“. . . 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.”

Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom

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A new-fangled cream bottle dressed in environmentally dangerous plastic, nearly impossible to tear into.

There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). Just one for today, at any rate.

For 35 years of teaching college writing, whenever a student began a sentence with “there,” I patiently asked them if they knew about Richard Nixon. An expletive, I would explain, is “an interjectory word or expression, frequently profane; an exclamatory oath.” Anyone old enough to remember 1975 knows why I always used Richard Nixon as my opening example for a lesson about writing expletives. What many people (most people, even college graduates) don’t know is that “There is” and “It is” and their various tenses are “expletives.” They hold the place of a real subject in a sentence. That is, they are profane substitutes for telling your reader what you’re talking about. I told students that they did not need to vent their frustration at the writing process by swearing at me.

What is the subject in my sentence about a funny thing?

My subject is “a funny thing” although it is obscured and delayed so you would hardly know it by my use of the expletive.

Never mind. There’s a funny thing about getting old(er). The subject at hand (pun, I suppose, intended as you will see below) is what happens to your fingers as you senesce. They begin to balk at doing small jobs that they have done all your life. Buttoning the top button on a dress shirt, for example. This morning it was getting hold of the “pull here to open” tab on the half-and-half bottle to cream my coffee. Turning pages while playing the organ is simply impossible. And pages in books present a challenge, too (Nook Books are cheaper, anyway).

And then there’s the iPhone keyboard or whatever you call those little squares with letters on the screen of my phone. But I won’t even begin with that frustration.

There’s a theory that fingerprints wear off as you age, and you don’t get as much traction when you try to do something requiring dexterity. My dermatologist said he didn’t think that was true, and then he looked at the ends of my fingers. He wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t so certain he was right, either. The ends of my fingers are pretty smooth.
There’s also a theory that your joints get creaky―not necessarily arthritic, but not as flexible as they once were. I don’t believe that. Last Sunday I played the big Bach chorale prelude (really a fugue) on Wir glauben doch all’ an den einen Gott, and my fingers moved just fine; my musical brain may be slowing down, but if I practice, my fingers aren’t.

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My smooth old fingers.

There must be lots of other theories.

I have my own theory. (Subject, “I,” verb, “have,” direct object, “theory;” no swear words.)

My theory: almost always when I have trouble doing some little task because my fingers won’t cooperate, the trouble is really caused by my mind. Not that my mind is slowing down (it is, of course, but that’s not the problem here). My mind goes immediately to someone’s idiocy. To put it plainly, opening the half-and-half bottle should not be difficult. I mean, it SHOULD NOT BE difficult. What idiot made these things so you have to have either an 18-year-old brain to figure out or 18-year-old fingers to cope with it?

Milk is supposed to come in glass bottles that the milkman picks up when you’re finished with them. And they are supposed to have little paper stoppers in them with cute little tabs that you pull to open it. And the whole affair―for all you young environmentalists―is biodegradable. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I know I am turning into one of those crotchety old men who just wants to Make America Great Again―great as in uncomplicated, easy, natural.

Natural. It’s not natural to know all about the billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural that there ARE billionaires in our midst. It’s not natural to think you’re better than someone else just because of your skin color. It’s not natural to want to keep out of the country people who have lost everything they own to a war they didn’t start and don’t want. It’s not natural to substitute fake news for real news. It’s not natural to think your religion is better than someone else’s religion. It’s not natural to hate someone who loves someone of the same sex. It’s not natural for you to hate people for any of these reasons (and a lot more) because, actually, who they are and what they need and want is none of your goddam business.

There. You were waiting for my expletive, weren’t you? Well there it is. It’s none of your goddam business. Hardly anything that someone believes or thinks is any of your business unless they’re family. Oh, and if you happen to be a Christian (or some other religion―Christian is the only one I know about), and they need something like food or a decent place to live, then it’s your business. Then the king will say unto you if you take care of them, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom. Because you took care of those refugees, and those homeless folk, and those kids without enough food. That’s the only way you inherit the kingdom” (whatever that is, but it sounds like something I might like).

Choose your battles. Stop fuming because you can’t open the milk bottle. Be thankful you have one. And stop getting mad because someone wants to move in here after their home is bombed. Be thankful you have a home. And share. “Inasmuch as you do it for one of the least of these”― one of these whom you despise the most ― “you do it for me,” says the King.

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Milk bottles the way milk bottles are supposed to be.

Note: I would be pleased and honored if you would check out one of my other blogs. Thank you.

“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . those angels, forever falling, snare us and haul us. . .” (Sherman Alexie)

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

In the fall semester of 1963 at the University of Redlands in California, Steuart Goodwin—a senior composition major—arranged for and directed the process of moving an organ built in New England in the mid-19th century by George Stevens into Watchorn Hall of the School of Music.

The organ arrived in (thousands of?) pieces shipped in wooden crates. The good-clean-fun of helping unload the organ from the truck and carry it into the Hall made for lifetime memories. Over the next months, Steuart reassembled the organ.

The impact of that uncommon event on organ students varied. The organ was the first mechanical action (tracker) instrument most of us had ever seen. Some of us hardly ever again practiced on any other organ on campus. Some would not venture into that studio. For me, mechanical action instruments became absolutely preferable to others—at least in theory. I’ve played many awesome organs with electric action and some ugly tracker organs. (See this article for an explanation.)

In the fall of 1964 Steuart went off to The Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to learn to make organ pipes at the Flentrop factory in Zaandam. When he returned home, he began his life’s work as an organ builder.

Coincidentally, the University installed a modern tracker-action organ in the recital hall the next year, built by Hermann Schlicker. I played my junior recital (a “half” recital of the Hindemith Second Sonata for Organ and the Bach E Minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue) on it, the first student recital on that organ.

Steuart’s Opus 1 is a small instrument of two keyboards and pedals with six stops. He built it as a “house organ.” I—in my dotage—have forgotten its full history, but it spent many years as a practice instrument at Redlands. In a reshuffling of teaching space, the University needed to divest itself of the organ, and once again I helped Steuart move, unpack, and rebuild an organ—this time his Opus 1 in my living room.

I cannot overstate the personal and emotional, as well as musical, importance of the Goodwin Opus 1 for me. It has been a constant in my life for 50 years—as has been my friendship with Steuart. Ours is the most lasting friendship of my life.

In the last few weeks I have become fascinated by music by various composers over the centuries based on a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). The tune is a love song from Hassler’s courtly collection, Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng (“Pleasure garden of new German songs). The opening lines of the words:

Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret,
Das macht ein Magdlein zart.
(My comfort is confounded. A maiden is the cause.)

In 1613 Christoph Knoll (1563-1621) set his funeral text Herzlich tut mich verlangen to Hassler’s tune. Henry S. Drinker (1880-1965) translated the words to English:

My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.
From ills that here surround me and woes that never cease.
The cruel world to banish would be a blessed boon;
I sigh for joys eternal, O Jesus, Lord, come soon.

Most people know this tune as the melody for the 1656 Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).

I began to be interested in organ settings of this tune (with the Knoll text) when I rediscovered a setting by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783) in a collection I’ve had since Redlands days. I was looking for simple (simple!) pieces I can memorize to help keep my old brain functioning.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall.  If I ever knew what it is, I've forgotten.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall. If I ever knew what it is, I’ve forgotten.

I’ve found ten settings of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. This is not a longing for death. It is a musicological exercise in finding music I can easily play and perhaps memorize. The fact that all of the pieces I’ve found so far are perfectly suited to the Goodwin Opus 1 gives the process purpose and delight.

A word about playing and recording on the Goodwin, and uploading the results online. It is not false modesty for me to say I am not a “natural” performer. Anyone who doubts that has only to listen to my playing. And Opus 1 is not representative of Steuart’s mature work as an organ builder—especially as a tonal finisher. I think he probably cringes at some of my uploads, especially when I have not had Ross King tune the organ recently enough.

My musical purpose is simple. It’s probably too personal to discuss here. However, I’ve come to a place (remember this when you reach 70) where I have little concern about criticism. My playing is my most immediate means of communicating the delicacy and the mystery of life as I know it. If anyone finds it lacking, I can say only that what anyone thinks of me is none of my business.

A “sea-change” has come over me in the last year or so (see Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I am not afraid of death, and I have nothing to prove. I have only myself to share as best I can with anyone who wants to know me. I have some loose ends I’d like to tie up while I have time.

Lack of civility and violence and purposeful ignorance still roil me. And my own foibles—both the purposeful ones and those caused by neurological mishaps in my brain—make me sometimes want to start over again 50 years ago. But I don’t say (or think) with Christoph Knoll, “My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.”

I hope, I yearn (isn’t that a funny old-fashioned word?) for some peace, here and now. And I wish I could communicate that to others. My halting playing on this wonderful unusual little organ will have to do.

I read a great deal of poetry, and I found this poem that, even though the poet is only 49 years old, seems to fit what I’m trying to say. The connection may not be clear to anyone but me, but the poem is lovely.

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World,” (2009) by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . – Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.


My recordings of the organ are obviously less than professional. The camera is too close to the organ, so the movement of the “trackers” is audible. The camera also does not record bass sounds well. And then there is the occasional airplane noise (in the flight pattern of Love Field).

None of that gets in my way. I hope it doesn’t yours.

“. . . deep calls to deep, a saving breath. . .” (Susan Palo Cherwin)

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

“Love” for animals is a concept many people don’t understand. I put the word in quotes because many people would say it can be used only theoretically, not as fact. I am neither offended nor challenged by anyone who would say the word belongs in quotes because it cannot be real.

In 1957 Kleenex aired a series of TV ads for paper napkins starring Manners the Butler. Kleenex was in a race with Scott to establish market leadership in paper napkins, and they produced the clever “special effects” ad with Manners the Butler as a tiny man helping a housewife set an orderly table.

My first cat, when I was in 5th grade, 1957, was mostly black with a white chest, and I called him Manners the Butler. He was a gentleman cat who knew what he liked and was intolerant of what he didn’t like. He liked me. He arrived at our house when a school friend’s cat had kittens, and my friend convinced me to take one home. In my jacket pocket so my parents wouldn’t see it until it was too late to refuse to let him stay. He lived with us (indoors/outdoors) for about five years.

Manners knew all of my secrets—including the seizures I was having that no one knew about or (parents and doctors) could figure out. He knew when I was happy and when I was sad.

Many years later I broke up with my partner and bought a condo in Salem, MA, and was living alone. Since the time of Manners, except when I was living in a college dorm and not permitted, I had always had at least one cat. When I broke up with my partner, I left three cats behind, one—my favorite—all black and named Otello (the other two were Lohengrin and Brunhilde).

I was debating whether or not to get a cat, and my therapist asked me to describe my relationship with cats over the years. He told me I had definitely used cats as “Therapy Units,” and that getting a cat would give me many TU’s. I found two black and white brothers at the pound, named them Henry and Oliver, and took them home. Both of them lived with me until 2004.

They, and all the cats (and dogs) who have lived with me have definitely been at the very least TU’s, but in reality something much more important.

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Whether or not it is possible or appropriate to use the word “love” for my feelings about my cats, I’m not going to theorize. Anyone who has felt what I have felt for cats (or dogs, or pigs, or parrots) knows exactly what I mean. Anyone who hasn’t had those feelings doesn’t know and can’t be persuaded. The epistemology of the concept is personal. Knowing or not knowing is not cause for judgment. It simply is.

When my cat Groucho died on December 20, I felt grief—not the grief I felt when my parents or brother-in-law or my lover died, but real grief. And here’s the important reality about that: one of my spiritual mentors tells me that every grief reminds us of all the griefs we have experienced before.

In his little essay, “To Go Its Way in Tears: Poems of Grief,” on the website Poets.org, the poet Edward Hirsch calls attention to our societal penchant to

. . . live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief.

This is not an unfamiliar concept, but I like the succinctness of Hirsch’s language.

When Groucho died, I experienced a bit of self-condemnation for feeling as deeply as I did (do) about the emptiness left in my life by the loss of one long-haired basically aloof little creature who—truth be told—like all cats, one could not say returned the “love” I felt (feel) for him.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas (today is the 6th day, remember), either as the “Holly Jolly” secular materialistic orgy or as the “O Holy Night” of sentimental religiosity will probably wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing about grief at this time of year.

Well, duh! My little companion died.

As did Michael Brown, Rafael Ramos, Eric Garner, and Liu Wenjin.

Even though I have little (no) belief in the “Christmas Story” anymore, I think the rhythm of the church’s liturgical year offers a glimpse of reality that we might well take to heart. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, when the focus is on doing exactly what the Baby Jesus grew up to preach—feeding the hungry. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem—a reminder of the horrors of lust for power (a reminder we are in process of ignoring at our own peril—as well as the peril of the innocents around us).

A friend once asked me what loving cats (dogs, pigs, parrots) does for me. My answer was (and is) simple. I understand my own mortality by living with and watching my pets through the cycles of their lives. And, when I pay attention, I understand that even my own death will be natural and blessed.

The hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has—amazingly—a section of “lament.” One of those hymns, by Susan Palo Cherwin, seems to me a proper understanding of Christmas. I’m not sure about the “song,” the “tears,” and the “love” of “God,” but I know, without doubt, that facing and feeling the darkness of my life is necessary to arrive at feeling “Merry” about anything.

That darkness increases as I age. So does the merriment—but transformed into reality as opposed to giddiness or frivolity.

In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.

When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.

When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.

Words: Susan Palo Cherwin (b. 1963)
Music: Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962)
From Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)

If you want to hear how the understanding of the darkness “lightens” with age, you can compare my playing here with my playing the same tune a slight two years ago. I think the difference is stunning.

“A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral fruit.” (Amy Gerstler)

Eating it meant you embraced tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

When you get to be my age memories pop into your mind from nowhere and arrest your attention, sometimes with startling vividness.

This morning I stumbled onto the poem “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956). Suddenly I was remembering a trip to Kansas City in 1973. I stayed with my mother’s brother and his wife, and we spent a day with my father’s father. The memory is confused. Sometime after my grandmother died (1973), my grandfather sold his home and moved to Abilene, TX, where his youngest child, my aunt, cared for him until he died (1977).

I was on my way to audition for the organ department at the University of Iowa to be accepted into the DMA program in organ. My maternal uncle took me to visit my paternal grandfather (my parents’ families had known each since long before my parents married), and the three of us went to my uncle’s church so I could play the organ for my grandfather.

Are you confused yet?

For some reason I played the Bach “Little” Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major. It certainly was not one of the works with which I was planning to impress Professors Krapf and Disselhorst. It does, however, have a pedal solo, and I remember my uncle was so amazed that he made me stop in the middle of the Prelude and play it again. He had never seen such a thing. It’s really quite simple (the work isn’t called “little” for no reason).

Why? Why does reading a poem about fruit cocktail drag into my consciousness my uncle’s amazement at my playing a passage for pedals alone in the middle of a Bach organ work?

That trip to Kansas City was fraught with import, with meaning. I was beginning the process of giving up my old life to strike out on a new one (and I was not altogether certain I would be accepted). That meant quitting a job and selling our house and moving with my wife to a place neither of us had ever been. I was alone on my “audition” trip, and I already knew in some unconscious way that it also carried with it the distinct possibility that our marriage would end when I was immersed in my new life. That may, in fact, have been one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on this new path.

Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit.

I had another (ulterior, I suppose one might say) reason for arranging my trip to be with my uncle. I won’t explain here because it is too painful for me and not fair to him, but I had a score to settle with my uncle. At the time I thought I could engage him in a way that I had needed to since I was in junior high school. It was not possible. I didn’t know how, and he would have rejected my attempt, I am sure. It could not be part of this memory-tale.

Somehow playing that pedal passage and astounding him was enough at that moment.

The next time I saw my uncle was at my paternal grandfather’s funeral. The Peck family was, of course, there to support and be with the Knight family. I remember clearly standing with my father and my mother’s brother beside my grandfather’s casket in that stilted and phony funeral home scene we all know so well and hearing my uncle say to my father, “Well, Glenn, now we are the older generation.” My father was 63 at the time, nine years younger than I am now.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.

Faded funeral fruit that meant you embraced tastelessness . . . and that when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth. Not until about 1985 did I confront in my mind the reasons I knew I needed to visit my uncle. Ten years after that I visited him in a nursing home where he was cared for as an Alzheimer’s patient, of which both he and my mother died.

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

Memories—vivid memories, important memories—do not necessarily equate with the “truth.” In fact, they might well help you spurn the truth.

The day I visited my uncle in the nursing home and his brother explained who I was by trying to bring up memories of childhood—“You know May, our sister—her son”—I had determined to confront my uncle, to bridge the enormous chasm between us.

Fortunately, I did not need to. Even I, the wounded party, the self-righteous actor in the drama in my head, could forgive a man in such dire and pitiable condition.

Self-righteousness, I think, is a more or less useless attitude. I think it actually comes from thinking of oneself as a victim—“how dare he do that to me, righteous as I am?”

Two days ago I was in the grips of what I thought was either the “hangover” from a massive seizure or a day-long series of tiny seizures. Intense dissociation mentally and dizziness physically. My neurologist made time in his busy schedule to see me early yesterday morning.

Blood work. Are your meds in balance? What else is going on in your life?

Retirement, separation anxiety, worry about taking care of yourself in old age. I want you to keep in contact by MyChart, but I’m also going to arrange for you to have regular talk therapy with one of the psychology faculty here at the medical school. At my age? I’ve been in therapy much of the time for fifty years!

You need to put these demons to rest. Anti-seizure meds can’t help depression.

“Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956)

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

A resident of Los Angeles, Amy Gerstler has taught at Antioch West and the University of California at Irvine’s graduate writing program. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars program at Bennington College in Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Bitter Angel (1990).

About This Poem
“A friend showed me a reproduction of a 1964 painting by James Rosenquist called Fruit Salad. The painting (you can Google it) is a close-up, bright, garish portrait of fruit cocktail. Seeing it released a flood of memories of the ’50s and ’60s for me, so I decided to try to make a picture of that time period via this popular food of my childhood.” —Amy Gerstler

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

“. . . memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed. . . “ (Siân E. Lindley)

My first organ memories - Baldwin Model 5

. My first organ memories – Baldwin Model 5

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If Siân E. Lindley has done her research correctly, and if scientific inquiry (in the United States this is always a matter of debate) can be trusted,

. . . we can surmise that memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed (and co-constructed with others); a life story is interpreted and retrospectively reinterpreted; and narrative truth and belief, rather than objective truth, is bound up with identity. (Lindley, Siân E. “Before I Forget: From Personal Memory To Family History.” Human-Computer Interaction 27.1/2 (2012): 13-36.)

Lindley is a professional researcher; therefore, her conclusions are suspect to Americans. She is

a social scientist with an interest in how technology can be designed to fit, and how it is shaped by, the social context in which it is used (Lindley, “Before”).

Nevertheless (in spite of, not because of, her scientific methods) I find what she says fascinating. We don’t retrieve our memories, we form them so we can retrospectively interpret them to ourselves and to others. Wow! My memory of playing the piano for a wedding for the first time is what I form it to be, not the details of what happened. (If I remembered every detail, it would take as long as the wedding did—I don’t have time.)

I remember distinctly, hauntingly so, a meeting of a graduate seminar studying the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (about 20 years ago). The half-dozen or so of us were seated at a table in a small classroom in the Jonsson Building at the University of Texas at Dallas. The professor (whose name I do not remember) was tall—6’ 3” or something—muscular, swarthy, black-haired, handsome (it’s part of my narrative that I remember what he looked like but not his name). The students in the seminar were mostly graduate assistants teaching in the freshman rhetoric program.

One of my friends said something about the “epistemological” something or the other of the story we were studying, and I knew—precisely at that moment—what I had been thinking for quite a while, that I did not belong in that graduate program. I had been trying to figure out what they meant by “epistemological” for some time—it’s a favorite word among scholars—with no success. “Epistemology” means, according to dictionary.com, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I wouldn’t use “epistemology” in a sentence for any reason.

I would, however, show you the short stories of Hemingway that seem to have gay themes. My paper on the subject earned a B from the handsome professor, not because it was poorly written, but because he didn’t like the subject or agree with me.

For quite a while, my reconstruction, my re-interpretation of that memory was that I’m just not very smart. That is true, of course. But not knowing what “epistemology” means is not what proves that. Not being able to explain why people who irrationally hate President Obama ought to be ashamed of themselves—that’s evidence that I’m not very smart.

Or not being able to sort the flatware in my silverware drawer.

Or not being able to figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my router so I can watch Netflix movies on the big screen instead of on this computer, which I hate.

The first First Baptist Church

The first First Baptist Church

So what do I remember about playing the piano for a wedding for the first time?

In the far southeastern area our town in Western Nebraska in the 1950s was a small church known as La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (I think that’s right—my memory may not be reconstructing that correctly). It was a small but not tiny frame church structure, and Pastor Raymundo was the pastor. He had a wife and one son, Sammy. Our family shared dinner with the Raymundos quite regularly, and—more fun—we went to events at the church, most of which were followed by dinners of Mexican food made by the women of the church.

Sorry, all of you Texans. You don’t know what real Mexican cooking is.

During the summer, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana had overflow crowds on Sundays. This was at the height (I think, although I should look it up) of the brasero program, and Mexican workers came to work the sugar beet fields and create the economy of our county.

The Mexican Baptist Church has now—I believe (you’d think I’d do some research and know these things for sure)—joined with the First Baptist Church. The membership is constant because all of the Mexican-Americans are permanent residents, probably citizens.

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

My organ teacher gave me a book of organ pieces to learn that included both the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Wedding March and the Wagner “Here comes the bride.” I learned to play them (I was in about 6th or 7th grade) just in case someone would want me to play for their wedding.

A young couple from La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were getting married, and they wanted the American traditional music instead of the music their church generally used. My father suggested I could play the two wedding marches. My first wedding gig.

I don’t know if the couple or their families were Braseros or American citizens or illegal immigrants. We didn’t ask questions like that—at least we middle schoolers didn’t. The adults may have been concerned with such things, but they did not include us in their conversations if they did.

We just went to their church, and they came to ours, and we got to share in glorious (real) Mexican dinners, and Sammy Raymundo and I were buddies, and things were just fine.

I don’t know what happened.

The epistemology about the nature of the immigration crisis in this country may have to do simply with our collective memory. Somehow we’ve come to the point where our narrative, our reconstruction of the meaning of immigration has gotten really fucked up.

I wonder where Sammy Raymundo is.