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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Living is no laughing matter. . . “ (Nazim Hikmet)

He knows where his nuts are

He knows where his nuts are

Every morning I sit down and intend to do my work (grading papers, checking my retirement fund balance, writing that recommendation letter for a student applying to transfer—you know, those things). But then I get sidetracked because I simply have to write.

Sorry. Another rant about having to write.

Please read my explanation of that.

And I haven’t been able to for the last five days because I’ve been too sick to think. Well, thinking isn’t always a part of this writing. But this cold or whatever it is has made it pretty much impossible for me to do anything. I start something and immediately want to take a nap.

But it may be winding down, the cold, that is.

At any rate, I’m not cancelling my classes today. Let them eat cake. No, let them get sick. My gift to them. I’m sure one of them gave it to me.

Enough ranting.

One of the reasons I want to get back to the university is to check on my squirrels. A whole colony of them who live between McFarlin Auditorium and Perkins Administration Building. I watch them bury their acorns in the summer and fall and dig them up in the winter and spring. I know they remember where they are. How?

Where the family lives

Where the family lives

The most interesting mystery I know. Who cares about the Big Bang, or the New American (all-powerful) Oligarchy, or who won March Madness. I want to know how those squirrels know where their nuts are. Watch them if you don’t believe me. They bounce along over the ground, stop, dig for a couple of seconds, and come up with an acorn and start nibbling on it. How do they know?

I love this poem. I don’t know anything about Nazim Hikmet except that he was born in 1902 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, but which World War I turned into part of Greece (see, the Ukraine is only the continuation of European boundary changes). Hikmet may have been something of a socialist radical. So much the better. I’ll have to research. You’ll easily see at least one of the reasons I love the poem so much.

I don’t know what any of the above means or says, but I’ve written. That’s all that matters.

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet
translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing

Living is no joke,
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel for example,
I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

You must take living seriously,
I mean to such an extent that,
for example your arms are tied from your back, your back is on the wall,
or in a laboratory with your white shirt, with your huge eye glasses,
you must be able to die for people,
even for people you have never seen,
although nobody forced you to do this,
although you know that
living is the most real, most beautiful thing.

I mean you must take living so seriously that,
even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,
not because you think they will be left to your children,
because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it
because, I mean, life weighs heavier.

II

Suppose we’re very sick, in need of surgery,
I mean, there is the possibility that
we will never get up from the white table.
although it is impossible not to feel the grief of passing away somewhat too soon
we will still laugh at the funny joke being told,
we will look out of the window to see if it’s raining,
or we will wait impatiently
for the latest news from agencies.

Suppose, for something worth fighting for,
suppose we are on the battlefield.
Over there, in the first attack, on the first day
we may fall on the ground on our face.
We will know this with a somewhat strange grudge,
but we will still wonder like crazy
the result of the war that will possibly last for years.

Suppose we are in the jail,
age is close to fifty,
supose there are still eighteen years until the iron door will open.
Still, we will live with the outer world,
with the people, animals, fights and winds
I mean, with the outer world beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are
we must live as if there is no death…

III

I hope he was a socialist radical

I hope he was a socialist radical

This earth will cool down,
a star among all the stars,
one of the tiniest,
I mean a grain of glitter in the blue velvet,
I mean this huge world of ours.

This earth will cool down one day,
not even like a pile of ice
or like a dead cloud,
it will roll like an empty walnut
in the pure endless darkness.
You must feel the pain of this now,
You must feel the grief right now.
You must love this world so much
to be able to say ‘I lived’…

. . . an almost comminuting blow . . .

I’m indulging in a surreptitious pleasure. Not “pleasure.” Necessity.

Is the the alterer of reality?

Is he the alterer of reality?

I’m supposed to be grading student essays. I have no choice. I must finish them today. But the writing must come first. This writing. I have no choice.

A couple of days ago I was driving home from a satisfying workout at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital where I walk for an hour in the therapy pool as often as I can. (Thank goodness for Tim Berners-Lee. He, of course, made it possible for me to get on with whatever I’m writing at the moment without having to go back and explain everything in detail, and I can simply link to it. I’ve already this hour been spared three essays—three hyperlinks to Berners-Lee’s WWW.) I heard a snippet of a conversation with Berners-Lee on NPR’s “Science Friday” as I was driving home—recorded in 1999—because this past week was the 25th anniversary of the worldwide web. The interview had been recorded on the 10th anniversary of the worldwide web.

My first use of the internet—email—was in 1993. My partner had moved from Boston to Dallas to work for Hewlett-Packard. Out of the blue one day he called to tell me I should check the computer of one of my colleagues. I can say without hyperbole that I was dumbfounded by mystery to see a message to me on her monitor. I replied, and the rest . . . My life changed forever in that instant. By the time I moved to Dallas, Jerry had internet at our apartment, and a magician from Hewlett-Packard came to do whatever was necessary to hook my computer to the internet. I don’t need to tell anyone who was born before 1989 what an astounding change came over our lives—shall I say an almost comminuting blow (not almost) to the way we (at least I) thought about our place in the universe.

Suddenly I could be connected to everyone in the world who had access to a computer. My ability to “search the web” for information it would have taken me hours (days) to find the day before I hooked up to this worldwide phenomenon was more astounding. My experience is not unique and hardly interesting. I need, however, to remind myself of the person I am that I wasn’t the day before Roseann’s computer at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston received that message from Jerry at Hewlett-Packard in Dallas.

I ask myself if I am in fact a different person.

My selfie is blurred

My selfie is blurred

Affirmative. One example: Were it not for the internet my world-view would not have been shattered by my first trip to Palestine in 2003. On the WWW I researched the possibilities for that trip. I received the information that led me to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with whom I toured Palestine, by email from Ann Hafften—who through email became my friend and colleague.

(If Yahoo can interrupt news stories with links to related stories, so can I. If you ever ask, “What can I do to make the world a better place,” go to this website – on the miraculous WWW –and make a donation.)

One might think that pondering the miraculous change in human activity that has occurred in my lifetime (the first computer that stored data instead of punching cards was built the year I was born) would bring wonderment and joy. I have to admit it was fun listening to Ira Flatow reminiscing for all of us about the history of the WWW.

And then grief.

Why should listening to Ira Flatow and Tim Berners-Lee talk in excited and at the same time almost reverent terms about the enormous changes in our lives brought about by computers and the internet cause me grief?

It’s grief that is not unhealthy or debilitating. It’s a joyful kind of grief. It’s knowing that I am already unable to keep up with “technology.” I can’t figure out how to download the app for my “senior pass” for DART onto my iPhone. I can’t figure out how to edit pictures on this computer (I’ve had it for three months now). I don’t have any idea how to use the “rubric” function in the Blackboard program to grade student essays. I who love music and used to listen to CDs all the time cannot for the life of me figure out how to use iTunes. And please don’t tell me—if I call you and ask me how to drive to where you are—to use the Google maps on the iPhone with which I am calling you. Much of the time I feel out of focus. My “selfie” is not clear.

This is not frustration (OK, it is) or sour grapes from an old man who sees the world passing by. It’s deeper than that. Not being able to use all of these devices that I used to see as playthings but which have become essentials to living in our society (if not in the entire world—I’m not sure about that) is a constant reminder, a daily, hourly reminder, an inescapable reminder that I am mortal—not simply mortal, but living on borrowed time.

Anyone my age who doesn’t understand needs more ROM. Or is it RAM.

I'll never figure it out

I’ll never figure it out

It IS all done with mirrors and wires, after all.

Yesterday I realized that I know how to teach writing to 19-year-olds.

Wrapped in a mantle of communication

Wrapped in a mantle of communication

It’s all done with mirrors and wires.

I mean that literally, not in the sense that it’s stage magic.

The teacher has to see himself if he’s a man, herself, if she’s a woman (see how ridiculous our phony reliance on a grammar that never really existed is? I should have the courage of my conviction and say, “The teacher has to see themself. . .) mirrored in the face of the student. More important, the teacher has to be transparent enough to allow the student to see themself mirrored in the teacher’s face.

That is, of course, almost impossible, and it happens—if the teacher is lucky beyond belief—about once a semester. It is, however, the moment a real teacher lives for.

The wires part is simpler. The teacher uses wires (or something kinder and more esthetically pleasing) to hold the student up long enough for the student to figure out on their own what makes their writing good. Not what the MLA or some other surreal body says is good writing. No. How students can correctly use enough of the (stultifying) conventions of writing to gather about themselves the mantle of a clear personal voice with which they can tell the world (or their lover or the university or their parents or . . .) what they want those folks to know. The mantle of a clear personal voice.

How’s that for a figure of speech as surreal as a Dali painting?

One wraps oneself in a mantle, of course, so you might be thinking, “How can one possibly ‘wrap oneself’ in something that is intended to communicate, not to hide?”

One’s voice, whether spoken or written, is, in fact meant to hide. Old people understand that, I think. We understand that communication is impossible. I don’t have any intention of telling you what’s really swirling in my head.

OK. I will.

I am grieving. Grieving the ending of my job in which I get daily to try to let a student see himself (the best parts of himself and the parts of me that are worthy of mirroring) mirrored in me. Kindness (once in a while). Generosity. Humility. Curiosity. (These things almost never, except for curiosity). I want my students to know they can stop judging themselves and reject the judgment of others—even the grades they assigned in class (grades intended to insure the failure of a certain percentage of students). I am grieving my loneliness. I do not want to end my days in a ratty, unkempt apartment (any apartment where I live alone will be unkempt) without companionship, without someone to watch over and to watch over me. I joy in my cats—stinky as their litter boxes sometimes are. I rejoice and thank the universe for my students. I love my family. I am hungry at the moment and my Grapenuts are soaking. I’m afraid of the final paycheck. I want sex (I said you didn’t want to know what’s swirling in my head). I fear Barak Obama has become one of the powerful elite out of touch with reality. I fear the US is responsible for the mess in The Ukraine as much as anyone—going back way before this administration (it’s The Ukraine, indicating a region, not a country with logical borders). I think the Dean who asked me to retire is a mousy little man. I’d like to get to the Landry Fitness Center today, but I can’t.

There. You think this writing is supposed to communicate all of that nonsense?

Of course not!

My writing is meant to hide my innards and communicate with you some semblance of order, fitness, and ability to cope with the world.

But it is not meant to be untrue. Or deceptive. Or mean. Or hurtful. Or. . .

Some people mantle themselves with a voice of humor. I cannot imagine the world without Tim Conway’s mantle. Some are poets. Can you imagine the word without Maxine Kumin’s mantle? Some people are composers. Can you imagine the world without Krzysztof Penderecki‘s mantle?

Someone to watch over her.

Someone to watch over her.

These are famous, highly developed mantles. I can’t imagine the world without yours. We communicate by hiding. We make symbols for what we mean. We mirror each other. We mirror ourselves.

It’s what makes us human. We don’t have to strike out at each other. We don’t have to weep uncontrollably (although some of us do that more than others). We don’t have to assault anyone sexually. We don’t have to . . .

We wrap ourselves in the mantle of symbolic communication. It’s how we survive. It’s how we say “love.”

The greatest joy of my life, and my best accomplishment if there is one, is my helping a few nineteen-year-olds begin to weave the mantle which will at the same time protect them and allow them to participate fully in their lives.

I want, I demand, I need more opportunity for that. I do not want to retire. At least not to stop teaching.

It has always made us human

It has always made us human

“. . . now limp, now divided, or its traditionally honorable career. . . “

Talking with the HR Benefits Specialist about the the decisions one has to make at the time of retirement. The face to face with the truth I’ve dreaded for months. Even if the specialist is a good friend and has been my main connection with university reality for the past ten years or thereabouts.

Egyptian Onions, now limp, now divided

Egyptian Onions, now limp, now divided

It’s telling that I refer to it as “work” rather than “my position,” or some other term that indicates pride, joy, fulfillment.

I wonder if I was ever suited for professoring, for trying to help young people who are interested in studying and learning in a university setting. Did I fall into college teaching because that was, for reasons I never fully examined, what I had always “expected” to do. “Expected” of myself, and/or “expected” by others.

Age 69 is no time to be wondering about that sort of thing.

Every day I get in my email a couple of “meditation” thingies. Most days, I think they’re just silly. To wit:

I will look at a situation in its highest light today. I will turn it and turn it in the kaleidoscope of my mind, seeing it slightly anew each time, finding a way to view it that allows me to see it in a light that leaves room for acceptance, growth, and movement, while still remaining connected to my authentic self.

I’ve spent most of my life in the presence of positive ideas and of people who espouse them, so I ought to be one of the 1% by now. I kid you not. What could be more positive than the constant teaching of love, repentance, and eternal life of the Baptists—both preached and lived out by my father? What could be more positive than twelve-step programs? What could be more positive than a professional academic faculty urging one on, cajoling, and challenging one to finish a PhD? And so on.

Why do daily doses of advice that I should find “a way to view [any situation] that allows me to see it in a light that leaves room for acceptance, growth, and movement” make me cringe? Why have I not absorbed all of that positive energy over my life to blossom at some point into one of those Coveyites with seven highly effective habits?

My late partner bought me one of those Covey “planners” to get me organized. I could not master the first requirement—learn to keep the damned thing with me. The only usefulness it ever had was the address book, which I’ve used for at least 15 years. But about six months ago in a fit of cleaning and organizing I put it in some logical safe place which I have forgotten, and every time I need the zip code for my brother’s address I have to look it on the USPS website up again. A friend, one of the few people in the blogosphere I know in person—have known since before blogging—was also one of the few friends who understood my dilemma of carrying the planner in order to plan. Most of my friends thought it was funny—funny “peculiar,” not funny “ha-ha,” as we used to say.

Most of my close friends accept the funny “peculiar’ in me (the lion’s share) as part of me (part that they apparently, for which I am grateful, seem to love).

But there’s this thing that happens in my mind whenever I read something like, “The good news is no one can be me as well as me. Being me builds on who I already am. It uses and optimizes my own human and cultural capital. It’s exercise for my personality and my spirit” from today’s meditation thingy. Exercise for my personality and my spirit?

Covey, through and through—although he’d say, of course, that I should develop seven habits that would, besides helping me be me, make me highly successful.

LA Traffic in Dallas: as real as it gets?

LA Traffic in Dallas: as real as it gets?

So it’s really no secret why I am not highly successful. I’ve never developed those seven habits. I couldn’t even, when presented with the possibility of development, remember to carry the book.

So do you want to know what I think? I think there’s something about me that knows that all of that positive thinking (remember Norman Vincent Peale?—he died, by the way, in spite of The Power of Positive Thinking) isn’t really what being human is all about. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know it’s what gets us into the alpha male and now alpha female race to have billions of dollars and be able to own the politics of a (our) country. You know David Koch and Alice Walton.

When was the last time you took off your ten dollar Merona (produced by the Israeli alphas of the Middle East) clothes from Target, or you Billion Dollar clothes from LA Traffic (made by alphas from Los Angeles and sold to alphas in Dallas) and took a walk through a forest or lay on your back in a prairie grassland in Texas at night looking at the galaxies? Felt and saw the source of our “reality”?

Rhonda in HR has been “my main connection with university reality” since the beginning of my “working” at SMU. What does that have to do with, uh, reality? Nothing.

What does developing “acceptance, growth, and movement, while still remaining connected to my authentic self” have to do with reality? What does growing and moving in the system of alpha males and females have to do with reality?

Nothing, that I can see. I may be “funny peculiar.” And I may be stuck at about 15 years of age asking the sophomoric teenage questions of “What’s it all about” (you know, reading On Walden Pond and that stuff)?

But, really, when I ask these questions am I not simply raising issues we don’t wanna think about. You’re gonna die in spite of your LA Traffic clothes. And we should think about that all the time.

“The Traveling Onion,”by Naomi Shihab Nye  

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an
object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion
entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

Naomi Shihab Nye. She has it about right.

Naomi Shihab Nye. She has it about right.

 

“. . . the mystery. . . of a demon in my view.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid (Audre Lorde, 1934 – 1992).

A necessary tack

A necessary tack

In teaching writing, i.e. rhetoric, we often resort to poor old Aristotle to try to get students to understand they have to use many different approaches in order to be convincing. One of our favorite tacks (“tack” as a nautical term, “a course run obliquely against the wind”)—yes, “tack” is an appropriate word here because we run obliquely against the wind—is to present the students with Aristotle’s three “appeals” for making an argument. Logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos, we say, is akin to our word “logic,” but not directly. It’s more than logic.
Ethos, we say, is an appeal to the writer’s credibility.
Pathos, we say, is an attempt to involve our audience’s emotions in our argument.

Or something like that.

Of course, any student who has either received such instruction or who has a modicum of inquisitiveness on their own will realize we have many common and useful words that come, if not directly from these Greek words, at least from the same roots.

pathetic (adj.)

           1590s, “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions,” from Middle French pathétique “moving, stirring, affecting” (16c.), from Late Latin patheticus, from Greek pathetikos “subject to feeling, sensitive, capable of emotion,” from pathetos “liable to suffer,” verbal adjective of pathein “to suffer” (see pathos). Meaning “arousing pity, pitiful” is first recorded 1737. Colloquial sense of “so miserable as to be ridiculous” is attested from 1937. Related: Pathetical (1570s); pathetically. Pathetic fallacy (1856, first used by Ruskin) is the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects. (Harper, Douglas. “pathetic.” Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com. 2001-2014. Web.)

Every time I need to write about my depression, I feel pathetic in the colloquial sense from 1937. Like everyone who struggles with depression and writes or paints or sings or dances or just talks with their friends I want to make the definitive statement what it feels like to be depressed so the rest of you will understand and not think we are “so miserable as to be ridiculous.”

If you are still reading, you are obviously not one of my f2f friends or relatives (or one of my “followers” here) who have heard all of this before and are really really really tired of it. Some readers who are frightened by my being so open about depression all the time have stopped reading because they are not brave. I apologize to them that I am so persistent in talking about depression. I am not going to go the next necessary step in apology and tell them how I will modify my behavior in the. I will write about this again.

Two days ago I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience of talking with a student until she discovered the meaning of the word “mystery” in the lexicon of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Bringer of jollity

Bringer of jollity

Yesterday I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience once again of talking with students until they stumbled upon meanings of various concepts about which my classes are writing.

I CANNOT—ever, under any circumstance—TELL YOU THE JOY those experiences bring me. They are the stuff of the reason I live. I thank the gods for those experiences over the past 40 years.

I left my office at 5:15 PM yesterday (having invited students to come to talk between 3 and 4). I sang all the way to my car.

By the time I arrived home (a trip of about 14 minutes, give or take a few seconds), I was in tears.

You can say my tears were understandable in light of my impending (forced) retirement. WTF, I’m 69—it’s time to retire!

But they continued. I was weepy and angry and miserable until I went to a recovery meeting at 7. I was OK for awhile, even long enough to have supper with a friend afterward. By the time I arrived home at 9:30 I was crying again.

I woke up this morning in tears.

That is not the result of my grief at ending my professional life. Otherwise it would have not been a regular experience for the last 60 years, would it?

We all know the medical causes of depression. (A search in the EBSCO data base, Academic Search Complete, through SMU’s library website for “clinical depression” brings up 213,458 articles.)

This is pathetic.

I broke into tears yesterday on my way to my 2 PM class. How cool is that for a professor to be walking across campus crying?

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision. . .

I have cared all my life to use my strength in the service of my vision. I have had two lifetimes of vision—one as a church (and perhaps recital) organist, the other as a writer and teacher of writing. I’ve had two lifetimes separated by several years of falling-down-drunk-driving-the-wrong-way-on-the-freeway alcoholism (sober for 27 years). I have cared to use my strength in the service of my vision.

I’m not going to blame constant clinical depression (I believe it had begun by the time our family doctor prescribed medication for thyroid deficiency when I was in fourth grade because I was so lethargic I had become a chubby little boy) for my failure to record the complete organ works of Frescobaldi or write the Great American Novel or explain the poetry of Maxine Kumin to the world. Or for my being a drunk.

But being in tears for the better part of 18 hours now is not normal. And it’s a damned nuisance when you’re trying to type. I wish I had Edgar Allan Poe’s genius. Then perhaps I could explain this to you, dear, kind, long-suffering reader.

“Alone,”  by Edgar Allan Poe

A demon in his view?

A demon in his view?

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring–
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow–I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone–
And all I lov’d–I lov’d alone–
Then–in my childhood–in the dawn
Of a most stormy life–was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still–
From the torrent, or the fountain–
From the red cliff of the mountain–
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold–
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by–
From the thunder, and the storm–
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view–

“. . . made real by the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside. . . “

I make coffee the old fashioned way

I make coffee the old fashioned way

One mystery solved. I know one thing for sure I will do when I retire. I will drink coffee, lots of it. And I will write.

I make coffee the old-fashioned way, not-quite-boiling water through a filtered cone, not on a timer set so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing but can stumble still asleep to pour a cup of coffee. The process wakes me up, not swallowing the first cup.

I’ve been writing early in the morning so long I hardly ever think about how important it is to me—except when I’ve been doing it hypergraphically and can’t not do it. Then, when it’s over—or I have to stop because I will lose my job if I don’t—I think about what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I find great joy in it. Sometimes it’s simply absurd. Sometimes I’d do almost anything not to have to do it.

The fact is, writing is more important to me than anything except playing the organ. And these days it’s easier.

I sent a poem to a friend for her critique. She wrote back, “Omit the maudlin words—tears, love, ‘feel of the thing’—and use words that convey alienation. Fumbling.” The poem is about my frustration with modern instruments of composition, computer, iPad, iPhone.

“Omit the maudlin words.” Oh my god! Omit the maudlin words? I wouldn’t have many words left if I did that!

Take “weeping,” for example.

I assume “weeping” is one of those old-fashioned maudlin words only someone my age would use instead of one that might be used in a Tweet. I don’t know what that word might be, so I will use “weeping.”

Here’s the progression of “weeping” events from yesterday.

Lately I’ve been singing hymns (or anything for which I can remember both melody and words—which means, for the most part, hymns) as I walk to and from my office or do the dishes or clean the cat boxes or any such daily task. Sometimes I think them, sometimes I hum, sometimes when I’m alone, I sing them aloud. I sing them to keep my mind from spinning out of control.

Yesterday shivering from my car to my office in the cold, I found myself humming my mother’s favorite hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The refrain is

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

My mother said the hymn is based on Psalm 30. She quoted verse 5 of the Psalm, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Or sometimes, verse 11, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” (King James Version).

Thomas Hubschman, a cyber-friend (we’ve never met but we carry on an exchange of ideas on FB and here) wrote in 2011,

Who would have thought old age would be such a riot of strong feeling? We look like dried-up fruit, most of us, past our sell-by date, too juiceless to be up to anything more than maintaining our precarious vital signs. Who would guess that inside these parched exteriors torrents of emotion are rushing like spring floods?

Last night as I was watching “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, I was weeping. If I find a less maudlin word, I will use it. Not weeping consistently, but an occasional outburst sobs and tears. I don’t know why.

Stability and grace of a homeland

Stability and grace of a homeland

This is not an unusual event.

For some time I have thought this weeping is part of my Bipolar II cycling of mania and depression, or emotions made fragile by TLE, or more recently because I realize the pain of being alone.

But I have begun to think not.

I weep for the children of Palestine who do know the stability and grace of having a homeland.
I weep for my students who are convinced that the purpose of education is to make money.
I weep for the racism evidenced by so many people’s irrational hatred of President Obama.
I weep for my own aloneness.
I weep for the homeless man asleep in the doorway of Neiman Marcus on Sunday morning.
I weep for my friends who are convinced owning an instrument of murder is their God-given right.
I weep that I don’t have a plan to maintain a sense of usefulness in my retirement.
I weep that love is so difficult to find.
I weep that California is running out of water.
I weep that my Caucasian neighbors think my Asian-immigrant neighbors are not worthy of notice.
I weep that all of my family does not live in real love for one another.
I weep for the twenty would-be-suicide bombers killed by accident in Iraq yesterday.
I weep for leaders who are moral cowards—and those of us who keep electing them.
I weep for the pain each of us inflicts on the rest of us.

If a less maudlin word than “weep” is available, I hope someone will point it out to me. And if I should have more faith that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” I trust that I will discover my weeping is maudlin and stop.

Thomas Hubschman says, “We are the grownups society so desperately needs to lead it to better things and stop wasting its time, effort, money, and lives on the boogeymen under the bed. It’s time we started acting like grownups.” I wonder if it takes being grown up to have enough sense to weep. My weeping is not maudlin. And it’s neither helpless nor hopeless.

I’m not sure what has given Tessa Rumsey the insight to say poetically something, I think, of what I mean. She’s only 43 years old. But I love her poem about our lives together. About the occasion for weeping.

“More Important than the Design of Cities Will Be the Design of Their Decay,” by Tessa Rumsey.

Where did you grow, before your roots took hold in the garden?
Curiouser and curiouser, this allegiance you seem to have with rocks.
Bluish blooms bathed in perfection, the moon shines fresh as you melt away.
 **
Loneliness is a laboratory; its territory is forever defined; for reasons beyond our conviction
It cannot be lessened; only redirected and made to resemble a crumbling heaven or the year’s
Grand delusion: I shall no longer want for that which left me long ago—go slow, said the soul,
That you may know the streets of your abandoned city more intimately than any joy
Or cherished season. We were in collusion, this city and I, creating a mythology of desolation;
Feeling utterly evacuated; yet methodically structured; in a post-Roman Empire; previously
Doomed sort of way—and what did the soul say, but know it better, then in a fever, go deeper.
There are days, I told the translator, when the veil drops and I am no longer inside the No-
Place most familiar, built by me long ago, and I walk through the world as if made real
By the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside—
Perhaps one of them is weeping, perhaps another will gently reach out and twist a knife
Into my heart and we will lock eyes, and I will fall to my knees, and for a moment
He will hold me. What will I remember? The cold blade’s cruel demeanor? My body
As it seizures? Or the gesture of my destroyer, showing me that in this life, I was not alone.

(Rumsey, Tessa. “More Important than the Design.” The Return Message by Tessa Rumsey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.)
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