“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center




I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”

“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.

“. . . made real by the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside. . . “

I make coffee the old fashioned way

I make coffee the old fashioned way

One mystery solved. I know one thing for sure I will do when I retire. I will drink coffee, lots of it. And I will write.

I make coffee the old-fashioned way, not-quite-boiling water through a filtered cone, not on a timer set so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing but can stumble still asleep to pour a cup of coffee. The process wakes me up, not swallowing the first cup.

I’ve been writing early in the morning so long I hardly ever think about how important it is to me—except when I’ve been doing it hypergraphically and can’t not do it. Then, when it’s over—or I have to stop because I will lose my job if I don’t—I think about what I’ve been doing. Sometimes I find great joy in it. Sometimes it’s simply absurd. Sometimes I’d do almost anything not to have to do it.

The fact is, writing is more important to me than anything except playing the organ. And these days it’s easier.

I sent a poem to a friend for her critique. She wrote back, “Omit the maudlin words—tears, love, ‘feel of the thing’—and use words that convey alienation. Fumbling.” The poem is about my frustration with modern instruments of composition, computer, iPad, iPhone.

“Omit the maudlin words.” Oh my god! Omit the maudlin words? I wouldn’t have many words left if I did that!

Take “weeping,” for example.

I assume “weeping” is one of those old-fashioned maudlin words only someone my age would use instead of one that might be used in a Tweet. I don’t know what that word might be, so I will use “weeping.”

Here’s the progression of “weeping” events from yesterday.

Lately I’ve been singing hymns (or anything for which I can remember both melody and words—which means, for the most part, hymns) as I walk to and from my office or do the dishes or clean the cat boxes or any such daily task. Sometimes I think them, sometimes I hum, sometimes when I’m alone, I sing them aloud. I sing them to keep my mind from spinning out of control.

Yesterday shivering from my car to my office in the cold, I found myself humming my mother’s favorite hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The refrain is

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

My mother said the hymn is based on Psalm 30. She quoted verse 5 of the Psalm, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Or sometimes, verse 11, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” (King James Version).

Thomas Hubschman, a cyber-friend (we’ve never met but we carry on an exchange of ideas on FB and here) wrote in 2011,

Who would have thought old age would be such a riot of strong feeling? We look like dried-up fruit, most of us, past our sell-by date, too juiceless to be up to anything more than maintaining our precarious vital signs. Who would guess that inside these parched exteriors torrents of emotion are rushing like spring floods?

Last night as I was watching “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, I was weeping. If I find a less maudlin word, I will use it. Not weeping consistently, but an occasional outburst sobs and tears. I don’t know why.

Stability and grace of a homeland

Stability and grace of a homeland

This is not an unusual event.

For some time I have thought this weeping is part of my Bipolar II cycling of mania and depression, or emotions made fragile by TLE, or more recently because I realize the pain of being alone.

But I have begun to think not.

I weep for the children of Palestine who do know the stability and grace of having a homeland.
I weep for my students who are convinced that the purpose of education is to make money.
I weep for the racism evidenced by so many people’s irrational hatred of President Obama.
I weep for my own aloneness.
I weep for the homeless man asleep in the doorway of Neiman Marcus on Sunday morning.
I weep for my friends who are convinced owning an instrument of murder is their God-given right.
I weep that I don’t have a plan to maintain a sense of usefulness in my retirement.
I weep that love is so difficult to find.
I weep that California is running out of water.
I weep that my Caucasian neighbors think my Asian-immigrant neighbors are not worthy of notice.
I weep that all of my family does not live in real love for one another.
I weep for the twenty would-be-suicide bombers killed by accident in Iraq yesterday.
I weep for leaders who are moral cowards—and those of us who keep electing them.
I weep for the pain each of us inflicts on the rest of us.

If a less maudlin word than “weep” is available, I hope someone will point it out to me. And if I should have more faith that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” I trust that I will discover my weeping is maudlin and stop.

Thomas Hubschman says, “We are the grownups society so desperately needs to lead it to better things and stop wasting its time, effort, money, and lives on the boogeymen under the bed. It’s time we started acting like grownups.” I wonder if it takes being grown up to have enough sense to weep. My weeping is not maudlin. And it’s neither helpless nor hopeless.

I’m not sure what has given Tessa Rumsey the insight to say poetically something, I think, of what I mean. She’s only 43 years old. But I love her poem about our lives together. About the occasion for weeping.

“More Important than the Design of Cities Will Be the Design of Their Decay,” by Tessa Rumsey.

Where did you grow, before your roots took hold in the garden?
Curiouser and curiouser, this allegiance you seem to have with rocks.
Bluish blooms bathed in perfection, the moon shines fresh as you melt away.
Loneliness is a laboratory; its territory is forever defined; for reasons beyond our conviction
It cannot be lessened; only redirected and made to resemble a crumbling heaven or the year’s
Grand delusion: I shall no longer want for that which left me long ago—go slow, said the soul,
That you may know the streets of your abandoned city more intimately than any joy
Or cherished season. We were in collusion, this city and I, creating a mythology of desolation;
Feeling utterly evacuated; yet methodically structured; in a post-Roman Empire; previously
Doomed sort of way—and what did the soul say, but know it better, then in a fever, go deeper.
There are days, I told the translator, when the veil drops and I am no longer inside the No-
Place most familiar, built by me long ago, and I walk through the world as if made real
By the existence of others and the casual way a crowd pauses together on a concrete curbside—
Perhaps one of them is weeping, perhaps another will gently reach out and twist a knife
Into my heart and we will lock eyes, and I will fall to my knees, and for a moment
He will hold me. What will I remember? The cold blade’s cruel demeanor? My body
As it seizures? Or the gesture of my destroyer, showing me that in this life, I was not alone.

(Rumsey, Tessa. “More Important than the Design.” The Return Message by Tessa Rumsey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.)

My one and only teaching “success”

Some years ago the semester’s topic of student writing for my classes was “Homelessness in Dallas.” I don’t remember why I constructed the assignments for argumentative writing around that topic. I think the topic had been in the forefront of political bickering in the city for some reason, and I realized it inhered enough apparently insoluble problems and enough seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion that the students would have no problem writing rhetorical pieces of different types about it. Arguments to inform, arguments to explain, arguments to persuade.

Helping out - the 24-hour Club

Helping out – the 24-hour Club

I made contact with the director of the “street-zine” program in Dallas, whose name I do not remember and who moved from Dallas shortly after that semester, and asked her to speak to my classes. She did so twice—the first time simply as an authority on the problem of homelessness. The second time she brought with her a man and a woman, both of whom were homeless, to tell their stories. And yes, before you jump to any stereotyped and judgmental conclusions, both were quite sane and remarkably articulate about their circumstances.

He was an alcoholic who had recently become sober and was attending AA meetings regularly at the Twenty-Four Hour Club but was not living there. The woman had been divorced some time earlier; her ex-husband was in default on their financial settlement, and she had lost her job and, consequently, her apartment. She was living at one of the Dallas shelters. Her children were in the care of Texas Child Protective Services pending her finding work and a permanent living arrangement.

He was white and she was black. The director of the Street-zine program explained carefully that they were somewhat atypical of the homeless population in that neither of them—but for his alcoholism—was in any way mentally ill.

My classes were the typical mix of SMU students. Except for several members of the football team and a couple of students at the Meadows School of the Arts, they were white, almost 100% from upper-middle- or upper-income families. Several of them were from the Dallas area and were at least peripherally aware of the “problem” of homelessness in Dallas.

I have regrets about the semester: I did not keep any kind of journal (or student papers), and I did not write an academic article about our experience together.

At the risk of stereotyping all of my students, I will say that many of the white students from privileged communities such as Highland Park had the idea that, if “those people” would only get jobs, they would not be homeless and a drain on society, i.e., wasting their parents’ taxes.

The other AA's 24-hour Club

The other AA’s 24-hour Club

At the beginning of the semester an icy chill had settled over all my classes. The students who were not interested were hostile, and the students who were interested were intimidated. I cannot correctly recount the story of the change that occurred in all four of my classes. The change was gradual and subtle—that is, until the end. I am not exaggerating or boasting when I say that virtually all of my students had a change of attitude about the “problem.” A few of the more privileged students did not come to a new understanding, but they were definitely a small minority. Perhaps one or two in each class.

However, I clearly remember one of the classes. A young woman from Dallas who had attended the Hockaday School and was both uncommonly intelligent and articulately vocal took it upon herself to prove that all that I was presenting to the class was biased, liberal, and incorrect. One of the members of the football team was also uncommonly intelligent and—when he found his voice in the class—articulately vocal.

I’ll cut to the chase. Toward the end of the semester the young black man had had as much of what he saw as the sanctimonious and judgmental pronouncements of the young woman as he could take. He commandeered the class one day and—I don’t know any better way to say it—let her have it. He spoke with more passion than I have witnessed before or since in a classroom about his experience as a poor black boy from South Dallas. He talked about racial profiling. He explained that he had always been conflicted about his talent as a football player because he knew it was his way out of his family cycle of minimal income (he was not really a “star,” but his brother was a “star” of the team at TCU), but he also knew that first his high school and then SMU used him to enhance their own reputations while refusing to take him seriously as a student—or as a person.

I won’t say the class experienced some kind of conversion, but they did become a group. His passion and honesty gave all the students permission to be honest. They did not come to some great happy meeting of the minds, but all of their minds changed. All of them were suddenly aware of each other and each other’s realities as they had not been before.

The young woman never again mentioned “if they would only get jobs” and wrote in her final argument that the “problem” of homelessness was far more complex than she wished it were, and that perhaps the problem had to be confronted on a person by person basis.

On the last day of the semester she stood and asked permission to speak. She thanked me for helping her see the subject differently. I, of course, had done nothing except present material and then try to get out of the way. At that point the member of the football team jumped up and rushed over to me and—in the presence of that group of college students including three or four of his football colleagues—planted a kiss—smacked me loudly—on my cheek so squarely I was dumbfounded. And everyone in the room cheered.

He then told me that was the first class he had ever been in, either high school or university, where he had been allowed to talk about himself honestly and without fear. And the class applauded.

I don’t know what your definition of personal freedom and/or academic freedom is, but that’s mine.
Jeffries Street homeless