“Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. . .” (Mark Strand)

Never. That’s when I was in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.

Yep. Never.

And for a gay man, that’s a somewhat sad statement. We’re supposed to ooze sex and health and attractiveness. I guess so other gay men don’t have to think twice about hooking up with us. And life is fun and frolicsome.

I think I’m basically a poet who does not know how to write poetry, so my poems come out in these somewhat (absolutely?) disjointed 1000-word “essays” full of bizarre connections and metaphors and similes and other poetic devices, the names of which I don’t know.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a gray dawn.

If I can’t write poetry, perhaps I can write about poetry. I want to write a little piece about “Monocle de Mon Oncle” by Wallace Stevens, but it’s long (longer than my attention span can follow), and I don’t have any idea what it “means.”
Here’s the second stanza. I dare anyone to read it and not be simply transfixed by the words, whatever they mean.

A red bird flies across the golden floor.
It is a red bird that seeks out his choir
Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing.
A torrent will fall from him when he finds.
Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?
I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;
For it has come that thus I greet the spring.
These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell.
No spring can follow past meridian.
Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss
To make believe a starry connaissance.

I’d love to be able to put some words together as mysteriously and exquisitely (I think I have never typed “exquisitely” before) as Stevens did. Even if neither I nor anyone else knew what they meant.

The “About” page in the masthead on this blog says,

This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old (I’m 69). I’m a (soon-to-be-retired) college professor. You can read more about me at my very serious blog, http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/
I will post silly stuff I find elsewhere, and I will write original stuff. I will tell stories and expound my opinions. So, welcome aboard.

It’s a lie in at least two ways. I’m not a “soon-to-be-retired” college professor. I am officially retired (ask Medicare). And I very seldom post silly stuff, either my stuff or stuff I’ve ripped-off from someone with a more obvious sense of humor than I have. (Unless, of course, all of my stuff is silly.)

I do tell stories and expound my own opinions. Seldom do either seem to be light-hearted. As it happens, when my thoughts about getting older materialize, they are seldom “light-hearted.” Here’s where I’d like to be a poet. I’d like to be able to express my not-light-hearted thoughts about aging without sounding as if my thoughts are depressed or dark. I’d say they’re pensive or earnest or sober—like my general personality. That’s not exactly what I mean, either. Anyone who knows me well would say that, if my ideas are like my general personality, they will at least lean toward the depressive. However, it is possible to be depressed and think in a way that is not depressed. I suppose that seems like a logical impossibility, but it’s not.

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I know what Mark Strand’s poem “means.” Mark Strand is a Canadian-born American poet, born 1934. He has received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was appointed Poet Laureate 1990. He is, by the way, 80 years old and still teaching at Columbia University.

I empty my pockets, too. I’m trying to divest myself of the stuff of my life that is no longer meaningful—all that stuff in my pockets that I might as well pitch. And that includes even some people who are not good for me. I don’t know about turning back the clocks. I have little desire to be young again—but I do open the family albums and look at myself as a boy. Trying to put my mind at ease about how I came to be the man I am.

A blog I found looking for information on him says Mark Strand is one of the 10 manliest poets. Wallace Stevens is on that list, too. I think the blogger guy has a problem with his own manliness. I don’t have such a problem. Because I don’t know what “manliness” is. If I don’t know what the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics is, how can I have a problem with it?

I don’t suppose “manliness” has much to do with the physical. I don’t have to worry about never having been “in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.” Even in order to be attractive to other gay men.

And I don’t need to worry about being “manly” (or write a blog in which I list my ten nominees for manliest poet—does that strike anyone else as a sad enterprise?).

I would indeed find it strange—ironic? (probably not in the actual literary sense of the word), lightening of heart—to discover here in my incipient old age that I’ve known myself, my “manliness,” my (in)ability to write poetry, all of those things that used to perplex me.

Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

“The Remains,” by Mark Strand
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

Mark Strand was born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island on April 11, 1934. He received a BA degree from Antioch College in Ohio in 1957 and attended Yale University. In 1962 he received his MA degree from the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991. He is 80 years old and teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

 

“It is at the edges that time thins.” (Kay Ryan)

". . . amber suspending attention . . ."

“. . . amber suspending attention . . .”

On January 9, 2014, I wrote a bit about a poem by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress 2008-2010. She’s also a lesbian, not that that makes any difference one way or the other. It just obviously makes me feel a special kinship with her. No, we’re not elitists or exclusivists or anything like that. And we’re not in a conspiracy to take over the world. Don’t be ridiculous. Just because you and Neil deGrasse Tyson can wink at each other knowingly when someone says, “It’s not rocket science,” the rest of us can’t assume you’re in some sort of conspiracy to take over the world.

Of course, I wish he were—and you would help him—to end the hoodwinking of so many fundamentalist christians and poor republicans by powerful financial and oil interests to make them believe both evolution and climate change are conspiracies of evil liberals just so the oligarchs can tighten their stranglehold on politics and the economy.

Just see how far off course I can get in the first 144 words of writing.

This started out to be a silly little piece on one of the items on my list of accomplishments before I kick the bucket—I won’t say my “bucket list” because my old buddy Kay might read this and be offended.

One of my first goals in retirement is to jettison the word “just” from my vocabulary—both written and spoken.

“Just” is a harmless little word unless you are using it in Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) sense of Just Gaming, his 1979 book about the language games we play. (Two observations: Lyotard lived to be only five years older than I am now, the sort of thing I notice with greater regularity every day; and his “language gaming” theory is one of those seminal 20th-century French ideas I somewhat understand, all about how the language we use is much of the time intended to wield whatever power we are personally able to muster over everyone around us.)

I need to ask Grant and Martha if “just” has some regional history or if it’s just one of those (almost) meaningless words that all English-speakers use.

You don’t know Grant and Martha? You’re admitting you don’t know the only really literate social/mass media left in the United States? Well, almost literate. NPR, of course, and specifically Grant and Martha’s show “A Way with Words.” They actually, believe it or not, answer listeners’ questions about etymologies of words. There. How’s that for my being snooty and elitist?

Off on another tangent, I see.

So I was in a very serious mood a couple of days ago (as I seem to have been most of the time here at the experience of letting go of my teaching career) and remembered Kay Ryan’s little poem (she says it’s pretty long for her, which it is).

“The Edges of Time,” by Kay Ryan

I claim a special kinship

I claim a special kinship

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas
retreat.

(Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. )

I’m astounded when a great poet makes a simple but magical and powerful image like insects trapped in amber—frozen in time—and then the insects “unseized” when the amber melts. My God, it’s the sort of image you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because it’s so obvious only a poet, only Kay Ryan would think of it.

She says, “Time which had been dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees unseizes them.” Time solidified in place like amber, freezing all of my intentions, my desires, my hopes in to be dealt with or realized another day, has suddenly liquefied (as in amber’s original liquid form—tree resin). All of those intentions, desires, hopes are released to be finished now! There, how’s that for a wordy flat-footed explanation of a poetic image? Sorry.

That’s what I was thinking about a couple of days ago sitting at my desk at the university waiting for students to appear for conferences over their last work.

And the whole experience of contemplation was nearly destroyed by my discovery of Ryan’s use of one word. A humming begins, apparently coming from stacks of put-off things or just in back.

Just a few days before I had told my students they need to expunge words such as “biggest,” “best” and (most of all) “very” from their writing. I told them I’ve been in a years-long battle to expunge “just” from my writing. I’ve nearly succeeded in my writing, but in my speech, it just won’t go away.

And then Kay Ryan canonizes it. Just in back of the stacks of things I’ve put off there is a buzzing, beginning to be a hubbub of those bees let loose from the sticky amber. There is a racket of stuff still waiting to be done. That trip to Easter Island. That unwritten book. That last will and testament. That pile of stuff I don’t want anyone to go through when I’m dead (they will be shocked).

claims“A racket of claims now, as time flattens.”

“. . . it is the movement that creates the form. “

A reference librarian at Fondren Library at SMU and I have been known to argue about my contention that, in doing research, students need to learn to be lazy. She says students must learn to be efficient. We both mean that students should keep track of their findings in research so they never have to retrace their steps—never have to look anything up more than once.

it is the movement that delays the form while darkness slows and encumbers

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers

Recently I discovered the poetry of Richard Howard (born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929; professor of Writing at Columbia University in New York). His poem “Like Most Revelations (after Morris Louis)” is copied below.

I am going to drive to Houston this afternoon for an overnight stay to go to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts tomorrow for the exhibition of the paintings of Georges Braque (1881-1963). Braque was a close friend and associate of Picasso. His work was somewhat forgotten in the shadow of his preeminent friend. I learned about him at some time I’ve forgotten, and I’ve seen a couple of his paintings (perhaps the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Or I’ve seen reprints in books. At any rate, I have visual memories of several of his paintings, and I want to see his work. Houston is the only American venue for this exhibition.

Looking online for information about the exhibition, I came across a bunch of stuff about previous exhibitions at the Houston MFA, and from there went looking online for paintings by Louis Morris (American, 1912-1962). I’m not sure why.

It may be that I remembered the poem by Richard Howard. I doubt it although I’ve read the poem several times trying to figure out what it is “about.” At any rate, I located pictures of some of Morris’s work online, and suddenly Howard’s poetry made perfect sense. Ah! Research.

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture—yes
. . .

The poem is hardly mysterious at all—the subject matter, at any rate.

Yesterday I went to Target for a bit of shopping. Don’t get squirrelly on me about shopping there. At least I didn’t give Alice Walton any of my money. Target is on my way home from the Landry Fitness Center. I needed cat food, and it’s the only place I can get the medium sized bag I like. I picked up a few “non-perishable” groceries I needed so I wouldn’t have to go to Kroger after I got home.

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

I was at the register, and the clerk and I chatted. The bill came to $70 and change. I slid my card “quickly” in the reader and entered my PIN. The little screen announced I’d entered the wrong PIN. I tried again, and the register told the clerk it could not complete my transaction. I tried again. Not. So we went to the next register with the same result. I was baffled (and getting more than a little annoyed) because I (for once in my life) had checked my balance online, and I knew my account had plenty of money.

I was thinking out loud what to do. Go home, check the balance, come back? go to the bank, get the cash, and come back? leave and go to Kroger to get cat food and not come back? I was, I suppose, obviously upset—but trying my level best to take the situation in stride. Anyone who knows me knows this is the sort of situation that simply baffles me, and I don’t take with aplomb.

The young woman behind me had her credit card in her hand, and said, “Here, let me do it.” No. I know there’s plenty of money on this card. “But it will be a hassle for you. Let me do it.” She handed her card to the clerk, and the transaction was done before I could protest again. I began crying and saying thank you, and she took my hand and said, “I’m happy to do it. Just pay it forward when you can.”

I’m sure the young woman thought I was a poor old man who suddenly didn’t have money to buy his groceries and was too proud to admit it. I’m sure she would have done the same thing for anyone in my situation.

(I drove straight to the bank and found out my account had plenty of money, but after the second ineffective attempt to enter my PIN, my account was automatically frozen. I am obviously an old(er) man, but I did—and do—have enough money to buy cat food and Grapenuts—by the way, did you know you can buy Peets coffee at Target?)

It is the movement of our lives that creates the form.

The movement of my life is altogether too often upset, and I’m seldom grateful.

The movement of that young woman’s life is to be generous—at least at times. My guess is she has done what she did before and will do it again.

I know I will—again and often—be inefficient or lazy about taking care of myself (I don’t know if I entered the PIN correctly or not, but I know I will be upset over nothing again).

. . . in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until
it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention
. . .

Baffled in such toils of ease I am apt—no, guaranteed—to deceive the form I want for my life, calm, kind undeceived. I am vexed that I will, even as a old man—never learn to give (give up) [myself] to this mortal process of continuing.

The young woman, whose name I will never know, has already learned. Her graciousness, I am sure, touches the lives of many people—even those who don’t need or deserve, it . . . –yes, it is the movement that delights the form, sustained by its own velocity. 

“Like Most Revelations,” by Richard Howard      

(after Morris Louis)

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture–yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity.  And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken?  What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

. . . beguiling our attention--we supposed it is the movement that achieves the form.

. . . beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.

 

Nietzsche, the Fantasticks, and all that jazz. . .

Permission granted

Permission granted

The drama group at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, presented The Fantasticks about 1970. I was rehearsal pianist, played just enough of the accompaniment for the singers to learrn their songs. I could not play that kind of music although I wanted to so intensely that I was heartbroken when a real pianist came in for the performances. (I could do it now, by the way.) But the producer/director (a close friend) didn’t want a production that sounded like a cross between bad Bach and bad jazz.

Last night, for reasons too complex to try to explain here, I sang in my car all the way home after dinner, “I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream where the water is icy cold . . . just once, just once before the chance is gone. . .” I couldn’t play the piano in the style of the show in 1970, but I did learn all of the songs, for which I am grateful (why do the kids put beans in their ears, anyway?).

Like every gay boy in America, I knew “Much more” before I played it. Barbra Streisand recorded it in 1963. One of my university voice-major friends sang “My Name Is Barbra,” by Leonard Bernstein in a student recital, and that gave us (the “serious” music students) permission to listen to Streisand’s albums. After all, if she sang music by Bernstein. . .

So last night I was singing “Just once, just once”—because I had been talking about what I’m going to do for the rest of my life as a lonely old man.

When I talk about these things, my friends (none of whom are yet 69) think I’m complaining or being depressed, which I am—wait until you’re 69 and see how you talk. Or, perhaps I’m not. Perhaps it’s all a put-on. I love being old. Well, no, I don’t love it. I am surprised by it and intrigued about how one is “supposed” to act and feel. I don’t feel 69, so it’s hard to believe I am. If I’m going to act my age, I’ll have to join the Prime Timers, and I don’t want to run around with those old guys (unless one of them is single and looking).

“Just once, before the chance is gone. . . “

Can you play me now?

Can you play me now?

I published my “bucket list” (sorry, Kay, that seems from this vantage to be a good name for it) here a couple of weeks ago. One of my favorite daydreams is not on the list. I’d like to put into words—just once!—my perception of my life, and, by extension, your life, too. “I’d like to be not evil but a little worldly wise.”

The preceding sentence is so sophomoric—no, teen-agerish—I wish I hadn’t written it.  I should delete it and recast my thinking. But I am sophomoric (always have been), and I’m afraid my thinking is more and more teen-agerish all the time.

About 20 years ago when I was taking courses for my second PhD (none of my friends, I remind you, is old enough to talk about starting their life [1] over twenty years ago), I was bewildered and befuddled by such important philosophers as Nietzsche and Heidegger and Lyotard.

So the other day I decided to try again to read some of that stuff. I found Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in the Gutenberg Project, and I began to read. I sailed through the first three paragraphs thinking I understood them, and came to the sentence in the fourth paragraph,

. . . we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE. . . [2]

Whoa! Perhaps I get it. “Without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live.” That’s exactly what capitalism, for example, is. A counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers. We make this stuff up. Here, trickle down some numbers so a few people are counterfeited to be better or more deserving or—something! Who knows what?—and we’ll make up a society based on those numbers. And everyone else will internalize those numbers and try to figure out a way to get in on the equation.

Or throw some numbers around about, say, the national debt. All that means is we’ve figured out how to numericalize the way we do business so that we always keep (what? 40% of?) our friends poor so we can keep a few rich, and we structure our “national” (another counterfeit number) life around not taking care of that certain number. Or global warming. Or war in Afghanistan. Or the latest iPhone apps. Or—whatever it is you think is real today.

Dementia? Brilliance?

Dementia? Brilliance?

We have a set of ideas about “the absolute and immutable” that we know in our heart of hearts is “purely imagined,” but admitting that would be “a negation of life” as we know it.

Nietzsche was crazy—went crazy. Mad. Insane. Did he think this stuff up because he was insane, or did his thinking this stuff drive him crazy?

And if I keep trying to sort out the real from the counterfeit in the way I live for the two or twenty years I have left, will I be (or am I already) crazy, too? Before the chance is gone.
__________________
[1] Apropos of nothing, I’ve been meaning to comment on the epicene “they.” It is perfectly acceptable in English. Only the most traditionalist academics will refuse its use. “Epicene” comes from the Greek epíkoinos, meaning “of both sexes.” My saying, “None [singular] of my friends . . . their life [plural]. . .” has roots as elevated as saying “his life” would be here. “’Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act III, Scene 3, line 2311). That’s the example from Shakespeare I know best because I played Polonius once.
[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1909-1913). Project Gutenberg. February 4, 2013. Web.

“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. . . “ (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Follow the Mariachis

Follow the Mariachis

.
In about 1970 a group of us from Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, trekked to the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas).  The church’s name for decades has been Iglesia de la Epifania. The congregation is predominantly Hispanic.

We wanted to participate in (or rubberneck at is probably more accurate) the colorful pageantry of their celebration of El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day). A noisy and joyful procession around several city blocks accompanied by mariachis. Then our first celebration of the Episcopal liturgy in Spanish (again with mariachis). And finally a huge party with all of the Mexican goodies you can imagine to eat.

On the church’s Ordo Kalendar (which you can purchase in the exactly same format and colors I used to buy 20 years ago) today is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Feast of the Epiphany is my favorite day in the church’s year of commemorations and celebrations. It’s the day of the ἐπιφάνεια (“showing”) to the Wise Persons from the East of the Divine nature of the Baby Jesus. Or is it the human nature of God? I forget.

At any rate, it’s the day the church says to the world, “Even you, heathens, agnostics, apostates, followers of other religions, even you can understand the presence of God in human life.” Those Wise Persons from the East didn’t know anything about Hebrew scripture and prophecies and stuff like that. They knew some kid who was a Capricorn was born, and he had to be special because a new star appeared. Of course, they also knew Capricorns were intended to rule the world (ask Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong), so they ought to go and see this kid over in that insignificant little kingdom, that “protectorate” of the Romans in Palestine.

Follow the Capricorns?

Follow the Capricorns?


[Interlinear note: It was hardly remarkable when President Nixon visited China and met Chairman Mao. Capricorns are meant to rule the world. Ask any of us. The most interesting description of their meeting is written by the wacko blogger, The Last Columnist, with the most interesting out-of-step-with-official-explanations discussion of
the US “debt crisis” on the Internet.]

I take great comfort in the fact the Church Universal says to all of us who never did or no longer do believe all of the theology and rationalizations about the creation and salvation of mankind, “You’re part of this, too.” I’m not even cynical enough to think the church universal is saying, “Give us your gold, frankincense, and myrrh (whatever that is), and you can be saved.”

No, I think Epiphany and the story of the Wise Persons from the East are simply the church’s shorthand for, “Here, you guys—whoever you are—this is for you, too, if you want it and are willing to make a little effort to find it.”

If I really want to struggle with words and try to figure out what a writer means by ideas complex enough to leave me scratching my head (and admitting the limitations of both my conscious and unconscious mind), I sometimes look for a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Like this one.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

With the help of Spencer Reese, I could give you the English professor’s analysis of this dark and complex poem (Reece, Spencer.

Follow the poet-priest

Follow the poet-priest

“Countless Cries: Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.” American Poetry Review 38.5 (2009). But I won’t—partly because it would be boring, and partly because it would be more a report on what Reece says than thoughts of my own.

Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest. Depending on what critic or academic you read, he either was or was not a homosexual (and either did or did not ever have a sexual relationship with a man, especially Dugby Mackworth Dolben, a handsome classmate of his at Oxford). Never mind. That’s “argumentation by distraction,” as our favorite waitress at O’Reilly’s Irish Delicatessen in Ontario, CA, said one Sunday also about 1970 when a group of us from Christ Church were having lunch after services (see “comments”).

The point is that Hopkins sees himself waking in the night (during a time when he was physically, mentally, and spiritually drained and defeated—we know what was going on in his life at the time) having dreamed of his wasted life, his (perhaps unfulfilled sexual) desires and other sins—the first two stanzas—and his “terrible” conclusion. This is one of the six “terrible” sonnets—so-called by academics who have nothing better to do than categorize things.

The conclusion is that he is—like the rest of us heathen—“lost” because we expect ourselves to be the “yeast” that leavens our own lives. We make the dough sour (as opposed to sourdough bread). Our scourge is the same as his. He, like us, he says is “. . . gall, I am heartburn. . . my taste was me; / Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.” Our blood is brimmed with the curse.

And that’s what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same. Even being a Capricorn won’t help. Even President or Chairman. Or a rubbernecking Anglo. Or a Christian.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.Born a king on Bethlehem’s plainGold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Refrain
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
Refrain

“. . . we will remember every single thing, recall every word, love every loss . . .”

Today is the day. My 69th birthday. I’m voraciously accepting best wishes from anyone and everyone. So don’t be shy.

The boy she married

The boy she married

I guess it’s time for Lumosity and my trainer. Get mind and body working out and staying (getting) healthy.

The brain exercise rip-offs I can do without. And working with my trainer is on hold until my surgeries are healed (especially the three-inch gash in my tummy). But I will be back to training very soon—if only because it’s so much fun to spend an hour with a cute young thing like Mason.

I have the remaining six weeks of physical therapy for my shoulder. Dr. Miracle Worker is pleased with my progress and says we’ll wait six months before we decide whether or not to fix my right shoulder.

The best thing I can do for my brain is to begin again to read voraciously. I haven’t been reading for about fifteen years. Oh, I read a lot, but mostly academic articles about arcane subjects that serve little useful purpose. I was looking around my “office” (or whatever this disheveled part of my apartment might be called) the other day and realized I have enough unread books here to last me the rest of my life. I don’t need to buy any books.

Or, perhaps, the best thing I can do is learn new music. I started learning a little piece every day a while back, and then I had all of this surgery, and that ended that. I should get back to it. Or simply play a little work by Brahms that I first learned when I was in high school. I’d like to play a recital at, perhaps, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, where I’ve done so before. But I’m not sure I can manage myself well enough to get it ready. I could do a program of my own old favorites. That would require less self-management than self-indulgence.

Growing old(er) is a curious affair. There’s no preparation for it. No one can tell you what it’s like. Suddenly you’ve been around for as long as those old people you thought were so venerable (or mysterious) when you were a kid. I remember when my dad’s dad turned 70. It was 1955. My dad was 40, I was 10. I thought Granddad was about as old as a person could be. Eight years later (1963), he and Grandmother celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and I was sure no one had ever been married that long. He was, of course only 78. And then in 1987, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary.

And now many of my married friends (at least the ones who’ve had only one spouse) have been married 50 years or close to it. And I am one year away from that mysterious 70th birthday of my grandfather.

Yesterday I was in the bank to deposit a check. I had to show the teller my ID, and she said with great excitement, “We have the same birthday!” I replied that she had a long way to go to be as old as I am. Neither she nor the other teller not the branch manager (with whom I have worked a great deal over the past ten years) believed I’d be 69 today. “You can’t be that old!” But she was glad to find another Capricorn (we always are—together we could rule the world such as, for instance two who tried it, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedung).

That old.

Let me tell you about the disconnect between mind and brain when you are “that old.” My brain is that old. It’s slowing down.

I have all of those problems of memory in the Billy Collins poem I included in my blog yesterday. And more.

Will I ever look like my trainer again?

If I keep training, will I look like Mason some day?”

The disconnect is that my mind doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening to my brain. I am exactly the same person I was thirty, forty, fifty (perhaps not fifty) years ago. I am I. This is he. I think everyone who gets to 69 or older must have this strange experience of wondering who they’re talking about. Old? Me? I look in the mirror, and I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing. Just me. And it’s obviously physically a different me than I saw thirty years ago (or, perhaps, even last year).  But I am who I am.

I doubt that ever changes.

When my father was 97 years old, if I arrived soon after breakfast time at the medical facility of the retirement community where

he lived, I would find him sitting in the hallway shaving with his electric razor. He had found the only electric outlet he could use to do what he, Glenn Knight, always did, that is, keep himself groomed. Daily. Habit? Perhaps, or simply his understanding that, with all the change in his life, he was still Glenn Knight, and that’s what he did every morning. Looking sharp was part of who he was.

I’m beginning to understand the disconnect between what my brain thinks of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I know and feel, and what my mind thinks is going on. My mind thinks “The Boy She Married,” as my late ex-wife was fond of saying, is still bebopping around here planning weird stuff to do and trying, at the same time, to appear to be intelligent and scholarly.

So I want to debunk a myth. Sixty is NOT the new forty, and forty is NOT the new twenty or any of that nonsense. If you are determined to think and act as if that were true, you are determined to deprive yourself of the most mysterious experience of being Homo sapiens.

A favorite growing older poem (written when Ammons was 71)

“In View of the Fact,”by A. R. Ammons

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .

“. . . it is not poised on the tip of your tongue . . . “

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

These days I have some informal rules for reading poetry. The second is, if a poem is more than 30 lines long, I don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. The third is, if it’s about war or poverty any other political/social issue, I’m not interested.

The first is most important. If the poem is about being old or getting old, and the poet wasn’t at least 60 when she wrote it, I’m not only not interested, I am actively disdainful.

What does anyone in her 30s, or even her 50s, know about getting or being old?

Today is the Ninth Day of Christmas. If all things work out as usual, tomorrow will be the Tenth. Today the Roman Catholic Calendar, commemorates Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. Tomorrow is but a “Christmas Weekday.” In the Common (Protestant) Lectionary, neither day is a special commemoration.

Ten years ago I was not in the process of getting old. I was the same flaky, discombobulated absent-minded professor I am today. I had lived in this apartment for two days (I moved here hastily, helped by a troupe of friends because my partner died in November, and the lease on our huge apartment ended on December 31). Some boxes deposited in this room that day are still here, never opened or sorted. That’s not because I’m getting old. When my late ex-wife and I bought a house in California in 1970, we left boxes unopened that were still unopened when we moved them to Iowa City in 1975.

So I’ll give myself leave to say that absent-mindedness preceded both professorship and aging.

The importance of the progression of days on the Church Calendar is unimaginable, I should think, to anyone under 60—especially to someone who has detached himself from almost all conscious acceptance of the beliefs of the church. But it’s in my DNA, and it’s helpful. It’s a kind of remembering that I do not have to accomplish by myself.

It’s a convenient way in my absent-mindedness to remember that tomorrow, January 3, is my birth date. The church has commemorations for most of the days in Christmas. But they have conveniently left open my birth date as simply, “Christmas Weekday.” No dead Christian will compete for attention. Easy to remember.

Billy who understands

Billy who understands

Billy Collins is a poet to whose works I return often these days. He was born in Brooklyn. We have little in common except we both have degrees from California universities. He is four years older than I.

He writes poetry in a kind of non-fancy, straight-forward language I imagine a Nebraska rancher would use should he turn poet. He writes poetry in style and content resembling what I would write if I were a genius instead of a minimally competent wordsmith.

What a 35-year-old or a 55-year-old cannot understand about aging is the new kind of loneliness that comes with being on the cusp of turning 69.

Even if one is surrounded by close friends (which, let’s face it, almost no one is), or one has a spouse, lover, partner—whatever name one might give such a person—what the 68-going-on-69-year-old faces is the preparation for absolute aloneness at the moment of death.

This is not—I repeat, not—depressing or sad. I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll die soon. I’m not suicidal or a danger to myself or others because I’m writing this, which presupposes my thinking about it. It’s merely a fact. And we have structured an entire society and culture based on avoiding facts wherever and whenever possible. Think about the fighting (not discussing, hardly even arguing) over healthcare—especially end-of-life care. Or, even more unthinkable, think about burying a member of your family yourself without a licensed funeral director. How real would that make death?

We do not want—under any circumstances—to deal with, to think about, to share our feelings regarding, the fact of our death. Or even the impossible task of growing old.

Unless you are 69 or thereabouts, you do not want to think about the FACT that

 . . .  one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones
.

(Collins, Billy. “Forgetfulness.” Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. Random House: 2002. Notice, Collins was 61 when he wrote this poem.)

And when those memories disappear one is left “holding the bag,” In this case, one of the original meanings of the phrase, a bagful of worthless stocks. All the valuable shares have been sold off, and only the worthless ones remain. Penny stocks that used to be blue chips. I can mix metaphors with the worst of them. Thank goodness, Billy Collins mixes with the best of them. When one has forgotten enough, one is well on her “own way to oblivion where [she] will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.”

Forgotten everything useful.

Forgetting, by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
nver even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

I have a vague Idea what I’m trying to remember. It’s the sense of belonging I used to have. I can’t quite put it into words. Belonging to a community. Belonging to a group of like-minded friends. Belonging to a loving, supportive relationship. That’s what one must ultimately forget.

Uncomfortable—grievous—as it may seem, it’s necessary to forget. If one did not forget, one could not—would not be willing to—gather oneself to oneself and begin to understand this new kind of unavoidable solitude, to get ready for this “oblivion” where we’ve even forgotten how to ride a bike. Forgetting, at least in some “cosmic” sense, is not a bad thing. It’s ultimately necessary.

Some of my family, not forgotten

Some of my family, not forgotten