“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

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