“When ‘senescent’ approaches ‘senescence’”

Parry MY  LAST  FEW  POSTINGS  HERE  WERE  MISTAKES.  Literally! (a proper use of that word). I managed somehow to transfer the postings for my other blog to this one. Don’t ask. Perhaps the “process” of becoming old has become “being” old. I’m now setting things right with a post that is intended for this space.

In 1965 at the beginning of my junior year as an organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in California, Dr. Leslie P. Spelman informed me that he could no longer be my teacher. I was too “unpredictable.” When he meant was that I was unruly, not genteel, too “out” as a young gay man (this was, after all, 1965—four years before Stonewall).

Anyone who knew both of us could have predicted this separation. I was furious, but took it in stride because the School was in the process of installing the new mechanical action organ (the first I had ever seen), and Professor Boese was responsible for it. Having studied in Europe he was anxious to have a tracker organ to teach on. I was excited to be one of the first students to play on the Schlicker. I gave the first student degree recital on it, my Junior Recital (Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548; and Hindemith Sonata II for Organ).

Although I was unpredictable (unruly and undisciplined), Dr. Spelman hired me as a work-study student, and a great deal of my work became sorting and boxing his music and books. He was not far from retirement, and was clearing his office.

He and I spent a great deal of time together, and he tried his level best to instill in me something of his appreciation for the arts and some understanding of the simple and gentle way of life of his Quaker heritage. I fear he was not markedly successful at either.

He gave me music scores and books. His copy of the works of Orlando Gibbons from the monumental Tudor Church Music series, the large volume with his inscription, “Paris, 1924” on the fly leaf, a purchase from his years as a student of Joseph Bonnet in Paris. A copy of the Frescobaldi Fiori Musicali, the Bonnet edition. An assortment of little-known organ music, for the most part gentle, unassuming works that I, for the most part, thought were next to useless.

One score he gave me I have kept these 50 or so years. I’ve played a couple of pieces from it in the past, but I’ve always thought the volume was, while quaint with its gray cardboard cover, full of music too sentimental to be of any value. I remember distinctly his giving it to me with some other volumes, telling me that someday I might understand and be able to play the music.

The gray cardboard-bound volume is titled “A Little Organ Book.” It is a collection of 12 pieces by different British composers written to mark the passing of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), head of the Royal College of Music. The 12 composers represented were either faculty colleagues, or composition students of Parry, or church musicians who performed his works.

Recently I’ve been learning those works. I have, perhaps, begun to understand this music. Pieces written to honor the memory of a teacher and fellow composer, and written very soon after his death, some of them apparently composed for his funeral. Given to me by my teacher.

For the past several months I have been unable to write either for this blog or for any other purpose. At the risk of seeming as sentimental as I have thought “A Little Organ Book” to be for these many years, I will offer a simplistic explanation. I am depressed. I am 70 years old and alone. This is not how my “last years” were intended to be (intended by whom? one might ask). I will write soon about my flawed thinking. It’s enough to say now that I am not alone, and I have several fulfilling and beneficial activities to keep me both busy and in daily contact with other people.

But I have not yet come to terms with this situation that may last another week or, if my father’s genes have anything to do with it, another 27 years.

And then, when I least expected it, on the music desk of my organ opened a lovely little musical work that my most important mentor told me when he was only a couple of years short of 70 that I would someday know how to play.

I get it, I think. “IV” by Alan Gray (1855-1935), organist and director of the choirs at Trinity College, Cambridge. For his friend Hubert.

“. . . 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sans-titre-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“. . . Before that dread apocalypse of soul.”

I may have decided in the past few days (a decision that sneaked up on me) the only way to happiness is to be a recluse. Wandering around bumping into all of you folks is too complicated. The moment I decide so-and-so is likeable enough and generous enough of spirit to trust with intimate details of my life, I discover they really don’t want to be bothered.

". . . as the thunder-roll Breaks its own cloud, . . "

“. . . as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, . . “

And, truth be known, I don’t want to bother with theirs. I want companionship, perhaps even love and sex, but I know what a bother all of that is and how much autonomy any two people have to forfeit for a modicum of closeness.

We all, I am convinced, have the same freakish intuition that whatever pleasure we obtain from being with others—especially with those who try to project their relational willingness with charm and honesty even though we know it’s a ruse—is both vaporous and dangerous.  The danger is not only psychological and/or spiritual. It’s actually physical, too. We can’t get through 24 hours without running into someone literally, making some kind of unintentional physical contact, at best bothersome and at worst (I hear it happens) deadly (especially with cars).

As Ogden Nash observed, “One would be in less danger from the wiles of the stranger if one’s own kin and kith were more fun to be with.” All sorts and conditions of men people manage to invade my space without regard for my feelings. And I theirs.

I used to pray for “all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them” (“Prayers and Thanksgivings.” Book of Common Prayer Online). I think it’s probably still a good idea to pray, if one prays at all, for all sorts and conditions of men people (the 1928 Prayer Book, published 37 years before Helen Gurley Brown took over Cosmopolitan and made the business of relationships absolutelly impossible).

But while people (I’m sure) want to invade my space, I have been known to do idiotic things when I’ve wanted to drag someone into my space—if not my life. I want my dirty socks on the floor in that pile, thank you—and I don’t give a damn if disorder like that makes your skin crawl (but I’ll pick them up for you). And I do wish you’d realize the noise generated by the stuff you watch incessantly on your big-screen TV is driving me to distraction (but, by all means, watch that football game if you like).

I’m tired of this (almost constant) sensation that you and you and you are ripping me apart and taking whatever it is of me you want without so much as a “by your leave.” Or worse, ignoring me altogether.

If a student had written all the above and I were grading it, I’d write devastating (amusing although the student would not get the joke) remarks about “voice” and “style.” Stilted and inauthentic.  I’d tell her to be direct and honest. “Hey, all you people who want me to think you love—or even like—me, stop mucking up my world for no reason. Stop invading my space and giving me nothing in return.” If that’s what the student meant.

I can’t figure out how to say what I need to say—mostly to tell myself—about the distress relationships cause me. I can’t figure out how to write about that unassuaged pain and at the same time give some indication I realize we’re all in the same boat—AND none of us can figure out how to say so. It is an absolute necessity of human existence. This pain of relatedness.

My opening sentence is not quite true. “I may have decided in the past few days (a decision that sneaked up on me) the only way to be happy is to be a recluse.”

The only way to happiness?

The only way to happiness?

Anyone who knows me knows I clearly do not believe that reclusivity (I know, it’s not in the Oxford Dictionary yet, but it will be!) would make me happy. But it couldn’t be more difficult than the uncomfortable and (more often than not) isolational patterns of my life as it is now.

Back in the day, we sophisticated moderns learned to reject almost-out-of-hand the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). She was a religio/ philosophical lightweight of a Romantic Victorian poet whose work scarcely deserved serious study. Where I learned her sonnet, “The Soul’s Expression,” I have no idea.

“The Soul’s Expression,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

With stammering lips and insufficient sound
I strive and struggle to deliver right
That music of my nature, day and night
With dream and thought and feeling interwound
And only answering all the senses round
With octaves of a mystic depth and height
Which step out grandly to the infinite
From the dark edges of the sensual ground.

This song of soul I struggle to outbear
Through portals of the sense, sublime and whole,
And utter all myself into the air:
But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul.

“This song of soul I struggle to outbear,” and I “struggle to. . .utter all myself into the air.” But, like Browning, I know that if I did, my self would be shattered as lightning and thunder shatter the clouds that produce them.

“With stammering lips and insufficient sound /I strive and struggle to deliver right/ That music of my nature,” but I know it’s impossible. I can’t communicate the impossibility of not feeling alone. My soul’s expression is as futile as Browning’s. I have no idea what her soul needed to express. I abscond with her words because I don’t have an expression of my own.

Professor M_____ at the University of Redlands 50 years ago said, in Shakespeare class, all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” I think even with family, friends, and—God forbid—a lover, if I managed to “utter all myself into the air,” I would “perish there.” The struggle to stay connected, for me, is all there is. Struggle. Because at all times I feel so unfathomably alone. Even in the midst of friendship and love.

Not a religio/ philosophical lightweight of a Romantic Victorian poet

Not a religio/ philosophical lightweight of a Romantic Victorian poet