“. . . deep calls to deep, a saving breath. . .” (Susan Palo Cherwin)

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

“Love” for animals is a concept many people don’t understand. I put the word in quotes because many people would say it can be used only theoretically, not as fact. I am neither offended nor challenged by anyone who would say the word belongs in quotes because it cannot be real.

In 1957 Kleenex aired a series of TV ads for paper napkins starring Manners the Butler. Kleenex was in a race with Scott to establish market leadership in paper napkins, and they produced the clever “special effects” ad with Manners the Butler as a tiny man helping a housewife set an orderly table.

My first cat, when I was in 5th grade, 1957, was mostly black with a white chest, and I called him Manners the Butler. He was a gentleman cat who knew what he liked and was intolerant of what he didn’t like. He liked me. He arrived at our house when a school friend’s cat had kittens, and my friend convinced me to take one home. In my jacket pocket so my parents wouldn’t see it until it was too late to refuse to let him stay. He lived with us (indoors/outdoors) for about five years.

Manners knew all of my secrets—including the seizures I was having that no one knew about or (parents and doctors) could figure out. He knew when I was happy and when I was sad.

Many years later I broke up with my partner and bought a condo in Salem, MA, and was living alone. Since the time of Manners, except when I was living in a college dorm and not permitted, I had always had at least one cat. When I broke up with my partner, I left three cats behind, one—my favorite—all black and named Otello (the other two were Lohengrin and Brunhilde).

I was debating whether or not to get a cat, and my therapist asked me to describe my relationship with cats over the years. He told me I had definitely used cats as “Therapy Units,” and that getting a cat would give me many TU’s. I found two black and white brothers at the pound, named them Henry and Oliver, and took them home. Both of them lived with me until 2004.

They, and all the cats (and dogs) who have lived with me have definitely been at the very least TU’s, but in reality something much more important.

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Whether or not it is possible or appropriate to use the word “love” for my feelings about my cats, I’m not going to theorize. Anyone who has felt what I have felt for cats (or dogs, or pigs, or parrots) knows exactly what I mean. Anyone who hasn’t had those feelings doesn’t know and can’t be persuaded. The epistemology of the concept is personal. Knowing or not knowing is not cause for judgment. It simply is.

When my cat Groucho died on December 20, I felt grief—not the grief I felt when my parents or brother-in-law or my lover died, but real grief. And here’s the important reality about that: one of my spiritual mentors tells me that every grief reminds us of all the griefs we have experienced before.

In his little essay, “To Go Its Way in Tears: Poems of Grief,” on the website Poets.org, the poet Edward Hirsch calls attention to our societal penchant to

. . . live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief.

This is not an unfamiliar concept, but I like the succinctness of Hirsch’s language.

When Groucho died, I experienced a bit of self-condemnation for feeling as deeply as I did (do) about the emptiness left in my life by the loss of one long-haired basically aloof little creature who—truth be told—like all cats, one could not say returned the “love” I felt (feel) for him.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas (today is the 6th day, remember), either as the “Holly Jolly” secular materialistic orgy or as the “O Holy Night” of sentimental religiosity will probably wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing about grief at this time of year.

Well, duh! My little companion died.

As did Michael Brown, Rafael Ramos, Eric Garner, and Liu Wenjin.

Even though I have little (no) belief in the “Christmas Story” anymore, I think the rhythm of the church’s liturgical year offers a glimpse of reality that we might well take to heart. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, when the focus is on doing exactly what the Baby Jesus grew up to preach—feeding the hungry. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem—a reminder of the horrors of lust for power (a reminder we are in process of ignoring at our own peril—as well as the peril of the innocents around us).

A friend once asked me what loving cats (dogs, pigs, parrots) does for me. My answer was (and is) simple. I understand my own mortality by living with and watching my pets through the cycles of their lives. And, when I pay attention, I understand that even my own death will be natural and blessed.

The hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has—amazingly—a section of “lament.” One of those hymns, by Susan Palo Cherwin, seems to me a proper understanding of Christmas. I’m not sure about the “song,” the “tears,” and the “love” of “God,” but I know, without doubt, that facing and feeling the darkness of my life is necessary to arrive at feeling “Merry” about anything.

That darkness increases as I age. So does the merriment—but transformed into reality as opposed to giddiness or frivolity.

In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.

When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.

When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.

Words: Susan Palo Cherwin (b. 1963)
Music: Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962)
From Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)

If you want to hear how the understanding of the darkness “lightens” with age, you can compare my playing here with my playing the same tune a slight two years ago. I think the difference is stunning.

Groucho, not Marx, my friend

groucho 003My boy Groucho died this morning.
He was soft, gentle, a diabetic who complained only about his shots.But afterwards I’d brush him and he’d purr.

Does one love a cat?
I think so, but that’s question for philosophers.
I love(d) Groucho.

Here’s a cat poem that makes me happy every time I read it. Mary Oliver’s cat did not look like Groucho. Her cat was a girl, Groucho was a boy. But I think our understanding of cats is similar.

Morning

Mary Oliver

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston

RIP Groucho.

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

OCD - any table clth will do for hiding

OCD – any table cloth will do for hiding

The other day I Googled “poems about aging” just to see what I would find.

It was a pretty depressing lot.

Now look. I’m not any more depressed than I was 20 years ago. Which ain’t sayin’ much. Yesterday afternoon after I taught my funny little class of adult ESL students—our reading from the news for the day was about that absurd Burger King Japan “black burger,” and we laughed together for an hour—and exercised at the fitness center, and felt just fine, I went to the supermarket and halfway through my shopping, something squeezed itself into my mind, and I wanted to cry.

Now look. Don’t give up on me yet. This is not same-song-100th-verse.

Here’s what’s different. I realized there was so much I wanted to get done yesterday that accomplishment was hopeless. The day could not ever have had enough hours. And that prompted my mind (not my brain—that’s what’s depressed) to think about setting some priorities

that’s an absurd phrase: if something is a priority, that means it comes before everything else, the “first concern” or “taking precedence,” so you can’t set “some” priorities—there can be only one item, idea, task, one whatever that’s the “first”

for the rest of this semester. Still thinking in semesters? The seven athletes I will tutor today for their required “Discovery and Discourse” classes are in the middle of the “semester,” so I guess I am, too. Truth be told, most of them are in the middle of the football season, and that is the real organizing principle of their lives.

So organizing my thinking by the semester makes sense because my schedule for the week is organized around those athletes’ lives.

This week I’ve added the necessity for practicing the organ for playing three services at the second largest Episcopal church in America (it used to be first, but a church in Houston has surpassed it in membership). THREE services on one day. Fortunately, the music for two of them is identical, and the third I will play on my favorite little intimate tracker-action instrument.

All of that—I know—seems much too mundane to be writing about here. Boring. Who cares what my schedule is?

Anyone who is “retired” knows what I’m talking about, I think. There’s all of this stuff to do and no time to do it. That used to be called “stress” or something, and we all simply coped with it. Now it’s called “OMIGOD, what happens if I die tomorrow and all this stuff isn’t finished?” That was never of much concern until August 1, 2014. There was always next week. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it wasn’t that important. Some stuff could be delayed simply because it could be delayed.

Last week sometime I received a voice mail message from some guy in Arizona who identified himself as the representative for my retirement fund saying it is imperative that I call him so decisions can be made about how I want to use the money—annuity, reinvestment, monthly withdrawals. You know.

An old-guy poet

An old-guy poet

I haven’t called him back.

Which is not unusual for me. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always been able to ignore—no, it’s the kind of detail I simply can’t wrap my mind around and get done. I’m not making excuses but simply saying the day he called I was in a state not only of dissociation but physical dizziness. It’s a wonderful experience to feel out of body, creeping through the day feeling as if nothing is real, and then suddenly my head that isn’t real spins around while I’m walking, so the most real thing I feel all day is stumbling and not-quite falling. So he called me about taking care of myself for the rest of my life, and all I can do is tell myself that I really must call him back now that my head isn’t spinning.

But I have to do this (write) first today. Then I have to tutor straight through for 9 to 4. Then I have an appointment with one of my doctors to talk about this spinning, and then I have to practice the organ until it’s time to go to a meeting.

I could barely keep that kind of schedule when I was 40.

So here I am, too old to have any fun (that’s absolutely NOT true) and working harder and being busier than I was just three months ago before I retired.

My cat Chachi (the snowshoes) had to go to the vet yesterday because he’s been scratching fur off his legs. It’s happened before. Some skin irritation. A little prednisone and an antibiotic and he’ll be just fine. But this time the vet says he’s bit OCD. OCD?!

I guess living with me has become more stressful than it used to be. And I’m supposed to be enjoying life in my twilight years.
Right. Maybe all those sad poems about aging are right—not because it’s sad to think about the end creeping (or rushing) up on me, but because I really don’t have time to “invite my soul” (thank you, Walt Whitman) until then.

My favorite of those poems about aging. Not sad. I’ve posted it here before. It really has nothing to do with what I’ve written above. I just like it.

“Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941 –a real contemporary)

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.

No time to invite my soul

No time to invite my soul

A bit of old man excogitation and cat consideration

Natasha 2The cat was up early this morning. She jumped up on the bed at a few minutes past 4 AM, apparently cold or lonely rather than hungry. When I got up a few minutes later, she stayed there. She soon came out and wandered around but did not beg for food. Now she’s off in some corner asleep again, having accomplished her purpose of getting me up.

She may feel satisfaction at arousing me, but she has no right. I had looked at the clock at 4:02 and was of two minds about getting up. A moment comes when I know it’s useless to try to go back to sleep. I have to make a choice. Get up, take an Ambien, and sleep until 6, or get up at 4:03. Almost always the latter wins out.

My guess is the cat almost never wakes me up. Rather, if she is prowling at 4 AM, unable to sleep herself—a bizarre realization for a cat, I should think—and hears my breathing change from sleeping to waking, she comes instantly to let me know it’s time. She doesn’t want to be the only one awake, so she’s determined to see that I don’t go back to sleep.

However, once I’m up, the coffee is brewing, and I’ve booted up the computer, she has accomplished her mission and goes back to sleep, comfortably nestled in some warm corner, waiting until her inner clock wakes her at 5:30 to tell me it’s breakfast time.

Convention and personal habit demand that I quote Christopher Smart. No cat lover in the known universe would forgive me if I didn’t.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. . . .
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
  — (Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno (“Rejoice in the Lamb”) 1759—1763.

Smart was in the House of Bedlam, institution for the insane, at the time he wrote Rejoice in the Lamb. When I wrote about Christopher

The House of Bedlam

The House of Bedlam

Smart not too long ago, I realized if I had never read the entire poem Jubilate Agno, I had forgotten how Jeoffry fits into it. So I looked it up. (I say that because I don’t want to leave the impression that I knew the following from being a scholar of English poetry, which I am not.)

The cat section of the enormously long poem is the most easily comprehended. The total is hundreds of lines of word play and allusions to Biblical and mythical and historical events and entities that none of us knows enough to understand.

The section of the poem immediately preceding the “my cat Jeoffry section is the “Bull” section, a long list of lines about the “Bull” which are obscure and baffling.  Clement Hawes explains that Smart’s word play is

Possibly punning on Greek boule, meaning “will,” because God’s will is the first manifestation of creation. . . and almost certainly alluding as well to the bull as one of the four cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision, Smart assigns to the word “bull” a great importance:

For Bull in the first place is of the word of Almighty God.
For he is a creature of infinite magnitude in the height.
For there are many words under Bull.
For
Bul is under it (1).

(Bul is the eighth month of the Old Hebrew calendar, from Hebrew būl, of Canaanite origin.)

Since I looked it up the first time, I’ve been thinking of buying Hawes’s book, but it’s $49 from B&N, and there’s no ebook. The sections I’m quoting are from the excerpts found on Google books.

I’ve been excogitating (1) Smart’s poem off and on since I wrote of it before and reading what I have of Hawes’s book. Here’s the paragraph I copied then and have excogitated since:

The complexity of Smart’s rhetoric at this point depends on the extraordinary extent to which he identifies himself with the words of his own text. What he calls his “existimation,” borrowing from Latin existimatio and combining “existence” and “estimation,” means a self, an “I,” considered entirely as an object of discourse: something viewed, judged, estimated, esteemed. . . . Smart thus becomes, at the moment of his writing, what he imagines he will have been to his readers in the future. . . (2).

Who is a Michel Foucault?

Who is a Michel Foucault?

That, I will be arrogant enough to say, I understand. We know Smart because of his writing. Michel Foucault, in 1969, wrote his famous essay, What is an author? He says, the “author” (I’m not an “author, but I try to be a “writer”—there is a vast difference) has disappeared from her writing, that

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. . . . it is now a voluntary effacement . . . The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses . . . to be its author’s murderer . . .[the writer] cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. . . . (4).

We tell writing students to keep the first person out of their writing. But I write about the cat and me in the morning. I tell you what I’m thinking about, and I upload myself all over the internet. So, by the post-modern or whoever Foucault represents, I am not an author. OK. I’m just a writer. Really, not even that. I keep a journal and put it here in my blog (and on Facebook), and I live in cyberspace.

Not really. I am, at least to myself, an existimation—like but not as interesting as Smart.
__________
(1) ex·cog·i·tate verb. “To study intently and carefully in order to grasp or comprehend fully.” 1520–30; <Latin excōgitātus  past participle of excōgitāre.  to devise, invent, think out.” Dictionary.com.
(2) Hawes, Clement. Mania and Literary Style: The Rhetoric of Enthusiasm from the Ranters to Christopher Smart. Cambridge University Press (1996), 172.
(3) Hawes, 174.
(4) Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” 1969.

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8

Someone whose mind works in mysterious ways

Tosh the cat

Tosh the cat

The cat loves Core Wellness™ chicken, turkey, and chicken liver formula food. There’s no doubt about that. I put out her usual amount of food, and she gobbled it down. Half an hour later, she was back at her bowl literally “lick[ing] the platter clean.” She seemed desperate to find more of the feast. So I got out a bit more—didn’t even nuke it to warm it up—and she has now licked the bowl clean again. Her name is Tosh, short for Natasha. She’s a sort of tortoise-shell, only not quite. You know, American Shorthair Alley Cat. Funny we don’t breed cats and make them purebred with the same fanaticism we do dogs. I’ll bet a cat could be bred that’s as “smart” as any dog. And she’d be a lot less trouble than a dog.

So that’s where my head is this morning. The cat. Up at 5 and ready to write, and my mind already working overtime on – on what? That’s the question. On June 13 I wrote about an aspect of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I suppose I should go back over my five years of blogging and see how repetitive I’ve been. I’m pretty sure I’ve repeated myself ad nauseam about TLE. And then I should never again blabber on about the same stuff. Keep track of it. Index it. So I don’t bore anyone with it again. I’d bet that when I begin talking about it everyone’s eyes roll heavenward which means they stop reading because you can’t read with your eyes rolled up in exasperation or indifference. “There he goes again.”

Back to my mind. I’ve started three writings already this morning. We’ll see how far this one gets before I decide that even I can’t decipher what I’m talking about. I wonder sometimes how much of what I experience is a symptom of the way my brain works and how much is a cause of my (what seems to me to be) odd ways of thinking. There’s the rub. “Odd” describes my thinking much better than any celebratory word like “eccentric” or “creative” or (shudder at the idea) “brilliant.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that I know brilliant people. Have done since high school. Mike, Tom, Betty, Steve, Nancy. Boy do I wish I had had their brains. High school and college would have been so much easier. And then in college Lance and Lowell and Mike and Pete and Carol. And then in graduate school Mike (seems like some “Mike” showed up everywhere I went—they are not the same person) and Rudy and Vicki and –you should have the picture by now. And all of those people were fellow-students. Then there’s the faculty. Most of them were not as smart or talented as many of their students, but there were a few along the way—Pratt, and Ted, and Jack, and Gerhard, and Cynthia, and several more. No Mike’s, however.  I know what it’s like to listen to, to try to converse with, to go to lunch with, even in a couple of instances, to sleep with someone whose mind works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform (oh, sorry, that’s God, according to William Cowper).

Will I ever wash that hand?

Will I ever wash that hand?

Besides all those folks I’ve dared to call “friend” over the years that I know are, in fact, brilliant, there are a plethora of others I’ve met who are both brilliant and famous. I refused to wash my right hand for a week after I shook hands with Zubin Mehta (not quite, of course—but I told people I wouldn’t).

So if I were brilliant or creative or even eccentric, this little project would have been so much easier. I would have dashed off some astounding bit of writing, or at least a bit that made sense, and had done with it. But it’s not that simple. There’s this little matter of hypergraphia. I don’t know for sure if I have it or not. It’s one of the presentations of folks with TLE. And I have a compulsion to write. All the time. I want to tell you or someone about all of these things in my mind, even when there is nothing in my mind. And I write ridiculous stuff and I write brilliant stuff and I write eccentric stuff and I write just stuff stuff and I even write really awful stuff. But write I will. I didn’t realize I had to write until I had written for years (minus the 20 years I was drunk). And then I tried to stop, and then came the computer. And the rest is history.

Sometimes I wake up with writing already in my mind. The writing wakes me up. This morning it was only a jumble. I still haven’t sorted it out.

Gerhard Krapf, genius

Gerhard Krapf, genius

Cats, Henry Kemble Oliver, and Roger Ebert

Seneca

Seneca

“One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to live, and, which may surprise you more, an entire lifetime in learning how to die.”  –Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman who died in 65 CE)

I have written many times about cats. I’m a cat person.

When I moved to Dallas, I brought with me two black and white American short-hair alley cats, brothers, Henry and Oliver, named for Henry Kemble Oliver, the subject of my dissertation—a 19th-century church musician and composer from Salem, Massachusetts. His most important legacy, however, is not musical. The governor of Massachusetts appointed him to make an exhaustive study of the exploitation of children and young women working in the cotton mills. His work resulted in the formation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. His work led to the first child labor laws in America.

In 2002 my cat Henry died of congestive heart failure. He had been sick for about six months, and I had spent more than my meager income should have allowed caring for him. But I loved that gentle, cuddly old cat, and spared no expense to keep him alive until the vet told me I should let him go.

After Henry died, a friend asked me why I loved cats so much and had spent so much money on Henry. My immediate response—so immediate it surprised both of us and stuck in our memories so we talked about it many times—was, “They help me understand my mortality.” I did not know why I said it or even what I meant.

My father died in 2011 at age 97 and my mother about three years before that. We had time to anticipate and think about their deaths. I did a great deal of reading about preparing for death—for the death of a loved one and for one’s own death. In a search for academic articles, I found Todd LeRoy Perreira’s article, “Die before you die” (1).  This article transformed my contemplation of my mortality.

. . . this is not simply a question of learning how to anticipate death, of being prepared for death. . . [but also the] recognition that the scandal of death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent. . . concomitant with this demand is the acquisition of a certain knowledge of the self. . .

ebertthumbsWhen someone I admire dies, I am given again to contemplating how one prepares for death. I have come to understand that living a good life is the preparation for death, that is, living so one experiences the “transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.” I have yet to discover what that means, but I know it is true.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas in the 1990s, I learned of Roger Ebert’s film criticism. He wrote in the highest tradition of criticism, that is, he helped the reader understand not only the technical accomplishment of the artist, but the substance of the work.

Yesterday, the day after he died, I heard a recording of Roger Ebert interviewed by Terry Gross in 1996 in which he said that good film making is important because film has the ability to help us inhabit someone else’s world, to understand and empathize with other people. Later in the day, Scott Simon said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that

Roger Ebert wrote simply, abundantly, gorgeously, and on deadline for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times . . .  and over the years his work reminded us that empathy is the grace note of a good life, not just great art.

Empathy is the grace note of a good life. One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to die. And death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

I know why I told Kay my cat helped me understand my mortality. It’s because I don’t know how to live in empathy. It’s easier for me to love my

cat unconditionally than to love another human being with empathy. I can love that loveable old cat more readily than another person. The catch is that, while a cat may have nine lives, they are short. And every time I lose a cat I love, I am reminded that I need to get on with the business of the transformation of myself as a moral agent. And that, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with empathy.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s empathy with child laborers. The empathy Roger Ebert understood to be the meaning of art.
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_(1) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die before you die”: Death Meditation as Spiritual Technology of the Self in Islam and Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s compositions are limited to hymn tunes and choral anthems. His hymn tune Federal Street (the street in Salem where he lived) has appeared in many hymnals with many texts. The hymn stanzas I think of when I play Federal Street are below. The entire hymn text is here.

The mighty God, the wise and just,
Knows that our frame is feeble dust;
And will no heavy loads impose
Beyond the strength that He bestows.

He knows how soon our nature dies,
Blasted by every wind that flies;
Like grass we spring, and die as soon,
Or morning flowers that fade at noon.