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How Can I Keep From Singing?

Pre-pandemic, I was a fairly regular attendee of a weekly Catholic Mass. However, I was not as hard-core about it as my parents. These are folks who, on marathon family road trips across the U.S., would be sure to find whatever Catholic Church we might be passing in Wamsutter, Wyoming, on a Saturday evening or Sunday, so that we could meet our Mass obligation. (To be fair, I think my father was more hard-core about this than my mom.)

Anyway, one of the things I like best about Mass, and one of the things I miss most, is listening. Not necessarily to the homilies, which can be hit or miss depending on the orator. But I miss listening to the readings and the music. Between the Old Testament readings and the Epistles, many times, something new will strike my ears. Of course, there’s nothing new about the readings themselves; but with the passage of time, I gain new experiences that bring a different perspective. So maybe it’s more apropos to state that I bring a new set of ears.

Case in point, several years ago, I especially noticed one of the songs used during a Mass I attended. The song was “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Now, this song dates back to the 1860s, credited to a Baptist minister named Robert Wadsworth Lowry. And I also discovered that Enya covered this song in the 1990s. So there’s a pretty good chance that I had heard this song before I took special notice of it.

The new set of ears I brought to this song relates to being married to a man who likes to sing. Tim comes up with a song for everything. This usually works out well for the both of us, since I like to listen. But from hearing the very first verse — “My life flows on in endless song” — I thought, that’s Tim!

It’s really a lovely song, too. Here’s another sampling of the lyrics:

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

From a certain point of view, I can say I have Mass to thank for introducing me to a beautiful, hopeful, song, that always makes me think of my husband. I can live with that.

If you’re curious, here’s an appealing rendition from Audrey Assad:

Chaucer and Virginia Woolf

London was one thing they had in common. Photo by Hugo Sousa on Unsplash

So, I finished all The Canterbury Tales. And I did watch A Knight’s Tale again. Here are a few concluding thoughts:

  • The paperback version of Canterbury Tales had the following comment from Virginia Woolf regarding Chaucer (she was the only female amongst 21 commenters): “Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. . . . He will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked, what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387, without dirtying her hands.” (from The Common Reader)
  • I love this idea of poetry handling the everyday “without dirtying her hands.” It made me think of another quote from Virginia Woolf, one of my favorites: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While I’m sure there are plenty of valid arguments to the contrary, I have found a certain personal truth to the statement. As long as writing fiction is not my sole livelihood, I feel a sense of freedom in it, whose absence might be suffocating.
  • Finally, in re-watching A Knight’s Tale, I had a better understanding of one of my favorite lines from the movie. It comes from Paul Bettany’s Chaucer: “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” He says this to a pardoner and a summoner, neither of whom come off very well in the Tales.

All of this has had the effect of softening my memory of the experience of reading all The Canterbury Tales. Even if my only takeaway is a deeper knowledge of the state of our world over 600 years ago, I consider myself richer for that insight.

Marathon Update

Sunday’s first “hill.”

So, my last pre-pandemic post, in early March, was about how I had signed up to run the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon. Wha wha wha.

Cutting to the chase, the marathon was officially canceled on June 24. But even prior to then, I had deferred my participation to 2021. The good news? All of this means I can put off my 20+miles-in-the-heat-of-the-summer training runs until next summer.

I’m still following my training plan, but on weekends when I’m supposed to do a long run, I’m fudging on the distance, and aiming for a total time, instead. Like, go out for a total of two hours. I’m hoping to get out for three hours total at least once this summer, but I’ll have to start super early.

A super early start was not in the cards this past weekend. I started 2 hours later than I had intended, when the heat index was already bumping up against 100 degrees. So I scrapped all expectations on total time (I managed to stay out about 90 minutes), and thought to challenge myself with some “hills.”

“Hills” get quote marks, because anyone who knows New Orleans, knows the city is about as flat as a place can be. Flat and sinking. Training for hills in this city usually means running up and down the levees, and working the Wisner overpass into your route.

Wisner passes over Interstate 610, right at the boundary of City Park. An upgrade a few years back included a nice pedestrian path. This overpass just so happens to fall within the perimeter of my typical routes, though I usually exclude it from my outings (I know how to get around it). On Sunday, I decided it would be penance for starting late.

Herewith some more pictures from my “hill” run. That’s it for now!

The view from the top (of the Wisner overpass).
My second hill — Laborde “mountain” in the Couturie Forest.
A nice benefit to not being fixated on time or distance is noticing nearly hidden things (look right below the bright green leaf).
The very next day, on a recovery walk, I got judged.

The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

Long May You Run

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

I bought a new car last week. This is a pretty big deal for me, because I tend to hold on to cars. In 30+ years of car-buying, this is my fifth. The numbers average out to a car about every eight years, but that average is skewed by the length of time I had my first car, which was only three years. Maybe a list will elucidate:

  • Car #1 — 1978 Ford Fiesta, purchased in 1988. It had no air conditioning, and its odometer didn’t work. It was permanently stuck at around 65,000 miles, to my memory. It did a great job for my years at the University of Arizona, but that no-air-conditioning-thing was a killer in the desert. Shortly after I graduated and landed my first full-time job, I traded in the Fiesta and bought:
  • Car #2 — 1991 Nissan Sentra, purchased new. The Silver Bullet. I loved that car. It moved with me from Arizona to California, and I drove it until its get-up-and-go was gone. By the time we parted ways in 2002, it had no resale value, so I donated it.
  • Car #3 — 1999 BMW 3-series convertible, purchased in 2002. I also loved that car, but it definitely falls under the aspirational, as opposed to practical, category. It moved with me from California back home to Louisiana, where the impracticality of a convertible in the rainy south soon became apparent. But, hands-down, the most fun to drive out of all of them.
  • Car #4 — 2011 Audi A4, purchased new. My first car with an automatic transmission, and my first car with four doors. Its engine was a bit wonky, and gave me some issues during our first few years together, but it was all covered under warranty, so it’s tough to complain.

The one thing these cars all have in common? Our farewell song. My final drive in all of them included Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” playing on some sort of device. I’ve never encountered another song more aptly suited to the occasion of saying goodbye to a long-time, trusted, automotive companion. Here’s just a snippet of the lyrics:

“Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Although these changes
Have come
With your chrome heart shining
In the sun
Long may you run.”

That phrase “chrome heart” is so evocative. In fact, I have a good friend (you know who you are) whose original title to his original feature film was Chrome Hearts. But that’s his story to tell.

Oh, and Car #5 is a 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, just in case you’re curious. It was time for practicality (and economy) to reign in this area of my life.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.

Interpretations

This message was pretty clear.

So, I encounter messages all the time. At least hundreds, if not thousands, daily. Some of them are easy to quantify — like emails, text messages, social media messages, advertisements of all sorts. But the ones I’m concerned with here are the unexpected ones, out in the wild, or among the many rabbit holes of the internet. I saw the message featured at the top of this post for the first time this past weekend, in the Couturie Forest in New Orleans City Park.

These next two, below, are images I captured during a walk in City Park toward the end of April. The acid etch in the concrete is straightforward, no misunderstanding the intent there. But the figurine? No clue. Her missing arm is very disconcerting to me. It was a little after 6am, and I only saw her that one day, April 25. The best interpretation I could come up with was that she was part of some kind of treasure hunt, maybe a low-tech or no-tech geocache. Or maybe there was a tracker stashed up in that broken arm.

I’ll wrap this up with a quote I encountered for the first time this week, that I found really moving. I’ll leave the attribution blank, but that’s an interesting story of itself. At first glance, it appears to be from the Talmud, going by the memes that pop up around this quote. But digging a little deeper, it likely should be attributed to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, from his book, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot, which is out of print. I think he took some ancient text and shaped it to make it more accessible to a modern reader. At any rate, I’m glad he did, because it feels particularly salient now:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

In Fountain Court

Dawn on June 2, 2020. “The flickering green of leaves that keep / The light of June”

Last week, I mentioned that I would post about the poet William Blake. And here I am, following up!

I have to confess, I can’t hear William Blake’s name mentioned without thinking of one of my favorite scenes from Bull Durham. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) shows up at the home of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), dressed like she might be ready to attend a cotillion in some hot-weather place, and he calls her out on it. To which she replies, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.” And then they just start shouting the name William Blake at each other, and there’s so much more going on between them than just a discussion of a 19th century English poet and artist.

My love of this scene didn’t seem to fit with the sober tone of my last post. But anyway, here are some things I learned after looking into the “fearful symmetry” from Blake’s poem “The Tyger:”

  • According to Wikipedia, William Blake spent his last days at Fountain Court in London.
  • Unless I read something wrong, Fountain Court is part of the Temple area of London. I have a vivid depiction of the Temple in my head from reading Dickens’s Great Expectations last year.
  • The poet Arthur Symons, who wrote the poem “In Fountain Court,” shared a flat in Fountain Court with W.B. Yeats.(!)

There’s a reason the mention of Blake living at Fountain Court had me dig a little deeper. It’s because I immediately recognized the title of Arthur Symons’s poem, since it’s one of my favorites. And I always think of it when June rolls around, because it just so happens to feature the month of June. (I wrote about all this 3 years ago: June in New Orleans.)

I guess all of this has given me a better idea of the setting of “In Fountain Court.” And maybe evened deepened my impression of the anticipation and hope that wend their way through the lines of the poem. In the last line — “Soon, love, come soon” — I choose to believe that real change, a true transformation, just might be possible.

 

Fearful Symmetry

Photo by Marc Ignacio on Unsplash

Last Thursday, I was compelled to open up my copy of Watchmen to find one of my favorite panels in all of comicdom. And, no, I haven’t seen the HBO series, so that wasn’t what compelled me. It just called to me from my bookshelf.

It’s the symmetry of this particular panel that stays with me. I assume it was a magical combination of the talents of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that produced it. (Photo down at the end of this post. Warning: it depicts a significant amount of violence.)

After I found it, I started to dig deeper, and found myself down a pretty deep rabbit hole. Turns out, this panel is from Chapter 5: Fearful Symmetry. The symmetry of the use of symmetry led me to William Blake.

That term, “fearful symmetry,” is from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” Here’s the opening stanza:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Yes, I probably should have known the origin without having to look it up, but I’m glad I did, in any event. I found out a bunch of stuff about William Blake that I didn’t know before. And I plan to use that for next week’s post.

But this week, I’m sticking with the theme of fearful symmetry. So here are two fearfully symmetrical things that have occurred to me:

1) I watched the successful launch of the manned SpaceX Dragon capsule on television, while protests calling for justice for George Floyd and support of Black Lives Matter were occurring throughout the nation and beyond. I couldn’t help but draw comparison to the moonshot efforts of the 1960s, and the concurrent struggles of the Civil Rights movement. That’s the symmetrical part. As for the fear: has so little changed in 50 years?

2) Just about a year ago, I read “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases” by Ida B. Wells. For the symmetry here, I discovered Ida B. Wells was no stranger to epidemics. When she was 16, she tragically lost both her parents and a sibling to yellow fever. The fear is in the content of “Southern Horrors” — I am still struck by her clear-eyed account of lynchings as a barbaric means of repressing the economic progress of Black Americans. Ida B. Wells wrote this in the 1890s. Has so little changed in 130 years?

 

The Very Next Day

Thursday, May 21, 6:03 am.

I witnessed a pretty remarkable sunrise in City Park the morning after I published that last post. I captured some photos over the course of roughly thirty minutes, and was very pleasantly surprised when I scrolled through those photos later.

The way the light and sky changed depending on where I pointed my iPhone, and the varied focal points — it all made me feel like I had covered far greater ground over a much longer time. I look at the photos now and still feel a certain sense of accomplishment, however unwarranted it might be. Hey, I’ll take it where I can get it!

This is my first time sharing these photos, and it’s also all I have for this post. I figure it’s the equivalent of 5,000 words…

Thursday, May 21, 6:04 am. Never mind the pond (rebel) scum.
Thursday, May 21, 6:11 am. I almost captured the full orb of the sun without tweaking the camera.
Thursday, May 21, 6:30 am.
Thursday, May 21, 6:34 am.