“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

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For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

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

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

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848

“. . . why bother to get in a car and pretend you are going a different place . . .” (James Tate)

Concrete surrealism?

Concrete surrealism?

On the floor of the parking garage between the stairway and my car is a penny. The penny has been there for several days. It appeared the day before the city of Mosul in Iraq was taken over by the “militants,” the “terrorists,” the “Sunis,” or “ISIS”—whoever they are. I’m pretty sure most Americans think they know who they are, depending on their political party.

The penny may have fallen from my pocket when I pulled my keys out of my pocket. It may be someone else’s penny. It doesn’t matter. I check the penny when I go to my car to make sure it is still there. Last night it was.

I could describe my thinking about the penny several ways. Serendipity. Absurdity. Chance. Fate. Funny. Weird. Perhaps Surreal.

André Breton (1896-1966), the first proponent—at least the first explicator—of Surrealism in art, described it as “thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” Although he was describing a movement in the arts, I can play with the idea. Make it as concrete as—well—as a penny on concrete.

Surrealism is most likely best known through the paintings of Salvador Dali. “The Persistence of Memory.”

I’ve been thinking about that penny on the parking garage floor. My thoughts have no “control exerted by reason,” and the penny is certainly outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.

What can be moral about a penny on a slab of concrete? I know, I know. It’s not art.

Just now a bird that had been sitting on the sill of the window of my fourth-floor apartment took off flying and hit a wing against the window. My three cats ran to the living room.

The United States should destroy all pennies. No one cares about a penny. A penny saved is apparently not a penny earned. Restaurants have changed their menus these days to read $12 instead of $11.99. The penny is headed toward obsolescence.

When I next go down to my car, if the penny is gone, does that mean someone has finally decided a penny earned is important? Does it mean the ISIS forces have relinquished their hold on Mosul? Does it mean the bird on my window sill has returned and the cats are under the bed?

Imagine a town where, on the 27th of June every year, the citizens gather to draw lots from a black box a hundred years old. The person who draws the slip of paper with a black dot on it is stoned to death without remorse or questioning on the part of the citizenry. It is done every year because it has always been done. No fuss, no guilt, no excitement. Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death before lunch, and all go back to their daily activities without another thought.

I’m working with some young men who are, to an extent, illiterate—“showing lack of culture, especially in language and literature” (dictionary.com). They can read but they have not, through no fault of their own. Never during their education has anyone challenged them to figure out, for example, a short story. And so, they read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and cannot figure out what is happening.

I helped the young men understand the facts of the story—that Mrs. Hutchinson is going to be killed randomly and unapologetically, that everyone will participate in killing her—and the young men understand it completely. What, I hardly need to ask, in their experience is done simply because it has always been done with no thought of the consequences?

The young men I work with are black.

I will ask them—now that they understand the story—what they think of the news this morning about three executions carried out in the United States in two days.

". . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . ."

“. . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . .”

Obviously, I am not writing in the style of Surrealism because—in case you can’t tell—I am not expressing my thoughts “outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” We use “surreal” to refer to actual events as well as a style of art; that is, “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic” (dictionary.com).

The execution of three men in two days is “surreal”—and can be carried out only by ignoring “all moral and aesthetic considerations.” I know exactly what the push-back against my thinking will be. It will be akin to the thinking of the townspeople in “The Lottery.” That is, ultimately, no thought at all.

The three executions will join the penny on the pavement, the bird against the window, Americans’ dangerous lack of comprehension of the situation in Iraq, the illiteracy of five young men who have high school diplomas, and more of the common ordinary unquestioned realities of our day-to-day.

André Breton was doctrinaire and uncompromising. He

aimed for . . . a total transformation of the way people thought. By breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds, and changing the way they perceived reality, he intended to liberate the unconscious . . . and free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason which thus far had led only to war and domination (“Surrealism.” Encyclopedia of Art History. visual-arts-cork.com. Web.).

Perhaps we need to break down the barriers between our inner and outer worlds so we can “find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.” Or at least begin to understand that a penny on pavement, another war in Iraq, a bird flying against the window, and executing black men are not the ultimate, but they may lead us to the ultimate if we can ever get over thinking we are acting reasonably when we are not.

James Tate, an American poet influenced by Surrealism, is the poet “. . . of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous. . .” according to his friend and fellow poet, John Ashbery.

“South End,” by James Tate
The challenge is always to find the ultimate
in the ordinary horseshit why bother

to get in a car and pretend you are going
a different place to live each day as if

in ignorance of each other’s desires
betrayals are not counted Saturday night

when it was real warm read the paper and fell
off early in a hot flea-infested building

one must pass by the simple objects suitcase
coffee cup tennis shoe to take account of

life which passes by I sit here and stare
watch a ball game or tease the crazy kid

sunday afternoons are worse everything is
closed nobody drops in they all have

families and places to go so I walk
a straight line from this chair to

that table so what I paid fifteen dollars
for that table the dues and still

I’m foiled in every dream some folks
sit out on the front stoop all night

slowly they roll through the dead plum
trees and fill the air with a numbing moan.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

“Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. . .” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

For only the few.

For only the few.

Cookies! COOKIES! COOKIES!

I’ll admit it. I’m addicted to cookies. Store-bought, purportedly home-made cookies, preferably from Kroger. Albertson’s will do in a pinch, but Kroger’s are better. I don’t know about fancy cookies. Some um tut sut bakery (how did that phrase pop into my brain?) probably sells fancy cookies I’d like, but I doubt it. Middle-class-not-very-good-for-you cookies are what cookies are all about.

I know what fancy over-the-top cupcakes are all about and where to get them. (Fluellen’s on Elm Street in downtown Dallas, if you must know.) But I don’t want any hoity-toity cookies. I want your basic fattening and addictive cookies.

Every day.

This is quite strange. Except for chocolate (the very best chocolate—Mast Brothers or Harbor Sweets or some such), I have never been much addicted to sweets—my extra 30 pounds are the direct result of too much cheese and too many salty crackers (nuts, chips—well, you know).

So one day awhile back, I was walking through Kroger, and a table of cookies got in my way and I had to take some. “Private Selection,” the nice little brown box said. How could I pass that up? I took one of the boxes (assuming that was all there were in the entire world—“private,” don’t you know?) feeling very smug that I was in on something almost no one else would get to share.

The box had four cookies, four different kinds. The macadamia nut with white chocolate chunks were the best, followed closely by the chewy brownies with chocolate chips.

I know I would never have been tempted if I were not an old retired man living alone and never being invited to parties or movies and feeling sorry for myself. If I could get used to watching Netflix movies alone or binge-watching “Orange Is the New Black,” the time might pass faster in the evening without my having to eat cookies to make bedtime come sooner. Or be afraid.

There are some elegant cookies I’d like to have more of. A friend brought a plate of “sugar cookies” to my retirement party, but they were not Kroger quality. High-brow cookies these were, and he had had them inscribed with my retirement mantra, “Find your bliss.” I do know an elegant cookie when I taste one. (Of all the “pot luck” contributions at the party, only the cookies inspired questions about their source.)

More elegant than my usual fare.

More elegant than my usual fare.

My taste for cookies (and most foods) that are simple and common, not elegant or gourmet, is matched somewhat by my taste in music. But there is an enormous difference. The simple music I love is elegant, not common. For many people (most people?) it is music that exists in an atmosphere so rarefied that it has never caught on as “popular.” I realized many years ago that when I am singing a tune as if on a tape loop in my mind, it is quite often Gregorian Chant.

For about the last week, for example, I have had Victimae paschali laudes, the Roman Rite Sequence hymn for Easter in mind. I’ve sung it probably 1,000 times this week. It should come as no surprise that I know, without looking them up, the hymn’s numbers in the Hymnal 1940, The Hymnal 1982, and the Lutheran Book of Worship are 97, 187, and 137 respectively.

I wrote a few days ago to explain why I have had the incipit of the Gregorian Sequence hymn (Dies irae) for the burial office tattooed on my left arm. “Day of wrath, O day of warning! See fulfilled the prophets’ warning.” Grim. Or not.

Yesterday I had the letter “h” in a sort of Gothic style tattooed on my left shoulder. That will become (when it is healed and more can be added) not only my initial, but the beginning of the Gregorian Gradual hymn for Easter, Haec dies quam fecit Dominus (“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”).

I’ve given in to my new addiction to cookies. I hope I’m not also developing an addiction to tattoos. If I have, I hope I will be as careful in selecting them as I have been so far. Is it not (or am I simply thinking myself too clever) at least interesting to contemplate that, in my 70th year, I have had indelibly inscribed on my body Christian symbols for death and, conversely, for life? I’m somewhat puzzled by it because I cannot (would not) say I any longer believe in that theology.

But a loss of belief does not mean a loss of rooted meaning. Those two Latin phrases incorporating “day”—Dies irae, and Haec dies, wrath and rejoicing—have meaning for me that is so deep it almost feels part of my genetic makeup. Perhaps it is.

My conscious tension between the two gives the rest of my life possibility if not meaning. At least it helps me stay rooted—“always stay rooted to somewhere”—and not fear being a retired old man living alone—or any other possibility.

Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio, TX, embodied the tension between fear and rejoicing in her poem “Gate A-4.” Lucky for me—so I don’t have to try to explain any further—it’s also about cookies.

“Gate A-4,” by Naomi Shihab Nye (b. 1952)

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,”
said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to
her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend
—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Strangely - "staying rooted to somewhere"

Strangely – “staying rooted to somewhere”

 

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

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

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

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

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

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

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

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of wrath!

Day of wrath!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“. . . How to find my soul a home. . .” (Maya Angelou)

Maya AngelouYesterday I was hoping to come across a poem or an essay or a witty saying someone else wrote to quote as my idea for the day, so I could forget this nonsense of trying say what I need to say. (I began this writing yesterday, but I realized only this morning that I already knew the words I was looking for).

I live (we all live) in conundrums. Riddles that cannot be solved. Sometimes the riddle can be solved with a play on words. Sometimes not. Here’s my conundrum for yesterday.

If Ann and I had remained married and she had not died, today would have been our 47th wedding anniversary. We were divorced shortly after our 8th anniversary, and Ann died in 2002. I am grateful we did not divorce from our relationship, only from our marriage. In my bedroom I use the bureau she and I bought together at an antique store 45 years ago. From where I sit at my computer, I can see a box of her family’s photographs on a shelf of my roll-top desk. The desk belonged to my partner Jerry who died a year after Ann, and who had become great friends with Ann—I carried a slight resentment for a long time that in 1997 when she came to visit us in Dallas, they went off to see Titanic together while I was at choir rehearsal.

I am NOT a pack rat or a hoarder. (People with addictive personalities do not know how to sort—a little known secret about us drunks.) Even when I figure out how to sort out all the stuff in my place (I won’t say the stuff I own, simply the stuff that’s here) so that when I die my nieces and nephew won’t have to bring in a backhoe to clean the place out, I will still most likely have my little collections. A rosary Ann gave me when we were Anglo Catholics, four buttons and a broach of her grandmother’s, a pair of rings we bought for each other and a Jerusalem cross all made with jade, a Canadian $5 bill I brought home in my pocket from her funeral, her mother’s watch, a gold chain with a St. Christopher’s medal I gave her, and her wedding ring (I don’t have my own)—a tiny part of my collection. Does anyone want a cloisonné butterfly?

So yesterday we would have been married 47 years.

Apparently one way I try to hold onto the people I love is to hold onto things they owned. This is not so unusual, of course (see Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things they Carried” for a moving expression of the way “things” are important to memory).

Things

Things

As usual, my memory of one part of my life is entrée to writing about another. A couple of days ago a friend took me to dinner to propose an enormous writing project for us to work on. It has to do with memory, with our collective memory with a large community of mutual friends and acquaintances. It will be difficult and lengthy. It will entail a range of feeling and experience I almost certainly cannot express. It will involve thinking and writing about people whose lives we need to hold in the dual reality of the present and of memory. We do not have “the things they owned” to hold onto. We have only our mutual experience, both in the present and in the past.

Yesterday the poet Maya Angelou died.

When I read about her death, I posted my favorite of her poems on Facebook:

“Alone,” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

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.

I am grateful to Maya Angelou for her many expressions of truth over the years, and for broadening my (our) understanding of the beauty of language and the importance of “essaying” what we think and feel.

This morning I realized what I was trying to say yesterday—to say about Ann, about Jerry, about my friends and a possible writing project, to say about my life so far and about the time I have left—Maya Angelou has already said. What I long to know is

How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone.

Maya Angelou uses Biblical imagery. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” And the Gospel of Luke records his saying, “Which of you is a father whose son will ask him for bread and would hand him a stone.”

Bread and water are not “things.”

I don’t know if Maya Angelou thought of herself as a Christian. It doesn’t matter. She understood that finding “water that is not thirsty” and “bread [that] is not a stone” requires understanding

That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Happy Anniversary, Ann. And thank you to Maya Angelou, and Jerry, and YOU— everyone who has helped me to understand I cannot “make it out here alone.”

Even a country can't make it out here alone

Even a country can’t make it out here alone

“. . . if my bubbles be too small for you, Blow bigger then your own. . . “

`bubblesYesterday’s newscasts included notice that the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died. He was 87.

He was but 18 years older than I. That’s on my mind because I’ve been talking to advisers about how to use the pittance I have put away for retirement, and I hope that, if I live to be 87, my money doesn’t end before I do. I’m sure his didn’t.

I distinctly remember Dean Anne Minton of Bunker Hill Community College telling me I MUST read Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried. The closest I ever came to finishing it was meeting Edith Grossman, the translator, at the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas a couple of years later when I was a graduate student there and took a course in translation

The copy I tried to read disappeared from my library at the great book giveaway I had a couple of years ago. As a faculty member at SMU, I can get an online copy. I will see if I can finish reading it.

This has been a week of much contemplation of what my life might have been. So many accomplishments such as reading Love in the Time of Cholera have simply slipped through my fingers that I am grieved by what I have not done. I know, I know, everyone my age experiences that discomfiture. If one does not have regrets, one is probably living in some sort of la-la-land.

I am not a concert organist (although I have given concerts), I have not written the great American novel (although I have two unfinished on 3 ½ inch floppy disks I can’t open), I am not a poet (although there’s plenty of what might be some stretch of imagination be called poetry on this computer), I am retiring not from a full professorship but from a 15-year fulltime lectureship, and in these golden years I am going to have to go looking for the gold to support myself..

There’s a whole lot of coulda shoulda woulda mighta in my life. Of course, if I had the ability to do any of those things, I probably would have, so I have no need to complain. I simply don’t have the brains or talent to have accomplished any more than I have.`love in the time of cholera

That’s not true. I’m pretty sure. Or is it? I’m confused. I’m unsure. I don’t know. My scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the SAT and the GRE all indicated that I would be more than marginally successful. I do have a PhD after all (proof of only one thing—the ability and willingness to jump through more hoops than the average citizen).

It’s no secret—or great discovery on my part—that hardly anyone who is 69 has no regrets. For example, I assume what is intended when PBS announces at the end of programs supported by the Carnegie Foundation, established by Andre Carnegie to do “real and permanent good,” that we’re supposed to think, “Isn’t that wonderful. He used all of his money to do Good and he can’t have any regrets.” It’s easy to give all of your money to do Good. Even you and I can do that with our pittances. His money is doing Good because in life he was a ruthless “robber baron” bastard for whom we should have little respect. Carnegie was able to assuage his conscience from “regrets” by thinking at the time of his death that his “Good” would live after him. I don’t mean that to be harshly judgmental, but a morality tale.

I’ve known a few people who lived to be 69 or 70 who seemed to have no regrets. I’m not going to make a catalog of them here. They were (are) all people for whom I have the highest regard, not for what they have done, but, more often, for what they have not done.

They are people who have managed not “To praise the very thing that [they deplore]” (E.A. Robinson). I could write a sentimental tribute to poverty, obedience, love, kindness, and so on. But I don’t need to. Anyone who reads this can fill in those blanks.

I’m not even going to write a sermonette about humility and graciousness and caring-for-one’s-fellow-man. I don’t need to do that, either. Except for a few people who are so far gone in self-centeredness they hardly seem to live on the same planet as the rest of us, we all give lip service to the sentiment expressed in the Bible, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV). Would anyone who reads anything I write say they are against justice, kindness, and humility? I don’t want to associate with such a person.

Real and Permanent Good?

Real and Permanent Good?

I don’t know what I might have done with my life if I had not been an active alcoholic until I was 46, or if I didn’t have lots of other quirky obsessions that take up my time. Or if I didn’t have two little oddities in the way my brain works (not my mind—it has many more than two). Or if I were not simply lazy at the core. That’s probably why I didn’t read Love in the Time of Cholera when Anne gave it to me. Pure laziness, or obsessing about some other dumb thing.

No one else I know will admit to me that they can simply sit for an hour and do nothing—not watch TV, not play electronic games, not read, not—not anything. I can. Because I’m lazy?

What those people whom I respect can (could) do was to do nothing creatively and with a purpose. Somehow those people have (or had) a quality of simply being.

I’m not even sure what I mean by that.

“Dear Friends,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.  

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.