Box of Reality

Shoe box full of print photographs, March 21, 2023.

I found a passport I thought was lost in a box of photographs on Monday. It expired in 1983, issued by the American Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. I put it in the drawer with the previously expired passport it replaced. One less thing nagging at me as a result of the discovery.

I was opening unlabeled bankers boxes to see what was inside. It makes no sense to stuff things in a box without a label, yet that’s where I find myself. Along with some transportation memorabilia, one box contained this shoe box full of photographs. The images covered the entire timeline of the book draft I had finished Sunday. I thought these photos were lost forever.

My habit of making photo albums (using selected images after developing and printing batches of photos) resulted in this collection. It contains remainders of rolls of film from several of those albums. The prints are all mixed up, with different sets of film stuck in the shoe box in what appeared to be random order. At a minimum, I must organize them the way I discussed a few days ago. This is a big and welcome find!

Next will be to organize and edit the images to create another layer of the book narrative. I also want to label them in groups, so I can more quickly find something for my writing. This will take longer than I want, yet it should improve the writing.

I looked through a few hundred photographs yesterday afternoon after chores. I have living memory of taking most of those shots, recognizing them and the place they were taken almost immediately. The harder part is determining what these moments of reality mean in the context of my septuagenarian life. I expect that will be a collaborative project. Already I sent a duplicate of a photo taken in 1981 to the subjects. There will be more of that type of sharing.

It seems best for the autobiography to have been drafted before looking at these photos. Tapping memory and public documents enabled a reasonably researched narrative. Now that I found more photos, we’ll see what else memory dredges up for inclusion in the book.

With Spring arriving yesterday afternoon, it will be challenging to make time for writing. Yard and garden work is also important. After sunrise, I will be drawn outdoors. All the same, how could writing about these memories not be meaningful? I can’t wait!


Mixing In Around Town

Paul Engle. Photo Credit – Wikipedia

One election cycle I volunteered on the arrangements committee for the Democratic County Convention. The chairperson passed around a sign-up sheet. When it came to me, I noticed the previous signature was Iris DeMent. I looked to my right and the diminutive singer-songwriter was there, paying attention to the agenda. That’s how things work in Iowa City: the famous among us appear frequently, without apparent structure. I resisted going fan girl over DeMent because she obviously came to help organize the convention. I then turned my attention to the speaker as well

One day I was walking east on Jefferson Street near the Pentacrest. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was an older gent in an overcoat. Once he got closer, I saw it was James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name. He must have come from work at the physics and astronomy department housed in what today is called Van Allen Hall. It was just another day in the county seat.

When I had classes in the English Philosophy Building, chances were I’d run into an author. I saw William Styron there. I believe John Irving as well. One of my undergraduate teachers was David Morrell, who wrote the book First Blood. He was proud of the novel then and had sold the film rights. He officed in EPB as a faculty member for sixteen years.

I ran into Donald Justice once at the UPS Store. He was shipping some books to his new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He didn’t want to carry them on the airplane. I didn’t know him, but he was instantly recognizable because of who he was.

When Louise Nevelson donated the sculpture Voyage to the University of Iowa, I stopped by the Lindquist Center to have a look soon after it was installed. The artist happened to be there inspecting the sculpture in its new space. She approved.

Political figures passed through Iowa City when the state held first in the nation precinct caucuses from 1972 until 2020. Politicians could be found at the grocer, the hardware store, or at just about any public space. It was hard to avoid them. When John Edwards was running for president, he stayed at the hotel on the pedestrian mall and roamed the area, speaking with locals. He’d been cheating on his wife at the time, and the hotel room might have been intolerable with such a thing hanging over him during his presidential campaign.

Soon after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Field House. His motorcade then made an unannounced stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The visit gained him a lot of publicity. It was another day in the life of Iowa City.

There were countless arranged events, but that’s par for the course at a state university. I met Hal Holbrook, Tillie Olsen, and others too numerous to count. Vance Bourjaily, Paul Engle, Christopher Merrill, and others connected with the Writers Workshop were a constant presence. Perhaps my favorite event was hearing Saul Bellow read from Something to Remember Me By in Macbride Hall.

 James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions, and publisher of William Carlos Williams, held an event at the Lindquist Center. He recalled one of his last meetings with Williams’ spouse, Flossie, before she died.

I never felt too special by these associations. It was more that I was cognizant of living in a society where famous people did too. In Iowa City, there aren’t that many places to be, so we encountered each other.

This is the Iowa City I came to know as I began graduate school in 1979.

~ Excerpt from a work in progress


Last Month of Winter

It was a two-cup video conference.

Despite recent rain, snow remains piled around the yard. It felt like spring for a few days, yet it’s clear another month remains in winter. I’m okay with that. We need a hard freeze to kill off bugs and stop the sap flow in our fruit trees for the best pruning. I’m getting a lot done just by staying indoors most of the week.

I went to the home, farm and auto supply store to buy collard seeds. They were out. The cashier caught me up on gossip at my former employer. Two of my managers had tested positive on a newly implemented random drug test program and were fired. The store was busy for a Thursday morning. I bought some okra, tomatillo, scallop squash, and leek seeds.

I asked a farmer friend if they had extra collard seeds, and they do. I’ll pick them up over the weekend, maybe today.

My seedlings are taking shape. Plenty of kale (four varieties), broccoli, and cabbage (two varieties) started. It took forever, but my first stevia seeds finally sprouted this morning. Those are Zone 9, but we plan to keep them inside the house. My second wave of onions sprouted fine and are growing. Should be ready to plant them in April.

The concept of my greens patch is to have a lot of Winterbor and Redbor kale with a mixture of other greens like chard, tatsoi, pac choi, and others. If I had a dozen collard seeds, I’d hope for 5-6 seedlings. Main uses will be cornbread and collards from fresh, stir fry, and an ingredient in canned vegetable broth, and soup. If I had an abundance, I’d give the popular surplus away. I’ll de-stem and freeze whole leaves for winter. It is great fun to smash the plastic bag of frozen leaves to smithereens with my fist just before adding them to soup.

Regular readers may notice the poetry I posted. I appreciate the views. These are poems found in my files from the 1970s when I wrote more poetry. I’ve been lightly editing before posting them here. There are way more bad poems than good in what I’m finding. I also found poetry I wrote in high school My teacher used copious amounts of red ink to critique them. There was not much usable in that batch from 1967.

Posting poetry has given me relief from writing this blog. The number of views has been good, so the endeavor has been worthwhile. I’ll keep it up until I run out of old poems.

During the last month, I added more than 26,000 words to my autobiography. The processing of old documents and files is becoming established. By the time the first draft is finished, I should surpass 200,000 words. I’m more than halfway there. 200k is too long for this book, so I’ll have to edit. I’m won’t get carried away with editing until I go through the remaining boxes of artifacts. I have been constantly finding important memories. Going through the process helps me understand more about myself and how I grew up and lived. I’m satisfied with the progress, although presently awash in memories.

Time to get after today’s work. Another round of seeding, a trip to the eye glasses store and more work on our shared project list. Best wishes for a relaxing and productive weekend!


Writing Desk #1

Writing desk purchased in November 1979 in my apartment at Five Points, Davenport.

At this desk I made some of the most consequential decisions of my life. I had just returned from three years living in Mainz, Germany, and rented this one-bedroom apartment at Five Points in Davenport. By the time this photo was taken in December, I knew I could not stay in my home town.

It’s not that I disliked Davenport. I was insulated from seeing how average the city was by a family that welcomed me and tried to do their best by me. As I returned after a long absence, There was little vitality running through the city. I didn’t fit in.

When I sat at the desk and wrote, I felt like a writer.

The early part of my post-high school intellectual development centered around Saul Bellow. “I want,” he wrote and I agreed. At Five Points I became enamored of Joan Didion. I bought The White Album from The Book of the Month Club. After it arrived, I went to the public library and checked out everything Didion had written. I read three of her early books in two weeks about when this film was exposed. I couldn’t get enough of her.

“Didion speaks with a voice, the voice of a person sitting in a sunlit room at a typewriter,” I wrote in my journal. “Her paragraphs seem well-written, her vocabulary is enriched with new words. I particularly like her image of the end of the 1960s. The spread of word of the Tate murders across the valley.”

Didion’s thoughts seemed to evolve before my eyes on the page.

She was from a military family. Her father was an Army finance officer and the family often moved. I found commonality in this experience. “She touches on something it has taken the four years in the military for me to realize,” I wrote in 1980. “It is a feeling more than anything else, but I suspect that it may be something peculiar to the military environment.” I saw how her experiences in a military family influenced her writing and in turn how my service would influence me.

During the following years, I sought out every book Joan Didion wrote and began reading them soon after publication.

I continue to think of Joan Didion while I’m writing.

In every place I lived, I had a desk on which to write. What makes this one different is it rests a few feet from the writing space I established after inheriting my father-in-law’s library table.

At university I struggled to find a path. I was on a trajectory supercharged by the death of Father in 1969. Didion’s writing was something I could look to and see myself. Being successful as a writer wasn’t meant to be my career. Yet Didion gave me hope in dark times.

I needed that at Five Points as the 1970s ended and I began to call myself a writer.


Writing Journals

Woman Writing Letter

Writing autobiography is an American endeavor. I studied under Albert E. Stone who was my first advisor in graduate school. He edited an edition of J. Hector de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer.

We Americans, especially in this century, often seem completely self-absorbed. There is a native impulse to write or tell a single, brief narrative of our life. More accurately, it is a combination of essential, defining moments and multiple, broader narratives. At the root of autobiography, we must answer the question Crèvecoeur did, “What then, is the American, this new man?”

This new man, when it comes to journaling, was typified as a woman in the 1970s when I wrote,

Traditionally, it is the girl or female of the family who writes in journals. Sometimes it seemed nothing more than a way to keep a girl busy until she gets old enough, reaches the age of child-bearing, then her true work begins.

Personal Journal, Mainz-Gonsenheim, West Germany, Dec. 12, 1976.

This tradition of female-based diary or journal writing was something I was taught in high school. All I can say in 2023 is, OMG!

Journal writing has a purpose instead of marking time. It gets the writer seated behind a desk or table with pen or keyboard in hand. In such a posture one cannot help but write something. It may be gibberish, yet once in a while it may be profound. It is only through practice one becomes a better writer. Journaling serves this purpose.

Journal writing is a form of therapy in that its performance resembles use of an addictive drug — we take it when ill and continue its use until we are well. In some diarist’s cases the illness never left. My condition of restlessness and loneliness has been with me a long time. Journal writing helps me cope.

A foundational part of autobiography is journal writing. As I work through the timeline of my current book, I find the stories I want to tell were written before, many times over, during the last 50 years. They were often written in a journal, or since 1999, in an email or since 2007 in a blog post. In living life we find certain people, places and things stand out. Those are the narratives that can find their way into a journal. The more we write these stories, the better they can become. They become part of us. In the end, who are we but the stories we tell about ourselves living in society?

I am pleased to report the draft of my book passed 100,000 words today. The journals I kept, beginning in 1974, have been especially helpful in getting this far. Writing emails and blog posts served a similar usefulness. I have been mining them both. The lesson from this story is journaling is important to being a writer. It helps us cope and provides a record in case one is needed. From time to time we must rediscover who was are. Writing in a journal helps us do that.


Coping with Being Alone

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Co. Photo by the author.

From an early age I engaged fully in whatever I was doing. When I was in high school, most of my time was spent studying and playing guitar. At university, I would walk the campus in a haze, thinking about what I read in philosophy class. In the military, battalion operations kept me constantly busy with something major happening at least every month. I was constantly busy and had little time for myself. At the time, I didn’t think socialization was needed.

Without my knowing it, full engagement served to separate me from people I knew. I found myself alone much of the time. I needed a way to discuss my life on a regular basis. To cope with this need, I took to journaling. Without others around, I found expression on pages filled with my ink. I recently re-read my early journals and found loneliness stands out as the most common theme, especially when I was living in Germany.

Today I believe a writer needs balance between life in society and putting words down in a document. It seems clear I needed more balance as a 20-something. I don’t know if balance returned, yet as a septuagenarian, being alone is possible and even likely. It is tolerable as a writer. Continuing my long-time writing habit hopefully keeps my mind engaged and helps me cope with separation from society that comes with aging.

Being alone is not without risk. The Centers for Disease Control reported about the health risks of loneliness.

Health Risks of Loneliness

Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that:

  • Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
  • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.
  • Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
Centers for Disease Control website.

While I have written dozens of journals, tens of thousands of letters and emails, and countless blog posts, it is important to tend to alone-ness. In part, it comes with the territory of aging. By being aware of the cultural phenomenon, and doing something to cope, we can avoid the risks. We may be separated from society as we age, but we are not helpless.


Food Branding

Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons.
Davenport, Iowa
Nov. 27, 1976

Today I visited my grandmother at the Lend-A-Hand and we ate ravioli from LaSalle, Illinois. They hand pack it there and it is a treat for us whenever we get a chance to make some.

I wonder sometimes about the brand names that grace our pantry - Kraft, Nabisco, Campbell's, Carnation, Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Libby's, Quaker Oats, Folgers, Post, Hershey's - and marvel at the simplicity of the containers in my grandmother's shared kitchen.

There are milk cartons with all the ladies' names on them, and bulky, shapeless packages, with the owner's names written on them, old butter dishes covered and taped shut, white and tan boxes each with only the owner's name on them. It seems fitting that the name of the consumer rather than the producer, or canner appear on the foods awaiting the pot.

Perhaps these women are not swayed by the numerous labels enticing them from the shelves of the supermarkets, maybe they have learned that a carrot is only a carrot no matter who has laid hands on it.

But food is food and when one has it, one is grateful.

Editor's Note: This passage is from my personal journal. The Lend-A-Hand Club was established in Davenport, Iowa in 1886 as a chapter of the International Order of the King's Daughters and Sons. It became an affiliate of the national network of Lend-A-Hand Clubs launched during the 1870s by Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister who had risen to nationwide prominence as an abolitionist and writer for the Atlantic Monthly prior to the American Civil War. The club was a place for young women who lived and worked away from home to associate in a safe environment. 

Writing from Journals

It snowed most of Saturday and I blew the driveway once. It’s winter in Iowa. That’s what we expect. I’m waiting for three days in a row of below freezing ambient temperatures. Once that happens, I’ll prune trees for the year, especially the fruit trees. I expected to have finished that winter work, yet with a warming climate, who knows if it will even happen this year.

I’ve been posting a few poems and hope readers enjoy them. I don’t know the person who wrote some of them almost 50 years ago. Most of what I wrote as poetry wasn’t the best. A few of them seem serviceable. The rest reside in my journals and papers. Prose has been my main thing since the beginning.

I’m at a transition point in my autobiography beginning after university graduation in 1974. Before then, I did not keep a diary or journal, and the paper trail of my life was scant. After that, beginning with my trip to Europe that autumn, there is a nest of supporting documents. The paper context of my life increased dramatically each year after 1974.

The first ten sections of the work in progress were written from memory and research into the historical record. The next 20 or so sections will benefit from journals and other papers yet to be rediscovered. These are different kinds of writing and I’m having to adjust.

I don’t want to simply print my journal. I also don’t want multiple long, sequential excerpts. The debate I have with myself is whether and how to modify old journal writing to support the current narrative. With 92,262 words and 355 double-spaced pages written one might think I’d have figured that out. I’m used to the type of writing I did in the first third, so it came easier than what’s ahead. I didn’t really think about changing how I write until I got to this point in the chronological narrative.

The next four-year section of the book is about military service. In addition to a journal, I have file folders on all the military operations I was in while stationed at Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, Germany. There is a whole banker’s box full of those. I also used a camera to take photos. Just in those three categories there is a lot to read, understand and assimilate. I also have artifacts like clothing, plaques, and dishes. I have a piece of a sign brought back from the West-East Germany border. It gets complicated.

Most journals are edited into the book. I can’t bear the thought of overuse of the words “that,” “the,” and “many.” Likewise, some of the sentence construction is beginner-style writing. I use the phrase “lightly edited” to describe what I’m doing when I change the source document. If the narrative is strong enough, readers will join for the journey, I believe.

My main interest in life has been in being a writer. I eschewed a university course of study that would get me a job. I didn’t know what it meant to be a creative, yet that’s what I wanted. Society falls short of offering paid work like that. Over the years, especially during my transportation career, the writer side of me was suppressed from time to time. It has always been present.

Some writers do very well. Some scratch out a living. Some work for someone else and do their writing on the side. Now that I’m living on a pension, I can focus my efforts on finishing this book and identifying the next project. As a septuagenarian, there are only so many projects that will fit in.


On Mississippi Avenue

1028 Mississippi Ave., Davenport Iowa. Provenance unknown.

My twelve-week stay at a 5,175 square foot Queen Ann Victorian that had been divided into apartments was an important turning point in my life.

Even though Fall 1975 was the first time I lived alone, there was a lot of stuff to cram into a single room with a shared bath at 1028 Mississippi Ave. in Davenport. I parked my 1961 Chevy Impala on the street, and had a telephone connected. I cleared my mind of the distractions of living in a busy, rundown neighborhood on Seventh Street. I rested, attended events and considered my future. It was calm before the storm.

I began with a journal entry on Sept. 11, 1975:

This new apartment already begins the rebirth which is so much needed by my soul at this time. The neighborhood is quite quiet and the apartment that I rent is at the end of a small hallway off the main one.

Across the street is another large house that has been subdivided into apartments and it is quite a ways away. Further up the block there is a Jewish synagogue, Temple Emmanuel. The river is about three or four blocks away.

It seems there are some well to do neighbors to the south of this building, who at this time are having a dinner party of some sort. But at the same time I believe the area is on the fringes of the poverty area mostly to the west. The wealthy area of the town, the Heights, is to the east.

The landlord’s brother lives upstairs in the attic and he mysteriously comes and goes. “Sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s not. Ask him if you need anything,” the landlord said. Time will tell as I ask God to manifest His will. My major tasks at this time are to set up my own household for what is to be the first time. All for the honor and glory of God.”

Personal Journal, 1028 Mississippi Ave., Davenport, Iowa, Sept. 11, 1975.

The previous six years, since leaving home for university, were a period of experimentation and trial of one thing or another. If anything, my activities resulted in me being what I was and being able to live with myself.

There were things I would have liked to change, like getting off the graveyard shift at the dairy store, and better nutrition. Those things could be worked on. At the time, I felt closer to God than I had for a long time. “He gives me strength,” I wrote.

During my time there I read and wrote in my journal, attended local events, made trips to Chicago, Des Moines, and Iowa City, and prepared for the big project that felt imminent. I didn’t know what that was when I moved in. I viewed myself foremost as a writer, although I didn’t have enough income to do anything but get by.

I attended a Chaim Potok reading at Temple Emmanuel, a Mike Seeger performance at Saint Ambrose College, and heard a lecture by Philip Berrigan at the Friendly House. I was struck enough with Berrigan to write a quote about his notion of life in my journal, “exerting one’s will over this existence to make a life.” That’s what I thought I wanted to do.

I invited Mother over for dinner and made tuna and noodle casserole. It was the only prepared dish in my culinary repertory in 1975. She tolerated the meal, and we went for a walk to nearby Prospect Terrace Park. While my apartment was modest, it served as a good place to sort out my life. It was fitting my first dinner guest was Mother.

I explored my religious self during this period. In part, it was a reaction to living alone.

What are the problems that face me? It seems that the biggest one is that of faith. I believe that God is manifest in this world, something which I did not or rather suspended  belief for a while, yet I cannot come to accept the Church as his manifestation. There are others similar to me in this sort of belief, but I do not seek the approval of other people in my beliefs. That is something I have taken upon myself to bear. In this belief, I am quite alone, although I seek communication with others, it is only for the making contact with God in their souls that I do this and in behaving in ways people seem to have difficulty in understanding me. Be that as it may, I am.

Personal Journal, 1028 Mississippi Ave., Davenport, Iowa, Nov. 2, 1975.

A year earlier I considered entering the Roman Catholic priesthood, yet that seemed like a wrong path. My friends talked me out of it.

The transition at Mississippi Avenue was in part a lack of other intellectual outlets. I met with and spoke to a lot of people at the dairy store. I encountered people I’d known a long time. There was no likely relationship-building as I sold them a pack of cigarettes or gallon of milk. I was cognizant of the fact most old friends did not hold my employment at a dairy store in high regard.

I planned my next move, signed my enlistment papers on Nov. 14, 1975, and left work at the dairy store on Dec. 14. The apartment near the Mississippi River served me well


Early Journaling

Handwritten journal after a visit to the former Dachau concentration camp by the author. October 1974.

I’ve been reading journals written while I was traveling in Europe during the Fall of 1974. I wasn’t very good at journaling 50 years ago.

“An Italian whose uncle is a cardinal took me to the Vatican to get me a ticket to the papal audience tomorrow,” I wrote. Today, I would rewrite this sentence in different ways: reduce word count, clarify, simplify. I would add more detail and maybe another descriptive sentence.

I’d like to read about that general audience with Pope Paul VI today. I have to rely on my faulty, septuagenarian memory and a couple of photographs to get me through revisiting that time. My journal is lacking if my memory is not.

For some reason or in these events and environments I dream very much, dreams which I have never had so many of before ever. My archeologist friend from Australia says that they are the result of being in strange surroundings and my body trying to cope. If what he says be true then the distinction between my mind and body is even more subtle than I had imagined.

Personal Journal, Winston Churchill Gardens, Salisbury, England Aug. 27, 1974.

Good God! what awful writing! The punctuation! I hope I am better than that now.

I made a special trip to Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics I studied in art history class at university. I had been practicing my Italian for weeks to prepare for this less traveled destination. The mosaics did not disappoint. However, my journal did. The entries in Ravenna were mostly about the logistics of closing down my tour and heading back to Iowa. Feeling like Henry David Thoreau, I enumerated my expenses in the journal instead of observations about the ancient artwork. I bought a book, Ravenna: An Art City by Giuseppe Bovini, to aid memory in later years.

I began journaling after graduation from university. My first book of journals was stolen when I stayed at a youth hostel in Boulogne, France after crossing the English Channel. The thief swiped my whole backpack! All I had left was a small blue shoulder bag Grandmother made for me that contained my passport, American Express traveler’s checks, my camera, and a few other necessities. I had to spend part of the $2,000 I brought with me replacing the bag and buying clothing: an unwelcome expense.

I continue to journal. In 2007 I began using Moleskine plain notebooks, although I also use up whatever notebooks are on hand. Moleskine products are getting a bit expensive. While designed in Milan, Italy, they are manufactured in China. The margin on these popular notebooks must be substantial. Their future is uncertain when I have a dozen or so spiral notebooks, bought for a dime each, in inventory and a need to cut expenses.

The 1974 journal is useful in recalling things. In the first draft of this section of my autobiography, I completely forgot about the papal audience. In addition to the journal, I have enough artifacts collected on the trip to remember what happened.

I possess living memory of those places. If the poorly crafted journals do anything in 2023, they prompt those memories, however imperfectly. I was a different person in 1974. Alone in Europe, I did what I could to express what I was experiencing. Without a steady travel companion for conversation, I wrote in my journal. We do the best we can.

I am thankful to have made that trip. I am thankful to be living with the ability to remember it.