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

jerry tree

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

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

No, really. Pissed off.

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

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

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

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

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

I was 65 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOSSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

“. . . 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.