“. . . a solipsist of the highest order . . .” (Michael Blumenthal)

Bette_davis_the_little_foxes

I can’t quote a single line. (Photo: “Bette Davis the little foxes” by RKO Radio Pictures. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Amateur bloggers are told not to include too many hyperlinks in their writing―that puts people off. My life is a series of hyperlinks. At the very least the stream of my (un)consciousness is.

The poet Michael Blumenthal told me in a private email on November 28, 2013, “I’m so glad ot have you as a reader and the ONLY member of my fan club!”

I quote this because I am as much a name-dropper as anyone else. I left the typo to show that even highly-esteemed poets and law professors sometimes need editors, and it gives me hope that I, too, can be a published author some time.

I know saying “some time” when I’m 71 seems beyond the realm of possibility, but my sister’s sister-in-law Kiyo Sato won Stanford University’s William Saroyan prize for the best NEW writer of the year in 2008 when she was 85, and she is still going strong.

I AM a member of the Michael Blumenthal fan club. I love his poetry, and I like what I know of him as a person (from our few friendly email exchanges). One might think his is the only poetry I ever read (besides Kay Ryan’s and May Sarton’s, about whom I have written here). All one needs do is look at my other blog and note the couple hundred poems by Palestinian poets I have quoted there to know that is not the case.

Anyone who “follows” this blog can surmise why Blumenthal’s phrase “a solipsist of the highest order” has meaning for me―more than “meaning”―it captures the ever-present essence of my solipsistic reality. I write about it fairly often.

I’ve spent most of my life since second grade, when I experienced the first of my seizures, trying to figure out if life is real or not. I live in/with so many contradictions it’s no wonder I can’t figure out what’s real. I’m a gay man who has never been to a Bette Midler concert and cannot quote a single line from a Bette Davis movie (and can’t for the life of me figure out why one of their names has two syllables and the other only one). I’m a kind and generous man with rage issues. I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe in God. I’m basically depressed except when I’m flying high as a kite (there’s a name for that). I’m a love addict who has lived alone for 13 years. Well, you get the picture.

The question is, do these contradictions cause my solipsism or are they the result of it?

I must say here, lest someone think I’m even less perceptive and intelligent than I am, I know Michael Blumenthal’s poem is not about depersonalization disorder or derealization disorder. It’s something about the impossibility of making a connection with a person one is in love with, or at least lusting after. Or it’s about our absolute inability to see others, even those we’re in love with, as real human beings, to care about making a connection with them, so that everyone’s experience is that everyone else looks “right through me into the wall, where large hieroglyphs of motions I am not making lead her to some fabulous beast.”

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With my first and most complicated de-constructionist dancing partner. (Photo by some family member, 1969.)

Michael Blumenthal and I are so different, our lives are actually so contradictory of each other, that we ought not be able even to communicate. He’s a young man of 68, I’m an elderly 71. He’s straight and I’m gay. He’s a celebrated published poet and both a creative writing professor and a law school professor (!?!). I am a retired church organist and first-year English composition teacher. He lived for a year in Africa saving baboons. I’ve lived in mostly pedestrian American cities all my life. He’s Jewish, I’m Gentile (and an activist on behalf of the Palestinians).

If Michael Blumenthal has a seizure disorder, he has not written about it (that I’ve seen).

But seizure disorders and lust and love and dancing aside, as we all learned in our Philosophy 101 class, it’s impossible to think about nothing. Just can’t be done. As long as we are/have something, we can’t imagine nothingness. Even if all we have is a thought.

“Nihilism has no substance. There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.” Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables (1862). Pt. 2, bk. 7, ch. 6.

There is no such thing as nothingness.

Even in moments of my most intense depersonalization disorder or derealization disorder (if, indeed, I “suffer” from those presentations), I do not feel “nothingness.” Solipsism, according to Dictionary.com, is “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.” In my moments of derealization I do not want to know that the world exists. I simply want to know for sure that I exist. That does not make me a solipsist. It’s simply my desperate hope to cling to reality.

My guess is that even those who do not have some clinical presentation like Temporal Lobe Epilepsy have moments of that desperation, moments when we “. . . think [we are] leading her along to some rhythm she could not possibly find on her own . . “ but knowing it is “. . . she who has seen through this subterfuge . . .”

I want to establish and reestablish some hyperlinks soon. I want to find the money (Oh! the reality of money!) and the time to fly to Asheville, NC, to visit one of the men I have most enjoyed dancing with in a deconstructionist tango, then on to Washington, DC, to re-start a research project I began two years ago on the composer David Diamond, then on to Morgantown, WV, to shake Michael Blumenthal’s hand just to be sure he exists, and finally to Cincinnati, OH, to reconnect with another of those men I danced with once (about 1970).

Perhaps if I establish and reestablish these hyperlinks, my dancing with anyone―with everyone―will seem much more real. My hyperlinks may put you off, but they are my only hope.

“DANCING WITH A DE-CONSTRUCTIONIST,” BY MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL
She thinks I am only there
for her benefit, so,
when we move this way,
to old Motown and Rolling Stones,
it is as if there is no text at all,
and, though it seems to me it is I
who am leading her across the de-carpeted floor
of this apartment in East Cambridge,
there is in her eyes the glint of someone
alone with their best pleasure,
a solipsist of the highest order,
and it is as if she is looking right through me
into the wall, where large hieroglyphs
of motions I am not making lead her
to some fabulous beast, a wild subtext
taking her, better than I ever could,
to where she most wants to be. And so,
in a certain way, we are both happy:
I who think I am leading her along
to some rhythm she could not possibly find
on her own, and she who has seen through
this subterfuge of hips and legs
as if I were pure spirit―which is how,
in some way, I had wanted it all along…
and the Supremes and the Rolling Stones
secretive among the speakers, taking it
all in, helping us to forget what it was
that brought us here to begin with.

Blumenthal, Michael. Against Romance. (reprint) New York: Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2006.
Quoted in: Blumenthal, Michael. “Voices neither High nor Low”: Some Thoughts on Diction in Contemporary American Poetry.” Legal Studies Forum. Jan. 2007: 433+. (This article, by the way, is not attributed; however, who else would write an article about poetry in a law journal?)

fish fucking
“FISH FUCKING,” a Michael Blumenthal companion poem to “DANCING WITH A DE-CONSTRUCTIONIST.” Museum Victoria has excavated 380-million-year-old fossil fishes from Gogo, Western Australia. This page describes how these early fishes were reproducing.

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not make it the happiest possible dust . . .” (Michael Blumenthal)

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

Everybody loves Saturday night on Main Street

A cousin, a year younger than I, lived in London for many years as a (seemingly) hot-shot powerfully successful corporate lawyer for some big American company. I remember hearing the tales—and now and then seeing pictures—of his and his family’s life in London from my aunt and uncle after they would visit him. I haven’t seen or heard directly from my cousin since about 1985, the last time I was in the same city he was when he was studying for the LSAT. A little late in life, wouldn’t you say? Yes. He had been an English professor at some small college in far west Kansas but decided he wanted to make a real living as well as, with Dorothy, not be in Kansas anymore.

His late father told me once the only person he knew who writes better than I do is my cousin—and that’s why his lawyering was so successful. (One might wonder how much writing my uncle had read that we were his two favorite writers. But that’s another story.) The practice of law is all about writing, he said. And the practice of being successful in this world was all about being his son, in his eyes.

In about 1985 I was at my aunt and uncle’s home in suburban Kansas City with my partner, and my cousin refused to come to dinner.

Yes, I am miffed. Don’t like my cousin. Don’t ever want to see him again. I have my reasons. Homophobia.

He’s unkind. I’ll be unkind in return.

The other night Stephen Colbert interviewed George Saunders who was promoting his book on kindness, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. It’s now one of those books on my Nook that I haven’t read yet. George Saunders was pretty entertaining talking about kindness, how easy it is to be kind instead of mean, and how seldom we all choose to do so. Even Stephen Colbert managed to be kind a couple of times during their conversation.

Through their entire conversation I kept wondering if either of them had read the poem, “Be Kind,” which was the first of Michael Blumenthal’s poems I read. It came in a poem-a-day thing I subscribe to. I’m not educated enough to go looking for such work. I’ve written about Michael Blumenthal and that poem before (the text is at the link). After I did so, I wrote to Blumenthal, and he not only replied with a kind and funny little letter, but also put me on the list to receive his holiday (Christmas) greeting. I told him I am a member in good standing of his fan club.

Michael Blumenthal is an attorney turned poet. He is not, as far as I can tell, homophobic.

Last night (Saturday) a friend and I were walking on Main Street in Dallas. The traffic was heavy, and people were strolling about and sitting in restaurants have a grand time. I saw only one homeless person in the four blocks up and back we walked. (We were on a mission to have a Fluellen Cupcake.)

As little as three or four years ago there would have been virtually no traffic on Main Street on a Saturday night. Things have changed. I think, not being a social scientist or city planner or demographer, the change finally tipped over into city life when the Joule (boutique) Hotel and its (ridiculously upscale and expensive) restaurant finally opened across the street from the small sculpture garden the developer also owns, with its one sculpture, the big eye—and the center of upscale socializing shifted to Main Street (from wherever it was before).

Immediately the city was flocked with the beautiful people and the wannabes. It’s the happening place again. Minus the poor and the homeless, of course.

Sculpture for the beautiful people

Sculpture for the beautiful people

I do not want to sound unkind. I like the bustle as much as anyone. I think it’s fun. Cool. Groovy. Bitchin’ (how many old fashioned words can I dredge up?). If anything I say sounds unkind, it’s probably because I am jealous. No way can I afford to eat at the Joule restaurant (or have my car parked for $25 by their valets—they park on the same level where I park for $2 in the public garage over on Commerce Street a block away). And there’s not much left of me that would be one of the beautiful people even if I could afford to shop at LA Traffic clothes, also in the Joule.

I do not want to sound judgmental. Michael Blumenthal wrote a poem he titled “Suburban.” The first line, “Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,” came to mind last night as we walked. One can catch conformity anywhere, I think. Conforming is likely to be unkind if one is a gay elitist pseudo-intellectual like me; or an English professor turned homophobic lawyer; or one of the beautiful people; or a suburban golfer clutching his putter; or a lawyer turned poet; or a valet at a fancy hotel; or a clerk at a cupcake shop; or a homeless person invisible in the happening city.

It seems to me conformity is the first sign, the first sign of unkindness. Are we unkind because we conform, or—worse—do we begin to conform because we are unkind?

“Suburban,” by Michael Blumenthal
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it,
Lawns groomed in prose, with hardly a stutter.
Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine fetches it.

Mom hangs the laundry, Fred, Jr., watches it,
Shirts in the clichéd air, all aflutter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

A dog drops a bone, another dog snatches it.
I dreamed of this life once, Now I shudder
As Lloyd hits the ball and Lorraine fetches it.

A doldrum of leaky roofs, a roofer who patches it,
Lloyd prowls the streets, still clutching his putter.
Conformity caught here, nobody catches it.

The tediumed rake, the retiree who matches it,
The fall air gone dead with the pure drone of motors
While Lloyd hits the ball, and Lorraine just fetches it.

The door is ajar, then somebody latches it.
Through the hissing of barbecues poets mutter
Of conformity caught here, where nobody catches it.
Lloyd hits the ball. And damned Lorraine fetches it.

TRAFFIC LA - a shop for the men at the Joule

TRAFFIC LA – a shop for the men at the Joule

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

“. . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it. . . “

That my left shoulder is healing and my arm in a sling may be what some of my friends would say is, ‘God doing for me what I cannot do for myself’ – that is, I must  listen to others instead of publishing my unruly palaver.

Here, then, are two of my favorite Thanksgiving texts. The first one ought to read. The second, one will take joy in having read.
__________________

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

HD_LincolnA8Nov1863zc.previewThe year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

______________________

Be Kind 1324405259_md
by Michael Blumenthal

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.
1

“kindness. . . profligate in its expenditure” A (probably incomprehensible) poetry lesson from the irrepressible professor

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

Two moderately long poems and an 18-minute musical work (I’ll be amazed if anyone wades through all of this).  However, taken together, they say something about the life of my mind and “spirit” today that I can’t say myself, so I offer them for your consideration in whole, in part, or a bit at a time.

On August 13 my posting here was read by way more people (way more) than any other posting I’ve made on this blog.

. . . Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .  

–– From “Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal (printed in full below the picture of Christopher Smart)

 Michael Blumenthal’s poem once showed up on my “timeline” on Facebook, and I’ve sent it to friends on important occasions. Let me get all ooey-gooey and sentimental. It’s one of my favorite poems because it reminds me to be grateful.

And to try to be kind. It will not drain my limited resources to be kind.
And then, because I was trying this morning to be grateful for so many things, the beginning of a list:

For friends I don’t know
For friends I do know
For my family
For my small ability to make music
For my even smaller ability to get outside my self-absorption and love someone else
(and for the people who have taught me to stop worrying about “the meaning of life”
because that’s probably the meaning of life)
For the gift—it’s nothing I thought up myself
—of the decision to love a couple of people unreservedly
For the pipe organ in my living room
For the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, TX
For enough intellectual curiosity to find new poetry to read every day
For enough intellectual ability to have a modicum of understanding of that poetry
For my cats who make it nearly impossible for me to live in a “normal” home
For Dr. Steven Thornton’s magic arthroscopy
And for so much more I can’t begin to say

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

After I remembered Michael Blumenthal’s poem and decided to write about my gratitude, I thought of my favorite poem about gratitude (isn’t it amazing how the mind makes connections among memories), that is, “Wild Gratitude,” by Edward Hirsch (printed in full below).

Hirsch’s image of the cat comes from the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section of Christopher Smart’s poem “Jubilate Agno” (Rejoice in the Lamb). Obviously it’s impossible for me to think about Smart’s cat Jeoffry without having in mind “Rejoice in the Lamb” by Benjamin Britten which I once had the great joy to accompany, which is one of the moments of my life for which I have “Wild Gratitude” (see recording endnotes).

There. From your reading my blog two days ago to the organ accompaniment to “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.” How’s that for a meandering of the mind?

Insane or TLEptic?

Insane or TLEptic?

[A sidebar: I have often thought Christopher Smart was not insane, but merely had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy–his hypergraphia, his incomprehensible religious fervor, and his babbling about the strange images in his imagination, and his inability to concentrate on details such as money are presentations of TLE.]

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal         

 Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“Wild Gratitude,”  by Edward Hirsch

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat’s mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
“And all conveyancers of letters” for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn’t until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey’s waggling mouth
That I remembered how he’d called Jeoffry “the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,”
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn’t until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, “a creature of great personal valour,”
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

An introduction to Christopher Smart’s poem with the entire text of the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section.
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/poem/2009/10/in_nomine_patris_et_felis.html

THE BEST RECORDING of Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” I’ve found online is
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsZP-IH8XbM

The entire text is here (I guess it’s impossible for choirs these days to sing so you can understand all of the words).
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britlamb.html