“Auntie . . . told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died . . .”

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Delores De Rio. Size 4?

Being eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant has compensations. For example, every time I discover a poet I whose work I didn’t know, it seems as if they wrote a poem that morning, for me alone.

Case in point. I’ve been following Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie’s advice most of my life and didn’t know it. I do travel slowly. I have not travelled the world. I suppose by most people’s reckoning I’ve done quite a bit of travel. Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, the Channel Islands, France, Spain, Brazil. Jordan, and Palestine. All 48 of the “continental” states.

But as gay men go, those who have worked all their lives and have no one to care for except themselves so they have plenty of “disposable income,” I’ve been almost nowhere. I have friends who take two or three cruises a year.

I’ve never been on a cruise. For two reasons. I can’t imagine being on a ship in the middle of the ocean and unable to get off when I wanted to. Once the idea got into my head I wanted off the ship—NOW!—they’d have to sedate me or send a helicopter to airlift me out.  

And I’ve never had the money to travel. I’m not complaining or regretting (that’s not quite true) the particulars of my life. I’m solely responsible that I was a drunk until I was 41 and never had full-time work in my profession until I was 42. Exactly what Dean Anne Minton saw in me that allowed her to hire me to teach music at Bunker Hill Community College in spite of my résumé I will always wonder and be grateful.

I have “travel[ed] slowly [and] I [have not seen] too much.” I’ve spent almost a month in Palestine (including Gaza—not many Americans can say that). I spent three weeks in Brazil (one week in the Amazon Rain Forest)—4th of July on the Beach at Ipanema. I wrote about that a year ago, so I suppose I should simply make a link to that posting and be on my way writing about something else.

However, it’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

For one thing, Sandra Alcosser wrote “Hats” for me this morning. She’s a year older than I am, and was the first Poet Laureate of the State of Montana. Anyone who lives only 481 miles from Worland, WY, the first place I remember living, has to be OK. (Driving between the two small cities, you pass within about 40 miles of Yellowstone National Park—where I have also spent some slow travel time.) Especially when she was up early enough to write a poem for me this morning.

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .
Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction
.

When I turned 30 years old, I was so cocky and pig-headed (and, well, drunk) I hardly noticed except that at some time earlier I had gotten it into my head that I’d die when I was 27, so I was surprised to be hitting 30. When I hit 40, I was in the deepest point of drinking and barely noticed—wanting to finish my PhD and have a good job like all of my friends.

I had a grand party at Jaxx Steak House in Farmers Branch, TX, for my 50th birthday, living with the man I loved, in graduate school again, this time studying writing, and playing the organ for a small church. I could hardly have imagined a better life. I had a grand party with friends for my 60th birthday under much different circumstances. I was professoring at SMU, still playing the organ for the small church, but alone because my partner had died of melanoma. It was a difficult birthday because I was lonely, not because I thought 60 was old or in any other way unpleasant.

My next birthday will be my 70th. I’m not particularly looking forward to it. I won’t, most likely, be like Sandra Alcosser’s Auntie, lying in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan . . .  old and curled like [a crustacean]. No, if I follow my family’s genetic pattern, that won’t happen for about 20 more years.

I will be, however, “eternally and overwhelmingly ignorant.” By my next birthday I will have been retired for about six months. As that time approaches, it seems no matter what I do I’m travelling too fast, seeing too much before I die—but remaining ignorant of what much of it means or, more importantly, what to do about it.

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

Ginger Rogers in her Lilly Daché

It’s more important to decide what not to see than what I should see. I don’t need to see women’s health clinics in Texas closing because of the unscientific belief perpetrated on the American people about when human “life” begins. I don’t need to see the ignominy that 19% of Texans are functionally illiterate while state officials trumpet an “economic miracle.” I don’t need to see 27% of Texas children living in food insecurity while Senator Cruz rails about cutting government budgets.

I don’t need to see wars, rumors of war, and both imperialism and apartheid still (in the age of enlightenment?) basically controlling the world.

I don’t need to see climate change deniers winning seats in the US Congress.

“. . . would see too much before I died . . .” I suppose nearly everyone will. If we all see these things, why don’t they change? That’s not a “rhetorical question.” It’s the sad—and getting sadder—question of an almost-old man (Auntie will, I’m sure, share the idea with an old man) who has already, perhaps, seen too much.

“Hats,” by Sandra Alcosser

Auntie lies in the rest home with a feeding tube and a bedpan, she weighs nothing, she fidgets and shakes, and all I can see are her knotted hands and the carbon facets of her eyes, she was famous for her pies and her kindness to neighbors, but if it is true that every hat exhibits a drama the psyche wishes it could perform, what was my aunt saying all the years of my childhood when she squeezed into cars with those too tall hats, those pineapples and colored cockades, my aunt who told me I should travel slowly or I would see too much before I died, wore spires and steeples, tulled toques. The velvet inkpots of Schiaparelli, the mousseline de soie of Lilly Daché have disappeared into the world, leaving behind one flesh-colored box, Worth stenciled on the top, a coral velvet cloche inside with matching veil and drawstring bag, and what am I to make of these Dolores del Rio size 4 black satin wedgies with constellations of spangles on the bridge. Before she climbed into the white boat of the nursing home and sailed away–talking every day to family in heaven, calling them through the sprinkling system–my aunt said she was pushing her cart through the grocery when she saw young girls at the end of an aisle pointing at her, her dowager’s hump, her familial tremors. Auntie, who claimed that ninety pounds was her fighting weight, carried her head high, hooded, turbaned, jeweled, her neck straight under pounds of roots and vegetables that shimmied when she walked. Surely this is not the place of women in our world, that when we are old and curled like crustaceans, young girls will laugh at us, point their fingers, run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

Her Elsa Schiaparelli mini top

 

Where on earth have you been?

The Cathedral Church, St. Albans, England. Religion or Spirituality?

The Cathedral Church, St. Albans, England. Religion or Spirituality?

This question has (Duh!) many answers. Depending if it’s in reference to physically, mentally, or spiritually.

I’ll begin with mentally. This morning I had reason to write on a friend’s FB page a note about earning a PhD. My friend said,

I’m encouraging my mother to re-embrace her title — “DR.”— since I remember all she went through when she earned her Ph.D.

I responded,

It took me years to realize that my PhD is not simply an honorary formality. A major university does, in fact, recognize me as having successfully completed the most rigorous level of academic work. But I am still surprised when people call me “Doctor.” Tell your mom that she really DOES deserve the title and it’s OK to feel set apart in this instance because she is. I’ll bet she calls her physician “doctor.” That refers to her level of education, not her profession.

I have been in the rarefied atmosphere of the graduate school at the University of Iowa School of Music. I have taught at Salem State College in Massachusetts, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, the University of Texas at Dallas, two of the Dallas County Community College campuses, and Southern Methodist University.

None of these is Harvard or Stanford or the University of Chicago. I’m not a real intellectual. But I know such a creature when I see one (and they’re not all at those three schools). I have known quite a few. They aren’t as plentiful as you might think. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Rachel Maddow is. In fact, I know some university department chairs who are not.

So where have I been mentally? At the periphery of scholarship, on the edge of thinking well and/or greatly, in the vicinity of being smart.

The Amazon at Manaus, Brazil. What a trip!

The Amazon at Manaus, Brazil. What a trip!

Of course, I can claim some extenuating circumstances. I have a brain disorder that has made it difficult for me to concentrate on much of anything for my whole life (my first seizure happened when I was in third grade, about 1953, and my TLE was not diagnosed until 1982). That’s not a cop-out. I’m also just plain lazy and not all that smart. I also have a mind disorder (I’m not one of those who was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder as the designer disease of the 2000s) that explains much.

So where I’ve been mentally is pretty squirrelly.

Spiritually – I’m not going there. I don’t know for sure what that means. I inwardly raise an eyebrow any time I hear someone say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” I think, for whatever my non-intellectual thinking is worth, that’s pretty sloppy thinking. It’s a meaningless statement, but if it gives the speaker comfort, who am I to question it. Even the Southern Baptists seem to be disavowing religion. Their new $135,000,000 building down the street in Dallas is just “First Baptist Dallas,” not “First Baptist Church.” “Spirituality” is a catch-all word for something most people don’t really feel and can’t explain.

I don’t have a clue and admit it.

So that leaves physically. This—unless quantum physics (which I obviously do not have the brains or the education to understand) is right and I can be in several places at once or in parallel universes, or whatever—is easy to talk about. I’ve lived in Douglas and Worland, WY; Kearney, Scottsbluff and Omaha, NE; Redlands, Ontario, and Upland, CA; Iowa City and Muscatine, IA; Methuen, Beverly, and Salem, MA; and Dallas, TX.

I have visited (at the very least, passed through) all 48 of the “continental” United States.

I have been to England (and the Channel Islands), Spain, France, Canada, and Mexico on my own.

I have been to England, Brazil, Germany, Jordan, The Occupied Territory of Palestine (including Gaza), and Israel as a member of one group or another traveling for specific (educational) purposes.

I’m about to be physically (unless quantum physics is right) in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia! I’ve written about that here before. I’m finally getting REALLY excited about it. I’m not going on my own; rather, I’m going with a church choir to make some music.

Holy Cross Church, Rauma, Finland. Next stop on the journey?

Holy Cross Church, Rauma, Finland. Next stop on the journey?

And here’s what I think about my travel. Wherever I have gone (or will go) I end up taking myself with me. Every hour I’ve spent anywhere besides in my little abode has changed me.  The limited mental and spiritual me—I’m beginning to think—is informed by the places I’ve been, and I wouldn’t give that experience up for anything (and I’m jealous of everyone who’s done more travel than I), but I must remember that it’s me here in my body and mind (and perhaps my “spirit”), and no amount of travel (or any other experience) is going to do much to improve that. It is, as they say in AA, “an inside job,” and I better hop to it.