“. . . But God be with the Clown. . .” (Emily Dickinson)


A photo dated 1860 believed to be Emily Dickinson (Civilwarwomenblog.com)

I noted with some surprise this morning that this is the first day of spring. The coming of spring is usually a celebration of J.S. Bach’s birthday, tomorrow, March 21. I’ve been meaning for years to look up how scientists calculate the exact moment of the equinox. I can’t imagine how astronomers (or whoever announces such things) know to the minute when the daytime and nighttime are equal in length.

Chuck Berry died two days ago, another of the greats who has been in the consciousness of my generation throughout our lives. Chuck Berry was 18 when I was born. I was 11 in 1956 when he recorded my favorite of his songs, “Roll Over Beethoven.”  I can’t imagine when I first heard the song. It’s the sort of music that would never have played on the radio in my family’s Baptist parsonage. I think I’ve simply known it forever. The Beatles covered it in 1963, the year I graduated from high school and went off to college 1,514 miles from home. I was a student in the School of Music (organ major) at the university, so I had reasons other than my father’s profession not to listen to popular music. Least of all to rock and roll.

But I watched the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan (1964, the second semester of my freshman year), and I secretly owned a copy of The Beatles’ Second Album with their cover of “Roll Over Beethoven.”

I can’t remember what happened to the album. I probably pitched it soon after I bought it because I was afraid one of my fellow music students would find out I listened to the Beatles. My favorite line in “Roll Over Beethoven” is “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes” because it quotes Carl Perkins’ 1955 song of that name, and Chuck Berry released “Beethoven” the same year Elvis released his cover of the Perkins song. They were all rolling around in teen-age consciousnesses at the same time.

“But God be with the clown Who ponders this tremendous scene . . . As if it were his own!”

I wonder how one ponders the world as if it were their own. I can barely imagine that the little bit of space I inhabit is my own. These days, whenever a well-known personage from my early years dies, I have the same reaction, the same sense of loss, even though they are not people with whom I have any relationship at all except in my mind, as nearly everyone else has. Whom do I know who could possibly have had any relationship with Chuck Berry? No one, but several people my age who know how I feel about his death have “liked” the link to “Roll Over Beethoven” I posted on FB. “Each man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne said.

Number 133, by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown―

Who ponders this tremendous scene―
This whole Experiment of Green―
As if it were his own!

One is either a part of the whole, or the whole is a part of one. “Don’t think of an elephant,” the old game says. Try to imagine life without Chuck Berry. Or blue suede shoes. I’ve never heard Chance the Rapper sing – I know none of his songs – but since I heard he won a Grammy, I can’t imagine the world without him.

Poet Harvey Shapiro says we are all caught up in a “live-in opera,” and in every good opera, mortality is the driving force, the ABC, and “after that comes lechery and lying.” Mortality, sex, and lies make up our live-in opera, he says, and he asks how we are “to piece together a life from this scandal.” This is another night at the live-in opera, and we’re all in it together with the gods “inhabiting us or cohabiting with us.”

Every day – I started to write “almost” every day, but I think that is not true – I give some thought to piecing together a life, given the certain knowledge that mortality is the ABC of it. My piecing together tends to result in great sadness, even, perhaps, grief. I am not afraid “it’s going to turn out badly for me.” Whatever it is will be natural, the way it is, the way it has always been for us human beings.

I would like to “run for cover,” but I know cover is not available. Mortality is the ABC of it. Chuck Berry lived 90 years. He participated in plenty of lechery, lying, scandal, and confusion in his life on a public and grandly operatic scale. I’ve participated in plenty of those activities but in my own limited way. The fact is, I have spent most of my life running for cover. Now there is no cover left. I may live as many years as did Chuck Berry or my father, the Baptist preacher, 90 or 97 – in either case about 20 more years. At the most. Or not.

In any case, I do not ponder this scene as if it were my own! I know I have little or no control over either the tremendous scene of the first day of spring, or of piecing together a life in this confusion. One more day or 20 more years, it’s “just for the music’s sake,” not for mine.

“Nights,” by Harvey Shapiro (1924 – 2013)

Drunk and weeping. It’s another night
at the live-in opera, and I figure
it’s going to turn out badly for me.
The dead next door accept their salutations,
their salted notes, the drawn-out wailing.
It’s we the living who must run for cover,
meaning me. Mortality’s the ABC of it,
and after that comes lechery and lying.
And, oh, how to piece together a life
from this scandal and confusion, as if
the gods were inhabiting us or cohabiting
with us, just for the music’s sake.


Chuck Berry (Photo, ABC News, March 19, 2017)

Oh, to be “unobtrusive, modest, subdued”

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

Diner. 1956 or 2013?

In a shopping mall in expansive building at a major intersection in the center of city with a population of 4,000,000 (the mall is adjacent to a hotel with 825 rooms) is a hamburger joint that recreates a 1950s diner with red faux-leather chairs and booths, black-and-white checkered tiles on the walls, and large photographs of iconic entertainers such as Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and Bill Haley and The Comets. The diner serves the “Texas Burger,” the “Double Cheese Burger,” the “Bacon and Swiss Burger.”

I ordered the “Texas Burger.” It was very much like a burger one might get at Smash Burger in Dallas except the fries were potato wedges, not French fries, and I had to pay extra for ketchup (Heinz in small packets).

The "Baltic Princess" - too crowded for comfort.

The “Baltic Princess” – too crowded for comfort.

The city intersection where the mall, hotel, and diner are located is the end of the Nevsky Prospect where it connects with the main bridge across the Neva River into the center city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Across the street from the hotel is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Elvis Presley’s first RCA hit single was “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. I was eleven years old and could sing it from start to finish (if my parents were not nearby). I’m (obviously) 86 today. I can’t even get the melody well enough in my mind at the moment to start it, much less finish it.

The etymology of the word “retire” is not to tire of something and then tire again. We use the word in such a way that it might seem that’s where it came from. I tired of working when I was about 50 (or 35, or 25), and now I have again tired of working. It’s time to stop.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “retire” comes not from some form of getting tired but from the Middle French verb meaning retirer “to withdraw.” That’s a transitive verb, meaning it needs an object, so it must be used (the Middle French, that is) in the construction “to retire something.” The first use in English was “to withdraw oneself,” specifically “to withdraw oneself and go to bed.” By 1640, the word had come to mean “to withdraw oneself from business.”

By 1766 the adjective form of the word had come to mean “fond of retiring, disposed to seclusion,” hence “unobtrusive, modest, subdued” (1766), as in “he is the retiring type.”

My friends on the upper deck.

My friends on the upper deck.

I am somewhat disposed to seclusion.

This will be a somewhat trying week for me. I went to a party two nights ago with the kind and gracious group with whom I traveled in Europe last month—a group of which I have grown enormously fond, and of which I am delighted to be a part. Today I will attend a birthday party for someone of whom I am exceptionally fond. He is—dear me, can it be?—less than half my age, and he is attached to and understands the cultural world in which he lives and in relation to which I often find myself an outsider looking in and wondering what the hell is going on.

My primary goal as far as parties and such occasions is to be “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued.” This is not a new phenomenon for me. Even when I could sing “Blue Suede Shoes,” both words and music, from memory and not only knew who Bill Haley was but could sing “Rock Around the Clock Tonight” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as vociferously and flawlessly as any of my junior high school friends, what I really wanted was to be in a corner (or preferably in the next room) singing by myself. Or, better yet, to be listening from the private world in my mind.

The enervating crowd disembarking

The enervating crowd disembarking

I’d guess that few people who know me as an acquaintance would expect me to say that about myself. After all, I have supported myself all my life in two very public professions, music and teaching. An “unobtrusive, modest, and subdued” person can hardly manage those two professions. Perhaps I haven’t. The common pop definition of “introvert” applies to me, that is, a person who feels energy sapped by being with too many people, as opposed to the “extrovert” whose energy is increased by being with groups of people.

I want to retire in at least two senses of the word. I want to “to withdraw [my]self from [the] business [of teaching]” because I’m old, and I want to make myself “unobtrusive, modest, subdued.”

Don’t misunderstand. I love teaching. And, if student evaluations are reliable evidence, I’m very good at it. And I love such experiences as running off to Scandinavia and Russia with a kind and generous group of people.

But I love being retired from too much social interaction more. “Unobtrusive, modest, subdued.” Ah, yes.

I may be as confused as a picture of Elvis Presley in a ‘50s-style diner in St. Petersburg in 2013.

Finland's coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.

Finland’s coast: modest, subdued. My kind of place.