“. . . the ordinary man as he always was. . .” (Fadwa Tuqan)

Nancy's Moulin Rouge

Nancy’s Moulin Rouge

When I get old like Nancy Birtwhistle, I want to do something like build/bake the most spectacular cake in the country.

[The 60-year-old grandmother] was branded the ‘queen of consistency’ by judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in The Great British Bake Off final last week.

The “last week” in the Daily Mail was October 12, 2014. But I’ll bet not ten Americans who were hooked on the BBC/PBS show spoiled the excitement by looking up the result of the contest online before this past Sunday evening when the grand finale played on PBS. Who’d want to ruin a bit of genuine fun and real-life mystery-drama?

I need some advice on how to be retired. Yesterday I arrived at the Athletic Development of Student Athletes center at 9 AM for my regular three hours of tutoring. Then a quick trip to the fitness center for a short workout and 50 minutes of walking in the therapy pool, then back to the ADSA for two more hours of tutoring. Stop by the grocery store. Then home.

Fadwa Tuqan

Fadwa Tuqan

In the evening I spent an hour reading the book one of the students I tutor is reading for his class, and then about two hours researching Palestinian poets. That’s not true. I became fascinated by the life and work of Fadwa Tuqan, 20th-century Palestinian poet, and spent a good deal of the evening researching in university library databases for references to her—and I ordered her autobiography translated by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Today my schedule is easier—9:30 appointment with therapist, 11:00 extra tutoring session for student who has a monstrous essay due, 12:15 workout at fitness center, 2:00 meeting of GED faculty at the Aberg Center for Literacy (six blocks from fitness center), 3:00 meet with dietician back at fitness center, 7:00 twelve-step meeting and weekly dinner after.

It’s pretty obvious why I want to get old like Nancy Birtwhistle and have nothing to do but build cakes that look like the Moulin Rouge. I need some time to myself. That’s because I’m an introvert. It has nothing to do with old age. I was ever thus.

No, really. I always have trouble convincing my friends that’s true. I’m so gabby and so at ease with people and so unafraid to perform, to teach a class, to lead a choir, to. . . – you name it.

About the only upside to being as busy as I was yesterday and will be today is that I wasn’t and won’t be sitting at home alone and lonely, and feeling sorry for myself. OK. Stop. That’s not what depression is. It’s not being lonely and feeling sorry for myself. It’s this nameless, formless Thing waiting to overtake me whenever I make myself physically comfortable on my sofa or stand at the kitchen sink doing dishes or drive to the fitness center or go to a party or participate in a meeting of the GED faculty at the Aberg Center for Literacy.

The good news is that the older I get, the kinder I am to myself for this schizoid life. (Note: I did not use “schizophrenic” or any other pathological word.

Schizo
word-forming element meaning “division; split, cleavage,” from Latinized form of Greek skhizo- comb. form of skhizein “to split, cleave, part, separate,” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

Division. Split. Cleavage. That’s what I have in my brain. There’s this guy who can go out and work with a university football player who—I think by most people’s standards—is physically pretty intimidating and have an easy-going but professional relationship with him. I can go to a meeting of a bunch of volunteer teachers and participate even though my throat gets dry and I have to hold onto the table every time I speak.

But submit myself to going to a party with a bunch of strangers (or even a bunch of people I know)? Not if I can help it. Carl Jung theorized that

The introvert’s attitude is an abstracting one; at bottom he is always intent on withdrawing libido from the object, as though he had to prevent the object from gaining power over him (quoted in Blandin, Kesstan. “Temperament And Typology.” Journal Of Analytical Psychology 58.1 (2013): 118-136).

“Libido,” as I understand it, is the unconscious part of the psyche that’s the source of instinctive satisfaction and pleasure. Of course, the most obvious instinct is sexual pleasure, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that part of a person’s unconscious that attaches itself to other people and situation—unless, of course, for some reason, a person doesn’t want anything or anyone to gain power over them.

Well, how’s that for psychobabble? All I mean is that I like people, I love people, I fall desperately in love with people, but I don’t want them to have any power over me. The best way to prevent that is simply to avoid them—and to be sure to have enough time alone to recover after a bunch of people sap my energy.

I used to think that if I lived to be 70 years old, I’d be over this or at least have figured how to live with myself in spite of introversion. I didn’t say I’m not happy. Those parts of me that don’t need Lamictal every day are pretty happy—go-lucky, in fact. I know how to have as much fun as Nancy Birtwhistle—but not on TV, not with the whole world watching.

I think most of us are introverts. Some of us have perfected the art to a high degree. But I think most of us are forever devoid of the kind of strength necessary to attach ourselves to others without fear (extraverts may just be crazy).

I can’t even imagine the kind of strength it must take to participate in the lives of others so completely as to be able to write a poem like this—or to have the strength of the person who is the subject of the poem. Even if Hamza is fictitious, he is drawn from the reality of people I have met in Palestine.

“Hamza,” by Fadwa Tuqan

Hamza was just an ordinary man
like others in my hometown
who work only with their hands for bread.

When I met him the other day,
this land was wearing a cloak of mourning
in windless silence. And I felt defeated.
But Hamza-the-ordinary said:
‘My sister, our land has a throbbing heart,
it doesn’t cease to beat, and it endures
the unendurable. It keeps the secrets
of hills and wombs. This land sprouting
with spikes and palms is also the land
that gives birth to a freedom-fighter.
This land, my sister, is a woman.’

Days rolled by. I saw Hamza nowhere.
Yet I felt the belly of the land
was heaving in pain.

Hamza — sixty-five — weighs
heavy like a rock on his own back.
‘Burn, burn his house,’
a command screamed,
‘and tie his son in a cell.’
The military ruler of our town later explained:
it was necessary for law and order,
that is, for love and peace!

Armed soldiers gherraoed his house:
the serpent’s coil came full circle.
The bang at the door was but an order —
‘evacuate, damn it!’
And generous as they were with time, they could say:
‘in an hour, yes!’

Hamza opened the window.
Face to face with the sun blazing outside,
he cried: ‘in this house my children
and I will live and die
for Palestine.’
Hamza’s voice echoed clean
across the bleeding silence of the town.

An hour later, impeccably,
the house came crumbling down,
the rooms were blown to pieces in the sky,
and the bricks and the stones all burst forth,
burying dreams and memories of a lifetime

of labor, tears, and some happy moments.

Yesterday I saw Hamza
walking down a street in our town —
Hamza the ordinary man as he always was:
always secure in his determination.

The Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, who has died aged 86, forcefully expressed a nation’s sense of loss and defiance. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli general, likened reading one of Tuqan’s poems to facing 20 enemy commandos. (more. . .)‘in this house my children and I will live and die for Palestine". . . An hour later, impeccably, the house came crumbling down,

‘in this house my children and I will live and die for Palestine”. . . An hour later, impeccably, the house came crumbling down,

“I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am. . .” (Jason Shinder)

A moment of reality or an Old Queen's bling?

A moment of reality or an Old Queen’s bling?

On the last day of the last classes for the course work leading to my PhD (1978), I drove from Iowa City to Cedar Springs and purchased a ring. It cost far more than I should have spent on anything at that juncture—as a poverty stricken graduate student. On the internet rings that look similar to mine run from $300 to $1750.

If mine is worth $1750, I ought to sell it today. I never wear it because the last time I did, a couple of friends made fairly unkind comments about it. The ring looks like either a gangster’s pinky ring or an old queen’s bling. Ostentatious. It’s a large garnet set in high-quality gold. Garnet is my birthstone.

A couple of days ago I found the ring in a box with some other small valuables while sorting through a pile of stuff in the process of cleaning out the detritus of my life (I’m one step and a few dollars away from hiring a “professional home organizer” who specializes in helping old folks downsize.)

Yesterday I changed my Facebook picture (yes, I participate in “social media”). The new picture was taken when I was a senior in college (1966), in the surplice and cassock the choir and organists wore for chapel services at the university. I found it, too, in a pile of stuff I’m sorting. The picture immediately garnered many “likes” and a few comments.

Earlier in the day yesterday, driving home from the fitness center (“Nearer my God to thee,” anyone?) I listened to NPR’s “TED Radio Hour.” It was about “success.” I heard two segments of the program, the last was Guy Raz’s interview with Alain De Botton. His most memorable one-liner was, “We have made in the United States a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.”

Before talking to De Botton, Raz interviewed Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” and played clips of his TED talk about success. Yes, I’m a Mike Rowe fan. I’ve said it many times: I’m easily entertained. He’s certainly one of the sexiest men on TV—and I’ve also worked in a place like those where he’s hung out with workers in dirty jobs. I worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, CA, for two years, not in a dirty job, but in one of the least healthy environments possible—I can’t imagine what it took to make that huge area ecologically safe when the plant closed. Disposing of the slag heap alone must have been a herculean job.

Talking about some of the people he’s worked with over the last 8 years, Mike Rowe said, “You don’t follow your passion, you

One of the sexiest men on TV

One of the sexiest men on TV

always bring it with you.” He was referring to a PhD former psychologist who was working cleaning out septic tanks, who said he tired of listening to other people’s crap.

“You don’t follow your passion, you always bring it with you.”

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about what my passion is.

I write every day. That’s not really a passion, however; it’s a compulsion. Is there a difference? I can (but I don’t let myself) go days on end without playing the organ. When I think about that, I am mystified. I’ve done that all my life (since 1954). I have a pipe organ in my living room. The largest pile of “stuff” I need help sorting is organ music. That 1966 picture of myself is important not least for the professional “costume” I’m wearing.

That TED Radio Hour fascinated me because I do not consider myself to be a “successful” person. I have never written a book (scholarly or otherwise, fiction or non-fiction). I have never played a commercially-recorded organ concert. I’m retired on about $2100 per month. I don’t have a husband. I suppose the list of “I don’t” or “I haven’t” is infinite.

The fact is, I have no “passion” in the terms I think Mike Rowe meant.

I’d love to be a world-famous scholar or fiction writer or concert musician. I really would. I think any one of those would be a kick-ass accomplishment. But I obviously don’t need any of those things, or I’d either have it, or I would have spent my life and my energy trying to get it.

My passion is really quite simple.

I have to insert a disclaimer here. Many years ago I knew a flute player named Kristen Webb. She played a recital at my church in Salem, MA. When we were taking a break from rehearsal, we were chatting about performance, and I mentioned that an organist friend/mentor, Professor Sam Walter of Rutgers University had recently died. I said Sam told me that in performance one enters an “altered state of reality.”

Kristen immediately expanded on that thought, saying that when she performed, she had something of an “out-of-body” experience.

The only moments of performance when I’ve ever been aware of an “altered state of reality” was when I knew I was having a seizure and performed nonetheless. A fairly frequent occurrence until then—Sam died in 1987, and I had begun treatment for seizures only about three years before that.

My passion is really quite simple, and some might think it trivial or even silly.

I want for one moment—longer if possible, but one moment would satisfy me, I think—to know, to be absolutely certain that I understand or feel or experience—I don’t know what the verb should be—without a scintilla of doubt or dissociation or despair the essence (the reality?) of my own existence.

How do a ring, and old photograph, a remembered conversation, a radio program from yesterday pile up to make my reality? Or do they—

Sounds like arrested development, doesn’t it? Teenage angst.

Or the fervent hope and desire of every person 70 years old. And for some of us beginning when we were seven.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955–2008)
When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.

Jason Shinder was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1955. He was the founder and director of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice, as well as the director of Sundance Institute’s Writing Program. He taught in the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School University. His awards and fellowships include serving as Poet Laureate of Provincetown, MA, and a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He divided his time between Provincetown and New York City. Shinder died in April 2008.

One moment of reality

One moment of reality