The poem/book “How Could I Not Be Among You,” which I remember from college, turns out to be the topic for this second post of my 78th year. Oh dear…I just realized if I passed my 78th birthday, this is the beginning of my 79th year, which sounds scarily close to 80. The truth is that this birthday, this year—whether the 78th or 79th, is casting a slight but noticeable pall on my mood. It began just a few days ago on a pleasant drive with my California son; the ocean sparkled and the sun shone as we drove up the 5 to Los Angeles. We were looking forward to lunch and art, and talking of the future—travels and family gatherings…everyday things. Unbidden, into my consciousness leapt the realization, yet again, that I wouldn’t be around for many of these grand journeys and events. Pictures of Scott playing on the beach with his grandchildren; Scott and Steve and their children and grandchildren sitting down to Thanksgiving dinners; and Teresa, Steven, Patricia and Sara experiencing their own children, partners, dogs, careers, homes, and travel, scroll across my mind’s screen. I am going to miss much of that. And, I ask the question, “How could I not be among you?” It makes me lonely.
Years ago the poet, Ted Rosenthal, wrote a book of poems about his impending death, after being given a diagnosis of leukemia with six months to live. His question, How could I not be among you? must be a common refrain for all of us contemplating life’s grand finale, whatever the circumstances. Being given a sentence of six months to live when you’re in your 30s is not at all the same as celebrating one’s 78th birthday you say. True or, at least, almost true. Every birthday is a death sentence of sorts; you just don’t notice it for a very long time.
I’ve decided to include lots of poems in this blog along with articles or excerpts from longer pieces when I find them. Here’s the first poem of many:
HOW COULD I NOT BE AMONG YOU?
by Ted Rosenthal
Never yield a minute to despair, sloth, fantasy.
I say to you, you will face pain in your life…
It is not aimed at anyone
but it will come your way.
The wind sweeps over everyone.
You will feel so all alone, abandoned,
come to see that life is brief,
And you will cry, “No, it cannot be so,”
but nothing will avail you.
I tell you never to yearn for the past.
Speak certain knowledge.
Your childhood is worthless.
Seek not ritual. There is no escape in Christmas.
Santa Claus will not ease your pain.
No fantasy will soothe you.
You must bare your heart and expect nothing in return.
You must respond totally to nature.
You must return to your simple self.
I do not fool you. There lies no other path.
I have not forsaken you, but I cannot be among you all.
You are not alone
so long as you love your own simple selves.
Your natural hair, your skin, your graceful bodies,
your knowing eyes and your tears and tongues.
I stand before you all aching with truth
Trembling with desire to make you know.
Eat, sleep, and be serious about life.
To be serious is to be simple;
to be simple is to love.
Don’t wait another minute, make tracks, go home.
Admit you have some place to return to.
The bugs are crawling all over the earth, the sun shining over every one.
The rains are pounding, and the winds driving.
The breeze is gentle and the grass burns.
The earth is dusty. Go ankle deep in mud.
Get tickled by the tall cattails.
Kick crazily into the burrs and prickles.
Rub your back against the bark, and go ahead, peel it.
Adore the sun.
O people, you are dying! Live while you can.
What can I say?
The blackbirds blow the bush.
Get glass in your feet if you must, but take off the shoes.
O heed me. There is pain all over!
There is continual suffering, and puking and coughing.
Don’t wait on it. It is stalking you.
Tear ass up the mountainside, duck into the mist.
Roll among the wet daisies. Blow out your lungs
Among the dead dandelion fields.
But don’t delay, time is not on your side.
Soon you will be crying for the hurt, make speed.
Splash in the ocean,
leap in the snow.
Come on everybody! Love your neighbor,
Love your mother, love your lover,
love the man who just stands there staring.
But first, that’s all right, go ahead and cry.
Cry, cry, cry your heart out.
It’s love. It’s your only path.
O people, I am so sorry.
Nothing can be hid.
No circle in the round.
It’s group theater,
no wings, no backstage, no leading act.
O, I am weeping, but it’s stage center for all of us.
Hide in the weeds, but come out naked.
Dance in the sand while lightning bands all around us.
Step lightly, we’re walking home now.
The clouds take every shape.
We climb the boulders; there is no plateau.
We cross the stream and walk up the slope.
See, the hawk is diving.
The plain stretches out ahead,
then the hills, the valleys, the meadows.
Keep moving people. How could I not be among you?