“Which way does your beard point tonight?”

The other day driving home from my (surprisingly for an old man) regular exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at

Which way is his beard pointing?

Which way is his beard pointing?

Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool) I heard Krys Boyd on her “Think” program on KERA Radio say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil (Hamlet)?

When my Grandfather Knight died, I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, standing by the casket, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle more) than I am now. I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

Funny thing about that. Almost everywhere I go, I am the oldest person there. By default I apparently am part of the older generation. I’m not sure if my dad or uncle ever thought much about being the older generation of our family. They both reached old age—my father, as I’ve said here many times, lived to be 97.

Subject shift.

This morning standing briefly in front of the bathroom mirror, I noticed my beard. Seeing myself with a beard after many years of shaving completely or allowing only stubble to grow on my face was a surprise even though I’ve had the beard for several months now.  Even more of a surprise is taking in, seeing and understanding and remembering that my beard is an old man’s beard. Mostly gray, but with this odd patch of brown almost as dark as it was thirty years ago.

I could, if I shaved around it very carefully, leave a brown moustache.

The scraggliest President

The scraggliest President

Don’t ask. I have no idea why I’m thinking about my beard this morning. Well, yes I do. I meant to ask a couple of friends last night where they get their hair cut. I need to find a barber who knows how to shape a beard. Not simply cut it. Shaping a beard is a fine craft. The guys at Super Cuts don’t know how.

When I was a kid (my apologies to a blogger I read yesterday who said one shouldn’t tell personal stories in their blog), my uncle (gay brother of my mother and of the uncle at my grandfather’s funeral) gave me a boxed set of plastic figures of all of the Presidents (up to Eisenhower, who was President at the time). Playing with those figures, I not only learned to recite the names of the Presidents in order, but also learned to identify each of them.

Many of them I recognized by their beards. My favorite was Martin Van Buren. He looked somehow wild and unkempt. Chester A. Arthur had a scraggly beard, too, but I was not nearly as enchanted by his.

Allen Ginsberg wrote,

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the
cashier.

At first I thought this somehow belittled Walt Whitman. Ginsberg was only 29 when he wrote it. Brash young thing. But as I contemplated, I realized the poem is a fond—no, more than fond—picture of the “lonely old grubber” who helped Ginsberg find his voice, not among lofty ideas and magnificent natural wonders, but in the ordinary. At the grocery store.

It’s not so bad to be a lonely old grubber. Walt Whitman had a scraggly beard, too.

In Leaves of Grass Whitman answers the child who asks (in part 6) “What is the grass?”

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

I’m not sure I understand the image of the grass “darker than the colorless beards of old men.” Ginsberg’s poem continues as an obvious ode to Whitman’s influence in his own work.

      Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher. . .

We are the older generation now

We are the older generation now

Human beings can expect to live seventy years. I am the older generation now. Ginsberg’s question for us old guys, poets, Presidents, or me is “Which way does your beard point tonight?” Whitman answers that the grass, new sprouts of grass are new life.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
____________________
I urge you to follow the links to the Whitman and Ginsberg poems below so you have something worth reading instead of my disconnected thoughts.

A Child said, What is the Grass, by Walt Whitman (scroll down to number 6)
A Supermarket in California, by Allen Ginsberg

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