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

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

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

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

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

So yesterday we would have been married 47 years.

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

Things

Things

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

Yesterday the poet Maya Angelou died.

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

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

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

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

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

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

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

Bread and water are not “things.”

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

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

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

Even a country can't make it out here alone

Even a country can’t make it out here alone

“. . . and their dim moan is wrought / Into a singing sad and beautiful.”

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

.
On Christmas Day at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, LA, they and my sister and I were together. We were joyful and nostalgic and hopeful and silly and loving and lazy. Our average age was 69 years. We are, as they say, “of a piece,” that is, belonging to the same class or kind. Even with our obvious differences, we are all more alike than not.

My sister lives in California and has children and grandchildren within shouting distance. My brother and his wife have each other and grown children in various places.

I live in Dallas.

Each of us has many friends and acquaintances and activities.

My sister-in-law planned to provide Christmas cheer to a friend who was alone. The day before Christmas she had taken her friend to a doctor’s appointment and knew she was not in good health. On Christmas Day, she went to her friend’s home but could not get her friend to answer her ringing at the door or on the phone. I don’t remember all of the details of the situation for certain. What I do know is that my sister-in-law called 911, and they agreed to check on her friend, saying, of course, that if she was conscious, they could not do anything if she was not willing to be helped.

My sister-in-law had emergency telephone numbers for her friend’s brothers. She contacted them (one in Chicago or some such place, and one in Mississippi). The brother in Mississippi decided to drive over to Baton Rouge to check on his sister. I’m not sure how the situation played out because I came home to my cats in Dallas the next day.

Came home to my cats in Dallas.

Before anyone yawns or reproaches me for feeling sorry for myself, or points out (correctly) that I have many friends (I’ve already invited 45 people to the party I’m throwing for myself when my obligations to SMU are finished in May), I’ll try to state my thesis for this little essay clearly to avoid doomsaying or self-indulgent negativity.

Perhaps since I’m in Texas, I should quote the Bible for my thesis. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV). Even God, to say nothing of every psychologist, psychiatrist, health-care professional, and preacher, knows that it is not good for us to be alone.

Maya Angelou says it as clearly as it can be said.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone
(see below).

Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. I’d guess that means there are millions of Americans—and billions world-wide—who aren’t making it. And I don’t mean not getting enough to eat or enough exercise or good enough hygiene or enough entertainment.

I mean not making it.

I have plenty to eat. I exercise four or five times a week in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. I shower every day, carry my garbage out, eat off of clean dishes, and wipe the counters of my kitchen (laundry is another matter, but was always so). I watch a certain amount of TV (I’m actually keeping up with Downton Abbey this season). For goodness’ sake, I have a pipe organ in my living room if I need entertaining! Most important, I have friends with whom I regularly see movies, attend concerts, and go to museums.

If an organ in the living room is played, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound

If an organ in the living room is played, and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Without those friends, I would be relegated to TV because, for me, movies, concerts, museums, and Christmas parades are social events I cannot—no matter how hard I try—get used to seeing/hearing by myself. But I will still be entertained. Perhaps.

Just before Christmas, I bought myself two bouquets of inexpensive super-market roses to add to the color of my Christmas decorations. Nearly a month later I still have them. I am neither a hoarder, nor too lazy to throw them out, nor torturing myself with dead flowers.

They are some kind of metaphor that I can’t quite develop. I bought them for myself. Nothing wrong with that. I also bought myself new diamond earrings for Christmas. But the diamonds won’t dry out and droop and lose their color. I don’t know why I don’t throw the roses out. They are saying something to me about my situation—something I haven’t quite figured out yet.

I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want a friend to have to call my brother to drive over here to Dallas from Baton Rouge to see what’s wrong that I don’t answer a knock at the door or a ring of my phone. I know I have many friends who would set things in motion to take care of me just as my sister-in-law did for her friend.

The fear that might not happen is only a surface fear.

“It is not good that [one] should be alone.”

Do I need a spouse, a partner? Do I need to move closer to my brother or my sister? Do I need to find a nice retirement community (on my income?)? What do I need?

I’m one of those old gay men. Anyone can fill in the description after that. And anyone (nearly everyone does) can ask, “What’s wrong with being alone?” And I’ll ask you to read the poem below by Robinson Jeffers. Magnificent, strong, and self-sufficient mountain pine trees “In scornful upright loneliness [ ] stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything.” But in relationship with an eagle, the wind, the fog, the moon “They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought into a singing sad and beautiful.”
white-pine-mountain-and-forest
This picture of mountain pines is from the blog by Scott at seekraz.wordpress.com and is copyrighted. I have used it without his permission, but have asked him if it’s OK. I will remove it if he asks me to (Scott has given me permission–see his kind comment), but I absolutely suggest that you click the link and visit his blog. This picture is but a tiny sample of his glorious photography.

Mountain Pines, by Robinson Jeffers

In scornful upright loneliness they stand,
Counting themselves no kin of anything
Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling
Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand
In the grim rock. A silent spectral band
They watch the old sky, but hold no communing
With aught. Only, when some lone eagle’s wing
Flaps past above their grey and desolate land,
Or when the wind pants up a rough-hewn glen,
Bending them down as with an age of thought,
Or when, ‘mid flying clouds that can not dull
Her constant light, the moon shines silver, then
They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought
Into a singing sad and beautiful.

Alone, by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.