“. . . You’re alone with the whirling cosmos. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

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Paradise Point, Oregon (Photo: Harold Knight, Oct. 3, 2011)

My father was the son of two New Deal Democrats who never voted for a Republican. My grandmother explained to me that the Republicans were responsible for the Great Depression, calamitous event that came close to destroying her life as it had so many others; she could never vote for a Republican for any office. She died in 1972 having kept her vow (at least until 1969, the last time I talked with her).

In the midst of the Depression, around the time of FDR’s first reelection, my grandmother was determined that her sons would go to college. She discovered the Leopold Schepp Foundation that gave scholarships to students who could not afford college. She applied, and my father and uncle graduated from William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, then, as now, a top-tier liberal arts institution. The faculty were for the most part conservative intellectuals, and my father became a Republican who never voted for a Democrat.

By the time I was in college, the son of Dr. H. I. Hester, one of the foremost professors at William Jewell, was a professor in the religion department of the University of Redlands. I took the required introduction to religions course under him, and his liberal (not his father’s conservative) views of religion helped shape my (one might say) liberal views of religion and other disciplines.

I misspoke myself. My father did vote for one Democrat for President, Barack Obama in 2008. Dad was 94 at the time. The last time he voted. Perhaps by the time I’m 94 I will vote for one Republican.

“You’re sitting at a small by window
In an empty café by the sea . . .”

begins Edward Hirsh’s poem, “What the last evening will be like.” My favorite place to be ― I can say with only a hint of hyperbole ― is alone by the sea. On the beach, not in a café. Preferably a cold and not very inviting beach where few people want to be. Alone, at Paradise Point on the Southern Oregon coast, for example.

When I am on the DART train headed somewhere in Dallas, I often have to hum through a tune that is stuck in my mind. Music cannot be in the background, whether in my mind or playing ubiquitously on someone’s device. Yes, I hum sitting on the train. I hum as quietly as possible because I don’t want people to think I’m the daft old man who shouldn’t be on the train alone. I have to hum because I sit on the train and observe, thinking about nothing.

The other day traveling alone I had to put to rest the tune Jam Lucis, a plain chant associated with the monastic Daily Office of Prime, the prayers at sunrise. It’s an 11th century tune best known as an evening hymn, in modern hymnals the tune for the 7th century evening hymn, “To thee before the close of day.” I was riding the train humming an 11th-century tune that goes with words written in the 7th century and translated from Latin to English in the 19th century.

I know that tune imprinted in my mind because when I was in college I sang the Office of Compline with a group of music students as a sort of public “meditation” in the University of Redlands chapel on Sunday evenings. An ageless tune in my head nearly my whole life. In a deeper sense I know it because my grandmother was a New Deal Democrat. Her determination that her sons would have college educations shaped my life. My parents assumed my brother and I would graduate from college. My brother graduated from our father’s alma mater.

From there both the course of my life and the development of my thinking are too obvious to need explanation. I am not a first-generation college graduate.  Learning, reading, trying to think are the center of my life as inherited from my father. And from his parents. My grandfather had only a fourth-grade education, but he was a voracious reader. My grandparents were unmovable in their determination that my father and his brother would have more fulfilling lives than they had had.

The line of my thinking, acting ― my very being ― from my grandparents to my parents to my own small life is a line of memory. I remember my grandmother’s telling me of her unshakable determination that her children and their children would live in a kind of expansiveness she could not.

I need to insert a word here about her daughters and my sister and women cousins. They were not forgotten. My father’s two sisters followed the way to an expansive life in the way readily available to women of their generation, by marrying men whose line of memory could give them satisfaction. One succeeded much better than the other. Most of my grandmother’s granddaughters have college degrees. My sister married a brilliant man with whom she has had an expansive life.

You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours. (Edward Hirsch)

The line of my thinking, acting, being has brought me to a place alone. Surely physically alone, unmarried, in an apartment with two cats, no longer college professor or church music director. That is perhaps by my own choice or perhaps by circumstance or perhaps the result of a personality I might be able to change but have not had the inner strength to do so. This place is common among men of my age, especially gay men.
zdsc01542(This photo was taken by the only other person on Paradise Point beach, who agreed to use my camera to record the moment, Oct. 3, 2011)

However, my aloneness arises at least in part from my perception of the world as perception. I remember, in Joy Harjo’s words, “you are this universe and this universe is you.” I am alone because I am alone. Because I “remember you are all people and all people are you. / Remember you are this universe and this universe is you” (Harjo). From my grandmother’s memory of the people of her universe to my father’s memory of the people of his universe, to my memory of the people of my universe.

I’ve lived in tight spaces, the walls around me closing in so that substance becomes smaller, is only memory. My grandmother and my father are only memories now, as perhaps they only ever were, and I am “alone in the whirling cosmos.”

What the Last Evening Will Be Like, Edward Hirsch, b. 1950

You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.
―From The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems by Edward Hirsch.
Copyright © 2010 by Edward Hirsch.

To thee before the close of day

To thee before the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray
that, with thy wonted favor, thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our sight,
from fears and terrors of the night;
withhold from us our ghostly foe,
that spot of sin we may not know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally.

Words: Latin, seventh century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851
Music: Jam lucis, 11th century Benedictine
(Harold Knight playing on Steuart Goodwin Organ, op. 1)

2 Responses to “. . . You’re alone with the whirling cosmos. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

  1. Richard says:

    I hope you remember me. Richard

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