“Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle. . .” (Yousef Abdul-Aziz)

bird is not stoneThe tattoo ringing my right forearm spells out the Latin words

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum

They constitute the first phrase of Psalm 42,

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (KJV)

Three months ago I wrote about this tattoo. I don’t need to explain it again, but for several days I have needed to write about solitude—loneliness—isolation again because mine has again become unbearable (this, too, shall pass). I am mystified to note that often when I am feeling most alone, I am drawn to Psalm 42. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Why those words come to mind when I am feeling most alone I am not sure (perhaps because of the hauntingly beautiful musical setting by Herbert Howells—about which I have also written recently). I would not say that my soul “panteth” after God. I frankly don’t know—my self-understanding for some time is that I am no longer interested in searching for God.

When I took on the tattoo, I remarked to Joe the artist that we would know how skilled he is by whether or not the eyes of the Palestinian gazelle accompanying the Psalmist’s words seem to be looking at anyone who sees them. I think he did.
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As I explained in December, I make a connection in my mind between the “hart” and the gazelle that I had the gift of seeing in Palestine in August of 2008—a gift because they are so rare, so endangered that few tourists ever see them wild in the hills of The Galilee where they are native. The “hart” the psalmist knew was likely a Palestinian gazelle.

If anyone had asked me 15 or 20 years ago (or perhaps 5) if I was prepared to be alone, that is, to live alone exist alone sleep alone dine alone play alone, I would have said absolutely not. I had no intention of being alone. Solitude in the desert for a week or two at a time or on the beach at port Orford, Oregon. But not as the condition of my life.

Often on TV A real-estate company’s ad plays about finding the right house to buy. It ends with the sentence, “You are not just buying house. You are looking for the place for your life to happen.”

Somehow my apartment does not feel like the place where my life is happening. I’m not sure where I might be that would seem like that place, but it is not here. If this is where my life is happening, then I must not be one of those Homo sapiens the Nature program on PBS often indicates descended from the same ancestor gorillas came from. I do not seem to be a social creature.

Of course that’s not true. I have many friends and spend a great deal of my time with other Homo sapiens—today I will be with university student athletes for five hours, and I will be with a bank teller, a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad, and a check-out clerk at Kroger. It is, however, likely that I will not spend any time with another person simply in order to be with them, and I will most likely not touch another person all day.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself (not intentionally, at any rate). I am contemplating the reality of my “social” existence.

I recently came across a poem by the Palestinian poet Yousef Abdul-Aziz titled “The book of doubt.” Its opening image startled me.

Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee. . .

I thought, “Abdul-Aziz has written a poem for me.” The poem startled me because it is from the volume A Bird Is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014). Most of the work in the book is clearly about the political/social situation of the Palestinian people.

Abdul-Aziz’s poem does not seem to be. It seems to be personal. And its metaphor seems to be a metaphor for my own situation. Maya Abu Al-Hayyat writes in the introduction to the anthology,

We notice that most of the poetry particular to this generation [of Palestinians after the Oslo agreement] [is] very vague. They [use] words like “mirrors, shadows, absence, presence,” words that revealed the process of discovery and transformation from one state to another. They [deal] with viewing things in a different way, exactly parallel to the political situation. . .

Palestinian poetry became personally questioning about the poets’ place in the political realities rather than, for the most part, politically activist. The Palestinian people are living in a period of promise but uncertainty, and most of the poetry in the anthology reflects this communal uncertainty. (Of course, the situation has changed again in the short time since this poetry was written to one of the all-too-certain possibility of the destruction of Palestinian society.)

Here in the company of poetry about the enormous struggle of an entire people is a poem so personal as to be startling. And it uses one of my favorite images—one of which I am fond enough to have had it tattooed on my forearm—as a metaphor for solitude.

Perhaps I need to rethink my solitary life.

Living in a situation of political and social impossibility so different from mine that I can scarcely comprehend it is a man—a person—whose experience of being alone seems to correspond to mine. A man, a person, not a Terrorist, not a Militant, not an Arab, not a Muslim, not a Palestinian, but a person. A person with whom I feel together as we both struggle with being alone.

“THE BOOK OF DOUBT,” BY JOUSEF ABDUL-AZIZ
Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee
but also smoking my tobacco
it was thrashing about the pages
of what looked like my manuscript.
It sat in my chair like a queen
and from its hands
rose an enchanted fog. . .

Still cloaked in my dreams I stood close by
trembling like a branch of the night
raining down bitter
questions:
What is woman?
In which storm
may my heart play?
Where did I bury the fire?!

As though I were a ring on its finger
it didn’t give me much thought.
Unfazed by my stiff shadow at the door
Solitude went on
with a sneer
scrambling pages
tearing them out of the manuscript.
I saw myself cast out to blind lands
and I hollered;
I saw before me a sphere of water
rising up in the wind
and above, a cracked moon,
and slain butterflies
strewn around me.

I’m sure
you will wrap up this farce! I yelled.
Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle—
my own eyes.
And it handed me
the book of doubt—it was my own book.

— Translated by Juana Acock
— From A BIRD IS NOT A STONE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PALESTINIAN POETRY (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014) –available from Amazon.com.
— Yousef Abdul-Aziz was born in Jerusalem and studied in Amman and Beirut. He is a teacher, a committee member of the online journal Awraq, and recipient of literary awards, including the (Jordanian) Arar prize.

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.

Like as the hart. . .

Like as the hart. . .

On a clear day in June, 2008, on a highway between the Sea of Galilee and the city of Nazareth the driver of the bus carrying the small group I was with slowed and told us to look left up the hill to see a Gazella gazelle, a Palestinian Gazelle. I saw a tan streak of motion a bit darker than the dry hillside and a couple of tiny patches of white. The Palestinian Gazelle disappeared up the hill faster than I could look.

Our driver said we were lucky—hardly anyone sees Palestinian Gazelles because they are a declining and endangered species. Since that day I have been fascinated by the Palestinian gazelle.

I’m also fascinated by the romanticizing of the demographics of The Galilee. Nazareth is west of the Sea of Galilee. About 150,000 people (mostly Arabs) live there. It’s not simply the mythical place where Jesus walked. Nazareth is a metropolitan area that was ceded to Israel in 1948 even though the population was over 60% Arab—60% of those people Muslim and 40% Christian.

Across the Sea to the east is the Golan Heights, until 1967 a part of Syria. While we are horrified at ISIS taking swaths of Syria in the name of religion, we accept uncritically Israel’s 1967 annexation of the Golan Heights in the name of religion. Fascinating.

A melody that often sneaks from my unconscious to my conscious mind to sing repeatedly is the opening of the anthem by Herbert Howells, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.” The King James “hart” is the Palestinian gazelle.

כְּאַיָּל, תַּעֲרֹג עַל-אֲפִיקֵי-מָיִם– כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים.
ὃν τρόπον ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ἔλαφος ἐπὶ τὰς πηγὰς τῶν ὑδάτων οὕτως ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου πρὸς σέ ὁ θεός
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum.
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

I used to think I remembered the words of this anthem because the uncommonly beautiful music, once learned, is impossible

Like as the hart

Like as the hart

to forget. It may be the other way ’round.

Jill A. Fisher proposes that there are

. . . four primary overlapping functions of the tattoo. First, the tattoo functions as ritual. . . the tattoo can serve . . . as a physical mark of a life event. . . interpreted as significant by the bearer . . . The tattoo also functions as identification. . . as part of a given group . . . A third function of tattooing is protective . . . a talisman to protect its bearer from general or specific harm. . . the fourth function of tattoos is decorative . . . modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body and Society 8.4 (December 2002): 91-107.)

About ten days ago I had the image of the face of a Palestinian Gazelle tattooed on my right forearm with the Latin Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum (“As a deer longs for flowing streams”) circling my arm below it.

This was not my first tattoo. I had a stylized version of the Arabic words for “peace” and “love” intertwined tattooed on that arm about five months ago.

Since I last wrote about this phenomenon of late-in-life tattooing, I have been thinking about and (frankly, having difficulty) explaining to myself why I’ve had them done. I don’t much care (my sister says we are of a generation that makes one of two assumptions about men with tattoos, neither of which apply to me; she has not told me what those assumptions are) what anyone else thinks of them, but I would like a bit of self-understanding around this permanent modification of my body, especially in such obvious places. Why not on my upper arms or some other place on my body that I can easily cover?

As I have written about before, I had my first tattoo about six months ago—on my left arm, a rather startling image taken from a 15th-century Gregorian chant manuscript, the incipit of the funeral hymn, Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”).

The only other tattoo I plan to have is already prepared for by the illuminated “H” on my left shoulder. It will be the beginning of another Gregorian Chant, Haec díes quam fécit Dóminus (“This is the day the Lord has made”). I decided on the Haec díes because I wanted a chant that begins with “H” and has lots of complicated notation for Joe, the artist at Tigger’s on Main Street in Dallas, to copy. It will stretch from my shoulder half-way around my back.

Ritual. Identification. Protection. Decoration.

I’m fascinated by my own motives. My first tattooing was one week after my final semester on the faculty of SMU ended. The “H” came at the time I made a decision about how I want to spend the first period of my retirement. The Arabic “peace and love” came during the Israeli devastation of Gaza. And the gazelle came at a moment of change and redefinition of my life.
My first awareness of—and secret desire for—tattoos was in 4th grade when the older brother of one of my friends came home on leave from the Navy. I wanted a tattoo like the anchor he had on his arm. My getting tattoos is arrested development?

Perhaps.

. . . that day Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

. . . that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes . . .

Or perhaps my mind is finding rest somehow that I can’t predict, control, or understand. And these tattoos are either a part of that process or keeping track of it.

An indelible reminder that the end is coming. An acknowledgement that I long for—for what?—I do not know. A declaration that this is the day. An abiding desire for peace and love. In ancient languages. In images of ancient languages?

I did not have a grand plan for these tattoos. I’ve taken each without much thought about how it fit with the previous ones. But “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks . . .” Palestine is desert-like. It’s easy to understand why a Palestinian Gazelle desireth the waterbrooks. Does the gazelle know why, or understand the nature of the water?

Dies irae
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How much tremor there will be,
when the Judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Haec díes
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.

Peace and love.

It has my back.
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