Thursday, September 17, 2009

Down River

There are things I have seen or heard these last few weeks that no person ought to see or hear without having been properly sedated. Mark Twain wrote that when we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. Unfortunately, I've come to that point in my life when much of the time, I don't really care to have an explanation, so the mystery and the madness are just more things I could do without.

Life remains essentially good. if parts are yet unexplained. Other parts of it are tiresome to be sure, but that's always the case. With the start of school came new energy, a shift toward achieving whatever can reasonably be achieved, from keeping whatever jobs one has to trying new things. In our little home we seem to be in constant motion. But it's fun, most of the time. My oldest is now in the marching band and it is as wonderful to watch him enjoy it with the other kids as it is to appreciate how great they sound. The younger one is acclimating to a new school, new feelings, new ways of expressing herself, new routines, growing older and accepting all that comes with that. It's been a time for change to be sure.

I have missed writing. I've had plenty to write about, but not the time, or the quiet, or really the proper space, mental or otherwise. Last week while on a business trip in Hartford, I had a few minutes to walk the grounds of Twain's home, and that of his neighbor Harriett Beecher Stowe. This was a good moment for my tired little soul. I didn't have quite enough time to tour inside either home, so I visited the Stowe center, found my way around the Nook Farm neighborhood, lingered a little in the Twain bookstore (well guarded by a life-size Lego figure of Twain), and stood in a little awe of that famously red Victorian beauty with the deep porch and the atrium in the back filled even today with lots of lush green plants. It suddenly occurred to me that here in this very northern town -- much of my previous day had been replete with Rhode Islanders and the accent that goes with them -- was at home a man born and bred alongside the Mississippi, whose heart was all about riverboats and the songs that go with them but whose mind worked best here in this nook-and-cranny Yankee hub. I had to stop, and admire that. He was at his most prolific there in that Hartford home where he also was beset with such tragedy as might kill the rest of us.

Just before my trip I spent a wonderful weekend in the mid-Atlantic with extended family. They are happy and prosperous. I decided there is no reason not to be. And so setting out on my New England adventure just two days later, I determined my trip should be easy and successful, and it was.

The rest isn't that easy. People are unpredictable, and the things that happen to us, just as unpredictable. We don't wake up expecting to hear good news or bad news or something just so downright stupid that it alters the course of a day. But that's generally what happens. We just forget. And when something good does happen, we don't believe or accept it because we're so used to being suspicious or afraid of our own success.

When I think about someone like Mark Twain, I think too about all the pain he had in his life. He could have been a complete failure, and I think he tried for this a number of times. But his humor and his enormous passion never let him down. He had an open heart, that man, and a wit to make the most of it. Someday I'd like to visit Hannibal, Missouri to see where he spent the early days of his life, his formative years. There is something about growing up along the river that changes a person. It makes those of us who did a little bit impossible.

Music, in particular string band music, seems to set right with Twain and other river-bred folks. Although he is a literary man he's got a heartful of my kind of music. He wrote: "When you want genuine music -- music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose -- when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!"

Can't say it any better than that, really. And I can't think of anyone to celebrate the notion than the late, great Mr. John Hartford. Here he is, so much younger than I've seen him, with a modern concoction called Steamboat Whistle Blues.

If Hartford and Twain had been contemporaries, I imagine they would have been friends, too. I wish I had such heroes now, but maybe they make better muses.