“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.