Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wild Surmise

Last Monday our little group of Empty Nesters met at Pat and Rich’s home for our monthly meeting, a short discussion, and refreshments. As anyone with a calendar could have anticipated, Pat’s lesson focused on Thanksgiving and the spirit of gratitude. After her introduction, all of us were asked to express that singular thing that we were most thankful for; we had been warned prior to our get-together that our little moment in the sun would take place. Needless to say, most of our friends spoke about their spouses and family, their good health, and their religious life. In nothing were they cavalier about their feelings; their sincerity was real. Having been prepared by Pat’s phone call, I had given the assignment some thought, but it was not until we were sitting in our friends’ living room that my contribution came to me.

How important is it in our daily lives to breathe, to have our bodies refreshed and nourished by food and drink? How vital is it to be clothed, sheltered, and comfortable? I could not exist upon this sphere without any of these things. Likewise, life would have no meaning or substance without Trillium, our seven children, their spouses and their quivers full of grandchildren. I had thought of these as obvious objects of our gratitude and said so. Beyond the obvious, however, there was one aspect of my life for the which I could not have more thankfulness.

I have been modestly graced with language, the power to read, write, and make vocal utterance. Admittedly some of these expressions are lengthy, verbally ponderous things. I am not certain why that is so, but I have found it difficult to be otherwise. Aside from my writing, I enjoy reading at length. During the past year I have consumed several novels, biographies, and classic volumes from different eras in English and world literature. In my reading I have been able to connect with the minds and hearts of men and women whom I would have otherwise never met. Imagine that! Here in the middle of Utah Valley, without leaving my home, I have travelled thousands of years and hundreds of thousands of miles in my mind to be with individuals whom I have come to appreciate. Even in a bad translation, the descent into Dante’s “Inferno” is an extraordinary affair.

Since Monday I have had occasion to ponder the continuing unfolding of my mind and heart as I have read from the writings of Adam Clarke, the thoughtful observations of Bruce R. McConkie, and the considered opinions of the editors of the NIV and the New Jerusalem Bible. I have come to understand the Apostle Paul in a way that few people in the world have, not because I am particularly brilliant, but because I can read. It is a wonderful thing to have an insight into the experiences and teachings of a man who lived nearly two thousand years ago, to sense his emotions, his deep and abiding love for a people who looked to him for the truth, his determination to protect them from the prospect of persecution and the possibility of personal regret for having entered into the covenants associated with Christianity. There have been times when I have felt as if the spirit of that great man was at my elbow, helping me to comprehend his words, to set them properly in the context of his world.

In conjunction with the fixing of my mind on this wonderful linguistic gift, I thought of John Keats, one of the great Romantic poets of the 19th century. In October 1816, Keats was introduced to the translation of Homer’s works as freely paraphrased by the Elizabethan playwright, George Chapman. One of Keats’ boyhood friends, Charles Crowden Clarke, showed him the book one evening and they stayed up until dawn to read the volume together. Clarke said that at times “Keats shouted with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination”. At mid morning, John Keats presented to his friend the text of the following sonnet. As little points of interest, the reader might like to know that the planet Uranus, a celestial body unknown to ancient astronomers, was discovered in 1781 by Sir William Hershel. That discovery is certainly the source for one of the lines below. We ought not to be distressed that it was Vasco de Balboa and not Hernan Cortes who stood on that singular peak in Panama, a fact that Keats’ friend immediately pointed out to him. “Balboa”, however, has three syllables and “Cortes” but two; to correct the history would have been to destroy the line and Keats let it stand as he had written it in the fires of his epiphany.

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

“Wild surmise”! That is at the heart of all good reading, the sudden awareness that someone somewhere has changed your life forever.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dancing on the Wind

One of my favorite poems by Robert Frost is a piece entitled "A Tuft of Flowers". For most people, and justifiably so, Frost is addressing the frequent loneliness we all feel as we make our way through the world, notwithstanding the fact that we all are engaged in similar tasks. All of us are children, most of us are parents. We all wrestle with world events that we do not understand; and then there are the world events that we do understand. We reach out to one another; sometimes as friends, sometimes as lovers. Our associations with one another are as needful as air. Robert Frost suggests that sometimes the most vital connections occur when we least expect them.

A Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,--alone,

`As all must be,' I said within my heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

`Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.'

I have always loved the role of the butterfly, the Dancer on the Wind, that facilitated the deep and abiding connection between the reaper and the turner of the hay. The butterfly had no idea what it had done; it simply was looking for butterfly weed. It obeyed its nature and unknowingly drew the hearts of the two men together. Needless to say, had either one of the men failed to do that which they had been called upon to do, the flight of the butterfly would have been meaningless.

As we go through life we fully expect to be rewarded for the good that we do. We expect compensation for our labors. We desire recognition, honor from those whom we esteem. I think that I would rather, when all is revealed, to be surprised to find that I had been a blessing to another in a wonderful and miraculous way, as transcendent as that which the butterfly accomplished, pointing out in my trembling flight through life one of those things which bind us together as the children of God.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Singing Skies and Dancing Waters

I grew up in the mountains of Southern California. I spent my summers building dams in the creek that ran through my back yard, sleeping in a tree house 30 feet up in a eucalyptus tree, and wandering in the wild for hours on end. For me there is hardly anything as delightful as walking hip-deep through a field of meadow grass still wet with dew or running full-tilt downhill into a stiff canyon wind. Pop psychologists like to say that human beings do not dream in color nor can one dream of flying. I have done both; I'm not certain why.

When John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all the rage in the mid-sixties, I was not a fan. I did not own a single Beatles record until I was middle-aged, and then I bought all of their music on CDs. I did so, not because I really liked everything they did; I just liked a goodly number of their rather thoughtful pieces. I particularly like "Mother Nature's Son", a song I did not know until I heard John Denver sing it. I actually thought Denver had written it; I do not think that I was alone in my misconception. The words are quite simple, yet compelling. They do lose some of their power in written form because the music is such an integral part of the piece.

Mother Nature's Son

Born a poor young country boy
Mother Nature's son
All day long
I'm sitting singing songs for everyone.

Sit beside a mountain stream
see her waters rise
Listen to the
pretty sound of music as she flies.

Find me in my field of grass
Mother Nature's son
Swaying daisies
sing a lazy song beneath the sun.

Mother Nature's son.

The first time I heard James Taylor's "Gaia" I was sitting in my den in Albuquerque. I was stunned by the song. I could visualize every image that he painted As he climbed up into the mountains and stopped to rest, I did so as well, as I had done many times before in my life. When he looked back over the mountains, so did I, and with him I became "Helpless, speechless, and breathless" as his percussionist did all the right things to my ears, heart and mind. I think it was one of the purest moments that I have ever had in music. James affectionately referred to his song as the "tree-huggers' anthem". So be it.


The sky was light and the land all dark
The sun rose up over Central Park
I was walking home from work

The petal sky and the rosy dawn
The world turning on the burning sun
Sacred wet green one we live on

Run run run run said the automobile and we ran
Run for your life take to your heels
Foolish school of fish on wheels

Turn away from your animal kind
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind
Leave your cold cruel mother earth behind

As if you were your own creation
As if you were the chosen nation
And the world around you just a rude and dangerous invasion

Someone`s got to stop us now
Save us from us Gaia
No one`s gonna stop us now

We thought we ought to walk awhile
So we left that town in a single file
Up and up and up mile after mile after mile
We reached the tree line and I dropped my pack
Sat down on my haunches and I looked back down
Over the mountain
Helpless and speechless and breathless

Pray for the forest pray to the tree
Pray for the fish in the deep blue sea
Pray for yourself and for God`s sake
Say one for me
Poor wretched unbeliever

Someone`s got to stop us now
Save us from us Gaia
No one`s gonna stop us now

My appreciation for John Denver's gift is profound, even though I recognize that he was not the perfect musician nor was he the perfect wordsmith. But he and I made little connections during his career. I adopted a number of his songs and have performed them around the country as I have had opportunity. That his biography is entitled "Mother Nature's Son" should surprise no one who is familiar with his music. I had an extraordinary experience a number of years ago with one of his lesser-known songs. I, again, was in my den, writing some aspect of my autobiography with one of his records playing in the background. I had been lightly listening to the music, but on a sudden the words of "Singing Skies and Dancing Waters" broke through and I realized that John Denver had experienced something akin to my own youthful experiences. I heard in his song something of my own poem that I had called "The Sparrow" where I had tried to capture in writing my first real contact with God. I understood that he, too, had struggled with a sense of the divine, worrying that somehow the world had been with him, "too much and too soon". I am aware that not every person who has heard the song thinks that it is profoundly religious in nature, but I am certain that it is.

Singing Skies and Dancing Waters

So many years ago, I can't remember now
Someone was waiting for me
I had the answers to all of my questions
Love was so easy to see,
I didn't know

When I was younger, I should have known better
I thought nothing was new
Through all the spaces, and all of the changes
What I lost sight of was you
I didn't know, I didn't know

I could see you in singing skies and dancing waters
laughing children, growing old
And in the heart and in the spirit
And in the truth when it is told

My life became shady, and I grew afraid
And I needed to find my way home
I just couldn't see you, I thought that I'd lost you
I never felt so much alone, are you still with me

Somehow in reason, I lost sight of seasons
I'm growing out, growing in
Sometimes in evenings, when daylight was needed
I thought I'd never see you again
Are you still with me, are you still with me

I'm with you in singing skies and dancing waters
laughing children, growing old
And in the heart and in the spirit
And in the truth when it is told

If my faith should falter
And I should forsake you,
and find myself turning away
Will you still be there, will you still be there

Ill be there in singing skies and dancing waters
laughing children growing old
And in the heart and in the spirit
And in the truth when it is told

Paul McCartney and John Lennon's song was inspired by their direct contact with the naturalist spirit of Hinduism. James Taylor's work was motivated by a tender regard for environmentalism. John Denver was attempting to find something greater than himself, something that he ultimately found in nature. What I find uplifting about all of this is that it is possible for just about anyone to discern truth. Perspectives may differ, interpretations may vary, but we find that all of these are facets of the same gem. The great gift that we give to one another is given when we write our prose, poems, or lyrics that express a portion of the divine that emenates from all of creation; a taste of the truth, perhaps a recipe for finding the truth. For all of their diversity, these three songs found a resonance within me and I became a better person, a better man, a better partcipant in life because of the synthesis.
When we have gleaned all of the truth that we can share with one another, there is Another who is perfectly willing to share all He knows with us as well.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dancing on the Edge -- The Poem

I thought that you might like to have the poem in its linear form.

Dancing on the Edge

a glint of light poised at the brink
glittering pirouettes and dazzling leaps
from point to point,
nimbly and deftly wrought,
heedless of the gaping abyss
that drops away into
a never-ending ebony of starless nights

electrifying near-insanity, risking all
for to catch the light of sun and moon and stars
wrapt about and within,
an incandescent glory
on the precipice,
double-daring a descent into the foxfire
upon the valley floor

no better time to dance,
while all else lies in the muddle
of day and night,
the very moment when
the difference twixt white and black dissolves;
the dancer testifies
of all that is fading
of all that is dawning
of all that is beyond our ken
of all that we hope is true

or expended, we know not;
fallen on the hinder side,
a searing unseen spectacle
of trailing flame and whitened ash,
scattered embers winking out,
dark waters embracing what fire remains;
we know not;

or caught away, we know not;
drawn from heights to cleave
unto greater heights,
a rising point of light
seeking her own
beyond the fall of night;
we know not;

we dwell in shadows,
placid in the warm, moist glades
fearful of the unused path,
the perilous crest,
where angels dance
upon the razor's edge
which separates
the living from the dead

Paul Nolan Hyde
1 December 1992

Dancing with Words

One of my beautiful daughters is a dancer. Her grace and emotion on stage have stunned professionals; they have made her father weep for the beauty of it all. Years ago I wrote a poem about her, attempting to put in word and rhythm that which I felt as I watched her. The result was "Dancing on the Edge", the lines of which appear on the left sidebar of this website. A few days after having written the poem, I had the opportunity to show my little piece to one of my graduate students at UCLA. At her request I gave her a copy. That evening I received a phone call from her. She was excited. "I want you to hear something!" She put her phone on top of her grand piano and began playing the first movement to Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin". After a minute or two she picked up the phone again and asked "What does that remind you of, other than Ravel's exquisite compositions?"

"It is my poem," I whispered.

"Yes, it is! Now, listen to this!" She then began to play parts of the subsequent movements of Ravel's masterpiece. "Anything there move you to wordsmithery?" I am afraid the whole forge was on fire.

I spent the better part of the Christmas vacation that year penning poems to match the all of the movements of "Le Tombeau de Couperin" as follows:

Prelude -- Dancing on the Edge (1 December 1992)
Fugue -- First Kiss (15 December 1992)
Forlane -- Song of the Drunken Dwarf (6 December 1992)
Rigaudon -- Nen Lalaith (15 December 1992)
Minuet -- Consenting Eclipses (9 December 1992)
Toccata -- A Touching (16 December 1992)

When Renae finished her course of study at UCLA, her Master's Recital included "Le Tombeau de Couperin". The six poems were included in the printed program, and the corresponding piece was read before each movement was played.

Needless to say, I cannot now read any of the six poems without being overpowered by my memories of my daughter, my association with Renae, and my love for Ravel's works. It constitutes a synthesis, a melding of separate parts of my life into one thing, a unity of soul which no doubt is inexplicable to anyone else, save they have experienced the same. A cynical detractor might suggest that my daughter is a clumsy oaf, that my sentiments about her dancing have been artificially generated simply because I am her father. Such critics, of course, have never seen her dance. Another ignoramus might suggest that there are better schools of music then that at UCLA. Undoubtedly there are, but that observation does not directly impact my memories of a gifted concert pianist who helped me create a body of work which brings joy to my heart and mind every time I look at them. Someone might rightly say, "Well, I am not a fan of the Impressionist movement in music composition." So be it, but that does not change the fact that "Le Tombeau de Couperin" has affected me deeply as it became associated with other parts of my life's experience. Finally, a churlish person might say, "I don't get your poems". More's the pity, because understanding my little poems would help him to understand me, not altogether a bad thing given the divisive, rancorous world that we live in.

So what is the significance of this little posting? It is that no one of the parts of any man's life completely explains the whole of it. It is not the separate members of our families, our diverse friendships, our quixotic preferences, our vacillating opinions, or our word-usage that define us. We believe and feel the way we do because we have made irreversible connections between epiphanous moments in our lives, creating an indestructible core of truth that defines us as worthwhile human beings. No one can effectively assail us at our core without destroying who we are.

Likewise, why we believe the way we do about God, or about Heaven, or about morality cannot be explained in bits and pieces.