“. . . 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.

sum link for other blog

“. . . memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed. . . “ (Siân E. Lindley)

My first organ memories - Baldwin Model 5

. My first organ memories – Baldwin Model 5

.

.

.

.

If Siân E. Lindley has done her research correctly, and if scientific inquiry (in the United States this is always a matter of debate) can be trusted,

. . . we can surmise that memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed (and co-constructed with others); a life story is interpreted and retrospectively reinterpreted; and narrative truth and belief, rather than objective truth, is bound up with identity. (Lindley, Siân E. “Before I Forget: From Personal Memory To Family History.” Human-Computer Interaction 27.1/2 (2012): 13-36.)

Lindley is a professional researcher; therefore, her conclusions are suspect to Americans. She is

a social scientist with an interest in how technology can be designed to fit, and how it is shaped by, the social context in which it is used (Lindley, “Before”).

Nevertheless (in spite of, not because of, her scientific methods) I find what she says fascinating. We don’t retrieve our memories, we form them so we can retrospectively interpret them to ourselves and to others. Wow! My memory of playing the piano for a wedding for the first time is what I form it to be, not the details of what happened. (If I remembered every detail, it would take as long as the wedding did—I don’t have time.)

I remember distinctly, hauntingly so, a meeting of a graduate seminar studying the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (about 20 years ago). The half-dozen or so of us were seated at a table in a small classroom in the Jonsson Building at the University of Texas at Dallas. The professor (whose name I do not remember) was tall—6’ 3” or something—muscular, swarthy, black-haired, handsome (it’s part of my narrative that I remember what he looked like but not his name). The students in the seminar were mostly graduate assistants teaching in the freshman rhetoric program.

One of my friends said something about the “epistemological” something or the other of the story we were studying, and I knew—precisely at that moment—what I had been thinking for quite a while, that I did not belong in that graduate program. I had been trying to figure out what they meant by “epistemological” for some time—it’s a favorite word among scholars—with no success. “Epistemology” means, according to dictionary.com, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I wouldn’t use “epistemology” in a sentence for any reason.

I would, however, show you the short stories of Hemingway that seem to have gay themes. My paper on the subject earned a B from the handsome professor, not because it was poorly written, but because he didn’t like the subject or agree with me.

For quite a while, my reconstruction, my re-interpretation of that memory was that I’m just not very smart. That is true, of course. But not knowing what “epistemology” means is not what proves that. Not being able to explain why people who irrationally hate President Obama ought to be ashamed of themselves—that’s evidence that I’m not very smart.

Or not being able to sort the flatware in my silverware drawer.

Or not being able to figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my router so I can watch Netflix movies on the big screen instead of on this computer, which I hate.

The first First Baptist Church

The first First Baptist Church

So what do I remember about playing the piano for a wedding for the first time?

In the far southeastern area our town in Western Nebraska in the 1950s was a small church known as La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (I think that’s right—my memory may not be reconstructing that correctly). It was a small but not tiny frame church structure, and Pastor Raymundo was the pastor. He had a wife and one son, Sammy. Our family shared dinner with the Raymundos quite regularly, and—more fun—we went to events at the church, most of which were followed by dinners of Mexican food made by the women of the church.

Sorry, all of you Texans. You don’t know what real Mexican cooking is.

During the summer, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana had overflow crowds on Sundays. This was at the height (I think, although I should look it up) of the brasero program, and Mexican workers came to work the sugar beet fields and create the economy of our county.

The Mexican Baptist Church has now—I believe (you’d think I’d do some research and know these things for sure)—joined with the First Baptist Church. The membership is constant because all of the Mexican-Americans are permanent residents, probably citizens.

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

My organ teacher gave me a book of organ pieces to learn that included both the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Wedding March and the Wagner “Here comes the bride.” I learned to play them (I was in about 6th or 7th grade) just in case someone would want me to play for their wedding.

A young couple from La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were getting married, and they wanted the American traditional music instead of the music their church generally used. My father suggested I could play the two wedding marches. My first wedding gig.

I don’t know if the couple or their families were Braseros or American citizens or illegal immigrants. We didn’t ask questions like that—at least we middle schoolers didn’t. The adults may have been concerned with such things, but they did not include us in their conversations if they did.

We just went to their church, and they came to ours, and we got to share in glorious (real) Mexican dinners, and Sammy Raymundo and I were buddies, and things were just fine.

I don’t know what happened.

The epistemology about the nature of the immigration crisis in this country may have to do simply with our collective memory. Somehow we’ve come to the point where our narrative, our reconstruction of the meaning of immigration has gotten really fucked up.

I wonder where Sammy Raymundo is.

The Last Lecture in Highland Park

Joseph-Campbell-Quotes-1

May, 5, 2014
Southern Methodist University
MY LAST LECTURE
to the students in Discovery and Discourse 1313, Sections 27, 28, 29, and 30
Harold A. Knight, PhD

The academic year 1963-1964, was momentous in a way that few others have been since. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated here in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Less than three months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, their first live appearance in the United States.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy changed American politics forever, and the arrival of the Beatles changed American music—both popular and classical–forever. But my intention is not to talk about music or politics.

That academic year was also momentous because it was my first year in college. I left home late in August, boarding a bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and riding three days to San Bernardino, California, where a station wagon (not an SUV!!!) from the University of Redlands was waiting to take me the twenty miles to Redlands.

I had been to California once on a family vacation in 1953, but I had never been to Redlands.

That back story is necessary for me to make sense of what I want to tell you. My choice of the University of Redlands was virtually the roll of the dice. I had been accepted other places, but my senior English teacher told me that I needed to go to Redlands because it was the farthest from Omaha.

Until that time, I had planned to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I was guaranteed a full tuition scholarship because of my scores on statewide exams. I was going to major in English and concentrate in creative writing. I planned to take organ lessons on the side to progress in my favorite hobby.

But here’s what really happened. When I registered to take organ lessons at the University Of Redlands School Of Music, I had to audition to be assigned a teacher. I played the G major “Gigue” fugue by Bach from memory. Immediately the Chairman of the School of Music and head of the organ department offered me a scholarship to make up the difference between what I had already been given and full tuition if I would be an organ performance major. My ego could not refuse. And so I became a music major instead of a creative writing major.

What bliss to play the organ here.

University of Redlands Chapel: What bliss to play the organ here.

It might seem that I let others, authority figures, make important decisions for me. I don’t think I did so any more than 18-year-olds generally do. In 1963 I had no driving passion. I did not know—in terms I later learned from the great teacher of spirituality, Joseph Campbell—what my “bliss” was, much less how to follow it. By “bliss” Campbell meant that which fills one with joy and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.

I want to read Joseph Campbell’s admonition.

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

For much of my life I have not followed my bliss.

I have not followed a straight-forward path. My life has been mostly a great series of detours. In that academic year 1963-1964 I think it is fair to say I had no concept of a trajectory for my life. I had no idea what I wanted to be if I ever grew up.

I still don’t.

I do not regret any of the decisions I have made that led me to the place where I am now. I do—even though Charles Schwab says I should not—ask myself, “How did I get here?”

We all have to figure out how certain personal idiosyncrasies affect our decisions and our lives. Now is not the time to talk about mine, except to say that I’ve done pretty well considering some difficulties I’ve had to overcome—all centered in my brain. The particular demons of my life are Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. That’s all I will say about that except that discovering and naming them so I could deal with them took too much of my energy until I was forty years old. In some ways I allowed them to keep me from discovering my bliss so I could follow it.

When I was twenty-nine years old, I finally made the decision to try to fulfill the promise of my undergraduate education and earn a PhD in Organ Literature at the University of Iowa. That meant quitting a well-paying but tedious job that I hated–how I hated it!–selling my house in Upland, California, and moving with my (late ex-) wife halfway across the country.

Shortly after I made the decision, I had a conversation with an uncle in which we talked about my pending move.
He asked me, “Do you mean you think you have the right to give up everything and move to Iowa so you can make a living doing what you want to do?” He had been stuck in a high-powered, enormously lucrative job that he hated his entire life and could not imagine chucking everything to follow what I thought at the time was my bliss.

I thought I could, and I did.

The convoluted story by which I ended up teaching First-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas is too boring to tell here, except to say that it involved a seventeen-year sojourn in Boston—for which I am grateful—a story which began by my thinking that having found HIM, and I would be happy divorcing my wife and moving the rest of the way across the country to live with him.

It was neither the first nor the last time I made a life-changing decision based on my confusing fun, momentary happiness, and self-centeredness for my BLISS. My move to Dallas to be with my partner (not the HIM of my first move) was fortunately a rational decision that set me on a path much more likely to help me follow my bliss. I came to Dallas in 1994 both to be with my partner and to work on another PhD, this one finally in creative writing. I discovered after passing the comprehensive exams that I did not need a second PhD, but that work enabled my being hired to teach English at SMU.

When I moved to Dallas, I also found a position as music director at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch.

My partner died in 2004—five years after I began teaching at SMU. St. Paul Lutheran closed in 2010.

Today marks the end of my formal teaching career. My 3 PM class today will be my last at SMU.

I’m giving this lecture for a couple of reasons. The first is purely selfish. I believe that changes like the one I am making today need to be marked, to be celebrated, definitively. I need to put a period on this chapter of my life.
That’s not quite as self-centered as it may seem.

The second reason is to say something to you that you probably can’t really hear today, but that you may remember sometime along the path and know that you are not alone on that path.

Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.
Find your bliss if it takes fifty years.

I’m sure that for most of you, finding your bliss means making piles of money, or being famous, or both. Making piles of money is not a bad thing, but it cannot be your bliss. Your bliss has to be something that goes on in your head, and in the life of your emotions.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.
Period.

I love Alice Walton—you know, owner with her siblings of Walmart. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the eighth richest person in America, worth $33.5 billion. She’s taken a few millions of her dollars and created the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, a truly wondrous place with a breathtaking collection of American art—free and open to the public. And you can take pictures of the art—unlike all other museums.

But the most famous photograph of Alice is the mug shot taken one of the times she was arrested for drunk driving in Ft. Worth. I think I can say—being a drunk in recovery myself—with some authority that I doubt her billions have insured that she’s following her bliss.

Money, even billions of dollars, cannot be your bliss.

Poetry might be a good bliss to follow.
Or the symphonies of Mozart.
Or the music of the Beatles.
Or the eternal attempt to answer once for all whether or not JFFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
Or building a robot that will give the blind their sight.
Or singing in the opera Fidelio.
Or finding the “God particle.”
Or living passionately with the love of your life for fifty years.
My bliss is partly reading weird stuff about strange subjects such as ORLAN, the role of American fundamentalist Christians in the shaping of the absurd US policy toward Israel and Palestine, or Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.
My bliss is playing the organ. (I have a pipe organ in my living room).
My bliss is trying to help college students discover something they might never have known if I hadn’t helped them along the way.

And that brings me to my real bliss.

My bliss is loving other people. I don’t know how to show it most of the time. I’ve really botched most of my relationships. I haven’t had a primary relationship for ten years—whatever that says. But in two weeks I’m going to have a retirement party, and thirty people will be there, most of whom will know only five or so of the others. And they are all people I love. Christians, Muslims, atheists. Intellectuals, scholars, plumbers, office administrators. Old people, young people.

You can do much worse than making your bliss simply trying to feel and think positively about everyone you meet. And being kind. Always being kind.

My long-distance cyber friend, the poet Michael Blumenthal, wrote a poem which I’m going to pass out to you when I finish. It’s called simply, “Be Kind.” Here’s a bit of it.

Abe and Me

Abe and Me

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense. . . why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail?
. . . in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled. . .

By following my bliss I have learned something about poetry, and I know you have to know what a hedgehog is to understand this poem. Hedgehogs are furry little mammals who, when they are threatened, roll themselves up into little balls, and their fur becomes almost as prickly as a porcupine.

You will not find your bliss by rolling yourself into a ball and hurting anyone who tries to come too close.

Do you want to know why I love the work of Flannery O’Connor and ORLAN so much? O’Connor wrote stories about what happens when people become hedgehogs—or, conversely, when they refuse to become hedgehogs or learn not to be.

ORLAN has lived her life doing things that no sane person would do, we think. But she is the farthest thing from a hedgehog. She’s out there on the edge showing us how to be both narcissistic and totally transparent at the same time.

As all of you know, Don Siegel warned us, talking about his wonderfully bizarre little film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,

People are pods. . . They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you. . . of course, there’s a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in.

It’s easy to be judgmental. Donald Stirling is a pod. Alice Walton is a pod.
Oh, come on. We all have the potential to be pods.
Just don’t.
Find your bliss.

That’s the best I can do—quote someone else. But I have only a few years left to find my bliss. I’m still trying to make sure, as Joseph Campbell said, that “the life [I] ought to be living is the one [I am] living.” If I can be on that path in my 70th year, I beg you to start now.

You’ve got only 50 years left to find your bliss.

“Be Kind,” by Michael Blumenthal
Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squiggles to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

“. . . to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things. . .” (Susan Howe)

My sister's art moves into my mind

Bonnie Knight Sato, 2014. My sister’s art moves into my mind

The poetry of Susan Howe is as mysterious and as obvious as any language art can be. I get it completely at the same time I have no understanding of it at all.

I suppose my intellectual life would be more satisfying and complete if I had studied the great movements in art of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Structuralism. Post-structuralism. The imagists, the objectivists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation. I don’t know. I am ignorant of the parameters of these styles or “schools,” and a great deal of 20th –century poetry I simply can’t comprehend.

An example of the writing about this mysterious writing that is even more mysterious than the writing itself is a critique of a couple of books about Howe’s work, and of one of Susan Howe’s own books available online.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer (Cunningham, John Herbert. “Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe.” Rain Taxi. Spring 2011. Web.)

That’s the easiest to comprehend paragraph in the critique—if you don’t already know how critics have pigeon-holed Howe’s poetry. Or, perhaps, simply the most interesting.

I don’t want to read those books about Susan Howe. What a bore. On the other hand, I might be able to arrive at some understanding of her work if I did.

Or perhaps her work is somehow “prediscursive” (a word from an article about ORLAN I had my students read). Can poetry exist before the possibility of talking about it or the ideas it represents? Of course. So, as far as I am concerned, Howe’s poetry is “prediscursive.”
Bonnie 3 blog left

I found that online critique of critiques of Howe because I came across her poem “That This” (or rather the first of five poems with that title). It’s somehow about music. Don’t ask me.

But I love the way the words go together. The poem has the lines

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery.

Mysterious. But lovely. Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy? You’ll think I’m joking when I say it gives me goosebumps. I’ve read it aloud probably ten times since I began writing this little attempt to say something.

I’d give anything to be able to put together nine words like that—I wouldn’t care what they meant.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I was five when she was born, and I remember the family excitement and activities around her birth. She and I are close in a way that only a brother and sister can be. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, perhaps, but she is, in a way that I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone, my best friend.

Are my birthday wishes for my sister connected in any way to Howe’s poetry? Well, yes. The question, “Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy?” is an exact metaphor (in my mind—I have no idea what Howe means by it) for the question I ask about the love of siblings. Is light anything like the stray commonplace pleasure of a life of in-jokes no one else understands, of a life of caring for and about each other in a way one does about no one else, of bearing one another’s burdens even when separated for decades by thousands of miles, of knowing pretty much without thinking how any given thought, idea, or creation will affect the other? No, light is not “like” those things. It is those things.

So I’m off into some space where no one can follow me, I’m sure. Even my sister will scratch her head and say to herself, “What is he talking about?” It’s prediscursive. It’s before conversation. Some things are best not “understood.” Simply known.

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

I’m glad Susan Howe will never see what I have done to corrupt her meaning. But one mind (my mind, my sister’s mind, your mind, any mind?) moves into another mind without our knowledge, our minds move among trees in moonlight or gardens in the daylight, or anywhere we might be. We come together without knowing ourselves how it happens. And this easing of distance is the spiritual reality of our lives.

My sister’s spiritual reality has recently moved into painting. You don’t have to know my sister to see the beauty in her work. But it simply moves into my mind. My enjoyment of it is prediscursive. I don’t need to–I can’t explain it.

There, you see, I can write a critique of Susan Howe’s poetry. And in the process, odd and incomprehensible as it seems, wish my sister a Happy Birthday.

“That This,” by Susan Howe      

Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

A secular arietta variation
Grass angels perish in this

harmonic collision because
non-being cannot be ‘this’

Not spirit not space finite
Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone as such
Quiet which side on which—

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

“Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached” (John Herbert Cunningham).

“. . . it is not poised on the tip of your tongue . . . “

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

Lethe, the River of Forgetting

These days I have some informal rules for reading poetry. The second is, if a poem is more than 30 lines long, I don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. The third is, if it’s about war or poverty any other political/social issue, I’m not interested.

The first is most important. If the poem is about being old or getting old, and the poet wasn’t at least 60 when she wrote it, I’m not only not interested, I am actively disdainful.

What does anyone in her 30s, or even her 50s, know about getting or being old?

Today is the Ninth Day of Christmas. If all things work out as usual, tomorrow will be the Tenth. Today the Roman Catholic Calendar, commemorates Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. Tomorrow is but a “Christmas Weekday.” In the Common (Protestant) Lectionary, neither day is a special commemoration.

Ten years ago I was not in the process of getting old. I was the same flaky, discombobulated absent-minded professor I am today. I had lived in this apartment for two days (I moved here hastily, helped by a troupe of friends because my partner died in November, and the lease on our huge apartment ended on December 31). Some boxes deposited in this room that day are still here, never opened or sorted. That’s not because I’m getting old. When my late ex-wife and I bought a house in California in 1970, we left boxes unopened that were still unopened when we moved them to Iowa City in 1975.

So I’ll give myself leave to say that absent-mindedness preceded both professorship and aging.

The importance of the progression of days on the Church Calendar is unimaginable, I should think, to anyone under 60—especially to someone who has detached himself from almost all conscious acceptance of the beliefs of the church. But it’s in my DNA, and it’s helpful. It’s a kind of remembering that I do not have to accomplish by myself.

It’s a convenient way in my absent-mindedness to remember that tomorrow, January 3, is my birth date. The church has commemorations for most of the days in Christmas. But they have conveniently left open my birth date as simply, “Christmas Weekday.” No dead Christian will compete for attention. Easy to remember.

Billy who understands

Billy who understands

Billy Collins is a poet to whose works I return often these days. He was born in Brooklyn. We have little in common except we both have degrees from California universities. He is four years older than I.

He writes poetry in a kind of non-fancy, straight-forward language I imagine a Nebraska rancher would use should he turn poet. He writes poetry in style and content resembling what I would write if I were a genius instead of a minimally competent wordsmith.

What a 35-year-old or a 55-year-old cannot understand about aging is the new kind of loneliness that comes with being on the cusp of turning 69.

Even if one is surrounded by close friends (which, let’s face it, almost no one is), or one has a spouse, lover, partner—whatever name one might give such a person—what the 68-going-on-69-year-old faces is the preparation for absolute aloneness at the moment of death.

This is not—I repeat, not—depressing or sad. I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll die soon. I’m not suicidal or a danger to myself or others because I’m writing this, which presupposes my thinking about it. It’s merely a fact. And we have structured an entire society and culture based on avoiding facts wherever and whenever possible. Think about the fighting (not discussing, hardly even arguing) over healthcare—especially end-of-life care. Or, even more unthinkable, think about burying a member of your family yourself without a licensed funeral director. How real would that make death?

We do not want—under any circumstances—to deal with, to think about, to share our feelings regarding, the fact of our death. Or even the impossible task of growing old.

Unless you are 69 or thereabouts, you do not want to think about the FACT that

 . . .  one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones
.

(Collins, Billy. “Forgetfulness.” Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. Random House: 2002. Notice, Collins was 61 when he wrote this poem.)

And when those memories disappear one is left “holding the bag,” In this case, one of the original meanings of the phrase, a bagful of worthless stocks. All the valuable shares have been sold off, and only the worthless ones remain. Penny stocks that used to be blue chips. I can mix metaphors with the worst of them. Thank goodness, Billy Collins mixes with the best of them. When one has forgotten enough, one is well on her “own way to oblivion where [she] will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.”

Forgotten everything useful.

Forgetting, by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
nver even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

I have a vague Idea what I’m trying to remember. It’s the sense of belonging I used to have. I can’t quite put it into words. Belonging to a community. Belonging to a group of like-minded friends. Belonging to a loving, supportive relationship. That’s what one must ultimately forget.

Uncomfortable—grievous—as it may seem, it’s necessary to forget. If one did not forget, one could not—would not be willing to—gather oneself to oneself and begin to understand this new kind of unavoidable solitude, to get ready for this “oblivion” where we’ve even forgotten how to ride a bike. Forgetting, at least in some “cosmic” sense, is not a bad thing. It’s ultimately necessary.

Some of my family, not forgotten

Some of my family, not forgotten

“. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .”

"pop" goes the drag show!

“pop” goes the drag show!

Imagine this (bet you can’t). Approaching midnight, December 31, 1958 (or -7 or -9). A half dozen middle-aged Baptist Republican men in Western Nebraska wearing “work casual” clothes (dress slacks, long sleeve shirts—it’s cold in Nebraska on New Year’s Eve), dress shoes (the only kind they had), a couple of them with neckties. Sitting in a circle, some crossing their legs in that “womanly” way (as if wearing a tight skirt), a couple of them wearing fashionable ladies’ hats, all of them wearing “pop beads” and earrings, one of them in high heels.

The YMCA community all-purpose room (down on the last street before the river—where it still is). Probably sixty people in the audience, and the men reading from a script pretending to be their wives.

How do I remember this so clearly? My first drag show, of course.

Except these men were not bending genders. They were definitely having a good joke at the expense of their wives.

The Baptist celebration of Christmas in Western Nebraska in the ‘50s was a fairly low-key proposition—at least for the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff. We apparently had no Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services (unless those days fell on Sunday) because our family was free to run off to Kansas City to spend Christmas with grandparents (both maternal and paternal) and aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I have a store of memories (both happy and unhappy) we otherwise would have missed. We knew our extended family largely because of Christmas. My Texas cousins and I have a history going back to our grandparents’ home in Kansas City more than sixty years ago. Their parents and mine, besides the fact that their mother and our father were siblings, had more in common than my parents had with perhaps anyone else. Both our fathers were Baptist pastors, for starters. I have written many times of the influence my Aunt Doris hadon my musical life.

Drag, anyone?

Drag, anyone?

It seems to me the celebration of New Year’s Eve was in some ways more important to the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff than Christmas was. I remember a couple of “Christmas Cantatas” the choir sang—but on the Sunday before Christmas. I also remember the year my father was roundly criticized for his Sunday-before-Christmas sermon on the Magnificat because it was too close to Catholic Mariolatry (never mind that it was a straight-forward exegesis of Luke 1:46-55).

By New Year’s Eve everyone in the Baptist church was home from the holidays with their families, and shopping was over, and we kids were about to go back to school. I remember the New Year’s celebrations, probably because it was the only night of the year we were allowed to stay up until midnight (which became less of a struggle as the years went on).

Besides the seminal event (as in “having possibilities of future development” –not a bad pun) of the drag show, I have a more significant memory of those New Year’s celebrations. They were called “Watch Night” parties and usually ended with a communion service at midnight. We always sang the Lowell Mason hymn tune “Watchman,” with John Bowring’s words, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” Always on New Year’s Eve.

Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872) was the “father of American public school music,” appointed music superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in 1838, the first such appointment in the country. He was a composer of great repute until the sophistication of American music in the 20th century pushed aside music in his style. The premier setting of this Mason tune is the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony. (Mason was, not coincidentally, a great friend and professional partner with Henry Kemble Oliver, who also taught public school music, and is the subject of my PhD dissertation.)

How a real man sits

How a real man sits

As might be expected, I came to associate Bowring’s words with Advent as I grew into the tradition of the “liturgical” churches. But, as with much of the music I [we] know, I [we] have important associations with the time and place we first heard it.

Indeed. Watchman. Tell us. Tell us the signs of promise. Strange to think how much of my life was prefigured in that one New Year’s Eve celebration. Or was it Advent and I didn’t know? Even though the specific beliefs expressed in the hymn have become foreign to me, I understand the hope that morning seems to dawn and that doubt and terror will be withdrawn.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

“So as not to be the martyred slaves of time. . . “

howtheuniverseworks_artheadA funny story.

Twenty-ish years ago my psychiatrist in the Neurology Department of Harvard University Medical School decided he and several patients could benefit from a seminar on ending procrastination. One of those “life-changing” seminars such as play interminably on PBS during pledge campaigns. The psychiatrist intended to make reservations. Finally at about 5 PM the day before the seminar, he called and apologized for waiting until the last minute and asked if they had room for three or four more participants.

The woman in charge of reservations, he told me later, laughed and said, “Of course we do. We have almost no reservations. This IS a seminar in procrastination, after all.” Of course.

I forgot to go.

My psychiatrist’s patients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients . . .

[If you read my blog, you’re tired of hearing about it. But, please, my writing yesterday was the beginning of writing about the gift I now understand TLE to be.]

. . .  which I have known at some level, since Dr. Donald Schomer gave me a name for it, is more a blessing than a curse.

I love “How the Universe Works” on the Discovery Chanel. 16,000,000,000 years ago. Physicists talk about quantum physics or parallel universes, ideas that boggle the mind. The Swiss Institute for Particle Physics and its atom-smashing machine. But my understanding of creation is stuck at laughing at Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”

But there’s something about thinking about time. Is time real? How do we know we’re not going backwards? Or that everything in the universe is happening at once in a zillionth of a second and it will be over before you read the next word?

TLEptics experience dissociation on a grand scale. Lasting for days. Weeks. We also have astonishing déjà vu experiences. I’ve lived entire days over in a second or two. And no one else has a clue what’s going on unless the TLEptic tells them. Most of us never do because it would seem we were frankly crazy.

Perhaps we were (are).

Or perhaps we have momentary flashes of experience of the passage of time the rest of you don’t get to have. What does it mean to

First Methodist Church, Omaha

First Methodist Church, Omaha

live a day again in a second? My neurologist says he can touch a certain place in my temporal lobe with an electrode (assuming I let him poke a hole in my skull) and give me as long a déjà vu experience as I want.

So what is time? Experience stored physically in the brain? And what time is it now? Who knows?

When I was in high school (we say “when” as if we are measuring “time” and some has passed since the experience we’re talking about—perhaps it hasn’t happened yet and I’m imagining it’s going to happen, or perhaps everything we know is happening all at once), I was a darling of the little old ladies (mostly younger than I am now), members of the American Guild of Organists in Omaha, NE.

The Guild met monthly at yet another church with some organist playing to show the capabilities of the organ. After a meeting at the First Methodist Church, I found a copy of J.S Bach’s The Little Organ Book on the organ bench. I brashly sat at the organ and played number 45, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig!

Ah how fleeting,
ah how insubstantial is man’s life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life: see!

I played the little piece to the oohs-and-ahs! of the little old ladies. I’ve played it countless times [“times”] since, mostly at funerals with those congregations totally unaware of the appropriateness of the music.

A student in one of my classes would, by this point in her essay, have a comment from me to the effect, “What’s your point?” I would point out to her that she had not begun with a clear thesis, so her writing seems to have no point. So I’ll create a thesis right now [“now”]—or tell you what my point has been all along although you’d never guess it.

The passage of time may be a figment of our collective imagination. We have clocks, both analog and digital, to measure a “reality” that we cannot prove is real. I know this is one of those sophomoric twists college kids like to ponder and argue well into the night (as long as they have enough beer). I admit to being sophomoric.

Or. . .

I still play the Bach Ach wie flüchtig! I play it much more slowly than is normal (or than I played it to show off for the little old ladies). I like to hear all the notes in my old age. [You can listen to the Dutch organist Ton Koopman play it in the standard fashion here.]

Or perhaps I play much more slowly now because I think this is beginning to be the end of my life when in reality it’s the beginning. Or this very moment is eternity. Or we don’t exist at all. Or, if we do, we should be getting ready to die. Is that too startling, depressing for you? You should be a TLEptic. You’d have had a lifetime [“time”] to think about these things.

“Be Drunk,” by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
(translated by Louis Simpson)

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”