“When Compasses Grow Old ” & “Runaway Train”


When compasses grow old

When compasses grow old
And can no longer be certain
About precisely where north is
And wouldn’t recognize
South-southwest if it bumped into them
At a party
And knocked them
Into the punch bowl
There is a place where they can go
To live out their lives
With the kind of companionship
And dignity they deserve
After a lifetime of faithful and selfless service
Pointing the way
For all those seeking the trailhead
Or the buried treasure
Or the palace of the beloved

At the Home for Elderly Compasses
The residents spend their twilight years
Reminiscing and perhaps boasting a little
About heroic adventures
In which all appeared lost
Until they saved the day –
Although the particulars do seem
Increasingly elusive –
And when someone’s nephew
A shiny young GPS just out of graduate school
Comes to visit
They gather around
And listen politely to his tales
Of satellites and microwaves
And other wonders of new technology
Although they are utterly baffled
By what they are hearing
And after the nephew leaves
They shake their heads slowly and cluck to each other
About how easy kids have it today

Like ours the sleep of elderly compasses
Is not always untroubled
There are nightmares about
Torture by naughty children with horseshoe magnets
Or being mistaken for pocket watches
And smashed to bits
For failing to tell the time
Or tossed into the back of a dusty drawer
With a tattered topographic map
And a rusted pocket knife
To be forgotten forever
But morning does come
And as the old compasses take their toast and tea
And winter light washes into the room
Through east-facing windows
The bad dreams fade
And recalling as they gaze into the pale cold sky
How they helped so many navigate their way
Over howling mountain ranges
Through tangled woods and swamps
Across trackless immensities
The compasses feel no urge themselves for new journeys
Content now to be just here
Where all directions start


Runaway train

I have a vague recollection
That they mentioned
Time would pass more quickly
As I grew older
But I am dead certain no one said anything
About a runaway train
Hurtling along the tracks
At terminal velocity
Through the days months years remaining
With me inside
Lurching from coach to coach
Searching in vain for
A red lever behind the windowOf a small cabinet labeled
In Existential Emergency
Break Glass Pull Handle

“As We Grow Older” & “The Job of Memory”


As we grow older

If you forget my name
I will become a window
Facing the sea
A raised window that
The light will blow through
Like a warm wind
You will be walking
In the sand
Near where the waves
Exhaust themselves
And slide back out
To the big water
You will be looking down
As if searching
For a lost piece of jewelry
Perhaps it will be my name
You are trying to find
I will call out to you
It’s me I will shout
I am here
And I will say my name
You will look up and
See in my polished panes
Flashes of sunlight
Blue squares of ocean and sky
Tiny reflections of yourself
You will smile
And say Of course
Then walk to where I am
And like a young girl
Hike up your long skirt
To lift yourself up over the sill
And step inside


The job of memory

When I cannot recall the title of a book
Or the name of a lake in northern Minnesota
I try to resist the Google temptation
And instead set my aging neurons to work
Doing what they were hired to do

What they lack these days in alacrity
They make up for with tenacity
As they methodically search every closet
And cabinet and shelf in my brain
Often for long minutes, even hours
While I fidget and squirm and stew
With mounting frustration
But almost invariably one of them
Will finally burst into my office
Waving a piece of paper and shouting
We found it, Boss!
And when that happens
There is great rejoicing in all the cubicles
Dancing on the desks
Tossing confetti
Everyone so happy to still have a job

“Adopt a Highway” & “The Next Small Thing”


Adopt a highway

I hope that when I die
My old pals and chums
Will adopt a highway
A stretch of two-lane road
Somewhere out in countryside I loved
Where they will meet
Once a month
To collect roadside detritus
And reminisce about
What a pretty good fellow I was

The Department of Transportation
Will place a sign on the shoulder:
Litter Control Next 2 Miles
Friends of Buff Bradley
Which is all the memorial I need
Or want

These cleanups will go on
For perhaps a year
Fewer people showing up each time
Because of
You know
Other obligations
Until the last two agree
That a drink together
Once in a while
Would be a whole lot easier
Although they will never actually get around to it

My sign will come down
Stored in some dim back corner
Of a shed in the county maintenance yard
With all the other signs
Awaiting resurrection
Or reincarnation
Depending upon their affiliations
And a new sign
Will appear:
Litter Control Next 2 Miles
Bitsy’s Kut ‘n Kurl
Which a motorist who drives past regularly
Will notice one morning
And will ask himself
Didn’t there used to be
A different name up there?
Although he won’t be able to recall
Who it was


The next small thing

Unlike the Next Big Thing
That everyone is waiting for
To revolutionize
For the umpteenth time
The way we conduct
The same old business
The next small one
A whiff of onion grass
The whispered arrival of light
From the Pleiades
The streak and cry
Of a kingfisher above a pond
Will change nothing at all
Although it will encourage you
To unhook that bucket of lead
That hangs from the chain
In your heart
And to stop for a while
By the side of the road
For a cool drink of water

“At the Driveway Guitar Sale” & “Afternoon Lovemaking”

In both pieces in this podcast, the poet reminds himself that what remains to him in life is powerful, rich and fulfilling.

At the Driveway Guitar Sales

At the driveway guitar sale
I watch old men
Heft various 60’s electrics
And strike surly-lead-guitarist poses
That would surely embarrass
Their grandchildren
They play snatches of Light My Fire and
Riders on the Storm 
To accompany the Jim Morrisons
Singing in their heads
And I can see the faded blaze
Of their rock and roll dreams
In their eyes
And the language of their
Heavy slightly stooped bodies
That says those doors are closed

It is much the same at car shows
Where old men display
The hot rods and T-Birds
And souped-up Bel Airs
That drove them nearly mad with longing
When they were young
And even though the cars
Of their hearts’ desires
Now park in their suburban garages
I can sense a faint echo of disappointment
Reverberating in the hearts that beat
Beneath their Harley-Davidson t-shirts:
But I’m not 16

And me?
When this old man was young
He wanted badly to be a poet
To smoke Gauloises
To drink Wild Turkey
To swim the Hellespont
And utter seismic profundities
In casual conversation and
Oh yes
To write stirring poems
And declaim them to a waiting world . . .
Which didn’t exactly work out
And although he does still wonder from time to time
What it would have been like
To be a young writer of great promise
He is content these days to strum his ukulele
To drive his battered old Toyota
To pen verses that might occasionally
Lay a patch of rubber, ignite a little flame


Afternoon Lovemaking 

Afterwards
We lie side by side
Dozing under the white comforter
In our white room
My hand resting on her belly
Hers on mine
To make certain
We do not float away
Into the sunlight
Streaming in through the window,
Which is our primary work these days
Of our eighth decade,
Holding fast,
Keeping each other here.

“Memory” & “Horses”

We old folk talk a lot of the hereafter: we walk into a room and say, “what are we here after?” Buff Whitman-Bradley tries to get back to a favorite childhood memory, and then another!

Memory

I am hiking a muddy trail
In the wooded hills
On a brilliant spring morning
After many days of rain.
Purple and ivory irises,
Blue and white forget-me-nots,
And vivid yellow California buttercups
Are blooming
In the long, bright green trailside grasses.
The cool, wet air fills my lungs
And quickens my spirit
As I huff uphill
Letting my thoughts loose
Among oaks, madrones,
Redwoods, bays,
And I suddenly realize
That I cannot remember the name
Of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse.
Roy Rogers and Trigger,
Dale Evans and Buttermilk
Spring instantly to mind,
As do the Lone Ranger and Silver,
Tonto and Scout,
But the name of Hoppy’s horse,
A magnificent white steed,
Is stuck in some neural cranny inside my head.
Perhaps it will wriggle itself loose,
I advise myself,
If I shift my attention to something else —
Glittering ribbons of sunlight
Streaming down through the treetops,
Irascible scrub jays
Complaining on the fly,
Banana slugs poking along through the mud –
But I cannot for long not think
About Hopalong Cassidy’s horse.
I remember Rocinante, I remember Flicka and Black Beauty,
I even remember Bucephalus for God’s sake,
Yet I have forgotten the name
Of my childhood hero’s noble stallion.
I had a Hopalong Cassidy cup and plate
When I was a boy
With a picture of the man and his mount
Painted on each
And inscribed with the words
From your pal, Hoppy.
How I loved using my Hopalong Cassidy dinnerware
Every night at supper,
Watching the picture on the plate
Emerge from under a heap of mashed potatoes
Or a serving of . . .
Wait!  I’ve got it!  Topper!
The horse’s name was Topper!
Oh, I am a happy man now,
Relieved that the memory was not gone forever,
That the name has returned to me,
That my powers of recollection are still intact,
And I fairly float along the trail beside the creek
At the bottom of the hill,
Where small pines are decorated
With light green brushes of new growth
On the tips of their skinny branches,
Where towhees and juncos and sparrows
Hunting and pecking for food
Flit away into the trees as I approach,
Where the waters babble and tumble
Over stones and boulders
As they hurry toward the bay
And the great sea beyond,
And I would pronounce this a perfect day
If I could just recall
The name of the horse of the Cisco Kid.



Tricycle

It takes courage to give up an early memory in exchange for a present reality that might not be so pleasant. But the poet does it here with great courage and humor.

In a shoe box on the closet floor
Among decades of family snap shots
There is a photograph more than seventy years old
Of me and my first tricycle,
A wondrous vehicle I rode at breakneck velocity
All over the sidewalks and alleyways
Of the ramshackle little community of Carter Lake,
On the banks of an oxbow lake left behind
When the Missouri River decided to change course
And leave a chunk of Iowa
Stranded on the Nebraska side.
In the picture I am wearing a cowboy hat
And cowboy boots
As I sit on my three-wheeled speed machine
Splendidly fancied up with streamers and balloons
For the Fourth of July parade around town,
Which is just about to begin.
I loved that tricycle surpassingly
And as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday
I’m thinking it might be just the right time
For another one.
Not ready yet to give up cycling
But noticing myself
Having more and more little spats
With verticality,
I am concerned (and my wife vigorously agrees)
That on two wheels I might well become a menace
To myself and others on the roadway,
So one more wheel could be just the thing.
It’s not easy to adjust to the losses
That pile up in old age –
Agility, reflexes, balance, hearing, memory, dear friends –
And a little compensation from time to time
Can ward off despair.
For example, even now, months before my natal day,
I refresh and renew my spirit
By picturing a shiny three-speed three-wheeler
With its back-mounted basket
Full of groceries or library books
And me pedaling with mad abandon
Past pedestrians agog at the exuberant vitality
Of a well-wheeled old codger
In his own particular prime,
And for a happy moment
At the top of his game.


buff_whitman-bradley

Poems for the Third Actcontains the delightful readings of poet Buff Whitman-Bradley of Northern California, a long-time contributor to The Third Act Project, and a wonderful guy who’s living a rich third act that has included a tough bout with cancer — about which he has written (and you will soon hear) a brilliant poem. His work is lyrical, poignant, often providing a well-deserved laugh. His lead piece is called “Horses of Memory.” Check him out and let him know what you think of his art.

Poems for the Third Act contains the delightful readings of poet Buff Whitman-Bradley of Northern California, a long-time contributor to The Third Act Project, and a wonderful guy who’s living a rich third act that has included a tough bout with cancer — about which he has written (and you will soon hear) a brilliant poem. His work is lyrical, poignant, often providing a well-deserved laugh. His lead piece is called “Horses of Memory.” Check him out and let him know what you think of his art.

“Molecular Biology”

Molecular Biology—for Mike Searle

By now your body is probably just molecules spread out all over the place mingling with other kinds of molecules in the earth the water the air and I wonder if that’s what has happened to your consciousness as well your personality your spirit your self all of what was you scattered around the world and if that is the case then maybe you didn’t really die but instead got the chance to go everywhere at once.

I’m thinking this because every once in a while I get a kind of “whiff “of you the way I get a whiff of oranges in the produce section or on a bus a whiff of perfume that reminds me of an old girlfriend it’s not really a scent but a sudden sense of you coming out of thin air the way molecules waft off the skin of an orange or a dab of White Shoulders.

I’ve heard that the olfactory center of the brain is connected in some way to the part that stores memories and that’s why smells can be so powerfully evocative of the past; my whiffs of you evoke instantaneous impressions and vivid 3-D images of the two of us driving down the Pacific Coast Highway sitting by a small creek in the Mt. Tamalpais watershed talking poetry and politics and drinking espresso in a Berkeley café.

So if your body your consciousness your self are now millions of molecules strewn hither and yon then I can imagine some of those molecules ending up in the soil in a field where a farmer plants wheat and I can imagine those molecules working their way into the grain that is then harvested and milled into flour and baked into bread.

I can picture a young couple going to the supermarket to buy apples and cheese and a loaf of that bread to take on a picnic by the lake and I can see those two growing liquid and passionate in the late afternoon and making irresistible unstoppable love barely concealed under a willow tree near the shore I can imagine a child born of that act of love and some of your molecules tucked inside the child.

I hope I will get to meet that child before I die myself I’m sure I will recognize in her your capacious spirit your agile intellect your delight but if I don’t have that chance I imagine myself after death being like you widely dispersed some of my molecules floating to earth in a vineyard in the Napa Valley and getting themselves up inside some Cabernet grapes made into a ruby red medium-bodied wine full of fresh fruit flavors which the child—now grown up—has at dinner with friends one evening.

And there we’ll be a pair of pals—a handful of molecules—sitting on a sunny park bench somewhere in the back of that woman’s brain telling stories about the old days conjuring up memories for her of fragrances she hasn’t smelled of places she hasn’t seen of old friends she has never known.

“Afternoon Lovemaking”

This is but a short poem by the poet Buff Whitman-Bradley, but it captures, as so much of his work does, those essential moments of life in the third act.

Here, a couple in their “eighth decade” lie beside each other as the sun streams into the room following their embrace. The love is deep, but not the love of the young. And this is such a cause of bewilderment sometimes in the lives of couples who still hunger for the passion of before.

What’s most important to you about sexual romance these days? It’s an intimate subject, and so many people are uncomfortable talking about it. But we all have thoughts about it. Want to share yours?  


Afterwards
We lie side by side
Dozing under the white comforter
In our white room
My hand resting on her belly
Hers on mine
To make certain
We do not rise into the air
And float away
Into the sunlight
Streaming in through the window,
Which is our primary work these days
Of our eighth decade,
Holding fast,
Keeping each other
Here.

“Cross” & “Cremation”

Cross

Some mornings,
This one for instance,
When I have not slept well the previous night,
I wake up feeling cross.
However I am already beginning
To feel much better
Because a word I hadn’t thought of
In decades
Just walked out of its bachelor pad
Inside my brain
And took its place proudly up there
On the fourth line.
I could have said that I wake up
Feeling grumpy, or cranky,
Or out of sorts,
But there’s the word cross,
As big as life and quite pleased with itself.
When I was a little boy
Parents got cross
For reasons we did not always understand,
Teachers became cross
About excessive conversation during lessons,
And there was always at least one fearsome aunt
Who was never anything else
Except cross.
When I heard the word I thought, of course,
Of Jesus nailed to the cross
And felt a terrible gravity,
A weight that irascible or irritable
Could never bring to bear.
Being cross was serious stuff.
But after all these years of desuetude
The word sounds only quaint,
Without the power to frighten little children,
To fill them with dread,
To send shivers down their spines.
Grandpa says he’s feeling cross,
My granddaughter will say,
He’s a silly old guy.


Cremation
“The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns . . .”
Hamlet, Act III, Scene I —William Shakespeare

Arriving in the mail today
A promotional brochure
Offering me a reduced rate
On cremation.
It is not the first time
That I have received such mail
And each time I make light of it
Cracking a feeble little joke
About my inescapable demise.
But having recently endured
Surgery and radiation treatment
For cancer
This time I hesitated
Before tossing the mailer
Into the recycling
And for the first time thought
Well maybe I should look into this.
It would be the responsible thing to do
Making arrangements and pre-paying
For my incineration
To save my loved ones
The trouble of scrambling around
At the last minute
To find a suitable crematorium
While my body grows cold
Lying in a rented hospital bed
By the large windows in the living room.
It could be my final act of generosity
When they look through my papers
And discover to their relief –
Oh look, he’s already taken care of it.
Here’s the number to call.
So instead of having to careen
Through the yellow pages
They would be able
To spend a few quiet moments with me
In the profound pause
Following my final breath
Before we head off in our separate directions –
They to the bustle of the noisy world
And I to the stillness
Of the undiscovered country.

“Old Dogs”

 

Old dogs
I sit by the creek and throw sticks
For the old great-hearted golden retriever
He splashes through the water
Like the puppy he was
Up onto the opposite bank
To fetch each one
But he brings it back only partway
(He has done this before)
And drops it onto the ground out of my reach
Then he stands over it panting triumphant
Looking me straight in the eye daring me
To come and take it and if I try
He will snatch the stick away
Just as I am about to grab it
But today I have outsmarted him
(I have done this before)
And brought along many throwing sticks
And so after each one he fails to return
I pick up another from my stash which
I throw and he fetches and delivers
To where he has dropped the others
As his pile grows larger and mine grows smaller
I watch the sunlight coming
In great broad sheets through the redwoods
And listen to the creek tell the stories
It has always told
And when I throw the last stick
We both realize it is time to go
I stand up he bounds across the creek one last time
And we head back down the trail
Two old dogs no new tricks
As vertical as possible
                                      I place my feet with care in such a world William Stafford
I have fallen twice recently,
Once onto the rocks
In a creek I was crossing
And once on a steep stairway
Outside a friend’s house.
Neither time was I injured
But it did hurt my heart
To be reminded once again
That my arthritic joints and I
Have entered the age
Of falling-down-ness
Which in my spryer moments
Still seems years and miles away.
I know I’ve got to remember
To lift my feet higher
On my strolls and hikes
And gaddings about town
And always to use a good walking stick.
I also know
That even high-stepping and the stoutest of staffs
Won’t prevent the Big Fall that looms
In the unknowable future,
My one final tumble
Into oblivion’s infinite elevator shaft.
But until that happens
I’ll do my best
To remain as vertical as possible –
Be mindful of terrain
Wear sturdy shoes
Place my feet with care.
 

The Pier, the Birds and the Moment

This evocative piece appeared in the long-running blog, Time Goes By, created by Ronni Bennett. Melancholy, funny, and tuned in to the small moments of life.


An airplane sneaks through the fog over Lac St. Louis.
Canada geese sing homecoming harmonies.
I’m in my car, staring at the lake where we swam as kids.
The lake ice has melted.
The water is high.
Another plane tiptoes in.
A man sits in his car, reading.
We’re two cars, side by side, on the pier.
He looks at me, nods and smiles.
I smile and nod back.
I sip my coffee and think about a jumble of senior words overheard at the local coffee spot.
Words like this:
“My friend is in the hospital. She can’t move from the neck down. She may never walk again. The doctors are doing tests. I call her every night. A nurse puts the phone by her ear.”
“He’s 94 years old, driving without a license. His doctor refused to sign the paper. I should notify the police. He’s going to kill himself or someone else. If the cops pull him over, it’s gonna be game over. Maybe it’s just gossip. What should I do?”
“Her world has become smaller since she moved into that senior home.”
“No car. No visits. No garden.”
“Everything is in the past.”
“So listen to this: My three neighbors help each other, even though they are not related. One woman cuts lawns, the other one cooks and the boyfriend repairs stuff. They found a way to age in place.”
“Ah, I know who you mean. She walks the ILR halls and knocks on doors. Sometimes she puts her thumb over the peephole so you can’t see who is there. She’s losing it.”
A ship passes. It’s going somewhere.
But where are we going?
More words:
“I’m not sitting there.”
“I don’t like that man.”
“I want to bop him one.”
“Now Sam, you know a bop too far becomes a boom.”
“Yeah, I know that.”