Years ago I lived for a while in a second-floor apartment on West 19th Street between 8th and 9th avenues in New York City, in a neighborhood I could hardly afford then and couldn’t dream of affording now. Out the back door was a little porch which faced the rear of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, which was built in the early 19th century on land donated by Clement Clark Moore, who served at various times at the church’s warden, vestryman and organist, and was — of course — the author of the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” read here by Father Christmas himself, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan:
I was a very little boy but I sensed something big was going on. My father had rushed home early from work. Now he was sitting in front of our black-and-white TV as the president — Kennedy — delivered an address on what we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This happened fifty years ago, in October 1962.
Spy plane photographs had revealed the presence of Soviet missiles — missiles capable of being armed with nuclear warheads — in Cuba, a stone’s throw from Florida and within range of American cities in the South and Northeast.
This was at the height of that war of nerves and ideologies called the Cold War.
The U.S. demanded that the Soviet Union remove the missiles. The Russians refused. We were on the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy and his advisers, history tells us, believed it might take a miracle to forestall Armageddon.
My father — and 150 million other Americans — sensed this. I could sense his concern — and his fear.
Fifty years later, the whole thing now seems so distant and unreal: the air of crisis, the talk of fallout shelters, the naval blockade, the standoff, the wait…and the Soviet Union backing down. Fifty years later, we know now about the back-channel communications, the military men who wanted to bomb Cuba, the clever (and lucky) diplomatic and strategic ploys.
I think of the line from young Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” when he sings about the “fear to bring children into the world” and his awful and beautiful song “Hard Rain,” inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.
Fifty years later, I remember my 29-year-old father — just 29! — and the worry I saw in his eyes when he looked away from President Kennedy’s flickering image on the TV and looked at my mother and me, when the reality of men’s folly made it clear that life’s fragile light could flicker and fade in just the few moments it would take for someone to give the order to flip the terrible switch.
I warmed up for the celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday by attending a great show — Blondes on “Blonde on Blonde” — presented last Saturday as part of the Concerts at the Crossing series held in Titusville, N.J., near Washington Crossing, where, yes indeed, Washington crossed the Delaware and invaded Trenton.
I know…we should have let the British keep Trenton. But I lived there with my parents right after I was born. My young father was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Fort Dix. So if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware and routed the Hessians, I’d be speaking with a British accent and…
I know.,.I’m drifting too far from the shore…Here’s a video of one of the “Blondes on Blonde on Blonde performers,” Sloan Wainwright, singing “Meet Me in the Morning” from “Blood on the Tracks” —
On the actual Bobday — Tuesday, May 24 — I sat by the banks of the Raritan River in New Jersey, reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg of Paterson, N.J., .listening to “Things Have Changed” by His Bobness…and watching and listening as an Orthodox Jew with a cantor’s voice stood alone at the riverside, first with his hands on his hips and then with his arms opened wide to the sky. The man chanted and sang a tune I did not recognize and words I did not understand, and he looked out over the holy river, and it was a confluence of Jewish poems and prayers, a meeting of the orthodox and the avant-garde, as the cantor and I sat and watched the river flow on Robert Zimmerman/Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday,
Here’s the song I was listening to, sung by the birthday boy himself:
And here’s Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton watching the river flow…
It feels like you’re buried beneath the rubble of your own ground zero. It feels like you’ll never get out. It feels like if you breathe too deeply or even twitch a muscle, even blink, that the rubble may shift and crush you.
You are aware of heroic rescue attempts. You appreciate the effort. Now you think they should go home to their families and friends, save themselves before they themselves get hurt.
From the rented second-floor apartment in the wilds of New Jersey you can hear the Turnpike’s endless hum and the mournful horns of trains speeding down the NJ Transit tracks….The woeful horns and droning hum are a mocking fanfare trumpeting the arrival of love…the finale is discordant and flat and empty and unbearable…like the pain of remembering great love that suddenly vanished — but not without a trace.
Shall you tell of when hope floated on the horizon, when love whispered “Hey, I’m still possible,” when tenderness and affection and two souls recognizing each other were not a fantasy or wishful thinking and these things were suddenly recognizable again even when they seemed beyond recognition, whenthe universe once again revealed its great secret — that a loving embrace and two hearts beating in close proximity hold all the answers to life’s mystery, that the answer might be revealed in a kiss.
Shall you say whether this was decades ago? Or just months ago? Or just last weekend? Or next weekend? Just months from now? Decades into the future? All of the above?
You are tired of hearing your sad laments filling the airwaves every time a passing car zips by with windows down and music blaring…
Here are the songs you keep hearing:
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain…Ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes…Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer…It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…
My love for you is like a sinking ship/My heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean…
Mix in “Girl From the North Country,” Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You” and Andy Williams singing “Moon River” and you’ve got something to listen to when you’re in that late-night mood and there’s a brilliant half moon in the starless sky and a truck horn blares and it’s three in the morning and two riders are approaching and the wind begins to howl and it makes the lights flicker and you hear a door open and footsteps on the stairs and you wonder if it’s someone coming for you and you hope someone’s coming for you but you suspect there’s no one here for you and you finally stop listening and finally stop hoping and finally fall into the sleep of the sleepers, which is a restless farewell but also a great escape.
There’s a glimmer of light through the rubble — perhaps the light from a rescuer’s lamp — but now the light’s gone dim…let the lighted lamp pass…you’re tired of calling for help and saying “Here I am…come back…I’m over here…” Either you’ll dig your own way out of the debris. Either the one you hope will search for you will pull you from the rubble. Or perhaps you’ll abide and reside amid the rubble for the rest of your rubble-strewn days.
Spending a week in a small town in the Berkshires, at a writers retreat, I find myself wondering…”retreat?”
Am I retreating from life? No. Am I retreating from life’s pain? No. Am I retreating from life’s joys? No. No. No. Am I retreating from the having to worry about overdue bills? No — my cellphone is turned on and I check my email several times daily.
So what kind of retreat is this writers retreat? Perhaps it’s more accurately described as a refuge, a haven, a safe house. It’s a place where the rules are that there are no rules except to respect the solitude of others, to whisper, to tread softly.
And it’s a place where it’s OK to step into an empty church in this small town and sit and contemplate and pray in one’s own way of praying, to remember and cherish and wish and dream.
And it’s place where around a bend in the road blooms a field of wildly yellow wildflowers…
Where one road leads to home and another leads to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and I choose the road less traveled and stare up at Emily’s window and imagine her white ghostly beauty…
Where the home housing this writers retreat overflows with books including, of all things, a book of Korean love poems, including a poem called “Unforgettable:”
If you cannot forget,
Let it be unforgotten.
One day you will forget.
If you cannot forget,
Let her go unforgotten.
Some part, or all, will fade one day.
But you will answer still
“How can I forget
When this flame burns in my heart?”
There is no way to pull back or retreat, I say. A heart given fully can not be retrieved.
Ain’t looking for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes…
Maybe it’s not Bob Dylan. Maybe it’s Bob Dylan channeling Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong.
Or maybe it is Bob Dylan. Maybe he got into the eggnog and didn’t know someone had spiked it with a bit too much rum. Or maybe he knew about the rum.
Or maybe there’s just no way to describe how awfully bad — and impossible to explain — “Christmas in the Heart” really is.
Or maybe you just have to hear it to believe it. This album could change your life…you might, for example, stop believing in Santa…or you might decide that those dancing elves you saw when you drank too much spiked eggnog at that Christmas party weren’t a figment of your alcohol-drenched imagination. They were really there. They were Dylan’s backup singers on “Winter Wonderland.”
Ho-ho-hold on to your hat —
Here’s the set list:
Here Comes Santa Claus, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Blues, O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles), Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Must Be Santa, Silver Bells, The First Noel, Christmas Island, The Christmas Song, O Little Town Of Bethlehem.