Richard Lemm: for the first time
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
–T.S. Eliot: “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets
My first home, with my mother and maternal grandparents, was in a tenement across from Garfield High School in Seattle. My mother and uncle were students there, as was my legendary football coach, Brennan King, the first African American high school head coach in Washington State, and Jimi Hendrix, who played one of his final concerts on Garfield’s auditorium stage when he received an honorary diploma. When I visited Garfield to do research for my memoir, and climbed up and down stairs, I let my hand slide along the old wooden bannisters and thought: the hands of my mother, uncle, Coach King, and Hendrix helped smooth this wood. The school was gutted for restoration the following year, those bannisters gone, but the thrilling sensation of touching the wood their hands had burnished has remained.
My grandparents and I moved when I was four to our own home on Mt. Baker Ridge, with a spectacular view of Lake Washington, the Cascade Mountains, and the majestic dormant volcano Mt. Rainer. I learned carpentry and house painting from my grandfather as we rebuilt our back porch, and cooking and singing from my grandmother as we peeled and cored apples for pies on the porch while harmonizing to “Tea for Two” and “Blue Moon.”
In the winter, I awoke early and read books while sitting on the floor grate delivering furnace heat to the upstairs. A small spare room beside the grate was “the book room,” where copious mysteries and westerns and Book of the Month selections were tossed into another dormant volcano.
In the spring, I was at John Muir Elementary at 7:30 for the morning baseball game. Looming in the main hallway was a portrait of the Scottish-American pioneer of conservation and wilderness preservation, a figure with whom I was vaguely aware as a Boy Scout. In the summer, I played sports in the neighbourhood streets for hours each day, practised dance moves with friends to James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner, served mass at St, Clement’s Anglican Church, and read books in the evening and watched my favourite show, Have Gun Will Travel with the splendid actor Richard Boone. As for chores, as an only child I was on the roof shingling with Grandpa, making pie crusts with Grandma, mowing the lawn, canning fruit, dusting furniture, and pruning the pear tree.
I attended Franklin High, Garfield’s arch-rival. On the football field, I revered and pushed myself to the limit for Coach King. In the classroom, elegant Eva Doupé introduced me to Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye, while dignified James Brittain had me both scanning Shakespeare’s sonnets and doing free writing to electronic music. In warm weather, after track practice, I sometimes sat in a favourite madrona tree beside Lake Washington, reading Japanese haiku, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Sappho, and Lorca. My girlfriend and I would read James Baldwin in the evening while listening to Miles and Coltrane. I still have the leather-bound Whitman book, which travelled in my backpack through many mountain valleys and passes and along wilderness beaches, now with the faint aroma of campfire smoke and salt sea spray stains.
All these years later, I still thrive on sports, though they’re no longer football, baseball, and basketball, but golf, tennis, yoga, walking, and hiking. I still listen to Miles when walking our dog, Théo, and I’ll often do yoga while watching the Blue Jays and Raptors, or British detective shows, partly a consequence of reading my grandparents’ mysteries in the book room.
The reading that began on that furnace grate or by flashlight became more focused as a professor of Canadian and Post-Colonial literature at UPEI, though the latter has immersed me in dozens of cultures and histories, from Maori novels to Yoruba poetry to South Asian fiction. A half-dozen years ago, I joined a book club, the UFC – Ultimate Fiction Club – though we do read some poetry and memoirs. For decades I had stringently considered how my reading might relate to my teaching. Now, with the UFC, it’s like getting in a starship and jumping through hyperspace with no clue about the destination and planet to be visited, except when it’s my turn to be navigator. And that brings its own terror: choosing a book that will not disappoint.
When I first discovered poetry, in my senior year of high school, I was in love with T.S. Eliot. Who wasn’t in the Sixties? One of the famous passages that burned itself into my brain back then, from “Little Gidding” in The Four Quartets, is “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
In 1983, I arrived on a small island on the eastern edge of Turtle Island, and I daily explore my adopted place – its landscape, history, culture, people, and spirit. Yet I return often to the place where I started: in photon bursts of memory, prolonged reverie, research, conversation, and writing. I am beginning to know that place for the first time.