I met Roy Beckemeyer on a bike ride. I pedaled past Wichita’s Botanica flower gardens on another pretty fall day, while yellow leaves fell and squirrels ran and the gray-and-blue river flowed past green grass. I stopped when I saw Roy and his yellow dog, Jenna, coming the other way. When I rode away 20 minutes later, I felt like I’d just been paid.
Sometime before dawn
in the shivering -clear morning,
I’ll climb from my bag
of feathery down,
Roy’s a poet. That bit above there is one of his. I first met Roy in 2003 when I thought all he did was chase dragonflies. We walked through Chisholm Creek Park with his previous yellow dog for a story I was working on — two Roys and a yellow dog looking for dragonflies.
He’d done scientific papers on dragonflies, and was showing me habitats and behaviors while I researched a newspaper series about nature. Dr. Roy the scientist could glance at a dragonfly and tell which species it was (there are many), what their differing habits were, and how many tens of millions of years they’d been around. They are older than the dinosaurs, and still with us, he said. He’s got a PhD in engineering, so it meant something when he observed that dragonflies are one of nature’s early and brilliant flight-engineering designs.
Most of us ignore dragonflies. Roy befriended them, and taught me about them.
And so here I was again with Roy, on a fall morning, and this time I learned about poetry, writing, human nature, the creative process, the biological science of music. Our conversation flitted from topic to topic, like one of his dragonflies.
I learned that Roy has a couple more poetry books in the works, headed for publication.
I asked whether he’d heard of John McPhee.
I told him how I love the Beatles.
He told me about his passion for jazz.
“How come people like music so much?” I asked. “Why the passion? Why does it move us so deeply, is there something deeply embedded in our brains that had some purpose?”
“It probably has to do with the bio-rhythms of our body,” Roy said. “From the mother’s womb on. We respond to rhythms.”
If I were to grow in your garden
I would be a rebellious sunflower.
While the others faced the sun
All day long, I would follow you
As you weeded and watered. I
Would be Johnny-Jump-Up,
A bachelor’s button, Love-In-A-Mist,
Something with character, with
a name you couldn’t forget, or a color
you could recall with your eyes closed.
If I could ever metamorph myself, I would choose rebirth as a Roy Beckemeyer and not another Roy.
Roy has long been one of the better poets in Kansas, and in prairie lands beyond our borders. But he’s got that PhD in engineering, which he used at Boeing for 25 years. He’s an accomplished field scientist who made discoveries and wrote scientific papers on dragonflies, dragonfly fossils, butterflies, and more. At his home, you will see works of art, clay pots, and books shelved and piled everywhere. There are flowers enough outside his porch to feed all the butterflies and bees of Riverside. So when you ask Roy a question, you’re addressing not only a man but an interdisciplinary committee for the arts and sciences.
Then, all hollow bones,
All round eyes,
I’ll flap up to join
The Horned Owl returning
To his perch in the old sycamore.
Along that bike ride, before I saw Roy and his latest yellow dog, I’d been thinking about how everything I’ve done in life will be forgotten after I’m gone.
I’m not moping about it. I’ve just had more time to think lately. And to my surprise, I’m more at peace now than ever.
What helped get me there is a story in The New York Times Magazine this week about John McPhee, the revered New Yorker writer and teacher of writing at Princeton. McPhee has written 29 books, won a Pulitzer for “Annals of the Former World,” and just published “Draft No. 4,” a book about writing, which I am reading, slowly, to savor and learn.
The Times story quotes McPhee: “The fact is that everything I’ve written is very soon going to be absolutely nothing — and I mean nothing,” he told The Paris Review in 2010. “It’s not about whether little kids are reading your work when you’re 100 years dead or something, that’s ridiculous! What’s 100 years? Nothing.”
A few years back, or even before I lost my job in July, this would have been hard to take. Most of us, and not only writers with our annoying little egos, hope we’ll be remembered for something.
But that’s not how things work, as we older folks come to know. Time passes, life gets short, and the rich emotional topsoil of your younger self erodes off.
I once wrote compulsively, the way addicts chase addition. I put story copies in file folders, preserving them.
Now I play with my grandchildren nearly every day. And I’m no longer worried that my kids after I’m gone will send my file folders to a recycling center.
Some of my stories did good things, which is part of why I liked them. I wrote once about how the Wichita Children’s Home had run low on supplies, including sandals to give to the runaway children they took in.
Some homeless children they’d taken in had burned their feet walking on hot summer pavement here in Wichita. A few days after my story ran, I did another story, with a photo of the staff at the Children’s Home unloading many boxes of sandals, clothes, shoes, medical ointments and other things to give to homeless kids.
But those things we do that we’re proud of: There comes a time, as with old clothes, where you need to lay them aside.
That’s what I was thinking on that bike ride, just before I saw Roy Beckemeyer: John McPhee apparently made peace with oblivion long ago. But if he did, why keep writing? Why keep researching stories, and learning new things?
The answer in the Times story comes one sentence after his quote about being forgotten: “Learning, (for McPhee), is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone.”
That’s why Roy keeps writing poetry. And why he’s still doing poetry readings once in awhile, whenever he’s invited.
“But nobody ever wants to pay for poetry,” he said. “And no one shows up at poetry readings but other poets.
“I don’t care,” the other Roy said.
“I like poetry.”
So let’s dive in all
the way, wholly, entirely,
with all the abandon we
once brought to each other
every day. In spite of
all the past that’s pulling at our heels,
let’s rush headlong together
as if we had never turned
our backs to one another at all.
Poetry excerpted from “Music I Could Once Dance To” by Roy J. Beckemeyer, (c) 2014, Coal City Press.
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