“. . .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

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