Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“. . . The heaven’s weight / Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid . . .”

Stropped-beak fortune?

Stropped-beak fortune?

Poetry. I wish I’d begun to love poetry much earlier than my 60s. Not to love but write the stuff. It takes more practice. One cannot sit down and whip off a poem. I suppose some folks do, but my guess is that every poem worth reading has been perspired over and dreamed about and cursed at before it reaches the shape in which we read it.

I especially love to read poetry containing a phrase or word that sounds so right, so perfectly in place, so congruent with the rest of the work that I don’t question its position—but then I have to admit I have no idea what it “means,” either because I don’t know the words or because I can’t see why they go together logically.

Stropped-beak Fortune / Swoops, making the air gasp. . .

In about 1997 or -98 a friend (she was not “a” friend; she was in some unfulfilled way my best friend, something I’ve been trying to write about for several years to no avail) invited my partner and me to a party to meet her daughter who was stopping by Texas on her way from living in Turkey to going to graduate school in Arizona. Or some such set of facts that I have memoried in the back of my mind.

[NOTE: I realize more completely with the passage of time that what I think are solid, factual memories are impressions—I live in a world illustrated by Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Matisse. Whenever I talk about the past, I have a real memory of an event, but I describe the essence of the event, not its details. My memories and impressions come out side by side with the “truth,” so they don’t mix but sit unblended in what I say. The light of exactitude gets mingled with the color of my feelings. I never set out to tell an untruth, but all I can do is tell my truth, and that may not have been the truth about an event when it happened, much less now that it has circulated in my memory. In literature classes much is made of the “unreliable” narrator. Believe me, when I tell stories from the past, even if I have every factual detail correct, the narrator is unreliable. Or totally reliable. Your choice.]

My friend’s daughter either had recently been married or was about to be. My friend had either been to Turkey to visit her, or she hadn’t. Either I knew most of the people at the party or I didn’t. I know my friend eventually went to Jordan to be with her daughter at the birth of her granddaughter, and that she came home and too soon died of leukemia, her death being an almost impossible reality for me to face—we spent the last Christmas Day before she died together in her room at the Zale Lipshy University Hospital at UTSouthwestern Medical School.

Stropped in the barber shop

Stropped in the barber shop

What the blank is “stropped-beak Fortune,” and how does it “swoop[ ], making the air gasp?” A strop—I remember this from working in a barber shop in the ‘50s where razors were single-bladed and had to be sharpened, stropped, between customers—is a piece of leather on which one sharpens a blade. So “stropped-beak fortune” swooping, “making the air gasp” is fortune so cutting, so dangerous, so ominous—so sharpened—that like a bird of prey it swoops down on its target fast and powerfully enough to terrify the air even before it finds its victim.

When I get my mind out of the impressionistic paint-blotches of both my memory and my view of what’s going on right now (the truth is most likely that my memory is impressionistic because my understanding of what is happening at any given moment is at best the misty outline of reality), I realize that “anything can happen.”

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.  (Seamus Heaney)

On a fall day I was walking across campus back to my office after lunch when a shadow passed over my head and in my peripheral vision I saw a swoop toward a tree, heard a cry, and looked up just in time to see a hawk fly off with a squirrel in its talons—freakish for a university campus in the middle of a city in the middle of the day. I knew squirrels lived on campus, but hawks? I assumed I was hallucinating until someone yelled at me, “Professor, I’m glad you saw that, too, because no one will believe me!” He was a former student and knew how to find me if his story needed corroboration—and I him.

Anything can happen.

“God willing” (a phrase often used by the priest I knew to acknowledge that “anything can happen”) on May 15th this year I will submit the last set of semester grades for which I will be responsible as a professor. I hope on that day to have a clear understanding, not simply an impression, of what’s happening.

I will be 69 years old, living alone (does that necessarily mean feeling lonely?), having to learn to survive on much-reduced income, and required to learn to organize my time completely on my own. A short list of the “anything” that can happen.

Is it possible to change anything on that short list? Can I either by desire or by plan make any of those impressions into a more solid or different reality? Where is Edward Hopper when I need him?

My friend’s daughter lives now in Santiago, Chile. On the way to Easter Island. (See my “bucket list.”)

“Anything Can Happen”

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

          —Heaney, Seamus. From District and Circle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006).

Anything can happen

Anything can happen

“. . . some right to be here and that there is value in it . . .”


I'll sell you this tree.

I’ll sell you this tree.

Ron Padgett is my brother’s age. Three years older than I. He writes poetry. His poetry is mostly of the kind that, when I read it, I say to myself (or out loud), I wish I’d said that. I stumbled upon this one early this morning trying to find a poem (a boring poem compared with Padgett’s) of which I could remember one paltry phrase. Yes, this popped up in a Google search—I did not have it in mind. I own two of Padgett’s collections and have read them, but, as anyone can tell you, I don’t remember such things as poems. (I don’t remember my purpose in going to the Kroger up the street was to buy paper towels when I pass the cheese counter and get sidetracked. “Sidetrack” was the name of a gay bar in Cedar Rapids, IA, when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa thirty miles away. It was a relatively tacky bar in an old warehouse neighborhood built, yes, beside the railroad tracks.)

There is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Cedar Rapids. I thought there were a couple, but I can’t find them in a Google search. I’ve seen this one because a professor at the University with whom I had something of a fling was into architecture and took all of his boys to see the Grant House. He was a singer and I was young and thin and recently divorced at that time. For one week I thought the singing professor (the professor of singing) was Him, but it turned out not to be so. He probably didn’t like the fact that I was so appallingly “out” and a drunk.

Oh, yes. I was writing about Ron Padgett. His poetry is the kind that almost anyone can relate to except people who think poetry has to have a regular rhythm and a certain rhyme pattern. I first discovered him when I started to read his memoir of Joe Brainard, his childhood friend who was also, I think, a poet—or a painter. Or some such. They were both part of the “New York School,” I think, but I’m not sure about that since I’m not a literary scholar and don’t know how to categorize poets. At any rate, they grew up together, and when Brainerd died of AIDS, Padgett memorialized him a biography. It’s one of those books I bought and started to read but couldn’t get into enough to finish. It actually wasn’t that long ago, or I wouldn’t remember it so clearly. I have about a thousand books like that. Perhaps if I had finished reading more of them, I would be a literary scholar. Who knows?

Joe Brainard loved pansies

Joe Brainard loved pansies

The Memoir of Joe Brainard is apparently one of those books I got rid of in my “great book give-away” last year.

At any rate, when I discovered the Memoir of Joe Brainard, I looked Padgett’s poetry up and bought a volume or two. The one I see on my shelf at the moment is How Long. I think there are some of his poems in the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry, which is, of course, at my office helping me to pretend to look like a literary scholar. I guess my pretense has finally caught up with me because, as I may have mentioned in this blog before, SMU is putting me out to pasture at the end of this academic year. Oh well.

When I was in high school, I was a poet. That is, I wrote poetry. I entered one poem in a contest (probably the National Council of Teachers of English). It was called “Swinging Sam’s Sexy Sister,” and it was a direct result, I think, of my having read Ginsberg’s Howl or some other work of some other “beat” poet. The poem came back from the contest without a mark on it except some silly judge had scrawled across the top, “Plagiarized from e.e. cummings?”  Of whom I had never heard. So Mr. Simpson loaned me a collection of cummings’ poetry, and I immediately fell in love with “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I used to be able to recite it from memory, not because I “understood” it (which I still don’t) but because I think it sounds yummy, scrumptious, lovely, beautiful. cummings is my brother’s favorite poet, which is why I mentioned my brother at the beginning of this writing. And if you believe that, I have pecan tree up on Preston Avenue at the entrance to University Park that I’ll sell you for less than a million dollars.

So now, if you’re still reading, you know perhaps why like Ron Padgett’s poem so much. Because I love the way it sounds, and because I do have “the sense that [I] have some right to be here and that there is value in it” even though I have definitely lost my god(s). My cats aren’t quite as humanoid as Padgett’s dog, but they do get to play with me –on their own terms. The poem:

Lost and Found
by Ron Padgett

Man has lost his gods.
If he loses his dignity,
it’s all over.

I said that.

What did I mean?
First, that the belief
in divinity has almost

By dignity
I meant mutual
self-respect, the sense
that we have some right
to be here and that
there is value in it.
(Values are where
the gods went
when they died.)

My dog Susie doesn’t seem
to have any values, but she does
have Pat and me, gods
she gets to play with and bark at.

About this poem:
“In the pile of miscellaneous papers always on my desk I found a scrap that contained the words in this poem’s epigraph, and I vaguely remembered having scribbled them down. That triggered the poem’s beginning: ‘I said that.’ I liked the unusual idea of quoting oneself in an epigraph. By the way, the corny play on god/dog was unintentional.” ––Ron Padgett

e.e. cummings explained here

e.e. cummings explained here

The Artsy Lover

book rackMy guess is hardly anyone reading this has read The Art Lover by Carole Maso (New Directions, 1990).

In the 1950s travelers could arrive at Scottsbluff, Nebraska , by railroad or Trailways Bus. I think the Trailways depot was at the lower end of Broadway, across the street from the Lincoln Hotel (I’m sure my siblings will correct me if I’m wrong).

The depot was a dingy one-story brick building with a covered driveway where passengers could board buses sheltered from the weather. The waiting room comprised the rest of the building. I may, of course, be confusing this memory with one from—from God-knows-where.

The waiting room had a revolving wire book rack with books for sale. I clearly remember being with my father fetching someone from a bus. One of the books on the rack caught my attention, and I asked my father to buy it for me. His answer was, in essence, that any book one could buy in a bus station one ought not to read.

And so continued my education as a snob. One would hope merely an intellectual snob, but more likely simply “snob.”

That would not be a matter of concern if I possessed any quality, physical, mental, spiritual, or social, worthy of snobbery. But I don’t. And not buying books in bus stations (these days in airports) has deprived me of a great deal of pleasure without accomplishing much to improve my mind or my social standing.

Maintaining this questionable snobbery I’ve deprived myself of Mickey Spillane. Dashiell Hammett. Jonathan Latimer. Erle Stanley Gardner. Ross MacDonald. Michael Collins. Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Danielle Steele. Hundreds of Westerns. Spy novels, detective novels, steamy sex novels, science fiction novels. J.K. Rowling. Much of what I have avoided is probably worthy of avoidance. But I have deprived myself of entertainment, of perfectly harmless but enjoyable means of passing the time. I have avoided “hidden pleasures” (or overt prurience).

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, this spring I was introduced to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander novels (thank you, Jerome Sims). I am now 200 pages from the end of the last of the three. I have read them with pleasure, interest, and suspense—which is exactly their purpose. When I first began reading, I snobbishly thought Larsson did not have the artistic skills to write the number one best-selling work world-wide. And then I gave up my “attitude.”

I hadn’t read for pleasure since the summer reading program at the Scottsbluff Public Library in about 1955. Kids were in groups named after Western explorers. When one of us finished a book, our explorer went another mile along the Oregon Trail. Mine was the Jim Bridger group. We did not win—because my brother’s friend Delmar Coe was in another group, and he read a book a day.
I love The Art Lover. It’s a novel about art, and it morphs into an autobiographical narrative about a friend of Carole Maso’s who died of AIDS, a novelistic tour de force. I love the Wagner Ring operas. I love the El Greco St. Francis in Prayer I first saw at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha when I was in high school. I had no idea what made it great art or why it affected me so deeply.

We are all snobs in our own way. Some wouldn’t see a rock musical for anything. Some wouldn’t attend a concert of music by Stockhausen if it was the last music on earth. Some wouldn’t drive two miles to see a Norman Rockwell painting. Some would drive two miles to avoid seeing a Picasso.

I used to own Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste : Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. It’s an interesting book, but on the surface the idea is preposterous. I don’t know where my father learned what “good music” is (surely not at Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City in the ‘20s). But I knew from childhood until I was 50 or so, I thought “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” wasn’t “good music.”

I also knew—because his work didn’t hang in the Joslyn—Norman Rockwell wasn’t a great artist. Then I fell in love with the great-grandson of the old lady in his painting Freedom of Worship. Honest. My late partner.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote (I can’t quote it exactly) that one should not try to make art “Christian,” that the quality of love is what makes a work art.

So I’m hoping to give up being a snob, reverse or otherwise, in my old age and begin to experience what people make and do for the quality of love they put into it—not for my opinion if it’s great, or, for that matter, whether or not I like it.

Where is Aceso when we need her. . . not for atheists or biblical literalists

The River Acheron - for real!

The River Acheron – for real!

Somewhere in the Philippines is an oversized book copy of Dante’s Inferno. It is a spectacular copy illustrated with reprints of the well-known woodcut illustrations by Gustave Dore (1832-1883). I know the book is there because it was supposed to be mine.

I grew up with the book. Or, to be more precise, when I was a kid, I found the book in my father’s study and read Inferno because I could not imagine the story those pictures went with. Yes, read Inferno when I was in third or fourth grade. (How do you think I know which circle of Hell is reserved for eternity for the monster who invented fluorescent lights?) That I knew the book existed had to be a secret because that meant I had been sneaking into Dad’s study and reading books. We were not allowed in the study unless he was there working.

The book is in the Philippines because, when Dad was disposing of the “things” of his life to move into the assisted living section of the retirement community where my parents lived, he boxed up books to give to a Baptist seminary in the Philippines. Inferno was one of the books with a sticker bearing my name that was supposed to stay in Fresno until I could retrieve it. Someone put it in a seminary box, and I never saw it again.

Aceso by Dore

Acheron by Dore

It’s hard for me to imagine that any Baptist seminary student in the Philippines or anywhere else would read Divine Comedy seriously. Or perhaps they eat it up because, as anyone with any sense knows, it and Milton’s Paradise Lost—not the Bible or any other religious writing—are the source for Fundamentalist Christians’ (and nearly everyone else’s) ideas about the nature of the afterlife.

When I was in high school (we were living in Omaha, NE, in a house on 58th Street) my bedroom and Dad’s study were, for a while, in the same “finished” attic space, and Dad came up to work and found me reading Inferno (again) –or, rather, looking at the Dore illustrations. He told me to be careful to remember it was fiction, Dante’s creation, and not to be confused with Biblical theology of heaven and hell. Some Baptist preachers can discern the difference between a good yarn and religious faith.

Aceso - goddess of healing

Aceso – goddess of healing

All of this memory stuff came flooding back this morning because I was fiddling around trying to put together a cute little posting about my need for a visit from Apollo and/or his daughter Aceso, the goddess of healing of pain. In the process of my snooping around in Google, I came across an electronic copy of the Dore print of Charon ferrying dead souls across the River Acheron, the River of Pain, into Hell. We all think the River Styx is Charon’s bailiwick, but it’s only one of them.

My proposed cute little posting (yes, I’m supposed to be finishing the grades for the last of my four classes) was inspired by my waking up with the return of the pain in my hip. Not really pain, but uncomfortable awareness. I had thought earlier this week that my four-month ordeal was over. But it’s a good thing, I guess, I didn’t get rid of the cane.

My pain in the butt has been from time to time a sharper and longer-lasting pain than I ever wanted to feel. I know I’m a wuss (“a male person with low courage factor,” according to the Urban Dictionary), and what I’ve been experiencing is hardly pain by most people’s standards. But it’s been, well, a pain the butt for far too long.

So I woke up this morning wishing for a visit from Aceso, the minor deity assigned to helping those in pain, because I assumed my pain wouldn’t warrant a visit from Apollo, the head honcho god of healing. I was just getting ready to watch her duke it out with Lupe (not to be confused with the Virgin of Guadalupe), goddess of pain and suffering, when I came across the Dore etching of Charon on the Acheron, and I got hopelessly sidetracked.

A visit from the healer?

A visit from the healer?

And that got me to thinking (for perhaps the thousandth time) that, if we hadn’t gotten rid of all of those wonderful gods and goddesses in favor of the One True God, it would be much easier for me (and, I suspect, millions of other mere mortals) to give up our agnosticism (or outright atheism).

I mean, who wouldn’t like a visit from, a little chat with, a stroke of healing by Apollo?

A short, wistful Easter meditation


1.  characterized by melancholy; longing; yearning.
2.  pensive, especially in a melancholy way.

Pensive. Melancholy. Longing. Yearning. pretty much sums up my state of mind this morning. I did not attend a service of the Great Vigil of Easter last night for the first time since 1968. Most of those years I was directing the music for the elaborate celebration.

I love the Great Vigil. If one pays attention, one hears and participates in the presentation of an over-view of the sweep of the history of humanity’s interaction with the divine according to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Lots of readings of mysteriously poetic literature, warm and glowing candle light, magnificent music, a glorious burst of light, decoration, and energy, and then the holy mystery of the first Eucharist of Easter.

I am (regardless how the careless reader might misinterpret the preceding) saying all of this without irony, without judgment, without any negativity.

My saying this is pensive and melancholic, and I yearn for something I can’t quite describe.

If I ever really believed the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I did so in some way that I’m sure would disappoint my father and mother and the people of the churches with which I’ve been involved (and for which I’ve worked) all of my life. Faith and belief and other noble ideas/ realities bewilder me. I know that as long ago as junior high school I was terrified and—yes, odd as it sound, it’s true—embarrassed that I could not, or would not, believe in the possibility that anyone—even the Son of God—could be resurrected from death.

Once again, as I always understand, my thinking is not unique and my ability to articulate it is not particularly interesting or enlightening.  The longer I hang around the planet, the more confused I am about life, death, God, Jesus, and all of those things Easter seems to be about. And so I sit in my confounded state and wonder. And I worry that I don’t have enough time left to come to any kind of conclusion or peace about any of this. Twenty years max is what I have left.

Probably nowhere near that long. The closest I can come to understanding, accepting, loving, appreciating any of the religious formulations I’ve known all my life is to revel in the mystery that I can say, think, share any of this. The fact that I’m thinking these things and anyone else can have so much as an inkling what’s rattling around in my consciousness is almost as much mystery as I can bear.

And so my thinking, once again, as always seems to happen these days, ends with a whimper, not a bang. The melancholy, the yearning for what once was—no, never really was—continues apace. A long time ago I was telling a dear friend and mentor my fear that my career as a church musician was based on a lie because I didn’t really believe what we were saying and singing. She told me it didn’t matter. All I had to believe was that she believed. So, absurd as it may sound, I am perfectly willing to say that I believe that the vast majority of my friends and loved ones believe that The Lord Is Risen Indeed! And I am grateful that I am not alone in my bewilderment. John Donne is not too shabby company to keep.

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

—John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV.

“Unto the hills around do I look up. . .”

Scotts Bluff National Monumentpainted by Ruth Wright

Scotts Bluff National Monument
painted by Ruth Wright

  • In 1945 my parents lived in Douglas, WY. The town is situated at the foot of Laramie Peak on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River.  I was born in Douglas.
  • In 1945 our family moved to Worland, WY, situated about midway between the Grand Tetons and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
  • In 1950 our family moved to Kearney, NE. The city is situated near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers.
  • In 1952 our family moved to Scottsbluff, NE. The city is situated at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the North Platte River.

From the top of Scotts Bluff on a clear day, one can see Laramie Peak, about 120 miles to the west.

  • In 1960 our family moved to Omaha, NE, situated at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
  • In 1963 I struck out on my own to go to college at the University of Redlands in Redlands, CA, situated at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio sixty miles east of the California Pacific ocean beaches.
  • In 1974 my late ex-wife and I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, situated on the Iowa River on the (former) prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • In 1978 I moved to Massachusetts and lived for seventeen years within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, situated at the base of Cowboys Stadium.

A few days ago my sister and I took a day trip up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fifty miles east above her home in Rancho Cordova, CA.

As a wannabe writer and sometimes musician who lives in fantasy more than reality I have been, for most of my life, affected by prominent- preeminent- overarching- glorious geological formations. Until I left home, I lived with my family in a series of towns and cities that have a direct connection through their proximity to the Platte River. I have always (with the exception of my time in this place where football stadiums have replaced natural wonders) lived in close proximity to rivers, oceans, or mountains.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak

But, it’s the mountains.

I have mountains in my blood. And that’s the truth. For all of us, I’ve come to understand. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” my father would have said, quoting Psalm 24. The earth and all of us who dwell herein are made of the same stardust.

Today I am in mourning. Partly the mourning of being older than I was yesterday. Mourning (not regretting) the loss of ability to move and think and laugh and love as I could even five years ago, much less ten or fifteen. Mourning the process of being forced to retire a year earlier than I had hoped.

“Retire” is an odd word** to use for what SMU has decided I must do. “To retreat.” Dean Peter Moore believes it is best if I retreat. Retreat from what into what? I must ask. Oblivion? Is that what sixty-eight year old men do?

Retire is an odd word to use for ending one’s career. Or is it odd? I shall retreat. Yes, I shall retreat into safety, into the “everlasting arms” of the mountains—of the stardust from which both Laramie Peak and I are made.

I will retreat there soon enough. Perhaps my retreat is already complete. Perhaps it began the day I was born. Dean Moore only believes he has control over my retreat. In our arrogance we all believe we have some sort of power. It’s the illusion that drives us to “work” to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Most of us pay lip service to a “god” or some other force to which we have sworn allegiance. We say we believe that force has control over our lives.

And then we act as if we have some power over the stardust of which we are made—and, more pathetically, over the stardust of which others are made.

I have little use for the language that John D. Campbell invokes to praise his particular god. However, I am coming to understand the truth of his image. I do lift up my longing eyes to the hills. My language—as I come to say here nearly every time I write—is no better than Campbell’s. Different but not better. How can it be? How can any of us explain our certain knowledge we are made of the same stuff, the exact same stuff, of which Scotts Bluff is made. My comfort is knowing that my retreat there is certain. It began the day I was born.

“Remember, O Man, of dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

“Thanks be to God.”
1530s, of armies, “to retreat,” from Middle French retirer “to withdraw (something),” from re– “back” (see re) + Old French tirer “to draw” (see tirade). Meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1530s; sense of “leave an occupation” first attested 1640s (implied in retirement). Meaning “to leave company and go to bed” is from 1660s. Baseball sense of “to put out” is recorded from 1874. Related: Retired; retiring.
1590s, “act of retreating,” also “act of withdrawing into seclusion,” from French retirement (1570s); see retire + –ment. Meaning “privacy” is from c.1600; that of “withdrawal from occupation or business” is from 1640s.
Dana Levin has written this post as a poem that says what I am trying to say ever so much better. She has language artistry I do not have.

Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains