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

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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)

“Remember the wind. . . She knows the origin of this universe.” (Joy Harjo)

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“REMEMBER THE WIND.” Palestine. The Sea of Galilee. (Photo by Harold Knight, Nov. 9, 2015)

My first memory of thinking, “What if I don’t exist at all but am a figment of someone’s imagination,” was in second grade (Mrs. Hall’s class, Longfellow School, Scottsbluff, NE, 1952). I would hardly have had the vocabulary to think that sentence at that time. I was perhaps a tad precocious, but “figment” was not likely my word then. “Exist” and “imagination” were probably a little beyond me, too. I did not have the words, but I knew the concept without question

The first time I remember saying the exact words was when I was in high school. I was lying on a hill in Chadron State Park in Western Nebraska one summer night when I was participating in Far West Baptist Camp. My father established the camp when he was Minister of Christian Education of the Nebraska Baptist Convention. I was lying on the hillside with a friend, one of the first boys I was in love with. I didn’t have the vocabulary for that, either, although I had no doubt about the feeling.

The sky was absolutely clear, and there were no city lights to obscure the stars. The Milky Way on a summer’s night in Nebraska appears as a band of light virtually across the entire sky. City boys never see it. I was lying on the hillside being in love and wondering about infinity – surely there was an end to the universe I was seeing, but I knew from science classes that what I was looking into was apparently infinite. As I stared into space, the thought occurred to me that what I was seeing was simply a figment of my imagination. And then I told myself that the universe was not a figment of my imagination, but I was a figment of another person’s imagination and did not exist at all. ***

That seems an innocuous enough thought for a 16-year-old kid to have. We all think weird stuff at that age. But my thought was directly related to that day in second grade. I was experiencing derealization or depersonalization or both. Much later when I was about 37 years old, I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Tegretol. My friend for the last 35 years. But for the 35 or so years before that, my friend was silence about my frequent experience of the world.

I don’t remember when I first read Joy Harjo’s poem, “Remember.” The lines “Remember you are this universe and this / universe is you” at moments come into my consciousness (or what I accept as consciousness), and I can’t remember where they are from. Thank goodness for Google.  Now I have them posted online forever, so I won’t lose them again.

How do I get from a childhood experience – it was a childhood-long experience that lasted well into my adulthood, yesterday while square dancing being the most recent manifestation – to the universe as myself and myself as the universe? You might think the derealization experience would mean the opposite. The universe as removed from myself and myself removed from the universe. But in those moments, the entire universe is in my mind. My mind is the universe and the universe is in my mind. None of the men I was square dancing with yesterday were in the room. More concerning was that my feet were not part of the world, only part of the universe.

I do not know if this experience is the result of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or of childhood traumas. I do not need to enumerate here, but they are real.

Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is a fortunate gift of seeing the world as it actually is. Perhaps it is a philosophical experience and not a physiological reality at all.

How would a second-grade boy come by such a gift? How could he possibly understand that what we all, what we each in our own mind, consider to be “real” is so amorphous and incomprehensible that the only way to endure is to build structures, to adopt ways of acting and doing, to invent strategies of thinking that preclude facing the “nothingness” of our human enterprise, to use Sartre’s convenient word. Not because I understand the existentialist strategy, but because it fits what I am trying to say.

I love the term “gaslighting.” From Wikipedia [horrors!]: “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize . . . to sow seeds of doubt . . . hoping to make [someone] question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” On an afternoon like yesterday I have the sense that we have all been gaslighted to believe that our physical, mental, social, political, etc. structures have some kind of substance they do not have.

When I was in college (about 1965), I first talked to a doctor about my derealization experiences. His solution to the problem was simple. If I would stop being a homosexual, the problem would fix itself. You see, simply change my strategy of thinking to fit the norm, and I would be able to function clearly, (and I suppose he would have said) sanely, happily. At the very least without the persistent idea that I could, because I do not exist, walk through walls. Probably not a doctor in America, with the possible exception of Dr. Tom Price, would give me that advice today.

I wonder what my neurologist would say about all of this.

Joy Harjo admonishes us to remember the sky, sun, moon, sundown, our birth, our mother, our father, the earth, plants, animals, wind, all people. The wind. The universe.

Remember the motion growing in you . . . the dance language is, that life is. Perhaps our structures, the language of the dance, is life. I remember, though I’m not certain I ever knew the things I remember.

“Remember,” by Joy Harjo, b. 1951

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is
Remember.

–“Remember.” Copyright ©1983 by Joy Harjo from She Had Some Horses.

***  “It may happen when you first wake up, or while flying on an airplane or driving in your car. Suddenly, inexplicably, something changes. Common objects and familiar situations seem strange, foreign. Like you’ve just arrived on the planet, but don’t know from where. It may pass quickly, or it may linger. You close your eyes and turn inward, but the very thoughts running through your head seem different. The act of thinking itself, the stream of invisible words running through the hollow chamber of your mind, seems strange and unreal. It’s as if you have no self, no ego, no remnant of that inner strength which quietly and automatically enabled you to deal with the world around you, and the world inside you. It may settle over time, into a feeling of “nothingness”, as if you were without emotions, dead. Or the fear of it may blossom into a full-blown panic attack. But when it hits for the first time, you’re convinced that you’re going insane, and wait in a cold sweat to see when and if you finally do go over the edge.”