“. . . ordination in the ordinary. . .” (Stephen Cushman)

He got around to it.

He got around to it.

I wonder. I wonder if all people in their 70th year begin to work at projects they had not imagined attempting in their younger lives—or, conversely, stopped working at activities they have previously thought were important and rewarding.

How many careers can one be retired from—or begin—at age 69?

In the heart of the California Gold Rush country a replica of the cabin Mark Twin lived in for a year just after the Civil War (he was about 30) was built after the original cabin burned down. It is a California Historical Landmark because it’s where Twain wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, if you must) was born in 1835. He published his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in 1885—when he was 50. Of course, he had published a half-dozen novels before that, and numerous short stories, opinion pieces, and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

I’m sure many academics have written densely obtuse articles about the importance of “place” in Twain’s novels and short stories. Living in Calaveras County, California, when he wrote “Jumping frog;” in Connecticut when he wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc. And a return in memory to the scene of his childhood and young man-hood, the Mississippi River, for Huck Finn.

But one does not need to play academic mind games to appreciate “place” in Huck Finn. The physical setting is obvious. Mark Twain, as a steamboat captain, knew the Mississippi “like the back of his hand” (sorry I can’t be obtuse but simply use clichés). And having grown up in the South, he knew obvious and blatant racism and discrimination, knew it to the core of his being.

And then, when he was 50, he wrote a magnificent story of love and respect. Love and respect between two men who should not have, according to the mores of their society, had anything to do with each other. Everyone knows that except for the idiots who get the novel banned from use in high schools because they know nothing of love and respect. That the sense of place in the novel is important—the Mississippi and the culture along it are characters in the story—is so obvious I’m not sure why I’m even thinking about it.

Oh, yes. Back to what I was thinking about.

About 15 years ago I was in the thick of writing my best unfinished novel. It takes place mainly in Texas, but with strong ties to (and some scenes in) Iowa and Boston. I was living in Dallas, having moved here from Boston, and I had moved to Boston after living in Iowa for my PhD work. I can’t think an original or fresh thought to save myself.

The protagonist of that shelved novel is gay. What a surprise.

There’s some damned good writing in my novel. Damned good! It would have been the dissertation for my second PhD if I had finished it. Sigh. Too late.

When I had written about 2/3rds of it, I finished my PhD exams and was about to be thrown jobless out into the big bad world. Fortunately my little non-tenure-track full-time lecturer job fell into my lap. I took it largely so I could finish my novel.

Non-tenure track faculty don’t have to attend meetings, serve on committees, or “publish or perish.” I was going to write in all that spare time. Of course, I was also Music Director at a small church and had many other obligations.

A sense of place

A sense of place

Chief among them to keep myself out of deep depressions, which I’ve managed to do most of the time.

I’d like to finish that “on-the-shelf” novel, or at least use some of the writing in another one. But it’s on 3½-inch floppy disks I have no way to use. Stuff happened. New job. Ex-wife died. Went to Palestine and had a life-changing introduction to the real world. Partner died. Mother died. Brother-in-law died. Father died. You know, stuff. I tried to go back to the writing about ten years ago and realized the person who had written all of that stuff no longer existed.

I’ve lived in Dallas almost 21 years. The longest I’ve lived anywhere. That was not my plan. A few years tops, then a professorship somewhere beautiful with my partner, and retirement in style and ease. My sense of place is so centered here I find it hard to remember Nebraska, California, Iowa, and Boston. Not really. But I remember them in ways that no longer exist.

Next month is “National Novel Writing Month.” Accept the challenge of the organization NaNoWriMo. Write a 50,000 word novel in November. Let’s see, that’s 1666.666666666667 words a day. When I’m not so distracted I can’t do anything that makes sense, I write at least 1500 words every morning. I could write 1666.666666666667 a day, but this blog would go into hibernation.

a-round-tuitI have something of a plot in mind. A gay 70-year-old retired writer of sociological works about racism who lives in Dallas has a family crisis with his younger brother, the owner of a small business, and his best friend, a 50-year-old woman (not a fag-hag) professor of sociology at a local university gets dragged into the middle of it all, and his other best friend, a gay 60-year-old artist steps in to save the day, and unexpectedly the protagonist and the artist discover they’ve been in love for the 20 years they’ve known each other and suddenly drive over to New Mexico and get married.

Trashy enough?

Well, stay tuned. I may write a 50,000-word novel in November, and I may not. Would that be returning to an activity I once thought was insanely important? or giving up sanity for something different? What if I have a stroke next week and can’t use words anymore?

I may get around to it, and I may not. Around to it.
Today: exactly 1,000 words.

“No Place Like Home,” by Stephen Cushman
My ocean’s the one bad weather blows out to.
To face the other, waves all driven
by prevailing winds, I have to turn
my back on my family. May they forgive
this westward spree, my losing my head
to ravens that ride the thermals in circles,
to the shrub-covered bluffs of coastal scrub
and chaparral, to coons in the avocado trees;
may they not worry that I see signs
warning Great White Shark Area,
Rutting Elk May Be Aggressive,
and Hazardous Surf, or that one night two
quick earthquakes burped through the ground;
and may they repeat, when I return
slightly burned from the land of poppies,
all the lessons they ever taught me
about ordination in the ordinary.

Stephen Cushman has published several collections of poetry. He is Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

“. . . We wanted words to fit our cold linoleum . . .” (Vern Rutsala)

Master of the [King's] Wardrobe

You, too, can be Master of the [King’s] Wardrobe

June 28, 1660, was a day of Thanksgiving in England for the return of King Charles II. He had been in exile since the Glorious Revolution and beheading of his father, Charles I, on 30 January 1649.

The “glorious” revolution was a religious war carried out by Protestist Terrorists against the king who had sealed his doom by marrying a Catholic. The Protestists under Oliver Cromwell began liberating great swaths of land in the north and west of England and eventually overran London and the monarchy was declared abolished.

Charles I was executed by a “headsman” with one mighty sword-chop to his neck. The Protestists immediately began ransacking cathedrals and abbeys and other places sacred to Church and nation, and ensconced themselves as the rightful government of the United Kingdom.

Their reign of Protestist terror lasted only 11 years, however, because the people tired of the autocratic rule of Cromwell and his thugs (and his son, who took over when he died, was weak and stupid).

June 28 was only a half-day of Thanksgiving. The real day of Thanksgiving, “Oak Apple Day,” had been declared by Parliament on May 29, the day Charles II returned to London (he was not formally crowned King until April 23, 1661).

One of the most important purposes of the “glorious” revolution had been to establish once-for-all the United Kingdom as a Protestist Christian nation, with full freedom of religion for all Protestists. British law to this day requires that the monarch be a Protestant (a not very committed Protestist) and be married to a Protestant. The Royal Family recently passed the “no-marriage-to-a-divorced-person” test, so someday the monarch will be granted full religious freedom.

On the Day of Thanksgiving, Tom Pepys visited his brother to show him possible fabrics for a new suit. Tom’s brother visited Sir Edward Mountagu, who, even though he was a member of the aristocracy had supported the Protestists. Sir Edward was in hiding and in the process of changing his loyalties back to the royalists. He eventually became a member of Charles II’s Council of State and, for his loyalty to the king, was made Mountagu the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe.

Tom’s brother and his wife went to dinner that evening at Clothworkers’ Hall, invited by Mr. Chaplin, where they were treated to an entertainment by an opera singer who, of course, had had to sing behind a curtain for eleven years because the Protestists didn’t allow entertainment.

Tom’s brother, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) kept a detailed diary of his own activities and the social and political life of London, in which he was intimately involved, from 1660 to 1669. His diaries are one of the most important first-hand accounts of many of the important events of the Restoration period (see his entry for June 28, 1660 below).

In 350 years will anyone be reading my blog or any of the other millions of personal blogs in cyberspace?

Probably not. All of us are simply living in the age of public confessionalism—spill your guts in public and hope everyone reads it because what you have to say is worth the attention of everyone. It’s either profound or interesting, or you are repeating the Truth with a Capital T about the world—and society would be much better off if everyone would listen to you.

My writing today has two inspirations.

First, for the fun of it and coincidentally, I looked up Samuel Pepys’s diary entry for June 28, which I do from time to time simply to get some perspective on the day’s news. (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
Then I began research (which I also do from time to time because I’ve not yet found the answer) on the etymology of the word “Islamist.” Yesterday I heard it used in a most bizarre way that I won’t repeat here.

The “Glorious Revolution” was carried out by Protestist terrorists. That’s what we’d call them today. That Sir Edward Mountagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Wardrobe was in hiding on June 28, 1660, because of his role as a Protestist terrorist shows that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Protestist, or what?

Protestist, or what?

He was one of the clever (lucky) ones because he managed to hide his Protestist activities (or be forgiven for them) enough to ingratiate himself with Charles II and become part of the new king’s inner circle of advisors. So much for rabid fundamentalist religious beliefs.

So here’s the deal today. I wanna know who first used the word “Islamist.” It’s a dreadful word. I’ll bet most people who might happen to read my profound confessionalism here today are, if not offended, at least put off by my word “Protestist.” Well, what are those folks who believe so much that abortion is murder that they will kill someone who provides abortion services? Protestists or Catholicists. Who are those people who want the law to allow them to refuse to serve an LCBT person in their public businesses? Protestists.

It’s so easy to call someone a name without having any idea who they are, what they believe, or why they do what they do. Mea culpa.

And then to get on the internet and spill your guts as if you knew what you were talking about and as if everyone ought to listen to YOUR truth as opposed to THEIR truth. Mea culpa.

Sticks and stones many break my bones, but words – words are designed to kill. And they do.

Here’s a poem about that. Listen up, all you Protestists, Catholicists, Atheistists, and the rest of us who call people made-up names we don’t understand but sound hateful.

(Vern Rutsala, by the way, was a much-loved professor—reason enough for some Protestists to reject him—at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and poet, who died just two months ago.)

“Words,” by Vern Rutsala (b. 1934)
We had more than
we could use.
They embarrassed us,
our talk fuller than our
rooms. They named
nothing we could see

dining room, study,
mantel piece, lobster
thermidor.
They named
things you only
saw in movies

the thin flicker Friday
nights that made us
feel empty in the cold
as we walked home
through our only great
abundance, snow.
This is why we said ‘ain’t’
and ‘he don’t.’
We wanted words to fit
our cold linoleum,
our oil lamps, our
outhouse. We knew
better, but it was wrong
to use a language
that named ghosts,
nothing you could touch.
We left such words at school
locked in books
where they belonged.
It was the vocabulary
of our lives that was
so thin. We knew this
and grew to hate
all the words that named
the vacancy of our rooms

looking here we said
studio couch and saw cot;
looking there we said
venetian blinds and saw only the yard;
brick meant tarpaper,
fireplace meant wood stove.
And this is why we came to love
the double negative.

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

Obviously a Liberal Conspiracy

“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

.

For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848

“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

__________________________________
From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.

“. . . I kept busy being lonely. This took up the bulk of my time. . . “ (Marilyn Krysl)

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

Most people (I refuse to read a student essay that begins “most people”—how do you know? I ask snippily) who know the Sanskrit word “sutra” know it as half the title of the Kama Sutra, the Hindu sex manual. Most people who know of the Kama Sutra have never read it.

Most Americans—even the most sexually liberated—would be shocked by the Kama Sutra.

A sutra is simply an instruction manual.

I only this moment ordered Marilyn Krysl’s award-winning collection of short stories, Dinner with Osama. A friend told me they are (charming? hilarious? wistful? sad?) stories about how crazy Americans have been since September 11, 2001. From the title, I’d guess it’s about how Osama bin Laden looms (alive or now dead) in the background at dinner every day.

If he didn’t, Edward Snowden would not be a household name. The United States would not have the blot on our world-wide reputation for fairness and the rule of law known as Guantanamo. And five decent Americans from the Holy Land Foundation would not be in prison for life. This last is not directly related, but the events of September 11, 2011, provided the George W. Bush administration the cover they needed to make accusations of connections between this charity and “terrorism” that were proven in a process of refusing the accused their right as American citizens to confront their accusers. Oh, and the most elaborate scheme of the fabrication of “evidence” since the Rosenbergs.

Do you see what happens when you begin an essay “most people? You end up writing about stuff that was not even on your mental radar (I love sophomoric metaphors) when you began.

Marilyn Krysl wrote a poem named “Sutra.” The more inclusive meaning of “sutra” is simply a writing with strand of loosely connected thought that holds it together (what goes on in my mind is so loosely connected there’s not so much as a strand to hold them together—obvious from this writing so far).

“Sutra,” by Marilyn Krysl
Looking back now, I see
I was dispassionate too often,
dismissing the robin as common,
and now can’t remember what
robin song sounds like. I hoarded
my days, as though to keep them
safe from depletion, and meantime
I kept busy being lonely. This
took up the bulk of my time,
and I did not speak to strangers
because they might be boring,
and there were those I feared

would ask me for money. I was
clumsy around the confident,
and the well bred, standing on
their parapets, enthralled me,
but when one approached, I
fled. I also feared the street’s
down and outs, anxious lest
they look at me closely, and
afraid I would see their misery.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

A few days ago I gave “My Last Lecture” to my classes at Southern Methodist University (I’ll be shamelessly egocentric and tell you it’s on Youtube). I told my students that the most important “bliss” that I follow is simply loving other people.

Of course, this is an extremely complicated and dangerous idea. I do love. I think I have—and indulge—a capacity for loving acquaintances and strangers—almost anyone I meet–that is pretty highly evolved. I have no idea if it’s more or less than anyone else’s, but I know I derive my greatest pleasure and satisfaction from simply liking people—I suppose I should be careful about saying I “love” everyone because that’s such a maudlin, clichéd, and meaningless word. Besides, I can love you without liking you.

I suppose I should be a little more precise and say I make it my business to try to practice (and feel) the Greek concept of philos, you know—at least those who went to Baptist summer camp in the 60s do—one of the three kinds of “love” in the Bible (or in Aristotle and Plato). that is, love of other people. I don’t know. I’m making no pretense of any kind of scholarly or philological disputation here. I just like the idea of “Phila(philos)delphia,” the city of “brotherly love.” All you need is love.

So if I love everybody, why I am I lonely so much of the time?

Another (not related, but of exactly the same order of magnitude) question. If we are so secure and safe from Osama bin Laden, why does it take William Snowden to show us that we are 100% insecure and completely unsafe in our persons?

An entire city dedicated to love.

An entire city dedicated to love.

“It is at the edges that time thins.” (Kay Ryan)

". . . amber suspending attention . . ."

“. . . amber suspending attention . . .”

On January 9, 2014, I wrote a bit about a poem by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress 2008-2010. She’s also a lesbian, not that that makes any difference one way or the other. It just obviously makes me feel a special kinship with her. No, we’re not elitists or exclusivists or anything like that. And we’re not in a conspiracy to take over the world. Don’t be ridiculous. Just because you and Neil deGrasse Tyson can wink at each other knowingly when someone says, “It’s not rocket science,” the rest of us can’t assume you’re in some sort of conspiracy to take over the world.

Of course, I wish he were—and you would help him—to end the hoodwinking of so many fundamentalist christians and poor republicans by powerful financial and oil interests to make them believe both evolution and climate change are conspiracies of evil liberals just so the oligarchs can tighten their stranglehold on politics and the economy.

Just see how far off course I can get in the first 144 words of writing.

This started out to be a silly little piece on one of the items on my list of accomplishments before I kick the bucket—I won’t say my “bucket list” because my old buddy Kay might read this and be offended.

One of my first goals in retirement is to jettison the word “just” from my vocabulary—both written and spoken.

“Just” is a harmless little word unless you are using it in Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) sense of Just Gaming, his 1979 book about the language games we play. (Two observations: Lyotard lived to be only five years older than I am now, the sort of thing I notice with greater regularity every day; and his “language gaming” theory is one of those seminal 20th-century French ideas I somewhat understand, all about how the language we use is much of the time intended to wield whatever power we are personally able to muster over everyone around us.)

I need to ask Grant and Martha if “just” has some regional history or if it’s just one of those (almost) meaningless words that all English-speakers use.

You don’t know Grant and Martha? You’re admitting you don’t know the only really literate social/mass media left in the United States? Well, almost literate. NPR, of course, and specifically Grant and Martha’s show “A Way with Words.” They actually, believe it or not, answer listeners’ questions about etymologies of words. There. How’s that for my being snooty and elitist?

Off on another tangent, I see.

So I was in a very serious mood a couple of days ago (as I seem to have been most of the time here at the experience of letting go of my teaching career) and remembered Kay Ryan’s little poem (she says it’s pretty long for her, which it is).

“The Edges of Time,” by Kay Ryan

I claim a special kinship

I claim a special kinship

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. )

I’m astounded when a great poet makes a simple but magical and powerful image like insects trapped in amber—frozen in time—and then the insects “unseized” when the amber melts. My God, it’s the sort of image you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because it’s so obvious only a poet, only Kay Ryan would think of it.

She says, “Time which had been dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees unseizes them.” Time solidified in place like amber, freezing all of my intentions, my desires, my hopes in to be dealt with or realized another day, has suddenly liquefied (as in amber’s original liquid form—tree resin). All of those intentions, desires, hopes are released to be finished now! There, how’s that for a wordy flat-footed explanation of a poetic image? Sorry.

That’s what I was thinking about a couple of days ago sitting at my desk at the university waiting for students to appear for conferences over their last work.

And the whole experience of contemplation was nearly destroyed by my discovery of Ryan’s use of one word. A humming begins, apparently coming from stacks of put-off things or just in back.

Just a few days before I had told my students they need to expunge words such as “biggest,” “best” and (most of all) “very” from their writing. I told them I’ve been in a years-long battle to expunge “just” from my writing. I’ve nearly succeeded in my writing, but in my speech, it just won’t go away.

And then Kay Ryan canonizes it. Just in back of the stacks of things I’ve put off there is a buzzing, beginning to be a hubbub of those bees let loose from the sticky amber. There is a racket of stuff still waiting to be done. That trip to Easter Island. That unwritten book. That last will and testament. That pile of stuff I don’t want anyone to go through when I’m dead (they will be shocked).

claims“A racket of claims now, as time flattens.”

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.