TH (August 25,1945 / Plainwell, Michigan)

The Case For Wisdom At 5: 00 A.M.

that old grim reaper that’s been
following us for so long
that ultimate tax collector that
just keeps on
sending us his notices
until he finally collects his bill
the final rent that goes unpaid
because there’s
no one there to pay it
that ultimate seducer making
his ultimate seduction
leveler of all hills and levels of
as well as equalizer of
income brackets
waiting for us at the end of the line
working with his old friend time
the one we spend most of
our lives outrunning
trying to sidestep the man at the end
but so few get away with it
certainly not for very long
and he just waits there patiently
knowing that
we’ll come to him eventually
of our own accord
each of us in our own way
and submit ourselves
like ladies in waiting
to life’s greatest mystery
the one that begins
“whither thou goest”

will i meet it straight in the eye
or will i lie there winking
waiting for him to take me off to
some last surgeon’s scalpel
or nurse’s sedative needle
or lying on some bathroom floor
waiting for some paramedics
that didn’t come because nobody
called them
or unconscious waiting for
somebody to pull the plug
will i be alone or with a loved one
or with somebody i don’t even know

you old deceiver you
you do not have to wait for us
most of us will catch up to you
soon as we can
having run through our entire lives
in a frantic search
for your dark sweet narcotic
to rejoin you in the home where
we have come from
and life reveals itself a long
eventful journey
that ends at its beginning and
begins at its ending
with our embrace
time running backward down a
railroad track
the days connected to one another
like successive frames of a
the scenes depicting old age
transforming into youth
and childhood transforming into
old age
curving along the line of the
finally disappearing at its distant
now its ending
which is where our journey begins
proving that time is like a circle
and the circle now is joined
the end connected to the beginning
in its completion like the shape of
a “torus”

we know not “whither thou goest”
we know that death is our
ultimate destiny and our true
we are in life but as visitors
traveling the days like tourists on
a tour bus
buying souvenirs sending
reading books repeating
knowing that this is not our home
there is nothing lasting here
all of it is borrowed
all of it has to be paid back
we cannot stay a single day
without the hotel bill
moving on we have only a limited
the meter will run out the visa
will expire
the tariff is too high we will
never get through customs
there is nothing we can purchase
and we have only time to spend
all the time in our lives
like a weekend vacation
compared to eternity is but a
the briefest wink of an eye
life is not our home
for when our journey ends we stay
in death forever it is our home
we shall never have to
leave nor be evicted
nor have to pay the traffic tolls
for in death we are eternal
it is the cause and creation of
this house of cards
we have been living in

yes we live we die so what
nothing special to it it happens to
no big deal about it
it is life’s great equalizer
when we have gone through the
there is no one greater lesser taller
smaller than anyone else
the clothes come off also the
family name
in death no one is treated any
differently than anybody else
it could be said death is for the
the way we think about death
the funeral the casket
the after death state the religious
of resurrection redemption
reincarnation salvation
heaven hell or purgatorio
all have meaning to the living
but catholic protestant hindu
moslem jew
all are the same in the eyes of
which are the eyes of god
no one knows for certain “whither
thou goest”
but one thing i know for certain
the journey is the same for
all of us
each has the same destination and
none are coming back none will
become angels
none will suffer the punishments
of hell
of this i can assure you
in death there will be no
life is over finis that is that
there is peace to be found in this

the ancients seemed to have a
better understanding of the basic
nature of life and death
even with their magic, their
rituals, and their demonology
the egyptians believed that the
human soul consisted of several
different spirits
each of which were part of the
yet existed separately and were a
able to act independently
this was taken from the observation
of actual phenomena
each had their purpose and
reason for being
but only one part of this soul
personality went to heaven and
became eternal
this was the conscious identity of
the person who had lived
the others became active at the
time of the person’s death
and afterward they were able to
communicate with the living
partook of the funerary offerings
participated in rituals
went in and out of the tomb at
will and traveled widely
they could eat the food pictured
on the walls of the mausoleum
but they were in no way to be
confused with the actual person
who lived and who had died
that consciousness was held in
great reverence
it was not to be disturbed and
could not be communicated with
the rest were like spirits
shades artificial entities
that were not in themselves alive
this is why there were pictures of
them painted on the walls of the
and why there were statues and
likenesses of the person
who had died for by means of the
likenesses they could be invoked
by the people who came to the
they existed for as long as the
likenesses existed
for as long as there were pictures
of food painted on the walls
but people stay dead a very long
and when the likenesses were
gone they could no longer be
for without the likenesses there
could be no remembrance
it was very sad the fate of these
strange spirit beings
pictured as little birds with
human faces
who were able to turn
themselves into other animals

another strange doctrine of the
involved the journey of the
deceased through the underworld
of the dead to reunite with his
bringing to completion the circle
of life
this controversial doctrine was
little known
probably kept secret and quite
possibly illegal
as it was thought to contain
highly dangerous forms of magic
it involved those unfortunate
souls who were dissatisfied
had left unfinished business or
wanted to change events or deeds
they did during their lifetime
in the land of the living the
egyptians observed the sun
to come up in the morning in the east
and every day make its journey
across the sky to the west where
it disappeared below the horizon
on the western bank of the
nile river
as if it had died and
would be gone forever
yet each morning as if by a
miracle it would be reborn again
in the east and once more
make its journey across the sky
where it had come from they
did not know, but they perceived that
at night it must go beneath the
earth and journey to the east
back across the sky of the underworld
which was populated by
the souls of the dead
thus the souls of those deceased
who were unlucky enough
to want to choose this kind of
who were lucky enough to have
the huge amount of money necessary
to pay for the magic to bring this
made their way to the western
bank of the nile river where they
climbed down the steps below the
horizon and entered the land of
the dead
in the underworld the night sun
rose in the west and set in the east
so that for the dead time
actually moved backwards
and each day in the underworld
marked one day off in the life of
the deceased during which he
could relive and alter the events
as he would have preferred
as days went by and he lived
his life in reverse he became
younger and younger
until he became a child
then a tiny infant
finally as the sun set in the east
he became unborn
as such like the sun he became a
baby in the egg from which unborn
potential it was conceivable that
he could be reborn
again as an infant in the land of
the living
such a miracle however was
not only highly unlikely
as far as i know it had never been
known to have happened
of course anything is possible but
i wouldn’t
bet any money on it

why this subject
going over and over the same
morbid thoughts in my head
at 5 a.m. i look at my
reflection in the bathroom mirror
i’m getting older now
my face shows the definite signs of aging
notice the thickening of the
neck and the lower jaw
my hair definitely streaked with gray
the skin of my face now not only
shows the signs of wrinkling
i have irreversible lines of age
around my mouth
the whole texture of my skin
has become coarser
thicker less fluid less supple
like i’ve gotten frozen in my ways
like the bark of a tree the wages
of time and age are showing on my face
i need to get these teeth pulled
what’s left of them
dentures would help fill out my jaw line
but look how much weight i’ve put on
it’s natural for your waistline
to fill out but these pounds
don’t come off the way they used to
a couple of inches but i’ve
never been this heavy
no doubt about it i’ve definitely
lost the flower of my youth
i’ll never see 20 again
i’m not yet fifty people live like
there’s no tomorrow
like they’ve got all the time in the world
but face it i’m starting to get up there
the years mounting up and it’s
too late to start back now
if only i’d taken that dancing class
or had a picture of dorian grey in my closet
all this thinking about death has
got me thinking more seriously about life
not that i’m going to die right away
but face it
40 something and 40 something
adds up to ninety something and it’s
probably safe to assume that more
than half of my life is
behind me
and still it’s going by so fast that
six weeks goes by in the time it used
to take two weeks
a week can go by in as little as
two days thanks to the
miracle of television
but it’s clear that the process of aging
does something recondite to the
relative elapse of time
never thought this through but one way
to slow the process of aging might be
to slow the relative elapse of time
it’s hard to tell how
much time i’ve got left
some people have a long time
some are here a short time
some are already gone some
go in their fifties
(i’ll never live to 60) (but how many
people thought they’d never live till 30)
but even if i live to 65 which is a
popular age to go
that’s only 20 more years
(compared to the 40 something
i've lived already)
and going as fast as it is now that’s
not very long to get done some of the
things i want to get done
it would be nice to live to 100
or 85 (even that sounds
awfully young to go)
a bible scholar friend of mine told me
we are allotted three score
and ten years in life
as he was 70 when he told me
he said everything else he got
was free time
my other friend told me
“when you’re our age
we really don’t know how much time
we’ve got left maybe five years
maybe more”
a year later we was dead at 53
my mother died at 47 of cancer
my father at 36 in an automobile
god i need more time than that
i’ve got to have ten years at least
ten years at least and i can finish up
but that’s really pushing it
i’ve got a few things i set out to
accomplish in this life and i’m already
way behind schedule in
accomplishing them
and the ravages of a lifetime of
drug addiction and alcoholism are
already taking their toll
particularly in recent years the
alcoholism which gives me such
painful heartburn that it’s almost
for me to continue drinking
and my liver has become a major
cause for concern cirrhosis is no joke
and i don’t think Medi-Cal pays
for transplants
it could be an unwelcome way
to cut short an already too brief
the life of a poet is not all
glamour and glory
neither is it grit and gravy
it’s not everything you would think
it might be (but of course
it’s everything to me)
it’s been a struggle my whole life through
and it might still pay off
but i can’t just do anything i want
here i sit in a rented hotel room
waiting for my disability check to

as i think about it though there
are certain advantages to being older
it’s easier to handle the problems
of day to day living
when crises arrive (as they always do)
we have lots of experience to
know what to do
it’s easier to get a seat on a bus
or in a theater
no one asks our age in a nightclub or
adult entertainment
the streaks of gray in our hair
make children mind us better
cause younger people to look upon us
with a reverence of respect in spite
of themselves and the dignity
of our age gives us the right to address
younger persons of either sex
as “sweetheart”
“darling” or “dear”
we don’t have to be afraid of
losing our composure because
we’ve lost it so many times before
we’re sure to find it again before
it gets lost for good
we know much more who we are
and what we’re about in the world
we’re more financially secure
because we don’t take the chances
we took when we were young,
and the secrets of life accrue
to where we have insights into
the better buys
and where to get them
we don’t fall prey to the hysteria
or the stress that youth endures
we know that if the check
is in the mail
if it doesn’t come today it will
probably come tomorrow
we’re not usually good enough
to fend off every criminal by
dint of our physical prowess
but we have the cunning not to
take up with them in the first place
young fools are not asking us
out all the time
we don’t have all the glamour
of the young and beautiful or the
handsome young plaything
but being secure in our identity
makes us secure in our sexuality
and with our years of repeated
experience our sexual lives
couldn’t be more satisfying
compared to the tentative
experiments of youth and the
insecurities and conflicts they
engender we speak without envy
we know that we can’t be all things
to all people
we know that if we can just be
one thing to a few people
or a few things to one person it is more
than enough to accomplish
we have a more philosophical
outlook on life
it takes year after year of
dedicated study just to get some
idea of what’s going on
it’s impossible to understand the
meaning of knowledge until you
become proficient in at
least two disciplines
after that the barrage of
information no longer overpowers
us and you have a framework to
categorize knowledge
the expanding cognitive universe
opens like a flower of
the wisdom of the ancients
merges with the discoveries of the
modern world to give a
unified meaning to existence
it’s a pity that it takes so long
to learn and gives us so little time
to do anything with it
it takes thirty-five years just to
learn that you need to know something
another ten to get a basic understanding
of what it is you need to know
when you are young the world
opens before you like an unlimited potential
could do anything might even
become president
but as childhood wears on each
decision shuts off an entire area
of accomplishment
makes you take aim on
your ultimate destiny your
final resting place when
death makes you eternal
in youth there is time
many hours after hours to drift
aimlessly gathering life’s experiences
before deciding what to become
but when you are older life has
made the decisions for you that
you haven’t made for yourself
you know what you must do
and how much time you have to do it
if you have a longing to leave
your footprints on the sands of time
you had better get to stepping

by virtue of all this useless and
pointless knowledge we have been
over so many years we begin to feel
we have an obligation to right
some of the wrongs of the
it is no longer worth it to live
just for our own benefit alone
but for the rest of humanity as well
and our posterity
that we must take responsibility
for improving the situation
because there is no one else who will
do it
and if we don’t it won’t get done
we don’t think the world will
remain unchanged
or always wallow in the sight of
self indulgent bureaucrats
and dishonest auto mechanics
but not having children of my own
the longing for immortality reasserts itself
i want to leave something of myself behind
something of worth that will be
here after i’m gone
the love song if j. alfred prufrock
and the kaddish of allen ginsberg
replay themselves endlessly inside
my mind like an unwinding spool of
recording tape
i keep hoping that life cycle
will ease the anxiety of oncoming age
lead my head to some peace of
i have a fear of being cremated
please don’t let me be cremated
or worse like so toe tagged
pauper’s funeral just burned up
i want to be buried in the ground
like my mother
and her mother before her
that i may become one with the earth
that a willow tree may spread its
branches above me head
and grasses grow
and somewhere sometime
someone might visit my grave
it’s not too much to ask

last exit to dreams
when you are at last able to look
death in the eye
look at life as a sower of seed
and a cultivator of the soil
as you sow ‘ere shall you reap
provided you have ample water
for your crops to grow
apples are apples and oranges
are oranges and never will
one become the other
but cultivate your crops with discretion
and a fruitful harvest will be yours
look at life as the captain of a
as you chart your course across
uncharted waters
learn to hold the rudder and steer
the course
if you steer the course long enough
eventually you will cross
to the other side
if you change your course you will
drift aimlessly forever
don’t invest in unsecured second mortgages
never store your goods in an
unlocked storage garage
don’t trust your money
or your mate to your best friend
for the trust of time is your truest friend
the voyage is never over
till you meet the final destination
“whither thou goest’

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Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep

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