“When ‘senescent’ approaches ‘senescence’”

Parry MY  LAST  FEW  POSTINGS  HERE  WERE  MISTAKES.  Literally! (a proper use of that word). I managed somehow to transfer the postings for my other blog to this one. Don’t ask. Perhaps the “process” of becoming old has become “being” old. I’m now setting things right with a post that is intended for this space.

In 1965 at the beginning of my junior year as an organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in California, Dr. Leslie P. Spelman informed me that he could no longer be my teacher. I was too “unpredictable.” When he meant was that I was unruly, not genteel, too “out” as a young gay man (this was, after all, 1965—four years before Stonewall).

Anyone who knew both of us could have predicted this separation. I was furious, but took it in stride because the School was in the process of installing the new mechanical action organ (the first I had ever seen), and Professor Boese was responsible for it. Having studied in Europe he was anxious to have a tracker organ to teach on. I was excited to be one of the first students to play on the Schlicker. I gave the first student degree recital on it, my Junior Recital (Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548; and Hindemith Sonata II for Organ).

Although I was unpredictable (unruly and undisciplined), Dr. Spelman hired me as a work-study student, and a great deal of my work became sorting and boxing his music and books. He was not far from retirement, and was clearing his office.

He and I spent a great deal of time together, and he tried his level best to instill in me something of his appreciation for the arts and some understanding of the simple and gentle way of life of his Quaker heritage. I fear he was not markedly successful at either.

He gave me music scores and books. His copy of the works of Orlando Gibbons from the monumental Tudor Church Music series, the large volume with his inscription, “Paris, 1924” on the fly leaf, a purchase from his years as a student of Joseph Bonnet in Paris. A copy of the Frescobaldi Fiori Musicali, the Bonnet edition. An assortment of little-known organ music, for the most part gentle, unassuming works that I, for the most part, thought were next to useless.

One score he gave me I have kept these 50 or so years. I’ve played a couple of pieces from it in the past, but I’ve always thought the volume was, while quaint with its gray cardboard cover, full of music too sentimental to be of any value. I remember distinctly his giving it to me with some other volumes, telling me that someday I might understand and be able to play the music.

The gray cardboard-bound volume is titled “A Little Organ Book.” It is a collection of 12 pieces by different British composers written to mark the passing of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), head of the Royal College of Music. The 12 composers represented were either faculty colleagues, or composition students of Parry, or church musicians who performed his works.

Recently I’ve been learning those works. I have, perhaps, begun to understand this music. Pieces written to honor the memory of a teacher and fellow composer, and written very soon after his death, some of them apparently composed for his funeral. Given to me by my teacher.

For the past several months I have been unable to write either for this blog or for any other purpose. At the risk of seeming as sentimental as I have thought “A Little Organ Book” to be for these many years, I will offer a simplistic explanation. I am depressed. I am 70 years old and alone. This is not how my “last years” were intended to be (intended by whom? one might ask). I will write soon about my flawed thinking. It’s enough to say now that I am not alone, and I have several fulfilling and beneficial activities to keep me both busy and in daily contact with other people.

But I have not yet come to terms with this situation that may last another week or, if my father’s genes have anything to do with it, another 27 years.

And then, when I least expected it, on the music desk of my organ opened a lovely little musical work that my most important mentor told me when he was only a couple of years short of 70 that I would someday know how to play.

I get it, I think. “IV” by Alan Gray (1855-1935), organist and director of the choirs at Trinity College, Cambridge. For his friend Hubert.

“. . . 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.

“. . . The noose pendulous over his head, you can feel him. . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

wagon_train-2
As a non-tenure-track professor of a college course now called “Discovery and Discourse,” (aka, “Freshman English”) I assumed one of the best means of “discovery” about any given topic for students would be discussion with other students who were not cookie-cutter versions of themselves. That, of course, is a liberal knee-jerk idea. I even went so far as to socially engineer class members into talking to each other. I’d ask them to get into groups of three in which they did not know either of the other two or have any contact with them outside of class.

That process usually meant that, if the class included students from one of the prerequisite minority groups on campus, they did not end up forming a group to work together either in safety or in opposition to the others. If the students didn’t self-select that way, I had my not-so-subtle ways of getting them to regroup.

The first time I was engaged to the woman who eventually became my wife (after our second engagement, brought on by my having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated from college) and then became my ex-wife (when I figured out one possibility for what I wanted to be when I grew up), I met one of her closest friends, a young man who had been a classmate of hers at the college where she went before she transferred to the University of Redlands.

Her friend was a radical liberal hippie type from the East somewhere (we later visited him in Philadelphia, but I don’t think that was his hometown). At the time I met him, I was under the no-doubt communist (at least fellow-traveler) influence of Dr. L. Pratt Spelman, Director of the School of Music and Quaker activist against the Viet Nam War (which was hardly even a war at that time).

I was, because of the no-doubt-anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman, primed to be influenced by “Young Pierce,” as my sometimes wife called her friend for reasons I’ve forgotten. He was a member of SNCC—the Students’ Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had either been in the “March on Selma” or helped coordinate the “Freedom Riders” who supported it. I can’t remember. He showed up in California, and I was terrified of him both because he was so damned articulate and persuasive about Civil Rights and such things, and because he was tall, red-headed, and handsome, and my not-yet-wife obviously had some feelings for him that made me nervous.

Never mind those feelings. What happened, of course, was that in about one weekend my political beliefs went from nice-boy (leaning away from) Nebraska Republicanism to radical (if timid) bad-boy California anti-almost-everythingism. I had been duly prepared for the change by the relentless tutoring of Hyman Lubman in my junior and senior American History classes at Omaha Central High School. Relentlessly academic and intellectually challenging, that is. I was pretty much a “hanger-on” in those classes, but Mr. Lubman had managed to get me used to the idea that the status quo might not be the status good.

The School of Music at the University of Redlands under the anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman (who was president of the dangerous American Society of AestheticsNOT skin-care) had one African American student—and I didn’t know any others from other department of the University. Can we say token?

Meeting Young Pierce opened me to a vast array of no-doubt-communist causes from anti-war to civil rights to “what’s-a-little-recreational-sex-between-friends,” and almost to smoking weed. That’s where I drew the line (at that time). You know, sex, drugs, and J.S. Bach, or something like that.

So here we are again where we were when I met Young Pierce. Wars that seem endless, Jim Crow voting laws being passed

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

right and right and right, and income inequality growing by leaps and bounds (the university where I taught for 15 years never paid me more than $40,000 per year, and rumor has it they’ve offered a famous football coach $4,000,000 to come and save the program, 100 times the amount of my salary). You know the state of affairs in this country. I don’t need to tell you.

I grew up in Nebraska, never more than a stone’s throw from the Oregon Trail. All the people on the trail a hundred years before were white. As far as any of us knew.

Our favorite stories of the Oregon Trail, the ones we played at and reenacted as kids, were the stories of the settlers being attacked by Indians, aborigine wild men out to kill us white good guys. We knew in a play-acting sort of way what “circle the wagons” meant. Wagon train, Oregon Trail, non-white heathens attacking, “CIRCLE THE WAGONS.”

So here we are again. Circle-the-wagons time. The non-whites are attacking again. Ebola from Africa. Thousands of children from Central America. Those “lazy black people that wants the government to give them everything” trying to vote. Gays getting married (most of them are white, but they might as well be black). Those old people without photo IDs trying to defraud us by voting. And a dangerous Indonesian-Kenyan smartass in the White House.

I don’t quite remember when it was (in your 70th year you’re allowed to forget almost everything), but once in my life I was questioned for a Gallup Poll. It must have been at a time of some economic distress in the country because the first question was, “What do you see as the most important problem facing our nation today” (or some you’re-in-the-Gallup-Poll language). My answer was, “Racism.” The young man asking the question was thrown off completely. “Racism” was not on his possible answers list, so he had no idea what follow-up questions to ask.

Circle the wagons.
__________
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947. He is best known for his poetry about serving in Viet Nam. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
In several of his poems he uses the image of reflections as a metaphor for our ability to see past what is real in the present to connect with realities from other times or places. “All is a random flow of contingent, accidental associations, connecting to each other laterally but not to the transcendent presence of idea . . . Can one look through the window of history to its essence, or do its surfaces just laterally refract?” (“Knowing their place: Three Black writers and the postmodern South,” by William M. Ramsey).

Can one look through the window of the history of lynching, that is, racism, to see its essence?

“Reflections,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the day’s mirror
you see a tall black man.
Fingers of gold cattail
tremble, then you witness
the rope dangling from
a limb of white oak.
It’s come to this.
You yell his direction,
the wind taking
your voice away.
You holler his mama’s name
& he glances up at the red sky.
You can almost
touch what he’s thinking,
reaching for his hand
across the river.
The noose pendulous
over his head,
you can feel him
grow inside you,
straining to hoist himself,
climbing a ladder
of air, your feet
in his shoes.

What we do to "Freedom Riders."

What we do to “Freedom Riders.”

“. . . 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.

 

“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

__________________________________
From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.

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.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Of her poem “Acts of Mind” Catherine Barnett (b. 1960) says it’s “a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”

As city icons go. . .

As city icons go. . .

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

Her inspiration came from riding the Grande Roue, the 197-foot high Ferris wheel on the northern edge of Jardin de Tuileries and rue de Rivoli in Paris. The wheel was built in 2000 for the millennium celebrations, dismantled and reassembled in several cities around the world, and finally reassembled in Paris where it is permanently part of the New Year’s Celebrations in Paris, and a new “icon” for the city.

One of the delights of getting old is forgetting more than most people will ever know. That’s what Dr. Pratt Spelman told me when I was a sophomore organ major in the School of Music at the University of Redlands in 1964. I thought he was nuts then, and I still think that statement coming from almost anyone else would be the height of egoism, “the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest” (dictionary.com). Dr. Spelman valued everything in reference to his own personal interests—not his self-interest—art, the study of “beauty” (he was president of the American Society of Aestheticians), the anti-war efforts of the Society of Friends.

“. . . the cable that connects the one to the many.”

I think—although I don’t know for sure—my friends wouldn’t believe I am a “shy person.” That is, however, true. Even though I talk all the time. I stand in front of groups of 15 college students 12 times a week and make jokes (they don’t understand) and try to get them to figure out something about writing. For 50 years I sat at organ consoles in churches and played and directed choirs and thought up activities for those groups to help them cohere as communities.

Never once, not once, not ever was I comfortable doing any of those things. I love teaching in my office conferencing with students one-on-one about specific writing projects. Sometimes I love having coffee with one person, sitting at Starbucks (not my favorite, but the most readily available) for an hour talking about this, that, and the other. But most often I can’t even keep up a conversation with my closest friends. If they’re not in a chatty mood, coffee can be pretty silent.

I tell myself now that, like Dr. Spelman, the problem is simply I’ve forgotten more than I (and most people) used to know, and I have nothing to talk about.

I’ve joined the gay square dance group in Dallas, the Pegasus Squares (if you’re gay and in Dallas, give us a try). “Pegasus,” for those who don’t know Dallas, is the flying red (neon) horse atop the old Magnolia building—the symbol of, what else in Dallas? The Magnolia Oil Company. It was erected in 1934 and immediately became a symbol for the city. It’s really quite lovely in the night sky. As commercial icons go, it’s one of the best.

But my mind wanders. (Always.)

Please not in front of the class. . .

Please not in front of the class. . .

I joined the square dancers, and I go to the lessons on Sunday afternoons, and during the breaks between “tips,” I sit at the end of the row of chairs by the wall and don’t have conversation with anyone unless another dancer sits beside me and begins chatting. I took lessons three years ago at a “straight” group and loved it—the dancing, that is. But it was the same deal with sitting alone on the folding chairs during breaks. That is, until the single old women (they were maybe 68 or 70—and I was 66, but they were old) realized I was single. No more being alone. But that’s one of the reasons I stopped dancing. The widows and I were not meant for each other.

So you’d think the Pegasus group would be easy. You can tell from the picture on the website that the “demographic” is right for me. “Mature” men—gay, friendly and not pretentious, some professional guys—at least one other English teacher—all the kinds of guys I should be completely at ease with, and if they have ulterior motives, they’re probably the same as any I might have. And I sit alone during the breaks because I don’t have a clue what to say to anyone. Chat. Small talk. Social intercourse. Whatever you want to call it is—and always, that is always has been—a mystery to me.

I should try (once again as I have so many times) to explain why. I have this TLE problem that makes me wonder when there’s noise and motion if I’m even there. I live in my mind so much it’s hard to know which of the things going on in there I should say. I’m a self-centered perfectionist and can’t abide the thought of saying the “wrong” thing. Let’s pathologize it—I’m a “social anorexic.” Oh, fuck it. There’s no “reason.” I’m just terrified. Sometimes even of my friends.

And I’ll bet that most people, if they admitted it, if they followed their basic instincts, are terrified, too. And if you all followed your own basic instincts there’d be a lot less chatter in the world and a lot more communication.

For starters, the internet would be about 1/3 its size, and most politicians would be forced to shut up. Maybe I should be grateful that some few of us, at least, are shy persons.

Catherine Barnett’s little poem registered with me for the lines

mine usually the little void
of space I call honey . . .

The little void of space I call honey. My make believe friend. My void of space. I’m comfortable with him. “A celebration of solitude and desire.”

“Acts of Mind,” by Catherine Barnett

What’s funny about this place
is us regulars coming in with our different
accoutrements, mine usually the little void
of space I call honey, days
I can barely get through I’m laughing so hard,
see? In the back a woman squeezes oranges,
someone presses the fresh white bread
into communion wafers or party favors.
In the window the chickens rotate blissfully,
questioning nothing–
Sometimes I flirt with the cashier, just improvising,
the way birds land all in a hurry on the streetlamp across the street,
which stays warm even on cold nights.
Guillaume says humor is sadness
and he’s awfully pretty.
What do they put in this coffee? Men?
No wonder I get a little high. Remember
when we didn’t have sex on the ferris wheel,
oh that was a blast,
high, high above the Tuileries!
__________________
Barnett is an instructor at New York University and The New School and has been the Visiting Poet at Barnard College. As poet-in-residence at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, she teaches writing to young mothers in New York City’s shelter system. “This poem is a celebration of solitude and desire and is suspended on the cable that connects the one to the many.”  If you’d like to read stuff I wrote about square dancing when I was taking lessons before, your can migrate here and/or here.

. . . not meant for each other . . .

. . . not meant for each other . . .