I fell in love with Lore (pronounced Lor-ee), her of my book's dedication, in high school, senior year. She already had a boyfriend, a year older, who was off at college. Lore asked me out to the Sadie Hawkins dance. I knew she had an away boyfriend, but "what the hell."
We dated during the remainder of our senior year. By the end of it, I was totally off-the-rails, teenage-hormone-fueled in love with her. Her old boyfriend returned that summer, but I still saw her. My father was a Pan Am pilot (we flew for 10%) and I had been to Mexico City with my family early in the summer and bought a guitar for me and a necklace for her (which she still has). I serenaded her. But I was dead teen walking.
In the meantime, I had been a scholastic golden boy and science geek. I decided when I was in 10th grade, which was the first year of high school in Florida in those days, that I wanted to be valedictorian. I gamed the system. I took all of the honors and advanced classes that it was possible to take, which added points to my grade average. I was good at science and math anyway, where there were a lot of points to be had. I also knew that your grade at the end of the year for each course was based on the average of eight grading periods, and it was the year end average grade that counted in your class standing. So 5 As and 3 Bs, in one course, equals an A for that course.
So even though there were others (including Lore, who was 10th in our class), who had straight As (which I didn't), I had the highest grade point average. Our class of 1966 had about 1,200+ students, 4,000 in the three grades.
By my senior year, I decided that I wanted to go to M.I.T. I can't say I gamed that, but I did know what I had to do to get in. I was National Honor Society, had great SATs, Science Fair awards, club affiliations. My 10th grade world history teacher called it getting 'lettuce' added to your name in the yearbook index. I only applied to M.I.T., until guy I knew who had gone to Princeton the year before, convinced me to apply there too. I did, but my heart was set on M.I.T. and I was accepted.
And it was at this point that my life began to go askew.
I was still extremely in love with Lore, and while I more or less thrived at school, I lived from letter to letter from her. And in a purely random way, I fell in with a group of guys who loved poetry and classical music. I was pretty driftless when I headed off to school and was pretty miserable at beginning this separation from Lore. But I found a dorm with single rooms. And it was in that dorm, and on the floor on the dorm where my room was, that I made friends for life, and that is where I met Saud (him of my book's dedication). He was my first muse, in the sense that he was the first person I wanted to impress, to be a poet for.
And it was at this point that I began to take poetry seriously.
It was also in my freshman year, on April 6th, that I received the letter that would define my life (or so I thought). Lore told me she had gotten married to David, the boyfriend; their son Bryan was born on Nov. 1 of that year, 1967.
The impoverished hope that I had carried stumbled by the way and died. But my heart would not let her go, and I could not resist it. I would remain in love, defiantly so, no matter what, no matter how futile.
The cost was perpetual sadness, a constant replaying of the doomed arc of our romance.
When I went home for the summer, I went on a last date, a prom date with a high-school classmate of my sister. But my heart was not in it. And the cost was a warped sense of purpose. In high school, I had done a Science Fair project in solid-state physics, and as a freshman had taken courses in the same area. At the end of my freshman year, I met with a professor who told me that I knew more about x-ray crystallography than any other freshman, and he invited me to join his program. I turned him down.
In retrospect, I find this incomprehensible. I should have fallen to my knees, with eyes raised to heaven, thankful for this recognition and encouragement, and accepted in a nano-second. In the event, I threw out some insincere rant about doing something socially relevant. My unhappiness had made me a rebel.
In my sophomore year, I discovered Kierkegaard and Existentialism.
Kierkegaard attracted me because he had a failed romance with Regine Olsen, but he never gave up his love for her and never had a relationship after that. My professor, Hubert Dreyfus, who famously claimed he could beat an AI chess playing program being developed at M.I.T., then lost to it, called it a "defining relationship." And later, after he left M.I.T. for Berkeley, built a philosophy around "defining relationships" and "defining moments."
I had found kindred spirits in obstinacy! I switched my major to Philosophy at that point, and by the end of my sophomore year reached the nadir of my academic achievements: two As in philosophy and two Fs in my core science and math subjects. I had basically blown off science and math, skipped classes, failed to drop them, and then before finals, in a desperate attempt to escape the looming Fs, stayed awake for three days on diet pills, cramming my science and math courses. Crash and burn.
On my Physics final, I wrote: "Truth is beauty, beauty truth, this is all you know on earth and all you need to know."
The test scorer wasn't convinced.
I had nightmares for years afterwards about missing drop date. I was also writing poetry at this point, but nothing undrossful. I did gain some notoriety on the hall by writing an obscene Coleridge parody called the "Rhyme of the Ancient Philanderer," fortunately lost to history. And one of my hallmates was always putting up quotes from Ambrose Bierce on his door, so I wrote a poem scorning Bierce, which began, "God is great, God is fierce / But not as great as Ambrose Bierce," which I posted on my door. It was well received.
Our hall was scheduled for renovation over the summer: new carpets, new trim, a new lounge, new paint job. Before I left for the summer, I wrote in marker all over the hall walls. I wish I could say that I wrote great poetry on the walls, now sadly lost to the present, but it was just a lot of what these days would be called 'snarky' comments about one of our hallmates who had already left for the summer, for the amusement of some of us who were still there.
And that summer, of 1968, for me was epic. In order to avoid having to explain my bad grades to my parents, which had not yet arrived by mail, after I went home for the summer I soon left and flew off to meet my friend, Saud, in Germany, where he picked up a Mercedes 280SL, in which we drove around southern Germany, visited, ate and drank German wine, eventually ending up on the Wörthersee in Austria.
That summer is the subject of my poem "A German Requiem," in Trees of Life and Shade (TOLAS), which was written 30 years after the fact.
I walked in green forests of throttled pines;
I walked in precise rows of yellow tasselled corn;
I pondered existential works and Keats’s poems
And longed for the woman with brown eyes.
"The woman with brown eyes" was a reference to Lore, for whom I still wept.
My junior year was indifferent, academically, although, as I was now a Humanities major taking only Humanities courses, my grades had improved. Interesting that year was that as Prof. Dreyfus had left, there was a new teacher for the Existentialism courses. His name was Terrence Malick. I remember meeting him for breakfast in our cafeteria one morning, where he told me he was going to Hollywood to make movies.
The next summer, of 1969, again wanting to avoid home (my parents did not deserve this), I enrolled in the summer term, moved to a different dorm, with a roommate that I never saw (he was living with his girlfriend). I didn't go to any of my classes and dropped them before the end of the term. But I did play Hearts endlessly, and I had a poetic project.
I had something called The Pocket English Dictionary, from the OED people, which was a very thick (1,000pp!) small dictionary (with small print). I went through every page and wrote down all of the words that I found interesting, during which Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on a small black & white TV I had.
After that, I wrote "The Threnody," which benefited from my newly increased vocabulary (of flowers and plants!).
I am old, walking here in my garden, and soon I shall walk no more. Shall I then sleep? Even/ now is my sleeping a waking and my waking a sleeping. Even now are my dreams of/ memories and my memories of dreams.
It was an odd poem for a 21-year old to write, since it deals with age and death (in a lyrical way). Perhaps it was my emotional weariness speaking, deep, as I was, into the black hole of my longing. It was also the only poem of my college career that my friends thought worth keeping. I myself dismissed all of them.
My senior year was even more indifferent. I was called into the dean's office for "failure to thrive," that is, not progressing fast enough for my degree. I was warned that I could be expelled, but I managed to convince the dean I met that I was worthy.
It turns out that the Dean's office was correct. I did not graduate that year. Saud did, but was staying at M.I.T. for a master's degree, and as we both were no longer allowed dorm space, he and his girlfriend and I moved into an apartment on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge.
That extra year for me, was another lost year. I again failed to graduate; at the end of it, I was three courses short of a degree. Saud left. I stayed on, living on a stipend from my parents, until that December, when I went to visit them in Berlin. They had moved there because my father was now flying PanAm 727s from Berlin and back to cities in West Germany. The West German government was not allowed to fly to Berlin, so Pan Am had a contract to do it for them.
It was a very cold winter, and while I was there, we went through Checkpoint Charlie, into East Berlin, to see a performance of the Threepenny Opera. My mother gave me a ride back to the airport (Templehof), and on the way, tearfully told me that I was no longer going to get any money from them and needed to get a job. She was very upset having to do this, but she was right.
So what does a Philosophy drop-out do to get a job?
I joined the Projectionist's union (I.A.T.S.E.). I was trained, got my union card, carried a toolbox, and ultimately ended up as a porno projectionist in Boston's Combat Zone, its red-light district. Not for salaciousness's sake, but because, then as now, porno was hi-tech. And hi-tech in this case meant xenon lamps and hour-long or two-hour long reels, so I didn't have to do much work. I could read to my heart's content in between changeovers.
I ended up doing this for five-and-a-half years and met quite a cast of characters. The Combat Zone, itself, never made its way into my poetry, although later I did start something called "The Angel of Dystopia," which was to be set in something like the Combat Zone. I have attached the first stanza, which will give you a sniff of the atmosphere there.
I wrote two (sad) sonnets during that period, both about Lore, but no one read them, save for me. Ever since Lore had gotten married, I had had a fantasy that one day, I would open my mailbox, and there would be a letter from Lore.
Two and a half years after I began my alt-career as a porno projectionist, I received a letter from Lore (this was in 1974). Lore's marriage had become troubled; it was now "open." I re-enrolled at M.I.T. My parents again agreed to pay my tuition (I was so fortunate to have the parents that I did). This time I was going to get an engineering degree, in computer science. Lore and I began a long-distance, adult, romance. She would come to Boston for a week, or I would go to Florida (Lore lived in Gainesville). Long phone calls. Letters. It was during this time that I wrote the sonnet that eventually became (so many years later!) "Aubade" in TOLAS.
I continued to work, while I went to school. Now my time for reading could be used to work problem sets (and I turned my math F, into an A, when I retook the course). I moved to a new apartment in Boston, a basement studio on Arlington St., from which I could walk to work. My hapless, self-crippled life was now to be redeemed. And so it was for almost two years.
But in February of 1976, I went to Florida. And something was not right. Lore had finally separated from her husband, and I thought that we would become engaged, and then married, when she was divorced. But I was so wrong. Lore seemed almost ill when we were together.
I learned after I returned to Boston that she wanted to date other men. She had never been free to explore relationships with the opposite sex on her own. I was old baggage (my characterization). My life once again drifted towards the shoals. I did not give up.
Lore and I continued to see each other. However, it was hard to compete with gentlemen who lived where Lore did, while our contact was episodic. I had returned to living on hope. Whenever Lore came to see me, I planned romantic dinners and outings. The best of Boston. But despite that, we were drifting apart. In the spring of 1977, I had only to complete my undergraduate thesis to get a degree in EECS. I was still working as a projectionist and spending all of my free time working at M.I.T. on a computer. I was implementing a program to prove my thesis, which was in reversible computing. But deep into my work, after hundreds of hours of programming, I hit a wall. Not enough memory on the computer. Rather than reaching out to my thesis advisor, and in despair about Lore, I left my project and never returned.
That was how I managed not to graduate for a second time.
The only positive thing that happened in that spring was that I quit smoking, after 10 years of unfiltered cigarettes, Gauloises and Camels. Lore didn't smoke, so whenever she came to see me, or I her, I quit cold turkey for a week (it makes your head spin).
As 1977 turned into 1978, things between Lore and me began to fall into their final pieces. She had found "the man who would make her happy." I was in agony. I couldn't sleep; I drank myself to sleep. I was alone and isolated and had no one to share this with. I ate my pain. My stomach was constantly in knots. At work, I remember walking around the projection booth, reciting "La Belle Dame sans Merci" over and over. It was my anthem.
I couldn’t understand why this had happened. I kept thinking to myself, "Why didn't she give us a chance?" I kept reliving our relationship over and over. I couldn't believe, couldn't understand, that my seven impossible years of yearning, followed by my redemption, by happiness, could now end like this.
But I was not angry at Lore–heartbroken, but never angry.
I began to keep a journal during all my turmoil, in the midst of which I decided that I wanted to be a poet, although I am not sure what I meant by that. I didn't know any other poets. I think it was more that I held poetry in such high regard, that I wanted it to be what I did. I wanted to write poetry, more so than I had been able to do before then. Writing it was always difficult. Not just finding the right subject, which is still difficult, but finding the words themselves.
Then in the summer of 1978, I found my voice. The exact moment was recorded in my journal, where I wrote down a poem. I just wrote it down. I didn't have to think about it; the words just came. That had never happened to me before. I later titled it "The Lake Country."
From then on, the words came easier. To me it was a miracle, but at what a cost, if you must mix desire, agony, loneliness, despair, and heartbreak twice-over to be able to sing. Because Lore had found someone else, and although we were still friends of some kind, in my devastation I became determined to break off all connection with her although that was like killing a part of myself, the very heart of myself.
She came to see me, in Boston, in August. It was to be our last time together, which we both knew. On the night of the day that she left, when I was sure that I would never see her again, unable to sleep, in absolute despair, at 4am, I wrote down what would become "Lament" in TOLAS.
The chord, the song, is over;
Dionysus is gone;
Gone—the reeling dance of summer;
Gone—the melody a heart was born in.
Never again to sleep,
Eyes cannot stop searching
For the unforgotten.
Just blam. The words came out. That was my heart dying.
I wrote many new poems during this period, most of them just things I wrote down, without revision. I think most of these poems are forgettable, but two of them are in TOLAS: "Lethe," and the sonnet that I recently updated into "The Unmerged Star."
But shortly thereafter, although I was to remain emotionally burnt out for a long time, having survived a tsunami of emotions that might have destroyed someone less grounded (in what? maybe poetry saved me), my life took a turn for the better. Despite my lack of a degree, I was able to get work doing computer programming, which turned into a career.
I never looked back. I was able to make friends at work, go out, have a semblance of a life. I got a driver's license, and as my work was outside of the city, I reverse commuted to suburbs around Boston. After a year of driving a rent-a-heap, I learned how to drive a stick shift (well, I took a couple of paid for lessons) and bought a "muscle" car. Hot stuff.
And then, she returned.
Fortuitously and coincidentally, Lore was by 1980 a PhD candidate (in Education) at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, where my mother was the Dean of Reading in the Department of Education. She got into contact with me again (Mr. Right had become Mr. Wrong). She was coming to Boston for a conference. Would I see her?
I almost refused. Sort of like a vampire asking you out for a drink. I had (surprisingly to me) gotten over her by now. I was very wary and reserved when I met her, but…my feelings had only been asleep, not buried.
I proposed to her in Tryall, Jamaica, where we were staying as guests of Saud. I moved to Tampa in November of 1981, and we were married in December. Saud was my best man; my M.I.T buddies were all there. It was the happiest day of my life. We hired a string quartet to play the wedding music, but they only had scores for "Pictures at an Exhibition," so that is what was played as we walked down the aisle (the aisle was, in our case, stairs). Now we always think of our wedding when we hear it.
That day ended up happier than I intended, it turned out. One of my friends kept filling up my champagne glass, when I wasn't looking. Then the wedding party went out to a Bennigans, which was fortunately across the street from the hotel we were all staying at. More drinking. When Lore and I returned to our hotel room, I lay down on the floor, said, "this feels good," and passed out. So much for our wedding night.
I was desperately hungover the next morning, as we opened wedding presents at Lore's apartment, which made that morning of the first day of our married life, all the more unforgettable. Our vows (we included Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116") were forever, for me. Years later, Lore told me that for her, they were one week at a time. She had doubts about marrying me, up until the day of the wedding. She even called her ex-husband for advice. It wasn't until after our daughter Annalise was born in 1983 that she decided I was a "keeper." One tough sell!
My mother helped out here. Right after I proposed, I called my mother to tell her the good news. By the time Lore returned to USF from our time in Jamaica, everyone knew. And because Lore was a PhD student in the Department of Education, it would have been awkward to back out of the wedding. Sometimes we don't know the knives that are suspended over our heads.
But now, I underwent a strange transformation, from tormented lover to plain old normal guy (PONG). I was an instant father to Bryan, Lore's son from her first marriage. Then we had Annalise in 1983, adopted my nephew, Kelly, in 1984, and had our son Devin in 1985.
In 1986, I was unemployed for a while and stayed at home and took care of the kids. I was in my office and Devin was in a playpen on the floor, asleep. I looked down at him, and "To Devin" (in TOLAS) was born. It was my first poem in almost five years.
Lore earned her PhD in 1988 and we moved to Dade City, north of Tampa, in 1991. It was here that I had the encounter with the tangled-up Pinocchio puppet, probably bought at one of our trips to Disney World, an hour from Dade City, which became "The Puppet," in TOLAS.
I did not write another poem until April of 1995.
It was at our house in Dade City where our friend John worked for us (his partner was also a great friend to us). I began the "Elegy to John B_______" (in TOLAS) on Friday, April 21, when we learned that John was in a coma. The next day we learned that he had passed away. I heard the whip-poor-will that night and walked out to the lamppost in the front yard. I had to finish the poem in time for the memorial service that took place on Sunday morning, April 23, so that I could show it to John's friends.
When I later published the poem, I effaced his last name, because his family did not want anyone to know that he had died from AIDs. Those were different times, and sadly, the drugs that turned AIDs into a chronic illness were not yet available.
Wordsworth said, "getting and spending, we lay waste our power." In my case, it was the relief of a normal life, with the woman I loved and our children, and a life that my parents could be proud of (at last) and be involved in, after so many years of wandering in the wilderness (which I alluded to in the octet of "Evening Sonnet" in TOLAS). But only three poems in the span of fourteen years? If I had stopped writing altogether at that point, it would have seemed, in my case, that unhappiness equals poetry, and happiness equals silence.
In July of 1996, we moved from Dade City to North Andover, MA. After we moved here, I began to write more. But I struggled with finding things to write about. That was challenge with which I began "Summer's End," in TOLAS. I started the poem in September of 1997, but did not know how to finish it. Then we did the things that are in the poem: we went to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game, the game was rained out by a violent thunderstorm; the next day we went to Smolak's Farm (an attraction in North Andover), where we picked apples; I actually did try to find a perfect apple up in the trees, and then actually found a perfect one lying in the grass. I took it home and set it in front of my computer, where it slowly shriveled up into apple heaven, while I finished the poem. I only ate the metaphorical apple.
Things then went well for us. Lore was an Assistant School Superintendent, and later a Superintendent. My company was bought by EMC. Lore and I had a rough spot because I was working too much. Then in 2001, in January, Lore was diagnosed with stage IIc breast cancer. She got the full boat: radical mastectomy, reconstruction, chemo, and radiation, followed by five years of Tamoxifen and then five more of Aromasin.
In May of 2001, she had started her chemo.
She was in a clinical trial, being treated with Adriamycin and Taxotere. She had cut her hair short prior to the chemo (I later shaved her head for her). She reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in her "Joan of Arc" movie and the anniversary of Joan of Arc's execution is in the last week of May, and from that, I created "On Her Cancer," in TOLAS. In actuality, I was not as overwrought as I made myself out to be in the last stanza: I gave voice to my fear.
In 2004, my parents began to fail. My father was already suffering from dementia, and in that summer, my mother was no longer able to care for him by herself. They were in Colorado, where they spent the summers. My sister went out to rescue them, and they came to live in our house. We had a basement suite, which opened out onto a terrace.
It was after they moved in with us, that I wrote "Mnemosyne" in TOLAS. This is the one poem that I never showed my mother. They had been with us for a little over year, when we found my mother one morning in December, barely conscious on the cold tile floor of their living room. She had fallen and broken her hip. We think she had a stroke as well, since she lost the ability to speak intelligibly. She understood what we said and talked to us, but what she said was just garbled nonsense. It was indelibly sad. She had to go to rehab after a week-long hospital stay. She passed away there about a month later, on January 22 of 2016, from an aortic dissection. We had to put my father in a nursing home after my mother fell. At first, he was admitted to the same rehab center where my mother was (it was literally around the corner from us). But after my mother died, we had to move him to an Alzheimer's facility elsewhere in North Andover. He survived there until July 1, 2007.
In 2013, Lore was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 2015 she fell in the Philadelphia airport, at the end of a moving walkway. She suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage, which she has never fully recovered from. She was on her way, by herself, to meet a friend in Florida for an ocean cruise. I was in Boston, when I got a call from a policewoman at the airport. Lore had been sent to a level 3 trauma center. I drove down to Philadelphia the next morning, but before I went, I brought her things: clothes, makeup and such. That was the genesis of "The Empty Room," in TOLAS.
I retired in 2016, so that I could be with her full time.
Of the remaining poems in TOLAS, which I have not already touched upon, many are pure creations of my imagination. Here are notes on some of those that have non-obvious connections to my life.
"The Trees of Life" Every morning, when I wake up, I look down out of our bedroom window and see the tree that fell.
"Mauna Kea" Lore and I took a trip to the Hawaiian Islands in 2006. We visited all four main islands, ending at the Big Island. We rented a Hummer and drove up to the top of Mauna Kea, with all of its telescopes, where we saw red volcanic craters and looked down on the clouds. We watched the sunset, and then drove back into the twilight and darkness. I think Lore is still a bit white.
"On Poetry" Like "Lament," this was written down, as is, in one sitting. I was frustrated by my latest of many, many rejections, and wrote this down in a white heat, to remind myself what poetry was really about.
In 2009, we were in Sicily for three weeks (and met Saud in Taormina), and visited the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. I was totally amazed and enamored of its intricacy and beauty, but I didn't write about it until many years later.
"In the Tombs"
Our daughter, Annalise, spent her junior abroad in Cairo. Lore and I went to meet her there. We also met Saud there, who was born in Cairo. We did all the usual tourist things, including the Valley of the Kings. Saud asked me to write a poem about our visit. This was it.
I met a poet online, who described herself as tall and thin. She was Irish. She was Willow, but that was not her name.
In 2015, we were in Paris and walked through the bird market near Notre Dame.
We try to visit Saud at least once a year, in Virginia, in the northwest part of it (Paris, Delaplane), where he has a house—always with views of the Appalachian Mountains—where he lives for a few weeks each year. He has had different houses over the years. He had one with a porch, and one memorable evening we sat out and watched the sunset, and beyond, until the fireflies came out.
"Sometimes I Wake"
Before I was prescribed a CPAP machine, I suffered from sleep apnea. That sometimes woke me up and I would sit up in bed, or stand up, to catch my breath.
Inspired by a mild autumn in 2009, which was interrupted by a snowstorm, after which the snow melted, and the unusual autumn warmth returned.
About a Hungarian restaurant that was long a fixture in Boston. It was a very elegant place. I courted Lore there. We celebrated anniversaries there. That is where our family went (Devin and I in tuxedos) to celebrate the Millennium. The three women who ran it, a mother and her two daughters, in turn over forty years, had survived Auschwitz and then had escaped Communist Hungary in 1956 ("dire wolves on left and right"). When we were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of my M.I.T. friends and his wife, another M.I.T. friend also there, who was himself Hungarian and had escaped the Communists, struck up a conversation with Edith (I think), who lowered her long white glove to show us her Auschwitz tattoo. In the early 2000s, Lore and I were in downtown Boston and walked by the entrance, and it was gone! It had been closed for quite a while. We hadn't heard about it.
Purely a work of my imagination, but I wrote it because there were times that I didn't hear from Saud for months. He spends a lot of time in Saudi Arabia. I wondered that if something bad happened to him, that no one would know to tell me about it, so that he would have been alive for me, maybe for months, when he was actually not.
"Le Tombeau de Faisal"
Written for Saud's brother, Faisal, whom I also met when I was at M.I.T. and had run into occasionally (and heard about from Saud) over the years. He passed away in 2017, in Saudi Arabia.
Written in 2013, when I had not yet tried to get any of my work published, and realized, given my age, that it was possible that my poems would die with me.
Ron Searls’ poems have been published in The Lyric Magazine, Verse Virtual, and by Indolent Books’ online project “HIV Here and Now.” He is a recently retired software engineer. His last project was co-founder of Nanigans, Inc., an adtech startup. Before he retired, he remembered that he hadn’t graduated from MIT, re-enrolled, and finished with the class of 2015.