“Are We Still Here?”

Are We Still Here?

Between the woodpile and the window
a line of small black ants is moving,
some to the north, some to the south.

Their constant industry is admirable,
as are their manners when they pause
in meeting to exchange a touch.

I must have brought their home inside
for fuel, heating my small house.
And if it burned I too would move

along all points of the compass rose,
touching my neighbors on the path.

by David Mason

I like this extended metaphor about people and ants. Even though they are incredibly busy, ants will stop to greet their neighbors and colleagues. I wish I could keep my own purposes in sight just like the ants do.

This poem reminds me that close observation of what is going on around me can keep me intrigued.    I love Mason’s observations about ant etiquette.  How often I see good, neighborly/family manners in my cats.   When they jump up on my bed, they greet me.  When they are fed they will often take a little lap of gratitude around my ankles before they tuck in.  I would like to have the sense of purpose that ants have.   Thinking of them, however, is decent medicine.  My neck won’t move much today and it hurts a lot less when I am reading provocative poems about animals.

Each poem is a little elegy, I find.  I never know if it will be the last poem I read.  Or perhaps I won’t meet up with this poem again.

As an invalid, I’m bemused and very anxious about the sundry people who want to visit me or have me come to visit them.  One of my sisters is paying a visit soon.  She did not ask me if, when, why, or where.  She’s coming with her granddaughter later this month.   She sent me a list of things they want to do.  The Zoo?  How splendid but I cannot walk around for  more than 10 minutes maximum and then I’m totally wiped out.     She has a non-refundable ticket.   I can’t drive anymore although I might take a chance on 3 or 4 blocks in the broad light of the day.  But I can’t pull off a job like a perfect ant.

Wendell Berry

VII
by Wendell Berry

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the riverbank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.

“VII.” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010.

 

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Berry evokes the way I feel.  My once robust skin is growing very oniony.  My veins, formerly subterranean on my skin, now pop up with their light blue wanness.   Soon I will have lived with the same person for 50 years.   Half a century.  My ungovernable thick hair has thinned.   I start to worry about bald spots appearing.

I remember leaving the house.  When I was young, I kept my eyes open to see if there were any little girls close to my age around.  When I was a bit older, I kept my eyes open so I could compare myself (negatively) with others or greater beauty, scope, and promise.  Whether men, women, boys, or girls, I was looking for charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.  And lots of brains.   When I was a bit older I judged people by the books they read the the politicians they supported.  Then when I had babies, I wanted to gape admiringly at every child.  My eyes ranged for mothers with young children.  Once or twice there was a father!  Affinity of a sort, even if we did not speak.

My body is old and burdensome.  I remember vividly what it felt like to be 4, 10, 18, 25, 36, 45, 57 and now I don’t know if 2011 was just a minute ago or possible 100 years ago.   The mind has its own geography and chronology.   60 years ago I took my 5 younger siblings out on Saturday mornings to visit the Peabody Museum and its dinosaurs and dinosaur bones.   How I was enraptured yet terrified when they displayed a mummy!  In  1962 we would go off to look at the American debut of King Tutankhamun.   It was vivid and it seemed to have the dust of centuries and African sand, transported all the way from Egypt.  I dreamt of being a little Egyptian mummy and it made me cry—so much fate, so much time, so much of both drama and tedium it was to be a mummy.  I felt the helplessness of the mummy and now I think that the young King Tut gave me one of my most enduring emotions about helplessness, hopelessness, and how peremptory and perfunctory time and death are.

 

 

The Rest Is Noise

I have been busy dying, which does not guarantee that I’ll die anytime soon.  But I feel it.  I have a natural affinity for those who have died.  I was never meant to fit in with the 20th century.   As an introvert, I don’t miss people much.   I feel more distant from neighbors, ex-collegues, and remote relatives (including my siblings and children) than I could have imagined.   My reading proceeds at a glacial pace.  And I mean the glacial paces of the past, not the hurried up melting glaciers of today.

My ears have failed in that I only can hear others mumble.  But I listen to music every day and cherish it.  I still love a good poem, but mostly rely on works from the past.

I work on my Swedish “death cleaning,” and  I have a difficult decision to make.     Will there ever again be a time when I choose to wear a dress?  All those nice dresses are gone and a black “funeral” dress, which I got almost 30 years ago stays.   All of my socks are gone because I’ve decided to wear merino slip-ons that don’t require socks.   And I never ever have to buy anything again:  I have enough nightgowns to last until I’m 250 years old and enough slippers to last a good 12 or 15 years.  I have enough perfume to sustain me forever and also coats and jackets to give away.

I gave away all of my beloved Trollope books and the academic criticism.   It had been almost 50 years in the making—me and my Trollope devotion.

What I have that I don’t need to give up are abiding little “obsessions”–Edward Gorey, Edward Young, “Urn Burial,” Barbara Pym, romantic poetry, Victorian poetry.

What pains me the most are the current conditions of the USA and the world in general.   I hate Republicans and their guns and their intolerance and bigotry.  I am deeply ashamed to be from this country.   I would like to seek refuge in Canada or England or Italy or a few other places but I never had enough money to appeal to them.

I wish I could say that dying has inspired elevated thoughts.  Instead, I am pre-disgusted by  my own corpse.  I want it to go away as quickly as possible.   At this point, I don’t have the money for a new “green burial” (doing the virtuous thing is often the most costly).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classics Spin Redux

  1.  Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  2. John Galsworthy:  The Forsyte Saga
  3. Laurie Colwin:  Family Happiness
  4. Thomas Mann:  Death in Venice
  5. Trollope:  The Prime Minister
  6. Ibsen:  The Wild Duck
  7. Hawthorne:  The Scarlet Letter
  8. Butler:  The Way of All Flesh
  9. Anthony Hecht:  Collected Poetry
  10. Melville:  Benito Cereno
  11. Henry James:  The Spoils of Poynton
  12. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  13. Anita Brookner:  Providence
  14. Thomas Hardy:  A Pair of Blue Eyes
  15. Thomas Mann:  Buddenbrooks
  16. Iris Murdoch:  Nuns and Soldiers
  17. Barbara Pym:  A Few Green Leaves
  18. Edith Wharton:  The Bunner Sisters
  19. Edith Wharton:  Summer
  20. Helen Vendler:  The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar

New Classics Spin: Summer Edition

  1.  Laurie Colwin:  Family Happiness
  2.  Anne Perry:  A Dangerous Mourning
  3. Toni Morrison:  Jazz
  4. Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  5. James Longenbach:  Earthling
  6. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  7.  Yates:  Cold Spring Harbor
  8. Yates:  Young Hearts Crying
  9. Brookner:  Family and Friends
  10. Vendler:  The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar
  11. Sharp:  Cluny Brown
  12.  Shamsie:  Home Fire
  13. Plumly:  Against Sunset
  14. Logan;  Night Battles
  15.  Wharton:  Summer
  16.  Wharton:  Bunner Sisters
  17.  Wharton:  The Pot Boiler
  18. James:  The Spoils of Poynton
  19. Logan:  Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure
  20. Ann Patchett:  Commonwealth

A Message from the dead….

What if you sit many hours by a dying woman’s side and she many times begs you to deliver a final message to her daughter?

My aunt Marjorie was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in the autumn of 1995 and died in January of 1996.  My mother and I largely took care of her.  My aunt had been visiting her daughter when she received the diagnosis and she never went home.  But her daughter was unable to do all that needed to be done, so she asked my mother to become the primary caretaker.   She also had me fly in for several periods throughout the illness.

One time the daughter, my cousin, needed to go on a Disney cruise with her children to console her because her mother was dying (no, I don’t understand her logic but the optics were not lost on me).  Her mother asked me repeatedly to see to it that this daughter would make sure her own daughter received  a college education.  It was my aunt’s regret that she had never gone to a university.  She wanted this so much for her granddaughter.

Many times she clutched my wrist and looked earnestly at me and said:  “Please tell Barbara that she must send Norah to college.”   In truth, I rather assumed that Barbara was planning to do that in the fullness of time.  But her mother kept telling me:  “Please tell Barbara that my final wish is that Norah go to college.”

Months after Marjorie died, I wondered if I should share that her final thoughts had been about the future college education of her granddaughter.   She had become monomaniacal about the issue.  And she was not speaking too much to Barbara, who was assuming the role of Camille.

Several months later, I decided that I did owe it to Marjorie to let her family know what her final wish was.  I had made a promise.  Of course, it might insult her daughter, but it also might enlighten her as to the inner nature of her mother—facing death, Marjorie regrets her own lack of formal higher education and is determined that her granddaughter get one.

22 years later and I remain the family pariah.  I told Barbara (with as much diplomacy as possible) about her mother’s thoughts.  Barbara decided that I was drunk and/or on drugs and/or mentally ill.

What do the dead know?  What do the dying know?  Are we obligated to convey the thoughts that they urgently want to convey?  Are they capable of understanding the relevance of their messages?  I think that my cousin’s older brother believed that I was “stirring the shit” by speaking of his mother’s thoughts.

These cousins “out-sourced” the care of their dying mother.  She knew it.  She must have been furious that her daughter was snatching the final prima-donna moment away from her.  Family life is  dark and murky.

I’ve become a lot less compassionate since then.  I will no longer go running to the call of entitled people.

 

 

Ted Kooser: “Carrie”

tedkooserCarrie

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.

from Sure Signs, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980

I’ve been enjoying some poems that are “simple” but nicely wrought.  They typically have  central metaphors:  “a ball of compulsion” a rag which is a “thunderhead”.  The old woman’s elbow creaking and popping.  And all to become dust.

I’ve been indulging in an old woman’s mimsy whimsy.  I’ve always tried to be inconspicuous, wearing black and navy garb and never daring beyond “neutral” colors.  Recently I developed a “compulsion” to find purple and red handbags; yellow and green shoes.   Rebelling against my innate frugality, I wanted to show pops of color in my outfits.

I’ve also turned to Wendall Berry.  I mourn Donald Hall more than I might have a decade ago.  In these times I want my poet’s to be “well-versed in country things” and I want them to be the opposite of Donald Trump and that terrorist group, The Republicans.

My mind can no longer handle the baroque or the intricate.  I need to escape–whether it’s via a word from Donald Justice or a phrase from Ted Kooser.  Whether it’s a red shoe or a purple one—anything that is not prosaic in today’s sense.

How I wish Aunt Carrie were a round to dust the detritus out of the White House!  Look at the beautiful image of Mr. Kooser and the deep and warm browns.  Then look at my gaudy shoes.  How can I live with such conflicting ideals?