“. . . 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.

“Upon reflection, you are genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have become. . .” (Eleanor Lerman)

Park under the Museum.

Park under the Museum.

One of the marvels of being a human being is that other human beings, even if they don’t understand why, can affect others deeply and well. Eleanor Lerman was only 53 when she published her poem, “Starfish.” It seems almost impossible she or anyone else under 70 years of age can understand it.

I am genuinely surprised to find how quiet I have become.

For the first 65 years of my life I thought I was going to do something wonderful for which I would be remembered for the duration of human civilization. A ridiculous thought, but I held onto it. That thought gave me reason to go on in my circumscribed, parochial, mundane little life.

I’ve never been good at “living in the moment.” I don’t have any idea what that means. I’ve thought since I first read Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling (in about 1975) that the two attributes that make humans different from other creatures (different from, not better than) are 1) our ability to live in a world of symbolic processes—language like Eleanor Lerman’s for starters—and 2) our ability to remember the past and project into the future. What any of that has to do with “living in the moment” I cannot guess.

I’ve given up any thought that I will ever do anything that anyone will remember for longer than about a week after I die. Pity. The world would be so much better if I had had my chance to be brilliantly creative.

Oh, you say, I did have the chance, but I blew it? Anyone who believes that most likely also believes that if one is as energetic and clever as Charles and David Koch, one can be a billionaire. But that’s a pile of horse-pucky. Neither their brains nor their hard work made them rich. They were born with a billion dollars in their father’s checking account. Like the myth I’ve always told myself about being brilliant and creative, they have spun a myth about hard work and ingenuity and all of those other things the rich can afford to believe. I have to believe things that aren’t true in order not to be depressed, and they have to make you believe things that aren’t true in order to justify their greed and power.

It’s all done with mirrors and wires and a supreme evolutionary process of fooling ourselves as we try (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to fool others.

I can’t speak from the vantage of having accomplished great things. So perhaps it’s true that had I worked hard and put my mind to good use, I would be leaving some sort of “legacy” behind when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

The other day as I walked to the SMU center for the Athletic Development of Student Athletes I had a little exchange with the two men, one Hispanic and the other African American, not quite my age, but close, who were holding up signs at the corner of Bishop Boulevard and Schlegel Street on the campus of the university. Signs that said simply,
photo(20)Whenever the Methodist Church on the corner of the campus (the BIIIIGGGG Methodist Church that accompanies Southern Methodist University) has a BIIIIGGGG funeral, these men are paid to hold these signs so people will know whether to park in the church lot or in the lot under the Meadows Museum or on the Boulevard.

Cars. Hundreds of cars. Whoever had died was apparently energetic and clever and brilliant and creative and ingenious and hard-working. The funeral of a personage. My guess is, this being Dallas, it was someone who had made oodles of money and was, therefore, important.

I said to the sign-holders, “Big funeral.” And one replied, “When your time comes, your time comes.” I said, “I guess they’re just as dead as you and I will be.” My other new friend said, “Their money isn’t doing them any good now.” We shook hands, and I went off to tutor university athletes while the cars kept pouring in and the organist was quieting the congregation with lovely improvisations on funeral hymns.

My new friends and I had celebrated about all the funeral the rich man needed. And in the process, we had exchanged authentic communion with each other that the three of us will remember and cherish for a long time to come. And the next time they’re directing traffic and I come hobbling up the street, we will greet each other as friends. Genuine.

That’s a highly romanticized view of the importance of our exchange—I know it. And the deceased may have been one of the humble and meek that will be exalted. And it may be sour grapes on my part because I know no one will have to direct traffic for my funeral. I won’t yet have been organist for a service at the National Cathedral or written the Great American Novel or been Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress.

I was on my way to tutor four university athletes. I have been cheerleader for them for a semester. Their writing has improved (more because they’ve done more of it than because of anything I’ve said), and they have—all of them—come to trust me in the special way a good teacher can be trusted. No judgment, only support and—on good days—some humor and joy in a job well done.

It’s terrifying to know someone trusts me to teach them.

Do I regret that I haven’t reached my “full potential?” Sure. But I don’t know how to verbalize my gratitude. My “legacy” will be that perhaps I helped a bunch of kids figure out how to reach more of their potential than they might have if I hadn’t cared about them, cajoled them, guided them, been vulnerable with them.

Not a bad legacy. In this moment or any other.

“STARFISH,” BY ELEANOR LERMAN

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Where my funeral will not be.
hpumc

“. . . the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. . .” (Gertrude Stein)

I think Bill's Steamer was yellow.

I think Bill’s Steamer was yellow.

It’s the 16th day of my 71st year.

I have titled this blog “me senescence,” shorthand for “about me, growing old.”

A long time ago, I unsuccessfully decided I was going to figure out the writings of Gertrude Stein. “A rose, is a rose, is a rose” is a pretty straight-forward poem. Other than that one, every poem of hers I’ve read sounds to me like a Picasso painting looks. They were great friends, and their understanding of making art and perceiving it was apparently the same.

My favorite lines from Stein’s “IF I TOLD HIM. A Completed Portrait of Picasso” are

He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is/
and as he and he and as he is and he and he and and he and he.

The poem seems to be about Napoleon. I don’t get it. I’ve seen both of the operas by Virgil Thomson for which Stein wrote the libretti, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All. All I remember of those productions is my confusion—for years I thought I’d listen to them again to sort them out because I love—and play—Thomson’s music.

I’ve never known anyone who knew Gertrude Stein. But when I lived in Salem, MA, I taught organ to an old man who had been in the Harvard Glee Club with Thomson in the ‘20s. (He was at the time probably but a few years older than I am now.) He owned the only Stanley Steamer I’ve ever seen.

The Harvard Glee Club traveled to Paris when Bill and Virgil were in it, and Bill told many titillating stories about Thomson. He told me he had a photograph of Thomson standing by a wall in Paris pissing under a sign that said, Défense de urine. I never saw the picture, but I have every reason to believe Bill had it.

Recalling all of that perhaps flies directly in the face of Gertrude Stein’s “conception of a continuous present is when everything is unique, beginning again and again and again” (Leslie Scalapino).

I’m not hanging out in the continuous present.

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition (Stein, Selected Writings).

I’m looking backward. I’m not “living in the living [I am] doing.” As I write, I am not “composing of the composition at the time [I

THE Christmas tree

THE Christmas tree

am] living [which is] the composition of the time in which [I am] living.” I am not living in the present, the “continuous” present.

Gertrude Stein lived to be only 72 years old (1874-1946). She died 18 months after I was born. However, she cast a long shadow over parts of American culture. She influenced (or at least was friends with) Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, and many more American artists who spent the obligatory time (for anyone who wanted artistic success in the ‘20s ‘30s, and ‘50s) in Paris.

For 10 Christmases beginning in 1994, my late partner put up spectacular Christmas trees in our apartment—12 feet tall with his 2,000 ornaments and at least 10 strings of lights. The tree had been his tradition long before we met. These days, when I think of Christmas trees, I think of Jerry, of Jerry’s tree. Still. No one can do a tree like his.

When I think of Jerry’s trees, I wonder if I am living in the “continuous present,” or am I living in the past. Or is the past part of my present? Is it important to understand what Stein meant?

Yesterday a short conversation with a friend—he told me he had played the piano at the celebration after his mother’s funeral the day before—reminded me of Jerry’s funeral. He died in November, 2003, and his funeral was in his family church in Arlington, VT. I went to Vermont. His family and I had gathered on the front pew of the Community Church in Arlington and were waiting for the service to begin. The pastor came in and whispered to Jerry’s mother. She turned to me and said, “He can do it.” The pastor whispered to me that the organist had called to say she had forgotten the funeral. Could I play the hymns?

I remember the sense that my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment, these three hymns. I remember also wondering how I could be performing at the funeral of the man I loved. It’s not possible.

The other day I was sorting old photographs and came upon pictures of Jerry’s trees and of that church in Vermont. I can’t claim to know what Stein meant by, “The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition.”

The time of helping Jerry with his tree, of giving Bill a few organ lessons, of Virgil pissing in a forbidden place, of Frank playing the piano, of my playing the organ at Jerry’s funeral (and for another, that of a complete stranger, two days ago), of celebrating my 70th birthday, of reading Stein’s writing, these I will take as the “composition of the living I am doing, the natural phenomena of the composition of my life.”

That’s probably belittling the importance of Stein’s writing, but it’s an OK way for this senescent to think.

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

“They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.” (Robert Penn Warren)

The Ministry of Truth, 1984

The Ministry of Truth, 1984

A couple of days ago I wrote about ultimate reality. Today I think I’ll write about faith.

Not that I have any.

In much of anything.

Immediately after the bombings of “9-11,” President Bush announced the creation of the “Office of Homeland Security,” with former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as director. On November 25, 2002, the “office” was elevated to a Cabinet-level “Department” of the Federal Government.

At the time I—like many other wannabe “liberals”—was profoundly uncomfortable with the use of the word “homeland” because it smacked of Hitler’s use of the word to instill an overwhelming sense of nationalism in the German people.

Hearing “homeland” (always with “security”) even now causes an involuntary tightening in the back of my throat. Especially when I have to take off my shoes at the airport (Oops! I no longer have to do that because I’m so old).

It’s not so much that I dislike peripheral connotations of the Third Reich (although I do) as that I’m mystified by what the government counts, and the people accept, as “security.” No one can actually believe that my taking my CPAP out of my suitcase with one hand while I hold my cane with the other is making the airport—much less our nation—safer. It’s just crazy.

Oh, I know, I know. We all have to do it in order to prevent the one person who might be up to no good from getting on a plane to do something unspeakable. That’s reasonable, logical.

Well, maybe. If that’s so, why do “frequent fliers” and “executive class” airline passengers not have to do it? None of them could be a terrorist?

The whole kit and caboodle is nonsense.

We only do it because we have elevated the Department of Homeland Security to the level of, oh, say, the Pope as the arbiter of a belief, a FAITH, if you will. And don’t let Bill Maher or any other atheist who puts up with taking off their shoes at the airport tell you otherwise (of course Bill Maher flies around the country being important so he doesn’t have to do it—executive class, don’t you know). It’s a religion.

And so is investing in the stock market as a hedge against poverty in retirement.

And so is voting for a Republican. (Sorry, I had to say that.)

If you listen to people (your next door neighbor or the Attorney General of the United States) talk, and you have any ability to hear what people are really saying, you will understand that we are living out the prophecy of George Orwell in 1984.

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable
exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room.
The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power
of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides,
the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger
automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia
or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was
generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although
Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a
thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers,
in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the
general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were—in spite of all this,
his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes
waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs
acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police.
He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of
conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.

I’m not making any judgment about whether or not ISIS or Al-Qaeda or Vladimir Putin or Obamacare is out to destroy America. I frankly don’t know. Here’s the point. You don’t know either. None of us knows.

We believe.

And our belief brings us to faith in the Department of Homeland Security (and in other things, such as “open-carry” and “stand your ground” laws).

The Holy Sacrament

The Holy Sacrament

To be clear. I am not advocating disbanding the DHS or any other radical action. I’m too old to care (and I was too meek and scared before I got too old) how we structure things to keep us “safe.”

All I’m advocating is that anyone who wants to live in reality look carefully at their faiths—what they put their faith in. What’s your God?

I don’t know if God—as anyone understands it/him/her/them—exists. But I know this for sure. It/him/her/them has nothing to do with the DHS in which the vast majority of Americans put their faith.

The Holy Bible with which I grew up says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We hope for security and we are convicted that that DHS is protecting us. Neither of which is based in fact.

I didn’t say the conspiracy to kill us is not true or that DHS isn’t protecting us. I’m simply saying that, as for me, I don’t know. I have no faith.

Is that an ambiguity, a conundrum, I’m willing to live with?

There’s another interesting thing about faith in the DHS: It’s a middle and upper class religion. Poor people don’t have to take their shoes off at the airport. And the top 1% are free to ignore the religion altogether.

Because poor people don’t fly and the rich are exempt.

The poor are at home trying to keep from starving. Yes, in this country. My guess is anyone living in food insecurity is not buying a plane ticket (except in some mythical la-la-land dreamed up by the Tea Party where the poor are really selfish monsters).

That Holy Bible I mentioned above also says (in a translation I remember from childhood), “Put not your trust in idols or anything made by man” (Leviticus 19:4). So we trust DHS in direct contradiction of the Holy Bible most Americans say they believe in.

So when I say, “. . . write about faith. Not that I have any. In much of anything,” I mean just that. I’m left sort of dangling out there in space without much to hold onto. If God exists, I don’t know it any more. I used to. In my own way which I was never quite able to explain to anyone else. But now I don’t know. I’m 70 years old, and lots of people—most people—die when they’re this age, give or take a very few years. I think if you’re my age and not actively thinking about what the end of this life means, you’re living in another la-la-land. You’re in for some sort of surprise. Soon.

And see, the DHS isn’t going to protect you.

So what’s the take-away here?

I don’t know.

Robert Penn Warren says you would think nothing would ever again happen. And thinking that, knowing that, may be the way to love God.

“A Way to Love God,” by Robert Penn Warren (1905 – 1989 )
Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.
And the line where the incoming swell from the sunset Pacific
First leans and staggers to break will tell all you need to know
About submarine geography, and your father’s death rattle
Provides all biographical data required for the Who’s Who of the dead.

I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and
Heard mountains moan in their sleep. By daylight,
They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions
Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration. At night
They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.
So moan. Theirs is the perfected pain of conscience that
Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it. I have.

I do not recall what had burdened my tongue, but urge you
To think on the slug’s white belly, how sick-slick and soft,
On the hairiness of stars, silver, silver, while the silence
Blows like wind by, and on the sea’s virgin bosom unveiled
To give suck to the wavering serpent of the moon; and,
In the distance, in plaza, piazza, place, platz, and square,
Boot heels, like history being born, on cobbles bang.

Everything seems an echo of something else.

And when, by the hair, the headsman held up the head
Of Mary of Scots, the lips kept on moving,
But without sound. The lips,
They were trying to say something very important.

But I had forgotten to mention an upland
Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when
No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight,
I watched the sheep huddling. Their eyes
Stared into nothingness. In that mist-diffused light their eyes
Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water,
Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.

Their jaws did not move. Shreds
Of dry grass, gray in the gray mist-light, hung
From the side of a jaw, unmoving.

You would think that nothing would ever again happen.

That may be a way to love God.

And that may be the way to love God.

Freedom Tower, 2014

Freedom Tower, 2014

“. . . Lonely but free I’ll be found. . .” (Bob Nolan)

Driftin' along

Driftin’ along

.

.

Casablanca is a film lodged in the memories of Americans who were alive in 1942 and for many years after—until the generation for whom black and white movies became unbearable to watch. It has the most incorrectly quoted line in movie history. “Play it,” has become, “Play it again, Sam.” That’s understandable because Rick (Humphrey Bogart) wants Sam to play it again as he played it for Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).

Anyone who knows a modicum of movie history knows all of that. And still we say, “Play it again, Sam.”

Poor old Rick, trying to recapture a moment. “Play it,” was not enough. He and everyone remembering the movie wants Sam to “play it again.” Play the song, “As Time Goes By.”

This has been the shortest year of my life.

I don’t construct years in my memory by the number of the year (2014) but by my age (69). My birthday is so close to New Year’s Day (January 3) that it’s convenient for me to think the whole of 2014 was the whole of my 70th year. And believe me, this was the shortest year of my life. “As time goes by.”

Apparently that happens when you get to be an old fart. Years don’t pass, they tumble by. I’ve written about the big events of the year. The biggest was my retirement (brought about by decisions other than my own). That engendered reliance on Medicare, my new position as tutor in the Academic Development of Student Athletes center at SMU, and my teaching an ESL class at the Aberg Center for Literacy.

Other stuff, too. In this year that tumbled by.

My use of the word “tumble” comes from the song recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers when I was a year old and continuing in popularity until—until now, if you’re in the right crowd.

See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

I know when night has gone
That a new world’s born at dawn.

I’ll keep rolling along
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

I remember hearing it sung in the ‘50s by the local Country Western crooner at the annual fund-raising square dance at the Lake Alice School, out in the sand hills near Scottsbluff, NE. We had friends who went to the school, and my parents always grudgingly dragged us out for the party, which I loved and they tolerated. My dad didn’t like the song because the message of “drifting” was hardly the stuff of the Midwest Christian ethos.

“. . . Nowhere to go but I’ll find Just where the trail will wind. . .”  expresses somewhat the way I feel about my life these days. Yesterday I told a young friend (he’s 62) who’s just taken early retirement that finding out how to live in this new situation is the hardest thing we have ever done. It is.

Empty shelves beginning to appear

Empty shelves beginning to appear

It is, not because we are getting old—let’s not get started on aches and pains—but because we are left with the choice (as another old fart friend put it) between passing the time we have left and living a life worthy of who we are.

When my parents were older than I am now, they determined to see every state and national park in California. That may seem like “passing the time,” but it was far from it. My dad was an Eagle Scout, a camper, a lover of the outdoors all his life, and being in those places of natural beauty was a delight, a spiritual experience for him. It was not “drifting along like a tumbling tumbleweed.”

If I live as long as my dad (which is highly unlikely), I have 26 birthdays left. If I live to be an age that’s logical to think about, I have perhaps 10. Let me tell you how fast those years will tumble by.

If you’re not a certain age, you can’t imagine it. Period. You must not think that by reading poetry or seeing movies or playing video games or by going on cruises or anything else you might do you can begin to figure out how the tumbling by of the years feels.

This is not depressing.

It’s beginning to be exciting. In spite of my arthritic hip. In spite of my propensity to fall. In spite of my compressed ulnar nerve. In spite of my not having a husband. Or even a companion. Or a lover.

It’s exciting because I get to decide how lightly I can hold on. How unencumbered I want to be. I have approximately 400 CDs of (mostly) classical music in boxes ready for giving away. There are many more to box. Why? It’s been two years since I put one of them into a player of some kind and listened to it. When I want to listen to music, I find it online.

I’d rather play music than listen. There’s 500 years of organ music I haven’t played yet. It’s time to get crackin’.

I don’t even want to think about books.

The problem is that we want Sam (or someone) to play it again. And again. And again. All of our lives. Memories are what make us who we are, I suppose. But at 70, I want to make sure that I “play it,” not that I “play it again.”

The Sons of the Pioneers had the ambiguity just about right, I think.

Cares of the past are behind,
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind.

I don’t think I will find where the trail will wind if I have to worry about a closet full of clothes, or a storage bin full of keepsakes, or a head full of ideas and beliefs that weigh me down or keep me from rolling along.

It feels like a fine balancing act—allowing myself to tumble and be headed in the right direction at the same time. The ambiguity of the song is in the line,

I’ll find Just where the trail will wind.

Tumble and find where the trail’s winding at the same time. There’s the trick.

See a CD you want?

See a CD you want?

“. . . deep calls to deep, a saving breath. . .” (Susan Palo Cherwin)

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

“Love” for animals is a concept many people don’t understand. I put the word in quotes because many people would say it can be used only theoretically, not as fact. I am neither offended nor challenged by anyone who would say the word belongs in quotes because it cannot be real.

In 1957 Kleenex aired a series of TV ads for paper napkins starring Manners the Butler. Kleenex was in a race with Scott to establish market leadership in paper napkins, and they produced the clever “special effects” ad with Manners the Butler as a tiny man helping a housewife set an orderly table.

My first cat, when I was in 5th grade, 1957, was mostly black with a white chest, and I called him Manners the Butler. He was a gentleman cat who knew what he liked and was intolerant of what he didn’t like. He liked me. He arrived at our house when a school friend’s cat had kittens, and my friend convinced me to take one home. In my jacket pocket so my parents wouldn’t see it until it was too late to refuse to let him stay. He lived with us (indoors/outdoors) for about five years.

Manners knew all of my secrets—including the seizures I was having that no one knew about or (parents and doctors) could figure out. He knew when I was happy and when I was sad.

Many years later I broke up with my partner and bought a condo in Salem, MA, and was living alone. Since the time of Manners, except when I was living in a college dorm and not permitted, I had always had at least one cat. When I broke up with my partner, I left three cats behind, one—my favorite—all black and named Otello (the other two were Lohengrin and Brunhilde).

I was debating whether or not to get a cat, and my therapist asked me to describe my relationship with cats over the years. He told me I had definitely used cats as “Therapy Units,” and that getting a cat would give me many TU’s. I found two black and white brothers at the pound, named them Henry and Oliver, and took them home. Both of them lived with me until 2004.

They, and all the cats (and dogs) who have lived with me have definitely been at the very least TU’s, but in reality something much more important.

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Whether or not it is possible or appropriate to use the word “love” for my feelings about my cats, I’m not going to theorize. Anyone who has felt what I have felt for cats (or dogs, or pigs, or parrots) knows exactly what I mean. Anyone who hasn’t had those feelings doesn’t know and can’t be persuaded. The epistemology of the concept is personal. Knowing or not knowing is not cause for judgment. It simply is.

When my cat Groucho died on December 20, I felt grief—not the grief I felt when my parents or brother-in-law or my lover died, but real grief. And here’s the important reality about that: one of my spiritual mentors tells me that every grief reminds us of all the griefs we have experienced before.

In his little essay, “To Go Its Way in Tears: Poems of Grief,” on the website Poets.org, the poet Edward Hirsch calls attention to our societal penchant to

. . . live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief.

This is not an unfamiliar concept, but I like the succinctness of Hirsch’s language.

When Groucho died, I experienced a bit of self-condemnation for feeling as deeply as I did (do) about the emptiness left in my life by the loss of one long-haired basically aloof little creature who—truth be told—like all cats, one could not say returned the “love” I felt (feel) for him.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas (today is the 6th day, remember), either as the “Holly Jolly” secular materialistic orgy or as the “O Holy Night” of sentimental religiosity will probably wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing about grief at this time of year.

Well, duh! My little companion died.

As did Michael Brown, Rafael Ramos, Eric Garner, and Liu Wenjin.

Even though I have little (no) belief in the “Christmas Story” anymore, I think the rhythm of the church’s liturgical year offers a glimpse of reality that we might well take to heart. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, when the focus is on doing exactly what the Baby Jesus grew up to preach—feeding the hungry. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem—a reminder of the horrors of lust for power (a reminder we are in process of ignoring at our own peril—as well as the peril of the innocents around us).

A friend once asked me what loving cats (dogs, pigs, parrots) does for me. My answer was (and is) simple. I understand my own mortality by living with and watching my pets through the cycles of their lives. And, when I pay attention, I understand that even my own death will be natural and blessed.

The hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has—amazingly—a section of “lament.” One of those hymns, by Susan Palo Cherwin, seems to me a proper understanding of Christmas. I’m not sure about the “song,” the “tears,” and the “love” of “God,” but I know, without doubt, that facing and feeling the darkness of my life is necessary to arrive at feeling “Merry” about anything.

That darkness increases as I age. So does the merriment—but transformed into reality as opposed to giddiness or frivolity.

In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.

When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.

When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.

Words: Susan Palo Cherwin (b. 1963)
Music: Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962)
From Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)

If you want to hear how the understanding of the darkness “lightens” with age, you can compare my playing here with my playing the same tune a slight two years ago. I think the difference is stunning.