“. . . more life and more adventure for the brave. . .” (Godfrey Fox Bradby)

Gibbons  and hymnal gibbons

Gibbons and hymnal Gibbons

I’m a coward.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. But then, most people who know me well are cowards, too. The people I hang with are pretty run-of-the-mill, don’t bother me I’m busy making a living kinds of folks.

If I had even a modicum of courage, I would be living in Bethlehem or Freetown or Mosul or Lake Providence. I’d at least be volunteering at the North Texas Food Bank or The Stewpot.

My default earworm is a tune by Orlando Gibbons (1583 –1625) published in 1623, his “Song 1.” It’s the tune for a strange hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (number 470, I will remember ‘til I die).

The hymn is strange because it begins with a heretical statement,

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.

It’s heretical because, even though people think Christians believe we will die and then immediately go to heaven or hell, and that’s the purpose of life, true Christian theology is that when we die, we’re good and dead! St. Paul says we will be raised “incorruptible” when the trumpet sounds, but until then we’ll be dead. No Rapture there!

The statement, “We were not born to die,” is heretical.

I don’t care one way or the other what anyone believes about death. I think the orthodox Christian theology is correct—at least that we’ll be dead when we die—and I expect in 14.07 years (by the Social Security actuarial table) to be dead.

As earworms go, mine is pretty strange. I’ll bet no one reading this can sing it. No one who didn’t grow up Episcopalian between 1940 and 1982 has ever heard it . Not more than 5% of those folks can sing it.

I learned the tune when I was a junior in college, 1966. Dr. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, gave me his copy of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons from the Tudor Church Music collection. He bought it when he was a student in Paris in 1931. In 1966 I thought it was a venerable antique. He gave it to me because the University Choir, for which I was one of the organists, was singing the little Gibbons anthem, “O Lord Increase My Faith.”

The book was (and is) one of my prized possessions, a hefty tome. In order to show me it was not simply a historical relic, Dr. Spelman showed me “Song 1” from the volume was used in The Hymnal 1940, which the University Choir used. It immediately became my favorite hymn tune.

When I was pursuing my MA in composition four years later, my first extended work was a brass quintet, and the second movement is essentially a chorale prelude on “Song 1.”

The hymn may have been omitted from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 as much because it is confusing as because it is heretical. After beginning with the statement that we were not born to die, it closes with the stanza,

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.
“Beyond the grave, more life?”
Nothing that lives in God is ever dead?

Wait! We are—according to the most orthodox Christian theology—dead until the trumpet shall sound and we shall be raised. Now, lest anyone think I worry about the fine points of Christian theology, I must get back to my original topic. Bravery. Or was it earworms?

Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

So, according to Bradby, if you want life and adventure beyond the grave, you must live bravely here. Sounds vaguely like something a “Jihadist” suicide bomber would say, no?

It probably means Bradby would say I’m not going to heaven because I don’t live bravely here.

My favorite autograph

My favorite autograph

I’ve thought a lot about that for 50 years. Because of my earworm. Really. I’ll bet five days out of seven I hum at least the first three or four bars of the tune, and I have to consciously substitute some other earworm to take its place. That often turns out to be not much better, the hymntune “Salzburg,” with the original words, Alle Menschen müssen sterben (“all people must die”).

I’m a big baby. Scared of everything. Scared I’m going to hurt my hip again, so I walk with a cane (actually, about every 10th step does hurt, so that may not count). I never do anything dangerous. Never have done.

And, for the most part, my friends haven’t either. I have one friend who climbed some mountain in Tibet, but that’s not danger, that’s foolhardiness. I know a guy who races stock cars. Again, foolhardiness.

I am acquainted with a woman who travels all over the world saving girls from sexual slavery. She’s brave. A close friend has been in an Israeli prison for helping to feed kids in Palestinian refugee camps (Gaza and Lebanon). She’s the bravest person I know.

I saw on the PBS Newshour a couple of nights ago the attorney Nancy Hollander, whom I have met several times, who is representing Mohamedou Ould Slahi whose book about his imprisonment at Guantanamo has just been released. Nancy is brave. So is Mohamedou.

I hope it’s evident where I’m going with this. I don’t have much use for people who climb mountains or worry about heaven or hell—whether or not there are such things and/or whether or not they’re going there.

Bravery, in my book is doing something FOR someone else—probably someone you don’t even know—that might (probably will) make other people hate you and probably harm you.

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.
All that is beautiful in earth and sky,
All skills, all knowledge, all the powers we have,
Are of thy giving; and in them we see
no dust and ashes, but a part of thee.

Laughter is thine, the laughter free from scorn,
And thine the smile upon a cheerful face:
Thine, too, the tears, when love for love must mourn,
And death brings silence for a little space.
Thou gavest, and thou dost not take away:
The parting is but here, and for a day.

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

I’m pretty much chicken-shit.
photoApropos of almost nothing. This photograph was in the Gibbons volume when I opened it. Three of the players in as production of the Wakefield Cycle of Mystery Plays, the play for the Feast of the Ascension, produced my my choir at Grace Church Episcopal in Salem, MA, 1983. Jesus (not pictured) was played by a Cabot (yess one of THE Cabots), and God sat on the high altar throughout the drama. Some people didn’t like that she sat on the high altar. Some people didn’t like that she was African-American. Hardly anyone complained that God was she.

“. . . even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees. . . (Nazim Hikmet)

The only tree I've ever planted.

The only tree I’ve ever planted.

Martin Luther (the first Martin Luther, not MLK), according to legend was out in his yard planting a tree (presumably apple, which he loved) and proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

According to legend. No record of Luther’s remark exists—according to the website Luther 2017, the official state-operated site of the “Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt” preparing for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Perhaps Minnesota or Iowa has a state-operated website for the anniversary—or Fredericksburg, TX, has a city-operated site. The German Lutherans who founded Fredericksburg came there in the early 19th century to escape using the new “Service Book” being forced on all Protestants in Prussia, whether Lutheran or Reformed.

In his poem “On Living” Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), “the first modern Turkish poet” proclaims

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Who would have guessed that the great 16th-century German church reformer and the 20th-century Marxist Turkish/Russian poet would come to the same conclusion about how to live one’s life?

I don’t plant trees. The only one I ever planted, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmer Branch, TX, in memory of my late partner Jerry Hill, was uprooted when the church closed and the city bought the property to build a new fire station.

Since I retired (I won’t be, in fact, retired until August 1), I have had a hankering to play an organ recital. I have the program in mind. (Except for one work. I want to play an organ piece by a Palestinian or Palestinian-American composer, but I haven’t yet found one.)

It’s going to be a fairly simple program: one Bach work, a Mendelssohn Sonata, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and either two of the “Fantasies for Organ” by Ross Lee Finney, or the mystery work by a Palestinian composer.

This “retirement” business is, so far, unsettling. How does one keep oneself in some sort of trajectory toward—well, toward what? What do I need to do? What do I want to do? What does anyone else need or want me to do?

These are, in reality, questions I’ve been asking myself for 68 of my 69 years.

I’ve never been quite sure the way I’m living—what I’m doing or what I’m not doing—is “right.” I don’t need any philosophical or theological or self-help or 12-step recovery answers to the question, “Am I living right?” I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read Heidegger, I’ve read Baudrillard, I’ve practically memorized the Bible, I’ve listened to Dr. Oz, I’ve learned about the Third Wave of Behavioral Therapy, I’ve read Waking the Tiger, I read Bill Wilson and company all the time. I draw the line at The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—that requires remembering to carry a planner everywhere you go.

I have to leave religion out of trying to answer the question. At least for now. I know that puts some of my friends off, but I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to be as jihadist about that as Bill Maher is.

“Am I living right?”

Nazim Hikmet’s answer is

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

“Living must be your whole occupation.”

I know all together too well that living is no laughing matter. My goodness, if I read my post from yesterday—meltdown number 1001 (or more)—I have no doubt I understand “living with great seriousness.”

". . .living must be your whole occupation. . ."

“. . .living must be your whole occupation. . .”

I’ve been living with great seriousness all my life. Oh, I know how to have a good time—a genuine good time for the last 27 years since I started reading Bill Wilson and company (their writings are not, by the way, philosophy, theology, or “self-help”). But basically life seems to have been no laughing matter for me.

Or perhaps not. “Living must be your whole occupation.”

Much (most?) of the time I don’t remember that. But there are times that I do. When I sit at the organ and play, for example, the Brahms Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”), I realize there are (have been) a few times when living has been my whole occupation, when I have not been “looking for something beyond and above living.

I’ve thought through what I’m going to say next, and I know it sounds contradictory. But it is not.

Much of the time when I play the organ, my experience is like the rest of my experience—not quite meltdown 101, but not exactly living as my whole occupation. I don’t have the physical acumen to play complicated works easily, but I keep trying. But once in a while I discover a work that fits my fingers, my mind, and my spirit so that playing it can be my “whole occupation.” A listener might not think that’s true, but for me it is.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

I can extrapolate from that experience to my daily struggle to figure out if “I am living right.” If I can give myself to whatever it is I am doing, not looking “for something beyond and above” any given action at any given moment, perhaps I can “live as if we will never die.”

Yikes! That’s about as spooky as anything I’ve ever written. Thank goodness for Brother Martin, whether he said it or not. I’ll keep planting that tree—or whatever I’m doing—even if the end is near.

(Note: I have copied Nazim Hikmet’s entire poem here. It is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding to read.)

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963
(Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1994)
I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Nazim Hikmet was born on January 15, 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). . . Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. Hikmet died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963. The first modern Turkish poet, he is recognized around the world as one of the great international poets of the twentieth century.

“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

.

For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848

“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!

Sans-titre-1

But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

“. . . wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight. . .”

Waiting for the show to start, sitting in the front row of a balcony at the Myerson Symphony Hall last night, my friend Googled Bernadette Peters whom we were about to hear. We had

Fever!

Fever!

had a conversation about her age on our way to the concert. I said she’s 68, and he wouldn’t believe me. I was wrong. She’s only 65.

At any rate, I was having two small problems age may have exacerbated. The front row of any section of any auditorium is either the best or the worst seat in the section. It’s obvious why it may be the best. Not so obvious about the worst—architects never leave enough leg room for first-rowers. And my old hips need to be able to change position during a two-hour concert.

And I forgot to wear my bifocals. They were expensive and designed to wear all the time, but they don’t work at the computer or the organ, so I forget to take off the old “magnifiers” and put the bifocals on when I’m going out. The evening would have been more fun if only one Bernadette had been on the stage all the time (a touch astigmatic).

Being 69 really had nothing to do with either of those problems. I’ve never been able to sit still—and not because any joint of my body is in pain. I just can’t sit still unless I’m asleep. And I’ve been wearing glasses for about 30 years. So my hip and eye discomfort were (are) not the result of old age.

Am I old, or simply on the way to being old? Most of my friends rush in to tell me I’m not old when I mention it—with a couple of notable exceptions. Of course, they also assure me that I’ll find lots of ways to feel useful in 88 days when I retire, with little or no evidence that’s true. I know they’re right. I can write all day. Or teach writing at the Aberg Center for Literacy. Or work in the athletes’ writing center at SMU.

Or play the organ all day.

Or finally read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (not likely—why would one hypergraphic want to bother with the frenzy of another’s?).

Or do something with the energy of Bernadette Peters (again not likely—if I had ever had energy like hers, I think my life would be much different right now).

But I have one over-riding project to finish.

Many of my friends shy away from my frequent mention of thinking about my own death. One—and only one—of my friends agrees with me that now, now while I am of as sound (if not quick) mind as I have ever been, now I (all of us)—need to settle in our own minds what we believe will happen when we die and what we want to happen to whatever of the material trappings of our lives remains when we are gone.

This is not being negative. It may be very serious business (and for someone like me, being serious can all too quickly flip over into depression—but I understand when that is happening), and it may seem to be the exact opposite of the Pollyanna existence our television and internet views of life project that we should live. But being dead serious does not necessarily mean being dead or longing for death or being morbid or being a nuisance or being unpleasant to be around.

Have you ever seen a TV commercial for, say life insurance, that begins, “We know you are a thoughtful and self-aware person and are contemplating what you believe will happen to you when you die, so let us make your contemplation a little easier by handling a bit of your very real concern about that. Pay us to figure out the matters of the temporal/economic world that you will leave behind.” Foolishly, I’d probably liquidate all of my assets and invest in whatever they were selling just because they admit that dying is not just something I’m going to do next week and it will be over and all will be well.

Why on earth did I drag Bernadette Peters into this? Simple. She sang songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70, ‘80s, and ‘90s (if there were any newer than that, I didn’t—of course—recognize them). Many of them she introduced to the world by performing them on Broadway. Into the Woods, Little Night Music, Gypsy—I couldn’t begin to name all the shows she’s been in. And here she is at 65 doing a sort of retrospective of her career—although no one said as much.

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

And then she sang other peoples’ songs, most notably “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Fever.” My God, how long had it been since I heard that old Peggy Lee favorite? 1958. I was 13. I loved it then. I loved last night.

This is a ramble trying to find a definite thesis. It’s only this. I intend to think about all of the stuff that makes up who I am. And about the stuff that will make up who I am for the next (what? ten?) years. And then how I might come to terms with what happens after that.

PLEASE. This is not depressing. This is the point of it all. Don’t feel sorry for me or tell me to stop being negative or morbid.

Walking into my apartment last night after spending an evening with another old fossil, I knew for the first time in a long time that I will get through this. I will have peace before I die, not simply rest in peace afterwards. But, as we all know from Dylan Thomas, I can’t go gentle into that GOOD night.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.