Saturday, April 09, 2011

`Yet Where He Was Is Gone'

On our final morning in Houston I spoke with a young man in overalls and earrings who works in a feed-and-grain store. He was born in Utah, grew up in South Dakota and lived for several years in North Dakota before moving to Houston in 2006. We swapped stories of travel intersections in space and time, and he characterized himself as a “cultural mutt,” a phrase I claimed as my own and proved it by driving a couple of blocks to take our last look at the Beer Can House.

We had promised the boys milk shakes at the Yale Street Grill, which has a soda fountain, stools topped with red naugahyde, and signed photographs of Ricky Skaggs and Wolf Blitzer on the wall. Our waitress, Maria, made Michael and David’s shakes from scratch as we watched. Both clogged their straws and got brain-freeze. The point was to feed them, yes, but also to freeze another memory of Houston, where we lived for four years.
As I was paying the bill, the cashier told me her credit card machine was down. I paid cash and she said, “Bless you, darlin’.” I assured her my sons were satisfied customers and would not contribute to her troubles, and she said, “Things can always get worse, son.”
Next we took the boys to the park we visited the day we arrived in Houston seven years ago, and I walked across the street to an antique shop with an “OLD RARE BOOKS” sign in the window. The books were dusty and unsorted, and the lighting was dim, but I skimmed the shelves and spied a pale volume I recognized but had never seen before – The Spirit of Man, published as a wartime morale booster in 1916 and edited by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. I found the fourth edition, from 1923. I knew the title because of the contribution by Henry James, who became a British citizen in 1915.
In a moving gesture of fraternal devotion, James contributed an excerpt from “The Will to Believe,” an essay by William James, his beloved brother who had died in 1910. Bridges’ book was published in January 1916. Henry died Feb. 28 of that year. Here’s a passage from the excerpt Henry chose from among all of his brother’s works, a passage reminiscent of Lambert Strether’s great cheer of encouragement mingled with regret in The Ambassadors:
“These then are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
In the car I looked at the book more carefully and found a red-and-gold label affixed to the inside cover:
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York.”

I worked as a science writer for RPI from 1999 to 2001. Yvor Winters writes in “A Spring Serpent”: 

“He needs but move to live,
Yet where he was is gone.”


e'clair said...

Not that I have anything intelligent to say here, but as I was thinking of an earlier of your Houston posts this morning, I thought I ought to write and tell you how much I enjoy the posts you write that are directly connected to recent experience.
I "starred" (in my reader) today's post, as I have others.
While I am not very good at blogging myself, I ought to drop the mask of this comment, which is not quite gratuitous praise, but something like it - as I strive myself to connect what I read to what I live. Otherwise, what is the use of all the reading?
Still, what I find (what I find with my university students - as an aside, sometimes I think I'd be better off teaching pre-schoolers, so they could teach me, according to the Cantonese adage, yek si yek yau: teaching give, teaching have) is that I err towards abstraction and complexity. Or the esoteric in mentioning ideas I find interesting, but which others find hard to understand/see the relevance of.
...All this to attempt to explain how much I appreciate those posts where you make relevant the complex, wonderful ideas that we read.
I hope one day to be able to emulate you in this respect!

zmkc said...

Lovely post - and naugahyde an addition to my vocabulary

Helen Pinkerton said...

I have added "cultural mutt" (aren't we all?) to my vocabulary,

Thanks for driving me back to my 1916 copy of Bridges' The Spirit of Man, with its peeling spine and foxed pages, bought many years ago for 50 cents.
Not all the prose and verse entries on the varying subjects (e.g., Dissatisfaction, Retirement, Idea of God, the Muses, Beauty is Truth, Mortality, Melancholy, Sin, Lovingkindness, Heroism, the Happy Warrior, etc.) are interesting. He is much too fond of Shelley. But there are fine quotations from unexpected writers such as Dostoevsky, Amiel and Montaigne (in French), along with plenty of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats and the usual suspects. There are very few Americans, but he includes a short passage from Lincoln's speech in response to a serenade, Nov. 10, 1864, which clearly Bridges is applying to England's position vs. the Prussian state:
" . . . It has long been a grave question whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. . . " And all of the Gettysburg address.