The American Dream: “the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” (Walter Lippmann, 1914)

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William Jennings Bryan

(Note: this is half again as long as my regular posts here. In all likelihood it comes across as being elitist and even a little unkind. I’m not an elitist, and I try to be a kind person.)

Talk about senescent! My first vote in a Presidential election was for Hubert Humphrey in 1968! I missed getting to vote against Barry Goldwater (1964) by a bit more than a year. The voting age then was 21, and I reached majority in January of 1966. I made up for not being allowed to vote for Lyndon Johnson by working long and hard as a volunteer for Humphrey in the Ontario-Upland (CA) office (a dilapidated house on Euclid Avenue) of the Democratic Party.
___I could not then, and still cannot, imagine Richard Nixon as President of the United States. Four years later I was the chairman of the McGovern Campaign against Nixon’s reelection in Ontario, CA. I got to be great friends with our allies, including the president (a woman!) of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) ―the flatiron production plant of General Electric plant was in Ontario until 1981 (a couple thousand jobs lost when it closed and that had nothing to do with the TPP). I guided Sen. John Tunney around the area on a campaign trip (what an arrogant, mean-spirited horse’s ass he was). The highlight of the campaign for me was being one of the co-hosts for a county-wide campaign bus trip for Eunice Shriver (a woman of elegance, graciousness, and intelligence).
___A few years later I met James Earl Carter at a home precinct meeting in Iowa City when he was still “Jimmy Who?” Jimmy quoted Rheinhold Neibur ― and not the “Serenity Prayer” ― at that meeting in Iowa City! I remember it still.
___Since then I have had no “volunteer” involvement in any election campaign. Because I know too well what “all politics is local” entails. The cream of the crop of ordinary citizens gather together to work their butts off for people who are almost without exception people you would not want seated at your dining table at home. Eunice and Jimmy were the exceptions.
___Part of my preparation for involvement in politics was seeing the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) which was released when I was in high school. You may recall it’s the story of the trial of a high school teacher in Tennessee charged with breaking the state’s law against teaching evolution.
___The controversy over evolution was not new to me, the Baptist preacher’s kid from western Nebraska. Not long before, I had heard Mary Kalen, a friend from childhood, ask my father if he believed in evolution. He got that wonderful droll almost-laughing twinkle in his eye and said something to the effect, “The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not very specific on just how he did it.” That was enough for Mary Kalen and me. She went on to use her interest in biology to become a college professor in Florida and serve on a commission of the State of Florida that went around the world explaining United States space exploration from Cape Canaveral (Kennedy).
___I concluded after Inherit the Wind that ignorance/stupidity should not be rewarded with the privilege of law-making, and that my political involvement would be necessary.
___Not too long ago a good friend told me that the physicist Michio Kaku “. . . believes that global warming is manmade and . . .  [he, my friend, is] willing to get off the fence in some areas when someone [he] really respect[s] holds a certain position.” I agree that it’s a good thing for Kaku to appear on FOX now and then to explain scientific news.   Kaku’s self-identification as one of the founders of String Theory notwithstanding (work in the theory began before he was born), he is an important popularizer of scientific information. However, his relationship with FOX in no way makes his opinions about global warming more believable than, say, the scientific investigation and experimentation of Michael E. Mann who has spent his entire career studying climate.
___I find it comforting that in 1757 Pope Benedict XIV announced that textbooks saying the earth revolves around the sun would no longer be banned in Catholic schools so poor mother earth could finally get on with what she’d been wanting to do for billions of years.
___In another (seemingly unrelated) realm, I cannot even pretend to get inside the mental process of an educated friend who, because she is a literalist Christian, told a mutual friend that she believes absolutely that God created the heavens and the earth in six factual actual days. She believes (knows?) carbon dating of Lucy the Australopithecus at 3.2 million years old is woefully misguided pseudo-science pretending to be God. Educated. In public schools. In Germany.

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Lucy of Ethiopia

___Often when I begin writing a piece like this, I have only the vaguest idea where I expect my thought processes to conclude. If one does not know, I used to tell my college rhetoric students, what the substance of a piece of writing is, one cannot figure out and present a logical thesis. I think I may have worked around to a thesis. I should go back to the beginning, find a way to introduce the thesis and get it at the beginning so my reader would know all along what I am arguing. On the other hand, it is possible to make an argument and reveal only at the end what the argument is.
___And so, I now state my thesis. Much has been written lately about the influence of “fake news” on our recent Presidential election and, indeed, on the regular communal discourse in this country. It’s scary, hair-raising, to contemplate that state of affairs. However, I think the fake news is not the problem but a symptom of the problem. The problem is willful ignorance. Fake information can only fill a void. Too many Americans have chosen to live in a la-la-land bereft of ideas and information on which to make sound judgments.
___I have no proof of that. I’m not a social scientist. I have taught critical thinking in a prestigious university for 15 years and am acquainted with the abysmal state of ignorance about almost everything that the elite students of such a school bring with them to be trained to be money-makers and trend-setters.
___But it’s not simply lack of knowledge that shapes this ignorance. It’s a way of denying the truth in order to cling to a mystical idea of how our society has functioned in the past, and how it ought to function in the future. It’s a mystical idea attached to a dream, “The American Dream.” And if the science of climate change does not fit our mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it. And if the age of Lucy of Ethiopia does not fit our religious interpretation of the mystical dream idea, then we choose not to “believe” it can be true.
___In his article “‘From The People, By The People, To The People’: The American Dream(S) Debut,” Journal Of American Culture 37.2 (2014), Demitri Lallas traces the origin of the term “the American Dream” to Walter Lippmann’s book, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. Without trying to force Lippmann to support my finally-exposed thesis, I will simply offer a passage quoted by Lallas and admit that all of this writing is an attempt to say that I find Lippmann’s ides compelling, that the “American Dream” is not something we are hoping for but a dreamy unwillingness to face reality:

The past which men create for themselves is a place where thought is unnecessary and happiness inevitable. The American temperament leans generally to a kind of mystical anarchism, in which the “natural” humanity in each man is adored as the savior of society. . . .  “If only you let men alone, they’ll be good,” a typical American reformer said to me the other day. He believed, as most Americans do, in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense. A critical outlook seemed to the reformer an inhuman one; he distrusted, as [the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, the basis of Inherit the Wind, William Jennings] Bryan does, the appearance of the expert; he believed that whatever faults the common man might show were due to some kind of Machiavellian corruption. He had the American dream, which may be summed up, I think, in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.

(Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1914, pages 177–78. )

Oh no, not politics!

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Professor Nuno Themudo Wins 2016 Best Book Award, for his book Nonprofits in Crisis: Economic Development, Risk and the Philanthropic Kuznets Curve (Photo: YouTube)

“. . . if he complies with the habitual expectations of a leader’s role, then he is not a charismatic leader . . .”

This is not really politics, but I apologize for turning from thoughts of eternity and the open prairie to the hyper-mundane. I can’t help myself this morning.

I’m in a dither today. I suppose my writing (and whatever passes as my thinking) has nothing to do with getting old(er). Well, yes it does. It has to do with my perception of the steady erosion of freedom in America over my lifetime ― and the terrifying acceleration it has taken in the last few months.
___I was trying to research something else entirely (that’s how researchers find the best stuff ― going where the train of evidence takes them, not where they meant to go) and I came across a study of corruption in the “developing” world, in nations where the World Bank has identified corruption as a social and political problem.   The article was listed as a footnote in another scholarly article I was reading. (Please note it was written in 2013 and is not directed at Trump per se.)

[Opening paragraph] How does civil society [the organizations and informal networks “located between the family, the state and the market in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests”] impact corruption?  . . .  According to the World Bank, corruption is “the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development.” Corruption undermines public trust in government and other institutions, wastes public resources, and obstructs the responsive management of vital public goals, such as poverty alleviation, health care, and public safety . . .  corruption “constitutes a challenge to the very foundations of development cooperation. . . .
(Themudo, Nuno S. “Reassessing the Impact of Civil Society: Nonprofit Sector, Press Freedom, and Corruption.” Governance 26.1 (2013): 63-89.)

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook shared this article.

The debts of President-elect Donald Trump and his businesses are scattered across Wall Street banks, mutual funds and other financial institutions, broadening the tangle of interests that pose potential conflicts for the incoming president’s administration.
___Hundreds of millions of dollars of debt attached to Mr. Trump’s properties, some of them backed by Mr. Trump’s personal guarantee, were packaged into securities and sold to investors over the past five years, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of legal and property documents.
___Mr. Trump has previously disclosed that his businesses owe at least $315 million to 10 companies. According to the Journal’s analysis, Trump businesses’ debts are held by more than 150 institutions. They bought the debt after it was sliced up and repackaged into bonds—a process known as securitization, which has been used for more than $1 billion of debt connected to Mr. Trump’s companies.
___As a result, a broader array of financial institutions now are in a potentially powerful position over the incoming president. If the Trump businesses were to default on their debts, the giant financial institutions that serve as so-called special servicers of these loan pools would have the power to foreclose on some of Mr. Trump’s marquee properties or seek the tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Trump personally guaranteed on the loans.
[. . . .] Wells Fargo & Co., for example, runs at least five mutual funds that own portions of Trump businesses’ securitized debt, according to an analysis of mutual-fund data conducted by Morningstar Inc. for the Journal.
___The bank also is a trustee or administrator for pools of securitized loans that include $282 million of loans to Mr. Trump. And Wells acts as a special servicer for $950 million of loans to a property that one of Mr. Trump’s companies partly owns, according to securities and property filings.
___Wells Fargo is currently facing scrutiny from federal regulators surrounding its fraudulent sales practices and other issues. Once he takes office, Mr. Trump will appoint the heads of many of the regulators that police the bank.
(Eaglesham, Jean and Lisa Schwartz. “Trump’s Debts Are Widely Held on Wall Street, Creating New Potential Conflicts.” The Wall Street Journal. Wsj.com. Jan. 5, 2017.  Web.)

Shortly after I read that article, I happened upon another article footnoted in something else I was reading. (Please note it was written in 2006 and is not about Trump per se.)

Max Weber defines charisma as ‘an extraordinary quality of a person, because of which he is perceived as the leader’. Charisma is therefore based on a social relationship between a person possessing such a quality and those who believe in it. Weber’s perspective is not directed at an analysis of the charismatic leader’s personality, but at the structure of charismatic social relationships. This he defines through a number of properties.
___The first involves ‘very personal devotion’ and ‘duty’: the leader claims ultimate authority; the followers accept obedience as their duty. The leader must have the will to demand ultimate authority, and the follower must submit himself completely to the leader. This is not just a question of subjective will, but of the structural possibilities for charismatic behaviour. Both leader and followers must be in a situation, or create a situation, in which this is possible, for it is not only charisma that is an extraordinary quality: charismatic relationships are also extraordinary.
[. . . .] Charisma is thus not just another word for prestige, esteem, popularity, or personal excellence. A charismatic relationship fundamentally restructures a given social situation. Charisma is, according to Weber, a ‘revolutionary force’, that may result in ‘a radical alteration of the central attitudes and directions of actions with a completely new orientation of all attitudes toward all forms of life and to the world’. A charismatic leader is not only a person who gains trust, and towards whom great expectations are directed, or to whom special qualifications are attributed. Charismatic leaders create new positions of leadership for themselves, a new pattern of social relations, and a new cognitive definition of the situation in general. No matter how prestigious, talented or idolised he is, if he does not change the social system, or if he complies with the habitual expectations of a leader’s role, then he is not a charismatic leader.    
(Lepsius, M. Rainer. “The Model of Charismatic Leadership and Its Applicability to the Rule of Adolf Hitler.” Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions 7.2 (2006): 175-190.)

As I was reading the above, I recalled the few seconds of Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention that I could bear to listen to. I had to find it because it was eerily reminiscent of Weber’s understanding of “charisma.”

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”
___And he offered them a solution.
___I am your voice,” said Trump. “I ALONE CAN FIX IT. I will restore law and order.” He did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.
(Appelbaum, Yoni. “I Alone Can Fix It.” The Atlantic. Jul 21, 2016. theatlantic.com. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.  Source. 

So here’s my dither. Am I simply a worried old man of 72 years, beginning to be afraid of even his shadow? Or do all of these articles add up to something that I should, by rights, fear? I hope you, good reader, can tell an old man what to think.

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Max Weber (1864―1920), German sociologist and political economist (Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica Online)

“. . . While the deepening shadows fall . . .” (W. F. Sherwin ― 1877)

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Man made structures huddling on the earth as seen from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 21, 2016)

On August 24, 2016, my sister Bonnie Sato and I were in our childhood home, Scottsbluff, NE. We wanted to see a Nebraska sunset from “the bluff,” that is, Scotts Bluff National Monument. We drove to a small observation point we knew at the west base of the bluff. The sunset did not disappoint us. A cloud cover broke just above the horizon, and we were able to see the sun set under the clouds ― a common Nebraska event. I took about a hundred pictures.
___During the sunset I had in mind one of the first hymns I learned to play on the organ (I began lessons 62 years ago when I was 9 ― in Scottsbluff). In our hymnal, the tune was in the key of A-flat. The fifth note of the melody is D-natural, the raised 4th in the key of A-flat, creating a tritone, the “Devil’s interval.” It’s not harmonically important in this tune, simply an embellishment. But I heard it as a harmony tone and would often elongate the rhythm at that beat when I was alone. I did not know the name of that interval, midway between a 4th and a 5th, and, according to the Medieval theorists, difficult to sing and of the devil. I simply thrilled to the sound.
___The next time the Devil’s Interval impressed itself on me was when I was in high school (by this time in Omaha), and I learned to play the entire piano version of the songs from West Side Story. Tony sings the Devil’s Interval as the second note of “Maria.” Make of that what you may. My ultra-conservative Mennonite organ teacher would not countenance the worldly music of Broadway, of course, but he did explain the Devil’s Interval to me.
___Yesterday I was looking through my sunset pictures for a new “cover photo” for my Facebook page. I found one similar to (they are all similar to) the one below. As I was looking through my photos, I was taken back to August 24, even to the point of singing “Day Is Dying in the West” ― aloud here in the my apartment where I am alone.
___I thought of recording it on my Steuart Goodwin pipe organ (yes, if you don’t know, it’s in my living room) to put on my YouTube page, but I wanted the words, so I found the YouTube page of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, by googling the hymn. It is here. Listen for the Devil on the word “the.”

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Scottsbluff National Monument in shadow seen from the Wildcat Hills, 20 miles to the south. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 25, 2016)

___The hymn is musically too sentimental to be in sophisticated hymnals like those of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (that’s not an elitist or sarcastic statement; they are the most musically sophisticated hymnals in common use). That begs the question, however, why the Episcopalians have not found a more sophisticated tune for those words. The hymn does not mention Jesus or “salvation.” Many fundamentalist Christians would think the almost “deistic” words would appeal to the Episcopalians, who, they suppose, are only marginally Christian. And yet I learned the hymn from a Baptist hymnal. Go figure.
___Perhaps because I learned the hymn when I was so young, even in my educated (presumably sophisticated) musical taste I still love both the tune and the words (mea culpa).
___Or perhaps my love of the hymn and tune is situated in my present age and understanding.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night. . .

This week I celebrated my 72nd birthday. Last night from the National Geographic TV channel, I watched an installment of the series Earth: The Making of a Planet (2015). Through the entire program showing the gathering together of space “debris” through millions of years to form the earth, I sat thinking (and several times saying aloud here in my apartment where I am alone), “How do they know that?” Is our science so advanced that we can state with (apparent) certainty what rocks, what elements, what minerals formed the earth, and how water managed to “cover the face of the deep?”
___Of course, the implicit question for me was, “If we know how it came together, do we know how it will end?” It will end. Our sun, a mature star, will become a red giant, and a red dwarf, and a supernova, and a black hole eventually (10 billion years? who knows?) and will take our solar system with it. More than “day” is dying in the west.

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Sunset over Wyoming as seen from the western base of Scottsbluff National Monument. (Photo: August 24, 2016, Harold Knight)

___I no longer use the language of that hymn, “Lord God of hosts.” I find it difficult to understand any more the concept of God ― at least of a god who controls what our eyes will see (the sub-text of the hymn, of course, is that the dying day is really the image of our dying selves) when we die or any time later or sooner.
___On the other hand, watching from Nebraska as the sun sets over Wyoming I cannot help but find in the core of my self the hope, perhaps even the belief, that

“While the deepening shadows fall,
[a] heart of love [enfolds us] all,
And through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil [its] face,
Our hearts ascend.”

I don’t believe that in any religious sense ― or even in the ever-popular “spiritual not religious” sense. Here’s what I think: some force that we, homo sapiens, cannot control, did not put in motion, and cannot stop ― whether by building walls around ourselves, or by allowing the overwhelming forces of the material world to dictate our social structures, or by refusing to care at the basic physical level for all the people in our sphere of influence, or by deeming ourselves to have the only correct understanding of “God” ― is responsible for all of this, from my heart to the two black holes astronomers recently saw merge in space.
___It is as convenient to call that force a “heart of love” as anything else. Or express it as the Devil’s Interval. But I’ll bet anyone standing where they can see the openness of our “prairie,” even with its plethora of man made structures huddled on the ground, for long enough will know that in the

“pass[ing of] the stars, the day, the night . . .
eternal morning [will] rise
And shadows end.”

Neither National Geographic, nor Donald Trump, nor the National Council of Churches, nor I can have any concept of how that process began or how it will end. We can’t even know our place in it.

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Ron Bechtel, Organist
Words: Mary A Lathbury, 1877
Tune: W F Sherwin – Chautaugua, 1877

Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets the evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
REFRAIN
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord most high!

While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of love enfolding all
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face,
Our hearts ascend.
REFRAIN

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.
REFRAIN

“. . . give up this life of mine and am not troubled about this. . .” (Johann Georg Albinus, 1652)

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Looking into Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebaska (Photo: Harold Knight, August 2016)

I was born 72 years ago today, January 3, 1945, in Douglas, Wyoming.

It’s cold in Wyoming in January, as in next-door Nebraska where I did most of my physical growing up and graduated from high school in 1963. In 1976 I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, one state over from Nebraska and just as cold in January (I had been in California for eleven years in the interim). That year my friend Pat French from Muscatine gave me a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for my birthday. Based on our frequent late-night interminable discussions vis a vis “the meaning of life,” lubricated by much Scotch whiskey, she thought I should read Becker’s book which won the Pulitzer Prize the year before. I was 31, and she was about 50. I thought she was the smartest person I knew ―and, in fact, that was likely true then and likely never changed. She was also crass and irreverent, and self-identified as “black Irish.”

I lost contact with Pat about 20 years ago, and I often wonder how her life went on. Some time back I Googled Pat and discovered she died in 2012. When she died, no one thought to tell me since I was living first in Massachusetts (also cold in January) and then (as now) in Dallas (strange but not so cold in January) ―and no one remembered we were friends.

Note to self: Someday think about the many people who have been important to your growth and self-awareness who have simply disappeared from your life. Don’t think about it today, someday.

I have never met Ton Koopman, but in a strange way, I consider him an old friend. He was born October 2, 1944, three months before I was born. He is a Dutch organist and professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Whenever I want to hear an organ work of J.S. Bach’s played, I go to YouTube and look up Ton Koopman’s performance.

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Birthday number 2 – Worland, Wyoming, January 3, 1947.

A few days ago I was preparing for my annual birthday video (a small organ work recorded on my birthday for my own amusement) and was undecided between the Bach chorale prelude on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year is passed away”) and the Bach chorale prelude on Alle Menschen müßen sterben (“Everyone must die”). I found Koopman’s YouTube of each of them. It was no contest. However I played or wherever I recorded it, I could not come close to the glory of Koopman’s “Everyone must die.  And that meant I would record “The old year is passed away.”   That’s OK because it is in a style more suited to my abilities.

The lovely melancholy of “The old year is passed away” is suitable to my ability and to our time.  “. . . Thou hast kept us through the year/ When danger and distress were near.” It’s not clear to me that God has kept us (the idea of God drifts farther and farther away from me as time goes on), but obviously something is keeping us in this time of danger and distress. But, as they say, I digress.

For many years I kept as my private motto, my personal inner explanation of “the meaning of life,” Ernest Becker’s assertion that, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

My ideas regarding Becker’s statement were concentrated for many years on the “towering majesty” of being human. I thought the “blindly and dumbly rotting” was a great ironic statement of the obvious counter-balance to the towering majesty of our existence, our accomplishments. But then one day I realized my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my life-partner, and many friends had died, and I began to understand the reality of disappearing forever. And then my parents died.

I took many years to understand the reality ―not the irony― of the completion of the circle of Becker’s understanding. He died of cancer during the year between his book’s publication and my reading it.

I would like to talk to Ton Koopman, about Bach, of course, but more about what it means to play music composed by a genius who lived a shorter life than either of us has already lived. Especially music based on hymns about the passage of time and the absolute certainty of death.

My guess is that anyone not close to my age―or older than I―who might happen to be reading this little meditation written on the anniversary of my birth considers this line of thinking sad or tragic or grievous or fatalistic. Well, it is fatalistic. Everything we do is headed toward fatality. We don’t need Ernest Becker or Aristotle or Socrates or St. Paul or Martin Heidegger or Johann Georg Albinus to tell us that.

I am weak and timid, a shy person. I am not a preacher or teacher (except for the instruction in the correct use of commas and verb tenses). I am not a moralist or a philosopher. I am certainly not a thinker or an intellectual. Or an artist. If I met Ton Koopman, I would be tongue-tied and feel amazed in the presence of his musicianship. His ability to recreate the “towering genius” of the music of Bach almost stupefies me.

What on earth, anyone reading this with the ability to think logically, whether my age or younger or older might well ask, are you trying to say? What’s your point? Where is your thesis? (I hope you’re asking, because it is not clear.)

Only this. Pat, and Ernest, and Sebastian Bach, and Johann Georg Albinus are all disappeared forever. Ton and I and you are not. And we’re all the same.  We tower, some of us much higher in human terms than others, and we go back into the ground. That is neither good nor bad, comforting or frightening, difficult or easy to understand and accept. It simply is.  “The old year now hath passed away,” and “Everybody must die, all flesh passes like grass.”

From January 3, 1945, until January 3, 2017, I have been in that process, and right now, today, I “am not troubled about this.”

“. . . to freeze a moment in time. . .”

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“. . . to make sure I could see the images of trees, cars, and houses . . .”

Recently I was walking around my neighborhood after sunset but before the darkest night. As usual I carried my iPhone in my pocket. I carry it when I walk to use as my ID in case anything untoward should happen and―perhaps more important―to take pictures. I’ve become one of those millions of inveterate would-be photographers that smart phones have created.

I love the word “inveterate.” Its root means “to grow old” as in “veteran,” but its general use is to imply “habitual.” As I grow old(er) I become more and more intransigent in my habits, especially the annoying habits that are of little significance except that they are annoying.

One of those annoying habits is not writing in a straight line but interrupting my rhetorical flow, such as it is, with interjections and explanations that are probably neither interesting nor helpful to whatever “argument” I mean to make.

A few days ago I heard on the radio a travel writer―one who goes around the world and writes about his experiences so the rest of us can travel vicariously through his descriptions―claim that he does not carry a camera when he travels. He wants to think and write about what he sees rather than trying to freeze a sight or moment in time so he can relive the past by viewing his pictures. He said cameras make a person “intellectually and expressively lazy.”

Mea culpa. But I was intellectually and expressively lazy long before Steve Jobs and his associates invented the iPhone.

On my recent walk around the neighborhood I was trying to organize my thinking around the intriguing patterns of light created by streetlamps and lights in the windows of houses I passed, trying not to be intellectually and expressively lazy. I went about six blocks east on the main street of the neighborhood and turned south onto a residential street so quiet it almost seemed no one lived there. I gave in to the urge to take iPhone pictures in the dark, or not-quite-dark, of the artificially lit street. The fascinating patterns of light were more than I could resist trying to freeze in a moment of time.

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“. . . I had passed a tree next to the sidewalk shadowed against the light of a streetlight . . .”

I took a couple of pictures and checked to make sure I could see the images of trees, cars, and houses in the phone’s photo app, that it had, in fact, taken pictures in the almost dark. A few yards back I had passed a tree next to the sidewalk shadowed against the light of a streetlight. I retraced my steps and took a picture of the pattern.

As I turned to continue down the street, I discovered the moon, about three-quarters full, familiar on a clear night―mid-way between horizon and zenith in the west, bright and warm, brilliantly white, a small slice of its upper left shaded, a few days into the waning phase.

I was spellbound. I felt as if I had never seen the moon before, as if it were a phenomenon that had just that moment appeared in the sky. For an instant I wondered, “What is that?”

Of course I recognized the moon, but the juxtaposition of the moon with the manufactured lights on the street, on which I had been concentrating and in which I had taken delight a few seconds before, startled me. My intellectual laziness, my attempt to find shapes and forms that pleased me rather than to see the world as it is, made possible a moment of surprise. “What is that?” The natural world impinged on my delight in the manmade world. Seeing the moon, really seeing the moon, on several occasions has given me pause.

My ophthalmologist told me the moon is the farthest object that we can see and focus our eyes on. I have a slight astigmatism, and seeing the moon singly rather than doubly, he says, is the best way to know that my glasses are doing their job. One of my favorite opera arias is Baby Doe’s “Silver Song” in Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. “Gold is a fine thing for those who admire it, but silver, silver is the color of the moon.” I am fascinated by images of and writing about the moon.

However, my periodic “discovery” of the moon, unnerves me. The moon is impossibly distant, inaccessible to mankind except for a few astronauts. And yet, we can see it, we can study it, we can know a great deal about it. Every sighted human being has experienced the moon visually, but we cannot touch it. We can focus our eyes on it, but it is forever out of reach.

The moon is for me, when I see it, when I really see it, especially when I am looking for something else, the embodiment―can something so distant, something that I will never touch be an embodiment―of the mystery of my life. This is one of those moments I wish I had trained myself to think as a philosopher or write as poet. I am not, perhaps, expressively lazy, rather, expressively unskilled, unqualified, ineffectual. As I grow old(er), I want more and more to be able to describe my experience of the moon. Or, rather, my experience of the finite and the infinite.

No matter what words I think of, my writing seems sophomoric, even ridiculous.

The moon is finite (as is the earth and the sun and every other object in space). It will take a few billion years or so for it to crash into the earth or disintegrate on its own or be swallowed up in a great explosion of the sun. But it will cease to exist. Everything will in the form we know it. And yet, we see the moon month after month, and twelve men have walked there. Every Homo sapiens has seen it. Can we can say the moon is and it is not?

I am and I am not. Like the lights on Fairmont Street in Dallas, I exist. Like the lights I exist as a pattern, a form. Now you see it, now you don’t. In our experience, save for twelve of us, the moon is but a pattern, a silver light in the sky. The lights on Fairmont Street will burn out and can be replaced. In a billion years the moon will irreplaceably cease to exist. I will irreplaceably cease . . .   img_5731-copy

“. . . so we can renew time in all places . . .” (Ibrahim Nasrallah)

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The sky at Susiya (Photo: Harold Knight, November 2015)

(Please note: Writing with serious intent is the work of a lifetime. I’ve begun much too late,
so I don’t do it well, but I will continue to try as long as I can.)

This morning in my email one of the daily “meditation” messages I subscribe to was the musings of the author about his sense that there is always something left to do ― something is about to happen ― that will make his life complete, or happy or fulfilled or . . . I have forgotten the words he used. He seemed sad or a little put out, of course, that details get in the way of the big accomplishments or realizations or successes of his life. And then he realized that the details are his life.

I don’t really meditate, and most of those daily messages seem pretty sappy and not of interest to me, but I subscribe to them to get myself to start my day by taking a moment to slow down and read something someone else finds important or inspiring, as a sort of personal discipline.

I liked the meditation this morning. It was a bit ironic in a gentle, almost humorous way. But as the day went on, I liked it less and less.

I don’t think the details such as going to Kroger to get the coffee I forgot to buy and the kitty litter I didn’t realize I needed, or making sure I’m signed up the way I need to be for Social Security for the coming year, or answering non-personal emails, or practicing the organ to be ready to play at the big church on January 1, or teaching my GED class are my life. They may be something of the glue that holds my life together day by day, that gives me a sense that something is happening, that time is passing in a purposeful way, but they are not my life. Not even the organ playing that I love so much. Those details get in the way of my life.

My life, my reality, happens when I am doing nothing.

Every day I look through the headlines of about a dozen online news sources from Palestine. I find four or five items that seem to belong together, either about similar events, or about the same event from different points of view, or some other connection that only my unconscious mind understands. Eventually my bewildered brain lets me know what it is seeing, and I begin to fashion a blog post around an idea. Then I log on to the university online library databases to which I have access and search for academic journal articles that might somehow present background for the nebulous thread of an idea I have ferreted out from the day’s news. Or I look for a poem by a Palestinian poet that seems to go with the news. Then I put together the day’s post and upload it.

Isn’t that odd. I say my reality happens when I am doing nothing, and then I describe a complicated, detailed process I go through almost every day. It certainly seems like doing something. The fact is that I am in a way doing nothing. I do not have to do this. No one is expecting me to do it. I derive little if any personal satisfaction from the blog. I almost never put a word of my own in it. The work is simply there to be done. It must be done. Note the passive verb: it must be done, not “I must do it.”

I have been to Palestine three times. I have friends in Palestine. Traveling there does not seem to be nothing. When I have been there, I have been overwhelmed with a reality that I have experienced nowhere else. Time for me stops ― certainly not for the Palestinian people. Their lives are as complex and busy and fruitful as anyone’s, and they live in a crushing reality that would, I am sure, destroy most people I know. And they keep on with the details of their lives.

Their details reach back into the history of mankind and yet are as immediate as human existence can be, and more difficult than I can imagine. When I am among my friends, my good fortune, my wonderment, my incomprehension is that, when I come home, I bring a bit of the eternity of that place with me and none of the modern horror.

My life has details. Preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Attending the opera. Tutoring university football players. Those common things. And I am awed and delighted to travel to the mountains, the beach, my sister’s and brother’s homes, even to downtown Dallas.

Those details are not my life. Standing still, breathing and feeling my body, calming my mind, giving myself to nothing, waiting for ― for what I do not know. All of that comes easily standing in the Negev Desert near the homes of new friends in Susiya, in a place where much of the thought and belief of my people originated, and where my friends can trace their ancestry back millennia, standing, at one with the unpaved, untilled ground and at one with the sky, the infinity. This seems melodramatic, or at least like a Hallmark card. Or one of those meditations I think are sappy.

I’ve seen places where, even if one does not believe in God, one knows what “Be still and know that I am God” means.

I do not mean to argue with the writer of this morning’s meditation. But the details ― this computer, the undeposited paychecks sitting on my desk, the sandwich I’m about to prepare ― the details are not my life. The wonder of nothing, of the sky at Susiya, even of sitting in my living room alone and still, that is my life.

“Shadows,” by Ibrahim Nasrallah

Our souls have become shadows in the dust,
so who will circle around us
after they leave?
Who will visit us on a pilgrimage
so we can renew time in all places?
Shadows might have shadows:
Them . . . us . . .
you . . . and you . . .
and me.

From Rain Inside: Selected Poems by Ibrahim Nasrallah. Willimantic CT: Curbstone Press, 2009.

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The desert between Jericho and Jerusalem, (Photo: Harold Knight, November 2015)

Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom

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A new-fangled cream bottle dressed in environmentally dangerous plastic, nearly impossible to tear into.

There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). Just one for today, at any rate.

For 35 years of teaching college writing, whenever a student began a sentence with “there,” I patiently asked them if they knew about Richard Nixon. An expletive, I would explain, is “an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane; an exclamatory oath.” Anyone old enough to remember 1975 knows why I always used Richard Nixon as my opening example for a lesson about writing expletives. What many people (most people, even college graduates) don’t know is that “There is” and “It is” and their various tenses are “expletives.” They hold the place of a real subject in a sentence. That is, they are profane substitutes for telling your reader what you’re talking about. I told students that they did not need to vent their frustration at the writing process by swearing at me.

What is the subject in my sentence about a funny thing?

My subject is “a funny thing” although it is obscured and delayed so you would hardly know it by my use of the expletive.

Never mind. There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). The subject at hand (pun, I suppose, intended as you will see below) is what happens to your fingers as you senesce. They begin to balk at doing small jobs that they have done all your life. Buttoning the top button on a dress shirt, for example. This morning it was getting hold of the “pull here to open” tab on the half-and-half bottle to cream my coffee. Turning pages while playing the organ is simply impossible. And pages in books present a challenge, too (Nook Books are cheaper, anyway).

And then there’s the iPhone keyboard or whatever you call those little squares with letters on the screen of my phone. But I won’t even begin with that frustration.

There’s a theory that fingerprints wear off as you age, and you don’t get as much traction when you try to do something requiring dexterity. My dermatologist said he didn’t think that was true, and then he looked at the ends of my fingers. He wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t so certain he was right, either. The ends of my fingers are pretty smooth.
There’s also a theory that your joints get creaky―not necessarily arthritic, but not as flexible as they once were. I don’t believe that. Last Sunday I played the big Bach chorale prelude (really a fugue) on Wir glauben doch all’ an den einen Gott, and my fingers moved just fine; my musical brain may be slowing down, but if I practice, my fingers aren’t.

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My smooth old fingers.

There must be lots of other theories.

I have my own theory. (Subject, “I,” verb, “have,” direct object, “theory;” no swear words.)

My theory: almost always when I have trouble doing some little task because my fingers won’t cooperate, the trouble is really caused by my mind. Not that my mind is slowing down (it is, of course, but that’s not the problem here). My mind goes immediately to someone’s idiocy. To put it plainly, opening the half-and-half bottle should not be difficult. I mean, it SHOULD NOT BE difficult. What idiot made these things so you have to have either an 18-year-old brain to figure out or 18-year-old fingers to cope with it?

Milk is supposed to come in glass bottles that the milkman picks up when you’re finished with them. And they are supposed to have little paper stoppers in them with cute little tabs that you pull to open it. And the whole affair―for all you young environmentalists―is biodegradable. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I know I am turning into one of those crotchety old men who just wants to Make America Great Again―great as in uncomplicated, easy, natural.

Natural. It’s not natural to know all about the billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural that there ARE billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural to think you’re better than someone else just because of your skin color. It’s not natural to want to keep out of the country people who have lost everything they own to a war they didn’t start and don’t want. It’s not natural to substitute fake news for real news. It’s not natural to think your religion is better than someone else’s religion. It’s not natural to hate someone who loves someone of the same sex. It’s not natural for you to hate people for any of these reasons (and a lot more) because, actually, who they are and what they need and want is none of your goddam business.

There. You were waiting for my expletive, weren’t you? Well there it is. It’s none of your goddam business. Hardly anything that someone believes or thinks is any of your business unless they’re family. Oh, and if you happen to be a Christian (or some other religion―Christian is the only one I know about), and they need something like food or a decent place to live, then it’s your business. Then the king will say unto you if you take care of them, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom. Because you took care of those refugees, and those homeless folk, and those kids without enough food. That’s the only way you inherit the kingdom” (whatever that is, but it sounds like something I might like).

Choose your battles. Stop fuming because you can’t open the milk bottle. Be thankful you have one. And stop getting mad because someone wants to move in here after their home is bombed. Be thankful you have a home. And share. “Inasmuch as you do it for one of the least of these”― one of these whom you despise the most ― “you do it for me,” says the King.

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Milk bottles the way milk bottles are supposed to be.

Note: I would be pleased and honored if you would check out one of my other blogs. Thank you.