“. . . then the scaffolds drop Affirming it a Soul . . .” (Emily Dickinson)

1-IMG_4214

My strange little abode

When my partner died in 2003, I went apartment hunting almost immediately, not for any deep psychological reason or because it was part of the grieving process. That was November, and our lease was to be up in January. I did not want to pay another year’s rent on a huge apartment in North Dallas, wasting money and rattling around in that space by myself. No single man needs two bathrooms.

A friend who knew the city much better than I helped me look for rental ads and then drive around to look at various apartments.

After a half dozen tries we came to the one where I’ve lived since, and I knew immediately it was for me. It is not a cute cookie-cutter place ready-made for a gay-boy’s au courant possessions or valuable art work or trinkets bought with too much “disposable” income. What I have (my stuff and what I kept of my partner’s stuff) is not fashionable or valuable, so it seems to belong in the weird “loft” space I rent― one big room with no walls or doors (except the bathroom, of course). It has popcorn ceiling (how last-year), in the center the huge cement pillar holding the whole building up, ugly (I mean UGLY) apartment-cheap carpet, and a tiny galley kitchen no real cook would want to use.

It’s in the building I fondly call the “dowager” of the neighborhood―built in the ‘50s of concrete and glass, it would take an atomic bomb to tear it down. It’s tired, and it lost its upscaleness about three decades ago.

1-sapp 2-001

My artwork: a painting by my uncle’s late parter, Victor Gugliuzza. Two paintings by the Canadian painter Allen Sapp.

In other words, it’s perfect for me and my odd assortment of furniture and decorations (really―so really you probably can’t imagine it). And for me. And for my cats (whose presence is ubiquitously obvious).

And since 2008, space for the pipe organ, Opus 1 of D. Steuart Goodwin Organ Builders of San Bernardino, CA. Yes, a pipe organ sits in the open space where my dining table once was.

I do not mean to imply, by the way, that I think only gays have finely appointed, stylishly decorated, and elegantly furnished living spaces. Nearly everyone I know does.

I’ve been thinking about my less than stylish surroundings because I have recently met several people who are of far different means and “lifestyle” than mine. I’m pretty sure I can guess that their digs are upscale. One of these folks and I are, I think, forging a friendship. The others I will probably have passing acquaintanceships with, if that. I’ve been thinking about whether or not I would invite any of those people to my home. I would not want them to think ill of me because of my less-then-stylish surroundings

Last night I was in a group in which we were talking about how one develops a loving relationship with oneself. Better late (at 71) than never, I suppose. I woke up this morning having been “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:13) ―not warned exactly, informed, and not in a dream, in my rested mind―about a fact of my life that I often overlook. It starts with realizing that my apartment is an expression of who I am. I am not an expression of my apartment.

My apartment expresses a mind that is eccentrically organized―if it is organized at all. It expresses a spirit that has little interest in owning physical, worldly things. It expresses an understanding of the purpose of life as striving rather than accomplishment.

It may also be the result of depersonalization or dissociative disorder as symptoms of the wonderfully strange condition Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or something like it. All of that is so ephemeral as to render it impossible to talk about except with my neurologist and psychiatrist.

My apartment, if I could choose definitively what it expresses, is a manifestation of my caring little about what others think of me. That is not, of course, quite true. I care a great deal. But somewhere buried deep down inside me is a loving relationship with Me.

Not with what I own.

Not with my modest accomplishments.

Not with what I know.

With Me.

That relationship is not easy, and it is often obscured by fear and by doubt. I often mistake arrogance and self-righteousness for loving myself. And loving myself does not make me brave or strong. In fact, I most often want to cower in the corner and protect myself.

I’m not saying I am satisfied with Me. I wish I had done more and different things with my life. And I wish I could say I know myself completely. On the contrary, I keep discovering characteristics of Me, some of which I like and some of which I don’t like.

This afternoon I may not be able to say it, but right now I love myself, both what I like of myself and what I don’t like. Those friends I was in conversation with last night may not have heard what I said as an expression that I have a loving relationship with myself. (I said here at the outset I was told in a dream.)

Actually what happened was not a dream. Early this morning I was playing the organ for a few minutes as I often do for reasons of which I am often unconscious. The mystery of music is the same as the mystery of me. And of you.

Some people meditate. Some read inspirational literature. I play a simple organ piece.

“THE PROPS ASSIST THE HOUSE,” BY EMILY DICKINSON
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

The little prelude by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663-1712) on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr
(“All Gory Be to God on High”) which passed for my meditation this morning.

“. . . those angels, forever falling, snare us and haul us. . .” (Sherman Alexie)

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

In the fall semester of 1963 at the University of Redlands in California, Steuart Goodwin—a senior composition major—arranged for and directed the process of moving an organ built in New England in the mid-19th century by George Stevens into Watchorn Hall of the School of Music.

The organ arrived in (thousands of?) pieces shipped in wooden crates. The good-clean-fun of helping unload the organ from the truck and carry it into the Hall made for lifetime memories. Over the next months, Steuart reassembled the organ.

The impact of that uncommon event on organ students varied. The organ was the first mechanical action (tracker) instrument most of us had ever seen. Some of us hardly ever again practiced on any other organ on campus. Some would not venture into that studio. For me, mechanical action instruments became absolutely preferable to others—at least in theory. I’ve played many awesome organs with electric action and some ugly tracker organs. (See this article for an explanation.)

In the fall of 1964 Steuart went off to The Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to learn to make organ pipes at the Flentrop factory in Zaandam. When he returned home, he began his life’s work as an organ builder.

Coincidentally, the University installed a modern tracker-action organ in the recital hall the next year, built by Hermann Schlicker. I played my junior recital (a “half” recital of the Hindemith Second Sonata for Organ and the Bach E Minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue) on it, the first student recital on that organ.

Steuart’s Opus 1 is a small instrument of two keyboards and pedals with six stops. He built it as a “house organ.” I—in my dotage—have forgotten its full history, but it spent many years as a practice instrument at Redlands. In a reshuffling of teaching space, the University needed to divest itself of the organ, and once again I helped Steuart move, unpack, and rebuild an organ—this time his Opus 1 in my living room.

I cannot overstate the personal and emotional, as well as musical, importance of the Goodwin Opus 1 for me. It has been a constant in my life for 50 years—as has been my friendship with Steuart. Ours is the most lasting friendship of my life.

In the last few weeks I have become fascinated by music by various composers over the centuries based on a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). The tune is a love song from Hassler’s courtly collection, Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng (“Pleasure garden of new German songs). The opening lines of the words:

Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret,
Das macht ein Magdlein zart.
(My comfort is confounded. A maiden is the cause.)

In 1613 Christoph Knoll (1563-1621) set his funeral text Herzlich tut mich verlangen to Hassler’s tune. Henry S. Drinker (1880-1965) translated the words to English:

My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.
From ills that here surround me and woes that never cease.
The cruel world to banish would be a blessed boon;
I sigh for joys eternal, O Jesus, Lord, come soon.

Most people know this tune as the melody for the 1656 Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).

I began to be interested in organ settings of this tune (with the Knoll text) when I rediscovered a setting by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783) in a collection I’ve had since Redlands days. I was looking for simple (simple!) pieces I can memorize to help keep my old brain functioning.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall.  If I ever knew what it is, I've forgotten.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall. If I ever knew what it is, I’ve forgotten.

I’ve found ten settings of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. This is not a longing for death. It is a musicological exercise in finding music I can easily play and perhaps memorize. The fact that all of the pieces I’ve found so far are perfectly suited to the Goodwin Opus 1 gives the process purpose and delight.

A word about playing and recording on the Goodwin, and uploading the results online. It is not false modesty for me to say I am not a “natural” performer. Anyone who doubts that has only to listen to my playing. And Opus 1 is not representative of Steuart’s mature work as an organ builder—especially as a tonal finisher. I think he probably cringes at some of my uploads, especially when I have not had Ross King tune the organ recently enough.

My musical purpose is simple. It’s probably too personal to discuss here. However, I’ve come to a place (remember this when you reach 70) where I have little concern about criticism. My playing is my most immediate means of communicating the delicacy and the mystery of life as I know it. If anyone finds it lacking, I can say only that what anyone thinks of me is none of my business.

A “sea-change” has come over me in the last year or so (see Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I am not afraid of death, and I have nothing to prove. I have only myself to share as best I can with anyone who wants to know me. I have some loose ends I’d like to tie up while I have time.

Lack of civility and violence and purposeful ignorance still roil me. And my own foibles—both the purposeful ones and those caused by neurological mishaps in my brain—make me sometimes want to start over again 50 years ago. But I don’t say (or think) with Christoph Knoll, “My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.”

I hope, I yearn (isn’t that a funny old-fashioned word?) for some peace, here and now. And I wish I could communicate that to others. My halting playing on this wonderful unusual little organ will have to do.

I read a great deal of poetry, and I found this poem that, even though the poet is only 49 years old, seems to fit what I’m trying to say. The connection may not be clear to anyone but me, but the poem is lovely.

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World,” (2009) by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . – Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.


My recordings of the organ are obviously less than professional. The camera is too close to the organ, so the movement of the “trackers” is audible. The camera also does not record bass sounds well. And then there is the occasional airplane noise (in the flight pattern of Love Field).

None of that gets in my way. I hope it doesn’t yours.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

“Herod then with fear was filled, ‘A PRINCE?. . . ‘“ or, attention will be paid

Do you ever wish you’d paid attention in school?

Not the dreaded “rhetorical question! I don’t care if everyone who’s ever written about writing arguments says it’s a good beginning for an essay. It’s disingenuous. If you know the answer, say it, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s a trap. Reminiscent of a lover saying, “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you.”

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I wish I’d paid attention in many places other than school.

That’s how you begin an essay. Repeat strategic ideas in strategic places. Yes. Repeating important words helps hold an argument together—and keeps your audience’s attention. It’s a device of good preachers.

If you want someone to pay attention to what you’re saying, repeat nouns and verbs. See? I’m giving you a lecture on writing an argument, and you didn’t even realize it because I have seduced you into paying attention.

In the 1990s, The New Interpreter’s Bible was published. My dad was in his 80s, but, being forever curious, he subscribed—twelve volumes delivered over a year. What would a retired Baptist preacher in his 80s want with this set of books? He wanted to keep up with scholarship in case he had to preach. He was a man who paid attention to what was going on around him.

I pay attention sometimes. When Dad and Mom were moving to a new much smaller assisted living apartment and he was getting rid of his books, I paid attention and retrieved the NIB so they are on my bookshelf, and—believe it or not—I use them quite a bit. Usually to find critical information about some fine point of Christian or Biblical history I want to know about.

Like the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Martyrs) on the calendar of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal Churches. Pay attention! You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you had really been paying attention, you would have guessed it from my title.

All Christians know the story. The Wise Persons from the east show up in Bethlehem looking for the king they know has been born (from looking at the stars—Christian history IS based on astrology, after all). So they arrive at the king’s palace (Herod) and ask where the new king is. Herod says he doesn’t know, but he’d like to pay him homage, so when the Wise Persons find the king, please come back and tell him. An angel tells the Wise Persons just to go on home—and tells Joseph to get Mary and the child off to Egypt because Herod is going to slaughter the baby boys in Bethlehem to get everyone’s attention to remember he’s the puppet king set up by Rome.

This story exists only in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s in none of the secular histories of Herod’s reign. However, it’s not an unlikely event because Herod did lots of similar things, killing many of his own people and the like to get the attention of the ones who were left. But, of course, Matthew had a theological agenda—to show how the life of Jesus paralleled the history of Israel, so he’s the Messiah. The prophet Jeremiah said, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children . . .” Rachel is one of the wives of Jacob, helping to establish the Biblical ideal of marriage in which a man has two wives (sisters) and they each give him a concubine to bear children for him that they will raise as their own. You know, monogamy.

Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem

Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem, but you can’t get there from the East, where the Wise Persons came from, because the Apartheid Wall and the IDF won’t let you through.

I hope you’re paying attention to all of these layers and layers of meaning, politics, and theology because it turns out the Slaughter of the Innocents (today, December 28, the Fourth Day of Christmas) is pretty important if you’re following and believing the story of the Incarnation.

In Baptist Sunday School decades ago, we learned about Herod killing all the little boys. We had to because it’s in the Bible. We didn’t say the prayer for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, however.

We remember this day, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by the order of King Herod. Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

I remember the story most clearly because in college we sang the little carol, “Unto us a Boy Is Born.” And J. William Jones had us emphasize the incredulous question of Herod, “. . . ‘a PRINCE?’ he said, ‘in Jewry.’” For years I had a recording in which, if you paid attention, you could hear us shouting that word. It’s quite effective. (Here all I can do is detach and try to accent the note.)

A funny thing, paying attention and memory. Something about this little carol lives in a special place in my (conscious and) unconscious mind. I don’t think about it often, and when I do, I don’t “believe” any of the story. But it gets my attention and helps me think about what I do believe, what is real, what is eternal. Those realities that have more levels of meaning than I can possibly sort out.

Oh, in case you missed it, this essay is about paying attention.

(See “notes” below video)

____________________________
NOTES:
I have removed the shepherds from the nativity scene and left the Wise Men. Also, you may notice three wooden ornaments in the little tree. They were carved by the Salsa family of Bethlehem — the carving industry is nearly ended because of the Apartheid Wall around Bethlehem.

“Old Jewry” is a street in the financial district of London (still). “Jewry” is a Renaissance word for “ghetto,” so it is logical that the carol would use the word.

Unto us a boy is born,
King of all creation:
Came He to world forlorn,
Lord of every na – – -tion.

Cradled in a stall was He
Midst the cows and asses;
But the very beasts could see
He all men surpass – – – es.

Herod then with fear was filled:
“A PRINCE,” he said, “in Jewry!”
All the little boys he killed
At Bethl’em in his fu – – – ry.

Now may Mary’s son, who came
Long ago to love us,
Lead us all with hearts aflame
To the joys a – – -bove us.

—The words and original melody are in a manuscript of the 15th century There are many variants in other manuscripts. The melody in this form is from Piae Cantiones of 1582. The words are from the Lateinishe Hymen of the same year. The harmony is by Martin Shaw for the Oxford Book of Carols.

It’s my Christmas, and I’ll Whine if I Want to

Slumming?

Slumming?

This falls under the category “bellyaching.” But if you can slog through the self-pity, you might find a joke at the end.

I have an average of 37 tasks to complete with student essays (grading, checking, averaging grades, etc.) every day for the next five, and here I am writing this nonsense. Even worse. I took the time to make the recording attached here. I can’t help myself. I wish I could. But, you know if you’ve ever read my blog before (same old, same old) my little compulsion to write, and it has to be satisfied before I can do much of anything else except drink coffee.

If I don’t do those 37 tasks (or more) every day, the SMU Registrar and I are likely to be having conversations on Christmas Day. That thought prompted my singing to myself, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

Have yourself a Merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light;
From now on your troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a Merry little Christmas, Make the Yuletide gay;
From now on your troubles will be far away.

I won’t have any trouble making the Yuletide gay, of course. And, in fact I will have a Merry little Christmas. My brother, sister-in-law, sister, and I will be together—just the four of us—without a failing loved one to care for or anyone to move or, well, ANYTHING to do but be together.

A commonplace we all know is that depressed people are massively depressed around Christmas. I’m not yet, but I could be. I can’t drive. I have this enormous ridiculous sling on my arm—except when I take it off, as I have at the moment (I’m wearing the little take-a-shower sling; don’t worry, I’m crazy but not stupid). I have work that piled up starting when I was out of class for a week instead of one day because the surgery was suddenly fixing the biceps tendon in my shoulder not a little tear in the cuff.

You may rememberthe concert Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills gave at Met together a long time ago. Someone asked Beverly Sills if she thought she was “slumming” by doing comedy sketches and singing with Carol Burnett. She said of course she was—but not because the music wasn’t worthy of her. No—because she was not in the same comedic league as Carol Burnett and didn’t really belong on the stage with her.

Most of my friends, I think, see me as a serious music snob. A couple of years ago, my brother, sister-in-law, sister, and I were

I DO have a sense of humor.

I DO have a sense of humor.

visiting Dad in the extended care facility where he lived. There was a piano in the “common room,” and I sat down to play. I played a few hymns, and a little crowd gathered. I tried to stop, and they wanted more. A book of show tunes happened to be on the bench, so I began playing show tunes. I went on longer than I should have, but the old folks were eating it up, and who am I to pass up an audience?

When I finally stopped, my brother and sister each told me they had never heard me sit at the piano and have fun. Whoa!!!! Where have they been all my life? Sacramento and Baton Rouge, I guess.

I’m like Beverly Sills. How’s that for ego? Of course, I mean I’m not very good at playing the piano and having fun. What PhD in organ is?

Here’s the point. When I play “serious” organ music, I try to do it just right. You know, professionalism and all that nonsense. I am not a natural performer. Ask any of my real-organist friends. So when I’m having fun, no one quite knows what to do about it. I recorded “The Chipmunk Song” and posted it on Facebook. You should have read the comments about how wonderful it was that I could (apparently for once in my life) have fun.

I hope at least a few people who read this have figured out by this time that I’m having fun. Oh, yes, it’s dead serious, too. I am stressed out almost to the breaking point. But I also think it’s pretty funny. (Those of you who are not Bipolar really can’t imagine, I suppose, how something can be eating my lunch and making me laugh at the same time.)

I’ve recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the mechanical action (church) pipe organ in my living room. It sounds (if we are honest about it) pretty silly. It certainly does not show off Steuart Goodwin’s organ-building in the best light. But then I’m not sure anything I could play would do that.

So here I am, alone in my apartment (where I have been alone for most of three days) trying to catch up on work I should have finished days ago, but writing this because I can’t stop. And I recorded (inappropriately) one of the great songs of all time—I’ll write about irony in music someday. And my experience teaches me that hardly anyone will know how much of this is a joke and how much isn’t. Except me and the Chipmunks.

Merry Christmas, all!

“. . . In a stable, dark and dreary, who will be the first to kneel . . .”

Who will be the first to kneel?

Who will be the first to kneel?

Among the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dissimilitudes in our celebration of Christmas [or the Winter Solstice or whatever you celebrate at the end of December] is a misconception about the definition of the word “humble.”  Dictionary.com first defines it as “not proud.” Then come the interesting meanings. “Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience . . . low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful . . .”

Who in America (or any other Western country) wants to have a “feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience?” Not movie stars. Not professional athletes. Not recording artists. Not Rachael Maddow. Or Ted Cruz. Or Alice Walton.

NOT YOU OR ME, EITHER.

You’re educated enough to understand the word “dissimilitude,” and you have a computer of some sort. You probably drive a nice car and know the best restaurant in your city. (Stephan Pyles in Dallas. I’ve eaten there.)

Given all of that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist, or none of the above, you would not be caught dead kneeling in a pile of cow shit. Might ruin your Gap jeans.

But, with the best of them—even you non-Christian folks—we sing, in the holiday spirit,

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

(16th-century Polish carol, “In a manger He Is lying”). Never mind if you don’t know that exact one. You likely know “What Child

Vierne "Final." All those notes!

Vierne “Final.” All those notes!

Is this,” sung to “Greensleeves.” I have Muslim friends who, of course, don’t know those carols. But, believe me, there’s plenty of Ramadan sentimentality to go around. And, my goodness, Chanukah? So we all get ooey-gooey feelings about holidays based loosely on our religion.

Back to my original assertion—you wouldn’t be caught dead with your knees in a pile of horse manure. But you’d sing a song about it and feel ever-so-spiritual (or at least cuddly).

ME, TOO.

Here’s this baby in a place no self-respecting mother would give birth—a manger. Have you ever been in a barn where cows and other such filthy animals live? I’ve helped shoo the cows in from the fields to the dairy barn and sprayed the floor with water to keep the cow shit washed away so it doesn’t get mixed in with the milk. Nebraska, 1959 or so.

That’s as far from the windows of Neiman Marcus on Main Street in Dallas sporting their Alexander McQueen fashions as you can get. But I’ll bet everyone who buys one of those dresses either as a Christmas gift for his wife (do men do that?) or for herself to wear to the Christmas party she simply has to attend would sing

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?
At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?

BUT DON’T GET SELF-RIGHTEOUS.

Those of us who buy our underwear at Target because we can’t afford McQueen will sing it, too. While we all refuse to kneel in the cow dung.

I’m not getting all holier-than-thou here. One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, said,

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I’m grateful people like her keep things moving in (at least now and then) the right direction. But frankly, I’m more grateful I was born with weakness, fear, and timidity instead of courage. Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. And self-centered fear. I’m grateful I’m a wimp. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it’s OK to kneel in cow dung. In fact, it’s sort of a natural place to be. For all of us.

Not because I’m a piece of it—don’t get me wrong, I’m not groveling.

No, I’m (I think by this age I can be confident that I am) moving into the real meaning of “humility.” That is, “low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful.”

When I play the organ, it’s usually not very fast. I’m neither physically nor mentally adroit enough to play all those notes. (My “normal” temperature is 97.5.) Nothing about me is athletic—not even my fingers. I used to hate that my organ playing is best when it’s slowest.

Once when I was practicing at the University of Iowa on the Clapp Hall organ (destroyed by a flood) a friend—a real organist (played at the Mother Church in Boston)—wandered up to the loft. I was playing the Bach chorale prelude on Allein Gott (BWV 662), a languid work with the melody ornamented and strung out over a long introspective accompaniment. When I finished she said she was glad someone in the department could make sense out of that kind of slow music.

I resented it. I wanted to play the Vierne “Final” she was working on. No way could I then, or now.

And now I know. Or am beginning to understand. “Low in rank, importance, status, quality” is where I belong. That’s not self-hatred or any of those things your therapist or AA group warn you about. At least for me, it’s where I can pay attention. Where those mysterious tones we call music fit together so I can comprehend them. Where I’m most likely to understand anything. Anything at all.

In a manger He is lying
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Baby Jesus, infant Christ-child,
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Wake, ye shepherds, and as ye play
Gladsome songs and carols gay,
Seek the Babe ere break of day;
Seek the Babe ere break of day.

Angel hosts have sung their story,
Who will follow the bright star?
Told of Christ in all his glory,
Who will follow the bright star?
Wake, ye shepherds, and sing Noel,
Help the angel chorus swell,
To the earth glad tidings tell;
To the earth glad tidings tell.

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?
Wake, ye shepherds, Seek out your King!
Play your songs and loudly sing,
Till the air with echoes ring;
Till the air with echoes ring.

”Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Veterans' Day, anyone?

Veterans’ Day, anyone?

Curses on Georg Friedrich Händel! It’s All Souls’ Day, and I should be charitable to someone who is no longer here to defend himself. But I’d like to know how I remember the hymn “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on” sung to Handel’s tune Ciroë  is number 577 Episcopal Hymnal 1940—when I have not played the organ in a church that used The 1940 since 1982.

Ciroë (Cyrus) is one of those tunes from a Händel opera (in this case Cyrus, which no one has ever heard) some kind person arranged for congregational singing as a hymn tune. You know, like “Joy to the World.” I’ve never heard the operatic works from which the tunes were snatched, but my guess is they are complex arias or instrumental set pieces.

This morning the tune circled in my mind with the words

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way,
And onward urge thy way.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote these words;  they were first published in Hymns Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scriptures, by Job Orton in 1755 (1).

I think I was singing the hymn and tune because Joanie the Cat woke me up purring at 5:05, and I realized that even if I could go back to sleep (which would have been impossible because I was already singing the hymn and tune in my mind), she would not let me. “Awake. . . stretch every nerve.”

That I was humming the tune and remembering the words—yes, all of them—to the first two verses of the hymn was strange enough on its own, but that I realized the second stanza is appropriate for today, All Souls’ Day, boggled my poor half-asleep mind.

Where on do these thoughts come from? That today is All Souls’ Day is of no consequence to me, and I do not have any truck with the idea that “a heavenly race demands [my] zeal,” and I don’t particularly like the tune. It’s not horrible, but I dread having it in my head all day.

(Yesterday I was plagued with the tune of “We’ll have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” from Annie Get Your Gun, which I’m pretty sure I had not heard since I saw a performance of the show early this summer. It rattled around in my head all day. And it will now probably alternate in my awareness with the Händel tune for the rest of this day—because I mentioned it.)

I learned the hymn tune Ciroë long before I was an Episcopal church organist; the tune as I learned was named Christmas. We sang it in the Baptist church when I was a kid with the words

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind
To you and all mankind.

Nahum Tate, the magisterial hymn writer who was poet laureate of England, wrote the words in 1700. They first appeared in Tate & Brady’s Psalter, in 1702 (2).

Almost as clearly as I remember “Awake, My Soul” is number 577 in The 1940, I remember my father leading our Baptist congregation singing “While Shepherds Watch” with my organ accompaniment. That may be a composite memory from among the hundreds of such moments tucked away in my unconscious. But this hymn and tune definitely have some place in the life of, if not my consciousness, at least my feelings.

Today, as I said, is All Souls’ Day. I’m not quite sure what that means. Someone told me once the difference between All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It was something such as, “Not everyone is a saint, but everyone is a soul.” Of course, the main requirement for both is being dead.

My mind is freely associating in a way that I wish I could stop. Somehow, I have “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks” connected in memory with my maternal grandmother as well as with my father. Most likely that’s because I placed the hymnal with the Christmas words I looked up on her sewing machine, which I have in my living room.

Now I have “While Shepherds Watched,” “We’ll Have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” my father singing in church, and my grandmother’s sewing machine caroming around in my brain, each vying for dominance in my awareness. And it’s All Souls’ Day.

Curses!

Curses!

None of this makes much sense to me. I’m marveling at the complexity of my thinking/feeling today. It’s probably no more complex than it ever is, but I’m seldom aware of the complexity.

Last week I was walking up Main Street in Dallas. Crews of men working out of trucks proclaiming they were from “The Christmas Light Company” were climbing light poles and being hoisted into trees on cherry pickers stringing up the dreaded lights for the Dallas holiday season. It was October 27, not even All Hallows’ Eve or All Souls’ Day. One young man happened down from a pole just as I walked by.

“Putting up Thanksgiving lights?” I asked in my best sardonic voice.

“No. Veterans’ Day lights,” he said deadpan without missing a beat.

And so the “holiday” season begins for me. Unbidden tunes in my head, and a comedic workman stringing up Veterans’ Day lights on Main Street. Somehow it all fits. Especially today when, to be the honoree of the Holy Day, one has to be dead. I’m sure I have no way to explain the complex, circular, string of thoughts in my mind.

I do, however, understand clearly—but more with curiosity than dread, these days—where it’s all headed, for me personally and for all of us.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.”

It’s not about Christmas. All Souls’ perhaps.
_____________________
(1) “Awake, My Soul.”  The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.
(2) “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.” The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.