Sometimes, things go wrong. But remember: you don’t have to go with them.
At Friday evening’s memorial service for Don Belton, held at the Bloomington, IN Unitarian Universalist Church, this advice sat at the center of a story relayed by Don’s brother, Wayne.
It was a story about the move to Hollins College—from which Don received an M.A. in 1982—and the unexpectedly long road it took to get there, with a sports car up front and a hitched U-Haul trailer (“full of Don’s myriad collection of books”) pulling up the rear. Wayne, standing tall and elegant with a red handkerchief tucked snugly into his suit pocket, explained: it might have been that someone gave them bad directions; it might have been that they followed good directions badly. Either way, a six hour trip turned into one lasting “more than twelve,” with the remarkable result that it was deemed, by everyone, not just a memorable but even a pleasing, an enjoyable, a good trip. What ought to have been a fiasco had turned into something other than. Things go wrong. But you? You can go otherwise.
more about the memorial service…
English Department Chair, Jonathan Elmer, read aloud some of Don’s student evaluations, written less than six weeks ago. Don was, they said, someone who exuded wisdom “without pretension.” He offered new ways to view the world, and made the world, by being in it, a new thing to see. Jonathan spoke of Don’s attempts at “settling in” to his new life in Bloomington. Having moved here in his early fifties (lest his boyish, keep-it-real attitude tempt us to forget it, Don was actually middle-aged), Don had concerns, to be sure, about what it would mean to forge new friendships, make new commitments, find new loves and learn new routines and habits. But, Don told him, he liked where he found himself.
And it was clear from the numbers, Bloomington liked him, too. Several hundred people packed the circular, song-filled room, graced with a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of Don taken by local photographer Kip May, with whom Don had met to experiment with his new camera on December 26th.
Nearby, a thousand hand-folded paper cranes hung on display. One thousand of them. With their parti-colored edges and precise lines, they had been crafted in the days preceding the memorial by a small gathering of Don’s friends and supporters. Symbols of hope and optimism in the midst of grievous, rending loss, the delicate cranes draped in long, vibrant strands, fitting tribute to the bright brilliance—and peaceable, tender heart—of the man for whose life they hung in honor and remembrance.
There were candles lit, and tributes made. Samrat Upadhyay, Director of IU’s Creative Writing Program, thought it possible that Don had considered himself a Buddhist. No one was quite sure, though Don had an altar of sorts in his apartment. Don visited the local Buddhist temple in Bloomington, but only once. “Too churchy,” he apparently said.
Samrat spoke, too, of Don’s incredible agility at remembering people’s names, not just minutes after meeting them, but for keeps. Greeting everyone by name—in the hallway, at the local co-op, on the sidewalk—was (along with that trademark smile) Don’s signature. [This story resonated with one some of us had heard a few days prior, on the radio, during a broadcast of a local show called BloomingOUT. The story teller, Byron, explained how he had met Don in a coffee house, almost accidentally, though it would turn out their interests were far from random. After seeing him perched at the same window seat week after week, Don strode up (as Samrat remarked, “Don did a lot of striding”) and asked him, “well, who are you?”]
In unintended confirmation, Mara Miller, who flew in for the memorial—one of the friends Don was to have met, the day after his death, for 2 glorious weeks in Hawaii—described how she had met Don, in Philly: by approaching him, a complete stranger, in a bookstore, after she’d eavesdropped in on a fascinating conversation he was having with the store clerk. “This is your chance,” she told herself; “act now, or he will walk out of your life forever.” She did, and he didn’t. They went to coffee that afternoon. They had been friends ever since.
“Be like Don,” she pleaded to memorial service attendees. Clearly, she meant it: open-hearted; honest; political; savvy; generous; political (yes, she mentioned that twice); friendly, and compassionate; unconfined by boxes and by stereotypes; sincerely committed to his students, his passions, his friends. A man who had yet to write his best work but who has already written better work than we have come to realize. That it is up to us, now, to realize in full.
We were reminded that Don’s former colleagues from Shippensburg recalled Don as the guy who took up a collection to celebrate the birthday of the person who cleaned their offices (someone—does it really go without saying?—whose name most of us, in our own, will never know). We were reminded that Don did know her name, know her, and the names of many other people he met only once, or perhaps a handful of times. During the memorial service, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who needed to borrow a few of my Kleenexes. To write my own on the “memories” page inserted into each of our programs, I needed to borrow her purple pen. When I introduced myself, she told me that she worked in H.R. and met Don when he arrived as a new faculty member, which—for the record—was only last year. She didn’t say, but I got the impression that this was the only time she’d met him, perhaps all she knew of him. But there she was, sitting next to me at his memorial. We were both of us weeping.
One of Don’s graduate students, Nina Mamikunian, remembered how during day one class introductions Don got so riveted by her name the moment she introduced himself that he gleefully recounted, for some 20 minutes, the breakthroughs, and breakdowns, of one of his most beloved idols, blues legend Nina Simone. Don recalled Simone’s musical triumphs along with her trials with racism and addiction; this Nina said she will forever be reminded of Don when she hears Simone’s lyrics, which reverberate even now with Don’s spirit for living: It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeeeeeeeling good.
Soprano Olivia Hairston, a member of the African American Choral Ensemble of the IU Jacobs School of Music, was dressed in sparkling black, and performed twice. First, “Steal Away,” a Harry J. Burleigh arrangement accompanied by pianist (and Ensemble director) Keith McCutchen. For her second number (again with McCutchen), “Missing You,” Olivia sang the blues like her Lady, Diana Ross, herself: “Oo-oh—ooh—ooh, I’m missing you / Tell me why the road turns.”
We were reminded throughout the night of the impact Don made, on friends far-flung and near, with his wide smile, wry humor, and sometimes devious spirit. No one remembered an angel, no one a saint (Mara Miller even worried about what it meant to consider Don a “ghost”: “how ironic,” she quipped, “to think of Don as some little white guy”). All remembered a witty, an effervescent, a sometimes difficult, an intelligent, a merely human man. And we must never forget it: he was a man. A man. And that is, after all, enough.
In the end, Ross Gay, a member of the IU Creative Writing faculty, prefaced his remarks by grinning, and saying that it was hard to think of Don without laughing. He’s right. Even now, it is. He then launched into a reading of a poem by Gerald Stern, a poem I had never heard before but that sounds an awful lot to me like the kind of poem Don would have sung out loud, the kind he would have savored at his own death. Let’s hope so. It’s called “Lucky Life,” fitting because, Ross reminded us, “Don felt blessed.”
Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.
Lucky I don’t have to wake up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square or the hill overlooking
Kuebler Brewery or the hill overlooking SS. Philip and James
but have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to.
Each year I go down to the island I add
one more year to the darkness;
and though I sit up with my dear friends
trying to separate the one year from the other,
this one from the last, that one from the former,
another from another,
after a while they all get lumped together,
the year we walked to Holgate,
the year our shoes got washed away,
the year it rained,
the year my tooth brought misery to us all.
This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulled
the car onto the sand and looked for the key.
I knew it when we walked up the outside steps
and opened the hot icebox and began the struggle
with swollen drawers and I knew it when we laid out
the sheets and separated the clothes into piles
and I knew it when we made our first rush onto
the beach and I knew it when we finally sat
on the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands.
My dream is I’m walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I’m lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in
one hand and a compass in the other.
My dream is I’m in the Eagle Hotel on Chamber Street
sitting at the oak bar, listening to two
obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942,
and reading the funny signs over the bottles.
My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locust
and sit on the side porch overlooking the stone culvert
with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.
Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.