Moo (Al Stephens Notes)

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

All day at work I had this feeling of something at the edge of my mind that I couldn’t remember. A dream? The trash cans that I need to put out tonight because Teresa usually does that and she’s not here? Not that.

It feels connected to writing something about Al Stephens and the need to get it right and the near certainty of getting a lot of it wrong. And connected to my notes on that, which I can’t read very well, and the few I can read, I don’t understand. I have this feeling that what I’m supposed to write will always be just beyond what I’m able to bring to mind.

I’m beginning to feel completely cowed by the whole project. Moo.

Part of the problem is Mr. Stephens taught you what was right and what was not right. Probably about half the papers I wrote for him were not right. He didn’t make mean remarks, but you knew they were no good. And I just remember feeling remorse and shame right down to the ground. It’s the only criticism I’ve ever not resented. I didn’t have any room for the feeling I have now, which is something like, Dude, it’s only a shitty paper, not a dagger in your heart. Why do you have to take it so hard? (How I wish I’d kept the bad papers, for what he had to say about them. I have the good ones of course.)

Wrong things really bothered him. And after a bad paper you had this feeling of, I never meant to hurt you! And now I’m afraid of writing something not-right about him. I keep telling myself, Well, at least he’s dead. But it’s not helping.

The only way I can think of to go forward is every day for a while I’ll read some of his poems and tell stories about him and see what happens. If the stories end up having something to do with the poems, terrific. If not, not. At the end of all that, some of it might fit together well enough to go into the real project.

*

But what I wanted to write, but somehow haven’t got to, is that he took things so hard, and one of the things I loved about Fran (his wife of 60 years) was how she was free of that. She had such ease and liveliness.

A Portrait

…she wakes, and with the same
quick start and buoyancy
heads without hesitation
along her usual ways — those
trim routines she fashions
through ordinary days —
yet in an instant, game
for the unscheduled jaunt,
spur-of-the-moment spree.

So far as I can see
she’s lived her life out free,
somehow, of the bad passions
(but knows well — forgivingly,
I’ve learned — the ones in me);
free of the wants that claw
and gnaw at others so
for this and that; has no
taint of that vanity,
ambition for her sons

She’s no worrier. Is brave,
those close to her can attest,
as her youngest son knows best,
whose life she dived to save
in the Rogue — a fast river
well-named from those it drowned.

She’s quick to understand
the good that comes to hand
in the course of things, for what
it’s worth. Her gaiety
at any flash of wit
confirms its quality.
And I saw just last night
her yet again fresh delight
at seeing the moon rise …

 –Alan Stephens, August 22, 1996

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