“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

“These are the chickens you let loose one at a time. . . “ (Kay Ryan)

1-sousia sky

The Palestinian Sky at Sousia Bedouin Village. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 15, 2015)

Poet Kay Ryan read some of her work a couple of days ago at Southern Methodist University, and told a about herself in the same way she writes poetry. That is, less is always more. I have been smiling at, giggling out loud at, and all-but weeping at her poetry for years. Her images and insights are precious to me, the more so because we are virtually the same age (I am eight months her senior) and she so often that it’s uncanny says exactly what I was thinking and didn’t know how to say (I think that’s the definition of great poetry).

I am grateful to have heard her read and talk a little about her poetry because I now know my intuition was right―her delightful, funny, strange little poems are “about” something. They are about the kinkiness of living in this world, and about the mixture of joy and pain getting old―among other realities―brings. At least that’s what I heard the other night.

All the ideas, experiences, (mistakes?) of 70 years I’d like not to remember seem to be taking over my life. The chickens are, re: the old cliché, coming home to roost. It’s not only the bad chickens. It’s all the chickens, even those ideas, experiences, and accomplishments I’m proud of. This is not good or bad. It simply is. In Kay Ryan’s words, they are “all the same kind,” and they are all coming home “at the same speed.” Her poem “Home to Roost,” exemplifies the poet’s―a real poet like Kay Ryan, that is―ability to say all of this precision and elegance (and humor).

“HOME  TO  ROOST,”  by  Kay  Ryan  (b. 1945)

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash. It’s fair to quote him because Ryan quoted one of his poems. The last two lines of his poem “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” comparing sins of “omission” and “commission,” are

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

If all the chickens coming home to roost turn out to be of the same kind, returning at the same speed, what difference does omission or commission―or being or not being sinful―make?

Poets make connections between ideas and images that you and I would never think of until we read them in poems. My mind makes connections, but they are not elegant and certainly can’t be turned into poetry.

About 25 years ago in Boston I taught a college music appreciation class. One of the students was a young Palestinian man. He was had to leave this country soon because his student visa had run out. Unfortunately, the First Palestinian Intifada was just winding down, and his parents had managed to escape and were living on Malta, but he could not go there. He had no passport from Israel. Long story short. Details are not important―it’s complicated―I learned from him about the Nakba, about the Palestinian refugees, about the crushing oppression of the Palestinians before 1967, and about the totally untenable circumstances of their lives since then. He disappeared to Tunisia, and I’ve wondered since then what became of him.

One of the chickens that has come home to roost for me is my delay advocating for the Palestinians. In 1984 I had seen what outspoken advocacy could do for an international star when the Boston Symphony cancelled a performance by Vanessa Redgrave because of her advocacy for the Palestinians. I had no international stardom to fall back on.

But the truth of that situation would not let me go. When the Second Intifada was winding down (2003), I decided I had to see for myself. I went with a delegation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (their Palestine/Israel delegations are now independent as Interfaith Peace Builders). It changed my life. More aspects of my life than I thought at the time or than I realize even today.

Some of those chickens came home to roost.

My lifetime peripheral dedication to the cause of justice became in some ways an obsession. I’ve been back twice.

Since I cannot be a rabble-rousing activist, I have one little almost-private method of staying involved. I put together a blog about daily events in Palestine. Virtually every day. In the year since February 15, 2015, I have posted 255 times.

As far as I can tell, “the sky is dark with chickens, dense with them.” I have done much that might be considered “wrong” (by the Baptists I grew up among). I have done much that seems “right.” Most of my life at the moment seems “all the same kind.” My life is as it is.

My relationship with Palestine InSight is as it is. I simply do it. I’m not sure how many people read it. I used to beg my friends to read it. I wanted it to float to the top of Google searches. My purpose is to provide a place where Americans can see a tiny (tiny, tiny) slice of what’s happening in Palestine that might shed some light on their struggle―and to make available every day a poem by a Palestinian poet. Every day, a poem.

For a while I worried that no one was reading it, that I was wasting my time (about 2 hours a day). And then I realized the blog needs to be there whether anyone reads it or not. If someday someone finds it and loves the poetry or understands something about the lives of the Palestinians, so much the better.

If not, it is part of my “sky [ ] dark with chickens, dense with them.” There. Only there, not to worry about. Do it. Let ‘em loose one at a time.

1-Lifta Village

Lifta Palestinian Village, Jerusalem. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 12, 2015)

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

jerry tree

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

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

No, really. Pissed off.

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

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

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

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

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

I was 65 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOSSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Upon reflection, you are genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have become. . .” (Eleanor Lerman)

Park under the Museum.

Park under the Museum.

One of the marvels of being a human being is that other human beings, even if they don’t understand why, can affect others deeply and well. Eleanor Lerman was only 53 when she published her poem, “Starfish.” It seems almost impossible she or anyone else under 70 years of age can understand it.

I am genuinely surprised to find how quiet I have become.

For the first 65 years of my life I thought I was going to do something wonderful for which I would be remembered for the duration of human civilization. A ridiculous thought, but I held onto it. That thought gave me reason to go on in my circumscribed, parochial, mundane little life.

I’ve never been good at “living in the moment.” I don’t have any idea what that means. I’ve thought since I first read Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling (in about 1975) that the two attributes that make humans different from other creatures (different from, not better than) are 1) our ability to live in a world of symbolic processes—language like Eleanor Lerman’s for starters—and 2) our ability to remember the past and project into the future. What any of that has to do with “living in the moment” I cannot guess.

I’ve given up any thought that I will ever do anything that anyone will remember for longer than about a week after I die. Pity. The world would be so much better if I had had my chance to be brilliantly creative.

Oh, you say, I did have the chance, but I blew it? Anyone who believes that most likely also believes that if one is as energetic and clever as Charles and David Koch, one can be a billionaire. But that’s a pile of horse-pucky. Neither their brains nor their hard work made them rich. They were born with a billion dollars in their father’s checking account. Like the myth I’ve always told myself about being brilliant and creative, they have spun a myth about hard work and ingenuity and all of those other things the rich can afford to believe. I have to believe things that aren’t true in order not to be depressed, and they have to make you believe things that aren’t true in order to justify their greed and power.

It’s all done with mirrors and wires and a supreme evolutionary process of fooling ourselves as we try (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to fool others.

I can’t speak from the vantage of having accomplished great things. So perhaps it’s true that had I worked hard and put my mind to good use, I would be leaving some sort of “legacy” behind when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

The other day as I walked to the SMU center for the Athletic Development of Student Athletes I had a little exchange with the two men, one Hispanic and the other African American, not quite my age, but close, who were holding up signs at the corner of Bishop Boulevard and Schlegel Street on the campus of the university. Signs that said simply,
photo(20)Whenever the Methodist Church on the corner of the campus (the BIIIIGGGG Methodist Church that accompanies Southern Methodist University) has a BIIIIGGGG funeral, these men are paid to hold these signs so people will know whether to park in the church lot or in the lot under the Meadows Museum or on the Boulevard.

Cars. Hundreds of cars. Whoever had died was apparently energetic and clever and brilliant and creative and ingenious and hard-working. The funeral of a personage. My guess is, this being Dallas, it was someone who had made oodles of money and was, therefore, important.

I said to the sign-holders, “Big funeral.” And one replied, “When your time comes, your time comes.” I said, “I guess they’re just as dead as you and I will be.” My other new friend said, “Their money isn’t doing them any good now.” We shook hands, and I went off to tutor university athletes while the cars kept pouring in and the organist was quieting the congregation with lovely improvisations on funeral hymns.

My new friends and I had celebrated about all the funeral the rich man needed. And in the process, we had exchanged authentic communion with each other that the three of us will remember and cherish for a long time to come. And the next time they’re directing traffic and I come hobbling up the street, we will greet each other as friends. Genuine.

That’s a highly romanticized view of the importance of our exchange—I know it. And the deceased may have been one of the humble and meek that will be exalted. And it may be sour grapes on my part because I know no one will have to direct traffic for my funeral. I won’t yet have been organist for a service at the National Cathedral or written the Great American Novel or been Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress.

I was on my way to tutor four university athletes. I have been cheerleader for them for a semester. Their writing has improved (more because they’ve done more of it than because of anything I’ve said), and they have—all of them—come to trust me in the special way a good teacher can be trusted. No judgment, only support and—on good days—some humor and joy in a job well done.

It’s terrifying to know someone trusts me to teach them.

Do I regret that I haven’t reached my “full potential?” Sure. But I don’t know how to verbalize my gratitude. My “legacy” will be that perhaps I helped a bunch of kids figure out how to reach more of their potential than they might have if I hadn’t cared about them, cajoled them, guided them, been vulnerable with them.

Not a bad legacy. In this moment or any other.

“STARFISH,” BY ELEANOR LERMAN

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Where my funeral will not be.
hpumc

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

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . love with no need to pre-empt grievance. . .” (Elizabeth Alexander)

A British travel poster from the 1930s - to visit a place that didn't exist?

A British travel poster from the 1930s – to visit a place that didn’t exist?


Elizabeth Alexander
wrote her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration. In the foreground, the poem is, of course, about the event which few of us had imagined would happen in our lifetimes—the inauguration of our first African American President.

I’m appropriating the poem because I think its background “meaning” is infinitely more complex than simply a marker for one event.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

For the past ten days I have been depressed in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. I have not managed to write anything organized well enough to warrant posting here or anywhere else. I have written and written, but all of that stuff is either in Word documents with bizarre names on my desktop or—mercifully—in the “recycle bin.”

Most of the depression is, I think, a normal reaction that even those of you who do not have to take Prozac feel. It’s separation anxiety. Some of it is already here (retirement), but some of it is projection. Three of the people I depend on for emotional stability are going away, one temporarily, one permanently, and one either temporarily or permanently. I’m feeling ordinary sadness and fear at being left alone, albeit projected fear because their departures are in the future.

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Augusta Victoria Arab (Lutheran) Hospital in Jerusalem

Ordinary sadness.

Then there’s a small item of difficulty in being hired for sure for the part time tutoring job I am already doing at the university. That there can be a problem with my application to teach part time at a university where I have been teaching full time for fifteen years is terrifying to me. What if they don’t, after all of this, hire me? Is my next step applying at Walmart for a job? (After all of my criticism of Alice Walton, that’s not a likely prospect.) I spent three hours sitting in the waiting room at the Social Security office yesterday to get a new Social Security card (I haven’t had one for 30 years at least) to insure the solution to part of the problem, but the rest of it is still uncertain.

This is ordinary fear.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

It is all about words.

Ordinary words.

Goodbye. Employ. Security.

Fear.

And the one I have not mentioned.

I have not mentioned it because I don’t know for sure which it is.

Dismay.

Anger.

Or Grief.

In any world of logic (which I seldom inhabit) events taking place 5500 miles from home should not cause depression. Anger, dismay, grief, perhaps, but not depression.

The Israeli project of genocide and the destruction of the Palestinian culture and society in Gaza is, I think, the background meaning of my depression. I cannot fathom it. I cannot accept it. I cannot believe it.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. . .”

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Elizabeth Alexander is, I know, speaking directly of the experience of African Americans. But every day the experience of the people of Gaza corresponds more closely to the historical experience of African Americans.

The version of Niebuhr’s prayer we all know is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There is an enormity of difference between “the grace to accept with serenity” and “the serenity to accept.” I will never have “serenity,” but I can try to find “grace”—or (in Christian theological terms) to accept “grace” [see note below] that is freely given (by whom or what, I do not know, but I believe it’s possible).

I cannot accept with serenity the vicious, warmongering, uncivilized assertion that “Israel has the right to defend itself”—with the extension of that logic to the end that Israel has the right to obliterate an entire society.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Americans must—yes, I will moralize and even preach—“reconsider” the words that are too easy to repeat as if they were fact.

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

A shirt purchased in 2003 for the weekly vigil in Jerusalem of the Women in Black

Israel’s right to defend itself does not include killing hundreds of children in retaliation for the murder of three teen-agers. Or even retaliation for an almost-completely-nonlethal bombardment with rockets. Israel has experienced nothing to warrant genocide and the destruction of entire cities.

That is, nothing but the words that declare God has given Israel the land that belong(s)(ed) to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians must either leave or be killed. Words for us, as Americans, to REconsider. Because they make no sense for us as the protectors of equality and democracy.

We need to find a place where we are safe—where the ideas of equality and democracy that we want the world to believe define us are safe.

We are duplicitous enough for the entire world to see. We pride ourselves in holding “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while we give aid in the amount of $2,000,000,000 per year to a nation that is determined either to subjugate another people in toto or drive them from their land. Are the Palestinian people created equal to the Israeli people or not?

Are we caught in a self-contradictory lie of “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,” or are we so self-deceived that that we are willing to ask for “serenity,” when what we need to seek is “grace?”

We might not need the Prozac of “homeland security” if we stopped lying to ourselves. We are, I think, suffering from separation anxiety—our own separation from the ideals we say we believe.

[Note:  I trust if you listen to this hymn, you will be able to sort out the mild sectarianism and get to the words of the last stanza, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” The evils we deplore are our “warring madness,” from the third stanza.]

“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962)
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.