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:

The Coffee Cantata—A Fond Personal Remembrance

RhinocerosAs I was pouring my first cup of coffee this morning (4:47 AM), I had one of those delightful flashbacks that pop into one’s head, uninvited and mysterious. I was remembering a cup of coffee. It may well have been my very first cup. At minimum, it was the first important cup of coffee, the first that meant enough for me to file it away for further reference.

My friend Ann and I were at a coffee shop in Redlands, CA, late at night. We were students at the University of Redlands. It must have been 1965 or 66. We were great friends. Truth be told, we had been (somehow) friends since we were toddlers. Our parents had been, that is. Her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, when my father left that position to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worland, Wyoming. I was six months old and she was 18 months old at the time.

Later on, when my father was an executive in the Nebraska Baptist Convention and we had moved to Omaha (1960), her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wahoo, about thirty miles west of Omaha. Our parents had been friends since 1945, and they renewed their friendship. Ann and I were (somewhat long-distance) high school friends.

Sitting in that coffee shop in Redlands, Ann ordered a cup of coffee, and I said I didn’t understand why people drank that bitter stuff. She ordered me a cup, poured about half a cup of cream into it, and said I should taste it—that I’d be glad I’d learn to drink the stuff when it came time to study for finals. I had already had the study-for-finals experience at least two semesters at that point, and I couldn’t imagine why coffee would help.

But I drank it, and the rest—I will not resist the clichéd temptation—is history. We were married May 28, 1967. Our marriage lasted until July of 1975, but I still, obviously, drink coffee. She married the Canadian novelist, William P. Kinsella a couple of years after our “no-fault” divorce in Iowa, and I’ve been serially monogamous since then.images

Ann died in 2002.

I am grateful to Ann for much more than teaching me to drink coffee. As a small but non-trivial example, she taught me to appreciate (no, love) contemporary theater. Her M.A. was in theater directing. In 1970 she directed Jean Genet’s The Maids and Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano as her thesis at California State University at Los Angeles (where I was working on an M.A. in music composition). Ann was so fascinated by Ionesco’s work that she produced and directed his Rhinoceros at Colton, CA, high school where she taught.

Ann was indomitable and fearless. We were traveling in Massachusetts in 1972 and were at Tanglewood to hear a Boston Symphony concert. We were having—what else?—a cup of coffee at a hotel in Lenox when Ann jumped up and accosted a total stranger. “Mr. Ionesco, won’t you join us for coffee?” Yes, it was he, and, yes, he did join us for a cup of coffee.

A huge chunk of my autobiography someday will be about my relationship with Ann. I won’t even mention here her glorious soprano voice and the role music played in our lives from high school almost to her death. One of our hopes was someday to perform together the soprano aria Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse from the Bach “Coffee Cantata.”  We worked on it in private, but never had the time or discipline to perfect it.

The last cup of coffee I had with her was in 2002 in a mall café in Edmonton, Alberta. I won’t detail that experience except to say that after we had coffee, we went to the church where she was a member, and I played the piano for her to sing the “Holden Vespers” by Marty Haugen.

For most of our married life—and during our rekindled friendship after her divorce from Kinsella—we had a favorite bit of nonsense music. The words are from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, published 1896 by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), sung to the tune of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We learned this hymn from Fr. Jon Hart Olson of Christ Episcopal Church in Ontario, CA.

Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast;
You do not take my fancy in the least.

I intended to write about Ann on our anniversary May 28 but couldn’t figure out how. Coffee. From one cup of college student coffee to Rhinoceros.  Fitting metaphors for one of my most complex relationships.

The most beautiful college campus in America

The most beautiful college campus in America

Thank goodness, I haven’t simply become a whining old man

A shadow of my former self

A shadow of my former self

About a month ago, on April 28, I wrote here about my new appendage. I worried about using that word to describe my cane, but put my mind at rest:

Anatomy, Zoology, any member of the body diverging from the axial trunk.
Botany, Mycology, any subsidiary part superadded to another part.
A person in a subordinate or dependent position, especially a servile or parasitic follower

My cane “diverg[es] from [my] axial trunk” and is a “subsidiary part superadded to another part.” It’s not connected to my “core,” as my physical therapist and trainer both call my axial trunk (I’ve never, apparently, exercised it enough). And the cane is superadded to my hand (or is it to my legs? an interesting existential question).

Yesterday I found out that the pain in my butt is not psychosomatic, that I’m not wimp, that I’m not simply looking for attention. And that I’m not a whining old man. The nice young man (when did high school kids start being doctors?) showed me the shadows and lines on the x-rays of my hip that indicate there really is something wrong. He said my synovial cartilage and my synovial membrane are both damaged.

Additionally, one of the wavy lines indicates “a probability of the early development of arthritis” (early?) and the bump (the one I could see clearly) is a bone spur. How the hell do you grow a bone spur on the top of your femur?

How Dr. Thornton can discern all of that by looking at a tiny black-and-white (in fact, gray and lighter gray) image on a piece of plastic is beyond my comprehension. I guess that’s what his years of education taught him—as opposed to my equal number of years that taught me the history of the organ fugue.

I’m telling you this to help you begin to reach old age with at least a modicum of understanding of what happens to your body as you hang around in it longer and longer. Oh, and by the way, he thinks my fall on February 1 merely exacerbated all of these things. It didn’t cause them—except for the damage to the synovial cartilage and membrane. Don’t you just love that word? “Synovial.” Etymology Online says the word dates from “1756, from synovia, Modern Latin sinovia, probably a coinage of Paracelsus and apparently an invented word. “ Who the hell was Paracelsus? says it’s a lubricating fluid resembling the white of an egg found at the joints.

When I fell, I damaged the cartilage and membrane in my hip that produce egg whites. But I have a bone spur and arthritis, too, so until further notice I may be stuck with the member of [my] body diverging from [my] axial trunk that’s really a subsidiary part superadded to another part of my body. Oh, JOY!

High schoolers playing doctor

High schoolers playing doctor

I’m writing all of this so those of you who look at me with disdain and think, “Omigod, I don’t ever want to be old and fragile like that one”

(assuming, of course, that I carelessly somehow brought this onto myself—I guess I did when I decided I could put up that shower curtain without standing securely). Most of this would have happened anyway. I don’t think there is a mental or spiritual defense against bone spurs. Maybe I haven’t prayed enough to St. Luke the physician or Raphael the Archangel. I don’t know. Perhaps I haven’t taken care of my body (which is true). Would jogging a couple of miles every other day for my entire life have prevented arthritis or a bone spur? I’m sure I don’t know.

Here’s what I know about having reached the age of 68.

  • Whatever shape your body was in when you were 48, get over it. It’s gone.
  • Whatever shape your mind was in when you were 48, well it’s not quite gone. It’s in there somewhere. You just have to look a little harder for it.
  • Whatever shape your emotions were in when you were 48—this is my experience alone, and it may not be borne out by research of any kind or by anyone else’s experience—it’s much more intense when you are 68. Everything feels more real, more affective. Funny things are funnier, joy is more joyful, and depression is more depressing (if you’ve ever been hospitalized for depression, it seems always to be on the horizon, even when you’re happy, joyous, and free). Don’t even think about falling love!
  • Whatever you thought about politics and people who talk about politics will change exponentially every year. Absurdity simply grows more absurd.
  • Walking with a cane will be the least of your worries. All of the wolves are at the door.
Many people older than age 65 live  happy and healthy independent lives.  Some changes in the ability to think are  considered a normal part of the aging process.

Many people older than age 65 live
happy and healthy independent lives.
Some changes in the ability to think are
considered a normal part of the aging process.

Where on earth have you been?

The Cathedral Church, St. Albans, England. Religion or Spirituality?

The Cathedral Church, St. Albans, England. Religion or Spirituality?

This question has (Duh!) many answers. Depending if it’s in reference to physically, mentally, or spiritually.

I’ll begin with mentally. This morning I had reason to write on a friend’s FB page a note about earning a PhD. My friend said,

I’m encouraging my mother to re-embrace her title — “DR.”— since I remember all she went through when she earned her Ph.D.

I responded,

It took me years to realize that my PhD is not simply an honorary formality. A major university does, in fact, recognize me as having successfully completed the most rigorous level of academic work. But I am still surprised when people call me “Doctor.” Tell your mom that she really DOES deserve the title and it’s OK to feel set apart in this instance because she is. I’ll bet she calls her physician “doctor.” That refers to her level of education, not her profession.

I have been in the rarefied atmosphere of the graduate school at the University of Iowa School of Music. I have taught at Salem State College in Massachusetts, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, the University of Texas at Dallas, two of the Dallas County Community College campuses, and Southern Methodist University.

None of these is Harvard or Stanford or the University of Chicago. I’m not a real intellectual. But I know such a creature when I see one (and they’re not all at those three schools). I have known quite a few. They aren’t as plentiful as you might think. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Rachel Maddow is. In fact, I know some university department chairs who are not.

So where have I been mentally? At the periphery of scholarship, on the edge of thinking well and/or greatly, in the vicinity of being smart.

The Amazon at Manaus, Brazil. What a trip!

The Amazon at Manaus, Brazil. What a trip!

Of course, I can claim some extenuating circumstances. I have a brain disorder that has made it difficult for me to concentrate on much of anything for my whole life (my first seizure happened when I was in third grade, about 1953, and my TLE was not diagnosed until 1982). That’s not a cop-out. I’m also just plain lazy and not all that smart. I also have a mind disorder (I’m not one of those who was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder as the designer disease of the 2000s) that explains much.

So where I’ve been mentally is pretty squirrelly.

Spiritually – I’m not going there. I don’t know for sure what that means. I inwardly raise an eyebrow any time I hear someone say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” I think, for whatever my non-intellectual thinking is worth, that’s pretty sloppy thinking. It’s a meaningless statement, but if it gives the speaker comfort, who am I to question it. Even the Southern Baptists seem to be disavowing religion. Their new $135,000,000 building down the street in Dallas is just “First Baptist Dallas,” not “First Baptist Church.” “Spirituality” is a catch-all word for something most people don’t really feel and can’t explain.

I don’t have a clue and admit it.

So that leaves physically. This—unless quantum physics (which I obviously do not have the brains or the education to understand) is right and I can be in several places at once or in parallel universes, or whatever—is easy to talk about. I’ve lived in Douglas and Worland, WY; Kearney, Scottsbluff and Omaha, NE; Redlands, Ontario, and Upland, CA; Iowa City and Muscatine, IA; Methuen, Beverly, and Salem, MA; and Dallas, TX.

I have visited (at the very least, passed through) all 48 of the “continental” United States.

I have been to England (and the Channel Islands), Spain, France, Canada, and Mexico on my own.

I have been to England, Brazil, Germany, Jordan, The Occupied Territory of Palestine (including Gaza), and Israel as a member of one group or another traveling for specific (educational) purposes.

I’m about to be physically (unless quantum physics is right) in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia! I’ve written about that here before. I’m finally getting REALLY excited about it. I’m not going on my own; rather, I’m going with a church choir to make some music.

Holy Cross Church, Rauma, Finland. Next stop on the journey?

Holy Cross Church, Rauma, Finland. Next stop on the journey?

And here’s what I think about my travel. Wherever I have gone (or will go) I end up taking myself with me. Every hour I’ve spent anywhere besides in my little abode has changed me.  The limited mental and spiritual me—I’m beginning to think—is informed by the places I’ve been, and I wouldn’t give that experience up for anything (and I’m jealous of everyone who’s done more travel than I), but I must remember that it’s me here in my body and mind (and perhaps my “spirit”), and no amount of travel (or any other experience) is going to do much to improve that. It is, as they say in AA, “an inside job,” and I better hop to it.

My bucket list

My father, Glenn G. Knight, lived 1914 to 2011 (97 years).
My mother, Elizabeth May Knight, lived 1917 to 2007 (90 years)

I figure by my genetic heritage from which I have to subtract a significant amount of time because of

  • living alcoholically for about twenty years (not since 1986),
  • smoking for about twenty years (not since 1980),
  • being overweight (the struggle of my lifetime), and,
  • for my seizure disorder, taking meds strong enough to kill a horse (since 1982)

I have the possibility of living perhaps 15-20 more years.

My father’s father, Archie James Knight, lived 1885 to 1977 (92 years).
My father’s mother, Nina Huntley Knight, lived 1895 to 1973 (78 years).

My father’s paternal grandfather, James W. Knight, lived 1852-1916 (64 years).
My father’s paternal grandmother, Nancy Savage Knight, lived 1854-1926 (72 years).

My father’s maternal grandfather, Minot J. Huntley, lived 1860-1937 (77 years).
My father’s maternal grandmother, Susie L. Huntley lived 1879-1958 (79 years).

Their average lifespan was 81.4 years. If I take into account that my great-grandfather Huntley died in an automobile accident (traveling to my parents’ wedding), I assume it would be a bit higher. And as I go back through the generations and factor in my mother’s family, the average is even higher. I come from families of many octogenarians and nonagenarians.

So here’s what I want to accomplish before I die (in no particular order).

  • Do something so positive for someone that I actually change the world for the better (probably without knowing I’ve done it so my pride won’t ruin it)
  • Help to educate a couple more people about the intolerable plight of the Palestinian people
  • Have a second conversation with Jimmy Carter
  • See a full-scale volcanic eruption
  • Travel to Antarctica Travel to Easter Island
  • Attend the Vienna State Opera
  • Have a fully-engaged, emotionally satisfying marriage
  • Read the rest of Cormac McCarthy’s novels
  • Raise a whole lot of money for the Voice of Hope in Dallas
  • Travel to New Zealand
  • Spend another 4th of July on the Beach at Ipanema
  • Play the organ at St. Paul’s London
  • Finish writing and publish a novel
  • Decide what I believe about God and death
  • Figure out how to get the money to do any of these
  • Learn “in whatsoever state I am, to be content therewith”

There’s more, but this will do for starters. If I live to the average age of my paternal ancestors back only three generations, I have 13 years left. I guess the race is on.