January 10, 2009

Stray Birds

Love at noon... sunset on Lake Ponchartrain


The pine flycatcher has birdwatchers agog. The normal-looking diminutive beige and yellow bird, apparently without a mate, is unspectacular, except that recent sightings log it as the first of its kind to fly down from the highlands of Guatemala. Bird-lovers are wondering what brought it over miles of hostile territory to Texas. (It’s the hurricanes, stupid.) The little bird has been singing love arias all over the countryside. The poor mate-less flycatcher is probably lonely. I could have warned it. It’s lonely down here in the lowlands. Stray birds should be someplace else.

I’ve been trying to piece this thing together and get it right.

A couple of months ago I was bouncing off satellites, madly in love with a woman for the first time in so long icebergs have melted since. It was a brief moment of pure mental abundance in a desert of want. I hoped it would never end, but knew sadly that it would. Of course it was unrequited except for a few words. (“I love you too.”) We have to take them at their word. And what does it matter if she doesn’t love or want me too? The intelligent man tries to reason: love is giving and its own reward. Lofty thought! This is where it gets complicated.

What is the truth about that? The truth is that she floored me with her beauty and with true hugs that never seemed to end. On top of that she’s a real artist, and that’s enough, normally, to excite me. Add to that she is so perfect and lovely I just want to lay her down. So where does love stop and lust begin? I had to ask myself this. Because, let’s face it and be real: the wise know when a man feels most like one. She makes me feel like a man over long distances. It’s agonizing.

That sort of thing can make old men half-crazy. You think, maybe it’s not too late…but you’re learning the hard lessons of old age. Sometimes it really is. You’re a bag of bones and your face looks like a train hit it. It took you 50 years to learn how to make love, and now nobody wants it.

Then it is fascinating and mind-blowing, making me feel slightly creepy and more than envious, to see how casual and easy young people are with each other today. They make love and talk about it as if it is the easiest and most-natural thing in the world. Just the way you wanted it to be, when it never was.

Aretha’s singing, “It’s a sweet thing to love someone…” and ain’t it the truth?

I’m all caught up in these love songs recently because—well you know why. I wonder that it hit me so hard. I thought that was all over for me. I gave up on love years ago, and sentimentality isn’t my warp. I rejected sentimentality 50 years ago. All that melancholy feeling and thinking about the sweet, romantic things of a past that didn’t exist anyway; it’s not for me. It’s unreal. You know what romance is? Revolution is romance. But I’m a realist.

Now that you know me a little, you know how emotional I can be. But that is from my longing, starving heart. I call the way I felt “true feelings,” not sentimentality. I was crying when I confessed my love. Someone else was present and I couldn’t hold it back. I knew how sad and hopeless it looked. I didn’t exaggerate my feelings. I let them wash my eyes and me out of the dirty loveless world for a little while. But it wasn’t sentimentality, which, according to James Baldwin, is an “ostentatious parading of emotionalism…the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.” According to Wallace Stevens, sentimentality is “a failure to feel.” Norman Mailer called sentimentality “the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment.”

How can I disagree with giants? I rejected sentimentality before I’d heard of any of them, however, when as a youth I saw how unrealistic it made my mother, who spent every night watching old movies, drinking bourbon, and dreaming wistfully about a past she saw in a funhouse mirror, and a relationship with her dead husband more fiction than fact.

She said, “We were so happy,” and I inwardly scoffed, remembering how bitter Sid had been that Mickey and I had “broken everything I ever owned.” How sad it was to me that she drank herself senseless most days to numb a depression she probably wouldn’t have admitted to any more than she would have confessed to alcoholism. Her sentimental contention that they had been “so happy” was dishonest and unreal. As a 15-year old I could see that.

It was the dishonesty of adults and the falsity of every day life in America and especially the South that drove my generation to rebellion, and eventually to drug abuse, self-indulgence and into the thousand alleys of escapism. We clamored for “relevance” and fell into materialist irrelevance with our own dishonesties.

I tried in the abundance of loving to be like “the sun at midday,” knowing I’d reached a zenith and knowing the sun would set. “Only a man who is inwardly free of sorrow and care can lead in a time of abundance,” said the I Ching, when I consulted the Oracle about my feelings for her. It was all thunder and lightning, curtains of fullness and polestars at noon. And meeting with mistrust and hate.

Some of my chat room buds and others I know looked askance at my happiness and asked my age. And hers. Oho, A May-December romance! You horny old goat. And all that. I’ve always been cursed with an ability to stand outside myself and look dispassionately at the way others see me. Most of the time I didn’t give a damn, because I felt confident in my purpose. But here on the unfamiliar trail of love I saw that I looked like the hopeless old professor in The Blue Angel. I’m not comfortable with looking ridiculous. So I had to face it and see it for what it could be: lust and longing for an unattainable beauty. Love-starved under a waning harvest moon. Going too long between back rubs. Knowing sex only as a rumor.

The essential thing was to hold on to the inward power of truth, which is stronger than illusion, lust or sentiment. That’s what I tried to do. I don’t know if I succeeded. Maybe as usual I was too hard on myself. I know I can still suspend my feelings. I don’t like it, but that’s what I did; what I had to do to avoid a head-on collision with calamity. It’s what I’ve been doing most of my life.

The landscape where I stray changes constantly, yet stays ever the same. A solitary ride through a heartbreaking world of dreams, longing for love and starving between stops. I have to get there with some dignity or it wasn’t worth the ride.

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