Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

“. . . the mystery. . . of a demon in my view.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid (Audre Lorde, 1934 – 1992).

A necessary tack

A necessary tack

In teaching writing, i.e. rhetoric, we often resort to poor old Aristotle to try to get students to understand they have to use many different approaches in order to be convincing. One of our favorite tacks (“tack” as a nautical term, “a course run obliquely against the wind”)—yes, “tack” is an appropriate word here because we run obliquely against the wind—is to present the students with Aristotle’s three “appeals” for making an argument. Logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos, we say, is akin to our word “logic,” but not directly. It’s more than logic.
Ethos, we say, is an appeal to the writer’s credibility.
Pathos, we say, is an attempt to involve our audience’s emotions in our argument.

Or something like that.

Of course, any student who has either received such instruction or who has a modicum of inquisitiveness on their own will realize we have many common and useful words that come, if not directly from these Greek words, at least from the same roots.

pathetic (adj.)

           1590s, “affecting the emotions, exciting the passions,” from Middle French pathétique “moving, stirring, affecting” (16c.), from Late Latin patheticus, from Greek pathetikos “subject to feeling, sensitive, capable of emotion,” from pathetos “liable to suffer,” verbal adjective of pathein “to suffer” (see pathos). Meaning “arousing pity, pitiful” is first recorded 1737. Colloquial sense of “so miserable as to be ridiculous” is attested from 1937. Related: Pathetical (1570s); pathetically. Pathetic fallacy (1856, first used by Ruskin) is the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects. (Harper, Douglas. “pathetic.” Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com. 2001-2014. Web.)

Every time I need to write about my depression, I feel pathetic in the colloquial sense from 1937. Like everyone who struggles with depression and writes or paints or sings or dances or just talks with their friends I want to make the definitive statement what it feels like to be depressed so the rest of you will understand and not think we are “so miserable as to be ridiculous.”

If you are still reading, you are obviously not one of my f2f friends or relatives (or one of my “followers” here) who have heard all of this before and are really really really tired of it. Some readers who are frightened by my being so open about depression all the time have stopped reading because they are not brave. I apologize to them that I am so persistent in talking about depression. I am not going to go the next necessary step in apology and tell them how I will modify my behavior in the. I will write about this again.

Two days ago I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience of talking with a student until she discovered the meaning of the word “mystery” in the lexicon of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Bringer of jollity

Bringer of jollity

Yesterday I had the wonderful (expand that word beyond triteness and overuse to making “full of wonder”) experience once again of talking with students until they stumbled upon meanings of various concepts about which my classes are writing.

I CANNOT—ever, under any circumstance—TELL YOU THE JOY those experiences bring me. They are the stuff of the reason I live. I thank the gods for those experiences over the past 40 years.

I left my office at 5:15 PM yesterday (having invited students to come to talk between 3 and 4). I sang all the way to my car.

By the time I arrived home (a trip of about 14 minutes, give or take a few seconds), I was in tears.

You can say my tears were understandable in light of my impending (forced) retirement. WTF, I’m 69—it’s time to retire!

But they continued. I was weepy and angry and miserable until I went to a recovery meeting at 7. I was OK for awhile, even long enough to have supper with a friend afterward. By the time I arrived home at 9:30 I was crying again.

I woke up this morning in tears.

That is not the result of my grief at ending my professional life. Otherwise it would have not been a regular experience for the last 60 years, would it?

We all know the medical causes of depression. (A search in the EBSCO data base, Academic Search Complete, through SMU’s library website for “clinical depression” brings up 213,458 articles.)

This is pathetic.

I broke into tears yesterday on my way to my 2 PM class. How cool is that for a professor to be walking across campus crying?

When I care to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision. . .

I have cared all my life to use my strength in the service of my vision. I have had two lifetimes of vision—one as a church (and perhaps recital) organist, the other as a writer and teacher of writing. I’ve had two lifetimes separated by several years of falling-down-drunk-driving-the-wrong-way-on-the-freeway alcoholism (sober for 27 years). I have cared to use my strength in the service of my vision.

I’m not going to blame constant clinical depression (I believe it had begun by the time our family doctor prescribed medication for thyroid deficiency when I was in fourth grade because I was so lethargic I had become a chubby little boy) for my failure to record the complete organ works of Frescobaldi or write the Great American Novel or explain the poetry of Maxine Kumin to the world. Or for my being a drunk.

But being in tears for the better part of 18 hours now is not normal. And it’s a damned nuisance when you’re trying to type. I wish I had Edgar Allan Poe’s genius. Then perhaps I could explain this to you, dear, kind, long-suffering reader.

“Alone,”  by Edgar Allan Poe

A demon in his view?

A demon in his view?

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring–
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow–I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone–
And all I lov’d–I lov’d alone–
Then–in my childhood–in the dawn
Of a most stormy life–was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still–
From the torrent, or the fountain–
From the red cliff of the mountain–
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold–
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by–
From the thunder, and the storm–
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view–

“. . . worship the objects I have caused to represent me in my absence . . .”

Representing the farmer? the artist? my late partner? me??

Representing the farmer? the artist? my late partner? me??

Every day a “meditation” arrives in my email. Although I subscribe to it of my own free will, my writing about it may seem cynical (from the Greek kyon “dog”. . .  Kynosarge “Gray Dog,” the gymnasium outside ancient Athens for the use of those who were not pure Athenians). I’m not a cynic. I’m simply consistently disoriented—not a pure Athenian.

My bafflement seems like cynicism because I get defensive when I find ideas unfathomable.  For example, today’s meditation says

I have a right to my own life. If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived, because no one else can live it for me. I cannot bequeath it to anyone else to live on my behalf. If I don’t sing my song it will remain unsung, because no one can sing it for me. If I don’t dance my dance . . . If I don’t find the poetry in my day, in my own soul, it will not be found. . .  Life is a spiritual gift and my life is my personal gift from God. . . If I don’t live it, no one else will, no one else can.

I suppose “meditations” are designed to remind the reader of some “truth” so obvious it’s easy to overlook—or never think of in the first place—as they go about their daily life.

NOTE: As I get older, I find it necessary to fight fewer time-and-energy wasting battles. Who cares if I say “the reader . . . they”? It sounds better to me than “the reader . . . he or she.” This use is called the epicene they, and Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s multitudinous use of it is good enough precedent for me. If one of my students wants to use it, they will get no argument from me.

The Chicago Manual of Style (one of the Bibles used by academic writers waffles on the subject, but I’ll bet more people can understand my writing than can (or want to) understand the stuff in the American Journal of Sociology, one of the academic journals published by the University of Chicago Press. End of NOTE.

Using the epicene they falls under the category “I have a right to my own life.” If I choose to write so no academic journal would possibly publish what I write, my guess is that more people will understand my writing than that of the journals.  Perhaps these baffling daily email “meditations” are useful, after all.

Useful for the purpose of argument, but ultimately useful for ideas? Not so much. “Life is a spiritual gift and my life is my personal gift from God, from the Universe.” That kind of language simply makes me squirm. This is not something new in my life. I’ve been uneasy around God Talk for at least 50 years.

I remember (and have most likely written about on one of my blogs) the night at Junior High Baptist Camp, at Camp Moses Merrill near Fullerton, NE, (which is now a public campground of some sort, and the Baptists have a new, much nicer camp away from the metropolitan area of Omaha)—the night all of my friends were giving themselves to Jesus, and I sat on the back pew of the chapel, if not crying, at least visibly upset. One of the counselors (one of those older men with whom I was in love at the time) sat beside me and asked me what was wrong.

If I clean my office, will I live forever?

If I clean my office, will I live forever?

I said something to the effect that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to believe in something I couldn’t figure out logically or feel in my gut. That’s sort of where I’ve been ever since, and the question has gotten more real and more urgent as I have gotten older.

The reality of the question is no longer the teenage question how I can believe in God. I hold onto things—stuff—that once belonged to my parents or grandparents or someone even farther back because I have a great deal of trouble with, “I have a right to my own life. If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived, because no one else can live it for me.” I’m not sure how to believe logically or feel in my gut that life has happened at all. Holding onto something my great-grandfather owned helps me try to stay here, to assume things are “real.”

I’m sure—as a junior high school Baptist—I was having trouble thinking about giving my life to Jesus at least partly because of my own peculiar neurological make-up (the dissociation of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy). Not much of anything seemed real much of the time. For thirty years I’ve had strong meds that remove that particular obstacle to believing in “reality.”

The chairs of my fathers.

The chairs of my fathers.

But now, getting to be an old man (don’t say I shouldn’t point that out—I’m on average 69/77ths of the way to the end), I wonder more and more about this If I don’t live my life fully, it will simply not be lived. What does that mean? If I don’t get my office organized? Right. If I don’t figure out what to do with the Pennsylvania Dutch barn hex sign I’ve had in my bedroom since its owner, my late partner, willed it to me—ten years ago? If I don’t figure out how to use the online form to buy two tickets for the Bernadette Peters concert I want to attend?

Or if I don’t have some sense that I’ve experienced all the feelings and relationships a human being is “supposed” to feel? I don’t know. What’s reality, anyway? You tell me and the poet Rae Armantrout what’s real. I think she understands what I’m trying to say.

“Exact,” by Rae Armantrout (Pulitzer Prize winner, 2010)

Quick, before you die,
describe

the exact shade
of this hotel carpet.

What is the meaning
of the irregular, yellow

spheres, some
hollow,

gathered in patches
on this bedspread?

If you love me,
worship

the objects
I have caused

to represent me
in my absence.

*

Over and over
tiers

of houses spill
pleasantly

down that hillside.
It

might be possible
to count occurrences.

“. . . and God has a nasty temper when provoked . . .”

What to come back as

What to come back as

Yesterday driving up Lemmon Avenue in Dallas home from my exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool—one hour, ten minutes each of six different styles of walking), I heard Krys Boyd on “Think” on KERA say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended. I was too stunned to listen further.

Logically expect to live 70 years! I’ve been here for 69 of the 70. Is it time for me to be preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil?

I memorized Hamlet’s soliloquy (as did every other smart-ass high school kid when I was 18—now they don’t even know what Hamlet is, either as in theater or as a small town nestled in a valley in Vermont). I think I’m afraid even to read it now.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil? Well, none. It would be nice to think I will have mind enough left to dream after I’ve shuffled off, but I doubt it. I really must talk to my neurologist about his concept of the “after life.”

A theory floated around a few years ago that a certain list of life events is almost certain to cause depression: the death of a parent, the breakup of a relationship, the change of (or loss of) a job, moving from one city to another. I think retirement should be in there because it is not, strictly speaking, the loss of a job.

When my Grandfather Knight died and we had the obligatory “hours,” I walked through the parlor of the funeral home where his body was in place for “viewing” at the moment my uncle (my mother’s brother) said to my father, “Well, Glenn, we’re the older generation now.” Both of them were younger (my dad by six years and my uncle by ten or twelve) than I am now. I guess I’ve been part of the “older generation” since my dad died two and a half years ago.

As I have written here before, in the past decade, I have experienced the death of both parents—I had the unfathomable gift of being with each of them when they died—the death of my partner (we assumed we’d trundle off into old age together), and the death of my brother-in-law. I now have the certain knowledge of the date of retirement (May 15), the possibility of moving—to somewhere that will insure my not being alone in my dotage, unresolved issues with how to have a relationship, and the falling apart of my body (three surgeries—minor, I suppose—last year, and a “trigger finger” on my right hand that is obviously going to need repair sometime soon. I think I have every right to be depressed.

Last summer while I was on crutches from the repair work on my hip (100% successful, thank whatever part of the cosmos we’re comfortable thanking), the university moved several of our faculty offices from one building to another. Since then I have worked in—and had student conferences in—an office that looks pretty much the way it did when the movers left. Remember, I was on crutches and could hardly hang pictures on the wall, much less arrange books on shelves. Books I never use, by the way.

So the question is, now that I have—let’s see, exactly 41 days of class left before I’m put out to pasture, what’s the use of bothering? Old Abe may just have to stay on the floor.

On the other hand, the students will probably be more comfortable when they come for their conferences if the place looks somewhat normal. Or will they? Would a student even notice Abe on the floor? Do they even know who Abe was these days? Oh, the imponderables of teaching. I know that during semesters that the Gettysburg Address has been part of our study, I knew the quickest way to amaze my students was to recite the Address from memory. And then to name all of the Presidents in order. . .  Jackson Van Buren Harrison Tyler Polk Taylor Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln. . .

I know lots of pretty useless stuff. And I can do lots of pretty useless things. And I own a lot of unnecessary crap—mostly books and a pipe organ.

What dreams will come when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time.
. .

I wish I’d thought of that. See, this is what happens when you get to be part of the older generation. I put a picture of some men wearing suits like the ones my father wore when I was born and long enough after that so I remember them on my Facebook page and asked my friends who remember those suits to send me a message. Only two did.

I had hoped to find a group of us old folks to talk together about—about anything that comes to mind. I know things come to my mind that never used to, and I’d just like to know if that happens to everyone when they’re the older generation. I know Maxine Kumin thinks about things differently. Damn! I wish I could think the way she does. What fun we could have.

Abe will just have to wait.

Abe will just have to wait.

All those things like parental dying and jobs ending and moving around may be depressing for the younger generation, but for us, those in the older generation, they are, well, they’re just the way things are. Go, Maxine! (I don’t know how old she was when she wrote this poem, but she’s 89 and still part of the older generation.)

In the Park, by Maxine Kumin

You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
–you won’t know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. 
He laid on me not doing anything.
I could feel his heart beating against my heart.

Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.  For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.  Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as. 

When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.  In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

“. . . That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse . . . “

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

My paternal grandfather’s birthday is today (born January 21, 1885). Archie James Knight was a serious and jolly man, a contractor (he built houses as well as cabinetry), a pear farmer (that is, he had a half dozen pear trees in his yard), a voracious reader, a bass in his church choir—my description could go on and on. He was also something of an old-fashioned disciplinarian. No one came to the breakfast table at his home (or even into the living room) in pajamas.

He was disciplined himself. He worked hard and took care of his family, his children and their children. But he also had something elfin about him. He laughed with a twinkle in his eye, and he was capable of a kind of endearing silliness (endearing to this grandson, at any rate).

Granddad and I had a special bond—at least in my mind—because I was the one person in the entire extended family named for him. My middle name is his name, Archie. He was called Arch, and I have from time to time been known as Arch (in college, for example).

The most enduring memory of Granddad is his reading. He sat in his chair daily reading—reading newspapers, magazines, Bible study books, the Bible itself. Making up for his family’s inability to send him to school past the fourth grade. The photograph of Granddad on Grandmother’s sewing machine is a favorite of all of his grandchildren, taken by Jose Naredo, husband of his granddaughter Jan Noland Naredo. We’d all have that picture in our minds even if Jose had never snapped it with a camera. Granddad in his chair reading.

I’ve been having a great deal of trouble writing the last few days because no matter what I begin writing, whether it makes any sense or not, whether it interests me or not, whether I have some idea where my train of thought is headed or not, I end up wanting to write a brilliant scholarly article—an article that will arrest the attention of the public and explain a very simple truth of which Americans seem to have no idea.

It’s an idea that I think my grandfather would have understood. He was one of those old-fashioned Baptists who held several beliefs that seem out of fashion today. Things such as “soul freedom” (the idea that his relationship with the divine was his relationship with the divine and no one could intervene). And the authority of the scripture (if it’s not in the Bible, don’t bother him with it). The separation of church and state (yes, that used to be a Baptist principle). So he would not—I know his Baptist preacher son did not, at any rate—have had much use for such non-Biblical nonsense as “The Rapture.”

I don’t care if anyone believes in “The Rapture” or not. It’s pretty silly even as silly religious ideas go. But what I wish Americans understood is that the belief in “The Rapture” is directly responsible for the argument over whether or not Iran should be invited to peace talks about Syria.

So I keep getting started writing the kind of personal, flaky, too-self-revelatory stuff I usually write, and I keep running up against my large (and growing) research on “The Rapture,” and “Dispensationalism,” and “Zionism,” and John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Ingerson Scofield. And then I want to write scholarly history. I want to write about the Balfour Declaration and its indebtedness to Darby, and . . . well, I just get bogged down because I don’t have my scholarly act together, but the stuff keeps impinging on everything I want to write and think.

So John Hagee and his Christians United for Israel will just have to run rampant over American foreign policy and the peace of the Middle East one more day because I can’t focus long enough to write what I need to write. Thank goodness Barbara Rossing and others have already written what really needs to be written.

Except for the part of John Hagee using Texas A&M University to further his goal of bringing about the Second Coming by helping Israel (and then getting rid of the Jews).

Oh Me! O My!

O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman

O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.


This hymn is one that I distinctly remember hearing my grandfather sing—that is, the bass line mostly an octave lower than written. It was at the dedication of the new church building of Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, the church of which he was a member for most of his long life. The words are by the ever-popular Fanny J. Crosby.

The sewing machine is my grandmother’s which is in my living room.

Praise Him, praise Him—Jesus, our blessèd Redeemer,
Sing, O earth, His wonderful love proclaim.
Hail Him! hail Him! highest archangels in glory;
Strength and honor give to His holy name!
Like a shepherd, Jesus will guard His children,
In His arms He carries them all day long:
O ye saints that dwell on the mountain of Zion,
Praise Him, praise Him ever in joyful song.

Praise Him, praise Him—Jesus, our blessèd Redeemer,
Heav’nly portals loud with hosannas ring,
Jesus, Savior, reigneth forever and ever.
Crown Him! Crown Him—Prophet, and Priest, and King!
Death is vanquished! Tell it with joy, ye faithful.
Where is now thy victory, boasting grave?
Jesus lives! No longer thy portals are cheerless;
Jesus lives, the mighty and strong to save.

“. . . and their dim moan is wrought / Into a singing sad and beautiful.”

A metaphor for something wilted

A metaphor for something wilted

.
On Christmas Day at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, LA, they and my sister and I were together. We were joyful and nostalgic and hopeful and silly and loving and lazy. Our average age was 69 years. We are, as they say, “of a piece,” that is, belonging to the same class or kind. Even with our obvious differences, we are all more alike than not.

My sister lives in California and has children and grandchildren within shouting distance. My brother and his wife have each other and grown children in various places.

I live in Dallas.

Each of us has many friends and acquaintances and activities.

My sister-in-law planned to provide Christmas cheer to a friend who was alone. The day before Christmas she had taken her friend to a doctor’s appointment and knew she was not in good health. On Christmas Day, she went to her friend’s home but could not get her friend to answer her ringing at the door or on the phone. I don’t remember all of the details of the situation for certain. What I do know is that my sister-in-law called 911, and they agreed to check on her friend, saying, of course, that if she was conscious, they could not do anything if she was not willing to be helped.

My sister-in-law had emergency telephone numbers for her friend’s brothers. She contacted them (one in Chicago or some such place, and one in Mississippi). The brother in Mississippi decided to drive over to Baton Rouge to check on his sister. I’m not sure how the situation played out because I came home to my cats in Dallas the next day.

Came home to my cats in Dallas.

Before anyone yawns or reproaches me for feeling sorry for myself, or points out (correctly) that I have many friends (I’ve already invited 45 people to the party I’m throwing for myself when my obligations to SMU are finished in May), I’ll try to state my thesis for this little essay clearly to avoid doomsaying or self-indulgent negativity.

Perhaps since I’m in Texas, I should quote the Bible for my thesis. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV). Even God, to say nothing of every psychologist, psychiatrist, health-care professional, and preacher, knows that it is not good for us to be alone.

Maya Angelou says it as clearly as it can be said.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone
(see below).

Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. I’d guess that means there are millions of Americans—and billions world-wide—who aren’t making it. And I don’t mean not getting enough to eat or enough exercise or good enough hygiene or enough entertainment.

I mean not making it.

I have plenty to eat. I exercise four or five times a week in the therapy pool at the Landry Fitness Center at Baylor Hospital. I shower every day, carry my garbage out, eat off of clean dishes, and wipe the counters of my kitchen (laundry is another matter, but was always so). I watch a certain amount of TV (I’m actually keeping up with Downton Abbey this season). For goodness’ sake, I have a pipe organ in my living room if I need entertaining! Most important, I have friends with whom I regularly see movies, attend concerts, and go to museums.

If an organ in the living room is played, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound

If an organ in the living room is played, and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Without those friends, I would be relegated to TV because, for me, movies, concerts, museums, and Christmas parades are social events I cannot—no matter how hard I try—get used to seeing/hearing by myself. But I will still be entertained. Perhaps.

Just before Christmas, I bought myself two bouquets of inexpensive super-market roses to add to the color of my Christmas decorations. Nearly a month later I still have them. I am neither a hoarder, nor too lazy to throw them out, nor torturing myself with dead flowers.

They are some kind of metaphor that I can’t quite develop. I bought them for myself. Nothing wrong with that. I also bought myself new diamond earrings for Christmas. But the diamonds won’t dry out and droop and lose their color. I don’t know why I don’t throw the roses out. They are saying something to me about my situation—something I haven’t quite figured out yet.

I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want a friend to have to call my brother to drive over here to Dallas from Baton Rouge to see what’s wrong that I don’t answer a knock at the door or a ring of my phone. I know I have many friends who would set things in motion to take care of me just as my sister-in-law did for her friend.

The fear that might not happen is only a surface fear.

“It is not good that [one] should be alone.”

Do I need a spouse, a partner? Do I need to move closer to my brother or my sister? Do I need to find a nice retirement community (on my income?)? What do I need?

I’m one of those old gay men. Anyone can fill in the description after that. And anyone (nearly everyone does) can ask, “What’s wrong with being alone?” And I’ll ask you to read the poem below by Robinson Jeffers. Magnificent, strong, and self-sufficient mountain pine trees “In scornful upright loneliness [ ] stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything.” But in relationship with an eagle, the wind, the fog, the moon “They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought into a singing sad and beautiful.”
white-pine-mountain-and-forest
This picture of mountain pines is from the blog by Scott at seekraz.wordpress.com and is copyrighted. I have used it without his permission, but have asked him if it’s OK. I will remove it if he asks me to (Scott has given me permission–see his kind comment), but I absolutely suggest that you click the link and visit his blog. This picture is but a tiny sample of his glorious photography.

Mountain Pines, by Robinson Jeffers

In scornful upright loneliness they stand,
Counting themselves no kin of anything
Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling
Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand
In the grim rock. A silent spectral band
They watch the old sky, but hold no communing
With aught. Only, when some lone eagle’s wing
Flaps past above their grey and desolate land,
Or when the wind pants up a rough-hewn glen,
Bending them down as with an age of thought,
Or when, ‘mid flying clouds that can not dull
Her constant light, the moon shines silver, then
They find a soul, and their dim moan is wrought
Into a singing sad and beautiful.

Alone, by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

“. . . I pretend I am standing on the wings of a flying plane. . . “

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Lara Flynn Boyle in her newsworthy dress

Drive yourself crazy. Try to remember all the conversations you have in one day. On top of that try to think about everything you’ve heard or read that someone thinks is “newsworthy” for the day—news headlines on the hour on NPR or news briefs on Yahoo when you log on—items in the news that keep you au courant. “’Catching Fire’ Catches, Passes ‘Iron Man’ as 2013’s Biggest Movie.” “Top 6 Playoff Quarterbacks’ Pre-Game Meals.” “Designer Breaks Silence over Infamous Lara Flynn Boyle Tutu Dress.”

Three conversations I’ve heard or participated in during the last couple of days have stuck with me. KERA’s Krys Boyd talked on “Think” with Darrin McMahon whose new book is Divine Fury: A History of Genius. A conversation interesting and off-putting at the same time. McMahon says an essential ingredient of genius is “drive.” I’ve never been driven by anything except love of chocolate. Right away it’s obvious I’m no genius. ORLY!

I had a conversation with my sleep doctor. It boiled down to his gentle warning that as one gets older, one will naturally sleep less. Less than the 5 or 6 hours I’ve been getting per night for 50 years? Oh, PLZ!

A friend and I had a conversation about match.com. How many people on match.com admit to being interested in anyone 69 years old? None. Zero. At least not gay men. But if I don’t find someone in 6 months, they’ll give me another 6 months free. By which time, of course, I’ll be 70. BFD.

I don’t come close to being a genius, I’m going to be sleepier as the years drag on, and I’m already over the hill. None of these flashes is surprising news. None is news as big as Lara Flynn Boyle’s tutu dress.

When I was in high school a group of us from the First Baptist Church of Omaha went to a conference at the American Baptist Assembly at Green Lake, WI. It was one of the most important weeks of my young life (not hyperbole) for several reasons.

At a worship service the staff organist played three “Intermezzi” by Hermann Schroeder. I’m not sure I was ever more taken with music at church. I raved about it. My good friend with whom I was sitting couldn’t believe I liked the music. “It’s not fit to be played in church.”

When we returned home I asked my teacher if I could get the music and learn the “Intermezzi.” He not only knew them but he played them and had an extra copy. I still use the copy of that score from 1962—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance markings in it. Four years later I played Hermann Schroeder’s Organ Sonata I for my senior recital in college.

It takes no particular genius to play the Schroeder “Intermezzi.” They’re technically quite simple. A bit of inspiration may be necessary to play them so they sound “musical” rather than intellectual. Eugene hated them because the melodies are angular and they are mildly (not crushingly) dissonant. They are not hypnotic enough to be appropriate for most church services—in which no one wants to be challenged beyond their comfort zones.

I’m not sure why I was thinking of the “Intermezzi” yesterday. I miraculously found the score—I never put a music score away afterPrentend I'm walking

I use it, and my apartment is stacked with piles of music as if I were an old man who can’t keep things in order—and played through them.

Or tried to.

One would think a short (one minute 40 seconds to play) technically straightforward piece of music that I learned 50 years ago would present no problem. It did. I had to practice—it almost seemed as if I’d never played one line of the piece because it was so difficult (time consuming!) to get it right. I was obsessed. I wanted to record it.

It seems unfortunate that I think of Eugene when I play those intermezzi. They soon passed through my conscious world into my unconsciousness. They brought with them a small repertory of music by Schroeder I love. I’d like to think I would have learned that music even without Eugene—but I needed to prove to him that the music is expressive of something important (the older I get the less certain I am what that might be).

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses
(Shinder, Jason. “How I Am”).

I knew I’d have to “sleep on” the music before I could record it. The sleep of all these years was not enough. I’d have to sleep with it in my conscious mind. Is that weird or what? Today I played it just fine. Recorded it in one take. The drivenness of my youth took over.

This business of longevity, this accumulation of experience and feeling and thought is more confusing—rather than less—every day. I can re-play, probably with much more musicality now, music I learned fifty years ago. I’m somehow musically (my hands may not agree) in my prime. And yet I can’t find a date because no one is looking for someone 69 years old.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955-2008)

When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.
—Shinder, Jason. “How I Am.” The American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).