“. . . the mystery. . . of a demon in my view.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid (Audre Lorde, 1934 – 1992).

A necessary tack

A necessary tack

In teaching writing, i.e. rhetoric, we often resort to poor old Aristotle to try to get students to understand they have to use many different approaches in order to be convincing. One of our favorite tacks (“tack” as a nautical term, “a course run obliquely against the wind”)—yes, “tack” is an appropriate word here because we run obliquely against the wind—is to present the students with Aristotle’s three “appeals” for making an argument. Logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos, we say, is akin to our word “logic,” but not directly. It’s more than logic.
Ethos, we say, is an appeal to the writer’s credibility.
Pathos, we say, is an attempt to involve our audience’s emotions in our argument.

Or something like that.

Of course, any student who has either received such instruction or who has a modicum of inquisitiveness on their own will realize we have many common and useful words that come, if not directly from these Greek words, at least from the same roots.

pathetic (adj.)

           1590s, “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions,” from Middle French pathétique “moving, stirring, affecting” (16c.), from Late Latin patheticus, from Greek pathetikos “subject to feeling, sensitive, capable of emotion,” from pathetos “liable to suffer,” verbal adjective of pathein “to suffer” (see pathos). Meaning “arousing pity, pitiful” is first recorded 1737. Colloquial sense of “so miserable as to be ridiculous” is attested from 1937. Related: Pathetical (1570s); pathetically. Pathetic fallacy (1856, first used by Ruskin) is the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects. (Harper, Douglas. “pathetic.” Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com. 2001-2014. Web.)

Every time I need to write about my depression, I feel pathetic in the colloquial sense from 1937. Like everyone who struggles with depression and writes or paints or sings or dances or just talks with their friends I want to make the definitive statement what it feels like to be depressed so the rest of you will understand and not think we are “so miserable as to be ridiculous.”

If you are still reading, you are obviously not one of my f2f friends or relatives (or one of my “followers” here) who have heard all of this before and are really really really tired of it. Some readers who are frightened by my being so open about depression all the time have stopped reading because they are not brave. I apologize to them that I am so persistent in talking about depression. I am not going to go the next necessary step in apology and tell them how I will modify my behavior in the. I will write about this again.

Two days ago I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience of talking with a student until she discovered the meaning of the word “mystery” in the lexicon of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Bringer of jollity

Bringer of jollity

Yesterday I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience once again of talking with students until they stumbled upon meanings of various concepts about which my classes are writing.

I CANNOT—ever, under any circumstance—TELL YOU THE JOY those experiences bring me. They are the stuff of the reason I live. I thank the gods for those experiences over the past 40 years.

I left my office at 5:15 PM yesterday (having invited students to come to talk between 3 and 4). I sang all the way to my car.

By the time I arrived home (a trip of about 14 minutes, give or take a few seconds), I was in tears.

You can say my tears were understandable in light of my impending (forced) retirement. WTF, I’m 69—it’s time to retire!

But they continued. I was weepy and angry and miserable until I went to a recovery meeting at 7. I was OK for awhile, even long enough to have supper with a friend afterward. By the time I arrived home at 9:30 I was crying again.

I woke up this morning in tears.

That is not the result of my grief at ending my professional life. Otherwise it would have not been a regular experience for the last 60 years, would it?

We all know the medical causes of depression. (A search in the EBSCO data base, Academic Search Complete, through SMU’s library website for “clinical depression” brings up 213,458 articles.)

This is pathetic.

I broke into tears yesterday on my way to my 2 PM class. How cool is that for a professor to be walking across campus crying?

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision. . .

I have cared all my life to use my strength in the service of my vision. I have had two lifetimes of vision—one as a church (and perhaps recital) organist, the other as a writer and teacher of writing. I’ve had two lifetimes separated by several years of falling-down-drunk-driving-the-wrong-way-on-the-freeway alcoholism (sober for 27 years). I have cared to use my strength in the service of my vision.

I’m not going to blame constant clinical depression (I believe it had begun by the time our family doctor prescribed medication for thyroid deficiency when I was in fourth grade because I was so lethargic I had become a chubby little boy) for my failure to record the complete organ works of Frescobaldi or write the Great American Novel or explain the poetry of Maxine Kumin to the world. Or for my being a drunk.

But being in tears for the better part of 18 hours now is not normal. And it’s a damned nuisance when you’re trying to type. I wish I had Edgar Allan Poe’s genius. Then perhaps I could explain this to you, dear, kind, long-suffering reader.

“Alone,”  by Edgar Allan Poe

A demon in his view?

A demon in his view?

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring–
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow–I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone–
And all I lov’d–I lov’d alone–
Then–in my childhood–in the dawn
Of a most stormy life–was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still–
From the torrent, or the fountain–
From the red cliff of the mountain–
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold–
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by–
From the thunder, and the storm–
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view–

“. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Yesterday a student came to my office to talk about her final writing assignment–from last semester! She took an incomplete in December so she could go home to be with her family as they sorted out a trauma that no family should—but very few families don’t—experience. The violence to her family happened the last week of last semester.

I assume all of her professors did what they could to ease the burden that had fallen on her. I knew that giving her time to finish her work was the only legitimate response to her situation. Twenty years ago I would have reacted the same, I am sure.

However, my response was based on a very different premise than it would have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I would have imagined I had the ability (the power?) to help rescue this young woman from the horrible ordeal she and her family were experiencing. However, neither in December nor yesterday did I have any illusion that I could make anything right for her. The only thing in my power to do was to help her understand the writing assignment she needed to finish in order to change her incomplete grade to a letter grade.

And be kind.

And let her know that what she was doing was perfectly acceptable both to the university and to me. And to check once more to be sure that she had followed through with the counseling from the university’s student life center that I had helped her arrange. What we were doing was totally about her and her work. I did not need to tell her anything about my own personal experience of the kind of trauma she had experienced, was still experiencing. I did not need to try to fix anything. All I needed to do was be open and as generous as it is possible for a professor to be.

Her essay is a two-part study of the work of Orlan, the French performance artist. The first part is research—to write a description of Orlan’s work and discuss Orlan’s ultimate “project.”  The second part is to write an argument either pro or con for the proposition that Orlan’s artistic work is “grotesque.” The topic of my seminars in Discovery and Discourse is “writing about the grotesque,” and the students write about short fiction in light of Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” They also write about the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The work on Orlan is the culmination of this thinking about what makes a work of art “grotesque.”

I was prepared to read the last of 60 essays from the semester arguing that “Orlan’s work is/is not grotesque because – – – “ I was dumbfounded to read, “Orlan’s project is to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty – – -“

In nine semesters of using the topic of the “grotesque” for my classes’ writing and researching, I have not read another paper in which the student turned the proposition on its head. The grotesquery has nothing to do with Orlan; rather, society’s almost universal understanding of beauty for women is grotesque.

The student was, in fact, using the academic assignment to work through and talk about the trauma of her family. And doing it brilliantly. Her essay will be one of the two I submit for publication in our department’s annual journal.

. . . the grotesque?

. . . the grotesque?

To have drawn the conclusion I did about my interaction with the student is perhaps self-serving. But my conclusion is this. My willingness to give the student a tiny (one hour!) bit of extra help, simply to be kind, and to help her summon the courage to seek the professional help she needs gave her the freedom to use a purely academic assignment to begin to work through what had happened to her.

I did not talk with her about the importance of what she has written, but I will find a way to discuss it when she comes back for the final review of her essay.

My response as a 69-year-old and what might have been my response as a 49-year-old may not on the surface seem different. But when I was 49, I would have been sure that I was supposed to DO something, that the result was up to me. That, from the goodness of my heart and my concern about the student would come some wonderful result for her.

But today I know that simply being where I am supposed to be, doing what I am trained, paid, and expected to do, and doing that with compassion and concern is enough. Watching the student think through a topic from a new perspective, and knowing she will be OK in spite of her almost impossibly difficult situation is my reward—for doing my job.

Old white male seeks old male (or female)

    A certain inability to sort.A certain inability to sort.

       If I needed to write a personal ad (where? match.com? eharmony? one of those gay hook-up sites?), how would it read?
(Do I need to say I’m having a little fun?)

Old white male in Dallas, TX, seeks old male (or female) for intimate relationship.

in·ti·mate
adjective

1.      associated in close personal relations: an intimate friend.
2.      characterized by or involving warm friendship or a personally close or familiar association or feeling: an intimate greeting. very private;
3.      closely personal: one’s intimate affairs.

(Probably not female although marijuana has been legalized in Colorado, so we know miracles do happen.)

Me:

Old (69) and quite possibly getting older (if genetics have anything to do with it). Living alone and used to say I like it that way, but I’m not so sure any more. Average height, somewhat overweight, mainly gray hair, brown eyes, have had no “work” done and it shows.

Bookish (at least in theory), musician (also in theory—pun intended); about to retire from long but non-illustrious career as college and university professor (music and English); former church musician (50 years); so politically liberal it’ll probably scare you (if communism weren’t in such ill repute—and hadn’t always been instituted by megalomaniacs—I’d probably be a communist except there is no culture outside Scandinavia that is egalitarian enough to make it work, and I hate winter). I don’t hate the super wealthy—I think of them the way the Catholics and Southern Baptists think of faggots, that is, a clever 21st-century judgmental version of the disingenuous “love the sinner but hate the sin”—but in the most general sense of human compassion I love them; however, I don’t like sniveling little self-centered, mean spirited anti-social people who are as poor as I am, so why should I love the super-rich when I loathe—absolutely loathe—their accumulated wealth?

But it’s none of my business that the super-rich have all that money while I wonder if I will end up a ward of the county when I’m 90 (or much sooner—next year?) because I have no money left. They can’t help it that we live in a society that believes with all its deluded little heart that capitalism is a good idea—that Jesus of Nazareth was somehow issuing a command not simply making an observation, when he said, “The poor you shall have always with you,” because even in his day there were a few super-rich and everyone else suffered. In fact, I feel sorrier for the super-rich than for the street people down in the Main Street Garden. At least the street people know what is truly important for a human being—finding the next meal. Alice Walton and Thomas Perkins have never experienced reality. They have no idea what either hunting or gathering is all about. (I lived once “paycheck-to-paycheck” and can tell you it’s no fun.)

Well, I certainly got side-tracked, didn’t I. That’s to be expected because part of being me is also having Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, one symptom of which is an inability to concentrate which looks ever so much like ADHD to the untrained observer. And I also suffer from get a kick out of living with Bipolar II disorder. All of those things together give me a unique inability never to get anything done, to be totally unable to sort and organize, to be over-emotional and live in a world of dissociation. Which is better than being so rich I don’t have to think about anything. I’d rather be depressed and confused than totally out of touch with the realities of the life of Homo sapiens.

You:

A few famous people manage 70-year-old attractiveness

A few famous people manage 70-year-old attractiveness

Physically at least attractive if not a knockout. I know that’s difficult at 69, but I know a couple of people like that. Of course, they’re boring narcissists, so watch out. A few famous people manage 70-year-old attractiveness. Whether or not you are capable of a sexual relationship is entirely a matter of chance. One of those things like having a Fluellen cupcake after dinner: nothing could be better, but it certainly isn’t necessary. Your mind has to be as interesting as your body.

You must be able and willing to talk about your terror of death (even if you believe in heaven and hell—which might be a deal breaker, anyway). You have to be honest. And if I bring up the subject, you have to be willing to talk about it either in the most academic way quoting the Early Church Fathers or Socrates or Frederick Buechner or in the most visceral way quoting Shakespeare or Madonna or someone who knows more about dying than you and I do. On the days I want to tell someone I’m afraid of dying and nearly immobilized by the thought of not “being” (human or otherwise), you must not freak out about it, but be willing for us to comfort and challenge each other.

You have to be willing to experience as many new and different things as I am. I have no idea what ballet is all about, for example. But if you want to go to La Bayadère, I’ll go with you, if you’ll see La Soif et la faim with me.

You must like Harbor Sweets. You must be interested in early twentieth-century gay fiction. You must have a few trips to strange lands and foreign peoples left in you (my choice or yours).

You must be, if not in agreement with or willing to be active in, at least able to hear about and not be upset by some out-of-the-mainstream political ideas (and activities not proscribed by age). You must not be frightened by my membership in some pretty radical organizations.

Even a politician can be a hottie.

Even a politician can be a hottie.

Of course, your main characteristic is that you can read all of this and have fun getting to know me and not think this is TMI or too weird.
A little fun, except for the second paragraph of “You.” That’s dead serious (no pun intended).

sum link for other blog

“. . . 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?

.
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,

“. . . 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.

“. . . and their dim moan is wrought / Into a singing sad and beautiful.”

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

.
On Christmas Day at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, LA, they and my sister and I were together. We were joyful and nostalgic and hopeful and silly and loving and lazy. Our average age was 69 years. We are, as they say, “of a piece,” that is, belonging to the same class or kind. Even with our obvious differences, we are all more alike than not.

My sister lives in California and has children and grandchildren within shouting distance. My brother and his wife have each other and grown children in various places.

I live in Dallas.

Each of us has many friends and acquaintances and activities.

My sister-in-law planned to provide Christmas cheer to a friend who was alone. The day before Christmas she had taken her friend to a doctor’s appointment and knew she was not in good health. On Christmas Day, she went to her friend’s home but could not get her friend to answer her ringing at the door or on the phone. I don’t remember all of the details of the situation for certain. What I do know is that my sister-in-law called 911, and they agreed to check on her friend, saying, of course, that if she was conscious, they could not do anything if she was not willing to be helped.

My sister-in-law had emergency telephone numbers for her friend’s brothers. She contacted them (one in Chicago or some such place, and one in Mississippi). The brother in Mississippi decided to drive over to Baton Rouge to check on his sister. I’m not sure how the situation played out because I came home to my cats in Dallas the next day.

Came home to my cats in Dallas.

Before anyone yawns or reproaches me for feeling sorry for myself, or points out (correctly) that I have many friends (I’ve already invited 45 people to the party I’m throwing for myself when my obligations to SMU are finished in May), I’ll try to state my thesis for this little essay clearly to avoid doomsaying or self-indulgent negativity.

Perhaps since I’m in Texas, I should quote the Bible for my thesis. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV). Even God, to say nothing of every psychologist, psychiatrist, health-care professional, and preacher, knows that it is not good for us to be alone.

Maya Angelou says it as clearly as it can be said.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone
(see below).

Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. I’d guess that means there are millions of Americans—and billions world-wide—who aren’t making it. And I don’t mean not getting enough to eat or enough exercise or good enough hygiene or enough entertainment.

I mean not making it.

I have plenty to eat. I exercise four or five times a week in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. I shower every day, carry my garbage out, eat off of clean dishes, and wipe the counters of my kitchen (laundry is another matter, but was always so). I watch a certain amount of TV (I’m actually keeping up with Downton Abbey this season). For goodness’ sake, I have a pipe organ in my living room if I need entertaining! Most important, I have friends with whom I regularly see movies, attend concerts, and go to museums.

If an organ in the living room is played, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound

If an organ in the living room is played, and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Without those friends, I would be relegated to TV because, for me, movies, concerts, museums, and Christmas parades are social events I cannot—no matter how hard I try—get used to seeing/hearing by myself. But I will still be entertained. Perhaps.

Just before Christmas, I bought myself two bouquets of inexpensive super-market roses to add to the color of my Christmas decorations. Nearly a month later I still have them. I am neither a hoarder, nor too lazy to throw them out, nor torturing myself with dead flowers.

They are some kind of metaphor that I can’t quite develop. I bought them for myself. Nothing wrong with that. I also bought myself new diamond earrings for Christmas. But the diamonds won’t dry out and droop and lose their color. I don’t know why I don’t throw the roses out. They are saying something to me about my situation—something I haven’t quite figured out yet.

I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want a friend to have to call my brother to drive over here to Dallas from Baton Rouge to see what’s wrong that I don’t answer a knock at the door or a ring of my phone. I know I have many friends who would set things in motion to take care of me just as my sister-in-law did for her friend.

The fear that might not happen is only a surface fear.

“It is not good that [one] should be alone.”

Do I need a spouse, a partner? Do I need to move closer to my brother or my sister? Do I need to find a nice retirement community (on my income?)? What do I need?

I’m one of those old gay men. Anyone can fill in the description after that. And anyone (nearly everyone does) can ask, “What’s wrong with being alone?” And I’ll ask you to read the poem below by Robinson Jeffers. Magnificent, strong, and self-sufficient mountain pine trees “In scornful upright loneliness [ ] stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything.” But in relationship with an eagle, the wind, the fog, the moon “They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought into a singing sad and beautiful.”
white-pine-mountain-and-forest
This picture of mountain pines is from the blog by Scott at seekraz.wordpress.com and is copyrighted. I have used it without his permission, but have asked him if it’s OK. I will remove it if he asks me to (Scott has given me permission–see his kind comment), but I absolutely suggest that you click the link and visit his blog. This picture is but a tiny sample of his glorious photography.

Mountain Pines, by Robinson Jeffers

In scornful upright loneliness they stand,
Counting themselves no kin of anything
Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling
Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand
In the grim rock. A silent spectral band
They watch the old sky, but hold no communing
With aught. Only, when some lone eagle’s wing
Flaps past above their grey and desolate land,
Or when the wind pants up a rough-hewn glen,
Bending them down as with an age of thought,
Or when, ‘mid flying clouds that can not dull
Her constant light, the moon shines silver, then
They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought
Into a singing sad and beautiful.

Alone, by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

“. . . The heaven’s weight / Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid . . .”

Stropped-beak fortune?

Stropped-beak fortune?

Poetry. I wish I’d begun to love poetry much earlier than my 60s. Not to love but write the stuff. It takes more practice. One cannot sit down and whip off a poem. I suppose some folks do, but my guess is that every poem worth reading has been perspired over and dreamed about and cursed at before it reaches the shape in which we read it.

I especially love to read poetry containing a phrase or word that sounds so right, so perfectly in place, so congruent with the rest of the work that I don’t question its position—but then I have to admit I have no idea what it “means,” either because I don’t know the words or because I can’t see why they go together logically.

Stropped-beak Fortune / Swoops, making the air gasp. . .

In about 1997 or -98 a friend (she was not “a” friend; she was in some unfulfilled way my best friend, something I’ve been trying to write about for several years to no avail) invited my partner and me to a party to meet her daughter who was stopping by Texas on her way from living in Turkey to going to graduate school in Arizona. Or some such set of facts that I have memoried in the back of my mind.

[NOTE: I realize more completely with the passage of time that what I think are solid, factual memories are impressions—I live in a world illustrated by Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Matisse. Whenever I talk about the past, I have a real memory of an event, but I describe the essence of the event, not its details. My memories and impressions come out side by side with the “truth,” so they don’t mix but sit unblended in what I say. The light of exactitude gets mingled with the color of my feelings. I never set out to tell an untruth, but all I can do is tell my truth, and that may not have been the truth about an event when it happened, much less now that it has circulated in my memory. In literature classes much is made of the “unreliable” narrator. Believe me, when I tell stories from the past, even if I have every factual detail correct, the narrator is unreliable. Or totally reliable. Your choice.]

My friend’s daughter either had recently been married or was about to be. My friend had either been to Turkey to visit her, or she hadn’t. Either I knew most of the people at the party or I didn’t. I know my friend eventually went to Jordan to be with her daughter at the birth of her granddaughter, and that she came home and too soon died of leukemia, her death being an almost impossible reality for me to face—we spent the last Christmas Day before she died together in her room at the Zale Lipshy University Hospital at UTSouthwestern Medical School.

Stropped in the barber shop

Stropped in the barber shop

What the blank is “stropped-beak Fortune,” and how does it “swoop[ ], making the air gasp?” A strop—I remember this from working in a barber shop in the ‘50s where razors were single-bladed and had to be sharpened, stropped, between customers—is a piece of leather on which one sharpens a blade. So “stropped-beak fortune” swooping, “making the air gasp” is fortune so cutting, so dangerous, so ominous—so sharpened—that like a bird of prey it swoops down on its target fast and powerfully enough to terrify the air even before it finds its victim.

When I get my mind out of the impressionistic paint-blotches of both my memory and my view of what’s going on right now (the truth is most likely that my memory is impressionistic because my understanding of what is happening at any given moment is at best the misty outline of reality), I realize that “anything can happen.”

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.  (Seamus Heaney)

On a fall day I was walking across campus back to my office after lunch when a shadow passed over my head and in my peripheral vision I saw a swoop toward a tree, heard a cry, and looked up just in time to see a hawk fly off with a squirrel in its talons—freakish for a university campus in the middle of a city in the middle of the day. I knew squirrels lived on campus, but hawks? I assumed I was hallucinating until someone yelled at me, “Professor, I’m glad you saw that, too, because no one will believe me!” He was a former student and knew how to find me if his story needed corroboration—and I him.

Anything can happen.

“God willing” (a phrase often used by the priest I knew to acknowledge that “anything can happen”) on May 15th this year I will submit the last set of semester grades for which I will be responsible as a professor. I hope on that day to have a clear understanding, not simply an impression, of what’s happening.

I will be 69 years old, living alone (does that necessarily mean feeling lonely?), having to learn to survive on much-reduced income, and required to learn to organize my time completely on my own. A short list of the “anything” that can happen.

Is it possible to change anything on that short list? Can I either by desire or by plan make any of those impressions into a more solid or different reality? Where is Edward Hopper when I need him?

My friend’s daughter lives now in Santiago, Chile. On the way to Easter Island. (See my “bucket list.”)

“Anything Can Happen”

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

          —Heaney, Seamus. From District and Circle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006).

Anything can happen

Anything can happen