I AM DRINKING coffee this morning from a cup that says “Verum Bonum Pulchrum” — truth, goodness, beauty — an impossible ideal, but it’s my sister-in-law’s cup, not mine. Our apartment is undergoing window replacement so my love and I are being harbored by relatives. She sleeps in a handsome mahogany bed that belonged to her grandmother Hilda and I sleep on a hard single bed in the basement. Separation is good for a happy marriage like ours. We say good night and I trudge downstairs and lie in the dark on a skinny bed that is like the one I slept in when I was 17. So I close my eyes and it’s 1959 and I’m considering my prospects in life.
I was a mediocre student and so I decided to skip college and join a Trappist monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. I was brought up evangelical Protestant but their rule of silence was attractive to me and if you’re silent, who’s to know you’re Protestant? (Or know you’re not that bright?) So I wrote to them, asking admission, and got a gentle rejection.
And that was my last attempt at sanctity. As Robert Frost almost wrote but did not:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And I chose the one that led to Bonum
And was refused, so I took the path
To Amo, Amas, Amat, and that was easier.
Celibacy wasn’t going to work for me. I craved the comedy of marriage: two people physically attracted to each other but otherwise independent and free to express it, sometimes sharply — a comic plotline. Being married, I needed to earn money and I went into radio because it was easy. My dad was a carpenter and he worked so hard, he’d come home and fall asleep reading the paper and have to be awakened to come eat supper. I resolved to never work that hard and I haven’t. That’s why I don’t need a shoulder replacement and sometimes I still feel 17.
Radio was monastic at first, sitting alone in a studio at 6 a.m. And then I started a variety show, with musicians and actors, and that’s where I got my education. The monk Thomas Merton wrote: “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have — for their usefulness.”
And I think of the big stars who came on my show and found they enjoyed being there without needing to carry the freight. Martin Sheen, the TV president, enjoyed playing grifters and palookas. Willie Nelson sang a couple parodies of his songs.
Allen Ginsberg came and read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and was magnificent. He’d been the King of Beat long enough and loved venturing into the 19th century. Don and Phil liked coming out and doing the Everly Brothers for a few songs, but they were happy to mingle backstage and be themselves.
Meryl Streep loved to sing duets, old elegiac songs she’d never do anywhere else.
Chet Atkins was a household name who was a sideman at heart. He could come out on stage and blow the audience away, but what he loved was sitting backstage with Johnny Gimble, Peter Ostroushko, Pat Donohue, Bill Hinkley, whichever musicians were in the mood, and playing an endless seamless medley of swing tunes, gospel, “Seeing Nellie Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” whatever came to his mind. That was when Chet disappeared into his true self.
This happened to me a few weeks ago, doing a solo show, a benefit for an arts organization in upstate New York, unrehearsed since it was just me. Two old friends came backstage before the show and provided distraction right up to eight o’clock when the stage lights dimmed and I walked out to the microphone with nothing in mind except to sing Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” and then recite Shakespeare’s “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state.” There was no script.
I flew blind for an hour and a half through the overcast of memory, the False Knight Upon The Road, Frost, Blake, “Annabel Lee,” Frankie and Johnny, no pause, no applause, and finally at 76 I felt anonymous and free, with Dickinson, Yeats, the babes in the woods, Casey at the bat, the audience singing “America,” and I was a Trappist at last, not doing but being.