“. . . to prove we were still among the living. . .” (Simon Armitage)

Morrissey. You can't go on forever

Morrissey. You can’t go on forever

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I managed to delete ten of my postings here. I thought they were “drafts”  —in the “drafts” folder. But, alas, they were the final “draft,” kept for some reason I can’t figure. I was able to reconstruct the last post , but the others will take some doing. Now I know why I save the Word documents on my desktop.

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

A week ago I had blood drawn from my little finger (I assume there was blood although I was in la-la-land—they said I wasn’t asleep from a general anesthesia but didn’t know what was going on because they gave me that other stuff that doesn’t really knock you out). Not my finger, but the palm of my right hand where the finger tendons attach to the hand bones. If I’ve already written about it, that’s a post I deleted. The pinky “trigger finger” surgery was almost negligible.

I wore the dressing for three days, Band-Aids for several days, and today nothing to protect the healing incision.

But—there’s always a “but,” isn’t there—the surgeon said I should not get into a swimming pool until after my follow-up appointment (tomorrow). And I mustn’t go to yoga class (no hands on floor).

I know why old people get stiff and begin to hobble. One thing leads to another to another to another. I can’t do my accustomed exercise—walking in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center. So, rather than take a walk around the neighborhood, I do nothing. And my lower back has a knot from sitting and writing at my computer too many hours, and I’m beginning to hobble. Damn!

It’s been too hot to walk outside. And my tutoring schedule is inconvenient. And I’m depressed. And. . . How many excuses can I think up?

The real reason is I don’t want to do it alone.

At the Landry Center, I have made friends. We barely know each other’s names, but we talk and make jokes and know all of the ailments that bring us there, and gossip like a bunch of little old ladies, which we mostly are.

We get acquainted. One of the women and I discovered she’s the next-door neighbor of and best friends with an organist for whom I substitute regularly. Are we going to socialize outside the pool? I’d bet Linda and I and her neighbors will eventually. The organist and his partner must know some other old fart looking for an old fart to be with (that is interpreted, date).

So I’m not going to run into Linda for a few more days, and I certainly wouldn’t run into anyone I know walking out on Maple or Hudnall streets.

My parents walked every day until they moved to assisted living (they were both about 90). Together. If genetics has anything to do with it, I could be walking another 20 years. Of course, neither of my parents ever drank, smoked, or was 35 pounds overweight, so I’m not sure my prognostication should be for 20 years (I haven’t drunk or smoked for 28 years).

Me--before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

Me–before three surgeries, lethargy, weight gain, and hobbling

However, the outlook for hooking up with someone (I mean that in all popular senses of the phrase) grows, I think, dimmer by the day.

Armitage writes, “Are we dead yet?” someone would ask. He was born the year I graduated from high school. Does he even have standing to ask that question?

If you want to know the worst case scenario about how old gay men (and women) live out their years, you can watch the movie Gen Silent. Another instance–a gay couple in Arizona who had been together 45 years went to California to marry. Recently, one of them died, and Arizona refused to put on his death certificate that the other was his spouse. It took a Federal judge to force Arizona to accept their marriage.

In case you think I’m whining, I’m not. I’m simply trying to be realistic. Even if I were not gay, my late-life prospects are not rosy. I’ve chosen to be a low-ranking college professor for most of my sober life, so my Social Security is only about $1300 a month. (The SSA has decided that, if you were poor in your working life, you will be poor in “retirement.” I wonder if the mega-wealthy 1% return their SS checks. One of them could help me out quite a bit.) My “pension” from SMU is about half that. Can you live on $2000 per month?—especially if you are in any way infirm?

I’m not whining.

I’ll be a helluva lot better off than most people, I’d guess. Armitage’s poem is a projection of what one does in old age WITH ONE’S FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES.

As almost an aside, I have to quote The Guardian from Friday 3 September 2010:

For 30 years, poet Simon Armitage’s admiration for Morrissey has bordered on the obsessive. But could his love survive an encounter with the famously sharp-tongued singer-songwriter?

That’s part of the introduction to an interview between Armitage and Morissey in which Morissey says,

Simon Armitage: we're not dead yet

Simon Armitage: we’re not dead yet

The ageing process isn’t terribly pretty… and you don’t want yourself splattered all over the place if you look pitiful. You can’t go on forever, and those that do really shouldn’t.

(I don’t think Armitage is gay, and I don’t know any of Morrissey’s music. When he was in his heyday, I was a drunk, and since then I’ve not kept up with popular music except for Lady Gaga and a few others.)

I’m not sure where I meant to go with this writing. I’ve been interrupted too many times. But I think this is where I was headed when I began.

All of my favorite sayings about getting old are true. “Getting old is a full-time job.”

Job. And I’d really like to have someone to come home to after work.

“Dämmerung,” Simon Armitage, (b. 1963)

In later life I retired from poetry,
ploughed the profits
into a family restaurant
in the town of Holzminden, in lower Saxony.

It was small and traditional:
dark wood panelling, deer antlers,
linen tablecloths and red candles,
one beer tap on the bar

and a dish of the day, usually
Bauernschnitzel. Weekends were busy,
pensioners wanting the set meal, though
year on year takings were falling.

Some nights the old gang came in –
Jackie, Max, Lavinia,
Mike not looking at all himself,
and I’d close the kitchen,

hang up my striped apron,
take a bottle of peach schnapps
from the top shelf and say,
“Mind if I join you?”

“Are we dead yet?” someone would ask.
Then with a plastic toothpick
I’d draw blood from my little finger
to prove we were still among the living.

From the veranda we’d breathe new scents
from the perfume distillery over the river,
or watch the skyline
for the nuclear twilight.

“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

“Whisper’d of peace, and truth, and friendliness . . .”

Wildness is all.

Wildness is all.

On Sunday evening last I began watching Downton Abbey on PBS TV.  The network plays the episode from the previous week before they show the episode for the evening so people like me who miss an episode can catch up with the serialized story. The story is an “upstairs—downstairs” story following the lives of an aristocratic family in a splendid English manor house and their servants, the “downstairs” crew.

In the episode two weeks ago, the young man who is part of the aristocratic family only because he married into it and who has given up his true calling to be an Irish revolutionary—even though his wife has died—has a one-night affair with one of the downstairs girls.

I watched last week’s episode for a few minutes, until the scene where the maid confronts the young would-be gentleman to make him promise that, if she is pregnant, he will marry her. This is headed a few weeks down the line to disaster. She’ll seduce a male servant and get pregnant and then ruin the young gentleman’s life by insisting he is the father of her child and must marry her. DNA paternity testing is a long way off, so he’s her ticket out of the basement.

It’s too predictable and emotionally fraught for me. I turned off the TV.

I tell people I don’t watch shows like Downton Abbey or movies, or serialized TV stories (such as Modern Family) because I expect watching such shows to be like going to a movie at a theater—that is, a social event, not a solitary one.

That’s, if not a lie, at least a bending of the truth. TV series, movies, operas, plays and the like are not, for me, escapist. I experience them too realistically—get too emotionally involved in them—to tackle them by myself. I am too uncomfortable with the life of my own feelings to put myself into a situation where I will absorb others’ feelings, participate in others’ emotional life, even vicariously. My anger, fear, pain, joy passion, love, shame, and guilt are too strong to take on someone else’s—even fictionally—by myself (the reduction of feelings to eight primary ones comes from Pia Mellody—you can Google her and find hundreds of references).

All of this may be my attempt to intellectualize experiences that are basically emotional, an attempt to figure out something mentally that can’t be analyzed.

So I’ll leave it there. Background, perhaps not even relevant, to what I really mean to say.

My guess is that a universal desire among homo sapiens is for friendship. It would be nice if a friend were also a lover, but friendship is first.

Where upstairs does not meet downstairs.

Where upstairs does not meet downstairs.

When I’m watching Downton Abbey, I want to share, to speak, to express my experience with someone. When I go to the symphony, I want to tell someone who might, because he or she has had the experience too, understand how the last movement of the Brahms First Symphony affected me.

That desire to talk about the effect of “art” or even “melodrama” or “comedy” on the life of my feelings (which may or may not be, depending on whom you ask, reality) is translated into a desire to talk about the life of the feelings that emanate from me, not from something I’ve seen, heard, or read outside myself. I know that’s problematic for my ability to have relationships. No one wants to hear about the depression I can do nothing about. One should pay a therapist of some sort to talk to about those things, not bother other human beings with them. No one wants to hear about the pain in my shoulder. One should tell that to the physical therapist.

Or one should simply carry those feelings unexpressed. Neither father, mother, sister, brother, lover, best friend, nor casual acquaintance should be subjected to one’s descriptions of how one feels. It’s safest to have feelings vicariously as “art.”

I have my favorite escapisms. “Parker’s Back,” “Cathedral,” any story by Alice Munroe, The Brahms First Symphony, the Bach Great Eighteen Chorales, Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds (on which I have finally overdosed), Winter’s Bone, Chinatown, O Brother Where Art Thou. Those begin the list. Don’t ask me why.

But it’s as difficult for me to add to that list of emotionally charged creations as it is to learn to trust someone with my own feelings, my real reactions to my real life (or what I perceive to be my real life).

Keats. He understood.

Keats. He understood.

The older I get, the more important expressing my feelings (about almost anything/everything) becomes. I wish I were a poet or composer so I could create art that expresses at least the shapes of my feelings. But I’m not, so I’ll have to do it here. Or gush them forth unfiltered to those I love, unsuspecting as they are. And run the risk of driving them away.

The poet John Keats understood all of this. His favorite flower was the musk-rose, the wild rose. Until a friend gave him a bouquet of cultivated roses.

“To a Friend who sent me some Roses,” by John Keats

As late I rambled in the happy fields,
What time the sky-lark shakes the tremulous dew
From his lush clover covert;—when anew
Adventurous knights take up their dinted shields:
I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields,
A fresh-blown musk-rose; ’twas the first that threw
Its sweets upon the summer: graceful it grew
As is the wand that queen Titania wields.
And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excell’d:
But when, O Wells! thy roses came to me
My sense with their deliciousness was spell’d:
Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whisper’d of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquell’d.

“. . . how scary it is to be part of the 1%. . . “

Pass through the eye of my grandmother's needle?

Pass through the eye of my grandmother’s needle?

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Just when I think I can withdraw from the stinking world of, well, “politics” (for want of a better word — “public morality,” perhaps), an event, an idea, a message of some sort draws me back in, and I must respond.

My perception is that a person can do two things that make them fully human. The first is to father or mother a child, and the second is to do an act of generosity or kindness at the most basic level of human need, that is, to help someone find food, shelter, or physical (perhaps medical) care. I’m pretty sure the first is not absolutely necessary (although at my rapidly advancing age I’ve been thinking it might have been fulfilling to try). The second, on the other hand, seems to me to be the unavoidable prerequisite for giving oneself permission to consider oneself fully human.

Anyone whose life is void of such acts or—worse by an order of magnitude almost incomprehensible— whose actions in any way deprive another of basic needs doesn’t share at the most basic level in the project of living as a human being.

I heard recently on TV that 85 persons worldwide own as much of the wherewithal to stay alive as the rest of us billions all together. Even if that number is incorrect—if it’s 85 hundred, or 85 thousand, or even 85 million—we have it in our power to give those people the chance to be fully human.

The basic text of the religion most people reading this follow (or at least know about) says that it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. That’s supported by the saying in that same text that the way one gets into heaven is by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking care of the sick.

I don’t give much credence to the “heaven” talk, but I think it’s at least sensible to use that idea as a metaphor for fulfillment as a human being. My guess is that a majority of those 85 (or 85 thousand) give at least lip service to the idea they are going to heaven.

But they obviously are not. Haven’t seen any camels passing through eyes of needles lately. Surely such a phenomenon would go viral on YouTube and Facebook.

However, we have it in our power to give them a chance at heaven (or simply to live fully as human beings here on earth). Caring about our fellow human beings, we need to help them divest themselves them all of that money that’s going to prevent them from getting into heaven when they die–or to live fully as human beings before they die.

I was naked, and you clothed me.

I was naked, and you clothed me.

We can’t, obviously, do anything for that guy from Mexico they say is the richest of the 85 or 85 thousand, but we could help some people in this country with names such as Gates and Walton. Or Thomas Perkins.

According to the webpage “Richest 250 People in the World” (the richest.com. 2014. Web.) Mr. Perkins is the 148th-richest person in the world. I don’t know how anyone calculates this, but where he is in the ranking doesn’t matter. He’s up there somewhere. Since he’s not in the top 85, I suppose quoting him is a bit unfair. However,

‘. . . the super-wealthy venture capitalist [Mr. Perkins] who once owned the largest private yacht in the world as well as multiple mansions, penned a letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal this week about how scary it is to be part of the 1%, so scary it brings to mind how the Jews must have felt in Nazi Germany . . . “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’ . . . This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”’ (Allon, Janet. “10 Most Absurd Right-Wing Lunacies This Week: Pity the 1% Edition.” AlterNet.com. January 25, 2014. Web.)

I have to admit, I’m one of the “progressive [radicals]” he’s thinking of. There isn’t a drop of camel’s blood in me. What I want to do is give Mr. Perkins a chance to get into heaven. For example, all the nations of the world could levy a 90% tax on both the income and the holdings of everyone who makes, say, $1,000,000,000 per year or more. Either 90% or an amount that would leave them $1,000,000.

I’d guess that money could give every hungry person in the world something to eat. For a long time.

Mr. Perkins, accustomed as he is to having $8,000,000,0000 (that’s billion with a “b”) would find it difficult to live on a mere $1,000,000 (with an “m”) per year. I would, too—what on earth would one do with that much money?

I can hear some of my readers complaining bitterly already. Mr. Perkins’s billions are what keeps the economy moving, his money creates jobs. I’m not saying that’s not so. Because I don’t have a degree from Cox School of Business at SMU where students learn how this works, I really have no right to an opinion.

But I do have one question that lots of Progressive Nazis (now there’s an oxymoron for you!) must be asking. If Mr. Perkins’s billions are helping the economy by making more jobs, where are they? Why are so many people jobless around the world?

And if it’s OK for 85 people to own half the world’s goods, why am I worried that when my contracted salary ends on May 31 and I retire, I won’t have enough money to live on? Me with a PdD and 35 years of college teaching experience? Worried, even while I know that I, too, am better off than an enormous percentage of the people in the world.

My home away from home,

My home away from home,

“. . . worship the objects I have caused to represent me in my absence . . .”

Representing the farmer? the artist? my late partner? me??

Representing the farmer? the artist? my late partner? me??

Every day a “meditation” arrives in my email. Although I subscribe to it of my own free will, my writing about it may seem cynical (from the Greek kyon “dog”. . .  Kynosarge “Gray Dog,” the gymnasium outside ancient Athens for the use of those who were not pure Athenians). I’m not a cynic. I’m simply consistently disoriented—not a pure Athenian.

My bafflement seems like cynicism because I get defensive when I find ideas unfathomable.  For example, today’s meditation says

I have a right to my own life. If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived, because no one else can live it for me. I cannot bequeath it to anyone else to live on my behalf. If I don’t sing my song it will remain unsung, because no one can sing it for me. If I don’t dance my dance . . . If I don’t find the poetry in my day, in my own soul, it will not be found. . .  Life is a spiritual gift and my life is my personal gift from God. . . If I don’t live it, no one else will, no one else can.

I suppose “meditations” are designed to remind the reader of some “truth” so obvious it’s easy to overlook—or never think of in the first place—as they go about their daily life.

NOTE: As I get older, I find it necessary to fight fewer time-and-energy wasting battles. Who cares if I say “the reader . . . they”? It sounds better to me than “the reader . . . he or she.” This use is called the epicene they, and Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s multitudinous use of it is good enough precedent for me. If one of my students wants to use it, they will get no argument from me.

The Chicago Manual of Style (one of the Bibles used by academic writers waffles on the subject, but I’ll bet more people can understand my writing than can (or want to) understand the stuff in the American Journal of Sociology, one of the academic journals published by the University of Chicago Press. End of NOTE.

Using the epicene they falls under the category “I have a right to my own life.” If I choose to write so no academic journal would possibly publish what I write, my guess is that more people will understand my writing than that of the journals.  Perhaps these baffling daily email “meditations” are useful, after all.

Useful for the purpose of argument, but ultimately useful for ideas? Not so much. “Life is a spiritual gift and my life is my personal gift from God, from the Universe.” That kind of language simply makes me squirm. This is not something new in my life. I’ve been uneasy around God Talk for at least 50 years.

I remember (and have most likely written about on one of my blogs) the night at Junior High Baptist Camp, at Camp Moses Merrill near Fullerton, NE, (which is now a public campground of some sort, and the Baptists have a new, much nicer camp away from the metropolitan area of Omaha)—the night all of my friends were giving themselves to Jesus, and I sat on the back pew of the chapel, if not crying, at least visibly upset. One of the counselors (one of those older men with whom I was in love at the time) sat beside me and asked me what was wrong.

If I clean my office, will I live forever?

If I clean my office, will I live forever?

I said something to the effect that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to believe in something I couldn’t figure out logically or feel in my gut. That’s sort of where I’ve been ever since, and the question has gotten more real and more urgent as I have gotten older.

The reality of the question is no longer the teenage question how I can believe in God. I hold onto things—stuff—that once belonged to my parents or grandparents or someone even farther back because I have a great deal of trouble with, “I have a right to my own life. If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived, because no one else can live it for me.” I’m not sure how to believe logically or feel in my gut that life has happened at all. Holding onto something my great-grandfather owned helps me try to stay here, to assume things are “real.”

I’m sure—as a junior high school Baptist—I was having trouble thinking about giving my life to Jesus at least partly because of my own peculiar neurological make-up (the dissociation of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy). Not much of anything seemed real much of the time. For thirty years I’ve had strong meds that remove that particular obstacle to believing in “reality.”

The chairs of my fathers.

The chairs of my fathers.

But now, getting to be an old man (don’t say I shouldn’t point that out—I’m on average 69/77ths of the way to the end), I wonder more and more about this If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived. What does that mean? If I don’t get my office organized? Right. If I don’t figure out what to do with the Pennsylvania Dutch barn hex sign I’ve had in my bedroom since its owner, my late partner, willed it to me—ten years ago? If I don’t figure out how to use the online form to buy two tickets for the Bernadette Peters concert I want to attend?

Or if I don’t have some sense that I’ve experienced all the feelings and relationships a human being is “supposed” to feel? I don’t know. What’s reality, anyway? You tell me and the poet Rae Armantrout what’s real. I think she understands what I’m trying to say.

“Exact,” by Rae Armantrout (Pulitzer Prize winner, 2010)

Quick, before you die,
describe

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.

What is the meaning
of the irregular, yellow

spheres, some
hollow,

gathered in patches
on this bedspread?

If you love me,
worship

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.

*

Over and over
tiers

of houses spill
pleasantly

down that hillside.
It

might be possible
to count occurrences.

“. . . and God has a nasty temper when provoked . . .”

What to come back as

What to come back as

Yesterday driving up Lemmon Avenue in Dallas home from my exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool—one hour, ten minutes each of six different styles of walking), I heard Krys Boyd on “Think” on KERA say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended. I was too stunned to listen further.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil?

I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (as did every other smart-ass high school kid when I was 18—now they don’t even know what Hamlet is, either as in theater or as a small town nestled in a valley in Vermont). I think I’m afraid even to read it now.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Well, none. It would be nice to think I will have mind enough left to dream after I’ve shuffled off, but I doubt it. I really must talk to my neurologist about his concept of the “after life.”

A theory floated around a few years ago that a certain list of life events is almost certain to cause depression: the death of a parent, the breakup of a relationship, the change of (or loss of) a job, moving from one city to another. I think retirement should be in there because it is not, strictly speaking, the loss of a job.

When my Grandfather Knight died and we had the obligatory “hours,” I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle by ten or twelve) than I am now. I guess I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

As I have written here before, in the past decade, I have experienced the death of both parents—I had the unfathomable gift of being with each of them when they died—the death of my partner (we assumed we’d trundle off into old age together), and the death of my brother-in-law. I now have the certain knowledge of the date of retirement (May 15), the possibility of moving—to somewhere that will insure my not being alone in my dotage, unresolved issues with how to have a relationship, and the falling apart of my body (three surgeries—minor, I suppose—last year, and a “trigger finger” on my right hand that is obviously going to need repair sometime soon. I think I have every right to be depressed.

Last summer while I was on crutches from the repair work on my hip (100% successful, thank whatever part of the cosmos we’re comfortable thanking), the university moved several of our faculty offices from one building to another. Since then I have worked in—and had student conferences in—an office that looks pretty much the way it did when the movers left. Remember, I was on crutches and could hardly hang pictures on the wall, much less arrange books on shelves. Books I never use, by the way.

So the question is, now that I have—let’s see, exactly 41 days of class left before I’m put out to pasture, what’s the use of bothering? Old Abe may just have to stay on the floor.

On the other hand, the students will probably be more comfortable when they come for their conferences if the place looks somewhat normal. Or will they? Would a student even notice Abe on the floor? Do they even know who Abe was these days? Oh, the imponderables of teaching. I know that during semesters that the Gettysburg Address has been part of our study, I knew the quickest way to amaze my students was to recite the Address from memory. And then to name all of the Presidents in order. . .  Jackson Van Buren Harrison Tyler Polk Taylor Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln. . .

I know lots of pretty useless stuff. And I can do lots of pretty useless things. And I own a lot of unnecessary crap—mostly books and a pipe organ.

What dreams will come when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time.
. .

I wish I’d thought of that. See, this is what happens when you get to be part of the older generation. I put a picture of some men wearing suits like the ones my father wore when I was born and long enough after that so I remember them on my Facebook page and asked my friends who remember those suits to send me a message. Only two did.

I had hoped to find a group of us old folks to talk together about—about anything that comes to mind. I know things come to my mind that never used to, and I’d just like to know if that happens to everyone when they’re the older generation. I know Maxine Kumin thinks about things differently. Damn! I wish I could think the way she does. What fun we could have.

Abe will just have to wait.

Abe will just have to wait.

All those things like parental dying and jobs ending and moving around may be depressing for the younger generation, but for us, those in the older generation, they are, well, they’re just the way things are. Go, Maxine! (I don’t know how old she was when she wrote this poem, but she’s 89 and still part of the older generation.)

In the Park, by Maxine Kumin

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
–you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. 
He laid on me not doing anything.
I could feel his heart beating against my heart.

Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.  For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.  Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as. 

When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.  In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

I wonder what it would be like . . .

The center will not hold

The center will not hold

This morning I wrote and wrote and have a quirky little piece nearly finished but then I got caught up in trying to do something useful for the world and all of that went away but I’m not really sure I accomplished anything because it’s me against 300,000,000 Americans with guns and hubris and a lot of other stuff that makes talking to them difficult. I don’t mean that of course because I am not any better than anyone else except on this one issue where I know I am right and public opinion and political will and some twisted desire for national self-preservation or something has allowed a group of about a million Christians and another group of I’m not sure how many Jews to formulate American foreign policy as well as domestic policy and it is the most depressing reality because it is so ridiculous and so short-sighted and so, shall I say the word I don’t really believe exists, “evil?” But I got a short email note from someone whom I respect more than almost anyone else in the world, and she said to me, Thank you Harold. Yes of course we are just as concerned. And you are very right about your conclusion re US policy towards Palestine. Had our conflict been with any other people, it would have been solved a long time ago. God bless you for your support to the cause of justice and peace. And if it is true in any way to any tiny extent that I have perhaps given that one person whom I admire and, yes, in a way that has nothing to do with close friendship or intimacy of any kind, love, a reason to think even for one moment

. . . to write a poem . . .

today that she and her people are not alone and that some day justice and peace will prevail, then what do I have to worry about or be absorbed in concerning my own little world of problems? Her gratitude is for something outside of me, something for which I have allowed myself to be the messenger and have simply done what I knew to be right, and it is an overwhelmingly sad reality that some people believe that other people are expendable because their god says so.
center cannot hold

Most people probably never have themselves so wrapped up in themselves that they allow intricate, complex feelings and ideas to get tangled up in their view of reality—how on earth do I think I can know what “most people” do, think, or feel? that’s preposterous; I can’t theorize any kind of generality for “most people” based on the cluttered and unkempt nature of my own feelings and thoughts—but reality is so hard to figure out some of the time. I heard on the radio yesterday that Isaac Newton was the first “genius” to be thought of as such and canonized as a person who helped us see the face of god, at least the face of the universe, and so we think of him as something of a great 18th-century secular saint—completely secular except to fundamentalist christians who still believe god created the heavens and the earth in seven 24-hour days, and he’s not a saint secular or sacred to them—and we revere the rationality he gave us and the enlightenment (Enlightenment) he helped bring to Western thought and

. . . from which not one, but two . . .

then the saintly mantle passed to Darwin and then to Einstein and then to Edwin Hubble and all of those people in between like Marie Currie and Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk, and—you know, the scientists, the rational thinkers, the people who have made our world what it is today. And then there are the real thinkers the abstractionists Nietzsche and Heidegger and Sartre and Foucault and all of those other people whose writing is so complex we can’t comprehend it so we declare it to be brilliant. When all I really want is to be able to think simply in some way that will help me get through today without pain and suffering and crying for an hour or two—don’t go getting all concernedly on me because it’s simple depression exacerbated by foolishly allowing myself to have feelings about people and situations any rational person like Isaac Newton would never have had—do we know who he ever fell in love with or was angry at or wanted to scream at them because their political thinking was so bizarre, or do we know him only by his brain.

. . . lines famously show up as titles . . .

slouching.
.
I used to think—no, I’ve never been able to think—imagine, hypothesize, that when I got to be 69 years old if I ever did—now don’t get all concernedly on me because I am not suicidal, just trying to be realistic—think by this time I’d be all wise and contented and one of those old guys people came to for advice and help and comfort. But you would be really not very bright to come to me for any of those things because I’m only an almost-old man who longs and yearns for someone to love and be loved by in that way the psychologists but not the Buddhist monks tell us every person needs in order to be fully

. . . of someone else’s work?

human. And I’m not the Dalai Lama so I don’t have much peace and calm and joy and serenity from all of this because I don’t want to end up (as I am partially already) that little old lonely man living by himself and craving needing someone—almost anyone—to touch him now and then and know they will be together when one or the other of them shuffles off this mortal coil so it doesn’t seem like such a fucking lonely and scary thing to do.

The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The center has not held

The center has not held