“. . . the long and lonely lives of castaways thought dead . . .” (Kay Ryan)

jerry tree

Standing in front of the tree I planted at St. Paul Lutheran Church in memory of my late partner. What could be more permanent? The fire station that now stands in its place.

Ok. I should not write when I’m pissed off.

No, really. Pissed off.

It’s personal, not political. I think it’s a kind of pissed off that only someone who is going to have his 71st birthday tomorrow can understand.

It’s the kind of pissed off that can come only from hurt.

That probably means I’m being passive aggressive.

On Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch, TX, held its last Sunday Service of Holy Communion. It was one of the saddest mornings of my life. I had been organist and choir director of the church since November of 1994. That was not the reason for my sadness. I can (and do as substitute) play the organ for about any church any time. I even play the organ in my living room.

The sadness was my knowledge―our knowledge even saying it would not be so―that our little family was dying, that we would never reconstitute ourselves as a community, good as our intentions were and hard as we might try (for a while).

I was 65 years old.

I was still teaching first-year writing at Southern Methodist University. They didn’t ask me to retire for another three years.

When I was 68, both of my most significant “communities” disappeared from my life.

The church community was more important because the raison d’être of a church found in the Gospel According to John is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” From the first Sunday I played at St. Paul until the last, I had no doubt I was loved, and I loved the people. We prayed and played together, and in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us, every member was supported by every other member. The church was family.

SMU, it turned out, was a place of employment. I don’t know if it was my attitude/personality that kept me from feeling “community” there or the nature of that beast. I suspect it was the latter.

If you read my post here yesterday, you are probably a bit skeptical of my understanding of that little church as family. If so, you misunderstood what I said. “. . . in spite of the vast differences of circumstances and personalities among us. . .” I doubt any of my friends there would be surprised to read yesterday’s writing. And if they did, they  would not reject me for it. I know how complex they are as persons, and they know how complex I am.

Even though we hardly ever see each other, I have no doubt that we love each other in that strange and wonderful way that church people can, and at their best, do.

Since the church closed and I was the old man eased out of his teaching job, I have had one small community of friends I know I can count on in the same way I counted on the St. Paul family for love and support. It is an indefinable and motley crew, acquaintances from 12-step groups. They are mostly gay men. Mostly. I love those guys. I’m pretty sure they love me, too, “in that very special way. . .” (go to a 12-step meeting if you don’t know that phrase).

I have a theory. I’ve done some research in scholarly journals (a perk of teaching at SMU for 15 years is lifetime use of the library), but I haven’t found much evidence to support my theory:

most 70-year-olds feel the loss of community as keenly as, perhaps even more than, the loss through death or distance of family of origin ties.

Your church closes. You retire. Friends and lovers move away. More friends die. Your parents die. Your partner dies.

If you happen to be pathologically shy (belying the appearance of your work and activity for the past 50 years) or, to use a term I find ridiculous but true, “socially anorexic,” your options for meeting people decrease in number daily.

For reasons I’ve discussed here too often, I physically dislike crowds―parties and such places where friends meet and new friendships are formed. I don’t dislike the people, simply the noise and the fact that large rooms where parties happen are lighted with deadly fluorescent lights.

That means I have to go looking for community. On a daily basis. With the mental and physical acumen of a 70-year-old who really just wants to be at home or having a quiet evening out with an age-appropriate friend or two. Or walking through the Dallas Museum of Art.

So here’s where being pissed off comes in. Am I pissed off because my communities have collapsed and my friends are scattered all around and I hardly ever see them? Is that because I unconsciously send out vibes of loneliness? Or is it simply that I have too high expectations?

I’m having a birthday party. A big strange event, that is―rather than being all about “me” a benefit for my favorite non-profit, the Aberg Center for Literacy. I did this last year, and my friends showed up and raised $800 for the Center.

From the 45 E-Vites I sent out a month ago (with reminders since), I’ve had 12 responses.

Maybe I’m not so much pissed off as curious, and neither as much as fearful, fearful that my communities have finally forgotten me altogether.

Fearful. Is that what happens to 70-year-old gay men who used to be professors and organists? Or straight women who were financial analysts  for Compass Bank? Or any 70-year-old?

Kay Ryan, one of my favorite poets, who is eight months younger than I, wrote this when she was 65. I think she gets it.

LOSSES

Most losses add something—
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a personal
archipelago of islands.

We have that difference
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of castaways
thought dead but not.

From Kay Ryan. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 2010).

At home alone playing music I used to play for my community.

I’ve been MIA from this blog—for a good reason

Organ at Vang Kirke, Hamar, Norway. That's me at the console.

Organ at Vang Kirke, Hamar, Norway. That’s me at the console.

In 1968 in a small apartment where I lived on Sultana Avenue in Ontario, CA, I met a group of young men who were friends of a friend of mine. Our mutual friend, the late David Westerholm, was an extraordinarily gifted organist, a funny, strange little man whose insights about anything and everything made my thinking (and that of nearly everyone I knew) seem pedestrian and dull. I cherished David in a way I never have cherished any other person. He observed life, and he understood and spoke about what he saw without a filter of standard logic or needless propriety.

David made me (and everyone else) laugh, not at people, places, or things, but because of—through—them. All of life was part of a great cosmic joke, and he thought life was much more fun if one were in on the joke than if one were frightened of it or worried about it. But he was never trivial or mean.  I’m not saying he did not experience his own life and circumstances deeply and with great feeling. Or that he engaged in relationships superficially.

I met David when he was working on his master’s degree in organ at the University of Redlands from which I had graduated the previous year. His friends—classmates and longtime friends of his from Texas Lutheran College, now Texas Lutheran University—came to visit him. I should put a caveat here: this may have happened five years later when David and I were both doctoral students and living together at the University of Iowa. I’m not sure, and I can’t make a phone call at 5 AM to check my memory.

If you’ve read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, you will understand the regard in which I hold David when I say he reminded me of Князь Лев Никола́евич Мы́шкин (Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, the idiot). If you haven’t read The Idiot, don’t jump to conclusions. This is high praise indeed.

Last Thursday I looked for (briefly—about 30 seconds—because I was alone and trying to read the Russian was impossible) Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s grave in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. I was there because Viktor Andersson, one of David’s TLC friends, and I reconnected some years back in Dallas. He is the director of music at Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX. He invited me to go along and do a bit of piano and organ accompanying for a singing tour the Calvary choir made in Scandinavia and St. Petersburg to benefit Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Travel, I had assumed for some time, would be one of the casualties of the retirement penury of my approaching senescence. Were it not for help from more than one quarter—for which I am more grateful than I can say—I would not have been able to make the trip. Viktor is unfortunate that he did not have a musician of David’s caliber to invite—David would not have missed a note or a beat.  Ah, well.

Russian Barbecue at Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Russian Barbecue at Novosaratovka Lutheran Seminary in St. Petersburg.

Our travel was not—in any way I can think of—normal touristry. We were together, twenty-four of us. We were a group of acquaintances at the beginning, and a group at the end of the two weeks. We spent most of our time in places such as Arvika, Sweden, and Eurajoki, Finland, towns I assume most tourists miss—but which are the essence of their cultures. We met and became acquainted with people who live and work in those places. We were treated with care and hospitality more by our new friends than by hotels, travel agents, and restaurants. We saw parts of those countries tourists most likely never see.

Lake Narvi near Eurajoki, Finland, near Rauma where we performed at Holy Cross Church. The church provided a scrumptious dinner for us at their camp by the lake and, for the brave—no, the smart—among us, a sauna experience with a jump in the lake.

The Vang Kirke at Hamar, Norway, ancestral home of one of our group. A private hour where I was thrilled (OK, it’s a trite word, but it’s the right one) to play the organ recently restored by the Schucke company of Germany.

Or St. Catherine Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, where we performed last in our efforts to raise money—for the Seminary and the church. We know a bit about life in Russia today that very few Americans will ever see.

I don’t mean this to be a travelogue or a geopolitical essay or any kind of important reporting. Simply a statement of my personal gratitude that acquaintanceships from my youth can, in fact, mature into friendships that bring joy and satisfaction when I get out of the way and allow my life to unfold. Thank you, Dear David.

Go jump in the lake (Narvi, that is) while Viktor waxes flamboyant

“Is it odd, or is it God?”*

(*A question heard in a twelve-step meeting.)

The Swedish Lutheran poet

The Swedish Lutheran poet

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If you’ve been reading my postings, you know I’m getting ready to hustle off to Oslo (and points east, ending in St. Petersburg) with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I’m going as accompanist (mostly organ, some piano), not as a singer. After 15 years of smoking—I quit in 1979—and 20 or so years of drinking way too much (mostly vodka, 90-proof)—I stopped in 1986—and now not seriously singing for many years, I make pretty awful sounds when I try to sing outside a range of about five notes.

At times during our performances I will be expected to play organ music. This may sound a bit over-the-top sentimental (it is not), but when we are in Sweden, we will be prepared to sing a hymn known to all Lutherans in the United States and presumably in Sweden, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the words by Lina Sandell, and the tune a Swedish folk tune arranged by Os­kar Ahn­felt. The English translation of the first stanza is

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given
.

The Swedish original is

Tryggare kan ingen vara,
Än Guds lilla barnaskara,
Stjärnan ej på himlafästet,
Fågeln ej i kända nästet
.

Viktor Anderson, the director of the Calvary Lutheran choir, and I decided I should play a chorale prelude on the tune before the choir sings it—and we invite the audiences in Sweden to sing along. We decided that because I told him I have in my repertory a lovely organ setting of the tune.

Thinking about the hymn, I had in my mind’s ear the beginning of that chorale prelude (a chorale prelude is an arrangement of hymn tune as a solo work, usually for organ). As a matter of fact, with my vodka-tenor croaky voice in private, I could sing through the first section of the prelude. I knew I was not making it up.

The American composer

The American composer

When I got out the score of the collection of pieces I thought it was from, I was (mildly) horrified to discover it was not there. I could not for the life of me remember the composer or where the piece might be filed in my apartment. I fretted over the dilemma for three or four days, not wanting to tell Viktor I had imagined the music.

The last few days, I have been in a divestiture mode—that is, sorting and pitching stuff from my computer room which has essentially become my attic. Several boxes of stuff have been there since 2004 when I hurriedly moved in.  Sorting one of those boxes of (mainly) old photographs, I was pitching all that were of scenery I had forgotten or of people I did not recognize. I came to the last layer in the box, having thrown away most of its contents, and on the bottom was a single volume of organ music.

It is a collection of chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, for many years the organist of the Billy Graham campaigns whose work as musicologist and theorist of Evangelical worship is of the highest importance. The third of the preludes in the collection is the setting of “Children of the Heavenly Father” I had been singing to myself for a week.

The volume has performance markings from my high school organ teacher. I learned it in 1962. I am not sure I’ve ever played it since then.

Yesterday afternoon I was depressed. If you have to ask about what, you obviously don’t understand depression. I was about to indulge myself doing something that would have made me feel worse. My phone rang. It was a friend who had just received from an academic journal a rejection letter for an article he had submitted. He was having trouble working through his disappointment, so he called me. Our conversation helped him decide what to do that would be constructive rather than giving in to some indulgent behavior to mask his hurt. When we ended our conversation, I went to the organ and practiced for two hours—the one thing that will always lessen, if not lift completely, my depression. I know that absolutely, but when I’m depressed, I forget.

Some of my best friends would say these things are “God deals.” That is, God arranged them. If I believed in God, I’d be surprised if God didn’t have better things to do than serendipitously show me where an old piece of music is hiding, or prompt a friend to call me to find some solace for exactly what I need to talk to him—or someone—about.

But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

The heavenly father?

The heavenly father?