“. . . as we gather losses, we may also grow in love. . .” (Julia Spicher Kasdorf)

Salome - a moment of reality

Salome – a moment of reality

In about 1986 my friend (in some ways my dearest friend) Gina told me that her 30th birthday had been wild and fun; that on her 40th birthday she threw herself the biggest party of her life, remembering the old book, Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin; that she and David had a quiet dinner on her 50th birthday; that she had had another wild party on her 60th birthday; that none of those “milestone” birthdays had bothered her one bit. “But my 70th—this is hard. I can’t imagine being 70.”

In 77 days, assuming nothing untoward like my being run over by a Mack truck, I will endure my 70th birthday. I will have completed my 70th year with only minor (perhaps) disappointments. I wish Gina were still around to assure me it will be OK. She lived to be much older.

Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, December 6, 1962. She has published several books of poetry and two widely acclaimed works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.

I’m not sure how someone who is only 52 years old can write a poem about getting old, or—perhaps—about dying. However, that was Shakespeare’s age when he died, and he wrote a great deal about aging and dying. Of course, as I understand it, 52 would not have been thought of as an early death in Shakespeare’s time.

For the past ten days I have been trying to write to no avail. That’s not exactly true. I have written a great deal, none of which I would put here both because of the incomprehensibility of the writing and because of the subject matter.

Happy Birthday, old timer

Happy Birthday, old timer

Gina was about my parents’ age. I’ve forgotten exactly when she was born, but she was of my parents’ generation. I remember my father’s 40th birthday, August 21, 1954. Our church, the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, NE, of which he was pastor, had a picnic—a large gathering—at Pioneer Park just north of the high school. Someone gave my father a copy of Pitkin’s book as a joke (but he read it and found it interesting after he stopped laughing about it).

The other memorable event at the picnic was that, when everyone else sang, “Happy Birthday, Pastor Knight,” at the appropriate point in the song, my brother sang (shouted, rather), “Happy Birthday, old timer,” and cracked up the crowd.

How, how on earth, do I remember that?

I don’t remember my 40th birthday. Probably because it was just another drunken evening. I have no idea. My partner Frank had bought his house in Beverly, MA, by that time, and we were living there in splendid inebriated isolation. My PhD was on hold while I tried (several times unsuccessfully) to get sober. A couple of months after my birthday, I got it together enough to travel to Los Angeles to play an organ recital at the Wilshire Avenue Methodist Church, where a dear friend was the music director, marking the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach.

Now I’m approaching the end of my 70th year.

Everything I’ve written for the past 10 days has been about the process of becoming an old person. I’m not hating this. I’m not depressed by it (any more than normal). There’s little in my life that is not OK. I’m tutoring my guys (SMU football and basketball players—what fun that is!). I’m teaching my little ESL class for adults at the Aberg Literacy Center. I’m substituting as organist now and then. I’m keeping too busy and making enough money that I haven’t yet had to dip into my retirement funds.

I think—at least it’s my experience, and I can speak for no one else (I haven’t talked with friends about it)—my feelings about things in general are more intense than they ever have been. I thought as one aged, one had less emotion. I have more.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes my feelings about, for example, the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israelis while the world stands by doing nothing—no, actually assisting—more heightened as time passes.

It’s not my clinical depression that makes me care more about the racism and classism that surrounds and stifles my guys, and all college athletes who happen to be black.

It’s not my clinical depression that nearly makes me weep over the idiocy of the American public’s conviction that we have an “Ebola crisis,” when the entire fixation is trumped up by the news media and politicians who will use racism to influence votes.

It’s not my clinical depression that grieves my own personal losses of my job, my balance when I get up too fast, my parents (even if that was three years ago), my partner (even if that was 11 years ago), and my ability to think of any word I need at the moment I need it. Or—perhaps most important—my ability to rely on the permanence of loving relationships.

No, I feel grief—and also pleasure and joy—more acutely than ever. I need to begin asking my friends if this is their experience, too. When I was 40, I could imagine that eventually the problems of the world I care about would be fixed. I could imagine that, when a dear friend moved away I could easily find another. I knew that everyone would die eventually, but it was eventually, not soon.

So here’s my reaction to all of this. I have my tickets to the Dallas Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro on October 29, and of Salome on November 6. I’ll watch the Countess forgive her philandering husband and Herod’s daughter dance with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and lose myself in reality.
__________

“First Gestures,” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf (b. 1962)

A long-ago performance

A long-ago performance

Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.

Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.

Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.

“. . . those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. . .” (Czeslaw Milosz)

A bee circling cloverr

A bee circling clover

Today is today. I have to keep remembering that.

It’s almost (no, absolutely) a commonplace, people say it so often that it means nothing, that one must “live in the moment.”

I have a few moments at the moment. I can write—which is what my mind and body both tell me I should be doing—or I can do any one of the hundred other things I can think of doing simply by looking around this room without moving a muscle except to swivel my head.

Laundry. Vacuum the floor. Sort books to give away. Watch “Love it or list it” on the HG channel. Listen to the “news.” Make another cup of coffee. Practice the organ.

Practice the organ or write. Those are the real choices. The writing is winning out at the moment.

What do those 30-40-or 50-year-olds know about living in the moment?

Don’t get all philosophical or doctrinaire about it. I’m sick to death of being told as if were THE truth that I need to live in the moment.

People mean things like “don’t dwell on the past, it’s over—you can’t do anything about it.” Or, “stop worrying about the future—you can’t control it.” So live as if yesterday didn’t happen and as if there’s no tomorrow?

Yesterday DID happen. I wasted quite a lot of time doing things that didn’t accomplish anything much. Or make myself happier or more comfortable in that “moment.” And tomorrow WILL—presumably—happen. I need more time tomorrow. I know that already. I can’t do all the things I want (or need) to do.

Only a white-haired old man, who [is] much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be. . .

That’s living in the moment, I guess. The old man knows today is the end of the world, but he keeps caring for his tomatoes. Like Martin Luther who, at least in legend, when asked while he was planting a tree, what he would do if he knew the Second Coming was about to happen, said he’d keep planting his tree.

If you think you’re living in the moment, you should rethink. According to people who know (such as neurologists and psychiatrists) everything you’ve ever done your little brain remembers. It’s possible to act in the moment, but living there is, well, a fantasy.

I’ll stop talking to “you” and talk to me. I don’t really want to forget (or even to live as if they didn’t happen) the moment when I was 4 years old that I first discovered how much pleasure it gave other people when I played “Silent Night” from memory—and how much pleasure their pleasure added to the pleasure I had simply in the playing. And I can’t (I wish I could) forget the night about the same year that I woke up in my uncle’s bed with his semen all over my body.

Back to “you”: if you can’t face the realities of the past, you should not be reading this.

While he binds his tomatoes

While he binds his tomatoes

If you don’t like to read about my uncle’s semen, I’d suggest you read about Cyberloney. I don’t want to refer anyone to Commentary. It’s a propaganda rag for the most rabidly conservative and one-sided thinking in America, but this article is pretty funny and thought-provoking. (I tried to get the rag removed as a “scholarly” journal from the EBSCO databases, but failed to prove my point, as I single-handedly did with the equally absurd journal First Things—it’s no longer listed as scholarly in EBSCO. I’ll keep trying.)

So two absolutely opposing experiences happened to me at about the same time, and—contrary to the advice to “live in the moment”—both are still with me every moment of every day.

When you get to your 70th year, you might understand (you might not if you’re determined to be successful and happy and rich). And if you’ve never had a year in which two things so chasmally different happened to you and gave you a bit of confusion about “the meaning of life,” you are so lucky that you ought to be selling everything you have and giving to the poor without even a second thought.

Don’t ask me why I’m writing about those two events. Except to say that I need three extra days (thinking about the future) between now and Sunday because I’m going to play (there, I’ve said it—projecting into the future) the organ at one of the most prestigious (if not important) churches in the city on Sunday, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying every time the organist asks me to substitute for him. Those two feelings at once because of the two experiences I had when I was 4.

And I need the three more days to make sure I’ve practiced enough to play well enough to give the church folks pleasure. And to give me pleasure.

And my opinion is that it would destroy my being who I am if I didn’t carry those two experiences with me always. I live in the past. No, I carry the past with me. Perhaps if I didn’t, I’d be the organist at a large and prestigious church or playing recitals all over the world. But I’m not.

For me, living in the moment is not the point (and it wouldn’t be very interesting). My goal is to carry the past with me always, but carry it in such a loving and grateful manner as to make the future—which for me is soon, oh too soon—bearable and beautiful.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover.

So I want to stop worrying about “living in the moment” and find a way—finally—to hold past, present, and future balance. All of it. Good and bad.

“A Song on the End of the World,” by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet, born in a part of Lithuania that was part of Poland after WWI. After WWII he was a Polish diplomat, and in 1950 he was granted political asylum in France. In 1960 he moved to the United States to become a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

I hope James doesn't mind my posting his picture

I hope James doesn’t mind my posting his picture

“. . . as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire. . .” (Billy Collins)

OCD - any table clth will do for hiding

OCD – any table cloth will do for hiding

The other day I Googled “poems about aging” just to see what I would find.

It was a pretty depressing lot.

Now look. I’m not any more depressed than I was 20 years ago. Which ain’t sayin’ much. Yesterday afternoon after I taught my funny little class of adult ESL students—our reading from the news for the day was about that absurd Burger King Japan “black burger,” and we laughed together for an hour—and exercised at the fitness center, and felt just fine, I went to the supermarket and halfway through my shopping, something squeezed itself into my mind, and I wanted to cry.

Now look. Don’t give up on me yet. This is not same-song-100th-verse.

Here’s what’s different. I realized there was so much I wanted to get done yesterday that accomplishment was hopeless. The day could not ever have had enough hours. And that prompted my mind (not my brain—that’s what’s depressed) to think about setting some priorities

that’s an absurd phrase: if something is a priority, that means it comes before everything else, the “first concern” or “taking precedence,” so you can’t set “some” priorities—there can be only one item, idea, task, one whatever that’s the “first”

for the rest of this semester. Still thinking in semesters? The seven athletes I will tutor today for their required “Discovery and Discourse” classes are in the middle of the “semester,” so I guess I am, too. Truth be told, most of them are in the middle of the football season, and that is the real organizing principle of their lives.

So organizing my thinking by the semester makes sense because my schedule for the week is organized around those athletes’ lives.

This week I’ve added the necessity for practicing the organ for playing three services at the second largest Episcopal church in America (it used to be first, but a church in Houston has surpassed it in membership). THREE services on one day. Fortunately, the music for two of them is identical, and the third I will play on my favorite little intimate tracker-action instrument.

All of that—I know—seems much too mundane to be writing about here. Boring. Who cares what my schedule is?

Anyone who is “retired” knows what I’m talking about, I think. There’s all of this stuff to do and no time to do it. That used to be called “stress” or something, and we all simply coped with it. Now it’s called “OMIGOD, what happens if I die tomorrow and all this stuff isn’t finished?” That was never of much concern until August 1, 2014. There was always next week. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it wasn’t that important. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it could be delayed.

Last week sometime I received a voice mail message from some guy in Arizona who identified himself as the representative for my retirement fund saying it is imperative that I call him so decisions can be made about how I want to use the money—annuity, reinvestment, monthly withdrawals. You know.

An old-guy poet

An old-guy poet

I haven’t called him back.

Which is not unusual for me. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always been able to ignore—no, it’s the kind of detail I simply can’t wrap my mind around and get done. I’m not making excuses but simply saying the day he called I was in a state not only of dissociation but physical dizziness. It’s a wonderful experience to feel out of body, creeping through the day feeling as if nothing is real, and then suddenly my head that isn’t real spins around while I’m walking, so the most real thing I feel all day is stumbling and not-quite falling. So he called me about taking care of myself for the rest of my life, and all I can do is tell myself that I really must call him back now that my head isn’t spinning.

But I have to do this (write) first today. Then I have to tutor straight through for 9 to 4. Then I have an appointment with one of my doctors to talk about this spinning, and then I have to practice the organ until it’s time to go to a meeting.

I could barely keep that kind of schedule when I was 40.

So here I am, too old to have any fun (that’s absolutely NOT true) and working harder and being busier than I was just three months ago before I retired.

My cat Chachi (the snowshoes) had to go to the vet yesterday because he’s been scratching fur off his legs. It’s happened before. Some skin irritation. A little prednisone and an antibiotic and he’ll be just fine. But this time the vet says he’s bit OCD. OCD?!

I guess living with me has become more stressful than it used to be. And I’m supposed to be enjoying life in my twilight years.
Right. Maybe all those sad poems about aging are right—not because it’s sad to think about the end creeping (or rushing) up on me, but because I really don’t have time to “invite my soul” (thank you, Walt Whitman) until then.

My favorite of those poems about aging. Not sad. I’ve posted it here before. It really has nothing to do with what I’ve written above. I just like it.

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941 –a real contemporary)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

No time to invite my soul

No time to invite my soul

“. . . a partial temperature drifts down from the sky. . .” Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

Meaning or actuality?

Meaning or actuality?

The last few days my writing has been bits and pieces, attempts to get something started that fizzle into nothing. That’s important only because it may be evidence of something shifting in my inner life, a “sea-change.”

For several days I’ve been in the grip of a physical anomaly that’s familiar yet new. It may not be physical at all. It may be in my mind, not in my brain.

If it’s in my mind, I think it’s not unusual for someone my age. That is to say, the disconcerting sense that “the center will not hold” (William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, “The Second Coming”). If it’s in my brain, Drs. Agostini, Bret, and Daly better figure it out soon!

Dizzy. Dissociated. Disoriented. Dreamlike.

Am I alone in the experience of suddenly realizing I’ve not actually been “there” for the last (how long?) hour? That I chat for with a friend on my way out of the tutoring center, and, by the time I get to the elevator I’m pretty sure it never happened? That I was not physically there at her desk?

What’s that all about, anyway? A normal sense to anyone who stops to think for one moment? Especially anyone who has reached older age than many of the famous personages whose deaths are in the news. Wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life?

One of my father’s favorite Bible verses comes to mind. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:19). I don’t precisely think there’s such a thing as “sin.” And, if there is, I have no idea what it has to do with what I’ve written so far. The injunction, “Come now, and let us reason together,” I suppose.

Let’s be reasonable about this.

He knows what's "only"

He knows what’s “only”

I know dissociation is a common symptom of TLEpilepsy (back to that old song). It means “disoriented” and “dreamlike.” It’s an easy leap of logic from that feeling to one of intense religiosity, or at least spirituality. [What a ridiculous word! Even the bigoted and viciously fundamentalist atheist Sam Harris has written about it.] TLEptics know the experience. Not all of us see visions and dream dreams, but we all know the sense of the “other-worldly.” It’s right here. In our brains. Every day.

It may be, I think, what drives us to write, to try to make sense of the way we feel.

Make sense.

Very little veritably makes sense to me.

Not obvious things. Calling the Koch Brothers “libertarians,” for example, when everyone knows they are simply the greediest sons-of-bitches on earth. Or thinking Ebola or ISIS are a threat to the people who live in my apartment complex, when anyone with half a brain can see both are fear-mongering constructions of big business, the media, and complicit governments. Obvious things which, when one says them, immediately give one the aura of insanity.

Perhaps a certain insanity is a mark of TLEpilepsy. Cassandra (see The Trojan Women) was TLEpileptic? Amos (see the Bible) was TLEpileptic? John Brown (see American history) was TLEptic? Makes sense to me.

Supposed insanity is simply a mark of someone who has non-conformist ideas but is not smart enough to say them in any comprehensible or useful way (perhaps because they live in a haze of dissociation).

Or someone whose medications are out of whack or who has an as-yet-undiagnosed inner ear disorder. Or simply, as all gay men would say of each other, “A dizzy old queen.”

Not-so-obvious things don’t make sense to me, either.

I wonder how (if) Sam Harris would make his fundamentalist pronouncements differently if he were TLEptic.

But the reality of consciousness appears irreducible. Only consciousness can know itself—and directly, through first-person experience.” (Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion).

Damn! I wish I knew what he means!

Sam Harris sounds a great deal like John Hagee to me.

Now, people who believe the Bible believe in this [that God established Israel because ‘Salvation is of the Jews’] too, and therefore their support for Israel is not a political issue, but rather a matter of obedience to the Word of God.” (Hagee, John, John Hagee: ‘If You’re Not for Israel, You’re Biblically Ignorant or Not Christian.’ Charisma News. 9/24/2014. Web.)

“Only consciousness. . .” “. . . obedience to the Word of God.” How, exactly, are “only” and “obedience” different?

So I’m back to my opening gambit here—wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life.

In about 1995 I was in a seminar in translation at the University of Texas at Dallas. Because she was working in the UTD translation center, Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, talked to the class a couple of times. She introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. We used the book Translating Neruda by John Felstiner. I don’t know. It’s all mixed up in my memory. Perhaps Grossman didn’t actually introduce me to Neruda. I associate her with him because both were important to that class. And that’s not because it’s been nearly 20 years. It was mixed up in my memory while it was happening.

You see, Harris is wrong that “Only consciousness can know itself.” I know, I know, I’m quoting him unfairly out of context. And Hagee is wrong that some sort of “obedience” is necessary. That they are equally misled may be evidenced in that their ideas about Israel’s relationship with Muslims is exactly the same.

But, based on my experience—whether it’s born of TLEpilepsy or incipient old age or a simple inability to understand—I’d say Pablo Neruda has the question of reality about right. Perhaps I’m not in the middle of a “sea-change.” Simply a recognition.

“Unity,” by Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

There is something dense, united, settled in the depths,
repeating its number, its identical sign.
How it is noted that stones have touched time,
in their refined matter there is an odor of age,
of water brought by the sea, from salt and sleep.

I’m encircled by a single thing, a single movement:
a mineral weight, a honeyed light
cling to the sound of the word “noche”:
the tint of wheat, of ivory, of tears,
things of leather, of wood, of wool,
archaic, faded, uniform,
collect around me like walls.

I work quietly, wheeling over myself,
a crow over death, a crow in mourning.
I mediate, isolated in the spread of seasons,
centric, encircled by a silent geometry:
a partial temperature drifts down from the sky,
a distant empire of confused unities
reunites encircling me.

Neruda

“A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map. . .” (Ron Strauss)

Athlete

Athlete

(Please note: I realize I have written about tattoos—my tattoos—recently; however, that post is one I inadvertently deleted. This is not, however, a replacement for that post.)

In the summer of 1972 I lived and worked at the Robert and Francis Flaherty farm in Brattleboro, VT. At that time it was the center of study for Flaherty’s films (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Moana), administered by the School of Theology at Claremont (California), under the direction of Professor Jack Coogan.

I was assigned to catalogue and file still photos from Moana. The work was tedious, but the situation was intellectually stimulating, and the farm, located at the foot of Black Mountain, was idyllic and naturally inspiring.

Moana would be seen as even less appealing than “quaint” to modern film-goers. It would be almost impossible to endure for most of the students I’ve taught in colleges. Black and white. Silent (with subtitles—and, in versions available online, with theater organ accompaniments). Naive, I suppose—Polynesian kids running around in a blissfully innocent idyll playing and cavorting in the least sophisticated (by 21st-century styles and rituals) activities imaginable.

It was made before rock ‘n roll was invented, an eternity before rap or any of those other new musics. The film has not a single “special effect” or murder or explosion in its entire 60-some minutes.

Last week, a conversation with a young man from Tonga (the South Pacific islands) jogged my memory about Moana.

He asked me about my tattoos. He was fascinated and wanted to know if they “mean” something. He explained that his parents had asked him not to get any tattoos until he considered the “rite of passage” tattoo of many Polynesian Islands.

Tattoo.

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages. . . (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body & Society 8.4 (2002): 91–107.)

When I was in 3rd grade, a new boy joined our class. He was also the new boy at church, the nephew of one of the pillars. My parents insisted I play with him even though everyone at school thought he was weird (I knew most of the kids thought I was weird, too). I was willing as long as it was at home and no one saw us together. David had an older brother, out of high school, thin, muscular, wearing t-shirt and jeans like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. He was not handsome, but he was so sexy I could hardly bear to be in his presence. He had several tattoos. They were not socially acceptable in 1955.

My being tattooed may be a case of arrested development. I still think of Casey now and then when I consider the history of my emotional development. I know the image of his tattoos (I do not remember what they were exactly) is one of those from childhood that inhabits my most private memory.

So I have tattoos because, when I was 10, I was in love with a playmate’s 19-year-old-brother who had tattoos? I’ll admit that’s possible. Arrested development.

It’s also possible that it has something to do with my life-long search for my true identity—and my (limited by creativity but nonetheless real) unwillingness to fit my life to some pattern some unidentified power would prescribe for me. I’m a shy, introverted (unspectacular, even meek) non-conformist. That I knew at age 10 I wanted to be tattooed but waited until I was 69 to do it does not speak well for my being a rebel, with or without a cause.

All of my life I have been in professional positions in which it would have been out of the question to be tattooed unless one were a far more extroverted non-conformist than I.

Many of the student athletes I work with now have tattoos—not simply a few scattered about their bodies, but elaborate swirls of ink over large parts of their bodies. I’m not sure when that became fashionable. My guess is Dennis Rodman made it popular; I don’t know.

Is it possible that these young athletes and I have the same motivation for our “body modifications?”

My tattoo in Arabic

My tattoo in Arabic

(Ernest)Becker has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. (Strenger, Carl. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Gender and Sexuality 10 [2009]: 166–171. Referencing: Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press [1974].)

In his poem “Tattoo,” Dr. Ron Strauss tells of meeting a patient covered with tattoos, one of which the doctor thought said “J.S. Bach.” He was mystified until he discovered the tattoo read “S.S. Beech.”

A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”
explains “SS Beach” himself.
He’s become his own map, his own guide to what he will become.

Will he die or live forever through the permanent marks he has made on his body.

. . . as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body (Fisher).

The boundary of possibility is death. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. . . Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming.

I doubt any of this was in my consciousness as I sat for my first tattoo. The truth is, I could not have told you, had you asked, why I was in that chair letting Joe work on my arm. I have read many times and absorbed Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” I have studied and taught Orlan’s body modification of. I have read Becker, Strenger, and Fisher.

Perhaps I’m struggling against death. Perhaps I’m expressing non-conformity. Perhaps I’m trying to be as sexy as Casey (and the students I work with). Perhaps I like my tattoos.

Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher)

Soon I’ll tackle tattoos as “denial of death.” Stay tuned.

“The Tattoo,” by Ron Strauss
Pushing aside the nursing home curtain that’s come within reach,
a diehard sailor flexes a biceps.
For an instant we see “JS Bach” instead of “SS Beach.”

Down the street, the usual kvetch
of speed-metal pours from the local reptile shop
as if to further tattoo the curtain of his skin. The sweeping reach

of aquamarine vines and blue-green rosettes. Pitch
black nipples. A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”

explains “SS Beach” himself. Or in the clutch
purse of the deep. If only that crepe
of a curtain which Shelley calls “the painted veil” could come within reach

of the hand that would lift it. If only such
a hand were not itself caught in the grip
of the inching histiocytes that had blurred the distinction between “JS Bach”
and “SS Beach.”
From all across the map
a chorus of twenty-some-odd kids warms up
behind a scrim curtain, beyond his reach,
JS Bach instead of SS Beach.

Mine isn't Bach, but it's music

Mine isn’t Bach, but it’s music

“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

“A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral fruit.” (Amy Gerstler)

Eating it meant you embraced tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

When you get to be my age memories pop into your mind from nowhere and arrest your attention, sometimes with startling vividness.

This morning I stumbled onto the poem “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956). Suddenly I was remembering a trip to Kansas City in 1973. I stayed with my mother’s brother and his wife, and we spent a day with my father’s father. The memory is confused. Sometime after my grandmother died (1973), my grandfather sold his home and moved to Abilene, TX, where his youngest child, my aunt, cared for him until he died (1977).

I was on my way to audition for the organ department at the University of Iowa to be accepted into the DMA program in organ. My maternal uncle took me to visit my paternal grandfather (my parents’ families had known each since long before my parents married), and the three of us went to my uncle’s church so I could play the organ for my grandfather.

Are you confused yet?

For some reason I played the Bach “Little” Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major. It certainly was not one of the works with which I was planning to impress Professors Krapf and Disselhorst. It does, however, have a pedal solo, and I remember my uncle was so amazed that he made me stop in the middle of the Prelude and play it again. He had never seen such a thing. It’s really quite simple (the work isn’t called “little” for no reason).

Why? Why does reading a poem about fruit cocktail drag into my consciousness my uncle’s amazement at my playing a passage for pedals alone in the middle of a Bach organ work?

That trip to Kansas City was fraught with import, with meaning. I was beginning the process of giving up my old life to strike out on a new one (and I was not altogether certain I would be accepted). That meant quitting a job and selling our house and moving with my wife to a place neither of us had ever been. I was alone on my “audition” trip, and I already knew in some unconscious way that it also carried with it the distinct possibility that our marriage would end when I was immersed in my new life. That may, in fact, have been one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on this new path.

Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit.

I had another (ulterior, I suppose one might say) reason for arranging my trip to be with my uncle. I won’t explain here because it is too painful for me and not fair to him, but I had a score to settle with my uncle. At the time I thought I could engage him in a way that I had needed to since I was in junior high school. It was not possible. I didn’t know how, and he would have rejected my attempt, I am sure. It could not be part of this memory-tale.

Somehow playing that pedal passage and astounding him was enough at that moment.

The next time I saw my uncle was at my paternal grandfather’s funeral. The Peck family was, of course, there to support and be with the Knight family. I remember clearly standing with my father and my mother’s brother beside my grandfather’s casket in that stilted and phony funeral home scene we all know so well and hearing my uncle say to my father, “Well, Glenn, now we are the older generation.” My father was 63 at the time, nine years younger than I am now.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.

Faded funeral fruit that meant you embraced tastelessness . . . and that when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth. Not until about 1985 did I confront in my mind the reasons I knew I needed to visit my uncle. Ten years after that I visited him in a nursing home where he was cared for as an Alzheimer’s patient, of which both he and my mother died.

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

Memories—vivid memories, important memories—do not necessarily equate with the “truth.” In fact, they might well help you spurn the truth.

The day I visited my uncle in the nursing home and his brother explained who I was by trying to bring up memories of childhood—“You know May, our sister—her son”—I had determined to confront my uncle, to bridge the enormous chasm between us.

Fortunately, I did not need to. Even I, the wounded party, the self-righteous actor in the drama in my head, could forgive a man in such dire and pitiable condition.

Self-righteousness, I think, is a more or less useless attitude. I think it actually comes from thinking of oneself as a victim—“how dare he do that to me, righteous as I am?”

Two days ago I was in the grips of what I thought was either the “hangover” from a massive seizure or a day-long series of tiny seizures. Intense dissociation mentally and dizziness physically. My neurologist made time in his busy schedule to see me early yesterday morning.

Blood work. Are your meds in balance? What else is going on in your life?

Retirement, separation anxiety, worry about taking care of yourself in old age. I want you to keep in contact by MyChart, but I’m also going to arrange for you to have regular talk therapy with one of the psychology faculty here at the medical school. At my age? I’ve been in therapy much of the time for fifty years!

You need to put these demons to rest. Anti-seizure meds can’t help depression.

“Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956)

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

A resident of Los Angeles, Amy Gerstler has taught at Antioch West and the University of California at Irvine’s graduate writing program. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars program at Bennington College in Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Bitter Angel (1990).

About This Poem
“A friend showed me a reproduction of a 1964 painting by James Rosenquist called Fruit Salad. The painting (you can Google it) is a close-up, bright, garish portrait of fruit cocktail. Seeing it released a flood of memories of the ’50s and ’60s for me, so I decided to try to make a picture of that time period via this popular food of my childhood.” —Amy Gerstler

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

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