“. . . and God has a nasty temper when provoked . . .”

What to come back as

What to come back as

Yesterday driving up Lemmon Avenue in Dallas home from my exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool—one hour, ten minutes each of six different styles of walking), I heard Krys Boyd on “Think” on KERA say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended. I was too stunned to listen further.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil?

I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (as did every other smart-ass high school kid when I was 18—now they don’t even know what Hamlet is, either as in theater or as a small town nestled in a valley in Vermont). I think I’m afraid even to read it now.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Well, none. It would be nice to think I will have mind enough left to dream after I’ve shuffled off, but I doubt it. I really must talk to my neurologist about his concept of the “after life.”

A theory floated around a few years ago that a certain list of life events is almost certain to cause depression: the death of a parent, the breakup of a relationship, the change of (or loss of) a job, moving from one city to another. I think retirement should be in there because it is not, strictly speaking, the loss of a job.

When my Grandfather Knight died and we had the obligatory “hours,” I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle by ten or twelve) than I am now. I guess I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

As I have written here before, in the past decade, I have experienced the death of both parents—I had the unfathomable gift of being with each of them when they died—the death of my partner (we assumed we’d trundle off into old age together), and the death of my brother-in-law. I now have the certain knowledge of the date of retirement (May 15), the possibility of moving—to somewhere that will insure my not being alone in my dotage, unresolved issues with how to have a relationship, and the falling apart of my body (three surgeries—minor, I suppose—last year, and a “trigger finger” on my right hand that is obviously going to need repair sometime soon. I think I have every right to be depressed.

Last summer while I was on crutches from the repair work on my hip (100% successful, thank whatever part of the cosmos we’re comfortable thanking), the university moved several of our faculty offices from one building to another. Since then I have worked in—and had student conferences in—an office that looks pretty much the way it did when the movers left. Remember, I was on crutches and could hardly hang pictures on the wall, much less arrange books on shelves. Books I never use, by the way.

So the question is, now that I have—let’s see, exactly 41 days of class left before I’m put out to pasture, what’s the use of bothering? Old Abe may just have to stay on the floor.

On the other hand, the students will probably be more comfortable when they come for their conferences if the place looks somewhat normal. Or will they? Would a student even notice Abe on the floor? Do they even know who Abe was these days? Oh, the imponderables of teaching. I know that during semesters that the Gettysburg Address has been part of our study, I knew the quickest way to amaze my students was to recite the Address from memory. And then to name all of the Presidents in order. . .  Jackson Van Buren Harrison Tyler Polk Taylor Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln. . .

I know lots of pretty useless stuff. And I can do lots of pretty useless things. And I own a lot of unnecessary crap—mostly books and a pipe organ.

What dreams will come when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time.
. .

I wish I’d thought of that. See, this is what happens when you get to be part of the older generation. I put a picture of some men wearing suits like the ones my father wore when I was born and long enough after that so I remember them on my Facebook page and asked my friends who remember those suits to send me a message. Only two did.

I had hoped to find a group of us old folks to talk together about—about anything that comes to mind. I know things come to my mind that never used to, and I’d just like to know if that happens to everyone when they’re the older generation. I know Maxine Kumin thinks about things differently. Damn! I wish I could think the way she does. What fun we could have.

Abe will just have to wait.

Abe will just have to wait.

All those things like parental dying and jobs ending and moving around may be depressing for the younger generation, but for us, those in the older generation, they are, well, they’re just the way things are. Go, Maxine! (I don’t know how old she was when she wrote this poem, but she’s 89 and still part of the older generation.)

In the Park, by Maxine Kumin

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
–you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. 
He laid on me not doing anything.
I could feel his heart beating against my heart.

Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.  For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.  Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as. 

When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.  In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

“. . . and their dim moan is wrought / Into a singing sad and beautiful.”

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

.
On Christmas Day at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, LA, they and my sister and I were together. We were joyful and nostalgic and hopeful and silly and loving and lazy. Our average age was 69 years. We are, as they say, “of a piece,” that is, belonging to the same class or kind. Even with our obvious differences, we are all more alike than not.

My sister lives in California and has children and grandchildren within shouting distance. My brother and his wife have each other and grown children in various places.

I live in Dallas.

Each of us has many friends and acquaintances and activities.

My sister-in-law planned to provide Christmas cheer to a friend who was alone. The day before Christmas she had taken her friend to a doctor’s appointment and knew she was not in good health. On Christmas Day, she went to her friend’s home but could not get her friend to answer her ringing at the door or on the phone. I don’t remember all of the details of the situation for certain. What I do know is that my sister-in-law called 911, and they agreed to check on her friend, saying, of course, that if she was conscious, they could not do anything if she was not willing to be helped.

My sister-in-law had emergency telephone numbers for her friend’s brothers. She contacted them (one in Chicago or some such place, and one in Mississippi). The brother in Mississippi decided to drive over to Baton Rouge to check on his sister. I’m not sure how the situation played out because I came home to my cats in Dallas the next day.

Came home to my cats in Dallas.

Before anyone yawns or reproaches me for feeling sorry for myself, or points out (correctly) that I have many friends (I’ve already invited 45 people to the party I’m throwing for myself when my obligations to SMU are finished in May), I’ll try to state my thesis for this little essay clearly to avoid doomsaying or self-indulgent negativity.

Perhaps since I’m in Texas, I should quote the Bible for my thesis. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV). Even God, to say nothing of every psychologist, psychiatrist, health-care professional, and preacher, knows that it is not good for us to be alone.

Maya Angelou says it as clearly as it can be said.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone
(see below).

Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. I’d guess that means there are millions of Americans—and billions world-wide—who aren’t making it. And I don’t mean not getting enough to eat or enough exercise or good enough hygiene or enough entertainment.

I mean not making it.

I have plenty to eat. I exercise four or five times a week in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. I shower every day, carry my garbage out, eat off of clean dishes, and wipe the counters of my kitchen (laundry is another matter, but was always so). I watch a certain amount of TV (I’m actually keeping up with Downton Abbey this season). For goodness’ sake, I have a pipe organ in my living room if I need entertaining! Most important, I have friends with whom I regularly see movies, attend concerts, and go to museums.

If an organ in the living room is played, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound

If an organ in the living room is played, and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Without those friends, I would be relegated to TV because, for me, movies, concerts, museums, and Christmas parades are social events I cannot—no matter how hard I try—get used to seeing/hearing by myself. But I will still be entertained. Perhaps.

Just before Christmas, I bought myself two bouquets of inexpensive super-market roses to add to the color of my Christmas decorations. Nearly a month later I still have them. I am neither a hoarder, nor too lazy to throw them out, nor torturing myself with dead flowers.

They are some kind of metaphor that I can’t quite develop. I bought them for myself. Nothing wrong with that. I also bought myself new diamond earrings for Christmas. But the diamonds won’t dry out and droop and lose their color. I don’t know why I don’t throw the roses out. They are saying something to me about my situation—something I haven’t quite figured out yet.

I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want a friend to have to call my brother to drive over here to Dallas from Baton Rouge to see what’s wrong that I don’t answer a knock at the door or a ring of my phone. I know I have many friends who would set things in motion to take care of me just as my sister-in-law did for her friend.

The fear that might not happen is only a surface fear.

“It is not good that [one] should be alone.”

Do I need a spouse, a partner? Do I need to move closer to my brother or my sister? Do I need to find a nice retirement community (on my income?)? What do I need?

I’m one of those old gay men. Anyone can fill in the description after that. And anyone (nearly everyone does) can ask, “What’s wrong with being alone?” And I’ll ask you to read the poem below by Robinson Jeffers. Magnificent, strong, and self-sufficient mountain pine trees “In scornful upright loneliness [ ] stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything.” But in relationship with an eagle, the wind, the fog, the moon “They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought into a singing sad and beautiful.”
white-pine-mountain-and-forest
This picture of mountain pines is from the blog by Scott at seekraz.wordpress.com and is copyrighted. I have used it without his permission, but have asked him if it’s OK. I will remove it if he asks me to (Scott has given me permission–see his kind comment), but I absolutely suggest that you click the link and visit his blog. This picture is but a tiny sample of his glorious photography.

Mountain Pines, by Robinson Jeffers

In scornful upright loneliness they stand,
Counting themselves no kin of anything
Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling
Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand
In the grim rock. A silent spectral band
They watch the old sky, but hold no communing
With aught. Only, when some lone eagle’s wing
Flaps past above their grey and desolate land,
Or when the wind pants up a rough-hewn glen,
Bending them down as with an age of thought,
Or when, ‘mid flying clouds that can not dull
Her constant light, the moon shines silver, then
They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought
Into a singing sad and beautiful.

Alone, by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Nietzsche, the Fantasticks, and all that jazz. . .

Permission granted

Permission granted

The drama group at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, presented The Fantasticks about 1970. I was rehearsal pianist, played just enough of the accompaniment for the singers to learrn their songs. I could not play that kind of music although I wanted to so intensely that I was heartbroken when a real pianist came in for the performances. (I could do it now, by the way.) But the producer/director (a close friend) didn’t want a production that sounded like a cross between bad Bach and bad jazz.

Last night, for reasons too complex to try to explain here, I sang in my car all the way home after dinner, “I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream where the water is icy cold . . . just once, just once before the chance is gone. . .” I couldn’t play the piano in the style of the show in 1970, but I did learn all of the songs, for which I am grateful (why do the kids put beans in their ears, anyway?).

Like every gay boy in America, I knew “Much more” before I played it. Barbra Streisand recorded it in 1963. One of my university voice-major friends sang “My Name Is Barbra,” by Leonard Bernstein in a student recital, and that gave us (the “serious” music students) permission to listen to Streisand’s albums. After all, if she sang music by Bernstein. . .

So last night I was singing “Just once, just once”—because I had been talking about what I’m going to do for the rest of my life as a lonely old man.

When I talk about these things, my friends (none of whom are yet 69) think I’m complaining or being depressed, which I am—wait until you’re 69 and see how you talk. Or, perhaps I’m not. Perhaps it’s all a put-on. I love being old. Well, no, I don’t love it. I am surprised by it and intrigued about how one is “supposed” to act and feel. I don’t feel 69, so it’s hard to believe I am. If I’m going to act my age, I’ll have to join the Prime Timers, and I don’t want to run around with those old guys (unless one of them is single and looking).

“Just once, before the chance is gone. . . “

Can you play me now?

Can you play me now?

I published my “bucket list” (sorry, Kay, that seems from this vantage to be a good name for it) here a couple of weeks ago. One of my favorite daydreams is not on the list. I’d like to put into words—just once!—my perception of my life, and, by extension, your life, too. “I’d like to be not evil but a little worldly wise.”

The preceding sentence is so sophomoric—no, teen-agerish—I wish I hadn’t written it.  I should delete it and recast my thinking. But I am sophomoric (always have been), and I’m afraid my thinking is more and more teen-agerish all the time.

About 20 years ago when I was taking courses for my second PhD (none of my friends, I remind you, is old enough to talk about starting their life [1] over twenty years ago), I was bewildered and befuddled by such important philosophers as Nietzsche and Heidegger and Lyotard.

So the other day I decided to try again to read some of that stuff. I found Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in the Gutenberg Project, and I began to read. I sailed through the first three paragraphs thinking I understood them, and came to the sentence in the fourth paragraph,

. . . we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE. . . [2]

Whoa! Perhaps I get it. “Without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live.” That’s exactly what capitalism, for example, is. A counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers. We make this stuff up. Here, trickle down some numbers so a few people are counterfeited to be better or more deserving or—something! Who knows what?—and we’ll make up a society based on those numbers. And everyone else will internalize those numbers and try to figure out a way to get in on the equation.

Or throw some numbers around about, say, the national debt. All that means is we’ve figured out how to numericalize the way we do business so that we always keep (what? 40% of?) our friends poor so we can keep a few rich, and we structure our “national” (another counterfeit number) life around not taking care of that certain number. Or global warming. Or war in Afghanistan. Or the latest iPhone apps. Or—whatever it is you think is real today.

Dementia? Brilliance?

Dementia? Brilliance?

We have a set of ideas about “the absolute and immutable” that we know in our heart of hearts is “purely imagined,” but admitting that would be “a negation of life” as we know it.

Nietzsche was crazy—went crazy. Mad. Insane. Did he think this stuff up because he was insane, or did his thinking this stuff drive him crazy?

And if I keep trying to sort out the real from the counterfeit in the way I live for the two or twenty years I have left, will I be (or am I already) crazy, too? Before the chance is gone.
__________________
[1] Apropos of nothing, I’ve been meaning to comment on the epicene “they.” It is perfectly acceptable in English. Only the most traditionalist academics will refuse its use. “Epicene” comes from the Greek epíkoinos, meaning “of both sexes.” My saying, “None [singular] of my friends . . . their life [plural]. . .” has roots as elevated as saying “his life” would be here. “’Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act III, Scene 3, line 2311). That’s the example from Shakespeare I know best because I played Polonius once.
[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1909-1913). Project Gutenberg. February 4, 2013. Web.

I don’t care if it is your Constitutional right, carrying a gun is. . .

You can't yell "fire," but you can fire.

You can’t yell “fire,” but you can fire.

The last time I attended The Dallas Opera (their production of Carmen on November 10, 2013), I was distracted by the woman in front of me who was texting on her smartphone. Granted, she never turned it on at a time when something was happening onstage. She lit up the theater only during breaks in the action. I never heard the phone make a noise.

But it bugged me. Why should that woman think she—of all those 2,000 people—had the right to disrupt my immersion in the operatic experience? She paid about $200 to be there, as I did, so you’d think she would have arranged her life so nothing would disengage her from her expensive three-hour experience.

I can’t imagine being such a control freak that I would have to be able to control my business, my children, or my friends even from the opera house.

Perhaps she simply felt she had to let the people sitting around her know how important she was, so she responded immediately to the Tea Party request from Ted Cruz for money to work to defund the National Endowment for the Arts which gave a grant to make the opera possible. There’s more than one way to destroy culture!

Curtis Reeves has shown us how to deal with people who text in theaters.

Unfortunately, I have some hurdles to jump. (Question: if the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean the freedom of speech does not extend to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, does the Second Amendment freedom to carry a gun extend to packing firepower in a crowded theater? Apparently so. We are inconsistent, aren’t we?)

I have a right to choose to kill you

I have a right to choose to kill you

Assuming I have the Constitutional right to carry a gun within murdering distance of a couple of thousand people who would be trapped within my firing range, I’m not sure I could buy a gun in the first place. The laws of Texas are pretty vague about who’s allowed to endanger two thousand people in a theater. I don’t know if the state is aware of the psychological disorders for which I have been treated in the past. Does it know I’ve been hospitalized for depression resulting from Bipolar II disorder? I take some pretty high-powered psychotropic drugs. But I’m a college professor and respected (I hope) church musician. Which aspect of my character would win out in an application to buy and carry a gun?

Then there’s this matter of my little (and I mean little—only complex partial) seizure disorder. About once every ten years I have a blackout seizure—you’ll have to ask the assistant manager of the Target store where I had my last one eight years ago how I act at those times. I don’t know if the fact there’s a—what, one minute out of ten years—chance I might black out during the opera and do something I’m unaware of will prevent me from buying a gun in Texas or not. (It will now!)

Judging from some of the wackos I know who own—and a couple of them carry—guns in Texas, I’d say even with these little abnormalities I could probably talk the gun authorities (whoever they are) into letting me buy and carry one. And in Florida it seems to be a universal right—kill a kid wearing a hoodie or the beloved father of a three-year-old daughter, on the street or in a theater. Doesn’t seem to matter.

I know, I know. Curtis Reeves was simply obeying the law, standing his ground. After all, someone (no one seems to remember who) had thrown popcorn at him. Surely, popcorn in your face is equal to a bullet to the chest.

Here’s my deal. If I knew for sure one person—it would take only one—in the Winspear Opera House was packing heat, I’d be out of there—and demand my money back. How could the Dallas Opera put me in a position where I could be stuck in a crowd and at the mercy of a psychopath like Curtis Reeves?

And, Kimball, my friend, don’t tell me the problem is the psychopath, not the gun. No, the problem is not the psychopath—or, assuming Curtis Reeves is perfectly sane, the idiot—the problem is the gun. Chad Oulson would be alive today were it not for the gun. He might have some popcorn salt in his face, or a smashed phone, or even a black eye from an alpha male fistfight, but his three-year-old daughter would have a father.

I don’t believe in “evil” the way most people do—no evil force stalking the world in the form of “The Beast” or any other religious nonsense. But I do believe it’s possible for an act to be evil.

Carrying a gun—for whatever reason—is evil.

I don’t have the same religious conviction as St. Augustine, but I understand this. “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil–not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked” (St. Augustine, City of God, XII, Chapter 6).

". . . the turning itself is wicked."

“. . . the turning itself is wicked.”

Guns are evil not of themselves. They are evil because the person who carries one has turned to that which is lower than human thought or decency. But one carries a gun because one has already turned, and as long as the gun is present, there is no turning back.

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

Stropped-beak fortune?

Stropped-beak fortune?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stropped in the barber shop

Stropped in the barber shop

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

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

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

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

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

Anything can happen.

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

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

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

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

“Anything Can Happen”

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

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

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

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

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

Anything can happen

Anything can happen

“. . . I pretend I am standing on the wings of a flying plane. . . “

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Drive yourself crazy. Try to remember all the conversations you have in one day. On top of that try to think about everything you’ve heard or read that someone thinks is “newsworthy” for the day—news headlines on the hour on NPR or news briefs on Yahoo when you log on—items in the news that keep you au courant. “’Catching Fire’ Catches, Passes ‘Iron Man’ as 2013′s Biggest Movie.” “Top 6 Playoff Quarterbacks’ Pre-Game Meals.” “Designer Breaks Silence over Infamous Lara Flynn Boyle Tutu Dress.”

Three conversations I’ve heard or participated in during the last couple of days have stuck with me. KERA’s Krys Boyd talked on “Think” with Darrin McMahon whose new book is Divine Fury: A History of Genius. A conversation interesting and off-putting at the same time. McMahon says an essential ingredient of genius is “drive.” I’ve never been driven by anything except love of chocolate. Right away it’s obvious I’m no genius. ORLY!

I had a conversation with my sleep doctor. It boiled down to his gentle warning that as one gets older, one will naturally sleep less. Less than the 5 or 6 hours I’ve been getting per night for 50 years? Oh, PLZ!

A friend and I had a conversation about match.com. How many people on match.com admit to being interested in anyone 69 years old? None. Zero. At least not gay men. But if I don’t find someone in 6 months, they’ll give me another 6 months free. By which time, of course, I’ll be 70. BFD.

I don’t come close to being a genius, I’m going to be sleepier as the years drag on, and I’m already over the hill. None of these flashes is surprising news. None is news as big as Lara Flynn Boyle’s tutu dress.

When I was in high school a group of us from the First Baptist Church of Omaha went to a conference at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, WI. It was one of the most important weeks of my young life (not hyperbole) for several reasons.

At a worship service the staff organist played three “Intermezzi” by Hermann Schroeder. I’m not sure I was ever more taken with music at church. I raved about it. My good friend with whom I was sitting couldn’t believe I liked the music. “It’s not fit to be played in church.”

When we returned home I asked my teacher if I could get the music and learn the “Intermezzi.” He not only knew them but he played them and had an extra copy. I still use the copy of that score from 1962—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance markings in it. Four years later I played Hermann Schroeder’s Organ Sonata I for my senior recital in college.

It takes no particular genius to play the Schroeder “Intermezzi.” They’re technically quite simple. A bit of inspiration may be necessary to play them so they sound “musical” rather than intellectual. Eugene hated them because the melodies are angular and they are mildly (not crushingly) dissonant. They are not hypnotic enough to be appropriate for most church services—in which no one wants to be challenged beyond their comfort zones.

I’m not sure why I was thinking of the “Intermezzi” yesterday. I miraculously found the score—I never put a music score away afterPrentend I'm walking

I use it, and my apartment is stacked with piles of music as if I were an old man who can’t keep things in order—and played through them.

Or tried to.

One would think a short (one minute 40 seconds to play) technically straightforward piece of music that I learned 50 years ago would present no problem. It did. I had to practice—it almost seemed as if I’d never played one line of the piece because it was so difficult (time consuming!) to get it right. I was obsessed. I wanted to record it.

It seems unfortunate that I think of Eugene when I play those intermezzi. They soon passed through my conscious world into my unconsciousness. They brought with them a small repertory of music by Schroeder I love. I’d like to think I would have learned that music even without Eugene—but I needed to prove to him that the music is expressive of something important (the older I get the less certain I am what that might be).

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses
(Shinder, Jason. “How I Am”).

I knew I’d have to “sleep on” the music before I could record it. The sleep of all these years was not enough. I’d have to sleep with it in my conscious mind. Is that weird or what? Today I played it just fine. Recorded it in one take. The drivenness of my youth took over.

This business of longevity, this accumulation of experience and feeling and thought is more confusing—rather than less—every day. I can re-play, probably with much more musicality now, music I learned fifty years ago. I’m somehow musically (my hands may not agree) in my prime. And yet I can’t find a date because no one is looking for someone 69 years old.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955-2008)

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.
—Shinder, Jason. “How I Am.” The American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).

“Time . . . dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees. . .” (Kay Ryan)

Broadway, but not at the edge of my time.

Broadway, but not at the edge of my time.

Last Sunday my connection to the world broke. My iPhone crashed. I could not turn it on. Not 30 minutes before I had been telling a friend I should get a new phone to take selfies without my digital camera on a tripod. I was walking home from the train in the Arctic Vortex cold when it crashed. I thought perhaps the cold was preventing it from powering up.

I drove straight to the AT&T store. The manager/greeter had it powered up before he introduced me to a “representative” to see if, perhaps, it was time to get a new phone—I’d been eligible for an update so long I wasn’t even in their “update” system.

No wonder I couldn’t take a selfie.

Now I can. I’ve taken only three in three days, but why would I want to? Why would I want you to see me sitting here without having washed my face or brushed my teeth and only half-way into my second cup of coffee? Shall I make a duck-face?

You say you want to see me? OK. I’m neither proud nor ashamed. It’s just me. Besides, I should join the first-year university students who, a couple of years ago, would not allow their ID pictures to be taken if they were not dressed just right and their hair combed and styled perfectly, but are now willing to take their own pictures carrying on most bizarrely and upload them for the world to see.

Here I am. 5 AM and compulsively writing. Want to come over for coffee?

Good morning, sunshine! Selfie III.

Good morning, sunshine! Selfie III.

Now I have a new phone. For some reason it has gathered to itself two copies of every “contact.” And it doesn’t have a couple of apps I’ve paid for and are on my old phone but I don’t have a clue how to get onto this one. And it’s red, for goodness’ sake. Red?!

I shouldn’t be surprised. I have two laptops on my desk, one that works and I can’t figure out, the other that’s nearly moribund that I can use with alacrity. It’s not completely moribund. It’s like me, old and slow and unpredictable. I strike a “t” to start copying the words to “Thank you for being my friend,” and the cursor jumps seven lines above and, if I happen to be looking down at my hands (which I usually do when I type), I get “but I don’t have a thank you for cbelue” before I notice, or, worse yet the cursor will jump somewhere else again, and I will have “thank you for cbe new manipulations ing mylue.”

I know how to use Microsoft Windows Photo Editing (which is now out of production and is not on the new computer)  on the old computer, but I don’t have a clue what to do with Picasa on the new. And so on.

I sound like a 69-year-old (fart or curmudgeon, your choice) don’t I? Just a befuddled (almost) old man.

Connected to the world

Connected to the world

“It is at the edges that time thins,” says Kay Ryan. I don’t really want to be an old curmudgeon, but a poet. My time is thinning because I’m at the edges of my life, and I want to write poetry about some of the other edges of my life such as when I was as near the beginning of it as I am now close to the end. We’re close to the edges of our lives more often than we think—when we fall in love, or when we move from Boston to Dallas for reasons that make perfect sense but leave us open to fear and loneliness, or discover we need surgery to fix something  gone wrong with our bodies, or when we get up on stage to perform something either alone or as part of a company and are terrified, and when we were fourteen and the shoe shine boy in a barber shop and old men made us do things with their bodies we knew were wrong but we loved, and we discovered we could not, now or ever, finish the novel we had started writing because when people we loved died we became different people, and we did not recognize the writer who was making up that story.

The only technologies I had to worry about in the barber shop were the brushes and shine cloths that I was so adept with that I got tips beyond what any shoe shine boy ever earned before, and I had to worry about the technology of the tools to clean Jack’s electric clippers every night. And the black and white TV he let me turn on to watch “Have Gun Will Travel” and lust after Richard Boone while I cleaned the shop from top to bottom on Saturday evenings after Jack went home and trusted a junior high school kid to secure and lock up a place of business on his own. South side of 16th Street between Broadway and First Street, across from the Eagle Café. Scottsbluff, NE, 1958.

Ha! An artifact!

Ha! An artifact!

Anyone who remembers barber shops without Kerastase Paris, or Paul Mitchell, or styles with “shorter layers on the sides and back, maintaining a longer length on top” and held in place with “tea tree shaping cream” will probably not want to take many selfies. Because we get it that all the selfies in the world are not going to pull us back from the edges of time, time that used to seem as if life was suspended in it like bees in amber, but is now “a glittering fan of things competing to happen.”

THE EDGES OF TIME

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas
retreat.

     (Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. Kay Ryan was Library of Congress Poet Laureate, 2008-2010.)

“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. . . “ (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Follow the Mariachis

Follow the Mariachis

.
In about 1970 a group of us from Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, trekked to the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas).  The church’s name for decades has been Iglesia de la Epifania. The congregation is predominantly Hispanic.

We wanted to participate in (or rubberneck at is probably more accurate) the colorful pageantry of their celebration of El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day). A noisy and joyful procession around several city blocks accompanied by mariachis. Then our first celebration of the Episcopal liturgy in Spanish (again with mariachis). And finally a huge party with all of the Mexican goodies you can imagine to eat.

On the church’s Ordo Kalendar (which you can purchase in the exactly same format and colors I used to buy 20 years ago) today is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Feast of the Epiphany is my favorite day in the church’s year of commemorations and celebrations. It’s the day of the ἐπιφάνεια (“showing”) to the Wise Persons from the East of the Divine nature of the Baby Jesus. Or is it the human nature of God? I forget.

At any rate, it’s the day the church says to the world, “Even you, heathens, agnostics, apostates, followers of other religions, even you can understand the presence of God in human life.” Those Wise Persons from the East didn’t know anything about Hebrew scripture and prophecies and stuff like that. They knew some kid who was a Capricorn was born, and he had to be special because a new star appeared. Of course, they also knew Capricorns were intended to rule the world (ask Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong), so they ought to go and see this kid over in that insignificant little kingdom, that “protectorate” of the Romans in Palestine.

Follow the Capricorns?

Follow the Capricorns?


[Interlinear note: It was hardly remarkable when President Nixon visited China and met Chairman Mao. Capricorns are meant to rule the world. Ask any of us. The most interesting description of their meeting is written by the wacko blogger, The Last Columnist, with the most interesting out-of-step-with-official-explanations discussion of
the US “debt crisis” on the Internet.]

I take great comfort in the fact the Church Universal says to all of us who never did or no longer do believe all of the theology and rationalizations about the creation and salvation of mankind, “You’re part of this, too.” I’m not even cynical enough to think the church universal is saying, “Give us your gold, frankincense, and myrrh (whatever that is), and you can be saved.”

No, I think Epiphany and the story of the Wise Persons from the East are simply the church’s shorthand for, “Here, you guys—whoever you are—this is for you, too, if you want it and are willing to make a little effort to find it.”

If I really want to struggle with words and try to figure out what a writer means by ideas complex enough to leave me scratching my head (and admitting the limitations of both my conscious and unconscious mind), I sometimes look for a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Like this one.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

With the help of Spencer Reese, I could give you the English professor’s analysis of this dark and complex poem (Reece, Spencer.

Follow the poet-priest

Follow the poet-priest

“Countless Cries: Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.” American Poetry Review 38.5 (2009). But I won’t—partly because it would be boring, and partly because it would be more a report on what Reece says than thoughts of my own.

Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest. Depending on what critic or academic you read, he either was or was not a homosexual (and either did or did not ever have a sexual relationship with a man, especially Dugby Mackworth Dolben, a handsome classmate of his at Oxford). Never mind. That’s “argumentation by distraction,” as our favorite waitress at O’Reilly’s Irish Delicatessen in Ontario, CA, said one Sunday also about 1970 when a group of us from Christ Church were having lunch after services (see “comments”).

The point is that Hopkins sees himself waking in the night (during a time when he was physically, mentally, and spiritually drained and defeated—we know what was going on in his life at the time) having dreamed of his wasted life, his (perhaps unfulfilled sexual) desires and other sins—the first two stanzas—and his “terrible” conclusion. This is one of the six “terrible” sonnets—so-called by academics who have nothing better to do than categorize things.

The conclusion is that he is—like the rest of us heathen—“lost” because we expect ourselves to be the “yeast” that leavens our own lives. We make the dough sour (as opposed to sourdough bread). Our scourge is the same as his. He, like us, he says is “. . . gall, I am heartburn. . . my taste was me; / Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.” Our blood is brimmed with the curse.

And that’s what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same. Even being a Capricorn won’t help. Even President or Chairman. Or a rubbernecking Anglo. Or a Christian.


We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.Born a king on Bethlehem’s plainGold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Refrain
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
Refrain

“. . . we will remember every single thing, recall every word, love every loss . . .”

Today is the day. My 69th birthday. I’m voraciously accepting best wishes from anyone and everyone. So don’t be shy.

The boy she married

The boy she married

I guess it’s time for Lumosity and my trainer. Get mind and body working out and staying (getting) healthy.

The brain exercise rip-offs I can do without. And working with my trainer is on hold until my surgeries are healed (especially the three-inch gash in my tummy). But I will be back to training very soon—if only because it’s so much fun to spend an hour with a cute young thing like Mason.

I have the remaining six weeks of physical therapy for my shoulder. Dr. Miracle Worker is pleased with my progress and says we’ll wait six months before we decide whether or not to fix my right shoulder.

The best thing I can do for my brain is to begin again to read voraciously. I haven’t been reading for about fifteen years. Oh, I read a lot, but mostly academic articles about arcane subjects that serve little useful purpose. I was looking around my “office” (or whatever this disheveled part of my apartment might be called) the other day and realized I have enough unread books here to last me the rest of my life. I don’t need to buy any books.

Or, perhaps, the best thing I can do is learn new music. I started learning a little piece every day a while back, and then I had all of this surgery, and that ended that. I should get back to it. Or simply play a little work by Brahms that I first learned when I was in high school. I’d like to play a recital at, perhaps, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, where I’ve done so before. But I’m not sure I can manage myself well enough to get it ready. I could do a program of my own old favorites. That would require less self-management than self-indulgence.

Growing old(er) is a curious affair. There’s no preparation for it. No one can tell you what it’s like. Suddenly you’ve been around for as long as those old people you thought were so venerable (or mysterious) when you were a kid. I remember when my dad’s dad turned 70. It was 1955. My dad was 40, I was 10. I thought Granddad was about as old as a person could be. Eight years later (1963), he and Grandmother celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and I was sure no one had ever been married that long. He was, of course only 78. And then in 1987, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary.

And now many of my married friends (at least the ones who’ve had only one spouse) have been married 50 years or close to it. And I am one year away from that mysterious 70th birthday of my grandfather.

Yesterday I was in the bank to deposit a check. I had to show the teller my ID, and she said with great excitement, “We have the same birthday!” I replied that she had a long way to go to be as old as I am. Neither she nor the other teller not the branch manager (with whom I have worked a great deal over the past ten years) believed I’d be 69 today. “You can’t be that old!” But she was glad to find another Capricorn (we always are—together we could rule the world such as, for instance two who tried it, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedung).

That old.

Let me tell you about the disconnect between mind and brain when you are “that old.” My brain is that old. It’s slowing down.

I have all of those problems of memory in the Billy Collins poem I included in my blog yesterday. And more.

Will I ever look like my trainer again?

If I keep training, will I look like Mason some day?”

The disconnect is that my mind doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening to my brain. I am exactly the same person I was thirty, forty, fifty (perhaps not fifty) years ago. I am I. This is he. I think everyone who gets to 69 or older must have this strange experience of wondering who they’re talking about. Old? Me? I look in the mirror, and I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing. Just me. And it’s obviously physically a different me than I saw thirty years ago (or, perhaps, even last year).  But I am who I am.

I doubt that ever changes.

When my father was 97 years old, if I arrived soon after breakfast time at the medical facility of the retirement community where

he lived, I would find him sitting in the hallway shaving with his electric razor. He had found the only electric outlet he could use to do what he, Glenn Knight, always did, that is, keep himself groomed. Daily. Habit? Perhaps, or simply his understanding that, with all the change in his life, he was still Glenn Knight, and that’s what he did every morning. Looking sharp was part of who he was.

I’m beginning to understand the disconnect between what my brain thinks of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I know and feel, and what my mind thinks is going on. My mind thinks “The Boy She Married,” as my late ex-wife was fond of saying, is still bebopping around here planning weird stuff to do and trying, at the same time, to appear to be intelligent and scholarly.

So I want to debunk a myth. Sixty is NOT the new forty, and forty is NOT the new twenty or any of that nonsense. If you are determined to think and act as if that were true, you are determined to deprive yourself of the most mysterious experience of being Homo sapiens.

A favorite growing older poem (written when Ammons was 71)

“In View of the Fact,”by A. R. Ammons

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .

“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.


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