermont’s poet laureate Robert Frost, but omits my favorite poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Mr. Frost penned the poem in 1922. He was 48-years old.

I was in elementary school when I was first exposed to the poem. American physician Tom Dooley included the closing lines of Frost’s poem at the conclusion of his 1958 best-seller Deliver Us from Evil, which described his activity in Southeast Asia at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam,

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Father George Gottwald, quoted the poem in Dooley’s eulogy saying that these were the words that Dr. Dooley lived by. “Tom Dooley could have enjoyed a comfortable life,” Father Gottwald told the thousands gathered in the St. Louis cathedral for the funeral, “Instead he chose to devote his career to ministering to the sick in far-off places.” He concluded his sermon with a final statement to his friend, “The promises, Dr. Dooley, are fulfilled.”

Sharing the Poem

I recall, the book entered our home as a Book of the Month Club selection. Admittedly, I remember nothing about Dr. Dooley’s book, but Frost’s lines were etched in my memory since the day I first read them.

I recite the poem to myself frequently, and most often as I wander my own snowy woods – now in Wisconsin, but in New England as a boy – with my canine companions – Winston in this picture from Missouri and now young Clarence in River Falls.

I share my favorite poem every winter, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Epigraph

Epigraph from “The Book of Lost Things.”

An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a book. I am fond of them and they have drawn me to a book more than once. Case in point, one of the two epigraphs in Steven Pressfield’s classic Gates of Fire,

“The fox knows many tricks,
The hedgehog one good one.”

Archilochus

Although I did not include one in The Olympian, an epigraph appears in each of my succeeding novels. Here’s the story behind the first, which appeared in The Hamsa

The Hamsa and Tobit

About a decade ago when I began writing The Hamsa, I returned to the daily practice of ‘praying the hours.’ By the 6th century, there were eight liturgical hours beginning with Lauds at daybreak and concluding with Matins at midnight. The practice has evolved. No, I never prayed all eight liturgical hours, but I prayed at least one every day. One of the first books I used was A Contemporary Celtic Prayer Book by William John Fitzgerald. I found great peace in Thursday’s Midday Prayer, the hour of Nones – the ninth hour – that Father Fitzgerald opens with this scripture reading from the Book of Tobit,

“Raphael answered, ‘I will go with him; so do not fear. We shall leave in good health and return to you in good health, because the way is safe.’”

Tobit 5:16

Tobit
Tobias saying goodbye to his father

The reference inspired me to read the Book of Tobit, which is included in the Vulgate version of the Old Testament in the ‘history books’ between Nehemiah and Judith. The short Book of Tobit is a wonderful story that includes a dog. As I wrote The Hamsa, a dog emerged as a significant character. I named him Raphael after the archangel in the Book of Tobit. Raphael first appears in Chapter 14 and accompanies the protagonist Bronisław Czech to the final pages. I fashioned him after my own dog, Caesar.

As I prepared the book with the publisher for release in 2010, there were no words to better introduce this perilous journey than the quote from the Book of Tobit. “But the way is not safe,” you might ponder, “and Bronek does not ‘return in good health.’” I smile and recall the final two sentences of the book

“A mighty angel with outstretched wings descends towards me to take me home. I commend myself to him and to his God.”

Bronek’s commendation is the ultimate ‘return to good health.’

I so much love the Book of Tobit that I fashioned my next novel around it, Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South. Another dog plays a prominent role. I chose to name him after my pal Caesar. I selected an Epigraph from C.S. Lewis to set the tone of the magical tale,

“I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous.”

Next time you browse through a bookstore or view a preview on Amazon, look to see if the author included an epigraph. It might be the thing that tips you in the direction of a book you might not otherwise have considered.

Chapter Six, The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

I understand if this chapter disappoints you.  It is quite short, but I can assure you, it is full of meaning.

I have contemplated this picture for years. It speaks of inhumanity, fear, hatred, racism … all of the negative things that continue to resurface since Cain slew Abel. As difficult as it is to gaze upon this image, it definitively captures Elie Wiesel’s truism

“To forget means to deny the relevance of the past.”

We cannot avert our eyes and our minds from those things we have done as human beings that we regret. True, the only moment that we can control is this precise moment in time. See what I mean? It is already gone and a part of a past we can no longer influence. Still, our past has relevance and to recall regrettable events is to learn from our mistakes with the intention of making the world a better place to be.

This picture inspired me to write a book. It continues to call out to me, “Do not forget.” I will not, and I will attempt to learn from my past, to repeat the good and avoid the not so good.

 

Tree Rings, Chapter Six, The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

Tree Rings, Chapter Six

Brian Doyle – A Friend I Never Knew

Author Brian Doyle was my good friend, although I never met him. Of course, I often say that my own books define me as a human being.  If that is true, Brian Doyle can certainly say that his books define him as a human being, so I suppose I truly have met him.  I did send him an email years ago after I read his book So Very Much the Best of Us. It was the first of many Doyle books I read. Truth be told, ‘twas the cover that attracted me to the book, but once inside the covers, I found the cover a mere shadow of the stories that awaited me in the pages. Mr. Doyle made me comfortable with my imperfect Catholicism and encouraged me to laugh at my own failings. Few authors can do that.

Last week, I finished another of his magical books, Martin Marten. Two days later, I gave it to my young friends Cat and Stephanie who came to visit our new puppy, Clarence. They are special kids, and I know they will enjoy this ‘coming of age’ story.

I inadvertently left Mink River on American Airlines as I hastily departed the aircraft in Port-au-Prince. I truly hope a Haitian will read it.

Only the Good Die Young

Brian Doyle, self-portrait

This morning, I searched for a new Brian Doyle book and found The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson. I love Mr. Doyle’s quirkiness. I was stopped in my tracks as I read the commentary on the Amazon listing,

BRIAN DOYLE (1956-2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of numerous books of essays, fiction, poems, and nonfiction, among them the novels Mink River, The Plover, Martin Marten, and Chicago. Honors for his work include the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award in Literature. He lived in Portland, Oregon.

Past tense leapt off the page … ‘was’ … ‘he lived.’

Confused, I continued to research this fine author and learned that he died in May 2017 of a brain tumor. He was only 60-years old.

Mr. Doyle was a prolific writer with more than 20 books to his credit and countless editorials and essays. If you have never read a Brian Doyle book, you can find one here. Each is a gem in its own, special way.

Billy Joel was right, “Only the good die young.”

Chapter Five, The Boy Who Saved America

tree ringsAs a child, I learned to honor and respect people in positions of leadership and authority whether I agreed with them or not. Those people included my parents, my teachers, coaches, clergy, police officers, mail carriers, elected officials, team captains, referees, young camp counselors … even the lady who served me at the soda fountain in J.J. Newberry’s department store on North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The President of the United States

The elected official we most revered was the President of the United States. Four Presidents stood out more than the others to me as a young boy: the 1st, the 16th, the 34th and the 35th – Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Each captured my imagination in a special way. While I have tried and will continue to respect the President of the United States, only one since John Kennedy approached the ethereal realm in which I place the four, and that President was Ronald Reagan, our 40th President.

Addressing Hate Groups in Tobit

TobitI have great interest in the American Civil War. In my mind, the men and women engaged in that conflict were ‘the greatest generation’ because through the severe challenges they faced, they managed to preserve this nation, a nation that remains the land of the free and home of the brave. In 2011, I wrote Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South. As I researched that book, I learned much about the conflict and the people involved in the War Between the States. I am no expert, but I know for certain, as sure as there were good people on both sides, there were not so good as well. I addressed hate groups in Tobit, and I think I handled it well for a man writing with 150 years of hindsight.

Months prior to all the non-productive jaw flapping and media misinterpretation of ‘confederate’ statues, etc. I was staring at Matthew Brady’s timeless portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Familiar with William H. Herndon’s 1889 biography of our 16th President, I recalled an incident where his boyhood friend Austin Gollaher saved him from drowning. That incident inspired this story.

Tree Rings, Chapter Five, The Boy Who Saved America

On the Passing of Glen Campbell

Glen CampbellAs I remember singer, songwriter and entertainer Glen Campbell who passed away yesterday, the sound and significance of music becomes even more important to me. I reflect on the beauty and joy he brought to the world. My kids will say, “I thought you were a Neil Diamond fan?” That’s true, but my musical tastes go far beyond that noted troubadour.

An Important Part of Life

Music is an important part of every creature’s life, and it enters our individual space from many sources. As I write with my window open this morning, I hear a Blue Jay singing his familiar song in the distance. He is joined by other songbirds as they celebrate the start of a new day. Birds begin to sing one hour prior to sunrise. Years of conscious listening confirm that fact for me. What a great way to start each day. They are most active and alive in the Spring, much like life as it erupts anew every year.

Evolution of Recent Recorded Music

I remember vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CD’s, MPEG’s, and now MP3’s and 4’s. Each brought joy to billions of people around the world. I have many old CD’s, but the only ones I find myself listening to regularly are the Christmas CD’s. I use an old CD player I acquired almost 15 years ago. It sits on top of an old cabinet in the sunroom. Beyond Christmas, I listen to its radio, which is tuned to the Minneapolis PBS station. Occasionally, as we prepare dinner, I pull up my Harry Chapin station on Pandora.

A Courageous Fight

Glen CampbellWhen I learned yesterday that Glen Campbell had died, I was glad his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease was finally over. He showed courage through the fight. Mr. Campbell had over 20 top 40 hits. My favorite Glen Campbell song was written by his long-time friend and collaborator Jimmy Webb in 1968 when Mr. Campbell outsold the Beatles.

What Songs Bring You Joy and Comfort

Great music surrounds us and holds the Earth in its tones. Here are what I consider the five most beautiful songs. In reverse chronological order …

  • Stranger with the Melodies, written, composed and performed by Harry Chapin, 1979
  • Please Come to Boston, written, composed and performed by Dave Loggins, 1974
  • Mr. Tanner, written, compose and performed by Harry Chapin, 1973
  • Stones, written, composed and performed by Neil Diamond, 1971 and
  • Wichita Lineman, written and composed by Jimmy Webb, performed by Glen Campbell, 1968

What songs bring a smile to your face and calm your heart? Which words and melodies bring you joy and comfort? While I expect everyone’s musical tastes to be different, take a moment and reflect on your favorites as you listen to Glen Campbell’s original recording of Wichita Lineman.

Thank you, Glenn Campbell for making the world
a better place to be.

Chapter Four, The Boxer

Pugilism has been a part of my life since I first donned the pair of red, vinyl boxing gloves my dad acquired using my mother’s S&H Green Stamps.  My journey continues today through my involvement with the Guepard Boxing Club in Cité Soleil, Haiti.  It might not have been that way if it wasn’t for that brash boxer from Louisville who became a great Peace Hero.  To him, I fashioned Chapter Four, The Boxer. May he rest in eternal peace.

Tree Rings

The Boxer is Coming Soon to “Tree Rings”

Olympian

The first book I penned – The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas – is about the value of a human being told through the experiences of a boxer and a poet – Theagenes of Thasos who won the boxing championship at the 76th Olympiad in 480 BCE and the Greek poet Simonides who wrote the immortal words, “Go tell the Spartans …” I did not choose the story. The story chose me. Ten years after I put the first words of The Olympian to paper, I published a novella – The Sixth Day, A 17,175-Word Novella About Creation and Prizefighting – a story of faith told through the exploits of a young boxer in a small, New England town. Again, the story chose me. I am drawn to boxing and the stories that are born in the violent world of pugilism.

A Man of Conviction

Months before my intimate involvement with Team Guepard and the Guepard Boxing Club of Cité Soleil (GBCCS) in Haiti, I had completed a chapter in Tree Rings inspired by Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was a man who happened to box. Far more importantly, Ali was a man of conviction and a Peace Hero. He inspired millions around the world, he inspired them not to be boxers, but to be men, women and children of conviction. I count myself among them. I think of Ali often and remember how important he was to my life and to the lives of so many others.

Things You Should Never Forget

At nearly 4,000 words, The Boxer is the longest chapter to date. I look forward to presenting it to you next week. Indeed, as Elie Wiesel tells us, “To forget denies the relevance of the past.” I sincerely hope that the images I include in Tree Rings, encourage you to remember images from your past and to recall things and people that should never be forgotten.

Chapter Three, The Artist

As a young boy the first thing I ‘wanted to be’ when I grew up – other than a cowboy, of course – was an archaeologist.  Things ancient and old have fascinated me since childhood.  I believe there is a spiritual connection between those who created things we now call antiquity and us.  I can look at this mural from Lascaux and be one with the person who painted it.

Tree Rings, Chapter Three, The Artist