“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . those angels, forever falling, snare us and haul us. . .” (Sherman Alexie)

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

In the fall semester of 1963 at the University of Redlands in California, Steuart Goodwin—a senior composition major—arranged for and directed the process of moving an organ built in New England in the mid-19th century by George Stevens into Watchorn Hall of the School of Music.

The organ arrived in (thousands of?) pieces shipped in wooden crates. The good-clean-fun of helping unload the organ from the truck and carry it into the Hall made for lifetime memories. Over the next months, Steuart reassembled the organ.

The impact of that uncommon event on organ students varied. The organ was the first mechanical action (tracker) instrument most of us had ever seen. Some of us hardly ever again practiced on any other organ on campus. Some would not venture into that studio. For me, mechanical action instruments became absolutely preferable to others—at least in theory. I’ve played many awesome organs with electric action and some ugly tracker organs. (See this article for an explanation.)

In the fall of 1964 Steuart went off to The Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to learn to make organ pipes at the Flentrop factory in Zaandam. When he returned home, he began his life’s work as an organ builder.

Coincidentally, the University installed a modern tracker-action organ in the recital hall the next year, built by Hermann Schlicker. I played my junior recital (a “half” recital of the Hindemith Second Sonata for Organ and the Bach E Minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue) on it, the first student recital on that organ.

Steuart’s Opus 1 is a small instrument of two keyboards and pedals with six stops. He built it as a “house organ.” I—in my dotage—have forgotten its full history, but it spent many years as a practice instrument at Redlands. In a reshuffling of teaching space, the University needed to divest itself of the organ, and once again I helped Steuart move, unpack, and rebuild an organ—this time his Opus 1 in my living room.

I cannot overstate the personal and emotional, as well as musical, importance of the Goodwin Opus 1 for me. It has been a constant in my life for 50 years—as has been my friendship with Steuart. Ours is the most lasting friendship of my life.

In the last few weeks I have become fascinated by music by various composers over the centuries based on a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). The tune is a love song from Hassler’s courtly collection, Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng (“Pleasure garden of new German songs). The opening lines of the words:

Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret,
Das macht ein Magdlein zart.
(My comfort is confounded. A maiden is the cause.)

In 1613 Christoph Knoll (1563-1621) set his funeral text Herzlich tut mich verlangen to Hassler’s tune. Henry S. Drinker (1880-1965) translated the words to English:

My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.
From ills that here surround me and woes that never cease.
The cruel world to banish would be a blessed boon;
I sigh for joys eternal, O Jesus, Lord, come soon.

Most people know this tune as the melody for the 1656 Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).

I began to be interested in organ settings of this tune (with the Knoll text) when I rediscovered a setting by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783) in a collection I’ve had since Redlands days. I was looking for simple (simple!) pieces I can memorize to help keep my old brain functioning.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall.  If I ever knew what it is, I've forgotten.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall. If I ever knew what it is, I’ve forgotten.

I’ve found ten settings of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. This is not a longing for death. It is a musicological exercise in finding music I can easily play and perhaps memorize. The fact that all of the pieces I’ve found so far are perfectly suited to the Goodwin Opus 1 gives the process purpose and delight.

A word about playing and recording on the Goodwin, and uploading the results online. It is not false modesty for me to say I am not a “natural” performer. Anyone who doubts that has only to listen to my playing. And Opus 1 is not representative of Steuart’s mature work as an organ builder—especially as a tonal finisher. I think he probably cringes at some of my uploads, especially when I have not had Ross King tune the organ recently enough.

My musical purpose is simple. It’s probably too personal to discuss here. However, I’ve come to a place (remember this when you reach 70) where I have little concern about criticism. My playing is my most immediate means of communicating the delicacy and the mystery of life as I know it. If anyone finds it lacking, I can say only that what anyone thinks of me is none of my business.

A “sea-change” has come over me in the last year or so (see Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I am not afraid of death, and I have nothing to prove. I have only myself to share as best I can with anyone who wants to know me. I have some loose ends I’d like to tie up while I have time.

Lack of civility and violence and purposeful ignorance still roil me. And my own foibles—both the purposeful ones and those caused by neurological mishaps in my brain—make me sometimes want to start over again 50 years ago. But I don’t say (or think) with Christoph Knoll, “My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.”

I hope, I yearn (isn’t that a funny old-fashioned word?) for some peace, here and now. And I wish I could communicate that to others. My halting playing on this wonderful unusual little organ will have to do.

I read a great deal of poetry, and I found this poem that, even though the poet is only 49 years old, seems to fit what I’m trying to say. The connection may not be clear to anyone but me, but the poem is lovely.

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World,” (2009) by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . – Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.


My recordings of the organ are obviously less than professional. The camera is too close to the organ, so the movement of the “trackers” is audible. The camera also does not record bass sounds well. And then there is the occasional airplane noise (in the flight pattern of Love Field).

None of that gets in my way. I hope it doesn’t yours.

“. . . those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. . .” (Czeslaw Milosz)

A bee circling cloverr

A bee circling clover

Today is today. I have to keep remembering that.

It’s almost (no, absolutely) a commonplace, people say it so often that it means nothing, that one must “live in the moment.”

I have a few moments at the moment. I can write—which is what my mind and body both tell me I should be doing—or I can do any one of the hundred other things I can think of doing simply by looking around this room without moving a muscle except to swivel my head.

Laundry. Vacuum the floor. Sort books to give away. Watch “Love it or list it” on the HG channel. Listen to the “news.” Make another cup of coffee. Practice the organ.

Practice the organ or write. Those are the real choices. The writing is winning out at the moment.

What do those 30-40-or 50-year-olds know about living in the moment?

Don’t get all philosophical or doctrinaire about it. I’m sick to death of being told as if were THE truth that I need to live in the moment.

People mean things like “don’t dwell on the past, it’s over—you can’t do anything about it.” Or, “stop worrying about the future—you can’t control it.” So live as if yesterday didn’t happen and as if there’s no tomorrow?

Yesterday DID happen. I wasted quite a lot of time doing things that didn’t accomplish anything much. Or make myself happier or more comfortable in that “moment.” And tomorrow WILL—presumably—happen. I need more time tomorrow. I know that already. I can’t do all the things I want (or need) to do.

Only a white-haired old man, who [is] much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be. . .

That’s living in the moment, I guess. The old man knows today is the end of the world, but he keeps caring for his tomatoes. Like Martin Luther who, at least in legend, when asked while he was planting a tree, what he would do if he knew the Second Coming was about to happen, said he’d keep planting his tree.

If you think you’re living in the moment, you should rethink. According to people who know (such as neurologists and psychiatrists) everything you’ve ever done your little brain remembers. It’s possible to act in the moment, but living there is, well, a fantasy.

I’ll stop talking to “you” and talk to me. I don’t really want to forget (or even to live as if they didn’t happen) the moment when I was 4 years old that I first discovered how much pleasure it gave other people when I played “Silent Night” from memory—and how much pleasure their pleasure added to the pleasure I had simply in the playing. And I can’t (I wish I could) forget the night about the same year that I woke up in my uncle’s bed with his semen all over my body.

Back to “you”: if you can’t face the realities of the past, you should not be reading this.

While he binds his tomatoes

While he binds his tomatoes

If you don’t like to read about my uncle’s semen, I’d suggest you read about Cyberloney. I don’t want to refer anyone to Commentary. It’s a propaganda rag for the most rabidly conservative and one-sided thinking in America, but this article is pretty funny and thought-provoking. (I tried to get the rag removed as a “scholarly” journal from the EBSCO databases, but failed to prove my point, as I single-handedly did with the equally absurd journal First Things—it’s no longer listed as scholarly in EBSCO. I’ll keep trying.)

So two absolutely opposing experiences happened to me at about the same time, and—contrary to the advice to “live in the moment”—both are still with me every moment of every day.

When you get to your 70th year, you might understand (you might not if you’re determined to be successful and happy and rich). And if you’ve never had a year in which two things so chasmally different happened to you and gave you a bit of confusion about “the meaning of life,” you are so lucky that you ought to be selling everything you have and giving to the poor without even a second thought.

Don’t ask me why I’m writing about those two events. Except to say that I need three extra days (thinking about the future) between now and Sunday because I’m going to play (there, I’ve said it—projecting into the future) the organ at one of the most prestigious (if not important) churches in the city on Sunday, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying every time the organist asks me to substitute for him. Those two feelings at once because of the two experiences I had when I was 4.

And I need the three more days to make sure I’ve practiced enough to play well enough to give the church folks pleasure. And to give me pleasure.

And my opinion is that it would destroy my being who I am if I didn’t carry those two experiences with me always. I live in the past. No, I carry the past with me. Perhaps if I didn’t, I’d be the organist at a large and prestigious church or playing recitals all over the world. But I’m not.

For me, living in the moment is not the point (and it wouldn’t be very interesting). My goal is to carry the past with me always, but carry it in such a loving and grateful manner as to make the future—which for me is soon, oh too soon—bearable and beautiful.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover.

So I want to stop worrying about “living in the moment” and find a way—finally—to hold past, present, and future balance. All of it. Good and bad.

“A Song on the End of the World,” by Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet, born in a part of Lithuania that was part of Poland after WWI. After WWII he was a Polish diplomat, and in 1950 he was granted political asylum in France. In 1960 he moved to the United States to become a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

I hope James doesn't mind my posting his picture

I hope James doesn’t mind my posting his picture

“. . . even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees. . . (Nazim Hikmet)

The only tree I've ever planted.

The only tree I’ve ever planted.

Martin Luther (the first Martin Luther, not MLK), according to legend was out in his yard planting a tree (presumably apple, which he loved) and proclaimed, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

According to legend. No record of Luther’s remark exists—according to the website Luther 2017, the official state-operated site of the “Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt” preparing for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

Perhaps Minnesota or Iowa has a state-operated website for the anniversary—or Fredericksburg, TX, has a city-operated site. The German Lutherans who founded Fredericksburg came there in the early 19th century to escape using the new “Service Book” being forced on all Protestants in Prussia, whether Lutheran or Reformed.

In his poem “On Living” Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), “the first modern Turkish poet” proclaims

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Who would have guessed that the great 16th-century German church reformer and the 20th-century Marxist Turkish/Russian poet would come to the same conclusion about how to live one’s life?

I don’t plant trees. The only one I ever planted, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmer Branch, TX, in memory of my late partner Jerry Hill, was uprooted when the church closed and the city bought the property to build a new fire station.

Since I retired (I won’t be, in fact, retired until August 1), I have had a hankering to play an organ recital. I have the program in mind. (Except for one work. I want to play an organ piece by a Palestinian or Palestinian-American composer, but I haven’t yet found one.)

It’s going to be a fairly simple program: one Bach work, a Mendelssohn Sonata, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and either two of the “Fantasies for Organ” by Ross Lee Finney, or the mystery work by a Palestinian composer.

This “retirement” business is, so far, unsettling. How does one keep oneself in some sort of trajectory toward—well, toward what? What do I need to do? What do I want to do? What does anyone else need or want me to do?

These are, in reality, questions I’ve been asking myself for 68 of my 69 years.

I’ve never been quite sure the way I’m living—what I’m doing or what I’m not doing—is “right.” I don’t need any philosophical or theological or self-help or 12-step recovery answers to the question, “Am I living right?” I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read Heidegger, I’ve read Baudrillard, I’ve practically memorized the Bible, I’ve listened to Dr. Oz, I’ve learned about the Third Wave of Behavioral Therapy, I’ve read Waking the Tiger, I read Bill Wilson and company all the time. I draw the line at The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—that requires remembering to carry a planner everywhere you go.

I have to leave religion out of trying to answer the question. At least for now. I know that puts some of my friends off, but I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to be as jihadist about that as Bill Maher is.

“Am I living right?”

Nazim Hikmet’s answer is

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

“Living must be your whole occupation.”

I know all together too well that living is no laughing matter. My goodness, if I read my post from yesterday—meltdown number 1001 (or more)—I have no doubt I understand “living with great seriousness.”

". . .living must be your whole occupation. . ."

“. . .living must be your whole occupation. . .”

I’ve been living with great seriousness all my life. Oh, I know how to have a good time—a genuine good time for the last 27 years since I started reading Bill Wilson and company (their writings are not, by the way, philosophy, theology, or “self-help”). But basically life seems to have been no laughing matter for me.

Or perhaps not. “Living must be your whole occupation.”

Much (most?) of the time I don’t remember that. But there are times that I do. When I sit at the organ and play, for example, the Brahms Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (“Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”), I realize there are (have been) a few times when living has been my whole occupation, when I have not been “looking for something beyond and above living.

I’ve thought through what I’m going to say next, and I know it sounds contradictory. But it is not.

Much of the time when I play the organ, my experience is like the rest of my experience—not quite meltdown 101, but not exactly living as my whole occupation. I don’t have the physical acumen to play complicated works easily, but I keep trying. But once in a while I discover a work that fits my fingers, my mind, and my spirit so that playing it can be my “whole occupation.” A listener might not think that’s true, but for me it is.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

Thank goodness for Brother Martin.

I can extrapolate from that experience to my daily struggle to figure out if “I am living right.” If I can give myself to whatever it is I am doing, not looking “for something beyond and above” any given action at any given moment, perhaps I can “live as if we will never die.”

Yikes! That’s about as spooky as anything I’ve ever written. Thank goodness for Brother Martin, whether he said it or not. I’ll keep planting that tree—or whatever I’m doing—even if the end is near.

(Note: I have copied Nazim Hikmet’s entire poem here. It is not short, but I think you will find it rewarding to read.)

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963
(Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, 1994)
I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
II
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Nazim Hikmet was born on January 15, 1902 in Salonika, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). . . Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. Hikmet died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963. The first modern Turkish poet, he is recognized around the world as one of the great international poets of the twentieth century.

“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

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.

“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
_______
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it


what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.