“. . . preparing for next year’s famine with wine and music . . .”

Linda Pastan is a Jewish poet born in 1932 in New York (the Bronx, to be exact). She is wife and mother, and apparently her poetry is constructed around, and her images come from the more-or-less mundane aspects of family/home/married life.  I only a few days ago discovered her poetry. But I will keep reading.

Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan

Using words like “synchronicity” doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m an old geezer whose vocabulary was pretty much fixed in the ‘60s and ‘70s and isn’t the least bit new-agish. But I suppose it is synchronous that the day I decided to get out May Sarton’s At Seventy because I am now of the age she was when she wrote her memoir was the day I stumbled upon her writing about Linda Pastan’s poetry. (For those too young to know, May Sarton—1912-1995—was the Grande Dame of Lesbian writers in the middle of the 20th century.)

My teaching music and English part time at Salem State College in Massachusetts in the ‘80s had little to recommend it except that I began to learn what being a teacher means, and I met May Sarton. She came to speak and read her poetry because one of the faculty members and she were friends. I not only shook May Sarton’s hand and chatted with her a few minutes, but I learned from her friend on our English faculty (whose name I do not remember) that it was OK to be an out gay professor.

Whew! A long way ‘round to write a little piece about getting old. But a word of caution. Now that I’m reading Sarton’s memoir, you can guess she’ll pop up here with regularity. (Apropos of nothing, my favorite work of Sarton’s is still her book about cats, The Fur Person.)

In 2002 Linda Pastan published a poetry collection titled The Last Uncle. She was 70.

Obviously there’s a theme here. You realize, of course, that the moment I passed my 69th birthday, I entered my 70th year on the planet. We say, “I’m 69,” when in reality we are in our 70th year.

She'd be horrified to be called the Grande Dame

She’d be horrified to be called the Grande Dame

Approaching my retirement from SMU (it’s the reality of my life and, if you read much of my blog, you’ll hear about it—get used to it) in May, I am thinking about—trying to plan for, not to fret about—the future. What will I be able to do on my meagre “fixed income?” How will my being an old gay man affect the choices available to me? I don’t have a bunch of in-laws or a herd of grandchildren to look after me.

May Sarton was a successful and much-loved writer when she reached 70. And she had a “camp” (a splendid farm) in Maine to which to retire and live out her days in a lovely setting (sorry about the trite word—I have to get over using my pedestrian vocabulary, a writer-friend told me the other day). Linda Pastan presumably is still married (I haven’t found that out yet); in any case she has children and grandchildren.

Today I am feeling “at sixes and sevens” (what a wonderful phrase) about this business of being old. On the one hand, I can’t do anything about it. On the other, I have to try to keep myself healthy and strong –as in doing my exercises to keep my shoulder improving form surgery. On the one hand, I don’t want to “retire.” On the other, I want all my time for myself to write and pursue other favorite pastimes. On the one hand, I think about death and dying and find little solace anywhere. On the other, I know my family tend to be old—very old—when they die, so I may be here awhile, and what is the ultimate difference? anyway.

So I am happy to find a poem like Pastan’s “The Cossacks.” I don’t have much to say about it because not much needs to be said about it.

I know I don’t “[plan] for a life [I know I’ll] never have” and don’t very often have a “genuine smile in the face of disaster.” Partly because I don’t see the disaster yet. And partly because there’s not enough Prozac in the world to give me a “genuine smile” much of the time.

What I see is the rest of my life (however long it is) trying to settle in to being an old gay man. I want to do it as gracefully as May Sarton became “old” (but I was never “graceful” when I was young, so it doesn’t seem likely). And I’d like to be able to write and think about the simple, even pedestrian things of life (oh, give me a break from my flat-footed language!) as Linda Pastan does.

Of Pastan, Sarton wrote,

Nothing is here for effect. There is no self-pity, but . . . she has reached down to a deeper layer and is letting the darkness in. These poems are full of foreboding and acceptance, a wry unsentimental acceptance of hard truth. They are valuable as signposts, and in the end, as arrivals. Pastan’s signature is growth.

I’d say a worthy goal. Keep growing when you’re supposed to be wilting.

“The Cossacks,” by Linda Pastan

To F.

For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year’s Eve by counting
my annual dead.

My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.

But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you’d never have, I couldn’t explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial

laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English—
Brontë’s Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.

I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year’s famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.
— (Pastan, Linda. From The Last Uncle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.)

Move that shoulder, old man

Move that shoulder, old man

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