“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother
.

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. The ocean was all one. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“Which way does your beard point tonight?”

The other day driving home from my (surprisingly for an old man) regular exercise at the Landry Fitness Center at

Which way is his beard pointing?

Which way is his beard pointing?

Baylor Hospital (I walk in the “therapy” pool) I heard Krys Boyd on her “Think” program on KERA Radio say to the writer she was interviewing, “Since human beings can logically expect to live seventy years . . .” I have no idea how that sentence ended.

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

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

Funny thing about that. Almost everywhere I go, I am the oldest person there. By default I apparently am part of the older generation. I’m not sure if my dad or uncle ever thought much about being the older generation of our family. They both reached old age—my father, as I’ve said here many times, lived to be 97.

Subject shift.

This morning standing briefly in front of the bathroom mirror, I noticed my beard. Seeing myself with a beard after many years of shaving completely or allowing only stubble to grow on my face was a surprise even though I’ve had the beard for several months now.  Even more of a surprise is taking in, seeing and understanding and remembering that my beard is an old man’s beard. Mostly gray, but with this odd patch of brown almost as dark as it was thirty years ago.

I could, if I shaved around it very carefully, leave a brown moustache.

The scraggliest President

The scraggliest President

Don’t ask. I have no idea why I’m thinking about my beard this morning. Well, yes I do. I meant to ask a couple of friends last night where they get their hair cut. I need to find a barber who knows how to shape a beard. Not simply cut it. Shaping a beard is a fine craft. The guys at Super Cuts don’t know how.

When I was a kid (my apologies to a blogger I read yesterday who said one shouldn’t tell personal stories in their blog), my uncle (gay brother of my mother and of the uncle at my grandfather’s funeral) gave me a boxed set of plastic figures of all of the Presidents (up to Eisenhower, who was President at the time). Playing with those figures, I not only learned to recite the names of the Presidents in order, but also learned to identify each of them.

Many of them I recognized by their beards. My favorite was Martin Van Buren. He looked somehow wild and unkempt. Chester A. Arthur had a scraggly beard, too, but I was not nearly as enchanted by his.

Allen Ginsberg wrote,

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the
cashier.

At first I thought this somehow belittled Walt Whitman. Ginsberg was only 29 when he wrote it. Brash young thing. But as I contemplated, I realized the poem is a fond—no, more than fond—picture of the “lonely old grubber” who helped Ginsberg find his voice, not among lofty ideas and magnificent natural wonders, but in the ordinary. At the grocery store.

It’s not so bad to be a lonely old grubber. Walt Whitman had a scraggly beard, too.

In Leaves of Grass Whitman answers the child who asks (in part 6) “What is the grass?”

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

I’m not sure I understand the image of the grass “darker than the colorless beards of old men.” Ginsberg’s poem continues as an obvious ode to Whitman’s influence in his own work.

      Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher. . .

We are the older generation now

We are the older generation now

Human beings can expect to live seventy years. I am the older generation now. Ginsberg’s question for us old guys, poets, Presidents, or me is “Which way does your beard point tonight?” Whitman answers that the grass, new sprouts of grass are new life.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
____________________
I urge you to follow the links to the Whitman and Ginsberg poems below so you have something worth reading instead of my disconnected thoughts.

A Child said, What is the Grass, by Walt Whitman (scroll down to number 6)
A Supermarket in California, by Allen Ginsberg

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

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

Granddad would have wondered where this idea came from.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Me! O My!

O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman

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


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

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

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

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

“. . . like a mammy bending over her baby. . .” redux

Griff's on the Dock - please don't come here

Griff’s on the Dock – please don’t come here

On November 15, 2009, I wrote about a day alone on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon. I must stop writing about Port Orford, or everyone will rush there to get a tiny corner of the mystical experience—or at least the catch of the day at Griff’s on the Dock (swordfish steak the last time I was there). Then I’ll have to find another (ethereal, lovely, pleasing, rare, incomparable—because I’m not poet enough to find the right adjective) place to go to “sing myself. . . and invite my soul.”

Is that the height of ego, to make a link to my writing in the same paragraph with a link to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself?” (But this is a lecture with hyperlinks in place of footnotes, so if you want the full effect, you should follow them. Please, however, if you don’t click on any others, read the poem at the last one.)

I reread what I wrote on that November day and wonder. How I could write anything so overblown. How could I possibly post for all eternity (or at least until the internet disappears) such purple prose?  As I reread my writing, I am reminded of one of the most successful poems in English—not of Whitman’s extravagant genius.

My poem is by Joyce Kilmer (1886 –1918). That I know it proves I’m in my senescence. We memorized it in second grade. No teacher since about that time has read it to her class (if by some quirk of history she knows it). It’s not on any standardized test.

“Trees” (1913)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

You can enjoy the poem best in the 1939 recording by Paul Robeson—a “parlor song” by Oscar Rasbach, published in 1922. I don’t mean to make fun either of Kilmer (he died fighting in World War I) or of Rasbach. I simply use their work as the background for what I need to say this morning.

Star Dust

Star Dust

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” That is one of the best critiques of poetry (perhaps art in general) I know. Kilmer’s poem works brilliantly because it goes on to prove that a poem is not as beautiful as a tree. I know, I know, that’s silly. But true. The musical setting (which I first accompanied on the piano when I was in high school—it was even then a popular vehicle for amateur singers) is commensurate with the success of the poem.

My posting on November 15, 2009, originated in my growing, and by now nearly overwhelming, understanding that I am simply part of whatever it is that makes trees. I wrote that day a somewhat confusing and confused (because it’s based in lack of knowledge of physics, chemistry, and/or astronomy) description of my body as part of the inter-planetary dust that makes up the earth. Star dust, apparently.

The day I was walking the beach at Port Orford I understood a kind of connection with the physical world that I’ve known a very few times in the last 68 years. I felt a kind of bodily peace that resulted in a slowing of my mind and deep awareness both that I am alive and that I will soon enough die. I have blogged about that experience before (surprise—I’ve blogged about everything I think before), seeing Wind Cave in South Dakota when I was a kid. About being submersed in solid ground, not water.

This writing began in my mind as a discussion of the healing power of water. (I am as sentimental as Joyce Kilmer.) No, really. For seven months I have been walking almost every day in the therapy pool at the Tom Landry Fitness center at Baylor University Hospital. I’m not going to speculate about that too deeply here because I don’t know how. This writing would have begun there it I did.

What I know is this. I have met a small cadre of old folks like me, many of whom have much more serious physical problems than I. But we all walk, work out, exercise, do Yoga—you name it, we do it. And the water helps us heal—or, perhaps, it heals us. Someday I will find a way to explain. Of course, there’s the actual physical phenomenon. I walk (forward, backward, and sideways) for an hour. The water buoys me up so I do not damage my healing hip. The water provides resistance so I strengthen my muscles without straining.

But I get into some kind of meditative state that I cannot explain, that I don’t understand, that I would rather not talk about. It’s the same sense I had in Wind Cave and on the beach at Port Orford. Yesterday a metaphor came to mind. I won’t even try to say why. It would spoil it if I did.

It’s from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation.” OK, so I don’t believe in God, and I have no idea how to put my experience of life and the sureness of death together. But I somehow believe and understand

Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image
.

Perhaps there are poems lovely as trees.

Then he stopped and looked and saw That the earth was hot and barren. So God stepped over to the edge of the world And he spat out the seven seas --

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas —

Let’s amend the Constitution

I propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading:


“Neither Congress nor any State Legislature shall pass any law limiting any person’s right to be free from violence at the hands of those who bear arms.”

A book I know well says, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to close the door on it.” I have tried for years to come to terms with that concept. To make it part of my self-perception. Internalizing the idea is pretty difficult for me because much in my past I wish had been otherwise than it was.

I know, I know. Everyone can say that—and would if she were being unabashedly honest. But whether wishing it were not so is the same as regretting, I’ll let keener minds than mine decide. My distinction is that I can regret only those choices I made consciously and willingly, while I can wish experiences over which I had little or no control had not happened.

The most important day of the year

I loaf and invite my soul

I loaf and invite my soul

On March 21 nearly every year I give my students a quiz of one question. “Why is today the most important day of the year?”

Almost never does a student pass the quiz.

And I’ll bet I’m safe in assuming that almost no one who might be reading this today can guess why this is the most important day of the year.

It’s obvious.

Today is the 328th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

But for the birth of J. S. Bach, music would not exist as we know it.

Music purists and historians and better-musicologists-than-I can (and may) dispute that assertion. Of course it’s not true. Or is it? The harmonies, the contrapuntal designs, the musical forms both great and small perfected by J. S. Bach are the touchstone for all of music since 1685. The Beatles, Beyonce, John Cage, Madonna, Arthur Sullivan, and Arnold Schönberg notwithstanding.

I’m not going to get into an argument here. Arguments require evidence. I have none.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands, my organ professor Leslie Pratt Spelman (1903-2001) invited three organ majors to hear him play a small recital in the university chapel. It was a private Sunday evening recital for his Quaker Meeting. It was delicious playing, slow, simple, accurate, and idiosyncratic. He played Frescobaldi, Brahms, pieces by a couple of 20th-century Dutch composers (friends of his), and Bach.

None of the great Bach show pieces, but three or four of the rarest musical gems from the Bach Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). One of those was Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year now Has Passed Away). When I asked him later to study it with him, he told me I could not play it until I was an old man.

He was sixty-two at the time.

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

I am now sixty-eight and have been playing Das alte Jahr since I was about fifty. It is a setting of the tune for a New Year’s Day hymn,

The old year now has passed away;
We thank Thee, O Our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

(Anonymous, Erfurt, 1568)

Johann Sebastian Bach was, in his own time, a relatively obscure composer and a not-too-famous church and court musician stuck off in the hinterlands of Protestant Germany. To wit, his six Brandenburg Concerti, which are now considered the towering examples of the Baroque form, were never performed in his lifetime. He wrote them for Chistian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, most likely hoping to be noticed as worthy perhaps of a higher position than Kappelmeister at Köthen, a fairly insignificant music center in 18th-century Germany. He wrote an introduction to the Margrave saying he was

. . .  begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Right. “. . . judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste. . .”

judge their imperfection

judge their imperfection

When I heard Dr. Spelman play, he was presenting music (not himself) for the contemplation of his Meeting of Friends. My friends and I had to rush from the chapel stifling laughter because we did not understand the silence that followed or the speaking  about the affect of the music by one after another of the members of the Meeting.

Finally at age 68, I’m beginning to understand. Bach died when he was sixty-five. Dr. Spelman lived forty or so years after that evening in the chapel.

The repertory I studied with Dr. Spelman is limited and, perhaps, odd. What he taught me was a most important life lesson, and I did not understand until decades later. It’s very simple. He told me I must learn to “invite my soul.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“I celebrate myself” from Song of Myself—Walt Whitman)

I am now that old man Dr. Spelman said could play Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. One might think that on this most important day of the year, I would record something that sounds important. Only those who have reached a certain age can understand, I think, the joy, the beauty, the importance of this small work. Sadness is, I am beginning to understand, necessary in order to experience joy. I am in a time of intense sadness the likes of which I trust I will never need to feel again because it will always be eclipsed by joy.