Advent I: Wachet Auf

There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

First, about birthdays: as threatened, I survived my eightieth back in August. But as I didn’t anticipate, I felt the need of a long time out. For a while the need puzzled me. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I knew I was experiencing some life change, the kind of thing Gail Sheehy called a passage in her popular self-help book of the 1970s. Sheehy didn’t have anything to say about reaching my age back then, but she has more recently written another book in which she opines about the years between ages 45 and 85 as a “second adulthood.”

I’m resisting this second Sheehy book, but I have needed to think about what was changing in my life or perhaps what had already changed without my marking it. And my need for a time out is in itself a change. It’s been like being on a retreat, something I’ve not needed (or not felt I needed) in the past. I’ve been doing something like what Isaiah calls waiting upon the Lord, though I’ve mostly resisted church during my time out. I don’t want the formal closures of doctrine, scripture, or liturgy at present. I’m rather trying to attend to what a medieval author called a cloud of unknowing.

And here presently I’m writing mostly about the attending. I continue to wait, and the waiting is slow. I’m an intuitive person. Intuition isn’t always lightning fast: indeed the big intuitions almost always come slowly, piece by piece. But on the other hand I’m quite clear about what triggered my time out; though the clarity came after the fact and as often happens for me, from reading. Looking for something else, I came across this wonderful Homeric simile in one of Robinson Jeffers’ poems.

The future is a misted landscape,
no man sees clearly, but at cyclic turns
There is a change felt in the rhythm of events, as when
an exhausted horse
Falters and recovers, then the rhythm of the running
hoofbeats is changed: he will run miles yet,
But he must fall: we have felt it again in our own life
time, slip, shift, and speed-up
In the gallop of the world; . . . .

I’m shamelessly wrenching this figure out of its context in a political poem entitled “Prescription of Painful Ends.” And as I say, I became aware of the stumbling and recovery only after the fact; so that I can’t say just when these things occurred. I infer their occurrence from the fact that I am coming to think of the remainder of my life just so—as the remainder. And that is a new thing; though I now realize it has been a growing awareness in me for some years.

Dylan Thomas’s “Poem In October” is one of the first modern poems I seriously loved. But I can no longer feel much solidarity with the child evoked there. There was joy in my childhood to be sure, but there were also pain and grief and almost unbearable loss. Last summer my brother and I wandered about the neighborhood in Albuquerque where we lived as small boys just after World War II. When I left Albuquerque’s Monte Vista school in the middle of the fourth grade in 1946, my teacher embraced me and wept. I wept as well but not without some sense of ironic distance, knowing as I did that my teacher’s tears were for a boy who had lost his father.

I am no longer that boy, but I loved wandering the halls of my former school back in August with my beloved. Along the way we happened on a couple of rascally boys late for an outdoor class meeting. “We’re busted,” said one—“We’re so busted!” exclaimed the other as they ran past us. A few minutes later we observed them sneaking into the back of a class meeting outdoors on a fine day that happened to be the first day of school. This, among timeless things, resonates like the clock on my mantelpiece. But what vista opens for me now, at eighty? Both my brother and I recalled being sent to the principal’s office at Monte Vista school because we had been caught playing in a small grove of trees that were for some reason off limits, the very grove of trees indeed, in which we observed those boys settling at the back of their class.

Mutatis mutandis . . . surely a part of the point is that one’s love of the world, my love of the world, need not diminish, has not diminished, with age—other things being equal that is. But I am fortunate. Many of my friends and colleagues have not been so fortunate. My doctor, who I sometimes think is too young to be the excellent professor of medicine that she is, reminds me that my job at eighty is to work at retaining my health. Good advice to a fortunate man for whom the future perhaps remains an open question, the rhythm of the running out of life not yet slipped into terminal illness or dementia or misanthropy.

Thus, the gospel injunction to remain awake at first Advent arrives when I am already sleepless, and if not glad of it at least content. It isn’t what the Te Deum terms the sharpness of death, or its prospect, but the openness of life to that prospect that gives new meaning to me at eighty.

—more to come . . .

summer replacement

I’m working on an essay about tragedy and politics at the moment, and it has turned into a rather large project. That, and the prospect of various summer adventures, one of which will take me to New Mexico, leave me uncertain when I will post something new here. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote just over a year ago whose fundamentals remain, though its occasion has passed.

I retired officially fourteen years ago and moved to Saint Louis, but since that time I’ve continued to work part time at Saint Louis University. I taught basic English classes for a while; then for the past eleven years I have offered a senior honors seminar called Great Books. Somewhere in there I also served as an assistant dean in SLU’s now defunct graduate college. This spring I’ve decided to retire completely, partly because my beloved is retiring and partly because it’s time.

I’ve loved Rilke’s poem, “Herbsttag,” for many years, love the opening especially in English, “It is time, Lord . . . ,” not so much about what it is time for the speaker to do as a proleptic evocation of what God might do, the near casual feeling of those first few words juxtaposed as they are to a set of cosmic expectations couched in rhetorically extravagant flourishes. Clearly this speaker’s autumn reflection means to image a metaphysical autumn, a time of last things, of passage from one life state to another. The poem is widely available. Here it is together with a number of translations.

I share the restlessness of the poem’s concluding lines. I am neither homeless nor friendless, except in the sense of being alone as we all are alone, but I am experiencing at least two contrary emotions as I think about the future. These inspire no new thoughts about death—it’s out there somewhere. Rather, what I am experiencing is a conflict between desiring to do old age as a contest between my body and the set of physical limitations that come with being almost eighty on the one hand, and on the other a contrary desire to take a nap.

Taking a nap has its advantages, I suppose, if one is willing to slide into decline and live with one’s memories. But I remain restless, walking up and down whatever streets I find to walk in, writing late at night, writing trivia, still seeking to overcome it, returning to old forms of thought I had abandoned for years, looking for my ancestors. I wrote a passable sonnet not long ago. I wrote a villanelle, not really good but a villanelle nonetheless. I’d like to write a good one. I may return to rhyme, not a bad spiritual exercise.

I’m describing a state of mind that many readers have found in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” but that poem’s naïve evocation of the will bespeaks its late romantic origin and the youthful mind of its author. Tennyson was only 24 when he wrote “Ulysses,” a poem more likely to appeal to the youthful Bobby Kennedy (who loved it, as everyone knows, I think) than to someone at my time of life. Still, my restlessness is real, and my own. I need to learn to exploit it rather than merely living with it. I can hear the voice of some learned person reminding me of Ernest Becker, but Becker’s various immortality projects seem to me to belong to youthful thinking as well.

My beloved and I are gearing up for some travel, road trips around our own continent—though we haven’t ruled out travel abroad. I have a long list of projects to complete or cause to be completed at home, some of which must be finished before another winter. I have walks to take, some with camera in hand. I have friends to talk with and books to read, a villanelle to write and potentially a new project to explore closed forms of poetry I abandoned years ago after publishing a set of sonnets I came to dislike. There’s a certain comfort in playing with closed forms and an existential discomfort that goes with writing in open ones. So my closed form project may be a hdege against restlessness.

But I guess I’m trying to school myself to think of old age as an invitation not to design an immortality strategy (pace Becker) but still to live with as much gusto as I can muster for the remaining time I have. I’m aware of my huge good fortune in possessing good health, though I need to take off a few pounds (actually more than a few). So my prescription for myself is contingent upon continued good health and therefore is for myself alone; though you’re welcome to stop by, if you like. We can have a coffee at Mokabes or a beer at The Shaved Duck if it’s late enough in the day, and talk about whatever’s in the air.

I think I may be reconciled to living in the city I have in the here and now, not in another one to come (pace Plato and St. Paul). The academy was in some ways my city to come, to be sought or founded in the realm of discourse. But nobody can really live in such a place, and one thing I may have learned from this perception is that it is the very accidental character of real cities that makes them fit for human habitation, just as it is uncertainty that makes human life bearable and sometimes joyous; though I don’t carry the argument so far as Marilynn Robinson does, arguing from Johathan Edwards that the apparent arbitrariness of the world bespeaks a creator.

My life has also been fortunate in that I’ve never been denied culture, never lacked means or opportunity to refashion myself when I needed to do so. It’s sometimes comforting to think that given the world as it seems I’d live the same life, ask for the same jobs, over again—though I know I wouldn’t. I’ve refashioned myself sufficiently and often enough to be aware that self creation is surrounded by a thick matrix of contingency. A friend used to like to paraphrase Heraclitus ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’ One isn’t guaranteed the world as it seems, not tomorrow, maybe not even yesterday.

So that one founds oneself in the realm of discourse as the world rushes by—and one is fortunate if the real city one lives in affords hidey holes, places to escape, and lots of unsupervised spaces for play. The real and contingent city is as febrile as a summer street dance, as brief on the wind as a smile and a shoeshine, thick with possibility and empty of information about itself as a week-old newspaper. One dwells in it upon sufferance—I’ll go that far with Robinson, since I know neither the beginning nor the end of the place that passes.

And I guess I’ll continue to write this blog and try to post more regularly than I have recently. There’s more to my restlessness than the common struggle with mortality. Though I’m not sure what the more is, I seem to need to continue thought projects I know I’ll never complete.