Roses now, or roses later

On Sunday at the Palo Alto shapenote singing, we came to #340 in the 1991 Denson Sacred Harp, Odem (Second), with the chorus “Give me the roses while I live”. Counterbalanced, as it turns out, on the preceding page by #339, When I Am Gone, with the second verse “Plant you a rose that shall bloom o’er my grave, / When I am gone”.

Roses now, or roses later.

The music. Roses now, then roses later.



Now or later. As someone who is still alive, I’m all for roses now. “Something to cheer me on” (SH340).

At 79, I’m pretty much surrounded by death. Every week brings the deaths of old friends, colleagues, and students, not to mention public figures, entertainers, and others I’ve admired for years. I used to chronicle these losses on my blog, but there’s no way I can keep up with them now. An absurd amount of my time is spent not in living a rich and satisfying life but in just barely struggling through the days, mostly doing things that are supposed to stave off my own death, which is surely not far off.

My two partners in life have both died, Jacques in a years-long agonizing descent, and I have barely escaped death myself several times, emerging disfigured, disabled, and broken in many ways from the worst of these events. All except a handful of the gay men of my generation, and many of the generation following mine, died together in the grisly conflagration of AIDS, a fact I have barely been able to cope with emotionally; I miss them terribly (and I can’t imagine how I escaped their fate).

I do get some roses. People send me little presents, books especially, and occasionally notes of appreciation for my teaching or writing. Appreciations of my blog postings — weirdly quirky combinations of essay, academic analysis, and entertainment — I particularly appreciate, since creating these postings and maintaining the blog take an enormous amount of labor, so I frequently wonder if it’s worth the trouble, for the sake of the (I estimate) 40-60 people who read the blog regularly.

(Meanwhile, I get a lot of thorns. In particular, I am constantly meeting people — especially medical staff treating me — who, on hearing that I am not paid for my blog work, conclude that it is literally of no value, merely a harmless hobby filling an old man’s lonely hours. In their eyes, my only status in life is Retired. I would like to think otherwise — I view my daily blog postings as professional writing and also as proclamations that I’m Not Dead Yet — but maybe I’m self-deceived.)

Matters of belief. I don’t believe in life after death — my Lutheran childhood and Episcopalian young adulthood have left (good) marks on me, but I no longer hold to any part of Christian creed, though I do believe that I should try to live as a force for good — so the idea of roses in my memory would mean nothing to me. They might be useful for those who survive me, but they have literally nothing to do with me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s roses now, or no roses at all.

This is not the main line of Christian belief, which holds that we suffer in life in the promise of reward in heaven: “Think of the crown all the ransomed shall wear” (SH339).

Of course, it’s possible to hope for some roses while you live, but look foward to being memorialized with roses as well.

Dueling proverbs. As is so often the case, pieces of good advice can go both ways. Sing for roses now, sing for roses later. In proverbs,

Seize the day.


All things come to those who wait.

On the first, from Wikipedia:

Carpe diem is a Latin aphorism, usually (though questionably) translated “seize the day”, taken from book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes (23 BC).

… A more literal translation of carpe diem would … be “pluck the day [as it is ripe]” — that is, enjoy the moment.

On the second, from the Phrase Finder site:

This proverbial saying was used by the English poet Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie (1843-1905), under her pseudonym of Violet Fane, in her poem Tout vient a qui sait attendre:

All hoped-for things will come to you
Who have the strength to watch and wait,
Our longings spur the steeds of Fate,
This has been said by one who knew.

‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’

The saying may well be earlier than this.

Delayed gratification. Take it now, or wait for something better. Well, clearly that depends on a number of factors, most notably what’s lost by not taking the first thing now, what the chances are of the second thing actually coming along, and how much the second thing is worth over the first thing. But such choices do come up in real life. From Wikipedia:

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, describes the process that the subject undergoes when the subject resists the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.

A person’s ability to delay gratification relates to other similar skills such as patience, impulse control, self-control and willpower, all of which are involved in self-regulation.

The literature is geared towards confronting impulsive ill-considered behavior, recommending waiting for something better (to come along), but of course that isn’t always good advice. At the other end of the scale, there are occasions when you should take what you can get. For instance, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (a Billy Preston saying — worked, with permission, into Steven Stills’s 1970 hit song “Love the One You’re With”).

Getting to Odem. We got to Odem in the Sunday singing in a series of death-related songs — not just any death-related songs (in the Sacred Harp that hardly narrows things down at all), but specifically songs associated with long-time Sacred Harp singer Stephen O’Leary, who died on the 23rd. From singer Jim Friedrich on the 24th on the Bay Area Sacred Harp (BASH) Facebook group:

It is with great sorrow that I learned that my dear friend Stephen D. O’Leary fell asleep in Christ late last night. He had spent last weekend singing the songs he loved at the annual California shape note convention.

… On Sunday [January 19th] he led us in singing “Farewell Anthem”: “I am going on a long and tedious journey, never to return. . . Farewell, my friends, and God grant that we may meet together in that world above, where trouble shall cease and harmony shall abound.”

Having just begun chemotherapy for stage 4 cancer, Stephen told us that he was hearing the tradition’s songs –– many of them about death –– rather differently, but that singing them was always one of his greatest joys.

This was shocking news; we had just heard that Stephen was in treatment, and then suddenly he was dead.

SH260, Farewell Anthem, sprawls over three pages and is somewhat tricky to sing — I’m not fond of it — but its text takes us to that land “Where the mourners cease from mourning and the pris’ner is set free”:




Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: