The Other Side of Solitude (story poem)

When I was in high school, I had a very serious intention to work just enough to save money for a boat, load it with various vegetable seed packets, a few fishing poles, and enough supplies to last a lifetime, find a tropical island and abandon mankind altogether. The idea persisted for years, especially when I was working at jobs I didn’t care for or sitting in traffic breathing carcinogenic fumes. So I wrote this poem to put the idea to rest once and for all. The peace of solitude is delightful only temporarily. The spirit withers and dies without at least one other soul to share our lives with.

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I was on my way to work a while back,
just trying to earn a few lousy bucks.
I was running late again, as usual.
Why? Because L.A. traffic sucks!

To make matters worse, I was dog tired
and “dog tired” is the perfect description
because my neighbor’s mutt barked so much,
I couldn’t fall sleep without a prescription.

On weekends, when I might have caught up on sleep,
I was kept awake by all the neighborhood brats
screaming their heads off and bouncing balls.
The little suckers were always driving me bats!

Oh, and let’s not forget the other city sounds
like sirens, garbage trucks and leaf blowers,
chainsaws, car horns, and low-flying planes,
loud neighbors, jackhammers, and lawnmowers!

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I would tell you all about my wonderful job
but it was so bad, you just might start crying.
It was the most mind-numbing job imaginable.
If I described it, you’d think I was lying!

Coming home, stuck in traffic, as usual,
my mind would drift to my “happy place”,
an imaginary island where I would go
to escape from the city’s rat race.

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There, palm trees swayed in gentle tradewinds.
There was white sand and a turquoise-green sea.
But the greatest thing about my fantasy island
was that there was nobody else there but me!

I would daydream about exploring the tidepools.
My job could be inventing new kinds of fun
like surfing, diving, playing with dolphins,
and laying around under the tropical sun.

I was so lost in my fantasy, I didn’t see
the streetlight changing from yellow to red.
The next thing I knew, I was spinning around
and when I woke up, I thought I was dead.

A nurse was looking down at me, smiling.
She said, “Hello, there! How do you feel?”
The next greeting I got was from Mr. Pain.
Let me tell you, the agony was unreal.

It took me over six months to walk again.
By then, I was more convinced than ever
that the city would be the death of me yet
so I made a plan I thought was real clever.

I would quit my job, clear out my savings,
sell my house and everything else that I own,
then buy a small boat and some fishing poles,
find that island and live my life all alone.

I’d had it with struggling and busting my hump
at a lousy job that held no meaning for me.
Who says I have to contribute to progress?
The stupid hive wouldn’t miss one less bee.

There are hundreds of islands out in the Pacific
and a few that haven’t been found by Marriott yet.
The next thing I knew, I was at the helm of my boat
with only a map but no job, no boss, and no debt!

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I sailed for months and searched high and low.
I saw many islands that looked perfectly fine
but on almost every one, I saw human beings,
and I’d had enough of them for one lifetime.

I was starting to become very annoyed and frustrated
when off in the distance, through my brass telescope,
I saw a fertile, green island that looked deserted!
I shouted with joy and my heart swelled with hope.

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I anchored my boat and paddled the raft to shore,
then explored the whole island from side to side.
It was a true paradise full of peace and tranquility.
It was so beautiful, I just broke down and cried.

The next few months were harder than I had expected.
I had to build a hut that could withstand all the seasons.
But on nights when the wind would rattle the walls,
I wondered why I left and had to search for the reasons.

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Finding food was hard, too. The fish didn’t always bite.
I was so unskilled with a spear, I felt like a putz.
I got so hungry one time, I almost went crazy.
I mean, one can only eat so many damn coconuts!

Still, anything was better than sitting in traffic
doing two miles an hour in a square, metal tomb,
wasting my life at a job I truly detested
and seeing nothing but my own little room.

I felt like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe
living a simple life by my own blue lagoon.
I thought about my neurotic boss back in L.A.
working himself to death; that pathetic buffoon.

At long last, I found the peace and quiet I’d sought
while lying in the sand, surfing, tanning and such.
I enjoyed it for a while, but I gradually realized
that you can even have peace and quiet too much!

Businessman on Deserted Island --- Image by © Paul Barton/Corbis

The more time passed, the more I fought to remember
all the reasons I had run from the world of man.
I’d spent a year of my life struggling to survive
with nothing to show for it but a hut and a tan.

This caused me great sadness and confusion
because for years, I had dreamed of this place.
Who would have thought that after only a year,
I would be longing to see another human face?

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I missed conversations, and even the arguments,
though they had once caused me so much dismay.
I even missed the sounds of the bustling city,
the great din and clamor, and children at play.

I missed reading the newspaper in the morning,
though the pain there drove me out of my mind.
But how could I stop caring about my human family
or pretend that I’m not a part of mankind?

What was more noble? More virtuous and wise?
To hide there and ignore humanity’s plight?
Or to add my voice to the battle against evil?
To get dirty and bloodied in the good fight?

I spent a few months trying to convince myself
that I was just going through a homesick phase
but I started finding it harder to sleep at night
and a terrible loneliness enveloped my days.

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Finally, the peace on the island grew much too dark
so I pulled up my anchor and headed for home.
I had learned the first truth God Himself did of man –
That it’s not good for anyone to live all alone.

After six weeks at sea, the harbor approached.
The town was throbbing with life, garish and loud.
I docked my boat, and with a heart full of joy,
blended back into the crazy, wonderful crowd.

Top 25

To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

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A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.

All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.

The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.

The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.

Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.

A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.

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Providence

Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?

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I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.

It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.

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I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With  a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.

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A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.

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They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.

Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.

These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”

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~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930

 

11. Homeless

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The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –

A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!

End of the Road (love poem)

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I once walked through a forest,
deep and cool and wild,
filled with awe and wonder
as if I were just a child.

I once stood on a mountain.
Ancient winds flew through my hair.
It seemed the world around me
had become a silent prayer.

But despite the roads I traveled
and all the ground I gained,
this empty place, this darkness
in my spirit, still remained.

I’ve walked a thousand lonely miles
and crossed stormy oceans blue
searching for a feeling
that I’ve found right here with you.

And I could tell a thousand stories
of what the earth, to me, has shown
but all the beauty of this world
falls far short of your own.

For there is no greater wonder
nor peace that I have found
than holding you in darkness
with your heart the only sound.

Your laughter heals my deepest sorrow
and your eyes, so kind and warm,
have become this torn ships refuge
from a bitter, raging storm.

Gratitude (poem)

A segment of this poem appeared in the books Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Soul – Older and Wiser. I hope you enjoy it!

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Poets, it seems, are often too dismal
as if life and all in it were truly abysmal.
I too often strive to soothe worries with rhyme,
dwelling on sorrows and the passage of time.
When there’s so much to celebrate, to chance and explore!
Seems very ungrateful to wish there was more.

Say I wrote all my troubles, one by one, in a row.
How much further the list of my blessings would go!
Just look at this glorious Eden we live in.
Can you think of one thing we haven’t been given?
Miraculous! Perfect! Not one thing is wrong.
Still, men find every reason to not get along.
We have moonlight and sunsets and rainbows and flowers.
Deep, starry nights and bright, happy sun showers.
Wondrous creatures, every kind, shape and size.
Birds singing to greet us each day when we rise.
Such wonder and mystery without and within.
Well, I’m too full of love to hold it all in.
My heart feels as though it may split at the seams.
It can barely contain all my plans, hopes and dreams.
I’m completely astonished, awakened and free.
I’m everything that life should be!

I climb up a mountain to breathe in the air
and leave behind with each step one more useless care.
The sun ripples like laughter across the wide sea.
I smile at a flower and it smiles back at me.
The wind lifts a scent from the meadow below
and reminds me of the first girl I kissed, long ago.
I kneel in the clover, feel my spirit expand.
A bright butterfly stops to rest on my hand.
The clouds, ever present, yet no two the same
give lively imaginations a game.
“Look! A sailboat! A rabbit! An angel! A swan!.”
And it’s the best kind of game because no one’s ever wrong.

Everyone should have a special place like my hill
just to rest and let the mind roam free where it will.
Far away from the traffic, the noise and the dust
in the crystal clear sunshine of a world they can trust.
Life’s easy to master when we strive not to worry
and snatch up the whip from the cruel hand of hurry.
When we stop struggling to accumulate more than we need
for the god with the insatiable appetite – greed.
You can’t take it with you. That old line is true.
And you know, when it’s all said and done, we won’t want to.
For when our old, mortal husks fall away and are buried,
all we’ll need is the goodness and love that they carried.
So relax into life, breathe deep and let go.
Attain what you need but don’t sell your soul.
For it’s a treasure far beyond the mere baubles of men
and once lost, much harder to earn back again.

Just a few thoughts from my heart to yours
hoping that one or maybe two will endure
to make some dreary day a little bit brighter
and the load that you carry, perhaps, a bit lighter.
Though the author claims no special wisdom or power
to lecture from atop some ivory tower.
I’m just one more soul, no different from you,
whose made all the mistakes and a few new ones, too.
But somehow survived all those nights without end,
my tired, tattered spirit refusing to mend,
wondering what so much pain could be for,
the spiritual carnage of a personal war.
For it’s in punishing ourselves that we can be most unkind
and the most torn, fearful battles take place in the mind.
But the hardest climb leads to the best, brightest view
so this is my humble message to you
like a bottle set adrift on some far, lonesome shore
from my small, solitary island to yours . . .

Though we may never meet, we are friends through this poem.
In this way, we can never be truly alone.
For though we’re apart in time, place and name,
we are joined in the same, sanctified mortal game.
We may differ in doctrine, language and race
but in the most sacred ways, we have perfect grace.
We both dream and love. We both bleed and cry.
And as sure as we’re living, we someday must die.
So now, while the grapes are plump on the vine,
take time to laugh and savor the wine.
Turn your heart to the beauty that’s in and around you.
Walk gently, with love, and the same will surround you.
You’ll surely see further the farther you go.
And remember – it’s pain which helps us to grow.
For with all of its sadness, its heartache and strife,
with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.
Yes, with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.

 

God’s Grand Idea

During the last presidential election campaign, Ben Carson made a very good point about the Internet and the deteriorating state of civility in America. Referring to the Internet, he said (paraphrased), “You can read almost any news story online, then look in the comment section and find people cussing at each other. Where did this hateful spirit come from? It certainly didn’t come from our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

I’m pretty sure things have gotten worse on both sides of any spectrum one could name – political, social, racial, national, economic, etc., since the election results came in.

Of course, most of the people saying horrible things to others online are operating under nicknames, and most would never be brave enough to say such things to others in person. The anonymity of the Internet makes them both brave and unnaturally rude. Thus our dilemma.

About ten years ago, I was wondering if the Internet unites or divides us and wrote the poem below. Unfortunately, I fear it’s just as true today, maybe more. I sure hope humanity does some work on itself soon. I don’t know how many more chances we’re going to get. 

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One day, the good Lord was looking down on us all
And, as usual, wondering where He went wrong,
When He had a crazy idea He named “The Internet”
And thought, “They should have had this all along!”

“I’ll plant the idea in somebody’s head down there
And when they can all finally talk with each other,
All this fighting will be replaced by understanding
And every man will rush to help his brother.”

So He did just that, then went away for a week,
Which to Him is about twenty of our mortal years.
When He returned, he logged on, wildly curious,
But what He saw nearly drove Him to tears.

His first stop was a popular site called You Tube.
But He found everyone fighting about everything.
“I can’t believe it,” He cried. “What’s wrong with them?”
This isn’t what I hoped my Internet would bring!”

He searched, still hoping, but found endless depravity.
There was some good here and there but, all in all,
He felt that His gift had been hijacked and graffiti’d,
Nothing more than a sophisticated bathroom wall.

What He hoped would bring peace and prosperity
Had become rude, ungodly, vile and unkempt.
“I hoped it wasn’t true of My children,” He thought,
“But it seems familiarity really does breed contempt.”

Ulster (poem)

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There are those who say that Ulster is a place of hate and pain.
but many who have left it would still go back again.
The strangers do not see behind the bombs and flames and smoke
and fail to see the character of the kindly Ulster folk.

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But we have memories of the days when we were young and gay.
Those carefree romps through Ormeau Park or over Cave Hill’s Bray.
The Saturdays at Windsor, the Sundays by the sea,
the bathing belles at Pickie, the sands at Donaghadee.

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Our best suit pressed and ready and we were Plaza-bound
but first a stop at Mooney’s and pints bought all around.
The Sunday morning papers, the bacon and dip bread,
then a dander to the castle where all the scores are read.

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Back to work on Monday, the weekend’s tales are told
while the oldsters smile and chuckle as our youthful tales unfold.
A new girl in the office, she’s a quare wee bit o’ stuff.
Is she going strong, you wonder, as you act so big and tough.

Those were the days, there is no doubt, as my memory wanders back.
That is what we all recall, not the rifle’s crack.
Will it ever be the same, you ask, will today’s kids ever know
the simple life we all enjoyed a long, long time ago.

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~ John Sidney Rickerby

My father was an outspoken critic of terrorism. I remember an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times opinion section titled Who Killed Little Michelle? about a little girl killed by an IRA bomb. She was incinerated on a bus. I remember finding an underground newspaper hidden in one of his drawers as a child when I was looking for a pen or some other item. It had a photo of the girl’s charred body on a metal gurney. The caption read, “This is what the IRA did to a seven-year old girl.” I remember staring at that photo until I felt the impulse to vomit. I put it back and went on with my day, but the image never really left me, and like most, I began to associate Belfast with horrors like that.

He received a few death threats after that L.A. Times article for opposing IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorism. He was also interviewed on television and radio. He believed that terrorism – murdering civilians, especially children – is a greater evil than anything a terrorist group is upset about. This simple truth – that killing a child over a grievance with a government is wrong – was lost on many in those days, and still is today in many parts of the world.

I’m glad to report that the situation in Belfast has improved immensely. Some of the old prejudices remain intact, of course, but during my trips back, most of the young people I spoke with, north or south, told me they were fed up with conflict and just want the troubles to end once and for all.

I helped my father write his memoir, The Other Belfast, and released it in 2010, four years before he died from Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia. He was always the singer, story and joke teller, and biggest personality in any room so the effects of those diabolical diseases were even more hard to witness. I miss him every day and all the stories he told and retold me. When he was healthy and asked if I had heard one story or another, I would usually say, “Yeah, da. I heard it.” That was especially true while we were working on his book. I would say, “Da, that story is in your book! Of course I’ve heard it, ya eejit.” He would laugh and tell me the story again anyway. But when he was sick and starting to forget everything, I always said, “No, da. You never told me that one. I’d love to hear it.” He got such joy from storytelling. 

In his younger, crusading days, it broke his heart to see his hometown so divided. As the title suggests, his book is about the nature of Belfast and the Belfast people before the troubles began – kind of a Northern Irish version of Angela’s Ashes. 

Despite his criticisms of terrorism, he didn’t use the book as a forum to take sides. In fact, his stories depict the divisions on both sides that led to the full-scale conflict later. For instance, he was walking to a soccer game with his dad one morning and they saw dirty milk bottles on a front step. His father said, “Look at that. You just know a fenian (Catholic) lives in that house. Only a Catholic wouldn’t wash the milk bottles out before leaving them on the step.” When they arrived home after the game, they saw milk bottles on their own porch, with milk at the bottom of them. My father joked, “Oh, no! Look, dad! Catholics must have taken over our house!” His father said “shut up” and didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

I added a lot of content to his book – mostly emotional nuances that he was too proud or strong to mention, such as how he felt when one of his childhood friends and the star of his soccer team died of Polio. It was like filling in missing pieces to me, and I knew him so well, I didn’t feel like I was exaggerating. Like most men of his generation, he was tough on the outside but soft on the inside. I used to joke that he was “hard candy with a gooey center.” So he told the stories in the book and I took care of the gooey stuff. Anytime it gets Michael Landon-ey, that’s me. 

One of the greatest things he ever said to me was near the end of his life, when the effects of Parkinson’s and Dementia were just starting. He said, “I talked about writing that memoir for forty years but never finished it because I always thought, who am I to think my story is so special? I didn’t go to the moon, or survive a POW camp, or cure a disease, or do anything remarkable in the grand scheme of things. But after reading the book, I realized my life was extraordinary in its own way. You made that possible for me, son. Thank you.” 

My wife and mother were in the room and talking to each other about something else but they could tell I was moved by something my dad said so they asked what happened. I told them, “Dad just said something wonderful to me, and no offense, but I want to keep that one to myself for a little while.” I savored that comment now after all the work we put into his book, and I savor it even more now that he’s gone.

If you’d like to order a copy of The Other Belfast, it’s available online at dozens of websites, or you can order it by Paypal for $17.95 at address mrickerby@yahoo.com (includes S&H). Add $20 to shipping outside the U.S., please. (Yeah, I know. That’s what it costs now.) If you do order, thank you in advance for helping me promote my father’s legacy of peace.