“. . . it is enough to frighten me into paying more attention. . .” (Billy Collins)

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

Holy Week and Easter Day are over for this year. I attended almost as many Holy Week services as I used to do as a matter of course. I played the organ at a church on Maundy Thursday. I attended “my” church (St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) for the Saturday Easter Vigil, and I played for the two small services in the chapel there on Easter morning.

Nothing but the music matters to me—the impossible words of the creeds, the sermons about Jesus rising from the dead, the acclamations, “The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”—in the services for which I play. It’s all about the music.

The 1500-or-so-year-old Easter Vigil liturgy used to affect me both emotionally and intellectually. But for the past few years it hasn’t because I’ve come to the same conclusion Roz Kaveney describes in an opinion piece in The Guardian:

The idea that texts written in a specific time and social context in human, often poetic, language with clear artistic intent can be the inerrant declaration of the mind of an eternal god depends on a leap of faith so vast that many of us cannot make it.

Until recently the Vigil liturgy remained for me one of the “thin places” described by Marcus Borg.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004).

Last year at Easter time I wrote about “thin places.” In the Easter Vigil Service this year the times I had the sense of a “thin” place were during the choir’s singing a Palestrina motet. And when James Diaz played the “Finale” from Louis Vierne’s First Organ Symphony after the service.

Having arrived at age 70, I have better things to worry about than religion and the final disposal of my immortal soul. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .” is no longer a thin place for me. My guess is that on Good Friday this year Kentucky Christians felt they had been buried in a death like the Wildcats’, and on Easter Monday many North Carolina Christians felt they had been united in a resurrection like the Blue Devils’—felt it at a deeper and more significant level than they felt Christ’s death and resurrection, whatever they said on Easter morning.

That is not a judgment, simply an observation.

I can’t any longer live in the tension of believing religion is a “thin place” and at the same time knowing Palestrina’s counterpoint (my own private March Madness), not the words that ride on it, is touching my heart. It’s not because I’m so good, or so smart, or so wise, but because I have so little time left to become rigorously honest with myself.

I’m still, nearly 50 years later, one of Spiro Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Except that I’m no intellectual. Smart, somewhat educated, minimally talented, but not an intellectual. Just part of the effete corps.

Not being any more intellectual than I am is probably fortunate for me. If I had any more ability to figure things out, I’d be in BIG trouble. I can’t figure “it” out, so the best I can do is try to be consistent and direct in what I think and do.

In one corner of my mind is certain knowledge that the moment I die, I will be dead. So dead that I won’t even know I’m dead or that I used to be alive. That corner of my mind tells me there’s no point worrying about how I live the 8.4 years the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control says I have left. If the end result—the end—is the same, what does it matter how I live?

Here’s the crazy thing (seems crazy to me). I used to think I would leave behind a legacy of music or poetry or the Great American Novel. Just the same as everyone reading this believes deep down they will be the next member of the club of billionaires.

Both my thinking and everyone else’s—is wacko. It ain’t gonna happen.

So what is going to happen? I don’t have a clue. But I have a growing sense that, besides continuing to thrive in the love of my family and friends, the only way to make sense of this screeching-to-a-halt life is to throw myself into work I didn’t even know was possible a year ago.

Tutoring athletes at SMU’s center for the Academic Development of Student Athletes and teaching an ESL preparation class at the Aberg Center for Literacy give me a sense of purpose different, almost certainly greater, than I have ever had. Is that a touch of the drama queen? Yes, but these two activities are in a way redeeming the work I’ve been doing since 1985. I’ve been practice teaching to prepare myself to do something for reasons far greater than for my own satisfaction.

Perhaps I have finally found the real “thin places.”

For most of my adult life I have struggled with the words of St. Paul the Apostle that, “. . . the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19, NRSV). I don’t have to mix that up with sin and Jesus and churchy stuff. I think anyone who has any consciousness of self would have to admit that’s true. It is what it is.

So I want to learn, to have the peace of knowing, that the good I would, I do. And the evil I would not, I don’t. That’s all.

“The First Night,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

“The worst thing about death must be
the first night.” —Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 2013), Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (Random House, 2012); Ballistics: Poems (2008); and many more.
Collins’s poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.
Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York.

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

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.

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I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

“. . . the spine of the European Enlightenment. . .” (Caroline Knox)

woosters-paperback-cover1Sometime in the ’80s a friend gave me a copy of a novel by P.G. Wodehouse. I guess his books are novels. That’s not an elitist remark—I genuinely don’t know. Because I never read it. That is, I didn’t finish reading it. That was elitism. It seemed insufferably silly to me, so my insufferable snobbery rejected it.

I’ve been meaning to read a P.G Wodehouse novel for some time. Eleanor was nobody’s fool—a graduate of Smith College back in the ‘40s when education still intended to make thinkers out of students instead of “successes.” She was WAC in WW II and did not suffer fools lightly. She thought I needed to read Wodehouse to lighten up.

This morning I discovered the complete novels (38) of Wodehouse available in one Nook Book from Barnes and Noble for $2.99—a dime apiece (a new meaning for “dime novel”). Who could pass that up?

I did read (and remember) enough of the novel Eleanor gave me to know that Bertie Wooster is Wodehouse’s eccentric whose “man” Jeeves has continually to bail out of one scrape after another.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 41 symphonies. He composed 18 piano sonatas. He composed 23 “operas,” that is, theatrical pieces performed on a stage with singers “playing” the part of characters. I point that out simply to remind myself how much music he wrote in his short lifetime.

Mozart composed only one “church anthem.” A setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Verum Corpus.

Ave verum corpus, natum
ex Maria Virgine
,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine
.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
Of the trial of death.

The vocal demands of the anthem are not great. Among his enormous oeuvre Mozart wrote only one work that every church choir ought to be able to sing. It is a late work; he composed it while he was in the process of composing The Magic Flute.

The silliest boys in all of opera

The silliest boys in all of opera

I stumbled onto this poem by Caroline Knox as I was cleaning the saved files and folders out of my office computer at SMU. I don’t know where I originally read it, and I can find out precious little about Caroline Knox except she has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and that she has published several volumes of poetry. I can’t even find the year she was born.

“Mozart,” by Caroline Knox
Can you imagine
what is true, that
smack in the middle
of making The Magic
Flute
he interrupted
himself to make
“Ave Verum Corpus,”
world’s most truth-telling
motet (Who made its
text? Maybe a pope),
then got himself on
track, back to TMF
(all the while dealing
with money worry and
sickness of wife). When
you get to the esto nobis
cadence in “AVC,” you
scale the spine of the
European Enlightenment;
when you get to the
idiotic “Three Faithful
Youths” chorus in TMF:

“Three faithful youths we now will lend you
Upon your journey they’ll attend you;
Though young in years, these youths so fair
Heed the words of wisdom rare!”

you’re dealing with
Bertie Wooster’s
three best friends.
Because he was Mozart,
not a problem.

Because he was Mozart, it is not a problem that the three forest sprites in The Magic Flute are nearly the silliest little boys who sing nearly the silliest music in all of opera. It’s Mozart, for goodness’ sake.

I don’t often try to ferret out a logical or literal meaning of a poem (because my thinking is mostly illogical, and I don’t recognize logic when I run into it), but Knox’s poem caught my attention in some way other than a poetic response with, “When you get to the esto nobis cadence in ‘AVC,’ you scale the spine of the European Enlightenment.”

The spine of the European Enlightenment.

My knowledge of such concepts comes from reading and sitting in classes many years ago (50!), and is most likely based on outdated ideas. Textbooks I was assigned to read are undoubtedly thought of (if anyone remembers them at all) as archaic and no longer relevant.

Here’s a succinct rendering of my understanding of the European Enlightenment,

. . . when the freedom of thought that originated in the Renaissance received a new impetus through the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and . . . seventeenth century. These discoveries encouraged men [sic] to regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation or proved by logical deduction, and to accept the premise of the first great modern philosopher, Descartes, that doubt is the starting-point of philosophy. (Harman, Alec and Anthony Milner. Man & His Music. Late Renaissance and Baroque Music. New York: Schocken Books, (1962), 249.)

In the late ‘80s the Dean Minton of Bunker Hill Community College and I had long discussions in which she eventually prevailed about the evil that the Enlightenment had perpetuated on the world by making people “regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation,” leaving little room for mystery and the inexplicable.

I agree with Anne to this day, probably because I don’t have the brains to test much by direct observation. And the older I get, the less important that seems to me, anyway.

Knox’s poem seems to say that the ineffably sublime and mysterious music Mozart composed for the words “May it be for us a foretaste of the trial of death” is the “spine” (that which holds a body together) of rationality. The music is indeed “rational.” I can explain to you exactly how it works both harmonically and contrapuntally. It contains in a couple of phrases the complete “theory” of Western music.

And so does the silly (comical? innocent?) music the three boys sing in The Magic Flute.

I think Dean Minton’s perception of the damage done by Enlightenment thinking is more on target today than it was 30 years ago. Everyone. I mean everyone in this country thinks they have a market on rational thought. Scientists, climate-change deniers. Bankers, “occupiers.” Tea-partiers, liberals. Fundamentalist christians, atheists.

Our national discourse is the Enlightenment choosing up sides and going berserk. We don’t discuss, we yell at each other. We don’t try to be rational, we adopt opinions based on preconceptions that may (or likely, may not) have anything to do with reality.

Mozart’s music may well be the most rational anyone ever composed. But it’s also the most mysterious. And the same rationality can give voice to comical forest sprites and to the deepest held mysteries of human life.

Knox’s poem can tie all of those things together—and even bring in Jeeves the butler.

Mystery and rationality together. That’s not impossible.

The spine of the American Enlightenment

The spine of the American Enlightenment

“. . . I long for scenes where man has never trod . . .”

Not everything in its place

Not everything in its place

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were contemporaneous. Let’s see how many connections I can make. Pope, a shriveled little man with a bone disease that prevented his growing up to five feet, wrote his Essay on Man in 1734. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734 (one chorus of which will be my funeral someday—not performed at my funeral, but be my funeral, it and only it, no speaking, no liturgy, only Fallt mit Danken).

It’s difficult—especially for someone who has studied music rather than poetry most of his life—to decipher which of Pope’s poems are serious and which are satire.

In 1725 Alexander Pope published an edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, edited and “corrected” to reflect British “enlightenment” thinking. Tom Stoppard was born in 1937 and wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966. I was Rosencrantz in a production of R&G in 1972.

One might ask what connection 1725 has with 1734 and what connection either of them has with 1937, 1966, or 1972.

None, obviously. I’m trying to get from point A to point B logically, and I’m grasping at straws for connections.

Connections are supposed to be made. Things are supposed to be tidy. The new set of glassware for my kitchen is supposed to be in the cupboard and the old unmatched glasses for sale at the Genesis Thrift Store behind the barber shop where I intended to get a haircut last Saturday.

What a piece of work is man

What a piece of work is man

Tom Stoppard knows how to make connections. In R&G Hamlet delivers his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are dead but flitting around trying to get Hamlet to come to his senses and kill his mother. (You’ll notice there’s a gay double entendre between Hamlet and Rosencrantz at the end of the soliloquy.)

In 1967 Galt MacDermot’s Hair was all the rage with its version of the soliloquy—almost a connection with R&G, but not quite (they were on Broadway at the same time). I saw the Los Angeles production in 1969, right after I was asked to withdraw as a student at the School of Theology in Claremont because, through A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snickett, 1999), they had discovered I am gay, and the Methodists weren’t very forgiving. Things were much different then. Right!

Back to Alexander Pope (see how cleverly I make all of these connections?). His Essay on Man, Epistle II, begins

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man
.

Know, then, thyself. TV commercials agree, and try to sell you on a way to “take control” of your life. The proper study of mankind is control. And the point of taking control—or, more precisely, giving Charles Schwab control—is so you can Own your tomorrow. What a piece of work is man! how infinite in faculty! in apprehension how like a god, owning our tomorrow!

John Clare (1793-1864) was known as the country bumpkin poet. He celebrated nature and mourned the loss of the natural in human society.

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys. . .

“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise” is not exactly where Charles Schwab wants me to go.

Today I’m going to a “retirement workshop” at the university. I probably won’t understand any of it. But I need to know how to “own my tomorrow” after the first of July. I know how to live now. What a piece of work is man. The proper study of mankind is man.

Here’s what mankind (or people, or womankind, or whatever) does. People spend about 3/4ths of their time cleaning up after themselves and tidying and arranging to “make the house fair as you are able” (from a Christmas carol saying Love the Guest is on the way). People (at least people I know) live orderly lives with all the loose ends tied up. A place for everything and everything in its place. Every Libby glass, every pair of undershorts, every book, every feeling, every thought. Every thought. Manage those thoughts.

If you have a thought for everything and every thought is in its place, you can “Own your tomorrow.” It all depends on clean towels in the bathroom, never missing an appointment, going to the retirement seminar to learn once again when you must, by law, begin drawing money out of the pittance they call your retirement fund.schwab-big-2-opt

I can’t. I can’t own today, much less, tomorrow. This writing was inspired by yet another friend telling me about yet another “self-help” book I need to get myself organized. It seems to me—because I’m too lazy or too prideful to do menial work, or some other obstreperousness—we spend most of our energy trying to be that piece of work. Trying to be

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Not keeping all of my dishes washed every day, and not putting the new glasses away in the cupboard, and not dutifully checking my mail every day, and not noticing that my car’s yearly registration has expired, and not keeping up with the Kardashians does not make me either a good person or a bad person.

I don’t long for death—or whatever John Clare hoped for. I’m not sure about his God. But I would like right now, not after I die, right now to be

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie.

If the proper study of mankind is man, I should think mankind is not doing too well on the untroubling and untroubled side of things. We’re all troubled and troubling each other—with tidying up, with

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by [ourselves] abused, or disabused
.

Hamlet, Act II, scene II, by William Shakespeare (or Alexander Pope, or Tom Stoppard, or Galt MacDermot)
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

“Essay on Man,” Epistle II, by Alexander Pope
Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

“I Am!” by John Clare
I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

“. . . That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse . . . “

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

My paternal grandfather’s birthday is today (born January 21, 1885). Archie James Knight was a serious and jolly man, a contractor (he built houses as well as cabinetry), a pear farmer (that is, he had a half dozen pear trees in his yard), a voracious reader, a bass in his church choir—my description could go on and on. He was also something of an old-fashioned disciplinarian. No one came to the breakfast table at his home (or even into the living room) in pajamas.

He was disciplined himself. He worked hard and took care of his family, his children and their children. But he also had something elfin about him. He laughed with a twinkle in his eye, and he was capable of a kind of endearing silliness (endearing to this grandson, at any rate).

Granddad and I had a special bond—at least in my mind—because I was the one person in the entire extended family named for him. My middle name is his name, Archie. He was called Arch, and I have from time to time been known as Arch (in college, for example).

The most enduring memory of Granddad is his reading. He sat in his chair daily reading—reading newspapers, magazines, Bible study books, the Bible itself. Making up for his family’s inability to send him to school past the fourth grade. The photograph of Granddad on Grandmother’s sewing machine is a favorite of all of his grandchildren, taken by Jose Naredo, husband of his granddaughter Jan Noland Naredo. We’d all have that picture in our minds even if Jose had never snapped it with a camera. Granddad in his chair reading.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble writing the last few days because no matter what I begin writing, whether it makes any sense or not, whether it interests me or not, whether I have some idea where my train of thought is headed or not, I end up wanting to write a brilliant scholarly article—an article that will arrest the attention of the public and explain a very simple truth of which Americans seem to have no idea.

It’s an idea that I think my grandfather would have understood. He was one of those old-fashioned Baptists who held several beliefs that seem out of fashion today. Things such as “soul freedom” (the idea that his relationship with the divine was his relationship with the divine and no one could intervene). And the authority of the scripture (if it’s not in the Bible, don’t bother him with it). The separation of church and state (yes, that used to be a Baptist principle). So he would not—I know his Baptist preacher son did not, at any rate—have had much use for such non-Biblical nonsense as “The Rapture.”

I don’t care if anyone believes in “The Rapture” or not. It’s pretty silly even as silly religious ideas go. But what I wish Americans understood is that the belief in “The Rapture” is directly responsible for the argument over whether or not Iran should be invited to peace talks about Syria.

So I keep getting started writing the kind of personal, flaky, too-self-revelatory stuff I usually write, and I keep running up against my large (and growing) research on “The Rapture,” and “Dispensationalism,” and “Zionism,” and John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Ingerson Scofield. And then I want to write scholarly history. I want to write about the Balfour Declaration and its indebtedness to Darby, and . . . well, I just get bogged down because I don’t have my scholarly act together, but the stuff keeps impinging on everything I want to write and think.

So John Hagee and his Christians United for Israel will just have to run rampant over American foreign policy and the peace of the Middle East one more day because I can’t focus long enough to write what I need to write. Thank goodness Barbara Rossing and others have already written what really needs to be written.

Except for the part of John Hagee using Texas A&M University to further his goal of bringing about the Second Coming by helping Israel (and then getting rid of the Jews).

Oh Me! O My!

O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman

O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.


This hymn is one that I distinctly remember hearing my grandfather sing—that is, the bass line mostly an octave lower than written. It was at the dedication of the new church building of Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, the church of which he was a member for most of his long life. The words are by the ever-popular Fanny J. Crosby.

The sewing machine is my grandmother’s which is in my living room.

Praise Him, praise Him—Jesus, our blessèd Redeemer,
Sing, O earth, His wonderful love proclaim.
Hail Him! hail Him! highest archangels in glory;
Strength and honor give to His holy name!
Like a shepherd, Jesus will guard His children,
In His arms He carries them all day long:
O ye saints that dwell on the mountain of Zion,
Praise Him, praise Him ever in joyful song.

Praise Him, praise Him—Jesus, our blessèd Redeemer,
Heav’nly portals loud with hosannas ring,
Jesus, Savior, reigneth forever and ever.
Crown Him! Crown Him—Prophet, and Priest, and King!
Death is vanquished! Tell it with joy, ye faithful.
Where is now thy victory, boasting grave?
Jesus lives! No longer thy portals are cheerless;
Jesus lives, the mighty and strong to save.

“. . . On Venus you and I are not even a year old . . .”

Surprising St. Petersburg

Surprising St. Petersburg

Today is the day we are habituated to pondering the successes and failures, the good times and bad, the ins and outs. . .

This year has been sideways and frontways, backwards and upwards—like every other year.

EXCEPT! —

I walked and ate and made music in Arvika, and saw Stockholm in Sweden. I reveled and ate and shopped and made music in Rauma, Finland, and saw Helsinki. I marveled and ate and walked in the cemetery where both Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are buried and made music in St. Petersburg. And had a touristy whirlwind through the Hermitage.

I was in the company of a group of new friends-for-life, kind and gentle and loving folks for whom I have immense gratitude and to whom I offer my meager version of love. The choir and companions of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I should stop right there.

The best of times with the loveliest of people

The best of times with the loveliest of people

BUT —

Two surgeries, one a complete and immediate success (the six-month pain in my hip was gone when I woke up from the anesthetic and never returned). The other is still in process of recovery. I’ve discovered what we do that requires BOTH of our shoulders and arms. Balance yourself getting up from a chair with one arm strapped to your chest. Put on your socks with one hand.

However, for nearly a month now I’ve been without a cane, crutches or sling. Gratitude is not my strong suit, but I am grateful.

In her lovely quirky poem “Fragments for the End of the Year,” Jennifer K. Sweeney lists many observations I could have made about this year.

On average, odd years have been the best for me.
I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know . . .
I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland. [For me, it’s Easter Island.]
Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit . . .
On Venus you and I are
not even a year old. (The entire poem is below the video.)

Odd years have been good for me—I’m not sure if, on average, they have been better than even years. This odd year has been odd but good.

I have an overwhelming need to go to Easter Island (don’t ask because I don’t know). I have been awestruck for decades by the fact we all eat fruit without seeds, which means there are more fruit trees pollinated in some way other than through the normal sexual life of fruit trees than I can imagine, and I wonder why—if we can do that—we can’t make a computer power cord that weighs less than five pounds. Or make peace in the Middle East.

But Venus. Oh, my, Venus is a great mystery. I remember reading about the planet years ago and being mystified by what I learned. And today Jennifer Sweeney reminds me of it. In the first place, Venus revolves on her axis the opposite way Earth does—so the sun comes up in the west and sets in the east. But that’s only the beginning. A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days. A day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus, which lasts 225 Earth days. Now that’s weird.

Not really the worst of times

Not really the worst of times

The best part of that is what it does to one’s age. On Venus, I’d be only 104 days old rather than the approximately 25,000 days I’ve been here on Earth.

Gives a whole new meaning to “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4—the “your,” of course refers to God). My guess is that even Richard Dawkins and other militant fundamentalist atheists have some concept of “before the mountains were brought forth” (if only because they were raised in the culture that believes in the concept and then, in their profound scientific wisdom, have rejected the concept—far braver than I am).

.
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:1-4).

Dawkins has a great time comparing Earth to Venus, I should think. What does time mean, anyway? Go ahead, tell me.

There’s an old German hymn Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, the text by Michael Franck (1652) and the melody melody by Johann Crüger (1661).

The best English translation I know is

O how futile, how inutile
Is our earthly being!
‘Tis a mist in wintry weather,
Gathered in an hour together,
And as soon dispersed in ether.

The hymn goes on for twelve stanzas with as many (or more) metaphors for the “inutility” (a great word meaning “of no use”) of life and does not mention God until the last, when it says merely that the person who relies on God will find purpose, or some such.

I take great comfort in this hymn. “On Venus, you and I are not even a year old,” so we have plenty of time to sort all of this out. It doesn’t have to be done before midnight today.

Georg Böhm (1661—1733), German baroque composer, wrote a little set of variations on the hymntune. Here’s his setting of the tune itself and then the first variation. Accompanied by inutility.

“Fragments for the End of the Year,” by Jennifer K. Sweeney

On average, odd years have been the best for me.

I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know.

 Without fail, fall makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.

The sky is molting. I don’t know
if this is global warming or if the atmosphere is reconfiguring
itself to accommodate all the new bright suffering.

I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland.

Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit.

I was terribly sorry to be the one to explain to the first graders
the connection between the sunset and pollution.

On Venus you and I are not even a year old.

Then there were two skies.
The one we fly through and the one
we bury ourselves in.

I appreciate my wide beveled spatula which fulfills
the moment I realized I would grow up and own such things.

I am glad I do not yet want sexy bathroom accessories.
Such things.

In the story we were together every time.
On his wedding day, the stone in his chest
not fully melted but enough.

Sometimes I feel like there are birds flying out of me.