Doug Bruns

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All Things Strongly Desired

In Books, Literature, The Examined Life on July 3, 2014 at 10:00 am

Yesterday at 4:43am Lucy jumped into bed with me and curled up on my pillow. Carole is out of town and perhaps she sensed the void. The sun was about to rise so there was no point in delaying the day and I got up and got the coffee going. Lucy looked at me expectantly and I wondered how people without a dog start their day. I put a top on my coffee cup and we set off on our walk and while I was walking down the path through the morning woods I had a sense that there was nothing at all in the world existing but for that moment, quiet and private and telling. It was quite extraordinary and for the rest of the day I reflected on it and attempted to grasp it over and over, trying as one does not to lose grip on such a thing as that. I was successful to a point and then, like all things strongly desired, I lost my grasp on it and it was gone, but for the memory of it.

* * *

I finished the third book (of six) in the Karl Ove Knausgaard series, My  Struggle, and the last paragraph is one of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve ever read.

“After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, and for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.”

 

Living as long as you should.

In Books, Death, Life, Literature, The Examined Life on May 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

There was a birder at the park this morning. I spotted him as Lucy and I rounded the path. He was walking a bike. He occasionally stopped and lifted his binoculars and peered into a tree. He was wearing bike shorts and a helmet and was sporting large rubber band-like straps below his kneecaps. “Red tail?” I asked, sauntering past, a bird disappearing over the trees. “Kestrel,” he corrected. I moved on. He lingered. Lucy darted ahead. There is an unmatched quality to a Sunday early morning.

* * *

I returned two books to shelves this week, actually, to be precise, one book to the shelf, one to the library. I have tried to read Angle of Repose Wallace Stenger’s 1971 Pulitzer-winning novel three times. I advanced almost two hundred pages this go ’round (out of 600) but decided to retrace my steps. It lacked a certain deeper context. Or rather, it–this context–escaped me. A book has to appeal on multiple levels. Angle of Repose seemed lacking in dimension. No doubt my problem, not the book’s. The other book, The Second Book of Tao, was poor timing. Some books, like some foods, require the necessary appetite. Bailing on a book no longer troubles me.

The last novel I devoured was the second book in the six book series, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Like many other readers of this series (3000 pages!), I cannot get enough, but cannot explain exactly why. Zadie Smith says she needs his books “like crack.” James Woods, writing in The New Yorker, says, [Knausgaard] wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary…, sometimes banal…and sometimes momentous…but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. He notices everything—too much, no doubt—but often lingers beautifully.” It feels time to get book three. I have the appetite.

                                   * * *

I cleaned out dad’s room the day after he died. All of his belongings packed into three grocery-store banana boxes and four trash bags. I took the bags of clothes to Good Will. The boxes remain in the back of my truck. Dad never read Thoreau, but he understood living simply. The sage lives as long as he should, not as long as he can, says Montaigne.  Dad, unknowingly, was a great philosopher.

   * * *

I return from my morning walk with Lucy and declare to Carole that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. This is a revelation after years of fruitlessly attempting to cultivate a phantom desire, as if living up to a responsibility. “Do you mean religious bone in your body?” she asked. “No, I know I don’t have that,” I say. She nods and says it’s the same with her. We leave it at that. Know thyself, counseled the Greeks.

Don Bruns

In Death, Family, Life, Memoir on May 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Dad

Dad

 

My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.

I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.

_______________________________________________________________

 

My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.

That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.

My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.

From  what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.

I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.

A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.

I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.

My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.

                                                                                                Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991

My Left Hip

In Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on June 8, 2013 at 7:00 am

It’s two and a half weeks since I had a defective hip prosthesis replaced. I have progressed from walker to cane to, again, bi-pedal motion. Pulling myself around behind a walker was revelatory and akin to stepping into a fast-forward time machine. At one point I was visiting my aged father, both of us shuffling behind our aluminium buggies. Yesterday when I saw him (sans walker) he poignantly commented that it must be rewarding to make progress. Sadly, he reflected, progress is behind him.

The bum hip resulted from years of hard-ship athletics: competitive weightlifting, long-distance running, mountain climbing, and so forth. I spent substantial time in my (youthful) life ignoring the ancient call for moderation, shunning what the Buddha called the middle way. It was obsession or nothing, one obsession daisy chained to the next.

Two weeks prone in bed gives one opportunity for reflection.

* * *

“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less,” writes Anne Dillard. I was greedy. Guilty. Moderation, the middle way–that is the new horizon and I consider it with something less than obsession and more akin to meditation, like a snake shedding its skin.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question is not how to live, but how to think. One precedes the other naturally, but the logic of such a thing too often escapes us and we trudge forward living only.

* * *

Anticipating the surgery, a wise friend asked, “What are you going to do with this opportunity?” What a marvelous question! And I mean marvelous in the sense that I marveled over it: direct and simple and challenging. I could not outline how I might wrestle this question into order, but I embraced it openly and without constriction. It was, and remains, my wide-sky mantra.

The thing is, a question sometimes carries more portent in suspension. The answered question loses potential in resolution. Perhaps that is why the big questions remain, being so big as to constantly provoke and unsettle, never giving the pilgrim respite.

To wit: What are you going to do with this opportunity called life?

A Morning Visit

In Death, Family on May 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I visit my father every morning. Two weeks ago I found him sitting in his desk chair, back to me, upright, but listing. I called, Good morning. I got no response. I approached and looked at his face. His eyes were open, though his lids heavy. He did not respond to my voice. I thought, fighting panic: This is how it should be. Dressed, at his desk, no effort, no struggle. Gone. But he was not gone. I detected his chest moving. I rested my hands on his shoulders. I called to him, softly. Still no response. I stroked his back, the bones now protruding, symbols of only hard things remaining. I activated the sensor he wears around his neck and as I waited I talked to him, telling him it was going to be okay, that I was with him. No response. Help arrived and as the four of us lifted him into his bed his eyes focused and he said, “To what do I owe this attention?” We laughed.

I spent the day with him, at his bedside, and a measure of me hoped that he would be spared further suffering. But as the day wore on, he recovered. I fed him. I read to him. I held his hand.  Late in the day, I left him sleeping. I told the receptionist that I was leaving. She said they would check on him. When I returned a few hours later, he was in his chair, dressed, and trying to figure out his TV remote. We watched a bit of Deadliest Catch together.

The body fails us when we most desire otherwise. And, conversely, it stubbornly marches on when we have perhaps arrived at exhaustion and long for rest. The final act of existence is the release of breath–just as the first act was the gasp for it. There is nothing within our control, but for the thoughts in our head and even those, most precious and of our own design, run wild through the caverns of consciousness.  We carry on together.

Tipping Forward

In Books, Life, The Examined Life on March 14, 2013 at 6:10 am
Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

I don’t recall how or when I discovered Guy Davenport, but when it happened, it changed everything. From the Paris Review interview with Davenport: 

“His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.”

Says Davenport, “I learned early on that what I wanted to know wasn’t what I was being taught.” Geography of the Imagination–the book to start with.

* * *

“Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” ~ Kierkegaard. We exist like kids on a playground, teetering backward into biography, tipping forward into hope.

* * *

Upon waking yesterday, Carole declared, “I love waking up happy.” –which reminded me of Emerson’s statement: “The days are gods.”

* * *

My father: “The woman came by to get the paperwork from the move. I told her you had it.”

Me: “Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dad: “You mean I didn’t just move?”

“No, Dad. You didn’t just move.”

“Keep an eye on me, son. I’m having hallucinations.”

Dad will be 91 in two weeks. He has had two TIAs in less than two months. Every day I observe the increasing wear and tear, the momentum of age. Difficult stuff, indeed.

* * *

As a hiker and once climber, I appreciate the occasional difficulty in moving forward–the thinning air, the heavy legs, the want of sleep.  In this situation, there is but one way to keep the body in sync with the mind: lean into the problem. When we can’t take another step, we can lean. A person will follow into a lean. Along these lines, I made a Moleskine note once, from a trip to Tibet, a monk’s statement: “He’s no more who he used to be…and he’s not yet what he will become.” Simply, Kierkegaard is right: we exist on a fulcrum. These are things I came to know, but was never taught.