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

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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.

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

“. . . give up this life of mine and am not troubled about this. . .” (Johann Georg Albinus, 1652)

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Looking into Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebaska (Photo: Harold Knight, August 2016)

I was born 72 years ago today, January 3, 1945, in Douglas, Wyoming.

It’s cold in Wyoming in January, as in next-door Nebraska where I did most of my physical growing up and graduated from high school in 1963. In 1976 I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, one state over from Nebraska and just as cold in January (I had been in California for eleven years in the interim). That year my friend Pat French from Muscatine gave me a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for my birthday. Based on our frequent late-night interminable discussions vis a vis “the meaning of life,” lubricated by much Scotch whiskey, she thought I should read Becker’s book which won the Pulitzer Prize the year before. I was 31, and she was about 50. I thought she was the smartest person I knew ―and, in fact, that was likely true then and likely never changed. She was also crass and irreverent, and self-identified as “black Irish.”

I lost contact with Pat about 20 years ago, and I often wonder how her life went on. Some time back I Googled Pat and discovered she died in 2012. When she died, no one thought to tell me since I was living first in Massachusetts (also cold in January) and then (as now) in Dallas (strange but not so cold in January) ―and no one remembered we were friends.

Note to self: Someday think about the many people who have been important to your growth and self-awareness who have simply disappeared from your life. Don’t think about it today, someday.

I have never met Ton Koopman, but in a strange way, I consider him an old friend. He was born October 2, 1944, three months before I was born. He is a Dutch organist and professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Whenever I want to hear an organ work of J.S. Bach’s played, I go to YouTube and look up Ton Koopman’s performance.

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Birthday number 2 – Worland, Wyoming, January 3, 1947.

A few days ago I was preparing for my annual birthday video (a small organ work recorded on my birthday for my own amusement) and was undecided between the Bach chorale prelude on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year is passed away”) and the Bach chorale prelude on Alle Menschen müßen sterben (“Everyone must die”). I found Koopman’s YouTube of each of them. It was no contest. However I played or wherever I recorded it, I could not come close to the glory of Koopman’s “Everyone must die.  And that meant I would record “The old year is passed away.”   That’s OK because it is in a style more suited to my abilities.

The lovely melancholy of “The old year is passed away” is suitable to my ability and to our time.  “. . . Thou hast kept us through the year/ When danger and distress were near.” It’s not clear to me that God has kept us (the idea of God drifts farther and farther away from me as time goes on), but obviously something is keeping us in this time of danger and distress. But, as they say, I digress.

For many years I kept as my private motto, my personal inner explanation of “the meaning of life,” Ernest Becker’s assertion that, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

My ideas regarding Becker’s statement were concentrated for many years on the “towering majesty” of being human. I thought the “blindly and dumbly rotting” was a great ironic statement of the obvious counter-balance to the towering majesty of our existence, our accomplishments. But then one day I realized my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my life-partner, and many friends had died, and I began to understand the reality of disappearing forever. And then my parents died.

I took many years to understand the reality ―not the irony― of the completion of the circle of Becker’s understanding. He died of cancer during the year between his book’s publication and my reading it.

I would like to talk to Ton Koopman, about Bach, of course, but more about what it means to play music composed by a genius who lived a shorter life than either of us has already lived. Especially music based on hymns about the passage of time and the absolute certainty of death.

My guess is that anyone not close to my age―or older than I―who might happen to be reading this little meditation written on the anniversary of my birth considers this line of thinking sad or tragic or grievous or fatalistic. Well, it is fatalistic. Everything we do is headed toward fatality. We don’t need Ernest Becker or Aristotle or Socrates or St. Paul or Martin Heidegger or Johann Georg Albinus to tell us that.

I am weak and timid, a shy person. I am not a preacher or teacher (except for the instruction in the correct use of commas and verb tenses). I am not a moralist or a philosopher. I am certainly not a thinker or an intellectual. Or an artist. If I met Ton Koopman, I would be tongue-tied and feel amazed in the presence of his musicianship. His ability to recreate the “towering genius” of the music of Bach almost stupefies me.

What on earth, anyone reading this with the ability to think logically, whether my age or younger or older might well ask, are you trying to say? What’s your point? Where is your thesis? (I hope you’re asking, because it is not clear.)

Only this. Pat, and Ernest, and Sebastian Bach, and Johann Georg Albinus are all disappeared forever. Ton and I and you are not. And we’re all the same.  We tower, some of us much higher in human terms than others, and we go back into the ground. That is neither good nor bad, comforting or frightening, difficult or easy to understand and accept. It simply is.  “The old year now hath passed away,” and “Everybody must die, all flesh passes like grass.”

From January 3, 1945, until January 3, 2017, I have been in that process, and right now, today, I “am not troubled about this.”