One could not dismiss the collective revelations: the books; photographs; paintings; drawings; discarded jacket, overturned loafers and things covered in layers of dust. An energy brilliant with color, the airy weight of collected knowledge, and delightful humor occupied the space of what should have been an abandoned room. There was no loss of wonder among this sparse selection of final things—-the things he must have thought dearest to him for reasons I could not even guess at, at first. He left this place, taking nothing; but everything of the soul in these things and this small room remained vibrant, warm, experienced and richly human.
I did meet him a few times over the past few years, usually in the early dawn hours on the hiking trail, or in town walking to the post office, hardware store or bank. He was instantly recognizable with a floppy, old, hemp-woven hat, white mustache, formal business shirts combined with sweat pants, worn out tennis shoes and that multicolored hippie staff he always carried.
He might have been a character, until he spoke, and somehow the image of ancient mountains , zen gardens, the desert or even vast canyons came to mind. According to others on the trail, he enjoyed describing the coming and going of wildflowers, differences of moss and lichens on the Live Oaks and always asked questions of more observant hikers-by. He seemed to know much about everything; ever the collector and generous giver of details, but modest in the telling.
In the simplest statements, something grand lingered, depth implied, complexity clarified, although there was never even the slightest hint of pretension. He was an old man, who spoke like a haiku poet. Sometimes, when very at ease, the old professor would come out and he would find himself lecturing and retreated immediately into embarrassment. While not a hermit, he gave the impression of great aloneness and silent privacy.
Always interested in the stories of others he would remember and write, even about the autistic man, who always ignored him and others on the trail. One day that man was met, while walking with his mother, and smiled. It was a very sunny day and no small joy filled the air over that simple business. But, I didn’t know any of that until much later, when reading his papers. Sometimes he smelled of sandalwood, cedar, lemon thyme or crushed Rosemary—-a mystery I later understood from his diaries.
Neighbors often heard the piano music of French composers coming from the front room of his house, although they only knew it as ‘classical stuff.’ He often lingered on Ravel, Debussy, Satie or the Requiem of Faure, which his father loved before him. At other times from his dated stereo, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, old Protestant hymns or the rifts of acid rock held his attention. His mosaic of sound, was all the life ’we take with us’ as we move forward. His long time companion always said that, and he had learned to listen—-one of the most precious gifts of many years together.
If he was gay, it had long since passed as a unique phase of identity, but for the rage of justice which always lay vibrant just behind his Irish eyes, and a soft voice, that was a mind tool of destruction for the unwary and viciously stupid. He never fully understood or embraced the prejudices of what his objectionable‘ lifestyle’ consisted and was usually stumped in explaining the ordinary days, and usual human business of which it was composed.
It was easy to mistake that lovely, weathered patina for the hard bronze beneath it. His conservative family was tolerant of his ‘lifestyle’ which was identical to theirs in all but liberal politics. Truth, very early in the definitions, became too exhausted to combat the fixed reality of the condescending certainty of his so generously forgiving blood relations.
Like many of his generation walking on the trail, crowded holographs of a complex history followed behind those sure, determined, steps, as hungry ghosts following resolution and renewal. Grace, often confused with peace, is a kinetic business with which he flowed as any conditioned gentleman might. He selected the best of his baggage and called it luggage. In that, he was ‘gay‘, and as close to a ’lifestyle’ as his taste for satire might allow. But, it didn’t matter. He was always ironic, a device he instinctively used to disarm, and reduce the dangers of survival to humor or on occasion, infectious laughter.
It is a small town. A month had gone by. His landlord called me and asked for a favor. She knew that I had done ‘this sort of thing’ in the city years ago. “Could I help?” She is a good soul and wanted to do the right thing. I said, “of course“. The empty house was still furnished, modestly and sparingly, but beautifully so. That is to say, the eye of an artist for exquisitely formed, found-things, found new life as decoration.
Later, I discovered he had studied for some years in a monastery and tea school in Japan. In a distilled way, all these years later, he saw the world though what he referenced as ‘wabi/sabi.’ He often saw the truth in the language of medieval Japan, but found it virtually impossible to communicate that reality in the modern world about him, except by the associative symbolism of things.
Rusty farm disks, junk iron, silvery wood, colorful rocks, rough ceramics, calligraphy and large contemporary paintings ( all human figures) decorated, where Ikea or Target were banished. Old tribal rugs from his days in the middle east, lay scattered in colorful disarray over the ugly wall-to-wall, well chosen for its stain hiding design. One of his letters to an old friend back East described it as theatre carpet graced with a mashed jujube design. His one complaint, however, was not so much the design as that it got dusty and he could see his footprints on it when traversing to close the windows at night. In his humble box of a house lay treasures of imagination and one suspects, and as I later found out, so did his life.
One sensed the uniqueness of the environment on first encounter, but could not define its charm. There was no wide screen, big easy, American spectacle in his space. There was something of the feeling of an ancient tomb about it—-not creepy, but from another time and lost to the world’s memory.
They, the landlords, went through his address book and desk drawers trying to find someone to notify, but drew blanks. Some knew him of course, but were distant to help. His one brother, never answered or returned messages. The other was an ex-pat and out of range for common decency. His parents were dead. They didn’t know about the cousins in Wyoming, who loved him and wouldn’t discover what happened or the sudden silence of the year that would pass. Many of the friends and close associates in his listings were dead or moved away. Even his computer had been disconnected. He lived in books, music, long walks and wrote in spiral notebooks. A collection of wildflower seed pods bunched on his hall table, were the last communication he left behind.
His room, at the end of the hall was situated so that it was always filled with light. Its window opened to a richly planted garden centered on a pond with little, gold, fish and blooming with white water lilies. His bed was a strange assemblage, of green milk crates, and feather futons piled high, over which he drew a thick wool fleece for warmth in the chilly nights. Above this cloud piling was a Tibetan tanka of Milarepa, his favorite poet, next to Mary Oliver, or those crazies of the T’ang dynasty.
The bookcase was filled with books on gardening, poetry, Buddhism, mysticism and a 1910 edition of the Harvard Classics, heavily annotated and filled with torn paper bookmarks. A photograph of his family and parents, when they were young, were placed in a kind-of hierarchical honor next to a ceramic tile baring the idealized image of Giovanni Francesco Bernardone addressing a white dove. Later, it made sense—he had been a Franciscan once.
There was even a New Testament Bible, where the ‘Gospel According to Mathew’ was marked on the ‘Beatitudes’ by an aged photo of his once wife, when she was twenty something. He never did quite lose her completely, or ever fully comprehended that loss, anymore than he did his supposed ‘lifestyle.’ Those closed rooms of the heart ceased to be painful as the years went by. He was grateful about that and wrote poems to the subject. They were richly lyrical, if not particularly accomplished. He called them his ‘Reader’s Digest’ sonnets.
Next to his bed was a bone box from Egypt, filled with the magic things, such as kids collect on adventures: shells, little rocks, beach glass, a hematite rosary charmed by Assisi medallions, Muslim prayer beads, a Mala, photos of old girlfriends and boyfriends, a few notes he had saved from his long-time companion, a picture of his Dad trout fishing, one of his Mother holding his one-year-old self. She was beautiful, and he never quite understood her, although she taught him the permanent being of unqualified love. His Dad had become a best friend before he died at ninety-two. He had found the true meaning of a long love in his companion, the best of his few friends. All these insights came from the big box of documents found under his bed—a lifetime of writing.
Barbara and her little dog, Sophie, saw him from afar sitting on the Jennifer Ryan Memorial bench. He always carried milk bones for the dogs and they came running when ever he was walking on the trail. Sophie surged ahead as usual, but when Barbara caught up she noticed he was napping, his colorful staff to one side, his sun hat beside him, and a collection of wild thistle seeds nearby. It was his last nap.