Before You (By Which I Mostly Mean I) Die

My Roof, Edward Hopper

So many places. No?
So much to do, as they say,
before you die.

Yesterday, I thought: Reykjavik
and those miraculous hot springs.
Today: The Four-Faced Liar,
Green Spot whiskey, a friend in no hurry.

You might ask, reasonably, why 100?
The places you must visit before you’ll
somehow be ready for whatever follows living —

be it endless bliss-drifting or inflamed suffering
or nothing at all.

Shouldn’t the number vary per need?
Maybe 101 or 63,
or the essential 5 where you’ll soak up
all you can store of the fullness of sentience.

Perhaps such thinking arises from our school days
when 100 implied imagined perfection:
you and some body of information —

say, Hannibal and the events of 218 B.C.
(in the Second Punic War, not the First),

or the fragmenting metaphors woven
throughout The Tempest, or your understanding
of homecoming in Silko’s Ceremony,
or Didion’s gorgeous disdain for the consumer life —

knowledge and comprehension
momentarily linking arms in that self-satisfied,
heart-swaying, pointlessly proud way.

Not that I ever knew what that felt like in school,

except what I half-intuited from the eyes and frowzy hair
and distracted walk of dedicated students going deep.

The theme of my daughter’s first art show was
“100 Places to Visit Before You Die.”

As is her way, she never ventured far,
staying within the city limits of Portland, Maine.

Few of her places are named.
They are mostly hard-used buildings, some now
listing like derelict ships marooned
down rutted side streets where weeds crack
the pavement with an ancient urge.

These are places of pigeons and rats,
frayed wire, rust, mildewed cardboard,
shards of glass, aspirations long ghosted now.

Standing before a drawing, I think:
Someone once entered this place fueled with hope.
Maybe whistling.

I think of how so many stories
end with just the spiders spinning webs,
gathering what remains.

For famous comparison,
see, “My Roof,” Edward Hopper, 1928.

I would like to walk the trail
that Hannibal and his elephants followed
through the Alps. With every step,

I could say to myself:
This is fucking nuts.

Yet I’d keep walking,
as far as I could,
wanting to know how it feels,

without the elephants, of course.
Poor elephants.

My daughter doesn’t live in Portland anymore.

She built a cabin on the side of Ragged Mountain
in the Maine hills — a place that didn’t
appear in her first art exhibit.

But that’s how things go.

Ragged Mountain quickly made my list,
and is now checked off, multiple times.

My life is better for it.
Yours will be, too, I’m sure —
if you ever find your way there.

If you do, remember to sit quietly
by the brook weaving through
the second-growth forest of ash and birch.

Let your mind sense the trees connecting
through their mycorrhizal network.
Imagine what it’s like to be this
gravity-bound brook in the thrill of spring.

You can do it.
You (meaning “one” or “we”) can be
the brook.

The thing is,
it’s comforting to make lists.

It steadies the heart.
It makes the future seem as if it
almost belongs to us. Loosely
contained in some kind of self-promise.

Some of the places I’ve visited
are on my quietly held list.
But most are not,

like the cramped apartment in Washington, D.C.,
chosen because the address matched the last four digits
of my children’s zip code in the distant town
where they lived with their mother — as if that

kept us connected.

How desperate!
I moved in, then out, as soon as life allowed.


And there was that one, brief, mistaken time
when I tried to teach in a rural town
only to realize I was overmatched

by the invisible waves of contempt
spilling out of the children and their
deadening decades-out-of-date textbooks.

Please, I would say.
This is important, I would say.
You’re hurting yourselves, I would say.
Literature matters, I would say.

At sunset in the school lot, I sat alone and cold
in my Ford Fiesta, white with orange vinyl seats,
staring at the last thin line of daylight darkening through the trees.

I was

trying hard not to think,
trying hard not to think of what had happened
to the free-and-easy children they must have been,

to the child that had been me.

I love to visit the people I love.

It’s wonderful how you can sit there
talking about anything at all,

lounge in easy attentiveness.

One of my daughter’s drawings:
a barbershop in a low, stand-alone building.
The sign reads:

Haircuts: $6
Flat Tops: $7

A place that may top my list:
October Mountain.

I don’t imagine it will mean much to you
if you’ve never lived in its shadow.
But this mountain woke me from original slumber.
It murmured a truth I’m still trying to decipher.

As a teenager, from the roof of a building,
I’d watch the sunrise over the ridge.
Watch the fog slip through the valley.

Sometimes in the evening,
I’d smoke a joint with a friend on the roof
and know for sure the universe loves

every single one of its molecules.

I suppose I’d add certain lakes and ponds
and swamps and beaches. I like the way
we can point at the water and say proudly:
“Our ancestors crawled out of that!”

And some cities, perhaps,
though a part of me hesitates
because that story is complicated —
and won’t end well for many involved.

I might add a church or two,
where the light slanting in says,
This is light and that is dust.

Enough. I know.
The pattern is clear:
The papery weave of love and longing.

Some glimpse of what the laws of nature
conspire with time to do.
And, always,
in the voiceless gloaming:

that feeling,
that wait-a-minute feeling,
that I may never be here again.