February 23, 2015 Leave a comment
My first lessons in literature came from playing the card game, “Authors” as a child. I grew up knowing the names Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and more.
In about 7th grade I decided to read something by each of them. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island—wonderful! But some of them I could not wade through. I didn’t understand anything by Sir Walter Scott. His language was, simply put, incomprehensible.
Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung,
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O Minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
(The Lady of the Lake.)
Show me a 7th-grader who can understand that, and I’ll show you one weird little boy. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, on the other hand, seemed like a Saturday-morning Roy Rogers movie at the Bluff Theater.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them . . .
When I was in 10th grade, I made a great literary discovery.
I had my first permanent paying church organist gig at Trinity Baptist Church in South Omaha. They didn’t use the American Baptist hymnal I was used to, but one of lesser quality, according to my dad and the organist at the First Baptist Church whom I was able, out of my organ-playing income, to pay for lessons (for which I am most grateful). The Service Hymnal, 1960—here on my shelf, embossed “Trinity Baptist Church, South Omaha, Nebraska.”
At number 468 I discovered one of the poems from “Authors” — “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The music is by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), the through-composed rather than strophic tune composed specifically for this poem—words and music a marriage made in Victorian heaven.
I tried to get Trinity’s Pastor Weigel to schedule it for singing in the Sunday service, but he said since it didn’t mention God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, it was not appropriate. I tried to argue that the “Pilot” in the last stanza means Jesus to no avail.
“Crossing the bar” is one of the few poems I memorized as a kid that remains even partly in my memory. Others include such gems as, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” We were not into Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in Western Nebraska. I remember the Tennyson poem because I was mesmerized by that tune. My taste in both poetry and music has (perhaps) matured over the years.
Yesterday I was looking through pics on an external hard drive. Ocean scenes from Port Orford, Oregon, my favorite hideaway. I’ve written about Port Orford more than once and posted pics of the place here (in my previous post, for example).
Going through the hard drive led me to look up some of that writing about Port Orford. I recognize a subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 when I took the photos.
I must have 100 shots of sunsets and sunrises taken from the beaches at Port Orford. I remember taking the pictures because I was fascinated by differences in the appearance of the morning sky and of the evening sky. A couple of years before that in 2009 I wrote a piece about being on those same beaches.
[I] felt the hardened molecules under my feet and the molecules of and suspended in water. And out to the horizon, shrouded in fog. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with every other undulation of H2O, Ca, Mg, Na on the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass that seemed to my mind to be an enormity, but is in reality a speck in the eye of the universe. All one, including . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. And I was the focal point of the entire experience and at the same time unconditionally insignificant standing as an elemental part of the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep. . . I weep . . . for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.
A tad overblown, but in that writing six years ago, I found it necessary to nod in the direction of a belief that “God” or some other creative force was in charge of all of this. I was willing—no, anxious—to allow for the “hope to see my Pilot face to face” when I cross the bar (“a long ridge of sand . . . at the mouth of a river . . . an obstruction to navigation”).
The subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 is that I no longer need to comfort myself thinking I will see the Pilot face to face when I cross the bar (I love the metaphor of death as “crossing” –and I don’t mean it as the nonsensical popular “transitioning”).
I am agnostic about whether or not my life will continue in some form after I die. I think not, most days. But I’m beginning to understand it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, perhaps—and I don’t want to sound like a preacher or a guru or other sort of spiritual (or any other kind of) authority, sheesh!—figuring out in the few years I have left how to live simply as “a part of the reality” (to quote myself) is enough.
That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
“Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.