September 26, 2010

Joe Sample, Elizabeth Spires and autumn’s heaven

Where is the spirit, the sense of being in the presence of the creator, whatever that might mean? I found myself asking while at a jazz concert at Blue’s Alley on Friday, September 24, 2010. Joe Sample, jazz pianist and composer was playing and chatting with the small but packed crowd at this club in Georgetown here in D.C. If you don’t know who Joe Sample is, and I didn’t until that evening, I say, You should. Not only for his music but for what he is doing while on tour at age 71. He played songs that I now know made his fame and that he wrote: “Rainbow Seeker” and “Freedom Sound” along with “The Nearness of You” that old favorite written in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Ned Washington and made famous by Glenn Miller and Nat King Cole.

For a review of the performance go here to Marie Gullard in the Washington Examiner. 

My sense of the evening was that I had been in church or synagogue, in the best senses of those words. Sample played possessed by the power of the Yamaha and the artery that flowed from his heart. It is heart that we heard in those fabulous old hands that have not aged on the keyboard. It is spirit that we heard in his words. He chatted between songs and I did not take notes. I was enthralled. My memory of what he said:

That when he looked for money for what he did, it didn’t come. When he did what he needed to do, it did. That he doesn’t know who or how many remember him but that he lives this music: He once beat his piano in anger at age six when his parents made him play it. Little did he know that he was beating up the source of who he is. That he’s on tour at age 71 while he’s taking Coumadin; thus, without knowing it perhaps, he brought the heart into the conversation, as he admitted that some times his memory of what he’ll play next is off. Not true. The ingenuousness of the comment hit the mark the way his hands hit the keys.

And I recalled that John Donne said in one of his sermons, “In heaven it is always autumn.” Here is a bit of that line in context:

God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; in Paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity.

Joe Sample lives in that autumn. He plays in that season and the mercies come to those who listen. He led me further than I’d been.

Elizabeth Spires, took Donne’s line for the title of a poem she wrote for her friend and mentor Josephine Jacobsen:

“In Heaven It Is Always Autumn”

—John Donne

In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's path no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down, the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must be heaven.

—Elizabeth Spires from Now the Green Blade Rises 

When I read this poem and all the poems in this beauty of a book, I wrote to Spires, a long letter about the poems. This last poem reaches a climactic height of both beauty, meaning and the wisdom of autumn.

Here is what I told her in the close of that letter:

I shall always know what you have written and shall seek your work forevermore, for in this book, Elizabeth Spires, “… you have led me farther than I have ever been.”

Yesterday, Heather John of The Foodinista, of Bon Appetít and Herman Miller Life Work fame  wrote me a personal note about the recovery from a great illness of someone close to her who knows this autumn and knows it with humor and grace. She wrote me, a stranger, who had commented on her blog when his photo appeared, a simple thought of the beauty of the man, but in my heart I knew might be ill. She wrote me then a personal note to tell me that was so. With her update to me yesterday—we've not been in communication—of her deeply personal journey and his remarkable recovery, she gave the gift of light and led me, with this unearned gesture, farther.

In the autumn of my life, I know that heaven and life are one and that I live that heaven each day. And that, as Martin Buber says, “All real living is meeting.”