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

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

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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.

“The Past—it was a feverish dream”

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

[Note to those who’ve asked: the pictures are mine taken at Paradise Beach and then early morning in the cove at Port Orford, Oregon—my favorite hideaway.]

In 1986 Thanksgiving fell on Thursday (November 27); Christmas also fell on Thursday (December 25); New Year’s Eve fell on Wednesday, of course (December 31). In 1987 my birthday fell on Saturday (January 3); Presidents’ Day fell on Monday (February 16); Mardi Gras fell on Tuesday (of course), March 3—it was late that year.

A few weeks ago I came across this delicate poem. In addition to thinking it is a lovely (dare I use such a pedestrian word) I thought, “This is going to be useful sometime.”

SONG OF QUIETNESS
by Robinson Jeffers

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.
Calmer than mists, and cold
As they, that fold on fold
Up the dim valley are rolled,
Learn thou to be.

 The Past—it was a feverish dream,
A drunken slumber full of tears.
The Future—O what wild wings gleam,
Wheeled in the van of desperate years!
Thou lovedst the evening: dawn
Glimmers; the night is gone:—
What dangers lure thee on,
What dreams more fierce?

But meanwhile, now the east is gray,
The hour is pale, the cocks yet dumb,
Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

When I read the poem, I remembered reading Robinson Jeffers’ work in high school. I can’t for the life of me remember what poems of his we read. I know he was one of the “modern” poets we read. He died while I was in high school, 1962. I know virtually nothing about him except what I have looked up online just now. So this is not some long-lost poetic love of mine. The only reason I read this poem was that I knew I had heard of Robinson Jeffers before. My, that’s a long way ‘round to some point!

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

So now I know why the poem haunted me.

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.

On Sunday, November 9 (I’m pretty sure that’s the date although I can state very little about my life at that time with any certainty—I used to say I know the ‘70s happened because I’ve read about them, but the same is true for much of the ‘80s) I went to play for Sunday morning services at Grace Church (Episcopal) as usual.

The evening before, my partner and I had thrown a birthday bash for a good friend (bash? – the three of us). I started drinking wine that day in the middle of the afternoon as I was cooking and continued with vodka, more wine, and then some Drambuie after dinner.  When I arrived at the church, I thought I had a really bad hangover. Then I realized I was still drunk.

The following Saturday (November 15) I did not have any alcohol to drink, and I have had none since. I made it through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, my birthday, Presidents’ Day, and Fat Tuesday without drinking. I knew by that time that I really did not need to get drunk again. And I never have.

Remember not thine old distress.

That is, in some ways, bad advice for someone like me. I need to remember the old distress, or I might not be able to drink deep of quietness. . . on the margins of the sea.

This seems (as I’m thinking about putting it down here in writing) to be too sentimental to express the deepness of my gratitude that, with other demons that I have to fight on an almost daily basis (depression, seizure disorder, old age?) I do not have the demon rum hanging around my neck.

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

Jeffers is, I suppose high school English teachers would tell their students, using the sea as a metaphor for death –thy last of solitudes. I take it differently. It is a song of quietness, of knowing that today, even though this was not true yesterday or the day before, I can take brief rest ere the morning come. Simply be quiet. And be grateful for twenty-seven years of sobriety.

Be glad before the birth of day, Take thy brief rest ere morning come

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come