“. . . outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert. . .” (Galway Kinnell)

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

Enough of politics! of ballots rolled into joints and smoked. Let’s talk about sex.

The old Boston Garden. North Station. From the North Shore train into the city, I headed down to catch the Orange Line out to the college for my day of teaching. About 1990. We residents of Boston’s North Shore were “green” way back then. We rode the train the 25 miles to work rather than drive.

In the station I met an acquaintance headed out to catch the train out to Salem. He lived in the city and worked for Essex County in Salem. I’ve forgotten his name even though I was only 45, with my mind as intact as it had ever been. I was a relatively attractive dude. He was more than relatively attractive.

He walked straight toward me, and I said “Hello.” He was with a woman, both of them dressed for the office and carrying brief cases, and I assumed she was a work colleague. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, said nothing, and walked past me.

I found out later my assumption was correct, that since he didn’t know my last name, he didn’t want to have to introduce us or explain to her how we knew each other, so he ignored me. Any gay man—and lots of other folks—knows this scene. He was a “trick,” not a friend. Different from most tricks. I had been with him several times and absolutely sorta kinda fantasized we’d be real lovers or partners or something. Delusional, of course.

That morning I was rejected as well as delusional. Funny how certain moments, unimportant in the scheme of things, stick in one’s memory.

The giant billboard in the station displayed a photo of Steven Tyler clutching a microphone to his incredibly wide open mouth, his hair swirling about him—if you’re older than 30, you know the picture—announcing an Aerosmith concert later that week at the Garden. Boston’s own Aerosmith.

In my rejection, I decided I must buy a ticket. I knew Aerosmith’s recent releases of “Dude” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.” One of my students who fancied himself the next Steven Tyler insisted I listen to the album, and then I saw the video of “Janie” on M-TV.  “Janie’s Got a Gun” lodged under my skin in a way few pop songs do, for reasons I will write about some day.

I had a much-too-sensorially stimulating evening as a wanna-be teenager (except, as I recall, many in the audience were about my age—Aerosmith had been around for quite a while). I was into Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll (minus the Drugs—I was clean and sober by then—and minus the Rock ‘n Roll—I was, after all, an elitist classical musician).

Funny. Of all the concerts, both classical and not-so-classical, I’ve been to since then, the sensory memory of that evening is still clear. I think—no, I know—that’s because I attended the concert to assuage my hurt.
Isn’t that what sex is all about? The ultimate drug of escape?

Aerosmith "Dudes"

Aerosmith “Dudes”

No, you say?

Of course I know better. I’ve been through enough therapy and 12-step meetings and retreats and seminars and—you name it—to know that’s not what sex is all about.

So why am I writing now with an Aerosmith concert as the central theme of the piece, an Aerosmith concert I attended with sexual fantasies not as merely an overtone but as the raison d’être?

Like all so-called “rhetorical questions,” that one is disingenuous. If I know the answer, why not simply say it, and if I don’t know the answer, I have no business asking the question as part of an “argument.”

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song. . .

My “argument” now takes a sharp ninety-degree turn. Forget about becoming emaciated. Don’t worry about eating. Doesn’t (what, sex? love? companionship?) “outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert?”

The rhetorical question again. Kinnell’s poem is a litany of images of eating (my favorite is “book lice clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old Webster’s New International, perhaps having just eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon”).

[NOTE: “Izle” – ember; “xyster”-- surgical rasp or file; “thalassacon”—this must be a real word, too, but I can’t find it anywhere]

Here the connection between eating and sex is explicit. But with the wren, Kinnell is piling image upon image. Don’t worry about not eating because even the wren, tiny as it is, can sing. In the middle of the contemplation of eating and sex comes the contemplation of music and– and what? Sex? And back to eating? Casanova throwing his spaghetti out the window because—apparently—eating spoils love-making?

Now I am as confused as ever I hope to be. These wonderful images—Monarch butterflies in their migration from—from where? Ohio, Wisconsin?—to Mexico. To the exact forest where they were born. Singing, eating, migration, sex, love, death, rebirth?

What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?

[NOTE: “glaim”-- viscous substance; “gleet”-- discharge, as from a wound; “birdlime”—a sticky material smeared on trees to catch birds]

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

Now I’ve written myself into a corner where I don’t know what I’ve been trying to say, or where logic (there is none here) will take me next. “Why regret?”

Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

The brilliant concert. The wren. Aerosmith. I don’t know what the poem means or what I meant to say here. Except I want no regrets about any of it.

About anything. Missed love. Concerts. Eating. Not eating. Anything. The memory of waking in the night holding hands with someone in my sleep?

Oh, yes. I nearly forgot. I’m going to a Lady Gaga concert next week.

“Why Regret,” Galway Kinnell (b. 1927, Providence, RI)
Didn’t you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren’t you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn’t it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn’t you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster’s New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn’t it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid’s ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat.”
As a child, didn’t you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn’t you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren’t you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring’s offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?
(From Strong Is Your Hold.  2006)

“The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes . . .” (Denise Duhamel)

The perfect symbol

The perfect symbol

In the fall of 1968 I wandered into the Democratic Party Headquarters on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA, headquarters for the western part of San Bernardino County. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee for President. Even though he was part of the Johnson Administration responsible for the war in Viet Nam, against which I was one of those irreverent “hippie” types who demonstrated, I could not imagine voting for Nixon. My candidate, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated a few months earlier.

The election of 1968 was the first in which I voted. It was the first of five in which I worked as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate, except for the 1972 election when I worked for a pittance of a salary for the McGovern campaign. In the election of 1976 I met Jimmy Carter at a neighborhood party in Iowa City when he was “Jimmy Who?” and decided to volunteer for his campaign when he answered a question from one of my neighbors with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in an Immoral Society. That he even knew the book was enough for me—his quoting it was the icing on the cake.

After Ronald Reagan was elected Acting President in 1980, I never again participated in “politics.” I was mildly interested in supporting Michael Dukakis. (I had, after all, met him three times and met his cousin Olympia at a concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra conducted by his father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson for which I wrote the program notes because the chairman of their board of directors was a colleague of mine on the faculty at Bunker Hill Community College—there, I’ve dropped all the names I can possibly drop.)

Looking back on my dabbling in politics, I’d say having some kind of personal knowledge of a candidate is the best reason to vote for or against her. Every other reason—party affiliation, philosophical agreement, religious compatibility, is dangerous. In fact, it’s absurd.

While I was toying with the idea of working for Dukakis, one of my friends was toying with the idea of working for George Bush the Elder because her family’s summer home was in the same exclusive neighborhood of Kennebunkport, and she rubbed elbows with the Bush family as part of the social elite of Maine (I suppose she still does).

Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in . . .

My disillusionment is not quite as complete as Denise Duhamel’s seems to be, but it’s close. Her poem says “a slug,” not two slugs. In the slug kingdom it’s possible for one slug to copulate—and thereby reproduce. It’s not masturbation. They don’t often fly solo—usually it takes two slugs, but what happens to the slug playing the part of the male when they are finished is pretty gross.

I think it’s an apt description of American politics. Devouring parts of (or, more likely, ALL of) one’s opponent is the name of the game. And—excuse the extended metaphor—we all seem to slither around in the garden dirt when it comes to politics or even talking about (I won’t say “discussing”) any of the problems that are in the process of tearing American society apart.

I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.

We all carry our ballots around and ponder big questions—what to do with 52,000 starving, frightened, unmoored children knocking at our doors seeking shelter, safety, and a way to survive as human beings; how to prevent the next mass killing with licensed guns of school children; what to do about the absoluet certainty that the NSA, the NRA, every bookseller and garden supply seller in the country knows you’re reading this—and then instead of finding an answer to any of these questions, we light our ballots on fire, inhale the smoke, and blow it toward whatever politician we think should have helped solved the problem long ago.

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

Politics: Wonderland or La-La Land?

We make ourselves the perfect voters, smiling our way to the ballot box with eyes closed to the realities we are voting on. We accept without investigating that banks and billionaires are the oppressed in America. We accept without investigating that Hamas is a “terrorist” organization. We allow demagogues to convince us that changes of world-wide power structures are the fault of one man rather than the inexorable result of our own materialistic “globalization.” We allow the interpretation of human life that a corporation is the same as a living, breathing body. And so on.

We set ourselves up in armed gated communities prepared to make war on anyone who is not “like us.” STAND YOUR GROUND!

I doubt I will ever again walk into a “party headquarters.” I may never vote again. I don’t want the shame of being a slug slithering in the garden copulating with myself.

My advertised purpose in this blog is to write light-hearted pieces about the process of growing old. I don’t know if this is light-hearted or not.

Slithering in the dirt

Slithering in the dirt

Well, here’s some jollity. Since I “retired,” I’ve taken some actions that might be seen as out-of-character because they are frivolous and odd (perhaps “odd” is not out of character). Only one is obvious and public—the bold and conspicuous tattoo on my left arm. Its Latin phrase, by the way, is the first words of the Medieval hymn,

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

So last Thursday evening did you watch fireworks with glee and patriotism? Heaven and earth with ashes burning. Has that become the best symbol of our “democracy?” Firepower?

“Exquisite Politics,” by Denise Duhamel (b. 1961)
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice’s mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor’s mansion.
Someday I won’t politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I’ll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci’s first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.

Just because. Another patriotic poem. From Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America, edited by Virgil Suárez and Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

“Patriotics,” by David Baker (b. 1954)
Yesterday a little girl got slapped to death by her daddy,
out of work, alcoholic, and estranged two towns down river.
America, it’s hard to get your attention politely.
America, the beautiful night is about to blow up

and the cop who brought the man down with a shot to the chops
is shaking hands, dribbling chaw across his sweaty shirt,
and pointing cars across the courthouse grass to park.
It’s the Big One one more time, July the 4th,

our country’s perfect holiday, so direct a metaphor for war,
we shoot off bombs, launch rockets from Drano cans,
spray the streets and neighbors’ yards with the machine-gun crack
of fireworks, with rebel yells and beer. In short, we celebrate.

It’s hard to believe. But so help the soul of Thomas Paine,
the entire county must be here–the acned faces of neglect,
the halter-tops and ties, the bellies, badges, beehives,
jacked-up cowboy boots, yes, the back-up singers of democracy

all gathered to brighten in unambiguous delight
when we attack the calm and pointless sky. With terrifying vigor
the whistle-stop across the river will lob its smaller arsenal
halfway back again. Some may be moved to tears.

We’ll clean up fast, drive home slow, and tomorrow
get back to work, those of us with jobs, convicting the others
in the back rooms of our courts and malls–yet what
will be left of that one poor child, veteran of no war

but her family’s own? The comfort of a welfare plot,
a stalk of wilting prayers? Our fathers’ dreams come true as nightmare.
So the first bomb blasts and echoes through the streets and shrubs:
red, white, and blue sparks shower down, a plague

of patriotic bugs. Our thousand eyeballs burn aglow like punks.
America, I’d swear I don’t believe in you, but here I am,
and here you are, and here we stand again, agape.

“. . . memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed. . . “ (Siân E. Lindley)

My first organ memories - Baldwin Model 5

. My first organ memories – Baldwin Model 5

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If Siân E. Lindley has done her research correctly, and if scientific inquiry (in the United States this is always a matter of debate) can be trusted,

. . . we can surmise that memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed (and co-constructed with others); a life story is interpreted and retrospectively reinterpreted; and narrative truth and belief, rather than objective truth, is bound up with identity. (Lindley, Siân E. “Before I Forget: From Personal Memory To Family History.” Human-Computer Interaction 27.1/2 (2012): 13-36.)

Lindley is a professional researcher; therefore, her conclusions are suspect to Americans. She is

a social scientist with an interest in how technology can be designed to fit, and how it is shaped by, the social context in which it is used (Lindley, “Before”).

Nevertheless (in spite of, not because of, her scientific methods) I find what she says fascinating. We don’t retrieve our memories, we form them so we can retrospectively interpret them to ourselves and to others. Wow! My memory of playing the piano for a wedding for the first time is what I form it to be, not the details of what happened. (If I remembered every detail, it would take as long as the wedding did—I don’t have time.)

I remember distinctly, hauntingly so, a meeting of a graduate seminar studying the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (about 20 years ago). The half-dozen or so of us were seated at a table in a small classroom in the Jonsson Building at the University of Texas at Dallas. The professor (whose name I do not remember) was tall—6’ 3” or something—muscular, swarthy, black-haired, handsome (it’s part of my narrative that I remember what he looked like but not his name). The students in the seminar were mostly graduate assistants teaching in the freshman rhetoric program.

One of my friends said something about the “epistemological” something or the other of the story we were studying, and I knew—precisely at that moment—what I had been thinking for quite a while, that I did not belong in that graduate program. I had been trying to figure out what they meant by “epistemological” for some time—it’s a favorite word among scholars—with no success. “Epistemology” means, according to dictionary.com, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I wouldn’t use “epistemology” in a sentence for any reason.

I would, however, show you the short stories of Hemingway that seem to have gay themes. My paper on the subject earned a B from the handsome professor, not because it was poorly written, but because he didn’t like the subject or agree with me.

For quite a while, my reconstruction, my re-interpretation of that memory was that I’m just not very smart. That is true, of course. But not knowing what “epistemology” means is not what proves that. Not being able to explain why people who irrationally hate President Obama ought to be ashamed of themselves—that’s evidence that I’m not very smart.

Or not being able to sort the flatware in my silverware drawer.

Or not being able to figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my router so I can watch Netflix movies on the big screen instead of on this computer, which I hate.

The first First Baptist Church

The first First Baptist Church

So what do I remember about playing the piano for a wedding for the first time?

In the far southeastern area our town in Western Nebraska in the 1950s was a small church known as La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (I think that’s right—my memory may not be reconstructing that correctly). It was a small but not tiny frame church structure, and Pastor Raymundo was the pastor. He had a wife and one son, Sammy. Our family shared dinner with the Raymundos quite regularly, and—more fun—we went to events at the church, most of which were followed by dinners of Mexican food made by the women of the church.

Sorry, all of you Texans. You don’t know what real Mexican cooking is.

During the summer, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana had overflow crowds on Sundays. This was at the height (I think, although I should look it up) of the brasero program, and Mexican workers came to work the sugar beet fields and create the economy of our county.

The Mexican Baptist Church has now—I believe (you’d think I’d do some research and know these things for sure)—joined with the First Baptist Church. The membership is constant because all of the Mexican-Americans are permanent residents, probably citizens.

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

My organ teacher gave me a book of organ pieces to learn that included both the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Wedding March and the Wagner “Here comes the bride.” I learned to play them (I was in about 6th or 7th grade) just in case someone would want me to play for their wedding.

A young couple from La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were getting married, and they wanted the American traditional music instead of the music their church generally used. My father suggested I could play the two wedding marches. My first wedding gig.

I don’t know if the couple or their families were Braseros or American citizens or illegal immigrants. We didn’t ask questions like that—at least we middle schoolers didn’t. The adults may have been concerned with such things, but they did not include us in their conversations if they did.

We just went to their church, and they came to ours, and we got to share in glorious (real) Mexican dinners, and Sammy Raymundo and I were buddies, and things were just fine.

I don’t know what happened.

The epistemology about the nature of the immigration crisis in this country may have to do simply with our collective memory. Somehow we’ve come to the point where our narrative, our reconstruction of the meaning of immigration has gotten really fucked up.

I wonder where Sammy Raymundo is.

“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.

“At least 10 Palestinians have been killed, including at least three children, a pregnant woman, and a mentally ill man.”

Who is in danger?

Who is in danger?

This writing has been percolating in my mind since about 2001. I have no idea how to write it. I know exactly what I want to say, but the subject is too close. It is too complex. It is too emotionally overwhelming.

For all of that, the subject is so simple I can’t comprehend it—and I certainly do not know how to write about it clearly, logically, powerfully.

My sister wrote in an email this morning,

I am convinced that unless we forgive those closest to us there will never be peace in the world. We strangle each other with hurt and sorrow until the wound is so deep that we forget how we got it. Placing band aids over spurting veins only minimizes the pain until one of us bleeds to death. The problem between Palestine and Israel . . . goes on and on until there is no blame just stupidity.

It’s partly just stupidity. But it is also injustice and oppression. If you are an Episcopalian, you likely pray every Sunday for “the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.” (Note: the article and the video are not from American sources. Such reporting never is.) Does that apply to the Palestinians living (for 47 years now) under brutal occupation with the goal of ethnic cleansing?

Kidnapping and murdering three teenage boys is wrong in any context by anyone’s reckoning. Israel’s response is—as it always is—totally irresponsible and unconscionable. And America’s support for Israel and approval of the mass punishment of all Palestinians for the actions of a few—without even knowing who the few are or why they did what they did—is evil.

Evil.

Evil.

He's only a Palestinian.

He’s only a Palestinian.

And you and I are complicit in the evil. We perpetuate it. We condone it. We pay for it. And many of our leaders praise it.

Here are links to some materials about the situation. I wish I knew you’d read at least the first four which are about the current “battles” directly:

http://www.sabeel.org/waveofprayer.php

http://www.intifada-palestine.com/2014/07/searing-hypocrisy-west/

http://fosna.org/reporting-palestine#overlay-context=user?utm_source=AAAAA+Digest+July+2%2C+2014&utm_campaign=July+2%2C+2014&utm_medium=email

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/12218-israeli-army-storms-birzeit-university-and-arrests-two-students

http://www.ifamericansknew.org/

http://blogs.elca.org/peacenotwalls/

http://voicesforpeace.blogspot.com/

http://972mag.com/nstt_feeditem/photos-right-wing-activists-police-clash-in-anti-arab-protest/

http://www.elcjhl.org/

Do Palestinian boys' homes count?

Do Palestinian boys’ homes count?

“. . . even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees. . . (Nazim Hikmet)

The only tree I've ever planted.

The only tree I’ve ever planted.

Martin Luther (the first Martin Luther, not MLK), according to legend was out in his yard planting a tree (presumably apple, which he loved) and proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

According to legend. No record of Luther’s remark exists—according to the website Luther 2017, the official state-operated site of the “Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt” preparing for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Perhaps Minnesota or Iowa has a state-operated website for the anniversary—or Fredericksburg, TX, has a city-operated site. The German Lutherans who founded Fredericksburg came there in the early 19th century to escape using the new “Service Book” being forced on all Protestants in Prussia, whether Lutheran or Reformed.

In his poem “On Living” Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), “the first modern Turkish poet” proclaims

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Who would have guessed that the great 16th-century German church reformer and the 20th-century Marxist Turkish/Russian poet would come to the same conclusion about how to live one’s life?

I don’t plant trees. The only one I ever planted, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmer Branch, TX, in memory of my late partner Jerry Hill, was uprooted when the church closed and the city bought the property to build a new fire station.

Since I retired (I won’t be, in fact, retired until August 1), I have had a hankering to play an organ recital. I have the program in mind. (Except for one work. I want to play an organ piece by a Palestinian or Palestinian-American composer, but I haven’t yet found one.)

It’s going to be a fairly simple program: one Bach work, a Mendelssohn Sonata, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and either two of the “Fantasies for Organ” by Ross Lee Finney, or the mystery work by a Palestinian composer.

This “retirement” business is, so far, unsettling. How does one keep oneself in some sort of trajectory toward—well, toward what? What do I need to do? What do I want to do? What does anyone else need or want me to do?

These are, in reality, questions I’ve been asking myself for 68 of my 69 years.

I’ve never been quite sure the way I’m living—what I’m doing or what I’m not doing—is “right.” I don’t need any philosophical or theological or self-help or 12-step recovery answers to the question, “Am I living right?” I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read Heidegger, I’ve read Baudrillard, I’ve practically memorized the Bible, I’ve listened to Dr. Oz, I’ve learned about the Third Wave of Behavioral Therapy, I’ve read Waking the Tiger, I read Bill Wilson and company all the time. I draw the line at The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—that requires remembering to carry a planner everywhere you go.

I have to leave religion out of trying to answer the question. At least for now. I know that puts some of my friends off, but I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to be as jihadist about that as Bill Maher is.

“Am I living right?”

Nazim Hikmet’s answer is

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

“Living must be your whole occupation.”

I know all together too well that living is no laughing matter. My goodness, if I read my post from yesterday—meltdown number 1001 (or more)—I have no doubt I understand “living with great seriousness.”

". . .living must be your whole occupation. . ."

“. . .living must be your whole occupation. . .”

I’ve been living with great seriousness all my life. Oh, I know how to have a good time—a genuine good time for the last 27 years since I started reading Bill Wilson and company (their writings are not, by the way, philosophy, theology, or “self-help”). But basically life seems to have been no laughing matter for me.

Or perhaps not. “Living must be your whole occupation.”

Much (most?) of the time I don’t remember that. But there are times that I do. When I sit at the organ and play, for example, the Brahms Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”), I realize there are (have been) a few times when living has been my whole occupation, when I have not been “looking for something beyond and above living.

I’ve thought through what I’m going to say next, and I know it sounds contradictory. But it is not.

Much of the time when I play the organ, my experience is like the rest of my experience—not quite meltdown 101, but not exactly living as my whole occupation. I don’t have the physical acumen to play complicated works easily, but I keep trying. But once in a while I discover a work that fits my fingers, my mind, and my spirit so that playing it can be my “whole occupation.” A listener might not think that’s true, but for me it is.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

I can extrapolate from that experience to my daily struggle to figure out if “I am living right.” If I can give myself to whatever it is I am doing, not looking “for something beyond and above” any given action at any given moment, perhaps I can “live as if we will never die.”

Yikes! That’s about as spooky as anything I’ve ever written. Thank goodness for Brother Martin, whether he said it or not. I’ll keep planting that tree—or whatever I’m doing—even if the end is near.

(Note: I have copied Nazim Hikmet’s entire poem here. It is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding to read.)

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963
(Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1994)
I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Nazim Hikmet was born on January 15, 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). . . Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. Hikmet died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963. The first modern Turkish poet, he is recognized around the world as one of the great international poets of the twentieth century.

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