…I am waiting
to get some intimations
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from “I Am Waiting” (1958)
CAPE COD HOSPITAL, HYANNIS — Coming out of the anesthesia after the third operation on my feet for wounds inflicted by diabetes, my first thought was of food. During my two previous post-operation hospital stays, I discovered that, by the time early evening operations were over, the kitchen was closed. This time, I had stashed a meal.
I come by my obsession with food honestly, as my father’s most pressing concern in life was what the next meal would be. At the beginning of lunch, my father would begin discussing dinner options. The evening meal included breakfast details.
My mother recently sent me a note: “So we are in a doctor’s office because they think he has broken something he is in a wheelchair he is on oxygen and all of a sudden his nose is spurting blood all over the office, they’re running all over the place to try and stop it, he turns to me and says where are we going for lunch?”
When I started public school, my serious attention disorder became obvious because it crippled my ability to learn. One time, when I came home from school, my mother angrily informed me that my teacher had called to report that on a 15-word spelling test I had gotten 16 words wrong. At the top, I had written “Seplling Test.” On an almost daily basis, school was deeply humiliating.
Still, despite an abysmal academic record, I went to college, because that was what you did. Four years later, I graduated with a B.A., having no thoughts of a career. Living was cheap and easy; my main plan was to not grow up.
Getting all metaphysical: life was and life is. Having neither plans nor expectations for most of my life led to an exciting run. Starting a weekly newspaper, the Austin Chronicle, was getting on a roller coaster that had no defined end, but just kept running. One day we were street, and then we were the man. Then time passed, and we weren’t even the man. For 35 years, we had to continually reinvent ourselves: not just make slight cosmetic changes but rethink every aspect. As we were always dealing with the present, all planning involved the immediate. We did not have our eyes on the prize; we weren’t looking much ahead at all.
Only in the rearview mirror did our lives become coherent.
During my months of recovery, from surgery and addiction, I felt trapped between the wheelchair and the bed. Everything was black and white. There was little shading and no emotional punctuation. I tried to remember hope. Nothing was exciting. Movies, which I have always loved, were flat. Everything lacked taste.
My friend Kelly reminded me of other recoveries, in other times: “Like when the medics asked if you were hallucinating, and you said, ‘Not unless you’re not here.’ ”
My saving grace has always been a determined naïveté. Sure, I’m weathered, but I’ve never succumbed to cynicism, despite any number of rough years filled with professional and emotional turmoil. Nor did I indulge in mindless optimism. The more you live, the more you learn. Current times are ever more troubling and intense. It seems there are more steps backward than forward.
But you learn that you are on a journey. The Cape, my foot operations, and Covid marked this most recent and still unfinished journey. Self-awareness springs eternal.
Having held my breath for a way-too-long underwater swim the length of the pool, I just broke through the surface of the water. Having traveled through despair, I’m filled with joy, excited about stepping off into space again. William Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” I’m not sure about that, but experience leads one out of innocence and, maybe, just enough more leads you back to innocence.
I’m not sure I’ve arrived anywhere, but I am out there with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, waiting.
Louis Black, of Austin and Wellfleet, was co-founder of the Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest. This column was written before Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death on Feb. 22 at age 101.