“. . . the wood which broke beneath the weight of love . . .” (Melissa Range)

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“In Dallas, he’d be a lawbreaker.” (Photo: Dallas Observer, Friday, January 29, 2016)

Today is “Holy Saturday” on some church calendars, that is, the second of the three days of the Crucifixion. At sundown, it becomes the “Vigil of Easter.”

The first time I experienced the liturgy for the Vigil of Easter was April 6, 1968 – 49 years ago. I was the neophyte Episcopalian organist for a small church in Ontario, California, a Baptist preacher’s kid, less than a year out of college with a degree in organ performance. That small church was, and still is, the center of “high church” liturgical practice in the Inland Empire of Southern California.

I have difficulty explaining what happened to me on April 6, 1968. For weeks I had been preparing the organ music and the choral music. I thought there was more of it than could possibly fit into one service.

The solemnity and devotion of the Good Friday service the evening before had, at its beginning, offended my Baptist Knees. I was amazed at what I saw as the preposterous and idolatrous veneration of the cross.

And then I got it.

I had a modicum of understanding of the deep conviction of these people and the beauty of its expression. Zealous and almost distantly formal at the same time. I said later that service gave me permission finally to accept Christianity in a way my Baptist heritage had never been able to do.

Easter happened at midnight the next night. Such a celebration! Somber and a bit perplexing for an hour or so of serious passages read from the Hebrew Scriptures with subdued musical responses. But Easter arrived at midnight with the singing of the 1549 “Gloria” by John Merbecke (which I can still sing from memory). The tower bell ringing just outside the choir loft, lights, oodles of flowers carried into the church from the sacristy, joy unbounded. A huge party with sherry after the service at about 1 AM. My kind of place! (Never mind that I had to play hymns for the simple Easter Day service 8 hours later.)

I understood because I had symbolically experienced the devastation of the Crucifixion and the unbounded joy of the Resurrection. I was never sure I believed it had actually happened or that that is the way life really is. But the possibility. Oh, the possibility.

Sue Mansfield, a member of the parish who read the first lesson – Genesis 1 – every year at the Easter Vigil, set my mind to rest. She asked if I believed the church believed. Yes. Then that’s all that’s necessary, isn’t it?

Over the decades, that has become less all that is necessary. I have virtually left off believing any of the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I am hard pressed to say I believe in God (my mental jury is still out).

I have no trouble believing the story of the Crucifixion. All that is necessary for that is to read the news from Syria. Or read about the vicious and virulent anti-Islam forces in this country. Or read about the savage racism of whites toward people of color in this country. Or hear in the news that the federal government has signed a contract with a private prison company to open detention centers to house thousands of persons on their way to deportation. Or hear in the news that Arkansas will execute 8 men in ten days. Or see a high-rise of million-dollar condos built in Dallas that reflects so much sun it ruins the carefully planned artistry of a public oasis of calm and beauty in the center of the city. Or talk with a homeless woman asking for a bit of change as I come out of the super market directly next door to my apartment building. Or hear that our President is contemplating an unprovoked act of war against North Korea.

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Eight men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas in 10 days beginning Monday. (Photo: NBC News, Apr 6 2017)

Believing in, seeing proof of, the Crucifixion is a trivial pursuit.

The Resurrection is much more difficult to find. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is well-hidden.

I can believe in a Jesus of Nazareth whose

. . . sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree

but I have all but given up looking for the Resurrection. My unbelief is not, of course, based on my accepting “proof.” I am not simply a Doubting Thomas wanting to see it for myself. My agnosticism is not based on a lack of physical proof (ask me, and I will talk about it, but not here).

However, a preponderance of evidence proclaims the Crucifixion so loudly that it is difficult for me (and, I think, many others) to wade through it to a Resurrection. Perhaps those who believe could demonstrate (or at least point out) to us more convincingly that it is true.

“All Creation Wept,” by Melissa Range

And not just those disciples
whom he loved, and not just
his mother; for all creation

was his mother, if he shared
his cells with worms and ferns
and whales, silt and spiderweb,

with the very walls of his crypt.
Of all creation, only he slept,
the rest awake and rapt with grief

when love’s captain leapt
onto the cross, into an abyss
the weather hadn’t dreamt.

Hero mine the beloved,
cried snowflakes, cried the moons
of unknown planets, cried the thorns

in his garland, the nails bashed
through his bones, the spikes of dry grass
on the hillside, dotted with water

and with blood—real tears,
and not a trick of rain-light
blinked and blurred onto a tree

so that the tree seems wound
in gold. It was not wound
in gold or rain but in a rapture

of salt, the wood splintering
as he splintered when he wept
over Lazarus, over Jerusalem,

until his sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree,

the wood which broke beneath the weight
of love, though it had no ears to hear
him cry out, and no eyes to see.

Excerpted from Scriptorium: Poems by Melissa Range (Beacon Press, 2016).

Melissa Range was born and raised in East Tennessee. She received an MFA from Old Dominion University, and an MTS from Emory University. She was selected in 2006, for the National Poetry Series by Tracy K. Smith, and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). She has received awards and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She currently teaches at Lawrence University and lives in Wisconsin.

“. . . I do all things required of me to make me a citizen. . .” (David Ignatow)

This afternoon I remembered to call the Municipal Court at the Highland Park, TX, City Hall.

That, in itself, is not remarkable. Even my purpose is not remarkable. A very kind and courteous member of the Highland Park Police Department gave me a ticket a few weeks ago because he saw that the inspection sticker on my car was expired. He didn’t give me another ticket for my inability to show him my current proof of insurance (I had last year’s, and the current one was at home in a file). A record of a car’s insurance is online for police to look up.

Since that day I have had “11” in my mind in connection with the whole sorry and ridiculous affair. I do have, if not a memory, at least the ability to hold an impression in my mind. I’m grateful that the officer said “11” because I am much more likely to remember something I hear than something I read. Calling the Municipal Court was important because the 11th of the month, I supposed, is the date by which I have to take care of the ticket, and it is fast approaching. I couldn’t check it on my own; at some point I brought the ticket into my apartment because I could not read it without my reading glasses, and I needed to check the date.

However, the ticket must be in the same file as my proof of insurance. That is, in a place I cannot remember. I remembered a few days ago to call the agent and have them fax me a new copy of the proof of insurance. At least I will have that when I go to the motor vehicle department to get a new inspection sticker. After, of course, I take the car to have it inspected.

I must insert here a note about receiving the ticket. I was on Mockingbird Lane between Inwood and Hillcrest on my way to SMU at 8:45am. That street is surely the most crime-ridden area in all of the Dallas “metroplex.” In that couple of miles I have on occasion counted as many as four police officers parked at intersections waiting for the next criminal to approach. That the street is in a state of decline that would foster criminal activity is easy enough to discern.

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Crime-ridden neighborhood

On March 29, 2015, I blogged here about my dislike of driving, a dislike that begins with the philosophical/theological understanding that

I was not intended by my maker to drive. It’s as simple as that. I don’t like it, I am frustrated by it, I don’t want to do it, I resent living in a society where such an unnatural, dangerous, and self-serving activity is not only the “norm,” but perceived to be “necessary.” This is not septuagenarian thinking. I’ve had this opinion of driving for decades. It is, however, a septuagenarian way of talking/writing. I’ve finally arrived at the place where I don’t care what anyone thinks of my thinking.

Not too long ago I had an appointment with my doctor. I drove the two miles or so to his office. When I arrived, I went almost immediately to the examination room, an unusual occurrence. The nurse immediately took my vital signs. Blood pressure: 170 over 120. She freaked. I told her to take it again in 15 minutes. She did. 120 over 80. Driving is “an unnatural, dangerous, and self-serving activity.”

My thesis in this writing really has nothing to do with driving except as it is the most obvious example in support of my thesis: About 90% of what we require each other to do in order to “make [us] citizen[s] of sterling worth” is nonsense. I want to write something much stronger than that, but I’m going to have to work up to that.

I am not a misanthrope. I am not an anarchist. I am not a sociopath.

I could be a hermit (if I had any courage). I could be a radical (if I had a cause). I could be philosopher who understands the meaning of life (if I had any brains).

Anyone who took a good English literature class in high school or college knows William Wordsworth’s poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us.” It is, I suppose, the great first salvo in the struggle of the Romantics to find a way to live in “nature.”

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! . . .

I am not smart or brave or thoughtful enough to join a movement designed to move us closer to living naturally. I am mainly simply frightened by much of what I am (we are) required to do to live together in society.

Today I stumbled across a poem by one of my favorite poets, David Ignatow. It was the impetus for this writing. This writing has no obvious goal. It has no thesis. It is a work in progress, the opening salvo in what may be (if I don’t chicken out) a bit of writing in which I try to explain to myself what I mean by all of this.

Sorry to leave it hanging. But that’s the way writing is. We write to know what we think. And I still don’t know what I’m thinking.

“I Close My Eyes,” by David Ignatow
I close my eyes like a good little boy at night in bed,
as I was told to do by my mother when she lived,
and before bed I brush my teeth and slip on my pajamas,
as I was told, and look forward to tomorrow.

I do all things required of me to make me a citizen of sterling worth.
I keep a job and come home each evening for dinner. I arrive at the
same time on the same train to give my family a sense of order.

I obey traffic signals. I am cordial to strangers, I answer my
mail promptly. I keep a balanced checking account. Why can’t I
live forever?

From Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934-1994.

 

 

“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

DONALD TRUMP RESIGNS

trumpWashington, The National
By Nellie Bly, April 1, 2017

After tweeting that he did not know how complicated the job would be, President Donald Trump submitted a letter of resignation to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson immediately called Vladimir Putin to apologize and assured him that there would be no change of policy under Vice President Mike Pence..

It was not immediately clear who was stepping in to be acting President until Vice President Pence can be sworn in as President. Tillerson announced to FOX News, “I am in charge here,” but it was not certain that he has the Constitutional authority.

Trump was seen boarding a helicopter on the White House lawn at about 2AM April 1 with his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. A second helicopter landed, and Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway boarded it together.

Rep. Paul Ryan was seen going into the fitness center in the House Office building at about 2AM and could not be reached for comment on his probable election as Vice President.

“I Go for Joe” (Smith, that is)

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The home of the richest man in town. He said so.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted the following grouse:

I have an old new theme song from junior high summer camp. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. . .” At least this country’s not my home. What happened to the place I used to live where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for?

Silly, yes, but several of my friends responded positively, one – who is not quite my age – at some length.

My complaint could have several meanings, of course. The old camp song is about mortality and heaven.   I wonder what a bunch of junior high school kids could possibly have known of mortality. The Baptists were preparing us to believe we will be ushered directly into heaven if or when we die. However, at that age we surely did not think the angels would, in point of fact, beckon us. Ever.

The song raises and, for the faithful, puts to rest the question of mortality whether or not a bunch of 13-year-olds might understand it.

However, these days I take it to mean more, much more. In fact, I find it meaningful even though I have long since given up any belief in heaven.

In 1956, one of the most influential men in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, my home town, was a delegate to the Republican national convention. He was indignant about the inevitability of the nominations. When it came time in the roll call for the Nebraska delegation to pass so Richard Nixon could be nominated for Vice-President by acclamation, the delegate took the floor and nominated Joe Smith, a fictitious person. I wrote about this event awhile back.

Terry Carpenter  was not, at least by the reckoning of the adults I knew, admirable. He was wealthy, egotistical, and politically opportunistic. He famously said he wanted to help the little man because when the revolution came, they’d go for the biggest house in town, “Which is mine.” It was his – a two-story mansion on half a block of property, just down the street from our home. During his career, he was a member of Congress, mayor of Scottsbluff, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, switching back and forth from Democrat to Republican depending on which party was in power.

Something I read recently about the new “populism” reminded me of Carpenter (which incidentally indicated to me how bizarre the use of that term is in our current political milieu). I googled him. He died in 1978 at the age of 78. If we had been septuagenarians in the same place at the same time, I would like to have known him. I know no rich and powerful folks well enough to engage them in conversation about what they think and feel, but I’d like to ask such a person if riches and power preclude a person from thinking

. . . the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

Terry Carpenter’s life and career remind me of other folks. For example, do Donald Trump and members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, think “This world is not [their] home; [they’re] just a-passin’ through”?

As a kid at Baptist camp, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount from the book Matthew. I know the admonition, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2, RSV).terry-carpenter-lincoln-journal-star-file-photo-1968

Senator Terry Carpenter opposing 1971 course in Homophile studies at the
University of Nebraska.

I’m probably judging (my friends would say there is no doubt about it), but I’m trying to understand how one might (apparently) live in such certainty of one’s place in the world, if not in the universe, to seem to have no awareness that “[their] treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Is it possible to be unaware? Why does Donald Trump need to own towers all around the world? Why does Betsy DeVos need to be head of a government department? Why does Darrel Issa, with his half-billion dollar fortune need to be in Congress? He’s only 63, so perhaps it makes some sense that he’s not thinking about heaven. Yet.

I’m moderately certain that nowhere beyond the blue a treasure is waiting for me when I die. Or for Terry Carpenter, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Darrell Issa. I am, however, relatively certain that whatever meager treasure I have this side of the blue is not going to keep me from dying. I am more and more certain with each passing day that this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. And I may be wrong, but I think  those other folks are just passing through, too.

My Facebook post was incorrect. I have never lived in a place “where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for.” Terry Carpenter was around when I was a kid, and all those other rich and powerful folks are around now. I was in Scottsbluff then, and I’m in Dallas now, judging and criticizing and being cantankerous (and perhaps jealous) as I apparently always have done.

Oh well. It doesn’t matter in the long run if we are civil or work for equality or do any of those things that seem like nice ideas – because there is no long run.

A CAMPAIGN STATEMENT BY JOE SMITH’S OPPONENT, ADLAI STEVENSON.
I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.  (Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith. Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.)

“. . . But God be with the Clown. . .” (Emily Dickinson)

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A photo dated 1860 believed to be Emily Dickinson (Civilwarwomenblog.com)

I noted with some surprise this morning that this is the first day of spring. The coming of spring is usually a celebration of J.S. Bach’s birthday, tomorrow, March 21. I’ve been meaning for years to look up how scientists calculate the exact moment of the equinox. I can’t imagine how astronomers (or whoever announces such things) know to the minute when the daytime and nighttime are equal in length.

Chuck Berry died two days ago, another of the greats who has been in the consciousness of my generation throughout our lives. Chuck Berry was 18 when I was born. I was 11 in 1956 when he recorded my favorite of his songs, “Roll Over Beethoven.”  I can’t imagine when I first heard the song. It’s the sort of music that would never have played on the radio in my family’s Baptist parsonage. I think I’ve simply known it forever. The Beatles covered it in 1963, the year I graduated from high school and went off to college 1,514 miles from home. I was a student in the School of Music (organ major) at the university, so I had reasons other than my father’s profession not to listen to popular music. Least of all to rock and roll.

But I watched the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan (1964, the second semester of my freshman year), and I secretly owned a copy of The Beatles’ Second Album with their cover of “Roll Over Beethoven.”

I can’t remember what happened to the album. I probably pitched it soon after I bought it because I was afraid one of my fellow music students would find out I listened to the Beatles. My favorite line in “Roll Over Beethoven” is “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes” because it quotes Carl Perkins’ 1955 song of that name, and Chuck Berry released “Beethoven” the same year Elvis released his cover of the Perkins song. They were all rolling around in teen-age consciousnesses at the same time.

“But God be with the clown Who ponders this tremendous scene . . . As if it were his own!”

I wonder how one ponders the world as if it were their own. I can barely imagine that the little bit of space I inhabit is my own. These days, whenever a well-known personage from my early years dies, I have the same reaction, the same sense of loss, even though they are not people with whom I have any relationship at all except in my mind, as nearly everyone else has. Whom do I know who could possibly have had any relationship with Chuck Berry? No one, but several people my age who know how I feel about his death have “liked” the link to “Roll Over Beethoven” I posted on FB. “Each man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne said.

Number 133, by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown―

Who ponders this tremendous scene―
This whole Experiment of Green―
As if it were his own!

One is either a part of the whole, or the whole is a part of one. “Don’t think of an elephant,” the old game says. Try to imagine life without Chuck Berry. Or blue suede shoes. I’ve never heard Chance the Rapper sing – I know none of his songs – but since I heard he won a Grammy, I can’t imagine the world without him.

Poet Harvey Shapiro says we are all caught up in a “live-in opera,” and in every good opera, mortality is the driving force, the ABC, and “after that comes lechery and lying.” Mortality, sex, and lies make up our live-in opera, he says, and he asks how we are “to piece together a life from this scandal.” This is another night at the live-in opera, and we’re all in it together with the gods “inhabiting us or cohabiting with us.”

Every day – I started to write “almost” every day, but I think that is not true – I give some thought to piecing together a life, given the certain knowledge that mortality is the ABC of it. My piecing together tends to result in great sadness, even, perhaps, grief. I am not afraid “it’s going to turn out badly for me.” Whatever it is will be natural, the way it is, the way it has always been for us human beings.

I would like to “run for cover,” but I know cover is not available. Mortality is the ABC of it. Chuck Berry lived 90 years. He participated in plenty of lechery, lying, scandal, and confusion in his life on a public and grandly operatic scale. I’ve participated in plenty of those activities but in my own limited way. The fact is, I have spent most of my life running for cover. Now there is no cover left. I may live as many years as did Chuck Berry or my father, the Baptist preacher, 90 or 97 – in either case about 20 more years. At the most. Or not.

In any case, I do not ponder this scene as if it were my own! I know I have little or no control over either the tremendous scene of the first day of spring, or of piecing together a life in this confusion. One more day or 20 more years, it’s “just for the music’s sake,” not for mine.

“Nights,” by Harvey Shapiro (1924 – 2013)

Drunk and weeping. It’s another night
at the live-in opera, and I figure
it’s going to turn out badly for me.
The dead next door accept their salutations,
their salted notes, the drawn-out wailing.
It’s we the living who must run for cover,
meaning me. Mortality’s the ABC of it,
and after that comes lechery and lying.
And, oh, how to piece together a life
from this scandal and confusion, as if
the gods were inhabiting us or cohabiting
with us, just for the music’s sake.

RT_Chuck_Berry_MEM_161018Copy_16x9_992

Chuck Berry (Photo, ABC News, March 19, 2017)

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

220px-Ethelred_the_Unready

Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, ‘The Chronicle of Abindon,’ circa 1220. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Me senescent.” About me getting old. Or is it “my” getting old? Do I mean it’s about me in the process of getting old, or that it’s about the process of getting old in general as I experience it? I’ve wondered for quite a while if the title of this blog shows my ignorance, or if it is very clever.

The difference between ignorance and cleverness is not always obvious. Microsoft Word insists that “awhile” is not a word, that one should say “a while.” Is Word showing its ignorance or being clever or dogmatizing grammar, as perhaps the arbiter of writing correctness in the 21st century should not do?

I have been growing old awhile now. Only awhile. Briefly. I’m going to while away the hours I have left. I am senescent, and I am developing all of the oddities of senescence that are the stuff of ubiquitous jokes. The late comedian Buddy Hackett compiled a list of seven warnings for senescent men. I’ve googled him but can’t find the list. Perhaps it was someone else. It’s a memory I used to harbor. Buddy Hackett senesced only to 78. The list, whether or not he wrote it, ends with, “Never waste an erection,” and “Always know where the nearest rest room is.” I was glad I’ve learned to heed one of those warnings while I was at a conference this past weekend.

The question of using “awhile” is complicated by the possibility that whenever one uses the word, one is perhaps implying a preposition. When I say, “I have been growing old awhile now,” do I mean, “I have been growing old FOR a while now?” Is this the kind of grammatical hair-splitting that only senescent English teachers think about?

No. It’s the kind of question anyone who wants to communicate well in writing needs to think about. Do you want to write about the object of your thoughts or simply modify your expression?

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.

While I do not like the idea of senescence, I am somewhat comforted that the concomitant loss of the kind of memory Billy Collins’ poem describes is not a problem for me. I have never had a store of information about books and plays and music and movies and historical or scientific facts to lose. I have never paid close enough attention to build a store of such memories/knowledge. I read a book, I see a movie, or I hear a symphony concert; I experience them, and then I move on to the next book, movie, or concert and the previous ones disappear. Plots and details have

. . . floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as [I] can recall . . .
It was ever thus.

During my most recent (annual) Christmas trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, we saw the movie, “Jackie.” (This very moment I had to google it to remember Natalie Portman, the lead actress who was nominated for the Academy Award for her work.) About two weeks later I went with a friend to see “La-La Land.” Its lead actress won the Academy Award for best actress. I remember her name. Emma Stone. While we waited for the movie to start, my friend said he was hoping to see “Jackie” soon, I said I’d like to see it, too, and perhaps we could find a time to go together.

He said, “I thought you had already seen it.” I couldn’t remember. It was two weeks before. He reminded me it’s about Jackie Kennedy and the assassination.  Oh, yes, I vaguely remembered. Fortunately, it came back to me in short order, and I was able to explain to him that the movie covers only the period from the assassination to the funeral.

This is my friend who can, I’m sure, recite the entire script of “Night at the Opera,” of “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sweeney Todd,” and of many more movies. I do not comprehend his memory.  For me

. . . The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title . . . .
[the novel] becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . .

My friend is young. Not yet 60. He probably has a while to go before he has to

. . . . rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

I have never been much interested in famous battles, but if I were, I’d have to rise in the middle of the night. While I was in college, I pulled one “all-nighter,” studying for a final exam. Medieval Civilizations. I determined I would remember at least one fact from that night for the rest of my life: Ethelred the Unready was King of England from about 979 to 1016. Two facts. His son Edward the Confessor died without an heir. That led to the Norman invasion and defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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The tomb of St Edward the Confessor Photo: Alamy

I wrote all of that without google. I guess I am interested in one battle.

The word “while” has no touch of French or Latin in its etymology. It comes from the Proto-Germanic,

hwilo, “a spice of time.” In other words, it survived the Frenchification of England and the appropriation of the Anglo Saxon/Germanic languages by the Latinate French, although the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “while” all come from a Latin word that was obsolete even in 1066.

So the question remains: am I writing about the process of getting old in general and my experience of it, or am I writing about myself as a person in the process of getting old. Would the French not have defeated the English if William the Confessor had had a son? or was England in such disarray at that juncture that nothing could have saved the purity of the Anglo Saxon language and culture?

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

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.

“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, 1999.