“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less. . .” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he studies Antarctica

Tom Wagner, NASA: not to be trusted because he directly studies Antarctica

I am not an environmentalist. I’m not a member of the Sierra Club. I don’t have a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker on my car. “Greenpeace” is much too warlike for my taste.

In the news yesterday were two “stories” that reaffirmed my suspicion that humankind, and especially Americans, are so addicted to their (our) hubris that it has taken over our ability to live successfully on this little planet.

Yesterday U.S. Senator Mark Rubio of Florida announced, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.”

He is correct about one part of his announcement: “the laws that they propose we pass will [not] do anything about it.”

“They” refers to all of those members of the Sierra Club and those scientists and those radical Democratic politicians (oh, for just one Radical Politician!) who want to save the planet.

Yesterday also, scientists (who take measurements over decades and have some understanding of the physical phenomena of planet Earth) announced they have evidence of at least one effect of “dramatic changes to our climate” that cannot be reversed. This “dramatic change” will take place in the lifetime of my grandnephews. These scientists, as far as I know, have no fiduciary or political interest in letting the evidence speak for itself.

The new finding that the eventual loss of a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet “appears unstoppable” was not completely unexpected by scientists . . . The study, led by glaciologist Eric Rignot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. . . and the University of California, Irvine, follows decades of research and theory suggesting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is inherently vulnerable to change. . .

“Unstable,” wrote Ohio State University glaciologist John Mercer in 1968. It was identified then and remains today the single largest threat of rapid sea level rise.

When it's gone, it's gone

When it’s gone, it’s gone

 

You can (as I did) hear about it from a mass media outlet instead of reading the scary scientific evidence. Senator Rubio is wagering his political career on his (pretty certain) understanding that a majority of Americans don’t want to read scary stuff and wouldn’t believe the truth if they read it.

All that’s necessary to discredit any idea or research for an enormous segment of the population of the United States is to associate it with “scientists,” particularly from universities.

Never mind that this study consists of actually measuring ice and water and temperatures for decades. Too many Americans practice anti-intellectualism and are convinced of the status quo of ignorance, just as the Church before 1492 believed the world is flat. Otherwise, no one could stake his political future on the claim that NASA, the University of California at Irvine, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ohio State University are making things up.

I have almost—that’s almost—arrived at the place in my senescence that I really don’t give a damn what the rest of you do to your planet. If you all want to let Mark Rubio announce that God is in charge of the certain sinking of Miami into the sea and then elect him President, go for it! I’ll be long dead by the time Miami disappears, so what do I care?

I care a lot, it turns out. What grieves me is the pride required to remain ignorant when knowledge and information that could save your grandchildren is available.

It takes real heels-dug-in pride to remain ignorant. Ask Donald Skilling.

It takes the pride of absolute certainty that you deserve what you have and the rest of the world can go to hell to preach, teach, and give support to ignorance. Ask David Koch.

I say ask those guys because they are the poster-boys for ignorance, not because they are any worse than anyone else.

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress
.

The times, as they run, as they bring about the waste of our lives, announce man’s distress.

“The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less
,”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844 – 1889

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.

Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…

Neville F. Newman, a post-doctoral fellow at McMasters University in Ontario, Canada, (obviously not to be trusted because he is an academic) says

For Hopkins, the squandering of the world of which we are stewards is the root cause of our alienation from God. By requiring humankind to observe the earth’s destruction, Hopkins demands an acceptance of responsibility both for the action and the remedy. . . .

The fragment’s deepest sorrow emerges with Hopkins’s recognition that he is unable to effect change, “And I not help.”

That’s my deep sorrow. I cannot help. I care about destroying the earth and feel helpless in the face of ignorance and politics. Mark Rubio will feed voters’ pride of ignorance by pretending he’s advocating saving the economy when what he is really advocating is not offending the PACs of the enormously wealthy who have the power to get him elected—and whose enormous wealth depends on the pride of ignorance.

Pride, not ignorance. The certainty that “I know more about science than the scientists do.”

I don’t know about Hopkins’ and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s God-talk, but. . .

“God’s World,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is—as
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
—1917

When it's gone, will this be gone?

When it’s gone, will this be gone?

“. . . I kept busy being lonely. This took up the bulk of my time. . . “ (Marilyn Krysl)

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

Most people (I refuse to read a student essay that begins “most people”—how do you know? I ask snippily) who know the Sanskrit word “sutra” know it as half the title of the Kama Sutra, the Hindu sex manual. Most people who know of the Kama Sutra have never read it.

Most Americans—even the most sexually liberated—would be shocked by the Kama Sutra.

A sutra is simply an instruction manual.

I only this moment ordered Marilyn Krysl’s award-winning collection of short stories, Dinner with Osama. A friend told me they are (charming? hilarious? wistful? sad?) stories about how crazy Americans have been since September 11, 2001. From the title, I’d guess it’s about how Osama bin Laden looms (alive or now dead) in the background at dinner every day.

If he didn’t, Edward Snowden would not be a household name. The United States would not have the blot on our world-wide reputation for fairness and the rule of law known as Guantanamo. And five decent Americans from the Holy Land Foundation would not be in prison for life. This last is not directly related, but the events of September 11, 2011, provided the George W. Bush administration the cover they needed to make accusations of connections between this charity and “terrorism” that were proven in a process of refusing the accused their right as American citizens to confront their accusers. Oh, and the most elaborate scheme of the fabrication of “evidence” since the Rosenbergs.

Do you see what happens when you begin an essay “most people? You end up writing about stuff that was not even on your mental radar (I love sophomoric metaphors) when you began.

Marilyn Krysl wrote a poem named “Sutra.” The more inclusive meaning of “sutra” is simply a writing with strand of loosely connected thought that holds it together (what goes on in my mind is so loosely connected there’s not so much as a strand to hold them together—obvious from this writing so far).

“Sutra,” by Marilyn Krysl
Looking back now, I see
I was dispassionate too often,
dismissing the robin as common,
and now can’t remember what
robin song sounds like. I hoarded
my days, as though to keep them
safe from depletion, and meantime
I kept busy being lonely. This
took up the bulk of my time,
and I did not speak to strangers
because they might be boring,
and there were those I feared

would ask me for money. I was
clumsy around the confident,
and the well bred, standing on
their parapets, enthralled me,
but when one approached, I
fled. I also feared the street’s
down and outs, anxious lest
they look at me closely, and
afraid I would see their misery.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

A few days ago I gave “My Last Lecture” to my classes at Southern Methodist University (I’ll be shamelessly egocentric and tell you it’s on Youtube). I told my students that the most important “bliss” that I follow is simply loving other people.

Of course, this is an extremely complicated and dangerous idea. I do love. I think I have—and indulge—a capacity for loving acquaintances and strangers—almost anyone I meet–that is pretty highly evolved. I have no idea if it’s more or less than anyone else’s, but I know I derive my greatest pleasure and satisfaction from simply liking people—I suppose I should be careful about saying I “love” everyone because that’s such a maudlin, clichéd, and meaningless word. Besides, I can love you without liking you.

I suppose I should be a little more precise and say I make it my business to try to practice (and feel) the Greek concept of philos, you know—at least those who went to Baptist summer camp in the 60s do—one of the three kinds of “love” in the Bible (or in Aristotle and Plato). that is, love of other people. I don’t know. I’m making no pretense of any kind of scholarly or philological disputation here. I just like the idea of “Phila(philos)delphia,” the city of “brotherly love.” All you need is love.

So if I love everybody, why I am I lonely so much of the time?

Another (not related, but of exactly the same order of magnitude) question. If we are so secure and safe from Osama bin Laden, why does it take William Snowden to show us that we are 100% insecure and completely unsafe in our persons?

An entire city dedicated to love.

An entire city dedicated to love.

“It is at the edges that time thins.” (Kay Ryan)

". . . amber suspending attention . . ."

“. . . amber suspending attention . . .”

On January 9, 2014, I wrote a bit about a poem by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress 2008-2010. She’s also a lesbian, not that that makes any difference one way or the other. It just obviously makes me feel a special kinship with her. No, we’re not elitists or exclusivists or anything like that. And we’re not in a conspiracy to take over the world. Don’t be ridiculous. Just because you and Neil deGrasse Tyson can wink at each other knowingly when someone says, “It’s not rocket science,” the rest of us can’t assume you’re in some sort of conspiracy to take over the world.

Of course, I wish he were—and you would help him—to end the hoodwinking of so many fundamentalist christians and poor republicans by powerful financial and oil interests to make them believe both evolution and climate change are conspiracies of evil liberals just so the oligarchs can tighten their stranglehold on politics and the economy.

Just see how far off course I can get in the first 144 words of writing.

This started out to be a silly little piece on one of the items on my list of accomplishments before I kick the bucket—I won’t say my “bucket list” because my old buddy Kay might read this and be offended.

One of my first goals in retirement is to jettison the word “just” from my vocabulary—both written and spoken.

“Just” is a harmless little word unless you are using it in Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) sense of Just Gaming, his 1979 book about the language games we play. (Two observations: Lyotard lived to be only five years older than I am now, the sort of thing I notice with greater regularity every day; and his “language gaming” theory is one of those seminal 20th-century French ideas I somewhat understand, all about how the language we use is much of the time intended to wield whatever power we are personally able to muster over everyone around us.)

I need to ask Grant and Martha if “just” has some regional history or if it’s just one of those (almost) meaningless words that all English-speakers use.

You don’t know Grant and Martha? You’re admitting you don’t know the only really literate social/mass media left in the United States? Well, almost literate. NPR, of course, and specifically Grant and Martha’s show “A Way with Words.” They actually, believe it or not, answer listeners’ questions about etymologies of words. There. How’s that for my being snooty and elitist?

Off on another tangent, I see.

So I was in a very serious mood a couple of days ago (as I seem to have been most of the time here at the experience of letting go of my teaching career) and remembered Kay Ryan’s little poem (she says it’s pretty long for her, which it is).

“The Edges of Time,” by Kay Ryan

I claim a special kinship

I claim a special kinship

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas
retreat.

(Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. )

I’m astounded when a great poet makes a simple but magical and powerful image like insects trapped in amber—frozen in time—and then the insects “unseized” when the amber melts. My God, it’s the sort of image you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because it’s so obvious only a poet, only Kay Ryan would think of it.

She says, “Time which had been dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees unseizes them.” Time solidified in place like amber, freezing all of my intentions, my desires, my hopes in to be dealt with or realized another day, has suddenly liquefied (as in amber’s original liquid form—tree resin). All of those intentions, desires, hopes are released to be finished now! There, how’s that for a wordy flat-footed explanation of a poetic image? Sorry.

That’s what I was thinking about a couple of days ago sitting at my desk at the university waiting for students to appear for conferences over their last work.

And the whole experience of contemplation was nearly destroyed by my discovery of Ryan’s use of one word. A humming begins, apparently coming from stacks of put-off things or just in back.

Just a few days before I had told my students they need to expunge words such as “biggest,” “best” and (most of all) “very” from their writing. I told them I’ve been in a years-long battle to expunge “just” from my writing. I’ve nearly succeeded in my writing, but in my speech, it just won’t go away.

And then Kay Ryan canonizes it. Just in back of the stacks of things I’ve put off there is a buzzing, beginning to be a hubbub of those bees let loose from the sticky amber. There is a racket of stuff still waiting to be done. That trip to Easter Island. That unwritten book. That last will and testament. That pile of stuff I don’t want anyone to go through when I’m dead (they will be shocked).

claims“A racket of claims now, as time flattens.”

“Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers into your hair. Bellow at cataracts” (David Wright).

Ian McKellan, "Blow winds. . ."

Ian McKellan, “Blow winds. . .”

In case you haven’t read Shakespeare’s King Lear lately, here’s my synopsis:

King Lear asks his three daughters how much they love him. Cordelia the youngest, his favorite, tells him the truth—as a daughter should, “no more, no less.” The other two fawn over him, and he divides the kingdom between them. They run him out of the castle, and he goes mad out in the country, running around naked in a storm and saying all sorts of crazy things that have become famous poetry. Cordelia, marries a prince, and finds Lear and takes him home with her. He realizes she loves him the most. Her sisters throw them in jail. In a jealous rage one commits suicide and poisons the other, but not before they order Cordelia hanged. One of their husbands tries to stop it, but he’s too late, and Lear ends the play by saying more famous things over Cordelia’s dead body and then dying.

David Wright (1920-1994) was a South African poet who lived most of his life in England. I stumbled across his poetry some time ago. I have no idea who Richard Pacholski was (is), but David Wright wrote him a poem that’s his synopsis of King Lear.

I found it awhile back, and it’s now a favorite. “Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear.” I thought about it yesterday.

I note with certain trepidation that Wright died when he was only four years older than I am now. Cancer. I don’t have cancer or any disease I know of that’s going to kill me off at 74, but you never, ever, know about these things.

His “Lines on Retirement” begins

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys
.

You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will offer when they really want your office. . . The department office is moving from the big hall (national register of historic buildings) to the more modest hall where most of us low-ranking professors in the program have our offices. Of course, I’m moving out—and the program director wanted to know if she could move into my office—before finals were over. There wasn’t any sweetness to go with it, all very business-like. They even offered to have the work-study students help me move out.

Of course they didn’t offer to send the students over to my apartment to do the laundry which has piled up while I was sick for two weeks and then began the horrendous task of grading final student papers to get the grades in before the registrar starts sending nasty emails.

David Wright, by Patrick Smith

David Wright, by Patrick Smith

I’ve been thinking more than I should lately (some of my friends think I’m obsessed with it) about the passage of time and getting old and those other unpleasant things people say a fellow in his 70th year either ought to be thinking about or should never think about—depending on the grounding in reality the person you ask has. And I like the fact that other beginning-to-be-old folks think about time and death and all those topics forbidden in America (which may be why we let Ted Cruz and Harry Reid and Ben Bernanke and Jamie Dimon take from us every shred of dignity and our share of the resources of the country—we’re just mostly out to lunch when it comes to reality).

At any rate, thinking about the headlong rush toward death we’re all in isn’t so bad, especially if you can think about it with some sort of elegance and style.

My last day of classes a couple of days ago left me wired and happy. High as a kite, really. My students hugged me and shook my hand and told me such things as I’m too young to retire and the university needs me and mine was the best and most interesting class they’d ever had. It was genuine and heartwarming. The university doesn’t know I’m leaving (not even my department), but the people who are important—the students—do.

Wright continues his advice.

So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save
.

Babble as if you thought words could save. I do that. Constantly. When I was young (a couple of years ago and back), I would have said I understand Wright’s poetry. Now I don’t need to understand it because it simply slips right in under my skin and sits there as a new little dose of reality to help me through today (and perhaps tomorrow).

I babbled on Monday, a Last Lecture for my students. They were receptive and polite—a few of them much more than that.

I’ve been in something of a quandary for the last 24 hours or so. I’m depressed. Yep. Crying. The “s” word has slipped through my mind. But that’s merely habit. I mean none of it. Crashed, that’s all I’ve done. Postpartum blues.

I have some affinity with old Lear running naked out in the countryside and shouting,

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
— (Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene 2)

It may be a bit difficult for the next twenty years to figure out what’s the old demon depression and what’s the new demon reality. Rapid cycling of Bipolar II Disorder –or, for once, a normal feeling: being in one’s 70th year takes some getting used to?

“Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear,” by David Wright
for Richard Pacholski

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.

Lear. Kent to Oswald: Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?

Lear. Kent to Oswald: Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?

 

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.