Yesterday, I learned that my first book of poems, called A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country, had been accepted for publication by a small press in Chicago, and will be coming out in early 2012. I’ve spent the past two days on that proverbial roller coaster of emotion. This is something I’ve alternately dreamed of, expected, never expected, dared to hope for, despaired for desire of, been thrilled by, been terrified by, and many shades in between that I’m unaware of or don’t understand.
What I do know is this: when I was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Roberts Wesleyan College, I took a literature course with one William Judson Decker. At one point in that class, I thought to myself, “I must find a way to spend the rest of my life in this room.” I meant that I felt at home in a place where art and faith intersected, informed each other, respected the truth and dignity and complexity of the lives of all persons without reducing any to platitudes, increased me and those around me. Mystery was honored and excellence praised in that classroom.
I’ve been working ever since for two things: to become a college English professor and facilitate that great ongoing conversation for students who need it as badly I did (and do); and to publish my own writing, in which I could enter that great ongoing conversation.
I have a lot of work to do to honor and grow in both of these callings.
But here I am. After years on the outside, I never seriously thought I’d make it into this place, even just into the lobby, where I’m standing right now with a fool’s grin. Oh, I’ll get up in the morning and shut my mouth and get back to work. But for a moment I’m going to look around, give thanks, and celebrate.
Last night, I attended my third consecutive Batavia Muckdogs home opener at Dwyer Stadium. The Muckdogs start their season in mid-June, as they are a Single-A Short Season club, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Dwyer Stadium seats 2,600, making it one of the smallest of the hundreds of minor league venues around the US and Canada.
Some MLB stars have passed through Batavia in recent years, including Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, when the Muckdogs were affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies. And here’s a bit of trivia: former NFL tailback Ricky Williams played a summer for the Muckdogs before returning to the University of Texas to prepare for the upcoming NCAA football season, where he won the Heisman Trophy.
Before the game, we made the customary trip to Grand View Cemetery to pay our respects to John Gardner, the powerhouse writer and critic who died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49. For the Gardner enthusiast, I took several shots of the family plot, including the headstone of Gardner’s parents John III and Priscilla, and those of the three children: Gilbert, who died as a child in a terrible farming accident; Priscilla, the only daughter; and John IV, perhaps one of the most influential writers and writing teachers of the second half of the 20th century. Note that John IV has two stones–the traditional one and a special one to note his work as a writer.
Back to baseball: the Muckdogs lost the game by a score of 6-1 to the Auburn Doubledays. Sloppy play in the field, including three errors, did not help Batavia’s cause. Auburn looked sharp at the plate; their 12 hits included some deep line drives. The Muckdogs need to shake the rust from the long off season. In the coming days, when they catch up to the fastball, they should be okay.
The entrance to Dwyer Stadium, Batavia, NY
Grand View Cemetery in Batavia, resting place of author and native son John Gardner
Sincerest apologies for the bird poop. (These things happen in cemeteries.)
People frequently leave coins on the site, but in past trips, I’ve also seen bottles of wine and other mementos.
Now back to our game…it was a beautiful night for baseball in western New York.
For $6.50, you can pretty much sit behind the dugout. You won’t find a better deal anywhere.
So excited to have three poems in the October issue of Pyrta, a wonderful new journal based in Meghalaya, India. Even more excited that my friend Beth Myhr has poems in the same issue. Check it out! And let me know what you think.
“As much as I converse with sages and heroes, they have very little of my love and admiration. I long for rural and domestic scene, for the warbling of birds and the prattling of my children.”
“The deepest American dream is not the hunger for money or fame; it is the dream of settling down, in peace and freedom and cooperation, in the promised land.”
– Scott Russell Sanders
I grew up near water, in the Mohawk River valley where my ancestors, Bavarian Palatines, came to live following the disastrous European winter of 1709-1710. They traded the Rhine for the Mohawk primarily to escape persecution. Three hundred years later and only a few hundred miles away, I’m trading the shores of Lake Ontario for the banks of the Genesee. For me, this is about entering into a deeper, more formal commitment as a writer, reader, and teacher; as a pilgrim on the faith journey; and as a member of a community through my work on campus and citizenry in my town. In the fall, I begin a new career as Assistant Professor of Writing at Houghton College for the 2010-2011 academic year. We are moving to a rural part of New York known as the Southern Tier. We’ve chosen the village of Angelica, a hamlet situated along a river, not unlike my hometown.
The Southern Tier has long been home to the native people of the Iroquois Confederacy, and, geographically at least, has changed very little. It is a rugged, sometimes bleak, hill country that stretches from the Allegany Reservation south of the Finger Lakes and east to the Catskills. I’m excited for the rich natural setting we can engage as a family, for the opportunity for our kids to grow up exploring the outdoors. I did, and it shaped me as a person and a poet. (For a compelling study on the topic, read Richard Louv’s excellent Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.) We know that time spent outdoors has the power to balance the image- and communication-saturated, TV/video game/Internet/cell phone culture our children (and we) inhabit daily. Emerson tells us: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
While living happily in urban settings most of my adult life, I admired people like Scott Russell Sanders, who wrote about a subject many hipper folks would dismiss out of hand: staying put–in Indiana, no less. The full title of the book is Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, and in it, Sanders describes “fashioning a life that’s firmly grounded in household and community, in awareness of nature, and in contract with that source from which all things arise.” In choosing a rural setting, Sanders, Wendell Berry, and others experience what Berry has called “the grace of the world.” He writes, “When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be—I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, who farms upstate but goes into the city weekly, writes of the ways in which the city and the country can inform and enrich one another for those who would take notice and time to deal in both. This approach works best for me, too. As I read Anna Karenina this past year, I strongly identified with Levin’s need for open spaces, his hunger for the chastening work of the outdoors (and the working out of his spiritual dilemma), as well as his discomfort with urban sophisticates and their collective superiority complex. At the same time, I sympathize with Vronsky’s desire for the great cultural centers–in his case, St. Petersburg and Moscow–where he enjoys fine cuisine, attends the theater, and experiences the range of cultural amenities a city affords (not the least of which is the company of the aristocracy). Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t go more than six months or so without at least a quick weekend in New York. Just ask the friends and cousins and cousins’ friends in Brooklyn whose couches I sleep on. Like everyone I get restless for the bright lights and the unparalleled artistic opportunities.
For me, it has never been an either/or, but always a both/and, and that’s how it will continue to be, only now I’ll choose both from a home base in the country. Like Adams, I adore “the warbling of birds and the prattling of my children.” When I’m being honest I find in myself the dream to settle down in a promised land. But, Sanders suggests, promised land does not ultimately speak of a physical place but rather a kind of spiritual calibration that helps us live in “peace and freedom and cooperation.” And yet one must be careful not to idealize a new job and a new home or even pristine nature (or for that matter, the romance of the city). One must expect—and respect—reality. As Paula D’Arcy reminds us, “Reality is God’s greatest ally.” I look forward to the realities of the Southern Tier, the village of Angelica, Houghton College, and all the people with whom I will enter into community.
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Stay tuned for Part II of this three-part reflection, in which I freak out about my course syllabi and inadequacies as a teacher, and ponder the unique issues associated with teaching at a Christian college.