”Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Veterans' Day, anyone?

Veterans’ Day, anyone?

Curses on Georg Friedrich Händel! It’s All Souls’ Day, and I should be charitable to someone who is no longer here to defend himself. But I’d like to know how I remember the hymn “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on” sung to Handel’s tune Ciroë  is number 577 Episcopal Hymnal 1940—when I have not played the organ in a church that used The 1940 since 1982.

Ciroë (Cyrus) is one of those tunes from a Händel opera (in this case Cyrus, which no one has ever heard) some kind person arranged for congregational singing as a hymn tune. You know, like “Joy to the World.” I’ve never heard the operatic works from which the tunes were snatched, but my guess is they are complex arias or instrumental set pieces.

This morning the tune circled in my mind with the words

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way,
And onward urge thy way.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote these words;  they were first published in Hymns Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scriptures, by Job Orton in 1755 (1).

I think I was singing the hymn and tune because Joanie the Cat woke me up purring at 5:05, and I realized that even if I could go back to sleep (which would have been impossible because I was already singing the hymn and tune in my mind), she would not let me. “Awake. . . stretch every nerve.”

That I was humming the tune and remembering the words—yes, all of them—to the first two verses of the hymn was strange enough on its own, but that I realized the second stanza is appropriate for today, All Souls’ Day, boggled my poor half-asleep mind.

Where on do these thoughts come from? That today is All Souls’ Day is of no consequence to me, and I do not have any truck with the idea that “a heavenly race demands [my] zeal,” and I don’t particularly like the tune. It’s not horrible, but I dread having it in my head all day.

(Yesterday I was plagued with the tune of “We’ll have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” from Annie Get Your Gun, which I’m pretty sure I had not heard since I saw a performance of the show early this summer. It rattled around in my head all day. And it will now probably alternate in my awareness with the Händel tune for the rest of this day—because I mentioned it.)

I learned the hymn tune Ciroë long before I was an Episcopal church organist; the tune as I learned was named Christmas. We sang it in the Baptist church when I was a kid with the words

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind
To you and all mankind.

Nahum Tate, the magisterial hymn writer who was poet laureate of England, wrote the words in 1700. They first appeared in Tate & Brady’s Psalter, in 1702 (2).

Almost as clearly as I remember “Awake, My Soul” is number 577 in The 1940, I remember my father leading our Baptist congregation singing “While Shepherds Watch” with my organ accompaniment. That may be a composite memory from among the hundreds of such moments tucked away in my unconscious. But this hymn and tune definitely have some place in the life of, if not my consciousness, at least my feelings.

Today, as I said, is All Souls’ Day. I’m not quite sure what that means. Someone told me once the difference between All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It was something such as, “Not everyone is a saint, but everyone is a soul.” Of course, the main requirement for both is being dead.

My mind is freely associating in a way that I wish I could stop. Somehow, I have “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks” connected in memory with my maternal grandmother as well as with my father. Most likely that’s because I placed the hymnal with the Christmas words I looked up on her sewing machine, which I have in my living room.

Now I have “While Shepherds Watched,” “We’ll Have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” my father singing in church, and my grandmother’s sewing machine caroming around in my brain, each vying for dominance in my awareness. And it’s All Souls’ Day.

Curses!

Curses!

None of this makes much sense to me. I’m marveling at the complexity of my thinking/feeling today. It’s probably no more complex than it ever is, but I’m seldom aware of the complexity.

Last week I was walking up Main Street in Dallas. Crews of men working out of trucks proclaiming they were from “The Christmas Light Company” were climbing light poles and being hoisted into trees on cherry pickers stringing up the dreaded lights for the Dallas holiday season. It was October 27, not even All Hallows’ Eve or All Souls’ Day. One young man happened down from a pole just as I walked by.

“Putting up Thanksgiving lights?” I asked in my best sardonic voice.

“No. Veterans’ Day lights,” he said deadpan without missing a beat.

And so the “holiday” season begins for me. Unbidden tunes in my head, and a comedic workman stringing up Veterans’ Day lights on Main Street. Somehow it all fits. Especially today when, to be the honoree of the Holy Day, one has to be dead. I’m sure I have no way to explain the complex, circular, string of thoughts in my mind.

I do, however, understand clearly—but more with curiosity than dread, these days—where it’s all headed, for me personally and for all of us.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.”

It’s not about Christmas. All Souls’ perhaps.
_____________________
(1) “Awake, My Soul.”  The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.
(2) “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.” The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.

A bit of old man excogitation and cat consideration

Natasha 2The cat was up early this morning. She jumped up on the bed at a few minutes past 4 AM, apparently cold or lonely rather than hungry. When I got up a few minutes later, she stayed there. She soon came out and wandered around but did not beg for food. Now she’s off in some corner asleep again, having accomplished her purpose of getting me up.

She may feel satisfaction at arousing me, but she has no right. I had looked at the clock at 4:02 and was of two minds about getting up. A moment comes when I know it’s useless to try to go back to sleep. I have to make a choice. Get up, take an Ambien, and sleep until 6, or get up at 4:03. Almost always the latter wins out.

My guess is the cat almost never wakes me up. Rather, if she is prowling at 4 AM, unable to sleep herself—a bizarre realization for a cat, I should think—and hears my breathing change from sleeping to waking, she comes instantly to let me know it’s time. She doesn’t want to be the only one awake, so she’s determined to see that I don’t go back to sleep.

However, once I’m up, the coffee is brewing, and I’ve booted up the computer, she has accomplished her mission and goes back to sleep, comfortably nestled in some warm corner, waiting until her inner clock wakes her at 5:30 to tell me it’s breakfast time.

Convention and personal habit demand that I quote Christopher Smart. No cat lover in the known universe would forgive me if I didn’t.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. . . .
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
  — (Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”) 1759—1763.

Smart was in the House of Bedlam, institution for the insane, at the time he wrote Rejoice in the Lamb. When I wrote about Christopher

The House of Bedlam

The House of Bedlam

Smart not too long ago, I realized if I had never read the entire poem Jubilate Agno, I had forgotten how Jeoffry fits into it. So I looked it up. (I say that because I don’t want to leave the impression that I knew the following from being a scholar of English poetry, which I am not.)

The cat section of the enormously long poem is the most easily comprehended. The total is hundreds of lines of word play and allusions to Biblical and mythical and historical events and entities that none of us knows enough to understand.

The section of the poem immediately preceding the “my cat Jeoffry section is the “Bull” section, a long list of lines about the “Bull” which are obscure and baffling.  Clement Hawes explains that Smart’s word play is

Possibly punning on Greek boule, meaning “will,” because God’s will is the first manifestation of creation. . . and almost certainly alluding as well to the bull as one of the four cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision, Smart assigns to the word “bull” a great importance:

For Bull in the first place is of the word of Almighty God.
For he is a creature of infinite magnitude in the height.
For there are many words under Bull.
For
Bul is under it (1).

(Bul is the eighth month of the Old Hebrew calendar, from Hebrew būl, of Canaanite origin.)

Since I looked it up the first time, I’ve been thinking of buying Hawes’s book, but it’s $49 from B&N, and there’s no ebook. The sections I’m quoting are from the excerpts found on Google books.

I’ve been excogitating (1) Smart’s poem off and on since I wrote of it before and reading what I have of Hawes’s book. Here’s the paragraph I copied then and have excogitated since:

The complexity of Smart’s rhetoric at this point depends on the extraordinary extent to which he identifies himself with the words of his own text. What he calls his “existimation,” borrowing from Latin existimatio and combining “existence” and “estimation,” means a self, an “I,” considered entirely as an object of discourse: something viewed, judged, estimated, esteemed. . . . Smart thus becomes, at the moment of his writing, what he imagines he will have been to his readers in the future. . . (2).

Who is a Michel Foucault?

Who is a Michel Foucault?

That, I will be arrogant enough to say, I understand. We know Smart because of his writing. Michel Foucault, in 1969, wrote his famous essay, What is an author? He says, the “author” (I’m not an “author, but I try to be a “writer”—there is a vast difference) has disappeared from her writing, that

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. . . . it is now a voluntary effacement . . . The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses . . . to be its author’s murderer . . .[the writer] cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. . . . (4).

We tell writing students to keep the first person out of their writing. But I write about the cat and me in the morning. I tell you what I’m thinking about, and I upload myself all over the internet. So, by the post-modern or whoever Foucault represents, I am not an author. OK. I’m just a writer. Really, not even that. I keep a journal and put it here in my blog (and on Facebook), and I live in cyberspace.

Not really. I am, at least to myself, an existimation—like but not as interesting as Smart.
__________
(1) ex·cog·i·tate verb. “To study intently and carefully in order to grasp or comprehend fully.” 1520–30; <Latin excōgitātus  past participle of excōgitāre.  to devise, invent, think out.” Dictionary.com.
(2) Hawes, Clement. Mania and Literary Style: The Rhetoric of Enthusiasm from the Ranters to Christopher Smart. Cambridge University Press (1996), 172.
(3) Hawes, 174.
(4) Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” 1969.

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8

Someone whose mind works in mysterious ways

Tosh the cat

Tosh the cat

The cat loves Core Wellness™ chicken, turkey, and chicken liver formula food. There’s no doubt about that. I put out her usual amount of food, and she gobbled it down. Half an hour later, she was back at her bowl literally “lick[ing] the platter clean.” She seemed desperate to find more of the feast. So I got out a bit more—didn’t even nuke it to warm it up—and she has now licked the bowl clean again. Her name is Tosh, short for Natasha. She’s a sort of tortoise-shell, only not quite. You know, American Shorthair Alley Cat. Funny we don’t breed cats and make them purebred with the same fanaticism we do dogs. I’ll bet a cat could be bred that’s as “smart” as any dog. And she’d be a lot less trouble than a dog.

So that’s where my head is this morning. The cat. Up at 5 and ready to write, and my mind already working overtime on – on what? That’s the question. On June 13 I wrote about an aspect of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I suppose I should go back over my five years of blogging and see how repetitive I’ve been. I’m pretty sure I’ve repeated myself ad nauseam about TLE. And then I should never again blabber on about the same stuff. Keep track of it. Index it. So I don’t bore anyone with it again. I’d bet that when I begin talking about it everyone’s eyes roll heavenward which means they stop reading because you can’t read with your eyes rolled up in exasperation or indifference. “There he goes again.”

Back to my mind. I’ve started three writings already this morning. We’ll see how far this one gets before I decide that even I can’t decipher what I’m talking about. I wonder sometimes how much of what I experience is a symptom of the way my brain works and how much is a cause of my (what seems to me to be) odd ways of thinking. There’s the rub. “Odd” describes my thinking much better than any celebratory word like “eccentric” or “creative” or (shudder at the idea) “brilliant.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that I know brilliant people. Have done since high school. Mike, Tom, Betty, Steve, Nancy. Boy do I wish I had had their brains. High school and college would have been so much easier. And then in college Lance and Lowell and Mike and Pete and Carol. And then in graduate school Mike (seems like some “Mike” showed up everywhere I went—they are not the same person) and Rudy and Vicki and –you should have the picture by now. And all of those people were fellow-students. Then there’s the faculty. Most of them were not as smart or talented as many of their students, but there were a few along the way—Pratt, and Ted, and Jack, and Gerhard, and Cynthia, and several more. No Mike’s, however.  I know what it’s like to listen to, to try to converse with, to go to lunch with, even in a couple of instances, to sleep with someone whose mind works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform (oh, sorry, that’s God, according to William Cowper).

Will I ever wash that hand?

Will I ever wash that hand?

Besides all those folks I’ve dared to call “friend” over the years that I know are, in fact, brilliant, there are a plethora of others I’ve met who are both brilliant and famous. I refused to wash my right hand for a week after I shook hands with Zubin Mehta (not quite, of course—but I told people I wouldn’t).

So if I were brilliant or creative or even eccentric, this little project would have been so much easier. I would have dashed off some astounding bit of writing, or at least a bit that made sense, and had done with it. But it’s not that simple. There’s this little matter of hypergraphia. I don’t know for sure if I have it or not. It’s one of the presentations of folks with TLE. And I have a compulsion to write. All the time. I want to tell you or someone about all of these things in my mind, even when there is nothing in my mind. And I write ridiculous stuff and I write brilliant stuff and I write eccentric stuff and I write just stuff stuff and I even write really awful stuff. But write I will. I didn’t realize I had to write until I had written for years (minus the 20 years I was drunk). And then I tried to stop, and then came the computer. And the rest is history.

Sometimes I wake up with writing already in my mind. The writing wakes me up. This morning it was only a jumble. I still haven’t sorted it out.

Gerhard Krapf, genius

Gerhard Krapf, genius

“T’aint funny, McGee!”

So after my last posting here, I was reminded that I started this new blog to be different from my old blog, which has an even less common name, Sumnonrabidus, which is my attempt at the Latin for “I am not crazy” all run together into one ridiculous word.

Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly

This blog is supposed to be humorous. Funny stuff about getting to be an old man.

OK. When I was told that, my first thought was, “T’aint funny, McGee.” Now that thought came out of left field. (Hey, Grant and Martha, why do we say “Out of” left field when obviously the ball goes “Out into” left field?)

For you old folks (that is, those of you 69 or older—next year, of course, the old folks will be those 70 and older, if you get my drift), that is hardly a term out of left field. You know as well as I do that it’s Molly responding to one of Fibber McGee’s really awful jokes.

Fibber McGee and Molly are prehistoric creatures whose habitat was a strange place called radio. Not radio like you youngsters know it, but a place where real people lived and worked and talked to each other and mainly were really really really funny (making real humor) together. People like Our Miss Brooks, and Amos ‘n Andy, and The Great Gildersleeve, and Jack Benny. Radio in those days was not filled with Big Fat Liars like Rush Limbaugh, but with people who were genuinely funny and entertaining, not just stupid and mean and didn’t care whether what they said was true or not.

What they said most certainly was true. Even if none of it ever happened except in the marvelous imaginary land of radio. I don’t think you young’uns have any idea about using your imaginations to create a world. You’ve got all these gadgets and electronic games and . . .  (don’t get me started!).

Nate's House (really!)

Nate’s House (really!)

One of the great gags of all time (before the ubiquitous use of television and then iPads, and soon god-knows-what to entertain everyone without ever having to imagine what’s going on) was Fibber McGee’s closet. Fibber (another running gag was that he refused to tell anyone his real name) and Molly were a typical (Yeah, right!) American middle-class family trying to make a go of things in the modern world. And Fibber had this closet – Fibber McGee’s Closet – where everything that he wasn’t using right at any given moment was kept. And he kept saying he had to “straighten out this closet one of these days.” The gag isn’t nearly as good if you see it as it was when we had to think it up for ourselves so everyone had her own version of the closet.

Now most of you will not think my version of Fibber McGee’s Closet is funny. You’ll want to send me right off to Nate Berkus or someone (Oh, please, send me right off to Nate Berkus [shudder with delight]) for a makeover. Or you’ll want me to be seeing Dr. Mary Bret at UTSouthwestern/ Parkland geriatric psychiatry (she really is my psychiatrist) on a daily basis for a while. Because anyone whose “closet” looks like mine can’t possibly be sane. Or at least must have a really cluttered mind.

Guilty as charged.

And I have one word for that (actually two, obviously): Fuck it.

I know. I know. I don’t want my office/ computer room/ cat’s bedroom/ whatever this corner of my loft apartment is to look like this. I genuinely do wish that somewhere along the line I had become one of those people (like most of you) who didn’t live in a cluttered space both inwardly and outwardly. It would be really nice to be normal and to understand how one fits into society—into some manifestation of society.

But I can’t. Period. It’s been my Sisyphistic struggle all my life. I know that being a regular human being requires tidiness. But, as Camus summed it all up, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

My own version of Fibber McGee's closet - not imaginary.

My own version of Fibber McGee’s closet – not imaginary.

OK, this is supposed to be funny. “Me, senescent” with humor and all of that. But I just don’t get it. I don’t know how to manage my time or always be sure where my keys are. I’m picking up a replacement passport this very afternoon because my unexpired one is somewhere in Fibber McGee’s closet.

And you know what? All of you people who are “organized” and “tidy” and “get it” and have been with Nate Berkus will be in exactly the same state I’m in when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.” I will have the last laugh. “Tis funny, McGee!”

Cats, Henry Kemble Oliver, and Roger Ebert

Seneca

Seneca

“One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to live, and, which may surprise you more, an entire lifetime in learning how to die.”  –Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman who died in 65 CE)

I have written many times about cats. I’m a cat person.

When I moved to Dallas, I brought with me two black and white American short-hair alley cats, brothers, Henry and Oliver, named for Henry Kemble Oliver, the subject of my dissertation—a 19th-century church musician and composer from Salem, Massachusetts. His most important legacy, however, is not musical. The governor of Massachusetts appointed him to make an exhaustive study of the exploitation of children and young women working in the cotton mills. His work resulted in the formation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. His work led to the first child labor laws in America.

In 2002 my cat Henry died of congestive heart failure. He had been sick for about six months, and I had spent more than my meager income should have allowed caring for him. But I loved that gentle, cuddly old cat, and spared no expense to keep him alive until the vet told me I should let him go.

After Henry died, a friend asked me why I loved cats so much and had spent so much money on Henry. My immediate response—so immediate it surprised both of us and stuck in our memories so we talked about it many times—was, “They help me understand my mortality.” I did not know why I said it or even what I meant.

My father died in 2011 at age 97 and my mother about three years before that. We had time to anticipate and think about their deaths. I did a great deal of reading about preparing for death—for the death of a loved one and for one’s own death. In a search for academic articles, I found Todd LeRoy Perreira’s article, “Die before you die” (1).  This article transformed my contemplation of my mortality.

. . . this is not simply a question of learning how to anticipate death, of being prepared for death. . . [but also the] recognition that the scandal of death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent. . . concomitant with this demand is the acquisition of a certain knowledge of the self. . .

ebertthumbsWhen someone I admire dies, I am given again to contemplating how one prepares for death. I have come to understand that living a good life is the preparation for death, that is, living so one experiences the “transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.” I have yet to discover what that means, but I know it is true.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas in the 1990s, I learned of Roger Ebert’s film criticism. He wrote in the highest tradition of criticism, that is, he helped the reader understand not only the technical accomplishment of the artist, but the substance of the work.

Yesterday, the day after he died, I heard a recording of Roger Ebert interviewed by Terry Gross in 1996 in which he said that good film making is important because film has the ability to help us inhabit someone else’s world, to understand and empathize with other people. Later in the day, Scott Simon said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that

Roger Ebert wrote simply, abundantly, gorgeously, and on deadline for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times . . .  and over the years his work reminded us that empathy is the grace note of a good life, not just great art.

Empathy is the grace note of a good life. One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to die. And death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

I know why I told Kay my cat helped me understand my mortality. It’s because I don’t know how to live in empathy. It’s easier for me to love my

cat unconditionally than to love another human being with empathy. I can love that loveable old cat more readily than another person. The catch is that, while a cat may have nine lives, they are short. And every time I lose a cat I love, I am reminded that I need to get on with the business of the transformation of myself as a moral agent. And that, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with empathy.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s empathy with child laborers. The empathy Roger Ebert understood to be the meaning of art.
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_(1) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die before you die”: Death Meditation as Spiritual Technology of the Self in Islam and Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s compositions are limited to hymn tunes and choral anthems. His hymn tune Federal Street (the street in Salem where he lived) has appeared in many hymnals with many texts. The hymn stanzas I think of when I play Federal Street are below. The entire hymn text is here.

The mighty God, the wise and just,
Knows that our frame is feeble dust;
And will no heavy loads impose
Beyond the strength that He bestows.

He knows how soon our nature dies,
Blasted by every wind that flies;
Like grass we spring, and die as soon,
Or morning flowers that fade at noon.

This ends with a whimper, not a bang

The meaning of life?

The meaning of life?

Today is Palm Sunday. I’ve been to church for 67 Palm Sundays in a row. The last 45 were in churches that had a Procession of Palms of one sort or another. My favorite were the ones at my little now defunct church (St. Paul Lutheran) in Farmers Branch, TX, where we walked around the block singing, with the music accompanied by bagpipe! If there were bagpipers in Jerusalem in 30 CE, I doubt they wore Scottish plaids.

Today I will not attend a Palm Sunday service. At about the time the church I belong to is processing (it’s pretty splendid – I think they may even have a donkey) I will be at home checking on my cats and doing a little busy work around my apartment.

One of my best friends, who belongs to the same church, asked me why I don’t go to church any more. The cheap shot answer to that is, “No one’s paying me to go these days.” For that entire 45-year span, I was paid to be where I was. But I would have been there anyway. The other flip answer might be that I have somewhere else—down on Main Street—I’d rather be. And that’s true, too.

The real answer, however, is that I simply can’t get there. I don’t have any compelling reason to go. I don’t get it any more. And if that were to change, Palm Sunday with all that hoopla and all of those people would not be my first day back.

It seems to me that one of two things happens to people who have been churchy all their lives as they get older. They either become more attached to the services, or they drift away (or make a clean break to the affair as I have).  The more aware you become that today might be your last—and, believe me, anyone who’s 68 and isn’t aware of that isn’t using the mental powers homo sapiens has evolved for itself—the less certain you are that the answers to all those BIG questions you’ve always relied on are true. Or, conversely, the more certain you become.

The meaning of Life 2?

The meaning of Life 2?

I have to break into my own line of thinking here to make the little note that I am told by some people that I think about death too much. It isn’t healthy. Yes, it is. As I said before, if you’re my age and aren’t thinking about it, that means you don’t give a fig about understanding “the meaning of life” (sorry, but we old folks have more in common with teenagers and their angst than we like to think—when was the last time you thought about “the meaning of life”).

Really. I mean it. Why do you think Alice Walton built the Crystal Bridges Museum? She’s worried about the “meaning” of her billions. She’s not going to get out of here alive any more than I am. And she knows it. Except that she makes so many people’s lives miserable, she’s really pathetic. That (and I say this without irony) profound collection of art and its total accessibility to anyone who wants to see it won’t save poor Alice. And once she’s dead, how can it possibly be important to her that she’s done this one beautiful generous thing. (Sorry. I was at Sam’s Club yesterday. Alice has become my little private symbol for the totally bizarre and incomprehensible nature of human life.)

So back to my original subject. Why I’m not going to participate in a parade at church today.

Yesterday the friend who asked me why I don’t go to church was leading a Lenten retreat at our church. He asked me to drop by and play the organ for a few hymns for their closing Eucharist. I did.

And here’s my problem. I don’t “believe” (whatever that means) any of the language of those hymns. Well, maybe I can get my mind around the idea that, if there is a God, there’s a wideness in his mercy. But all I have to do is sit at the organ and play those nice tunes while people sing, and I get all wimpy. Is it because it’s what I’ve done all my life and it’s so familiar it just feels like reality?

The meaning of Life 3?

The meaning of Life 3?

Or are music and church and those things (even Alice’s art), after all, a way to figuring it out. I don’t know.