The word ‘bask’.

 

baskI am not sure why I am interested in the word “bask”.  Perhaps because it is so short and mysterious, like a little diamond found gleaming in an otherwise undifferentiated wasteland of longer and far more complex words. Bask is an ancient word apparently coming to us from the Middle English word for “bathe”. Let yourself drift away and feel the warmth of the sun upon your face. Take a moment and reflect on your accomplishments. NOW you are basking. Don’t overdo it however as you might exceed the dreaded Basking Limit.  Don’t ask.

 

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Bill.

I want to begin by telling you a story about my brother Bill.

Long ago and not so far away, the three Fenton boys – John the eldest, Bill the middle and the runt Mike — could be found roaming the woods, fields and streams around the then small town of Laurel Maryland. We were a rambunctious lot back then and oh so competitive — the classic sibling rivalry.

During our explorations we would issue random challenges to each other in the form of Dare’s and Double Dare’s. Failure to respond to the Dare or Double Dare meant that loser would be called CHICKEN, and have to pay the winner a quarter.

John and I quickly learned that there was essentially no challenge, no matter how wild and risky, that Bill would not take. Once we dared Bill to hang by his hands beneath an abandon railway trestle and drop into the rain-swollen river some 10 feet below. He crawled out on the metal strut, lowered himself down, let go and landed with a huge splash, only to discover the river was only 4 feet deep. I still remember him standing in the river soaking wet looking up at his shocked brothers, with his hand out waiting for his quarter. And grinning that grin of his.

John and I would be considerably poorer by the end of that summer, and I am sure Bill enjoyed lightening our wallets. But I think what he really showed us then was that the things we fear are often not so fearful as we thought, and sometimes it’s ok to take that leap — that the waters that look so dark and threatening from above, turn out to be simply a soft place to land.

There is a song by the singer Jewel, called “Hands”, and in it there is this line
“… in the end only kindness matters…”

Those of us who knew Bill understand that he lived a life brimming with kindness and giving. That if he could give you his time, his advice, the shirt off his back, he would. And Bill was like that for as long as I knew him, which is all my 68 years.

I think we learn the most important lessons in life from those who come before us, and Bill Fenton taught us that being kind is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is the ultimate expression of strength and courage.

If you will indulge me for just another minute, I would like to paraphrase a short piece written by the writer Laura McBride. Whenever I read it I think of Bill.

It is entitled, “It all Matters”


“It all matters.

It matters that someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, and pays at the unattended parking lot,

It matters that we listen to the repeated tale, that we fold the abandoned laundry,

It matters that we play the game fairly, tell the story honestly, acknowledge help, give credit, say good night, and resist temptation,

It matters that we wipe the counter, wait at the yellow light, and make the bed,

It matters that we tip the maid, remember the illness, congratulate the victor, and accept the consequences,

It matters that we take a stand, that we step up, offer a helping hand, go first, go last, choose the small portion, and teach the child,

It matters that we tend the sick, comfort the grieving, and remove the splinter,

It matters that we wipe the tear, direct the lost, and touch the lonely,

That is the whole thing and all of it matters.
What is most beautiful, is sometimes the least acknowledged.”


I acknowledge Bill Fenton; your life and what you taught me. I miss you brother.

Rest in peace.

 

John.

John Fenton, R.I.P.

We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
~ Louise Glück

I want to tell you now, as best I can, about my brother John, a man who lived and worked outside the USA for more than half of his life. I cannot hope to capture the breadth of such a journey in words, but what I can do is give you a small and personal glimpse into an extraordinary person who lived an incredible life.

Connecticut

John came into the world in 1943, in Annapolis Maryland, the first of four children born to Richard and Mary Fenton. Margaret, Bill and Mike all followed and the whole Fenton family lived for a time in Willimantic, Connecticut on Granper’s farm. All was well until one terrible day in September 1949, when Margaret was lost to us in an accidental drowning, just two weeks after my birth. She was only three years old when John found her in the pond. I have seen faded pictures of this little girl looking back at me over the depths of time and I wonder how all our lives would have changed had she lived. Margaret’s death forever marked the marriage of Richard and Mary, and I believe had a profound impact on John. A terrible memory no one should be asked to carry, least of all a boy of 6.

Florida

Our grandparents eventually moved to Avon Park in central Florida and my father took a job in Maryland. We would often visit Grandper during the cold winter months for a week or so of sun and swimming. I can remember one glimmering day out at a local lake, skiing, boating and generally just messing around, when I got into trouble in water deeper than I, a new swimmer, should have ventured. I was thrashing about, going down for perhaps the third and last time, when a strong hand grabbed mine and lifted me into the glorious air.

Maryland

The three brothers grew up in Laurel Maryland, living on a government compound where my father worked in Forestry research for the Department of Agriculture. Back then Laurel was a little town in the Maryland woods, before the beltway was constructed and the Baltimore-Washington Metroplex sprawled to absorb Laurel and all the surrounding towns. This was an idyllic place to spend outside, with all the fields and woods and streams any kid could ask for. We were a wild bunch then, always treading a fine line between the merely rambunctious and the marginally legal.

One day we took our bikes out to cruise the dirt roads and trails in the area. John was 12, Bill 10 and I was 6. We came across a small airfield, with a hanger and working piper cubs. Next to this airstrip was a field of cows minding their own business and unaware that that they had become objects of interest to the Fenton boys. In our as-yet-undeveloped brains we thought it would be cool to scare the herd into stampeding because, STAMPEDE. So we threw some rocks at them and look! It worked! Oh wait, they are stampeding *toward* us!! We whirl and race back toward the fence, but just like in the movies someone trips and goes sprawling while the audience groans and shouts “Get up you silly ninny!” Before I can move, I see John racing back*toward* the herd, waving his arms and yelling like a loon. Incredibly the herd stops and goes back to munching grass as if nothing had happened. I do not know if John expected them to stop, but I remember thinking then that my brother was the bravest person in the whole wide world.

Hawaii

Time is a strict and unforgiving taskmaster and things became more and more difficult around the Fenton household. John was fiercely independent and longed for freedom. Immediately upon graduation from high school he joined the US Airforce. He was stationed on a base in Ankara Turkey which I believe spawned his life-long wanderlust. The Airforce also taught him computer technology upon which he built a career and landed him a job with Computer Science Corporation. He worked in Vietnam for CSC in the years before the war.

He landed in Hawaii in 1967. My father died in 1968 when I was but 19 and just finishing my sophomore year at Concord College in Athens West Virginia. John asked if I wanted to come out to Hawaii and live with him in the small town of Kailua on the windward side of Oahu. Abandon everything you have known, he asked, escape the east coast life and fly 6000 miles west where the horizon beckons over the blue pacific. A month later I landed at Honolulu International Airport and found John standing next to his ancient VW bug, motor running and trunk open. I would live in Hawaii for the next twenty years, a gift from my brother, saving me once again.

Wanderlust, again

You would think that Honolulu would be exotic enough to satisfy any latent wanderlust, but this was John, the guy with eyes firmly fixed at whatever was over the horizon. He eventually found his way to Iran, where he worked for two years. He told me he loved the country and the people and only left because Americans were asked to leave after the fall of the Shah. Well, “asked to leave” is a bit mild – he was escorted at gunpoint to a cargo jet, leaving all his household goods behind. This was 1979. In 1981 he was off again, this time with Mobile Oil in Jakarta Indonesia, where he would spend the rest of his days.

We met up quite frequently whilst I was in Singapore from 1991 to 1998 and he would come to the island-nation to renew his work visa at the embassy. One day, his voice trembling with emotion, he told me that he and his wife Dewi had recently welcomed a daughter, Michelle. Michelle became his pride and joy and changed him from world traveler to family man.

When I moved to Seoul in 1998 and then on the North Carolina our contact became less frequent and more online. The last time I saw John face-to-face was in 2003 at our house in Chapel Hill, where he stayed and we talked into the night.
Over the last 10 years we sent each other hundreds of emails on all topics, but mostly about baseball and politics. We parted ways on politics and learned not to speak of it, so we stuck to baseball, he with his beloved Baltimore Orioles and me with Yankees, whom John called TEE, The Evil Empire.

Intervals

For intervals, then, throughout our lives
we savor a concurrence, the great blending
of our chance selves with what sustains
all chance. We ride the wave and are
the wave. And with renewed belief
inner and outer we find our talk
turned to prayer, our prayer into truth:
for an interval, early, we become at home in the world

                ~ William Stafford, Concurrence

It seems like you were always there for me. I am sorry big brother that I wasn’t able to save you. You pulled me from that lake and gave me the life I have had and all the things I have seen and done. Once you told me that you wished you could have saved Margaret but couldn’t, so you saved me. I am left with these inadequate words, a small attempt to let everyone know what a great guy you were and how you lived – and who you saved.

I miss you Bro. Rest in Peace.

 

Skinks.

I know many people find reptiles off-putting and nasty to the point where there is even a specific phobia associated with this fear: Herpetophobia. There seems to a phobia to cover every fear and I was going to make a joke here about being afraid of fear itself, only discover that Phobophobia is an actual THING. I mean, who knew? I myself have a growing sense of dread over the very existence of the *word* Phobophobia, which itself may be also be a fear but I am too frightened to consider that possibility. I will stop now since the mind can only handle so much meta.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, reptiles. Privately I have always been fascinated by our coldblooded brethren and have enormous respect for their place in the food chain. I always leave them be when I find them outside the house, even snakes, most of which are completely harmless to humans. Last year I inadvertently cut a green snake in half whilst hedging. His protective mimicry was just too good, and I would not have known until I saw the bright red against all the green. I felt bad then even though my actions were not willful; to stop such a beautiful creature living in harmony with nature.

skink1

A few weeks after this I came across a skink dangling from a spider’s silken web, seemingly still a part of the food chain though perhaps not quite in the way he imagined. I tapped him and was surprised to see that he was still alive. I carefully unwound him from his silken cage, took him to the woods and let him go. I expect the spider was not appreciative of my actions, but in my small way I thought to balance my cosmic debt and give back that which I had taken, out there in the living world, under an incandescent sun.

The front door.

On my evening walk around the neighborhood I pass many homes, large or modest, new or weathered. Most of the time I see them as objects along the path, like trees transformed into places of glass and iron and slate. Cars lay dormant outside, potential energy patiently awaiting the need for kinetics. But they are afterthoughts; necessary add-ons proving that, like bees, we still hunt and gather at the known places.

row-housesThe other night I began to think about the doors of each house and the people inside and the stories they make. We know the myriad measure of our own lives, both behind our doors and inside our heads. But every door of every house we walk past contains the histories of us, small portals into the endlessly evolving mosaic that is humanity. The pictures on the walls, the boxes full of memories, the conversations and phone calls, the unused appliances under the sink, the awards; all combine to weave the tapestry of days.

This seems obvious now that I write it, as good things often are.  Sometimes the deepest mysteries can be overlooked, like the doors that whisper their secrets into the night air.

Chitchat.

The word “chitchat” is sort of a cool looking little thing, just hanging around the water cooler and reading the weather reports. No one really *likes* small talk but it does provide a certain amount of comfort in new social situations – a place to go when those awkward silences stretch off to the horizon.

chitchat

I, for one, am ill-equipped to wield the small talk gift of gab, maybe because I only have so many words I want them to count. This desire for meaningful conversation sometimes makes me too blunt and direct (aka: rude), like some people get after one too many, except I am saying these things completely sober. After watching the strained body language and darting eyes, my only excuse is to say “I am terrible at social graces!” followed by some nervous cackling, which has the snowball effect of causing all molecular motion to cease.

Solar Eclipse.

We get to see a solar eclipse this year, and parts of the world will bear witness to a total eclipse. In the direct path of the moon is a relatively thin band of complete shadow, called the “totality”. Many people plan major trips years in advance so that they can be positioned under the totality, which lasts just a few minutes. I am told that this is a visual spectacle unlike any other, the Sun’s corona clearly visible around the black disk of the moon. This works this way because while the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, the sun is approximately 400 times farther away from Earth, so the two celestial bodies appear to have the same relative size.

solar-1

A solar eclipse cannot be ignored because it poses a challenge to our normal experience. Day becomes night as a black disk covers the sun, as if blocked by some enormous and threatening hand. Ancient peoples would become alarmed when faced with such an event and create elaborate fables and supernatural myths to explain it in terms that could be understood.   

It has taken many years and the work of thousands of curious minds, but homo sapiens — tiny beings though we are — eventually understood the phenomenon. We no longer fear the unknown but celebrate its passing and seek out the gift of knowledge.  Perhaps the lesson is not in the light that is temporarily lost, but in what is forever revealed.