Christopher Smart was Smart

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Christopher_Smart_Pembroke_portraitChristopher Smart (1722-1771) was an English incurable pauper poet institutionalized in Saint Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics whose poetry, like Vincent Van Gogh’s art, continues long after his death in spite of, or perhaps because of, what we now call mental illness.

Smart’s poetry is not as widely known as Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. But it is well-known among other poets, musicians like Benjamin Britten, and worshipers who sing from the Episcopal Church Hymnal, as I did yesterday on the Second Sunday of Easter.

The fourth stanza of “Awake, Arise, Lift up your Voice” leaped from the page, as fresh today as it was the day Smart wrote it:

His [Christ’s] enemies had sealed the stone as Pilate gave them leave,

lest dead and friendless and alone he should their skill deceive.

Smart sees Christ as “dead and friendless and alone” under his enemies’ lock and key as the authorities of collective madness had given them leave, lest Christ – locked away dead and friendless and alone – should deceive their power to seal shut the tomb (or asylum cell).

And then the fifth stanza:

O Dead, arise! O Friendless stand by seraphim adored!

O Solitude again command your host from heaven restored!

At the very moment Christopher Smart was coming to my attention, the French were casting their votes, confused and fearful in the wake of England’s Brexit, wailing sirens on the Champs-Élysées, and candidates loudly debating whether sanity demands sealing the nation’s borders.

St_Lukes_Hospital_for_Lunatics,_LondonChristopher Smart’s biographers suggest that today Christopher would be diagnosed as bi-polar. He was committed to the Saint Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics after episodes when, it is said, Christopher would suddenly drop to his knees on the street in prayer, loudly inviting by-standers to join him, a different kind of street preacher who causes saner people to cross to the other side of the street.

But sometimes “the lunatics” are smarter than we. They see what those of us who avoid them often fail to see: the Dead and Friendless One meeting us, like Christopher and Vincent, in times of lock-down madness, until we sing Smart’s hymn two-and-a-half centuries later on the Second Sunday of Easter.

Christopher Smart was smart.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 24, 2017.

The Widower and the Wife

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THE WIDOWER

Ninety-year old “John” still drives to church. He comes alone now, one month after his wife died.

He parks his car on the street, as he has for forty years.

“Good morning, John! Good to see you. Am I remembering correctly that you lost your wife recently?”

“Yes,” he says. It would have been 62 years next month.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss. These days must be very lonely.”

“Yes. Very,” he says, his gentle eyes seemingly thankful for the momentary recognition of his plight, followed by a pause. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says.  “I’m ready to go. I’m not saying I want to go, but I’m ready.”

“Old age ain’t for the faint of heart, is it, John?” “It sure isn’t,” he says.

THE WIFE

During his wife’s long illness, she, too, had spoken about being “ready to go.”

“I want to die,” she’d said, “before you have to put me in memory care.”

The thought of transfer from independent living to the lock-down memory care unit seemed worse than death. She’d made too many visits there. Seen too many old friends get lost in there, taking food that no longer nourishes, spoonfuls of institutional food administered for the purpose of keeping inmates alive for no reason but to prolong bodies that can’t remember their own names.

“I wish I could just walk off into the woods,” she’d said, “the way other animals do. This is unreal. I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid of becoming a burden.”

“DEATH IN THE WOODS”- Thomas MacDonagh

When I am gone and you alone are living here still,
You’ll think of me when splendid the storm is on the hill,
Trampling and militant here — what of their village street?–
For the baying of winds in the woods to me was music sweet.

Oh, for the storms again, and youth in my heart again!
My spirit to glory strained, wild in this wild wood then,
That now shall never strain — though I think if the tempest should roll
I could rise and strive with death, and smite him back from my soul.

But no wind stirs a leaf, and no cloud hurries the moon;
I know that our lake to-night with stars and shadows is strewn–
A night for a villager’s death, who will shudder in his grave
To hear — alas, how long! — the winds above him rave.

How long! Ah, Death, what art thou, a thing of calm or of storms?
Or twain — their peace to them, to me thy valiant alarms?
Gladly I’d leave them this corpse in their churchyard to lay at rest,
If my wind-swept spirit could fare on the hurricane’s kingly quest.

And sure ’tis the fools of knowledge who feign that the winds of the world
Are but troubles of little calms by the greater Calm enfurled:
I know then for symbols of glory, and echoes of one Voice dread,
Sounding where spacious tempests house the great-hearted Dead.

And what but a fool was I, crying defiance to Death,
Who shall lead my soul from this calm to mingle with God’s very breath!–
Who shall lead me hither and perhaps while you are waiting here still,
Sighing for thought of me when the winds are out on the hill.

  • Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916 / Cloughjordan / Ireland), executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 at the age of 39 for participation in the Irish rebellion called “Easter Rising”.

John now visits his wife among the ashes he’s scattered in the wooded glen behind their home, in the greater Calm under the old oak tree, among the animals, “sighing for thought of [her] when the winds are out on the hill.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 12, 2017.

 

The foreign visitor

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In this acrostic verse Steve Shoemaker imagined Simon of Cyrene, the innocent foreign (Libyan) bystander conscripted to help carry Jesus’s cross. Jesus of Nazareth was found guilty of “subverting the nation and refusing to pay tribute to Caesar.”

SIMON OF CYRENE 

Since I was in Jerusalem for Passover,

I  bought nice gifts both for my wife and the two boys.

Money I had, position in Cyrene, power…

Only meaning was missing, reason for my days.

Now my bags are knocked down and a Roman soldier

Orders me to carry a young condemned man’s cross.

From deep within his eyes I see a place of peace.

Crying women followed us all along the road.

Years later I could still recall, he turns and says,

Remove your tears for me, there are for you ahead

Even worse times to come:  no men,  no pregnancies,

No children, no city–for battles, sieges, war

End families, prosperity, leave just the poor.

  • – Acrostic Verse  – Steve Shoemaker – Urbana, IL, April 22, 2012

Steve (1943-2016) continued the work of Simon of Cyrene. He lived his life on behalf of the poor. We’re missing him today.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 28, 2017.

Pete Seeger – Singing toward our inmost calm

In this American time of turmoil and strife, Pete Seeger singing “How Can I Keep from Singing?” restores my faith that “no storm can shake my inmost calm” (Robert Lowry, 1869). RIP, Pete. We’re listening.

Ode to a Bi-Polar Cousin

Mourning Doves among the Trees

Earth no longer hears bellowing laughs and
Anguished shrieks from the yo-yoed hand
That yanked him up to ecstatic heights and
Dropped him low as dirt, rebounding and
Recoiling in cycling rounds of joy and dread.

His earthy songs and shrieks are quiet now
In air we breathe where once with dog his feet
Did walk the woods alone in search of deer
Or trout or own real self among the trees and
Streams where fawn and fish were found.

Between the poles of rapture and lament
He in momentary pride would stride and
Just as quickly in despair would sullen weep,
his smile widen with hope and flatten in
Despairing search of light he could not see.

And we his kith and kin left upon the field
Of ashes on the ground lift up the torch
He left for friend and foe alike whose yo-yo
Minds and meds cannot raise hope to life or
Hear coos of mourning doves among the trees.

In memory of first cousin Dennis Smith (b. 02/03/1942 in South Paris, Maine; d. Norway, Maine 02/09/2017).

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 28, 2017

Limerick on Chicago Cubs

For the Cubs 1-0-7 long years
Crying No-Series-Winner sad tears.
Yes, I live far away,
But soon on that great day
Baby Bruins will sure hear my cheers!

– Steve Shoemaker (1943-2016).

Views from the Edge published Steve Shoemaker’s Limerick on Chicago Cubs one year before his untimely death October 11, 2016. He wrote it in honor of Harry Lee Strong, another long-suffering Cubs fan.

Tonight the Cubs meet Cleveland for the 2016 World Series. We republish it in hopes of World Series victory shouts!

Steve with Chicago Cubs mascot.

Steve with Chicago Cubs mascot, during trip to Wrigley Field with seminary friends Harry Lee Strong, Don Dempsey, Bob Young, Wayne Boulton, and Steve’s blogging buddy.

Last night the “Baby Bruins” had an improbable (dare we say ‘miraculous’?) come-from-behind ninth-inning victory over the San Francisco Giants in San Francisco. Now they’re one step away from the World Series.

The day after Steve’s death, I think I heard the beginning of a full-throated bass cheer from Urbana, as well as from Harry’s home in Prescott, Arizona. Two cheers for the Cubs; three cheers for Harry Lee, and four cheers for Steve!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 12, 2016. Updated October 24, 2016.

Time is what we have

“What is time?” asked the 11 year-old son of his father.  Finally, the father, who was supposed to know about such things, offered the briefest of answers. “Time is what we have.”

The answer  begged for more explanation, but it spoke out loud the frailty and wonder of the human condition. What is time? It’s what we have but, like everything else mortals have, or think we have, time runs out. Time is like the sand in the hour-glass. It sifts slowly through the funnel from top to bottom until there is nothing left. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The relation of time to eternity is the relation between mortality and immortality. Our hour-glass contains eternity but it does not define it or confine it. We experience eternity in the now of time as we look at the heavens on a starry night, feel a gentle breeze or the rush of a mighty wind, or watch the shorelines of human construction eroding, pushing back the illusion of ownership and control of nature and of time.

My poet friend and Views from the Edge colleague Steve Shoemaker is coming to the end of his time. After many decisions that prolonged his life far beyond the original prognosis, he opted last Saturday to give way to time. Steve chose to spend whatever days are left at home at Prairie Haven on the plains of Illinois.

The news came less than a week after five old friends who call ourselves the Dogs traveled from Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota to gather one last time with Steve at Steve’s room in the care center. We barked and growled watching the first presidential debate. We laughed. We sang some hymns. We prayed with and for Steve, Nadja, and their children, Daniel and Marla. We prayed for ourselves. The time was right.

When news arrived only days later that Steve had opted to end further medical treatment to go home, the conversation with my 11 year-old son years ago and Steve’s verse “When to Stop Praying” (April 2, 2016) came quickly to mind. The prayer now is for an end of striving. An end of pain. “Pray for my peace, not my life.” The end of time.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 5, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Blue Daddy

At the birdhouse outside our window in Montana the bright blue male Mountain Bluebird feeds his young at day-break.

Mountain Bluebird Daddy

Blue daddy’s not blue today, soaring
through sunlit skies in search of
berries and beetles he pulls from
the green world for their baby blues.

The Bluebird is not blue today at
crack of dawn, returning to their
brood in the Bluebird house
beneath the telephone wires.

He fills the open beaks with
breakfast brought from Momma’s
kitchen stocked from the pantry
of Nature’s Earth-green Temple.

The Mountain Bluebirds are threatened by changing climate, according to research you can read HERE on The Audubon Society website page.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Georgetown, Montana, July 28, 2016

 

Verse – 52 Killed

Mass murder, terror, hate,
Assault rifles, semi-automatic,
Hand guns, gun shows,
Concealed carry,
Congress bought by the NRA.

Victims: LGBTQ,
Children, shoppers,
Movie-goers,
Muslims, Christians,
African-Americans, worshippers,
Anyone.

Shooters: ISIS,
Racists, bigots,
Mentally ill, gangs,
Drug addicts,
Anyone,
No background checks needed
For private gun sales or gun shows.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, June 13, 2016