David Budbill On Illness And Writing

Jun 30, 2016

Writer David Budbill is well known in Vermont and beyond for his play Judevine, as well as for his work as a poet. Over a year ago, Budbill was diagnosed with PSP, or progressive supranuclear palsy – a degenerative condition that is characterized as a rare form of Parkinson's Disease. Now based in Montpelier, he spoke to Vermont Edition about his current life and work, including the effects of his illness.

"I can't stand up. And my eyesight and my vision, my handwriting have gone to hell in a hand basket," Budbill says of his physical condition. "But other than that, I'm perfectly normal."

Glib, even in illness, Budbill does admit to an emotional toll, as well, that accompanies his condition.

"There's a lot of depression, because my life has been totally altered," Budbill says. "I can't do anything physical."

Budbill uses a walker or wheelchair to get around and he is dependent on other people.

"I don't have any time that I'm not with somebody else and that in itself is, especially for me, depressing," he says.

In his poetry, Budbill has long celebrated the values of independence and physical labor. In the 2010 collection "Happy Life," he ruminated on the joy to be found in his own aging body. In one line of the poem "I Love My Aging Self This Way," he wonders why the simple chore of chopping wood is so satisfying. The repetitive motions of chopping, sorting, and stacking wood from the trees on his former Wolcott property are ones that Budbill returns to again and again in his writing. And now, as his physical health declines, putting the wood away for winter is an activity that he says he aches for.

"I miss it terrifically," Budbill says. "I miss all parts of it. I miss the dirty, sweaty, oil-and-gas-stained clothes. I miss walking to the woods. I miss cutting the wood. I miss everything about it ... I think [stacking wood] is one of the great joys of life. I get such a sense of satisfaction when the woodshed is full and we're ready for winter."

The view from David Budbill's home in Montpelier. Budbill says physical independence and communing with nature are things his illness has taken from him that he misses greatly.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

In a 2010 interview, well before his diagnosis, Budbill said he had a lot of plans for the future. "I'm just getting warmed up," he told Vermont Edition. "I've got so many projects going that I think the 70s for me are going to be hell-bent for leather. I'm not slowing down at all. And so that's one of the things that I think is kind of contraindicated about aging, and I don't feel like slowing down a bit."

Frustratingly, for him, he has had to slow down significantly since his diagnosis. But that doesn't mean he's stopped publishing. Budbill says he has three books that will be released within the next year: a children's book, a novel and a collection of poems.

"When I got this diagnosis, which was about a year ago, I hustled those into print," Budbill explains. "I finished them, because I [knew] that they might be my last books."

"I can't stand up. And my eyesight and my vision, my handwriting have gone to hell in a handbasket. But other than that, I'm perfectly normal." - David Budbill

In the past several months, the prolific author says he's written just one poem, for a book he's calling Parkinson's. It's about his first realization that something was really wrong with him.

He was planting potatoes and "I kept falling over into the row and I couldn't get up," Budbill says, adding this kept happening over and over. "Since then I've thought about plenty of symptoms prior to that, but only after this initial incident."

Budbill's not sure if or when the book will be finished. "How it All Began" is the only poem he's written. "That's the only one that's come to me so far," he says. He will admit to being worried that other poems just won't come to him, a worry he didn't have to deal with much before his illness. But he hopes there's more writing left in him.

Friends and fans aren't waiting for new books to celebrate David Budbill and to share their admiration for his body of work. Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier held a celebration of his work on June 13th, his 76th birthday, honoring the writer with readings and music. Budbill says it was remarkable to hear his work, especially poems, read by others. And he particularly loved the interpretations that were furthest from the way he says he would have read them himself.

While PSP has taken much of his autonomy and independence, Budbill's ability to ruminate on his challenges remains intact. So, too, his Zen approach to life, an approach he now applies to dealing with illness.

"I don’t know how I cope with it," Budbill says. "I just do."