In an “interim time, a time without a clear purpose,” a writer finds his voice and the arc of a family’s life is formed.
By Nick Lyons
There are times in every life that enable all that follows. Sometimes this is a single decision. Sometimes it’s a place, perhaps one over a period of time, deceptively crucial.
For several months during the mid-’60s, several years running, we rented “The Studios,” one of the original Byrdcliffe cottages in Woodstock, New York. Mari and I and our four hyperactive children, four and a half years apart first to last, the oldest seven or eight then. I was teaching full time at Hunter College and trying desperately to write a few words of worth. Except for several versions of tired graduate school essays, and a few mawkish poems, nothing I wrote found a home. Mari painted, I wrote, the children ran amok, and so did the mice. We would see mice scurrying along the rafters and late at night we could hear the fatal snap of the traps and the plunk when they fell 10 feet to the floor. What I wrote I sent everywhere—and every scrap of it boomeranged back, always without benefit of human note. The New Yorker returned my stories and poems with such amazing alacrity—sometimes the day I sent them—that I thought they must have, at the main post office, a special Agent of Refusal. I had a shoebox filled with emphatic minimalist printed rejections.
We had recently suffered a devastating flash fire in the city; it had buffaloed up on a windy December afternoon from the Methodist church next door, torched by a drug dealer on whom the minister had leaned. Firemen stole my father-in-law’s Patek Philippe watch, uninsured; all our clothing, beds, tables, chairs were burned or fatally smoke damaged; all of our books, my papers, and every shred of my fishing gear, were destroyed; many of Mari’s paintings still hung on their wires, askew, stretchers charred but intact, the canvases burned through. I had written a very bad novel whose five main characters were all me, and happily it was burned to a crisp, never to be resurrected. The novel happened to be called Fire in the Straw.
We came to Woodstock those few summers partly to recoup, start again. We paid a scant $300 total for as soon as the crocuses came up to when it got too cold for the pot-bellied stove to warm our toes. We knew that this year or the next, when we returned to our new spare apartment, I would need to take a second and perhaps third full-time job, and in time I did. Woodstock was before all that. It was an interim time, a time without a clear purpose, a slack time to loaf and fail and try and let stuff happen, a time to be with children, a time to explore.
A friend introduced me to Jimmy Mulligan, who drew cartoons for the New Yorker, and Jim began to talk of a mythic friend, Frank Mele, a violist and remarkable fly fisher. As a proposed fishing trip with him kept being postponed on slim grounds, the mystery of the man tripled.
In those long Woodstock summers, 50 years ago and yesterday, Marlon Brando whisked past us on his motorcycle on the Thruway, I fed our resident raccoon and it mistook my finger for a hot dog. Mari painted in the cottage or plein air every day. It often took two or even three sitters to manage our four. We drove to the old Laurel House in Haines Falls, which my grandfather had owned for many years, where I had caught anything that moved, from frog to crayfish, newt, perch, and pickerel, and where I unceremoniously gigged the first trout I ever saw—but the creek was dry and the state had burned and then bulldozed the hotel flat and the forest had reclaimed its raw glory. We watched Dylan and Baez ride back and forth on Tinker Street on their motorcycles, buoyantly young, the world poised to embrace them. We kept warm with slab wood we bought from a young farmer who gave us four ducklings; with the colossal stupidity of a city boy, I thought young ducks would like to swim and put them in the bathtub for what was their final swim. I leaned toward moving water whenever we drove past the Sawkill or Esopus and bolted from Byrdcliffe to fish whenever I could. One day I finally set off with Frank and Jim to the Beaverkill—“Mecca” for fly fishers, Frank said. He was a gaunt man with dark, old eyes, and stunning pronouncements, Delphic and hilarious; and with all the pit-stops and pronouncements, the hour-and-a-half trip was accomplished in nine hours. By then I could barely stand, let alone pitch a fly. Frank promptly caught two trout, Jim and I nothing. The day was so pungent, unique, unforgettable, that I promptly sat at my Underwood Standard and wrote it in one sitting. Somewhere in the telling of that shaggy fish tale about that long circus of a drive with Frank and Jim, I felt a new voice that sounded free from the academic cant I had learned too well in graduate school and from the literary pretension in my stories and the mawkishsness of poems so common when someone discovers literature late and loves it too well.
The voice seemed nimble and earthy, and now and then I hoped it caught the swoop of a kingfisher, the bright quickness of a mountain creek. Two days after I finished it, off it went to Field & Stream, and five days after that I got back a one-sentence note from the editor in his own hand (I’d thought all the editors had forgotten to use them): “We like ‘Mecca’ and a check for $1,000 will go out to you next week.” I nearly peed my pants. And I was so encouraged that I plucked out a story that had crouched somewhere in my brain since I was seven or eight, about that first trout I gigged in the creek that tumbled over the famous Kaaterskill Falls, and before we returned to the gray city, so far from the bright rivers I love, it too was accepted.
The stories were miles from the literature I had found late in my life and now taught with passion—but they were mine own. And when Austin Warren, my great mentor-scholar from graduate-school days, told me that I must at once abandon all this trout piffle and attend to my academic career, I had to tell him firmly that I rather liked trout and thought Paraleptophlebia were not piffle, and I felt comfortable with the romp of these stories I had found those long summers in Woodstock—and never heard again from the old scholar I had betrayed.
He had advised my dissertation on Jones Very, a very minor New England poet whose poems, the poet claimed, had been dictated to him by the Holy Spirit—a less earthy source than Frank. So committed was Very to this belief that he would not allow Emerson, who edited the first book of Very’s poems, to make even elementary changes. This prompted the only recorded witticism by the dour Emerson: “Cannot the spirit parse and spell?”
One summer Mari visited the painter Fletcher Martin, with whom she had studied at Mills College in California. She liked his house and then, many lifetimes later, we bought it and lived there for nearly 20 years. Those four scamps all grew into their 50s, were thick with the world, did interesting work. We built a huge new studio, attached to Fletcher’s small one, and Mari loved the great space with high ceilings and skylights, made the best work of her life, had 10 exhibitions of her paintings in Chelsea, and received major reviews. Then, a few years ago, after our 58th anniversary, Mari died of cancer and two years later our oldest son, Paul, died of melanoma.
Suddenly I was an old man, alone in that place I had come to love, waiting for another winter to wrap around me. The air on the Woodstock hill was crisp, leaves had turned crimson and ochre and fallen. I was awash in memories but had written most of what I wanted to write. The arc had made a final turn. I saw then with sharp clarity, when I sold my house and made my move back to a great grey city, that those Woodstock summers had laid tracks on which my family rolled for more than half a century.
Nick Lyons W’53 has been a frequent contributor to the Gazette. This essay is adapted from sections of Fire in the Straw; Notes on Inventing a Life, forthcoming from Skyhorse Publishing in October 2020.