Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives…

~Henry David Thoreau

Newly Released on iBooks!!!
Free Download

“The Three Rivers Anthology” is now available on the iTunes Store as an iBook. It is a collection of over 150 “Poems, Essays, Songs, and Ramblings on Life, Writing, Family & Community” that I have written over the years, culled from a great many more. 

The iBooks format is pretty cool in that it allows for me to embed audio and video for many of the poems and songs—and it allows me to update and add new content as it is created. 

I never set out to make money as a writer. It is just something I do, so the book, at least for now, is a free download. If you like the book, please give it a rating and a review. If you don’t, some things are best kept quiet:

At any rate, I hope you will download “The Three Rivers Anthology,” and I hope you enjoy what you find.

The print version is available from Lulu.com

 

Thanks,

 

Fitz

My apologies as I work through getting this page together. Ultimately, I hope to get audio or video for every entry, but that is a slow and ongoing process. If you find an obvious mistake, please let me know.

Thanks and enjoy!

~Fitz

The Three Rivers Anthology

by John Fitzsimmons

I’ve always made my way down to the three rivers.  Even now as I sit on my back porch, I hear the rush of the Assabet a half mile to the north, already filled with an early and surprising winter melt.  Any leaf of me could fall and be carried back to the fork of the Sudbury and Concord rivers. My whole life has been a continual returning to these three rivers and my common ground—the water, fields, woods and village of Concord and now, just to the west, the small mill town of Maynard.

 More and more I remember less and less, but there are still granite walls that will not change for another thousand years and still a few hills to defy development; still a few farm-stands with the same trucks and tractors parked by weathered sheds, and still a few cantankerous old souls hiding their smiles behind seventy or eighty New England winters. I wonder if they remember the kid who worked for them so long ago? I wonder what they remember? I wonder what they wish they’d kept?

 This collection of mine is my way of keeping what I remember—or at least what I need to remember.  Musketaquid is the native name for the Concord River.  Someone once told me that it meant “slow moving river.” It seemed like a fine and apt name to me, so much so that it didn’t bother me to discover the actual translation is “grass grown river.” The fields are now all wooded over—a bramble of Hawthorne and Swamp Maple hiding almost every view; but it still a slow moving river—and always will be. Even the Nipmucks would have to agree with that. These poems, essays, and sometimes simply memories and ramblings are what I have to add to the rivers. They are the small streams of my experience becoming a smaller part of the Musketaquid, which, hopefully, flows into some greater sea of understanding and insight. They are the good, the bad, and the ugly drafts of my life scattered in here with the randomness of the winds and tides that have driven me and carried me to so many shores—and have always brought me home.

 These are the poems, stories, rambles, and reflections that have  been written over a long run of time, usually close to home, but often in far off places, and sometimes simply as conversations with my students, friends, or family, but always within dreamshot of the beautiful, beautiful rivers that ramble through my home.

 These words are just a part of my Thanksgiving.

The rest is my life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Three Rivers Anthology

Thanksgiving

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I am surprised sometimes
by the suddenness of November:
beauty abruptly shed
to a common nakedness—
grasses deadened
by hoarfrost,
persistent memories
of people I’ve lost.

It is left to those of us
dressed in the hard
barky skin of experience
to insist on a decorum
that rises to the greatness
of a true Thanksgiving.

This is not a game,
against a badly scheduled team,
an uneven match on an uneven pitch.

This is Life.
This is Life.
This is Life.

Not politely mumbled phrases,
murmured with a practiced and meticulous earnestness.

Thanksgiving was born a breech-birth,
a screaming appreciation for being alive—
for not being one of the many
who didn’t make it—
who couldn’t moil through
another hardscrabble year
on tubers and scarce fowl.

Thanksgiving is for being you.
There are no thanks without you.

You are the power of hopeful promise;
you are the balky soil turning upon itself;
you are bursting forth in your experience.

You are not the person next to you—
not an image or an expectation.
You are the infinite and eternal you—
blessed, and loved, and consoled
by the utter commonness
and community of our souls.

We cry and we’re held.
We love and we hold.

We are the harvest of God,
constantly renewed,
constantly awakened,
to a new Thanksgiving

Remember the Time

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 

Write what you know.
~Mark Twain

     I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when it comes to the simple, unaffected, and ordinary “journal entry.” Much of my reticence towards the casual journal entry is the public nature of posting our journal writing as blogs that are more or less “open” to the public. It is hard for me as a teacher of writing to post an entry that I know is trivial, mundane, and perhaps of no interest to my readers—but that is precisely what I need to do if I am to model the full spectrum of the writing process. Keeping a journal is more than a search for lofty thoughts amidst the detritus of the day; it is a practice that keeps our wits and writing skills honed for a coming feast by rambling through the meat of the day and drifting and sailing to whatever port is nearest to my pen. Writing is always an odyssey, and so I have to let my mind go and journey (journal) where it will.

Good words are built our of ordinary thoughts. At the very least, a journal, filled with the scraps and pieces of our daily lives, will outlive our own lives and serve as both beacon and reminder to future generations. Once, in my days as a junkman, I cleaned out an old barn in Maynard after the elderly widower—a man I only remember now as Bob—had died. Scrounging through the Bob’s boxes for anything of value, I came across a series of leather bound journals dating back to the 1930’s. I found a journal marked 1941, so I looked up the date of the Pearl Harbor attack, eager for insight on the profound effect that day must have had on the common man of his or her time. I turned through page after page of impeccable script and learned that Bob and his family went to church in the morning, during which they sang certain hymns (hymns that I can’t remember now—but he did.)  Afterwards, they drove to Stow for dinner with his extended family. He wrote about the meal, the weather, the condition of the roads, and, in two brief lines at the close of his entry: “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor today. I trust President Roosevelt will know what to do.” And that was it.

At first glance, I saw a xenophobic racist putting blind trust in infallible rulers. I couldn’t reconcile it with the kind and gentle old man, and best friend to my best friend’s father, who had recently passed away. I didn’t see it as a window into another time and another mindset. In the arrogance of my youthful pride, I couldn’t appreciate the elegiac beauty of his day—a whole day devoted to faith and the full circle of family.  It wasn’t until years later when I sat on the bench by the World War Two Memorial in downtown Maynard and scrolled through the scores of boys and men from this one small mill town killed in battle that I realized the full extent of my myopia.  I should have sat in his barn for days and read every word from his journals and then, maybe, I could have seen the evolution of a person through the fullness of time through the clarity of still waters.

Maybe Bob’s youthful ramblings, tempered by the death of so many of his townsmen, could have somehow transformed into the pearls of laconic wisdom that old age should bring—pearls that would fetch a heady price in the market of the modern mind. The greatest tragedy is that we’ll never know. I offered the journals to his son, but he was content to have me throw the whole lot into the back of my Chevy pickup and pay me fifty dollars for the load I scattered into the fires of the Concord dump. The irony of tossing those journals away not more than 150 yards from the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond remained lost on me for many years, even as I trudged dutifully to the Concord library to scour through the massive tomes of Thoreau’s own journals. The old man had done exactly what Thoreau believed was required first of any man or woman when he admonished all would be writers:

“I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A further irony is that my own journals from my years between eighteen and twenty five years old, which filled a good-sized cardboard box, were also inadvertently tossed into the same dump by a roommate intent on purging all the junk we were accumulating in our Williams Road farmhouse. The Concord dump is now a series of perfectly sculptured hills slowly regaining the shape and character of the woods that Thoreau tramped and stumbled through 150 years ago. It is a noble idea funded by the well-intentioned, but a nobler action would be to dig through the mold and dirt of time and truly find what the past has to offer us, buried almost irretrievably as it is.

Poetry is what is left unsaid. The stolid words of brevity simply point us in a direction only the brave will wander, but through the daily words of an old Italian farmer, I found a new kind of poetry. Pine Tree farm, butted against the rail line on the far side of Walden and owned by the Ammendolia’s, was one of the last of the Italian family farms that used to be scattered in every corner of Concord. Tony Ammendolia was the patriarch who somehow kept the dream alive, even as farm after farm succumbed to the teeming aorta of suburbia. It was there where I worked on school breaks and on summer weekends, picking corn at 4:00 AM before the heat of the day and hoeing seemingly infinite rows of tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and eggplants in the long, hot afternoons where success and failure crisscrossed and intersected in a struggle to just get by. My Goddaughters were raised there, and their parents, my good friends Deb and Jack, still keep a few acres going to this day. Tony died two years ago after defying for many years the cancer he fought with the same stubbornness that he did the vicissitudes of nature in the cycle of droughts and floods and insects he faced at every turn during his days as a farmer.

Every night for over sixty years Tony would sit at his desk after dinner and write in his journal. Tony knew I was a writer and would kiddingly tease me that he was a writer too, but in a good-natured poke at my transient approach to life, he was also a farmer. I was at Jack and Debs recently for dinner and asked about Tony’s journals. Jack perked up as the proud inheritor of this family treasure and immediately found me one of the many small notebooks that Tony kept. I opened it and felt the tears well in my eyes, for it read like a type of poetry I had never read before. Tony never meandered from the scope of his own life, but his words spelled out a conviction that celebrated both the common fragility and majesty of life with sentences both sparse and foreboding: “Potato beetles got the eggplants on Bedford Street. We will not sell eggplant this year.”  “Three days of rain. Lucky, as the irrigation pumps needs a new valve.” Each entry is a sublime excising out of the ordinary: the sky, the temperature, what was done, what had to be left undone, how much seed, what was selling and what was not selling—but never a mention of the money made or not made. There is never a mention of personal angst or frustration for over sixty continuous years. Those details were best left to imagination and speculation. Some, myself especially, have to call it poetry.

Our own journals need the same attention that Bob and Tony put into their daily records so that our journals can also chart the common unfolding of our lives. As writers and sojourners in life it is our call and duty to map the expanse of our existence. We don’t need to lay our souls bare for all to see and gossip about, but we should find a place to keep a daily journal. Whether it is written in leather bound journals, spiral notepads, or saved as private or public drafts in your blog doesn’t matter, but just a few short lines each day will serve to spark your memory in a later age—and memories wizened in the vat of a thoughtful life will always produce a finer wine. Journaling is a word that has been antiquated before its time. Though fewer and fewer of us take the time to sit with pen and paper, there is still a time and a place for the spirit of journaling to continue.

Make the time to map your own quest. A friend asked me yesterday why I didn’t have a GPS in my truck. He simply shook his head when I answered, “First, I have to remember where I’ve been.” Today’s technologies offer us possibilities unimagined to our literary forbears. Our daily journals can hold both pristine images of our lives via photos, video clips, and music, and most importantly, words. The web allows us to scour the world for like-minded souls that share our particular interests with whom we can share our passions on sites like Facebook, blogs, or personal web sites.

My only issue with much of what is out there on these sites is their self-exploitive and indulgent banality. Bob and Tony’s journals seemed permeated with an almost religious devotion as they chronicled the recitations of their days in rhythm with the pattern of their everyday lives, while on the other side, many Facebook sites I have visited have a tiresome and sycophantic obsession with the painstakingly mundane and profligate side of that persons supposed interests and lifestyle. It is hard—and sometimes impossible—to wrest any kind of context out of the content. Nothing, except a prurient curiosity, keeps me interested—and that is no road to enlightenment for either side of the equation. On some few sites there are links to blogs and other artistic websites where a deeper and more invested side of that person comes through. For them, their Facebook page is simply an adjunct to their life—a social gathering place to rest and draw water with friends and community. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should never be the destination of your journey, and if you can’t see life as a journey—an odyssey of existence—then you simply can’t see.

I guess the word I am looking for is devotion. None of our lives are more complicated than Bob or Tony’s lives. All they did that is different is make time to look closely at what was important to them in the daily unfolding of each of their lives.

Take the time. Remember where you’ve been.

The Tide

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

They are building a world
and the plastic is fading:
Margaret and Eddie’s
buckets are split,
pouring out the warm Atlantic
as they race
along the tidal flat,
filling pools connected
by frantically dug canals.

Tommy squats naked
and screams in guttural joy
at the solitary horseshoe crab
donated by a stranger
with a large belly
and a huge smile.

Charlie thrashes through the shallows
chasing crabs
and impossible minnows.

Emma is happy
to let only the wind
fill her net.

Pipo steps warily
and warns us sternly
in his broken English
to anticipate the massive toad
lurking in the undertow.

Kaleigh stands far away
toes lapped
by the edge of gravity.

She is almost a teenager.
I see her
framed in a setting sun,
stretching out her arms,
holding back
the inevitable tide

 

 

Making it Work

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

EJ and Pipo squat in the driveway
and poke their heads through
the wheel-well and pass
a half inch socket and WD 40
to my bloodied hand.

I shout out to them:
“The transmission cooler line
is completely shot,
and the thread
on the flare nut
is stripped bare—
it turns, but won’t catch,
into the radiator.
In short: we’re screwed.”

I can hear them giggling
and splashing in the oily cold
puddle I am soaked in.

While Pipo runs to get
the extra red hose we used
to fix the heater on the bus,
I send EJ to get the cement
we used to fix the gasket
on the wood stove.

In my sarcophagus
under the old Buick wagon,
I fumble through my pockets
and find some hose clamps
that just might work.

EJ slathers the flare nut
in an icing of black glue.
And so Pipo can use
his beloved tape measure,
he cuts me a piece of red hose
18 ½ inches long—exactly.

There is no turning back now:
I cut out the old line
and jam the flare nut
into the fitting
until it sets.

For a few minutes, everything
is dead serious.
Pipo lays on his belly
and fits the 18 ½ inch hose
to the cleanly cut ends
of the cooler lines.
EJ takes his flathead
and tightens the hose clamps,
while I keep
the damn flare nut
from moving.

And in the stale air,
beneath a 1988 LeSabre Wagon—
soaked in mud, love, oil and anti-freeze—
I am the luckiest man alive.

 

Winter in Caribou

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I know your name. It’s written there.
I wonder if you care.
A six-pack of Narragansett beer,
Some Camels and the brownie over there.
Every day I stop by like I
Got some place I’ve got to go;
I’m buying things I don’t really need:
I don’t read the Boston Globe.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye.
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

You’re new around here, but in a quiet way.
How long you gonna stay?
Your baby sleeps by the porno rack
And you car’s got Michigan plates.
Winter here’s a lonely time:
snow piles, and generally a pain.
I blew the tranny on my pickup truck,
So I’m driving that rusted-out Fairlane.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye.
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

Pretty soon, she knew my name;
She’d say, “Hey, John-O, how ya been?”
I’d bring her toys that I’d whittled up
To hang over our little baby friend.
I felt myself all changed up somehow,
And I worked like I’d never worked before,
Dropping trees and bucking logs,
All the while thinking of that store.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you…

But it all ends up kinda’  like you think it might. I got all spiffed up and headed on over to the store. I get there a little later than I usually do. I’d been home whittling up this Canada goose— little thing with wings that flap, so we could hang it over the baby’s crib and she should slap at it—and it would look like it was flying.

Anyways, I get there and Frank is behind the counter reading one of them magazines, all of a sudden I felt myself getting real small, and kinda drifting away. I could hardly even hear him saying, “Yeah, that’s too bad about Carol. She was a real good girl. But I told her not to worry none, that there’s plenty of folks around looking for work, but it would be hard to find one just like herself. Fact is, John-O, she was waiting around here for you to show up; but seeing as how you were so late in coming, and that fellow she was with kinda looked like he wanted to get going, she just wrote down this here note for you. Asked if I’d give it to you here….”

“What’s she say, John-O?”

“Not much, Frank, It just says, …

Dear John-O.
Thanks a lot for everything you did for me this winter. It really meant a lot to me, and I really do wish we could have gotten to known each other better. But life just takes quiet, crazy turns sometimes, and you never know.”

No address. Michigan somewhere, I guess.

So I stuck my head in a Field & Stream magazine so Frank wouldn’t see me. But, like all the folks around here, he knew. It just all seemed kinda weird: Frank, over there, behind the counter saying “Hey, John-O, check out this one over here….”

Damn, damn it I
I had the corner of her eye.
But I…
I didn’t try.

Download from iTunes

Memories on a Bus

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

With the fuel tank hovering precariously close to empty, I back the bus into its home beneath the towering pines in our side yard. We only had one breakdown this summer, and that was easily fixed with a new bank of batteries. Not bad for a thirty-year-old icon of steel, chrome, and spots of rust. The old Cat diesel 3208 now runs just a little rough; the generator is well past the 5000 hour mark, and the tires that are slightly scuffed and worn, all remind me of where we’ve been and how we’ve returned; and while the kids erect a monstrous fort out of soccer nets and a massive blue tarp, I top off the oil, flush the tanks, and scrape the dried dirt off the mudflaps: some fine sand from the National seashore (and the minke whale swimming just offshore, just beyond the reach of our skipping stones); heavy clay from the mountain pass in Thetford Vermont that we just barely managed to get over while the engine steamed and smoked in disbelief at our audacity; the specks of field grass from Windsor Mountain in New Hampshire—flashes of the Perseied meteor showers raining out of the night sky while we laid on our backs in wet dew, heavy with mosquitoes and fireflies; crushed blueberries and wild grape leaves from the spot we carved under the power lines at Nana and Papa’s house in Brewster; the parking lot gravel of every ice cream stand, town fair, and festival we happened by on side roads off of side roads; the shells, bottom paint and turpentine of the boatyard on Pleasant Bay where the kids bulked up in oversized life jackets spun the dingy comically, struggling like Sisyphus towards the mooring of our amishly plain and barnacled wooden ketch.

Inside the bus, I pull the countless sleeping bags out of the overhead bins and stretch them over the fence between ours and our neighbor’s yard. They are musty from the massive storm in late July that caught the kids unaware in their pop up tent and soaked them all clean through to the bone, while Denise and I listened to them laughing, comparing, and wringing out pillow cases in the wind freshened morning. As I shake out each bag, long lost crocks and sandals and flip-flops fall out like they just won the final game of hide and seek, along with the wet jeans and bathing suits reappearing from the cocoon that for weeks on end was their dressing room—and I still hear the screams: “Don’t look! Wait for me! I don’t need a sweatshirt!” And EJ constantly reminding everyone: “If Fitz says it’s not going to rain, it will! He can’t be trusted.”

Everything in the bus reflects the magic disarray of action: books are shoved into every free corner; Nora Roberts, Hemingway, Dr. Seuss, and Jack London piled like comrades in trench warfare; Harry Potter relinquished to sharing a drawer with Reptiles of North America; Thoreau lowered to a conversation with a pile of Spider Man coloring books. Nothing, no one, and nowhere is more important than any other in this egalitarian assemblage of memory. My drawer for tools also holds the missing cinnamon pop tart that caused Emma so much distress on a hungry morning. The registration makes for a perfect bookmark for a Patrick O’Brien novel, while my coffee cup holds a universe of broken crayons, mismatched screws, and a pack of Old Maid playing cards. Only the keys—the majestic and untouchable single set of keys—remains in its pristine reserve set in the dashboard. Who could or would ever try steal our bus? Who could carry away our memories? It is as unthinkable as joy.

There is a balance and a linkage between the material and the immaterial. Our family is carried towards and away from our dreams in a ponderous conveyance built by union men and women working long days in another time and existence. They made a thing in which we are transported and recreated by the renewing power of experience. There are times on the open road when I find myself quietly thanking them for their efforts. I wonder if they knew what kind of life they were enabling as they constructed our bus back in 1977. Did someone say a prayer as they packed the grease into the bearings? Is there an initial scratched into some impossible to find crevice of the frame? Back then our Bluebird Wanderlodge was the top of the line motorhome, a toy for the rich to see America—and to be seen. Now it is more like a vestige of an old folk tune that anyone can sing—but few do. I wonder how our summers would be different if Denise hadn’t spotted it sitting in the back yard of a Mack Truck repair lot in Maynard, set amongst the dump trucks and semi’s just a row or two away from the junkyard?

All I really know is that we took a chance at creating a new opportunity—something that I can’t forget how to do. The bus becomes our metaphor for possibility, even while it sits in stoic patience waiting for its tanks to be drained and the water lines to be blown. It reminds me that I need to continue to create those opportunities that become the stories and traditions of our family. It reassures me that only the weak and restful are intimidated.

The rest of us simply try.

The English Soldier

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

There is a soldier dressed
in ancient English wool guarding
the entrance to the inn.
He is lucky for this cool night
awaiting the pomp
of the out of town
wedding party.

He is paid to be unmoved
by the bride’s stunning beauty
and her train
of lesser escorts.

He will not notice
this small stone
set across the square;
His eyes will not glisten
when he hears
that two brothers
fell here,
picked out
of disciplined lines
beating
a hot and hasty retreat
back to Boston.

He will not
chasten his comrades
for leaving them
in foreign dust—
the dull and whistling holes
torn into soft
and homesick wool.

He betrays nothing.

Inscrutable—
he collects his check
and drives home.

~The Colonial Inn
Concord, MA.

Approaching Poetry

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 If there is anything I wish to be called, it is a poet, for poetry is the most elevated art, and apart from my love for my wife and children, it is the closest I can come to touching the hand of the truest and most present God. Perhaps to a person unmarked by poetry, my statement reeks of intellectual arrogance and conceit, but to me it is as simple as real love. It can never be a point of discussion. It is what it is. The tragic flaw of a writer is to recognize true greatness in poetry, because most of us who aspire to be poets will alway be left on the sidelines. We are astute enough to see through the swath of mediocrity that academics and effete sophists try to pass off as poetry, but we still cannot for the life of us compose verse that reaches the grandeur of what we know to be true poetry. Even now, over thirty years into my journey as an aspiring poet, I still feel like a kid standing beside Larry Bird at the free throw line, and all I can offer him is a rattling rim and my passion for the game .

Poetry is both beguiling and bewildering. It is incredibly hard to pin down poetry except to say, “I know it when I see it.” When I was first out of high school and wandering the back roads and railways of the country, I was convinced that poetry could only be the unfettered (and unedited) expression of who and what I was at any given point in time. I practiced a rambling unexpurgated style of poetry—a style that mimicked the freedom I was experiencing for the first time in my life. I filled notebook after notebook with long-winded rants and rambles. I convinced myself that every word was precious—too precious to alter or edit in any way. I hitchhiked through every state in the west; I wrote in the back of pickup trucks, along the sides of back roads and interstates, and by lonely sterno cans in makeshift camps. I can’t say that I created remarkable poetry, but I did pay my share of dues.

I carried more books than luggage, and I read with a passion I never thought possible, and I wrote constantly. I emptied my heart and soul and being as if it was my last gift to humanity, but, oddly, I never shared that poetry with anybody. I couldn’t let go of my old self completely. I couldn’t reconcile the simple Concord townie barely scraping through high school with the now thoughtful vagabond weeping with Odysseus by his ancient campfires. All I knew was that Odysseus had Ithaca to long for, while my kingdom was yet to be made. My panoply of Gods were the poets that came before me, poets who both tormented and mentored me in my own odyssey towards that kingdom where poetry lives in endless reign.

Aside from intuition, I had no idea where or how to start writing poetry. I wasn’t even sure “why” I wanted to write poetry. It was as if I had picked up a rough gem from the side of the road and recognized that it was not an ordinary stone. And so my first poems were rough and rambling. I was both hunter and prey searching for and escaping from an elusive self. Constantly transforming, I shifted between haiku like brevity and unending anthems. I thrashed in a sea of words like a drowning man manic and joyful for life. I cursed my teachers for not preparing me for this maelstrom, and I thanked them for leaving me untainted.

My new syllabus was the open road and whatever books that were handed to me by the fellow travelers and lost saints who picked up me up off the side roads and interstate on-ramps. They gave me the best of what they had, and I gave them back a naivete’ that must have resembled genuineness. Somehow they must have sensed that I did not want to just read; I wanted to be enlightened and transfixed, and so they filled my backpack with the giants of the beat generation: Kerouac, Whitman, Miller, Proust, Ginsburgh, Snyder, Brautigan, and Ferlinghetti. Older couples gave me Shelley, Wordsworth, and Yeats. In my homesickness for my hometown of Concord, I picked up a copy of “Walden” and some selected essays of Emerson. Whomever I was reading at a given time, I imitated in my writing. Looking back, I wasn’t as interested in what they wrote, but in how they wrote. It didn’t matter that I was not a great poet; I was happy to live like a poet—and that lesson has never left me.

Time and experience are relative. Though I was only on the road for a relatively small stretch of time, my life was set on a new course, and thankfully, an unwavering one. Still, all I know of poetry is that it has to be real; it has to spring from an examined life; it has to recognize the beauty and majesty of the most common of images and actions, and it has to be constructed and not cast like wild seed, sometimes laboriously, because that is the life of a poet. For both the poet and the hunter, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but only the poet captures the bird just to set it free. Only the poet smiles as the bird soars from his hand. Only a true poet smiles at anonymity. The words have to be enough.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of words in our language only a few can make it on to the page, and fewer still can rightly be called a poem. This sea of sand is your starting point. Every moment is an opportunity lost or gained. The person who does not recognize this urgency is not a poet.

 

If you want to be a poet, live like one.

Where Father's Go

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Moaning like a lost whale
the thin ice
bellowed behind us
then cracked and rang
as if spit from a whip.

The sharp steel of
my over-sized skates
etched unspeakable joy
into the slate-grey,
reptilian skin
of Walden Pond.

Our mismatched hands
gripped together
in the fading light
of a January afternoon,
and you pulled me
onto untouched darker ice
where fathers
should never take sons.

You circled tighter
and, spinning like a bullfighter,
you let me go—
splayed across the ice,
arms outstretched,
screaming back to you
out of the black hole
of memory

Trawler

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

We leave the fog stillness
of a cold harbor town,
and cup our hands
‘round the warm diesel sound—
leave while the children
are calmed in their dreams
by light buoys calling:
“Don’t play around me.”

The kids think their daddy
is so sure where to steer;
they throw in our holds
what they catch from the pier—
they throw in our holds
their after-school days;
what our nets couldn’t drag
will still be okay.

Okay keep your head up
and take care of the home;
I’ll call you next week
on the radiophone.
You say: “Yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe.
Make a beeline back home
on the Marilyn Joe.

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

We leave the bay shallows—
be a waste of our time
to drag empty waves
for a pure lucky find.
We leave the bay shallows
for the edge of the shelf
where the warm waters slide
to a cold deeper self.

There on the edge
we drift nets in the night;
we winch and we pray
and bitch for the light.
We  winch and we pray
and bitch for the day—
“Hook on to the rail
and get out of my way!”

“Get out of your bunk’s mates,
and get up from below.
Get into your oilskins—
she’s coming up slow:
We’ll say: ‘yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe.
Bring her into the wind:
Oh, the Marilyn Joe.”

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

We gut all the night,
and pack all the day;
count down to each man
this feast of the waves.
Some take it back
to some love they have found;
some like the wind
they’ll just blow around town.

Six days on the Banks,
our eyes heavy as stones,
we chart a course
that will take us back home.
Docked at the pier,
with our kids by our sides,
we bitch about haddock
the market won’t buy.

We’ll sing: “Yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe:
when will we go
on the Marilyn Joe?
No I don’t mind the rain,
or the wind or the snow—
We’ll set out the trawl
on the Marilyn Joe.”

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

Yankee Cannonball

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

     I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”


“Will it be scary?”

“Yes”

“Will I scream?”

“Probably.”

“Will I throw up?”

“I don’t know. I might.”

“You better not!”

“We really don’t have to go.”

“Yeah, we do.”

 

I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other.“Don’t do that.”

“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”

“What if they beat you up?”

“I’ll hide behind you.”

“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”

“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”

“Oh, man!”


Leaning on his toes he was just the right height.  Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”


“Rarely.”

“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”

“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”

“Whoo hooo.”

 The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”

“I like the bus, too.”

“I know.”

The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”

“Oh, man”


I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds.  The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created.“Was it fun?”

“No.”

“Want to go again?”

“No.  Never again.”

We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”

“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”

“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”

Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion.  It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.

The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.

Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.

For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters.  So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book.  My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.

Think of what you “really” want to write.

 

And begin writing.

The Snow

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

has dropped a seamlessness
before the plows and children
can patch it back
to a jagged and arbitrary quilting
putting borders to design
and impulse.

I imagine myself
falling everywhere
softly,
whispering,

I am here,

and

I am here.

 

Dan Zanes

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

       I had half an idea what Dan Zanes looked like, but I was struck when I saw him walk into the camp dining hall. I noticed how much “presence” he commanded as he ambled through the dinner line with his impish humble grin framed under wild shocks of slightly greying hair. Windsor Mountain International Camp in the woods of New Hampshire is a virtual revolving door of funky offbeat characters showing up for one or several days; most are greeted with the open arms of equanimity, but everyone seemed to notice Dan Zanes, though most of them didn’t know him from a hole in the wall. I did, but I didn’t know how much an aging rocker turned children’s folksinger would change my ideas about creating and performing music.

Old dreams die slow and often imperceptible deaths; we imagine the possibilities of life until those hopes fade into the impossibility of reality. And so it is with my music: What was once grand dreams of pushing the frontiers of folk music as a writer and performer has become a steady, predictable and somewhat rewarding role as a low level folkie in a small circle of New England, but I also know that if I stopped playing tomorrow the ripple of my absence would not be felt on any distant shore. That in itself should keep me humble, but I reached into my reservoir of pride and approached Dan with the hubris of a beaten lion. I introduced myself as a worshipping fan, but he seized the opportunity to show how much he already knew about me and seemed eager to hang out and play music together. We set a loose time and place: somewhere in camp, sometime after all the kids were in bed.

And so at ten o’clock at night, within a screaming buzz of mosquitoes, I sat in the dark on the steps of the dining hall porch playing my old gibson. I was too proud to walk across camp to the cabin where Dan and his wife were staying and our plans were too loose to be presumptious on my part, but it wasn’t long before I heard “Hey Fitz” and there was Dan with his mandolin and a tuner. He started with “Sitting on Top of the World,” a tune I barely knew; I followed with “Crawdad Hole” and “Salty Dog” before we moved indoors and attracted a circle of counselors not on duty. We played well into the night: all old folksongs; all with refrains and choruses so that everyone could sing along, and every one from the treasure chest of memory and experience. For my part I wasn’t trying to impress anybody—I just wanted to hold my own with one of the greats, but I soon realized that Dan wasn’t out to impress anybody either; he just loved the old songs—the songs I’ve been learning and singing for the past thirty years. It was an old-fashioned sing with old fashioned songs and plenty of laughs.

I walked back to my bus that night energized, though regretful that I had to go back to Boston the next day for several small shows. I wanted to sing again in a circle of friends and strangers, not in the corner of a bar, or to the bus lines at a camp, or in a fancy hotel ballroom—-which is what I was heading off to do. I wanted to recreate the night again—and again. I wanted to keep the well flowing with song after song. I racked my head for the hundreds of songs I have learned and unlearned over the years. I was once convinced of the beauty of everything that I sang, mainly folks songs, sea shanties, raucous sing-alongs and long murderous ballads—even my own quiet and contemplative songs. The awareness of a songs intrinsic power has always emboldened me with the confidence to sing and play unabashedley, but lately that confidence has been slipping. I listen too closely when someone says that a certain song does nothing for them, or that it is a musical dead-end; I try to win a crowd over with the tried and true. I haven’t invited Barry Lyle over for years; I haven’t opened a Guiness for him and sat with the tape recorder going, all the while cajoling song after song out of him—songs that really are all but lost, save to scholars and a small band of balladmongers-Dan Zanes among them.

In the not too distant past, Dan was the lead singer for The Del Fuegos, a popular rock band. I am not one to pry or preach to the past, but I gather the lifestyle reached a breaking point and he moved in the direction of playing folk songs for kids (especially after the birth of his daughter Anna, now ten and a great kid in her own right), albeit with a killer band of musicians. He’s put out seven CD’s of music. The best in my mind is a collection of sea songs. It is a mesmerizing stream of classics, many of which I sang for years playing in the Boston pub scene, every song recorded in rough mixes tinged with beauty and realism. He makes no claim to nautical experience, only to a love for the music itself. It works for me on every level. I’ll admit that it makes me rue that I never recorded them myself. I felt the same ruefulness when the “Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack came out, and more recently Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions,” both of them full of songs that have been mainstays of my set lists for years. But at least it makes me sit here and ponder my next move—and move I must—or fade away. As much as I appreciate my iconoclastic image, I also recognize how much of my life has been spent emulating people I respect, be it Thoreau or Kerouac, or Dylan or Dan Zanes.

I don’t want to do what Dan Zanes does, but I do want to live with the spirit of his genius and integrity. I need to both let go of some things and grab on to others. I need to follow Thoreau and live deliberately; I need to create experience like Kerouac; I need to tap into the well of words like Dylan, and most importantly I need to turn my ship in the direction of a new and distinct horizon like Dan Zanes.

I need to follow my own advice. “It’s one step and you turn…”

Goathouse

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

In reaching for the scythe
I’m reminded of the whetstone
and the few quick strokes
by which it was tested—
the hardness of hot August;
the burning of ticks
off dog backs.

It’s winter now
in this garage made barn,
and the animals seem only curious
that I’d be here so late
on a cold night lit dimly
by a single hanging bulb.

They don’t bother to stir
and disturb their warm huddle.
Cudchewers, we pay each other
little attention.

The curve of the handle still fits.
The blade shines,
its edge oiled against rust.
The loft is full
of Jack Mattison’s field.

There’s nothing to do —
my content is preparedness,
the simplicity of knowing.

Jonathan & Elaine

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Jonathan McCarney of 37 Brookside Lane 
lived for forty years with his wife Elaine;
retired now for twelve years, he spent his waking hours
wondering if she’d ever be the same—

The same as before
as the pictures by the door.
The same as before,
Christ, I’m asking nothing more.
Then there came the days
when your mind begun to haze
and you couldn’t remember
the little things no more.

It came on kind of slowly;
the doctors they all told you:
“Not to worry Dear,
it’s just a part of growing old.”
I’d laugh and say: “My sweet dear,
don’t cry and spill your warm tears—
we’re just a pair of old coots all alone.”

Then one day you went down
to the pharmacy in town;
two days later they found you
wandering around.
I put new locks on the door
and swore forever more
I’d never leave you
or let you come to harm.

So for five years I have cared for you—
cradled you and bathed you
and though my eyes are gone
my heart keeps racing on.
I know I cannot blame
but if just once you’d say my name;
My God, I dearly love my poor Elaine.
Then one cold October morning
they come taking you away—
“We’re sorry Mister McCarney,
but you can’t care for her this way.”
They took her down the road—
just another aging load.
I swore that I would be with her each day.

Your home is now on Balls Hill,
the state pays your bed bill;
my pension helps to buy you a single room.
I sit down in the chair—
so far away I cannot dare—
Elaine we’ve got to be together soon.

Then Elaine I went home
and I prayed with all my might;
I don’t know if he’ll forgive me,
there’s just so much more wrong than right.
It fit well beneath my coat—
there’s no need for any note;
I’ll turn down the heat
I’ve no use for tonight.

Jonathan McCarney, and his dear wife Sue Elaine,
were waked today at their home on Brookside Lane.
Father Clark prayed on their grave,
Mrs. Blodgett cried and waved—
wondering if they’d ever be the same

 

Swimming Under Water

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

     It’s strange how happy I am to see the drizzling rain. Last night I went out in the cold of midnight to cover the boat. I wasn’t happy that the weather was calling for a morning burst of snow, for it meant another day of waiting for spring. My visions of painting and scraping in the warm sun of March is not quite happening. After prepping the boat, I sat on the porch in a beat up adirondack I made years ago. Our porch—and this chair in particular—is my refuge; it is my lonesome valley, bouldered jetty, and foggy moor all in one. It settles the world for me, and it is a rare day that I am not renewed to some degree by the simple act of sitting in this sacred ground and letting my thoughts blow and settle in a pulsating philosophical diaspora.

I could, or maybe should, fix this chair, especially that it now leans so precariously to the right that I must lean left when I sit down. The effect is even more pronounced because of the old outboard motor leaning against it. Beside me, too, is the snowblower and bags of wood pellets for the woodstove. And then  there is the battered clawfoot bathtub in the driveway, which I wrestled out of the back of the truck yesterday—and that was about as far as one man was going to move it. It is another warm weather project: strip off the old, and layer on the new. This, I imagine, is also the job of a philosopher.

I often wonder about the job of a philosopher. I wonder if being a philosopher is to simply think wise thoughts—or is it to organize these thoughts into a logical system and publish them for the world to accept or cast off? The problem with “spreading the news” is that it requires formality and discipline because the varied and vague thoughts must be wrought with some precision into the confines of mere words—and words that aim beyond the realm of words and into the construct of pure intellect are misread as often as they are internalized and ultimately understood with any vestige of the philosopher’s true intent and meaning intact; but, as I tell my students everyday, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and so the least a philosopher can do is write—as simply and magnanimously as possible—to convey the subtlety of his or her thoughts to those who need to understand; otherwise, it is just philosophers writing to philosophers within the incredibly narrow confines of academia. The end result is usually a logic so dense as to be painful to read and, in the end, rarely worth it, for it is as much dry sand as it is rich soil. For me it is like trying to tie the wisps of a spiders web back together or clearing a muddy puddle with my hands.

We are all born with blinders that focus and shape our individual (and collective) vision. I have grown comfortable in my myopia, and so I find myself falling back on the notion that “where you stand, depends upon where you sit,” which is probably why I like this chair. Born into a New England stoicism, I appreciate a laconic response to life. I have lived and worked broadly—if not deeply—and have come to love the wisdom that comes from listening to those who live in simple work and generous gestures, and by opening myself to this mosaic of insights and asides, I find myself living, in a palpable, if limited, sense, philosophically.

Once, back in high school, I was picking beans at Pine Tree farm with John, a long time Italian farmhand, I complimented him on how quickly he could pick a bushel of beans. Stopping his stooped and incessant labor, he replied, “You reada’ the books; I picka’ the beans.” I return to that moment as often as I can, if only for the reminder that I cannot hold wisdom.

I can only use it for short bursts, like a kid swimming under water.

Superman

by Denise Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

There’s a little blonde boy in a superman cape
Racing around the back yard;
Sayin’, “Daddy don’t you know I can fly to the moon;
I’m gonna bring you back some stars.
And after that I’m gonna save the world”
Cause I’m superman today.”
I scoop that boy right into my arms,
And this is what I say:

You don’t need a cape to be a hero
You’ve got all the special powers that you need
Your smile’s enough to save the world from evil
And you’ll always be superman to me.

That little blonde boy in the cape again
Says he’s gonna jump off the deck.
I say: “Little man, can’t you just slow on down;
One day you’re going to break your neck?”
He says, “Don’t you know that I can’t get hurt
Because I’m superman today.”
Well I scoop that boy right into my arms
And this is what I say:

You don’t need a cape to be a hero
You’ve got all the special powers that you need
Your smile’s enough to save the world from evil
And you’ll always be superman to me.

One day he woke up and didn’t want his cape,
And we knew that something weren’t right
The doctors said, “We just don’t know.
We better keep him here for the night.”
So, I held his hand and stroked his hair
Until somehow he fell off to sleep,
Then I knelt at the window 
and prayed to the stars:
God, help me own leap.

I’ve never been much of a prayin’ man;
I’ve never had a faith very clear;
But give me a sign and I’ll step into line;
Just get my boy out of here—
I’ll give you everything any man’s ever got:
I’ll give you every bit of my love—
And a prayer came back to me
In a whisper from above…saying:

You don’t need a cape to be his hero
You’ve got all the special powers that you need
Your smile’s enough to save the world from evil
And you’ll always be superman to me.

That little boy woke up in a hospital room
Looking so quiet and sad.
I bring him in his cape and I say “Big boy,
How about a smile for Dad?”
And those wide blue eyes filled up with tears
“I’m not superman today.”
Well, I scooped that boy right into my arms
And this is what I said…

You don’t need a cape to be my hero;
You’ve got all the special powers that you need.
Your smile’s enough to save the world from evil,
And you’ll always be superman to me;
Yeah, you’ll always be superman to me…

~written by Denise Fitzsimmons

Patty

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

     We were coming home from church one morning and Jimmy Glennon pulled up beside us as we approached the Sudbury road lights. He didn’t notice the well-dressed family of eight scrunched into our old Pontiac station wagon as he revved the engine of his yellow and black mustang fastback. I was crammed in the rearward facing back seat doling out peace signs and air horn salutes, but the scene unfolding in front of me was one of the coolest scenes ever: here was the guy Patty had a date with the night before seeming to challenge my father to a drag race, or at the very least humiliate, the infamous and fiery EJ—on a Sunday morning no less.

When the light turned green, Jimmy pulled away in a squeal of burning rubber and glorious smoke, fishtailing his car as he laid down a patch—a testament etched into the road that would last several more months of my bragging to my friends as we drove by that spot every weekday on the schoolbus number 10 That moment sealed it for me: I had the coolest big sister in town—and now I could prove it in the hardscrabble myth-making of a crowded kid-filled neighborhood. I could now glow in the reflected light of her infinite coolness, and I still live in that light, but it is now deeper, richer, and more penetrating, with a lingering and haunting pain that still leaves me numb and lonely; but, through Patty we can all be cool; we can live with a richer understanding of our dreams, our struggles, and our potential to embrace the scope of the day, and we can simply share the patchwork mosaic that she wove with the divergent strands of our lives.

When I was young, Patty lived in another age. She moved as a phantom through the house because she was like eighteen when I was eleven; she had friends who would hoist me to the top of the basketball hoop bolted above the garage door; she had friends who played guitars in the basement and pierced each other’s ears, and she had friends in prison and friends who died in the Vietnam war, and she had friends that she kept for all of her shortened life—most of whom are here today. My other sisters were never as cool as Patty. Eileen, in her quest for perfection, would charge me a quarter if I didn’t make my bed right; Mary Ellen would lament that I was embarrassing the whole family because of my bad pitching in little league, and Annie, who was almost as young as Patty was old, was too little to be cool and did things like take our meal orders before supper on a stolen Friendlies waitress pad. My little brother Tom never seemed to feel the need to be cool.

So it all fell on me.

I really wanted to be cool. I wanted a different and clear slant on life like Patty, but I certainly did not want to work as hard as her; so, like so many other people, I used her as my mentor—my guide through the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. And she guided me well: she had a way of making your little adventure or undertaking be one of immense importance, but, equally important, she would put her life into your venture by helping to make it become real. She knew that anything worth trying was worth doing, and so any dream could be pounded into reality; any project could be finished, and any problem or struggle had a way through, and her hand was always there to help it happen.

Patty gave me faith in all that is infinite and eternal because that was the nature and source of her energy. Need a book typeset? Just drop it off. Need a sweater? Just drop a hint. How about a party or a place to stay? A weekend at the cape? A babysitter for the weekend? How about a car? Patty would hand down her cars like other people would their sweatshirts. Patty had that rare thing: a wisdom that was not proud of itself and a door that was always open.

The more you knew Patty, the richer you would become. The best part of my going to U-Mass was the chance to live near Patty. I mistakenly thought that living near Patty would put us on equal footing. It was there where I lived, not only in the light of her coolness, but in light of her kitchen, where I would show up on a regular basis with a regular stream of spiritually and physically hungry friends, all of whom found that cool as she was, Patty was also warm and magnanimous beyond compare. It was in her kitchen where I first got to hang out with her as a friend, confidant, and cheerleader. My first night at U-Mass, we met for beer down at The Drake, a classic dive of a bar with smoke and pool tables and peanut strewn floors. It seemed strange and normal to be sitting down with her and Donald—her avowed Marxist, long-haired, archaeologist boyfriend who complimented her so perfectly and would soon become her perfect husband and partner and soul-mate until death parted their life together.

It may seem dumb, but it was like a first date for me. But, it was better than Jimmy Glennon burning rubber at the route two lights; it was better than her taking off with Tubby in an old Triumph Spitfire—and Mary and EJ panicking that she was eloping—with a Jewish boy at that. Better than when her and Mary Ellen got caught pinning up their catholic school skirts at the bus-stop; better than when one of her friends escaped from prison; better than hearing that her dorm in Southwest was the target of another drug raid; better than when her and a couple of friends hopped in the back of an old bakery truck and moved to Oregon—and EJ making me promise not to tell her mother that it wasn’t a real bus. It was better because it was finally real and not just my vision of some more exciting reality. We were in a smoky bar and laughing and talking and telling stories, and she was with a guy who made her laugh and made her incredibly happy. I could feel her knitting together the best fibers of our family and creating a tapestry that nothing can undo—a tapestry that has stood the test of time.

Patty showed that small gestures are huge, and that huge actions are always doable. She would call and be as excited about her student Rodney’s wrestling match as she would winning teacher of the year. She would drive five hours to have dinner with my mother, or to bring a swimming list top Alba, or to drop off a present for one of your kids. She showed how simple it is for giving to be a gift for everyone involved.

In the perfect memory of love, Patty will always live on. And we will always be amazed and humbled and grateful, and, for me, sometimes simply awestruck.

Young Warriors

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Young warriors almost
enchanted with dreams,
lie strewn
like daisies against
the gym wall,
waiting.

And what we humans call
simple joy
and mud-borne pride
will soon outweigh
the many tears.

~The Fessenden Wrestling Tournament,
Newton MA, 2006

Yardscaper

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

We laid the hedge bushes
along straight lines
made taut
with string mixing
cowshit and fertilizer
then flooding.

Later we’ll plan the walk—
brick path and trench
we’ll have to dig
remove the loam
too much a part
of winter buckling
and settling
with thaws.

My neighbor stops over
and says it will be
a pain in the ass
to walk around
this absurd symmetry
laughing like
we didn’t know.

Teaching Frogs To Fly

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

The parting is the hardest part of fate—
The slow untangling knot still left unwound;
We pause as if the hour is too late
To divvy fair the treasure we have found.
Our words like fingers pointing at the moon;
Whose light reveals the shadows that you teach;
And this goodbye that seems to come too soon
The pulsing tide returns you to our reach.
With each soul you shaped the morphable clay
And lay to rest the fickle thorns of time;
You gave us all an ordinary day
Below some harsh summit we could not climb—
I’ve never asked, but I’ve wondered how and why
You somehow managed to teach frogs to fly.
(For Lorraine Ward on her retirement:
a good friend, mentor, and amazing boss)

Somewhere North of Bangor

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Somewhere north of Bangor
on the run from Tennessee.
Lost in back scrub paper land
in section TR-3.
It’s hit him he’s an outlaw
a Georgia cracker’s son,
who killed a man in Nashville
with his daddies favorite gun.
It’s hit him with the loneliness
of wondering where you are
on a long ago railway
stretched between two stars.

Two weeks shy of nineteen
in 1992,
she got tickets with her girlfriends
for that new band coming through.
She got tickets for the show,
she said, “go on and have a night on town.
I’ll meet you in the morning at
Frannie’s Coffee Ground;”
but she met a backstage roady
from that traveling country band,
and now it’s hard to slow the pain that grows
inside a hurtin’ man.
I took one of Joe’s old Rugers
and the law into my hand.

I borrowed Lance’s Mustang
and a Mobil credit card.
I drove every pot-holed backroad
they’ve got in Arkansas.
By now there was an all points
on a Georgia crackers son
who left on Sunday morning
with his daddies favorite gun.
I heard the church bells ringing, pleading,
pulling on my soul.
I almost turned back—I couldn’t bear to go.
Twenty years of praying
and doing what I was told.

They played three shows in Nashville
and Johnson City for a night.
Two air-brushed old greyhounds
under marquee neon lights.
I followed them to every show
until I found the man
with a tattoo of Geronimo
on the back of his right hand.
I asked him about a gal he met
at Saturday night’s show;
she says that you get kind of rough
and don’t understand no.
I thought that I’d find out myself
just if that be so.

I heard you like to think
you lead your life out on the edge.
You say the way we live our lives
we may as well be dead.
But now that you believe
that you’re the God of your own land
you’ve got to walk a higher road
than any other man.
You’ve got to toe a higher line
and somehow make it real;
you’ve got to learn in disregard
to think hard as you feel.
He pulled his knife,
I took his life—
you’ve got to pay for what you steal.

Now I’m somewhere north of Bangor
on the run from Tennessee.
Lost in back-scrub paper land
in section TR-3.
No more an outlaw
than a Georgia crackers son
you will not play the renegade
trapped or on the run;
and you love the strange wild loneliness
of knowing who you are—you love
the way the patterns lay
stretched between the stars;
you know that when they find you
they won’t know who you are.

I Belong Just Here

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 I am sitting in what they call “The Enchanted Grove.” There is a swarm of insects swirling—not buzzing—around my head. Strange as it sounds , they do not bother me in the least, but more so, they add another degree of sharing to the experience. The Enchanted Grove is a small patch of woods in the middle of a field, full of popple, birch, black cherry, and some long ago wilded apple trees growing in and around a good size granite boulder—around which my daughters (and a wonderfully crazy visiting artist) built a small deck last year out of pine slabs discarded from Bob’s old bandsaw mill they have here.

“Here” is Windsor Mountain International Camp where we have been coming as a family the last few years. I am here as “enrichment staff;” my older kids as campers; and the three little ones and Denise as honorary and beloved guests. There is a magic here. Our old Bluebird motorhome looks more a part of the landscape than a thirty year old beauty of steel and chrome. As much as anywhere else on earth I feel I belong here. We belong here. In the same way, everyone needs to belong somewhere.

I look back on my life with thankfulness. In sum there is nothing I regret and nothing I would wish to change if it would alter in any degree the here and now. If I could excise out the idiocies, the hurt, the profligacy and the inane without mortally wounding the core of who I am and the essential beauty of this moment, I would do so a thousand times over—only a fool or a saint would do otherwise. My life has always been a confluence of opportunity and willingness, much of it down the road not taken, much of it proudly and stubbornly iconoclastic, but the greater irony is that I am here now after traveling the oft taken road—the long beat path of marriage, family, friends and common labor—and it feels (and is) more rich and real than any of the dreams I conjured in my youthful adventures. No doubt I use my stories to entertain, not out of wistfulness, but because I am acutely aware that the well of memory is more important to the present than to the past. I didn’t always realize that; I do, now; and that in itself is thanksgiving enough.
I have seven beautiful, wild, and unadorned children who run and play and fight and need to be told a hundred times to quiet down in their tent at night. I have an equally beautiful (there is no better word) strong, and loving wife who intuitively understands that family is intertwined and nurtured by a common experience; who knows in a quiet look what and who needs mending and what and who needs unraveling and what and who needs to be left alone to heal in the balm of contemplative time; and more than anyone I have ever met she knows and maps the charted and uncharted majesty of marriage, friendship, and motherhood. She knows that this camp is but another piece of the mosaic we constantly bring to the forward—a shared journey mentored to the next generation!

This is but stolen time—and I know enough of the cruelty of time to live solely in words—so I will head out to find Denise and the kids who are probably making their way back through the now darkened camp in a game of flashlight tag and dibs on tent space. The moon tonight will be the most beautiful they will ever have the chance to see—a full summer moon sparkled with fireflies and memory, family, and community.

Yes, this is where we belong.

~Windsor Mountain, 2008

The Fig Tree

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I have a deal to make with my raspberries
who produce no real fruit.
and who took over the far quarter
of my springtime labor,
displacing  the beans and squashes
in a sea of brambles—
those distant cousins
spread wildly from a few plants
(stolen from Patty’s richer garden)
poking their prickly heads
like gophers
some distance
from their mother root;

and whose unruly sprouts
encourage their own offspring
to run amok
among my disciplined,
well-tended,
and orderly squashes,
brussels sprouts,
beans
and peas.

In church today we heard the parable
of the barren fig tree;
whose owner, mad with rage,
came to cut it down,
but whose fate was saved
by a wise and gentle servant.

Likewise, I will turn my own sins
into the waiting soil
and beg the patience of God,
that we both
may be renewed.

Concord

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

The people, the music
filledness of rush hour
traffic skirting puddles
work crews packing in
laughswearingmudyellowed
slickers lighting candle bombs.
My sadness the euphoric
detachment.

I love this town.
It breathes me.

The Phoenix

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

     Rising from the ashes is one of the most enduring metaphors of humanity. It is the hope of transformation that gives us the strength to crawl in the mud and squalor of a diminished life. The animal shivers in her den with the expectation of spring, but only we can create a new spring within ourselves; only we can share in the miracle of creation simply by an act of will. That is the magic of our lives: we can do and undo all that we’ve wrought on ourselves and others.

We pledge ourselves to each other simply by saying “I do.” We can change course with an ease that is astounding, but only if we break the shackles that hold us to the beaten ground and only if we stop pushing the unwieldy stone before us while dragging a sack of regret behind us. We never fully open our eyes. We content ourselves with living in the half light between sleep and wakefulness, and in this groggy state we chew on the bones of the day. Half starved, we look to the sky and bleakly remember the story of The Phoenix.
We remember that bird not for everything it did, but for the one thing it did.

Do that one thing.

Saturday Morning

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Before the pancakes,
soccer games, and birthday parties;
before the mowing and raking
and grouting the tile;
before I even glance
at the calendar hung
like a graffiti nightmare
under shelves filled
with the frosted flakes,
cheerios, and cocoa puffs,
I make a cup of coffee
and watch the slow
unfolding of the day:

Groggy and unsteady,
Charlie is up first
and knows to ask politely
if he can watch TV.
I practice a grave and stern
reluctance
and nod quietly.

He bursts out of
his warm cocoon of sleep
and sets the day
in motion, and drawn
by the faint roar of Scooby Doo,
five more painted monarchs
float down the stairs
and glide past me
unnoticed and gather
clustered on the couch.

I close my book and count out
the remaining measures
of this sacred time.
Born again into
a new day,
they will soon
come back to me
with their insatiable hunger.

 

Essex Bay

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

This house makes funny noises
When the wind begins to blow.
I should have held on and never let you go.
The wind blew loose the drainpipe.
You can hear the melting snow.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.

I should call you and tell you
How the frost heaves were this year.
You’d laugh and say, “Keeps the riff-raff out of here.”
You’d laugh and say, “In a funny way,
The whole place is kinda queer.”
You know, the State’s finally begun to thin the deer.
Yeah, the State’s finally begun to thin the deer.

And I know the way the tides,
They come and go and flow,
And I know the Essex River
And the clam flats down below.
But there’s something I don’t know
About living all alone
Without you …

I sold the lot that looks out,
That looks out past the bay.
Just a pile of sand that’s worth too much to save.
We said we’d beat the greenheads
And build a dreamhouse there someday;
But I got three times the price I had to pay.
Yeah, I got three times the price I had to pay.

And I know the way the tides,
They come and go and flow,
And I know the Essex River
And the clam flats down below.
But there’s something I don’t know
About living all alone
Without you …

This house makes funny noises
When the wind begins to blow.
I should have held on and never let you go.
The wind blew loose the drainpipe.
You can hear the melting snow.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.
I’ll fix it in the morning;
I love you every morning;
I still miss you every morning when I go

And I know the way the tides,
They come and go and flow,
And I know the Essex River
And the clam flats down below.
But there’s something I don’t know
About living all alone
Without you …

 

 

The Size of Your Door

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 As I’ve been doing all summer long, I drove home tonight from New Hampshire for my weekly gig at The Colonial Inn in Concord Massachusetts—the same gig I’ve had for over twenty-five years. I came home to the usual scene: tall grass, too many bills, a ticked off cat, and a fridge that is stoically empty and a sink that is typically full. I put new blades on the mower, but I put them on upside down. It cuts fine, but not much higher than a putting green. The bikes—ten of them, plus a couple of scooters—are rusting in the bike rack with weeds growing three feet high through the spokes. A half finished dog house EJ started sits in the driveway with a weedwacker that refuses to run resting on its pitched roof. If there were more hours in the day, and I had half the motivation of my neighbors, I’d spend the time to make my home a castle fit for a sightseeing tour by the local garden club. Once, while driving my wrestling team to a meet, the kids were commenting on the various and tawdry mansions that lined our route back through the wealthy streets of Concord to our school. I interjected that the size of the door is more important than the size of the house. One kid seemed to get it; the rest let it drift through and out of their heads like any other of my oft spoken aphorisms.

Tonight our door will open wide. Two car loads of counselors are driving the two hours down from New Hampshire to see the show and “crash” at our house. The beauty of it is that this is not a rare occurrence. On any given night of the week people stop by from every corner and every walk of life—announced and unannounced. If my kids see a car pull up out front while we are eating, they will rush to scrunch over on their benches while two or three of them will rush to set as many plates as are needed at the table. It is just as easy to feed twelve as it is nine. When Denise and I bought our house, the first thing we did was to buy a huge table made up of thick pine slabs. A few years ago we moved it from the cramped kitchen space and put it in the living room where it lives with the fireplace, a piano, and my father’s old and memory-filled desk; all told, it’s a great place for a communal feast, be it a feast of Kraft’s macaroni and cheese or a spread fit for a state dinner.

Denise drove with the kids down to Nana and Papa’s on Cape Cod, so I am missing a cookout on the beach at Tom and Maureens in Orleans; but, tomorrow I will drive to the cape for dinner with them, and with Aunt Mary-Beth and Uncle Bud and another whole coterie of cousins and friends. I’m sure that on Saturday we will be with someone else, or they will be with us. Ten years ago we lost the keys to our front door. At the time I didn’t realize that it would evolve into a metaphor for our life as a family. Buddha said, “They are only rich who realize they have enough.”

So I guess we have plenty.

The Last Snow

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Is this the last snow falling
in dull rhythmic thuds
on the front porch roof?

It slides off the gangly pines
and startles a pair
of chattering squirrels.

Bothered by this latest setback—
and each other—they quarrel
and do not notice

Margaret’s wet softball,
wrapped in her new glove,
waiting at the top of the slide

for yesterday’s spring.

Moulting

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I am always moulting;
leaving my hollowed skin
in awkward places, scaring
people and making them
jump.

They touch me and think
I’m real; then laugh
and say things like
“What a riot.”

I’m tired of this changing
of skins.
I’d rather stumble
on myself and be fooled;
and grab
my dry and scaly shell,
and feel it crumbling,

and laugh and laugh.

 As I’ve been doing all summer long, I drove home tonight from New Hampshire for my weekly gig at The Colonial Inn in Concord Massachusetts—the same gig I’ve had for over twenty-five years. I came home to the usual scene: tall grass, too many bills, a ticked off cat, and a fridge that is stoically empty and a sink that is typically full. I put new blades on the mower, but I put them on upside down. It cuts fine, but not much higher than a putting green. The bikes—ten of them, plus a couple of scooters—are rusting in the bike rack with weeds growing three feet high through the spokes. A half finished dog house EJ started sits in the driveway with a weedwacker that refuses to run resting on its pitched roof. If there were more hours in the day, and I had half the motivation of my neighbors, I’d spend the time to make my home a castle fit for a sightseeing tour by the local garden club. Once, while driving my wrestling team to a meet, the kids were commenting on the various and tawdry mansions that lined our route back through the wealthy streets of Concord to our school. I interjected that the size of the door is more important than the size of the house. One kid seemed to get it; the rest let it drift through and out of their heads like any other of my oft spoken aphorisms.
Tonight our door will open wide. Two car loads of counselors are driving the two hours down from New Hampshire to see the show and “crash” at our house. The beauty of it is that this is not a rare occurrence. On any given night of the week people stop by from every corner and every walk of life—announced and unannounced. If my kids see a car pull up out front while we are eating, they will rush to scrunch over on their benches while two or three of them will rush to set as many plates as are needed at the table. It is just as easy to feed twelve as it is nine. When Denise and I bought our house, the first thing we did was to buy a huge table made up of thick pine slabs. A few years ago we moved it from the cramped kitchen space and put it in the living room where it lives with the fireplace, a piano, and my father’s old and memory-filled desk; all told, it’s a great place for a communal feast, be it a feast of Kraft’s macaroni and cheese or a spread fit for a state dinner.
Denise drove with the kids down to Nana and Papa’s on Cape Cod, so I am missing a cookout on the beach at Tom and Maureens in Orleans; but, tomorrow I will drive to the cape for dinner with them, and with Aunt Mary-Beth and Uncle Bud and another whole coterie of cousins and friends. I’m sure that on Saturday we will be with someone else, or they will be with us. Ten years ago we lost the keys to our front door. At the time I didn’t realize that it would evolve into a metaphor for our life as a family. Buddha said, “They are only rich who realize they have enough.”

So I guess we have plenty.

 

Shane

by Jimmy O'Brien | Three Rivers Anthology

It’s been too long feeling sorry for myself.
It’s been too long with my life up on the shelf.
I wish that I could be like Shane—
shoot Jack Palance, and disappear again:
don’t have no one
don’t want no one
don’t miss no one—
living lonely with a saddle and a gun.

Some men just want to walk behind a plow.
Other men find a different way somehow.
I sometimes think that I’m like Shane:
come this way once
and never come this way again:
don’t have no love
don’t want no love
don’t miss no love—
hell below and the stars above.

Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure did hate to see you go.

It’s not easy living here this way.
I watch the sun come up and go down each day.
Shane would come but he wouldn’t stay.
He’d empty his pistols and ride away;
don’t have no star
don’t want no star
don’t miss no star—
no destination is too far…

Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure did hate to see you go.

Sometimes I look back and I wonder why
I can’t feel the earth or touch the sky.
Sometimes it helps to ease the pain
to shout ‘Shane, come back Shane:’
don’t have no one
don’t want no one
don’t miss no one—
not trying to undo what’s been done…
Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure did hate to see you go.

*Written by my old buddy Jimmy O’Brien ©
(I’ve sung this song so much that it feels like a part of my life. Thanks, Jimmy!)

The Beauty Closest

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 Three days of rain. I can hear Eddie inside playing his banjo like he has been every day—non-stop for the past three days. He plays the same medley of songs: the first part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, followed by Dueling Banjo’s—quite a pairing. They are having a talent show in his 3rd grade class next week. My wife was teasing him that now he has to work on smiling on stage, which only deepens the intensity of his practice. His brother, Pipo, on the other hand, will walk on stage with a huge smile and just whale away on his djembe drum—and probably get the biggest applause for something he would never malign with practice. Earlier today I drove Kaleigh and Margaret over to my brother’s house for a sleepover with “the cousins.”  Kaleigh (fifteen years old) was mad at herself for forgetting her favorite pillow, at which Margaret laughed back: “They have plenty of pillows, what’s the big deal.”

I’m amazed we all live under the same roof.
One of the beauties of my life is that I only need to listen and watch and the vagaries and variety of life pop up like the dandelions in this rain. For all of the minutes Emma will watch a spider weave its web, Charlie will spend the same amount of time chasing squirrels around the backyard like an untrained dog. If I sit long enough, Tommy will always make his way to my lap and silently bury his head on my chest, and then, as if on cue, ask for a cup of water, a cookie, or an apple–and then bolt away in unmitigated joy.

I know, too, if I sit out here long enough I’ll hear Denise say, “Time for bed,” and the whole pack will scurry upstairs, but not before a quick blowing out of their ears and a kiss on their foreheads—our small ritual to keep the bad dreams away. If I go up with them. I will fall prey to the practiced endlessness of their questions, stories, and pillowfights. I need the rare serenity in our house to share an old movie and some popcorn with Denise, even if it is punctuated with my threats bellowed from the couch to “quiet down or else.” The else never really happens and only exists in the mythology of their shared childhood.
 
 Time slips by.

Listen to the rain, and hear the beauty closest to you.

 

Sugaring in a Mill Town

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

We do not need a conjurer,
for there is no real magic
to maple sugar:
We tap the gnarled trees,
boil away the sap,
and leave only
the sweet amber syrup
and another
mess in the kitchen.

My neighbors are happy
that my kids
tap the aged maples
that line the pot-holed streets.
The gallon buckets
hung from ten penny nails
seem so
absurdly out of place
in the close-knit quarters
of this old mill town.

I watch Tommy and Emma
line up behind
Charlie and Margaret,
and EJ and Pipo
as if following a team
of quiet Belgian draft horses
shaking oiled harnesses
and stamping shod hooves,
while straining through
the soft corn snow, still
piled high before
the ides of March.

And I remember once
while hiking through
the woods of Rumney
seeing a solitary man
with plaid wool cap, turning
bucket after bucket
into an endless vat
and dreaming
what is never spoken.

I fear them ever being that alone.

Instead, they are an uncouth gaggle
of cocked heads in floppy hats
covering single eyes;
unlaced boots and mismatched mittens
dancing a celebratory homeward waltz,
embracing the sloshing
galvanized tins
like prom dates.

The girls sing
as if they own the world:
“Girls go to college
to get more knowledge;
boys go to Jupiter
to get more stupider.”

The boys, of course,
turn the cheer
to their advantage.

Held together
by the gravity of tradition,
no one is ever left behind,
though, invariably,
someone starts to cry.

Later, with the house full
of steam, smoke and pungence
we stand on tiptoes and benches,
and hold the smallest ones tightly.

We jostle for space
around the electric stove
and gather
as a community
and stare for hours
into the mystery

 

Kampuchea

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 I stutter for normality
across the river
from black men fishing
for kibbers
and horned pout.

Barefoot children rounded
bellies curled
navels stalk the turtle
sunning on a log.

lonely in the field grass
lonely on the curbstones

I stutter for normality.

Not a mother
whose breasts are dry,
whose child doesn’t cry,
who sleep
on a cot
in a tent.

~The Concord River

   1981

 

Listen & Learn

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 A Calm Sea Never a Captain Makes

     Sometimes I hate my boat. However, hating a needy pile of wood, sail, and line is less distressing than what it teaches me about myself. My trying to remove the stubborn barnacles from the bottom-sides after eight months in drydock is a harsh reminder that ten minutes of a simple power-washing on Labor Day would have negated the hours of cursing, scraping, and crawling on the back-stabbing scree of a New England boatyard that occupied my day yesterday. Years ago I blithely and absent-mindedly watched as a friend showed me how to make a wire splice. Tomorrow I am paying some old salt two hundred dollars to splice the wire needed to haul my halyard. Damn me! I should be that old salt by now, not some humble yuppie with a romantic notion of the sea, willing to pay twice just to learn once. The list could go on, (but so could my self-loathing). Sometimes, too, we hate what we write and what we’ve become as writers because we know that we did not listen to the old curmudgeon (in my case Sister Jean Beatrice) droning in front of us in English class about the virtues of punctuation. We write and ineffectually remember that there is something missing from our repertoire of skills—skills that we learned once but cast off as detritus from a bygone age.
In my youth I learned a lot about sailing and boat building, but I never really went to sea on my own, and so my skills were not reinforced by the granite memory of experience. The dream remained alive, while the lost knowledge now looms like an apparition in the distance, like the ghost of an early death, haunting and enchanting in the same breath. I am relearning and re-remembering because I have to regain the footing of my nautical dream and make that first new turn out of the harbor.

Learning the ropes is equally true for the writer: don’t neglect the small details—the placing of commas, the quotes within quotes, the run-ons, the introductory phrases, conjunctions, and pronouns, colons and semi-colons—that help you construct, repair, and clarify your thoughts and ideas and that somehow keeps together the sweeping power of great poetry and literature. They are the bolts and screws and planks that hold the boat together. Everything you’ve learned about writing is important and useful to the crafting of your words. It was, after all, a simple wire splice keeping me in port! If you are young, cling to what you learn and keep it close to your heart. If you are old, unearth and restore the memories you need to face the day and the empty page with confidence and courage. Build upon what you already know and sail towards your own dreams.

Ultimately, a Captain is only made at sea, not on land. As an English teacher I drive my students crazy by writing long preambles to my assignments; I hide the details of what is due tomorrow in a labyrinth of reflections, observations, and admonitions. They beg me to just highlight in bold what they need to do. I get away with it because I can. It bothers them that I just assume they want to become better writers.  I write because I love to write, but I, too, have a long way to go before I can call myself a captain. The few knots I know won’t serve me in every situation I will face.

The simple act of sustained and attentive writing will make you a better writer, but to combine the act of writing with the focused study of the craft of writing will make you a great writer—a writer who is truly ready to face the open sea! Too much of education separates the bird from the wing, and this is especially true in our more common ways of teaching writing. My own children who are not here with me spend hours of homework time circling prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses in remarkably generic workbooks. I appreciate that they are learning the elemental nature and grammar of language, but, in my cynical moments, I marvel at how lucky their teachers are that the whole class needs work on the same mechanics. I wonder if those teachers are aware that they are creating a flock of awkward flightless birds dawdling around on barren dung heaps because the skills they learn are not tested out in the moiling waters of an angry ocean. There is often nothing to show for all of their labor but a grade and a potentially higher MCAS score.

The skills we teach our students must be useful in real situations, and those students need to see how those skills have practical value in their personal odyssey as real writers. The poems, songs, stories, reflections, essays, and narratives that we write let us go to sea on our own and discover our greatness and limitations. Without an adventurous journey, it is all too easy to lose the incentive to understand the workings of the viscera that keeps our writing alive. We are all at different places as writers but the scourges of the open sea are the same for all mariners.

There needs to be a fire in your belly that you tend and stoke and which drives you forward in your journey as a writer.

And you keep listening, learning—and wondering.

 

Shingles

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Shingles   damn things
so full of
underedges   never just
quickly slopped on
whitewashed   and left
never just   you
poke and dab   catch
the drips   and
brush them back
into the grain of things.

Joshua Sawyer

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I doubt I’d ever have taken this road
had I known how fallen it really was
to disrepair: driving comically,
skirting ruts and high boulders, grimacing
at every bang on the oil pan.
I tell you it’s the old road to Wendell —
that they don’t make them like this anymore.
We’re bound by curious obligations,
and so stop by an old family plot
walled in by piles of jumbled fieldstone,
cornered to the edge of what once was field.
The picket gateway still stands intact,
somebody propped up leaning on a stick,
an anonymous gesture of reverence.
Only nature disrespects: toppling stone,
bursting with suckers and wild raggedness.
A gravestone, schist of worn slate, leans weathered:

Joshua Sawyer Died Here 1860

Another stone, cracked, has fallen over.
I reset the stone, and scrape the caked earth
as if studying some split tortoise shell,
and have keyed in to a distant birth —
His wife Ruth died young; so I picture him
stern with his only daughter, only child —
speaking for a faith which could defy her.
There’d be no passing onto when she died —
twenty-two, more words beside her mother.
Still these stones and fields you kept in order,
long days spent forcing sharp turns on nature,
accepting the loose stone and thin topsoil.

A Wendell neighbor must have buried you
whispering a eulogy which is as lost
as your daughter, your wife, and this farm:

—Joshua Sawyer

I’ve never been down this road before;
I would like to speak with you of faith.

Don't You Ever Let Go of Your Soul

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Sometimes yeah.
Sometimes no.
Sometimes it’s somehow somewhere in between.
Sometimes it’s somewhere that no one has been—
no, nobody, nowhere, no nothing can end.
So don’t you let go and hope you’ll find it again.
Don’t you ever let go—

Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul.

Sometimes, man I’d wish
there’d be snakes in the trees,
and I’d just keep this big space between them and me—
I’d say no way Jose’ that ain’t how I’ll be;
but between right and wrong there’s this large mystery;
it makes freedom so hard, so hard to be free.

Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul.

Sometimes when I hear that fate’s back in town,
and it’s working the strings of the prophets and clowns;
and you’re hung and you’re strung
and you’re brung and wore down,
and you hear, Fitz, man, don’t worry,
‘cuz here’s what we’ve found:
fate’s got a chance
when you’re soul’s out of town.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul.

Karen's Message Audio

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

 Sometimes I wonder why I teach what I teach. I know that I love teaching The Odyssey because I sense some eternal power that I can’t adequately express in words. I know that its mix of myth, legend, and tradition has woven itself into my psyche, where it rests with the serenity of an aged oak in a field by a slow moving river. I have always been indebted to Joseph Campbell who wrote the book The Power of Myth and turned me on to this hero cycle I am hammering you over the head with everyday. He taught me to reach deeper into the mystery of myth; he convinced me to shed the blinders of cynicism and science and to accept the emotional necessity of the mythological world. But, there was always an acorn of doubt that sat in my gut like a seed sown by farmer distrustful of tradition—distrustful of the mistakes and myopia of what has come before him. Until this weekend, when all doubt was removed, as I lived through the death of my brother Tom’s wife, Karen, and sat with him and his three young children as we—and infinitely more acutely, they—journeyed through one of life’s awesome horrors at the bedside of a mother, wife, and friend taken way too early from the realm of this world.

On Friday, my wife came to see me at school and took me to Concord center for lunch. She knew I was a bit out of sorts after my brother called me on Thursday night to tell me that Karen wanted to come home from the hospital in Boston where she was admitted last week, and where she finally decided to give up her fight against cancer—the disease too deep in her for another round of radiation and chemotherapy to hold it at bay. She wanted to die at home with her family, without the doctors, nurses, and chemicals that have kept her alive long past the time the doctors gave her to live. Denise and I drove to town and had lunch at The Cheese Shop. She held my hand as we walked through town, trying to keep me tethered in a gathering wind of uncertainty. Though I was born and raised in Concord—and have always loved the town—I found myself annoyed with everything Concord had become: stores selling overpriced and senseless trinkets, the fancy cars driven by kids and parents tethered to cell phones, and homes and neighborhoods out of proportion to any sense of dignity. Denise smiled at me and told me to go get a haircut, which was not strange advice, as Dennis and Jack at the Stop and Blade have been cutting my hair since I was a teenager, and she knew it always put me in a better frame of mind to hang out with old friends—but it was also time for 7th grade football practice, and I had promised my team a victory over the evil forces of coach Rouse’s ragtag squad.

We pulled into Fenn and I was struck by the beauty of the campus: lower schoolers playing soccer and flag football; the upper schoolers laughing as they headed out of the dining hall; teachers going back to class and study halls and meetings, and the maintenance men blowing the cold dry leaves of fall into piles that no kid is ever allowed to jump in. I was reassured by the rhythm of reality it gave to me. Denise gave me a kiss goodbye, and as I stepped out of the van her phone rang.  “It’s your sister, Annie,” she said, “Just take the phone with you; I don’t need it.” I laughed as she drove away and told her it might be the last time she saw her cell phone. I’ve never been able to keep a cell phone more than a month. I drop them in coffee cups; I put them through the wash, or I simply lose them into the black hole that takes the things we don’t really need.

I flipped open the phone, but no voice answered. I pressed different buttons thinking I missed some new feature essential to hearing the other side of the call, but, finally, I heard a small voice trying to speak in a pleading that was more air than words: “Can I come get you? Tommy just called. Karen only has a few more hours at most.” I muttered and stammered my yeses through her sobs. Where were the few weeks or days we were expecting? What changed to make this happen now? How could this be happening to Karen—the most fun-filled and together person on the planet? Why my little brother who did everything right when I did everything wrong—who had spent his life with the girlfriend he met when he was fifteen years old teaching swimming together at summer camp—and they’d been together ever since for thirty years? And why the kids getting the same call at school, pulled out of history, math, or science to come be with their mother to help her die in peace? Annie told me to wait for my sister Eileen who would pick me up at home in fifteen minutes.

I could see Eileen crying as she pulled in the driveway.  I asked her if she wanted me to drive. She said, “No. I need to be in control of something.” I laughed, “That’s nothing new.” We talked and laughed and cried the twenty minutes to Westford. She wondered if we should be going there—that maybe it should just be Tom and the kids and Karen’s parents and brother. I invoked the Yankee practicality of our father and pointed out that Tom would not have called us if he did not want us there. Plus, I pointed out, Tom has always been there for everything for everyone. Eileen laughed and said, “He does always say that it is better to be there when you are not wanted than to not be there when you are wanted,” and, damn, that is so true,” I said, as the first explosion of grief wracked my chest. The first of what would be many.

Nine Rosebud Lane: the immaculately kept house in the cul de sac, looked so quiet and normal as we pulled in the driveway.  I don’t know what I was expecting—but I think I expected something more that hinted of the vigil being carried on within. We walked in quietly. Karen was on a bed in the living room, her mom beside her holding her hand. Tommy sat on the couch with his arms draped around Katie, Mary, and Kelly. He smiled and got up, and we all hugged. “This is what she wanted,” he said. Separately, Eileen and I went over and said our goodbyes. I don’t remember what I said, just that it was stupid, mundane, and somehow appropriate. Karen was past being able to respond with any kind of sign, and so I just gave way to a faith that she wanted us there—but not as much as her immediate family. A few of her close friends and neighbors passed through and cried their own goodbyes in their own ways. If Karen’s breathing seemed too labored, Tommy would get up and give her some more morphine and stroke her forehead before kissing her and speaking to her as if it were any other day.

We sat and talked and told stories. Sometimes we laughed, and sometimes we cried. We took turns sitting by her. The local parish priest came by and performed last rites. He was old and Dorchester Irish and amazing. We held hands and prayed the familiar prayers drilled into us in our youth. Karen’s own faith was always strong and simple and infinitely more real and unswayed by the foolish intellectual doubts of my own journey. I wasn’t sure if I gave myself completely to God or if God took me into himself, or if Karen opened a door for me that I have been holding shut, but there was a peace in that room like I have never felt before. Denise and our oldest daughter, Kaleigh, came shortly after. I worried about Kaleigh, but, at the same time, I knew she had to be there—and I knew Denise needed to be there, too. And I know I needed her.

It felt strange to order Chinese takeout, but we did, and it felt like a totally natural and normal meal. Shortly after supper, as we sat on the couches in the living room, I saw Kelly, Karen and Tom’s oldest daughter, stand up and go to her mother’s side. Karen was suddenly awake. The family gathered around Karen as we left the room. They were all at her side: children, husband, parents, and brother—everything anyone needs. Karen was ready to go. They were there to help her let go and to let go themselves. And then she was gone. And Karen—and all of us—were reborn onto a different world, a world infinitely more rich and meaningful than the world that carried us to that moment. In the background, James Taylor was singing “Secret of Life.” It just happened to be playing. It just happened to be Karen’s favorite song.

Brother and sisters, Denise and Kaleigh, Kelly’s boyfriend Mark, and Beth—who is as much sister as friend—sat in the front parlor. Kaleigh stood at the window, her shoulders heaving. Mark seemed alone and confused. I went up to him and said, “It is really, really good and important that you are here.” He nodded quickly, holding back tears, tears that I knew he shouldn’t hold back. But, we do sometimes, and we learn in our own ways. I held Denise in the way that only those bound to a vow of love can hold each other. Sometimes we closed our eyes and shook our heads slowly. Other times, we whispered practical assurances. “It’s better this way.” This is what Karen wanted.” ” Do you think we should go back in?” No one of us knew what to do, but we did anyway.

At a certain point, unmarked by knowing, we made our way back to the living room into the heart of the unimaginable grief, into a new world blessed and forsaken by pure and sustained love. It was a new world and a new way of living blessed by the sacrament of Karen’s life and carried forth by the bonds of a hopeful and prayerful family. In the hugs and tears there was more unsaid than said, and in that way everything was spoken. In the unspeakable sadness there was an incredible beauty in knowing there is life after death, both for the loved one who has left, and for those who still love and live on in the inheritance of life—the knowing mystery that sustains us and brings us closer to the eternal God. I watched Kaleigh standing in the kitchen utterly alone and unsure what to do. I watched as Mary, her fifteen-year-old cousin and best friend, saw her aloneness and slipped away from her father’s arms to go over and give Kaleigh the long hug they both needed. Kelly found Mark, and we all found each other in our own ways, in our own times; and, in the slow dance of love and respect, the mustard seed of tomorrow was sown.

A couple of tomorrows have come and gone. Nothing is any easier, but everything is just as important. Karen has scores of friends, all of whom need a way to share their grief and sorrow. It is inspiring and amazing how much Tom realizes that Karen is more than just his family’s loss, but a loss spread over a lifetime of friendships made and never broken by a woman who seemingly did everything for everyone—and always did it right. I went down to the Strop and Blade thinking maybe I would feel better. Tom has been a regular there for forty years himself. I cried while Jack cut my hair—and Jack cried too, though he only knew Karen from thirty years of Tom’s stories. I did feel better. I walked through Concord again and loved everything and everyone I saw because I knew there was nothing special that separated me from anything or anyone, and that the faults of our vanities are completely overwhelmed by love.

We are born to live and to be grieved over when we die, and the only just measure of a life is the bounty of love we harvest from death. For all of us who knew her, Karen’s life is the song we will sing through the ages. For Katie, Mary, and Kelly she left a treasure of memories and guidance that they will draw from in the hardest of times—which I know will be many and lonely. For Karen’s parents I can only imagine that it is the relative brevity of time before they join her that brings them solace. Tom knows he received the gift of a marriage and a friendship as real and enduring as any the world has ever seen, and he has three daughters left to raise alone in a home full of love, but I can only wonder at the darkness he must feel. I am not sure what he truly needs. I can only try to be like him and be there when I am not wanted, and hope that I am there when I am wanted.

What does this have to do with reading The Odyssey? Maybe I hope that we read The Odyssey because it shows us that there is no way around the tragedies of life, but there is a way through. Every culture has its epic poems and songs that in some way or another chronicle a heroic struggle to find meaning and hope—and a way to approach and live life—that shows us (if we learn to live in metaphor) that life is always an overcoming of adversity. Tom and his family are on their journey home after the hardest battle that life can throw at a person. It is a hero’s journey, and they are all heroes. There will still be tests; there will still be monsters to slay, but there will always be helpers, too.  And there is tradition to help them. And there will always be Karen’s amazing life and the shared experience of her death to sustain them.

 

The world lost a beautiful person, and our lives have won new meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Deer's Cry

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

I wonder if you hoped I wouldn’t tell
I saw you stealing the tender shoots
grown beside my driveway;
I wonder if you know what we’re like
when we see things
we’ve never seen before.
As if the dogs weren’t bad enough.
Now all the neighbors will want
to say they’ve seen a deer
puncturing the sod,
scatting in their yard.

Xenia

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Beyond Marcio and Andre’s garden, walled unceremoniously in orange highway fencing, I can hear Marcio, the camp’s Honduran maintenance man, weed-whacking around the the cracked and leaning stones of an old New Hampshire graveyard set some two hundred years ago on a hill outside the edge of the camp. Though I doubt there is a mandate from any government or anyone to take on this blessed task, I am sure it is just something he does because it is there, and it needs to be done; and, in his egoless and uncharted magnanimity, it makes this place, Windsor Mountain, a better place to be. It is this binding simplicity of necessity that sets the cornerstone of any community, while at the same time tempering and taming the often reckless flame of personal desire and the sometimes ironic interplay of freedom and responsibility.

My life is a small but jagged coastline cut into by safe and welcome harbors. These are the places that in some way, shape, or form I can call home—and “Home,” as Robert Frost writes, “is the place where, when you get there, they have to let you in.” I can’t quite figure if it is just happenstance, weakness, or some unconscious deliberation of a higher faculty I don’t know I have, but at every final tack I enter into unspoken contracts with a subterfuge of different communities—communities hammered out of malleable and enduring gold, gifted by the continuity of time and visitation, and empowered by a mystic and tidal mingling of giving and receiving—called xenia by the ancient Greeks.

If you have the means, make one place your true home, for there will always be those who, cast adrift by time and fate, will need to call your place home. None of us can start to live fully without a place to set out from and a place to return to. Like a sail without a ship, we would soon drift and sink in a tangle of sodden rags lost in a sea of unknowing. The plastic boundary of Marcio and Andre’s garden is not there to wall away a wandering and malicious herd, but to preserve a future bounty that they will share with a broader community.

Today I thank them both for lifting the blinders I might otherwise wear too comfortably. They remind me to live fully wherever you are and to leave your door unlocked, for at any hour of day or night some part or parcel of community will return to you, and it is your duty and responsibility to welcome them home. The wayward and wandering reflect the majestic mosaic of the world and leave us clothed in a richer garment when they leave. They remind me that I, too, might have unfinished business, and perhaps I need to rein in the harness of my solipsism and to strain the shackles of my practiced routines and easy assumptions.

They remind me that that at any time and any place to build ships in line with your dreams and embrace the crew who shares your vision, for the man who builds his own boat seldom ventures far from shore. To those who measure breadth before depth, my own journeys might seem myopic and mundane, but, against a rhumb-line through a sea of stars, all voyages and adventures pale in comparison and are, in truth, infinitesimally small and parochial.

I know I will never still the restlessness inside of me, but I also know that at any given time I am, at best, an imperfect captain on an impatient and unpredictable sea, but there is always a brine-worn and willing crew to point out the polestar and guide me to a perfect shore—perfect, because it is where I need to go and where I need to be.

Right now, this place is perfect. It is where I want and need to be. It is where my family wants and needs to be. These words are only a finger pointing at a moon, tethered to the gravity of hospitality, and arcing around a world that simply tries to do what is right. We are only trapped by selfish ignorance and misanthropic righteousness. No place is so base that it cannot be made better by the giving of ourselves—and our homes—to a broader community.

Above the oscillating hum of a weed-whacker, I hear a car crunching its way up the rutted gravel road leading to this camp, and I know that, whoever they are, they will be welcomed like a gift of some ancient god. If they are hungry, they will be fed, and by giving, we, too, will be filled. If I want to share in this meal, I have to lift myself out of this chair and make my way to them.

In the end, we are only free when we care enough to give a damn about who and where we are and what we need to do. As a thought is only made real when put into words, a community is only made real when it becomes an action.

~Windsor Mountain, 2009

The Poet Goes To Work

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

Every morning,
before the rush hour diaspora,
we neighbors shout to each other
over the scratching
of ice scrapers
and stubborn wipers, balancing
cups of coffee, dancing
in a steaming minuet
of our morning rituals.

We start our wives’ cars
and make monster faces
at our respective homes,
to the gallery of faces
at the breakfast tables.

Tom pulls on his cigar
and spits aphorisms
in an unending palate
of smoke and exhaust
and loads
his unquenchable van
with what appears to be
aisle twelve from Home Depot.

I grab my own tools
and squeeze through
the impossible space
my wife has left me
between our two cars.

I double-check everything:

Huck Finn.

This pen.

The Squirrels

by John Fitzsimmons | Three Rivers Anthology

are having a good year
and sense the winter more urgently.
Fat now and bellied full
their mouths distend piggishly,
carrying acorns in comic hops,
chattering squirrel inanities.

I have tasted acorns
and found them bitter
and hard to crack.
I’m afraid I’m drawn
more to soft-shelled thoughts:

This fire.
My pot of beans.

 

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