“. . . When our grand passion had not yet become familial. . .” (Thom Gunn)

Boston, 1991

Boston, 1991

Somewhere in a box or pile or a file or a stack is a musical creation of mine (or not―it most likely met the same fate as most of my compositions), a small song cycle, a setting of three poems by Thom Gunn from his 1966 collection, Positives. I wrote the cycle in about 1970.

I don’t remember the poems or the music. I wrote the music as part of the work for my MA degree in music composition at what was then California State University at Los Angeles. I chose Gunn’s poetry because I found his book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and it was the first collection I owned by a poet I knew was gay.

Yesterday I wore an old lavender T-shirt, shapeless and faded―like me―from the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 1991. My first Gay Pride Parade was the 20th in Boston—1990. For it I had a T-shirt that proclaimed in black letters nearly covering the front, “Nobody knows I’m gay!” In 1992 I had a T-shirt with the logo of the Boston Aids Hospice as I marched with the other volunteers from the Hospice (it closed in 1997, after I had moved to Dallas).

A member of the AA group I most often attended in 1991 had been present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. I used to own a book about the riots which contained a picture of her (yes, women were involved in the riots). She was uncomfortable with what she saw as the flippant use by the gay community of Stonewall as a rallying point. She remembered that night only with horror and fear. She could not bring herself to march in Pride Parades.

I was married at the time of Stonewall, but I remember watching the coverage on the national TV news and thinking I should have been there. My wife knew I was gay. Those were the days when many of us―my wife and I included―thought that getting married would somehow end my being gay. (Or, more likely, I thought it would provide “cover” for being who I knew I was.)

I wore my “Together in Pride, June 8th, 1991, Lesbian and Gay Pride” T-shirt yesterday to attend the celebration at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a selfie wearing it at the event.

Trying to sort out for myself, much less for anyone else, the complexity of my feelings throughout the day yesterday, and especially at the celebration, is seeming to be impossible.

First observation. I was (as I have become accustomed to being) one of the oldest people in the group of 2,000. My guess is there were fewer than 50 of us 70 or older.

Second observation. I was alone.

Third observation. It all seemed too easy.

Fourth observation. My tears over and over again yesterday were of joy, relief, fulfillment, jealousy, longing, and grief simultaneously and progressively, impossible to sort out.

Of course I am elated, overjoyed, and ecstatic at the Supreme Court decision, relieved that that step on the journey to civil rights is taken (I wonder if the LGBTQ community ready now to tackle racism, poverty, and xenophobia in this country).

The only man I have ever wanted to marry died in 2003 after we had been together 12 years. I sometimes long to be with him, and I grieve that we were never able to have a legally recognized relationship.

I grieve—yes, that’s the correct word—for the relationships I have had, beginning with my marriage to Ann. I grieve also that I am alone, that meeting a man I would want to marry, now that I could, seems improbable, if not impossible.

Hugged by the man I would have married

Hugged by the man I would have married (taken 1993)

Most of the crowd of people younger than I that gathered at the Cathedral of Hope yesterday—this is not sour grapes but a statement of fact—cannot know how much I treasure that 24-year-old lavender T-shirt (many of those wonderful folks were not even born in 1991). Or the pictures of my second partner and me taken in about 1985.

Or the memory of my “coming out” in my university newspaper in 1965—4 years before Stonewall.

I have never done anything “important.” Other than be something of a role model for (sometimes frightened and depressed) gay college students for 30 years. And volunteer at the AIDS Hospice. And march in parades. And write some pieces that have been published over the years. And try to be a good partner. And maintain a career viable enough to take care of myself.

One of the men I love and admire most these days was part of the Lambda Legal team that brought Lawrence v. Texas to the Supreme Court. One of my closest friends was a leader in ACT-Up in Boston in the ‘80s. A friend was the founder of the Gay group that still exists in the American Baptist Convention.

I’ve never done anything publicly important for the cause of LGBTQ rights. I’m not one of those the speakers last night acknowledged they were “standing on the shoulders of.”

Except I’ve persevered. I’ve lived a life of quiet (sometimes) desperation, desperation that may or may not have had anything to do with being a gay man (that’s a topic so complicated seven psychiatrists and three neurologists have never been able to untangle).

And now I am alone.

I’m not asking for anyone’s pity. Only some acknowledgement and understanding that my feelings yesterday were justifiably complex and contradictory. Which means they were (are) like my feelings my whole life long. My passions were my passions when they “had not yet become familial.” Could not become familial in the most basic sense.

“THE HUG,” BY THOM GUNN (1929-2004)
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
―(From Selected Poems by Thom Gunn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.)

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

“Time has grown up on its own without me. . .” (Yousef El Qedra)

Their companion piece is missing.

Their companion piece is missing.

The color blue is not apparent in my apartment. The first noticeable color is the red of the fake Persian rug straight ahead from the front door. The two deep blue Palestinian glass pieces I wrote about a couple of weeks ago are now on the shelf of the table straight ahead, but they are below eye level.On the table in front of the living area window are two (I think) lovely pieces of blue glass, each of a different not-real-Waterford that Waterford sells under its name. I like them. I paid more for each of them than I should have, but they are blue.

For a year or so I had another piece of decorative blue glass, a small many-faceted blue bowl made by Jim Bowman of Bowman Glass in Dallas. His wife Mary Lynn, who is also an artist in glass, is an acquaintance of mine. The bowl sat on the table by the window with my two pieces of marginally Waterford blue glass.

However, I have lost Jim Bowman’s bowl.

How does one lose a blue art-glass bowl? I don’t know. It’s simply gone. Non-existent. Probably not non-existent, simply not in its assigned location, and not where I can find it.

I could blame its disappearance on old age. I’ve put it somewhere and don’t remember where. I doubt that. Besides, I couldn’t blame that sort of forgetting on my old age. It would not have been out of character for me 40 years ago to have misplaced a decorative piece I like very much. Forgetting, misplacing, losing have been my constant companions my entire life.

That’s probably because I don’t pay attention. It’s no mystery. I go through life floating just a tad above reality, never quite putting my feet down, never quite sure I know where I am. That’s hyperbole. But it’s closer to the truth than I wish it were.

It’s not because I am so otherworldly or preoccupied with important ideas or have too much on my mind. No, I simply don’t pay attention. I will give myself the benefit of the doubt and say I don’t because I can’t.

If one of the symptoms of aging is forgetfulness, I am destined, I fear, to be (or already am) that confused little old man everyone finds either pitiable or comical. But how will anyone be able to tell? Anyone who knows me well knows this is not a problem of aging for me. It was a problem when I was 12.

From time to time I have blamed my spaciness on TLE. I don’t know if that’s medically accurate or not. I fear it’s probably a simple matter of my not paying attention.

That the husband of my friend made the blue glass bowl is not only reason my losing it is weird.

Blue is my favorite color.

I remember the exact moment I realized blue is my favorite color.

I was at Anna Bleyle’s home in Scottsbluff, NE, playing with marbles she gave me to keep me occupied while she was looking after my siblings and me. I was in third or fourth grade. She was our favorite adult, a few but not many years older than my parents. Her husband and his brother owned a jewelry store. Her niece became a Methodist Bishop. Her nephew was the only boy we ever knew who was high school cheer leader (in the dark ages of the `50s).

The blue ones are best.

The blue ones are best.

I remember thinking, “Wow! Those blue marbles are the best ones. I love that color!”

My question: how can I remember those details (and many more) about those wonderful people from 60 years ago but not remember where my beautiful blue art glass bowl made by Jim Bowman is that was on the table by front window for about two years until sometime in the last few weeks when I did something with it I can’t remember?

I know. I know. “The short-term memory is the first to go.” Well, perhaps.

Now a jump from one topic to a totally unrelated one.

I’ve become fascinated by Palestinian poetry, both old and current. I may, after 30 years of teaching college English, have found my “specialty.”

The Gazan poet Yousef El Qedra and I have so little in common it’s almost absurd for me to say that I find my own experience in his work.

But listen. Listen to these lines.

Then I found myself suspended in nothingness,
Stretched like a string that doesn’t belong to an instrument.
The wind played me.

Can a 70-year-old Caucasian American man who has never wanted for anything, whose most difficult moments have been tiny seizures and a bit of discrimination because I’m gay possibly relate to a young Arab Palestinian trapped in the hell-hole that his home has been turned into through dehumanizing Israeli onslaught after onslaught?

The total of what I know about Mr. El Qedra is that he

is a poet and playwright who lives in Gaza. He has a BA degree in Arabic Literature from al-Azhar University in Gaza. He teaches drama, literature, and writing. He has written, directed, and acted in several plays. He has published four collections of poetry and some of his poems have been translated into French and Spanish.

(Banipal, Magazine of Modern Arab Literature 45 – Writers from Palestine.) Banipal has published several of his poems.
He knows from experience what I begin to know from age.

I was a run of lost notes that have a sad, strong desire to live.

What does that have to do with the color blue? Or a small piece of blue art glass. Only this. Loss does not necessarily mean despair or even depression. Viewed with hope (and perhaps humor) it can impart a sad, strong desire to live.

My inconsequential hope―to find that blue bowl. Silly? Yes. But a manifestation of my need to catch up with the time that has grown old without me.

“I HAVE NO HOME,” BY YOUSEF EL QEDRA
I saw clouds running away from the hurt.
I have no language.
Its weight is lighter than a feather.
The quill does not write.
The ink of the spirit burns on the shore of meaning.
The clouds are tears, filled with escape and lacking definition.
A cloud realizes the beauty she forms—
beauty which contains all good things,
for whom trees, gardens, and tired young women wait.

I have no home.
I have a night overripe with sweats caused by numbness all over.
Time has grown up on its own without me.
In my dream, I asked him what he looks like.
My small defeats answered me.
So I asked him again, What did he mean?
Then I found myself suspended in nothingness,
Stretched like a string that doesn’t belong to an instrument.
The wind played me. So did irresistible gravity.
I was a run of lost notes that have a sad, strong desire to live.

Translated by Yasmin Snounu and Edward Morin
From BEFORE THERE IS NOWHERE TO STAND: PALESTINE ISREL POETS RESPOND TO THE STRUGGLE. Ed. By Joan Dobbie and Grace Beeler. Sandpoint ID: Lost Horse Press, 2012.

Our house in Scottsbluff (2005), six blocks fro Anna's. A fortuitous blue car in front.

Our house in Scottsbluff (2005), six blocks from Anna’s. A fortuitous blue car in front.

“. . . the future remains translucent and unambiguous. . .” (Philip Schultz)

An ostentatious mirror and some dried funeral rose petals.

An ostentatious mirror and some dried funeral rose petals.

—our sober, recalcitrant houses—
are swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age,
hoarding as they do truths
untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.

In the 48 years since I graduated from college, I have lived in 11 houses or apartments. I lived with my late ex-wife in three. That is an odd formulation—late ex-wife—perhaps as odd as our relationship sometimes feels. We were married from 1967 to 1975, and she died from the ravages of breast cancer in 2002. She had been married to a Canadian writer, divorced in about 1990. In the time since our divorce, I had had three male partners. The last of those relationships was my only healthy one. Jerry died a year after Ann died, of melanoma.

Ann and I owned a home in Upland, CA. We sold it when we moved to Iowa for my doctoral program at the University of Iowa.

In 1977 I moved to Boston without having secured a job to be with my first partner (an irrational and addictive move). Seventeen years later I moved to Dallas to be with Jerry—but a year after he moved there, that year spent reshaping my career to be a self-supporting grownup when I moved. I didn’t reshape my career for him, but figured out how to do what I had always wanted to do.

Through all of the years after we were divorced, Ann and I were in amicable contact with each other. After her second divorce (she told him he could have the bimbo and she’d have the Palm Springs condo) we rekindled the friendship we never should have interrupted by getting married.

Ann with a friend of her Canadian writer's, on a movie set in Iowa.

Ann with a friend of her Canadian writer’s, on a movie set in Iowa.

I began writing this piece about Ann on May 28, the 48th anniversary of our wedding. I don’t know the exact date in 1975 our divorce was finalized. In those days (perhaps still) Iowa had a no-fault, do-it-yourself divorce procedure that, when approved by a judge, cost us $40 for the filing fee.

How we remember certain details of our lives is a great mystery to me. I remember our wedding—the music surely. We chose the wedding party on the basis of their singing ability—we had to have a six singers for the William Walton motet “Set me as a seal upon thine heart.”

The text is from Song of Solomon 8, KJV:

Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it.

Fortunately four of our best friends were accomplished singers and completed the ensemble. Mine was the weakest voice in the bunch—Ann’s was the strongest. My best friend was a tenor voice major.

I have thought many times since 2002 that I had no idea what “love is strong as death” meant when I was a foolish young groom. I was with Ann in Canada two months before she died and returned for her wake. I was with Jerry when he died.

Suddenly
everything feels afterwards,
stoic and inevitable,
my eyes ringed with the grease of rumor and complicity,
my hands eager to hold any agreeable infatuation
that might otherwise slip away.

The feeling that everything is afterwards did not come upon me suddenly. It has been an awareness developing since Jerry died. Everything is afterward. I live alone in an apartment of my own choosing. The furnishings, what might pass as a décor, is stuff that I am “eager to hold [with] any agreeable infatuation.” The 1880s-vintage highboy chest of drawers Ann and I bought in about 1968. The china closet and the ostentatious Victorian mirror I inherited from Jerry. The painting of a sea storm by my uncle’s late partner (of 60 years). My mother’s ladies’ afternoon “circle” coffee cups and cookie plates. The pipe organ built by my steady friend (and Ann’s) for 50 years from college, Steuart Goodwin.

Everything IS afterwards.

Both Ann’s and my fathers were Baptist ministers. They looked forward to a kind of afterwards that I cannot fathom. I think, now and then, about the afterwards Ann and Jerry and our fathers and mothers are experiencing. I wonder. That’s all. I wonder. I’m not certain what Philip Schultz means by

The sky,
however,
appears unwelcoming,
and aloof, eager to surrender
its indifference to our suffering

but I look at the sky and think it’s unwelcoming, indifferent to my suffering.

My thinking about all of these people is heightened because I’m going through old photos and other memorabilia, so when I’m in the afterwards, my brother and sister won’t think they need to. And in the middle of this process I, as executor of her estate—some 13 years later—received notice that a house lot Ann owned atop a hill in the Ozark foothills in Oklahoma was about to be sold for the back taxes. Oops! So I pulled together the funds from her estate to pay the past-due amount.

The hill is the home of the “esoteric Christian” community Ann was part of the last few years of her life. People whose sense of “afterwards” is, as far as I can tell, that nothing is ever “afterwards.” In some form, a variety of forms, we all go on and on and on forever.

My “sober, recalcitrant [house—is] swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age.” I refuse to commit to whether that is good or bad. The light used to penetrate my dreams. It seldom does now. My truths are “untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.”

And the future is totally “unambiguous in its desire to elude” me. Will the future be different if I get rid of Jerry’s ostentatious mirror, his picture looking down on it, or the toy xylophone my mother gave me for my fifth birthday? Or save the vase of brown rose petals from Ann’s funeral wreath?

“Afterwards,” by Philip Schultz
Suddenly
everything feels afterwards,
stoic and inevitable,
my eyes ringed with the grease of rumor and complicity,
my hands eager to hold any agreeable infatuation
that might otherwise slip away.
Suddenly
it’s evening and the lights up and
down the street appear hopeful,
even magnanimous,
swollen as they are with ancient grievances
and souring schemes. The sky,
however,
appears unwelcoming,
and aloof, eager to surrender
its indifference to our suffering.
Speaking of suffering,
the houses—our sober, recalcitrant houses—
are swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age,
hoarding as they do truths
untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.
Meanwhile,
our loneliness,
upon which so many laws are based,
continues to consume everything.
Suddenly,
regardless of what the gods say,
the present remains uninhabitable,
the past unforgiving of the harm it’s seen,
while
the future remains translucent
and unambiguous
in its desire to elude us.

(Philip Schultz [b. 1945] is the author of The Wherewithal [W. W. Norton, 2014] and received the Pulitzer Prize for Failure [Harcourt, 2007]. He is the founder and director of The Writers Studio and lives in East Hampton, New York.)

On a trip to the Glimmerglass Opera

On a trip to the Glimmerglass Opera

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“. . . do not resist an evil person.” (Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in the Gospel According to Matthew)

The following is my response on Facebook to the following news story from the Texas Legislature.

In Texas, it soon could be legal to bring a gun to college

I wish I could say this is unbelievable. But since carrying a gun seems to be the norm out here in the wild west, I guess all I can do is pray for a retirement home in the UK. I would like someone to explain this to me on purely ethical grounds without resorting to the 2nd Amendment. Why is this acceptable as a matter of morality without the childishly petulant, “I have a right?”

Saying that anyone – especially a college student in class – is safer if people are toting guns is absurd.

An acquaintance pointed to the incident of a “mad gunman” being stopped on the campus of UVA. (This was, of course, a hoax–which so much “evidence” of the need for guns is.) How many millions of students spend how many millions of hours per year in class and on campuses without any incident? One lone “mad gunman” (even if it were true) being stopped does not justify the danger of a kid sitting in class next to a gun-toting vigilante.

BUT EVEN THAT IS NOT THE POINT! My hope that someone can explain the MORAL truth behind “open carry” still stands. At best it is expediency, not morality. It is expedient because we know that we have failed so miserably at creating equality (in race, in economic opportunity, in gender, in religion) that we perceive, perhaps rightly, that some people are angry and disenfranchised enough to be violent. And we have also failed so miserably at caring for people with emotional problems that we need to be ready to shoot them when they lose control.

It’s the worst kind of utilitarianism. It has nothing to do with “Thou shalt not kill,” or “love justice, do mercy, walk humbly with your God,” or “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” We have, according to Antonin Scalia, the constitutional right to be gun-toting vigilantes — ignoring not only the moral injunctions of the tradition most of those who speak the loudest for the right espouse but also the moral philosophies of all civilized societies.

Being “in the right” means being willing to forgo that “right” for the sake of the greater good.

“Bring only what you must carry—tome of memory. . .” (Natasha Trethewey)

glass blower
In August of 1994 my father turned 80 years old. He had been retired for some number of years—depending on which of his successive retirements we considered the “real” one. I was 50. On September 1 that year the Methodist Publishing house, Abingdon Press, published the long-awaited first volume of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Dad subscribed to the publication and received by mail each of the 12 volumes as they were issued.

It was a fairly expensive proposition for a retired American Baptist minister. Even more remarkable was that an 80-year-old man was determined to have the latest general research resource in his professional field. He had bought the first edition the same way in the 1950s. The beautiful set of books became mine when Dad died.

The second time I was in Hebron in Palestine (2010) the group I was with visited one of the few glass-blowing shops left in the city. The Israeli government, in protecting the illegal settlers in the middle of the city, has nearly destroyed the centuries-old Palestinian culture, including the thriving and internationally important glass-making industry.

The walls of the workshop’s gift shop were lined with shelves of glassware—much of it elegant blue—waiting for the tourists who, of course, no longer come. The Israel Defense Force, in defending the illicit settlements have made the city a perpetual war zone which very few people want to visit in spite of its historical and religious significance and its former cosmopolitan and vibrant society.

I bought and had shipped to myself in Texas four pieces of the cobalt blue glass—my favorite color. The most delicate of the pieces did not survive the trans-Atlantic journey, and I gave one as a gift to a friend. The other two are in places of honor in my apartment. They are not delicate, fine workmanship as the other two pieces were, but they are bold statements of the skill of the artisans, some of whom we met that day in Hebron.

Last night I went to dinner with friends, a couple I’ve known and loved for 21 years. It’s difficult for me to comprehend I’ve lived in Dallas that long. Even more surprising is that they and I can still pick up the conversation more or less where we left off when we were last together (about a year ago—we must not let that happen again). Nothing much has changed except that I walk with a cane much of the time.
photo(42)And he is in seminary studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

The stated purpose of our being together was for him to come to my apartment and carry away my dad’s New Interpreter’s Bible. The equally important purpose was to be together, to remind ourselves how much we love each other, to attend a service of the Eucharist together, and to share a delicious meal together (healthful salmon for me, thank you).

Last week a friend of about 18 years came to my apartment and took away the signed Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Barn “Hex” Sign I inherited from my late partner. My friend was one of the group I traveled with to Scandinavia and Russia two years ago. She will place the big colorful circle on a wall of her newly renovated kitchen.

I have a stack of books—Dr. Seuss, The Velveteen Rabbit, and several books of short stories by Hispanic-American writers such as Gary Soto. They will become available to the Aberg Center for Literacy for the use of adult ESL students.

There is a pattern in all of this. A conscious pattern and a purpose.

I have learned a new way to give myself immense personal, very selfish, pleasure: give something I own, something I cherish, to someone I love who needs it or will take pleasure in it.

This is one of the simplest ways of meeting my own needs for connection and community. Shall I be perfectly old fashioned (can I help but be?) and admit that I wept for joy after Miles and Brigitte left with Dad’s books last night.

Not a tinge of sadness or regret.

My joy at the pleasure of someone I love is genuine and deep. If parting with some trinket to which I have attached personal importance is all it takes to give delight to a friend—well, as they say, it’s a no-brainer.

As for those two Hebron glass pieces. For some items that have special meaning to me the recipient is not yet obvious. But when they are, I will know who they are. When I take that small step away from my fear of letting go, another small glimpse of “who [I am]—will be waiting when [I] return.”

“Theories of Time and Space,” by Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966)

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return

Natasha Trethewey, who has served as both the state poet laureate of Mississippi and the U.S. poet laureate, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2006.
2014-09-04 07.57.43

“This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy. . .” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

7993-07-child health careFrom the week I was born until May 30, 2010, my time was organized around Sunday mornings. My father was an American Baptist pastor. That Sunday morning was important goes without saying. By the time I was in junior high school I was a church organist. Except for four hiatuses of a few weeks between appointments, I held positions in churches for 50 years.

My father, who was conflicted about Social Security because it was a New Deal invention that he was not sure was Constitutional, insisted I open my account when I was in junior high school and was first paid by the church to play the organ. He had graduated from a Southern liberal arts college, highly-respected then and now, and his doubts about Social Security were academically well-founded questions, not 21st-century elitist Neo-Con “conservatism.” His father, however, was a Roosevelt Democrat, a union member, and a proponent of the New Deal in all of its manifestations.

Years later, when my parents retired, my father quietly jettisoned his doubts about Social Security—as, I’m sure, even the most die-hard so-called Libertarians do. I don’t know of anyone who refuses their check every month.

My time was organized around Sunday mornings. It was crucial.

The most important activities of the week were scheduled around preparations for Sunday mornings—choosing music for choirs and for myself, practicing the organ, meeting church bulletin printing deadlines, doing laundry for proper attire, making sure the car had enough gasoline to take me to the church, and all those other crucial details necessary for accomplishing my professional task. It’s amazing how much time and energy I spent on preparing for professional work.

For musicians the work itself is the tiniest part of a week’s activities.

And then on May 30, 2010, the church where I held my last position closed, and I discovered the truth.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff till you reply (Naomi Shihab Nye).

Almost nothing I’ve ever done was crucial for anyone’s well-being. No one has ever been perched dangerously on a cliff waiting for me to do something (to save them? help them? comfort them?). Hardly anyone would have noticed if I had worn the wrong shirt on Sunday morning, and absolutely no one would have cared.

Nothing I do could not be done by someone else. Except for thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. Someone else could probably be writing this. A joke used to circulate among English scholars (perhaps it still does) that if enough monkeys were seated at enough typewriters, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare.

My kitchen is not organized well enough for the Property Brothers (or anyone else on HGTV) to approve. It’s helter-skelter. Except for one area. I use one plate, one salad plate, one cereal bowl, one skillet, one baking dish . . . you get the point. Once in a while there are two of something. And when I finish with a dish or piece of flatware or cooking utensil, I wash it in one side of my double sink and put it in the dish drainer permanently housed in the other side. I don’t put one plate away so six hours later I have to get it out. It’s right there when I need it.

I never use the dishwasher. (An aside: if anyone says they’re worried about global warming or the California drought or oil companies using up all of our water for fracking, and I find out they use a dishwasher, I know all of their concern for the environment is a bunch of hot air.) For one plate, one salad plate, and one cereal bowl? Give me a break.

Well-meaning friends, relatives, and others (others?) come to my kitchen and try to be helpful. They wash dishes and put them away. And since there’s no obvious place to put my plastic 2-egg microwave egg poacher, they look around and find a cupboard with plastic refrigerator bowls and such and put it there.

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

The next morning after they’re gone and I’m fixing my breakfast, I have to open half the cupboard doors to find it.

This is obviously no BIG deal. It’s my silly example for today:

When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

It seems to me that most often what we think is crucial is crucial for exactly—for exactly ourselves and no one else. It is not crucial that dishes be washed, dried, and put in cupboards—or that enormous amounts of water and energy be wasted on running dishwashers—especially for an old man living alone. It’s not crucial; it’s what most of us were taught from infancy the way things are done. Not crucial; inculcated.

Some things are crucial. Finding a way to feed the millions of food-insecure children in our nation. Providing health care to everyone. Educating teenagers so they understand making money is not the goal of education, but being able participate in critical thinking is the goal. To find a way to save our democracy (what’s left of it) from the oligarchy and theocracy that are destroying it. I think it’s crucial for LGBTQ people who want to be treated equally to start helping others (like those millions of food-insecure children) to find equality.

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,
you are not a corner or a critical turning page.

The old man in me wants to say in my most irascible and crotchety voice, the one that will annoy you but that you will remember, “Fuck off!” unless you’re doing something that’s really crucial. Stop meddling and start helping.

“NEXT TIME ASK MORE QUESTIONS,” by NAOMI SHIHAB NYE (b. 1952)

Before jumping, remember
the span of time is long and gracious.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff
till you reply. Is there a pouch of rain

desperately thirsty people wait to drink from
when you say yes or no? I don’t think so.

Hold that thought. Hold everything.
When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,

you are not a corner or a critical turning page.
Wait. I’ll think about it.

This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy.
I am exactly where I wanted to be.

LGBTQ people: It's crucial to end child food-insecurity

LGBTQ people: It’s crucial to end child food-insecurity

“. . . Yet the absence of the imagination had Itself to be imagined. . . (Wallace Stevens)

turban walkingFor some time I’ve been meaning to research all of the possible meanings of the word turban. For a specific reason. Wallace Stevens uses it in the last line of the second stanza of his poem, “The Plain Sense of Things.”

No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The rest of the poem gives me no trouble. I have a meaning that it means to me—if a poem “means” anything. But how on earth can a “turban [walk] across the lessened floors?” Bizarre. I’ve had this poem in the back of my mind for a while but have avoided thinking about it directly because I can’t figure out what that image is.

I Googled “turban walking” and found a plethora of pictures of people in turbans walking. Most of them pretty silly. Many, of course, worthy of Charlie Hebdo—tasteless, mean, unnecessary, pushing the bounds of “rights” into the arena of “irresponsibility” (akin to the constant idiocy of the NRA). What I hoped to find was the image like one of a couple of handsome men in their white robes and turbans walking on the streets of Amman, Jordan, that I took in 2013.

I found one I liked of a distinguished man said to be in Amman, quod vide above.

Yet the absence of the imagination itself had to be imagined.

Not too long ago I wrote about the statement attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that “It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.” I do not know which to prefer, imagining the absence of the imagination or the impossibility of imagining non-being. (See stanza V.)

Mr. Goethe

Mr. Goethe

I’m pretty sure Goethe is more right than Stevens on this point. The absence of (anything) cannot be imagined (the old joke, “don’t think about the elephant”) because as thinking beings it is impossible for us to imagine not being.

When I write about these things, a few people who keep track of me worry that I’m suicidal or something. I’m not thinking about death. I’m thinking about not thinking. I suppose that means I’m thinking about being dead, but that’s not the same as thinking about death (which for some of us leads naturally and easily to thinking about suicide, hence causing friends to worry).

Simply put, I’m wondering if, when I am dead, the world, the universe, my family, this Internet posting will continue. Or, when I die, does the whole charade, the entire imagining of someone’s mind ends. Is the jig up? Long ago some comic strip or another (I used to think it was Bloom County with Opus) as its daily installment started with one character whispering to another, “The jig is up, pass it on.” The last frame showed a faraway character whispering to another, “The wig is wag.”

Isn’t that the way we get our information? especially about our own mortality. So many people in the “pass it on” line have misheard the original truth that we actually think what was said originally was,

“Whosever believeth in Him shall have eternal life.”

Or,

“Theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – their eternal Home. Allah is well-pleased with them.”

Or,

“Make me immortal in . . . the third region, the third heaven of heavens, where the worlds are resplendent. For Indra, flow you on, Indu!”

Or,

“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

Because my intellectual acumen is not as great as Pat Robertson’s, or Bill Maher’s, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, or Mullah Mohammed Omar’s, Or Amar Zutshi’s, I can’t agree or disagree with any of them.

My observation is limited to this. Anyone who is 70 years old and is not giving at least a passing thought to these things is not doing their homework.

. . . The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

“THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS,” by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Michelangelo's heaven

Michelangelo’s heaven

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