Some Say the World Will End in Fire

Our friend’s world ended in fire over the weekend.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith and Tom Darter in 1969, before the premiere of Psalm 90.

Owen Goldsmith had been Tom’s friend since high school. He was his music teacher, but more, he was Tom’s music mentor.

Owen taught a rigorous music theory class, which Tom took when he was a sophomore. Music theory in high school is really unusual. For a final spring assignment, Owen asked members of the class to write something. When Tom came back with the beginnings of what he has called “a very bad imitation Mozart string quartet,” Owen said, “Well, this is okay, but I wanted you to write something of your own.”

In response, Tom wrote four Sketches for Woodwind Quartet. A year later, it was played at San Jose State University’s Festival of 20th Century Music, in a concert that also included pieces written by Ernst Toch, John Cage, Anton Webern, and Robert Palmer (who later became one of his teachers at Cornell). Tom was 15 when he wrote the piece, and 16 when it was performed. All because of Owen.

During Tom’s first year of college, a dorm fire took the lives of four students. Psalm 90 was read at their memorial. Tom was so moved by it, he set it to music and dedicated it to Owen and the Livermore High School a cappella choir, which was conducted by Owen. Their 1969 performance of it is flawless. College choirs have hesitated to take it on because it is too complicated.

And their performance is flawless. Listen to it here.

To say that we were blessed with the teachers we had in Livermore during the 60s doesn’t really do it justice. We were more than blessed.

Ed Brush. Art Duey. Claude Cameron. Judy Beery. Jack Beery. Ernie Dust. Roland Carlson. Bert Fraser.

To name just a few.

You know how you don’t teach people what to think, but to think? Well that’s what they did. And more.

There was a synergy to those years. They taught art, music, literature, history, math, and, science as living, breathing beings. I first read Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in Bert Fraser’s English Honors class my senior year. I have returned to it often over the years, divining new meaning from it each time I read it.

When a group of us, high school and college students, formed a theater company called Auxiliary Players, they gave us their encouragement, came to the performances, participated in some.

One of our earliest performances included one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter. Three very depressing plays.

As he was walking out of the theater at the end of the performance Tom asked Owen what he thought. “I’m going to go home and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to cheer up,” he replied.

They let us fail. Acknowledged our failures. And we learned from them. Our next performance had much better rounded programming.

Tom and I stayed friends with Owen. He was part of out Thanksgivings, came to our wedding. We visited him in his home in Mountain Ranch where we sat on his deck and drank in the quiet beauty of the Sierra foothills. In his letters to us he wrote of the wildlife that visited his property. We talked to him often and called him every year on his birthday, October 8th.

Our most recent phone call with him was three or four weeks ago. It was clear that Owen was failing. He was having mobility problems. He was depressed, and his depression fogged his mind.

We worried when we heard that the Butte fire was heading his way. His family filed a missing persons report. Then yesterday we learned that his remains were found in the ruins of his home.

Owen would have been 83 this October. A phone call we will miss.

We will probably never know why he didn’t get out—why he didn’t evacuate. I personally think it was a conscious decision on his part not to leave. I don’t think he could have recovered from the devastating loss of his beloved home and the beauty that surrounded it. I suspect he had already died when the fire consumed him.

I have thought of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” since we started worrying and wondering about Owen. It’s a tribute to my high school teachers that I would turn to poetry and remember a specific poem at such a defining moment. It’s not so much it gives me solace, as it gives me a place to go when life becomes unfathomable.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Turn Left at the Whale

DSCN1057I have been on blog silence for three months. I know. I know. You’re not supposed to go on blog silence, but since my whole intent with starting Writing Shed was to change my story, I’m giving myself permission to make my own rules.

I go silent when I don’t know what to say.

These past three months have not been easy ones. Tom started radiation in July. Each treatment lasts 10 minutes and we are about 10 minutes away from the facility. So treatment and round trip amount to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. He has 10 more treatments.

Doesn’t sound like much—30 minutes a day. Radiation doesn’t have the noxious effects (they aren’t side effects, they are effects) of chemotherapy. And yet, it has been a period of endurance for him. I am on the sidelines watching it. Helpless to do anything to make it more endurable as he prepares five days a week to do what he can to protect his bladder and bowel from the noxious effects of radiation.

Every Monday he meets with the radiation oncologist where he is asked questions to determine if he is being affected by the treatments. Any trouble urinating? Any pain urinating? Any diarrhea? Any fatigue?

No. No. No. And yes. Being hyper-aware of one’s bodily functions is exhausting.

There was something sobering about Tom starting the treatments. It made his diagnosis real. And then two weeks ago, we learned that it will be about a year and a half before we find out if the treatments are indeed curative. Six-month intervals of PSA tests. And even then . . .

That’s the reality of a cancer diagnosis. Once it enters into your home, it’s there as a ghost—if not an actual presence.

It’s the new normal—the realization that there is an end parenthesis, even if it isn’t punctuated with cancer. One never knows when it will come or how it will come or if it is your end parenthesis or an end parenthesis that leaves you the one left behind.

We all have that end parenthesis hanging out there. It’s just that it’s a bit more in our faces.

The new normal.

For me, it has made me wonder, why did I, a native Californian, end up in the Pacific Northwest for this journey into the wilderness?

The theatre group we threw ourselves into turned out not to be our tribe. It tends towards the cliquish, and Tom and I are the opposite of that. We didn’t fit. It was a loss on many levels, including losing a feeling of belonging. His diagnosis intensified our feeling of loss and isolation.

So why here? Why now? What?

Turn left at the whale.

That was the instruction I received to locate the Marketing Your Small Business class offered by the Jamestwon S’Klallam Tribal Library. The photo at the top of this post is the whale at which I turned left.

The culture that was here before Europeans arrived, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, is strong here. I want to say that their artwork is pervasive, but I think referring to it as artwork doesn’t quite fit. It is a work of being, rather than something that is done.

In June, a totem pole that tells the story of why the sun shines in Sequim was installed in the new Civic Center plaza. I had stopped by the House of Myth where the carvers were working on the totem pole so had seen it as it transformed from a piece of wood into a story.

The dedication included a ceremony conducted by the tribe.

Last night, I attended a storytelling event that featured Tribal Elder and Storyteller, Elaine Grinnell, who shared stories of her people, the Jamestown S’Klallam, the Strong People. The blurb that described the event said that her stories can, “. . . include retellings of canoe journeys in the wild North Pacific Ocean, where death is always a possibility that must be faced . . .”

As I listened to her last night, the answer to the questions, why here, why now, and what washed over me.

Turn left at the whale.

I live in a place that is a reminder of being. A place where the original inhabitants derived their spiritual essence from the environment that surrounds them—who recognize that the end parenthesis is a part of being.

The new normal that was actually the normal all along. It just comes with eyes that see more clearly, ears that hear more perceptively, and a heart that feels more strongly.

Turn left at the whale to discover your human being.

I cannot leave this post without thanking Renee Emiko Brock-Richmond, who taught the class, for her gracious and generous spirit. Check out her website.