“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

“These are the chickens you let loose one at a time. . . “ (Kay Ryan)

1-sousia sky

The Palestinian Sky at Sousia Bedouin Village. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 15, 2015)

Poet Kay Ryan read some of her work a couple of days ago at Southern Methodist University, and told a about herself in the same way she writes poetry. That is, less is always more. I have been smiling at, giggling out loud at, and all-but weeping at her poetry for years. Her images and insights are precious to me, the more so because we are virtually the same age (I am eight months her senior) and she so often that it’s uncanny says exactly what I was thinking and didn’t know how to say (I think that’s the definition of great poetry).

I am grateful to have heard her read and talk a little about her poetry because I now know my intuition was right―her delightful, funny, strange little poems are “about” something. They are about the kinkiness of living in this world, and about the mixture of joy and pain getting old―among other realities―brings. At least that’s what I heard the other night.

All the ideas, experiences, (mistakes?) of 70 years I’d like not to remember seem to be taking over my life. The chickens are, re: the old cliché, coming home to roost. It’s not only the bad chickens. It’s all the chickens, even those ideas, experiences, and accomplishments I’m proud of. This is not good or bad. It simply is. In Kay Ryan’s words, they are “all the same kind,” and they are all coming home “at the same speed.” Her poem “Home to Roost,” exemplifies the poet’s―a real poet like Kay Ryan, that is―ability to say all of this precision and elegance (and humor).

“HOME  TO  ROOST,”  by  Kay  Ryan  (b. 1945)

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash. It’s fair to quote him because Ryan quoted one of his poems. The last two lines of his poem “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” comparing sins of “omission” and “commission,” are

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

If all the chickens coming home to roost turn out to be of the same kind, returning at the same speed, what difference does omission or commission―or being or not being sinful―make?

Poets make connections between ideas and images that you and I would never think of until we read them in poems. My mind makes connections, but they are not elegant and certainly can’t be turned into poetry.

About 25 years ago in Boston I taught a college music appreciation class. One of the students was a young Palestinian man. He was had to leave this country soon because his student visa had run out. Unfortunately, the First Palestinian Intifada was just winding down, and his parents had managed to escape and were living on Malta, but he could not go there. He had no passport from Israel. Long story short. Details are not important―it’s complicated―I learned from him about the Nakba, about the Palestinian refugees, about the crushing oppression of the Palestinians before 1967, and about the totally untenable circumstances of their lives since then. He disappeared to Tunisia, and I’ve wondered since then what became of him.

One of the chickens that has come home to roost for me is my delay advocating for the Palestinians. In 1984 I had seen what outspoken advocacy could do for an international star when the Boston Symphony cancelled a performance by Vanessa Redgrave because of her advocacy for the Palestinians. I had no international stardom to fall back on.

But the truth of that situation would not let me go. When the Second Intifada was winding down (2003), I decided I had to see for myself. I went with a delegation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (their Palestine/Israel delegations are now independent as Interfaith Peace Builders). It changed my life. More aspects of my life than I thought at the time or than I realize even today.

Some of those chickens came home to roost.

My lifetime peripheral dedication to the cause of justice became in some ways an obsession. I’ve been back twice.

Since I cannot be a rabble-rousing activist, I have one little almost-private method of staying involved. I put together a blog about daily events in Palestine. Virtually every day. In the year since February 15, 2015, I have posted 255 times.

As far as I can tell, “the sky is dark with chickens, dense with them.” I have done much that might be considered “wrong” (by the Baptists I grew up among). I have done much that seems “right.” Most of my life at the moment seems “all the same kind.” My life is as it is.

My relationship with Palestine InSight is as it is. I simply do it. I’m not sure how many people read it. I used to beg my friends to read it. I wanted it to float to the top of Google searches. My purpose is to provide a place where Americans can see a tiny (tiny, tiny) slice of what’s happening in Palestine that might shed some light on their struggle―and to make available every day a poem by a Palestinian poet. Every day, a poem.

For a while I worried that no one was reading it, that I was wasting my time (about 2 hours a day). And then I realized the blog needs to be there whether anyone reads it or not. If someday someone finds it and loves the poetry or understands something about the lives of the Palestinians, so much the better.

If not, it is part of my “sky [ ] dark with chickens, dense with them.” There. Only there, not to worry about. Do it. Let ‘em loose one at a time.

1-Lifta Village

Lifta Palestinian Village, Jerusalem. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 12, 2015)

“. . . I think something weak strengthens until they are more and more it . . .” (Kay Ryan)

The organist as a kid.

Portrait of the organist as a young man.

If anyone had asked me, say 20 years ago, if I thought I’d live to be 70, I would have said, “Of course.” The problem is, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

There’s no rule book for getting older (or, eventually, old). One of the unspoken regulations, however, is that you don’t talk about being old. If you want people to think of you as a person instead of a relic. Or don’t want people to think you’re asking for attention or special treatment.

I don’t think of myself as old. My friends hear me talk about being old all the time. What they (many of them at any rate) don’t understand is how much fun I’m having when I say I’m an old man. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, and very little of my mind can actually comprehend that I’m 70.

When my father’s father was 70, my father was 40, and I was 10. When Granddad died, he was 92, my dad was 62, and I was 32. When Dad died, he was 97 and I was a few months shy of 67.

I’ve written here before about my cane. Yes, I fell, damaged my hip, and had to have surgery (not a replacement). Then when I was almost healed from that (physical therapy and the whole nine yards), I fell again. No surgery, but another 6 months with the cane. Now I’ve been without it for six months, and have been working with a trainer and getting stronger than I have been in 20 years.

The funny thing (“peculiar” not “ha-ha” as my mother would have said) about my cane is that it didn’t occur to me until I was at the fitness center working with the trainer, seeing myself in the mirrors that line the walls (are fitness freaks narcissists or masochists that they need to watch themselves?), and realizing that’s what others saw when they looked my way, that I look 70 years old. Not only 70, but not in good shape.

Who ever―except those fitness freaks―thinks realistically about what they look like?

“Realistically,” I said.

The cute guy in the picture at the top of this page is me. I was University Chapel Organist when I was a senior in college. 1966 and 21 years old. I think that’s what I think I look like today. Yes, that’s what I look like.

I can get away with that self-deception because looking out from this body, I don’t feel any difference in the structure or coloring or shape of my face. Or of the color and thickness of my hair. Or. . . . Unless I’m looking in a mirror, I can carry the memory of my 21-year-old face around with me and never notice that I’m fooling myself.

That may be one of the dangers of growing old. A certain ability to ignore reality. Or it may not be a danger. It may be a necessity.

Learning to live in my body as it is at 70 instead of how I imagine it to be is as elusive as it is necessary. Notice, I did not say learning to “accept” my body as it is. Part of living in my body is learning to take care of it. And learning that I need always to be trying to make it stronger, not always giving in to the natural weakening of old age.

My diet has been healthier for the last two years than it was for decades before that. I exercise. The basic is walking 2 miles every day. I have other routines that I do regularly a couple of days a week.

So my body and I are working together to make my image of myself as healthy and strong something of a reality.

But there’s something else going on.

Kay Ryan (she’s also 70, but she’s been Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress, and won the Pulitzer Prize, and has all manner of accomplishments) says that “As some people age they kinden” (they get “kinder” in case you don’t get the wonderful poetic license with the language).

I’m not sure I’ve ever been kind. In fact, I am a bull-headed, blustering, judgmental loud-mouth. I don’t like stupid people (if you are stupider than I am, you are a threat because I’m afraid I might discover that I really am as stupid as you are).

“Something weak strengthens.”

I hope so. And I hope it’s not just my glutes so I don’t fall again.

I hope it’s my kindness. I hope it’s my generosity. I hope it’s my ability to empathize with folks (all folks). I hope it’s my willingness to be vulnerable. I hope it’s all those weak things about me that looking in the mirror doesn’t show. Those things others see and like and might even be helped or inspired by.

I want to kinden.

“AGE,”  BY  KAY  RYAN
As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

――Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Web. 2011.
http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/summer-2011/sixteen-poems/

(I would appreciate your visiting my other blog. Thank you.)

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.

“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.