“. . . things keep growing where we put them . . .” (Kay Ryan)

IMG_6336 - CopyA couple of days ago I needed a cup from a kitchen cabinet I seldom open. My company-for-dinner dishes are there, a complete set of tableware my late partner and I bought so we could appear to be grownups rather than graduate students when guests came to dinner. These days I seldom need to appear grown up at dinnertime, so I don’t open that cabinet except when I want a specific item.

That cabinet is also home to a few keepsakes, sentimentally valuable reminders of loved ones who are gone, including a commemorative plate from my paternal grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, May 31, 1963. It is not high-quality china but no doubt was expensive in those days because my uncle, whose signature “with love” is on the back, had it inscribed for the day. It wasn’t one of those made-to-order items from the internet (t-shirt or coffee mug, or . . .). I remember that celebration well – three weeks before my high school graduation.

IMG_6459-002On my desk is a copy of The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan inscribed by the poet to me. It is the collection for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She signed my copy after she did a reading of her work at SMU last year. I had ordered it on the internet just in time to receive it before Ryan’s reading.

As I took the commemorative plate from the cabinet, Kay Ryan’s poem “A Certain Kind of Eden” was in my mind. I had just read it because Google reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and her book was the handiest volume of poetry on my desk. That was the poem to which I randomly opened the book.

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.

I don’t recall holding my grandparents’ plate since I put it in the cabinet thirteen years ago. However, I have used another of the keepsakes in the cabinet, odd little rectangular salt and pepper shakers at least as old as I am, an inheritance from my mother that commemorates my birthplace, Wyoming. I used the little souvenirs the last time I had company for dinner and wanted to appear to be a grownup. The Morton sea salt container and the McCormick black pepper box I usually use are definitely graduate student style table settings.

You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re give
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.

When I first read “A Certain Kind of Eden,” I assumed it is about a lifetime of decision making. I’ve made decisions in which I have “overprized intention,” thought I was in control. I think of my life since I left my parents’ home after high school graduation in four chapters: Southern California for university and a few years beyond; Iowa for graduate school; Massachusetts for a career as an organist and then 17 years as a college professor; Dallas for graduate school (in a new field) and for love, 23 years and counting.

IMG_6463Anyone reading that litany might assume I’ve made some momentous decisions, that I “chose the bean and chose the soil” in Ryan’s poetic terminology. I have a 54-year-old plate and 70-year-old salt and pepper shakers that indicate a different reality. And I have more. My grandmother’s father was born in 1860 and died in 1937 (he died in an automobile accident on the way to my parents’ wedding). Great-grandfather was over six feet tall and office chairs did not fit him. He shortened the back legs of his favorite chair so he could lean back and be comfortable. I have that chair. It is at least 80 years old, but I would guess much older.

Three ordinary objects. Three family memories. For me, a plethora of decisions to move or to stay, to work or educate myself to change work, to be in a relationship or be alone. With each decision, I have carried with me those three ordinary objects.

I have made each of those decisions in the belief I was acting autonomously, doing what was best for me, following my dreams and desires, abandoning one place for another. But – it’s almost too obvious to need writing – wherever I have gone, whatever decisions I have made, I have with me decisions my great-grandfather (whom I never met), my grandmother, and my mother made before me. I “can’t go back and pull the roots . . . and replant.” I am bound, too, by all the decisions I have previously made.

kay ryanKay Ryan’s “one vine that tendrils out alone,” perhaps the shape of my own life, grows by “its own impulse.” I do not, ultimately, control it. My greatest hope, but finally my greatest sadness.

“A Certain Kind of Eden,” by Kay Ryan
It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan, “A Certain Kind of Eden” from Flamingo Watching. Copyright © 1994 by Kay Ryan.

“These are the chickens you let loose one at a time. . . “ (Kay Ryan)

1-sousia sky

The Palestinian Sky at Sousia Bedouin Village. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 15, 2015)

Poet Kay Ryan read some of her work a couple of days ago at Southern Methodist University, and told a about herself in the same way she writes poetry. That is, less is always more. I have been smiling at, giggling out loud at, and all-but weeping at her poetry for years. Her images and insights are precious to me, the more so because we are virtually the same age (I am eight months her senior) and she so often that it’s uncanny says exactly what I was thinking and didn’t know how to say (I think that’s the definition of great poetry).

I am grateful to have heard her read and talk a little about her poetry because I now know my intuition was right―her delightful, funny, strange little poems are “about” something. They are about the kinkiness of living in this world, and about the mixture of joy and pain getting old―among other realities―brings. At least that’s what I heard the other night.

All the ideas, experiences, (mistakes?) of 70 years I’d like not to remember seem to be taking over my life. The chickens are, re: the old cliché, coming home to roost. It’s not only the bad chickens. It’s all the chickens, even those ideas, experiences, and accomplishments I’m proud of. This is not good or bad. It simply is. In Kay Ryan’s words, they are “all the same kind,” and they are all coming home “at the same speed.” Her poem “Home to Roost,” exemplifies the poet’s―a real poet like Kay Ryan, that is―ability to say all of this precision and elegance (and humor).

“HOME  TO  ROOST,”  by  Kay  Ryan  (b. 1945)

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash. It’s fair to quote him because Ryan quoted one of his poems. The last two lines of his poem “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” comparing sins of “omission” and “commission,” are

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

If all the chickens coming home to roost turn out to be of the same kind, returning at the same speed, what difference does omission or commission―or being or not being sinful―make?

Poets make connections between ideas and images that you and I would never think of until we read them in poems. My mind makes connections, but they are not elegant and certainly can’t be turned into poetry.

About 25 years ago in Boston I taught a college music appreciation class. One of the students was a young Palestinian man. He was had to leave this country soon because his student visa had run out. Unfortunately, the First Palestinian Intifada was just winding down, and his parents had managed to escape and were living on Malta, but he could not go there. He had no passport from Israel. Long story short. Details are not important―it’s complicated―I learned from him about the Nakba, about the Palestinian refugees, about the crushing oppression of the Palestinians before 1967, and about the totally untenable circumstances of their lives since then. He disappeared to Tunisia, and I’ve wondered since then what became of him.

One of the chickens that has come home to roost for me is my delay advocating for the Palestinians. In 1984 I had seen what outspoken advocacy could do for an international star when the Boston Symphony cancelled a performance by Vanessa Redgrave because of her advocacy for the Palestinians. I had no international stardom to fall back on.

But the truth of that situation would not let me go. When the Second Intifada was winding down (2003), I decided I had to see for myself. I went with a delegation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (their Palestine/Israel delegations are now independent as Interfaith Peace Builders). It changed my life. More aspects of my life than I thought at the time or than I realize even today.

Some of those chickens came home to roost.

My lifetime peripheral dedication to the cause of justice became in some ways an obsession. I’ve been back twice.

Since I cannot be a rabble-rousing activist, I have one little almost-private method of staying involved. I put together a blog about daily events in Palestine. Virtually every day. In the year since February 15, 2015, I have posted 255 times.

As far as I can tell, “the sky is dark with chickens, dense with them.” I have done much that might be considered “wrong” (by the Baptists I grew up among). I have done much that seems “right.” Most of my life at the moment seems “all the same kind.” My life is as it is.

My relationship with Palestine InSight is as it is. I simply do it. I’m not sure how many people read it. I used to beg my friends to read it. I wanted it to float to the top of Google searches. My purpose is to provide a place where Americans can see a tiny (tiny, tiny) slice of what’s happening in Palestine that might shed some light on their struggle―and to make available every day a poem by a Palestinian poet. Every day, a poem.

For a while I worried that no one was reading it, that I was wasting my time (about 2 hours a day). And then I realized the blog needs to be there whether anyone reads it or not. If someday someone finds it and loves the poetry or understands something about the lives of the Palestinians, so much the better.

If not, it is part of my “sky [ ] dark with chickens, dense with them.” There. Only there, not to worry about. Do it. Let ‘em loose one at a time.

1-Lifta Village

Lifta Palestinian Village, Jerusalem. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 12, 2015)

“Upon reflection, you are genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have become. . .” (Eleanor Lerman)

Park under the Museum.

Park under the Museum.

One of the marvels of being a human being is that other human beings, even if they don’t understand why, can affect others deeply and well. Eleanor Lerman was only 53 when she published her poem, “Starfish.” It seems almost impossible she or anyone else under 70 years of age can understand it.

I am genuinely surprised to find how quiet I have become.

For the first 65 years of my life I thought I was going to do something wonderful for which I would be remembered for the duration of human civilization. A ridiculous thought, but I held onto it. That thought gave me reason to go on in my circumscribed, parochial, mundane little life.

I’ve never been good at “living in the moment.” I don’t have any idea what that means. I’ve thought since I first read Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling (in about 1975) that the two attributes that make humans different from other creatures (different from, not better than) are 1) our ability to live in a world of symbolic processes—language like Eleanor Lerman’s for starters—and 2) our ability to remember the past and project into the future. What any of that has to do with “living in the moment” I cannot guess.

I’ve given up any thought that I will ever do anything that anyone will remember for longer than about a week after I die. Pity. The world would be so much better if I had had my chance to be brilliantly creative.

Oh, you say, I did have the chance, but I blew it? Anyone who believes that most likely also believes that if one is as energetic and clever as Charles and David Koch, one can be a billionaire. But that’s a pile of horse-pucky. Neither their brains nor their hard work made them rich. They were born with a billion dollars in their father’s checking account. Like the myth I’ve always told myself about being brilliant and creative, they have spun a myth about hard work and ingenuity and all of those other things the rich can afford to believe. I have to believe things that aren’t true in order not to be depressed, and they have to make you believe things that aren’t true in order to justify their greed and power.

It’s all done with mirrors and wires and a supreme evolutionary process of fooling ourselves as we try (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to fool others.

I can’t speak from the vantage of having accomplished great things. So perhaps it’s true that had I worked hard and put my mind to good use, I would be leaving some sort of “legacy” behind when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

The other day as I walked to the SMU center for the Athletic Development of Student Athletes I had a little exchange with the two men, one Hispanic and the other African American, not quite my age, but close, who were holding up signs at the corner of Bishop Boulevard and Schlegel Street on the campus of the university. Signs that said simply,
photo(20)Whenever the Methodist Church on the corner of the campus (the BIIIIGGGG Methodist Church that accompanies Southern Methodist University) has a BIIIIGGGG funeral, these men are paid to hold these signs so people will know whether to park in the church lot or in the lot under the Meadows Museum or on the Boulevard.

Cars. Hundreds of cars. Whoever had died was apparently energetic and clever and brilliant and creative and ingenious and hard-working. The funeral of a personage. My guess is, this being Dallas, it was someone who had made oodles of money and was, therefore, important.

I said to the sign-holders, “Big funeral.” And one replied, “When your time comes, your time comes.” I said, “I guess they’re just as dead as you and I will be.” My other new friend said, “Their money isn’t doing them any good now.” We shook hands, and I went off to tutor university athletes while the cars kept pouring in and the organist was quieting the congregation with lovely improvisations on funeral hymns.

My new friends and I had celebrated about all the funeral the rich man needed. And in the process, we had exchanged authentic communion with each other that the three of us will remember and cherish for a long time to come. And the next time they’re directing traffic and I come hobbling up the street, we will greet each other as friends. Genuine.

That’s a highly romanticized view of the importance of our exchange—I know it. And the deceased may have been one of the humble and meek that will be exalted. And it may be sour grapes on my part because I know no one will have to direct traffic for my funeral. I won’t yet have been organist for a service at the National Cathedral or written the Great American Novel or been Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress.

I was on my way to tutor four university athletes. I have been cheerleader for them for a semester. Their writing has improved (more because they’ve done more of it than because of anything I’ve said), and they have—all of them—come to trust me in the special way a good teacher can be trusted. No judgment, only support and—on good days—some humor and joy in a job well done.

It’s terrifying to know someone trusts me to teach them.

Do I regret that I haven’t reached my “full potential?” Sure. But I don’t know how to verbalize my gratitude. My “legacy” will be that perhaps I helped a bunch of kids figure out how to reach more of their potential than they might have if I hadn’t cared about them, cajoled them, guided them, been vulnerable with them.

Not a bad legacy. In this moment or any other.

“STARFISH,” BY ELEANOR LERMAN

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Where my funeral will not be.
hpumc

“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.

“. . . Pressure, responsibility, success. Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries . . .” (Jim Daniels)

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!

My trigger finger is back.

Trigger fingers are more common in women than in men, they occur most frequently between ages 40 to 60, and they are most common in people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

There is no reason I should have a trigger finger. It’s the little finger of my right hand, if you must know.

I’ve had two cortisone injections which are supposed to cure it. They worked for awhile

So, you might as well know. The last time I had a complete—almost complete—meltdown was the day I went to see Dr. Miskovsky, hand specialist, for my second injection. About three months ago. I thought his office was on Forest Lane, so I passed the Walnut Hill exit from Central Expressway. When I got to Greenville and the hospital wasn’t at the corner, I went north and was soon in the TI campus and had no idea where I was. I began to cry and shout about why they had moved the hospital, and then I was on a dead end residential street so I turned around and was going 50 MPH up another residential street that hooked to the right, and then I was in another neighborhood and didn’t know which direction I was going. Crying and screaming at god and the city for moving the fucking hospital. I got back to Greenville and turned south and called the office because I was 15 minutes late, and they said to come ahead. I did and sat in the waiting room about 2 minutes trying not to cry. Dr. Mislovsky sat down and wanted to know exactly what was wrong. I told him and was embarrassed that I, a 69-year-old man, am still likely to lose it over nothing. He said, “I know. Did you take your meds this morning?” I’d never told him about my meds, so I wondered how he knew, and he reminded they’ve had all of my information in their computers since my hip surgery. Oh.

I could say right here I don’t know how to live in society (which is true) and what I really want is a Walden Pond (in Texas?) where I can move with enough stuff to protect me from the elements and spend the rest of my life in in the real world, not the made up world we homo sapiens have constructed as if it were either real or important.

According to one writer, Richard Zacks, if I want to live in the natural world, I’ll have to do better than Henry David Thoreau.

Most Americans have an image of Thoreau as a rough-hewn, self-educated recluse, who . . . disappeared into the solitude to commune with nature. We picture his little shack far off in the woods, the man a voluntary Robinson Crusoe, alone with his thoughts and the bluebirds. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . Thoreau’s mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodies baskets every Sunday . . . The more one reads in Thoreau’s unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their treehouse in the backyard and pretending they’re camping in the heart of a jungle.

I don’t know how true this is (and I’m not interested enough to find out), but I did read that

. . . poet John Greenleaf Whittier had a conflicting reaction, saying that the message in Walden was that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: “Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs. (This is from Reference.com, so I can’t vouch for its authenticity either.)

A replica is as good as the rel thing

A replica is as good as the rel thing

Back to trigger finger. I’ll have to call Dr. Mislovsky’s office and make the appointment to have him cut into my pinky. I’m scheduled to substitute as organist at a church on August 29, so I better do it soon.

That reminds me that I have an appointment at SMU’s HR tomorrow to sign the papers that will officially end my status as faculty member as of August 1.

There’s a fine howdy-do!

What I really want is not to find Walden Pond (unless it’s as comfortable as Thoreau’s was) but to figure out how to do what I need to do to stay connected enough to keep out of the rain and have enough to eat until I die.

Does that sound defeatist or depressed or sad or something else negative to you? I hate to be brusque, but that’s your problem, not mine. I didn’t say I want to be cut off from human interaction and fellowship (as Thoreau was not).

I’m looking for a soul-mate. (Do you know a 70-year-old gay man who’d like a soul mate? Leave a comment telling me how to find him.) I mean some old guy like me to whom I can say anything—talk about how America used to be the land of the free; talk about how scary it is to think about the probability that we’ve got 10, 12, maybe fifteen years before we won’t be wondering what death is; talk about trigger finger; talk about Lady Gaga; talk about Frescobaldi; talk about the absurd necessity of religion. Say anything to him and he say anything to me that will not upset or bore the other.

And a little warmth and closeness (physical?) to go with it and comfort each other or rejoice with each other as appropriate.

I’m not sure why reading Jim Daniels’ poem, “Short Order Cook” brought all of this up in my mind, but it did. I guess I’d like to be able to fry 30 burgers, slap some ice in my mouth, and return to work. Without a meltdown. But it would be so much more fun not alone.

“Short-Order Cook,” by Jim Daniels (b. 1956; Professor of Creative Writing, Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University)
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Trigger happy

Trigger happy

“. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

A minority report.

To be “the man”

The Melungeons are (were) a mixed-raced ethnic group who live(d) in small communities in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Their origins are mysterious. Conflicting theories attempt to explain how they came to reside in Appalachia.

The most widely-accepted theory is that they are the descendants of female slaves and white males, who were able to flee to the mountains where they inter-married with the Native Americans and the Anglo Americans who had begun to settle in the mountains.

In the 1990s, Brent Kennedy, who identified himself as a Melungeon, proposed the theory that the Melungeons are descendants of Muslim Arabs who, after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in the New World in 1566 as part of the doomed Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina, the settlement destroyed by the English in 1587.

I want to identify myself as Professor of the Year. I want the award as the most inspiring, most knowledgeable, most organized professor in the university.

I want to have published three or four books since my tenure appointment. I want to be a “talking head” on NPR when they need an authority in my field.

I want to be, if not a true intellectual, at least a thorough-going scholar.

On “Rate your Professor” I want high accolades from students that entice so many students to take my classes that the registrar has to turn students away.

Dear me, I forgot. It’s too late. (“Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.”)

Whatever their origins, most of the Melungeons (for reasons long forgotten) refer(red) to themselves as Portuguese (or, as they said, according to Kennedy, “Portyghee”). The thesis of Kennedy’s book is that the Melungeons were, over the centuries, so reviled that they did everything they could to blend into society and no longer exist as a subculture.

The five young men, athletes at SMU, whom I work with as tutor in my retirement had the assignment to read the Kennedy article linked above for the summer school writing class they are taking. The purpose is ultimately for them to write essays about marginalization in American society.

These guys are going to take their places as “my boys”—I know I shouldn’t call them that. They are not “boys” (or are they?), and they certainly are not “mine.” All of them are star athletes.

I’d like to file a perhaps unusual report on college athletes here.

These five guys (and all who have preceded them as “my boys”) are respectful, interesting, socially competent young men who know something most (yes, most) college students do not know: self-discipline. In the fall semester 2013 eleven members of SMU’s football and basketball teams were in my classes. Not one of them was a slacker. Several of them knew they were under-prepared for college writing, but they worked hard to overcome their disadvantage.

Now I am a paid tutor for several student athletes in the Academic Development of Student Athletes program at SMU. I know—I’d be willing to bet—more about the regulations of the NCAA than any of my jock friends. I know exactly what the limits are on what I may do for these guys. And I follow the rules. And so do they. And they work hard. (I may not, for example, put a mark their papers or put a keystroke to them if they are digital).

A couple of these guys have had great difficulty getting where they are now in many ways—ways more daunting than academic. But whatever their success as athletes might ultimately be, they will have a real education when they graduate from SMU. I’m there to help see to that.

Many years ago I blew my chance to be Professor of the Year (first by accepting a non-tenure-track position, and in many other ways as well). But I’m not like the Melungeons. I have not been ridiculed and marginalized (professionally, that is). I know something about marginalization because I am a gay man, of course.

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Here’s what I do instead of being Professor of the Year. One of the young men was having difficulty getting his mind around the Kennedy article. Almost anyone would. It’s a five page condensation of myriad historical facts that require an enormous amount of background knowledge to comprehend.

The student and I were discussing it. I was trying to help him see the big picture—that the article is not about those details, but about marginalization. From somewhere (where do these ideas come from?) I thought suddenly of telling him I never shook a black person’s hand until I was in fifth grade. He was—as he might well have been—shocked. I asked him pointedly if he hadn’t felt the pain of racism. And we talked about marginalization.

He said after a few minutes I was the first white man with whom he had ever had such a conversation. “Professor Knight,” he says every time we finish an hour together, “you’re the man!” And I say to him, “No, you’re the man!” And we do a fist bump. But that’s not enough for him. He reaches out to shake my hand.

So I am the Professor of the Year. At least for “the man!” I am the Professor of the Summer.

He will never know—because I will never figure out how to tell him, and, by NCAA rules I probably am not allowed to—that I’m getting more out of our two hours a week together than he is.

George Gray, whoever he was, seems to be one of the less admirable folks in Edgar Lee Masters’ town Spoon River. I used to think he was somewhat pathetic, and feared I was like him. But one could find a much less worthy “meaning in my life” than being told by a young man who seems to be on the verge of fame and fortune (or abject failure?)—but who is still a twenty-year-old kid—that one is “the man.”

“George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950)
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

A Kentucky Portyghee family

A Kentucky Portyghee family

GRB 140419A – “My heart leaps up when I behold” (William Wordsworth)

GRB 140419A - reality circled in blue.

GRB 140419A – reality circled in blue.

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The headline on SMU’s website reads, “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.”

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago (1).

SMU owns the telescope that took the first picture of the explosion, the Rotse-IIIB at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas.

I want to know about GRB 140419A. How do the astronomers know it “occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago?”

I ask, not as a science-denier. I don’t doubt astronomers know GRB 140419A happened shortly after the Big Bang. I don’t doubt the Big Bang happened. It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of accepting the unfathomable body of research and practice of scientists over the last five hundred years. The correctness of the science does not depend on me

I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I have some sense. My lack of knowledge does not carry me off into disbelief—the arrogant disbelief of climate-change and evolution, for example. Arrogant because that disbelief assumes either that one knows more than all scientists since Galileo, or that god has given one special insight into the workings of the universe. I’d be terrified of claiming a special understanding directly from god about the physical laws of the universe. Or anything else, for that matter.

But then, I’m neither a Southern Baptist nor a member of the Taliban.

Being in my 70th year with little time left on this planet (and somewhat diminished brain capacity), I can’t make up for the studying I haven’t done. I’ll never know how astronomers know when GRB 140419A happened. “. . . gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe since the Big Bang,” Farley Ferrante, a graduate student in Southern Methodist University’s Department of Physics, who monitored the observations, said. “These bursts release more energy in 10 seconds than our Earth’s sun during its entire expected lifespan of 10 billion years. . .” (1).

I have no idea why many things are the way they are. Why, for example, after decades of selling blueberries in plastic boxes with slots in them so the berries could be washed by running water through the box, has Kroger suddenly begun selling blueberries in solid boxes so they have to be taken out of the box for washing?

Trivial, you say? Well, then back to the cosmic. Since the Big Bang started everything, what caused the Big Bang? What banged? One molecule of something banged? Well, where was it when it banged if there was no there there? What made it bang? Had anything ever banged before? Do scientists think about these things and have answers for them?

Probably, but I don’t know.

Some of the stuff of my reality?

Some of the stuff of my reality?

. . . [In certain patients] . . . psycho-sensory symptoms of epileptogenic nature occur . . . These symptoms, likely closely related to dissociative tendency and experienced traumatic events, normally belong to characteristic manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy . . . Characteristic symptoms are very similar to certain dissociative symptoms. . . memory gaps, confusion spells, staring spells, episodic irritability . . . (2)

I’ve concluded my temporal lobe epilepsy is a fortunate preview of the impossibility of apprehending the nature of reality. When I was a child and went into dissociative states for which I had no explanation, I concluded that I didn’t really exist and neither did you. I concluded we are all a figment of the imagination of someone or something that we can’t possibly know.

What is real?

Do you know for sure? Is Wall Street real? Are HD “smart” TV’s real? Is the war in Syria real? Are the dresses movie stars wear on the red carpet real? Are the dresses you wear real? Is Ted Cruz any more real now that he has renounced his Canadian citizenship? Is your religion real? Is SMU’s physics department real? Is my computer real?

I know, I’m being sophomoric again. I need to study Nietzsche, or Heidegger, or Kant, or Foucault, or Baudrillard, or Dick Cheney, and I will have plenty of answers to my silly questions. The silly questions I’ve been asking all my life.

The stuff of my life has nothing to do with reality. I’m not saying the cup of morning coffee, the Wi-Fi router, the four or five thumb-drives, the magnifying glass I use to read the writing on most packages of stuff I buy these days, the 1,000 books on the shelves behind me, Groucho the cat sitting beside me—all of that stuff I can see and touch right now—is not “real.”

But at the moment of my death will any of it matter? Will the billions in my bank account matter? Will my latest tattoo matter? Will Eric Cantor matter? Will the surplices and reserve sacrament at my church matter? Will clothes for sale at Traffic LA downtown or Walmart in the suburbs matter? Will the gender of my spouse matter? Will my right to own a gun matter? Will saving the whales matter?

Is there a First Cause? an Unmoved Mover? a God, if you will?

I have no idea what William Wordsworth meant by “natural piety.”

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

However, I know this. The question of “when my life began,” my personal Big Bang or the universal Big Bang, is the same question as “when I shall grow old or let me die.”

Anyone my age or older who isn’t absorbed in thinking about these things is perhaps substituting “stuff” for reality.
__________
(1) Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.
(2) Bob, Petr, et. al. “Dissociation and Neurobiological Consequences of Traumatic Stress.” Activitas Nervosa Superior 50 (2008): 9-14.

If this be reality, make the most of it

If this be reality, make the most of it