“. . . reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss . . .” (Robert Neimeyer)

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Case – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska.

Everyone has heard the old saw, “Nothing is permanent except change,” or a variation on it. Some guru said it in the last century and attributed it to Heraclitus (wanting to seem authoritative), perhaps reworking it from Plato’s quotation from Heraclitus (544-483 BCE), “Everything changes and nothing stands still” (Plato, Cratylus).

The meaning is so obvious that no one, I suppose, would want to take credit for the quotation, so they*** attributed it to an ancient Greek philosopher. Perhaps they simply wanted to point out that the idea is a bit of wisdom that all thinking people have understood since before the flowering of Greek thought.

Another side of that idea is that change is simply something we all note, and those of us who are at peace with the world (or living in “mindfulness,” or some such state) accept change and go with the flow (or some nonsense). That’s a cop-out, a “feel-good” observation, feel-good because change is often, perhaps most often, associated with loss.

Change is, or is experienced as, loss simply because we human beings . . .

. . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. With the many unwelcome losses of life—of people, places, projects, and possessions in seemingly endless succession—we are called on to reconstruct a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss, at every level from the simple habit structures of our daily lives, through our identities in a social world, to our personal and collective cosmologies, whether secular or spiritual.  (Neimeyer, Robert A., Dennis Klass, and Michael Robert Dennis. “A Social Constructionist Account of Grief: Loss and the Narration of Meaning.” Death Studies 38.8 [2014]: 485-498.)

Anyone of any age can understand the cliché that nothing is permanent except change, but we must, I think, reach the age when we face impermanence directly to understand the difficulty of “reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by loss.”

The losses which have challenged my world of meaning are myriad. I list them here not for exhibitionist catharsis, but to remind any reader near my age of their own myriad losses, which are probably similar in number and scope.

In the decade between my 57th and 67th birthdays, my ex-wife, my partner, my brother-in-law, my best friend, my mother, and my father died. My partner’s death forced me to move to a smaller and much simpler apartment than we had lived in. At the very end of the decade, my church closed, and suddenly I was bereft of an important community and forced to retire from the work as church organist that I had done for 50 years. During the decade, my sister survived the horrifying surgery for breast cancer. I had repair surgery on my shoulder, which I had damaged during that decade of change. I began drawing Social Security although I did not actually retire for two more years. Twice our nation elected a new President, and we tragically went to war because of the cataclysm of 9-11, which happened about 6 months before my decade began. I suffered a couple more major traumas, which I will not list here. All of these losses engendered difficult, almost debilitating, changes in my life.

“Human beings . . .  are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.”

The depression for which I spent two weeks in the hospital ten years ago has been my constant companion nearly my entire life. I know well I’m not alone in that reality, and I’m not feeling sorry for myself, simply stating the facts. I have only recently begun to try to sort out the difference between, and the entanglement of, my depression and my grief for loss and change.

The struggle to deal with grief affects both our inner self and our relationships with others. The most difficult change to deal with is the loss of a loved one in part because it is irreversible and, “Far from being a private and dispassionate cognitive process, contending with the meaning of the loss and the meaning of our lives in the wake of it is typically deeply emotional, intricately social, and inevitably constructed and sometimes contested in broader linguistic and cultural contexts” (Neimeyer et al.). When a loved one dies, the lives of everyone whose lives were entwined with theirs are changed. Everyone who had an attachment to the deceased contends with the meaning of loss. It is a personal loss and a social loss.

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Console – Austin Organ, Op. 108R, 1904, First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

We grieve, I grieve, because we are, I am, “wired for attachment in a world of impermanence.” A few months ago my sister and I were in the city where I went to high school, and we drove past the church we attended at that time, where I took my first organ lessons. It was Sunday evening, and a group of people happened to be there. We went in. The building was intact, but the ambience, the character was, of course, changed. Surprisingly, a woman I knew 50 years ago was there. We knew each other instantly. We talked, and she told me about many of my high school friends, where they were, what had happened to them. I rejoiced and grieved at the same time. Grieved the loss of all of those people who had once been so important to me.

I went to the organ loft of the church to see the organ. The organ appeared the same, but the pipe organ inside the case has been replaced. It looked like the organ I loved, but everything except the outer shell has changed. I am grieving that loss. I grieve the loss of the belief, perhaps faith, that surrounded me and sustained me there 50 years ago.

That organ has become something of a metaphor for me. Change and loss. I remember. I remember my mother baking Swedish rye bread.  My parents’ joy together. My brother-in-law. The choir of my church that closed. My desk at the university where I taught. My friends in the department. I remember the feel of my partner’s body beside me. I have no doubt about his look, his touch. My loss.

I have friends who are talking of retiring and moving away in four years. I grieve every time I hear them speak of their plan.

We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. Each attachment that is broken, each change, whether as seemingly insignificant as the pipes of an organ or as profound as the death of a parent is a loss that our “wiring” can scarcely sustain.

We have no way to comprehend our own impermanence.

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But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me. . . Matthew 19:14. First Baptist Church, Omaha, Nebraska

 

***Apropos of nothing here except the ubiquity of change: I have decided that I’m tired of using the awkward and ridiculous “he or she” for neutral, non-gendered pronouns. I forthwith will use the epicene pronouns “they,” “them,” “their,” etc. I invite you to join me in this little rebellion against grammar nonsense. You may read about the historical and perfectly legitimate use of the epicene here  or  here.

  • Example from Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”
  • Example from Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
  • Example from C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn-Treader: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

You want your Jim Beam with Mahler or Mozart?

jimbeam RIf you ask me the name of the movie I saw most recently, I probably can’t tell you. I had to look up the title of Silver Linings Playbook just now even though it was my favorite movie last year.

I remember exactly four movies from high school days:

The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke
The Longest Day with cast of thousands
Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and (who else?) Richard Burton

and a fourth which I remember nothing about except the circumstances of seeing it. My friend David had a car and a brother who was 21. The car got us to the drive-in movie theater (remember those?), and the older brother provided the pint of Jim Beam.

David told me I wouldn’t like the taste, to drink it slowly and get used to it. He had one small circumspect paper cup full that lasted him through most of the movie (whatever it was), and I drank the rest of the bottle during the opening credits and was drunk through the movie (whatever it was). I decided on the first gulp that, however awful the taste, the warmth going down and the almost immediate mellowing of my mind were worth the unpleasantness.

Perhaps the reason I still find it wearying to watch a movie by myself is that I very early on learned that movies are social as well as aesthetic events.  The culmination of that reality was in 1972 when I was the volunteer manager for the McGovern presidential campaign in Ontario, California, with direction from a pro from Massachusetts. We had an evening off to see Harold and Maude at a theater in Yorba Linda. We had some brownies with “oregano” on the drive over and during the movie. We were feeling no stress of the campaign, and when the movie finished we played Frisbee on the wide front lawn of a house close to the theater, and I stumbled over the sign announcing it was the birthplace of Richard Nixon.

I suppose my feeling 40 years later that the real purpose of seeing a movie is to eat brownies and throw a Frisbee with good friends afterwards is some kind of arrested development, or—more likely—a sign that my decades of sobriety really are more fragile than I like to think.

This writing did not begin as a contemplation on drunkenness versus sobriety or on the potential foolishness of continuing to act when you are 68 the way you did when you were 28. I intended to think and write about the sort of stuff one remembers.

For example, cute young doctor Stephen Thornton who fixed my hip last week will be forever in my mind Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker. However, I was seeing her face in my mind’s eye and thinking about that stunning scene from that movie at the water pump with Patty Duke, and calling her Patricia Neal. No one, of course, was getting my joke.

This is not (at least entirely) a function of incipient old age. I’d remember Bambi Meets Godzilla even if I hadn’t run into my high school

Mahler in Omaha.

Mahler in Omaha.

friend Harold Schneider in lobby of the Westwood Theater, but I don’t have a clue what the movie was I’d driven all that way to see (the Bambi film was a cartoon before feature as was the custom when I was a kid). I remember vaguely seeing a Julie Andrews movie on a New Year’s Eve because I remember driving home on the deserted San Bernardino Freeway at midnight with Bob and Nancy Walker (midnight on New Year’s Eve may be one of the safest times of the year to be on the highway—you’ll have the road to yourself). And so on for my entire movie-going life.

I would be surprised if I could quote one line of one movie. I have friends who can quote movies they saw 30 years ago–as well as 30 days ago.

It can’t be either lack of intelligence (well it might be) or getting old. I think it’s more a matter of paying attention. What I remember must be a function of what I pay attention to. Want to know a great experience of a symphony? Blanche Thebom singing the Mahler Kindertotenlieder with the Omaha Symphony in 1962 at the Concert Hall of the Joslyn Art Museum (where I also saw my first El Greco painting, “St. Francis in Prayer”). Another ? The Kansas City Symphony playing the Beethoven Fifth at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1965.  Another? The Boston Symphony playing Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine in 1972 with Messiaen himself conducting. The most recent? The Dallas Symphony Playing the Brahms First this past season.

I can sing themes from each of those (not to brag, but themes other  than the famous ones)—perhaps not the Messiaen.  I not only remember that concert vividly, but I was ecstatic that I had a conversation about playing the Ondes Martenot  with Jeanne Loriod, Messiaen’s sister-in-law and the premier virtuoso on that instrument, who played that night.

OK? I can remember some things. Not a single line from Victor Victoria or Mame, but themes from quite a few symphonies. A bird, a plane, a Mozart, anyone?

Miracles happen every day.

Miracles happen every day.

I love to tell the story

Classical revival splendor

Classical revival splendor

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The First Baptist Church of Omaha, Nebraska, perches at the top of a small hill at the corner of Harney and Park in a kind of neo-classical revival splendor. I don’t know enough about architecture to describe it adequately, so you will have to figure it out for yourself.

Perhaps the building’s most remarkable characteristic is survival.

Interstate 480 cuts a swath through downtown Omaha that’s a near miss for the building. Perhaps the route was carefully chosen to miss the church and other important buildings in the city. The church’s website says the church has been in its present location since 1904 when the current building was constructed.

The church’s organ is (my goodness! I hope it’s still there) a giant 4-keyboard Austin tubular-pneumatic beast with three divisions spread across the front of the church, and a solo division (complete with tuba mirabilis, as loud a reed stop as an organ ever ought to have).  I know the building was built in 1904 because between 1960 and 1963 I sat for countless hours staring at the nameplate on the organ console, “Austin Organs, opus __, 1904). I don’t remember the opus number, but I would guess it was at the time Austin’s crowning achievement. Its preservation should have been a concern of the Organ Historical Society.

During high school, nearly every day after school I took the twenty-minute walk from Central High School at 20th and Dodge up the hill to the church to practice the organ. Roger Wischmeier, organist of the church, was my teacher. My parents were members of the church, so the church allowed me to practice there.

When I was a senior in high school, I played my first real organ recital on the Austin. I remember a few details of the program.

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

The most important of those details is that I played the Bach “Gigue” Fugue in G major from memory. At the time I had a girlfriend (didn’t every gay boy in the world in 1963?). She had a man’s name, as did her older sister. Their father was a Bach aficionado, and he raved about my playing, which pleased me more even than my teacher’s praise. My playing of the Bach went on to bless (or curse) me. When I went to college, fully expecting to be an English major so I could write (what else?), I auditioned for the music faculty because I wanted to take organ lessons for fun. I played the fugue from memory, and Dr. Spelman offered me a scholarship as an organ major on the spot. What defense did I have against such recognition?

Back to my high school recital. I also played three chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, at that time and for many years thereafter the music director of the Billy Graham Crusade. His music was favored by my teacher, and he assigned me much of Hustad’s music to learn. Hustad, was a formidable musician and musicologist. For years after high school I dismissed him because of his connection with Billy Graham, but have come to my senses as an old man and understand not only his solid and inspired compositional ability but also his contribution to understanding the history of Evangelical music in the United States.

The three preludes I played on that program were on the tunes of the hymns “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

I am grateful that I still have the (bedraggled) book of preludes from which I learned those pieces—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance notes in them.

As organist in Lutheran churches, I discovered the usefulness of many of Hustad’s compositions. He seems to have had an affinity for Scandinavian Lutheran hymn tunes. The “national anthem” of Swedish-American Lutherans is “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Over the years I have used that Hustad prelude many times.

I’m now headed for Sweden (five days and counting). I will be playing several organs in Scandinavia. The choir I will accompany (Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas) will sing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and I will introduce it with the Hustad setting. Fifty years of my life will come full circle.

I will also play a setting of “I Love to tell the Story,” but one I have recently learned, by Emma Lou Diemer, Professor Emeritus of Composition at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I won’t try to wax eloquent about the importance both to my musical development and to my sanity of these hymn tunes and music I learned practicing at the First Baptist Church of Omaha. I will say only that in my (nearly life-long) confusion-bordering-on-apostasy about religious matters, this music is the constant, I could even say the anchor, of my life.

Donald Hustad’s “Children of the Heavenly Father” played on my small practice organ, recorded with a tiny digital camera.