“. . . You’re alone with the whirling cosmos. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

dsc01480-002

Paradise Point, Oregon (Photo: Harold Knight, Oct. 3, 2011)

My father was the son of two New Deal Democrats who never voted for a Republican. My grandmother explained to me that the Republicans were responsible for the Great Depression, calamitous event that came close to destroying her life as it had so many others; she could never vote for a Republican for any office. She died in 1972 having kept her vow (at least until 1969, the last time I talked with her).

In the midst of the Depression, around the time of FDR’s first reelection, my grandmother was determined that her sons would go to college. She discovered the Leopold Schepp Foundation that gave scholarships to students who could not afford college. She applied, and my father and uncle graduated from William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, then, as now, a top-tier liberal arts institution. The faculty were for the most part conservative intellectuals, and my father became a Republican who never voted for a Democrat.

By the time I was in college, the son of Dr. H. I. Hester, one of the foremost professors at William Jewell, was a professor in the religion department of the University of Redlands. I took the required introduction to religions course under him, and his liberal (not his father’s conservative) views of religion helped shape my (one might say) liberal views of religion and other disciplines.

I misspoke myself. My father did vote for one Democrat for President, Barack Obama in 2008. Dad was 94 at the time. The last time he voted. Perhaps by the time I’m 94 I will vote for one Republican.

“You’re sitting at a small by window
In an empty café by the sea . . .”

begins Edward Hirsh’s poem, “What the last evening will be like.” My favorite place to be ― I can say with only a hint of hyperbole ― is alone by the sea. On the beach, not in a café. Preferably a cold and not very inviting beach where few people want to be. Alone, at Paradise Point on the Southern Oregon coast, for example.

When I am on the DART train headed somewhere in Dallas, I often have to hum through a tune that is stuck in my mind. Music cannot be in the background, whether in my mind or playing ubiquitously on someone’s device. Yes, I hum sitting on the train. I hum as quietly as possible because I don’t want people to think I’m the daft old man who shouldn’t be on the train alone. I have to hum because I sit on the train and observe, thinking about nothing.

The other day traveling alone I had to put to rest the tune Jam Lucis, a plain chant associated with the monastic Daily Office of Prime, the prayers at sunrise. It’s an 11th century tune best known as an evening hymn, in modern hymnals the tune for the 7th century evening hymn, “To thee before the close of day.” I was riding the train humming an 11th-century tune that goes with words written in the 7th century and translated from Latin to English in the 19th century.

I know that tune imprinted in my mind because when I was in college I sang the Office of Compline with a group of music students as a sort of public “meditation” in the University of Redlands chapel on Sunday evenings. An ageless tune in my head nearly my whole life. In a deeper sense I know it because my grandmother was a New Deal Democrat. Her determination that her sons would have college educations shaped my life. My parents assumed my brother and I would graduate from college. My brother graduated from our father’s alma mater.

From there both the course of my life and the development of my thinking are too obvious to need explanation. I am not a first-generation college graduate.  Learning, reading, trying to think are the center of my life as inherited from my father. And from his parents. My grandfather had only a fourth-grade education, but he was a voracious reader. My grandparents were unmovable in their determination that my father and his brother would have more fulfilling lives than they had had.

The line of my thinking, acting ― my very being ― from my grandparents to my parents to my own small life is a line of memory. I remember my grandmother’s telling me of her unshakable determination that her children and their children would live in a kind of expansiveness she could not.

I need to insert a word here about her daughters and my sister and women cousins. They were not forgotten. My father’s two sisters followed the way to an expansive life in the way readily available to women of their generation, by marrying men whose line of memory could give them satisfaction. One succeeded much better than the other. Most of my grandmother’s granddaughters have college degrees. My sister married a brilliant man with whom she has had an expansive life.

You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours. (Edward Hirsch)

The line of my thinking, acting, being has brought me to a place alone. Surely physically alone, unmarried, in an apartment with two cats, no longer college professor or church music director. That is perhaps by my own choice or perhaps by circumstance or perhaps the result of a personality I might be able to change but have not had the inner strength to do so. This place is common among men of my age, especially gay men.
zdsc01542(This photo was taken by the only other person on Paradise Point beach, who agreed to use my camera to record the moment, Oct. 3, 2011)

However, my aloneness arises at least in part from my perception of the world as perception. I remember, in Joy Harjo’s words, “you are this universe and this universe is you.” I am alone because I am alone. Because I “remember you are all people and all people are you. / Remember you are this universe and this universe is you” (Harjo). From my grandmother’s memory of the people of her universe to my father’s memory of the people of his universe, to my memory of the people of my universe.

I’ve lived in tight spaces, the walls around me closing in so that substance becomes smaller, is only memory. My grandmother and my father are only memories now, as perhaps they only ever were, and I am “alone in the whirling cosmos.”

What the Last Evening Will Be Like, Edward Hirsch, b. 1950

You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.
―From The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems by Edward Hirsch.
Copyright © 2010 by Edward Hirsch.

To thee before the close of day

To thee before the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray
that, with thy wonted favor, thou
wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our sight,
from fears and terrors of the night;
withhold from us our ghostly foe,
that spot of sin we may not know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
doth live and reign eternally.

Words: Latin, seventh century; trans. John Mason Neale, 1851
Music: Jam lucis, 11th century Benedictine
(Harold Knight playing on Steuart Goodwin Organ, op. 1)

“No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

"Now you’re walking down to the shore. . ."

“Now you’re walking down to the shore. . .”

These days there’s a lot of prattle by the talking heads on TV from FOX to MSNBC about President Obama’s “legacy.” Usually the topic is what the President is doing to shape (or reshape or create or change or . . .) his legacy.

The other day Diane Rehm’s guest on her NPR interview show was the British actor David Thomson. I didn’t hear the entire program, but I heard a few moments of his speaking to the idea that all of us are to a certain extent acting—acting out the role in which we want others to see us.

Don’t jump to conclusions. He was not saying we’re all phonies. Far from it. His point was that we all decide (maybe several times in our lives) how we want the world to see us—what our role is in the drama of our lives. I think that’s a powerful idea.

I’ve been thinking lately about that concept. My legacy. That, of course, is a luxury. For anyone who is simply and constantly trying to keep warm or figure where the next meal is coming from, a legacy is the last thing they have to worry about. And that’s—what?—90% of the world’s population. That I have the time, the awareness that anyone might think of me when I am gone—the luxury of knowing who the “leader” of my nation is—places me in the tiniest minority of the people now living or who have ever lived.

I heard only a few minutes of David Thomson’s discussion with Diane Rehm, and I have not read his book. I can hardly claim to understand his ideas. No matter. My legacy. My acting. My acting as if.

We’re all “method actors,” I’d say. We feel the feelings, we immerse ourselves in our experience, in our real and perceived worlds, and then “act” accordingly. Somewhere along the line my experience, both real and perceived, took me down several conflicting paths. I suppose that’s universally true. I don’t need to rehearse mine—it’s pretty much in evidence throughout this blog.

Yesterday I saw my new talk-therapist for the second time, and I began revealing as best I could why I was there. First, I was having a minor version of what I have heard described as a “panic attack.” It’s just the way I live—and my guess is everyone else does, too. I didn’t want to be there. I suddenly was aware of my heart (I don’t know if it was racing or pounding or what—I was simply aware of it). I could not sit still. I seldom can except when I’m at my computer keyboard or working a Sudoku puzzle. I was acutely aware that I did not want to be there.

". . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . ."

“. . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . .”

So we talked. I talked a little about me. He talked a lot about anxiety. My skin crawled and I had to rub my head, and I wanted to scream. He sat calmly in his chair wearing his tie with his handsome gray beard immaculately trimmed and prattling on, and I slumped in the easy chair in my t-shirt with my hair and beard that have not been groomed for two weeks. At one point he was talking about the experience of the victims of the Holocaust (he’s not Jewish—his father was a famous Methodist theologian) and the numbers tattooed on their arms, “Not like the impressive ones you have.” I wore a long-sleeved shirt the first time we talked, so he hadn’t seen them before. At one point I saw the skinny young intern—did I say skinny?—(my therapist teaches at UTSouthwestern Medical School—I see six doctors there, lucky me) staring at my tattoos, and I knew they were both curious about them. Why does a retired church musician/college professor have all those tattoos? I think—although I may be projecting or hoping—that was the unasked question of the hour.

So then he asked me something—I forget what—that the answer was logically to tell him about tutoring college athletes. Specifically about the one last semester that I bonded with in a way the NCAA says we’re not supposed to, but which—I am pretty sure (because he told me so)—has helped keep him in school in the midst of a situation I would not have been able to handle when I was 19 years old. And then the one this week who told me the story of his (for me, literally, unbelievable) growing up, and his violent high school years, and his landing in college with almost no preparation and no skill for staying there. And the words of the director of the program as I left at the end of the day were, “Have you gotten through to another one of the boys?”

So President Obama and I are worried about our legacies. I wonder what the most important thing is that he’s ever done. Bet it has nothing to do with being President. I’ll bet it has to do with his making a connection somewhere sometime with someone—someONE—who could barely connect with anyone. And it makes the fact that he has not written the great American novel or been a concert organist or published books and books of poetry or any of those other things he MIGHT have done pretty much irrelevant.

And in those days in 2031 when he’s 70 and looking back on his life and alone—of course, he’ll never be alone, but he’ll be lonely—it’s that minute when some kid who’s had a rough, even violent, life said to him, “But I’m going to do this,” and admitted he could use his help along the way, that will make him weep in a way no actor on stage has ever done.

“What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” by Edward Hirsch (b. 1950)
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

(About Edward Hirsch.)

"No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depths."

“No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.”

sum link for other blog

“. . . 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.

“kindness. . . profligate in its expenditure” A (probably incomprehensible) poetry lesson from the irrepressible professor

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

I will consider my cat Chachi. Do you know what his tail held up and hooked means?

Two moderately long poems and an 18-minute musical work (I’ll be amazed if anyone wades through all of this).  However, taken together, they say something about the life of my mind and “spirit” today that I can’t say myself, so I offer them for your consideration in whole, in part, or a bit at a time.

On August 13 my posting here was read by way more people (way more) than any other posting I’ve made on this blog.

. . . Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .  

–– From “Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal (printed in full below the picture of Christopher Smart)

 Michael Blumenthal’s poem once showed up on my “timeline” on Facebook, and I’ve sent it to friends on important occasions. Let me get all ooey-gooey and sentimental. It’s one of my favorite poems because it reminds me to be grateful.

And to try to be kind. It will not drain my limited resources to be kind.
And then, because I was trying this morning to be grateful for so many things, the beginning of a list:

For friends I don’t know
For friends I do know
For my family
For my small ability to make music
For my even smaller ability to get outside my self-absorption and love someone else
(and for the people who have taught me to stop worrying about “the meaning of life”
because that’s probably the meaning of life)
For the gift—it’s nothing I thought up myself
—of the decision to love a couple of people unreservedly
For the pipe organ in my living room
For the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, TX
For enough intellectual curiosity to find new poetry to read every day
For enough intellectual ability to have a modicum of understanding of that poetry
For my cats who make it nearly impossible for me to live in a “normal” home
For Dr. Steven Thornton’s magic arthroscopy
And for so much more I can’t begin to say

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

After I remembered Michael Blumenthal’s poem and decided to write about my gratitude, I thought of my favorite poem about gratitude (isn’t it amazing how the mind makes connections among memories), that is, “Wild Gratitude,” by Edward Hirsch (printed in full below).

Hirsch’s image of the cat comes from the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section of Christopher Smart’s poem “Jubilate Agno” (Rejoice in the Lamb). Obviously it’s impossible for me to think about Smart’s cat Jeoffry without having in mind “Rejoice in the Lamb” by Benjamin Britten which I once had the great joy to accompany, which is one of the moments of my life for which I have “Wild Gratitude” (see recording endnotes).

There. From your reading my blog two days ago to the organ accompaniment to “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.” How’s that for a meandering of the mind?

Insane or TLEptic?

Insane or TLEptic?

[A sidebar: I have often thought Christopher Smart was not insane, but merely had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy–his hypergraphia, his incomprehensible religious fervor, and his babbling about the strange images in his imagination, and his inability to concentrate on details such as money are presentations of TLE.]

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal         

 Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“Wild Gratitude,”  by Edward Hirsch

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat’s mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
“And all conveyancers of letters” for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn’t until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey’s waggling mouth
That I remembered how he’d called Jeoffry “the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,”
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn’t until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, “a creature of great personal valour,”
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

An introduction to Christopher Smart’s poem with the entire text of the “I will consider my cat Jeoffry” section.
http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/poem/2009/10/in_nomine_patris_et_felis.html

THE BEST RECORDING of Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” I’ve found online is
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsZP-IH8XbM

The entire text is here (I guess it’s impossible for choirs these days to sing so you can understand all of the words).
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britlamb.html