Saturday, March 24, 2018

I am Orpheus: a gift to you on my birthday!

Jeez: that's a 13 year old me in the middle. My beloved first cousin cousin Yorgo (George) passed away four years ago, and my beautiful cousin Eleni is fortunately alive and kicking and even just sent me a Linked-in request! Yikes: 55 years ago this can do the math...

I'm very bad about birthdays: I rarely send cards, although I do somewhat regularly call immediate family and I give random presents (sometimes apropos, sometimes not) to those near and dear to me. I've always thought that b-days are for little kids--for us now two years away from eighth decade (I kid you not) they're a tad more like death knells, or fatidic acknowledgements of the first rather painful stress we inflicted on our mothers ex Utero. You can probably deduce that I'm not the president of the local Optimist's club!

Being suddenly 68 is interesting to say the least (please put the accent first, usually elided "e" in the world to get the full gist...)...Why? you ask...

Getting older in our strange contemporary culture isn't a good thing in most people's minds: slick advertisements usually show oldsters sitting, often with canes. Their glaring smiles belie the aches and pains they're expected to have. People retire after rich, rewarding careers and drop dead after a few weeks or months when they realize they no longer matter, or only matter dead. Honestly, there's not a whole lot to look forward to if you rely on the folkways of conventionality and crass commercialism (the religion that seems to be prevailing nowadays).

I'm not as Greek as my name suggests--born at over 7000' in the heart of the Rockies. Bred in Baghdad by the Flatirons, otherwise known as Aspen East or ten square miles surrounded by reality. My childhood in Boulder was a complicated affair--agony, ecstasy and a lot of contemplation and learning and just plain fun. My life since then has really become more and more rewarding: a little less neurotic every decade, and I'd like to think I'm becoming a better human being.

Of course, I'm still an egotist (as every human ought to be in some small measure). But I think I'm slightly less of one than I was last year and so and and so forth. Of course, anyone who writes a Birthday Blog and declares they're not an egotist is certainly extremely suspect.

I love Thanksgiving above all holidays for the reason most of us do: families getting together (and in my case, I happen to be extraordinarily fortunate in my family: they are all wise, kind, beautiful and incredibly good to me). And of course I like to eat a lot. 

If I were more Greek, I'd celebrate my name day rather than my birthday (my father didn't have a clue what year he was born in let alone the day: birthdays didn't matter a hoot back then in Crete). And on your name day you invite any and all to your home and you feed them, you celebrate the vast community that actually comprises who you truly are.

I'm intrigued and rather surprised that Social Media--not just this blog, but of course evil Facebook and not so much Twitter--have brought a large new group of people into my life--and I wish I could open my door and invite you all in today (I can't, the living room's a mess for one thing). Instead, I suppose week in week out I've invited you to my garden and other gardens and other wild places that are the real stuff of my work and my life and my soul. So what to do on my B-day that would be Greek? I can't have you over, as I said. I have nothing physical I can transfer over the Worldwide Web...

Then I realize that millions of young people across America are rallying today to protest gun violence and demand action on the part of our (currently) NRA hypnotized congress. I don't know about you, but I think that's about as good a present any of us could want for our birthday!

But this is supposed to be from me to you, right? Isn't that the Greek Way? I shall give you not one, but two of my favorite poems for my gift to you--my mysterious and somewhat abstract community of the Web. I look up, and the almond tree in my Ridge garden is starting to bloom: although I'm not very conventionally religious, I'm a sort of spiritually minded secular humanist--which doesn't stop me from appreciating Nikos Kazanzakis' wonderful haiku:  

I said to the almond tree
"speak to me of God."
And the almond tree blossomed 

That's a bit too short. I delve into my memory (I do love poetry) and a poem I have loved all my life rises to my mind: Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich was an emigre Russian poet--a friend of Vladimir Nabokov (my favorite writer) who considered him the best poet of his time, and immortalized him (or his avatar rather) as Koncheyev, in The Gift (possibly my favorite novel of all time). I ought to give you all that book as a present, but it's still under copywrite! This poem may be too (and Nabokov in his dotage would have disapproved of a metrical translation, double penalty there for me), but perhaps he'd forgive himself and me--since it is one of the loveliest poems imaginable. Here you are: my birthday present to you (and to myself!):


Brightly lit from above, I am sitting
In my circular room; this is I
Looking up at a sky made of stucco,
At a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
All around me my furniture stands,
Chair and table and bed—and I wonder
Sitting there what to do with my hands

Frost-engendered white feathery palm-trees
On the window-panes silently bloom,
Loud and quick ticks my watch in my pocket
As I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
Of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
My own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
Swaying backwards and forwards and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
To myself as I say in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
Lacking any intelligent plan
But a sound may be truer than reason
And a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
Blends my accents and joins in their quest,
And a delicate, delicate, delicate
Pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
High above mortal matter I grow;
Subterranean flames lick my ankles,
Past my brow the cool galaxies glow.

With big eyes, as my singing grows wilder
With the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
Of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly
Slowly start in a circle to sail,
And a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
Handed by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
And away the false heavens are blown;
On the smoothness of glossy white boulders
This is Orpheus standing alone.


  1. Thank you, and happy birthday!

  2. A belated happy birthday. We celebrated two birthday's yesterday at my house and I spoke to a nephew on the phone who has the same birthday as you.

    My present to you is after five years is I am finally planting the last of the Draba I grew from the seed you sent me. This last Draba species has been sitting in a communal flat all this time. The label had been lost, but I think from my notes and process of elimination it is D. mongolica. It will be interesting to see how many survive transplanting.

    Five years since you sent me seed, and I am still transplanting stuff into the garden each year!


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