‘ . . . you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas. . . ‘ -or amaryllis-

archy and friend

archy and friend

when i was in high school, I read with great relish about the adventures of archy and mehitabel.

archy was a fictional cockroach, a free verse poet in a previous life, who took to writing stories and poems on an old typewriter at a newspaper office when everyone in the building had left. archy would climb up onto the typewriter and hurl himself at the keys, laboriously typing out stories of the daily travails of a cockroach. archy’s best friend was mehitabel, an alley cat. The two of them shared a series of day-to-day adventures that made satiric commentary on daily life in the city during the 1910s and 1920s. (1)

I loved archy because I’d never seen anyone in literature named ‘archy’ before I met him –even though he spelled his name wrong. The main reason I liked him was that he broke rules with impunity, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Writing rules, that is, he never capitalized anything because he typed by hurling himself at the keys of the old royal typewriter and could not hold down the ‘shift key’ at the same time.

Mehitabel had paws instead of fingers and was of no use in typing.

I am reduced to typing like archy –archy, meet archie – one hand at a time. The only upper case letters you will see here for the next five weeks will be the ones Microsoft automatically inserts – and most of the time they are a pain in the guzica.

Here’s the story as I posted it on facebook:

The simple clean-out-the-mess in the shoulder arthroscopy and get back to normal in two days turned into let’s-repair-the-tendon-that’s-holding-on-by-5% and keep your arm immobilized in a sling for five weeks. The last five weeks of the semester. Sheesh! What a pain in the ass!

I said in my next post that I’d put on a shirt if I knew how.
???????????????????????????????

But I’m trying to be positive and at least be grateful that I was referred to Dr. Steven Thornton of Texas Orthopaedic Associates. He’s the best and kindest in the field. Cute, too, but I shouldn’t say that in  public. Someone might think I’m a lecherous old queen—I wouldn’t mind if alec baldwin called me that.

Someone give that guy a break. I suppose if I called a straight guy a ‘mother-f—-r’ because he was chasing my family down the street, that would make me heterophobic. some of my best friends are straight. I even let a couple of them give me a knock-out potion yesterday and go to work on my body.

So here I am typing with one hand and trying not to exacerbate the pain in my shoulder and to be grateful about all of this. I will be soon. ‘no pain, no gain,’ and all of that. So the gain will be that, soon enough I’ll be back to yoga and stronger than ever, thanks to dr. miracle worker –sorry I can’t do upper case. He deserves it.

And in the meantime I’ll try to remember to keep my kvetching to myself and remember that friends will go out of their way to help me. do things such as give an amaryllis to break into full bloom yesterday.

Ok, no more whining. –perhaps –I’ll try at any rate.

Oh, yes. The poem that’s the source of the title. by the way, i found this poem three days ago. naomi shihab nye’s interview on the pbs newshour was repeated last night. things do fall together, don’t they. . .

The Rider
by Naomi Shihab Nye

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.
???????????????????????????????

(1) “Archy and Mehitabel.” WIKIPEDIA (GOT THAT, RON PAUL?). 26 August 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

“The Past—it was a feverish dream”

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

on the margins of the sea remember. . .

[Note to those who’ve asked: the pictures are mine taken at Paradise Beach and then early morning in the cove at Port Orford, Oregon—my favorite hideaway.]

In 1986 Thanksgiving fell on Thursday (November 27); Christmas also fell on Thursday (December 25); New Year’s Eve fell on Wednesday, of course (December 31). In 1987 my birthday fell on Saturday (January 3); Presidents’ Day fell on Monday (February 16); Mardi Gras fell on Tuesday (of course), March 3—it was late that year.

A few weeks ago I came across this delicate poem. In addition to thinking it is a lovely (dare I use such a pedestrian word) I thought, “This is going to be useful sometime.”

SONG OF QUIETNESS
by Robinson Jeffers

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.
Calmer than mists, and cold
As they, that fold on fold
Up the dim valley are rolled,
Learn thou to be.

 The Past—it was a feverish dream,
A drunken slumber full of tears.
The Future—O what wild wings gleam,
Wheeled in the van of desperate years!
Thou lovedst the evening: dawn
Glimmers; the night is gone:—
What dangers lure thee on,
What dreams more fierce?

But meanwhile, now the east is gray,
The hour is pale, the cocks yet dumb,
Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

When I read the poem, I remembered reading Robinson Jeffers’ work in high school. I can’t for the life of me remember what poems of his we read. I know he was one of the “modern” poets we read. He died while I was in high school, 1962. I know virtually nothing about him except what I have looked up online just now. So this is not some long-lost poetic love of mine. The only reason I read this poem was that I knew I had heard of Robinson Jeffers before. My, that’s a long way ‘round to some point!

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness. . .

So now I know why the poem haunted me.

Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.

On Sunday, November 9 (I’m pretty sure that’s the date although I can state very little about my life at that time with any certainty—I used to say I know the ‘70s happened because I’ve read about them, but the same is true for much of the ‘80s) I went to play for Sunday morning services at Grace Church (Episcopal) as usual.

The evening before, my partner and I had thrown a birthday bash for a good friend (bash? – the three of us). I started drinking wine that day in the middle of the afternoon as I was cooking and continued with vodka, more wine, and then some Drambuie after dinner.  When I arrived at the church, I thought I had a really bad hangover. Then I realized I was still drunk.

The following Saturday (November 15) I did not have any alcohol to drink, and I have had none since. I made it through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, my birthday, Presidents’ Day, and Fat Tuesday without drinking. I knew by that time that I really did not need to get drunk again. And I never have.

Remember not thine old distress.

That is, in some ways, bad advice for someone like me. I need to remember the old distress, or I might not be able to drink deep of quietness. . . on the margins of the sea.

This seems (as I’m thinking about putting it down here in writing) to be too sentimental to express the deepness of my gratitude that, with other demons that I have to fight on an almost daily basis (depression, seizure disorder, old age?) I do not have the demon rum hanging around my neck.

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.

Jeffers is, I suppose high school English teachers would tell their students, using the sea as a metaphor for death –thy last of solitudes. I take it differently. It is a song of quietness, of knowing that today, even though this was not true yesterday or the day before, I can take brief rest ere the morning come. Simply be quiet. And be grateful for twenty-seven years of sobriety.

Be glad before the birth of day, Take thy brief rest ere morning come

Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come

A river runs through it (my life, that is)

Laramie Peak - from a shorter distance than my childhood vantage

Laramie Peak – from a shorter distance
than my childhood vantage

.
On a bookshelf in my apartment, next to the two histories of our family my dad wrote and published, are three books (1).

Yesterday I was nostalgic—no, feeling a tad sorry for myself because here at 68 when I should be seeing the world with my husband and joying in the company of my grandchildren, I am alone with three cats. My mild nostalgia/self-pity is not a big deal. But I saw the books and my mind wandered to Dad’s work when he was my age.

At that time my parents lived in Sacramento. He was semi-retired, doing interesting work as an interim pastor sent to various places to work with churches without pastors. One of those places was Spokane, WA. My then partner and I visited my parents, and the four of us made a trip to Glacier National Park. A delicious outing.

For some time before he died (until he could not physically or mentally maintain his concentration—he was, after all, 97), Dad was writing a memoir tracing his life’s journey along the Oregon Trail.

He was born in Kansas City, MO, and lived (after five years in Wyoming) in Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha, NE, all on the Platte River—and the Oregon Trail. Eventually he moved to California, that home in Sacramento—the ultimate goal of many pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail.

I am, as I said, in a nostalgic mood (or something related to that), so I will do a bit of river-remembrance of my own. And in the process, some Oregon Trail thinking which will be of interest to my siblings and about two other people.

My brother and I were born in Douglas, WY, on the North Platte River. Douglas is a small town nestled at the foot of Laramie Peak.

Later, we lived for two years in Kearney, NE, where my sister was born. The city is on the Platte River which is formed by the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers about 100 miles west of there. From Kearney, we moved to Scottsbluff, NE, which is (once again) on the North Platte River. “Nebraska,” by the way, is an Anglicized version of the name French explorers gave the river as a transliteration of the Omaha Indian name meaning “Flat Water.” Folks in Western Nebraska say the river is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

A mile wide and an inch deep

A mile wide and an inch deep

Scotts Bluff, a siltstone outcropping (once under the water of the great inland sea) which has remained intact because limestone deposits harder than the sandstone kept the soil beneath them from eroding away, looms over the city Scottsbluff. From the top of the Bluff, Laramie Peak, 120 miles west, is visible on a clear day. That as I was growing up I could look west and see the (to a kid, faraway) place where I was born gave me a kind of comfort. Two promontories, both beside the Platte River.

We used to say ruts on the south side of the Bluff were made a hundred years before by wagons on the Oregon Trail. I doubt that, but I’ve never looked into it seriously.

We moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, about 10 miles north of the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri (the city may have expanded that far south by now, for all I know).

The romance of the river ends there for me. I boarded a Greyhound bus in the fall of 1963 and headed to Redlands, CA, to go to college, and except for the following summer never lived in Nebraska or by the Platte River again. I was, however, in the state that was the destination of those pioneers on the Oregon Trail. I’ve lived all over the country since then, but I did complete the “westward ho!” as my father did.

Somewhere I have pictures of Laramie Peak faintly visible on the horizon from the top of Scotts Bluff. I took them before I had digital photography (the last in 2001). I, of course, can’t find such pictures on the Internet because people look east where the towns are when they are on top of the Bluff.

If you read my blog regularly (thank you) you know that you have to tolerate a great deal of sappy sentimentality and a lot of self-revelation no one should make in public. Yesterday I saw my psychiatrist whose job is to help my neurologist keep my meds in balance. [Note to myself: write someday about the “entitlement” that makes me eligible for this incredible care that I can’t afford. Hmmm. ACA anyone?]

At any rate, Dr. Bret. She always schedules me at the end of the day so we can talk for an hour instead of the 15 minutes my insurance (without co-pay) pays for. She understands all of my “issues” better than anyone else. Depression.

The chasm I cannot cross

The chasm I cannot cross

She said, “I think you have trouble finding people to be kind to you.” What? And then, “You know, you are fragile.” What? Ho, ho, ho! you’re saying to yourself if you know anything about me and co-dependency and addiction and all of those ways in which I’m screwed up.

I do have trouble finding people to be with who are kind to me. I’ll write about that the day after I write about my “entitlement.”

But fragile? I’m the bull in the china closet most of the time (not to be confused with other closets). I do not have a delicate nature. And I do not have one of those fine, sensitive “artist’s” minds.

From the time I was six years old until I was fifteen, I was regularly in a place (not figuratively, literally) from which I could see, staring over a chasm of 120 miles, the place where I was born. The chasm was (is) the earth. I don’t have pretty language for this. But I have known my whole life that I’m caught in that space, that I can see the place from which I came. But I can’t get there from here.

Yet.

________________ (1)

•             Franzwa, Greory M. The Oregon Trail Revisited, 4th Edition. Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 1988.
•             Haines, Aubrey L. Historic Sites along the Oregon Trail. Tucson, AZ: The Patrice Press, 1981. (Foreword by Russell E. Dickenson, Director, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.)
•             Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska State Historical Society Publications, 1979.

“. . . like a mammy bending over her baby. . .” redux

Griff's on the Dock - please don't come here

Griff’s on the Dock – please don’t come here

On November 15, 2009, I wrote about a day alone on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon. I must stop writing about Port Orford, or everyone will rush there to get a tiny corner of the mystical experience—or at least the catch of the day at Griff’s on the Dock (swordfish steak the last time I was there). Then I’ll have to find another (ethereal, lovely, pleasing, rare, incomparable—because I’m not poet enough to find the right adjective) place to go to “sing myself. . . and invite my soul.”

Is that the height of ego, to make a link to my writing in the same paragraph with a link to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself?” (But this is a lecture with hyperlinks in place of footnotes, so if you want the full effect, you should follow them. Please, however, if you don’t click on any others, read the poem at the last one.)

I reread what I wrote on that November day and wonder. How I could write anything so overblown. How could I possibly post for all eternity (or at least until the internet disappears) such purple prose?  As I reread my writing, I am reminded of one of the most successful poems in English—not of Whitman’s extravagant genius.

My poem is by Joyce Kilmer (1886 –1918). That I know it proves I’m in my senescence. We memorized it in second grade. No teacher since about that time has read it to her class (if by some quirk of history she knows it). It’s not on any standardized test.

“Trees” (1913)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

You can enjoy the poem best in the 1939 recording by Paul Robeson—a “parlor song” by Oscar Rasbach, published in 1922. I don’t mean to make fun either of Kilmer (he died fighting in World War I) or of Rasbach. I simply use their work as the background for what I need to say this morning.

Star Dust

Star Dust

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” That is one of the best critiques of poetry (perhaps art in general) I know. Kilmer’s poem works brilliantly because it goes on to prove that a poem is not as beautiful as a tree. I know, I know, that’s silly. But true. The musical setting (which I first accompanied on the piano when I was in high school—it was even then a popular vehicle for amateur singers) is commensurate with the success of the poem.

My posting on November 15, 2009, originated in my growing, and by now nearly overwhelming, understanding that I am simply part of whatever it is that makes trees. I wrote that day a somewhat confusing and confused (because it’s based in lack of knowledge of physics, chemistry, and/or astronomy) description of my body as part of the inter-planetary dust that makes up the earth. Star dust, apparently.

The day I was walking the beach at Port Orford I understood a kind of connection with the physical world that I’ve known a very few times in the last 68 years. I felt a kind of bodily peace that resulted in a slowing of my mind and deep awareness both that I am alive and that I will soon enough die. I have blogged about that experience before (surprise—I’ve blogged about everything I think before), seeing Wind Cave in South Dakota when I was a kid. About being submersed in solid ground, not water.

This writing began in my mind as a discussion of the healing power of water. (I am as sentimental as Joyce Kilmer.) No, really. For seven months I have been walking almost every day in the therapy pool at the Tom Landry Fitness center at Baylor University Hospital. I’m not going to speculate about that too deeply here because I don’t know how. This writing would have begun there it I did.

What I know is this. I have met a small cadre of old folks like me, many of whom have much more serious physical problems than I. But we all walk, work out, exercise, do Yoga—you name it, we do it. And the water helps us heal—or, perhaps, it heals us. Someday I will find a way to explain. Of course, there’s the actual physical phenomenon. I walk (forward, backward, and sideways) for an hour. The water buoys me up so I do not damage my healing hip. The water provides resistance so I strengthen my muscles without straining.

But I get into some kind of meditative state that I cannot explain, that I don’t understand, that I would rather not talk about. It’s the same sense I had in Wind Cave and on the beach at Port Orford. Yesterday a metaphor came to mind. I won’t even try to say why. It would spoil it if I did.

It’s from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation.” OK, so I don’t believe in God, and I have no idea how to put my experience of life and the sureness of death together. But I somehow believe and understand

Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image
.

Perhaps there are poems lovely as trees.

Then he stopped and looked and saw That the earth was hot and barren. So God stepped over to the edge of the world And he spat out the seven seas --

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas —

“kindness. . . profligate in its expenditure” A (probably incomprehensible) poetry lesson from the irrepressible professor

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

Two moderately long poems and an 18-minute musical work (I’ll be amazed if anyone wades through all of this).  However, taken together, they say something about the life of my mind and “spirit” today that I can’t say myself, so I offer them for your consideration in whole, in part, or a bit at a time.

On August 13 my posting here was read by way more people (way more) than any other posting I’ve made on this blog.

. . . Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .  

–– From “Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal (printed in full below the picture of Christopher Smart)

 Michael Blumenthal’s poem once showed up on my “timeline” on Facebook, and I’ve sent it to friends on important occasions. Let me get all ooey-gooey and sentimental. It’s one of my favorite poems because it reminds me to be grateful.

And to try to be kind. It will not drain my limited resources to be kind.
And then, because I was trying this morning to be grateful for so many things, the beginning of a list:

For friends I don’t know
For friends I do know
For my family
For my small ability to make music
For my even smaller ability to get outside my self-absorption and love someone else
(and for the people who have taught me to stop worrying about “the meaning of life”
because that’s probably the meaning of life)
For the gift—it’s nothing I thought up myself
—of the decision to love a couple of people unreservedly
For the pipe organ in my living room
For the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, TX
For enough intellectual curiosity to find new poetry to read every day
For enough intellectual ability to have a modicum of understanding of that poetry
For my cats who make it nearly impossible for me to live in a “normal” home
For Dr. Steven Thornton’s magic arthroscopy
And for so much more I can’t begin to say

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

After I remembered Michael Blumenthal’s poem and decided to write about my gratitude, I thought of my favorite poem about gratitude (isn’t it amazing how the mind makes connections among memories), that is, “Wild Gratitude,” by Edward Hirsch (printed in full below).

Hirsch’s image of the cat comes from the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section of Christopher Smart’s poem “Jubilate Agno” (Rejoice in the Lamb). Obviously it’s impossible for me to think about Smart’s cat Jeoffry without having in mind “Rejoice in the Lamb” by Benjamin Britten which I once had the great joy to accompany, which is one of the moments of my life for which I have “Wild Gratitude” (see recording endnotes).

There. From your reading my blog two days ago to the organ accompaniment to “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.” How’s that for a meandering of the mind?

Insane or TLEptic?

Insane or TLEptic?

[A sidebar: I have often thought Christopher Smart was not insane, but merely had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy–his hypergraphia, his incomprehensible religious fervor, and his babbling about the strange images in his imagination, and his inability to concentrate on details such as money are presentations of TLE.]

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal         

 Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“Wild Gratitude,”  by Edward Hirsch

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat’s mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
“And all conveyancers of letters” for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn’t until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey’s waggling mouth
That I remembered how he’d called Jeoffry “the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,”
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn’t until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, “a creature of great personal valour,”
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

An introduction to Christopher Smart’s poem with the entire text of the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section.
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/poem/2009/10/in_nomine_patris_et_felis.html

THE BEST RECORDING of Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” I’ve found online is
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsZP-IH8XbM

The entire text is here (I guess it’s impossible for choirs these days to sing so you can understand all of the words).
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britlamb.html

A subject I know next to nothing about

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Not exactly joyful: stranded at the railway station in the rain.

Yes, I’m writing about something of which I am ignorant (do you recognize hyperbole?).

Joy.

It’s patently obvious I know quite a lot about joy. I’ve already had two weeks of (mostly) joy this summer. A few dicey moments, but mostly unadulterated joy. Even when we were stuck at the St. Petersburg train station and the churlish bus driver wouldn’t let us on his bus because his instructions were to pick up a group arriving an hour later and it was raining and Russians seem to speak Russian, I didn’t get depressed. I wasn’t exactly joyful, but I wasn’t depressed. I do know something about at least having equilibrium of feeling.

I’ve written about my lack of joy (perhaps it could be called “despair”) before, but that darkness comes and goes. (I stopped that blog because it was way too serious—this blog is my humorous look at getting older. Got that? Humorous.)

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Our dreary first impression of St. Petersburg looking up the street from the station.

Perhaps I need to find a lover named Joy (C.S. Lewis was surprised by Mrs. Right—I doubt I’ll find a Mr. Right named “Joy”).

I began seriously trying to find joy in 1987 when my psychiatrist (his clients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients at Harvard Medical School—one of the few times I could honestly claim to be an elite) first prescribed Prozac. It did not then, and does not now—having it prescribed again by one of my doctors at UTSouthwestern Medical School—bring me “joy.” But it has kept me out of the depression hospital for several years. (This is my blog, and I’ll be as exhibitionist narcissistic as I want. We live in the age of Oprah, the age of public confession. If you’re reading this from the link on Facebook, you’re part of the exhibitionist culture.)

On a new day in St. Petersburg

On a new day in St. Petersburg

If I had had such a doctor, oh, say in 1950, I might have spent more of my life living in something that approached “joy.” At least I didn’t get hooked on Valium in the ‘70s!

Now you know all of my secrets.

I’m waiting to be surprised by joy.

I’m not saying I live in despair. I try to keep my wits about me and remember Rev. John Claypool’s words,

Despair is always presumptuous. It is saying something about reality we simply don’t know enough about to say. Therefore, the way to live in hope is to live above “see” level, that is to recognize that because of what we don’t know, we cannot give way to despair.

I don’t live in despair. I have a lot of fun. And I don’t feel lonely and isolated (except on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings—when I am).

What’s my point?

Yesterday I wrote on Facebook,

Yesterday on KERA radio on “Think” (the local interview-talk show) Krys Boyd interviewed Chuck Klosterman, about his new book, “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”. In the conversation he said he had turned the ripe old age of 41 and that he can’t understand why he is sure of so much less now than when he was 21. I tried to call in to tell him, “Wait until you’re 68. See how little you understand then!”

My point is, the older I get, the less sure I feel about anything.

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

A glory of St. Petersburg: the high altar at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

Don’t feel sorry for me (or nervous that I talk about these things in public). I really do mean for this to be, if not humorous, at least not too serious. Because these days, my lack of joy is finally, I think, appropriate to my age.

What do you know for sure? Do you have enough money to retire—that is, do you have the $300,000 our investment advisor says we need salted away JUST FOR MEDICAL CARE? Do you know (or at least have a certain faith about) what happens to you when you die? Do you have someone to keep you company when you are 90 and living in “the home?” Do you know for sure if God exists or not? Do you really think the political system of the United States is designed to make your life better and better? What is the ridiculous “social contract” we all believe so steadfastly we live under? Do you have friends that you will be able to talk with about any damned-fool thing that comes to your mind? Do you know for sure you won’t have Alzheimer’s? Do you really have better things to do than play Sudoku for the next twenty years?

So I’m going to give up despair because my situation is at least as good as yours if you’re 68 or older.

Buffalo Bill ‘s
defunct
. . . . . . . . . . who used to
. . . . . . . . . . ride a watersmooth-silver
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jesus
he was a handsome man

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

(Note: The . . . .’s are not in e.e. cummings’ original poem; WordPress won’t let me format it his way without them.)

The sun also rises

The sun also rises

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rembrandt

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci - one of fourteen

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci – one of fourteen

Last Sunday I attended the exhibit “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum” at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a comprehensive retrospective of the British Museum’s holdings of ancient Greek sculpture, with commentary about the development of the Greek artistic (and cultural) understanding of the human body. The exhibition is touring museums world-wide. Of course, all of the statues, all of the art, belong in Greece. That the British Museum “owns” these works is some kind of bizarre cultural and national hubris that I (just me, uninformed as I am) find difficult to justify.

A week ago I wandered away from our group which was making a mad dash through as much of The Hermitage, the Palace of Catherine the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as we could manage in one afternoon (not much of it, let me say). I wandered into a large gallery of sculptures of human figures from ancient Greece. Two experiences of seeing somewhat overwhelming collections of statuary from ancient Greece in less than a week, both worlds away from Greece.

More statues than in Greece?

More statues than in Greece?

It may be (although I don’t know for sure) that in a week I saw more sculpture from ancient Greece than I could have had I been in Greece.

I wonder about the cultural integrity that allows that to be true. Surely neither the Russian Tsars nor the British Museum can (could) lay claim to “owning” that art. Why shouldn’t Cambodia come to New York and drag away the Statue of Liberty? Or Greece make off with the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?

Of course, some benighted and totally discredited “communist” theorist would say these affronts to culture are the result of “imperialistic capitalism” or some such nonsense. I suppose “imperialism” accounts for the British carting off statues. I don’t know Greek history, but I do know that Britain had great influence (if not absolute control) over Greece during the 19th century and up to WWI, and that the German states also wielded power during that time (I don’t have time to do proper research). Catherine the Great of Russia was German, as was King George I of Greece, and they were both somehow related to Victoria of England. Boundaries of weaker European nations were pretty fluid, and there was no reason—is my guess—for the British not to have assumed that “your antiquities are my antiquities.” And Catherine the Great certainly had the money and power to buy up just about anything she wanted. Every country’s treasures were up for grabs by the countries with the strongest armies and monarchs and other venture capitalists with the most money.

I know, I know. I’m not a historian, and that may be all wrong, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Not really. If anyone wants to bother to correct my theory, go ahead. I’ll post your correction.)

Should the Prodigal be returned?

Should the Prodigal be returned?

All of that is getting in the way of what I intended to write about.

The Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s private palace. At least the beginning of it was. She didn’t want to live a public life, so she built a small palace where she could hide away as a hermit. Of course it’s a lavish example of the most ornate styles of 18th-century architecture and decoration. And she (and her heirs) collected the greatest art of Europe. While I may be uneasy that these great works of art reside together in one place because it requires great wealth to “own” them, I have no un-ease at having the opportunity to get a tiny glimpse at a tiny percent of the works in The Hermitage.

Two of the fourteen extant paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. “The Prodigal,” the intense and affective painting by Rembrandt, as well as his “Portrait of an Old Jew.” Two large paintings by Matisse.  To say nothing of the building (much expanded after Catherine’s day) itself. It’s overwhelming. I don’t have the words to explain the magnitude of the experience.

As a side bar, I point out that we have a parallel example of a collection of masterpieces gathered by a captain of capitalism, Alice Walton. Her Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton’s collection is smaller than Catherine’s, but the idea, the impetus, I’d guess is the same. Should I never see the art in Arkansas because of my feelings about Walton’s billions? I don’t know. I’ve been to both museums, and I would go back in an instant (to the Hermitage in February when thousands of Japanese, American, and Uzbekistani tourist would not be braving the St. Petersburg winter to see it).

The fact is, I was at The Hermitage as part of a group of people of whom, by the time we were there, I had grown exceedingly fond. Being with them mitigated my discomfort. Perhaps the only way to see—to  feel oneself part of—our shared cultural history is in the company of those with whom one shares a personal history.
group RR

Cultural or personal history?

How great

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

Our little band of singers and friends (taken in Rauma, Finland)

In about 1958 or 1959 my uncle, the Rev. Troy Noland, came to Scottsbluff, NE, to visit us. Uncle Troy and his family came to stay for a week (or more), and he was the main preacher for a week of services (I don’t remember what they were called—revival?) at our Baptist (not Southern) church, of which my father was pastor.

The visit is the stuff of family legend, more for the trouble the teen-age cousins managed to get into than for the number of souls saved in the nightly meetings.

The visit was more important to me than either the services or the teenage escapades (I was barely a teenager, but I was in on the escapades). Uncle Troy was married to my father’s younger sister Doris, one of the most naturally gifted musicians I have ever known. For the evening services at the church, I played the organ, and Aunt Doris played the piano. If I have any ability to accompany singing (hymn singing in church or operatic arias in the concert hall), I owe it to Aunt Doris and her working with me that week. All she said was that I had to learn to set the rhythm. And a new world opened to me because she showed me how to do that.

Mia Brodin and me

Mia Brodin and me

At the time, the hymn “How Great Thou Art” was everyone’s favorite because George Beverly Shea sang it at every Billy Graham Crusade. I still own the copy of the sheet music from which I played with Aunt Doris. It’s purple and has Shea’s picture on the front. (Shea, by the way, only recently died in April of this year.) For many years, I thought the hymn with its somewhat overly romantic description of the wonders of nature was beneath my dignity. The tune, however, a Swedish folk tune, is one of those that pops up in my unconscious and then presents itself to my conscious thinking on a regular basis. There is a reason the hymn is so popular, and it’s not really the words.

On Sunday, June 23, of this year, “How Great Thou Art” was sung (in English) at Eda Church (Church of Sweden) near Arvika, Sweden. The congregation and our little band of singers from the Ft. Worth/Dallas area of Texas belted out the hymn as if we were all native Swedes as the church’s organist Han Young Kim accompanied. It was a moment of grace and clarity as I have seldom experienced.

This is, I remind you, my personal blog. I am not trying to make the Calvary Lutheran Church Musical Mission Tour all about me. I simply need to put into writing something of the enormous importance of that moment for me. And it begins with Aunt Doris and “How Great Thou Art.”

Our concert at the church had been the evening before. We had spent Saturday sight-seeing and having the first of our amazing Scandinavian and Russian meals together. I was somewhat stranded in Arvika and needed to get out to the country church to acquaint myself with the organ. The priest of the church, Mia Brodin, agreed to come to fetch me and drive me to the church. She and I were almost instantly engaged in the kind of deep conversation one usually has only with one’s closest friends.

The heart of the conversation was her response to my explaining the current profoundly unsettled and unsettling place of my spiritual quest. Her response was simple. She told me of her coming to the priesthood only four years before after a long career in business. And her reason, she said, was that she understood and accepted her own need to be connected to the tradition, the 2,000-year tradition, of the church, especially the Church of Sweden.

I heard her. I understood the connection. I understood that belief, faith, all of that “religious” stuff is simply part of the connection. She does not know it (that’s not true-I’m sure she does) but she gave me permission to breathe deeply and simply accept the connections of my youth, the connections of my career, all of those paths that are greater than I am. And then we sang “How Great Thou Art” the next morning, and more paths connected than I can begin to say.

The tour to Scandinavia and Russia was, in my mind, supposed to be a great adventure, a musical highlight of my senescence, a chance to see part of the world I never imagined I would see. I did not expect, at the very outset of the tour, to find grace (not religion, not faith, not belief, but grace) in an out-of-the-way corner of Sweden. “Then sings my soul. . . “

A snippet of my iPad recording of “How Great Thou Art” with Mia Brodin’s speaking at the end.

I’ve been MIA from this blog—for a good reason

Organ at Vang Kirke, Hamar, Norway. That's me at the console.

Organ at Vang Kirke, Hamar, Norway. That’s me at the console.

In 1968 in a small apartment where I lived on Sultana Avenue in Ontario, CA, I met a group of young men who were friends of a friend of mine. Our mutual friend, the late David Westerholm, was an extraordinarily gifted organist, a funny, strange little man whose insights about anything and everything made my thinking (and that of nearly everyone I knew) seem pedestrian and dull. I cherished David in a way I never have cherished any other person. He observed life, and he understood and spoke about what he saw without a filter of standard logic or needless propriety.

David made me (and everyone else) laugh, not at people, places, or things, but because of—through—them. All of life was part of a great cosmic joke, and he thought life was much more fun if one were in on the joke than if one were frightened of it or worried about it. But he was never trivial or mean.  I’m not saying he did not experience his own life and circumstances deeply and with great feeling. Or that he engaged in relationships superficially.

I met David when he was working on his master’s degree in organ at the University of Redlands from which I had graduated the previous year. His friends—classmates and longtime friends of his from Texas Lutheran College, now Texas Lutheran University—came to visit him. I should put a caveat here: this may have happened five years later when David and I were both doctoral students and living together at the University of Iowa. I’m not sure, and I can’t make a phone call at 5 AM to check my memory.

If you’ve read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, you will understand the regard in which I hold David when I say he reminded me of Князь Лев Никола́евич Мы́шкин (Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, the idiot). If you haven’t read The Idiot, don’t jump to conclusions. This is high praise indeed.

Last Thursday I looked for (briefly—about 30 seconds—because I was alone and trying to read the Russian was impossible) Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s grave in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. I was there because Viktor Andersson, one of David’s TLC friends, and I reconnected some years back in Dallas. He is the director of music at Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX. He invited me to go along and do a bit of piano and organ accompanying for a singing tour the Calvary choir made in Scandinavia and St. Petersburg to benefit Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Travel, I had assumed for some time, would be one of the casualties of the retirement penury of my approaching senescence. Were it not for help from more than one quarter—for which I am more grateful than I can say—I would not have been able to make the trip. Viktor is unfortunate that he did not have a musician of David’s caliber to invite—David would not have missed a note or a beat.  Ah, well.

Russian Barbecue at Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Russian Barbecue at Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Our travel was not—in any way I can think of—normal touristry. We were together, twenty-four of us. We were a group of acquaintances at the beginning, and a group at the end of the two weeks. We spent most of our time in places such as Arvika, Sweden, and Eurajoki, Finland, towns I assume most tourists miss—but which are the essence of their cultures. We met and became acquainted with people who live and work in those places. We were treated with care and hospitality more by our new friends than by hotels, travel agents, and restaurants. We saw parts of those countries tourists most likely never see.

Lake Narvi near Eurajoki, Finland, near Rauma where we performed at Holy Cross Church. The church provided a scrumptious dinner for us at their camp by the lake and, for the brave—no, the smart—among us, a sauna experience with a jump in the lake.

The Vang Kirke at Hamar, Norway, ancestral home of one of our group. A private hour where I was thrilled (OK, it’s a trite word, but it’s the right one) to play the organ recently restored by the Schucke company of Germany.

Or St. Catherine Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, where we performed last in our efforts to raise money—for the Seminary and the church. We know a bit about life in Russia today that very few Americans will ever see.

I don’t mean this to be a travelogue or a geopolitical essay or any kind of important reporting. Simply a statement of my personal gratitude that acquaintanceships from my youth can, in fact, mature into friendships that bring joy and satisfaction when I get out of the way and allow my life to unfold. Thank you, Dear David.

Go jump in the lake (Narvi, that is) while Viktor waxes flamboyant

Follow my travels (actual not mental)

imageI’ve tried now six times to get this posting to work. This iPad freezes, deletes, won’t take a link — it’s worthless.

I’m trying to use the iPad because I did not bring my computer, having been told by many people that this idiotic device would do everything my computer does. They obviously do not blog.

I’m in Stockholm with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church of Richland Hills, Texas. We are on a tour that you can read about at the link below (if I try to put it here, it will go into the title of this posting — thanks, iPad). We are posting stuff together on that blog, and the “about” page explains what we’re doing. I’m playing organ and piano.

We spent several days in Arvika, Sweden, and are now in Stockholm overnight on our way to Helsinki. I walked alone about Stockholm for two hours yesterday.  What a beautiful city. If I can ever pull together the money and convince a certain someone to come with me, I will be back here.

The lake at Arvika at dawn

The lake at Arvika at dawn

At any rate, here is our blog URL. I hope you’ll look in on us. I’m going to try to post a couple of random pictures here, but it probably won’t work.

I’m writing here because I’ve been unable to write for five days, and I am going  ing hypergraphic. It’s 4:30 AM, and of course the sun is playing it’s game of making it light for hours before it actually comes up.

The link to our blog: http://calvarymusic.wordpress.com