“Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . .” (Dylan Thomas)

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

Thousands of Names, one Quilt

In about 1981 when I had finished giving the young son (about 5 years old) of dear friends his piano lesson at their home in Brookline, MA, his dad insisted we have a conversation. We were long time close friends and often talked. This seemed different–important somehow.

Jim worked in research at the Harvard School for Public Health. He wanted to tell me about the “gay disease.” He was convinced it wasn’t the “gay disease,” but whatever it was, gays seemed to be the only victims for reasons no one had yet figured out. He wanted to be sure I had a better understanding of the disease than I might read in the papers, and he wanted me to be careful–although he didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Our conversation took place shortly after I had begun treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy. The world had begun to feel even less safe than I had always thought it was although I did everything I could to avoid thinking about it.

By the mid-‘80s the “gay disease” was taking a terrifying toll. I had stopped keeping count of the men I knew who had died from HIV/AIDS as we knew it by then. Keeping a list was overwhelmingly depressing.

The psychiatrist I saw as part of my TLE treatment suggested in the late ’80s that I do something to confront my ongoing perplexity that I had not contracted HIV even though I had done very little to change my behavior in the time since the spread of the disease became understood.

I became a volunteer at the AIDS Hospice in Boston. “If it’s wet, wear gloves,” was the first and only non-negotiable rule. The work was intense. My guess is that anyone spending ten hours a week with people who are dying would see their own view of the world change dramatically and permanently.

Volunteers changed beds, helped patients shower, brought meals to the bedside of patients unable to go to the dining room, read to patients, talked with patients, and sat—some days for the entire time we were there—often holding the patient’s hand, more often simply sitting beside the bed saying and doing nothing.

Twice in those four years I was with a patient at the moment of his death. Several times I aided the nurse in the few moments immediately after a patient died.

I don’t know how to describe those experiences. I don’t have the language to express the gratitude which I hold in my heart for every hour I spent at the Hospice, especially those moments around patients’ deaths.

He raged against that good night

He raged against that good night

Those men (and one woman) gave me the highest honor one can give—to be with them as they approached the last moments of their life or, even more awe-inspiring, to be with them at the moment of their death.

Explaining is impossible. Undeserved and incomprehensible, the (unexpected) privilege of witnessing the most important moment of another’s life (each time as an intruder) changed my worldview forever. Whatever words I can find to say this are inadequate and seem dramatic or sentimental in a way I do not (cannot) intend.

Dies irae, the opening Latin words of the Medieval Sequence Hymn (to be sung between the readings from scriptures—“Day of wrath” is the most common translation) from the Requiem Mass of the Roman Rite, are tattooed on my left arm as of last week. Nearly everyone who has seen the tattoo has asked me why those words.

Ultimately I do not believe that the day one dies is a day of “wrath.” And I do not believe in the “Day of Judgment” the hymn describes. When I attend a church service in which the Nicene Creed is used, I cannot say the words, “He [Jesus] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

I have often thought that, were I either a comic or a philosopher (perhaps a philologist), I could write something memorable noting the visual sameness of “Dies” (day) in Latin and “Dies” (dies) in English. Many people must have tried to say something clever about that sameness over the years.

But that cleverness is not the reason for my tattoo.

The most famous poem of Dylan Thomas (who lived only 39 years) is “Do not go Gentle into that Good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The film, The Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and written by Larry Kramer—an adaptation of Kramer’s play written at the height of the AIDS crisis about gay men raging against the dying of the light—was recently released on HBO. I saw it last week after my arm was tattooed.

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning. . .

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . .

Those of us gay men who lived through (were in our “prime” during) the worst of the AIDS epidemic, before any treatment for HIV was discovered, understand Thomas’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” not, ultimately differently from anyone else, but as a community. We watched our friends die in numbers that should be common only to people who are my age now.

My tattoo is a reminder (is it healthy to have a constant reminder?) that the most important task I have left is to discover for myself what the “day of wrath” means, what it means “not [to] go gentle into that good night.” Perhaps I should have Thomas’s line tattooed on my right arm so I have a constant reminder that we live in the tension between the day of “wrath” and that “good” night.

We can barely sit through "The Normal Heart"

We can barely sit through “The Normal Heart”

“. . . it is the movement that creates the form. “

A reference librarian at Fondren Library at SMU and I have been known to argue about my contention that, in doing research, students need to learn to be lazy. She says students must learn to be efficient. We both mean that students should keep track of their findings in research so they never have to retrace their steps—never have to look anything up more than once.

it is the movement that delays the form while darkness slows and encumbers

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers

Recently I discovered the poetry of Richard Howard (born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929; professor of Writing at Columbia University in New York). His poem “Like Most Revelations (after Morris Louis)” is copied below.

I am going to drive to Houston this afternoon for an overnight stay to go to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts tomorrow for the exhibition of the paintings of Georges Braque (1881-1963). Braque was a close friend and associate of Picasso. His work was somewhat forgotten in the shadow of his preeminent friend. I learned about him at some time I’ve forgotten, and I’ve seen a couple of his paintings (perhaps the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Or I’ve seen reprints in books. At any rate, I have visual memories of several of his paintings, and I want to see his work. Houston is the only American venue for this exhibition.

Looking online for information about the exhibition, I came across a bunch of stuff about previous exhibitions at the Houston MFA, and from there went looking online for paintings by Louis Morris (American, 1912-1962). I’m not sure why.

It may be that I remembered the poem by Richard Howard. I doubt it although I’ve read the poem several times trying to figure out what it is “about.” At any rate, I located pictures of some of Morris’s work online, and suddenly Howard’s poetry made perfect sense. Ah! Research.

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture—yes
. . .

The poem is hardly mysterious at all—the subject matter, at any rate.

Yesterday I went to Target for a bit of shopping. Don’t get squirrelly on me about shopping there. At least I didn’t give Alice Walton any of my money. Target is on my way home from the Landry Fitness Center. I needed cat food, and it’s the only place I can get the medium sized bag I like. I picked up a few “non-perishable” groceries I needed so I wouldn’t have to go to Kroger after I got home.

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

Georges Braque, Musical Instruments

I was at the register, and the clerk and I chatted. The bill came to $70 and change. I slid my card “quickly” in the reader and entered my PIN. The little screen announced I’d entered the wrong PIN. I tried again, and the register told the clerk it could not complete my transaction. I tried again. Not. So we went to the next register with the same result. I was baffled (and getting more than a little annoyed) because I (for once in my life) had checked my balance online, and I knew my account had plenty of money.

I was thinking out loud what to do. Go home, check the balance, come back? go to the bank, get the cash, and come back? leave and go to Kroger to get cat food and not come back? I was, I suppose, obviously upset—but trying my level best to take the situation in stride. Anyone who knows me knows this is the sort of situation that simply baffles me, and I don’t take with aplomb.

The young woman behind me had her credit card in her hand, and said, “Here, let me do it.” No. I know there’s plenty of money on this card. “But it will be a hassle for you. Let me do it.” She handed her card to the clerk, and the transaction was done before I could protest again. I began crying and saying thank you, and she took my hand and said, “I’m happy to do it. Just pay it forward when you can.”

I’m sure the young woman thought I was a poor old man who suddenly didn’t have money to buy his groceries and was too proud to admit it. I’m sure she would have done the same thing for anyone in my situation.

(I drove straight to the bank and found out my account had plenty of money, but after the second ineffective attempt to enter my PIN, my account was automatically frozen. I am obviously an old(er) man, but I did—and do—have enough money to buy cat food and Grapenuts—by the way, did you know you can buy Peets coffee at Target?)

It is the movement of our lives that creates the form.

The movement of my life is altogether too often upset, and I’m seldom grateful.

The movement of that young woman’s life is to be generous—at least at times. My guess is she has done what she did before and will do it again.

I know I will—again and often—be inefficient or lazy about taking care of myself (I don’t know if I entered the PIN correctly or not, but I know I will be upset over nothing again).

. . . in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until
it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention
. . .

Baffled in such toils of ease I am apt—no, guaranteed—to deceive the form I want for my life, calm, kind undeceived. I am vexed that I will, even as a old man—never learn to give (give up) [myself] to this mortal process of continuing.

The young woman, whose name I will never know, has already learned. Her graciousness, I am sure, touches the lives of many people—even those who don’t need or deserve, it . . . –yes, it is the movement that delights the form, sustained by its own velocity. 

“Like Most Revelations,” by Richard Howard      

(after Morris Louis)

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture–yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity.  And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken?  What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

. . . beguiling our attention--we supposed it is the movement that achieves the form.

. . . beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.

 

“. . . hearty Laugher and name rememberer, Proud me . . .”

Stuart Dischell was born in 1954, which makes him 60. Hardly old enough to be thinking about what he used to be.

My little job as shipping clerk

My little job as shipping clerk

When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me . . .
(1).

Poor guy. Wait nine years and see how much he misses of himself. He won’t remember half his list. In some box of the stuff I’ve kept over the past 45 or 50 years, I have a photo of myself lying on the floor on an oriental rug. My late ex-wife took it to haunt me. I fell asleep drunk. Again. The photo is one of my favorites, not because I remember the rollicking good time but because it’s not possible to tell I’m drunk. I look like a healthy 25-or-so-year-old graduate student.

We had not yet entered the phase of love beads and hair/beard not trimmed for a year and brownies that now would be legal in Colorado. When people from California, Iowa, or Boston or St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, say they miss me, that boyish guy lying on the floor is whom they miss, in my mind. Never mind he was drunk and sans PhD. Or many other accomplishments I’ve learned to value over the years.

Note I did not say the accomplishments were valuable, but that I valued them. Some were of value, but most of less value than I paced on them.

Fortunately, I don’t remember—I assume—much (most?) of what I’ve done that is of real value. If I did, I’d “think of [myself] more highly than [I] ought to think, [rather than to] think with sober judgment,” as frumpy old St. Paul said in Romans 12. I remember–not as “accomplishment” but as simple experience—too much scripture for my own good. My mother quoted that Bible sentence to hold over my head so it would not swell inappropriately. Thanks, Mom.

A bit of sarcasm. I thank her for that in the same way I thank her that whenever someone says “Dr. Knight,” I look over my shoulder to see to whom they are speaking. My PhD still sits uneasy.

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a [PhD]

(Shakespeare, William. History of Henry IV, Part II. III.1)

Lest anyone think I think I don’t deserve my PhD, I hasten to say that’s not what I mean. Those three years of seminars, that intense study for qualifying exams, and the 367-page dissertation were my accomplishments, no one else’s, and they are the required hoops through which one jumps to be called “Doctor.” Just as getting old is now my full-time job, so were those hoops between 1974 and 1988. Fourteen years? you ask incredulously.

Helping people live by testing their blood

Helping people live by testing their blood

I wish I knew the name of the Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa in 1987—and if he is still alive. I’d like to say “thank you” to him F2F. By the time I was ready to take my qualifying exams, I had been away from the program physically—I was in Massachusetts by then—and chronologically—it had been more than the seven years allowed to finish after residency without taking many seminars again.  The Dean allowed me to finish—to write my dissertation and defend it—because I told him I’d finally sobered up, and several people—including the Rector of the church where I directed the music—wrote letters of support. I did the work, but my PhD is something as a gift.

I don’t remember if I’ve written about that before. After all, this is the 633rd posting I’ve made in my two blogs since September, 2009 (about one every other day). I read those earlier postings now and think, “Who wrote this?” Not because they are such bad (or good) writing, but because I can’t believe I ever knew or thought most of what’s in them.

This morning at 4:30 when I got up, a small group of men were down in the street finishing a job they began yesterday. Apparently repairing a water main leak or some such heavy, unpleasant (and thankless) work. Last night water gysered from the hole they had dug in the street for quite awhile. When I looked out this morning, the gushing had stopped and the hole was nearly filled. In the time I’ve been writing they have finished the job and taken away the machinery.

I wonder if those workmen will bring their grandchildren to this corner and say, “This is where I helped keep the water supply of Dallas flowing on March 1, 2014.”

I’m not someone who flails about talking about the value of good hard work. I’ll leave that to Bill Maher (whose job hardly keeps Dallas—or any other city—in running water). However, I know that my little jobs as shipping clerk at the (now disappeared!) Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, CA, and as a night shift technician in a lab at L.A. County Hospital, while I hated them at the time, are an important part of “Me, the old me, the great me.” Not the kinds of things Stuart Dishell calls up from his memory. I’ve had plenty of those, too. (Three men, however, not three women, and never handsome and hirsute In soccer shoes and shorts.)

Those jobs, as clearly as my PhD studies, are my preparation for being a

Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

I’m nine years closer to the “frameless door” than Dishell. Who, by the way, also has a graduate degree from the University of Iowa.

Days of Me,” by Stuart Dischell

When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me, friend
To waiters and bartenders, hearty
Laugher and name rememberer,
Proud me, handsome and hirsute
In soccer shoes and shorts
On the ball fields behind MIT,
Strong me in a weightbelt at the gym,
Mutual sweat dripper in and out
Of the sauna, furtive observer
Of the coeducated and scantily clad,
Speedy me, cyclist of rivers,
Goose and peregrine falcon
Counter, all season venturer,
Chatterer-up of corner cops,
Groundskeepers, mothers with strollers,
Outwitter of panhandlers and bill
Collectors, avoider of levies, excises,
Me in a taxi in the rain,
Pressing my luck all the way home.

That’s me at the dice table, baby,
Betting come, little Joe, and yo,
Blowing the coals, laying thunder,
My foot on top a fifty dollar chip
Some drunk spilled on the floor,
Dishonest me, evener of scores,
Eager accepter of the extra change,
Hotel towel pilferer, coffee spoon
Lifter, fervent retailer of others’
Humor, blackhearted gossiper,
Poisoner at the well, dweller
In unsavory detail, delighted sayer
Of the vulgar, off course belier
Of the true me, empiric builder
Newly haircutted, stickerer-up
For pals, jam unpriser, medic
To the self-inflicted, attorney
To the self-indicted, petty accountant
And keeper of the double books,
Great divider of the universe
And all its forms of existence
Into its relationship to me,
Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

A hard night's work

A hard night’s work


“. . . and God has a nasty temper when provoked . . .”

What to come back as

What to come back as

Yesterday driving up Lemmon Avenue in Dallas home from my exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool—one hour, ten minutes each of six different styles of walking), I heard Krys Boyd on “Think” on KERA say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended. I was too stunned to listen further.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil?

I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (as did every other smart-ass high school kid when I was 18—now they don’t even know what Hamlet is, either as in theater or as a small town nestled in a valley in Vermont). I think I’m afraid even to read it now.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Well, none. It would be nice to think I will have mind enough left to dream after I’ve shuffled off, but I doubt it. I really must talk to my neurologist about his concept of the “after life.”

A theory floated around a few years ago that a certain list of life events is almost certain to cause depression: the death of a parent, the breakup of a relationship, the change of (or loss of) a job, moving from one city to another. I think retirement should be in there because it is not, strictly speaking, the loss of a job.

When my Grandfather Knight died and we had the obligatory “hours,” I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle by ten or twelve) than I am now. I guess I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

As I have written here before, in the past decade, I have experienced the death of both parents—I had the unfathomable gift of being with each of them when they died—the death of my partner (we assumed we’d trundle off into old age together), and the death of my brother-in-law. I now have the certain knowledge of the date of retirement (May 15), the possibility of moving—to somewhere that will insure my not being alone in my dotage, unresolved issues with how to have a relationship, and the falling apart of my body (three surgeries—minor, I suppose—last year, and a “trigger finger” on my right hand that is obviously going to need repair sometime soon. I think I have every right to be depressed.

Last summer while I was on crutches from the repair work on my hip (100% successful, thank whatever part of the cosmos we’re comfortable thanking), the university moved several of our faculty offices from one building to another. Since then I have worked in—and had student conferences in—an office that looks pretty much the way it did when the movers left. Remember, I was on crutches and could hardly hang pictures on the wall, much less arrange books on shelves. Books I never use, by the way.

So the question is, now that I have—let’s see, exactly 41 days of class left before I’m put out to pasture, what’s the use of bothering? Old Abe may just have to stay on the floor.

On the other hand, the students will probably be more comfortable when they come for their conferences if the place looks somewhat normal. Or will they? Would a student even notice Abe on the floor? Do they even know who Abe was these days? Oh, the imponderables of teaching. I know that during semesters that the Gettysburg Address has been part of our study, I knew the quickest way to amaze my students was to recite the Address from memory. And then to name all of the Presidents in order. . .  Jackson Van Buren Harrison Tyler Polk Taylor Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln. . .

I know lots of pretty useless stuff. And I can do lots of pretty useless things. And I own a lot of unnecessary crap—mostly books and a pipe organ.

What dreams will come when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time.
. .

I wish I’d thought of that. See, this is what happens when you get to be part of the older generation. I put a picture of some men wearing suits like the ones my father wore when I was born and long enough after that so I remember them on my Facebook page and asked my friends who remember those suits to send me a message. Only two did.

I had hoped to find a group of us old folks to talk together about—about anything that comes to mind. I know things come to my mind that never used to, and I’d just like to know if that happens to everyone when they’re the older generation. I know Maxine Kumin thinks about things differently. Damn! I wish I could think the way she does. What fun we could have.

Abe will just have to wait.

Abe will just have to wait.

All those things like parental dying and jobs ending and moving around may be depressing for the younger generation, but for us, those in the older generation, they are, well, they’re just the way things are. Go, Maxine! (I don’t know how old she was when she wrote this poem, but she’s 89 and still part of the older generation.)

In the Park, by Maxine Kumin

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
–you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. 
He laid on me not doing anything.
I could feel his heart beating against my heart.

Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.  For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.  Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as. 

When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.  In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

“. . . we will remember every single thing, recall every word, love every loss . . .”

Today is the day. My 69th birthday. I’m voraciously accepting best wishes from anyone and everyone. So don’t be shy.

The boy she married

The boy she married

I guess it’s time for Lumosity and my trainer. Get mind and body working out and staying (getting) healthy.

The brain exercise rip-offs I can do without. And working with my trainer is on hold until my surgeries are healed (especially the three-inch gash in my tummy). But I will be back to training very soon—if only because it’s so much fun to spend an hour with a cute young thing like Mason.

I have the remaining six weeks of physical therapy for my shoulder. Dr. Miracle Worker is pleased with my progress and says we’ll wait six months before we decide whether or not to fix my right shoulder.

The best thing I can do for my brain is to begin again to read voraciously. I haven’t been reading for about fifteen years. Oh, I read a lot, but mostly academic articles about arcane subjects that serve little useful purpose. I was looking around my “office” (or whatever this disheveled part of my apartment might be called) the other day and realized I have enough unread books here to last me the rest of my life. I don’t need to buy any books.

Or, perhaps, the best thing I can do is learn new music. I started learning a little piece every day a while back, and then I had all of this surgery, and that ended that. I should get back to it. Or simply play a little work by Brahms that I first learned when I was in high school. I’d like to play a recital at, perhaps, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, where I’ve done so before. But I’m not sure I can manage myself well enough to get it ready. I could do a program of my own old favorites. That would require less self-management than self-indulgence.

Growing old(er) is a curious affair. There’s no preparation for it. No one can tell you what it’s like. Suddenly you’ve been around for as long as those old people you thought were so venerable (or mysterious) when you were a kid. I remember when my dad’s dad turned 70. It was 1955. My dad was 40, I was 10. I thought Granddad was about as old as a person could be. Eight years later (1963), he and Grandmother celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and I was sure no one had ever been married that long. He was, of course only 78. And then in 1987, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary.

And now many of my married friends (at least the ones who’ve had only one spouse) have been married 50 years or close to it. And I am one year away from that mysterious 70th birthday of my grandfather.

Yesterday I was in the bank to deposit a check. I had to show the teller my ID, and she said with great excitement, “We have the same birthday!” I replied that she had a long way to go to be as old as I am. Neither she nor the other teller not the branch manager (with whom I have worked a great deal over the past ten years) believed I’d be 69 today. “You can’t be that old!” But she was glad to find another Capricorn (we always are—together we could rule the world such as, for instance two who tried it, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedung).

That old.

Let me tell you about the disconnect between mind and brain when you are “that old.” My brain is that old. It’s slowing down.

I have all of those problems of memory in the Billy Collins poem I included in my blog yesterday. And more.

Will I ever look like my trainer again?

If I keep training, will I look like Mason some day?”

The disconnect is that my mind doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening to my brain. I am exactly the same person I was thirty, forty, fifty (perhaps not fifty) years ago. I am I. This is he. I think everyone who gets to 69 or older must have this strange experience of wondering who they’re talking about. Old? Me? I look in the mirror, and I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing. Just me. And it’s obviously physically a different me than I saw thirty years ago (or, perhaps, even last year).  But I am who I am.

I doubt that ever changes.

When my father was 97 years old, if I arrived soon after breakfast time at the medical facility of the retirement community where

he lived, I would find him sitting in the hallway shaving with his electric razor. He had found the only electric outlet he could use to do what he, Glenn Knight, always did, that is, keep himself groomed. Daily. Habit? Perhaps, or simply his understanding that, with all the change in his life, he was still Glenn Knight, and that’s what he did every morning. Looking sharp was part of who he was.

I’m beginning to understand the disconnect between what my brain thinks of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I know and feel, and what my mind thinks is going on. My mind thinks “The Boy She Married,” as my late ex-wife was fond of saying, is still bebopping around here planning weird stuff to do and trying, at the same time, to appear to be intelligent and scholarly.

So I want to debunk a myth. Sixty is NOT the new forty, and forty is NOT the new twenty or any of that nonsense. If you are determined to think and act as if that were true, you are determined to deprive yourself of the most mysterious experience of being Homo sapiens.

A favorite growing older poem (written when Ammons was 71)

“In View of the Fact,”by A. R. Ammons

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .

“. . . 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.

“. . . like a pronoun out of step with all the other floating signifiers . . .”

PLEASE, before you read this, I would appreciate your reading an important writing by my friend Samia Khoury in Jerusalem. Thank you.

They won't repeat it just for me.

They won’t repeat it just for me.

(Note: proofreading this I realized it makes no sense whatsoever. I will try to fix that and post it again—or something like it.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas are always nostalgic for me, not because I love Christmas or because I remember Christmases past, but because they somehow mark the progression of my life.

Such times mark the progression of everyone’s lives if they think about it. (Don’t get all stuffy with me and tell me “they” is wrong here—the old nonsense promulgated by high-brow prescriptivists—until you have studied epicene and generic uses of “they.” If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me: Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock!  — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.)

The first Christmas I remember as a professional organist was Christmas 1967 at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, California. I’d never seen anything like it. Midnight Mass in the most vivid color with candles by the hundreds, flowers everywhere (poinsettias in abundance, but not the main offering). The infant Jesus finally in the crèche. And the music I was in charge of. I don’t remember exactly what the choir sang or I played, but I know it was glorious (that’s not my ego talking—it is possible for amateurs and non-world-class professionals to make glorious music).

I could write a progression of tales of Christmas past for the past 46 or so years, but I won’t. That’s because it’s the First Sunday in Christmas (there will be two this season), and I am going to play the organ at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Richardson, Texas.

This will be the first time in more than a year I have played for a service. That’s difficult for me to believe because my whole life has been centered in my understanding that I am an organist and that my failure to preside at the console and in the aisles and choir stalls of an Episcopal cathedral today is the result of their failure to recognize my talent. Of course, that’s not true. My failure is my failure (except “failure” is the wrong word—I’ll let you know when I find the right one). I have not worked hard enough to develop my considerable but also limited talents to achieve such a position.

This writing is neither sour grapes nor feeling sorry for myself. I have had and directed glorious musical experiences. But I know my limitations. They begin with the fact that there is absolutely nothing about me that is “driven.” I have no clue what it’s like to pursue a goal with energy and concentration, letting nothing get in my way. I have too many innate obstacles—beginning with limited intensity and strength (both physical and mental).

So back to this nostalgia for (or centered in) the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days always used to give me, when I was making music for churches, a sense that I might be able to do the Christmas Eve service over and get it perfect. After all, it is still Christmas and all of that music is still appropriate, so let’s try it again.

I’m grown up enough (and have been for many years) to know that’s not the way it works. They’re not going to back up and pretend Santa hasn’t come yet and repeat the process until I get it right. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

This is related. I'll tell you how later.

This is related. I’ll tell you how later.

It’s all a matter of belief. Do you believe time passes or not? Well, yes and no. I’ve written about my understanding of (or lack of) the passage of time (quite recently, as a matter of fact).

What might have been is obvious. I might have directed the music and/or played the organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I might have directed the Boston Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel. Or the choir of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco might have sung an anthem I wrote.

Of course. I can play Walter Mitty with the best of them (perhaps not as well as Ben Stiller).

But I prefer these days to think about what is. I’m not important to the world, but I am important to a few people. I will remember this Christmas, I think, several reasons. I can walk without a cane. My arm is not in a sling (although reaching for the stops on the left panel of the organ I’ll play today is a bit of a challenge still). So I’m grateful for progress for myself—for recovery and healing.

Some of the sources of the word “nostalgia” include “homecoming,” and “to return safely home” and “to recover,” and “to heal.” The modern sense of yearning for the past is a recent 20th-century usage. To “recover,” to “heal.” One of the people who was present at that Christmas Eve in California 46 years ago, when she died, left me in charge of her estate—to make grants for writers. I get to make a grant this week not to a writer but to someone who daily influences the lives of children with various limitations. She is a music therapist. Her guitar was stolen. I get to pay for a new one tomorrow.

Will I ever again in my life have the experience of participating in “recovery” or “healing” as I will during these Twelve Days? I hope so. But if I don’t, it is enough. It’s a “quick one before I go.”

“A Quick One Before I Go,” by David Lehman        

There comes a time in every man’s life
when he thinks: I have never had a single
original thought in my life
including this one & therefore I shall
eliminate all ideas from my poems
which shall consist of cats, rice, rain
baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants
red brick houses where I shall give up booze
and organized religion even if it means
despair is a logical possibility that can’t
be disproved I shall concentrate on the five
senses and what they half perceive and half
create, the green street signs with white
letters on them the body next to mine
asleep while I think these thoughts
that I want to eliminate like nostalgia
0 was there ever a man who felt as I do
like a pronoun out of step with all the other
floating signifiers no things but in words
an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke's Lutheran, Richardson, TX

The organ I get to play today. St. Luke’s Lutheran, Richardson, TX