Twelve or 13 years ago, in Indonesia, I saw a homeless woman resting in the shadows of a side street holding a sick child in her arms. She looked up indifferently at me as I passed through the shadows, but I saw her eyes.
They were part of a portrait of incurable poverty, not drugs or alcohol. I saw no family, no food, no resources and no hope.
It is a moment I can’t forget.
She was so beaten down. I could not tell her age. Her child was so young and quiet. Her eyes seemed vacant and without hope. It was a combination of abject poverty and also a renaissance portrait of Madonna and child.
Without thinking, I surprised myself. I reached into my pocket and handed her what I had. I have no idea how much money I gave to her. It was everything but it was a foreign currency.
I was instantly embarrassed at this unexpected burst of emotions, so I didn’t look back. I just kept walking.
I have come to conclude that no matter where we go, we live in our American culture, its vision of itself, and only caricatures of the outside world which have been baked into me and I take for granted. As Americans, we believe ourselves to be kind, but while it may be our nature to be kind, we protect ourselves from caricatures, like the poverty of strangers when it becomes too much.
When the caricatures fall apart, a different world takes its place.
She was not begging. I just found myself giving her a fistful of money and I kept walking. The money was balled up into my fist when I gave it to her.
I didn’t see her after I gave it to her.
When I turned away, I left the shadows and went into the sunlight and tried to leave it all behind. To forget about what I saw and what I had done. I was surprised to find that she had gotten up and followed me. She’d put her hand on my shoulder. Was she touching me to acknowledge the amount of money I had given her?
Yes I think so, but I think it was something more.
She pointed at my camera as if to say, “thank you and remember me.” She did not smile as I took her picture. She just looked at me with those eyes I can’t forget. I don’t need the photo but I return to it off and on.
I wonder if they are both gone now. It was a while ago. I still have that photograph. It is posted here. I want to remember her and never think of her as a caricatures of poverty.
I have always been a soft touch when it comes to animals. It has gotten me in trouble and on occasion broken my heart.
My heart is broken today but it has also been reawakened.
On the 4th of July, years and years ago, my first wife and I were driving past Towson University when I saw a baby raccoon alone near the entrance. Without hesitation, I pulled the car over and went to the little fella. He had been abandoned and was sick and starving. He was curled up and about the size of my hand. He was probably only a week old and was all alone, so of course I scooped him up, named him Thomas Jefferson, and took him home. I got instructions from a vet and fed him with a dropper.
I became so attached over that first week that I set my alarm to ensure his steady feedings, and when he died very late one night I, without a second thought, gave him artificial respiration.
My wife was justifiably horrified and insisted I get rabies shots, which I did. Thereafter the joke in the neighborhood was “if you see a rabid animal, call Bob because he can bite back.”
My animal advocacy and militant, often imprudent, protection of animals was acquired early. When I was about nine or ten, I lived next to a high school which held a “Sportsman’s Show” to raise money for the school.
Somebody had blown up a wading pool and put 100 trout in it so that the “sportsmen“ could use barbed treble hooks to snag the trout, which were then promptly cleaned and taken home to be fried.
I was horrified by the cruelty and the thought that everyone of these trout was doomed.
I went back home to my the piggy bank. I returned with money and a net to buy three trout with my savings, but I did not want them killed.
I had a plan.
I filled up the bathtub in the third floor of our house, placed the trout in it and refused to take a bath until my parents drove my fish to be released in New Hampshire. After a week and a half of no baths, my parents became persuaded.
It got worse.
Back then, if you went to the circus, you could buy chameleons which had little strings around their necks and a safety pin to clip them to your shirt. They didn’t stand a chance.
I again emptied my piggy bank to buy as many chameleons as I could, and then housed them in an old aquarium. I built a landscaped jungle with little waterfalls and a window screen top for air circulation. That summer, I traveled with a tiny little fish net, so I could catch live flies for food. I concluded that the pet store food was not good enough for them. It was less organic than my free-range flys.
It got worse.
I cared for a small alligator that was shipped to me from Florida back when that was legal, and it lived in my bathtub until I, again, convinced my parents that life would be better for it at the zoo.
It got worse.
There were birds with broken wings, which I fed all of the bay scallops that were scheduled for dinner. There were these two kittens that I acquired while hitchhiking, when somebody had fed them both LSD so they were wet with sweat from fighting hallucinations. I named them Fruehauf and Brockway, the names of trucking companies.
One summer, we rented a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and my job was to care for a pregnant cat that lived in a woodpile in the barn. Of course I was there when the nine kittens were born. I spent the rest of the summer forever getting them back to their mother in the woodpile.
Over time, my parents gave in and we adopted a black stray female mixed-breed who, of course, jumped the fence and had three puppies in the garage.
When I met my second wife 11 years ago, she had a one-year-old puppy named Winston, which made me love her even more. Several months ago, Winston developed tumors and problems with his lungs and hindered legs. Last week, we were told by our vet that Winston had only two or three months left.
My wife and I were scheduled to visit her family in Florida last weekend, but the vet told us that even though Winston could last for a few more months, it would be too stressful to board him at her kennel, given the noise and his condition. I volunteered to stay home with Winston so my wife could be with her family. Unexpectedly, Winston went into decline, and we decided the only humane thing to do was to put him down as soon as possible.
I was up several times throughout Sunday night to give Winston painkillers. The doctor came at 10:00 in the morning yesterday, sedated Winston, and then administered the shot. After we waited, she gently took out her stethoscope and softly pronounced him dead.
Winston knew my wife longer than I have, and they loved each other dearly. When she decided to put him down, even though she couldn’t be there, I recognized it was a sacrifice for her. There were tears, but she said she cared more for the quality of his life than for the pain she would feel not getting to see him one last time.
It is one thing to love animals, but it is another when you see the humanity of someone who sacrifices their feelings for those they love.
I have just met a lot of feral cats in My Lady’s Manor in Monkton, Maryland, and I really like these feral cats! These are not the fighters on fire escapes I knew when I lived in inner-city apartments.
Slightly before Thanksgiving, I was invited to set up an open mic by Angelo Otterbein, the new owner of the new Manor Mill in My Lady’s Manor in Monkton, Maryland.
So what is an open mic? What is My Lady’s Manor? Where is Monkton, Maryland, and who are these feral cats?
The town of Monkton is about 45 minutes north of Baltimore and about 5 minutes south of the Pennsylvania boarder and the Mason-Dixon line. It includes a old grist mill, a miller’s house, a small hotel with a little cluster of houses next to the Gun Powder river, all nestled around a mid-1800s whistle-stop of the defunct North Central Railroad, the tracks of which are now a walking trail that runs next to the river.
In 1713, Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron of Baltimore, made a 10,000 acre gift of land to his fourth wife and christened the estate “My Lady’s Manor.” Monkton and My Lady’s Manor are known for sprawling countryside, horse farms, and old, stately homes set back from the country roads.
Angelo recently purchased the old grist mill and has revived and converted it into a historically renovated creative arts center, and the old Hotel now houses trout fishermen and nature walkers.
An open mic is an invitation to performers — poets, in this case — to stand and deliver their work in front of a live listening audience.
These cats are poets.
As a lawyer for over 30 years, my professional life offered me a chance to submit plays I wrote to the Baltimore Playwright’s Festival, but I had little or no access to local poets.
Angelo’s invitation to develop an open mic on Monday evenings unexpectedly provided the opportunity to meet the poets of the region, and it has been amazing to watch these cats in front of an open mic.
These cats are poets because they observe and take the time to write down what they observe and, by committing to this practice, they develop their own voice.
The more one writes, the more one discovers one’s own voice.
It is a solo voice that is created through omission and selection. What you leave in and what you leave out. It is your speaking voice on paper, but it is a solo voice.
All of a sudden, I have been surrounded by a wonderful collection of solo voices that are quite different from each other’s and from my own. All of a sudden, I discovered there are small but selective poetry magazines, published all around me, whether on paper or virtually. It is a world alive and well, created by this remarkable community of feral cats.
Over the last few months, I have been putting together these open mics on the first Monday of every month. The hustle and bustle of the Manor Mill — which features painters, musicians, metal sculptors, basket weavers, and textile artists, teaching and learning from each other — subsides on Monday evening, and the mill is surrendered to the open mic and poets.
The Manor Mill is a remarkable place, far from urban environments. It draws people who have often never met before. It takes incredible courage to stand up in front of strangers and speak, but it takes even more courage to stand behind your voice and deliver a vision in the form of a poem to strangers.
It is exciting to witness this courage, and walk into a world of so many new articulate voices. They speak differently. They think differently. They approach poetry in so many original ways.
Poetry is the most flexible art form available in language because of line breaks, intentional rhythms and rhymes, and the limitless themes available, because ideas and expression can be shaped in ways that are less constrained than sentences, paragraphs and chapters.
It is astounding how wild and creative these people are, and how much I have learned from them in such a short time as I find my new voice and learn to listen to others in this beautiful new welcoming environment.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Professor William Alfred, my tutor in college, and how my affection has grown for him. Today, I will remember the other mentor for whom I have a continued and growing affection.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) was, and still is, a very respected poet of the late 20th Century. She lived a hard life filled with loss and loneliness. She was raised and passed around by her maternal grandparents and relatives after her father died when she was a year old and her mother was placed in a mental hospital.
After she got into and graduated from Vassar, because she had no traditional family to surround her, she found comfort in travel. In late midlife, after her partner with whom she lived in Brazil for years died, she was alone again. Robert Lowell convinced Harvard to offer her a chance to teach there.
In order to get into her class in the fall of 1972, I had to submit an essay on the Wallace Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
It is a difficult poem. It is like a description of a carnival with its cigar rollers and ice cream makers but it is about the preparations for a Cuban funeral. It is a celebration of life, not a celebration of the dead person. The end of the first stanza reads:
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
From my first reading it struck me personally as being so godless and lonely. It ends with this:
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Years later, I found in her letters her description of how she had decided to choose that poem for the competition.
She was walking alone past Brigham’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square toward Kirkland House where she would make copies of the poem she had chosen for the competition and leave it with Alice Methfessel, a staff person at Kirkland House, to hand out to the competitors.
Alice would, a few years later, become the executor of Bishop’s estate.
It was a small class limited to around 10 to 12 people. She required that each student memorize 15 lines of two 20th Century poets for each class. She was insistent. When she pointed at us in class, we had to recite our chosen poems.
She told us it was a way to bring a poem alive again. When it was recited in a different environment it will be different than reading it from a book again and again. It was like a friendship you could carry with you.
Bishop did not appreciate self centered over egoed undergraduates. I was a little older myself. From the beginning, I believed I felt her loneliness and I imagined she felt mine, but I wrote it off as my imagination.
I worked very hard in Bishop’s class and she saw the depth of my interest and commitment. I didn’t speak up much but I was always prepared for class. I never made intentional eye contact but I found that midway through the term she smiled after I had participated, and by the end of the year we would even talk briefly as we were leaving class to reenter the Square.
We talked about things rather than poems when we chatted. This was a time when confessional poetry was on the rise and people wrote very personally about their families and themselves extensively, but Bishop by nature was reserved and private. She wrote about things that were indirect, but they were very moving and profoundly personal.
No one believes me now, but I misread the instructions for the first hour of the three hour blue book final exam. The instruction required that we were to write out verbatim half of all those poems that we had memorized. I wrote out all of them.
I got an A from her and Professor Alfred was pleased because she had a reputation for being a hard grader.
I asked her to write a recommendation when I applied to law school. She agreed but I was surprised to almost sense she thought my choice was a little misguided given my obvious love of the arts. I don’t think she thought too highly of lawyers.
Years later, well after she had died, I was surprised to learn her recommendations could still be found at Kirkland House, so I asked to see her’s of me and when I read it, and proudly made a copy, I discovered something.
She wrote a short but glowing recommendation but she concluded:
“… but I feel he has great abilities, and possibly talents, he is not aware of himself… Mr. Bowie has worked very hard and has a very original cast of mind. I recommend him highly.”
What an odd and gratuitous comment for a law school recommendation, I thought. Did she know someday I would find it?
And then I smiled as if she had touched my hand.
She had cared about me. And as I stood there rereading my Xerox copy, I felt affirmed and supported to continue on this, my late life journey. She had noticed me.
I have been discovering that love grows over time with reflection.
In 1965, Hogans Goat, a verse drama about love and politics set in turn-of-the-century Irish Brooklyn ran for over 600 performances on Broadway. It was written by Harvard Professor William Alfred, about the world in which he had grown up. In the early ’70s it was made into a movie.
Alfred was a legend at Harvard. Everyone loved him because he was completely approachable, lived in unassuming rumpled clothes, and had a habit of giving all the change in his pocket to the street people in Harvard Square. He knew some of them by name.
As a teacher, he was beloved because he taught an unbelievably good class on Beowulf, old English, and poetry in Sanders Theater every year to well over 500 adoring undergraduates. That is a testament to his talent.
He lived alone in a little house on Athens Street just outside of Harvard Square.
I was terrified when I was admitted as a transfer student to Harvard. The summer before my first classes, I had seen Hogan’s Goat on TV. It was great. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I was terrified of the place but I was a determined starstruck groupie with a plan.
As soon as I got my student ID, I went to Nick at Brattle Florist in Harvard Square. Nick was a proprietor and a friend. I had started buying corsages from him in high school, and I loved just going into his shop to talk to him.
I had decided to buy flowers and knock on Professor Alfred’s door to tell him the truth about being a starstruck groupie who just wanted to meet him.
Nick told me that Professor Alfred came in regularly, so he knew his favorite fresh flowers.
I took my bouquet early in the afternoon to Professor Alfred’s little house. I carefully ascended the three steps and almost knocked on his door, but I lost my nerve. I made two more passes before I finally knocked on the door and waited.
When he answered, I immediately straight-armed my flowers at him as I stood on the top step and I told him I was a transfer student who knew no one but I was a big fan of his and then I turned to go. He thanked me and to my surprise he said, ”Come in. I’m making tea.”
I entered into his little living room and sat in one of the wing chairs next to a little fireplace with a small clock on the mantle.
Professor Alfred returned with the flowers in a vase and a pot of tea with cups. He settled in and started to ask me questions. I was caught completely off guard. I talked too much about myself because I was nervous. But finally, I had the sense to ask him questions about the play as I kept an eye on the little clock on the mantle. I did not want to outstay my welcome, but I didn’t want to leave.
After almost 25 minutes, I stood up and apologized for staying so long, and Professor Alford asked me, “Do you have a tutor?” I didn’t know what a tutor was so I was sure I could confidently tell him, “No, I don’t.” He promptly replied, “I can be your tutor.” I promptly accepted, even though I had no idea what that meant.
That night, I went to my first dinner at Kirkland House, my new dorm along the river. I had been assigned a room and I told the three or four boys who randomly settled their trays at my table that I was a transfer student and I wondered if they knew what a tutor was. I was told it was like a graduate student who was sort of an academic big brother. I told them I had randomly met Professor Alfred that afternoon and he had offered to be my tutor.
My dinner companions were shocked. “You’re kidding! Alfred is your tutor?” The next day, I rented a room on Putnam Avenue and never stopped studying for fear I would flunk out.
I was convinced that once my fellow classmates at Harvard discovered how stupid I was, it would be the rage of the campus and I would be pointed out continuously, so I never moved in to Kirkland house.
For two years, once a week at 8:30 a.m., I met Professor Alfred and we studied poetry together. At the end of each meeting he would ask, “What do you want to learn next week?” There were no limits. We talked about Greek metrics and rhymes in English and non-English in translation, and poetry all the way back through Beowulf.
In the spring, we would set up two chairs in his little backyard and he would feed the squirrels by hand as we talked. Quite unconsciously, he became my poetic surrogate father. In short, I fell in love with the man, the devout Catholic, the humanitarian and the poet.
He would at times quote from memory poems he liked. One time, he quoted: “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness…”
It was by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), but I didn’t take in the rest of it. His recitation had stopped me in my tracks because of the way he delivered it. He measured out the rhythm in the air and there was an intensity in the way he looked at me that made me lose my concentration.
Although Professor Alfred was in late middle age, he loved life, and I loved that he rose to almost any occasion.
One morning as I entered, Robert Lowell, the famous poet was leaving. Professor Alfred explained, “Cal wanted to go see the artistes last night.” They had gone down to the “combat zone“ in Boston because Lowell, the old Brahman, very much out of character, wanted to see the strippers at work.
One morning as I entered, Faye Dunaway, the star of Hogan’s Goat, and Peter Wolf, the lead singer for The J Geils Band, were on the couch in the living room. The two had obviously been on a very creative overnighter, and Alfred had sat up with them because they were friends.
I graduated with honors in 1973, and when I would visit Boston or Cambridge I’d visit Nick to pick up flowers and knock on Alfred’s door. If he was in we would always talk.
It was always professor/student but it was always friend to friend. The phone would ring occasionally, and he would smile and say, “They will call back I am certain,” and we would talk some more. The friendship ripened and grew stronger over time.
In June of 1999, I traveled up to Cambridge and ambled into the Brattle Street Florist, found Nick and requested my customary bouquet of flowers. Nick looked up from the flowers he was arranging for a customer. He dried his hands as he stopped his work to talk to me. He faced me, paused, and said “He died last month. He’s up in the Harvard lot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.”
I read last month in The Crimson that the Brattle Florist would be closing.
Nick had died but I stopped there when I was in Cambridge and got flowers. I took them to Mt Auburn and found Alfred’s grave below the tower, up the hill.
The gravestone read:
“There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness.
Oh, for that night where in him
I might live in visible and dim.”
I had missed those last two lines when he’d read them, which defined him perfectly.
There was no one around, so I spent a lot of time with him, and when I got up, my knees were wet from the ground. I think I loved him more then than I ever had before.