“Colour awakes on earth. . . “ (Jan Struther, 1901-1953)

The second coming of Mrs. Miniver?

The second coming of Mrs. Miniver?

I am amused.

I am easily entertained. “Project Runway,” “Love it or List it,” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” are entertaining. “Car Talk”—Click and Clack—Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Regular listeners know about the punny gag names the Magliozzi brothers used for credits at the end of their programs. One of my favorites has always been their Russian chauffeur, “Pikup Andropov.” And then yesterday I saw it—a sign that I had never noticed before.

I’m entertained by any number of things every day that I find interesting or quirky or that remind me of something else, or that I think only I have noticed.

But amusement—real amusement—is another matter. I don’t laugh very much. I laugh at David Sedaris reading his own wonderful nonsense (I heard him a few days ago). I remember his one-liners days later and laugh again—Crucifixes are sexy because “the cross was invented to make a man’s shoulders and abs look good.” I am not amused by amusement parks.

My father was amused by Tom and Ray once. He was visiting me in Boston. We were in my car with the radio on, but I had no idea Dad was listening—he usually couldn’t hear the radio. But Ray said their legal advisors were Dewy, Cheatum, and Howe, and my dad lost it. Sometime later he asked me to write those names down for him. He was writing his will. Remembered entertainment.

I haven’t confirmed this with a dictionary but my use of the two words is to say “entertainment” happens in the moment and is pretty much over when it’s over, but “amusement” hangs around. If something is truly amusing, I think about it later—and am entertained by it over and over. My guess is the word comes from the same root as “muse,” that is, “think.” I don’t know, and I’m not going to look it up. I giggle when I am entertained. I laugh (often to myself) when I am amused.

The Russian Chauffeur

The Russian Chauffeur

I am amused by the concept of the Second Coming of Christ, especially if it’s accompanied by The Rapture or Armageddon or Pre-or-Post-Millennialism. Don’t get all huffy on me. I don’t mean disrespect for anyone’s beliefs. I just find it entertaining over and over again—that is, I am amused—to think about the idea of Jesus suddenly riding down to earth (from where?) in a chariot and gathering everyone up and judging us and then starting this 1,000-year-long war. When he wins he sets himself up to rule the earth in peace and justice for eternity. Why bother with Armageddon or the Rapture or any of that stuff if he knows he’s going to win? Does Jesus need some entertainment? Some amusement? Just think what FOX News will do to sensationalize that war! What entertainment!

I’m sorry to be irreverent. I doubt anyone who might read this believes in the Rapture or Armageddon (a city in Palestine—between Nazareth and Jerusalem—I’ve been there). But I should not be crude and disrespectful anyway.

Now that I have offended and apologized, I’ll get back to the immediate source of my amusement. But, oh no! I don’t remember what I was amused about when I started this writing yesterday. A writing teacher once told me that the way to keep an idea going if you’re interrupted is to stop mid-sentence and the idea will reform itself in your mind when you come back to it. That didn’t work this time.

The reason I don’t know why I began talking about amusement is that the main idea, the purpose, of this writing was not to be anything directly about amusement. I could plead age here. I’m too old to remember such things. The short-term memory, they say, is the first to go. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think the idea was so bizarre that even I, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put it together again.

On the other hand, perhaps my inability to remember is a perfect metaphor for what I wanted to write about.

I need to remember without any doubt that November 15, 1986, was the most important day of my life. It was the first day of now 28 years—continuously, day by day—that I have not been drunk.

I don’t know exactly where I was going with the idea of amusement yesterday, but I have a clear idea today. My sobriety has been more or less a trajectory of learning to be amused rather than simply entertained. I’m not sure that before that day 28 years ago I had been truly amused for many years. Entertained, yes. Amused—remembering experiences long enough to develop any long-term pleasure from them—no.

Part of that inability I obviously have little control over. Clinical depression. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Thank goodness—and I mean a depth of gratitude that phrase cannot begin to relate—for medical relief from those conditions. And gratitude for my neurologist who gave me a new way to think about those things: “Remember, it’s your brain that’s depressed, not your mind.”

So I am amused by the idea of the Second Coming. Perhaps because I have been amused by the dozens of (bizarre) hymns I’ve played on the organ in church about it. I was thinking of one a few days ago and being mildly amused. And then I thought, it’s a pretty good metaphor for this 28 year change in my life. I don’t have any idea what the religious language means, but I know about “Night’s left behind at last.” So I guess what I am really amused by is my mind’s ability to make all kinds of kinky connections these days. Amused and grateful. Connections like this: Jan Struther who wrote this hymn also wrote the 1942 Academy Award winning movie, Mrs. Miniver.

High o’er the lonely hills
Black turns to grey,
Birdsong the valley fills,
Mists fold away;
Grey wakes to green again,
Beauty is seen again–
Gold and serene again
Dawneth the day.

So, o’er the hills of life,
Stormy, forlorn,
Out of the cloud and strife
Sunrise is born;
Swift grows the light for us;
Ended is night for us;
Soundless and bright for us
Breaketh God’s morn.

Hear we no beat of drums,
Fanfare nor cry,
When Christ the herald comes
Quietly nigh;
Splendour he makes on earth;
Colour awakes on earth;
Suddenly breaks on earth
Light from the sky.

Bid then farewell to sleep:
Rise up and run!
What though the hill be steep?
Strength’s in the sun.
Now shall you find at last
Night’s left behind at last,
And for mankind at last
Day has begun!

A small town in Palestine?

A small town in Palestine?

“. . . those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. . .” (Czeslaw Milosz)

A bee circling cloverr

A bee circling clover

Today is today. I have to keep remembering that.

It’s almost (no, absolutely) a commonplace, people say it so often that it means nothing, that one must “live in the moment.”

I have a few moments at the moment. I can write—which is what my mind and body both tell me I should be doing—or I can do any one of the hundred other things I can think of doing simply by looking around this room without moving a muscle except to swivel my head.

Laundry. Vacuum the floor. Sort books to give away. Watch “Love it or list it” on the HG channel. Listen to the “news.” Make another cup of coffee. Practice the organ.

Practice the organ or write. Those are the real choices. The writing is winning out at the moment.

What do those 30-40-or 50-year-olds know about living in the moment?

Don’t get all philosophical or doctrinaire about it. I’m sick to death of being told as if were THE truth that I need to live in the moment.

People mean things like “don’t dwell on the past, it’s over—you can’t do anything about it.” Or, “stop worrying about the future—you can’t control it.” So live as if yesterday didn’t happen and as if there’s no tomorrow?

Yesterday DID happen. I wasted quite a lot of time doing things that didn’t accomplish anything much. Or make myself happier or more comfortable in that “moment.” And tomorrow WILL—presumably—happen. I need more time tomorrow. I know that already. I can’t do all the things I want (or need) to do.

Only a white-haired old man, who [is] much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be. . .

That’s living in the moment, I guess. The old man knows today is the end of the world, but he keeps caring for his tomatoes. Like Martin Luther who, at least in legend, when asked while he was planting a tree, what he would do if he knew the Second Coming was about to happen, said he’d keep planting his tree.

If you think you’re living in the moment, you should rethink. According to people who know (such as neurologists and psychiatrists) everything you’ve ever done your little brain remembers. It’s possible to act in the moment, but living there is, well, a fantasy.

I’ll stop talking to “you” and talk to me. I don’t really want to forget (or even to live as if they didn’t happen) the moment when I was 4 years old that I first discovered how much pleasure it gave other people when I played “Silent Night” from memory—and how much pleasure their pleasure added to the pleasure I had simply in the playing. And I can’t (I wish I could) forget the night about the same year that I woke up in my uncle’s bed with his semen all over my body.

Back to “you”: if you can’t face the realities of the past, you should not be reading this.

While he binds his tomatoes

While he binds his tomatoes

If you don’t like to read about my uncle’s semen, I’d suggest you read about Cyberloney. I don’t want to refer anyone to Commentary. It’s a propaganda rag for the most rabidly conservative and one-sided thinking in America, but this article is pretty funny and thought-provoking. (I tried to get the rag removed as a “scholarly” journal from the EBSCO databases, but failed to prove my point, as I single-handedly did with the equally absurd journal First Things—it’s no longer listed as scholarly in EBSCO. I’ll keep trying.)

So two absolutely opposing experiences happened to me at about the same time, and—contrary to the advice to “live in the moment”—both are still with me every moment of every day.

When you get to your 70th year, you might understand (you might not if you’re determined to be successful and happy and rich). And if you’ve never had a year in which two things so chasmally different happened to you and gave you a bit of confusion about “the meaning of life,” you are so lucky that you ought to be selling everything you have and giving to the poor without even a second thought.

Don’t ask me why I’m writing about those two events. Except to say that I need three extra days (thinking about the future) between now and Sunday because I’m going to play (there, I’ve said it—projecting into the future) the organ at one of the most prestigious (if not important) churches in the city on Sunday, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying every time the organist asks me to substitute for him. Those two feelings at once because of the two experiences I had when I was 4.

And I need the three more days to make sure I’ve practiced enough to play well enough to give the church folks pleasure. And to give me pleasure.

And my opinion is that it would destroy my being who I am if I didn’t carry those two experiences with me always. I live in the past. No, I carry the past with me. Perhaps if I didn’t, I’d be the organist at a large and prestigious church or playing recitals all over the world. But I’m not.

For me, living in the moment is not the point (and it wouldn’t be very interesting). My goal is to carry the past with me always, but carry it in such a loving and grateful manner as to make the future—which for me is soon, oh too soon—bearable and beautiful.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover.

So I want to stop worrying about “living in the moment” and find a way—finally—to hold past, present, and future balance. All of it. Good and bad.

“A Song on the End of the World,” by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet, born in a part of Lithuania that was part of Poland after WWI. After WWII he was a Polish diplomat, and in 1950 he was granted political asylum in France. In 1960 he moved to the United States to become a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

I hope James doesn't mind my posting his picture

I hope James doesn’t mind my posting his picture