“. . . one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire . . .” (Billy Collins)

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Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, ‘The Chronicle of Abindon,’ circa 1220. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Me senescent.” About me getting old. Or is it “my” getting old? Do I mean it’s about me in the process of getting old, or that it’s about the process of getting old in general as I experience it? I’ve wondered for quite a while if the title of this blog shows my ignorance, or if it is very clever.

The difference between ignorance and cleverness is not always obvious. Microsoft Word insists that “awhile” is not a word, that one should say “a while.” Is Word showing its ignorance or being clever or dogmatizing grammar, as perhaps the arbiter of writing correctness in the 21st century should not do?

I have been growing old awhile now. Only awhile. Briefly. I’m going to while away the hours I have left. I am senescent, and I am developing all of the oddities of senescence that are the stuff of ubiquitous jokes. The late comedian Buddy Hackett compiled a list of seven warnings for senescent men. I’ve googled him but can’t find the list. Perhaps it was someone else. It’s a memory I used to harbor. Buddy Hackett senesced only to 78. The list, whether or not he wrote it, ends with, “Never waste an erection,” and “Always know where the nearest rest room is.” I was glad I’ve learned to heed one of those warnings while I was at a conference this past weekend.

The question of using “awhile” is complicated by the possibility that whenever one uses the word, one is perhaps implying a preposition. When I say, “I have been growing old awhile now,” do I mean, “I have been growing old FOR a while now?” Is this the kind of grammatical hair-splitting that only senescent English teachers think about?

No. It’s the kind of question anyone who wants to communicate well in writing needs to think about. Do you want to write about the object of your thoughts or simply modify your expression?

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

While I do not like the idea of senescence, I am somewhat comforted that the concomitant loss of the kind of memory Billy Collins’ poem describes is not a problem for me. I have never had a store of information about books and plays and music and movies and historical or scientific facts to lose. I have never paid close enough attention to build a store of such memories/knowledge. I read a book, I see a movie, or I hear a symphony concert; I experience them, and then I move on to the next book, movie, or concert and the previous ones disappear. Plots and details have

. . . floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as [I] can recall . . .
It was ever thus.

During my most recent (annual) Christmas trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law, we saw the movie, “Jackie.” (This very moment I had to google it to remember Natalie Portman, the lead actress who was nominated for the Academy Award for her work.) About two weeks later I went with a friend to see “La-La Land.” Its lead actress won the Academy Award for best actress. I remember her name. Emma Stone. While we waited for the movie to start, my friend said he was hoping to see “Jackie” soon, I said I’d like to see it, too, and perhaps we could find a time to go together.

He said, “I thought you had already seen it.” I couldn’t remember. It was two weeks before. He reminded me it’s about Jackie Kennedy and the assassination.  Oh, yes, I vaguely remembered. Fortunately, it came back to me in short order, and I was able to explain to him that the movie covers only the period from the assassination to the funeral.

This is my friend who can, I’m sure, recite the entire script of “Night at the Opera,” of “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sweeney Todd,” and of many more movies. I do not comprehend his memory.  For me

. . . The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title . . . .
[the novel] becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . .

My friend is young. Not yet 60. He probably has a while to go before he has to

. . . . rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

I have never been much interested in famous battles, but if I were, I’d have to rise in the middle of the night. While I was in college, I pulled one “all-nighter,” studying for a final exam. Medieval Civilizations. I determined I would remember at least one fact from that night for the rest of my life: Ethelred the Unready was King of England from about 979 to 1016. Two facts. His son Edward the Confessor died without an heir. That led to the Norman invasion and defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

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The tomb of St Edward the Confessor Photo: Alamy

I wrote all of that without google. I guess I am interested in one battle.

The word “while” has no touch of French or Latin in its etymology. It comes from the Proto-Germanic,

hwilo, “a spice of time.” In other words, it survived the Frenchification of England and the appropriation of the Anglo Saxon/Germanic languages by the Latinate French, although the French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “while” all come from a Latin word that was obsolete even in 1066.

So the question remains: am I writing about the process of getting old in general and my experience of it, or am I writing about myself as a person in the process of getting old. Would the French not have defeated the English if William the Confessor had had a son? or was England in such disarray at that juncture that nothing could have saved the purity of the Anglo Saxon language and culture?

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins, 1999.

“. . . and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled . . .” (T.S. Eliot, from “Ash Wednesday”)

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Eliot before Anglicanism. The Prodigal Son?

(Written March 1, 2017)

Today is Ash Wednesday. A day to read T.S. Eliot.

Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled. (Not Eliot)

I obviously can’t be sure, but I would guess that I could sing – stop keyboarding and start singing – lines of the words of as many as forty hymns the authors wrote either for Ash Wednesday specifically or for Lent generally.

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray.

I have written at least once each day since February 24, the last time I posted here, written always with a guiding idea, one might almost say a “thesis,” only to have the idea disintegrate under my fingers before I reached the conclusion.

I have written about Trump, and I have written about not writing about Trump. I have written about a couple of scary experiences of forgetting that left me (moderately) shaken, and I have written about not being shaken by such experiences. I have written about a couple of joyful moments of tutoring, and I have written about the impossibility of teaching anyone anything. I have written about the shocking and irrational hatred of President Obama I encountered in conversation with a friend before the election, and I have written about my hope that my dislike of Trump is intellectual and political and not viciously personal as my friend’s is of President Obama. I have written about my pleasure at living by myself and having solitude, and I have written about my fear of being old and alone.

All of these unfinished writings are in a folder on my desktop either haunting me or waiting for me to finish them.

Last weekend I had lunch with an old friend. We were catching up on conversation we have not had in too any months. In the process of telling me about a reception he attended at the Meadows Art Museum, he said, “. . . and my Higher Power told me not to leave.” He was explaining how he happened to have an especially interesting and enjoyable time at the reception even though it was the sort of social small-talk event we both dislike.

My initial response, which I did not act on, was, “Whoa! You’ve found a Higher Power who speaks to you directly?” My friend has always been, in general, as uneasy talking about “God” as I am, and his direct reference surprised me to say the least.

My friend and I are both well beyond T.S. Eliot’s age when he converted to Anglicanism – in 1927 at age 39. (We are both approaching Eliot’s age, 77, when he died.)  Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” is the first major work he wrote after he found faith and the English church.

Ash Wednesday” haunts me. I do not understand it. Being a good Anglican, i.e., Episcopalian (not devout or even believing, but good), I understand and can explain the Biblical and religio-historical references throughout the poem. I can even explain the “movement” of the ideas through the poem. I understand it syntactically and logically.

But I don’t, as they say, “get it” and have not since the first time I read it years ago. Section V of the long poem begins

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. . . .     (T.S. Eliot, 1930)

The Word (upper case W) is the Word from the first chapter of the Gospel According to John. The Word is Jesus – or is Jesus the embodiment of the Word, the truth, the reality, the essence of existence, the voice of God? The Word is the light shining in the darkness, the spiritual truth around which the world with all of its words whirls.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (John 1: 1-5).

I am hardly a “writer.” I write a great deal, and I offer some of it for interested persons to read. But I use words for the most part to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, not necessarily to communicate or create a work of beauty. I have no illusion that I can keep company with T.S. Eliot (or with the Gospel According to John).

When I was a practicing, believing, not simply “good” Anglican, early each year I looked forward to Ash Wednesday. I saw it as a day to think about and acknowledge the reality of my life whirling about the Word but never coming to rest in the Word. I could take comfort in the church’s understanding that I am part of the “unstilled world” whirling, spinning about the center, the Word, and spending my words (all of our words) without listening to the Word.

I learned the words of those Anglican hymns.

Wilt thou forgive the sin, where I begun
Which is my sin, though it were done before?

I knew that acknowledging (confessing, as the church would have it) my sin, my whirling around the center, the Word, with unstilled words, always and forever missing the meaning of the Word, which does not speak to me directly, was enough. Confessing was all I could do. Wearing ashes on my forehead as an outward sign of the inward reality that I knew I am always and forever whirling.

The glory of these forty days we celebrate with thanks and praise,
For Christ, through whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

My words, words about Trump, about failing memory, about teaching, about hatred, about solitude, perhaps most importantly about fear are inadequate to stop the whirling. I cannot find the “centre of the silent Word” by my own speaking, writing, hearing.

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Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son.” (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage.)

As a good Anglican, I used to believe that was not a depressing or nihilistic thought. But now? These days I can scarcely read through to the end of Eliot’s poem. I know too well that “the right time and the right place are not here.” With the church, however, I sense – perhaps my sense may some day again go as far as belief – that not “denying the voice” of the Word brings me one step closer to a “place of grace” where I can stop whirling.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(T.S. Eliot, 1930)

“. . . for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. . .” (Søren Kierkegaard)

(Note: I am “out of my depth” here. I am neither theologian nor philosopher. I only read and find connections to my own experience.)

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Individual. Crowd. GED students, Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. “In vain the individual looks for the crowd.”

A few weeks ago a university student interviewed me for an assignment he needed to complete – to interview an individual working for the university and write an essay about that person. Even though, as a tutor in the athletic department, I am not technically an employee of the university, we did the interview and he wrote the essay (and earned a very good grade, I might add).

One of the questions his professor suggested the students ask was, “Do you have any regrets in your life?”

I was perplexed how to answer. I certainly have regrets, but most of them I did not want to discuss with a student. I have written here both directly and obliquely about my regrets, and about the concept concerning regrets that has been a cornerstone of my thinking for about 30 years, “We will not regret the past nor wish to close the door on it.”

The day of the interview, I began thinking about “regrets” as an abstract category.

Of course, thinking about the category has required thinking about specific regrets. I have regrets from the past. I don’t know if I have wished to close the door on them. Closing the door implies forgetting about them, perhaps even pretending I did not act in a way that I regretted.

The truth of that concept concerning regrets is that whatever I did in the past I cannot change, so I must remember my missteps without letting regret for them control my thinking about myself in the present, a common understanding.

Thinking about the student’s question took my memory to a determinative time in my life.  I did not tell the student any of this, but I have pondered it a great deal since the day he asked.

In 1968, when I was less than a year out of college, I was a gay man married to a woman who knew I was gay before we married. I was a student in seminary instead of in graduate school in my field, partly to avoid the Viet Nam draft and partly to avoid exposing myself as incompetent in my field (music, specifically organ performance). At the time, I regretted nearly every aspect of my life although I could not have articulated that. As might be expected, I sabotaged myself. I acted out in a way that resulted in my dismissal from the seminary (for which I am grateful), I began the slow process of the dissolution of my marriage (which was essential for both of us), and I entered graduate school in music – but in composition, not performance for which I feared myself unqualified.

I regretted my decision to enter seminary, but I did not regret the study itself. At the time I left the seminary, I was in a class in Existential Theology. I remember with some amusement the professor talking about Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who influenced Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The professor spoke the name with a Texas accent. I had heard of Kierkegaard in the way all slightly educated students of theology and/or philosophy have heard, but I had no knowledge of Schleiermacher (and still don’t).

I have worked off and on since that disastrous semester to understand Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing because it captivated me and seemed to be key to some understanding of my life, especially Kierkegaard’s writing about the “individual.”

I’ve had tucked in the back of my mind for many years the notion that I would at some time need to come to terms with whether or not I am truly an individual and what that might mean for me. I have assumed that Kierkegaard was asking his questions directly of me.

Do you now live so that you are conscious of yourself as an individual; that in each of your relations in which you come into touch with the outside world, you are conscious of yourself, and that at the same time you are related to yourself as an individual? Even in these relations which we men so beautifully style the most intimate of all, do you remember that you have a still more intimate relation, namely, that in which you as an individual are related to yourself before God? (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13).

Do I live so that I am conscious of myself and relate to myself as an individual? And what can it possibly mean to be related to myself before God – a God in whom I do not believe? And if I do not believe, why cannot I not let the question go?

I can easily see that I was not living “conscious of [my]self as an individual” when I thought I needed to be married in order to be acceptable – acceptable to whom? Or when, because I thought others would find my musical abilities to be inadequate, I forsook what I really wanted to do and be. I can review over the course of my life a consistent pattern of living in ways in which I have not been conscious of myself as an individual, both in what I have done for myself and what I have done in relation to other people.

As I was in the process of undoing the deceptive life-structures I had built for myself in 1968, I discovered I needed to wrestle with Kierkegaard’s further question even though by that time I believed theological concepts such as “eternal life” only metaphorically.

. . . what is eternity’s accounting other than that the voice of conscience is forever installed with its eternal right to be the exclusive voice? What is it other than that throughout eternity an infinite stillness reigns wherein the conscience may talk with the individual about what he, as an individual, of what he has done of Good or of evil, and about the fact that during his life he did not wish to be an individual? (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13).

Consciousness of oneself as an individual allows one’s conscience to ask what the individual has “done of Good or of evil.” The Danish words do not seem to be related as the English words are: conscious – bevidst; conscience – samvittighed. I’m not a linguist, so I don’t know their roots.

It seems to me, having had one half of a semester studying Kierkegaard (and, therefore, being an authority?) he is saying that consciousness of oneself as an individual results in hearing the voice of conscience. If one does “not wish to be an individual,” but to be part of the crowd, one cannot understand what one might have “done of Good or evil.”

Being an individual is not at all about having no regrets.

Then it follows so easily that the isolated voice of conscience (as generally happens to a solitary one) becomes overruled — by the majority. But in eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it. For in the infinite there is no place, the individual is himself the place. It must be heard. In vain the individual looks about for the crowd. (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13)

A passing thought that helps us keep our lives in order

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A couple thousand of my closest friends. (Photo: Harold Knight, Feb. 18, 2017)

It’s 7:43 AM, and I’ve been up since 3:38 AM. I haven’t accomplished much. Played on Facebook, read a couple of heavy articles about – oh, about politics and other stuff I’ve promised myself to stop reading. You are thinking, I’m sure, that anyone who gets up at 3:38 AM is probably too tired to accomplish much. You’d be wrong. It has nothing to do with being tired. It has to do with being unable to focus. No, not because it’s 3:38 AM. Because. I’m wired.

A few minutes ago, I was unable to find my iPhone. Eventually I realized it was in the pocket of the jeans I wore when I walked to Kroger yesterday at about 3:38 PM (not exactly, but close enough for the sake of symmetry). At any rate, I have had no contact with my phone now for about 16 hours. I was asleep for only 5 of those hours, so the rest of the time I was plainly not interested in my phone. I retrieved it from my jeans pocket in the bedroom.

As I write at this moment, I have had no contact with another person since I was at Kroger, and that was light-hearted and, in the great scheme of things, insignificant. I was standing in front of the egg cooler with a door open, and a young man stepped beside me and opened another of the doors.

I turned his way in time to see the writing on the back of his T-shirt and inwardly chuckled. I found my extra-large eggs and went on to the yogurt counter. I quickly gave up trying to choose among the excessive variety – I didn’t absolutely need yogurt – so I turned away and there was the young man in his T-shirt. I could not resist.

“Excuse me, but may I ask you a ridiculous favor? May I take a picture of the back of your T-shirt?” He laughed and gamely turned around. I pulled my phone from my pocket and took the picture.

4:14 PM, my phone read (I don’t know why I remember that). Sixteen hours ago. The last time I spoke to another individual.

I wonder if Donald Trump ponders with the same amazement I do our individual lives as Homo sapiens. I’m not sure why I choose him to wonder about. Almost anyone 70 or older would do for my curiosity, but he looms so large in the consciousness of Americans, both those who love him and those who, shall I say nicely? don’t love him, that he is an easy sample demographic for my inquiry. Like Camelot’s simple folks, “I wonder what the king is doing tonight.”

The main reason I walked to Kroger when I did yesterday was I knew if I didn’t do something – anything that felt constructive – to get myself out of my apartment, I would be in deep trouble. In the morning I had participated in a demonstration by a couple thousand people in downtown Dallas protesting Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies. It was rowdy and fun, and I had a couple of interesting conversations with strangers. I amazed myself by having a good time and feeling energized about the possibility that the American people are going to refuse to be bamboozled into rejecting the message of the Statue of Liberty. (There, that’s all of the politics for now.)

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Me and a few of my friends, close-up. (Photo: Harold Knight, Feb. 18, 2017)

After I got home and had spent three or four hours alone, I was pondering not with amazement but with terror my life as an individual of the species Homo sapiens. One of the more terrifying aspects of my life is the possibility – no, the almost absolute likelihood – that my brain will plunge from the height of positive delight to the depth of the negative contemplation of killing itself, plunge seemingly in an instant.

I assume that Donald Trump has never experienced that plunge, as most people, I understand, have not. Or, perhaps, such an experience explains his seemingly narcissistic approach to getting through the flash-in-the-pan moment that each of us exists. He seems to be a person who should have no reason for that kind of precipitous experience.

When I arrived at home at about noon yesterday from the exhilarating protest, from feeling at one with 2,000 or so people (according to the lying Dallas Morning News), as I stepped off the elevator, the thought unbidden and untraceable came into my mind, “Did that really happen, or did you imagine it?”

Don’t get me wrong. I assume that’s the kind of bizarre notion that can pop into the mind of most any Homo sapiens  – a passing thought that makes us buckle down and  put our minds in order and helps us categorize the realities of our lives so we can call up memories and fit them into patterns that make sense.  Anyone my age whose mind never manufactures such notions, it seems to me, may be Homo (i.e. human), but they’re not sapiens (i.e. wise). Those thoughts are simply part of being a conscious human being, and the longer you hang around here, the more persistent they become. The trick is to hold them at bay well enough to keep the flash going in the pan as long as you need to in the natural order of things.

So I walked to Kroger because I have finally learned when those normal, natural, unstoppable realities of thinking seem likely to turn in my brain to something much more dangerous, to do something about them. I got to Kroger, not quite in tears, but almost. What, I was wondering, was the point of buying food to sustain myself when it was obvious that my life was not real and I was probably going to die before the day was over?

And then I saw the young man’s T-shirt. The negativity simply evaporated. Gone. I knew that he knew it was a joke, and when I asked him if I could take a picture, he knew I knew it was a joke, and we shared a moment of “reality” or something that I cannot explain, to which he probably did not give another thought. Or perhaps right now this morning he is telling his girlfriend about the funny old geezer at Kroger who asked to take a picture of his T-shirt. I’ll bet he told someone. And he and I together – who will most likely never see each other again – are pondering with the same amazement our individual lives as Homo sapiens, and he, without knowing it, got me through another one of those terrifying moments. Which is probably the only way any of us ever gets through one.

That’s why I was looking for my phone. To show you his picture.img_6280

“. . . reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss . . .” (Robert Neimeyer)

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Case – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska.

Everyone has heard the old saw, “Nothing is permanent except change,” or a variation on it. Some guru said it in the last century and attributed it to Heraclitus (wanting to seem authoritative), perhaps reworking it from Plato’s quotation from Heraclitus (544-483 BCE), “Everything changes and nothing stands still” (Plato, Cratylus).

The meaning is so obvious that no one, I suppose, would want to take credit for the quotation, so they*** attributed it to an ancient Greek philosopher. Perhaps they simply wanted to point out that the idea is a bit of wisdom that all thinking people have understood since before the flowering of Greek thought.

Another side of that idea is that change is simply something we all note, and those of us who are at peace with the world (or living in “mindfulness,” or some such state) accept change and go with the flow (or some nonsense). That’s a cop-out, a “feel-good” observation, feel-good because change is often, perhaps most often, associated with loss.

Change is, or is experienced as, loss simply because we human beings . . .

. . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. With the many unwelcome losses of life—of people, places, projects, and possessions in seemingly endless succession—we are called on to reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss, at every level from the simple habit structures of our daily lives, through our identities in a social world, to our personal and collective cosmologies, whether secular or spiritual.  (Neimeyer, Robert A., Dennis Klass, and Michael Robert Dennis. “A Social Constructionist Account of Grief: Loss and the Narration of Meaning.” Death Studies 38.8 [2014]: 485-498.)

Anyone of any age can understand the cliché that nothing is permanent except change, but we must, I think, reach the age when we face impermanence directly to understand the difficulty of “reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.”

The losses which have challenged my world of meaning are myriad. I list them here not for exhibitionist catharsis, but to remind any reader near my age of their own myriad losses, which are probably similar in number and scope.

In the decade between my 57th and 67th birthdays, my ex-wife, my partner, my brother-in-law, my best friend, my mother, and my father died. My partner’s death forced me to move to a smaller and much simpler apartment than we had lived in. At the very end of the decade, my church closed, and suddenly I was bereft of an important community and forced to retire from the work as church organist that I had done for 50 years. During the decade, my sister survived the horrifying surgery for breast cancer. I had repair surgery on my shoulder, which I had damaged during that decade of change. I began drawing Social Security although I did not actually retire for two more years. Twice our nation elected a new President, and we tragically went to war because of the cataclysm of 9-11, which happened about 6 months before my decade began. I suffered a couple more major traumas, which I will not list here. All of these losses engendered difficult, almost debilitating, changes in my life.

“Human beings . . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.”

The depression for which I spent two weeks in the hospital ten years ago has been my constant companion nearly my entire life. I know well I’m not alone in that reality, and I’m not feeling sorry for myself, simply stating the facts. I have only recently begun to try to sort out the difference between, and the entanglement of, my depression and my grief for loss and change.

The struggle to deal with grief affects both our inner self and our relationships with others. The most difficult change to deal with is the loss of a loved one in part because it is irreversible and, “Far from being a private and dispassionate cognitive process, contending with the meaning of the loss and the meaning of our lives in the wake of it is typically deeply emotional, intricately social, and inevitably constructed and sometimes contested in broader linguistic and cultural contexts” (Neimeyer et al.). When a loved one dies, the lives of everyone whose lives were entwined with theirs are changed. Everyone who had an attachment to the deceased contends with the meaning of loss. It is a personal loss and a social loss.

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Console – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904, First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

We grieve, I grieve, because we are, I am, “wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.” A few months ago my sister and I were in the city where I went to high school, and we drove past the church we attended at that time, where I took my first organ lessons. It was Sunday evening, and a group of people happened to be there. We went in. The building was intact, but the ambience, the character was, of course, changed. Surprisingly, a woman I knew 50 years ago was there. We knew each other instantly. We talked, and she told me about many of my high school friends, where they were, what had happened to them. I rejoiced and grieved at the same time. Grieved the loss of all of those people who had once been so important to me.

I went to the organ loft of the church to see the organ. The organ appeared the same, but the pipe organ inside the case has been replaced. It looked like the organ I loved, but everything except the outer shell has changed. I am grieving that loss. I grieve the loss of the belief, perhaps faith, that surrounded me and sustained me there 50 years ago.

That organ has become something of a metaphor for me. Change and loss. I remember. I remember my mother baking Swedish rye bread.  My parents’ joy together. My brother-in-law. The choir of my church that closed. My desk at the university where I taught. My friends in the department. I remember the feel of my partner’s body beside me. I have no doubt about his look, his touch. My loss.

I have friends who are talking of retiring and moving away in four years. I grieve every time I hear them speak of their plan.

We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. Each attachment that is broken, each change, whether as seemingly insignificant as the pipes of an organ or as profound as the death of a parent is a loss that our “wiring” can scarcely sustain.

We have no way to comprehend our own impermanence.

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But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me. . . Matthew 19:14. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

 

***Apropos of nothing here except the ubiquity of change: I have decided that I’m tired of using the awkward and ridiculous “he or she” for neutral, non-gendered pronouns. I forthwith will use the epicene pronouns “they,” “them,” “their,” etc. I invite you to join me in this little rebellion against grammar nonsense. You may read about the historical and perfectly legitimate use of the epicene here  or  here.

  • Example from Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”
  • Example from Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
  • Example from C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn-Treader: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

Please don’t think this has degenerated into a political blog. PLEASE!

dangers-cure-of-msg-sideeffects-001What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Normalizing’

Each day since my last posting I have spent three or four (or more) hours writing.
___I have been writing more carefully and painstakingly than I usually do, crafting essays that are stylistically clean and conceptually logical. This instead of my usual throwing words and ideas onto the screen hoping they make sense. I know how to write “correctly.” I am something of an academic, after all, with a 367-page PhD dissertation and many other writings under my belt. “Something of.” I try not, as St. Paul admonished in his letter to the Romans, to “think of [my]self more highly than [I] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.”
___I’ve been trying to write without “nominalization” (that is to say, I have been trying not to make words that should be verbs into nouns – e.g. I have been “correcting” my writing as I go rather than “making corrections”). In all kinds of writing I have two rules ― no passive verbs and no grammatical expletives ― so I do not need to watch out for those weakeners of prose. And here I give up those attempts to write effectively.
___I have a streak of Social Darwinism in my thinking. I’ve read a few articles about Social Darwinism, so I can (in the good American fashion) claim to be “something of” an authority on the subject. Well, no. I simply like the idea that we are pulling the best ideas out of our collective hat and putting them to use so mankind is improving generation after generation, if not day after day. I (almost desperately) want that to be true. I know it’s mushy, unfounded, and even dangerous thinking. I know.
___In case you had any doubt that this blog really is about “me” senescent, note that the 3 preceding paragraphs begin with “I.” I trust that is not an indication of thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think; rather, this is about my own personal growing-old reaction to the political situation in the United States at this time.
___When I was a child, I believed that it would be miraculous if I lived into the 21st century because I would then be 55 years old. Now I have bettered that by 17 years. Besides assuming that I would be decrepit and useless at that old age, I don’t remember much of what I thought I would experience if I reached the 21st century.
___As I wrote a few days ago, I began thinking that the “Great Society” would inspire us, and we all would go bumbling on together, making a little progress here and there as we got over racism and injustice and income inequality and all of those other things that prevent a society from moving “from perfection to perfection.”
___In the recesses of my mind from about 50 years ago when I had a momentary flirtation with seminary (what was I thinking?), I can half recall that phrase in the context of John Wesley’s theology (it was a Methodist seminary). I can also recall the great glee with which some of the seminary faculty debunked any theology that assumed mankind, in toto or individually, could possibly reach some sort of spiritual perfection. If I had paid closer attention to those professors, I might have saved myself the disillusionment of discovering on my own that “the world and they that dwell therein” (I have a Bible verse for every occasion) are not getting better and better day by any day.
___So here I am, older by at least 17 years than I thought as a child it was possible to be, and neither the world nor I have moved from perfection to perfection.
___This is not the time or place for me to make confession of the ways in which I have not been perfected in the last 50/60/70 years. Life-long lack of discipline, addictive thinking, ego bordering on narcissism, unkindness – the tip of the iceberg. Those unaltered states of my consciousness are enough in themselves to debunk any thought that I am moving from perfection to perfection.
___For the last 8 years I have beheld with dismay – no, with grief, thorough and almost debilitating grief – the unconscionable unfounded and vicious daily attacks on President Obama, the most libelous and sickening of them being the fabricated and scurrilous “birther” movement perpetuated by one Donald J. Trump.
___I have vehemently disagreed with and still have serious questions about some of President Obama’s policies – What does “too big to fail” mean? Why have U.S. “drone strikes” continued around the world? Why is Israel still the largest recipient in the world of American largess? Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership good for the United States or not?
___While I disagree with (or have questions about) many of President Obama’s policies, I do not hate him because his father was from Africa.
___I have grave fear – debilitating fear – at the moment that my opinion of the Trump administration is based on ideas or perceptions as unfounded as those of people who believe that President Obama is a secret Muslim because his middle name is Hussein (and that, if it were true, would make him the enemy of our state).
___I want to believe that, while neither you nor I nor all of us together have moved from perfection to perfection, at least we have made enough progress that we do not need to hate each other and base our political opinions on alternate truths, or on fake news – wherever it comes from.
___My fear, my greatest fear at this juncture, is that my narcissistic tendencies will allow me to believe that my sources of ideas and facts are “correct,” that they are not “fake news” or “alternative facts,” or even biased opinion.
___I don’t think they are. At the very least, none of the articles listed below is based on a bald-faced lie or a conspiracy theory or pure speculation.  And my use of them in formulating my opinions is not like my use of Google to prove to a friend the deleterious effects of MSG on the brain. I may not be moving from perfection to perfection, but in my old age, I hope I am at least moving away from the assumption that my intuition and prior knowledge are enough to lead me to sound judgment of ideas.

Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values.
___What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf.

“Against Normalization: The Lesson of the ‘Munich Post’.”  Ron Rosenbaum. Los Angeles Review of Books.

“We have at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less.” Matthias Kolb. Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“The Dangerous Fantasy Behind Trump’s Normalization.”  Zoe Williams. CommonDreams.
“How to Build an Autocracy.” David Frum. The Atlantic.

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The Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, 09.11.1923. Armed SA men during the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.

“. . . a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. . .” (Walter Benjamin)

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The pantheon of Samothrace (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 1968 I voted for the first time. Humphrey for President. Naturally. I am not to blame for Nixon. I went so far as to exercise my public duty and work as a tiny cog in the big wheel of the campaign at the county Democratic party headquarters in a ramshackle house on Euclid Avenue in Upland, CA. In that year and in 1972 I still thought politics ―democracy― worked in this country. I headed up the 1972 McGovern campaign in our town. I am not to blame for Watergate. That was the last time I worked in a political campaign.

I was determined to keep this blog free from my amateurish political ramblings, but I find it almost impossible to insulate myself from political machinations these days. Our presidential cabal (a cabal is a group of plotters against the government, but these are governmental plotters against the people) has one facility above all others, i.e., to catch us off-guard with some (ultimately) meaningless but (deliberately) bewitching bit of chicanery every day. Steve Bannon is the master-mind of these dangerous distractions. We are living in the era of the “shock event.”

If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal (Heather Richardson, Facebook, January 29, 2017; Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College).

When I was young(er), I accepted many assumptions that were probably naively dangerous. Having come of age in the era of the anti-Vietnam War protests, I thought the American democratic process would eventually right the course of the ship of state. After all, Lyndon Johnson was unceremoniously convinced not to run for reelection. We got Nixon/Kissinger in his place, but they did withdraw from Viet Nam in 1975.

We (I, at any rate) were too naïve to realize that the correction of course would be so drastic it would begin the slide ever more to the right until we are being coerced (not led) by Steve Bannon, Chief White House Strategist and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, who says he doesn’t

. . . believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and [I] certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that. It’s going to be an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party. (Conor Friedersdorf. “The Radical Anti-Conservatism of Stephen Bannon.” The Atlantic. Aug 25, 2016.)

“. . . an insurgent movement . . . that is virulently anti-establishment . . .” except for one central component of the establishment. The

. . . big banks were never the focus of his [Bannon’s] animus. “Goldman Sachs isn’t the firm it once was when I worked for it,” he explained in a gentle 2010 critique, but “it is still one of the building blocks of our capitalist society” (Friedersdorf).

The purpose of “trick[ing us into] accepting their real goal” is to destroy government function and finally to invest private corporations with all power and autonomy, that is, to give the final victory to the capitalistic oligarchy. His (and Trump’s) belief in the capitalist iron fist is religious in its fervor.

One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion. The proof of capitalism’s religious structure―as not only a religiously conditioned construction . . . but as an essentially religious phenomenon―still today misleads one to a boundless, universal polemic . . . .
___Three characteristics of the religious structure of capitalism are, however, recognizable at present. First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult . . .  This concretization of the cult connects with a second characteristic of capitalism: the permanent duration of the cult . . .  Third, this is a cult that engenders blame. Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. Herein stands this religious system in the fall of a tremendous movement. An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult . . . (Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Belknap, 1996.)

Trump has an overarching reason for neither releasing his tax records nor divesting himself of his properties. It’s quite simple. Everything he (they) have done so far in the official life of the cabal is designed to prepare the way for the final and complete establishment of what they believe is the American religion―capitalism―and the subordination of the democratic order to their religious one.

Besides Bannon, Trump’s nominees for high government positions include:

  • Chairman Council of Economic Advisors― Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs;
  • Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission― Jay Clayton, partner at Manhattan law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, whose clients include Goldman Sachs;
  • Secretary of State―Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil for the last decade;
  • Secretary of the Treasury― Steven Munuchin,  a former senior executive at Goldman Sachs;
  • Secretary of Labor― Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Holdings;
  • Secretary of Education― Betsy Devos, billionaire Republican donor whose wealth is from Amway;
  • Secretary of Commerce― Wilbur Ross, another billionaire, for 25 years, CEO of Rothschild Inc.

Am I even wackier than I was in the ‘70s when I was traipsing from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Iowa City, and points between participating in the movement to end the Viet Nam War? Does my analysis of Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his capitalist holdings in order to fulfill his oath to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” seem over-the-top, conspiratorial, without evidence? I’m sure it is all of those things.

I am an agnostic. My agnosticism applies to all religions, including capitalism.  I stand with Diagoras the Atheist of Melos, the fifth century Greek poet, who was the original atheist and free thinker.

He mocked the Eleusinian mysteries . . . and was outlawed from Athens for hurling the wooden statue of a god into a fire and sarcastically urging it to perform a miracle to save itself . . .  [He visited] a votive temple on the Aegean island of Samothrace. Those who escaped from shipwrecks or were saved from drowning at sea would display portraits of themselves here in thanks to the great sea god Neptune. “Surely,” Diagoras was challenged by a believer, “these portraits are proof that the gods really do intervene in human affairs?” Diagoras [replied], “Yea, but . . . where are they painted that are drowned?” (Petticrew, Mark. “Diagoras of Melos (500 BC): An Early Analyst of Publication Bias.” Lancet 352.9139. 1998: 1558.)

Where are the paintings of those whom capitalism has not saved?