“. . . When that which drew from out the boundless deep . . .” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

Sunrise at Port Orford, July 15, 2011

My first lessons in literature came from playing the card game, “Authors” as a child. I grew up knowing the names Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and more.

In about 7th grade I decided to read something by each of them. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island—wonderful! But some of them I could not wade through. I didn’t understand anything by Sir Walter Scott. His language was, simply put, incomprehensible.

Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung,
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O Minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
(The Lady of the Lake.)

Show me a 7th-grader who can understand that, and I’ll show you one weird little boy. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, on the other hand, seemed like a Saturday-morning Roy Rogers movie at the Bluff Theater.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them . . .

When I was in 10th grade, I made a great literary discovery.

I had my first permanent paying church organist gig at Trinity Baptist Church in South Omaha. They didn’t use the American Baptist hymnal I was used to, but one of lesser quality, according to my dad and the organist at the First Baptist Church whom I was able, out of my organ-playing income, to pay for lessons (for which I am most grateful). The Service Hymnal, 1960—here on my shelf, embossed “Trinity Baptist Church, South Omaha, Nebraska.”

At number 468 I discovered one of the poems from “Authors” — “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). The music is by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), the through-composed rather than strophic tune composed specifically for this poem—words and music a marriage made in Victorian heaven.

I tried to get Trinity’s Pastor Weigel to schedule it for singing in the Sunday service, but he said since it didn’t mention God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, it was not appropriate. I tried to argue that the “Pilot” in the last stanza means Jesus to no avail.

“Crossing the bar” is one of the few poems I memorized as a kid that remains even partly in my memory. Others include such gems as, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” We were not into Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in Western Nebraska. I remember the Tennyson poem because I was mesmerized by that tune. My taste in both poetry and music has (perhaps) matured over the years.

Yesterday I was looking through pics on an external hard drive. Ocean scenes from Port Orford, Oregon, my favorite hideaway. I’ve written about Port Orford more than once and posted pics of the place here (in my previous post, for example).

Going through the hard drive led me to look up some of that writing about Port Orford. I recognize a subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 when I took the photos.

I must have 100 shots of sunsets and sunrises taken from the beaches at Port Orford. I remember taking the pictures because I was fascinated by differences in the appearance of the morning sky and of the evening sky. A couple of years before that in 2009 I wrote a piece about being on those same beaches.

[I] felt the hardened molecules under my feet and the molecules of and suspended in water. And out to the horizon, shrouded in fog. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with every other undulation of H2O, Ca, Mg, Na on the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass that seemed to my mind to be an enormity, but is in reality a speck in the eye of the universe. All one, including . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. And I was the focal point of the entire experience and at the same time unconditionally insignificant standing as an elemental part of the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep. . . I weep . . . for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

A tad overblown, but in that writing six years ago, I found it necessary to nod in the direction of a belief that “God” or some other creative force was in charge of all of this. I was willing—no, anxious—to allow for the “hope to see my Pilot face to face” when I cross the bar (“a long ridge of sand . . . at the mouth of a river . . . an obstruction to navigation”).

Wonder wher the guy is--the only other person on the beach--who took my pic?

Wonder where the guy is–the only other person on the beach–who took my pic?

The subtle but unmistakable change in my thinking since 2011 is that I no longer need to comfort myself thinking I will see the Pilot face to face when I cross the bar (I love the metaphor of death as “crossing” –and I don’t mean it as the nonsensical popular “transitioning”).

I am agnostic about whether or not my life will continue in some form after I die. I think not, most days. But I’m beginning to understand it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, perhaps—and I don’t want to sound like a preacher or a guru or other sort of spiritual (or any other kind of) authority, sheesh!—figuring out in the few years I have left how to live simply as “a part of the reality” (to quote myself) is enough.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

“Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

The musical setting by Joseph Barnby.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

Sunset, July 12, 2011. Paradise Point, Oregon.

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“. . . and wild and sweet the words repeat. . . “

No one hungry here

No one hungry here

Christmas comes every year and I think about two of the most common human experiences that will most likely never be mine. The first is being so certain of my religion or my political ideas or my tribal allegiance that I am willing to do anything to defend one or the other by any means necessary. The other is being so poor that I do not know which will come first, a meal or death by starvation.

I know lots of people who have the first experience of certainty. I have never, to my knowledge, met anyone who has experienced the second. My guess is no one who is intimately acquainted with religious, political, or tribal certainty knows anyone who is in danger of starving to death.

It stands to reason. One could not know without doubt that they understand whatever their religion teaches, or that the organization of their society is absolutely the best, or that their clan is the best, strongest, and brightest without being part of a community of knowers. You couldn’t figure those things on your own.

And if you are part of a community that knows these things absolutely, you would never starve to death unless the whole community were in danger of starvation. Some priest or official or cousin would take care of you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I wouldn’t make my sloppy unprofessional videos of my candles and my Christmas balls with music in the background if I didn’t. I bought my sister’s present in June because I saw it and knew she’d love it. I’m getting on a plane in about three hours to fly to Baton Rouge to spend the holiday with my brother and sister-in-law. And twice I’ve bought a package of over-decorated, empty-caloried sugar cookies at Kroger and eaten the whole package overnight when I don’t even like sugar cookies.

But the whole business makes me terribly uneasy because I don’t believe any of it—any of the “reason for the season,” that is. If

He heard the bells on Christmas Day

He heard the bells on Christmas Day

Jesus really is the King or whatever he’s supposed to be, then he has fallen down on the job. Especially if he’s the Prince of Peace or the Hope of the Poor, or any of those things. His followers are the people most likely in this country to support what we know as Apartheid in a country half-way around the world, the only one left in the world with that system of government. His followers are the most likely people I know who want to expel kids from this country who have never lived anywhere else just because they’re not part of our clan and happened to be with their parents when they crossed the border between our country and another.

Oh, I forgot, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, who say they have no religion, believe all those things about certain people, too.

I guess it’s not only the people who are absolutely sure about their religion who are likely to have those ideas about politics and family.

OK. So you can stop reading. You know where I’m headed. This sounds ever-so-much like the typical I-Hate-Christians sophomoric blah-blah-blah that people who read the Bible and say “See! Look here! It’s not true, it all contradicts itself, it’s all based on magic, blah-blah-blah” drag out all the time, but mostly at Christmas.

I don’t really mind if you or anyone you know is so certain of their religion they’d be willing to, for instance, start a war in Iraq over it. I guess more than anything I’m jealous. I miss that Santa Claus god I used to pray to religiously (pun intended). He was a pretty nice guy, looking out for me and mine all the time. I never got all the fine points of how one is supposed to believe and act towards him, but I was learning.

No, anyone’s belief is their business (even if they hate me because I’m a faggot and do unnatural things that the Santa Claus god says I shouldn’t do).

But here’s what gets me (and I’m not picking on the Baptists—they just happen to have set themselves up for ridicule in Dallas) is things like spending $135 million on a really fancy and world-class church building and then blaring music so loud no one can stand it—to keep the homeless people (who are probably hungry) from sitting in protected areas around the building out of the rain. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such insipid music—dew-wop Jesus music, as my late friend Anne Gervasi would have said.

But don’t get all smug, you atheists and Methodists, and Muslims, and Hindus We have our own place. The Dallas Public Library does the same thing. At least we have taste at our building. The music is likely to be opera. Nothing worse than hearing Aida singing about her one true love when you’re dirty and hungry.

So I guess I’m going to go to my grave (well, perhaps not if John Boehner and Ted Cruz cut Social Security) without ever experiencing those two things, certainty that I know God (and, more important, he knows me back) and certainty that I’m hungry and likely to stay so.

Funny about Christmas in this country. We’ve made it a celebration out of both.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow thought sort of the same thing, I think.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”