“. . . 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.

“. . . it is enough to frighten me into paying more attention. . .” (Billy Collins)

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

Holy Week and Easter Day are over for this year. I attended almost as many Holy Week services as I used to do as a matter of course. I played the organ at a church on Maundy Thursday. I attended “my” church (St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) for the Saturday Easter Vigil, and I played for the two small services in the chapel there on Easter morning.

Nothing but the music matters to me—the impossible words of the creeds, the sermons about Jesus rising from the dead, the acclamations, “The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”—in the services for which I play. It’s all about the music.

The 1500-or-so-year-old Easter Vigil liturgy used to affect me both emotionally and intellectually. But for the past few years it hasn’t because I’ve come to the same conclusion Roz Kaveney describes in an opinion piece in The Guardian:

The idea that texts written in a specific time and social context in human, often poetic, language with clear artistic intent can be the inerrant declaration of the mind of an eternal god depends on a leap of faith so vast that many of us cannot make it.

Until recently the Vigil liturgy remained for me one of the “thin places” described by Marcus Borg.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004).

Last year at Easter time I wrote about “thin places.” In the Easter Vigil Service this year the times I had the sense of a “thin” place were during the choir’s singing a Palestrina motet. And when James Diaz played the “Finale” from Louis Vierne’s First Organ Symphony after the service.

Having arrived at age 70, I have better things to worry about than religion and the final disposal of my immortal soul. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .” is no longer a thin place for me. My guess is that on Good Friday this year Kentucky Christians felt they had been buried in a death like the Wildcats’, and on Easter Monday many North Carolina Christians felt they had been united in a resurrection like the Blue Devils’—felt it at a deeper and more significant level than they felt Christ’s death and resurrection, whatever they said on Easter morning.

That is not a judgment, simply an observation.

I can’t any longer live in the tension of believing religion is a “thin place” and at the same time knowing Palestrina’s counterpoint (my own private March Madness), not the words that ride on it, is touching my heart. It’s not because I’m so good, or so smart, or so wise, but because I have so little time left to become rigorously honest with myself.

I’m still, nearly 50 years later, one of Spiro Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Except that I’m no intellectual. Smart, somewhat educated, minimally talented, but not an intellectual. Just part of the effete corps.

Not being any more intellectual than I am is probably fortunate for me. If I had any more ability to figure things out, I’d be in BIG trouble. I can’t figure “it” out, so the best I can do is try to be consistent and direct in what I think and do.

In one corner of my mind is certain knowledge that the moment I die, I will be dead. So dead that I won’t even know I’m dead or that I used to be alive. That corner of my mind tells me there’s no point worrying about how I live the 8.4 years the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control says I have left. If the end result—the end—is the same, what does it matter how I live?

Here’s the crazy thing (seems crazy to me). I used to think I would leave behind a legacy of music or poetry or the Great American Novel. Just the same as everyone reading this believes deep down they will be the next member of the club of billionaires.

Both my thinking and everyone else’s—is wacko. It ain’t gonna happen.

So what is going to happen? I don’t have a clue. But I have a growing sense that, besides continuing to thrive in the love of my family and friends, the only way to make sense of this screeching-to-a-halt life is to throw myself into work I didn’t even know was possible a year ago.

Tutoring athletes at SMU’s center for the Academic Development of Student Athletes and teaching an ESL preparation class at the Aberg Center for Literacy give me a sense of purpose different, almost certainly greater, than I have ever had. Is that a touch of the drama queen? Yes, but these two activities are in a way redeeming the work I’ve been doing since 1985. I’ve been practice teaching to prepare myself to do something for reasons far greater than for my own satisfaction.

Perhaps I have finally found the real “thin places.”

For most of my adult life I have struggled with the words of St. Paul the Apostle that, “. . . the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19, NRSV). I don’t have to mix that up with sin and Jesus and churchy stuff. I think anyone who has any consciousness of self would have to admit that’s true. It is what it is.

So I want to learn, to have the peace of knowing, that the good I would, I do. And the evil I would not, I don’t. That’s all.

“The First Night,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

“The worst thing about death must be
the first night.” —Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 2013), Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (Random House, 2012); Ballistics: Poems (2008); and many more.
Collins’s poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.
Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York.

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)