Dear Diary, dear Willis

In 2012, I made up my mind to use my writing skills on my own life, for my own good. I wrote down one year’s happenings.

January 18, 2012: Wednesday

I look vivid.  Red-and-black plaid pleated skirt, black sweater, Willis Barnstone’s pearls.  I’m also vivid because a person of color.

February 11, 2012: Saturday   

The tenth annual Authors Dinner at the Berkeley Public Library.  The “cocktail hour” seems to last and last, but actually an hour and a half.  Willis Barnstone, now 84 years old, here alone.  Sara had fallen down some stairs.  See her on the cell-phone—bruised, a cut on her chin, her face beautiful and smiling.  From his black briefcase, Willis handed me a flyer and a large-size post card.  I disguised my dismay—I don’t carry a purse, I’m free of stuff.  Now, I’ll have to carry these pieces of paper in my hand all evening.  Willis and I share a karma.  At a bookstore reading, I draped a kukui nut lei around his neck.  He took it off, set it aside, then stood up to read.

The conversation, others joining in, went from Giants vs. Patriots, football, to baseball.  Willis handed out more postcards—Babe Ruth with little Billy Barnstone.

Bharati Mukherjee came up, and complimented Willis and me on our Chinese outfits.  We asked after one another’s children.  Both Bharati and I had counseled Tony Barnstone when he was splitting from his untrue love.  We’d listen to his heartbreak, which poured into his poetry.  I found reading of his torture harder to bear than listening to him.  How can a parent stand it?  But Willis has a daughter, Aliki, and she’s happy in Greece; she’s leading writing workshops.  One of Bharati’s sons has MS.; he’s doing okay.  He and his wife adopted 2 Chinese girls.  “I am the grandmother of 2 beautiful Chinese girls.”  The other son is single, and “knows how to handle money, though he doesn’t have any.”

All the while, I’m comparing the life of my son to the lives of Willis’s sons and Bharati’s sons, and Lilah’s sons.  So, Tony’s now single, and Blaise is single, and Jonathan single, as Joseph is single.

Whenever I have ever seen him, whether in China, L.A., Oakland, Willis seems strong in happiness, strong in equanimity.  I wonder what it is that protects him.  He knows worlds of languages, and myriads of ancient times.  Now, he regaled us with a story about himself at 15, dating a beautiful Mexican girl of 17.  I recognize the story—he’s told it before, but each time with brio and élan, and each time entering it at a different place.  I’m into it before I recognize a story I’ve heard already.  “I went out with her twice—and my father married her.”  The amazed listeners calculate what age father was.  Sometimes, he starts, “I’m visiting my stepmother.”  And we marvel that an 84-year-old man can have a mother.

This night, Willis also told about 2 members of his family who committed suicide.  (2 brothers?  Mother and brother?)  I asked, “What keeps you going till eighty-four cheerful and happy?”  He guessed it was genetic, D.N.A., his natural disposition.  “But,” I said, “your unhappy family members have the same genetics.”  Before I could get Willis to give me a better explanation for his positiveness, a man stepped between us, and kissed my hand.  People were lining up to talk to me, and to Willis.

On the way in to dinner, I got rid of one of the pieces of paper that Willis gave me.  It was an announcement of the reading that he and Stanley Moss are to do at Diesel.  I placed it on a library table.  The Babe Ruth post card I put in the goody swag bag at my seat.  The books of tonight’s authors were the centerpiece, and also gifts.

Willis corrected the festschrifts to him.  And interrupted the emcee, corrected the name of his high school, and his age.  He’s 84, not 81.  Earll teased Willis for “professorial footnoting.”

March 19, 2012:  Monday  

Yesterday, we went to hear Willis read at Diesel Books.  I hugged and talked with Sarah, who has her teeth wired shut; she’d fallen and broken her chin.  But she’s beautiful as always, and could talk, like a ventriloquist.  Willis has been cooking for her, buying soup at Trader Joe’s, and puréeing it.  She taught him how to use a blender.  The scar under her chin barely shows.

Willis Barnstone and Stanley Moss are in their 80s, Willis 84 and Stanley 86.  They are stronger and smarter than most people of any age.  But each, in the middle of his reading, fumbled for the correct page.  Willis couldn’t find a book, ran over to Sarah, who was on the sofa in front of me, ran back to the podium, found the book on a ledge behind him.  Poets will do that—lose their place, their glasses, drop things, drop their papers, lose the only draft of a new poem.  Earll and I can think of 3 poets who are organized in public—Bob Hass, Carolyn Kizer, and, surprisingly, Rich Di Grazia.

From the perspective of long lives, both Willis and Stanley read poems on childhood and on God.  Of his many languages, Willis read in English and in Spanish and in French.  He remembers the language of childhood too, “Snot” and “Shit,” poems.  He shouted the 7 seals open.  He had translated Revelations from the Greek, the Gospels also, and renamed The New Testaments, The New Covenant.  He de-lined Jesus’s sermons into poems.  To my ear, Willis sounds intellectual, foreign, light, airy.  The poetry is coming from his mind.  Maybe I’m hearing wrong because of knowing that he is not Christian.  He’s not religiously Jewish either.  He’s told me that the closest thing he has to a religion is Manichaeism.  He edited The Gnostic Bible, revised and expanded it.

Stanley Moss stood bent over his book, made eye-contact when speaking but not when reading.  I caught an optical illusion that his eyelids were his open eyes glaring up at us.  He has a deep voice that seems to come out of dark caverns.  Earll was thinking, ‘Let me see if I can receive those words, how much I can memorize upon first listening.’  He memorized much of ‘Please,and recited it to me: ‘I think every living thing no matter how rude has a way of asking please  please  please. …  Please, please kill me.’

Earll asked Stanley Moss if he were related to Howard Moss.  He answered, “… first cousins.”  But I misheard that it was Willis who’s Stanley’s cousin.  Poets run in families!

June 5, 2012: Tuesday    

I’ve asked Willis Barnstone:  Which of the belief systems you know is yours?  Willis answered; he chose: “Manichaeism.”  Fazed me.  So, it’s good versus evil.  Not Buddhist non-duality.  Must’ve been kidding.

Once I told Willis about my visions of infinitely branching life moments.  He said, “You should get an M.R.I.”  Actually, I did go to the doctor, and she sent me for an M.R.I.  Found nothing wrong with my brain.

April 27, 2021: Wednesday

Cosmic consciousness. Willis and I met in Beijing 40 years ago.  He was so kind that he mailed our heavy purchases—rugs!—home for us.  I didn’t know until too late that cartons and boxes are hard to come by in China.  Another big thing he did for me was to give I Love A Broad Margin To My Life an editorial read. Scansion. Naming—give “it” a name.  Chinese—sound, time.  Wittman Ah Sing.  Fa Mu Lan’s suicide.   My memory’s funny—

Had he wanted me to delete Wittman, or to add more?   Did he say that Fa Mu Lan did kill herself or did not kill herself?  Whatever, he influences me. I do remember that he said, “Don’t say ‘U.S.’  Say ‘U.S.A.’”I feel full of thanks to him. He shows me how to picture, specially faces of people and animals. And how to live.

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was conferred the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton, and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. (Photo credit: Michael Lionstar)
Maxine Hong Kingston

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Author: Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was conferred the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton, and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. (Photo credit: Michael Lionstar)