“. . . the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. . .” (Gertrude Stein)

I think Bill's Steamer was yellow.

I think Bill’s Steamer was yellow.

It’s the 16th day of my 71st year.

I have titled this blog “me senescence,” shorthand for “about me, growing old.”

A long time ago, I unsuccessfully decided I was going to figure out the writings of Gertrude Stein. “A rose, is a rose, is a rose” is a pretty straight-forward poem. Other than that one, every poem of hers I’ve read sounds to me like a Picasso painting looks. They were great friends, and their understanding of making art and perceiving it was apparently the same.

My favorite lines from Stein’s “IF I TOLD HIM. A Completed Portrait of Picasso” are

He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is/
and as he and he and as he is and he and he and and he and he.

The poem seems to be about Napoleon. I don’t get it. I’ve seen both of the operas by Virgil Thomson for which Stein wrote the libretti, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All. All I remember of those productions is my confusion—for years I thought I’d listen to them again to sort them out because I love—and play—Thomson’s music.

I’ve never known anyone who knew Gertrude Stein. But when I lived in Salem, MA, I taught organ to an old man who had been in the Harvard Glee Club with Thomson in the ‘20s. (He was at the time probably but a few years older than I am now.) He owned the only Stanley Steamer I’ve ever seen.

The Harvard Glee Club traveled to Paris when Bill and Virgil were in it, and Bill told many titillating stories about Thomson. He told me he had a photograph of Thomson standing by a wall in Paris pissing under a sign that said, Défense de urine. I never saw the picture, but I have every reason to believe Bill had it.

Recalling all of that perhaps flies directly in the face of Gertrude Stein’s “conception of a continuous present is when everything is unique, beginning again and again and again” (Leslie Scalapino).

I’m not hanging out in the continuous present.

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition (Stein, Selected Writings).

I’m looking backward. I’m not “living in the living [I am] doing.” As I write, I am not “composing of the composition at the time [I

THE Christmas tree

THE Christmas tree

am] living [which is] the composition of the time in which [I am] living.” I am not living in the present, the “continuous” present.

Gertrude Stein lived to be only 72 years old (1874-1946). She died 18 months after I was born. However, she cast a long shadow over parts of American culture. She influenced (or at least was friends with) Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, and many more American artists who spent the obligatory time (for anyone who wanted artistic success in the ‘20s ‘30s, and ‘50s) in Paris.

For 10 Christmases beginning in 1994, my late partner put up spectacular Christmas trees in our apartment—12 feet tall with his 2,000 ornaments and at least 10 strings of lights. The tree had been his tradition long before we met. These days, when I think of Christmas trees, I think of Jerry, of Jerry’s tree. Still. No one can do a tree like his.

When I think of Jerry’s trees, I wonder if I am living in the “continuous present,” or am I living in the past. Or is the past part of my present? Is it important to understand what Stein meant?

Yesterday a short conversation with a friend—he told me he had played the piano at the celebration after his mother’s funeral the day before—reminded me of Jerry’s funeral. He died in November, 2003, and his funeral was in his family church in Arlington, VT. I went to Vermont. His family and I had gathered on the front pew of the Community Church in Arlington and were waiting for the service to begin. The pastor came in and whispered to Jerry’s mother. She turned to me and said, “He can do it.” The pastor whispered to me that the organist had called to say she had forgotten the funeral. Could I play the hymns?

I remember the sense that my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment, these three hymns. I remember also wondering how I could be performing at the funeral of the man I loved. It’s not possible.

The other day I was sorting old photographs and came upon pictures of Jerry’s trees and of that church in Vermont. I can’t claim to know what Stein meant by, “The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition.”

The time of helping Jerry with his tree, of giving Bill a few organ lessons, of Virgil pissing in a forbidden place, of Frank playing the piano, of my playing the organ at Jerry’s funeral (and for another, that of a complete stranger, two days ago), of celebrating my 70th birthday, of reading Stein’s writing, these I will take as the “composition of the living I am doing, the natural phenomena of the composition of my life.”

That’s probably belittling the importance of Stein’s writing, but it’s an OK way for this senescent to think.

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

A Christmas Greeting from Jerusalem

(My friend Samia Khoury from Jerusalem sent her greeting by email this morning.)

palestine-apartheid-wall-23One of the well-known Christmas songs “I’ll be home for Christmas” which my generation remembers for being first recorded by Bing Crosby in the forties, was on the program of the Christmas concert we attended at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies – Brigham Young University.

As I listened to the beautiful tenor singing it, I could not help but think of all those who won’t be able to make it home for Christmas, by no choice of their own. And that is when the song becomes so meaningful when you think of the many soldiers serving on foreign land, the refugees, the prisoners, and the many young Palestinians who have been denied their right to come home or be united with their families because of absurd laws under a military occupation.
Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
So I hope all of you who are gathering with your families for Christmas, will indeed feel grateful for this blessing without having to worry about check points or denied entry.

Have a joyful Christmas and best wishes for peace and good health throughout the New Year.

Samia

"Home for Christmas" in Bethlehem.

“Home for Christmas” in Bethlehem.

“. . . I long for scenes where man has never trod . . .”

Not everything in its place

Not everything in its place

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were contemporaneous. Let’s see how many connections I can make. Pope, a shriveled little man with a bone disease that prevented his growing up to five feet, wrote his Essay on Man in 1734. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734 (one chorus of which will be my funeral someday—not performed at my funeral, but be my funeral, it and only it, no speaking, no liturgy, only Fallt mit Danken).

It’s difficult—especially for someone who has studied music rather than poetry most of his life—to decipher which of Pope’s poems are serious and which are satire.

In 1725 Alexander Pope published an edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, edited and “corrected” to reflect British “enlightenment” thinking. Tom Stoppard was born in 1937 and wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966. I was Rosencrantz in a production of R&G in 1972.

One might ask what connection 1725 has with 1734 and what connection either of them has with 1937, 1966, or 1972.

None, obviously. I’m trying to get from point A to point B logically, and I’m grasping at straws for connections.

Connections are supposed to be made. Things are supposed to be tidy. The new set of glassware for my kitchen is supposed to be in the cupboard and the old unmatched glasses for sale at the Genesis Thrift Store behind the barber shop where I intended to get a haircut last Saturday.

What a piece of work is man

What a piece of work is man

Tom Stoppard knows how to make connections. In R&G Hamlet delivers his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are dead but flitting around trying to get Hamlet to come to his senses and kill his mother. (You’ll notice there’s a gay double entendre between Hamlet and Rosencrantz at the end of the soliloquy.)

In 1967 Galt MacDermot’s Hair was all the rage with its version of the soliloquy—almost a connection with R&G, but not quite (they were on Broadway at the same time). I saw the Los Angeles production in 1969, right after I was asked to withdraw as a student at the School of Theology in Claremont because, through A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snickett, 1999), they had discovered I am gay, and the Methodists weren’t very forgiving. Things were much different then. Right!

Back to Alexander Pope (see how cleverly I make all of these connections?). His Essay on Man, Epistle II, begins

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man
.

Know, then, thyself. TV commercials agree, and try to sell you on a way to “take control” of your life. The proper study of mankind is control. And the point of taking control—or, more precisely, giving Charles Schwab control—is so you can Own your tomorrow. What a piece of work is man! how infinite in faculty! in apprehension how like a god, owning our tomorrow!

John Clare (1793-1864) was known as the country bumpkin poet. He celebrated nature and mourned the loss of the natural in human society.

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys. . .

“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise” is not exactly where Charles Schwab wants me to go.

Today I’m going to a “retirement workshop” at the university. I probably won’t understand any of it. But I need to know how to “own my tomorrow” after the first of July. I know how to live now. What a piece of work is man. The proper study of mankind is man.

Here’s what mankind (or people, or womankind, or whatever) does. People spend about 3/4ths of their time cleaning up after themselves and tidying and arranging to “make the house fair as you are able” (from a Christmas carol saying Love the Guest is on the way). People (at least people I know) live orderly lives with all the loose ends tied up. A place for everything and everything in its place. Every Libby glass, every pair of undershorts, every book, every feeling, every thought. Every thought. Manage those thoughts.

If you have a thought for everything and every thought is in its place, you can “Own your tomorrow.” It all depends on clean towels in the bathroom, never missing an appointment, going to the retirement seminar to learn once again when you must, by law, begin drawing money out of the pittance they call your retirement fund.schwab-big-2-opt

I can’t. I can’t own today, much less, tomorrow. This writing was inspired by yet another friend telling me about yet another “self-help” book I need to get myself organized. It seems to me—because I’m too lazy or too prideful to do menial work, or some other obstreperousness—we spend most of our energy trying to be that piece of work. Trying to be

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Not keeping all of my dishes washed every day, and not putting the new glasses away in the cupboard, and not dutifully checking my mail every day, and not noticing that my car’s yearly registration has expired, and not keeping up with the Kardashians does not make me either a good person or a bad person.

I don’t long for death—or whatever John Clare hoped for. I’m not sure about his God. But I would like right now, not after I die, right now to be

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie.

If the proper study of mankind is man, I should think mankind is not doing too well on the untroubling and untroubled side of things. We’re all troubled and troubling each other—with tidying up, with

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by [ourselves] abused, or disabused
.

Hamlet, Act II, scene II, by William Shakespeare (or Alexander Pope, or Tom Stoppard, or Galt MacDermot)
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

“Essay on Man,” Epistle II, by Alexander Pope
Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

“I Am!” by John Clare
I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. . . “ (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Follow the Mariachis

Follow the Mariachis

.
In about 1970 a group of us from Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, trekked to the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas).  The church’s name for decades has been Iglesia de la Epifania. The congregation is predominantly Hispanic.

We wanted to participate in (or rubberneck at is probably more accurate) the colorful pageantry of their celebration of El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day). A noisy and joyful procession around several city blocks accompanied by mariachis. Then our first celebration of the Episcopal liturgy in Spanish (again with mariachis). And finally a huge party with all of the Mexican goodies you can imagine to eat.

On the church’s Ordo Kalendar (which you can purchase in the exactly same format and colors I used to buy 20 years ago) today is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Feast of the Epiphany is my favorite day in the church’s year of commemorations and celebrations. It’s the day of the ἐπιφάνεια (“showing”) to the Wise Persons from the East of the Divine nature of the Baby Jesus. Or is it the human nature of God? I forget.

At any rate, it’s the day the church says to the world, “Even you, heathens, agnostics, apostates, followers of other religions, even you can understand the presence of God in human life.” Those Wise Persons from the East didn’t know anything about Hebrew scripture and prophecies and stuff like that. They knew some kid who was a Capricorn was born, and he had to be special because a new star appeared. Of course, they also knew Capricorns were intended to rule the world (ask Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong), so they ought to go and see this kid over in that insignificant little kingdom, that “protectorate” of the Romans in Palestine.

Follow the Capricorns?

Follow the Capricorns?


[Interlinear note: It was hardly remarkable when President Nixon visited China and met Chairman Mao. Capricorns are meant to rule the world. Ask any of us. The most interesting description of their meeting is written by the wacko blogger, The Last Columnist, with the most interesting out-of-step-with-official-explanations discussion of
the US “debt crisis” on the Internet.]

I take great comfort in the fact the Church Universal says to all of us who never did or no longer do believe all of the theology and rationalizations about the creation and salvation of mankind, “You’re part of this, too.” I’m not even cynical enough to think the church universal is saying, “Give us your gold, frankincense, and myrrh (whatever that is), and you can be saved.”

No, I think Epiphany and the story of the Wise Persons from the East are simply the church’s shorthand for, “Here, you guys—whoever you are—this is for you, too, if you want it and are willing to make a little effort to find it.”

If I really want to struggle with words and try to figure out what a writer means by ideas complex enough to leave me scratching my head (and admitting the limitations of both my conscious and unconscious mind), I sometimes look for a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Like this one.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

With the help of Spencer Reese, I could give you the English professor’s analysis of this dark and complex poem (Reece, Spencer.

Follow the poet-priest

Follow the poet-priest

“Countless Cries: Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.” American Poetry Review 38.5 (2009). But I won’t—partly because it would be boring, and partly because it would be more a report on what Reece says than thoughts of my own.

Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest. Depending on what critic or academic you read, he either was or was not a homosexual (and either did or did not ever have a sexual relationship with a man, especially Dugby Mackworth Dolben, a handsome classmate of his at Oxford). Never mind. That’s “argumentation by distraction,” as our favorite waitress at O’Reilly’s Irish Delicatessen in Ontario, CA, said one Sunday also about 1970 when a group of us from Christ Church were having lunch after services (see “comments”).

The point is that Hopkins sees himself waking in the night (during a time when he was physically, mentally, and spiritually drained and defeated—we know what was going on in his life at the time) having dreamed of his wasted life, his (perhaps unfulfilled sexual) desires and other sins—the first two stanzas—and his “terrible” conclusion. This is one of the six “terrible” sonnets—so-called by academics who have nothing better to do than categorize things.

The conclusion is that he is—like the rest of us heathen—“lost” because we expect ourselves to be the “yeast” that leavens our own lives. We make the dough sour (as opposed to sourdough bread). Our scourge is the same as his. He, like us, he says is “. . . gall, I am heartburn. . . my taste was me; / Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.” Our blood is brimmed with the curse.

And that’s what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same. Even being a Capricorn won’t help. Even President or Chairman. Or a rubbernecking Anglo. Or a Christian.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.Born a king on Bethlehem’s plainGold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Refrain
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
Refrain

What is a bucket list, and why is this so weird?

A few catfish friends

A few catfish friends

Who would have thought the origin of the term “bucket list” is from the phrase “kick the bucket.” You know, things I want to do before I “kick the bucket.” Die.

Never occurred to me until I did a Google search for the term.

I found many strange sites looking for the origin of “kick the bucket.” One is now on my list of all-time favorite internet grotesqueries. The MLA citation:

“Death” (redirected from “Kick the Bucket”). The Free Dictionary by Farlex. encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com. 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2014. (Copied from the Wikipedia article on “death”).

The article begins, “Death is the cessation of all biological functions . . .”

There’s nothing particularly odd or grotesque about that. At the top of the page was the link to an ad. That’s not odd—advertising is the purpose of free sites. However, this one, I’m sure, was individually chosen for me, The Free Dictionary by Farlex’s page defining “death” (redirected from “kick the bucket”) is sponsored by, are you ready for this?

Villagio of Carrollton. “Assisted Living & Memory Care: Beautiful and Active Lifestyle.”

Beside the ad was the illustration for “Death.”

Retirement Living?

Retirement Living?

The description of “Villagio of Carrollton” begins, “Villagio’s vibrant Life Enrichment program features new adventures, exciting opportunities to learn, and wellness activities. Our programs help build meaningful friendships, allow freedom of choice . . . “ It’s a “Senior Living” facility.

I don’t know if these ads stay on pages, but I’ll bet this one appeared especially for me because my computer (and, therefore, Google) knows I’ve been writing about getting old. You probably won’t see it if you click on the link because such ads are individualized (big brother IS watching you!).

More Catfish Friends

More Catfish Friends

I was thinking about my “bucket list” because last night at my birthday party (what a GREAT party – thank you, my friends) a couple of people asked me about my list. Here is part of my list—not really in order of importance except the first two.

  • First or second is a trip to Easter Island. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood, that’s all. I want to see those big heads! And I also want to see the Andes, which one almost has to do to get there, going through Santiago, Chile.
  • The second or first is to teach for a semester or a year or some length of time at either Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem or Birzeit University in Birzeit (just north of Ramallah in the Central West Bank). This is not an unrealistic pipe dream

I have a particular reason from history or philosophy or music or some “discipline” for wanting to see each of these. Some are obvious, some are not—and some may not be for any reason anyone would guess. In no particular order:

  • attend the entire Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth;
  • see the Angkor Wat in Cambodia;
  • see the Valley of the Kings in Egypt;
  • see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica;
  • return to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and spend a week there;
  • visit Japan (no particular destination);
  • attend Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London;
  • play one of the Silbermann organs J.S. Bach is known to have played;
  • play the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris;
  • see lions, tigers, elephants, etc. in Kenya;
  • see all of the musicals playing on Broadway in one season (any season);
  • attend an opera at the Sydney Opera House;
  • see Machu Picchu.

I don’t have much to say about any of this except that the list has not changed over the years. And most of the list falls in the category of pipe dream. I have another list of activities I would like to participate in that don’t necessarily involve travel I can’t afford.

The reality of my bucket list, however, is that it has one item on it that outweighs all of the others together. And achieving it will make all the rest into nice fantasies, unnecessary ever to achieve to be happy.

I have a favorite poem about friendship. It worries me that I like it because Richard Brautigan was such a troubled person (a successful suicide). But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from a friend’s mind and, at the same time, the friend might not even know it is happening is comforting to me.

“Your Catfish Friend,” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish form
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond.  I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish

in this pond?  It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

I’ve arrived at one of those places in my thinking and writing where I cannot pull together or finish what I intended to say. Some connection between “bucket lists” and friendship. My bucket list is really friendship. Relatedness. If Machu Picchu or Bayreuth, or even Dar Al-Kalima College ever become realities, that’s great. But at this advanced age (here I go again) what I really want is to be a catfish in a pond where you think one ought to be and vice versa.

How corny is that? Weird?

So I experienced that last night. Here’s a Christmasy little song for the 11th Day of Christmas while I show you the wonderful simple gifts my friends gave me for my birthday. My Catfish Friends.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

REFRAIN:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
REFRAIN

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
REFRAIN

“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.