[I wrote this original blogpost two years ago. Though much has changed since April 2015, it is amazing how much has remained the same–and I find this post eerily relevant to our country in February 2017.]
Sometimes I find the most extraordinary inspiration and wisdom in the strangest places. My husband and I were watching a British TV police procedural set in the 1960’s called Inspector George Gently. In addition to the excellent acting, writing, and pacing of the series (available for viewing in the U.S. on Netflix), we enjoy the time-capsule quality of traveling back to the clothes, hair styles (beehives and sideburns), and font choices (even the credits look like ’60s TV shows) used in the era in which I grew up–a clueless child trying to figure out what the heck life was all about.
On dispensing useful guidance, the grown ups of my childhood were not particularly much help. They didn’t share the how-to’s I needed as they whispered together around the edges. My sister Lisa’s sixth-grade boy friend provided the rather shocking, news-to-us information about the who-does-what-to-whom particulars of the birds and the bees. I was in the eighth grade when she shared the gritty details, and I hoped to God that Lisa’s boy friend was wrong, because how you have sex sounded inordinately disgusting, not very sanitary, and a questionable way to carry on the future of the human race. But obviously I was not the manager of this worldwide inconvenience store: put P into Q and hope that the x and y chromosomes do a happy dance. I learned the more beautiful nuances of the situation much later.
Meanwhile back with George Gently the British police detective show, I found each episode offered music I should download or a poet I should read. And let me say as you roll your eyes, that I never made less than an “A” in English class–from first grade through my bachelor’s degree–until I took a poetry class in college. Not only was I not a fan of Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, but it was obvious I could not extemporanously spout what the English professor saw in their mirky musings which led to my first “B+” in English. Hey, I was an English major and a writer Dad-gum-it, as my Daddy would say, so thanks for nothing, small-minded poetry prof!
Thus and so, I am not a big fan of poetry. Buuutttt, a particularly affecting George Gently episode featured the work of British poet Roger McGough and his poem Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death. McGough wrote this bread-and-butter-of-life poem when he was very much a young man himself.
Besides writing poetry, Roger McGough was one of three young men in a 1960’s British musical trio called The Scaffold. He has since written plays and children’s books, appeared on TV a good bit, and was interviewed by Eric Idle of Monty Python fame in a 1978 mockumentary of the Beatles–the latter, perhaps not surprisingly, since one of his Scaffold partners was Beatle Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McCartnery, known professionally as Mike McGear.
In any event, I was reminded of McGough’s poem and the wisdom of young men when I read today’s headlines about the U.S. Supreme Court’s open arguments before their upcoming same-sex marriage decision. I find the use of the adjective “open” to be a specious one in this case.
Half of the court are old, gray Conservative Justices–mostly white men living pampered old, white-men lives (and yes, I am including you, Clarence Thomas, because you may be a black man, but you definitely have the soul and the Supreme Court voting record of an old white man). Beyond reason really is why these four or five men should decide whether Americans all over the country can love who they want to love and also have the right to marry them.
Give me instead the wisdom of young Americans–young men or women of all colors–and the majority of those wise young people will agree that the government should not be in the driver’s seat about who Americans can love and who they can marry.
Up till 1967, white people and black people could not legally marry in every state of this country. To see how this sad state of events played out for two Americans in the mid-’60s, take a look at the gorgeous documentary called The Loving Story. The Lovings, Mildred who was mixed race and Richard who was white, married in Washington, DC, when it was illegal to marry and live together in their home state of Virginia. Nor was it particularly safe for a mixed-race couple to be together with the prejudice that was rampant at that time. Richard was arrested; the charge was living with his wife in Virginia. A young attorney took their case, and after lower court decisions, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s laws against people of different races marrying. And so it became the law throughout the land. [Note from February 2017: you can also watch an excellent movie version released in 2016, Loving, which also tells this moving story. Although I must admit I favor the documentary for its gorgeous simplicity and the joy of being in the presence of the real Mildred Loving!]
The Supremes of 2015, however, are not the Supremes of the 1960’s–neither the trio of black women who had a string of number one hits, nor the U.S. Supreme Court Justices who overturned unjust marriage laws in the Civil Rights era.
Personally I’d rather have the three talented Motown singers decide who gets to marry than the 2015 court’s version.
But no, the 2015 Supremes are in the Bush League by comparison, quite literally. President George Bush #1 placed controversial judge, and reliable know-nothing, Clarence Brown on the court. President George Bush #2 placed two judges on the court, the salt-and-salt shakers of Chief Justice John Roberts and his close political bedfellow Samuel Alito. These three Bush men joined President Ronald Reagan’s, Catholic-voting choice of Antonin Scalia, to provide the bass notes to perennial swing-vote Anthony Kennedy (who was also provided by Reagan).
Yes, campers the decision about whether an American gay or lesbian couple can legally marry, and have their marriage legal in all 50 states, comes down to one old white guy, Anthony Kennedy, who was put on the court 27 years ago by quintessential old, white guy Ronald Reagan. And people constantly tell me that voting doesn’t matter in this country because the two major political parties are identical. Nope, not by a long shot.
It is three women Justices and one man put on the court by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who will provide the sanity and justice in this process. And who knows what the Supreme Court will decide. I wouldn’t want my life, happiness, or financial future to depend on them.
No matter what the Supreme Court decides, people of all colors and sexes will go on loving each other, and they will find the juice in life and drink it down. But I want to be on the side of the dancers, the musicians, the joy-bringers, the lovers. I want to die a youngman’s death–and more to the point, lead a young man’s life–as outlined so beautifully by poet Roger McGough.
Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death
Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean & inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death
When I’m 73
& in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party
Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
& sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
& give me a short back & insides
Or when I’m 104
& banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
& fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
& throw away every piece but one
Let me die a youngman’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax & waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death
Amen and amen.
Near the end of this blogpost, I send a special shout-out to one of the wisest young man I know, my nephew Zach, on this the eve of his 30th birthday: May you have a happy and blessed birthday and may there be many more!
And instead of intoning Scalia and his backup group of three or four men in black judicial robes, may Supremes Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, Roger McGough (even though he is British), my sons Justin and Aidan, my nephew Zach, fictional detective Inspector George Gently (also British), my former poetry professor from the University of Tennessee, and the soaring spirit of the now deceased Mildred Loving get to decide who gets to marry each other in these divided states of America.
//Anna — 4/29/2015