“. . . more life and more adventure for the brave. . .” (Godfrey Fox Bradby)

Gibbons  and hymnal gibbons

Gibbons and hymnal Gibbons

I’m a coward.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. But then, most people who know me well are cowards, too. The people I hang with are pretty run-of-the-mill, don’t bother me I’m busy making a living kinds of folks.

If I had even a modicum of courage, I would be living in Bethlehem or Freetown or Mosul or Lake Providence. I’d at least be volunteering at the North Texas Food Bank or The Stewpot.

My default earworm is a tune by Orlando Gibbons (1583 –1625) published in 1623, his “Song 1.” It’s the tune for a strange hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (number 470, I will remember ‘til I die).

The hymn is strange because it begins with a heretical statement,

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.

It’s heretical because, even though people think Christians believe we will die and then immediately go to heaven or hell, and that’s the purpose of life, true Christian theology is that when we die, we’re good and dead! St. Paul says we will be raised “incorruptible” when the trumpet sounds, but until then we’ll be dead. No Rapture there!

The statement, “We were not born to die,” is heretical.

I don’t care one way or the other what anyone believes about death. I think the orthodox Christian theology is correct—at least that we’ll be dead when we die—and I expect in 14.07 years (by the Social Security actuarial table) to be dead.

As earworms go, mine is pretty strange. I’ll bet no one reading this can sing it. No one who didn’t grow up Episcopalian between 1940 and 1982 has ever heard it . Not more than 5% of those folks can sing it.

I learned the tune when I was a junior in college, 1966. Dr. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, gave me his copy of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons from the Tudor Church Music collection. He bought it when he was a student in Paris in 1931. In 1966 I thought it was a venerable antique. He gave it to me because the University Choir, for which I was one of the organists, was singing the little Gibbons anthem, “O Lord Increase My Faith.”

The book was (and is) one of my prized possessions, a hefty tome. In order to show me it was not simply a historical relic, Dr. Spelman showed me “Song 1” from the volume was used in The Hymnal 1940, which the University Choir used. It immediately became my favorite hymn tune.

When I was pursuing my MA in composition four years later, my first extended work was a brass quintet, and the second movement is essentially a chorale prelude on “Song 1.”

The hymn may have been omitted from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 as much because it is confusing as because it is heretical. After beginning with the statement that we were not born to die, it closes with the stanza,

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.
“Beyond the grave, more life?”
Nothing that lives in God is ever dead?

Wait! We are—according to the most orthodox Christian theology—dead until the trumpet shall sound and we shall be raised. Now, lest anyone think I worry about the fine points of Christian theology, I must get back to my original topic. Bravery. Or was it earworms?

Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

So, according to Bradby, if you want life and adventure beyond the grave, you must live bravely here. Sounds vaguely like something a “Jihadist” suicide bomber would say, no?

It probably means Bradby would say I’m not going to heaven because I don’t live bravely here.

My favorite autograph

My favorite autograph

I’ve thought a lot about that for 50 years. Because of my earworm. Really. I’ll bet five days out of seven I hum at least the first three or four bars of the tune, and I have to consciously substitute some other earworm to take its place. That often turns out to be not much better, the hymntune “Salzburg,” with the original words, Alle Menschen müssen sterben (“all people must die”).

I’m a big baby. Scared of everything. Scared I’m going to hurt my hip again, so I walk with a cane (actually, about every 10th step does hurt, so that may not count). I never do anything dangerous. Never have done.

And, for the most part, my friends haven’t either. I have one friend who climbed some mountain in Tibet, but that’s not danger, that’s foolhardiness. I know a guy who races stock cars. Again, foolhardiness.

I am acquainted with a woman who travels all over the world saving girls from sexual slavery. She’s brave. A close friend has been in an Israeli prison for helping to feed kids in Palestinian refugee camps (Gaza and Lebanon). She’s the bravest person I know.

I saw on the PBS Newshour a couple of nights ago the attorney Nancy Hollander, whom I have met several times, who is representing Mohamedou Ould Slahi whose book about his imprisonment at Guantanamo has just been released. Nancy is brave. So is Mohamedou.

I hope it’s evident where I’m going with this. I don’t have much use for people who climb mountains or worry about heaven or hell—whether or not there are such things and/or whether or not they’re going there.

Bravery, in my book is doing something FOR someone else—probably someone you don’t even know—that might (probably will) make other people hate you and probably harm you.

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.
All that is beautiful in earth and sky,
All skills, all knowledge, all the powers we have,
Are of thy giving; and in them we see
no dust and ashes, but a part of thee.

Laughter is thine, the laughter free from scorn,
And thine the smile upon a cheerful face:
Thine, too, the tears, when love for love must mourn,
And death brings silence for a little space.
Thou gavest, and thou dost not take away:
The parting is but here, and for a day.

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

I’m pretty much chicken-shit.
photoApropos of almost nothing. This photograph was in the Gibbons volume when I opened it. Three of the players in as production of the Wakefield Cycle of Mystery Plays, the play for the Feast of the Ascension, produced my my choir at Grace Church Episcopal in Salem, MA, 1983. Jesus (not pictured) was played by a Cabot (yess one of THE Cabots), and God sat on the high altar throughout the drama. Some people didn’t like that she sat on the high altar. Some people didn’t like that she was African-American. Hardly anyone complained that God was she.

“. . . Vainly we offer each ample oblation. . .” (Reginald Heber)

Each ample oblation

Each ample oblation

Creative non-fiction. That’s what I’d write if I were not self-absorbed. Knew more people and listened to their stories. Read more news—personal news. “UTD professor runs math tutoring program in low-income neighborhoods.” Write about Prof. Lee and his work and what makes him tick. An essay about the way his program has changed the life of one student.

Something interesting. Something important. The purpose of education. A creative piece about learning to do math.

But I can’t even write in complete sentences when I think about such topics.

Yesterday I had in mind to write a lovely creative non-fiction piece about the American traditional shape-note hymn, “Star in the East.” It’s from Southern Harmony of 1835. I have a facsimile copy of the 1859 edition of Southern Harmony, but by 1859 the hymn was set to a different tune.

The tune from the 1835 edition is in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. The Episcopals, in their diligence to be authentic, used the earliest version rather than the one most 21st-century churches would (I think) be more comfortable with, the 1854 edition in four parts. I wanted the four-part version to record and post on Facebook.

Sorry. Who besides Charles Hiroshi Garrett wants to read musicological arcana?

I’ve had the tune running in my head since the Epiphany. I was exercising in the therapy pool that day singing Epiphany hymns to myself. That was one I thought of. Big mistake. I’ve been singing it for 10 days.

The next step, of course, (of course?) should have been to record the tune on my organ as an Epiphany post on Facebook. I don’t care about the Epiphany, but church observances as they come around every year give me a structure for my inner musical life. And a reason to post little ditties on Facebook.

I couldn’t find a transcription of the 4-part version of “Star of the East” from 1854, so I delayed. I didn’t want to bother writing it out myself or making myself play it from the shape-note open score (four different staves).

Yesterday I decided it’s time. Christmas and Epiphany and the star in the east and the Wise Men are long over. If Christmas can start before Halloween, can’t it as logically end after Valentine’s Day?

But now to the truth. I delayed until today because I couldn’t find my copy of Southern Harmony (that facsimile of the 1859 edition).

I was assuming my copy had the tune in 4 parts because that was the “improvement” of the 1859 edition—all tunes had four parts. What I didn’t realize was that those words had a different tune by that time.

I want a wife husband. Thanks to Judy Brady. I’ve stolen her idea before. It’s likely even in Texas that will soon be a possibility. In Judy Brady’s parlance, I want

. . . a wife husband who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it.

This desire is not new in my senescence. I’ve always wanted a husband who could do those things. Because I can’t.

Keep track of my copy of Southern Harmony, for example.

I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating. Not repeating, revising. The last time I wrote about not being able to find something—that is, living in disorganization and monumental disorder—I was only 67 years old. I had plenty of time left to get the clutter out of my life and begin to work in peace and order. Accomplish something.

Predictably, not much has changed—not much except the urgency. I’m 70. Statistically, living in Texas, I can expect to live 8 more years. If I want to improve those odds significantly, I need to move to Hawaii, or the District of Columbia.

It’s time. I’ve said it before.

I mean it now. I want to be rid of everything I own that won’t fit in my car. And then I want to move it all into a new tiny apartment and get rid of my car. That, of course is my plan in extremis. It’s not necessary. But I want to get closer and closer to that possibility.

Get rid of stuff.

Every morning while I’m making my coffee, this is what I see.
photoI have no need for those books (and the other hundreds in my apartment). Nor those containers of things—knives, kitchen utensils. The radio, fan, lamp. You say, “That’s useful stuff. You just need to get organized.”

No, it’s not. I don’t believe the common wisdom that clutter in our homes is analogous to or symbolic of clutter in our minds. And I don’t agree with Peter Walsh that we can’t be at peace in a cluttered home.

It’s not the clutter that prevents peace. It’s the ownership. I own this stuff. I could live in complete clutter and be at peace if I did not own the stuff.

Here I make a sharp at least 90-degee turn in logic and pretend I’m writing creative non-fiction.

First, a tiny bit of word history. According to the online etymology dictionary, “own” and “owe” come from the same root. I don’t pretend to be a philologist. But I see a connection. We “own” and “owe” at the same time. Everything we “own,” we “owe.” I don’t know to what or whom.

If we “owe” our stuff, then paying it off ought to give us some satisfaction, some peace, some sense of freedom—something.
Here’s my guess, however. We’re caught in a catch-22 of our own making. We own all this stuff, and we owe it. But we can’t even give it away. We’re too attached to it and we’ll think we’ve accomplished something by giving it away. We will clear our minds and souls. Because we think we will have done it, it won’t happen.

We need a whole new relationship with our things.

I don’t know what it is.

The funny old hymn says it. You don’t have to believe in the Baby Jesus or the Wise Men to see this.

Vainly we offer each ample oblation;
Vainly with gold we his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Vainly. We have to do it, but it’s in vain.

(Anglican) Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
1 Hail the blest morn, see the great Mediator,
Down from the regions of glory descend!
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo, for his guard the bright angels attend.

2 Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies his bed with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining,
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall.

3 Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Eden and offerings divine?
Gems from the mountain, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine?
4 Vainly we offer each ample oblation;

Vainly with gold we his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

5 Low at his feet we in humble prostration,
Lose all our sorrow and trouble and strife;
There we receive his divine consolation,
Flowing afresh from the fountain of life.

6 He is our friend in the midst of temptation,
Faithful supporter, whose love cannot fail;
Rock of our refuge, and hope of salvation,
Light to direct us through death’s gloomy vale.

7 Star of the morning, thy brightness, declining,
Shortly must fade when the sun doth arise:
Beaming refulgent, his glory eternal
Shines on the children of love in the skies.

It’s a conundrum.

Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

Vainly with gifts would his favor secure

“O Brother Man, fold to thy heart thy brother. . .” (John Greenleaf Whittier)

The Quaker Abolitionist Whittier

The Quaker Abolitionist Whittier

Well, Phooey!

I can’t put my hands on my copy of the hymnal Christian Worship published jointly by the Northern Baptist Convention and the Disciples of Christ in 1941.

It’s the hymnal I first played hymn tunes from. Somewhere in the mess of books in my apartment is my mother’s copy of the hymnal from the ‘50s.

By the time I used it, the Northern Baptists had changed their name to the American Baptists, thinking that 90 or so years was long enough for Christians to carry on the polarization of the Civil War.

Christian Worship was (is) a fine hymnal. Very few “gospel hymns,” and many tunes and hymns that don’t immediately come to mind as part of the Baptist tradition. For example, I remember when I was in junior high school discovering and immediately learning to play “O Sacred Head now Wounded” to the Lutheran tune O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden with a harmony by J. S. Bach. I don’t remember if we sang the tune in church services, but it was a favorite of mine long before I realized the importance of the Bach harmony.

I learned other hymns and tunes from that hymnal that are perhaps unfamiliar to Baptists today. Perhaps unfamiliar to any churchgoers today.

A random example, apropos of nothing except that I was humming it today for some reason, one of my favorites was one of my father’s favorites. The tune is a stirring, visceral Welsh traditional tune, Blaenhafren. An unusual tune for Baptists to be singing—and not widely used in other hymnals. Even more unusual is the hymn itself—“We are living, we are dwelling,” by the second Episcopal Bishop of Western New York, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1840).

We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful time,
In an age on ages telling; to be living is sublime.
Hark! the waking up of nations, Gog and Magog to the fray;
Hark! what soundeth is creation’s groaning for the latter day.

The words have been altered in Christian Worship to omit Gog and Magog, an obscure Biblical reference to the “end times.” My father was not a “dispensationalist” (neither pre- nor post-millennial) and would not, I think, have been nearly so fond of the hymn with those references. He thought of the hymn, rather, as a call to Christian faithfulness, which is undoubtedly its meaning.

Another of my favorite tunes was Acadia, composed by W.T.C. Morson and sung with the hymn “O Brother Man, hold to thy heart thy brother,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, the second most important 19th-century American poet (after Longfellow, of course).

I loved Acadia because about the time my voice changed and I could sing bass, the church choir sang an anthem setting of the tune. The tune is obscure. It’s not in any of my collection of hymnals from the ‘50s, and neither the Cyber Hymnal nor hymnary.org has it in midi format. The hymnary.org has one record of it—as hymn number 515 in the Christian Worship hymnal.

On June 11, 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results of the largest political survey it has ever undertaken, interviewing over 10,000 Americans. The title is

Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life.

I heard the discussion of the survey on PBS Evening News on June 12.

Frankly, I was shocked. I’m one of those polarized Americans. In fact I do believe Republicans in the form of Ted Cruz, Antonin Scalia, and the Koch Brothers are dangerous—are in the process of destroying the “American way of life.” With the cooperation of the NSA, of course.

My political views are, I fear, polarized from nearly everyone either conservative or liberal. They are even farther left than most of my friends, all the way to (shall I say it in public?) socialist. Where is Eugene V. Debs when we need him?

Most Americans, when they hear the word “socialist,” immediately jump in their minds—without any logical progression of ideas—to “godless communism.” The concept of the European “Christian Socialist” parties is impossible for Americans to comprehend, I think.

Polarizing.

Polarizing.

In every way I’ve been able to discover, I am an old style European “Christian Socialist,” except that it’s a little strange for someone whose belief in God is as tenuous as mine these days to self-identify as a “Christian” anything.

For reasons I don’t understand—but for which I am enormously grateful—after listening to the PBS report of the Pew Trust survey, what came to my mind was the hymn “O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother.” In my mind I was singing it to Acadia.

Because I’ve been unable to find a copy of Acadia and can’t quite play it out of my head by ear, I researched the text and found it as a hymn in the Southern Baptist Hymnal of 1951, The Baptist Hymnal. The tune is Ilona by Joseph W. Lerman (1865-1935).

So here is a tune by a 19th-century American organist, immigrated from England, and a text by one of America’s great Quaker Universalist Abolitionist writers, played by a sort-of Christian Socialist Texan on an organ built by a California organ builder. Several missed opportunities for polarization.

Many Americans will have a problem with the text from the very beginning because we don’t use the quaint masculine to mean both brothers and sisters. Perhaps being willing to take Whittier’s language for what he meant it to be would be a first step in trying to “fold to our hearts our brothers” and work on ending our personal participation in polarization. The Pew Trust survey was true yesterday, but I, for one, hope the time comes soon when it is no longer true.

O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where mercy dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

For he whom Jesus loved has truly spoken:
The holier worship which He deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.

Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him Whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.

Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

GRB 140419A – “My heart leaps up when I behold” (William Wordsworth)

GRB 140419A - reality circled in blue.

GRB 140419A – reality circled in blue.

.

.

The headline on SMU’s website reads, “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.”

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago (1).

SMU owns the telescope that took the first picture of the explosion, the Rotse-IIIB at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

I want to know about GRB 140419A. How do the astronomers know it “occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago?”

I ask, not as a science-denier. I don’t doubt astronomers know GRB 140419A happened shortly after the Big Bang. I don’t doubt the Big Bang happened. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of accepting the unfathomable body of research and practice of scientists over the last five hundred years. The correctness of the science does not depend on me

I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I have some sense. My lack of knowledge does not carry me off into disbelief—the arrogant disbelief of climate-change and evolution, for example. Arrogant because that disbelief assumes either that one knows more than all scientists since Galileo, or that god has given one special insight into the workings of the universe. I’d be terrified of claiming a special understanding directly from god about the physical laws of the universe. Or anything else, for that matter.

But then, I’m neither a Southern Baptist nor a member of the Taliban.

Being in my 70th year with little time left on this planet (and somewhat diminished brain capacity), I can’t make up for the studying I haven’t done. I’ll never know how astronomers know when GRB 140419A happened. “. . . gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in Southern Methodist University’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations, said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years. . .” (1).

I have no idea why many things are the way they are. Why, for example, after decades of selling blueberries in plastic boxes with slots in them so the berries could be washed by running water through the box, has Kroger suddenly begun selling blueberries in solid boxes so they have to be taken out of the box for washing?

Trivial, you say? Well, then back to the cosmic. Since the Big Bang started everything, what caused the Big Bang? What banged? One molecule of something banged? Well, where was it when it banged if there was no there there? What made it bang? Had anything ever banged before? Do scientists think about these things and have answers for them?

Probably, but I don’t know.

Some of the stuff of my reality?

Some of the stuff of my reality?

. . . [In certain patients] . . . psycho-sensory symptoms of epileptogenic nature occur . . . These symptoms, likely closely related to dissociative tendency and experienced traumatic events, normally belong to characteristic manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy . . . Characteristic symptoms are very similar to certain dissociative symptoms. . . memory gaps, confusion spells, staring spells, episodic irritability . . . (2)

I’ve concluded my temporal lobe epilepsy is a fortunate preview of the impossibility of apprehending the nature of reality. When I was a child and went into dissociative states for which I had no explanation, I concluded that I didn’t really exist and neither did you. I concluded we are all a figment of the imagination of someone or something that we can’t possibly know.

What is real?

Do you know for sure? Is Wall Street real? Are HD “smart” TV’s real? Is the war in Syria real? Are the dresses movie stars wear on the red carpet real? Are the dresses you wear real? Is Ted Cruz any more real now that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship? Is your religion real? Is SMU’s physics department real? Is my computer real?

I know, I’m being sophomoric again. I need to study Nietzsche, or Heidegger, or Kant, or Foucault, or Baudrillard, or Dick Cheney, and I will have plenty of answers to my silly questions. The silly questions I’ve been asking all my life.

The stuff of my life has nothing to do with reality. I’m not saying the cup of morning coffee, the Wi-Fi router, the four or five thumb-drives, the magnifying glass I use to read the writing on most packages of stuff I buy these days, the 1,000 books on the shelves behind me, Groucho the cat sitting beside me—all of that stuff I can see and touch right now—is not “real.”

But at the moment of my death will any of it matter? Will the billions in my bank account matter? Will my latest tattoo matter? Will Eric Cantor matter? Will the surplices and reserve sacrament at my church matter? Will clothes for sale at Traffic LA downtown or Walmart in the suburbs matter? Will the gender of my spouse matter? Will my right to own a gun matter? Will saving the whales matter?

Is there a First Cause? an Unmoved Mover? a God, if you will?

I have no idea what William Wordsworth meant by “natural piety.”

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

However, I know this. The question of “when my life began,” my personal Big Bang or the universal Big Bang, is the same question as “when I shall grow old or let me die.”

Anyone my age or older who isn’t absorbed in thinking about these things is perhaps substituting “stuff” for reality.
__________
(1) Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.
(2) Bob, Petr, et. al. “Dissociation and Neurobiological Consequences of Traumatic Stress.” Activitas Nervosa Superior 50 (2008): 9-14.

If this be reality, make the most of it

If this be reality, make the most of it

“It was, as it always has been, a choice” (Michael Blumenthal)

Baboon-matters-2A serious question: What on earth would make a grown man take a month out from a busy career as a widely respected poet (at that time he’d published 6 books of poetry and a novel), teacher, and legal scholar (when he was much younger a law clerk to Justice David Souter) and run off to South Africa to save orphaned chacma baboons? I can’t imagine, but I intend to read his account as soon as I finish this writing.

Last night at the birthday dinner for a dear friend one of the other guests and I suddenly found ourselves in a conversation that seemed as if we had stumbled into the middle of it and didn’t quite know what we were talking about. Our own private micro-version of the “Burkean parlor.” It was much too serious for a party, and the subject was much too important simply to toss it off as party small talk.

All of us at the party were of an age—in our 60s. I was the oldest, but only by a year. The host and I had a slight disagreement when I said I am in my 70th year. “But you’re only 69!” she said. Think about it. Until a person’s first birthday, they are in their first year, right? So once I’ve passed my 69th birthday, I am in my 70th year.

The guest and I were chatting about why we don’t go to church or synagogue (she is Jewish) these days. I think we were both trying to say the same thing. I was trying to explain that going to church, comforting as the Episcopal liturgy is, seems somehow so ephemeral, so otherworldly (Duh!), so removed from the immediacy of my day to day life that it feels like both a waste of time in the moment and somehow a deception. Especially since I don’t think I believe in God.

For goodness’ sake, Maya Angelou died last week—one of the constants in my life since I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in about 1975. Maya Angelou was only 86 years old, only in her 87th year, 17 years older than I. Seventeen years! My father was in his 98th year when he died, 28 years older than I am now. Twenty-eight years!

You there, dear reader, you think you’ve got all the time in the world. Well, you don’t, and the guest at the birthday dinner and I were trying to talk about that, but we didn’t quite know how to fit it into party talk.

I’m going to be a shameless name-dropper. Michael Blumenthal told me a few month ago that if there is a “Michael Blumenthal fan club,” I must be the only member. Yes, he told me that in an email after I told him I wanted to be a member of his fan club. He’s a youngster—only 65—but he has done all of these strange and wonderful things.

He and I have had a brief exchange of emails. I found his address when I read and was inspired (? I have no idea what the correct word is here?) by his poem “Be Kind.”

Tucked away in the back of my mind is the useless idea that I want to have lived the way Blumenthal has lived. Just read about the (almost bizarre) variations of “career” he has had. Lawyer, poet, professor, and savior of baby chacma baboons. This is not—as much as it may seem—a paean to Michael Blumenthal. He and I are so much different I suspect we could hardly be friends if we met face to face (that’s probably not true—we’re both too old to worry about each other’s foibles).

It’s OK for someone like me who wishes he had published 8 books of poetry (or had some lasting “creative” legacy) to look at someone like Michael Blumenthal and think, “Now there’s the guy who’s done the sorts of things I wish I’d done.” As long as thinking that does not either make of him some sort of hero that he would be embarrassed to know about or make of myself some sort of failure living with regrets too numerous to contemplate.

Nope. Michael Blumenthal and I are at exactly the same place. We have done what we have done—he perhaps with more energy and brains and discipline than I have—and we are both, according to Maya Angelou’s example, about 18 years from the end. It’s OK to find his accomplishments fascinating. And it’s OK for me to find my own life fascinating.

Or perhaps not!

Or perhaps not!

I’ve played the organ for more hours than most of my readers have been alive (even some who are dangerously close to being old farts). I’ve traveled the world—small portions of it—not for pleasure but for understanding. I’ve been married and divorced and had long-term relationships with men.

Do you want to know what’s really important? A young man, 30-something, whom I’ve known since he was about 10 came to me recently, not knowing what to expect, but needing an “adult” to talk to about his growing acceptance of himself as a transgendered person. He came to me. He didn’t know that one of the most significant friendships of my life is with a transgendered man. He simply thought he could trust me. That’s not as immediately exciting as going to Africa to save the baboons, but it’s pretty damned miraculous.

So the Burkean Parlor conversation the party guest and I were trying to have is the same one everyone has. What’s going on here? What is my life all about? Am I ready for it to end, or are there yet baby baboons I want to save? Or young friends I want truly to befriend when they need it?

OK. So here’s a sample Michael Blumenthal poem. And it fits at this point. See why I like his almost-old-man stuff so much?

“Self-Help,” by Michael Blumenthal

It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O

knowing it would be more interesting
and, in the long run, better for me. I’d lived
the compassionate life for years— it had proved

far better for those around me than for myself.
Now, I figured, it was time for The Story of O,
Tropic of Cancer, Philosophy in the Boudoir, all

the books that had inspired me in my youth,
before altruism gave pleasure a bad name.
We all go back to our origins, somehow, I think,

ordering a cappuccino and flirting with the waitress,
probably young enough to be my daughter. Isn’t
it, after all, pleasure we truly want, and decency

the back road we use to get there? Why not, rather,
speak our desires straight out, perhaps obliquely,
as in a poem, but nonetheless without shame, so that

pleasure will ultimately reach those who deserve it,
and the books that once gave us so much bad feeling
toward our happier selves can go on doing their work

in the deeply literate darkness underground.

—Blumenthal, Michael. No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. Wilkes-Barre, PA: etruscan press (2012) 68.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn't that much different from saving baby baboons.

David Souter. Perhaps law clerking isn’t that much different from saving baby baboons.

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. The ocean was all one. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

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). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“. . . 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.