Sunday, November 22, 2009


I'm thinking these days of Jesus the graybeard.

In Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, the temptation of the title is not to great wealth or power, but just to give it all up (being a savior) and grow old as a respected graybeard in the community, to enjoy the company of his wife and dandle his grandchildren on his knee. (I'll leave it to you to discover Kazantzakis' marvelous treatment of this temptation. I recommend the book rather than the movie.)

I'm thinking of this because, of late, I am living the life which tempted Kazantzakis' Christ: I have a gray beard, I dandle my grandchildren on my knee, and I greatly enjoy the company of my wife.

Of the many simple pleasures I am blessed with in this life, one of the best is listening to Caryl play the piano. When she sits down at her medium-grand Kawai, it is like a siren song. I put down what I am doing, take the piano-side chair, and am transported.

Sometimes I hear a piece elsewhere and I think, "I'd like to hear Caryl play that." And so over the years I've ordered sheet music: Copland's "Our Town," Lauridsen's "Dirait-on," Davies' "Farewell to Stromness." I present them to her hopefully and she plays them -- beautifully. I get tears in my eyes.

A light, subtle thought has slipped in lately during my listening sessions: "This will not always be." Maybe it has to do with that gray beard -- passing the sixty mark. This will not always be. It only makes these times better than they ever were.

"This will not always be" could be the title of Linda Pastan's poem, which is actually titled "50 Years:"

Though we know
how it will end:
in grief and silence,
we go about our ordinary days
as if the acts of boiling an egg
or smoothing down a bed
were so small
they must be overlooked
by death. And perhaps

the few years left, sun drenched
but without grand purpose,
will somehow endure,
the way a portrait of lovers endures
radiant and true on the wall
of some obscure Dutch museum,
long after the names
of the artist and models
have disappeared.

I applaud Pastan for facing it, but I still want to deny it. I prefer the doughty spirit of Phylis McGinley's "Midcentury Love Letter:"

Stay near me. Speak my name. Oh, do not wander
By a thought's span, heart's impulse, from the light
We kindle here. You are my sole defender
(As I am yours) in this precipitous night,
Which over earth, till common landmarks alter,
Is falling, without stars, and bitter cold.
We two have but our burning selves for shelter.
Huddle against me. Give me your hand to hold.

So might two climbers lost in mountain weather
On a high slope and taken by the storm,
Desperate in the darkness, cling together
Under one cloak and breathe each other warm.
Stay near me. Spirit, perishable as bone,
In no such winter can survive alone.
All that poem needs is a piano. I'm going to go find Caryl and request "Farewell to Stromness." Jesus should be so lucky.

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