“. . . What hand plucks With what bird’s quill. . .” (Luis Cernuda)

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I began writing. I was distracted by another line of research. I forget what. Now I’m back to yesterday’s thoughts.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck used to say. I had a Valentine’s Day e-card from a friend in Paris. He lives there three months of the year. Some old queen left him a time-share condo in his will, or something like that. I don’t remember.  When one gets too old to make memories (I didn’t say too old to do new things—but they don’t become “memories”—there isn’t time left for that), one is ambushed by memories from ages ago for no apparent reason.

Why should a Valentine’s Day e-card bring up memories of the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska? A card that says only “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” Paulo Coellio, The Alchemist. No pictures, no music, nothing more.

Suddenly I was thinking about the monumental stained glass windows in the old First Baptist Church building of Kearney, Nebraska. I wonder if the building still stands. It was (is) a red sandstone Richardson-Romantic style building. How it came to be built in Kearney, Nebraska, I don’t know.

The building has much significance for my family. My father was pastor of the church, 1950-1952. My sister was born in Kearney. When she was about two years old, just getting teeth, she fell on the concrete steps of the church, breaking her two front teeth—and was without those teeth until her adult teeth grew in several years later. People (who?) tormented her for years singing, “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.”

He hardly needed to be "out"

He hardly needed to be “out”

I remember standing in the balcony in the rear of that church sanctuary and touching the glass of the rose window. I remember being down in the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, sitting on the floor with the other children as my dad preached a “children’s sermon.” Perhaps someday I’ll write about it—one of those lessons that we could never be good enough. Baptist preachers, even my gentlemanly father, are prone to preach those sermons. No “No reason is needed for loving” there.

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was responsible for about 500 of the most popular and musically most pedestrian hymntunes in the American church repertory, tunes using basically only tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords.

I learned his hymn (both words and music) “Low in the Grave He Lay” at the First Baptist Church of Kearney. One might well ask how I can be sure because I learned so many hymns as a child in so many different churches. I can be close to certain because I have the picture, the sound, even the feel of standing on a pew leaning against my mother in that sanctuary singing that hymn.

It’s a perfectly mundane, shall I say “silly?” tune. But it’s fun to sing. As a university music student years later I learned academeze for the melody that rises through the tonic chord at the beginning of the refrain. It’s a “Mannheim Rocket.” I had more than a passing interest in the tune. I was fascinated even then by the raised tone (f-sharp) at the end of the verse, the leading tone of the secondary dominant (G major) preparing the “chorus.”

For reasons I cannot fathom I was, yesterday morning, thinking about that Richardson-style buildings and music of the blandest style—both as a result of opening an e-card for Valentine’s Day.

Born in Seville in 1902, the poet Luis Cernuda left Spain in 1938 for permanent exile. With Federico Garcia Lorca and others, he is one of the Generation of 1927, the important avant garde Spanish poets influenced by surrealism.

Cernuda was an openly gay poet in the day when no one was openly gay. I have written about him before—his poem “Musical Instrument.”

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

What hand plucks with what bird’s quill the wound in me that awakens the word? I am not a poet or even much of a writer, but I have words.

Those stained-glass windows. That maudlin tune. That e-card valentine. And now the Arab musician plucking his lute’s strings.

What hand is it that plucks the wounds that awaken my words?

My writing plan yesterday (and again today) was to explore poetry by contemporary Arab and Arab-American poets. Obviously, opening the folder “Arab poets” on my desktop turned up the Cernuda poem. Not an Arab poet, but writing about an Arab musician—in a country with an undeniable Arab past.

But that was before I opened the e-Valentine.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck would have said.

The point! The point?

“The poet is also a tragic figure because of his conflict with society; his connection with the daemonic power [beauty] gives him the status of a prophet, an interpreter of the divine law,” writes Dereck Harris (1) and quotes Cernuda saying

Su destino todos lo conocemos: enfermedad, pobreza, inforunio. Pero no nos lamentemos de ello ahora: sería farisáico. A nuestro lado puede repetinse en alguien más aquel destino ya cumplido en otros; no nos importaría. Mientras la sociedad esté organizada de la manera que lo estuvo entonces y lo está hoy, el infortunio de Bécquer es y será possible (2).

What else can be the fate of the poet who is concerned “with the relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself. . . the poet’s aim is to halt the flux of time. . .” (Harris).

The misfortune of Bécquer (and Cernuda, and the Arab poets I’m trying to study) is to write the “relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself.”

My temporally circumscribed existence, 1950 to 2015, I know. However, the relationship. . .
__________
(1) Harris, Dereck. Luis Cernuda-a Study of the Poetry. London: Tamesis Books, 1975 (page 98).
(2) My translation—I hope it captures at least the gist of the passage: We all know his [the poet’s] destiny: illness, poverty, misfortune. But we should not lament him now: that would be Pharasaic. On the one hand one can repent and, on the other, destiny has made us complicit; it does not matter to us. While society is organized as it has been then and is today, the misfortune of Bécquer is and will be possible.
[The poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, considered the founder of modern Spanish poetry, died of tuberculosis before most of his work was published.]

"Arab Musician," by al-Brazyly

“Arab Musician,” by al-Brazyly

sum link for other blog

“. . . Vainly we offer each ample oblation. . .” (Reginald Heber)

Each ample oblation

Each ample oblation

Creative non-fiction. That’s what I’d write if I were not self-absorbed. Knew more people and listened to their stories. Read more news—personal news. “UTD professor runs math tutoring program in low-income neighborhoods.” Write about Prof. Lee and his work and what makes him tick. An essay about the way his program has changed the life of one student.

Something interesting. Something important. The purpose of education. A creative piece about learning to do math.

But I can’t even write in complete sentences when I think about such topics.

Yesterday I had in mind to write a lovely creative non-fiction piece about the American traditional shape-note hymn, “Star in the East.” It’s from Southern Harmony of 1835. I have a facsimile copy of the 1859 edition of Southern Harmony, but by 1859 the hymn was set to a different tune.

The tune from the 1835 edition is in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. The Episcopals, in their diligence to be authentic, used the earliest version rather than the one most 21st-century churches would (I think) be more comfortable with, the 1854 edition in four parts. I wanted the four-part version to record and post on Facebook.

Sorry. Who besides Charles Hiroshi Garrett wants to read musicological arcana?

I’ve had the tune running in my head since the Epiphany. I was exercising in the therapy pool that day singing Epiphany hymns to myself. That was one I thought of. Big mistake. I’ve been singing it for 10 days.

The next step, of course, (of course?) should have been to record the tune on my organ as an Epiphany post on Facebook. I don’t care about the Epiphany, but church observances as they come around every year give me a structure for my inner musical life. And a reason to post little ditties on Facebook.

I couldn’t find a transcription of the 4-part version of “Star of the East” from 1854, so I delayed. I didn’t want to bother writing it out myself or making myself play it from the shape-note open score (four different staves).

Yesterday I decided it’s time. Christmas and Epiphany and the star in the east and the Wise Men are long over. If Christmas can start before Halloween, can’t it as logically end after Valentine’s Day?

But now to the truth. I delayed until today because I couldn’t find my copy of Southern Harmony (that facsimile of the 1859 edition).

I was assuming my copy had the tune in 4 parts because that was the “improvement” of the 1859 edition—all tunes had four parts. What I didn’t realize was that those words had a different tune by that time.

I want a wife husband. Thanks to Judy Brady. I’ve stolen her idea before. It’s likely even in Texas that will soon be a possibility. In Judy Brady’s parlance, I want

. . . a wife husband who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it.

This desire is not new in my senescence. I’ve always wanted a husband who could do those things. Because I can’t.

Keep track of my copy of Southern Harmony, for example.

I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. Not repeating, revising. The last time I wrote about not being able to find something—that is, living in disorganization and monumental disorder—I was only 67 years old. I had plenty of time left to get the clutter out of my life and begin to work in peace and order. Accomplish something.

Predictably, not much has changed—not much except the urgency. I’m 70. Statistically, living in Texas, I can expect to live 8 more years. If I want to improve those odds significantly, I need to move to Hawaii, or the District of Columbia.

It’s time. I’ve said it before.

I mean it now. I want to be rid of everything I own that won’t fit in my car. And then I want to move it all into a new tiny apartment and get rid of my car. That, of course is my plan in extremis. It’s not necessary. But I want to get closer and closer to that possibility.

Get rid of stuff.

Every morning while I’m making my coffee, this is what I see.
photoI have no need for those books (and the other hundreds in my apartment). Nor those containers of things—knives, kitchen utensils. The radio, fan, lamp. You say, “That’s useful stuff. You just need to get organized.”

No, it’s not. I don’t believe the common wisdom that clutter in our homes is analogous to or symbolic of clutter in our minds. And I don’t agree with Peter Walsh that we can’t be at peace in a cluttered home.

It’s not the clutter that prevents peace. It’s the ownership. I own this stuff. I could live in complete clutter and be at peace if I did not own the stuff.

Here I make a sharp at least 90-degee turn in logic and pretend I’m writing creative non-fiction.

First, a tiny bit of word history. According to the online etymology dictionary, “own” and “owe” come from the same root. I don’t pretend to be a philologist. But I see a connection. We “own” and “owe” at the same time. Everything we “own,” we “owe.” I don’t know to what or whom.

If we “owe” our stuff, then paying it off ought to give us some satisfaction, some peace, some sense of freedom—something.
Here’s my guess, however. We’re caught in a catch-22 of our own making. We own all this stuff, and we owe it. But we can’t even give it away. We’re too attached to it and we’ll think we’ve accomplished something by giving it away. We will clear our minds and souls. Because we think we will have done it, it won’t happen.

We need a whole new relationship with our things.

I don’t know what it is.

The funny old hymn says it. You don’t have to believe in the Baby Jesus or the Wise Men to see this.

Vainly we offer each ample oblation;
Vainly with gold we his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Vainly. We have to do it, but it’s in vain.

(Anglican) Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
1 Hail the blest morn, see the great Mediator,
Down from the regions of glory descend!
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo, for his guard the bright angels attend.

2 Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies his bed with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining,
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall.

3 Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Eden and offerings divine?
Gems from the mountain, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine?
4 Vainly we offer each ample oblation;

Vainly with gold we his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

5 Low at his feet we in humble prostration,
Lose all our sorrow and trouble and strife;
There we receive his divine consolation,
Flowing afresh from the fountain of life.

6 He is our friend in the midst of temptation,
Faithful supporter, whose love cannot fail;
Rock of our refuge, and hope of salvation,
Light to direct us through death’s gloomy vale.

7 Star of the morning, thy brightness, declining,
Shortly must fade when the sun doth arise:
Beaming refulgent, his glory eternal
Shines on the children of love in the skies.

It’s a conundrum.

Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

“Colour awakes on earth. . . “ (Jan Struther, 1901-1953)

The second coming of Mrs. Miniver?

The second coming of Mrs. Miniver?

I am amused.

I am easily entertained. “Project Runway,” “Love it or List it,” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” are entertaining. “Car Talk”—Click and Clack—Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Regular listeners know about the punny gag names the Magliozzi brothers used for credits at the end of their programs. One of my favorites has always been their Russian chauffeur, “Pikup Andropov.” And then yesterday I saw it—a sign that I had never noticed before.

I’m entertained by any number of things every day that I find interesting or quirky or that remind me of something else, or that I think only I have noticed.

But amusement—real amusement—is another matter. I don’t laugh very much. I laugh at David Sedaris reading his own wonderful nonsense (I heard him a few days ago). I remember his one-liners days later and laugh again—Crucifixes are sexy because “the cross was invented to make a man’s shoulders and abs look good.” I am not amused by amusement parks.

My father was amused by Tom and Ray once. He was visiting me in Boston. We were in my car with the radio on, but I had no idea Dad was listening—he usually couldn’t hear the radio. But Ray said their legal advisors were Dewy, Cheatum, and Howe, and my dad lost it. Sometime later he asked me to write those names down for him. He was writing his will. Remembered entertainment.

I haven’t confirmed this with a dictionary but my use of the two words is to say “entertainment” happens in the moment and is pretty much over when it’s over, but “amusement” hangs around. If something is truly amusing, I think about it later—and am entertained by it over and over. My guess is the word comes from the same root as “muse,” that is, “think.” I don’t know, and I’m not going to look it up. I giggle when I am entertained. I laugh (often to myself) when I am amused.

The Russian Chauffeur

The Russian Chauffeur

I am amused by the concept of the Second Coming of Christ, especially if it’s accompanied by The Rapture or Armageddon or Pre-or-Post-Millennialism. Don’t get all huffy on me. I don’t mean disrespect for anyone’s beliefs. I just find it entertaining over and over again—that is, I am amused—to think about the idea of Jesus suddenly riding down to earth (from where?) in a chariot and gathering everyone up and judging us and then starting this 1,000-year-long war. When he wins he sets himself up to rule the earth in peace and justice for eternity. Why bother with Armageddon or the Rapture or any of that stuff if he knows he’s going to win? Does Jesus need some entertainment? Some amusement? Just think what FOX News will do to sensationalize that war! What entertainment!

I’m sorry to be irreverent. I doubt anyone who might read this believes in the Rapture or Armageddon (a city in Palestine—between Nazareth and Jerusalem—I’ve been there). But I should not be crude and disrespectful anyway.

Now that I have offended and apologized, I’ll get back to the immediate source of my amusement. But, oh no! I don’t remember what I was amused about when I started this writing yesterday. A writing teacher once told me that the way to keep an idea going if you’re interrupted is to stop mid-sentence and the idea will reform itself in your mind when you come back to it. That didn’t work this time.

The reason I don’t know why I began talking about amusement is that the main idea, the purpose, of this writing was not to be anything directly about amusement. I could plead age here. I’m too old to remember such things. The short-term memory, they say, is the first to go. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think the idea was so bizarre that even I, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put it together again.

On the other hand, perhaps my inability to remember is a perfect metaphor for what I wanted to write about.

I need to remember without any doubt that November 15, 1986, was the most important day of my life. It was the first day of now 28 years—continuously, day by day—that I have not been drunk.

I don’t know exactly where I was going with the idea of amusement yesterday, but I have a clear idea today. My sobriety has been more or less a trajectory of learning to be amused rather than simply entertained. I’m not sure that before that day 28 years ago I had been truly amused for many years. Entertained, yes. Amused—remembering experiences long enough to develop any long-term pleasure from them—no.

Part of that inability I obviously have little control over. Clinical depression. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Thank goodness—and I mean a depth of gratitude that phrase cannot begin to relate—for medical relief from those conditions. And gratitude for my neurologist who gave me a new way to think about those things: “Remember, it’s your brain that’s depressed, not your mind.”

So I am amused by the idea of the Second Coming. Perhaps because I have been amused by the dozens of (bizarre) hymns I’ve played on the organ in church about it. I was thinking of one a few days ago and being mildly amused. And then I thought, it’s a pretty good metaphor for this 28 year change in my life. I don’t have any idea what the religious language means, but I know about “Night’s left behind at last.” So I guess what I am really amused by is my mind’s ability to make all kinds of kinky connections these days. Amused and grateful. Connections like this: Jan Struther who wrote this hymn also wrote the 1942 Academy Award winning movie, Mrs. Miniver.

High o’er the lonely hills
Black turns to grey,
Birdsong the valley fills,
Mists fold away;
Grey wakes to green again,
Beauty is seen again–
Gold and serene again
Dawneth the day.

So, o’er the hills of life,
Stormy, forlorn,
Out of the cloud and strife
Sunrise is born;
Swift grows the light for us;
Ended is night for us;
Soundless and bright for us
Breaketh God’s morn.

Hear we no beat of drums,
Fanfare nor cry,
When Christ the herald comes
Quietly nigh;
Splendour he makes on earth;
Colour awakes on earth;
Suddenly breaks on earth
Light from the sky.

Bid then farewell to sleep:
Rise up and run!
What though the hill be steep?
Strength’s in the sun.
Now shall you find at last
Night’s left behind at last,
And for mankind at last
Day has begun!

A small town in Palestine?

A small town in Palestine?

“. . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance. . .” (Elizabeth Alexander)

A British travel poster from the 1930s - to visit a place that didn't exist?

A British travel poster from the 1930s – to visit a place that didn’t exist?


Elizabeth Alexander
wrote her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration. In the foreground, the poem is, of course, about the event which few of us had imagined would happen in our lifetimes—the inauguration of our first African American President.

I’m appropriating the poem because I think its background “meaning” is infinitely more complex than simply a marker for one event.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

For the past ten days I have been depressed in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. I have not managed to write anything organized well enough to warrant posting here or anywhere else. I have written and written, but all of that stuff is either in Word documents with bizarre names on my desktop or—mercifully—in the “recycle bin.”

Most of the depression is, I think, a normal reaction that even those of you who do not have to take Prozac feel. It’s separation anxiety. Some of it is already here (retirement), but some of it is projection. Three of the people I depend on for emotional stability are going away, one temporarily, one permanently, and one either temporarily or permanently. I’m feeling ordinary sadness and fear at being left alone, albeit projected fear because their departures are in the future.

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Ordinary sadness.

Then there’s a small item of difficulty in being hired for sure for the part time tutoring job I am already doing at the university. That there can be a problem with my application to teach part time at a university where I have been teaching full time for fifteen years is terrifying to me. What if they don’t, after all of this, hire me? Is my next step applying at Walmart for a job? (After all of my criticism of Alice Walton, that’s not a likely prospect.) I spent three hours sitting in the waiting room at the Social Security office yesterday to get a new Social Security card (I haven’t had one for 30 years at least) to insure the solution to part of the problem, but the rest of it is still uncertain.

This is ordinary fear.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

It is all about words.

Ordinary words.

Goodbye. Employ. Security.

Fear.

And the one I have not mentioned.

I have not mentioned it because I don’t know for sure which it is.

Dismay.

Anger.

Or Grief.

In any world of logic (which I seldom inhabit) events taking place 5500 miles from home should not cause depression. Anger, dismay, grief, perhaps, but not depression.

The Israeli project of genocide and the destruction of the Palestinian culture and society in Gaza is, I think, the background meaning of my depression. I cannot fathom it. I cannot accept it. I cannot believe it.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. . .”

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Elizabeth Alexander is, I know, speaking directly of the experience of African Americans. But every day the experience of the people of Gaza corresponds more closely to the historical experience of African Americans.

The version of Niebuhr’s prayer we all know is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There is an enormity of difference between “the grace to accept with serenity” and “the serenity to accept.” I will never have “serenity,” but I can try to find “grace”—or (in Christian theological terms) to accept “grace” [see note below] that is freely given (by whom or what, I do not know, but I believe it’s possible).

I cannot accept with serenity the vicious, warmongering, uncivilized assertion that “Israel has the right to defend itself”—with the extension of that logic to the end that Israel has the right to obliterate an entire society.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Americans must—yes, I will moralize and even preach—“reconsider” the words that are too easy to repeat as if they were fact.

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

Israel’s right to defend itself does not include killing hundreds of children in retaliation for the murder of three teen-agers. Or even retaliation for an almost-completely-nonlethal bombardment with rockets. Israel has experienced nothing to warrant genocide and the destruction of entire cities.

That is, nothing but the words that declare God has given Israel the land that belong(s)(ed) to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians must either leave or be killed. Words for us, as Americans, to REconsider. Because they make no sense for us as the protectors of equality and democracy.

We need to find a place where we are safe—where the ideas of equality and democracy that we want the world to believe define us are safe.

We are duplicitous enough for the entire world to see. We pride ourselves in holding “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while we give aid in the amount of $2,000,000,000 per year to a nation that is determined either to subjugate another people in toto or drive them from their land. Are the Palestinian people created equal to the Israeli people or not?

Are we caught in a self-contradictory lie of “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,” or are we so self-deceived that that we are willing to ask for “serenity,” when what we need to seek is “grace?”

We might not need the Prozac of “homeland security” if we stopped lying to ourselves. We are, I think, suffering from separation anxiety—our own separation from the ideals we say we believe.

[Note:  I trust if you listen to this hymn, you will be able to sort out the mild sectarianism and get to the words of the last stanza, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” The evils we deplore are our “warring madness,” from the third stanza.]

“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962)
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

“The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes . . .” (Denise Duhamel)

The perfect symbol

The perfect symbol

In the fall of 1968 I wandered into the Democratic Party Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA, headquarters for the western part of San Bernardino County. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for President. Even though he was part of the Johnson Administration responsible for the war in Viet Nam, against which I was one of those irreverent “hippie” types who demonstrated, I could not imagine voting for Nixon. My candidate, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months earlier.

The election of 1968 was the first in which I voted. It was the first of five in which I worked as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate, except for the 1972 election when I worked for a pittance of a salary for the McGovern campaign. In the election of 1976 I met Jimmy Carter at a neighborhood party in Iowa City when he was “Jimmy Who?” and decided to volunteer for his campaign when he answered a question from one of my neighbors with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in an Immoral Society. That he even knew the book was enough for me—his quoting it was the icing on the cake.

After Ronald Reagan was elected Acting President in 1980, I never again participated in “politics.” I was mildly interested in supporting Michael Dukakis. (I had, after all, met him three times and met his cousin Olympia at a concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra conducted by his father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson for which I wrote the program notes because the chairman of their board of directors was a colleague of mine on the faculty at Bunker Hill Community College—there, I’ve dropped all the names I can possibly drop.)

Looking back on my dabbling in politics, I’d say having some kind of personal knowledge of a candidate is the best reason to vote for or against her. Every other reason—party affiliation, philosophical agreement, religious compatibility, is dangerous. In fact, it’s absurd.

While I was toying with the idea of working for Dukakis, one of my friends was toying with the idea of working for George Bush the Elder because her family’s summer home was in the same exclusive neighborhood of Kennebunkport, and she rubbed elbows with the Bush family as part of the social elite of Maine (I suppose she still does).

Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in . . .

My disillusionment is not quite as complete as Denise Duhamel’s seems to be, but it’s close. Her poem says “a slug,” not two slugs. In the slug kingdom it’s possible for one slug to copulate—and thereby reproduce. It’s not masturbation. They don’t often fly solo—usually it takes two slugs, but what happens to the slug playing the part of the male when they are finished is pretty gross.

I think it’s an apt description of American politics. Devouring parts of (or, more likely, ALL of) one’s opponent is the name of the game. And—excuse the extended metaphor—we all seem to slither around in the garden dirt when it comes to politics or even talking about (I won’t say “discussing”) any of the problems that are in the process of tearing American society apart.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

We all carry our ballots around and ponder big questions—what to do with 52,000 starving, frightened, unmoored children knocking at our doors seeking shelter, safety, and a way to survive as human beings; how to prevent the next mass killing with licensed guns of school children; what to do about the absoluet certainty that the NSA, the NRA, every bookseller and garden supply seller in the country knows you’re reading this—and then instead of finding an answer to any of these questions, we light our ballots on fire, inhale the smoke, and blow it toward whatever politician we think should have helped solved the problem long ago.

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

We make ourselves the perfect voters, smiling our way to the ballot box with eyes closed to the realities we are voting on. We accept without investigating that banks and billionaires are the oppressed in America. We accept without investigating that Hamas is a “terrorist” organization. We allow demagogues to convince us that changes of world-wide power structures are the fault of one man rather than the inexorable result of our own materialistic “globalization.” We allow the interpretation of human life that a corporation is the same as a living, breathing body. And so on.

We set ourselves up in armed gated communities prepared to make war on anyone who is not “like us.” STAND YOUR GROUND!

I doubt I will ever again walk into a “party headquarters.” I may never vote again. I don’t want the shame of being a slug slithering in the garden copulating with myself.

My advertised purpose in this blog is to write light-hearted pieces about the process of growing old. I don’t know if this is light-hearted or not.

Slithering in the dirt

Slithering in the dirt

Well, here’s some jollity. Since I “retired,” I’ve taken some actions that might be seen as out-of-character because they are frivolous and odd (perhaps “odd” is not out of character). Only one is obvious and public—the bold and conspicuous tattoo on my left arm. Its Latin phrase, by the way, is the first words of the Medieval hymn,

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

So last Thursday evening did you watch fireworks with glee and patriotism? Heaven and earth with ashes burning. Has that become the best symbol of our “democracy?” Firepower?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel (b. 1961)
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.
Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

Just because. Another patriotic poem. From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

“Patriotics,” by David Baker (b. 1954)
Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as nightmare.
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” (Dylan Thomas)

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

In about 1981 when I had finished giving the young son (about 5 years old) of dear friends his piano lesson at their home in Brookline, MA, his dad insisted we have a conversation. We were long time close friends and often talked. This seemed different–important somehow.

Jim worked in research at the Harvard School for Public Health. He wanted to tell me about the “gay disease.” He was convinced it wasn’t the “gay disease,” but whatever it was, gays seemed to be the only victims for reasons no one had yet figured out. He wanted to be sure I had a better understanding of the disease than I might read in the papers, and he wanted me to be careful–although he didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Our conversation took place shortly after I had begun treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy. The world had begun to feel even less safe than I had always thought it was although I did everything I could to avoid thinking about it.

By the mid-‘80s the “gay disease” was taking a terrifying toll. I had stopped keeping count of the men I knew who had died from HIV/AIDS as we knew it by then. Keeping a list was overwhelmingly depressing.

The psychiatrist I saw as part of my TLE treatment suggested in the late ’80s that I do something to confront my ongoing perplexity that I had not contracted HIV even though I had done very little to change my behavior in the time since the spread of the disease became understood.

I became a volunteer at the AIDS Hospice in Boston. “If it’s wet, wear gloves,” was the first and only non-negotiable rule. The work was intense. My guess is that anyone spending ten hours a week with people who are dying would see their own view of the world change dramatically and permanently.

Volunteers changed beds, helped patients shower, brought meals to the bedside of patients unable to go to the dining room, read to patients, talked with patients, and sat—some days for the entire time we were there—often holding the patient’s hand, more often simply sitting beside the bed saying and doing nothing.

Twice in those four years I was with a patient at the moment of his death. Several times I aided the nurse in the few moments immediately after a patient died.

I don’t know how to describe those experiences. I don’t have the language to express the gratitude which I hold in my heart for every hour I spent at the Hospice, especially those moments around patients’ deaths.

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

Those men (and one woman) gave me the highest honor one can give—to be with them as they approached the last moments of their life or, even more awe-inspiring, to be with them at the moment of their death.

Explaining is impossible. Undeserved and incomprehensible, the (unexpected) privilege of witnessing the most important moment of another’s life (each time as an intruder) changed my worldview forever. Whatever words I can find to say this are inadequate and seem dramatic or sentimental in a way I do not (cannot) intend.

Dies irae, the opening Latin words of the Medieval Sequence Hymn (to be sung between the readings from scriptures—“Day of wrath” is the most common translation) from the Requiem Mass of the Roman Rite, are tattooed on my left arm as of last week. Nearly everyone who has seen the tattoo has asked me why those words.

Ultimately I do not believe that the day one dies is a day of “wrath.” And I do not believe in the “Day of Judgment” the hymn describes. When I attend a church service in which the Nicene Creed is used, I cannot say the words, “He [Jesus] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

I have often thought that, were I either a comic or a philosopher (perhaps a philologist), I could write something memorable noting the visual sameness of “Dies” (day) in Latin and “Dies” (dies) in English. Many people must have tried to say something clever about that sameness over the years.

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

The most famous poem of Dylan Thomas (who lived only 39 years) is “Do not go Gentle into that Good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The film, The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer—an adaptation of Kramer’s play written at the height of the AIDS crisis about gay men raging against the dying of the light—was recently released on HBO. I saw it last week after my arm was tattooed.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning. . .

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . .

Those of us gay men who lived through (were in our “prime” during) the worst of the AIDS epidemic, before any treatment for HIV was discovered, understand Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” not, ultimately differently from anyone else, but as a community. We watched our friends die in numbers that should be common only to people who are my age now.

My tattoo is a reminder (is it healthy to have a constant reminder?) that the most important task I have left is to discover for myself what the “day of wrath” means, what it means “not [to] go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps I should have Thomas’s line tattooed on my right arm so I have a constant reminder that we live in the tension between the day of “wrath” and that “good” night.

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

“However carved up or pared down we get . . .” (Kay Ryan)

Playland: I can't believe I found this picture.

Playland: I can’t believe I found this picture.

Probably everyone has imagined the intrigue of intimacy that takes place in dark gay bars after midnight, so reading a true story can’t shock anyone.

In about 1982 I touched the arm of a man with a “tattoo sleeve” for the first time in a disreputable gay bar in the “Combat Zone” in Boston, the area where the city let porn shops and gay bars and other unsavory businesses be concentrated and pretty much left alone.

In those days being covered with tattoos was seen as unsavory indeed. Having one tattoo—except for sailors who had crossed the equator—was frowned on in polite society. When I was a kid, I knew one man who had a tattoo, the father of one of my friends. Most gay men who had chosen to be outliers even in the gay world by being heavily tattooed had inked parts of their bodies that could be easily covered.

That night at Playland, a bar that necessitated wiping one’s shoes on the doormat on the way out rather than on the way in, I managed to embrace a man who was virtually covered with tattoos. (This is not a “tell-all” about what went on in gay bars before gay liberation and AIDS changed the culture. We did things in those dark private places we don’t want people to know about, but which everyone has already imagined. Secrecy about merely being in those places was the better part of wisdom.)

Finding myself being hugged by a tattoo-covered man in a tank-top and jeans was excitement not unlike the protagonist feels in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” Not nearly as intense or life-changing, but memorable nonetheless.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . the arabesque . . . on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes . . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself . . . it [had never entered] his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.
(O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1964.)

I have been intrigued by the possibility of having a tattoo for most of my life—one of those hidden desires (or at least something to consider now and then) such as returning to Salvador, Brazil, and attending an entire Candomblé. Something to ponder without really having any concrete idea of doing it.

This past semester I told my students—after they read and wrote essays about “Parker’s Back” that I planned to get a tattoo before the semester ended. I didn’t do it, and now that I will not have another chance to show students my reaction to O’Connor’s story, I wish I had done it. Some of them would have thought I was a sorry old man trying to do something cool in his dotage. But a few would have thought it was GR8—gutsy and entertaining.

One of my realizations of getting older is that the breadth of experience I used to assume was possible shrinks both in imagination and in fact. I have thought often about my return trip to Brazil. In fact, I have said many times if I knew how to make a living, I’d move to Salvador in a heartbeat. I’m now having trouble imagining moving out of my apartment to be closer, for example, to any of my family. My possibilities have narrowed from Salvador, Brazil, to 1200 square feet in Dallas, Texas.

Day of wrath!

Day of wrath!

The Best of It,” by Kay Ryan
However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.
(from Ryan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, The Best of It)

However pared down my hopes and expectations and experience become as I get older, I can still make the best of it. Perhaps over and over again, I simply have to find that one bean that will nourish me.

The one bean I have to find may seem insignificant, silly. Instead of a trip to Brazil on Thursday, I got a tattoo. Lying there while Joe at Tiggers-Body-Art on Main Street in Dallas worked on me it did not, for the first time enter my “. . . head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that [I] exist . . . “ I didn’t rejoice as if this “one bean” could nourish me. I did not find myself back in the sultry reality of a bar in the “Combat Zone.”

No. I just had a little twinge of fulfillment, of doing something I’d wanted to do for a long time. And had a little fun in the process. My tattoo is not an arabesque of color.

It’s a sort of old man joke—a reproduction (exact—Joe is a genius) of the first four notes of the Gregorian hymn, Dies Irae. “Day of wrath! O day of mourning!” the Medieval hymn before the Gospel lesson at Requiem Masses. Seems as good a way as any for me to remember that “it doesn’t matter that [my] acre’s down to a square foot. As though [my] garden could be one bean.”

I still have lots of beans left, but I can see where things are headed.

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.

Lo, the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded
Thence shall judgment be awarded.

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning,
Man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest,
Grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.