“. . . While the deepening shadows fall . . .” (W. F. Sherwin ― 1877)

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Man made structures huddling on the earth as seen from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 21, 2016)

On August 24, 2016, my sister Bonnie Sato and I were in our childhood home, Scottsbluff, NE. We wanted to see a Nebraska sunset from “the bluff,” that is, Scotts Bluff National Monument. We drove to a small observation point we knew at the west base of the bluff. The sunset did not disappoint us. A cloud cover broke just above the horizon, and we were able to see the sun set under the clouds ― a common Nebraska event. I took about a hundred pictures.
___During the sunset I had in mind one of the first hymns I learned to play on the organ (I began lessons 62 years ago when I was 9 ― in Scottsbluff). In our hymnal, the tune was in the key of A-flat. The fifth note of the melody is D-natural, the raised 4th in the key of A-flat, creating a tritone, the “Devil’s interval.” It’s not harmonically important in this tune, simply an embellishment. But I heard it as a harmony tone and would often elongate the rhythm at that beat when I was alone. I did not know the name of that interval, midway between a 4th and a 5th, and, according to the Medieval theorists, difficult to sing and of the devil. I simply thrilled to the sound.
___The next time the Devil’s Interval impressed itself on me was when I was in high school (by this time in Omaha), and I learned to play the entire piano version of the songs from West Side Story. Tony sings the Devil’s Interval as the second note of “Maria.” Make of that what you may. My ultra-conservative Mennonite organ teacher would not countenance the worldly music of Broadway, of course, but he did explain the Devil’s Interval to me.
___Yesterday I was looking through my sunset pictures for a new “cover photo” for my Facebook page. I found one similar to (they are all similar to) the one below. As I was looking through my photos, I was taken back to August 24, even to the point of singing “Day Is Dying in the West” ― aloud here in the my apartment where I am alone.
___I thought of recording it on my Steuart Goodwin pipe organ (yes, if you don’t know, it’s in my living room) to put on my YouTube page, but I wanted the words, so I found the YouTube page of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, by googling the hymn. It is here. Listen for the Devil on the word “the.”

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Scottsbluff National Monument in shadow seen from the Wildcat Hills, 20 miles to the south. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 25, 2016)

___The hymn is musically too sentimental to be in sophisticated hymnals like those of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (that’s not an elitist or sarcastic statement; they are the most musically sophisticated hymnals in common use). That begs the question, however, why the Episcopalians have not found a more sophisticated tune for those words. The hymn does not mention Jesus or “salvation.” Many fundamentalist Christians would think the almost “deistic” words would appeal to the Episcopalians, who, they suppose, are only marginally Christian. And yet I learned the hymn from a Baptist hymnal. Go figure.
___Perhaps because I learned the hymn when I was so young, even in my educated (presumably sophisticated) musical taste I still love both the tune and the words (mea culpa).
___Or perhaps my love of the hymn and tune is situated in my present age and understanding.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night. . .

This week I celebrated my 72nd birthday. Last night from the National Geographic TV channel, I watched an installment of the series Earth: The Making of a Planet (2015). Through the entire program showing the gathering together of space “debris” through millions of years to form the earth, I sat thinking (and several times saying aloud here in my apartment where I am alone), “How do they know that?” Is our science so advanced that we can state with (apparent) certainty what rocks, what elements, what minerals formed the earth, and how water managed to “cover the face of the deep?”
___Of course, the implicit question for me was, “If we know how it came together, do we know how it will end?” It will end. Our sun, a mature star, will become a red giant, and a red dwarf, and a supernova, and a black hole eventually (10 billion years? who knows?) and will take our solar system with it. More than “day” is dying in the west.

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Sunset over Wyoming as seen from the western base of Scottsbluff National Monument. (Photo: August 24, 2016, Harold Knight)

___I no longer use the language of that hymn, “Lord God of hosts.” I find it difficult to understand any more the concept of God ― at least of a god who controls what our eyes will see (the sub-text of the hymn, of course, is that the dying day is really the image of our dying selves) when we die or any time later or sooner.
___On the other hand, watching from Nebraska as the sun sets over Wyoming I cannot help but find in the core of my self the hope, perhaps even the belief, that

“While the deepening shadows fall,
[a] heart of love [enfolds us] all,
And through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil [its] face,
Our hearts ascend.”

I don’t believe that in any religious sense ― or even in the ever-popular “spiritual not religious” sense. Here’s what I think: some force that we, homo sapiens, cannot control, did not put in motion, and cannot stop ― whether by building walls around ourselves, or by allowing the overwhelming forces of the material world to dictate our social structures, or by refusing to care at the basic physical level for all the people in our sphere of influence, or by deeming ourselves to have the only correct understanding of “God” ― is responsible for all of this, from my heart to the two black holes astronomers recently saw merge in space.
___It is as convenient to call that force a “heart of love” as anything else. Or express it as the Devil’s Interval. But I’ll bet anyone standing where they can see the openness of our “prairie,” even with its plethora of man made structures huddled on the ground, for long enough will know that in the

“pass[ing of] the stars, the day, the night . . .
eternal morning [will] rise
And shadows end.”

Neither National Geographic, nor Donald Trump, nor the National Council of Churches, nor I can have any concept of how that process began or how it will end. We can’t even know our place in it.

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Ron Bechtel, Organist
Words: Mary A Lathbury, 1877
Tune: W F Sherwin – Chautaugua, 1877

Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets the evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
REFRAIN
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord most high!

While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of love enfolding all
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face,
Our hearts ascend.
REFRAIN

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.
REFRAIN

“. . . 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.”

“. . . the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead . . .” (Kay Ryan)

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Standing in front of the tree I planted at St. Paul Lutheran Church in memory of my late partner. What could be more permanent? The fire station that now stands in its place.

Ok. I should not write when I’m pissed off.

No, really. Pissed off.

It’s personal, not political. I think it’s a kind of pissed off that only someone who is going to have his 71st birthday tomorrow can understand.

It’s the kind of pissed off that can come only from hurt.

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

On Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, held its last Sunday Service of Holy Communion. It was one of the saddest mornings of my life. I had been organist and choir director of the church since November of 1994. That was not the reason for my sadness. I can (and do as substitute) play the organ for about any church any time. I even play the organ in my living room.

The sadness was my knowledge―our knowledge even saying it would not be so―that our little family was dying, that we would never reconstitute ourselves as a community, good as our intentions were and hard as we might try (for a while).

I was 65 years old.

I was still teaching first-year writing at Southern Methodist University. They didn’t ask me to retire for another three years.

When I was 68, both of my most significant “communities” disappeared from my life.

The church community was more important because the raison d’être of a church found in the Gospel According to John is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” From the first Sunday I played at St. Paul until the last, I had no doubt I was loved, and I loved the people. We prayed and played together, and in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us, every member was supported by every other member. The church was family.

SMU, it turned out, was a place of employment. I don’t know if it was my attitude/personality that kept me from feeling “community” there or the nature of that beast. I suspect it was the latter.

If you read my post here yesterday, you are probably a bit skeptical of my understanding of that little church as family. If so, you misunderstood what I said. “. . . in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us. . .” I doubt any of my friends there would be surprised to read yesterday’s writing. And if they did, they  would not reject me for it. I know how complex they are as persons, and they know how complex I am.

Even though we hardly ever see each other, I have no doubt that we love each other in that strange and wonderful way that church people can, and at their best, do.

Since the church closed and I was the old man eased out of his teaching job, I have had one small community of friends I know I can count on in the same way I counted on the St. Paul family for love and support. It is an indefinable and motley crew, acquaintances from 12-step groups. They are mostly gay men. Mostly. I love those guys. I’m pretty sure they love me, too, “in that very special way. . .” (go to a 12-step meeting if you don’t know that phrase).

I have a theory. I’ve done some research in scholarly journals (a perk of teaching at SMU for 15 years is lifetime use of the library), but I haven’t found much evidence to support my theory:

most 70-year-olds feel the loss of community as keenly as, perhaps even more than, the loss through death or distance of family of origin ties.

Your church closes. You retire. Friends and lovers move away. More friends die. Your parents die. Your partner dies.

If you happen to be pathologically shy (belying the appearance of your work and activity for the past 50 years) or, to use a term I find ridiculous but true, “socially anorexic,” your options for meeting people decrease in number daily.

For reasons I’ve discussed here too often, I physically dislike crowds―parties and such places where friends meet and new friendships are formed. I don’t dislike the people, simply the noise and the fact that large rooms where parties happen are lighted with deadly fluorescent lights.

That means I have to go looking for community. On a daily basis. With the mental and physical acumen of a 70-year-old who really just wants to be at home or having a quiet evening out with an age-appropriate friend or two. Or walking through the Dallas Museum of Art.

So here’s where being pissed off comes in. Am I pissed off because my communities have collapsed and my friends are scattered all around and I hardly ever see them? Is that because I unconsciously send out vibes of loneliness? Or is it simply that I have too high expectations?

I’m having a birthday party. A big strange event, that is―rather than being all about “me” a benefit for my favorite non-profit, the Aberg Center for Literacy. I did this last year, and my friends showed up and raised $800 for the Center.

From the 45 E-Vites I sent out a month ago (with reminders since), I’ve had 12 responses.

Maybe I’m not so much pissed off as curious, and neither as much as fearful, fearful that my communities have finally forgotten me altogether.

Fearful. Is that what happens to 70-year-old gay men who used to be professors and organists? Or straight women who were financial analysts  for Compass Bank? Or any 70-year-old?

Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, who is eight months younger than I, wrote this when she was 65. I think she gets it.

LOSSES

Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

From Kay Ryan. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).

At home alone playing music I used to play for my community.

“. . . I think something weak strengthens until they are more and more it . . .” (Kay Ryan)

The organist as a kid.

Portrait of the organist as a young man.

If anyone had asked me, say 20 years ago, if I thought I’d live to be 70, I would have said, “Of course.” The problem is, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

There’s no rule book for getting older (or, eventually, old). One of the unspoken regulations, however, is that you don’t talk about being old. If you want people to think of you as a person instead of a relic. Or don’t want people to think you’re asking for attention or special treatment.

I don’t think of myself as old. My friends hear me talk about being old all the time. What they (many of them at any rate) don’t understand is how much fun I’m having when I say I’m an old man. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, and very little of my mind can actually comprehend that I’m 70.

When my father’s father was 70, my father was 40, and I was 10. When Granddad died, he was 92, my dad was 62, and I was 32. When Dad died, he was 97 and I was a few months shy of 67.

I’ve written here before about my cane. Yes, I fell, damaged my hip, and had to have surgery (not a replacement). Then when I was almost healed from that (physical therapy and the whole nine yards), I fell again. No surgery, but another 6 months with the cane. Now I’ve been without it for six months, and have been working with a trainer and getting stronger than I have been in 20 years.

The funny thing (“peculiar” not “ha-ha” as my mother would have said) about my cane is that it didn’t occur to me until I was at the fitness center working with the trainer, seeing myself in the mirrors that line the walls (are fitness freaks narcissists or masochists that they need to watch themselves?), and realizing that’s what others saw when they looked my way, that I look 70 years old. Not only 70, but not in good shape.

Who ever―except those fitness freaks―thinks realistically about what they look like?

“Realistically,” I said.

The cute guy in the picture at the top of this page is me. I was University Chapel Organist when I was a senior in college. 1966 and 21 years old. I think that’s what I think I look like today. Yes, that’s what I look like.

I can get away with that self-deception because looking out from this body, I don’t feel any difference in the structure or coloring or shape of my face. Or of the color and thickness of my hair. Or. . . . Unless I’m looking in a mirror, I can carry the memory of my 21-year-old face around with me and never notice that I’m fooling myself.

That may be one of the dangers of growing old. A certain ability to ignore reality. Or it may not be a danger. It may be a necessity.

Learning to live in my body as it is at 70 instead of how I imagine it to be is as elusive as it is necessary. Notice, I did not say learning to “accept” my body as it is. Part of living in my body is learning to take care of it. And learning that I need always to be trying to make it stronger, not always giving in to the natural weakening of old age.

My diet has been healthier for the last two years than it was for decades before that. I exercise. The basic is walking 2 miles every day. I have other routines that I do regularly a couple of days a week.

So my body and I are working together to make my image of myself as healthy and strong something of a reality.

But there’s something else going on.

Kay Ryan (she’s also 70, but she’s been Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress, and won the Pulitzer Prize, and has all manner of accomplishments) says that “As some people age they kinden” (they get “kinder” in case you don’t get the wonderful poetic license with the language).

I’m not sure I’ve ever been kind. In fact, I am a bull-headed, blustering, judgmental loud-mouth. I don’t like stupid people (if you are stupider than I am, you are a threat because I’m afraid I might discover that I really am as stupid as you are).

“Something weak strengthens.”

I hope so. And I hope it’s not just my glutes so I don’t fall again.

I hope it’s my kindness. I hope it’s my generosity. I hope it’s my ability to empathize with folks (all folks). I hope it’s my willingness to be vulnerable. I hope it’s all those weak things about me that looking in the mirror doesn’t show. Those things others see and like and might even be helped or inspired by.

I want to kinden.

“AGE,”  BY  KAY  RYAN
As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

――Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Web. 2011.
http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/summer-2011/sixteen-poems/

(I would appreciate your visiting my other blog. Thank you.)

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.

Portrait of the organist a couple of years later.