We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn

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Photo by Finnature Oy Ltd. Liminka, Finland

On the Fourth of July in about 1957 (when our family was living in a certain tiny house we hated―we all remember it too well 60 years later) our family had driven from our house on the farthest northwest corner of Scottsbluff (Nebraska) south through town and across the river in hopes of seeing a spectacular fireworks display put on by Terry Carpenter over his housing development, Terrytown. The show was a bust. Hardly anything more exciting than we might have put on ourselves in the vacant two acres next to our house where the new First Baptist Church building was about to be built.

Dad drove us home as we complained and begged him to go somewhere else to look for REAL fireworks. He became irritated and told us to “stop your bellyaching.” He drove into our longer-than-normal driveway (the “little house” was set back a good distance from the street, a highway to the sandhills). As we dragged ourselves out of the car in disappointment, nothing blocked our view of the farmland up to the crest of the hill about a mile away, the horizon somehow always visible, one shade of black separated by a line from another shade of black. We saw the vast open breadth of the nighttime Nebraska sky.

But with a difference.

The Aurora Borealis was hanging in the sky between us and the horizon, giant folds of green like a drape for the earth from the horizon almost to the sky above us.

I (we) had never seen anything remotely like it, have never again seen.

We stopped our bickering, our complaining about our disappointment. The family stood in our front yard, stupefied, speechless.

I don’t remember how the marvel closed, whether it disappeared or we watched until we tired and went inside.

What I remember is the sight and the mutual fixation of our family on the wonder, the wonder of the sky that brought us out of our disappointment and squabbling. I remember it clearly, with something like reverence, and, I believe, with accuracy. The memory has never changed in my mind.

Sixty years later I have the same awed puzzlement I had that night. What did we see? I know the name. I have searched and researched to find the scientific explanation. I know all of that.

I do not, however, know what I saw. I am loathe to use the language that comes easily to mind: the glory of nature, a glimpse of the eternal, those sorts of descriptions. But perhaps it is better to speak in mundanities than to try to explain how that sight affects me to this day.

Shall I speak in hyperbole: I am overcome with wonder when I think of that night? No.

I want to speak with humility. I have been allowed a glimpse of splendor that most of my friends have never had. Is that hyperbole? I don’t know.

What I know is that, when I am depressed, when I am at a loss how to live in this society, when I feel incompetent or unworthy, when I dwell on the fear of death, remembering that momentary, fleeting view gives me a sense of calm, of safety. The scientific explanation of the Aurora Borealis is quite simple. It is but a small nuance of our earth’s relationship with the sun.

But the thought of the Aurora’s amorphous, vaporous, impalpable ― but actual ― unexpected, unwarranted presence in my experience and its lingering in my memory grounds me in a way that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out and perhaps explain.

A Light in the North

The fireworks did not thrill us that Fourth—they were bland and sparse.
A few Roman candles (why Roman?),
a few pathetic rockets, ordinary, dull, uninteresting.
What did we expect?
Fantastic fire to amaze, to astound, perhaps to frighten—
Streaking color, bursting flares, and then the “boom,”
the sound coming after the light, it was so far away.
We expected explosions,
the light spiraling,
the light coiled,
the light arcing,
the light streaking up toward the highest sky,
the light propelled outward by explosions,
and more explosions at the end of short trajectories,
illusive embers floating toward the ground.
We did not know their names (arguing what made some Roman),
these varieties of fire, these explosions of color.
We knew what we expected but did not see.
We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn,
flashes on the horizon, announcing daylight soon to come.
But no light exploded this year—the hope of thrill was preempted—
no child’s delight in destruction, crazed, wild, and sudden,
no lurching light tossing illumination gloriously aside,
plunging the sky again into momentary darkness
to rest before the next round of fiery excitement.

Our expectations denied, Father drove us home.
The ’57 Chevy was too familiar, the streets too predictable,
the family disappointed—please, Father, let’s find a better vantage point—
the night wasted, the dark country sky stretching unbroken to the black horizon
where the end of the wheat fields meets the beginning of the sand hills.
Home,
where
against the
star-riddled blackness,
her green skirts folding onto themselves silently, languidly,
not spiraling, not coiling, not arcing, in motion too slow to comprehend,
the goddess of the dawn rose strangely in the north above the black horizon.
She floated unexpected, mysterious, silent, amazing, awesome in her beauty.
Ten hours before the dawn she heralded, Aurora held sway,
suspended in the highest sky, deigning on this night alone to appear to us.
Never again.
One need see the goddess only once. It is epiphany enough.
We know what we expect—fiery excitement,
not pantheonic grandeur.

© Harold A. Knight, 2013

roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column

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1955 – Official Weather Bureau photo from the bureau office at the Scottsbluff  airport on the east side of the city.

Anyone who ever, as a child, watched an EF-4 tornado from a (presumably) safe distance surely has the image seared in their consciousness ineradicably. The tornado that circled around our small city on June 27, 1955, was called for many years “the most photographed tornado on record.” Somewhere in my father’s remembrances are, I’m sure, the batch of pictures he took that day.

A friend of my family was injured as he drove (foolishly?) north of the city in a radio station vehicle reporting on the storm. A school friend was seriously injured. Bernie Heiter’s enormously popular western-style restaurant was flattened, and a couple of years later my mother was gifted one of the few items that survived — a clothes dryer for our new Baptist parsonage.

Tornadoes are, I think, the most alarming of natural phenomena. Hurricanes, nor’easters, earthquakes, volcanoes — all have more widespread power and are more destructive by factors of 10, 100, 1000? But the condensed, intense, short-lived power of a tornado is (how I wish this word had not been clichéd) awesome, that is “profoundly reverential.” One must bow in reverence (or get the hell out of its way).

My poetic take on my memory of the 1955 tornado written about five years ago:

Tornado, June 27, 1955
Do not hold the terrorized child in contempt. He plays his part.

First the wall cloud, the dark mass lowering, turning slowly,
a dance, strange and elegant like an old ballerina warming up,
legs and spine turning, bending, dipping low, a fragmentary stretch.
She longs to remember disciplined, expressive movement
from choreographies past,
her rotation relaxed, her motion gentle, anticipating the moment—
the moment of inspiration, the flash of remembered genius,
the frenzy of rehearsals realized, the dance begun,
the sudden pirouette—the twist, spin, balance, bend.
The child, the children, mesmerized by the sudden motion—
this bizarre, freakish, appalling swirl of cloud and dust—
cannot run to safety, but must stand and watch,
must shriek in terror and delight as children do,
the mother calling, “Come in! Come in! Come in!”
As strange as the roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column—
is the father coming home, agitated,
mid-afternoon and not yet time for dinner.
Is he frightened, too?
 
We’ve heard the fearsome word before.
We now know the fearsome sight.
The pillar of cloud writhes across the eastern horizon,
bringing the horizon close—inside the town—dominating the sky, the world.
In its wake, trees bend nearly double—the corps de ballet
fawning, bowing, acquiescing to the prima ballerina,
and terrorized children stand frozen against the wind,
mute, necessary to the scene, but directed not to move,
absurdly ecstatic in their fear.
One last bend, bow, dip from her waist,
a perfect temps lié sur les pointes and she is gone,
her exit, stage left, as mysterious as her entrance, stage right,
we supernumeraries frozen still—forever—awaiting the curtain’s fall.
   © Harold A. Knight, 2013
For sixty-three years I have alternately rejoiced in and hoped to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 from my mind. I rejoice in the beauty, in the terrifying splendor. Watching from the sidelines — from the sidelines, mind you — a homo sapiens can hardly imagine any sight more perfectly “other.” We cannot make a tornado, and we cannot stop it. And it is momentary, a flash in the pan. In that moment, it can change the lives of an entire town forever.

I’ve never seen a nuclear bomb blast. It is horrifying, destructive, deadly — and not a part of the natural world over which we have no control, like everything else we humans do or make.

As a finite creature, I want to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 because it reminds me — daily — that I am part of those natural forces. I am here for a moment, perhaps beautiful, perhaps destructive. But I am, as the children in my poem, awaiting the curtain’s fall, and all of the pirouettes, all of the expressive and beautiful creativity I might muster — as well as all the grotesque money I might make or armies of plunder I might create — are simply waiting for the final lié sur les pointes and I will be gone.
Is that knowledge terrifying, grievous, comforting, entertaining . . . ? Perhaps some people figure that out before they are 73 years old. I’ll let you know when I do.

Deep Purple Dreams

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Proof, I suppose, that Pentecost Green does go with Deep Purple.

When I was organist at Christ Church (Episcopal) Parish in Ontario, California  (1967-1974), the Rector, Jon Hart Olsen, nearly fired me one Sunday for improvising on “Deep Purple” during the Communion. Truth be told, I played two phrases of the melody and moved on to a hymn tune. It was enough, however, to send a ripple of titters of laughter through the congregation.

Fr. Jon had it coming, of course. What did he expect? He had just that week painted the front wall of the nave, behind the reredos, deep purple. I kid you not. He said it was the perfect color because it would go with any of the colors of the liturgical year — purple, red, purple, white, green.

I had known all my life Bing Crosby’s cover of “Deep Purple” (1939). It would be four or five years before Donnie and Marie Osmond would publish their (absurd) cover of the song.

My father voted for Barack Obama in 2008, when he was 94 years old. It was the first time since he began voting in 1936 he had voted for a Democrat. For any office.

When I lived in Massachusetts (1978-1994), I often voted for the Republican running for Congress in my district. It was a throw-away vote because no Republican had ever (has ever?) won that seat. But I thought we needed a two-party system, so I voted Republican just so there would be at one vote against the Democrat.

So I have proof I’m not a “yellow dog” Democrat.

I am, in fact, not a Democrat at all except on paper. I won’t say what I am because no one will ever read this blog again. Let’s just say my political ideas make most Democrats look like Republicans.

Today was Primary Election Day in Texas. The day the divide in this country is most obvious. The first time I voted was 1968. I suppose things were as politically divided then as they are now. And I suppose nearly every 73-year-old in the country was decrying the anger and the divisiveness and the meanness that had become normal in our politics.

But I thought by the time I was 73, I wouldn’t have to be turning off the news every time it came on the TV or radio (I, of course, had no concept of uploading a podcast of something else). I have done that (except for one hour I watch for fun about three evenings a week) for about a month. The news is so ugly I don’t want to be bothered. My blood pressure and my constant sense of grieving that anyone my age is feeling if they are thinking at all — but that’s a discussion for another day — do not need the aggravation.

Purple. Just some purple. Anyone for some purple?

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A woman I met on the Dallas Women’s March last month. In that context her sign meant something a little different than what I mean by posting it now.

Is he a SHOOTER or a MURDERER?

I  RECEIVED  THE  FOLLOWING  EMAIL  FROM  THE  REV.  DR. SERENE  JONES,  PRESIDENT  OF  UNION  THEOLOGICAL  SEMINARY  YESTERDAY. 

My email to which she is responding is below hers. My note was in response to her writing a week ago on the Union Theological Seminary Website.

Dear Mr. Knight,

Thank you for your note and your absolutely right correction of our reference to the shooter. He is a murderer, and we must never forget that.

Thank you for all your work in this crucial area. Things must change! And you are an inspiration.

Peace, Serene

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones
President
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st Street
New York, NY 10027

My email to President Jones:

Dear President Jones,

Thank you for your press release of February 26. A clergy friend sent it to me. It is not only an important theological statement but also an obviously heart-felt personal statement.

I invite you to join a tiny campaign I have started. The use of a single word can have an unintended but enormous impact. Roland Barthes’ discussion of the political use of words as connotation rather than denotation is the source of my thinking.

Your statement begins, “One week after the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School . . .” I have been trying to help people understand that the word “shooting” is used with a powerful political connotation. To call a murder spree a “shooting” hides the truth and minimizes the horror. To call someone who takes an assault rifle into a school and murders children a “shooter” connotes a game.

People go to rifle ranges and “shoot” for sport and pleasure and prizes. A good “shooter” is praised by his or her fellow “shooters.” Let’s not say that Nikolas Cruz was the “shooter.” Let’s say he is the “murderer” — which is what he is. I’m sure the NRA wants us to think of Cruz as only the “shooter.” To say that mass murderers are, in fact, murderers would give our language an element of truth and reality that the NRA does not want us to hear. “Shooter” is a much more polite word than “murderer.” If a man (and almost 100% of these people are male) is only a “shooter” and not a “murderer,” there is no reason to take his gun away from him.

Thank you for your kindness in reading my thoughts.
Dr. Harold A. Knight, retired
English Department, Discovery and Discourse Program
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, TX

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A hallway in the Dallas [underground] Pedestrian Network on a Recent Friday afternoon at about 2.

(Here begins a personal note about my current spiritual/emotional state which, believe it or not, is directly related to the important discussion above.)    
I was in a mid-life crisis from 1980 to 2015, from 35 to 70 years of age. Now I’m 73, and I think I deserve a late-life crisis. It probably won’t last 35 years, but one never knows (my father lived to be 97, my mother, 92).

The fact is, I am somewhat in the midst of a spiritual/intellectual/emotional crisis. I assume anyone who gets to be 73 — if they are honest about it — has something like the crisis I am in.

Some time ago I gave up depending on the “God” of Christianity because I no longer believe in that construct. For a while I adopted the good ole meaningless American “spiritual but not religious” self identification. I doubt I ever referred to myself as an “atheist.” “Agnostic,” for sure.

Can I, having no faith, have a crisis of faith? Look around. Almost everything I’ve believed in other than religion is in process of being destroyed or dying “a [not so] peaceful death and that right soon” or morphing into something I do not recognize. I feel almost completely unmoored. Nothing in my life (I think that is “literally” true) is as I want it or where I want it to be. For example, the murderous gun culture.

Nothing.

I seem to be living in a long, dark, empty, underground hallway.
Every 73-year-old in the world might think that way. I don’t know. If you want to see how a late-life crisis works out for an old man, stick around. Thanks.
.

“. . . will he remember you this ancient trail of grandmothers & deportadas . . .” (Juan Felipe Herrara)

A DACA reflection.

I am a church organist. I play the organ for weddings.

The first wedding I ever played for was at the Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana of Scottsbluff, NE, in about 1958. The bride wanted the Wagner and Mendelssohn “wedding marches” which my organ/piano teacher helped me learn on the piano for the occasion. (I still have the music volume from which I played.) The bride was the daughter of migrant workers from Mexico — probably brought here without documentation (I don’t remember the particulars of the law 60 years ago).

One of my best friends was Sammy Raymundo, son of the pastor of the Mexican Baptist Church–Sammy was born in Mexico. My father was pastor of the First Baptist Church. Those two churches eventually merged so that the one church has an “American,” that is, diverse, congregation.

Our small city in Western Nebraska was home to a large Mexican community (we’d refer to them as “Hispanic” now, of course, but those folks were virtually all from Mexico). We went to the same schools, shopped in the same stores, and — eventually — went to the same churches.

The Hispanic population of that small MIDWESTERN city is, as of 2016: Total Population, 15,039. Hispanic or Latino: 4,371 or 29%.

When I hear “conservatives” decry the “liberal” idea of “diversity” in America, when I think about the “dreamers” I have known – all my life – I am not angered, I am not politically motivated, I am not confused. I simply grieve, grieve for an ideal I was not “taught” as a child and a teenager, but, rather, LIVED as the reality of the America in which I grew up, an ideal that is being trampled upon and destroyed on a daily basis in our political life together. That ideal is not some abstraction of “diversity.” It is simply humanity.

María de la Luz Knows How to Walk

she ambles toward El Norte she remembers as she steps
wasps & spiders webbed in between the corn in Fowler
her mamá Concha’s story the fire she fanned to clear
the path through the thick burned stalks all this
she almost-touches the blueberries in Skagit Washington
& the line of men wrapped as cocoons and dark as amber
flecked honey at the line the only store in Firebaugh where
you can cash your check shirts twisted & whispered & upright
down in Illinois in Cobden you go through the back door
of Darden’s bar to buy drinks for the foreman El Cuadrado
María’s coming home after returning to Atizapán de Zaragoza
where she works at la Tortillería next to la Señora Muñóz
it is an abyss smoked & metal flat and deep with nixtamal
“Good pay in South Georgia” she says “I’ll work the
cucumbers” feet in water skin see-through peels & peels
off & off then on Saturday bussed to Walmart bussed back
to camp season after season the crossing higher alone
or with groups of three the coyote says “I am leaving you
here at the bottom of this mountain you Indians know how
to climb” she remembers Guadalupe Ríos say from the edge
of Santa María Corte in Nayarít “Nosotros los Peyoteros
sabemos caminar We know how to walk” María de la Luz
with an address in her net-bag her son who was taken many
years ago 1346 D St. San Diego will she recognize Juan
is the street still there who is he now who am I now who
will he remember you this ancient trail of grandmothers &
deportadas “I know how to walk” María de la Luz prays
as she ascends the black mountain as she moves her body
tiny as she listens to the sudden rush of things fall among
thorns & hisses María de la Luz notices a band of light

Published in Poem-a-Day on March 20, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Palestine InSight

I have not stopped writing in this blog, contrary to appearances. I will begin again posting here when there are 26 hours in the day (or I figure out how better to use the 24 I have).

In the meantime, please check the blog in which I do manage to post daily,

Palestine InSight
News from Palestine and relating to Palestine.

The blog is a daily compilation of news items from Palestine. I also include short quotations from and links to scholarly articles as background for the day’s news and a poem by a Palestinian poet with a link to its source.

Thank you, Sumnonrabidus (Harold Knight)

“. . . the wood which broke beneath the weight of love . . .” (Melissa Range)

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“In Dallas, he’d be a lawbreaker.” (Photo: Dallas Observer, Friday, January 29, 2016)

Today is “Holy Saturday” on some church calendars, that is, the second of the three days of the Crucifixion. At sundown, it becomes the “Vigil of Easter.”

The first time I experienced the liturgy for the Vigil of Easter was April 6, 1968 – 49 years ago. I was the neophyte Episcopalian organist for a small church in Ontario, California, a Baptist preacher’s kid, less than a year out of college with a degree in organ performance. That small church was, and still is, the center of “high church” liturgical practice in the Inland Empire of Southern California.

I have difficulty explaining what happened to me on April 6, 1968. For weeks I had been preparing the organ music and the choral music. I thought there was more of it than could possibly fit into one service.

The solemnity and devotion of the Good Friday service the evening before had, at its beginning, offended my Baptist Knees. I was amazed at what I saw as the preposterous and idolatrous veneration of the cross.

And then I got it.

I had a modicum of understanding of the deep conviction of these people and the beauty of its expression. Zealous and almost distantly formal at the same time. I said later that service gave me permission finally to accept Christianity in a way my Baptist heritage had never been able to do.

Easter happened at midnight the next night. Such a celebration! Somber and a bit perplexing for an hour or so of serious passages read from the Hebrew Scriptures with subdued musical responses. But Easter arrived at midnight with the singing of the 1549 “Gloria” by John Merbecke (which I can still sing from memory). The tower bell ringing just outside the choir loft, lights, oodles of flowers carried into the church from the sacristy, joy unbounded. A huge party with sherry after the service at about 1 AM. My kind of place! (Never mind that I had to play hymns for the simple Easter Day service 8 hours later.)

I understood because I had symbolically experienced the devastation of the Crucifixion and the unbounded joy of the Resurrection. I was never sure I believed it had actually happened or that that is the way life really is. But the possibility. Oh, the possibility.

Sue Mansfield, a member of the parish who read the first lesson – Genesis 1 – every year at the Easter Vigil, set my mind to rest. She asked if I believed the church believed. Yes. Then that’s all that’s necessary, isn’t it?

Over the decades, that has become less all that is necessary. I have virtually left off believing any of the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I am hard pressed to say I believe in God (my mental jury is still out).

I have no trouble believing the story of the Crucifixion. All that is necessary for that is to read the news from Syria. Or read about the vicious and virulent anti-Islam forces in this country. Or read about the savage racism of whites toward people of color in this country. Or hear in the news that the federal government has signed a contract with a private prison company to open detention centers to house thousands of persons on their way to deportation. Or hear in the news that Arkansas will execute 8 men in ten days. Or see a high-rise of million-dollar condos built in Dallas that reflects so much sun it ruins the carefully planned artistry of a public oasis of calm and beauty in the center of the city. Or talk with a homeless woman asking for a bit of change as I come out of the super market directly next door to my apartment building. Or hear that our President is contemplating an unprovoked act of war against North Korea.

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Eight men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas in 10 days beginning Monday. (Photo: NBC News, Apr 6 2017)

Believing in, seeing proof of, the Crucifixion is a trivial pursuit.

The Resurrection is much more difficult to find. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is well-hidden.

I can believe in a Jesus of Nazareth whose

. . . sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree

but I have all but given up looking for the Resurrection. My unbelief is not, of course, based on my accepting “proof.” I am not simply a Doubting Thomas wanting to see it for myself. My agnosticism is not based on a lack of physical proof (ask me, and I will talk about it, but not here).

However, a preponderance of evidence proclaims the Crucifixion so loudly that it is difficult for me (and, I think, many others) to wade through it to a Resurrection. Perhaps those who believe could demonstrate (or at least point out) to us more convincingly that it is true.

“All Creation Wept,” by Melissa Range

And not just those disciples
whom he loved, and not just
his mother; for all creation

was his mother, if he shared
his cells with worms and ferns
and whales, silt and spiderweb,

with the very walls of his crypt.
Of all creation, only he slept,
the rest awake and rapt with grief

when love’s captain leapt
onto the cross, into an abyss
the weather hadn’t dreamt.

Hero mine the beloved,
cried snowflakes, cried the moons
of unknown planets, cried the thorns

in his garland, the nails bashed
through his bones, the spikes of dry grass
on the hillside, dotted with water

and with blood—real tears,
and not a trick of rain-light
blinked and blurred onto a tree

so that the tree seems wound
in gold. It was not wound
in gold or rain but in a rapture

of salt, the wood splintering
as he splintered when he wept
over Lazarus, over Jerusalem,

until his sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory—
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree,

the wood which broke beneath the weight
of love, though it had no ears to hear
him cry out, and no eyes to see.

Excerpted from Scriptorium: Poems by Melissa Range (Beacon Press, 2016).

Melissa Range was born and raised in East Tennessee. She received an MFA from Old Dominion University, and an MTS from Emory University. She was selected in 2006, for the National Poetry Series by Tracy K. Smith, and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). She has received awards and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She currently teaches at Lawrence University and lives in Wisconsin.