Thursday, November 3, 2016
Freaking Out: Intimations of Mortality
Wordsworth wrote that great poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." (Link to poem.) He finished it in 1804, published it in 1807; he was still a puppy at the time (mid-thirties), still saw an unrolling carpet of years ahead of him. In 1850 he would find out he was wrong: He died.
Anyway, I always loved this poem, even when I couldn't figure out a bunch of it (in my own puppyhood). But those lines about splendour in the grass and all that? Awesome stuff. I loved grass, except when I had to mow it. And, no, I didn't smoke it (well, there was that one time ...). One of the stunning memories of boyhood is our first trip to the old Cleveland Stadium to see the Tribe play, late summer 1956. I was not yet 12. Coming from Oklahoma, I'd never seen grass that remotely resembled what I saw down there on the field. Green, lush, endless ... well, I was young.
Anyway, intimations of immortality are the feelings a young, ambitious person has. As we age, we get more and more messages from mortality, more reminders that this world is going to roll along after we're gone--and will probably do just fine without us. Those who mourn our passing will themselves pass on and, eventually, join us in our anonymity. I've visited the grave of my great-grandfather Lanterman a couple of times, my great-grandfather Addison Clark Dyer once. But I had eight great-grandfathers (and -mothers). Sixteen great-great ... and so on. I have no idea where most of them lie. Have never been to see those sites.
And so it will be with me. And you. And all of us. As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in one of her great poems ("Dirge Without Music"--link)--"So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind."
Anyway, this Tuesday I had yet another reminder--not that I needed one--that all is fragile, evanescent. As some of you know, I have memorized a mass of poems (I'm working on #189 right now), and, in order to review them all each week, I have a very rigid routine that I've followed for quite a few years now. I'll not go over all of it--just this, the relevant part.
I have "sets" of the poems I (silently) recite when I'm out at the health club. I have a batch I say every M-W-F, another on T-Th-Sat, while I'm on the exercise bike (about 30 minutes' worth). Then, when I'm walking my cool-down laps, I have two that I rehearse all six days--both by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--"Haunted Houses" (link) and "My Lost Youth" (link), both somewhat lengthy (thus, the need for more repetitions). I have known them both for years, can say them rapidly and flawlessly.
Until Tuesday, that is. November 1.
When I got to the moment to begin "Haunted Houses," its first lines, "All houses wherein men have lived and died / Are haunted houses ...," would not come to me. I walked and walked around the track, trying every way I could think of to recall how it started.
And worse: I could not remember, either, how "My Lost Youth" starts. Both had fled my head like startled birds.
And then I couldn't remember any of the 188+ poems I claim to have memorized.
I wandered into the locker room, dazed, startled, stunned. Frightened. I undressed, went into the shower, where I recite (silently!), every day, "Casey at the Bat" and "Jabberwocky." (I learned them for our grandsons.) But neither poem would step into the room of my memory. My brain was a blank.
Of course, I was thinking the worst. (Small stroke?) (Russian hacking of my brain?) (The onset of you-know-what?)
Later, home, I was too afraid to say anything to Joyce at first. I just wandered around the house in a funk. She knows my funks. Has learned to wait until they dissipate.
I would not look the poems up on my iPhone (where I have stored many of them) or on my laptop. I was determined to recover them by remembering them.
Later, in bed, reading, I told Joyce what had happened. She consoled me as only a genuine heart can. I felt better, knowing that she knew. She asked if I wanted to go to the ER. I didn't. I would wait. (Guys are dumb.)
Later, watching a little of an episode of Elementary, the lines suddenly came rushing back. All of them. I reeled off "Haunted Houses" for Joyce. And nearly wept with relief.
Wednesday morning. I have a set I do in the shower, a set I do while walking over to the coffee shop, a set I rehearse at the coffee shop, a set I do on the way home.
All were there. (As they were today.)
Later on Wednesday, at the health club, I reached the part in my workout when I do "Haunted Houses." The first line came easily--as did the rest. And the words flowed from my memory like an unrolling carpet.
And fear faded, a bit. Worry, of course, endures.