“. . . On Venus you and I are not even a year old . . .”

Surprising St. Petersburg

Surprising St. Petersburg

Today is the day we are habituated to pondering the successes and failures, the good times and bad, the ins and outs. . .

This year has been sideways and frontways, backwards and upwards—like every other year.


I walked and ate and made music in Arvika, and saw Stockholm in Sweden. I reveled and ate and shopped and made music in Rauma, Finland, and saw Helsinki. I marveled and ate and walked in the cemetery where both Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are buried and made music in St. Petersburg. And had a touristy whirlwind through the Hermitage.

I was in the company of a group of new friends-for-life, kind and gentle and loving folks for whom I have immense gratitude and to whom I offer my meager version of love. The choir and companions of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I should stop right there.

The best of times with the loveliest of people

The best of times with the loveliest of people


Two surgeries, one a complete and immediate success (the six-month pain in my hip was gone when I woke up from the anesthetic and never returned). The other is still in process of recovery. I’ve discovered what we do that requires BOTH of our shoulders and arms. Balance yourself getting up from a chair with one arm strapped to your chest. Put on your socks with one hand.

However, for nearly a month now I’ve been without a cane, crutches or sling. Gratitude is not my strong suit, but I am grateful.

In her lovely quirky poem “Fragments for the End of the Year,” Jennifer K. Sweeney lists many observations I could have made about this year.

On average, odd years have been the best for me.
I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know . . .
I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland. [For me, it’s Easter Island.]
Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit . . .
On Venus you and I are
not even a year old. (The entire poem is below the video.)

Odd years have been good for me—I’m not sure if, on average, they have been better than even years. This odd year has been odd but good.

I have an overwhelming need to go to Easter Island (don’t ask because I don’t know). I have been awestruck for decades by the fact we all eat fruit without seeds, which means there are more fruit trees pollinated in some way other than through the normal sexual life of fruit trees than I can imagine, and I wonder why—if we can do that—we can’t make a computer power cord that weighs less than five pounds. Or make peace in the Middle East.

But Venus. Oh, my, Venus is a great mystery. I remember reading about the planet years ago and being mystified by what I learned. And today Jennifer Sweeney reminds me of it. In the first place, Venus revolves on her axis the opposite way Earth does—so the sun comes up in the west and sets in the east. But that’s only the beginning. A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days. A day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus, which lasts 225 Earth days. Now that’s weird.

Not really the worst of times

Not really the worst of times

The best part of that is what it does to one’s age. On Venus, I’d be only 104 days old rather than the approximately 25,000 days I’ve been here on Earth.

Gives a whole new meaning to “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4—the “your,” of course refers to God). My guess is that even Richard Dawkins and other militant fundamentalist atheists have some concept of “before the mountains were brought forth” (if only because they were raised in the culture that believes in the concept and then, in their profound scientific wisdom, have rejected the concept—far braver than I am).

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:1-4).

Dawkins has a great time comparing Earth to Venus, I should think. What does time mean, anyway? Go ahead, tell me.

There’s an old German hymn Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, the text by Michael Franck (1652) and the melody melody by Johann Crüger (1661).

The best English translation I know is

O how futile, how inutile
Is our earthly being!
‘Tis a mist in wintry weather,
Gathered in an hour together,
And as soon dispersed in ether.

The hymn goes on for twelve stanzas with as many (or more) metaphors for the “inutility” (a great word meaning “of no use”) of life and does not mention God until the last, when it says merely that the person who relies on God will find purpose, or some such.

I take great comfort in this hymn. “On Venus, you and I are not even a year old,” so we have plenty of time to sort all of this out. It doesn’t have to be done before midnight today.

Georg Böhm (1661—1733), German baroque composer, wrote a little set of variations on the hymntune. Here’s his setting of the tune itself and then the first variation. Accompanied by inutility.

“Fragments for the End of the Year,” by Jennifer K. Sweeney

On average, odd years have been the best for me.

I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know.

 Without fail, fall makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.

The sky is molting. I don’t know
if this is global warming or if the atmosphere is reconfiguring
itself to accommodate all the new bright suffering.

I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland.

Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit.

I was terribly sorry to be the one to explain to the first graders
the connection between the sunset and pollution.

On Venus you and I are not even a year old.

Then there were two skies.
The one we fly through and the one
we bury ourselves in.

I appreciate my wide beveled spatula which fulfills
the moment I realized I would grow up and own such things.

I am glad I do not yet want sexy bathroom accessories.
Such things.

In the story we were together every time.
On his wedding day, the stone in his chest
not fully melted but enough.

Sometimes I feel like there are birds flying out of me.

“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.

“. . . like a pronoun out of step with all the other floating signifiers . . .”

PLEASE, before you read this, I would appreciate your reading an important writing by my friend Samia Khoury in Jerusalem. Thank you.

They won't repeat it just for me.

They won’t repeat it just for me.

(Note: proofreading this I realized it makes no sense whatsoever. I will try to fix that and post it again—or something like it.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas are always nostalgic for me, not because I love Christmas or because I remember Christmases past, but because they somehow mark the progression of my life.

Such times mark the progression of everyone’s lives if they think about it. (Don’t get all stuffy with me and tell me “they” is wrong here—the old nonsense promulgated by high-brow prescriptivists—until you have studied epicene and generic uses of “they.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me: Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock!  — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.)

The first Christmas I remember as a professional organist was Christmas 1967 at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, California. I’d never seen anything like it. Midnight Mass in the most vivid color with candles by the hundreds, flowers everywhere (poinsettias in abundance, but not the main offering). The infant Jesus finally in the crèche. And the music I was in charge of. I don’t remember exactly what the choir sang or I played, but I know it was glorious (that’s not my ego talking—it is possible for amateurs and non-world-class professionals to make glorious music).

I could write a progression of tales of Christmas past for the past 46 or so years, but I won’t. That’s because it’s the First Sunday in Christmas (there will be two this season), and I am going to play the organ at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Richardson, Texas.

This will be the first time in more than a year I have played for a service. That’s difficult for me to believe because my whole life has been centered in my understanding that I am an organist and that my failure to preside at the console and in the aisles and choir stalls of an Episcopal cathedral today is the result of their failure to recognize my talent. Of course, that’s not true. My failure is my failure (except “failure” is the wrong word—I’ll let you know when I find the right one). I have not worked hard enough to develop my considerable but also limited talents to achieve such a position.

This writing is neither sour grapes nor feeling sorry for myself. I have had and directed glorious musical experiences. But I know my limitations. They begin with the fact that there is absolutely nothing about me that is “driven.” I have no clue what it’s like to pursue a goal with energy and concentration, letting nothing get in my way. I have too many innate obstacles—beginning with limited intensity and strength (both physical and mental).

So back to this nostalgia for (or centered in) the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days always used to give me, when I was making music for churches, a sense that I might be able to do the Christmas Eve service over and get it perfect. After all, it is still Christmas and all of that music is still appropriate, so let’s try it again.

I’m grown up enough (and have been for many years) to know that’s not the way it works. They’re not going to back up and pretend Santa hasn’t come yet and repeat the process until I get it right. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

This is related. I'll tell you how later.

This is related. I’ll tell you how later.

It’s all a matter of belief. Do you believe time passes or not? Well, yes and no. I’ve written about my understanding of (or lack of) the passage of time (quite recently, as a matter of fact).

What might have been is obvious. I might have directed the music and/or played the organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I might have directed the Boston Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel. Or the choir of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco might have sung an anthem I wrote.

Of course. I can play Walter Mitty with the best of them (perhaps not as well as Ben Stiller).

But I prefer these days to think about what is. I’m not important to the world, but I am important to a few people. I will remember this Christmas, I think, several reasons. I can walk without a cane. My arm is not in a sling (although reaching for the stops on the left panel of the organ I’ll play today is a bit of a challenge still). So I’m grateful for progress for myself—for recovery and healing.

Some of the sources of the word “nostalgia” include “homecoming,” and “to return safely home” and “to recover,” and “to heal.” The modern sense of yearning for the past is a recent 20th-century usage. To “recover,” to “heal.” One of the people who was present at that Christmas Eve in California 46 years ago, when she died, left me in charge of her estate—to make grants for writers. I get to make a grant this week not to a writer but to someone who daily influences the lives of children with various limitations. She is a music therapist. Her guitar was stolen. I get to pay for a new one tomorrow.

Will I ever again in my life have the experience of participating in “recovery” or “healing” as I will during these Twelve Days? I hope so. But if I don’t, it is enough. It’s a “quick one before I go.”

“A Quick One Before I Go,” by David Lehman        

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants
red brick houses where I shall give up booze
and organized religion even if it means
despair is a logical possibility that can’t
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five
senses and what they half perceive and half
create, the green street signs with white
letters on them the body next to mine
asleep while I think these thoughts
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do
like a pronoun out of step with all the other
floating signifiers no things but in words
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke's Lutheran, Richardson, TX

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke’s Lutheran, Richardson, TX

“Herod then with fear was filled, ‘A PRINCE?. . . ‘“ or, attention will be paid

Do you ever wish you’d paid attention in school?

Not the dreaded “rhetorical question! I don’t care if everyone who’s ever written about writing arguments says it’s a good beginning for an essay. It’s disingenuous. If you know the answer, say it, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s a trap. Reminiscent of a lover saying, “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you.”

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I wish I’d paid attention in many places other than school.

That’s how you begin an essay. Repeat strategic ideas in strategic places. Yes. Repeating important words helps hold an argument together—and keeps your audience’s attention. It’s a device of good preachers.

If you want someone to pay attention to what you’re saying, repeat nouns and verbs. See? I’m giving you a lecture on writing an argument, and you didn’t even realize it because I have seduced you into paying attention.

In the 1990s, The New Interpreter’s Bible was published. My dad was in his 80s, but, being forever curious, he subscribed—twelve volumes delivered over a year. What would a retired Baptist preacher in his 80s want with this set of books? He wanted to keep up with scholarship in case he had to preach. He was a man who paid attention to what was going on around him.

I pay attention sometimes. When Dad and Mom were moving to a new much smaller assisted living apartment and he was getting rid of his books, I paid attention and retrieved the NIB so they are on my bookshelf, and—believe it or not—I use them quite a bit. Usually to find critical information about some fine point of Christian or Biblical history I want to know about.

Like the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Martyrs) on the calendar of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal Churches. Pay attention! You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you had really been paying attention, you would have guessed it from my title.

All Christians know the story. The Wise Persons from the east show up in Bethlehem looking for the king they know has been born (from looking at the stars—Christian history IS based on astrology, after all). So they arrive at the king’s palace (Herod) and ask where the new king is. Herod says he doesn’t know, but he’d like to pay him homage, so when the Wise Persons find the king, please come back and tell him. An angel tells the Wise Persons just to go on home—and tells Joseph to get Mary and the child off to Egypt because Herod is going to slaughter the baby boys in Bethlehem to get everyone’s attention to remember he’s the puppet king set up by Rome.

This story exists only in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s in none of the secular histories of Herod’s reign. However, it’s not an unlikely event because Herod did lots of similar things, killing many of his own people and the like to get the attention of the ones who were left. But, of course, Matthew had a theological agenda—to show how the life of Jesus paralleled the history of Israel, so he’s the Messiah. The prophet Jeremiah said, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children . . .” Rachel is one of the wives of Jacob, helping to establish the Biblical ideal of marriage in which a man has two wives (sisters) and they each give him a concubine to bear children for him that they will raise as their own. You know, monogamy.

Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, but you can’t get there from the East, where the Wise Persons came from, because the Apartheid Wall and the IDF won’t let you through.

I hope you’re paying attention to all of these layers and layers of meaning, politics, and theology because it turns out the Slaughter of the Innocents (today, December 28, the Fourth Day of Christmas) is pretty important if you’re following and believing the story of the Incarnation.

In Baptist Sunday School decades ago, we learned about Herod killing all the little boys. We had to because it’s in the Bible. We didn’t say the prayer for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, however.

We remember this day, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

I remember the story most clearly because in college we sang the little carol, “Unto us a Boy Is Born.” And J. William Jones had us emphasize the incredulous question of Herod, “. . . ‘a PRINCE?’ he said, ‘in Jewry.’” For years I had a recording in which, if you paid attention, you could hear us shouting that word. It’s quite effective. (Here all I can do is detach and try to accent the note.)

A funny thing, paying attention and memory. Something about this little carol lives in a special place in my (conscious and) unconscious mind. I don’t think about it often, and when I do, I don’t “believe” any of the story. But it gets my attention and helps me think about what I do believe, what is real, what is eternal. Those realities that have more levels of meaning than I can possibly sort out.

Oh, in case you missed it, this essay is about paying attention.

(See “notes” below video)

I have removed the shepherds from the nativity scene and left the Wise Men. Also, you may notice three wooden ornaments in the little tree. They were carved by the Salsa family of Bethlehem — the carving industry is nearly ended because of the Apartheid Wall around Bethlehem.

“Old Jewry” is a street in the financial district of London (still). “Jewry” is a Renaissance word for “ghetto,” so it is logical that the carol would use the word.

Unto us a boy is born,
King of all creation:
Came He to world forlorn,
Lord of every na – – -tion.

Cradled in a stall was He
Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
He all men surpass – – – es.

Herod then with fear was filled:
“A PRINCE,” he said, “in Jewry!”
All the little boys he killed
At Bethl’em in his fu – – – ry.

Now may Mary’s son, who came
Long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
To the joys a – – -bove us.

—The words and original melody are in a manuscript of the 15th century There are many variants in other manuscripts. The melody in this form is from Piae Cantiones of 1582. The words are from the Lateinishe Hymen of the same year. The harmony is by Martin Shaw for the Oxford Book of Carols.

To express the “inner children” of a bunch of grownups

Not that innocent

Not that innocent

My siblings and I have many traditions together that are perfectly silly and would make sense to no one but us. For example, one might assume the three ice cream cone ornaments on my brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas tree are cute flights of fancy. What could be better to express the “inner children” of a bunch of grown-ups than ice cream cone decorations on the Christmas tree?

It’s not quite that innocent.

In 1985 our dad found descendants of our grandfather’s siblings (Granddad was one of nine brothers and sisters) from all corners of the country and organized a Knight Family Reunion at the ancestral home in Buford, Arkansas. All together, we were a crowd larger than the population of the town had ever been, even when people actually lived there.

My brother and sister-in-law lived in Wichita, Kansas. I flew there to drive to Buford with them, and our sister and her family drove from California to meet us so we could drive in a little two-car caravan from Wichita to Buford. We extracted from our brother, who was driving in the lead, promise to stop soon for a break to get a drink and use the facilities at a Dairy Queen. We had agreed–for some reason–a Dairy Queen would be a good place.

We passed one a fairly good distance from Wichita, and he did not stop. Then, down the road, another, then another, then another. He did not stop. Ever.

In retaliation, my sister and I began giving him Dairy Queen memorabilia for his birthdays, for Christmas, for any occasion that seemed appropriate, and eventually just because. It is a habit that brings us much enjoyment and laughter. So ice cream cones hanging from his Christmas tree are a nod to, a continuation of mutual tradition tying us together in the same way making snicker-doodles from Mom’s old recipe and countless other rituals based on our common private heritage do.

A little birthday jaunt?

A little birthday jaunt?

Sometimes I think about my professional colleagues and wonder what kind of silliness they participate in with their siblings. And I am embarrassed. Their family traditions probably have to do with Milton or Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or Annie Proulx, post-Structuralism or Bauldrillard’s Simulacra. We are so common compared with academics, writers, and other highly professional folk.

The traditions of my friends with more money than they need (I do have a few of those) involve giving white elephant gifts of Alexander McQueen fashions or season tickets to the Cowboys games or birthday trips to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina. At least birthday dinners at the new Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas. (Oops! I did take a friend to Stephan Pyles’ “Stampede” for his birthday last year and had one of Stephan’s Heaven and Hell cakes for my birthday, but I assure you those will not become “traditions”).

If my friends had contacted Nate Berkus to come and work his gay boy magic in my apartment, the transformation would have been so dramatic his show would not have been cancelled. I don’t even know the “traditions” of my own kind of people.

I cannot imagine myself–in the first place I don’t have the wardrobe for it–having dinner at the Dallas home of the friend of my friend where President Obama dined (the President didn’t actually eat because that would have required another level of security that her home was not equipped to handle–he only talked and socialized). My friend has both the wardrobe and the credentials for such an Important Event. More importantly, he knows which fork to use for each dinner course.

I am, I realize, stuck in a groove. The 33 and 1/3 rpm disc in my brain is scratched, and the needle cannot move on past this infinite loop, this interminable repetition. I’m stuck in place and can’t move on.

My perennial question is, it seems to me, so simple that someone ought to be able to provide an answer that would allow me to move on to some other pressing issue. It’s a two-part question. First, how did we humans, over dozens of millennia, get ourselves organized into societies with, on the one hand, people who give each other trips to South America and get to invite the President to their homes (even in Dallas) for dinner, and the rest of us who give each other plastic Dairy Queen ice cream cone Christmas presents? Second, which of us when we die, based on our relative comfort and importance in this life, is going to be closer to or more of a part of the ground of being, the God particle, the Lamb on His throne, however you want to describe it.

Or are we all going to be equally dead, so being rich and famous or even a hot-shot academic is ultimately meaningless?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

A once-in-a-lifetime birthday cake?

If the last question is the right one to ask, then I have one further question that is probably un-American, un-Christian, and simply not nice. Why do we let those people (you know who they are) own so much of what should belong to all of us to allow us to get through this life with the same amount of ease, of comfort, of opportunity to think about it and enjoy ourselves? Why do we let this continue century after century after century (and become a more and more pronounced discrepancy in the United States hour by hour)?

I wouldn’t give up my family’s Dairy Queen tradition for anything. But I wonder when the time will come that all of us, all 7 billion of us, have the the opportunity to develop whatever family traditions we like–besides traditions like hunger and oppression generation after generation.

A new coffee maker for Christmas???

imageIf you want to buy a new coffee maker, you have about a gazillion kinds (or at the old joke about George W. Bush goes, “How many is 10 brazilian?”) to choose from. A wise saying in AA is you can tell who’s an old timer by how many coffee makers they know how to use.

The test of love and friendship between anyone else and me may be whether or not I know where they keep their coffee and how to use their coffee maker. That’s at least an indication whether or not I’ve spent the night at their house. One of my oldest and dearest friends doesn’t drink coffee (doesn’t even own a coffee maker), so when I visit him I have to go out to get coffee. He did have the good sense to have someone build a convenience store about a block away, so I can walk up there and buy my morning fix–not the the world’s best coffee, but loaded with caffein.

The true test of love and brotherhood

I didn’t set out to write about coffee this morning. But then I never “set out to write” about anything. It happens. That’s all. But I’m at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in the Red Stick, Louisiana, and I’m on my second pot of coffee at 5 AM — don’t freak, each one was about two cups. Should have made one big pot. But I’m afraid someone else will get up and want a drinkable cup, and the only stuff available will be this black mud I think is the only coffee worth drinking.

The best place in the world to get a decent cup of coffee is in Bethlehem or Jericho or Hebron or any of the Mid-eastern cities where they brew it strong enough that a sensible person would drink only one of those tiny hemi-demitasse cups they serve it in–not six or eight as I might drink.

Last night my sister-in-law had only to point in the right direction, and I knew where all the fixin’s for coffee are. I’ve been at her house enough to have my own morning coffee drill. My brother can’t drink coffee (bad for his heart), but my sister-in-law does, so this is a good coffee fixin’ house.

I’m here for Christmas.

You see–those who’ve read my most recent posts–I am not Scrooge. I don’t hate Christmas. Or is it simply that I know where and when to find a cookie jar full of snicker-doodles made exactly from my mother’s old recipe?

I don’t remember my parents having coffee early in the morning. I know they did because I remember washing the pot–a wonderful ’50s aluminum thing in three sections, the middle one being the strainer where you put your coffee and let the hot water you poured in the top seep through it. No paper filters–either bleached or unbleached–to clutter up the environment in those days.

I also know they drank coffee because I have in my china closet at home (how’s that for an old gay man thing to say?) a set of pressed class plates with a little raised circle on them where the matching cup sits and you can hold the whole thing on your lap and drink coffee without spilling it and hold your cookies, too, when you come to my mother’s house for your ladies’ circle meeting. What a ’50s relic!

So here’s the grouch, the grinch, the scrooge, the depressive, the perennial complainer-about-everything typing away at the breakfast bar in his brother’s house (sitting, by the way, looking into the living room so I can see the Christmas tree) thinking with fondness, and even joy, about family traditions and feeling warm and goose-bumpy and happy to be with my siblings (my sister is here from California) for what society–since about the time Charles Dickens made us all feel this way for the first time–has decided will be, hypocritical and nonsensical as it is, the time of the year when we sing, “Love and joy come to you” and try to mean it.

I’d like just once to get through a complete thought, write a complete argument, work out a complete idea without getting grumpy, or, if I have to get grumpy, at least have the language of Sartre or Eliot or Michael Blumenthal to say what I’m thinking. But I don’t, so I’ll just say Merry Christmas and leave it at that.

Except for the fact I just discovered last evening that my brother had decided to sand the arms of my arts-and-crafts Morris Chair smooth, thus changing the chair’s value from $7000 to about $7, we really do mean it when we say to each other, “Love and joy come to you.” (I’ll get over the chair–I don’t believe in money, anyway.)

And certainty of the love of my family makes possible my wish for you, whoever, you might be, “Tidings of comfort and joy, glad tidings of comfort and joy!”

Christmas in Baton Rouge

Christmas in Baton Rouge

“. . . and wild and sweet the words repeat. . . “

No one hungry here

No one hungry here

Christmas comes every year and I think about two of the most common human experiences that will most likely never be mine. The first is being so certain of my religion or my political ideas or my tribal allegiance that I am willing to do anything to defend one or the other by any means necessary. The other is being so poor that I do not know which will come first, a meal or death by starvation.

I know lots of people who have the first experience of certainty. I have never, to my knowledge, met anyone who has experienced the second. My guess is no one who is intimately acquainted with religious, political, or tribal certainty knows anyone who is in danger of starving to death.

It stands to reason. One could not know without doubt that they understand whatever their religion teaches, or that the organization of their society is absolutely the best, or that their clan is the best, strongest, and brightest without being part of a community of knowers. You couldn’t figure those things on your own.

And if you are part of a community that knows these things absolutely, you would never starve to death unless the whole community were in danger of starvation. Some priest or official or cousin would take care of you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I wouldn’t make my sloppy unprofessional videos of my candles and my Christmas balls with music in the background if I didn’t. I bought my sister’s present in June because I saw it and knew she’d love it. I’m getting on a plane in about three hours to fly to Baton Rouge to spend the holiday with my brother and sister-in-law. And twice I’ve bought a package of over-decorated, empty-caloried sugar cookies at Kroger and eaten the whole package overnight when I don’t even like sugar cookies.

But the whole business makes me terribly uneasy because I don’t believe any of it—any of the “reason for the season,” that is. If

He heard the bells on Christmas Day

He heard the bells on Christmas Day

Jesus really is the King or whatever he’s supposed to be, then he has fallen down on the job. Especially if he’s the Prince of Peace or the Hope of the Poor, or any of those things. His followers are the people most likely in this country to support what we know as Apartheid in a country half-way around the world, the only one left in the world with that system of government. His followers are the most likely people I know who want to expel kids from this country who have never lived anywhere else just because they’re not part of our clan and happened to be with their parents when they crossed the border between our country and another.

Oh, I forgot, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, who say they have no religion, believe all those things about certain people, too.

I guess it’s not only the people who are absolutely sure about their religion who are likely to have those ideas about politics and family.

OK. So you can stop reading. You know where I’m headed. This sounds ever-so-much like the typical I-Hate-Christians sophomoric blah-blah-blah that people who read the Bible and say “See! Look here! It’s not true, it all contradicts itself, it’s all based on magic, blah-blah-blah” drag out all the time, but mostly at Christmas.

I don’t really mind if you or anyone you know is so certain of their religion they’d be willing to, for instance, start a war in Iraq over it. I guess more than anything I’m jealous. I miss that Santa Claus god I used to pray to religiously (pun intended). He was a pretty nice guy, looking out for me and mine all the time. I never got all the fine points of how one is supposed to believe and act towards him, but I was learning.

No, anyone’s belief is their business (even if they hate me because I’m a faggot and do unnatural things that the Santa Claus god says I shouldn’t do).

But here’s what gets me (and I’m not picking on the Baptists—they just happen to have set themselves up for ridicule in Dallas) is things like spending $135 million on a really fancy and world-class church building and then blaring music so loud no one can stand it—to keep the homeless people (who are probably hungry) from sitting in protected areas around the building out of the rain. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such insipid music—dew-wop Jesus music, as my late friend Anne Gervasi would have said.

But don’t get all smug, you atheists and Methodists, and Muslims, and Hindus We have our own place. The Dallas Public Library does the same thing. At least we have taste at our building. The music is likely to be opera. Nothing worse than hearing Aida singing about her one true love when you’re dirty and hungry.

So I guess I’m going to go to my grave (well, perhaps not if John Boehner and Ted Cruz cut Social Security) without ever experiencing those two things, certainty that I know God (and, more important, he knows me back) and certainty that I’m hungry and likely to stay so.

Funny about Christmas in this country. We’ve made it a celebration out of both.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow thought sort of the same thing, I think.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“No more let sin and sorrow grow . . .” In which I don’t post the most objectionable thing I’ve ever written

I wrote a little piece about how much I dislike the fighting over what to call Christmas. It was inspired by my reading a review of Sarah Palin’s so-called Christmas book which begins, apparently, with her story of buying her husband a gun for a present last Christmas right after the tragedy of Sandy Hook. She bought it as an act of “civil disobedience” because of the anti-gun talk coming from Washington at that time.

So Christmas is now the Feast of the Incarnation With Guns.

I’m not going to post the mean, cruel, and vituperative piece I wrote.

Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectRead my post about depression. I will not be depressed this Christmas any more than that undercurrent of depression I carry with me all the time.

But I do want to say this. Why is everyone in this country so determined to be mean to everyone else these days? Especially in the name of religion? or capitalism–which for too many people seem to be synonymous.

For God’s sake. If I can try to spread a little joy, why can’t the rest of you–the ones who don’t need Prozac and Lamictal? What the fuck is wrong with us, anyway? I was going to put a photo of Da Vinci’s “Madonna and Child” I took at the Hermitage this summer in St. Petersburg. I decided the Rembrandt “Return of the Prodigal Son” (which I also saw there) would be more appropriate. It shows both the profligate son and the self-righteous brother.

Merry Christmas.

No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of his love
And wonders of his love
And wonders and wonders of his love

A Meditation on “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem

Many years ago—in the ‘80s (seems long ago in the short span of my life)—I wrote monthly a little column about church music in the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, The Episcopal Times, edited by Barbara Braver. (Whew! I do have some memory left; it did exist, and Barbara was the editor.)

For the December edition one year, I wrote a wonderfully elitist and snobbish piece on the sentimentality of the tune we’ve all known since before we were born for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Its altered harmonies and that silly raised second on the fourth note of the melody are simply too much for a real musician to bear.

Of course, what I forgot when I wrote the pompous little stuff-shirt article was that I was in Phiips Brooks country (Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Boston, from 1869 until 1891, when he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts). Brooks wrote the words, and his organist while he was at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, Lewis Redner, wrote the tune.

It’s the only time in my life enough people read what I wrote to give me hell for it. Barbara Braver received letters for months afterward asking who I thought I was attacking a Boston icon.

Little did I know that one summer about 20 years later I would be in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with a group (mostly) of Lutherans from Texas singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in one of the great spiritual moments of my life.

So much for elitism.

(This, by the way, was my second trip to Bethlehem, the first with the Inter-Faith Peace Builders—part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation—in 2003, shortly after the fragile end of the Second Palestinian Intifada.)

Somewhere on some flash drive I have many pictures of the more recent trip. Many of them are from Bethlehem where we stayed for the largest portion of the ten days or so we were there.

One of the pictures that still startles me is of a young man in a car with a make-shift bloody bandage around his leg. The driver of the car stopped to tell us what we had just witnessed before he sped off to the hospital. We were on the rooftop garden of the building that houses the community center of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp on the south edge of Bethlehem (I’m pretty sure you didn’t know there is a refugee camp in Bethlehem for Palestinians whose homes were destroyed in 1948 as a result of the Nakba—yes, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren still live there.)

On the other side? Bethlehem.

On the other side? Bethlehem.

While we were there, the IDF (Defense? Force—one of the great oxymorons in world affairs) had discovered a Palestinian “terrorist” living in, or at least staying in, a home on the street below. They, of course, had to arrest him (or her), and sent several armed vehicles. There was some sort of altercation (I’m remembering all of this through old-man thinking), and shots were fired. The man whose picture I have was, I think, an innocent bystander.

But everyone was taking it in stride. Business as usual in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem. . . the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

That same flash drive has several pictures of me standing (dwarfed) by the Apartheid Wall as it bisects Bethlehem. I don’t even need to comment on that.

. . . in July 2004 the [International Court of Justice] determined that the Israeli government’s construction of the segregation wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank was illegal. Even Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge who cast the lone negative vote. . .acknowledged that the Palestinians were under occupation and had the right to self-determination. . .the wall ravages many places along its devious route that are important to Christians. In addition to enclosing Bethlehem in one of its most notable intrusions. . . (Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006 (193-194)

We, the protectors (or is it the servants) of the Apartheid system in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, and in all of Israel and Palestine, have very little right to pretend to be the “meek souls” we will so mindlessly and carelessly sing about in our most sentimental goose-bumpy way for the next few days. Phillip Brooks, the great abolitionist preacher, would be horrified.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.”

. . . where people get their marching orders . . .

. . . where people get their marching orders . . .

I know why depressed people get more depressed at Christmas time and people who are normally not depressed get depressed. There. I’ve used the word “depressed” four times in one sentence.

It’s really quite simple. It’s not depression at all. It’s an overwhelming dose of reality dumped on us uncaringly and, for the most part, unconsciously by a society that, for the rest of the year, makes and spends trillions of dollars and runs head-long in ever-more meaningless and ever-more frenzied circles of greed designed to avoid reality.

Suddenly—not so suddenly these days—everyone is talking about life and death and eternity as if they meant something by their palaver.

Depressed people have a special gift that our society has chosen to pathologize because it runs counter to and, if given free rein, might jeopardize our carefully and monstrously laid out running-circles of greed and selfishness. The gift is most often a natural phenomenon, given to the world as part of depressed people’s DNA but rejected by those who don’t have it.

Depressed people think about the futility of our frenzied circles. Depressed people think about relationships broken—in the vast majority of cases—by greed in one form or another. Depressed people think about not fitting in, not being frenzied enough to pile up what others see as their fair share of those trillions of dollars. Depressed people think about how cruel greed makes most people, and, as a consequence, how most people live desperately lonely lives even when they are running in circles together.

Depressed people are overwhelmed by the crassness, the thoughtlessness, the disingenuousness, the hatred, the bigotry, and the violence that are the ultimate results of running in circles of greed.
And that makes many depressed people want out. Perhaps want to die. We have never been able to find our circle to run in because we can see from the starting line that the race is fixed and cruel. So we sit on the sidelines and wonder what the fuck is going on. And we either say we wonder or we stay in bed and don’t even pretend to participate, and that makes everyone else very nervous.

So you all make us feel guilty and broken because we know the end of this circle-running is the same for everyone. We’re all going to die. Even the people who inherit or make at the expense of others a real percentage of those trillions of dollars are going to die. It does them no more good than the drop in the bucket the vast majority will manage to pile up. Who, by the way, are also going to die.

And then, out of the blue, everyone is talking and singing about and having drunken parties in honor of two mythological creatures who are somehow going to save everyone from dying. Jesus and Santa Claus. And no one except depressed people seems to understand how bizarre, how hateful, how escapist all of that is. And we just can’t participate because we know everyone else is simply trying to pile up more and more layers of physical/monetary ephemeralness onto the circles they are running in, hoping through greed and concentration on themselves to be the one person out of the six billion or so on the earth who will not die.

And if we happen to mention to anyone who is not depressed that we think it’s all futile, that we want to stay in bed and not participate, that we think you’re all crazy, that we’d like to find a way out of this world-wide nuthouse—even perhaps arranging our exit by ourselves—you clamp us into a hospital because we are a danger to ourselves or others, or you pour chemicals into us that dull our feelings. And we willingly participate in this because we are so desperate to be like everyone else that we let you convince us that it’s really pathetic and problematic that we can see the futility of it all.

And blaring over the loud speakers of malls and other places where people get their marching orders for the circle-running are these phony messages of “love and joy come to you,” and “peace on earth and mercy mild,” and “no more let sin and sorrow grow,” and “bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take them to heaven to live with thee there.”

That’s the kicker. It doesn’t matter how unkind, how freakish, how wildly greedy, how war-mongering and hateful we are, we’re going to live with Jesus forever in heaven.

Every depressed person understands the world-wide cover-up, worked out especially well in “free-market” societies. But it would end the fun if we listened to them.

Pass the Prozac.

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

——Words, Huron Carol
——Music, French folk tune