“. . . one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire . . .” (Billy Collins)

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Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, ‘The Chronicle of Abindon,’ circa 1220. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Me senescent.” About me getting old. Or is it “my” getting old? Do I mean it’s about me in the process of getting old, or that it’s about the process of getting old in general as I experience it? I’ve wondered for quite a while if the title of this blog shows my ignorance, or if it is very clever.

The difference between ignorance and cleverness is not always obvious. Microsoft Word insists that “awhile” is not a word, that one should say “a while.” Is Word showing its ignorance or being clever or dogmatizing grammar, as perhaps the arbiter of writing correctness in the 21st century should not do?

I have been growing old awhile now. Only awhile. Briefly. I’m going to while away the hours I have left. I am senescent, and I am developing all of the oddities of senescence that are the stuff of ubiquitous jokes. The late comedian Buddy Hackett compiled a list of seven warnings for senescent men. I’ve googled him but can’t find the list. Perhaps it was someone else. It’s a memory I used to harbor. Buddy Hackett senesced only to 78. The list, whether or not he wrote it, ends with, “Never waste an erection,” and “Always know where the nearest rest room is.” I was glad I’ve learned to heed one of those warnings while I was at a conference this past weekend.

The question of using “awhile” is complicated by the possibility that whenever one uses the word, one is perhaps implying a preposition. When I say, “I have been growing old awhile now,” do I mean, “I have been growing old FOR a while now?” Is this the kind of grammatical hair-splitting that only senescent English teachers think about?

No. It’s the kind of question anyone who wants to communicate well in writing needs to think about. Do you want to write about the object of your thoughts or simply modify your expression?

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

While I do not like the idea of senescence, I am somewhat comforted that the concomitant loss of the kind of memory Billy Collins’ poem describes is not a problem for me. I have never had a store of information about books and plays and music and movies and historical or scientific facts to lose. I have never paid close enough attention to build a store of such memories/knowledge. I read a book, I see a movie, or I hear a symphony concert; I experience them, and then I move on to the next book, movie, or concert and the previous ones disappear. Plots and details have

. . . floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as [I] can recall . . .
It was ever thus.

During my most recent (annual) Christmas trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, we saw the movie, “Jackie.” (This very moment I had to google it to remember Natalie Portman, the lead actress who was nominated for the Academy Award for her work.) About two weeks later I went with a friend to see “La-La Land.” Its lead actress won the Academy Award for best actress. I remember her name. Emma Stone. While we waited for the movie to start, my friend said he was hoping to see “Jackie” soon, I said I’d like to see it, too, and perhaps we could find a time to go together.

He said, “I thought you had already seen it.” I couldn’t remember. It was two weeks before. He reminded me it’s about Jackie Kennedy and the assassination.  Oh, yes, I vaguely remembered. Fortunately, it came back to me in short order, and I was able to explain to him that the movie covers only the period from the assassination to the funeral.

This is my friend who can, I’m sure, recite the entire script of “Night at the Opera,” of “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sweeney Todd,” and of many more movies. I do not comprehend his memory.  For me

. . . The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title . . . .
[the novel] becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . .

My friend is young. Not yet 60. He probably has a while to go before he has to

. . . . rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

I have never been much interested in famous battles, but if I were, I’d have to rise in the middle of the night. While I was in college, I pulled one “all-nighter,” studying for a final exam. Medieval Civilizations. I determined I would remember at least one fact from that night for the rest of my life: Ethelred the Unready was King of England from about 979 to 1016. Two facts. His son Edward the Confessor died without an heir. That led to the Norman invasion and defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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The tomb of St Edward the Confessor Photo: Alamy

I wrote all of that without google. I guess I am interested in one battle.

The word “while” has no touch of French or Latin in its etymology. It comes from the Proto-Germanic,

hwilo, “a spice of time.” In other words, it survived the Frenchification of England and the appropriation of the Anglo Saxon/Germanic languages by the Latinate French, although the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “while” all come from a Latin word that was obsolete even in 1066.

So the question remains: am I writing about the process of getting old in general and my experience of it, or am I writing about myself as a person in the process of getting old. Would the French not have defeated the English if William the Confessor had had a son? or was England in such disarray at that juncture that nothing could have saved the purity of the Anglo Saxon language and culture?

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, 1999.

Sunshine

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My love for, obsession with, clouds continues on my walk to the phone store.

A little poem I wrote on a recent day when I had had seizures several days in a row. Senescence apparently does not mean the end of long-time physical anomalies. Don’t feel sorry for me; they’re tiny seizures that no one else knows about. Just a nuisance. But a real nuisance.

Sun.

Every word
that needs saying about the
Sun
Is in poems already
Tucked away in volumes
Of exquisite lines set down by
Wordsmiths
Emotionsmiths
Observationsmiths
Figure-of-speechsmiths.
And I, depersonalized,
derealized
want the
Sun to fold itself away
In my mind
and in my body to
Bring me back from wherever
I have gone.

img_5699About this poem: It’s 83 degrees today. I walked 2.28 miles round trip to the a,t AND t store to change my order of yesterday.  Could have played in the park but didn’t. The sun always makes terrifying (at least bothersome) seizure dissociation less so.

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I didn’t play on the slides in the park.

A shameless bit of (self) promotion: I would appreciate your looking at my other blog. Thank you.

“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

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“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

BIRTHDAY MUSINGS with appreciation to May Sarton.

In 1984 May Sarton published her enchanting memoir, At Seventy. I heard her read a bit of it at Salem State College in Massachusetts in about 1986. She was the only openly lesbian writer I knew of at that time, brought to the Salem Campus by a gay member of the English faculty. I remember thinking then how lucky I was to meet this elderly poet and hoping that she would write more poetry before she died.

She did. She published a collection of poetry in 1993, and her even more enchanting memoir, Coming into Eighty, in 1994 shortly before she died.

I finally got around to reading all of At Seventy after I heard Sarton had died. By then I was in Texas studying creative writing and wishing I had paid closer attention to this remarkable woman who was in 1986 the only “real live” (that is, published and famous) poet I had ever met. I didn’t yet know I loved poetry; I was adjunct professor of music at Salem State, the job which enabled me to achieve my appointment as chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The tenured position I gave up (no one does that!) to move to Texas.

May Sarton is in my mind today because I stumbled across a poem of hers from her 1993 collection, and I realized that tomorrow I will turn the age she was when she published At Seventy, that is, 71.

NOW I BECOME MYSELF, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before-‘
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

(“Now I Become Myself,” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.)

Sarton is writing specifically about writing a poem that expresses herself, “As slowly as the ripening fruit . . . Falls but does not exhaust the root, so all the poem is. . . Grows in me.” I’m not sure what it’s like to write a poem―or create anything―that “grows in me.” But becoming myself has “taken Time, many years and places; I have been dissolved and shaken, Worn other people’s faces, Run madly, as if Time were there, terribly old, crying a warning, ‘Hurry, you will be dead before―’”

Before what?

Yesterday in its weekly online newsletter, the AARP published its annual “people we have lost in ___” list. First on the list is Fred Thompson, 73, US Senator. Notice the “73.” The list comprises 31 celebrities; the oldest is Maureen O’Hara, actress, 95, and the youngest is Stuart Scott, sportscaster, 49. The average age is 79.3 years. Minus 71, that’s 8.3.

One of the questions a patient in a mental hospital (whatever gentle description it may have) who is committed because they are actively suicidal is, “Do you often think about death?” It’s surprising how many ways there are to ask that question and how soon the patient realizes it’s the same question over and over in disguise. I, at any rate, figured it out.

(I also figured out what the signs on the locked doors, “Elopement Danger” meant and have written a short story with that title, but that’s not germane to my task at hand―just a little comic relief.)

How many ways are there to ask if one often thinks about death?

Or, the real question should be, “Who doesn’t often think about death?”

I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death shortly after it was published (1973) while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I had thought about death quite a lot before that, but Becker gave me an organized way to approach the contemplation.

The answer to the “who” question is “Anyone younger than 60 years old.” Someone that age might (and probably does) think about death in some abstract way. We all know we’re going to die. It’s the one idea we have that the “lower” animals don’t. But when it’s news that Fred Thompson, 73, dies and you’re about to turn 71, thinking about death takes on a completely different urgency.

I am neither suicidal nor depressed (more than is normal for me). I am not afraid I’m going to die in two years. My father lived to 97. There is some genetic possibility that I will be here quite a while longer. I am, however, taking stock.

What do I want to do, to accomplish, to finish before I die? How do I want to live? Who do I want to be with?

I have to admit that I really don’t have any well-reasoned, definite (or even off-the-top-of-my-head) answers to those questions. The first question I need to ask myself is, “How important is it to have answers to those questions?” I don’t know.

What I know is that I want to be able to say with May Sarton, without doubt or equivocation, “Now I become myself.” I have a sense of urgency that my work-in-progress attitude needs to begin to find some accomplishment, to be able, without sentimentality or braggadocio, to say,

“O, in this single hour I live all of myself and do not move.”

Thank you, May.
_______________
NOTE: another poem I read today (because someone suggested it to me) is “On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963.
One stanza reads:

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

The entire poem is here.

“. . . I think something weak strengthens until they are more and more it . . .” (Kay Ryan)

The organist as a kid.

Portrait of the organist as a young man.

If anyone had asked me, say 20 years ago, if I thought I’d live to be 70, I would have said, “Of course.” The problem is, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

There’s no rule book for getting older (or, eventually, old). One of the unspoken regulations, however, is that you don’t talk about being old. If you want people to think of you as a person instead of a relic. Or don’t want people to think you’re asking for attention or special treatment.

I don’t think of myself as old. My friends hear me talk about being old all the time. What they (many of them at any rate) don’t understand is how much fun I’m having when I say I’m an old man. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, and very little of my mind can actually comprehend that I’m 70.

When my father’s father was 70, my father was 40, and I was 10. When Granddad died, he was 92, my dad was 62, and I was 32. When Dad died, he was 97 and I was a few months shy of 67.

I’ve written here before about my cane. Yes, I fell, damaged my hip, and had to have surgery (not a replacement). Then when I was almost healed from that (physical therapy and the whole nine yards), I fell again. No surgery, but another 6 months with the cane. Now I’ve been without it for six months, and have been working with a trainer and getting stronger than I have been in 20 years.

The funny thing (“peculiar” not “ha-ha” as my mother would have said) about my cane is that it didn’t occur to me until I was at the fitness center working with the trainer, seeing myself in the mirrors that line the walls (are fitness freaks narcissists or masochists that they need to watch themselves?), and realizing that’s what others saw when they looked my way, that I look 70 years old. Not only 70, but not in good shape.

Who ever―except those fitness freaks―thinks realistically about what they look like?

“Realistically,” I said.

The cute guy in the picture at the top of this page is me. I was University Chapel Organist when I was a senior in college. 1966 and 21 years old. I think that’s what I think I look like today. Yes, that’s what I look like.

I can get away with that self-deception because looking out from this body, I don’t feel any difference in the structure or coloring or shape of my face. Or of the color and thickness of my hair. Or. . . . Unless I’m looking in a mirror, I can carry the memory of my 21-year-old face around with me and never notice that I’m fooling myself.

That may be one of the dangers of growing old. A certain ability to ignore reality. Or it may not be a danger. It may be a necessity.

Learning to live in my body as it is at 70 instead of how I imagine it to be is as elusive as it is necessary. Notice, I did not say learning to “accept” my body as it is. Part of living in my body is learning to take care of it. And learning that I need always to be trying to make it stronger, not always giving in to the natural weakening of old age.

My diet has been healthier for the last two years than it was for decades before that. I exercise. The basic is walking 2 miles every day. I have other routines that I do regularly a couple of days a week.

So my body and I are working together to make my image of myself as healthy and strong something of a reality.

But there’s something else going on.

Kay Ryan (she’s also 70, but she’s been Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress, and won the Pulitzer Prize, and has all manner of accomplishments) says that “As some people age they kinden” (they get “kinder” in case you don’t get the wonderful poetic license with the language).

I’m not sure I’ve ever been kind. In fact, I am a bull-headed, blustering, judgmental loud-mouth. I don’t like stupid people (if you are stupider than I am, you are a threat because I’m afraid I might discover that I really am as stupid as you are).

“Something weak strengthens.”

I hope so. And I hope it’s not just my glutes so I don’t fall again.

I hope it’s my kindness. I hope it’s my generosity. I hope it’s my ability to empathize with folks (all folks). I hope it’s my willingness to be vulnerable. I hope it’s all those weak things about me that looking in the mirror doesn’t show. Those things others see and like and might even be helped or inspired by.

I want to kinden.

“AGE,”  BY  KAY  RYAN
As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

――Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Web. 2011.
http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/summer-2011/sixteen-poems/

(I would appreciate your visiting my other blog. Thank you.)

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.

“. . . When our grand passion had not yet become familial. . .” (Thom Gunn)

Boston, 1991

Boston, 1991

Somewhere in a box or pile or a file or a stack is a musical creation of mine (or not―it most likely met the same fate as most of my compositions), a small song cycle, a setting of three poems by Thom Gunn from his 1966 collection, Positives. I wrote the cycle in about 1970.

I don’t remember the poems or the music. I wrote the music as part of the work for my MA degree in music composition at what was then California State University at Los Angeles. I chose Gunn’s poetry because I found his book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and it was the first collection I owned by a poet I knew was gay.

Yesterday I wore an old lavender T-shirt, shapeless and faded―like me―from the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 1991. My first Gay Pride Parade was the 20th in Boston—1990. For it I had a T-shirt that proclaimed in black letters nearly covering the front, “Nobody knows I’m gay!” In 1992 I had a T-shirt with the logo of the Boston Aids Hospice as I marched with the other volunteers from the Hospice (it closed in 1997, after I had moved to Dallas).

A member of the AA group I most often attended in 1991 had been present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. I used to own a book about the riots which contained a picture of her (yes, women were involved in the riots). She was uncomfortable with what she saw as the flippant use by the gay community of Stonewall as a rallying point. She remembered that night only with horror and fear. She could not bring herself to march in Pride Parades.

I was married at the time of Stonewall, but I remember watching the coverage on the national TV news and thinking I should have been there. My wife knew I was gay. Those were the days when many of us―my wife and I included―thought that getting married would somehow end my being gay. (Or, more likely, I thought it would provide “cover” for being who I knew I was.)

I wore my “Together in Pride, June 8th, 1991, Lesbian and Gay Pride” T-shirt yesterday to attend the celebration at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a selfie wearing it at the event.

Trying to sort out for myself, much less for anyone else, the complexity of my feelings throughout the day yesterday, and especially at the celebration, is seeming to be impossible.

First observation. I was (as I have become accustomed to being) one of the oldest people in the group of 2,000. My guess is there were fewer than 50 of us 70 or older.

Second observation. I was alone.

Third observation. It all seemed too easy.

Fourth observation. My tears over and over again yesterday were of joy, relief, fulfillment, jealousy, longing, and grief simultaneously and progressively, impossible to sort out.

Of course I am elated, overjoyed, and ecstatic at the Supreme Court decision, relieved that that step on the journey to civil rights is taken (I wonder if the LGBTQ community ready now to tackle racism, poverty, and xenophobia in this country).

The only man I have ever wanted to marry died in 2003 after we had been together 12 years. I sometimes long to be with him, and I grieve that we were never able to have a legally recognized relationship.

I grieve—yes, that’s the correct word—for the relationships I have had, beginning with my marriage to Ann. I grieve also that I am alone, that meeting a man I would want to marry, now that I could, seems improbable, if not impossible.

Hugged by the man I would have married

Hugged by the man I would have married (taken 1993)

Most of the crowd of people younger than I that gathered at the Cathedral of Hope yesterday—this is not sour grapes but a statement of fact—cannot know how much I treasure that 24-year-old lavender T-shirt (many of those wonderful folks were not even born in 1991). Or the pictures of my second partner and me taken in about 1985.

Or the memory of my “coming out” in my university newspaper in 1965—4 years before Stonewall.

I have never done anything “important.” Other than be something of a role model for (sometimes frightened and depressed) gay college students for 30 years. And volunteer at the AIDS Hospice. And march in parades. And write some pieces that have been published over the years. And try to be a good partner. And maintain a career viable enough to take care of myself.

One of the men I love and admire most these days was part of the Lambda Legal team that brought Lawrence v. Texas to the Supreme Court. One of my closest friends was a leader in ACT-Up in Boston in the ‘80s. A friend was the founder of the Gay group that still exists in the American Baptist Convention.

I’ve never done anything publicly important for the cause of LGBTQ rights. I’m not one of those the speakers last night acknowledged they were “standing on the shoulders of.”

Except I’ve persevered. I’ve lived a life of quiet (sometimes) desperation, desperation that may or may not have had anything to do with being a gay man (that’s a topic so complicated seven psychiatrists and three neurologists have never been able to untangle).

And now I am alone.

I’m not asking for anyone’s pity. Only some acknowledgement and understanding that my feelings yesterday were justifiably complex and contradictory. Which means they were (are) like my feelings my whole life long. My passions were my passions when they “had not yet become familial.” Could not become familial in the most basic sense.

“THE HUG,” BY THOM GUNN (1929-2004)
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
―(From Selected Poems by Thom Gunn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.)

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

“. . .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