Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The January Muse

Edward Lowinsky -photo by Nikki Arai 

Every January I’m visited by my father’s ghost. It’s the month he was born. I remember his death date—October 11, 1985—but I’ve forgotten his exact birth date. There was no World Wide Web in my father’s day. But he loved word play and puns and found English, his adopted language, very amusing. I can hear him laugh as I announce that I will Google him. Wikipedia says his birth date is January 12, 1908.
“Wikipedia, what in heaven’s name is that?” the ghost of my father wonders? What happened to the Encyclopedia Britannica I gave you and Dan when you married?”

(I don’t want to go there with the ghost of my father. I protected that Encyclopedia for years, wouldn’t let Dan move it out of the garage, though I never consulted it. I looked at Wikipedia. Finally Dan prevailed.)

“The Britannica doesn’t know your birthdate, but Wikipedia does. Look Dad, it says ‘Lowinsky was one of the most prominent and influential musicologists in post-World War II America. His 1946 work on the "secret chromatic art" of Renaissance motets was hotly debated in its time.’”

“How does it know that? Who informed Wikipedia?”

(Another topic I’d rather avoid. If my father, the distinguished professor and scholar, knew that anyone could write a Wikipedia entry, that no academic credentials were required, he’d blow his ghostly top.)

“Dad,” I say, “you wouldn’t recognize the world I inhabit now.” My poetry is backed up in the Cloud. I write a blog, called News from the Muse. This month I’m blogging about your birthday.” This is a source of great amusement to my father’s ghost. How could anything that sounds so silly be a serious way to express oneself?

“For my birthday I have been Googled, Wikipediaed and blogged. Should I feel good about this?”

Stuttgart, early 1900s

My father was born in Stuttgart, Germany 105 years ago. No cars, no telephones, no airplanes, electricity was new. His father hand rolled cigarettes for a living. His mother, who was the intellectual, encouraged my father’s passion for music.

My father had to adapt to enormous changes in his life. First in his family to go to college, he was the first who came to America to escape the Nazis. Though he had studied English in Germany, he was not a good idiomatic speaker when he arrived. He liked to tell the story about the Quaker camp for refugee Jews, held somewhere in the South, where he and my mother were being oriented about America. He was asked to speak about music. He didn’t understand why people laughed when he announced that he was going to discuss Beethoven’s “Moonshine Sonata.”

He became an articulate speaker and writer in English, a sophisticated commentator on American government and politics, a great civil libertarian and passionate advocate of civil rights. He was famous for his elegantly phrased and scathing letters to the New York Times—frequently published—about the latest outrage.

What he couldn’t adapt to was technology. He never learned to drive, though he was a dreadful backseat driver. He wrote out all his letters and musicological essays in a sloping, vigorous and illegible hand. My mother and later my step-mother were his drivers, typists, housekeepers, cooks— general all-purpose hand maidens. He didn’t know how to boil an egg. He was used to being served by women. That was not so unusual in the 1940s and 50s when I was coming to consciousness. But he was extreme. He was able to see the humor in it. He’d tell the story about the waitress who, after he’d asked her to cut up and peel his apple, wondered if he wanted her to chew it as well. Then there was the cousin who wondered whether he wanted her to peel his grapes.

My father was a secular humanist, an historian of the early Renaissance when the individual human voice began to wander out of the church to sing of love and springtime. He didn’t like machines. He was suspicious of mass culture. We didn’t have TV when I was a child. At the time I seemed a terrible deprivation to me. It left me feeling like a total outsider. Who was Howdy Doody? Who was Princess SummerFallWinterSpring? Now I am grateful for the emphasis on books, music and art in my childhood. For the value placed on reflection, inner life and imagination.

My father would be aghast at the world my grandchildren inhabit, full of smartphones and angry birds. I hear his voice in me: “How are they going to develop their capacity to muse, to ponder, to feel deeply about things with all that constant outer stimulation? How are they going to learn to think critically, to become active citizens of our democracy?” My father was always sensitive to the tension between individual expression and outer controls. He’d be very worried about privacy issues on line, as am I. Though my muse has taken to blogging like a duck to water, I have mixed feelings about all this technological change.

It is hard to believe that it's just over a hundred years since my father was born—in such a different world. A hundred years from now, who can begin to imagine? But it’s my father’s birthday and I want to blog about my gratitude to him and my mother for encouraging my creativity when I was a girl. He never wanted anything store-bought for his birthday. He wanted a drawing or a poem.

So, happy birthday Dad. Here’s a poem for you.

(Black Mountain College, 1943-47)

Garden of the sun dappled baby I was
and the tow headed toddler, I can see me now
on the wooded path, beloved of the morning

and the night, drunk on mother’s milk
and daddy’s lullabies, cradled in the rapture
of the mountains, captivated by the fiery flash

of a Cardinal in flight, seer of the light
in willows, and in the waters of Lake Eden
enchanted by the song of the Carolina Wren

transported into sleep on wings of Bach and Schubert
enfolded as I was in this Black Mountain tribe
of music makers, paint stirrers, pot throwers, leapers in the air…

Outside the gates—news of the war
Smoke rose, bombs fell
Inside the gates—faculty fights

for or against, communism, twelve tone music, short shorts
on young women. In the basement of the cottage named
Black Dwarf, a Moccasin frightened my mother. But I

lucky baby, took my first steps
between your apple and your wild
rhododendron, greedy for the names of your every living thing

Early I lost you. Lately I’ve found you
again. Sweet spot, source
of the singing in my heart, and my communion
                                                   with the mountains…
 (first published in New MillenniumWritings)

Lake Eden, Black Mountain, NC

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