Him That Grow’d Up, Grow’d Old-er

60th sell-by date

Satchel Paige said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” I think that’s probably a trick question. It’s a little like that saying about a tree falling in the forest. If there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yeah, like that. If there’s no one there to hear me moaning and creaking as I get out of bed fresh from turning sixty, have I really turned sixty? Have I already passed my best “sell by” date?

Here’s a little pome (this stuff hardly qualifies as a poem) in honor of my six decades — tongue-in-cheek, naturally, and dentures on a shelf.

Hint: the pome reads more easily if you use a sing-song rhythm — out loud — and forget pentameter. A Texas accent also helps. If you’re still confused by the pome, please refer to the previous fifty-five posts for background.

In looking back on years gone by
Despite the contrary things he’d know’d
Time marched on without his help
But them that watched saw how he grow’d

And things had happened on the way
But they were things he had not see’d
Though clear to others and plainly so
His anger became, you know, his creed

So long ago the lights went out
Ne’er again, he thought, would be his need
For things outside himself, you see
And with himself he much agreed

His counsel only he would keep
All others he ignored
When others thought to think him good
He thought them off their gourd

When at some point as years piled high
He found himself not quite so drunk’ed
A little light peeked through, it’s true
But life it mostly stunk’ed

His problem still, I’m here to tell you
All selfish and self-centered
No matter how he’d tried to change it
His life it still was splintered

To his surprise, things were a’changin’
These filled him full of dread
For over all those years of hiding
He’d expected, surely, to be dead

If there’s a moral to this story
We’d expect for it to lead
To something dark, foreboding
Surely not a life that’s freed

The boy that died so long ago
Or ‘least to him that’s how it seemed
Was found to still be breathing
Or was it only what he’d dreamed

He’d worried on and on and on
If him they really know’d
Would walk away and leave him there
Alone along the road

It took some time, sixty years, you know
From what he knew he’d sowed
His life was full of something, sure
That some would call a load

But things can change
Or so he’d been toad
They change no matter what you do
No matter you’ve said “vetoed!”

Things they’re changing still
And though some fear’s subsided
He’s trying to do better, true
But himself he’s still derided

Slowly, yes, ever so slowly
He found he remembered still
That one from long ago, so long
The one he’d tried to kill

So now they’re friends these two
Even have between’em a code
And with the help of each of them
On them some honors were bestowed

And you may think the two are one
With you they’ve disagreed
But gradual-like and none too fast
The merger will proceed

Good and bad they’re just one coin
On that he now agreed
You say he should have known ‘fore now
And ask if he’d accede?

The two were always one
If on that fact he’d been confused
But one forgot the other
The other not amused

Now they’ve met again
The two as one decreed
We’re in this thing together
They mutually agreed

But wait, you ask, again and louder
What’s next, how’ll it all conclude?
You look to him and wonder
Not to answer would surely be rude

Undeterred, it’s said, he turned his face
Into a wind that blow’d
And smiled, but only to himself
And ambled down the road.

A Poet But Already Knew It

I was a published poet at the age of fifteen.

Now, before you all start murmuring amongst yourselves about how that Ben must have been a child prodigy and it’s no wonder when you really get to know him, let me tell you rest of the story. Anyone remember Paul Harvey and “the rest of the story”? Harvey had a radio program for about a hundred years, I believe, and we often listened to it when I was high school as we drove down to the Rexall for some lunch. I think “the rest of the story” was Page 3. Page 1 was the setup to the story – something like a couples 1000th wedding anniversary, Page 2 was advertising for something Harvey sounded very passionate about, then Page 3 was the punchline, as it were, to the story from Page 1 – something terribly heartwarming.

Anyway, the rest of the story. I’m not sure exactly when I started writing, but there was a wonderful little story about three pebbles (probably titled Three Pebbles) that I wrote for my second-grade teacher, Miss Emory – so around the age of seven at the very latest. I even glued three little pebbles to the page. I suppose I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic.

Seems my mother kept absolutely everything. Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot. I think she had that story of the three pebbles (with the big red “A” written at the top, of course) for a long time. It was not, unfortunately, among the things she dragged out as she was dying, to give back to me. It’s too bad. It was really quite riveting, as I recall. Writing came relatively naturally. Dad was a newspaper editor, mother liked to write poetry and inspirational essays. My father was published on a regular basis – I suppose you would be, too, if you were the editor and controlled what got published. His book of poetry, Moods of the Prairie, was first published in the mid-sixties. My mother was also published over the years – in places like Home Life magazine. In fact, she had a poem, “The Fabric of Love” published in that magazine in 1967.

But, back to the story. Mother and I found out about a poetry competition sponsored by Spencer Publishers of North Hollywood, California. The publisher’s address was on Victory Center. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? A one dollar registration and handling fee was to accompany each entry. There were four prizes, $25, $15, $10, and $5, for the four best poems submitted. We each decided to send in a poem. Looks like the entry deadline for that year was December 1, 1967 – my fifteenth birthday. We were quite excited. Fame and fortune were, obviously, just around the corner.

We received a letter letting us know that our entries had been received, that all the entries would be published in a book entitled Poetry Parade, that copies of the winning poems along with the winner’s names would be sent to those who enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their entries, and that copies of the book could be had for $3.50 each (1967 dollars). I don’t recall the cost of the shipping and handling. At any rate, we decided to order two copies, one for each of us. I, however, had the honor of ordering the copies. At fifteen, it really did seem like an honor to be the one ordering the books that were to make us famous. You may not remember, but there was a time when you could order things through the mail by sending postage stamps totaling the cost of the items ordered. I order lots of stuff that way. I don’t believe I mailed stamps for this purchase, however. No, a purchase this important called for real, American cash.

Excitedly, we waited for word of the results of the contest. I seem to remember feeling that so much was riding on the results of this contest. When you’re fifteen, I think it feels like most things have a lot riding on them. Finally, word arrived through the mail. Sadly, neither mother nor I were the grand prize winner nor, for that matter, even one of the runners-up. Well, fame and fortune are such fleeting things anyway and hardly even important, don’t you think?

The poem I submitted was “From This Hill”, by Benjamin E. Eakin. I wrote it June 11, 1967 in Glorieta, New Mexico. No, my memory is not that good or, even, good at all. My mother kept a typed copy of the poem that she’d laminated and it had the date right there on the page. I typed it with my own fingers on an honest-to-goodness typewriter – Remington, I think, though it’s probably not really pertinent to the story.

Here’s the poem.

From This Hill 1
by Benjamin E. Eakin

From this hill in front of me,
I see the things I want to see,
This land upon which I have trod,
Was made by the one – the only God.

Upon that mountain where I once stood,
I saw the works that God called good,
The very works that now do lie,
In the very ditch of life to weep and cry.

Why has love been left at the gate,
Left – to be replaced by that word called hate,
A word that today we hear so much,
We repel the thought of God’s Holy Touch.

From this hill in front of me,
We could see the things that are good to see,
If people on the right path – only would stroll,
For God has a purpose – and also a goal.

You may notice that some of the rhymes are a bit forced, as well as the wavery pentameter. Hey, I was fifteen. Give me a break, will ya?

In due time, our copies of the book arrived. It’s a paperback with sort of a muddy-colored, textured cover. I’m not even certain which poem my mother submitted for the contest. What? How can that be, you ask? The letter said all entries would be published in the book, didn’t it? The answer is really quite simple. It’s spelled s-c-a-m.

Let’s recap, shall we? We both sent in our entries, along with that $1 registration and handling fee. We both made sure our poems were a maximum of 32 lines and that each poem was submitted on a separate sheet of paper (typed or printed only, please) with “Annual Poetry Awards Entry” clearly marked on the page, upper left-hand corner. We each got a letter stating our entries had been received. We were both told all entries would be published in a book, whether or not you were one of the top four poems. Copies of the book could be had for $3.50 plus, I’m certain, shipping and handling. We both decided to order a copy of the book – one for each of us.

But, wait. Did, in fact, we each order a copy of the book? I think you’re beginning to see that the plot thickens here. You’re immediately suspecting the butler, I’m sure, but not so fast.

If you will refer back to paragraph six, third sentence, you will find that I said, “At any rate, we decided to order two copies, one for each of us. I, however, had the honor of ordering the copies.” This, it turns out, is the key to solving the mystery. Really, it’s quite elementary, my dear Watson. To the publisher/scam-artist, it appeared that I, Benjamin E. Eakin, had ordered two copies of the book, while Sybil Basham Eakin appeared not to have ordered even a single copy of the book. Don’t order a book, you don’t get included in said book. I mean, how are you going to know you weren’t included unless, of course, your son orders two copies of the book so that you end up seeing the finished product, after all. It was an almost flawless scheme to play against two hicks from Quanah, Texas. But, what are you going to do? We were in Texas. Spencer Publishers was in North Hollywood, California. We just didn’t have the gas money to show up at their front door, demanding to see the publisher about a refund.

But, did they have a front door? Doing a Google Map search for 3295 Victory Center, North Hollywood, California 91609 yields no real result, but instead sort of points to a post office near where the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio is today. For 3295 Victory Boulevard (without the Center), North Hollywood, California, the map shows a location near Petco and Starlite Liquor. It’s your best guess whether either of these locations were the home of Spencer Publishers in 1967, though I might favor the latter.

My pride in being a published poet took a bit of a hit. Still, there I was on the printed page. That was back in a time when I still had a signature. You could still almost read my name. These days, my entire signature comes out as kind of a B with perhaps a hint at an E scribbled next to it. Kinda sad, actually – a little like I don’t think I have enough time left in life to bother signing the whole name. Here’s my signature from the flyleaf of Poetry Parade #5, 1967, when my hands were still young.

Admittedly, not spectacular. You might very well think my last name is Eak. Still, it was the signature of a published poet. Now, you may think I was (am) a little full of myself. Okay, I’m pretty sure by now you’re really thinking I’m pretty full of something! And yet, many of you – no, I dare say most of you – have probably not been published – even if it was a scam. So there!

Now, in fairness to my mother since I don’t know which poem she submitted, here’s the poem she had published in Home Life (not, by the way, a scam), April 1967. After all, I subjected you to my poem, why not give you something better to read. Here it is.

The Fabric of Love 2
by Sybil Basham Eakin

Sunshine alone cannot forge bonds
Of marital love enduring.

Nor laughter weld with lasting strength
The invisible cords of faith;

But with self denial straining
To meet another’s deepest need;

With sorrows shared, and faith stretched,
Then extended in each despair,

Fragile threads of forgiving faith,
Mutually given, weave tears of

Tenderness and anguish into
Fabric inexplicably strong.

Nice, huh? I had no idea what it meant at the time. My mother and I were great pals – up until somewhere around the time I reached puberty. But, we still had our moments together – even if it was to be taken advantage of together. I was already hiding so many things from her. Turns out, however, she was hiding a lot of pain from me, too.

So, you see, my whole life hasn’t been spent in a sinkhole of despair. There have been glimmering moments here and there. Sure, it wasn’t Camelot, but there has always been a full dress rehearsal playing out in my head of what that might look like. And it’s important for me to remember these things now, just as it’s important for each of us to remember these sorts of things as time passes. We can hold on to all the hurt and pain we’ve accumulated over the years or we can try to look at them as lovingly as possible, then gently let them go. There may be a few tears, but the pain won’t really be all that upset about being released. Just take my word for it, okay?

“In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot, for happ’ly ever-aftering than here in Camelot.”3 So, write on, sisters and brothers. The poetry’s not all written yet – nor have you told all the stories of your own amazing life.

1 “From This Hill,” © 1967 by Benjamin E. Eakin

2 “The Fabric of Love,” © 1967 by Sybil Basham Eakin

3 “Camelot,” words by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, © 1960 by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

It Was a Thursday Evening When Five Plus Seven Equaled Nine, Someone’s Woman Was Cruel, and the Weeble Wobbled But Didn’t Fall Down

A poet can survive everything but a misprint. — Oscar Wilde

Billy Collins wrote a wonderful, hilarious poem entitled, “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles.” It’s from his book, Sailing Alone Around the Room (Random House). It’s his humorous take on the fact that some Chinese poems have titles longer than the poems themselves. In fact, Billy Collins has written a lot of great poetry. This one, however, I had the good fortune to hear read aloud at a poetry group at Lake Shore Baptist Church. And not just read – performed, you might say.

The most unexpected things began to happen after I started showing up at church – things I certainly never expected to be doing. I don’t think being invited to join a poetry group was part of what I’d planned to do with the waning years of my fifth decade. I mean, I wrote poetry in my teens, but it was mostly dark, brooding, sort of suicidal — you know, the usual teenage angst. I even read poetry in a UIL competition in high school, but I’m not sure I’d read poetry in forty years or so. Lots of things were happening, though, that had not been in any of my plans.

The poetry group usually met on Thursday evenings once a month. It was a small gathering. Each person was invited to bring a poem or poems, either their own or simply something they liked and wanted to share. Looking back, it appears this particular night was probably in February or March 2010. How could I remember that? Well, the Collins poem impressed me so much, I looked it up online and saved a copy of it for myself. I have the file date-stamp in the computer to prompt my memory. Clever, eh? Hey, you use what you got.

The time frame is important here. This meeting of the group would have been a short time before my surgery for Meneire’s disease. The dizziness and nausea were with me mostly 24/7 by that time, so showing up for anything in the evenings was an effort. I wanted to be there, though. The Meneire’s could leave me so sick it was hard to think. It was an effort to put two thoughts together to build something sensible to say. Seemed to affect my hearing, too, though I think I’ve always just heard things a little differently than others.

Enter Mr. Buddy P. He’s the one who’d brought the Collin’s poem that night. Part of what made the poetry group interesting was that one person would read a poem aloud, then that poem might be passed on to another person to be read aloud again. The emphasis can be a little or a lot different when read by another person. Consequently, my reading may differ substantially from the reading of another. Or, the difference may be very slight. Either way, a variety of voices contribute to a little different way of hearing the same poem.

Anyway, Buddy brought the Collin’s poem that evening. He pulled it out, explained where he’d run across it, perhaps gave a little background about the poet. And then, he began to read. Now, granted, the poem is humorous on its own, but the way Buddy read it made it even funnier. It was the speed of his delivery, the intonation of his voice, the way he couldn’t read it without laughing. I don’t remember if anyone else was asked to read the poem aloud, but I do know we asked Buddy for an encore. This particular verse still makes me laugh when I think of it.

And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
“In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird.
It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem.”

Moved, I wrote this piece. In the story, “Remembering Jim,” I used a quote attributed to “Unknown.” It goes like this: “Any person can be nice to your face, but it takes a real friend to be nice behind your back.” The quote describes perfectly the people I’d begun to meet – and the small group in the room that evening in particular. I’m so used to trying to appear okay all the time, it’s hard for me to recognize when it’s alright to allow the guard to come down. These people, however, were helping me understand how to do that. I’d tried to hide the effects of the Meneire’s for years. I didn’t want people to know how bad I really felt. Don’t ask me why. It may have been that I thought they’d think me weak.

At any rate, at some point in the evening we began to talk a little about birthdays. I shared my theory about birthdays with them. It goes like this: I figure I’m okay if my emotional maturity in any given year is at least equal to the sum of the two numbers that make up my age that year. Next year will be a breeze because I’ll turn sixty. Six plus zero is, well, six. At the time, however, I was 57. So, as I was relating my theory, I said that all I had to do was add five plus seven to know that I’d be okay that year if I had the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old.

I’m told I have a tendency to veer off topic. This, apparently, is one of those instances.

Did any of you go to school with a know-it-all? You know, some little girl or boy who always had the answer and loved to make a point of having that answer and also loved to make sure you ended up looking stupid – and did all that with an air of better-than-thou? Well, now, I’m not saying that Mrs. Buddy P. (better known to us as Judy) was one of those KIAs, but I do know that she thought it her duty that evening to point out that, in fact, five plus seven does not add up to nine. And, of course, she also knew that it really adds up to twelve. I’m pretty sure I also knew that, though it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me what I’d said had she not pointed it out. That sort of confusion comes with the territory when there’s nausea and dizziness. There were many years when it seems apparent I didn’t quite hear things correctly or felt too bad to put the words together to remember them correctly.

Thankfully, Judy is also a dear friend and I know (at least I hope I know) she enjoys some gentle ribbing. I knew right away that there was something I liked about Judy. I was sitting in worship one Sunday morning shortly after I’d returned to church. It was about time to stand up to sing a hymn. The music director at LSBC doesn’t usually direct the music in the way you may be used to. He’s usually at the piano, for instance, so it’s left to the congregation to follow the order of worship and know when it’s time to stand up. They’re a very talented group, though, so it works out. Anyway, one morning we were at that point where it was about time to stand up. I happened to glance over across the congregation just in time to see Judy stand up – before anyone else. I assumed she wanted to be sure everyone else knew it was time to stand up. I remember thinking to myself, “Hm, no control issues there.” That just made me smile as I stood up with the rest of the congregation. Judy had saved the day, once again. Her friendship was to later save the day for me more than once.

Buddy and I were later to reminisce that Judy likes to make us cry. It’s sort of an inside joke between the two of us. Of course, Buddy’s been married to Judy for, like, forever, so that’s probably not such an unusual thing. But, I’ve only known Judy for a few years now, so it’s obvious she’s quite talented in the ways of the heart — and the tearducts. Judy seems to think there’s a time to laugh and a time to cry and one shouldn’t confuse the two. She also seemed to know instinctively that I confused the two on a regular basis.


Well, anyway, back to the poetry group. There was no particular, set structure to the group. We’d visit until it appeared no one else was coming, then begin by reading a poem. We might read a number of poems or a conversation might start up from the reading of one poem. It was a couple of hours to simply relax and allow the week to wind down.

This, it seems to me, is the value of having friends. I’ve had friends over the years, but it was a difficult thing for me. I lived in a world of my own making where I tried to make the world safe — for me. Unfortunately, that meant I also needed to be safe from friends. It took a long time to figure out that no relationship is safe. If it’s really safe, it’s not even a relationship. Friendship, like love, involves risking vulnerability. I’d felt too vulnerable for too long to want to add one more risk in my life. I was learning, slowly, to begin to allow myself to see the danger of trying too hard to be safe. Life was racing by and I was afraid to take that leap from the platform onto a moving train. It’s your friends who reach out a hand to help pull you safely back onto the train, if you’ll allow it.

Still, it seemed to me that there were entirely too many Judys in the poetry group. Okay, there were only two (Judy P. and Judy D.), but that was still double the number of Bens or Buddys or Sharlandes. It tended to skew the gathering ever so slightly, you know. Well, I suppose I’ve now given it away. The poetry group usually consisted of four people – five when Sharlande was able to make it. That only added to the intimacy, though. It made it easier to say anything you felt needed to be said or to say nothing at all. It gave me the chance to get to know people who’d known each other for many years and learn how to become a part of that.

I’m not certain, but I don’t believe Buddy ever got that career as a sit-down comic off the ground. All I know is that his deadpan reading of “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles,” makes me laugh still. It’s one of those things you probably have to read for yourself to understand why it’s funny. And, I encourage you to do so. Better yet, if you ask very nicely, you may even be able to convince Buddy to read it for you.

So, we’ve covered Thursdays, five plus seven equals nine, and you’ve seen why someone’s woman is cruel. That just leaves the Weeble wobbling but not falling down. As you probably know, you can rock and rock a Weeble but it never falls down. The Weeble in this instance, of course, is me. Toward the end, the Meneire’s meant that I was never able to stand completely still. I often tried to stand next to a wall so I could touch it when needed to steady myself. It made it easier to keep from swaying back and forth too visibly. I wasn’t always aware of it, but I couldn’t stand still, no matter how much I concentrated on it. So, I moved deliberately while talking so you couldn’t tell I was unable to be still. And yet, I never fell down. I might lose my balance, but somehow always managed to catch myself before I actually went down. I suppose that became a metaphor for my life. I often lost my balance but I was never completely down for the count. It felt that way many times, but I somehow managed to find a center once again. My centers may still have been a little off-center, but they were close enough to center for me to survive the years it took to find my way back home.

The title for this piece came to me two years ago and I wrote it down. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but it amused me to come up with a title to rival Collins’. My mind sort of works that way. It seems to like to amuse itself. Seems to do it whether I want it to or not, so I usually just let it have its way.

If you thought the days of being read to were over when you hit the age of six, think again. It’s amazing to discover together the possibilities when sharing something you love with others. They may end up loving it, too. You may also rediscover something you’d loved and thought you’d lost. It’s a blessing to have friends who can gently point out that your math might be more than a little rusty. It’s good to have friends who are willing to laugh at your jokes, no matter how bad they get. It’s even better to have friends with whom you can laugh, as well as cry. It’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn. It’s a lesson I hope never to forget.