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Excitement thrummed my imagination as I paged through the sleek book, The Wild Braid (2007) written by the centenarian Stanley Kunitz and his associate, Genine Lentine. It turned out to be a book to savor, not to read.

As author, professor, and translator, as Poet Laureate Consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, he has influenced many. His poetic voice reveals an intimate knowledge of words that opens listeners and readers to Life’s interior, replete with mystery and hardships. Paradoxically, his acute sensitivity to multiple setbacks advanced his craft, together with his dream work as influenced by Dr. Carl G. Jung’s depth psychology.

The poet’s second passion was gardening, and for over forty years, he cultivated his seaside garden at his Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer home that he shared with his wife Elise, also an artist. There, with muddied hands, he was just at home as in his basement cell—with nothing to distract him—searching for that elusive word for his next poem.

 The Wild Braid, his final publication, consists of a collage of essays and poems comparing these two passions and how they had shaped his life. Its concluding chapters barely contain Kunitz’s voice, made transparent by revelations gleaned during a close encounter with the Dark Angel, his term for death, two years before his actual last breath.

Perhaps some of the blurred photos of the centenarian in his garden speak to his still-to-be completed transition: he was here and not here.

He taught me much …

Imagining and then composing sequels to award-winning books is a stiff challenge for any writer, but Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (2019) pulled it off. Her readers first met the disconcertingly honest Olive Kitteridge (2008) that created a firestorm of interest: Here‘s a woman creeping over the edge of middle age whose honesty dances atop the knife-edges of sarcasm and humor. She’s either loved or hated in her coastal town of Maine, and thrives on the resulting tension. The first Olive Kitteridge (2008) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous accolades; in 2014 HBO put out a four-part miniseries.

Strout’s format for each novel merits comment: thirteen stand-alone segments, each containing short story components of setting, characters, plot and structure, conflict, climax, and resolution. Within each segment, the author weaves a significant piece of the plot from another character and thus carries the whole novel forward. Because this format necessitates the readers’ attending for these pieces, the emotional wallop is deep. 

Olive, Again picks up our protagonist in her seventies and eighties, still carrying her “big black handbag.” She has much to learn as she rear-ends the sensibilities of others, her barnacle-encrusted perceptions spewing anger, her shrinking world no longer working for her. Yet, she skates through on old age’s thin ice that sustains her and lands her ashore, with one true friend.

My experience with loss speaks of the authenticity of Olive’s: if accepted with grace, new life emerges from the old. We do change.

Car accidents involving older drivers fascinate and draw censure, especially if fatalities are involved. Such stories evoke relief in others that it wasn’t them, but fear-seeds their psyches. Prayer for God’s protection behind the steering wheel deepens.

For several years, that had been my experience. But last summer’s honking as I rolled through a blinking red light at the entrance of rehab still rankled. “The humidity dulled my awareness,” I said to myself, despite coughing and shortness of breath and sweating palms. Often, I had wondered what circumstances would crowd out years of driving. How would I live without my 1999 Toyota Camry? Though old, it was in good shape. The same mechanics had serviced it and advised me to hold on to it.

I still remember picking out my used car on the lot at Enterprise with its odometer reading of 12,000 miles, its sand-sleek body, and its smooth test drive. There followed nineteen seamless years of driving, in all weathers. But in recent months diminishing energy led me to welcome rides from others. I did not want to make the headlines.

Already within the momentum of disposing stuff, I remembered my car, drawing dust in the garage, its battery having been replaced. The decision was made for me—it had to go.

Its new owner fell into my lap. An East St. Louis church was looking for a used car to transport their seniors to Sunday services and doctors’ appointments. After I received the agreed-upon payment, I handed over the title and watched my Toyota being driven away. I was content.

 

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