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

EmilyDickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 133, by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RT_Chuck_Berry_MEM_161018Copy_16x9_992

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

“. . . then the scaffolds drop Affirming it a Soul . . .” (Emily Dickinson)

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My strange little abode

When my partner died in 2003, I went apartment hunting almost immediately, not for any deep psychological reason or because it was part of the grieving process. That was November, and our lease was to be up in January. I did not want to pay another year’s rent on a huge apartment in North Dallas, wasting money and rattling around in that space by myself. No single man needs two bathrooms.

A friend who knew the city much better than I helped me look for rental ads and then drive around to look at various apartments.

After a half dozen tries we came to the one where I’ve lived since, and I knew immediately it was for me. It is not a cute cookie-cutter place ready-made for a gay-boy’s au courant possessions or valuable art work or trinkets bought with too much “disposable” income. What I have (my stuff and what I kept of my partner’s stuff) is not fashionable or valuable, so it seems to belong in the weird “loft” space I rent― one big room with no walls or doors (except the bathroom, of course). It has popcorn ceiling (how last-year), in the center the huge cement pillar holding the whole building up, ugly (I mean UGLY) apartment-cheap carpet, and a tiny galley kitchen no real cook would want to use.

It’s in the building I fondly call the “dowager” of the neighborhood―built in the ‘50s of concrete and glass, it would take an atomic bomb to tear it down. It’s tired, and it lost its upscaleness about three decades ago.

1-sapp 2-001

My artwork: a painting by my uncle’s late parter, Victor Gugliuzza. Two paintings by the Canadian painter Allen Sapp.

In other words, it’s perfect for me and my odd assortment of furniture and decorations (really―so really you probably can’t imagine it). And for me. And for my cats (whose presence is ubiquitously obvious).

And since 2008, space for the pipe organ, Opus 1 of D. Steuart Goodwin Organ Builders of San Bernardino, CA. Yes, a pipe organ sits in the open space where my dining table once was.

I do not mean to imply, by the way, that I think only gays have finely appointed, stylishly decorated, and elegantly furnished living spaces. Nearly everyone I know does.

I’ve been thinking about my less than stylish surroundings because I have recently met several people who are of far different means and “lifestyle” than mine. I’m pretty sure I can guess that their digs are upscale. One of these folks and I are, I think, forging a friendship. The others I will probably have passing acquaintanceships with, if that. I’ve been thinking about whether or not I would invite any of those people to my home. I would not want them to think ill of me because of my less-then-stylish surroundings

Last night I was in a group in which we were talking about how one develops a loving relationship with oneself. Better late (at 71) than never, I suppose. I woke up this morning having been “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:13) ―not warned exactly, informed, and not in a dream, in my rested mind―about a fact of my life that I often overlook. It starts with realizing that my apartment is an expression of who I am. I am not an expression of my apartment.

My apartment expresses a mind that is eccentrically organized―if it is organized at all. It expresses a spirit that has little interest in owning physical, worldly things. It expresses an understanding of the purpose of life as striving rather than accomplishment.

It may also be the result of depersonalization or dissociative disorder as symptoms of the wonderfully strange condition Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or something like it. All of that is so ephemeral as to render it impossible to talk about except with my neurologist and psychiatrist.

My apartment, if I could choose definitively what it expresses, is a manifestation of my caring little about what others think of me. That is not, of course, quite true. I care a great deal. But somewhere buried deep down inside me is a loving relationship with Me.

Not with what I own.

Not with my modest accomplishments.

Not with what I know.

With Me.

That relationship is not easy, and it is often obscured by fear and by doubt. I often mistake arrogance and self-righteousness for loving myself. And loving myself does not make me brave or strong. In fact, I most often want to cower in the corner and protect myself.

I’m not saying I am satisfied with Me. I wish I had done more and different things with my life. And I wish I could say I know myself completely. On the contrary, I keep discovering characteristics of Me, some of which I like and some of which I don’t like.

This afternoon I may not be able to say it, but right now I love myself, both what I like of myself and what I don’t like. Those friends I was in conversation with last night may not have heard what I said as an expression that I have a loving relationship with myself. (I said here at the outset I was told in a dream.)

Actually what happened was not a dream. Early this morning I was playing the organ for a few minutes as I often do for reasons of which I am often unconscious. The mystery of music is the same as the mystery of me. And of you.

Some people meditate. Some read inspirational literature. I play a simple organ piece.

“THE PROPS ASSIST THE HOUSE,” BY EMILY DICKINSON
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

The little prelude by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663-1712) on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr
(“All Gory Be to God on High”) which passed for my meditation this morning.

‘. . . “Of all illusions,” said the man with the tubes up his nostrils, IVs, catheter. . .’

Of all the illusions. . .

Of all the illusions. . .

.

.

.

.

.

I want to be a poet so when I feel the need to call attention to the futility of our communal understanding of what’s good, what’s to strive for, what makes a person happy according to Maslow, what good citizenship means, what makes a person successful, what gives meaning to one’s life—all of those things JumpFly and Slingshot and the Richards Group and LEVELTWO and 180 LA and (most importantly) Campbell Mithun tell us we must experience, have, think, or feel—no one will accuse me of being negative or depressed; rather, everyone will think I’m a genius because I’m so artistic and say things so well, and never get it that I’m really trying to be a latter-day Cassandra or Amos—that I mean everything we strive for is pointless, and we keep day after day fucking up our lives because we think owning the next-generation communications gizmo is going to make us authentic and happy human beings.

“Success is counted sweetest” (112), by Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

(Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.)

We read stuff like Dickinson’s poem and get exalted pictures in our mind of the poor dying soldier lying on the battlefield thinking about how much better it would have been to have joined the victorious army in their celebration of defeating the enemy, and we get all goose-bumpy about the brilliance of Dickinson’s language, and we totally forget that the teacher who introduced us to Dickinson in high school committed suicide the year after we went off to college to earn our success so we can count it sweet.

We absolutely without reservation believe that

. . . after climbing
exhaustedly up
with pitons and ropes,
[we will] arrive at
last on the plateau
of walking-level-
forever-among-
moss-with-red-blossoms
.

(Hall, Donald. “Tubes.” White Apples and the Taste of Stone. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.)

The other day I was watching a program on TV about the building of the new One World Trade Center. It has now been definitively crowned the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat “height committee.”

All through the program I kept thinking, “What hubris.” Of course, the replacement for the World Trade Center Towers would unquestionably have to be the tallest building. America[ns] could not possibly, under any circumstances be reduced to the same experience

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

A contrarian thought lodged itself in my mind. “In the great scheme of things, in the reality of the magnitude of the earth, which itself is not even a dot in the galaxy which is one of billions of such swirls of matter in the universe, how can any human take such pride in building something bigger than any other human can build?” I’m not a poet, not a wordsmith. I can’t build an image in the style of either Emily Dickinson or Donald Hall. But what is the point? What is the purpose of building something remarkably tall by human standards and taking pride in it when in reality it is utterly insignificant?

Cambell Mithun Tower - not the tallest by a long shot

Cambell Mithun Tower – not the tallest by a long shot

[Timothy] Johnson [Chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat] said the council had studied [architect David] Childs’ plans for the building, and noted the symbolic height of the spire and the beacon that will shine from it – which is designed as a complement to the light at the top of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. “So conceptually it is definitely, from the architect’s point of view, a major part of the building, and we agreed,” Johnson said.

Ah! I get it. The beacon to complement the beacon at the top of the Statue of (former) Liberty. The ultimate symbol of chauvinism in our absolute conviction that our “purple Host Who took the Flag today Can tell the definition So clear of victory” that we deserve the tallest building. The tallest, most expensive, finest, newest Everything! We will “take [our enemy’s] flag today.”

Remember playing “Capture the Flag” as a kid? Maybe only boy scouts did that, and only those who are now very old. We learned. Take the flag! Defeat the enemy. Kill Al-Qaeda. And why? So we can have success—success as defined by Campbell Mithun. A fine poet may define success differently.

“Tubes,” by Donald Hall

           1

“Up, down, good, bad,” said
the man with the tubes
up his nose, ” there’s lots
of variety…
However, notions
of balance between
extremes of fortune
are stupid—or at
best unobservant.”
He watched as the nurse
fed pellets into
the green nozzle that
stuck from his side. “Mm,”
said the man. ” Good. Yum.
(Next time more basil…)
When a long-desired
baby is born, what
joy! More happiness
than we find in sex,
more than we take in
success, revenge, or
wealth. But should the same
infant die, would you
measure the horror
on the same rule? Grief
weighs down the seesaw,
joy cannot budge it.”

           2

“When I was nineteen,
I told a thirty-
year-old man what a
fool I had been when
I was seventeen.
We were always,’ he
said glancing down, ‘a
fool two years ago.'”

           3

The man with the tubes
up his nostrils spoke
carefully: “I don’t
regret what I did,
but that I claimed I
did the opposite.
If I was faithless
or treacherous and
cowardly, I had
my reasons—but I
regret that I called
myself loyal, brave,
and honorable.”

           4

“Of all illusions,”
said the man with the
tubes up his nostrils,
IVs, catheter,
and feeding nozzle,
“the silliest one
was hardest to lose.
For years I supposed
that after climbing
exhaustedly up
with pitons and ropes,
I would arrive at
last on the plateau
of walking-level-
forever-among-
moss-with-red-blossoms.
But of course, of course:
A continual
climbing is the one
form of arrival
we ever come to—
unless we suppose
that the wished-for height
and house of desire
is tubes up the nose.”

. . . the wished-for height and house of desire. . .

. . . the wished-for height
and house of desire. . .

 

Let’s amend the Constitution

I propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading:


“Neither Congress nor any State Legislature shall pass any law limiting any person’s right to be free from violence at the hands of those who bear arms.”

A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.

Do not fall in love with a poet (not me, silly)

When I started writing this blog a few weeks ago, I intended for it to be an outlet for my light-hearted observations about being 68 and (I might hope) getting older.

That plan has two inherent problems. First is that I am not by nature a particularly light-hearted person. Second is that growing older is not necessarily a process that brings out anyone’s light-heartedness.

Not too long ago I stumbled upon the poem “Poetry Anonymous,” by Prageeta Sharma. I was searching for poetry about Alcoholics Anonymous. Sharma, by the way, is a young American poet of Indian descent who teaches at the University of Montana at Missoula. Montana?!

At any rate, I love the opening gambit of her poem.

Do not fall in love with a poet
they are no more honest than a stockbroker.

Having for most of my life wanted to be a poet and realizing that I am not dishonest enough to be such—I have so little imagination that I can’t make up any of the metaphors and similes and such that make poetry. But I think it would be dangerous to fall in love with me simply for my desire to be a poet.

That’s beside my point here. One line of her poem caught my attention. I’m quoting it completely out of context, but

How does narcissism assist you (?)

became the inspiration for this post. I had been wanting to do this since I began but was afraid that this would be absolutely too narcissistic to be of interest to anyone but me. So be it.

Here’s the deal about this posting. As I reflect on growing older—I have said many times that I expected some day to be 68 years old, I just didn’t expect it to happen this soon—part of the reflection is to wonder if I am the same person now as I was, say, 50 years ago. It’s a really interesting question. So one of the ways I’ve been thinking about it is simply to look at myself.

My look at my-selfs-past is somewhat guided by another poem, this by Emily Dickinson.

THE BODY grows outside,—
The more convenient way,—
That if the spirit like to hide,
Its temple stands alway                 

Ajar, secure, inviting;
It never did betray
The soul that asked its shelter
In timid honesty
.

So here are a bunch of my favorite pictures of me over the years. The ULTIMATE NARCISSISM.

About a year old—Worland, Wyoming.
`1`me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five years old (1950) with my older brother announcing the birth of our sister—Kearney, Nebraska. Our parents sent this picture out to all of their friends. The ’47 Ford was our family car until the Plymouth ’52 coupe.
`2`me and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 15, the three of us decked out for Easter—Scottsbluff, Nebraska. In 1958 we moved into a brand new house (parsonage). I don’t remember ever looking as dapper as this picture might lead one to believe I was.
`3easter2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 40, the wannabe concert organist—Salem, Massachusetts. This picture was in the Salem Evening News as I was preparing to give a concert for the 300th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach. Someday I will write about the importance of that concert in my life.
`4Ghost of Christmas PastR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My 65th birthday (I threw myself a party)—Dallas, Texas. At this time I was living alone because my partner had died six years before. I was on the verge of becoming a hermit and dealing with chronic depression.
`5entertaining Harold3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over 65, practicing yoga—Dallas, Texas. I was still living alone, but I had finally determined not to let my isolation get the best of me and had begun to do many things to bring myself ’round.
`6bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over 65, substituting as organist in a Dallas, Texas, church. When the church where I was organist closed, I began substituting as organist at various churches, which I very much enjoy because I get to play the organ with no continuing requirement of planning and rehearsing.
`7organ_nR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sixty-eight, writing this blog this morning, Dallas, Texas. I’m sitting the window-surrounded breakfast nook of my inamorato’s apartment in downtown Dallas early (6 AM) and doing my writing before he is awake. I am in many ways happier than I thought possible at this age.
`8me today-5aR

So there you have it. My most narcissistic blog ever. But I want to know, am I the same person who rode around on a tricycle in Worland, Wyoming? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Perhaps once again, Emily Dickinson knows (I seem to have Dickinson on the brain lately).

THE PAST is such a curious creature,
To look her in the face
A transport may reward us,
Or a disgrace.
Unarmed if any meet her,
I charge him, fly!
Her rusty ammunition
Might yet reply!

Romp with me on the Beach at Ipanema (Really!)

A sunga `High school days. Sometimes I think we never get past them; however, I don’t think many high schoolers are romping on the Beach at Ipanema on the 4th of July—perhaps these days they are, what with the 2%’s money and the ever-present need of parents to buy their teenagers’ approval. I know the kind of travel privileged university students have done by the time they arrive at their elite schools—to say nothing of their collegiate Spring Break adventures.

(Damn! I sound like a crotchety, jealous old man.)

I was on the Beach at Ipanema on July 4, 1990 (at age 45, if you must know). My professor colleagues did their best to hook me up with a Brazilian Adonis in a tanga or sunga, but I was too fair-skinned (we knew before our trip that, no matter how much sun we got, we would  be the least-tanned folk on the beach), and far too frightened of being mugged or worse by some gorgeous stranger in a strange land.

Staring down the gun barrel of an Israeli tank in a street in Bethlehem shortly after the Second Intifada (mercifully, my second stay in Bethlehem was much different—joyful and rewarding) and visiting the village in Gaza where Rachel Corrie died are hardly the stuff of Spring Break trips for high schoolers or their (somewhat) morphed university selves.

(This did not start as a grouchy rant about the life-long privilege of the students I teach, most of whom I come to respect and a few of whom I grow to think on with great fondness.)

(I am, however, a crotchety, jealous old man.)
demolished
If I am allowed to teach for two more years (if you’re reading this and don’t want to support me through food stamps in my old age, hold a good thought in that direction toward my department chair), I will close my career with a new topic for my first-year “Discovery and Discourse” (Freshman English) classes: Emily Dickinson, the lady from Amherst, MA, whom academics “. . . now consider [] to be a major American poet” (1).

Disclaimers. 1) My title above was an enticement. You’ve already read all I’ll write about Ipanema; and 2) I am too poor to retire—the result of being a drunk for the first 40 years of my life and of being an American raped and pillaged by the Republicans and their friends the bankers.

Alas. I’ve almost reached my word limit for the day, and I’m not even at my topic yet. Dickinson.

I mentioned high school because Mr. Simpson introduced me to Dickinson when I was a junior, a common experience in those dark ages when educators had time to “loaf and invite [students’] souls” instead of cramming them for standardized tests.

I will begin my classes—yes, the first day—by “unpacking”

This Consciousness that is aware Of Neighbors and the Sun Will be the one aware of Death, And that itself alone Is traversing the interval Experience. . .

Yes. The first day of class, the kids whose most important thought is that ‘Duck Dynasty’ patriarch (Phil Robertson) turned down the NFL as a Louisiana Tech football star, or that Ricky Schroder is directing his daughter in new Hallmark TV movie (perhaps not, because they don’t know who Ricky Schroder is).

“This Consciousness that is aware Of Neighbors and the Sun Will be the one aware of Death.” I think one has to be at least 68 years old to comprehend this nectar (although Dickinson was much younger when she wrote it).

And I move precipitously from crotchety, jealous old man to the stark reality that old men and women know. `deaf dad 007a
I used to be conscious mainly of my Neighbors—perhaps especially the Adonis at Ipanema—and of the Sun—at Ipanema—and the sun shining also on the Palestinian whose home is being demolished by an Israeli tank—and now I am aware of Death.

I have no idea what the next sentence is supposed to be. I’m as incapable of thinking about that as my students might be. Awareness is all. I traverse Experience quite alone.

________ (1) “Emily Dickinson.” Wikipedia. wickepedia. org N.D. Web. 1 Mar 2013. (I read this absurdity on Wikipedia when I went to the site to make sure I had Dickinson’s birth and death dates correct in my mind.)