The Hermit Poet

April 29, 2007

Eulogy for my Father

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 6:45 pm

For those interested, here is the eulogy I offered for my father on Saturday. As with most public speeches, the actual eulogy evolved as I spoke, changing and extending slightly in places. But, for the most part here is what I said:

Friends and family members,

To say that my father loved Polynesia would be an understatement. As a young man he served as a missionary in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. His love for the Maori people and language infused every aspect of his life and became an integral part of our family. He brought their love of people, food, storytelling, and song in our lives and sought to share these things with all he came in contact with.

There is a word in Maori – tangi – which refers to the memorial service of one who has passed on in their community. There is a brief period of sorrow, but it is then followed by a celebration of the time they had had with the person. They celebrate with food, songs, and stories. My father did not want us to weep at his passing, but rather his hope was that we would celebrate his life. He wanted a tangi and so today we offer him this service.

*

My father was always fond of saying that you could learn a lot about a person by what they kept on their shelves, the books they read and what they held onto.

If you look over my father’s bookshelves, you will find an astonishing array of knowledge. Books on family history, small towns, place name origins, histories and mythologies of the South Pacific, books of poetry (Robert W. Service to Dylan Thomas), doctrinal books on ancient and modern scriptures, biographies of prophets and leaders, British, American, and Canadian fiction, hymn books in Maori and English, dictionaries, personal journals, photo albums, a collection of watercolors painted by Prince Charles, even copies of poetry chapbooks written by me.

If you pulled some of these books off the shelves at random, you would discover that each had been well-read and annotated. Sometimes complete lessons prepared and filed inside. Sometimes bookmarks placed for easy access to another detail or point needed for a presentation or an article. My father’s library was a working library – a reflection of an active and vibrant mind, a man with a deep love of learning and knowledge. He was always ready to teach a lesson at the drop of a hat or to tell a story.

Despite his willingness to teach and share, my father also encouraged us to read and study things out for ourselves. As a general rule, he wouldn’t answer any questions we had about homework, but instead taught us how to research so that we would find the answer on our own. Of course, this didn’t apply just to homework. I recall that any time my sister and I used an offensive word we’d picked up from other kids at school, he would make us look it up in the Oxford Dictionary and ask us if we understood why it was not appropriate. We learned early to take responsibility for our language and to this day I credit him and this practice for a significant part of why I became a writer and a poet.

Many of you knew my father as a dedicated genealogist with an obsession for citing his sources correctly. He held himself and others to a high standard, then taught people how to evaluate and understand their own records and evidence. He travelled throughout North America giving seminar presenations and workshops and was quite well-known. Although my mother would sometimes tease him that “he spent more time with the dead than the living,” his dedication to his family beyond veil did not overshadow his commitment to his family here. He always found opportunities to involve us in his work. I recall him teaching me how to read 17th and 18th century clerk script so that I could help him transcribe old wills and legal documents. Did he really need a 6th grader’s help? No. But I felt wanted and a part of his world when I was helping him – and it brought us together. He always treated us as equals, encouraged us to pursue our interests, and taught us the skills we needed to succeed.

Something else I recall about my father’s commitment to family history was that it grew out of a genuine love and desire to know and understand those who went before. Names and dates were insufficient, he wanted to know who these people were and helped us see them as real people. As many of his friends, colleagues, and students have commented in their notes and cards, my father was a fantastic storyteller – he loved to punctuate his lessons and conversations with stories from his past and from his ancestors’ pasts. He made their histories a part of his history – told us about great uncles and great grandparents we never had the opportunity to meet, shared his own accounts fighting fires, organizing dances, managing bands, and serving his mission in New Zealand and the Cook Islands. I was always amazed at the details and names he could recall – how every person he had encountered remained with him as a vibrant memory. In looking over his journals and files, I see now that this was a cultivated talent – something he worked hard to achieve and maintain. In some of his files, personal narratives begin “This collection of thoughts is written for the education and enlightenment of my children and their children” — a fitting reminder to me of where his priorities lay.

Perhaps that’s the best way that I remember my father – as a father concerned about both the education and enlightenment of his children. He encouraged us not just to succeed in our academic studies, but also to pursue a path of spiritual excellence. He taught us to read and think for ourselves, to believe for ourselves, and to trust in a power greater than ourselves. In my father’s life, I saw again and again that faith was not just about prayer and belief, but also about hard work and accountability.

That was also his attitude about friendship. Whether it was in our church community, at work, with friends or with strangers, my father always treated others as important equals. He valued them as brothers and sisters. It seemed that he was always making some wisecrack with the salesclerk about needing a larger bag for shoplifting or commenting on some other funny thing they had just happened to witness. Life was full of inside jokes – and it seemed he was always in on whatever was happening.

My father loved to laugh and was well-known for his wry sense of humor. Among friends and colleagues, he was always quick to catch the offbeat and accidental comedy of a situation. He loved puns, wordplay, and clever turns of phrase. He loved humor that arose from the every day human experience. While he certainly liked to tease those close to him, I never heard him belittle or ridicule anyone – more often than not, he laughed at himself and his own foibles. I suspect he learned this while still young. Evidently when he was in third grade he once teased a girl so much that she smacked him on the head with a metal lunch pail! He used to claim that he still had a dent in the skull from that experience :)

For my father, humor was a way to open doors, to break the ice between strangers, to lift the spirits of those struggling. Even in his last days, without his audible laugh, we still caught him with eyes shining in glee at some funny story recalled by a friend or at a clever joke that someone told. He loved to make funny faces – and in fact, that’s how I remember him most often – with a goofy grin on his face after cracking a particularly awful pun.

Other things I remember. My father loved to travel and we benefited from those trips and excursions. We drove all over the country and came back to BC often when we lived in Saskatchewan. Sometimes he would stop the car in some tiny forgotten place and tell us a story about the place and how it tied into our family history. Other times we pull over at the side of the road to look for fossils when he spotted a seam of coal. He made time for exploration and wanted us to love the beauty of this world. I think he considered himself quite spoiled to have grown up here in Penticton and to have had mountains and creeks nearby.

I recall one Christmas Eve when we were returning from visiting friends in Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan, that he pulled over on the gravel road and had us all get out to look up at the stars which were out in their thousand thousands in that dark perfect sky. Little things like that become powerful memories.

In the short span of his 59 years, my father created a lot of great memories. He accomplished many wonderful things, taught many people, solved many perplexing research problems, wrote many articles, gave many presentations – but in the end, the things he prized most were being a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. He lived a rich life full of laughter and music, and wanted even today as we bid him goodbye for now, that we should celebrate with happy songs and stories and not weep.

I am grateful to have been blessed with such a father as a friend. I am thankful, as he was thankful, for the hope and peace that we find in the resurrection, in the life and teachings of our Savior, and in the assurance that his journey led him on beyond struggle of this life into the joyful work of the next. Somewhere he stands on the other shore surrounded by those who went on before and there he continues I’m certain, making friends, telling stories, laughing, and enjoying the beauty of the world he has come to.

So today, to our father, brother, friend Ken Aitken we bid goodbye till we meet again on that other shore – goodbye but only for little while – goodbye, not really for he remains close to us in the lessons and stories he told, the memories we hold in our hearts, the songs we sing which he loved.

Goodbye my father. Goodbye our companion. Goodbye Ken our friend.

April 21, 2007

My father’s favorite poem of mine

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 1:41 pm

My father loved this poem — a poem I wrote for him when he was grieving for his father 10 years ago. Even as I wrote it, I was considering how my father wasn’t just my father, but someone else’s son. And I thought then that like him one day I too would be grieving my father’s loss. Now that day has come.

Burials

pulling through Montana in the snow
we cling to the tail lights of the last car
blurring back into the darkness
“Like the inside of a coffin,” my father says
as if knowing the exact shade the dead see
lying stiff, frozen eyes peering up through closed lids

he shifts in his seat, watches the road disappear
thinks again of dying and the burials we’ve seen
his father’s simple reduction to ashes
how small the urn, how light, for a man
that stood 6’3, carried a boy on his shoulders,
lived on trains as a youth, picked apples as a man

this past summer, watching him thin
to disappearing, blurring out lines between lives
my father trying to return pieces, fragments, time
the body burning, the dark smells of crematoriums,
funeral homes, pale face lawyers
something merges, ends, and begins again

my father placing the ashes back into the air
offerings to the skies, to the seas,
unaware how Buddhist he is at this moment
how the faint sound of bagpipes echoes
how the ashes fall catching light
reflecting something back into the silence

the dark birth of the sun coming into view.

© 2007 Neil Aitken. First published in Inscape Journal vol 19:1, (1998)

Becoming Fatherless at 33

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:45 pm

My father passed away early this morning (7:30 am) after spending the last year or so struggling with the effects of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). When we came to view him for the last time, his face was at peace — and in many respects we are happy that the time has come for his release from pain and suffering, though we are nonetheless sad to see him go.

Last night we held a celebration at the hospice for my father under the guise of a birthday celebration for me. All his friends in the community, many of them who have known him since childhood or as a young adult, came out to see him. People brought their guitars or voices, sang songs for him, reminisced about old times, and laughed and joked. We all gathered around his bed. We ate and celebrated his life. And when he was tired, we wheeled him back to his room and his friends said their goodbyes one by one as they left.

I can’t think of a better way for him to leave — in the company of so many people he has loved and befriended, whose lives and stories have become intertwined with our own.

When my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I arrived this morning at the hospice, I offered a family prayer for us. I wept. I expressed gratitude both for the time we have had as a family and for the assurance that we will be reunited one day. I said my goodbyes again, but felt my father close to us nonetheless. The body really is but a fragile vessel – its work done, my father has disembarked and headed onward to that distant shore.

This morning as a few of his closest friends and I dressed him in preparation for his final journey, one of them asked me when it is appropriate to begin writing about the loss of a father: when it happens, a week or two later, a month later, or years later? I said, Yes — we write at all those times. The loss of a father and a friend, as with other life changing moments, becomes something we return to again and again — sometimes more literally, sometimes more figuratively — but always it finds a way into what we write.

I think my father would agree. We write out of love and loss. We write to remember. We write to find a home, even as we wander. We write for light, for rest, for sorrow, for joy. We write till our fingers lose the power to say what our hearts are saying. What the eyes still know, even closed at last in that deep and silent sleep.

Goodbye Dad, for now. Till we meet again.

You can read about my father here at his blog: www.genealogy-education.com

April 19, 2007

Where I’m At

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:41 am

For those wondering, the rest of my trip to Los Angeles was fantastic. I had a wonderful time hanging out with old friends, getting to know the city again, and lurking about USC campus. I ate well, spent leisurely afternoons and evenings in conversations over board games, and even had a chance to go to the local Renaissance Faire (never been before). It felt like I had stepped into another world — a place that has been waiting for me to return.

When I arrived back in Vancouver, I spent the first few days attending poetry readings and doing some writing. I was productive, but at the same time worried. My mother had called and let me know that my father’s condition was slipping. She asked for me to come home and to say goodbye to my father who will not likely make it through this month.

So right now I’m in Penticton. The weather is beautiful. Sunny some days. Cool and overcast on others. A wind is blowing through the valley. My father has been moved to the hospice house for his remaining time.

These days he can no longer move his own hands and arms. His tongue has stopped working. We must rely on his eyes. When he wishes to say “Yes” he raises his eyebrows — an old habit picked up as a missionary in New Zealand and the Cook Islands when he was young. When he wishes to say “No” he closes his eyes tight. Even this is becoming taxing for him. We see him staring straight ahead more often — as if he is seeing something we cannot or that he is fixed on a goal. He is become a man on a boat with no oars, drifting forward with the tide, gradually heading to the horizon and beyond. We are on the shore watching.

Right now I’m in a place between grief and comfort. Right now I am ready to say goodbye, but not ready exactly. Right now there are poems I have written which shed their masks and revealed themselves as elegies. Right now there are more poems to write. Each line of words is what tethers me to the world of the present. Each movement an echo of my own heart.

I am spending this month in Penticton, celebrating my birthday this Saturday and saying goodbye to my father, my first and staunchest fan. In a little while, he will pass on and I will give the eulogy at his memorial service. And after that, I will head back to Port Coquitlam to finish packing, to move my books into storage, to sell off my furniture, and finally to fill my car with my things and drive back here to Penticton. I will spend June and part of July with my mother, and we will take care of whatever needs to be done before I leave for USC. Right now, my mother says, she has locked away her sorrow to focus on caring for my father. She has hefted this weight and marched steadfastly for months — I’ve only been home for weeks, and already I can sense what I did not know so well before — how strong my mother is, how determined and unfailing in her service and care. In these hard and difficult times, it is this remarkable woman who comes to the front and pushes forward, ever forward.

My father, I am certain, will remain with us after his passing. He will continue to stand by us, continue to remind us of what needs to be done. Wherever I go. Whatever I write. I am certain he will be there to cheer me on.

In this month of poetry, in the midst of language, on the shores of the ocean of memory, I am learning the words to an old song, the one every son has sung at some time since the world began.

April 3, 2007

Yesterday’s Wanderings – A USC Experience

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:10 am

I must say that my experiences at USC yesterday and Sunday night have been phenomenal (although I missed the opportunity to sit in on the class on Phenomenology!). There has been good chemistry so far with the prospective graduate students I’ve met — they all strike me as exceptionally sharp and insightful people. A certain of brilliance should be expected I guess — this is after all a gathering of the top PhD applicants at one of the best programs in the US. I found myself very happily in conversation with both lit crit and creative writing people, all of whom had interesting projects and fields of study. This for me bodes well — I’m excited to be immersed again in a culture of learning and intellectual dialogue.

The creative writing cohort of prospectives (myself and one other poet and 3 fiction writers) have bonded rather spectacularly. Who could have expected, for instance, that out of the five of us, three of us have lived in the Middle East! It turns out that I’m not so unique either with my computer science and creative writing combination — one of the fiction writers also did his undergraduate work in CS before switching gears. The other poet has also founded a literary journal at her university. All of us have been globetrotters at some point, living in a wide variety of places around the world.

As for the day, it was long.

I woke up around 8 am, went for a morning walk in the neighborhood, and returned by 10 am for the initial gathering. We embarked on a walking tour of campus, touring various buildings and sights before stopping for lunch at one of the on-campus banquet spots. At this location various professors were present, so we had opportunities to meet some of the faculty and eat with them while discussing the program. At our table (the creative writing band) were Mark Irwin and Sarah McCabe, both of whom were quite helpful in answering our questions and addressing any concerns we had. Ava Chin, a successful graduate of the program, was visiting from Brooklyn and answered some of our questions about the post-PhD job market.

After lunch, we turned back to the English department and sat in on a couple of classes — we (again, the creative band) had a wonderful time in Percival Everett’s fiction workshop (it seemed to be about challenging the conventional form of the novel) and also attended Carol Muske-Dukes’ poetry workshop which was amazing. If anything, the poetry workshop was the deal-maker for most of us. The class was mostly 3rd year students with book length manuscripts — only one poet workshopped a session, but an entire manuscript was discussed using particular poems as the reference points. The level of discussion from the students and from Carol Muske-Dukes reflected both a deep understanding of craft of poetry and an intimate connection with theory — a good, non-pretentious pairing which made for a very rich and rewarding discussion.

After the classes, we met up for dinner with the rest of the prospective PhDs. This time the dinner was held at El Cholo, a Mexican restaurant not too far away. Graduate students hosted with no faculty around. Again we plied our questions and sought out advice on housing and living in the area. After dinner, we moved on to the Library Bar to meet up with even more current students — however, the car I was in ended up on an hour-long tour of the Los Angeles area — very useful for the two other prospectives who had never lived in LA before. So we enjoyed a rather comprehensive tour of the areas which was supplemented by wry commentary in a dead pan voice by our chauffeur, a lit crit PhD come by way of Philosophy and Rhetoric. When we arrived at the Library Bar, most of the prospective students had already returned to the hotel, but we did find some remaining graduate students and conversed with them. At some point we too were tired and found someone to give us a lift back to he hotel.

Today looks to be more open in terms of schedule — we don’t have a set agenda and only have a lunch event for certain. We have been invited to attend a class this afternoon. Other than those two things, the day is free — we are encouraged to check out various parts of campus on our own.

Sidenote: Throughout this trip, I’ve been surprised by how dry the weather has been — not so much by the lack of precipitation, but by the havoc it’s been playing on my skin. I seem to be using a lot of lotion to keep my skin from completely drying out. From what I hear it’s not just me — the weather has been unusually dry and others have the same problem.

April 1, 2007

From the Radisson in LA & More Poems Finding Homes

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 4:56 pm

Well, I’ve successfully checked into my room at the Radisson across from USC and am looking forward to meeting people tonight. The last few days have been relatively relaxing — I’ve done some research on apartments but hope to get more solid information and advice over the course of the orientation / recruitment. (If you know of any 1-bedroom apartments that will be free in August in West LA or Santa Monica at a reasonable price, I’d appreciate it if you send me an email.)

Given that I know nothing of the others coming tonight, it’s all somewhat a mystery. Heck, I’m not even certain what’s the best attire for this situation. I’m opting for dress-casual — battle-ready with combat grease and machete seemed inappropriate. Pro-wrestling spandex seems out of season — maybe for final dissertation defense contortions.

In the midst of all this bustle (actually it’s not that bustling), I received word from DMQ Review that they would like to publish two of my poems. These are the first two poems out of my third manuscript, Letters to the Unknown Wife, to be accepted. Look forward to “Letter Ten” and “Letter Fifty” soon.

More on the USC thing later tonight.