“Bring only what you must carry—tome of memory. . .” (Natasha Trethewey)

glass blower
In August of 1994 my father turned 80 years old. He had been retired for some number of years—depending on which of his successive retirements we considered the “real” one. I was 50. On September 1 that year the Methodist Publishing house, Abingdon Press, published the long-awaited first volume of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Dad subscribed to the publication and received by mail each of the 12 volumes as they were issued.

It was a fairly expensive proposition for a retired American Baptist minister. Even more remarkable was that an 80-year-old man was determined to have the latest general research resource in his professional field. He had bought the first edition the same way in the 1950s. The beautiful set of books became mine when Dad died.

The second time I was in Hebron in Palestine (2010) the group I was with visited one of the few glass-blowing shops left in the city. The Israeli government, in protecting the illegal settlers in the middle of the city, has nearly destroyed the centuries-old Palestinian culture, including the thriving and internationally important glass-making industry.

The walls of the workshop’s gift shop were lined with shelves of glassware—much of it elegant blue—waiting for the tourists who, of course, no longer come. The Israel Defense Force, in defending the illicit settlements have made the city a perpetual war zone which very few people want to visit in spite of its historical and religious significance and its former cosmopolitan and vibrant society.

I bought and had shipped to myself in Texas four pieces of the cobalt blue glass—my favorite color. The most delicate of the pieces did not survive the trans-Atlantic journey, and I gave one as a gift to a friend. The other two are in places of honor in my apartment. They are not delicate, fine workmanship as the other two pieces were, but they are bold statements of the skill of the artisans, some of whom we met that day in Hebron.

Last night I went to dinner with friends, a couple I’ve known and loved for 21 years. It’s difficult for me to comprehend I’ve lived in Dallas that long. Even more surprising is that they and I can still pick up the conversation more or less where we left off when we were last together (about a year ago—we must not let that happen again). Nothing much has changed except that I walk with a cane much of the time.
photo(42)And he is in seminary studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

The stated purpose of our being together was for him to come to my apartment and carry away my dad’s New Interpreter’s Bible. The equally important purpose was to be together, to remind ourselves how much we love each other, to attend a service of the Eucharist together, and to share a delicious meal together (healthful salmon for me, thank you).

Last week a friend of about 18 years came to my apartment and took away the signed Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Barn “Hex” Sign I inherited from my late partner. My friend was one of the group I traveled with to Scandinavia and Russia two years ago. She will place the big colorful circle on a wall of her newly renovated kitchen.

I have a stack of books—Dr. Seuss, The Velveteen Rabbit, and several books of short stories by Hispanic-American writers such as Gary Soto. They will become available to the Aberg Center for Literacy for the use of adult ESL students.

There is a pattern in all of this. A conscious pattern and a purpose.

I have learned a new way to give myself immense personal, very selfish, pleasure: give something I own, something I cherish, to someone I love who needs it or will take pleasure in it.

This is one of the simplest ways of meeting my own needs for connection and community. Shall I be perfectly old fashioned (can I help but be?) and admit that I wept for joy after Miles and Brigitte left with Dad’s books last night.

Not a tinge of sadness or regret.

My joy at the pleasure of someone I love is genuine and deep. If parting with some trinket to which I have attached personal importance is all it takes to give delight to a friend—well, as they say, it’s a no-brainer.

As for those two Hebron glass pieces. For some items that have special meaning to me the recipient is not yet obvious. But when they are, I will know who they are. When I take that small step away from my fear of letting go, another small glimpse of “who [I am]—will be waiting when [I] return.”

“Theories of Time and Space,” by Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966)

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return

Natasha Trethewey, who has served as both the state poet laureate of Mississippi and the U.S. poet laureate, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2006.
2014-09-04 07.57.43

“This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy. . .” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

7993-07-child health careFrom the week I was born until May 30, 2010, my time was organized around Sunday mornings. My father was an American Baptist pastor. That Sunday morning was important goes without saying. By the time I was in junior high school I was a church organist. Except for four hiatuses of a few weeks between appointments, I held positions in churches for 50 years.

My father, who was conflicted about Social Security because it was a New Deal invention that he was not sure was Constitutional, insisted I open my account when I was in junior high school and was first paid by the church to play the organ. He had graduated from a Southern liberal arts college, highly-respected then and now, and his doubts about Social Security were academically well-founded questions, not 21st-century elitist Neo-Con “conservatism.” His father, however, was a Roosevelt Democrat, a union member, and a proponent of the New Deal in all of its manifestations.

Years later, when my parents retired, my father quietly jettisoned his doubts about Social Security—as, I’m sure, even the most die-hard so-called Libertarians do. I don’t know of anyone who refuses their check every month.

My time was organized around Sunday mornings. It was crucial.

The most important activities of the week were scheduled around preparations for Sunday mornings—choosing music for choirs and for myself, practicing the organ, meeting church bulletin printing deadlines, doing laundry for proper attire, making sure the car had enough gasoline to take me to the church, and all those other crucial details necessary for accomplishing my professional task. It’s amazing how much time and energy I spent on preparing for professional work.

For musicians the work itself is the tiniest part of a week’s activities.

And then on May 30, 2010, the church where I held my last position closed, and I discovered the truth.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff till you reply (Naomi Shihab Nye).

Almost nothing I’ve ever done was crucial for anyone’s well-being. No one has ever been perched dangerously on a cliff waiting for me to do something (to save them? help them? comfort them?). Hardly anyone would have noticed if I had worn the wrong shirt on Sunday morning, and absolutely no one would have cared.

Nothing I do could not be done by someone else. Except for thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. Someone else could probably be writing this. A joke used to circulate among English scholars (perhaps it still does) that if enough monkeys were seated at enough typewriters, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare.

My kitchen is not organized well enough for the Property Brothers (or anyone else on HGTV) to approve. It’s helter-skelter. Except for one area. I use one plate, one salad plate, one cereal bowl, one skillet, one baking dish . . . you get the point. Once in a while there are two of something. And when I finish with a dish or piece of flatware or cooking utensil, I wash it in one side of my double sink and put it in the dish drainer permanently housed in the other side. I don’t put one plate away so six hours later I have to get it out. It’s right there when I need it.

I never use the dishwasher. (An aside: if anyone says they’re worried about global warming or the California drought or oil companies using up all of our water for fracking, and I find out they use a dishwasher, I know all of their concern for the environment is a bunch of hot air.) For one plate, one salad plate, and one cereal bowl? Give me a break.

Well-meaning friends, relatives, and others (others?) come to my kitchen and try to be helpful. They wash dishes and put them away. And since there’s no obvious place to put my plastic 2-egg microwave egg poacher, they look around and find a cupboard with plastic refrigerator bowls and such and put it there.

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

The next morning after they’re gone and I’m fixing my breakfast, I have to open half the cupboard doors to find it.

This is obviously no BIG deal. It’s my silly example for today:

When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

It seems to me that most often what we think is crucial is crucial for exactly—for exactly ourselves and no one else. It is not crucial that dishes be washed, dried, and put in cupboards—or that enormous amounts of water and energy be wasted on running dishwashers—especially for an old man living alone. It’s not crucial; it’s what most of us were taught from infancy the way things are done. Not crucial; inculcated.

Some things are crucial. Finding a way to feed the millions of food-insecure children in our nation. Providing health care to everyone. Educating teenagers so they understand making money is not the goal of education, but being able participate in critical thinking is the goal. To find a way to save our democracy (what’s left of it) from the oligarchy and theocracy that are destroying it. I think it’s crucial for LGBTQ people who want to be treated equally to start helping others (like those millions of food-insecure children) to find equality.

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,
you are not a corner or a critical turning page.

The old man in me wants to say in my most irascible and crotchety voice, the one that will annoy you but that you will remember, “Fuck off!” unless you’re doing something that’s really crucial. Stop meddling and start helping.

“NEXT TIME ASK MORE QUESTIONS,” by NAOMI SHIHAB NYE (b. 1952)

Before jumping, remember
the span of time is long and gracious.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff
till you reply. Is there a pouch of rain

desperately thirsty people wait to drink from
when you say yes or no? I don’t think so.

Hold that thought. Hold everything.
When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,

you are not a corner or a critical turning page.
Wait. I’ll think about it.

This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy.
I am exactly where I wanted to be.

LGBTQ people: It's crucial to end child food-insecurity

LGBTQ people: It’s crucial to end child food-insecurity

“. . . Yet the absence of the imagination had Itself to be imagined. . . (Wallace Stevens)

turban walkingFor some time I’ve been meaning to research all of the possible meanings of the word turban. For a specific reason. Wallace Stevens uses it in the last line of the second stanza of his poem, “The Plain Sense of Things.”

No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The rest of the poem gives me no trouble. I have a meaning that it means to me—if a poem “means” anything. But how on earth can a “turban [walk] across the lessened floors?” Bizarre. I’ve had this poem in the back of my mind for a while but have avoided thinking about it directly because I can’t figure out what that image is.

I Googled “turban walking” and found a plethora of pictures of people in turbans walking. Most of them pretty silly. Many, of course, worthy of Charlie Hebdo—tasteless, mean, unnecessary, pushing the bounds of “rights” into the arena of “irresponsibility” (akin to the constant idiocy of the NRA). What I hoped to find was the image like one of a couple of handsome men in their white robes and turbans walking on the streets of Amman, Jordan, that I took in 2013.

I found one I liked of a distinguished man said to be in Amman, quod vide above.

Yet the absence of the imagination itself had to be imagined.

Not too long ago I wrote about the statement attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that “It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.” I do not know which to prefer, imagining the absence of the imagination or the impossibility of imagining non-being. (See stanza V.)

Mr. Goethe

Mr. Goethe

I’m pretty sure Goethe is more right than Stevens on this point. The absence of (anything) cannot be imagined (the old joke, “don’t think about the elephant”) because as thinking beings it is impossible for us to imagine not being.

When I write about these things, a few people who keep track of me worry that I’m suicidal or something. I’m not thinking about death. I’m thinking about not thinking. I suppose that means I’m thinking about being dead, but that’s not the same as thinking about death (which for some of us leads naturally and easily to thinking about suicide, hence causing friends to worry).

Simply put, I’m wondering if, when I am dead, the world, the universe, my family, this Internet posting will continue. Or, when I die, does the whole charade, the entire imagining of someone’s mind ends. Is the jig up? Long ago some comic strip or another (I used to think it was Bloom County with Opus) as its daily installment started with one character whispering to another, “The jig is up, pass it on.” The last frame showed a faraway character whispering to another, “The wig is wag.”

Isn’t that the way we get our information? especially about our own mortality. So many people in the “pass it on” line have misheard the original truth that we actually think what was said originally was,

“Whosever believeth in Him shall have eternal life.”

Or,

“Theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – their eternal Home. Allah is well-pleased with them.”

Or,

“Make me immortal in . . . the third region, the third heaven of heavens, where the worlds are resplendent. For Indra, flow you on, Indu!”

Or,

“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

Because my intellectual acumen is not as great as Pat Robertson’s, or Bill Maher’s, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, or Mullah Mohammed Omar’s, Or Amar Zutshi’s, I can’t agree or disagree with any of them.

My observation is limited to this. Anyone who is 70 years old and is not giving at least a passing thought to these things is not doing their homework.

. . . The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

“THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS,” by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Michelangelo's heaven

Michelangelo’s heaven

“. . .headlights pick my shadow up and spread it out along the wall. . .” (Robert Gregory)

Johnny Ott's finest

Johnny Ott’s finest

For the last ten days I’ve been cleaning my apartment. Not cleaning. Piling up stuff by the front door to take out and carry off to the thrift shop that helps fund The AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Dallas.

The stuff I’m piling up is stuff I don’t need. Probably haven’t needed for years. It’s a daunting task. One that most likely anyone who is not 70 years old cannot comprehend. This is not “spring cleaning.” It’s fall cleaning, winter cleaning, moving-toward-the-end cleaning.

My young friend thinks I’m terribly forgetful and disorganized. That’s true. But not in the way he thinks.

It’s traumatic to divest oneself (at least myself) of the comforting stuff that’s been around for years. The Johnny Ott Pennsylvania Dutch “Hex” barn decoration, for example. For 11 years I’ve had it leaning against the back of the bookcase separating my living area from my sleeping area in my loft. It’s been a familiar of comfort every night as I’ve turned out my lamp to get into bed.

Johnny Ott was the premier barn decoration painter in Pennsylvania before he died in 1999. I have the painted circle because my late partner acquired it in about 1975 when he was teaching at the Phelps School in Malvern, PA. When Jerry died, his stuff became mine. I’ve never figured out a way to display the Ott piece in this apartment except as my private remembrance of things past.

It was Jerry’s, and I had it for 11 years. I’m finally ready to let it go.

My parents decided when they were not much older than I am now that they wanted to live in a comfortable retirement in a community. Soon after their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987 they began clearing out their home in Sacramento, CA. My dad was 73 years old.

I probably don't need The Interpreter's Bible

I probably don’t need The Interpreter’s Bible

Our parents gave my siblings and me a helpful example of divestiture. Not in the legal or economic sense, but in the private getting-rid-of sense. They began giving us stuff they knew we wanted, and selling stuff, and giving stuff to charities several years before they knew they were going to move to the community.

By the time they moved they had a large three-bedroom house of stuff whittled down to a small one-bedroom (plus office for Dad—later he sent his library to a seminary in the Philippines) apartment sized amount. I need to go from a large open loft amount of stuff to a one-bedroom efficiency amount before I can move. Or be really comfortable. I have one major obstacle. The pipe organ in my living room. (There are no elephants. I ran them out long ago.)

Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too. (Robert Gregory)

I have a practice of emailing poets whose work moves me. Not many, you understand—five to date. I’m not collecting emails from poets because I get a kick out of it. In his gracious answer to my message, Robert Gregory said,

I wish you good luck in your task also. I’m very close to your age and confess I find the task more difficult and complicated and interesting than the simple “decluttering” people like to prescribe.

Back when I was a young man of 64, I wrote extensively about all of this. I am rather fond of calling myself an “old man” these days. I am old. When I was 10 and my grandfather was 70, I knew he was old. He died about twenty years later.

Referencing myself as “old” is not admitting or claiming decrepitness. It’s claiming my station as having lived a long time—the Biblical limit.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10 KJV).

Sometimes when I’m using my cane (hip problems and a propensity to fall), I ask young men (it’s particularly fun at the gym), “Are you planning to get old?” The universal response is, “No!” If I ask, “Are you planning to live a long time,” the answer is universally, “Yes!” Either way, I tell them to be careful of their hips, especially in the weight room. They don’t get it, of course; they’re living in a real-life version of Fame and are going to live forever.

The task is more difficult and complicated and interesting than “decluttering.”

And it’s even more difficult and complicated and interesting than taking care of my hips.

It’s the meaning of my life (that’s not a cliché or high school angst—it’s the absolute truth). And probably anyone else’s who’s willing (has the guts) to think about it. What, of all the stuff in my apartment, is important? What is either useful or helps me understand who I am?

Not much, it turns out. I am not my father’s set of the New Interpreter’s Bible. Not a few old gay porn films. Not the blue vase I bought from the glass blower in Hebron, Palestine. Not the leather jacket I bought with my first partner. Not the 150-year-old highboy I bought with my ex-wife. Not the souvenirs of four productions of the Wagner Ring. Not even the organ music I’ve collected for 50 years or the shelf of poetry books behind me as I write just now.

I’m an old man, and it’s time to sort this out. This: what’s important?
. . . headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

“Things I found and left where they were,” by Robert Gregory

A slow summer morning:
new light through a veil of green leaves, young leaves
that vibrate and tremble. The shadows are blurred in this light—
shadows once ourselves, they say. Clouds and a girl in
green trousers, three birds on the blacktop confer, between two
buildings a vacant lot, a concrete slab for some old
vanished building surrounded by a few dry rags of grass.
A little local dove in shades of brown and black investigating,
looking for food. A buzzard floating high above the Marriott,
up above the former Happy Meals and a blue discarded shoe.
A splash of bird shit and a splash of old blue paint together
on a picnic table side by side, sea grape in blossom overhead,
long green spikes and tiny blossoms, two fat bees intrigued so
though a breeze from off the ocean pushes them away they
come back and back. Now a girl floats by on skates, a pretty,
haughty face, unwritten on. She flies her naked skin like a
pirate flag, a big tattoo across her shoulder blade. At first
it looked just like a gunshot wound (I saw them sometimes
in the barracks on some ordinary guy in a towel walking
toward the shower). Shrapnel makes all kinds of shapes:
sickle moons and stickmen, twigs and teeth. Bullets always
make a perfect circle (for entry anyway) and make the
same two colors: blue-black and a purple like raspberry sherbet.
Up ahead, a man in a dirty shirt, his eyes turned inward, his hair
and thoughts all scattered, just awake from sleeping in a field
someplace. At every house the dogs come at him roaring,
not just barking as they do to everyone who passes by
but raging and fierce, they really want to tear him open, him
or the things he thinks he’s talking to. I’m remembering
as I walk along a ways behind him the ladies in the office
talking about the new widow: Is she cleaning? Yes. The first one,
the questioner, nodded. “Right after Frederick died,” she said,
“I got down on my knees and scrubbed that kitchen, places
I had never ever cleaned. For that whole month I did nothing
but scrub that floor.” It gets dark here very slowly and gently.
Now the stores are closed and locked. In this window lies
a fat old cat asleep inside the small remaining shadow
underneath an old lost table from elsewhere with graceful
skinny curving legs. As I walk away along the place
with no windows, headlights pick my shadow up and
spread it out along the wall, fatten it and give it wings
for just a second. Then they’re gone and it’s gone too.

Siegfried and I can part company

Siegfried and I can part company

For everyone who lives in Garland, Texas, especially the School Committee

Just read it.

Here.