Category Archives: piano

Married to Beethoven

untitledThis coming Sunday my on-and-off opportunities to play the organ at the Episcopal church Jeanne and I attend will come to what appears to be an end. A new music minister has been hired, and the organist/choirmaster emeritus and I, who have been sharing duties all summer, will get to sit in the back and critique the new guy like Statler and Waldorf in The Muppet Show. I am reminded of a post from about a year ago in which I found out which of the great composers I might have been.

imagesCAMNUF46My boyhood heroes were two men I have never seen grouped together for any reason. Carl Yastrzemski and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Carl Yastrzemski, the all-star left fielder of my beloved Boston Red Sox, was a shining example of a pearl in the midst of swine. The Red Sox of my youth were horrible, perpetually finishing ninth out of the ten American League teams, exceeded in ineptitude only by the lowly Washington Senators. But Yastrzemski was poetry in motion both at the plate and in the field, green-monster[1]swatting home runs at will and patrolling Fenway’s left field under the shadow of the Green Monster with the grace and precision of a ballet star. Baseball was the only team sport I was ever marginally good at, and I wanted to be Carl Yastrzemski (even though I played first base).

But I wanted to be Mozart even more. I was raised on classical music, beginning serious study of piano at age five, adding the violin at age eight. Louis_Carrogis_dit_Carmontelle_-_Portrait_de_Wolfgang_Amadeus_Mozart_(Salzbourg,_1756-Vienne,_1791)_jouant_à_Paris_avec_son_père_Jean..._-_Google_Art_Project[1]Wolfgang was a child prodigy of cosmic proportions, performing for European royalty at age five along with his older sister and under the watchful eye of his father Leopold, a guy who knew a cash cow when he saw one. Mozart was composing original pieces at age five and had a full symphony under his belt by age eleven. I was the best single-digits-in-years old pianist I knew, loved everything about it, planned to be a concert pianist all the way through high school—why not be the next Mozart? 170px-Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2[1]Hell, I figured, put a wig and a silk suit on me and I’d even look like Mozart. He was born in 1756 and I was born in 1956—the stars were obviously aligned. My older sibling, of course, was not interested in being a second-fiddle to my first chair virtuoso, and my father was too busy saving souls as a Baptist minister to take me on tour, but one can dream!

Mozart’s abilities both as a performer and composer are legendary. His productivity was astounding, writing every sort of music imaginable at the drop of a hat. His composing speed was accelerated because he apparently never wrote rough drafts—he wrote his compositions down as if taking dictation from on high—220px-Amadeusmov[1]“Amadeus” (loved of God) indeed. All of these Mozartean features were on spectacular display in the 1984 film “Amadeus,” directed by Milos Forman (predictably, one of my top five all time favorite movies). The film also fictionalized some of the darker features of Mozart: his workaholism, alcoholism, philandering, petulance, childishness, insecurities, inability to manage money, and overall immaturity. Not a great role model, but I still wanted to be Mozart until I passed age ten and had yet to go on tour or write a symphony.

My love of and preference for classical music over all other sorts has been the foundations of my aesthetic sensibilities as an adult. So my attention was grabbed when a colleague on campus, the chair of our music department, posted a personality test on Facebook that, in six easy questions, promised to identify which one of the giants in the vast pantheon of great classical composers the test-taker is most like.

Classical composer personality test: Which one are you??

I’ve always been a sucker for personality tests, starting with Myers-Briggs, so I couldn’t help myself. The questions were painless but thought-provoking—I had never really considered, for instance, whether my favorite Star Trek character is Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Bones or Chekhov (what about Scotty and Uhura??). bach-hausmann[1]After less than a minute, I received my personality test result. I am Johann Sebastian Bach.

Despite my juvenile desire to be Mozart, I am perfectly content with being Bach. I am listening to Bach on Spotify as I write. Although “Greatest Ever . . .” pronouncements are always iffy and radically subjective, my award for Greatest Classical Composer Ever would go to J. S. Bach, with Mozart and Beethoven tied for a close second; he occupies the same lofty status in classical music as Shakespeare in literature and Newton in science.imagesCAXAV1JM Bach was a staple of my piano training—working my way through “The Well-Tempered Clavier” during my early years laid the technical foundation for a hopefully broad and deep repertoire to come. There are many aspects of Bach’s life that I do not share—his twenty children, for instance—but how could someone not be pleased to be informed, even by a stupid internet personality test, that he shares something in common with a genius who wrote some of the most spectacular music ever? Consider, for instance, the “Sanctus” from Bach’s Mass in B minor, a piece that my great friend and colleague Rodney Delasanta once declared to be “the most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

So I am thrilled to be Bach, although his other-worldly creative abilities transcend run-of-the-mill mortals. Of greater interest, however, was the description in the test results of why I am Johann Sebastian Bach included in my personality test results, of great interest because the description is eerily accurate:

You are Johann Sebastian Bach. The smartest person you know, you don’t suffer incompetence easily and are more than willing to tackle difficult projects yourself rather than trust them to others. Highly intellectual, you crave order, discipline and structure – let’s be honest, you probably have your picture next to “perfectionist” in the dictionary. Unfortunately, your brilliance is likely to go largely unappreciated by those around you, and you’re going to have to wait for future generations to recognize your genius.

I know, of course, that I am not the smartest person I know—given what I do for a living, I am very seldom a candidate for smartest person in the room, unless I am at a Tea Party rally or the only person in the room. It’s the next two sentences that ring true. In the vernacular, I definitely do not suffer fools gladly, particularly when I am the fool in question. delegate_authority_king_621555[1]And from the time I first entered school, I have always been loath to study with others, to participate in group work, or to trust that anyone can do anything better than I can by myself. In my various stints as an administrator in charge of any number of people, I struggled mightily to  learn how to delegate and trust others. I became marginally able to delegate only after it become apparent that I cannot do everything required to run a program with 80+ faculty and 1700+ students by myself. At least in my working life I do indeed crave discipline, order and structure—although this does not always infiltrate my life away from work. bach-family[1]I fully understand why Bach had to be so focused, structured and anal in his professional life—at any given time he had at least a dozen kids waiting for him at home. I have two dachshunds and a Boston Terrier waiting for me, who are capable of disordering one’s reality as effectively as any number of children.

Although he was well-known as a choirmaster and organist during his lifetime, Bach’s brilliance as a composer did not become widely known until the 19th century, the century after his death, when great musicians and composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn began performing and promoting Bach’s work. George EliotHe lived a life such as that described by George Eliot at the conclusion of Middlemarch, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As I reflected months ago in this blog, that’s not a bad way to live.

Unvisited Tombs

When I returned home on the day of finding out that I am Bach, I told Jeanne about the personality test, including the comments of a number of people on Facebook who had taken the test and were reporting the results. “I’m the only Bach so far, but there have been a number of Mozarts and Tchaikovskys, with a smattering of Brahms,” I said. “So far, no Beethovens. That’s a good thing, given that he was totally nuts.” Jeanne does not live and breathe classical music; accordingly she did not particularly care which classical music giant she is. It took some cajoling to get her to take the test; I even had to help her with the Star Trek question, as she is not a fan of that either (how is this possible?). But in short order we had the results. I am married to Beethoven.

Beethoven[1]

The Little Red-Haired Girl

Today is my lovely Jeanne’s birthday–please join me in celebrating my favorite person’s natal day! This essay was first posted on our twenty-fifth anniversary last July.

A staple of my early years was the “Peanuts” comic strip. That doesn’t make me unusual—I don’t recall anyone in my circle of family and friends unaware of what Charlie Brown and company were up to on a daily or at least weekly basis. Depending on my mood and what was going on in my life, I resonated either with tumblr_l8pnbvbVeh1qdz4kto1_500[1]Linus, with whom I shared a host of insecurities; Schroeder, with whom I shared budding virtuosity on the piano; Snoopy, who was the epitome of coolness and could communicate volumes without saying a word; or Charlie Brown himself, whose endearing ineptitude in all aspects of his life was uncomfortably familiar.

I was a hopeless romantic, generally falling in love and making silent wedding plans any time a girl would make eye contact with me. Because of this, the most poignant story line in Charlie Brown’s escapades for me was his unrequited love for the never-seen little red-haired girl. nye3[1]Although she does make a couple of appearances in later, non-canonical television “Peanuts” cartoons, she is never seen in the print comic strip, nor do we learn her name. Charlie Brown most often notices the little red-haired girl while eating lunch outdoors on the playground, often trying to muster up the courage to speak to her, but always in vain. Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. Many strips concerning the little red-haired girl end with a classic Charlie Brown “SIGH.”tumblr_lwy627YD7t1r1g3g0o1_500[1]

I understood Charlie’s struggles because in first and second grade there was a little red-haired girl in my class. Her name was Laura, her hair was carrot red, and since her last name also started with an “M” she sat in the seat in front of me. No one knew that I was enamored of Laura, certainly not her, but one day the secret was out. She unexpectedly handed a note back to me—it said “Can I borrow a pencil?”—someone observed the note transfer, assumptions were made, and during the next playground session it was “Vance and Laura, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” As Charlie Brown would have said, “Good Grief.” Laura set things straight from her end by pointing out that everyone knew that she liked David, not me, but my failure to immediately deny my admiration of Laura confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Word spread fast, and my brother three grades ahead of me announced at dinner that evening to my parents that I was in love with a girl who didn’t like me.

Time passed, we moved away, and the little red-haired girl faded into the mists of memory. Life happened, and I ended up getting married to the first person I had a serious relationship with, my girlfriend during my last two years of high school (she had brown hair). Over the next decade two sons were born, things fell apart, and at age thirty-one I found myself divorced, living in the same town as my ex, finishing a Master’s degree and making plans to get into a doctoral program.Trudy and Bruce June 1982 My parents invited me along with my sons—ages eight and five—to their place five hundred miles away for Thanksgiving. And oh yeah—they were inviting their friend Jeanne for Thanksgiving as well.

I had heard about Jeanne before—my parents had known her for a number of years. When she came up in conversation, my mother always mentioned her beautiful singing voice and her beautiful red hair. Jeanne and I had even talked on the phone once a couple of years earlier, when she called me out of the blue just to tell me that she had been accepted into st_johns_college_logo[1]St. John’s College, where I had done my bachelor’s degree in the seventies. Jeanne only knew about it because my parents had spoken of it in glowing terms based on my experience. She thought—correctly—that only someone who had been there would know how big a deal it was to get into St. John’s.

So now this person who I knew only through second-hand stories from my mother and a voice on the phone was going to be at my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I’m not big on meeting new people, but figured this was safe because I would have my parents as a buffer.

Those few days over Thanksgiving changed several lives. Although the last thing I was looking for was a relationship six months after my divorce had ended eleven years of unhappy marriage, it was immediately clear that there was something going on between the two of us. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Thanksgiving morning I sat on the sofa in the small living room of my parents’ condo observing Jeanne chatting with my mother who was puttering around in her little kitchen. Leaning with her back up against the wall as she talked, Jeanne struck a seductive pose (or so it seemed to me) and I thought “she’s the little red-haired girl, all grown up!” A few days later, I inexplicably had tears in my eyes as I started the long drive home. In some deep place I knew I was driving away from my soul mate. But after a month of nightly phone calls of more than an hour each, she joined me for Christmas and we were together for good. And the rest is twenty-five years and counting of history still being written.

If being a romantic means being someone who believes that “Love is all you need” or that “Love is the answer,” I’m not a romantic any more. One thing we’ve learned over the past twenty-five years is that love is not enough. A couple of weeks ago the text at church was the fruit of the spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance. We have needed every one of these many times in order to keep going, in addition to the tenth, unmentioned fruit—humor. Each of us considered and even tried walking away from the whole thing more than once. But here we are, twenty-five years in, stronger and more connected than we have ever been. Of the list above, the first three are in the ascendant. Love—because like fine wine and single malt scotch love gets better as it ages. Peace—of the sort that only comes with having spent almost half of your life in love with your best friend. And Joy–because unlike Chuck in the “Peanuts” strip, I got the little red-haired girl.The lovely couple

The Peaceable Kingdom

Bleary-eyed at the 8;00 service yesterday morning, I noticed that a reproduction of the above familiar yet peculiar painting was propped up on a stand at the base of the reader’s lectern. Shortly thereafter, the Old Testament reading for the morning–the following familiar passage from Isaiah–nudged me into awareness:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

The painting is one of many versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” by 18th century Quaker artist Edward Hicks. Hicks’ artistic rendition of Isaiah’s vision is complete with rather flat representations of all the above animals plus three children, all hanging out on a grassy knoll with pop-eyed and glazed looks that have all the earmarks of drug inducement. The promise of the day’s Advent readings was a future world of peace where natural enemies will no longer be enemies. Drugs are one way to produce peace, I suppose.

At home we have a less diverse menagerie of beasts than Isaiah’s. Our group consists of two dachshunds—fifteen pound tubular bundles of extroverted energy—and a Boston terrier who is badly in need of a psychotherapist. A new friend who has never been to our house, upon hearing my description of our canine trio, said “well just make sure that they know who’s in charge.” To which I replied “oh there’s no doubt about who’s in charge—they are.” Although Jeanne and I love our four-leggers, let’s just say that peace is in short supply on the home front.

Lacking Isaiah’s prophetic powers and Hicks’ drugs, we tried something else not long ago. On a friend’s recommendation, Jeanne purchased a CD called “Through a Dog’s Ear,” a collection of piano arrangements of classical music that, according to the CD jacket, have been selected precisely to soothe and quiet even the most hyperactive dachshund and anxiety-ridden terrier. The companion website says that the CD “is recommended for when you want your dog to rest, when your dog is left alone, or when anxiety or excitement in your dog is anticipated — thunderstorms, fireworks, or the arrival of guests.” Most of the music is Mozart (also good for silencing babies and making them smart), along with some Bach and a bit of Beethoven.

We hoped that this CD would be useful when we want the dachshunds not to bark at people walking their dogs a quarter-mile away, or at me when I open the back door after being outside for thirty seconds taking out the garbage. Maybe it would even lessen the likelihood of Boston terrier incontinence and cardiac arrest when a male human being (especially me) is within ten feet.

We put the CD on the stereo and pressed the 24/7/365 button (I’m glad I love classical music), just to see what would happen. Although Jeanne thought the music made the beasts sleep more. I can’t say that I noticed a lot of difference in them. I did, however, find that I felt lazier than usual.

This same passage from Isaiah was one of the readings a few years ago for a service focused on an international day of prayer for peace. I suspect that such days were established with something more than canine tranquility in mind. Another of that morning’s readings was from Isaiah, who in chapter 2 invites us to go to “the mountain of the Lord” where, at some unspecified future time, the Lord will reign supreme and human beings will be acting quite differently than we do now.

They will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation; there will be no more training for war.

Whatever Isaiah was seeing in this memorable vision, it sure isn’t the present. Although the writer of Ecclesiastes says there is “a time for war, and a time for peace,” the time for war has stretched for as long as human existence, and its end doesn’t appear imminent.

That’s probably why, in the religious tradition of my youth, we considered Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom either to be a description of heaven itself, or of God’s millennial kingdom of one thousand years which would occur after the second coming of Christ and the tribulation in which, after a lot of violence and judgment, the bad guys would be destroyed and only we good guys would remain. When we prayed “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we really meant “Please come back soon and rescue us from this totally crappy and ruined world in which we live.”

So what am I supposed to be praying for on the day of prayer for peace and every other day? What can I do to help bring about world peace? Put “Visualize Whirled Peas” and “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” bumper stickers on my car? Commit random acts of kindness? Sing “Give Peace a Chance” along with John and Yoko? Play Mozart tunes as loudly as possible? Why not just spit into the wind and be done with it?

One possible place to begin is to remember that the Kingdom of God for which we pray, the Peaceable Kingdom, is here. “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, begins in me, just as every one of Isaiah’s beasts is in me. I am a wolf, a lamb, a leopard, a goat, a calf, a lion, a cow, a bear, an ox, an adder, and an asp, as well as some other things Isaiah didn’t mention. There is probably a dachshund and a Boston terrier in there too. And, lest I forget, both a nursing child and a weaned child.

The key to establishing a peaceable kingdom within me is not to tame the scary beasts and put the fuzzy and cuddly ones in charge. Rather, it’s welcoming them all, allowing each their place, and not getting nervous when the lion and lamb decide to sit next to each other. To cite another John Lennon song, “Let It Be.” As I welcome and release each of the beasts, I commit myself, at least for today, to listening to as much Mozart as possible and following the example of the psalmist in Psalm 131:

Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.

Being Schroeder

Regular or even occasional readers of this blog know that one of my guilty passions is various personality tests that are available on the Internet. Most recently I have found out that if I was a classical composer, I would be Johann Sebastian Bach (great news) and that my personality is most suited to living in Montana (total bullshit). A little while ago, thanks to my colleague Sandra who often shares these sorts of tests with her Facebook friends, I learned that if I was a Peanuts character, I would be Schroeder.Schroeder-peanuts-239733_172_250[1]

http://www.brainfall.com/quizzes/which-peanuts-character-are-you/

My Schroeder description reads as follows:

You are Schroeder. You are brilliant, ambitious, and brooding; you tackle tasks with extreme focus. People don’t always interest you as much as other pursuits, though; you can come off as aloof.

Upon reading this description to Jeanne, she affirmed that my Schroeder description (except perhaps for the “brilliant” part), for better or worse is completely accurate. She’s Charlie Brown, by the way. Until taking these personality tests I did not realize I was in a same-sex marriage, but I’m adjusting.

The one characteristic of being Schroeder not included in the above description, of course, is that Schroeder is most often seen in the Peanuts comic strip seated at his toy piano, playing exquisite Beethoven sonatas while Lucy swoons with unrequited love. Schroeder actually seems to be relatively well-adjusted, fine-tuning his piano virtuosity, fending off Lucy’s uninvited advances, imagesCANEV2RXcatching  on Charlie Brown’s woeful baseball team (I played first base very poorly on a little league team almost as bad as Chuck’s team), and along with Linus being Charlie’s most faithful friend. I suspect that between the strips Schroeder had some less positive experiences—or at least I did.

A bit over four years ago, a couple of months after returning home from a life-changing sabbatical semester, I travelled to Nashville to participate in a three-day workshop called thepp_logo300[1] “Pen and Path Spiritual Writer’s Conference.” I suspected at Friday evening’s opening get together that this was not going to be my cup of tea, as we started with group sharing. This, when strangers are involved, is in a virtual tie with sticking a fork in my eye on my list of favorite things to do. I survived that (barely), then the guy up front said “time for an exercise—focus on an object in the room and write.”  I looked in the corner of the room, and this came out:

imagesCA6H40CUWho knew that a mundane-shaped thing, a box,

could contain all the music there is?

At home, this was my best friend, my solace, my comfort.

But it became my enemy, raising the expectations to a level that could not be satisfied.

I’d like to make friends again.

“Whoa,” I thought, “where did that come from?” Actually I knew very well where it had come from, from a closed internal room that had been closed for so long that I could for long periods of time pretend that I didn’t know about it. But on sabbatical I had started exploring some long-untouched places in writing, and apparently it was time for this one. I typed the rough poem into my laptop that evening in my room and filed it in the “unfinished essay” file, where it has sat untouched for the past four-plus years. Finding out that I am Schroeder reminded of that room and poem once again. hands-keys-music-piano-play-Favim.com-57134_large[1]There is more in that room that could be rummaged through in a dozen essays, but it’s time to start.

My love affair with the piano began at four or five years of age. My older brother had started lessons a couple of years earlier, but never took to the instrument as I did as soon as my parents gave into my impassioned petitions and let me start lessons  a couple of years earlier than they were planning. From the beginning I knew I had met my soul mate. Our piano was an old upright painted a horrible yellow, so old that the blind piano tuner who came once per year was only able to tune it a whole step lower than where it should have been. But I loved it more than if it had been a Steinway. Once school years started I went directly to the piano as soon as I got home, often needing the familiar feel of the keys and sound of the notes to soothe and center me after a bad day. My mother never had to remind me to practice; rather, she had to remind me that there is more to life, even for a seven or eight year old, than sitting by oneself wrapped up in a private world where things made sense.

And I was good enough to become a minor celebrity, not only in my family but also at the churches and schools I attended during my growing up years. I was the regular evening entertainment when family and friends gathered either at our house or at my grandparents’ homesteads which also had old pianos. I was accompanying the church choir and playing for church services by the time I turned ten years old, and was the go-to person for imagesCAM5A96XChristmas pageant accompaniment and solos from the same age at school. I had two piano teachers between when I started and when I graduated from high school—both placed me either at the beginning or end of their yearly student recitals, the privileged positions reserved for students guaranteed both to impress the audience and not to embarrass the teacher by screwing up. In later recital years, I was often afforded the even greater privilege of playing a four hands, two piano duet with my teacher as the closing performance of the recital. My teachers, family and friends helped stoke the internal fire had burned brighter and brighter for years. I was going to be a concert pianist.

It was not easy being Schroeder, though. First of all, Lucy’s infatuation in the Peanuts cartoon with Schroeder notwithstanding, being Schroeder does not make one a chick+magnet_4c006c_4245799[1]chick magnet, even for crabby chicks like Lucy. In my case, the piano provided me with a regular and welcome escape from the normal social awkwardness and challenges that all children and adolescents struggle with. Being Schroeder also, together with my academic success, lack of sports prowess and skinny physique, caused many of my male colleagues in school at all grade levels to regularly wonder whether my testosterone levels were at the appropriate value. I came to believe that I was most acceptable when my musical abilities or academic prowess was required and pretty much unacceptable the rest of the time.

I was well into my high school years before I fully realized that although I was good, I wasn’t that good. I clearly remember when the first seeds of doubt were planted. At age ten or eleven I had just finished perfecting my first Chopin nocturne. Chopin is the Olympics of solo piano performance, and I was thoroughly impressed with myself. hqdefault[1]Then a missionary family making the rounds through Baptist churches in New England stopped by our church for a Sunday. These folks were missionaries to Korea, and with them had a four-year old Korean orphan girl whom they had adopted. After the morning service, she sat down at the old upright piano in our church and from memory played the very Chopin nocturne I had struggled mightily for weeks on end to master. And hearing her play it as effortlessly as breathing, I realized I had not mastered it at all. Not only would I never be Mozart—I never was even going to be this little girl.

But dreams die hard, and with the loving but entirely biased support of my family, friends, and piano teachers, I sustained the hope of concert halls and world travel for many years longer. I don’t remember a specific event that finally slammed the door on my hopes and dreams, but I am glad no one said “when God closes a door He always opens a window.” I would have replied, along with Nadia Bolz-Weber in Pastrix, “please show me where that window is so I can push Him the fuck out of it.” Decades later, I have only begun over the past few years to make peace with the loss of my best friend who literally kept me centered and sane. I don’t know iimages[4]f Schroeder took his toy piano on concert tour, but my bet is that he married Lucy and has made a life for himself doing something he never would have expected. So it goes. I am far happier and more blessed than any human being deserves; my music has even come back in unexpected ways over the last two or three years. But every once in a while, Psalm 90 appears in the daily cycle of Psalms that I read every morning. When reading its closing lines, “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands,” I always wistfully think for a brief moment of how the piano keys used to feel under my hands.large_SchroederLucy[1]

Unforgettable

671[1]Although not much of an athlete, I’m a big sports fan. Actually, that’s a serious understatement—I’m a rabid sports fan, especially of pro baseball (Boston Red Sox) and college basketball (Providence College Friars).Primary-friars-rgb-250[1] These are passions that go beyond rational explanation, especially in my line of work. My colleagues, if they care at all,  probably file my fanaticism about the Red Sox and the Friars in the “there goes Morgan again” file. Over the past several years, the problem of steroid use has frequently threatened to tarnish the reputation of pro baseball; every time it seems to die down, yet another superstar admits, usually under duress, to having used banned substances in the recent past. In the face of what appears to be solid evidence, however, some accused players steadfastly refuse to admit such use. A few years ago, for instance, Roger Clemens, whose Hall-of-Fame-certain pitching career has been darkened by the cloud of steroid use allegations, was asked how he responded to the testimony of a former teammate who stated under oath that he observed Clemens being injected with a banned substance on several occasions. That teammate, Roger Clemens, Debbie ClemensClemens answered, had “misremembered.”

Memory is tricky, an often unreliable something out of which, for better or for worse, we construct our past, interpret our present, and envision our future. I’ve been thinking about memory recently, as my colleagues and I introduce freshmen to the literature of the ancient world in the interdisciplinary program I direct and teach in. The notion of oral tradition is completely foreign to contemporary eighteen-year-olds, as is the idea of extensive memorization being what made the transmission of such traditions from generation to generation possible. storytelling[1]Ancient people possessed remarkable memorization abilities which atrophied with the advent of writing. I’ve observed my own memory erode over the years simply because of new technology that made memorization unnecessary. I used to easily hold several dozen ten-digit telephone numbers in my memory, even remembering my childhood home phone numbers and those of my girlfriends when I was in high school. Now I know my cell number and two office numbers, can remember Jeanne’s cell number if I think for a second, but have no other phone numbers available in my memory files. Why? Because all I need to do is tap my cell phone two or three times and I can find any one of the hundreds of numbers stored in it. The part of my brain that used to do that can now do something else (or atrophy).

Bible Memorization[1]But some things are unforgettable. My memory in my youth was developed both by my piano training and by forced Bible memorization. Although I’ve not made a study of it, I’ll bet that memorizing music and memorizing the written word involve two different parts of the brain, because I was always much better at memorizing Bible verses than passages from Mozart, Bach, or Debussy. Of the Old Testament verses I was required to memorize, the majority of them were from the Psalms, passages that remain some of my favorites from Scripture. Psalm 23, of course, but also Psalm 91 (“He who dwells in the secret place of the most High”), Psalm 103 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”—I_Will_Lift_Up_M_4b73106922b8d[1]a text that is forever set in my memory to the music from Godspell), Psalm 121 (“ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”) and many others stayed with me as welcome companions even after I sought to walk away from my heritage in my young adulthood. In class the other day, I enjoyed reciting two or three Psalms to freshmen (it was Old Testament week)  as some of them followed along in their texts to track the difference between the NRSV and King James translations. Those who were not following along stared at me as if I were some sort of pony-tail-wearing mutant or trained monkey.

Of all the Psalms from my youth, Psalm 19 was and still remains my favorite.

The heavens declare the glory of God;

Tangalooma%20Sunset[1]And the firmament showeth His handiwork.

Day unto day uttereth speech,

And night unto night showeth knowledge.

There is no speech nor language

Where their voice is not heard.

Their sound is gone out into all lands,

And their words unto the end of the world.

Even in the stilted and outdated language of the King James Version (I wasn’t sure what a “firmament” was, nor were “showeth” or “uttereth” verbs my people used often), I recognized it as beautiful poetry as a mere child. And it was one of the pillars (along with passages from Romans 1 and 10) of my church’s answer to the question “Are those who haven’t heard about Jesus going to hell?” The thought that they would always seemed unfair to me, but in Romans Paul insists, as does the writer of Psalm 19, that God’s presence and truth is there for the observing for those who care to pay attention; Paul says that those who do not “are without excuse.”

So it was disconcerting to find out while on sabbatical that I had “misremembered” Psalm 19. My first clue was when Psalm 19 was up to the plate one day during noon prayer (all of the Psalms get a turn at bat during the four-week cycle of the hourly office the Benedictines use). We read, in the Grail translation,

The heavens declare the glory of God

Copyrighted_Image_Reuse_Prohibited_745585[1]and the firmament shows forth the work of God’s hands.

Day unto day takes up the story

and night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard

yet their span extends through all the earth,

their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

As usual, reading a Psalm that I memorized in the King James Version in another translation was weird, as if someone had messed with the text of a Christmas carol or something. My curiosity was piqued as I compared “No speech, no word, no voice is heard” with the “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” of my memory. I try not to be a philosopher at noon prayer, but I didn’t have to be a philosopher to realize that these comparative lines had exactly opposite meanings. Either what the heavens and the firmament have to say is heard in all languages or it is not heard in any voice or language at all. When I got back to my apartment, 115042273[1]I checked my KJV and read “there is no speech or language; their voice is not heard.” I had misremembered—I had replaced a semicolon with a “where.” My memorized “there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” had exactly reversed what Psalm 19:3 is saying. And another small piece of my past—this time my favorite Psalm—bites the dust.

Our core selves are essentially created out of our memories—the philosopher John Locke,JohnLocke[1] one of the pioneers of investigation into personal identity, once wrote that “one’s personal identity extends only so far as one’s memories.” But what happens when my memories are faulty?  I recall how jarring it was when I was a teenager to learn that a picture in my baby book (Facebook was not even a glimmer in anyone’s imagination in those days) of me looking angelically at a candle flame taken when I was a year or two old was actually a picture of my brother (my grandmother spilled the beans). That picture had become a part of my identity, and grandmaw ripped it away. How many other cornerstones of my identity, constructed out of my memories, are inaccurate or figments of my imagination? I feel an existential crisis coming on.

PI1-1[1]But perhaps the accuracy of my remembered history is far less important than the need for me to embrace it as mine. I’ve spent a long time over the years trying to delete corrupted files; now I want to spend just as much time inserting them into my present as core parts of my past projected into my future. Because “day unto day takes up the story” doesn’t just apply to the heavens and the firmament—it applies to me.