“I Go for Joe” (Smith, that is)

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The home of the richest man in town. He said so.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted the following grouse:

I have an old new theme song from junior high summer camp. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. . .” At least this country’s not my home. What happened to the place I used to live where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for?

Silly, yes, but several of my friends responded positively, one – who is not quite my age – at some length.

My complaint could have several meanings, of course. The old camp song is about mortality and heaven.   I wonder what a bunch of junior high school kids could possibly have known of mortality. The Baptists were preparing us to believe we will be ushered directly into heaven if or when we die. However, at that age we surely did not think the angels would, in point of fact, beckon us. Ever.

The song raises and, for the faithful, puts to rest the question of mortality whether or not a bunch of 13-year-olds might understand it.

However, these days I take it to mean more, much more. In fact, I find it meaningful even though I have long since given up any belief in heaven.

In 1956, one of the most influential men in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, my home town, was a delegate to the Republican national convention. He was indignant about the inevitability of the nominations. When it came time in the roll call for the Nebraska delegation to pass so Richard Nixon could be nominated for Vice-President by acclamation, the delegate took the floor and nominated Joe Smith, a fictitious person. I wrote about this event awhile back.

Terry Carpenter  was not, at least by the reckoning of the adults I knew, admirable. He was wealthy, egotistical, and politically opportunistic. He famously said he wanted to help the little man because when the revolution came, they’d go for the biggest house in town, “Which is mine.” It was his – a two-story mansion on half a block of property, just down the street from our home. During his career, he was a member of Congress, mayor of Scottsbluff, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, switching back and forth from Democrat to Republican depending on which party was in power.

Something I read recently about the new “populism” reminded me of Carpenter (which incidentally indicated to me how bizarre the use of that term is in our current political milieu). I googled him. He died in 1978 at the age of 78. If we had been septuagenarians in the same place at the same time, I would like to have known him. I know no rich and powerful folks well enough to engage them in conversation about what they think and feel, but I’d like to ask such a person if riches and power preclude a person from thinking

. . . the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

Terry Carpenter’s life and career remind me of other folks. For example, do Donald Trump and members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, think “This world is not [their] home; [they’re] just a-passin’ through”?

As a kid at Baptist camp, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount from the book Matthew. I know the admonition, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2, RSV).terry-carpenter-lincoln-journal-star-file-photo-1968

Senator Terry Carpenter opposing 1971 course in Homophile studies at the
University of Nebraska.

I’m probably judging (my friends would say there is no doubt about it), but I’m trying to understand how one might (apparently) live in such certainty of one’s place in the world, if not in the universe, to seem to have no awareness that “[their] treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Is it possible to be unaware? Why does Donald Trump need to own towers all around the world? Why does Betsy DeVos need to be head of a government department? Why does Darrel Issa, with his half-billion dollar fortune need to be in Congress? He’s only 63, so perhaps it makes some sense that he’s not thinking about heaven. Yet.

I’m moderately certain that nowhere beyond the blue a treasure is waiting for me when I die. Or for Terry Carpenter, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Darrell Issa. I am, however, relatively certain that whatever meager treasure I have this side of the blue is not going to keep me from dying. I am more and more certain with each passing day that this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. And I may be wrong, but I think  those other folks are just passing through, too.

My Facebook post was incorrect. I have never lived in a place “where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for.” Terry Carpenter was around when I was a kid, and all those other rich and powerful folks are around now. I was in Scottsbluff then, and I’m in Dallas now, judging and criticizing and being cantankerous (and perhaps jealous) as I apparently always have done.

Oh well. It doesn’t matter in the long run if we are civil or work for equality or do any of those things that seem like nice ideas – because there is no long run.

A CAMPAIGN STATEMENT BY JOE SMITH’S OPPONENT, ADLAI STEVENSON.
I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.  (Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith. Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.)

“. . . But God be with the Clown. . .” (Emily Dickinson)

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A photo dated 1860 believed to be Emily Dickinson (Civilwarwomenblog.com)

I noted with some surprise this morning that this is the first day of spring. The coming of spring is usually a celebration of J.S. Bach’s birthday, tomorrow, March 21. I’ve been meaning for years to look up how scientists calculate the exact moment of the equinox. I can’t imagine how astronomers (or whoever announces such things) know to the minute when the daytime and nighttime are equal in length.

Chuck Berry died two days ago, another of the greats who has been in the consciousness of my generation throughout our lives. Chuck Berry was 18 when I was born. I was 11 in 1956 when he recorded my favorite of his songs, “Roll Over Beethoven.”  I can’t imagine when I first heard the song. It’s the sort of music that would never have played on the radio in my family’s Baptist parsonage. I think I’ve simply known it forever. The Beatles covered it in 1963, the year I graduated from high school and went off to college 1,514 miles from home. I was a student in the School of Music (organ major) at the university, so I had reasons other than my father’s profession not to listen to popular music. Least of all to rock and roll.

But I watched the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan (1964, the second semester of my freshman year), and I secretly owned a copy of The Beatles’ Second Album with their cover of “Roll Over Beethoven.”

I can’t remember what happened to the album. I probably pitched it soon after I bought it because I was afraid one of my fellow music students would find out I listened to the Beatles. My favorite line in “Roll Over Beethoven” is “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes” because it quotes Carl Perkins’ 1955 song of that name, and Chuck Berry released “Beethoven” the same year Elvis released his cover of the Perkins song. They were all rolling around in teen-age consciousnesses at the same time.

“But God be with the clown Who ponders this tremendous scene . . . As if it were his own!”

I wonder how one ponders the world as if it were their own. I can barely imagine that the little bit of space I inhabit is my own. These days, whenever a well-known personage from my early years dies, I have the same reaction, the same sense of loss, even though they are not people with whom I have any relationship at all except in my mind, as nearly everyone else has. Whom do I know who could possibly have had any relationship with Chuck Berry? No one, but several people my age who know how I feel about his death have “liked” the link to “Roll Over Beethoven” I posted on FB. “Each man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne said.

Number 133, by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown―

Who ponders this tremendous scene―
This whole Experiment of Green―
As if it were his own!

One is either a part of the whole, or the whole is a part of one. “Don’t think of an elephant,” the old game says. Try to imagine life without Chuck Berry. Or blue suede shoes. I’ve never heard Chance the Rapper sing – I know none of his songs – but since I heard he won a Grammy, I can’t imagine the world without him.

Poet Harvey Shapiro says we are all caught up in a “live-in opera,” and in every good opera, mortality is the driving force, the ABC, and “after that comes lechery and lying.” Mortality, sex, and lies make up our live-in opera, he says, and he asks how we are “to piece together a life from this scandal.” This is another night at the live-in opera, and we’re all in it together with the gods “inhabiting us or cohabiting with us.”

Every day – I started to write “almost” every day, but I think that is not true – I give some thought to piecing together a life, given the certain knowledge that mortality is the ABC of it. My piecing together tends to result in great sadness, even, perhaps, grief. I am not afraid “it’s going to turn out badly for me.” Whatever it is will be natural, the way it is, the way it has always been for us human beings.

I would like to “run for cover,” but I know cover is not available. Mortality is the ABC of it. Chuck Berry lived 90 years. He participated in plenty of lechery, lying, scandal, and confusion in his life on a public and grandly operatic scale. I’ve participated in plenty of those activities but in my own limited way. The fact is, I have spent most of my life running for cover. Now there is no cover left. I may live as many years as did Chuck Berry or my father, the Baptist preacher, 90 or 97 – in either case about 20 more years. At the most. Or not.

In any case, I do not ponder this scene as if it were my own! I know I have little or no control over either the tremendous scene of the first day of spring, or of piecing together a life in this confusion. One more day or 20 more years, it’s “just for the music’s sake,” not for mine.

“Nights,” by Harvey Shapiro (1924 – 2013)

Drunk and weeping. It’s another night
at the live-in opera, and I figure
it’s going to turn out badly for me.
The dead next door accept their salutations,
their salted notes, the drawn-out wailing.
It’s we the living who must run for cover,
meaning me. Mortality’s the ABC of it,
and after that comes lechery and lying.
And, oh, how to piece together a life
from this scandal and confusion, as if
the gods were inhabiting us or cohabiting
with us, just for the music’s sake.

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Chuck Berry (Photo, ABC News, March 19, 2017)

“. . . one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire . . .” (Billy Collins)

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Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, ‘The Chronicle of Abindon,’ circa 1220. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Me senescent.” About me getting old. Or is it “my” getting old? Do I mean it’s about me in the process of getting old, or that it’s about the process of getting old in general as I experience it? I’ve wondered for quite a while if the title of this blog shows my ignorance, or if it is very clever.

The difference between ignorance and cleverness is not always obvious. Microsoft Word insists that “awhile” is not a word, that one should say “a while.” Is Word showing its ignorance or being clever or dogmatizing grammar, as perhaps the arbiter of writing correctness in the 21st century should not do?

I have been growing old awhile now. Only awhile. Briefly. I’m going to while away the hours I have left. I am senescent, and I am developing all of the oddities of senescence that are the stuff of ubiquitous jokes. The late comedian Buddy Hackett compiled a list of seven warnings for senescent men. I’ve googled him but can’t find the list. Perhaps it was someone else. It’s a memory I used to harbor. Buddy Hackett senesced only to 78. The list, whether or not he wrote it, ends with, “Never waste an erection,” and “Always know where the nearest rest room is.” I was glad I’ve learned to heed one of those warnings while I was at a conference this past weekend.

The question of using “awhile” is complicated by the possibility that whenever one uses the word, one is perhaps implying a preposition. When I say, “I have been growing old awhile now,” do I mean, “I have been growing old FOR a while now?” Is this the kind of grammatical hair-splitting that only senescent English teachers think about?

No. It’s the kind of question anyone who wants to communicate well in writing needs to think about. Do you want to write about the object of your thoughts or simply modify your expression?

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

While I do not like the idea of senescence, I am somewhat comforted that the concomitant loss of the kind of memory Billy Collins’ poem describes is not a problem for me. I have never had a store of information about books and plays and music and movies and historical or scientific facts to lose. I have never paid close enough attention to build a store of such memories/knowledge. I read a book, I see a movie, or I hear a symphony concert; I experience them, and then I move on to the next book, movie, or concert and the previous ones disappear. Plots and details have

. . . floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as [I] can recall . . .
It was ever thus.

During my most recent (annual) Christmas trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, we saw the movie, “Jackie.” (This very moment I had to google it to remember Natalie Portman, the lead actress who was nominated for the Academy Award for her work.) About two weeks later I went with a friend to see “La-La Land.” Its lead actress won the Academy Award for best actress. I remember her name. Emma Stone. While we waited for the movie to start, my friend said he was hoping to see “Jackie” soon, I said I’d like to see it, too, and perhaps we could find a time to go together.

He said, “I thought you had already seen it.” I couldn’t remember. It was two weeks before. He reminded me it’s about Jackie Kennedy and the assassination.  Oh, yes, I vaguely remembered. Fortunately, it came back to me in short order, and I was able to explain to him that the movie covers only the period from the assassination to the funeral.

This is my friend who can, I’m sure, recite the entire script of “Night at the Opera,” of “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sweeney Todd,” and of many more movies. I do not comprehend his memory.  For me

. . . The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title . . . .
[the novel] becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . .

My friend is young. Not yet 60. He probably has a while to go before he has to

. . . . rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

I have never been much interested in famous battles, but if I were, I’d have to rise in the middle of the night. While I was in college, I pulled one “all-nighter,” studying for a final exam. Medieval Civilizations. I determined I would remember at least one fact from that night for the rest of my life: Ethelred the Unready was King of England from about 979 to 1016. Two facts. His son Edward the Confessor died without an heir. That led to the Norman invasion and defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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The tomb of St Edward the Confessor Photo: Alamy

I wrote all of that without google. I guess I am interested in one battle.

The word “while” has no touch of French or Latin in its etymology. It comes from the Proto-Germanic,

hwilo, “a spice of time.” In other words, it survived the Frenchification of England and the appropriation of the Anglo Saxon/Germanic languages by the Latinate French, although the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “while” all come from a Latin word that was obsolete even in 1066.

So the question remains: am I writing about the process of getting old in general and my experience of it, or am I writing about myself as a person in the process of getting old. Would the French not have defeated the English if William the Confessor had had a son? or was England in such disarray at that juncture that nothing could have saved the purity of the Anglo Saxon language and culture?

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, 1999.

“. . . and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled . . .” (T.S. Eliot, from “Ash Wednesday”)

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Eliot before Anglicanism. The Prodigal Son?

(Written March 1, 2017)

Today is Ash Wednesday. A day to read T.S. Eliot.

Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled. (Not Eliot)

I obviously can’t be sure, but I would guess that I could sing – stop keyboarding and start singing – lines of the words of as many as forty hymns the authors wrote either for Ash Wednesday specifically or for Lent generally.

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray.

I have written at least once each day since February 24, the last time I posted here, written always with a guiding idea, one might almost say a “thesis,” only to have the idea disintegrate under my fingers before I reached the conclusion.

I have written about Trump, and I have written about not writing about Trump. I have written about a couple of scary experiences of forgetting that left me (moderately) shaken, and I have written about not being shaken by such experiences. I have written about a couple of joyful moments of tutoring, and I have written about the impossibility of teaching anyone anything. I have written about the shocking and irrational hatred of President Obama I encountered in conversation with a friend before the election, and I have written about my hope that my dislike of Trump is intellectual and political and not viciously personal as my friend’s is of President Obama. I have written about my pleasure at living by myself and having solitude, and I have written about my fear of being old and alone.

All of these unfinished writings are in a folder on my desktop either haunting me or waiting for me to finish them.

Last weekend I had lunch with an old friend. We were catching up on conversation we have not had in too any months. In the process of telling me about a reception he attended at the Meadows Art Museum, he said, “. . . and my Higher Power told me not to leave.” He was explaining how he happened to have an especially interesting and enjoyable time at the reception even though it was the sort of social small-talk event we both dislike.

My initial response, which I did not act on, was, “Whoa! You’ve found a Higher Power who speaks to you directly?” My friend has always been, in general, as uneasy talking about “God” as I am, and his direct reference surprised me to say the least.

My friend and I are both well beyond T.S. Eliot’s age when he converted to Anglicanism – in 1927 at age 39. (We are both approaching Eliot’s age, 77, when he died.)  Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” is the first major work he wrote after he found faith and the English church.

Ash Wednesday” haunts me. I do not understand it. Being a good Anglican, i.e., Episcopalian (not devout or even believing, but good), I understand and can explain the Biblical and religio-historical references throughout the poem. I can even explain the “movement” of the ideas through the poem. I understand it syntactically and logically.

But I don’t, as they say, “get it” and have not since the first time I read it years ago. Section V of the long poem begins

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. . . .     (T.S. Eliot, 1930)

The Word (upper case W) is the Word from the first chapter of the Gospel According to John. The Word is Jesus – or is Jesus the embodiment of the Word, the truth, the reality, the essence of existence, the voice of God? The Word is the light shining in the darkness, the spiritual truth around which the world with all of its words whirls.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (John 1: 1-5).

I am hardly a “writer.” I write a great deal, and I offer some of it for interested persons to read. But I use words for the most part to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, not necessarily to communicate or create a work of beauty. I have no illusion that I can keep company with T.S. Eliot (or with the Gospel According to John).

When I was a practicing, believing, not simply “good” Anglican, early each year I looked forward to Ash Wednesday. I saw it as a day to think about and acknowledge the reality of my life whirling about the Word but never coming to rest in the Word. I could take comfort in the church’s understanding that I am part of the “unstilled world” whirling, spinning about the center, the Word, and spending my words (all of our words) without listening to the Word.

I learned the words of those Anglican hymns.

Wilt thou forgive the sin, where I begun
Which is my sin, though it were done before?

I knew that acknowledging (confessing, as the church would have it) my sin, my whirling around the center, the Word, with unstilled words, always and forever missing the meaning of the Word, which does not speak to me directly, was enough. Confessing was all I could do. Wearing ashes on my forehead as an outward sign of the inward reality that I knew I am always and forever whirling.

The glory of these forty days we celebrate with thanks and praise,
For Christ, through whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

My words, words about Trump, about failing memory, about teaching, about hatred, about solitude, perhaps most importantly about fear are inadequate to stop the whirling. I cannot find the “centre of the silent Word” by my own speaking, writing, hearing.

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Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son.” (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage.)

As a good Anglican, I used to believe that was not a depressing or nihilistic thought. But now? These days I can scarcely read through to the end of Eliot’s poem. I know too well that “the right time and the right place are not here.” With the church, however, I sense – perhaps my sense may some day again go as far as belief – that not “denying the voice” of the Word brings me one step closer to a “place of grace” where I can stop whirling.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(T.S. Eliot, 1930)