I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.
My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.
I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.
I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?
Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.
My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)
But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.
There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.
Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:
In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.
It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.
Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:
I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.
How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.
These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.
If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)
What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?
It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.
I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?
For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.
Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.
Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.