A short, wistful Easter meditation


wist·ful
  [wist-fuhl]

adjective
1.  characterized by melancholy; longing; yearning.
2.  pensive, especially in a melancholy way.

Pensive. Melancholy. Longing. Yearning. Dictionary.com pretty much sums up my state of mind this morning. I did not attend a service of the Great Vigil of Easter last night for the first time since 1968. Most of those years I was directing the music for the elaborate celebration.

I love the Great Vigil. If one pays attention, one hears and participates in the presentation of an over-view of the sweep of the history of humanity’s interaction with the divine according to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Lots of readings of mysteriously poetic literature, warm and glowing candle light, magnificent music, a glorious burst of light, decoration, and energy, and then the holy mystery of the first Eucharist of Easter.

I am (regardless how the careless reader might misinterpret the preceding) saying all of this without irony, without judgment, without any negativity.

My saying this is pensive and melancholic, and I yearn for something I can’t quite describe.

If I ever really believed the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I did so in some way that I’m sure would disappoint my father and mother and the people of the churches with which I’ve been involved (and for which I’ve worked) all of my life. Faith and belief and other noble ideas/ realities bewilder me. I know that as long ago as junior high school I was terrified and—yes, odd as it sound, it’s true—embarrassed that I could not, or would not, believe in the possibility that anyone—even the Son of God—could be resurrected from death.

Once again, as I always understand, my thinking is not unique and my ability to articulate it is not particularly interesting or enlightening.  The longer I hang around the planet, the more confused I am about life, death, God, Jesus, and all of those things Easter seems to be about. And so I sit in my confounded state and wonder. And I worry that I don’t have enough time left to come to any kind of conclusion or peace about any of this. Twenty years max is what I have left.

Probably nowhere near that long. The closest I can come to understanding, accepting, loving, appreciating any of the religious formulations I’ve known all my life is to revel in the mystery that I can say, think, share any of this. The fact that I’m thinking these things and anyone else can have so much as an inkling what’s rattling around in my consciousness is almost as much mystery as I can bear.

And so my thinking, once again, as always seems to happen these days, ends with a whimper, not a bang. The melancholy, the yearning for what once was—no, never really was—continues apace. A long time ago I was telling a dear friend and mentor my fear that my career as a church musician was based on a lie because I didn’t really believe what we were saying and singing. She told me it didn’t matter. All I had to believe was that she believed. So, absurd as it may sound, I am perfectly willing to say that I believe that the vast majority of my friends and loved ones believe that The Lord Is Risen Indeed! And I am grateful that I am not alone in my bewilderment. John Donne is not too shabby company to keep.

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

—John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV.

I simply must say this once

When I was a kid, we had . .

When I was a kid, we had . .

My inamorato and I were out for a little stroll last night down Main Street in Dallas. That should not be, by any stretch of the imagination, anything worth writing about. Two old gay guys out for a stroll.

But this morning when I checked my email and found the pictures I took, my old man brain was boggled.

In 1965 one of my best friends at the University of Redlands was arrested in a city park for lewd conduct or one of those things gay boys used to be arrested for on a regular basis. When the police found out he was a student, in some kind of enlightenment that seems almost impossible in retrospect, they turned him over to the university for counseling rather than prosecuting him.

About twenty years later, in the opening stages of what should have been a brilliant career as a concert organist he died of AIDS after an equally brilliant career as a leather queen.

When he was arrested, I went immediately to the university chaplain for counseling because the police let it be known that if they arrested a student and he was already seeking help for his homosexuality, they would turn him over to the university instead of prosecuting him.

We were (at least publicly) a frightened and scraggly bunch of gay boys in those days. Well, not scraggly—we were as fabulous then as gay boys are now, believe it or not, but in our own let’s-not-draw-too-much-attention-to-ourselves way. Of course, my friends and I were very serious and high-brow music students. Pop culture was way beneath us except the Beatles had invaded by that time, and I was secretly in love with Ringo.

One never discussed being gay in public. When I came out in the school newspaper (obliquely, but “out” just the same) after an insult by a fellow student who didn’t even know he was talking about me, the music chairman called me into his office to tell me to be more discreet (terrified and careful were his real message). This was, I’m always surprised to remember about myself, before Stonewall.

Feeding frenzy in Dallas

Feeding frenzy in Dallas

Eight years later when I was in graduate school, a friend and I took a couple of our fellow students—straight women—to a gay bar. Word of that indiscretion reached my dissertation chairman, and he called me in to strongly suggest that I stop being so flamboyant. Me?

Even for years after Stonewall, one had to be guarded. Gay boys today, except those who have directly experienced gay-bashing, have little idea how things used to be. Oh, come on! I can sound like your grandfather who walked to school in the snow and never owned a cellphone if I want to.

So here we are in the feeding frenzy of talking not about being gay, but about same-sex marriage! Openly, in public, and—at least among straight and gay people I know—favorably.

I don’t have a clue how to say this so it sounds as startling as I feel it to be. And as startling as every other 68-year-old gay man in the country feels it to be. I have nothing special to add to this conversation except—except everything.

When I came out to my university (it’s not clear how many people even noticed), I was taking such a risk that, if I had not been a self-absorbed little twit, I should have shaken in my boots (my organ-playing dance shoes). It really was a risk. The year after I graduated, the university fired our favorite teacher, a tenured professor, because they found out he was gay.

Even ten or twelve years ago I could be out to many members of the church in a Dallas suburb where I was organist, but I could not mention it in, for example, a church council meeting. Everyone knew it, but we didn’t talk about it in any formal way. Six years ago, I stood in terror—literally shaking in my shoes—at the microphone at the church’s synod convention and told the assembled crowd that I was one of the people they were talking about when they were deciding to memorialize the national church to ordain gay men and women. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

We walked to school . . .

We walked to school . . .

I guess all I want to say is that I hope no one is taking all of this open, public, positive conversation about same-sex marriage for granted. I know, I know. You’ve heard this before. But take it from a faggot who in the ‘90s volunteered at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where gay men’s families sometimes refused to come to be with them when they died, this openness comes not because our society is so benevolent but because years ago some of us called ourselves queer in public when it was an almost impossibly dangerous thing to do.

When is a person NOT like a snake?

A pain in the

A pain in the

Geneticists say we share a whole bunch of DNA with all other animals. You know, snakes have spines, and so do we. Snakes have eyes, and so do we. If you want to study how human lungs take bad things out of your blood and replace them with oxygen? you better have yourself a big snake.  I have a friend who did that kind of research at the Harvard School of Public Health, and he introduced me to his snake. A big snake with lungs remarkably like ours.

A snake could not fall in the bathtub and break her hip. Obviously. She doesn’t have one. We wouldn’t either if we didn’t need strength and balance for doing things like standing up.

On about February 1, I was putting up the shower curtain in my bathroom—which I had accidentally pulled down cleaning—and was standing in a precarious position with one foot on the tub and my other foot on the toilet. I fell right after I told myself what you’re telling me right now, “This is dumb. You’re going to fall.” This was not one of those old man “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” moments. It was just dumb.

I landed on my hip on the bathtub—not in the tub, but on it. Even when I dislocated my shoulder the first time, I did not feel pain like that. The pain made me nauseous. I slowly got up and decided that, since I could stand, I probably had not broken my hip.

Last week (seven weeks later) both my doctor and my (newly found) physical therapist told me that most likely I bruised my Sacrospinous ligament, or one of my Sacrococcygeal ligaments, or—most likely—my Iliolumbar ligament. Or all of them. And yes, the PT did point them out on a plastic skeleton.

If you bruise a muscle, it heals pretty fast because all that blood the snake’s lungs and our lungs clean up and send out to do its job goes to muscles, not ligaments. You bruise a ligament, and it hurts like hell for a long, long time. If it’s in your hip, every time you get in and out of your car you stretch the bruise and never give it a chance to heal.

So now I’m doing PT twice a week for a while, and I have to wear this belt around my butt 24/7. It holds my butt together so I (supposedly) can’t move wrong and stretch those ligaments again, and they will have a chance to heal. The picture is inaccurate. I wear it under my jeans. It’s a pain in the ass.

In a (campaign) speech he delivered on March 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln said,18630124_Emancipation_Proclamation-Harpers-Nast

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] *

Funny that Abraham Lincoln and I should both use snakes as a metaphor. He used it as a metaphor for slavery, of course. I’m not sure what my use is a metaphor for.

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation was an act of war, not of morality or compassion. He had no power to free the slaves, especially in the secessionist states. He had the power to conscript slaves to leave their masters and join the Union forces in war against them. The 13th Amendment was the vehicle of ending slavery in the United States.** Nevertheless, we all know the work—the long, painful process—of bringing equality to all Americans is not yet finished. Emancipation is a long way off.

Yesterday on Facebook, notice of a posting by one of my friends (an actual friend, someone I love dearly) on his Wall surprised (“shocked” is a better word) me. It was a picture of President Obama’s daughters on vacation for Spring Break. The caption was vile. It purported to be a criticism of the Obama family spending our money to go to the Bahamas. Of course the ridiculous inaccuracy of that criticism is obvious.

blc02Because I am not a snake, I am wearing a ridiculous belt around my ass.

Abraham Lincoln’s metaphor of the snake drew great laughter and applause that day in New Haven, Connecticut.

Anyone who sees my friend’s Facebook post knows it’s not about the President’s family spending tax money. It’s about those uppity people daring to have a family vacation together. The nerve!

My writing skill, I am afraid, is not great enough to tie all of this together.

Snake. Racism. Equality. Pain in the ass. You figure it out.
__________
* Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at New Haven.” The History Place. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.
**  The most accessible and accurate account of the situation surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation I know of is:  Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Sighs too deep for words

On a day like today when I need comfort for reasons some of which I know but most of which I don’t know, I am grateful that I have available (with imperfections of which I ought to be embarrassed, but I am not) music that must be what the writer of the book Romans in the New Testament meant when he said,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

Religion confounds me these days. That anyone can believe in the Spirit is a mystery that I cannot fathom. And I don’t know how to pray, as I ought or not. But my sighs are too deep for words. Perhaps the writer of Romans knew Bach and Vivaldi.

I had planned to attend Maundy Thursday Services this evening, but I think I cannot. I will play instead.

Organ Concerto in D minor, BWV596
(Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto Op.3, No.11, RV565).
Second movement, Largo e spiccato.

No time for what will be will be will be

doris-in-blue-dress
There’s an arresting short video going around “. . . Will I be pretty, will I be rich, here’s what she said to me. . .”

In 1956 I was eleven and had only begun learning to play the organ. The Doris Day song—from the Hitchcock movie The Man who Knew too Much—is one of the simplest songs from an era of eminently singable pop songs. It’s so simple that even I, whose natural ability to play “by ear” had been frightened out of me by Mrs. Robinson (the “concert pianist” who taught me) because playing by ear was cheap, could play it without ever seeing the score.

One of the mixed messages of my life. My mother, a superbly gifted musician who lacked formal training, would have liked nothing more than to be able to play “by ear.” But Mrs. Robinson said I had to play only by reading music.

The organ I practiced on was the Baldwin Model 5 at our church, of course, so I was allowed (mandated!) to walk there after school to practice. Can you imagine sending your eleven-year-old out to walk by himself across town every day in 2013? Even a town like Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

Thinking that I would at least feel pretty, whether or not I was, I figured out how to play “Que será, será” not only on the piano but also on the organ. I even played it in Doris Day’s key—A-major. And this—before I had any study of music theory! If my dad was at the church, I played it at home; if he was at home, I played it at church. He did not like the song.

He preached a sermon on it. He thought it was silly. His sermon was a combination of Norman Vincent Peale (whose work he thought was really silly) and the Gospel. The message as I remember it was that we can’t live as if nothing mattered because we do have control over our actions, but!—God is really in control. We can’t say, “What will be will be;” rather, we must say, “Whatever God has in store for us will be. God’s in charge, not fate.” Another mixed message.

I have a private theory about the song’s popularity. It’s deceptively simple. Sing the words, “When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘what will I be?’” Take a breath. Continue. “Will” –hold on! The melodic interval between “be” and “will” is a tritone –that interval between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth called the “devil’s interval” in Medieval music theory. If I asked you to sing it outside the context of a melody you know from memory, you probably could not. The interval, turned upside down, carries the melody between the “será” and “será” at each repetition of “Que será, será.”

“Oh, come on,” you’re saying. “You can’t read that esoteric nonsense into that simple tune.” OK, so I can’t. And now that you’ve read this, try to forget that. The Devil’s interval. At the four important cadences of the tune.

I don’t believe in The Devil—or any devils unless they’re from Tasmania. But there’s something spooky about this tune. I’ll bet anyone who was conscious of popular culture in 1956 can sing it all the way through. And I will put my musicological neck (such as it is) on the block and say it’s not because it’s so simple or sweet, or because the idea is so sentimental.

Deans' Levels of Incompetence

Deans’ Levels of Incompetence

It’s because it’s got the devil in it.

I’m old enough to have had quite a bit of experience in “What will be will be.” And likely as not, it won’t be.  For example, what will be right now in my life is that I’m being forced into retirement from my university a year earlier than I had hoped (apparently because my students find my classes intellectually stimulating). There. The first, last, and only nasty thing I will say publicly about my situation.

But “will be” may not be what “is.” I am not going to stop working. It’s not clear which of my many options for productivity in old age I will pursue, but my definition of “retire” is not the first in the dictionary. It’s “to withdraw or lead back, as from battle or danger; retreat.” I am withdrawing from the danger of being beholden to Deans and other such persons who have reached their level of incompetence.

I will be neither “pretty” nor “rich.” But I may, in fact, finally be as free as I want to be. And I’m going to revel in finding all the “Devil’s intervals” I can. What will be will be what I choose will be. To the extent possible. But that’s another subject.

(A performance note: Yes, the old man had to write out the melody. However, this is pretty much how I played the song in 1956. I knew it sounded better on the piano, but what could I do? When this goes viral, I hope the note will be that I know it’s my imitation of a calliope. But, what will be will be.)

Who’s wearing the same dress?

supremesWhen I was in seminary (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), I took the course “Existential Theology.” I took it because the professor was too hot—a Methodist preacher/academic (at what back then was called STC—the School of Theology at Claremont, California). He must have been from Texas. He wore jeans (blue, of course, because that’s all there was then—either Levis or Wranglers) a tan corduroy sport coat with bolo tie, and expensive Western boots.

That was the semester STC gave me the boot because they found out I was gay, found out in a most unfortunate manner. My then-wife was none too pleased, either. Remember, this was 1968. Stonewall was still a gleam in some drag queen’s eye, and all us faggots who wanted anything like a career (especially in the church) were, if not closeted, at least married or putting up some kind of front.

That was not the beginning of the ruination of my life. That had already happened in a way that I will never write about. I do have some boundaries.

My life was disjointed—pun intended. My wife was a brilliantly successful high school English, journalism, and drama teacher—this was back in the day when teachers were expected to be creative and energetic rather than burdened with absurd Republican rules about giving tests and being “accountable”—so we had a steady income. I, on the other hand, was a part-time church organist (a job which saved my life and is yet the most creative and satisfying position I’ve had). After the Theological Boot, I had jobs I hated. Baldwin piano salesman. Printer in the in-house print shop at the now defunct Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. Mind-numbing work I could pursue only by living in fantasies in my head while I was on the job. I had that Kaiser job because the husband of the secretary at my church was a supervisor there and put in a good word for me even though she knew I was a queer.

The secretary at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario was one of a group of us who, shortly after I got the Theological Boot, trooped to Los Angeles together to see Hair, the musical. If you saw that original Broadway production, you may not remember it the way I do. (If I’m wrong, someone comment and put the record straight—pun intended—but that won’t change what I’m about to say.)

In the original production (not in the movie) the trio of black women singing about “white boys” in the best song in the show—IMHO—wearing pink spangled dresses mimicking The Supremes moved and sang together. They stood as close as their harmony, swaying and dancing. The gag—the almost too slapstick trick—was that at the end they stepped apart and revealed their dresses were one huge dress.

That, and the fact that the cast came up the aisles naked at the end of the show (or was it at the end of the first act?) and I was sitting on the end of a row goggle-eyed made me crazy. I wanted to be naked in front of two thousand people (I was young and skinny then) or at least to stop having to hide.

The Supremes

The Supremes

My life as a half-closeted, half-ostentatiously-out gay man was, in those days, untenable. I was miserable, my wife was miserable, and I made lots of other people miserable (including my Dutch Reformed psychiatrist from Chino—but that’s another story).

Today the Supreme Court (only peripherally not to be confused with The Supremes) will hear the case that should somehow make sense of, give meaning to, liberate the memory of my life at that time. (My musings must be taken with a grain of salt because I’m not only a Tired Old Queen, but diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder which, I’m sure most Fundamentalist Christians believe all LGBT persons are.)

In spite of Chief Justice Roberts’s lesbian cousin, I’m prepared to have hopes dashed yet again.

I know, I know, I know. Change is in the wind and all of that. But five of the Supremes have, for most of their careers, worn the same spangled dress. Five catholic men, all appointed by “Conservative” Republican Presidents, will make the decision. ‘Nuff said, I fear.

But here’s the real kicker. Even if they make the “right” decision, it will be so bitter-sweet for me that I will hardly be able to rejoice. Oh, I will rejoice!don’t get me wrong!—for my younger gay friends. But nothing can bring back the life I’ve not had, epitomized by the Theological Boot. I’m not a victim, a martyr, or an accuser, but I will have to learn to rejoice. I don’t regret my life, and I’m not a spoil sport. But let’s be honest.

The Theological Boot

The Theological Boot

At least it’s not compulsive hand-washing!

HypergraphIa?

HypergraphIa?

I hope someday Dr. Mark Agostini of the neurology faculty at UTSouthwestern Medical School in Dallas gets into some real research about the relationship is some people’s minds among music, writing, and seizures. There’s lots of research about all of that, but I want him to do it because I know him and I want him to study me.

I MUST NOT write this morning. I have 37 essays of 1200 words that must be evaluated before two PM today, and I have to go home to take care of my cats during my 11AM to 2PM break and call three different doctors and insurance companies and my bank and get together the supporting documents to send at the last minute so I don’t lose the $1000 left in my FLEX fund, Oh, and a fourth doctor so I will be able to move without pain before too much longer. Which is more important, money or pain?

I used to have a compulsion to count people in a room. Having a meeting and want to know how Danish to buy? Ask me. Want to know how many minutes each person can speak in a crowded 12-step meeting? Ask me. Well, Dr. Mary Bret (also of UTSouthwestern) fixed that. A little higher dose of Prozac and some Lamotrigen and that necessity seems to have been somewhat lifted from my shoulders.

But here I am at 5:10AM writing this when I absolutely must be grading papers. Do you think I’m just undisciplined? Just determined to be famous for writing this wonderful prose? Yeah. Right! my favorite instance when two positives make a negative. Want to know some more? Don’t get me started.  Back, boy.

Finish this! Now! Essays to read.

I want you to read it. I want it to make sense. I want to put it out into the blogosphere. But whether or not any of that happens, I have to write this—whatever it is. I can’t not do it at this moment. If I stop now, I won’t be able to do anything else.???????????????????????????????

I’m pretty sure I used the picture of me in my “Mary Girard” T-shirt here in the last few weeks, but I can’t find it. I don’t remember what symptoms her husband reported to convince the psychiatrist she was insane so he could get her money; I remember only that students in my music classes at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston performed it, and the father of one of them, my best friend, created these wonderful T-shirts of the title of the play. I’m not insane, of course, but there are certainly days when this seems like an apt T-shirt for me to wear.

Like today. I’m so charged up I didn’t need any coffee. But all I can do is sit here and write this stuff that you will think makes no sense. Well, it doesn’t.

Hypergraphia, thy name is Harold. Gotta do it. Gotta write whether it makes sense or not. I know sometimes (like today) my mind is probably tricking me into thinking I can’t grade the student essays until I do this—because my mind knows my gut doesn’t want to do that. Then how do you explain the last 45 days of non-stop blogging?

Holy Mackerel, Andy! A guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do! I had the first three paragraphs written before the coffee was brewed!

Oh, and by the way, this was going to be little essay on pain. Hip pain. Back pain. I did something fun yesterday that I (if I were a rational person) would not have done if I’d thought it through for 30 seconds before I did it. And by bedtime, the weeks-long constant pain in my right hip (most of the time low-level, but with the wrong move high-level and really annoying) had spread to my left—actually across my whole lower back and butt. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep, Thank you, Ambien.

The pain, by the way, is the result of—I’m sure you’ll find this in one of those 45 other postings here—one of those old man falls in the bathtub. When I fall, I can get up—so far.

Where the pain is.

Where the pain is.

So here I am writing all kinds of stuff no one should say about himself anywhere, much less in cyberspace where he can never take it back.
But if you want to know what happens to old guys who have TLEpilepsy and other weird neurological weirdnesses, just read this. You’ve probably read my stuff like this before, so it’s old news. But think for a minute. What’s gonna happen to me when I’m 85 and in the “home” and have to get up and do this before the nurses’ aides wanna be up and coping with old queens? It’s something to ponder, isn’t it?

This ends with a whimper, not a bang

The meaning of life?

The meaning of life?

Today is Palm Sunday. I’ve been to church for 67 Palm Sundays in a row. The last 45 were in churches that had a Procession of Palms of one sort or another. My favorite were the ones at my little now defunct church (St. Paul Lutheran) in Farmers Branch, TX, where we walked around the block singing, with the music accompanied by bagpipe! If there were bagpipers in Jerusalem in 30 CE, I doubt they wore Scottish plaids.

Today I will not attend a Palm Sunday service. At about the time the church I belong to is processing (it’s pretty splendid – I think they may even have a donkey) I will be at home checking on my cats and doing a little busy work around my apartment.

One of my best friends, who belongs to the same church, asked me why I don’t go to church any more. The cheap shot answer to that is, “No one’s paying me to go these days.” For that entire 45-year span, I was paid to be where I was. But I would have been there anyway. The other flip answer might be that I have somewhere else—down on Main Street—I’d rather be. And that’s true, too.

The real answer, however, is that I simply can’t get there. I don’t have any compelling reason to go. I don’t get it any more. And if that were to change, Palm Sunday with all that hoopla and all of those people would not be my first day back.

It seems to me that one of two things happens to people who have been churchy all their lives as they get older. They either become more attached to the services, or they drift away (or make a clean break to the affair as I have).  The more aware you become that today might be your last—and, believe me, anyone who’s 68 and isn’t aware of that isn’t using the mental powers homo sapiens has evolved for itself—the less certain you are that the answers to all those BIG questions you’ve always relied on are true. Or, conversely, the more certain you become.

The meaning of Life 2?

The meaning of Life 2?

I have to break into my own line of thinking here to make the little note that I am told by some people that I think about death too much. It isn’t healthy. Yes, it is. As I said before, if you’re my age and aren’t thinking about it, that means you don’t give a fig about understanding “the meaning of life” (sorry, but we old folks have more in common with teenagers and their angst than we like to think—when was the last time you thought about “the meaning of life”).

Really. I mean it. Why do you think Alice Walton built the Crystal Bridges Museum? She’s worried about the “meaning” of her billions. She’s not going to get out of here alive any more than I am. And she knows it. Except that she makes so many people’s lives miserable, she’s really pathetic. That (and I say this without irony) profound collection of art and its total accessibility to anyone who wants to see it won’t save poor Alice. And once she’s dead, how can it possibly be important to her that she’s done this one beautiful generous thing. (Sorry. I was at Sam’s Club yesterday. Alice has become my little private symbol for the totally bizarre and incomprehensible nature of human life.)

So back to my original subject. Why I’m not going to participate in a parade at church today.

Yesterday the friend who asked me why I don’t go to church was leading a Lenten retreat at our church. He asked me to drop by and play the organ for a few hymns for their closing Eucharist. I did.

And here’s my problem. I don’t “believe” (whatever that means) any of the language of those hymns. Well, maybe I can get my mind around the idea that, if there is a God, there’s a wideness in his mercy. But all I have to do is sit at the organ and play those nice tunes while people sing, and I get all wimpy. Is it because it’s what I’ve done all my life and it’s so familiar it just feels like reality?

The meaning of Life 3?

The meaning of Life 3?

Or are music and church and those things (even Alice’s art), after all, a way to figuring it out. I don’t know.

Restlessness blowin’ in the wind

internment-camps-aMy sister posted the following on Facebook yesterday.

David loved teaching. But, when the north wind was blowing, he would predict a tiring day. The explanation he gave was that the north wind carries static which make kids restless. I am restless.

The reference to David is her late husband, David M. Sato, who was an extraordinarily gifted and dedicated elementary school teacher. That’s not true. He was an extraordinary teacher. Period. If you were paying attention, he was “teaching” all the time—pointing out fascinating natural phenomena, showing you how to do something, talking about something he had just read. Five years after his death at an age much too young, two families still mourn his loss, the Satos and the Knights. And thousands of others his life touched through his teaching and activism on behalf of education.

It’s probably too sentimental to say, but David and his entire family would have been heroes before they made any of their contributions to life in the Sacramento area or to my family’s life. They are among the Americans who have experienced the absolute worst treatment any people could ever be afforded in a democracy. The nine Sato siblings’ parents were born in Japan. The family was with their entire community, shipped like cattle off to the desert to be interned in primitive make-shift camps during and after WWII.

Having experienced some of the most dehumanizing and unconscionable treatment a nation that professes to be “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could possibly mete out, the Satos and their extended family and their friends and fellow detainees returned to their communities. They not only resumed their lives, but they became indispensable to the economic, political, and social fabric of California. It’s tempting to use the insulting cliché, “their best revenge has been living well.” However, their success and the contributions to the greater society have nothing to do with revenge. The Japanese-American community understood the “American dream” before America whisked them away into a nightmare, and they came back to the lives they were already creating for themselves—and helping others create—when the nightmare was over.

I cannot pretend to speak for David or his family on the effect of the internment on their lives, their lives in society or the lives of their spirits. However, from my limited perspective, as close as I feel to the Satos, my observation is that they and their community have lived nobly and graciously in a way that I, for one could or would not have done, given their experience.

Last week I had lunch with Kiyo Sato, David’s eldest sibling (since her online biography doesn’t tell her exact age, I won’t either—I’ll simply say her energy and activity are extraordinary). Like other members of her family, she is gentle but intense, calm but energetic, sweet but brooking no nonsense. She has written her story of her family’s odyssey, available from online book sources under the title either Dandelion through the Cracks or Kiyo’s Story.

Kiyo’s book was awarded the third William Saroyan International Prize for Writing from the Libraries at Stanford University.kiyo

This posting did not begin as a tribute to David and Kiyo and their family. It was going to be about me (of course) and about my current trials and tribulations. Those are real enough. I took an old man fall in the bathtub on February 1 and have had really annoying pain in my right hip since (finally on Thursday my doctor gave me a steroid shot for some short-term blessed relief, he and prescribed physical therapy). I have been given the date for being let out to pasture by SMU (end of spring semester, 2014) which has caused me more emotional shock than I could have imagined. And there are more boring difficulties.

So I was going to kvetch about being old and about to be forgotten and unable to do what I want to because I’m crippled and poor. I was going to mention David and Kiyo in passing with wonderment about their ability to live fully and graciously and successfully—whatever that means—in the face of odds I can’t imagine. And I was going to say something like, well, good for them. Aren’t they an inspiration?

And then I came to my senses. They ARE an inspiration. If Kiyo can win the Saroyan Prize for the best new writer at 85, surely when I’m 70 I can publish an article about Leonard Bernstein rejecting David Diamond’s amorous advances or finish some of those dozens of short stories on my “fiction flash drive” and start sending them out to journals.

The wind must be blowing static. I’m restless. Energetically.

THANK YOU, KIYO!

Will I go silent (or gentle)? For those who do not fear reality (old people, mostly)

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

.

Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem begins

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My Grandmother Peck, my Grandfather Knight, my mother’s Cousin Ruth, the Rev. Ginger Georgulas, Sue Mansfield, Janey Fields, Dorothy Seuberling, David and Gina Quinlan, Bill Houghton

Friends, family, mentors who, I assume, did not go gentle into that good night. They may well have gone calm, but I cannot imagine they went gentle. They all loved life too much to have simply given in to the end. I know that for sure because

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Last night a friend opened a conversation, “How do you feel about dying in Dallas?” He he’s a youngster at 62. For LGBT persons without children this is a particularly vexed question:  Where should one be when one can no longer care for oneself – or, even if care never becomes an issue, when one is in the end stages of life and growing more and more alone.

My siblings live in California and Louisiana—and all of their children live in California.

My family of origin is not immediately present in my life although we all do keep very close contact (thanks to Facebook, and email). It is my family of choice, that myriad friends and colleagues, and my inamorato that are most likely to be aware of, if not burdened with, my eventual need for help and tender loving care.

For me thinking about this now is—and I think it should be for everyone over about 60—important not so much because I am thinking about being old and decrepit (and I am not obsessed of thoughts of death) but because I want to be sure that I am in a place where I am comfortable mentally, physically, and spiritually when my time comes. That does not need to be a retirement community run by some upscale hotel chain or anything special at all. But it must be a place of my choosing where I can live (as long as I am physically and mentally able) with freedom and dignity.

There. Enough nuts and bolts and depressing stuff.

The Lone Ranger?

The Lone Ranger?

Non sequitur.

A somewhat startling number of composers’ last works are, if not robustly joyful, at least in some way different (and more accessible?) than their previous work. Take the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, for example. Or, better, his String Quartet in F Major, opus 135, his actual last completed major work. Listen to it and marvel in its joy.

Even the most uninterested opera goer will find the hilarious romp through love and madness of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff irresistible. Or listen to the Mahler Ninth Symphony. Or, if you’re really imaginative, listen to the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony with its almost silly quotation of the Rossini “Lone Ranger” theme (I absolutely love it that, the first time I opened this link, the advertisement was for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).

These composers did not go gentle. They went joyfully!

That list of friends and family I began with are like these composers. Each of them lived out her or his life in dignity and comfort. And I had contact with most of them shortly before they died. I know they ended their days as they had lived them. Fully, and in some cases, boisterously! They are the angels who dare, in the words of Sherman Alexie’s poem, to “ride [me] piggyback!” They are all over me, burdening and unbalancing me with my memories of their examples.

My favorite, though, is  Johannes Brahms. His last composition, Opus 122, is a group of settings for solo organ of eleven hymn tunes—all of which are about death. And there is not a sad or dreary note in the lot.

Brahms went neither silent nor gentle into that good night. I wrote yesterday about my teacher Leslie Pratt Spelman. I studied the eleven pieces with him as a college student. Twice in my life I have played recitals consisting of all eleven of the preludes, bracketed by the great Bach Prelude in C Minor, BWV 546 at the beginning and its fugue at the end.

Now I am playing them at home for my amazement.

The words for the last of them O Welt, Ich muss dich lassen, are:

O World, I must leave you,
I travel from here along my way
to the everlasting fatherland.
I will give up my spirit
so that my body and life
lie in God’s merciful hand.

(Please see the note below the video link for a word about the playing I seem to be determined to upload these days.)

I am fully aware of two obvious deficiencies in my recordings. The first is, my playing is not necessarily stylistically correct – or mechanically perfect. The second is that my recording equipment is so lacking that I cannot capture the real beauty of the sound of the organ. I have to have the camera so close that the mechanical sounds sometimes overwhelm the music. I know that’s not fair to Steuart Goodwin who built the organ more than 40 years ago—his first opus. But I happen to like the way my playing and the sound of the organ are simply what we are.

A friend says I should use the moniker “The Barefoot Organist.” I should because I am not going to do anything to make these recordings other than what they are—my private reveling in the music, which I am happy to share with you. Besides, my psychiatrist (a gerontological specialist) has given me the assignment to play the organ every day for my own emotional good, and making these tapes helps me stick to the program!