“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

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“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

BIRTHDAY MUSINGS with appreciation to May Sarton.

In 1984 May Sarton published her enchanting memoir, At Seventy. I heard her read a bit of it at Salem State College in Massachusetts in about 1986. She was the only openly lesbian writer I knew of at that time, brought to the Salem Campus by a gay member of the English faculty. I remember thinking then how lucky I was to meet this elderly poet and hoping that she would write more poetry before she died.

She did. She published a collection of poetry in 1993, and her even more enchanting memoir, Coming into Eighty, in 1994 shortly before she died.

I finally got around to reading all of At Seventy after I heard Sarton had died. By then I was in Texas studying creative writing and wishing I had paid closer attention to this remarkable woman who was in 1986 the only “real live” (that is, published and famous) poet I had ever met. I didn’t yet know I loved poetry; I was adjunct professor of music at Salem State, the job which enabled me to achieve my appointment as chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The tenured position I gave up (no one does that!) to move to Texas.

May Sarton is in my mind today because I stumbled across a poem of hers from her 1993 collection, and I realized that tomorrow I will turn the age she was when she published At Seventy, that is, 71.

NOW I BECOME MYSELF, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before-‘
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

(“Now I Become Myself,” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.)

Sarton is writing specifically about writing a poem that expresses herself, “As slowly as the ripening fruit . . . Falls but does not exhaust the root, so all the poem is. . . Grows in me.” I’m not sure what it’s like to write a poem―or create anything―that “grows in me.” But becoming myself has “taken Time, many years and places; I have been dissolved and shaken, Worn other people’s faces, Run madly, as if Time were there, terribly old, crying a warning, ‘Hurry, you will be dead before―’”

Before what?

Yesterday in its weekly online newsletter, the AARP published its annual “people we have lost in ___” list. First on the list is Fred Thompson, 73, US Senator. Notice the “73.” The list comprises 31 celebrities; the oldest is Maureen O’Hara, actress, 95, and the youngest is Stuart Scott, sportscaster, 49. The average age is 79.3 years. Minus 71, that’s 8.3.

One of the questions a patient in a mental hospital (whatever gentle description it may have) who is committed because they are actively suicidal is, “Do you often think about death?” It’s surprising how many ways there are to ask that question and how soon the patient realizes it’s the same question over and over in disguise. I, at any rate, figured it out.

(I also figured out what the signs on the locked doors, “Elopement Danger” meant and have written a short story with that title, but that’s not germane to my task at hand―just a little comic relief.)

How many ways are there to ask if one often thinks about death?

Or, the real question should be, “Who doesn’t often think about death?”

I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death shortly after it was published (1973) while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I had thought about death quite a lot before that, but Becker gave me an organized way to approach the contemplation.

The answer to the “who” question is “Anyone younger than 60 years old.” Someone that age might (and probably does) think about death in some abstract way. We all know we’re going to die. It’s the one idea we have that the “lower” animals don’t. But when it’s news that Fred Thompson, 73, dies and you’re about to turn 71, thinking about death takes on a completely different urgency.

I am neither suicidal nor depressed (more than is normal for me). I am not afraid I’m going to die in two years. My father lived to 97. There is some genetic possibility that I will be here quite a while longer. I am, however, taking stock.

What do I want to do, to accomplish, to finish before I die? How do I want to live? Who do I want to be with?

I have to admit that I really don’t have any well-reasoned, definite (or even off-the-top-of-my-head) answers to those questions. The first question I need to ask myself is, “How important is it to have answers to those questions?” I don’t know.

What I know is that I want to be able to say with May Sarton, without doubt or equivocation, “Now I become myself.” I have a sense of urgency that my work-in-progress attitude needs to begin to find some accomplishment, to be able, without sentimentality or braggadocio, to say,

“O, in this single hour I live all of myself and do not move.”

Thank you, May.
_______________
NOTE: another poem I read today (because someone suggested it to me) is “On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963.
One stanza reads:

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

The entire poem is here.

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

jerry tree

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

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

No, really. Pissed off.

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

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

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

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

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

I was 65 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOSSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

“. . . 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.

“. . . When our grand passion had not yet become familial. . .” (Thom Gunn)

Boston, 1991

Boston, 1991

Somewhere in a box or pile or a file or a stack is a musical creation of mine (or not―it most likely met the same fate as most of my compositions), a small song cycle, a setting of three poems by Thom Gunn from his 1966 collection, Positives. I wrote the cycle in about 1970.

I don’t remember the poems or the music. I wrote the music as part of the work for my MA degree in music composition at what was then California State University at Los Angeles. I chose Gunn’s poetry because I found his book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and it was the first collection I owned by a poet I knew was gay.

Yesterday I wore an old lavender T-shirt, shapeless and faded―like me―from the Boston Gay Pride Parade in 1991. My first Gay Pride Parade was the 20th in Boston—1990. For it I had a T-shirt that proclaimed in black letters nearly covering the front, “Nobody knows I’m gay!” In 1992 I had a T-shirt with the logo of the Boston Aids Hospice as I marched with the other volunteers from the Hospice (it closed in 1997, after I had moved to Dallas).

A member of the AA group I most often attended in 1991 had been present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. I used to own a book about the riots which contained a picture of her (yes, women were involved in the riots). She was uncomfortable with what she saw as the flippant use by the gay community of Stonewall as a rallying point. She remembered that night only with horror and fear. She could not bring herself to march in Pride Parades.

I was married at the time of Stonewall, but I remember watching the coverage on the national TV news and thinking I should have been there. My wife knew I was gay. Those were the days when many of us―my wife and I included―thought that getting married would somehow end my being gay. (Or, more likely, I thought it would provide “cover” for being who I knew I was.)

I wore my “Together in Pride, June 8th, 1991, Lesbian and Gay Pride” T-shirt yesterday to attend the celebration at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a selfie wearing it at the event.

Trying to sort out for myself, much less for anyone else, the complexity of my feelings throughout the day yesterday, and especially at the celebration, is seeming to be impossible.

First observation. I was (as I have become accustomed to being) one of the oldest people in the group of 2,000. My guess is there were fewer than 50 of us 70 or older.

Second observation. I was alone.

Third observation. It all seemed too easy.

Fourth observation. My tears over and over again yesterday were of joy, relief, fulfillment, jealousy, longing, and grief simultaneously and progressively, impossible to sort out.

Of course I am elated, overjoyed, and ecstatic at the Supreme Court decision, relieved that that step on the journey to civil rights is taken (I wonder if the LGBTQ community ready now to tackle racism, poverty, and xenophobia in this country).

The only man I have ever wanted to marry died in 2003 after we had been together 12 years. I sometimes long to be with him, and I grieve that we were never able to have a legally recognized relationship.

I grieve—yes, that’s the correct word—for the relationships I have had, beginning with my marriage to Ann. I grieve also that I am alone, that meeting a man I would want to marry, now that I could, seems improbable, if not impossible.

Hugged by the man I would have married

Hugged by the man I would have married (taken 1993)

Most of the crowd of people younger than I that gathered at the Cathedral of Hope yesterday—this is not sour grapes but a statement of fact—cannot know how much I treasure that 24-year-old lavender T-shirt (many of those wonderful folks were not even born in 1991). Or the pictures of my second partner and me taken in about 1985.

Or the memory of my “coming out” in my university newspaper in 1965—4 years before Stonewall.

I have never done anything “important.” Other than be something of a role model for (sometimes frightened and depressed) gay college students for 30 years. And volunteer at the AIDS Hospice. And march in parades. And write some pieces that have been published over the years. And try to be a good partner. And maintain a career viable enough to take care of myself.

One of the men I love and admire most these days was part of the Lambda Legal team that brought Lawrence v. Texas to the Supreme Court. One of my closest friends was a leader in ACT-Up in Boston in the ‘80s. A friend was the founder of the Gay group that still exists in the American Baptist Convention.

I’ve never done anything publicly important for the cause of LGBTQ rights. I’m not one of those the speakers last night acknowledged they were “standing on the shoulders of.”

Except I’ve persevered. I’ve lived a life of quiet (sometimes) desperation, desperation that may or may not have had anything to do with being a gay man (that’s a topic so complicated seven psychiatrists and three neurologists have never been able to untangle).

And now I am alone.

I’m not asking for anyone’s pity. Only some acknowledgement and understanding that my feelings yesterday were justifiably complex and contradictory. Which means they were (are) like my feelings my whole life long. My passions were my passions when they “had not yet become familial.” Could not become familial in the most basic sense.

“THE HUG,” BY THOM GUNN (1929-2004)
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
―(From Selected Poems by Thom Gunn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.)

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

The First Gay Pride Parade in Boston, 1970.

“. . . delete with my own hand what isn’t needed . . .” Péter Kántor

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

Where did you get them, and why do you keep them?

This is not really writing. It’s spewing forth a lot of nonsense that only 70-year-olds can possibly understand. Sometimes I just have to put this kind of stuff down to get it out of my mind.

Yesterday I woke up (as usual) at about 4:30 AM. I wrote. I fiddled around. I read some poetry. I cleaned the cat boxes. I took a shower. I didn’t do the two loads of laundry that were my goal. I didn’t do much of anything worth talking about.

At 10:00 I left home to go to a lecture by Robert Ashmore. I asked my friend if I was going to learn anything or just be angry when I left. Poor deluded old man talks about ethics and morality in relation to Palestine and Israel instead of politics, self-protection, manifest destiny, and the non-Biblical so-called theology espoused by members of at least two of the “Abrahamic” religions.

I didn’t learn much because he was, of course, preaching to the choir.

But I digress.

I got home from the lecture after stopping off at Kroger—where I’m going to stop going because they refuse to deny entrance to anyone carrying a gun—and had a little lunch. Lunch was some almonds, a bit of Greek yogurt, some left over Brussels sprouts, and one square of 90% cocoa chocolate. I sat down about 1:30 to take a little nap and woke up about 3, having missed square dancing.

The rest of the day was a waste. Nothing on TV worth spending a whole hour concentrating on. I did those two loads of laundry. I puttered and sputtered trying to get the day going, and when it didn’t happen, I went to bed at about 11 PM.

The last thing I did before I went to bed was to send the following email to a friend:

It isn’t unwillingness to try to make contacts on “Our time.”
It isn’t not wanting to date.

It is being at a time in life when those things should not be necessary. When I should be settled with someone or a community of someones with whom I am already comfortable, who already know me. When I should not be having to wonder what anyone I am with thinks of me — because the people I am with already know me.

I could say, “It isn’t fair.” But I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It is what it is.
And it’s just being old and alone and lonely, and I don’t think there’s any way to change that.

Looking for a date, or a fuck buddy, or a partner, or a husband, or . . . is not the point. The point is that anyone 70 years old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

This was engendered, of course, by my feeling alone and lonely and depressed. Well, not, depressed. I didn’t land in a good funk. Just the painful truth (once again) that I am, for all practical purposes, alone in this little world I inhabit. Siblings in Baton Rouge and Sacramento. Lots of friends who would probably take turns visiting me in the hospital or the old folks’ home or such a place should I end up there. They’d come every day for three months, then every other day, then once a week, then once a month, then—by then I’d be dead.

My friend answered my email by pointing out all the times I said “should.” I know what he meant, that I shouldn’t beat up on myself by telling myself what I “should” or “should not” do.

Here’s the other exegesis of what I said. It isn’t about what I “should” or “should not” be doing. It’s about what, in a world that made sense, would be true simply because that’s the way things work.

No 70-year-old should feel (or be) alone. We all should not live such mobile (which is a euphemism for “scattered” or “shattered”) lives that we end up so far from our loved ones that we can hardly stay in contact. Texting is a pain in the thumbs.

We should not live such fragmented (which is a euphemism for “busy” and “frantic”) lives that we end up without close friends. I mean the kind who can come to your apartment when you haven’t vacuumed for a week and neither of you be embarrassed. Or bring you chicken soup when you are sick.

Such a huge percentage of the gay men my age should not have died from AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Which is a euphemism for nothing, it just is.

What if I do pay attention to “OurTime.com” and follow up on the flirts and messages and find some guy I really like who is attractive enough to me to want to have sex with him—see, I said at the outset this is not for everyone. If that upsets you, you need to get a life.

So I find Mr. Right. How the hell are we going to have a “relationship” or even a “friendship” long enough to find out where we both were when Neil Armstrong took his famous step or where I got (and why I keep) those funny “women’s circle” dessert and coffee sets. Or anything else that makes people comfortable with each other.

And why would someone I meet tomorrow want to take care of me when I fall again and break my hip instead of damaging it?

Come on. Give me a break (no pun intended). It ain’t going to happen. And no matter how many lovers I have or how many people I find who will go to Easter Island with me, there’s no time left to be husband and husband.

So I’m feeling sorry for myself. So what?

The point is that a 70-year-old should not be alone, but he should be living with and sharing his life with old friends, with family. He should not be looking for someone “new” in his life.

How did we arrange our society so that so many of us (both gay and straight) are in this place?

“Little Night Prayer,” Péter Kántor (b. 1949)
Lord, I’m tired,
the bunion on my right foot is throbbing,
I worry about myself.

Who is this anguished man, Lord?
it can’t be me,
so woeful and sluggish.

I would like to trust quietly,
but like waves in the ocean,
tempers bubble up in me.

I try a smile,
but some hairdespair
impedes me.

This isn’t all right, Lord,
feel pity for me, be scared,
reward my endeavors.

Evaluate things with me,
delete with my own hand
what isn’t needed.

Taste with me what needs to be tasted,
and say to me:
this is sweet! this is sour!

Remind me
of the small red car,
of something that was good.

There was a lot that was good, wasn’t there?
a lot of sunken islands,
crumbled glamour.
Place a net into my hands
to fish with, in the past
and in the present.

I’m a fish too, in the night,
puckering silver,
bubble-lifed.

Turn me inside out, freshen me up,
throw me up high and catch me!
What’s it to you, Lord?

If you must,
lay down your cards,
show me something new.

How your leaves fall!
your sun scorches
your wind whistles.

Speak to me!
Talk with me through the night,
it’s nothing to you, Lord!

From Unknown Places: Selected Poems of Péter Kántor. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Blumenthal and Pleasure Boat Studio. Péter Kántor (born 1949) is one of Hungary’s foremost poets of the day.

“. . . Till Truth obeyed his call. . .” (W.B. Yeats)

andrea
In his poem “An acre of green grass,” William Butler Yeats wrote,

. . . Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call. . .

Why?

I’ve asked a question I cannot answer. It’s not—by the way—a “rhetorical question.” No such thing exists. In a formal argument, asking a question one can’t answer is simply disingenuous—or, perhaps, an unintentional display of one’s ignorance.

I learned about Blake’s poetry in high school English class—“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” “Little Lamb who made thee,” “And did those feet in ancient time,” and so on. I’ve read his work since then. I have a Dover reprint edition of Songs of Innocence. I’d say I know something of Blake. But neither a Google nor an EBSCO search has turned up a poem with anything about “beat[ing] upon the wall.”

While I have found several scholarly articles that treat Yeats’ poem, “An acre of green grass,” I have found none so far that explains the reference. I know the story of Timon of Athens, perhaps the strangest of Shakespeare’s plays, in which Timon curses the walls of Athens and eventually tries to arrange for them to be destroyed.

We all know King Lear’s wild old-man ravings out in the countryside in the rain. Michelangelo lived to be 89 (1475-1654), but I don’t understand Yeats’ reference to him.

Perhaps Yeats (1865-1939) was confused in his old age. He wrote the poem at 73, a year before he died, so he can be forgiven for confusing the plot of Timon with some poem of Blake’s, and not remembering Michelangelo quite correctly.

"Ancient of Days," by William Blake

“Ancient of Days,” by William Blake

Perhaps someone who is more scholarly than I, or at the very least has a better memory than I, can answer my non-rhetorical question, “Why?”

Last night a friend invited me to go with him to a show at the Eisman Center in Richardson, TX, titled “4 Girls 4.” The four “girls” were Andrea McArdle (51), Christine Andreas (63), Donna McKechnie (72), and Maureen McGovern (65)—Broadway singers all, and—I think most people would assume—past their prime all. Perhaps!

Andrea McArdle is no longer the little girl who sang “Tomorrow,” but her voice is rich and enchanting (she doesn’t have to belt it out any more). Christine Andreas belted out “I love Paris” in as fine a fashion as Edith Piaf or any other cabaret singer ever did. Stunning voice control even on high notes no one her age ought to be able to sing. Donna McKechnie re-auditioned for Chorus Line with a richness and style she could only hope for in 1975—she didn’t exactly “dance,” but she moved with grace and elegance. Maureen McGovern sang “Morning After,” and then she caught the audience off guard and astonished us with her unaccompanied, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” poignant and affecting.

I have to make that list to help myself remember the show (I’ve forgotten more than I know by a factor of at least 10), but also as a companion piece to the Yeats poem.

. . . myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

“I must myself remake . . . forgotten, else by mankind, an old man’s eagle mind.” I—me, as differentiated from and not comparing myself with Yeats—have never had an eagle mind. Nor have I ever done anything approaching the art and entertainment of Donna McKechnie’s dancing. If I stood on the edge of the stage in a hushed auditorium with light only on me and sang “Somewhere over the rainbow” (or anything else), the audience would be embarrassed at my lack of ability and disbelieving at my temerity.

But I am learning to remake myself, an old man’s mind—probably not as sharp as an eagle’s.

This week I recounted in more detail than I ever have in one sitting the five most painful moments of my life. That I can name specifically the most painful moments of my life indicates I’ve never freed myself of them—forgiven myself for them.

I’ve begun working with a gerontological psychologist. (How’s that for special?)

I’m having—as I should think anyone who has any self-awareness does—some trouble thinking of and accepting myself as being 70 years old. This is one the most difficult realities we have to face. Even at 60 it is impossible to imagine how it feels to be 70.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, average life expectancy in the US is now 78.8 years. I have 8.4 or so years left.

Here’s the deal. I have 8.4 years left to do all of those things I’ve been planning to do all my life—write the Great American Novel, see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, learn to make my bed every morning, lose 20 pounds. All of those things. “Grant me,” Yeats says, “an old man’s frenzy, Myself must I remake.”

Not possible. I am what I am. I’m not going to remake myself (perhaps get another tattoo).

It’s OK. It’s enough. I can tutor college football players. I can devote more time to explaining what I know about Palestinian poetry. I can play the organ. The stuff I’ve been doing that has satisfied me all along.

I don’t have to know “why” Yeats said Blake beat upon the wall. I didn’t know two weeks ago, and I don’t know today. I do, however, know the notes for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G Major, and who the poet Sami Muhanna is. That’s enough.

And I can come to peace with those five distressing moments and disallow their power over me for the next 8.4 years.

“An Acre of Green Grass,” by William Butler Yeats

PICTURE and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

Time to see them yet.

Time to see them yet.