Brian and I drove an hour south to Harrisburg on Friday for a memorial service to celebrate the life of his beloved Aunt Cathy. Let me tell you that lady lived like she was living her life, present and all in. In a beautiful eulogy her sister recalled how she was not afraid to reinvent herself over and over again, and to learn new things, constantly reveling in her world.
I wish I had known her longer and better, but what I recall those few family gatherings when we had met was how full of joy she was, how her eyes took in every experience, how they met you full on when she talked with you. I want to learn how to embrace people with my eyes like that.
On that drive down the Susquehanna and back up we got to witness more of the river completely iced over. It’s shallower and wider down there. As our thermometers have fluctuated between below zero to 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and back to the single digits again (a calm 7º outside the window this early Sunday morning), the river here has frozen over, thawed and frozen again to our north and west. Here where the two branches meet it is wide and deep above the dam.
I wonder what sort of winter it would take to freeze that entirely. I’m sure some old locals here could tell me. So I’m going to ask around because, you know what, people are beautiful and they have such stories to tell.
That’s how I will remember Aunt Cathy, as a river overjoyed to be a river, rolling out to sea and loving every minute, learning from each rock, bird and butterfly along the way, because ahead is only the sea, whatever that is, and there is no going back to do any of this over again. “Life is not a rehearsal,” I’ve heard one old man say, and so I want to live by her example and take it in both hands and live it.
Poet William Stafford
Some people affect us that way when we see them, but even when that river is ice, there is still water flowing down beneath. And summer or winter we cannot know all of what is going on under there. Even when we see its rocky bottom, we cannot glimpse every prize catfish and silver minnow darting about in the depths.
Ah, Mr. Stafford’s poem says it better than I can, so I’ll let him tell you.
These photos were taken, not of the Susquehanna, but of the Juniata River, a little over an hour to our south-west near the little village of Mexico, PA where, when he’s not backpacking across the American wilds, or painting the rich colors of Penn’s Woods, my friend Michael McFarland and his family run the lovely little Buttonwood Campground, a perfect place to spend the day kayaking or fishing, in warmer weather.
“Ask Me,” by my beautiful old hero William Stafford, is one of the few modern free verse poems that I have easily committed to memory. A year ago on February first I recorded this poem. This is the same audio, cleaned up and put to video, because I just cannot thank the old man enough. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday last month (I know, I cannot believe I missed it!). I wish I had known him while he still graced the earth with his life. He was one, like Aunt Cathy who treasured each moment too.
by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
“Ask Me” © Copyright 1977, 1998
by the Estate of William Stafford
from The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems,
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota
More poems by William Stafford, and “Ask Me,” the recent collection edited by his son Kim Stafford.