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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“. . . While the deepening shadows fall . . .” (W. F. Sherwin ― 1877)

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Man made structures huddling on the earth as seen from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 21, 2016)

On August 24, 2016, my sister Bonnie Sato and I were in our childhood home, Scottsbluff, NE. We wanted to see a Nebraska sunset from “the bluff,” that is, Scotts Bluff National Monument. We drove to a small observation point we knew at the west base of the bluff. The sunset did not disappoint us. A cloud cover broke just above the horizon, and we were able to see the sun set under the clouds ― a common Nebraska event. I took about a hundred pictures.
___During the sunset I had in mind one of the first hymns I learned to play on the organ (I began lessons 62 years ago when I was 9 ― in Scottsbluff). In our hymnal, the tune was in the key of A-flat. The fifth note of the melody is D-natural, the raised 4th in the key of A-flat, creating a tritone, the “Devil’s interval.” It’s not harmonically important in this tune, simply an embellishment. But I heard it as a harmony tone and would often elongate the rhythm at that beat when I was alone. I did not know the name of that interval, midway between a 4th and a 5th, and, according to the Medieval theorists, difficult to sing and of the devil. I simply thrilled to the sound.
___The next time the Devil’s Interval impressed itself on me was when I was in high school (by this time in Omaha), and I learned to play the entire piano version of the songs from West Side Story. Tony sings the Devil’s Interval as the second note of “Maria.” Make of that what you may. My ultra-conservative Mennonite organ teacher would not countenance the worldly music of Broadway, of course, but he did explain the Devil’s Interval to me.
___Yesterday I was looking through my sunset pictures for a new “cover photo” for my Facebook page. I found one similar to (they are all similar to) the one below. As I was looking through my photos, I was taken back to August 24, even to the point of singing “Day Is Dying in the West” ― aloud here in the my apartment where I am alone.
___I thought of recording it on my Steuart Goodwin pipe organ (yes, if you don’t know, it’s in my living room) to put on my YouTube page, but I wanted the words, so I found the YouTube page of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, by googling the hymn. It is here. Listen for the Devil on the word “the.”

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Scottsbluff National Monument in shadow seen from the Wildcat Hills, 20 miles to the south. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 25, 2016)

___The hymn is musically too sentimental to be in sophisticated hymnals like those of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (that’s not an elitist or sarcastic statement; they are the most musically sophisticated hymnals in common use). That begs the question, however, why the Episcopalians have not found a more sophisticated tune for those words. The hymn does not mention Jesus or “salvation.” Many fundamentalist Christians would think the almost “deistic” words would appeal to the Episcopalians, who, they suppose, are only marginally Christian. And yet I learned the hymn from a Baptist hymnal. Go figure.
___Perhaps because I learned the hymn when I was so young, even in my educated (presumably sophisticated) musical taste I still love both the tune and the words (mea culpa).
___Or perhaps my love of the hymn and tune is situated in my present age and understanding.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night. . .

This week I celebrated my 72nd birthday. Last night from the National Geographic TV channel, I watched an installment of the series Earth: The Making of a Planet (2015). Through the entire program showing the gathering together of space “debris” through millions of years to form the earth, I sat thinking (and several times saying aloud here in my apartment where I am alone), “How do they know that?” Is our science so advanced that we can state with (apparent) certainty what rocks, what elements, what minerals formed the earth, and how water managed to “cover the face of the deep?”
___Of course, the implicit question for me was, “If we know how it came together, do we know how it will end?” It will end. Our sun, a mature star, will become a red giant, and a red dwarf, and a supernova, and a black hole eventually (10 billion years? who knows?) and will take our solar system with it. More than “day” is dying in the west.

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Sunset over Wyoming as seen from the western base of Scottsbluff National Monument. (Photo: August 24, 2016, Harold Knight)

___I no longer use the language of that hymn, “Lord God of hosts.” I find it difficult to understand any more the concept of God ― at least of a god who controls what our eyes will see (the sub-text of the hymn, of course, is that the dying day is really the image of our dying selves) when we die or any time later or sooner.
___On the other hand, watching from Nebraska as the sun sets over Wyoming I cannot help but find in the core of my self the hope, perhaps even the belief, that

“While the deepening shadows fall,
[a] heart of love [enfolds us] all,
And through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil [its] face,
Our hearts ascend.”

I don’t believe that in any religious sense ― or even in the ever-popular “spiritual not religious” sense. Here’s what I think: some force that we, homo sapiens, cannot control, did not put in motion, and cannot stop ― whether by building walls around ourselves, or by allowing the overwhelming forces of the material world to dictate our social structures, or by refusing to care at the basic physical level for all the people in our sphere of influence, or by deeming ourselves to have the only correct understanding of “God” ― is responsible for all of this, from my heart to the two black holes astronomers recently saw merge in space.
___It is as convenient to call that force a “heart of love” as anything else. Or express it as the Devil’s Interval. But I’ll bet anyone standing where they can see the openness of our “prairie,” even with its plethora of man made structures huddled on the ground, for long enough will know that in the

“pass[ing of] the stars, the day, the night . . .
eternal morning [will] rise
And shadows end.”

Neither National Geographic, nor Donald Trump, nor the National Council of Churches, nor I can have any concept of how that process began or how it will end. We can’t even know our place in it.

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Ron Bechtel, Organist
Words: Mary A Lathbury, 1877
Tune: W F Sherwin – Chautaugua, 1877

Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets the evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
REFRAIN
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord most high!

While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of love enfolding all
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face,
Our hearts ascend.
REFRAIN

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.
REFRAIN

“. . . give up this life of mine and am not troubled about this. . .” (Johann Georg Albinus, 1652)

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Looking into Wyoming from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebaska (Photo: Harold Knight, August 2016)

I was born 72 years ago today, January 3, 1945, in Douglas, Wyoming.

It’s cold in Wyoming in January, as in next-door Nebraska where I did most of my physical growing up and graduated from high school in 1963. In 1976 I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, one state over from Nebraska and just as cold in January (I had been in California for eleven years in the interim). That year my friend Pat French from Muscatine gave me a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for my birthday. Based on our frequent late-night interminable discussions vis a vis “the meaning of life,” lubricated by much Scotch whiskey, she thought I should read Becker’s book which won the Pulitzer Prize the year before. I was 31, and she was about 50. I thought she was the smartest person I knew ―and, in fact, that was likely true then and likely never changed. She was also crass and irreverent, and self-identified as “black Irish.”

I lost contact with Pat about 20 years ago, and I often wonder how her life went on. Some time back I Googled Pat and discovered she died in 2012. When she died, no one thought to tell me since I was living first in Massachusetts (also cold in January) and then (as now) in Dallas (strange but not so cold in January) ―and no one remembered we were friends.

Note to self: Someday think about the many people who have been important to your growth and self-awareness who have simply disappeared from your life. Don’t think about it today, someday.

I have never met Ton Koopman, but in a strange way, I consider him an old friend. He was born October 2, 1944, three months before I was born. He is a Dutch organist and professor at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. In April 2003 he was knighted, receiving the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Whenever I want to hear an organ work of J.S. Bach’s played, I go to YouTube and look up Ton Koopman’s performance.

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Birthday number 2 – Worland, Wyoming, January 3, 1947.

A few days ago I was preparing for my annual birthday video (a small organ work recorded on my birthday for my own amusement) and was undecided between the Bach chorale prelude on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (“The old year is passed away”) and the Bach chorale prelude on Alle Menschen müßen sterben (“Everyone must die”). I found Koopman’s YouTube of each of them. It was no contest. However I played or wherever I recorded it, I could not come close to the glory of Koopman’s “Everyone must die.  And that meant I would record “The old year is passed away.”   That’s OK because it is in a style more suited to my abilities.

The lovely melancholy of “The old year is passed away” is suitable to my ability and to our time.  “. . . Thou hast kept us through the year/ When danger and distress were near.” It’s not clear to me that God has kept us (the idea of God drifts farther and farther away from me as time goes on), but obviously something is keeping us in this time of danger and distress. But, as they say, I digress.

For many years I kept as my private motto, my personal inner explanation of “the meaning of life,” Ernest Becker’s assertion that, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

My ideas regarding Becker’s statement were concentrated for many years on the “towering majesty” of being human. I thought the “blindly and dumbly rotting” was a great ironic statement of the obvious counter-balance to the towering majesty of our existence, our accomplishments. But then one day I realized my ex-wife, my brother-in-law, my life-partner, and many friends had died, and I began to understand the reality of disappearing forever. And then my parents died.

I took many years to understand the reality ―not the irony― of the completion of the circle of Becker’s understanding. He died of cancer during the year between his book’s publication and my reading it.

I would like to talk to Ton Koopman, about Bach, of course, but more about what it means to play music composed by a genius who lived a shorter life than either of us has already lived. Especially music based on hymns about the passage of time and the absolute certainty of death.

My guess is that anyone not close to my age―or older than I―who might happen to be reading this little meditation written on the anniversary of my birth considers this line of thinking sad or tragic or grievous or fatalistic. Well, it is fatalistic. Everything we do is headed toward fatality. We don’t need Ernest Becker or Aristotle or Socrates or St. Paul or Martin Heidegger or Johann Georg Albinus to tell us that.

I am weak and timid, a shy person. I am not a preacher or teacher (except for the instruction in the correct use of commas and verb tenses). I am not a moralist or a philosopher. I am certainly not a thinker or an intellectual. Or an artist. If I met Ton Koopman, I would be tongue-tied and feel amazed in the presence of his musicianship. His ability to recreate the “towering genius” of the music of Bach almost stupefies me.

What on earth, anyone reading this with the ability to think logically, whether my age or younger or older might well ask, are you trying to say? What’s your point? Where is your thesis? (I hope you’re asking, because it is not clear.)

Only this. Pat, and Ernest, and Sebastian Bach, and Johann Georg Albinus are all disappeared forever. Ton and I and you are not. And we’re all the same.  We tower, some of us much higher in human terms than others, and we go back into the ground. That is neither good nor bad, comforting or frightening, difficult or easy to understand and accept. It simply is.  “The old year now hath passed away,” and “Everybody must die, all flesh passes like grass.”

From January 3, 1945, until January 3, 2017, I have been in that process, and right now, today, I “am not troubled about this.”