We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn

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Photo by Finnature Oy Ltd. Liminka, Finland

On the Fourth of July in about 1957 (when our family was living in a certain tiny house we hated―we all remember it too well 60 years later) our family had driven from our house on the farthest northwest corner of Scottsbluff (Nebraska) south through town and across the river in hopes of seeing a spectacular fireworks display put on by Terry Carpenter over his housing development, Terrytown. The show was a bust. Hardly anything more exciting than we might have put on ourselves in the vacant two acres next to our house where the new First Baptist Church building was about to be built.

Dad drove us home as we complained and begged him to go somewhere else to look for REAL fireworks. He became irritated and told us to “stop your bellyaching.” He drove into our longer-than-normal driveway (the “little house” was set back a good distance from the street, a highway to the sandhills). As we dragged ourselves out of the car in disappointment, nothing blocked our view of the farmland up to the crest of the hill about a mile away, the horizon somehow always visible, one shade of black separated by a line from another shade of black. We saw the vast open breadth of the nighttime Nebraska sky.

But with a difference.

The Aurora Borealis was hanging in the sky between us and the horizon, giant folds of green like a drape for the earth from the horizon almost to the sky above us.

I (we) had never seen anything remotely like it, have never again seen.

We stopped our bickering, our complaining about our disappointment. The family stood in our front yard, stupefied, speechless.

I don’t remember how the marvel closed, whether it disappeared or we watched until we tired and went inside.

What I remember is the sight and the mutual fixation of our family on the wonder, the wonder of the sky that brought us out of our disappointment and squabbling. I remember it clearly, with something like reverence, and, I believe, with accuracy. The memory has never changed in my mind.

Sixty years later I have the same awed puzzlement I had that night. What did we see? I know the name. I have searched and researched to find the scientific explanation. I know all of that.

I do not, however, know what I saw. I am loathe to use the language that comes easily to mind: the glory of nature, a glimpse of the eternal, those sorts of descriptions. But perhaps it is better to speak in mundanities than to try to explain how that sight affects me to this day.

Shall I speak in hyperbole: I am overcome with wonder when I think of that night? No.

I want to speak with humility. I have been allowed a glimpse of splendor that most of my friends have never had. Is that hyperbole? I don’t know.

What I know is that, when I am depressed, when I am at a loss how to live in this society, when I feel incompetent or unworthy, when I dwell on the fear of death, remembering that momentary, fleeting view gives me a sense of calm, of safety. The scientific explanation of the Aurora Borealis is quite simple. It is but a small nuance of our earth’s relationship with the sun.

But the thought of the Aurora’s amorphous, vaporous, impalpable ― but actual ― unexpected, unwarranted presence in my experience and its lingering in my memory grounds me in a way that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out and perhaps explain.

A Light in the North

The fireworks did not thrill us that Fourth—they were bland and sparse.
A few Roman candles (why Roman?),
a few pathetic rockets, ordinary, dull, uninteresting.
What did we expect?
Fantastic fire to amaze, to astound, perhaps to frighten—
Streaking color, bursting flares, and then the “boom,”
the sound coming after the light, it was so far away.
We expected explosions,
the light spiraling,
the light coiled,
the light arcing,
the light streaking up toward the highest sky,
the light propelled outward by explosions,
and more explosions at the end of short trajectories,
illusive embers floating toward the ground.
We did not know their names (arguing what made some Roman),
these varieties of fire, these explosions of color.
We knew what we expected but did not see.
We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn,
flashes on the horizon, announcing daylight soon to come.
But no light exploded this year—the hope of thrill was preempted—
no child’s delight in destruction, crazed, wild, and sudden,
no lurching light tossing illumination gloriously aside,
plunging the sky again into momentary darkness
to rest before the next round of fiery excitement.

Our expectations denied, Father drove us home.
The ’57 Chevy was too familiar, the streets too predictable,
the family disappointed—please, Father, let’s find a better vantage point—
the night wasted, the dark country sky stretching unbroken to the black horizon
where the end of the wheat fields meets the beginning of the sand hills.
Home,
where
against the
star-riddled blackness,
her green skirts folding onto themselves silently, languidly,
not spiraling, not coiling, not arcing, in motion too slow to comprehend,
the goddess of the dawn rose strangely in the north above the black horizon.
She floated unexpected, mysterious, silent, amazing, awesome in her beauty.
Ten hours before the dawn she heralded, Aurora held sway,
suspended in the highest sky, deigning on this night alone to appear to us.
Never again.
One need see the goddess only once. It is epiphany enough.
We know what we expect—fiery excitement,
not pantheonic grandeur.

© Harold A. Knight, 2013

roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column

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1955 – Official Weather Bureau photo from the bureau office at the Scottsbluff  airport on the east side of the city.

Anyone who ever, as a child, watched an EF-4 tornado from a (presumably) safe distance surely has the image seared in their consciousness ineradicably. The tornado that circled around our small city on June 27, 1955, was called for many years “the most photographed tornado on record.” Somewhere in my father’s remembrances are, I’m sure, the batch of pictures he took that day.

A friend of my family was injured as he drove (foolishly?) north of the city in a radio station vehicle reporting on the storm. A school friend was seriously injured. Bernie Heiter’s enormously popular western-style restaurant was flattened, and a couple of years later my mother was gifted one of the few items that survived — a clothes dryer for our new Baptist parsonage.

Tornadoes are, I think, the most alarming of natural phenomena. Hurricanes, nor’easters, earthquakes, volcanoes — all have more widespread power and are more destructive by factors of 10, 100, 1000? But the condensed, intense, short-lived power of a tornado is (how I wish this word had not been clichéd) awesome, that is “profoundly reverential.” One must bow in reverence (or get the hell out of its way).

My poetic take on my memory of the 1955 tornado written about five years ago:

Tornado, June 27, 1955
Do not hold the terrorized child in contempt. He plays his part.

First the wall cloud, the dark mass lowering, turning slowly,
a dance, strange and elegant like an old ballerina warming up,
legs and spine turning, bending, dipping low, a fragmentary stretch.
She longs to remember disciplined, expressive movement
from choreographies past,
her rotation relaxed, her motion gentle, anticipating the moment—
the moment of inspiration, the flash of remembered genius,
the frenzy of rehearsals realized, the dance begun,
the sudden pirouette—the twist, spin, balance, bend.
The child, the children, mesmerized by the sudden motion—
this bizarre, freakish, appalling swirl of cloud and dust—
cannot run to safety, but must stand and watch,
must shriek in terror and delight as children do,
the mother calling, “Come in! Come in! Come in!”
As strange as the roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column—
is the father coming home, agitated,
mid-afternoon and not yet time for dinner.
Is he frightened, too?
 
We’ve heard the fearsome word before.
We now know the fearsome sight.
The pillar of cloud writhes across the eastern horizon,
bringing the horizon close—inside the town—dominating the sky, the world.
In its wake, trees bend nearly double—the corps de ballet
fawning, bowing, acquiescing to the prima ballerina,
and terrorized children stand frozen against the wind,
mute, necessary to the scene, but directed not to move,
absurdly ecstatic in their fear.
One last bend, bow, dip from her waist,
a perfect temps lié sur les pointes and she is gone,
her exit, stage left, as mysterious as her entrance, stage right,
we supernumeraries frozen still—forever—awaiting the curtain’s fall.
   © Harold A. Knight, 2013
For sixty-three years I have alternately rejoiced in and hoped to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 from my mind. I rejoice in the beauty, in the terrifying splendor. Watching from the sidelines — from the sidelines, mind you — a homo sapiens can hardly imagine any sight more perfectly “other.” We cannot make a tornado, and we cannot stop it. And it is momentary, a flash in the pan. In that moment, it can change the lives of an entire town forever.

I’ve never seen a nuclear bomb blast. It is horrifying, destructive, deadly — and not a part of the natural world over which we have no control, like everything else we humans do or make.

As a finite creature, I want to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 because it reminds me — daily — that I am part of those natural forces. I am here for a moment, perhaps beautiful, perhaps destructive. But I am, as the children in my poem, awaiting the curtain’s fall, and all of the pirouettes, all of the expressive and beautiful creativity I might muster — as well as all the grotesque money I might make or armies of plunder I might create — are simply waiting for the final lié sur les pointes and I will be gone.
Is that knowledge terrifying, grievous, comforting, entertaining . . . ? Perhaps some people figure that out before they are 73 years old. I’ll let you know when I do.

Deep Purple Dreams

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Proof, I suppose, that Pentecost Green does go with Deep Purple.

When I was organist at Christ Church (Episcopal) Parish in Ontario, California  (1967-1974), the Rector, Jon Hart Olsen, nearly fired me one Sunday for improvising on “Deep Purple” during the Communion. Truth be told, I played two phrases of the melody and moved on to a hymn tune. It was enough, however, to send a ripple of titters of laughter through the congregation.

Fr. Jon had it coming, of course. What did he expect? He had just that week painted the front wall of the nave, behind the reredos, deep purple. I kid you not. He said it was the perfect color because it would go with any of the colors of the liturgical year — purple, red, purple, white, green.

I had known all my life Bing Crosby’s cover of “Deep Purple” (1939). It would be four or five years before Donnie and Marie Osmond would publish their (absurd) cover of the song.

My father voted for Barack Obama in 2008, when he was 94 years old. It was the first time since he began voting in 1936 he had voted for a Democrat. For any office.

When I lived in Massachusetts (1978-1994), I often voted for the Republican running for Congress in my district. It was a throw-away vote because no Republican had ever (has ever?) won that seat. But I thought we needed a two-party system, so I voted Republican just so there would be at one vote against the Democrat.

So I have proof I’m not a “yellow dog” Democrat.

I am, in fact, not a Democrat at all except on paper. I won’t say what I am because no one will ever read this blog again. Let’s just say my political ideas make most Democrats look like Republicans.

Today was Primary Election Day in Texas. The day the divide in this country is most obvious. The first time I voted was 1968. I suppose things were as politically divided then as they are now. And I suppose nearly every 73-year-old in the country was decrying the anger and the divisiveness and the meanness that had become normal in our politics.

But I thought by the time I was 73, I wouldn’t have to be turning off the news every time it came on the TV or radio (I, of course, had no concept of uploading a podcast of something else). I have done that (except for one hour I watch for fun about three evenings a week) for about a month. The news is so ugly I don’t want to be bothered. My blood pressure and my constant sense of grieving that anyone my age is feeling if they are thinking at all — but that’s a discussion for another day — do not need the aggravation.

Purple. Just some purple. Anyone for some purple?

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A woman I met on the Dallas Women’s March last month. In that context her sign meant something a little different than what I mean by posting it now.

Is he a SHOOTER or a MURDERER?

I  RECEIVED  THE  FOLLOWING  EMAIL  FROM  THE  REV.  DR. SERENE  JONES,  PRESIDENT  OF  UNION  THEOLOGICAL  SEMINARY  YESTERDAY. 

My email to which she is responding is below hers. My note was in response to her writing a week ago on the Union Theological Seminary Website.

Dear Mr. Knight,

Thank you for your note and your absolutely right correction of our reference to the shooter. He is a murderer, and we must never forget that.

Thank you for all your work in this crucial area. Things must change! And you are an inspiration.

Peace, Serene

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones
President
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st Street
New York, NY 10027

My email to President Jones:

Dear President Jones,

Thank you for your press release of February 26. A clergy friend sent it to me. It is not only an important theological statement but also an obviously heart-felt personal statement.

I invite you to join a tiny campaign I have started. The use of a single word can have an unintended but enormous impact. Roland Barthes’ discussion of the political use of words as connotation rather than denotation is the source of my thinking.

Your statement begins, “One week after the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School . . .” I have been trying to help people understand that the word “shooting” is used with a powerful political connotation. To call a murder spree a “shooting” hides the truth and minimizes the horror. To call someone who takes an assault rifle into a school and murders children a “shooter” connotes a game.

People go to rifle ranges and “shoot” for sport and pleasure and prizes. A good “shooter” is praised by his or her fellow “shooters.” Let’s not say that Nikolas Cruz was the “shooter.” Let’s say he is the “murderer” — which is what he is. I’m sure the NRA wants us to think of Cruz as only the “shooter.” To say that mass murderers are, in fact, murderers would give our language an element of truth and reality that the NRA does not want us to hear. “Shooter” is a much more polite word than “murderer.” If a man (and almost 100% of these people are male) is only a “shooter” and not a “murderer,” there is no reason to take his gun away from him.

Thank you for your kindness in reading my thoughts.
Dr. Harold A. Knight, retired
English Department, Discovery and Discourse Program
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, TX

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A hallway in the Dallas [underground] Pedestrian Network on a Recent Friday afternoon at about 2.

(Here begins a personal note about my current spiritual/emotional state which, believe it or not, is directly related to the important discussion above.)    
I was in a mid-life crisis from 1980 to 2015, from 35 to 70 years of age. Now I’m 73, and I think I deserve a late-life crisis. It probably won’t last 35 years, but one never knows (my father lived to be 97, my mother, 92).

The fact is, I am somewhat in the midst of a spiritual/intellectual/emotional crisis. I assume anyone who gets to be 73 — if they are honest about it — has something like the crisis I am in.

Some time ago I gave up depending on the “God” of Christianity because I no longer believe in that construct. For a while I adopted the good ole meaningless American “spiritual but not religious” self identification. I doubt I ever referred to myself as an “atheist.” “Agnostic,” for sure.

Can I, having no faith, have a crisis of faith? Look around. Almost everything I’ve believed in other than religion is in process of being destroyed or dying “a [not so] peaceful death and that right soon” or morphing into something I do not recognize. I feel almost completely unmoored. Nothing in my life (I think that is “literally” true) is as I want it or where I want it to be. For example, the murderous gun culture.

Nothing.

I seem to be living in a long, dark, empty, underground hallway.
Every 73-year-old in the world might think that way. I don’t know. If you want to see how a late-life crisis works out for an old man, stick around. Thanks.
.