Inside the Invisible

A Blind Writer's View of Living the Attentive Life

Birthday Journal, February 27, 2021

I used to make sure to mark my birthday with a journal entry, now a tradition more honored in the breech.  So what! Life does funny things to us, we go in odd and scattered directions, which we could call following our noses, being open to being buffeted into new patterns or chaos.  So what! I feel today like someone who has become a sage, or thinks he might be, just because he has aged.  (Isn’t it cool how much age makes up the spelling of sage?)

I’m dancing around the big hurt, the big burden.  Today, I turned 69.  “69 and I’m mighty fine,” or some variation, I sing-say to myself.  People wish they had been twins.  I’m blessed that I was, am, whatever you say when the other of you is dead.  “Let his memory be a blessing to you,” Jews say.  Maybe the only appropriate thing someone can say, besides “I’m so sorry,” when somebody you loves shuffles off.

I had a reminder of that mortal coil business this week.  Another Dave, David Dell, my stepfather and my mother’s second husband, the first one having left life at 53, ebbed away Wednesday morning, February 24.  Around 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning.  He had been slipping for the past five years, ever since his heart and breathing stopped for at least a minute, just two weeks after my brother’s death.  Good thing Mom looked up, went out to the kitchen, and saw him slumped at the table.  Good thing the medical staff at their retirement center came running.  But it seems to have done brain damage.  And maybe other things affected him.  He started to lose short-term memory, got more easily confused.  The week before he died, also a Wednesday at 3 AM, Mom heard him get up to go to the bathroom.  Something told her to keep an ear on him.  She dozed a half hour, and he still wasn’t back.  She found all the lights on in the other rooms, found him standing at his clothes closet, located in his office.  “What are you doing?” Mom asked.  “Picking out a dress shirt for church,” he said.  She reoriented him and got him back in bed.

Thank God I woke up this morning. I woke up at 6:45, just in time to mark the minute of my birth at 7:00, Ona half awake, wishing me a Happy Birthday, telling me as she always does, how much she loves me.  I know she’s excited about her pandemic plans for my celebration.  I know that Ethan and Julia will come by between 11:00 and noon, possibly bringing lunch.  I know Ona and I will join Steve Kuusisto in teaching our Teenage Writers with Disabilities writing class via Zoom at 2:30.  I know we have something special at 5:30 and something else at 9:00 with a steak dinner in-between.  I know how loved I am.

I also know I woke with a marbled sadness within the happiness. I miss both Daves, especially my brother.  But I do miss my stepfather, who lived a quiet, steady, gentle, thoughtful life, treating people and Nature with great love.  He never sat in the seat of power.  He never seemed to desire it.  Just loved his first wife through parenting equally good-spirited children and then through years of her being ill and homebound.  His last words to my mother, as she went around the end of the bed to get to his side, “Thank you, Sweetie.” Then he slowly sank to the floor, lay down, and felt the life drain out.

But I started to say I had this sadness because my brother Dave wasn’t here for our traditional call at 7:00.  “Happy Birthday, Brother,” we’d say.  “So glad we’re on this journey together.”

People worry about over-sentimentalizing things, being too gushy, too repetitive with the “I love you’s.” I’ve decided to hell with that.  Go ahead and critique my life.  I’ll take the chance of overdoing it.

I’m sure having quite a time just going straight at this, aren’t I? So let me go straight at it.  This melancholia ran through me, completely mixed with the gratitude.  I thought of ways, or more accurately, followed hunches to be with Dave as I went through my morning routine.  I picked out a Mendelssohn Club recording of a concert called Touch the Angel’s Hand, named after a composition by someone we were in high school choir with, Cynthia Folio, and performed in 2002.  My CD player rejected it.  Perhaps mortality, decay,  of the chemicals on the CD surface that held the data.  So I then tried a recording from 2009.  Much of it played, but I had to skip the Kyrie from Mozart’s C Minor Mass because of data errors.  Was everything dying? Yes, in a word.  Yes.  But the Gloria was, well, glorious, and I decided to try the half-full approach, being grateful for every measure I could hear.  Dave probably stood near me on the risers.  He got me into this choir to start with.  He was there.  We were there together, flaws and data errors and all.  Finally, breakfast over, it being time to shave, I picked something requiring less devoted attention; I streamed KFRC, San Francisco, his favorite station during the final months in his hospital bed at home, gradually losing one thing after another to ALS, but holding on to curiosity, engagement, and powerful love for dear life.  In this way, I kept him with me this morning.  We heard “Just You and Me, Simple and Free” by Chicago, “Michelle” by The Beatles, “Layla” (the original, long version with the mesmerizing piano at the end.) We heard, “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.” I couldn’t help joining in, singing and swaying in the kitchen.  Music is a blessing.  Friends are a blessing (I promise to call more of them this year.) Poetry and all good writing are blessings.  Ona is a supreme blessing.  My Mom.  My sisters.  All my family.  All are blessings.  And Dave.  Both Daves.  Their memories will always be blessings.

Remembering My Brother

Five years ago this month, my brother David Simpson‘s rich, full life came to an end, but he certainly lives on in the memory of all of us who knew and loved him. In celebration of his life and his creative gifts to us, here is a link to a beautiful tribute published by Michael Northen in Wordgathering on the first anniversary of his death. Deepest gratitude to all those who contributed to it. In addition to Dave’s own work, some of which is read by him, this celebration includes poems and tributes by me, Shirley J. Brewer, Elizabeth Rivers, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Northen, Rocky Wilson, Steve Kuusisto, Molly Peacock, and Ona Gritz. We love you, Dave.

Tribute to David Simpson (Daniel Simpson) (wordgathering.com)

The Two Sides

I’m the earliest riser in my house. When I wake up, I tell myself to stay still and see if I might eke out another hour of sleep. Today, after ten minutes, it became clear that I wouldn’t, so before getting up, I took a few minutes to stretch quietly, so as not to wake Ona, and think about my morning plans. As I did this, I noticed how easily and deeply Ona breathed. I felt a wave of gratitude. In these pandemic days, one cannot take breathing for granted. It could always be otherwise.

COVID-19 has put in bas relief the boundaries between one thing and another: easy breathing and gasping for air, health and disease, clean and contaminated, routine and strange, together and apart, life and death. Living well, it seems to me, involves developing the ability to hold disparate things in our hands at the same time. It’s true, even in the easiest of times, but it’s especially necessary now. We can be pleased and heart-broken at the same time. I’m thrilled that Ona and I and, as far as I know, everyone I’m closest to is healthy. But I’m also scared, knowing that someone in my mother’s retirement community has just come down with the virus and been taken to the hospital.

As much as possible, I’m trying to stay on the side of gratitude. I’ll face trouble and loss head-on when I have to, although I can feel them nearby. Others, I realize, don’t have the privilege of that perspective right now. Grief and fear have thrown them over the fence to the other side. All I can do is pray for them in my own way and, if I know them, reach out to them. At this very moment, though, I take a slow, deep breath and remember that being able to do so is not a given.

Here’s a poem by jane Kenyon that beautifully articulates the awareness of blessings we can, in easier times, overlook:

Otherwise
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

 

Poetry in Times of Trouble

We witnessed it after 9/11. We’re seeing it now. When life gets upended, we become more reflective than our normal, fast-paced lives allow. Or maybe it’s more responsible to say that, too often, in easier times, we forget to make time for reflection.

When something like this pandemic smashes our picture of life as we knew it, all but the obstinately oblivious can’t help but stop and reflect. With that need to reflect, more of us than usual find ourselves turning to poetry, perhaps to make sense of things, perhaps simply for the consolation of knowing others have been in similar places throughout history. It helps to know we aren’t alone.

Besides putting forth my own reflections which, I hope, will confirm that you are not alone, I want to share reflections and poetry by others I’m listening to as we go through this frightening and heart-breaking time.

This poem, which speaks not from history, but from the very present, seems to have come to its author, Lynn Ungar, all of a piece. It went viral, so many of you may be familiar with it. Still, it says so much so simply and authentically that I wouldn’t want anyone to miss it. And, like all good poetry, it certainly bears repeated reading. I hope it will be a blessing to you.

With love,

Dan

Pandemic

Lynn Ungar

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

 

 

Watching My Own Neurosis

Isn’t it fascinating that we can be both the person doing things and the person watching that person do them? I’ve been watching my own neurosis, and I realize that there’s actually something healthy about being two people in one. Without that, we have no ability to reflect.

I set out to work on my memoir but, overtaken by anxiety about this pandemic which like a monster in a bad movie, we know is coming, even though we don’t know exactly when and from where, or just how big it is, I ended up perseverating about a string of small decisions which, for all I know, could save my life or mean absolutely nothing.

Recently, we had groceries delivered. We do this normally, but it seems especially prudent now. The driver pushed open the unlocked door and let himself into the vestibule between the outside world and the locked door into the main part of the house. He rang our doorbell (did he Purelle before and/or after?) and had a cordial exchange with Ona through the locked door. He made sure we knew he had left the groceries on our porch. Ona, Ethan, and I made quick work of carrying everything to the kitchen. I transported the two heavy boxes of LaCroix. We all washed our hands thoroughly immediately afterward. As I washed mine, Ona said, “Ethan did a smart thing; he cleaned his pants where the bags rubbed.” Since I felt pretty sure the LaCroix boxes only touched my shirt, I exchanged it for a clean one.

But the next morning, as I sat down to write, I thought about my notebook and what if my pants had touched the boxes and what if the driver unknowingly had touched the doorbell or the doorknob or anything else of someone who had the virus? I was off to the races. I could decide once and for all that my pants never touched the boxes. But then, if I put my notebook on contaminated trousers (the virus lives on surfaces for at least 24 hours), when I put that notebook down on a surface, that surface would be compromised. And then if I later put something else on that surface, that something else would be compromised.

“Just go change your pants,” I told myself. “If you don’t want to take the time to shower and change everything, just change your pants.”

“But what if, in the process of moving the contents of my pockets from the old pair to the new, I touch the old pair to the new, or touch a bad spot on the old and then touch the new?”

“Don’t be silly. Keep the back of the old pair closest to you and assume that the pockets are safe, since your shirt tail, which you’ve learned to keep untucked, would have protected the top front of the old pair.”

“Wow! Good thing I changed shirts last night, or I’d have to worry about that, too.”

You see how it goes. I went through a raft of maneuvers and strategies to get all the pants that needed to be laundered into the washing machine without touching the unsafe area of the unsafe pants, then washed my hands thoroughly.

I’ll probably be fine, even if I contract the virus. Doctors have pronounced my heart and lungs quite healthy, and even though I’ve gotten the flu after sixty, I’ve never felt anywhere near mortal danger. Of course, in spite of what our President implies, these two aren’t the same. We keep hearing projections of feeding tubes and ventilators. They recall the difficult thinking my brother had to do when he had ALS. It scares me. I’m sympathetic to me with my neurosis. I love being alive. I don’t want to have to face such serious choices and consequences. I don’t want doctors and hospitals to have to do triage on anybody.

When someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if he learned he was going to die that day, he said, “If I had planned to work in my garden, I’d work in my garden.” So I’m just gardening. Gardening and hoping.

 

Tipping Point

Maybe, as Rachel Maddow said, we had no clear tipping point with regard to COVID-19, but March 12 felt like it to me. Broadway, Major League Baseball, March Madness, professional hockey, the Philadelphia Orchestra, whole school districts, and much more went dark. The night before that, the National Basketball Association. COVID-19 was doing the wave, and the wave had come to our part of the stadium.

I’ve kept a journal through a few other significant and poignant times—training with a new guide dog, accompanying my identical twin brother through ALS to death. Now, I want to record the events of this pandemic, believing I will survive the disease if I get it, but not being able to have complete certainty that, at 68, I will bring this account to a neat, rounded close. How do journalists covering a war feel? Do they like the adrenaline of danger? Does it wear them down, eventually?

I admit I have a part that likes being present for this very time, but I don’t think it’s the love of danger. I’m not that brave. I think it has something to do with slowing life down, something I’ve wanted, but have struggled to do. I don’t always know what, out of all the good things life has to offer, to pass up, so I find myself running too headlong through days, having leaned too far forward for my feet to catch up with my upper body.

Already, I have the luxury of working from home as a contractor. I don’t have to wait for some employer to give me permission to take myself out of contagion’s way. Like every responsible citizen, I will have to wrestle with questions I’m not used to asking: How desperate will a medical need have to get before I would go to a hospital? When would it become absolutely necessary for me to venture into a grocery store? What do we do if one of us in the house gets sick?

Back on March 12th, Ona (my wife) and I made gathering supplies the priority of the day. We put in a double order from the food delivery service. I shopped locally to meet immediate needs and to fill in with items already sold out online. With a few sacrifices, we can probably last for from three to four weeks without having to go out for more essentials.

Ona’s son lives with us. Ona called him “the wild card” in our home, not because he has a touch of that invincibility present in many people under 25, but because he will likely not quarantine himself as rigorously as we will. He’s working from home, but can we expect him not to visit his girlfriend or his father and brother? If he travels, should we strongly request that he stay elsewhere until the heat dies down?

I am the oldest in this household and probably the most vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Every doctor who has listened to my lungs said they sound good and clear. The dry cough I’ve had for several years? The result of acid reflux, allergies, or maybe even something neurogenic—a polite way of saying it’s all in my head. At any rate, no medical person believes it to be a pulmonary problem. If I developed COVID-19, how would I know that coughs now came from that? Such camouflage reminds me how the doctors said, too late, that my father’s lung cancer looked too much like the lung damage from exposure to platinum dust in the refinery where he worked to be detected.

But I’ve strayed from the benefits of slowing down. Actually, I’m not sure how much my life will change. Since I already spend most of my time at home, what will I be cutting out? Let’s see: a few medical appointments, choir rehearsals, trips into the city to run errands, but most of all, all the readings, concerts, plays, restaurants, and other good stuff I’m privileged to enjoy. I’ll miss them, but will I be happy for more time to sort through clutter, read, really listen to music with attention, and call all the friends I’ve neglected? I think so. We’ll see if I use the time well without simply turning it into another way of pressuring myself to squeeze out “worthy pursuits” during these days.

Even to think such thoughts suggests a confidence that COVID-19 won’t hit me or those I love too hard. Such ponderings will look awfully foolish if I’m wrong. So, Dan, proceed with humility, as well as hope.

 

The Virus That’s On All Our Minds

In recognition of the extraordinary times we’re living in, I plan to post thoughts, perspectives, and reflections related to COVID-19. I didn’t start writing about it in order to have something to put on a blog. That would be a terrible reason. The writing began, as much writing does, as a way to process the flood of information, guesses, and flat-out misinformation about the virus, as well as my attempts to think about it and my emotional reactions to it. As Joan Didion famously wrote: I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Long-time followers of Inside the Invisible know that I did something similar as I lived the final year with my brother Dave, who died of ALS in 2015. Before blogs, I kept a more joyous journal as I trained with a new guide dog.

Of course, what happens to me and what I make of it are no more or less special than what happens to you and what you make of it. This is just one man’s account. I welcome your responses, your accounts, of what’s going on and what you make of it. I’ll start with two or three posts a week. Please let me know what you’re thinking and how you’re doing.

(Note: Some people had trouble finding the button to indicate you wanted to follow this blog. Once you click the “Close and accept button” regarding cookies, located at the bottom of the page, the “Follow” button should appear.)

 

Thoughts about Democracy

Like most poets, I’m reluctant to say much about my poems. I trust them to speak for themselves. I will say this, however: I haven’t written many political poems, probably because most political speech belongs in the land of prose, where punchy directness often trumps subtlety. Sometimes, though, events just seem to call for a political poem. Here’s one of my rare ones, which I hope you’ll find timely. I’m grateful to the New York Times for publishing it.

Democracy

“Look at those eyes,” she warbles,
as I settle myself and my guide
across from her on the bus.
“What kind of dog is that?”
I am about to answer
when a man farther back clears his throat
and says, “Yellow Labrador.”
If he’s going to speak for me,
at least he knows his breeds.
But he knows more than that–
he knows their innermost lives.
He says, “Saddest dogs in the world.”
I wouldn’t presume to know that,
but we live in a free country;
people can think what they want.
“Takes six years to train them.”
He sounds like he enjoys
having tidbits of knowledge to share.
There’s only one problem; he’s wrong:
it’s actually more like six months.
Fortunately for him,
we live in a democracy,
where opinion is equal to fact,
and we all have the right to vote.

Epiphany in Puerto Rico

This Monday, when I realized that it was January 6, the day of Epiphany, an imperative to capture the feeling of our final Epiphany with my brother (January 6, 2015) coursed through me, almost like a surge of electricity. I had to write about how much Dave, in spite of poor health, wanted to make this cruise before he took what he called “the cruise to nowhere.” I needed to preserve how impossible it seemed to push a wheelchair on cobblestones and how the people of San Juan appeared out of nowhere at intersections to carry Dave across the streets or help tip the wheelchair just enough to get over a particularly nasty divot. One cop even stopped traffic for us.

In ignorance, we had cheered our good fortune that, coincidentally, our ship would dock in San Juan on Epiphany. We would talk to people in the concierge’s office, who surely would know which churches would have the best services in celebration of this holy day. They didn’t, and they could find nothing that specific in their daily schedule of events or in their general information about religious life on the island. So we figured we’d just get off the ship and ask around.

We found the basilica, but their service had ended just a half hour before. We pulled on the door. Locked. In fact, most places either never opened, or had closed early. Only a couple tee shirt shops and a smattering of restaurants were open. We tried to make the best of it, basking in the breezes of a late afternoon with the temperature still in the upper seventies, but we couldn’t push away all our disappointment. Dave and I sat in the plaza, while our partners, Emily and Ona, ambled through the neighborhood. Children played. A few had cap guns. A small dog barked, and we wondered if its owner had given it the same name our grandparents called their chihuahua. Did Chandler, my guide dog, understand the local dog dialect?

Knowing that death couldn’t be far off (it would be less than a year away), I documented our travels in audio recordings. As we waited for the women to return, I summarized our encounters and observations, Dave making additions and corrections in his ALS voice. Fifteen minutes later, Ona and Emily returned to stand beside us and regale us with detailed descriptions of the beautiful, old buildings they’d seen and the new tee shirts they’d brought back as gifts for their children. As their excited talk coasted to a natural resting place and it became clear that we had nothing left to do here, I asked, “Shall we head back?”

“I guess so,” Ona said. “We have lots of work to do to get there.”

 

I’m Back!

Dear Friends and Blog-followers,

I’m back.

Maybe I have to accept that this blog exists in fits and starts. I see that my last post occurred on December 2, 2015, the day after my brother’s death. Probably no coincidence there. But beyond that, I haven’t known what to do with this forum since the election of 2016. I still don’t know what to do with it in terms of politics. We need to find or create space where people can discuss their deeply held differences, but in a way that never forgets the humanity of us all. I’m still thinking about whether I can take on trying to make such a space.

In the meantime, I made a half dozen New Year’s resolutions this year, something I don’t usually do. When I told my wife Ona, she said, “I like to think of them as “New Year’s aspirations.” That does sound a lot more self-compassionate. At the top of my list was getting this blog going again.

Last Monday, when I needed to write the date on something, it hit me that it was the day of Epiphany, the day when, according to Christian tradition, the Magi, the Three Wise Men, came to visit the baby Jesus and bring him gifts. Immediately, my heart and mind went back to Puerto Rico on Epiphany, 2015, when I took a cruise with my brother Dave, who would die of ALS later that year. I knew, then, that’s how I would reawaken this blog.

When I began writing the following post, I had no way of knowing that just a day later, the southern portion of Puerto Rico would be rocked by a 6.4-strength earthquake. Please pray for the people of Puerto Rico who, once again, have to find a way of recovering from natural disaster.

Enjoy!

Dan