By Teri Blair
St. Paul’s Icelandic Lutheran Church, Minneota, Minnesota, where the services for Minnesota writer Bill Holm were held, March 2009, photo © 2009 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.
Early on a Sunday morning in March, I drove three hours to attend the funeral of writer Bill Holm. Since that day, I’ve wanted to write about it. But I keep getting stuck. I pace. I try again. The paper is crumpled and thrown in the trash.
What’s wrong? I’m trying to make my writing as grand as Bill was, or as eloquent as I think he deserves. When I stop writing and try to do the dishes instead, I consider what Natalie Goldberg would tell me to do. She’d say, Just tell the story. The story is enough.
The First Settlement, sign outside the St. Paul’s
Icelandic Lutheran Church, March 2009, photo
© 2009 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.
Bill was born on a Minnesota prairie farm, educated at the local public school, and grew to be six-and-a-half feet tall. He had a huge shock of red hair that turned white with age, ruddy cheeks, and a beautiful, booming voice. He left Minnesota after college to live around the world, but by the time he was 40 he had returned to his hometown, to his roots. He taught English and poetry for 27 years at Southwest State, and proceeded to publish 16 books. He bought a house in Iceland, and split his time between Minneota, Minnesota and a cottage near the Arctic Circle. He was bold and certain and convicted. He was funny and irreverent and warm.
I heard Bill speak a year before he died. He was reading from The Window of Brimnes at the Minneapolis Public Library. He was three weeks shy of retirement, and could barely contain his excitement for the next phase of life. No one in the audience could have guessed his new life would only last a year. When Minnesota Public Radio announced he had died after collapsing at the airport, I was crushed. Bill couldn’t be dead. I had just seen him. And he was just starting his new life, remember?
I knew I would go to his funeral. It was obvious. I now consider that I may have ignored that quiet voice telling me to go. I’ve done that before, argued myself out of following my instincts. But this time I didn’t.
I packed a lunch the night before, and got on the road the next morning before daylight. The funeral was at St. Paul’s Icelandic Lutheran Church, built in 1895 by immigrants. Because I knew there wouldn’t be much room in the small church, I got there two hours early. After securing a space in the back pew with my coat and bag, I went to the front to look at the floral arrangements. The flowers had come from around the globe, from everyone. An open copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was in the bouquet from his wife. When I returned to my seat, another early-arriver walked in. Poet Laureate & Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser. When I saw him, I knew what the day was going to be like.
One by one they began to arrive, the gray-haired authors. Many of them I knew, and some I only recognized from book jackets but couldn’t place their names. Ten of them were pallbearers. I was awed. Humbled. I’d watch them approach each other, hug, and weep together over losing their friend. Not competitive. Tender. Attached to each other. I was in the company of greatness, and I knew it. They were steady. Present. The media wasn’t allowed into the church, and there was a hush of holiness. We gathered, and honored, and were still.
The funeral service was a full two hours long. In addition to writing, Bill was an accomplished pianist. There were Bach piano solos and Joplin’s ragtime. An octet from the college sang Precious Lord Take My Hand. Bill’s poetry and essays were read. The preacher made us all laugh when he told how Bill sat in the choir loft during sermons and read the newspaper. Though he didn’t agree with all the theology of Lutherans, he valued his roots in that little church.
When the service was over, Bill’s wife was led out first. A tall woman who looked sad and grounded and strong and peaceful. The author-pallbearers followed her out. Some of them held hands, and they stood very close to each other. I wanted time to move slower, to be with them longer in that small place.
Minneota’s Library, the librarians would call Bill Holm,
and he’d walk there to sign books for the tourists, March
2009, photo © 2009 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.
After ham sandwiches at the American Legion, I found the farm where Bill had been raised. On a deeply secluded road, the old farmstead sat on top of a hill. I got out of my car and looked at the beautiful rolling hills that Bill grew up on. I imagined the hundreds of times he walked down the same long driveway where I stood to wait for the school bus. I drove to the Icelandic cemetery and looked at the graves of his parents, imagining some of his ashes would soon be inurned there, too. I drove home slowly, filled with all I had seen.
Bill would appreciate me going to his funeral, but he wouldn’t want me to stay sentimental too long. He’d expect me to get on with it. Get on with it, now, he’d say. Be alive.
Westerheim Icelandic Cemetery, March 2009,
photo © 2009 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.
Letting Go of What Cannot Be Held Back
by Bill Holm
Let go of the dead now.
The rope in the water,
The cleat on the cliff,
Do them no good anymore.
Let them fall, sink, go away,
Become invisible as they tried
So hard to do in their own dying.
We needed to bother them
With what we called help.
We were the needy ones.
The dying do their own work with
Tidiness, just the right speed,
Sometimes even a little
Satisfaction. So quiet down.
Let them go. Practice
Your own song. Now.
Poem copyright (c)2004 by Bill Holm, from his most recent book of poems “Playing the Black Piano,” Milkweed Editions, 2004.
About Teri Blair: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey fondly and frequently writes. (See Postcard From Billy Collins — Kicking Off National Poetry Month for the latest post on that group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)
Teri is an active and valued member of the red Ravine community. Her other posts include A 40-Year Love Affair, about Bill Irvine’s passion for the Parkway, a landmark theater in Minneapolis that closed in 2008; and 40 Days, 8 Flags, And 1 Mennonite Choir and Thornton Wilder & Bridges, both prompted by the August 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Teri was also one of our first guest writers, with the piece Continue Under All Circumstances.