Saturday, April 1, 2023

                                                 On Turning Seventy-Five

In the early weeks of January, on a gray and dreary morning in the midst of the mildest winter in years, I turned seventy-five. I remember when that used to sound old. Now it seems just another milestone in a long life of moments worth noting. Along the way, among the restive rhythms of the years I’ve come to recognize that time drives all. We can lament it, rail against it, or embrace it with grace, but we cannot escape the cold resolute torrents of time, as relentless as the waves of the sea. 

I’ve now reached a point where, in the words of Willie Nelson, I’m “well past my halfway in time,” but, as Willie continues, “I still have a lot on my mind.” Anyone over fifty will tell you that the years pass quickly. Yet after seventy, while the nights often trudge along hour by hour, the days are swifter still and the years somehow accumulate faster than most of us can keep up—perhaps because there’s now so much more time to keep track of in the long sweep of memory.

On some mornings when we wake in the fog of sleep, daylight seeping through the blinds, we forget about time and age and decline. Then we turn to get out of bed and that painful shoulder or creaky back or throbbing hip reminds us of the years that have taken their toll. I have far more wrinkles and age spots than ever before. I am slower and achier and much more tired than I used to be. But through the wonders of modern medicine, I’m able to manage my physical ailments, and I realize what a gift the Lord has bestowed on me through these seventy-five years. Every day that I am upright is a blessing in itself. Every day, indeed, is a gift. 

While the years have been kind to me, life also, of course, has had its travails, and I have come along the way to know one of the eternal truths: that life is both an embrace and a letting go. What inestimable love and joy, and yet what loss, I have known through all these years. In the lives and eventual deaths of my grandparents, then my parents, relatives, a sister, and countless friends, I have felt both the boundless exhilaration of love and the deep searing anguish of grief. But in the births of our sons and then of their own children I have seen the depths of that love renewed again across the span of the generations.   

Over the years, while we were busy living our lives, one by one our parents’ generation passed on and then one day we suddenly found that we were the older folks, the senior citizens, the elders. As the seasons inevitably tick on, our time, in turn, will come and we too will take our place in the great scheme of things—but not too soon, I hope, not too soon.

I take some solace at seventy-five in these lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

                                           Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;                                                                             Death closes all: but something ere the end,                                                                   Some work of noble note may yet be done . . . .

And as I read these words now I am heartened by the speaker’s wisdom and his grit. There’s a dignity to these lines, a resolve to push on despite the constraints of age and time, to contribute what we still can, to make a difference yet.

The sun is setting as I write this, the twilight, fiery red and tinged with streaks of wispy blue. I look away, but when I look back again the red tint is fading fast, the blue now smudged to gray as the day wanes toward the deepening darkness. Time drives all.  But tomorrow is to be a fine day.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Fading into Mist


In Ireland, December 26 is known as St. Stephen's Day, traditionally a time when the Wren Boys would pay a visit. A group of young lads of a townland would disguise themselves and go from house to house in the parish carrying a holly bush on which they perched a wren they had captured and killed. With traditional instruments, they'd dance and sing:

                                    The wren, the wren, the king of all birds                                                                                          St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;                                                                                     Although he is little, his family is great,                                                                                           So rise up, landlady, and give us a treat.                                                                                                         . . .                                                                                                                                     On with the kettle and down with the pan,                                                                                        And give us a penny to bury the wren.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             This or some regional variation would delight each household as everyone tried to guess the identities of the visitors, who were rewarded with hospitality and coins. In more recent times the wren has been replaced by an effigy of the bird.

        The ritual of the Wren Boys in Ireland is said to have various origins. Perhaps the most popular version is that during penal times, when Catholic rights were restricted, the song of the wren alerted English soldiers to the approach of Irish rebels. The practice of the Wren Boys is an old medieval custom in much of western Europe, however, and is likely of much older beginnings. Another account tells of the wren song spoiling an Irish ambush of Norse invaders in the 8th century. A different story says that the song of the wren betrayed St. Stephen's hiding place to those who were pursuing him. Yet even earlier accounts may be rooted in older, pagan times.

        Like most traditional rural customs in Ireland, the practice of the Wren Boys is fast fading into a misty past as the modern world colors all things anew with its global digital imprint of instant communication. Yet with the coming of such progress we all, I think, have lost another of the few remaining links to our agrarian past. Those of us born and bred in cities had lost that connection to our ancestors' way of life long ago. In our lifetimes most of us have never known what it was to work the soil, grow our own food, tell time by the position of the sun, or make our way home by the moon or stars. We do not know what it was like to live our days never traveling more than a few miles from our homes, or to illuminate the dark by the flicker of candlelight, living attuned truly to the cycle of the seasons, the rhythm of the land. Despite all of the modern conveniences with which our lives are blessed, we have, I fear, lost something irreplaceable.

                                                             Thomas D. Kersting                                                                       December 26, 2022                                                                            




Tuesday, August 2, 2022

 Flying Home With Amy Tan


 My wife wasn’t talking to me for a few hours, or more accurately, I wasn’t talking to her. Sometimes we’re blessed with the gift of serendipity, a moment of good fortune that falls into our laps like manna from the sky. I had such a moment recently when we were flying home from visiting the kids and grandkids in California. Rushing to load the bags into the car for the ride to the airport, I left my backpack behind. Not the catastrophe it might have been, for our boarding passes were loaded on my phone and our IDs were secure in our wallets. Besides, our son Dave would bring the backpack a few days later when he would be flying east. But both the book I was reading and my phone charger were in that bag. How would I pass the five-and-a half hours flying from San Francisco to New York? I could dive into my library of e-books on my phone but doubted my battery, already down to 60%, would last the journey.


        Delta, it turns out, offers an array of in-flight entertainment from HBO, Showtime, Hulu, some network TV series, and a selection of featured movies. While none of them piqued my interest, what did catch my eye was a program that was to captivate me for the next 2,586 miles: a Master Class on writing by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.


        As my wife dozed in her seat beside me, I flew home with Amy Tan, who regaled me with reminders and new insights to the craft of writing. Her suggestion, for instance, that writers should not do too much research rang true for me as a writer of historical fiction. I recalled having gone down a rabbit hole when trying to date the invention of friction matches in the nineteenth century for my novel about the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Had they been invented yet when my characters lit a fire? I needed to know, and so I spent hours researching one link after another through the history and intricacies of sulfur and safety matches, which were a significant technological advance in their time. But how much of the research would I actually use in my story? Amy Tan’s advice to avoid needless details in research, then, was a timely admonition.


        Her recommendation that writers keep a Nature Journal where we sketch what we see and consider its implications for story or essay was intriguing. While I’m not gifted with an artist’s skill, sketching what I observe will no doubt train me to notice details more closely. I liked, too,

Amy Tan’s assertion that every word in a story has a relationship to the rhythm of the next one since I’ve long been attuned to the sounds and rhythms of words in my writing. Her suggestion to break down the revision process to manageable components was also a useful tactic, and her views on the causes of writer’s block and strategies to avoid it were helpful. Finally, her thoughts on knowing how and when to end a story were particularly insightful for both new and seasoned writers.


        I’d put Amy Tan on pause every hour or so to snap a shot of the Rockies over Colorado and to share a snack or talk briefly with my wife. But this Master Class so absorbed me through most of the flight that I hadn’t noticed the passing hours as we cut across the sky at nearly 500 mph, 34,000 feet high. Jotting notes on my phone, I was distracted from time to time by the fear that my battery would drain before the end of the class. Five-and-a-half hours later and three hours back in time, we landed at JFK with 6% left in my battery and what would turn out to be more than five pages of printed notes.


        Later my wife complained that I hadn’t talked to her for most of the flight, and she was right, of course, for I was “in the zone, that magical, mystical sphere writers and artists and athletes are sometimes blessed to know when they’re immersed in their work, enthralled by it, transfixed beyond time. I was engrossed in a Master Class and flying home with Amy Tan.



Thursday, June 30, 2022

 To Celebrate a Life

Long before I came to know them by name, I was only vaguely acquainted with trees. While not a single tree was to be found on the paved streets of our neighborhood in the Bronx, up on Fordham Road in a sliver of an island we called Banana Park, two or three trees graced a few benches with a canopy of shade. But as a city boy I could not tell you what types of trees they were. To me they were just trees. 

On occasional jaunts to other parks in the area, we became acquainted with some variety among trees, mainly by the seeds they dropped. We gathered chestnuts in the Fall and pelted each other with “itchy balls” that dropped from the branches and clung miraculously to our clothes. We opened other seeds and made polynoses or twirled them like helicopters when we sent them aloft in Spring and dove headfirst into piles of leaves in the Fall, all the while blissfully unaware of the species that had dropped these treasures in our paths. 

When my wife and I bought the house “in the country” some years later, trees, of course, abounded everywhere we looked. Over the decades I came to appreciate their species, their lifecycles, and their boundless beauty. We mourned the loss of trees to storms, infestations, and disease. We were ambivalent when the stilted willow that had served many years as first base in our backyard baseball games made way for the pool, but we lamented having to cut down the choke cherries and ash lest they fall on a neighbor’s house. 

Over the years I have come to cultivate many trees, mindful that they will grow to imposing maturity after I myself have returned to the earth. I planted whips of poplar and ash, honeysuckle and lilac. More recently, I have planted twigs of hawthorn, buckthorn, and crape myrtle, all of which have sprouted hardy stems and leaves after four years of blazing New York heat and frigid winters. They’ll soon be ready for transplanting to more prominent areas of the yard.

I can think of no more fitting gesture to commemorate someone we love than the planting of a tree in that person’s name. Whether to mark a birth or a death, planting a tree celebrates a life in all its transient beauty and all its enduring memory. So it is that we plant a tree each time a grandchild is born. We planted a sugar maple when our Canadian American granddaughter Chloe was born in 2010 and a Kwanzan cherry tree when our Japanese American grandson Alex was born in 2017. This year we planted a Yoshino cherry to mark the 2020 birth of our Japanese American granddaughter Lilia. All three of these grandchild trees grace the yard with their distinctive beauty and celebration. The maple drops its helicopter seeds with which I may someday teach the children to make polynoses, and in the Fall its golden yellow leaves illuminate the dusk. The Kwanzan cherry sprouts its graceful pink blossoms in the Spring and, alongside it now, the Yoshino cherry opens its snowy white blooms. If the grandchildren are visiting in springtime, we may picnic beneath the cherry blossoms to celebrate their transient beauty. 

It is with such transience in mind that I planted a clump of white birch trees to commemorate the life of John Palencsar, my closest friend of more than sixty years, who died rather sooner than we’d expected in 2021. John was fond of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” with its idyllic image of a young boy swinging the pliable branches who “flung outward, feet first, with a swish,/Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” I see that tree now, John’s birch, outside my den window, and I find comfort in knowing that, like those of the grandchildren, it is rooted firmly to mark a life, the “going and coming back,” in all its days of storms and resplendent beauty, to celebrate a life that once was, and—in all its seasons—a life worth remembering. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016




                                   My wife looked out upon a single fawn
                                   that gnawed, unaware, at the hedge beside
                                   the rock garden on this first day of winter.
                                   “There’s something wrong with one of its legs,”
                                    she told me with a frown. As it grazed its way
                                    to the yew bushes along the front walk, I could
                                    see that she was right.

                                    The deer was young, a few months old at best,
                                    from its size, left hind leg hobbled a bit by
                                    what seemed a tumor that shackled her
                                    to her fate.

                                    The fawn foraged in solitude amid a carpet of
                                     snow, cast out perhaps from the herd to fend
                                     alone all predators, to ward off the dark, to
                                     die at last a solitary death and take with it                     
                                     the blight it bore.

                                     Was this the lone deer we saw below our
                                     bedroom window two nights past, feasting
                                     on the birdseed I had scattered beneath
                                     the feeder? We’d thought it odd to see but            

                                     She’d stood, legs splayed, nearly genuflecting
                                     as she fed, the nap of her young fur smooth
                                     and gleaming in the moonglow. We hadn’t
                                     noticed in that swath of silver light the knob
                                     that hobbled her, her outcast plight.

                                     As the shadows lengthen on this longest night,
                                     I’ll seed again the snow beneath the barren ash,
                                     will scatter far and wide the feed to brook 
                                     the coming darkness, the feeble light.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Four Dead in O-hi-o

            Rummaging through some old college notebooks from a box in the attic the other day, I came upon a protest flyer from my senior year at Iona College, in New Rochelle, New York. It was May of 1970, and I was weeks away from graduating. “ON STRIKE” the flyer proclaims. I lifted it to my face for a whiff of the familiar purple smell of the mimeograph ink, but the scent had long-since faded, much as the memory of that year has receded into our collective national unconscious of that fateful time.   
            But the flyer brought rushing back the angst that roiled American campuses 46 years ago this spring. Just eight months earlier, in September of 1969, Lt. William Calley had been charged with leading his platoon in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including women and children—in the village of My Lai the previous year. That atrocity surely did not reflect the actions of most American troops in Vietnam; but in the virulent outrage that resulted, many in the anti-war movement unjustly vilified all American soldiers as “baby killers.” It got that ugly.
            Three months later, in December of 1969, President Richard Nixon reinstituted a draft lottery. Nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were serving in Southeast Asia and nearly 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had already been killed. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon went on television to announce to a weary nation that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed into Cambodia to launch preemptive strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. He also declared the need to draft 150,000 additional men. This escalation of the war provoked mass protests across American campuses. Days later, on May 4, twenty-eight national guardsmen opened fire at an unarmed crowd of protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were shot dead.
            The news stunned the nation: for the first time in our history, American students were being killed by American troops on an American college campus. In response, colleges all over the country erupted in furious protests. Hundreds shut down or canceled classes as students went on strike. On campuses across the nation, ROTC buildings were set ablaze and students clashed with police and National Guard units. Within weeks, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” blared from radios across the land, stoking the flames of outrage:
                                              Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
                                                   We’re finally on our own.
                                              This summer I hear the drumming,
                                                   Four dead in Ohio.
                       On May 14, just ten days after the Kent State shootings, without warning, police shot dead two students during a protest at the all-black Jackson State University, in Mississippi. That unprovoked attack garnered comparatively little national attention. Some blacks complained at the time that maybe black lives didn’t count as much as white ones. This grievance sounds eerily familiar today.
            On the whole, college campuses in 2016 are very different places from what they were in 1970. They are communities where political correctness and nurturing of perceived slights prevail. A far cry from the university as a place to broaden one’s perspectives, American campuses have become bastions of intolerance for opposing points of view. Just ask Condoleeza Rice or the growing number of other controversial figures who have been disinvited to speak on college campuses because some group or other is offended by their role or viewpoint. Or ask Erika Christakis, a former lecturer at Yale who resigned in the face of student protests over her suggestion that perhaps they might themselves be better suited than the administration to decide what Halloween costumes they should wear. Ask the college professors who are required to give “trigger warnings” when they are about to broach a topic that may provoke unease or trauma in any of their students. Assigning a reading of The Great Gatsby or Hamlet without trigger warnings about their possibly disturbing issues of physical violence or dysfunctional families would be considered a “microaggression” against vulnerable and unsuspecting students—college students, mind you. Or ask the professors in Texas and the seven other states that allow students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses what the impact is likely to be on free and open expression of ideas or on grade inflation.
            Yet, as spring approaches in 2016, the most enduring protests on American college campuses are those over issues of persistent racial tensions. Nearly 46 years after the killings of American students at Kent State and Jackson State, numerous incidents of black men killed by police in the streets of American cities have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has galvanized minority student protests. Beginning at the University of Missouri over the slow response of administrators to a series of racist incidents, the protests and their demands for equality have spread to campuses across the land.
            But just as the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam were not “baby killers,” most American police officers do not shoot young black men in our streets. The truth is that police lives matter too, white lives matter, Latino lives matter. All lives deserve respect. Still, time after time, black men—often unarmed—are killed at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace. The point of the protests is that black lives matter too, and enough is enough.
            Perhaps, then, some progress has been made in the spirit of dissent on our campuses amid what seems at times a national regression. The Black Lives Matter movement is a protest that speaks for its time. In the midst of an indulgent culture of trigger warnings, it seems heartening that some college students today are clamoring for justice and equality, demands that echo the high moral ground of bringing an end to an unjust war and the killings of innocent students. Such protests are today what my generation’s reaction to the killings at Kent State was—a defining moment, a time to take a stand on what you believe in. As Neil Young would put it,
                                              What if you knew [them]
                                 And found [them] dead on the ground
                                 How can you run when you know?