Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On Men and Aging

        My aging husband falls off a ladder. Bruised, sore - but ever so fortunately, nothing more.  It’s his ego that hurts - no even deeper than that. His physicality is such an important part of who he is.

        This is a man who just a few years ago scampered across scaffolding painting murals and intricate effects on walls. He skipped stone to stone across fast creeks, once carried our wounded 65 lb Samoyed half a mile on a hard trail back to camp. He has always counted on his body.
(And so have I.)

        We have a friend who led treks to the highest mountains, not that old now really, slowly shuffling around the block two strokes later. Don’t suggest books to him, crafts, or afternoons of foreign movies, unless you want the most dismissive look anyone has ever given you. He doesn’t really want to live.  « Who the hell am I now» he asks, « and why bother? »
(It really hurts to hear that. )

The artist Pierre Bonnard  Self Portrait
       And there's our friend who is no longer supposed to drive, who promised he wouldn’t but had a set of keys hidden, his partner was gone for the day and would never know, and the car was just sitting there and why pay for Uber?  

     « Being unable to drive in our culture is a massive blow
to independence. We attach so much attention to self-reliance
and independence as defining characteristics of masculinity, of
maleness and virility that they have deep significance for the lack
of hope and feeling of insignificance in American men as they face
reduced  mobility and independence. Dependence upon charitable
programs, friends, neighbors, or relatives further erodes feelings
of self-capability, confidence and usefulness.»   David A. Baker

     At my age I’m surrounded by these men, and I feel for 
them. I've seen the depression that sets in, that lurks and lingers, and hinders appreciation let alone joy. I have heard men boasting of old exploits to their grandkids so the little ones will know that grandpa was once Really Strong.
(It doesn’t sound like macho to me - just compensation.)

        David A. Baker continues  « Intimate relationships between women where shared feelings are discussed and support is offered freely, is simply absent in relationships between men. «  

       How sad I find that. I have shared feelings about aging with my women friends, acquaintances, even empathic strangers in rest rooms, since the first gray hairs. We grieve that we’re no longer ‹ hot’ and complain of the cold. There are tears, but ribald crone-laughter too, lamenting droops, dryness, double chins.  There must be some guys who have such sharing!

Rembrandt van Rijn  Self Portrait
      « We lose touch, Victor Rangel-Ribeiro says, and we try to establish touch but often when we reach out our hands and find only emptiness. »  from Growing Old on Two Continents
      "Long legs that once carried one with some grace and some speed on the hardwood court or playing field morphed into fragile pipestems ....the body, as Richard Pryor put it, (or was it Ali?) should  sue the legs for non-support."
     "Does that shuffling codger not know his spider’s legs, purple-veined, are pathetic in walking shorts?  In the midst of one’s arrogance and intolerance, a discomforting inisght floods one’s consciousness: these pensioners are one’s peers! » 

                    Gordon Weaver, That Face in the Bathroom Mirror

      I read the draft of this blog to my husband. He hopes
that men will read it and share it with each other. I hope so too.

David A. Baker, private correspondence
The essays Growing Old on Two Continents and That Face in the Bathroom Mirror can be found in 
Duff Brenna & Thomas E. Kennedy, Winter Tales: Men Writing About Aging, Copenhagen and Florham Park, N.J. : Serving House Books, 2011.




Friday, August 5, 2016

In the Goodness of Time: The Poet and "The Great Work"

W.S. Merwin in his garden on Maui        (The Merwin Conservancy)
          Recently, I read an article about Wallace Stevens in the New Yorker. In it Peter Scheldahl declares that for him the best poem of the 20th century is The Idea of Order in Key West.

          I re-read the poem after many years, and yes it is beautifully crafted and mythic, about a She and the Sea and it has the power and repetition of waves - but it is a poem written from a metaphysical sky. There is a line in the poem that tells us « She was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang », and I thought the word ‹ he › could be substituted for ‹ she › and it would describe the poet.

         Perhaps I responded this way because I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s Moon Before Morning and the ease and truth and quietness speak to me so sweetly. When he writes of the earth, he is of the earth, and when he writes of the past it is present for him, and when he writes of the Ark you think you can smell the animals.  
Merwin's House    www.hilt.org
         The Idea of Order in Key West is a peony of a poem, perhaps and entire  peony bush - no it has to be larger - the tree of huge red flowers in front of a temple in Laos that I can’t identify by name. A tree that blooms year round and holds its canopy up proud as a god.

        Merwin has been planting Pritichardia palm trees, native to Hawaii, on his property in Maui for 40 years. His poems are palms, either quietly climbing toward starlight, or they rustle seductively when the wind blows. Or the poems are the small startling flowers of the tropics like the low growing butterfly pea flower - not the brilliant blue variety, but the candid white.  I am enamored of the poems particularly because they present the sense of timelessness and presence that one wants age to enable:

                    Dew Light
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age

The Merwin Conservancy

         Those 19 acres, 2740 palms, are the work of reclamation the world so badly needs to do - as Thomas Berry describes it in The Great Work. The palms, along with bananas and mangos and papaya were planted on land that was damaged first by logging, then pineapple rows were planted vertically so most of the soil washed away.  What was left of the soil grew grasses so bitter that an experiment in grazing failed when the cows’ lips curled in disgust.

         The work of reclamation is what there is when the age of conquering the world is over. Or let us say that reclamation and renewal are the new adventure.  What if our own or the world’s losses connect us rather than embitter or force us to turn us aside?

        Merwin has been aware of what has been happening to our planet for a long time. His great poem For A Coming Extinction was published in The Lice in 1967, which makes me feel like a Jenny-come-lately to environmental concerns. In 1967 many of us were working and writing against the Vietnam War,  and so was he - but he was able to step out of the headlines and into the world to come, which he knew was already there. For A Coming Extinction laments:  

“Gray whale/ Now that we are sending you to The End/ That great god/ Tell him/ That we who follow you invented forgiveness/ And forgive nothing.”

The Merwin Conservancy
In an interview with Joel Whitney, Merwin talked about the story of Noah:
« I loved that story so much. And I had this fantasy of building an ark in the back yard, because when the rains came, I said, you know, nobody believed Noah. Nobody will believe us either. We can build this boat, but [smirking] where are we going to get the animals? »

         Merwin has alternated originality, translation and reclamations since his 30s. I was aware of his long poetic narrative on the history of the Hawaiians, The Folding Cliffs, but I did not know that he had once translated the poetry of the Native American Crow people. In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1986 Merwin said:
« And I had very much the feeling about the Crow, along with American Indian poetry in general, and many other non-literate poetries, too— that even as we talked about it, it was disappearing. And I think of it as of comparable importance to, say, the burning of the library at Alexandria. »

          That comparison. A lessening of scale, a tale of equivalence. Not a diminishing of what we have achieved, but the recognition that others have done as well, and their work is just as significant. This too is the great work.

The Merwin Conservatory

 Insurance Man
The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens

The New Yorker
May 2, 2016

Joel Whitney interviews W.S. Merwin
February 15, 2011

The Lice, Atheneum, 1967