“. . . the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead . . .” (Kay Ryan)

jerry tree

Standing in front of the tree I planted at St. Paul Lutheran Church in memory of my late partner. What could be more permanent? The fire station that now stands in its place.

Ok. I should not write when I’m pissed off.

No, really. Pissed off.

It’s personal, not political. I think it’s a kind of pissed off that only someone who is going to have his 71st birthday tomorrow can understand.

It’s the kind of pissed off that can come only from hurt.

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

On Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, held its last Sunday Service of Holy Communion. It was one of the saddest mornings of my life. I had been organist and choir director of the church since November of 1994. That was not the reason for my sadness. I can (and do as substitute) play the organ for about any church any time. I even play the organ in my living room.

The sadness was my knowledge―our knowledge even saying it would not be so―that our little family was dying, that we would never reconstitute ourselves as a community, good as our intentions were and hard as we might try (for a while).

I was 65 years old.

I was still teaching first-year writing at Southern Methodist University. They didn’t ask me to retire for another three years.

When I was 68, both of my most significant “communities” disappeared from my life.

The church community was more important because the raison d’être of a church found in the Gospel According to John is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” From the first Sunday I played at St. Paul until the last, I had no doubt I was loved, and I loved the people. We prayed and played together, and in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us, every member was supported by every other member. The church was family.

SMU, it turned out, was a place of employment. I don’t know if it was my attitude/personality that kept me from feeling “community” there or the nature of that beast. I suspect it was the latter.

If you read my post here yesterday, you are probably a bit skeptical of my understanding of that little church as family. If so, you misunderstood what I said. “. . . in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us. . .” I doubt any of my friends there would be surprised to read yesterday’s writing. And if they did, they  would not reject me for it. I know how complex they are as persons, and they know how complex I am.

Even though we hardly ever see each other, I have no doubt that we love each other in that strange and wonderful way that church people can, and at their best, do.

Since the church closed and I was the old man eased out of his teaching job, I have had one small community of friends I know I can count on in the same way I counted on the St. Paul family for love and support. It is an indefinable and motley crew, acquaintances from 12-step groups. They are mostly gay men. Mostly. I love those guys. I’m pretty sure they love me, too, “in that very special way. . .” (go to a 12-step meeting if you don’t know that phrase).

I have a theory. I’ve done some research in scholarly journals (a perk of teaching at SMU for 15 years is lifetime use of the library), but I haven’t found much evidence to support my theory:

most 70-year-olds feel the loss of community as keenly as, perhaps even more than, the loss through death or distance of family of origin ties.

Your church closes. You retire. Friends and lovers move away. More friends die. Your parents die. Your partner dies.

If you happen to be pathologically shy (belying the appearance of your work and activity for the past 50 years) or, to use a term I find ridiculous but true, “socially anorexic,” your options for meeting people decrease in number daily.

For reasons I’ve discussed here too often, I physically dislike crowds―parties and such places where friends meet and new friendships are formed. I don’t dislike the people, simply the noise and the fact that large rooms where parties happen are lighted with deadly fluorescent lights.

That means I have to go looking for community. On a daily basis. With the mental and physical acumen of a 70-year-old who really just wants to be at home or having a quiet evening out with an age-appropriate friend or two. Or walking through the Dallas Museum of Art.

So here’s where being pissed off comes in. Am I pissed off because my communities have collapsed and my friends are scattered all around and I hardly ever see them? Is that because I unconsciously send out vibes of loneliness? Or is it simply that I have too high expectations?

I’m having a birthday party. A big strange event, that is―rather than being all about “me” a benefit for my favorite non-profit, the Aberg Center for Literacy. I did this last year, and my friends showed up and raised $800 for the Center.

From the 45 E-Vites I sent out a month ago (with reminders since), I’ve had 12 responses.

Maybe I’m not so much pissed off as curious, and neither as much as fearful, fearful that my communities have finally forgotten me altogether.

Fearful. Is that what happens to 70-year-old gay men who used to be professors and organists? Or straight women who were financial analysts  for Compass Bank? Or any 70-year-old?

Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, who is eight months younger than I, wrote this when she was 65. I think she gets it.


Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

From Kay Ryan. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).

At home alone playing music I used to play for my community.

“. . . contempt prior to investigation . . .” (Herbert Spencer)


The “survival of the fittest”? Herbert Spencer’s phrase, not Darwin’s, by the way.

We’ve entered our 2017th year.

You’d think by now we would have figured things out well enough so we wouldn’t have a demagogue poised to be nominated to run for President. And that we in Texas wouldn’t need to revert today to the social bullyism and vigilante justice of the frontier 150 years ago. And that no group of us would need to point out that their lives matter. And that our nation, built on the idea that all men have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not be supporting with money and political power the state terrorism of one of the most tyrannical of nations.

Day after tomorrow I will enter my 72nd year. You’d think by now I would have figured things out well enough so I would be able to keep my material affairs in proper order to make sure I have food until I die. And that I would have established whatever social interaction is necessary to insure that I’m participating in the genetic necessities of being Homo sapiens. And that I would have learned how a gay boy is supposed to live in society and be accepted by both (or either) straight and gay people. You’d think I’d at least be able to decide whether to stop what I’m doing and take the 15 minutes necessary to brew a pot of Arabic coffee, which I so keenly want to do but think is probably a frivolous waste of time.

I wonder why I can’t seem to order my life the way most people (I assume although I have no proof) would imagine someone with a PhD and 30 years of college teaching and the ability to guide a church’s music program, and so on, could do. Evidence that I can’t: I’m “on call” to substitute as organist at a large and important church on my birthday, and I cannot find my organ-playing shoes. How do you lose a pair of shoes? I suppose that’s not a good example because even the gay boys with the most elegant and fastidiously maintained homes misplace stuff now and then.

Most of what I observe in the way people around me live is, simply put, deeply mysterious to me. I have no idea how to organize stuff I need for cooking (do I need it?) in the cabinets provided in my kitchen or why I should. I have no idea why I’m (apparently) supposed to have more than two pairs―not counting my organ shoes―of shoes, one for wearing and one for exercising. I have no clue why the topic of conversation in so many circumstances is “Downton Abbey” or “Star Wars.” And cars? Don’t get me started on the absurdity of the automobile. I am glad someone discovered the joy of drinking coffee, but I can’t imagine how that got started or why I have to buy it in little bags using bits of the money I have that should keep me eating until the day I die.

Speaking of dying, I cannot fathom―I’ll say it again―why Texans want to start today carrying their rifles into Kroger. Or why Kroger will let them.

Speaking of dying, if our society is founded on the idea that all men are endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why are there 9 million of us wandering homeless and hungry in the deserts around Syria? And why does our country keep bombing people in Afghanistan? And why do a few people from that part of the world think they’ll get justice by killing a few of us and scaring the bejeebers out of the rest of us so we kill more of them?

Of course, I don’t understand a few tiny practical things either. How these two implements can hold the same amount of water boggles my mind.


Isn’t one bigger than the other?

That falls in the category, “It’s a holy mystery and ought to remain such,” articulated by my friend Sr. Mary Charles who disappeared into a cloistered nunnery about 45 years ago never to be heard from again.

And that―ha! I wondered how I was going to get here―brings me to the greatest mystery I know: God. I don’t mean God herself is a mystery. I mean that so many people believe she exists is a mystery to me.

For my entire life I’ve been involved in groups that exist because of their belief in God. The church since the day I was born and the famous 12-step programs for the last 29 years. I can repeat myriad kinds of God-talk ad infinitum. I know about it. I used to believe a great deal of it.

But I hear people talking about doing God’s will or having God help them out with something or feeling God’s presence, and I wonder what on earth they’re talking about. I’m not espousing

. . . a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation,”

the dictum of Herbert Spencer that people in 12-step groups use to chide people who may not believe in God. The very fact that they quote one of the great agnostics of the 19th century to argue against agnosticism is in itself a kind of commentary on the belief in God.

No, I have investigated.

And I’ve decided that belief in God is a purely political phenomenon. Radical Zionists are sure they are justified in killing off all Palestinians because God told them so. Radical Muslims are sure they need to form a monstrous killing machine because it will please God. And radical Americans say, “one nation under God. . .” believing either that we are doing God’s will or that God loves us so much that she will help us force our way of life on the rest of the world.

I don’t get it.


How (or why) do you organize a kitchen?

(But I did make my Arabic coffee.)