Category Archives: gratitude

Absent Again

Why I Didn’t Go to Church This Morning

church-window-St-Nicolaaskerk-Church-Amsterdam-huffpost

St. Nicolaaskerk Church, Amsterdam, the Netherlands—Huffington Post

Every Saturday night I go to bed early, almost wriggling at the happy thought of waking up Sunday morning, showering a little longer than usual, dressing with a little more ceremony… ready, more than ready, eager for Sunday-morning fellowship, for brief but powerful embraces and heartfelt handshakes, for the well-loved litany, both ancient and evergreen… for the palpably mystical cadence of Scott’s sermon, so delicious to hear that one risks being enchanted by the voice and missing the message… for the brazen presence of Jesus that is somehow gentler than in solitude, if that were possible, among fellow worshipers and even those who have just come for the music… and, of course, for the music. This is my Saturday-evening ritual, and I feel then that I could simply will myself to church on Sunday morning on the strength of that anticipation, arriving without traversing the space between home and sanctuary, taking a literal quantum leap….

This is why Sundays become the saddest hours of my week, why my Sunday-morning ceremony is to bury the bright expectations so recently alive, so suddenly aborted. As free and light as I feel upon falling asleep is as heavy and inert as I feel upon waking, as if I have no agency, as if I am a stone expected to leap from its ages-old tomb beneath a streambed and propel itself to the moon.

Because I am so certain on Saturday night that this Sunday will be different, will signal my reemergence into the world of churchgoers, will witness the arrival that conquers inertia for all time, I am first surprised and then grieved on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning… as if my miscarried purpose were unprecedented, as if all this had never happened before. I wonder what went wrong. I am angry at, disgusted with, exasperated by my inaction. Entropy, I think, is the devil, the real one—horns, tail, pitchfork, and all—and I ponder with genuine bewilderment my body’s failure to obey my will.

For a while, I rationalize. I recall that I am “coming down with something” or “recovering from something.” I remind myself that I can’t afford the Uber expenditure and that I have shown myself too untrustworthy to ask a friend for a ride. I resolve to live more healthfully, to get more exercise, to sleep more soundly, and to manage my money more sensibly… all so I can do the one thing that, above every other, is to me desirable, enjoyable, necessary, and—in theory, at least— attainable: to show up at my beloved church on Sunday morning.

Asparagus regained

The penalty for failure is harsh. I am contrite and the Divine is all-forgiving, but out of the corner of my eye I see God smirking. The Holy Spirit is a faint breeze outside my window. Jesus is patient, but I fancy that he taps his toes. It would be easier to bear if, having failed once again, I could redeem the time with prayer, meditation, or Good Works. I should call my brother, write letters to my inmate correspondents, Skype with my out-of-town friends and grandchildren, ride my bicycle and smile at pedestrians, go to a nearby AA meeting, cook dinner for the friend who brought me food and medicine when I was sick. But I have worn myself out with shame, and torpor has set in. Of all the days of the week, Sunday is the one most likely to be spent playing marathon games of Words with Friends on Facebook, reading a John Grisham novel, or binge-watching The West Wing. I have spent entire Sundays without speaking to another soul, brushing my teeth, or walking to a destination more distant than the bathroom.

Originally there were semi-legitimate reasons for not going to church, but the reasons no longer apply, and all that’s left is remembered distaste and knee-jerk discomfort. When I was a little girl I hated asparagus, and for decades I avoided asparagus as if it were radioactive sludge. In my late twenties, at a banquet, I accidentally got a bit of asparagus on my fork, tasted it, and instantly regretted all those years during which I had deprived myself of asparagus ecstasy. Such is my regret at allowing unpleasant associations to interrupt the joy of churchgoing.

Temple Emanu-El

Temple Emanu-El, New York City—Huffington Post

For most of my life I have loved church and churches, but even if I didn’t particularly want to go it would be a Good Thing to do, a smart thing, a generous thing. When I’m not beating myself up, I enjoy my own company, and my pursuits are both solitary and sedentary. In my experience, independence too quickly becomes isolation and profound, toxic loneliness. At seventy years old, I occasionally wonder how much time I have to form good habits, healthful ways of being in the world, mutually beneficial relationships… to become a member of the Good Guys’ Club, that cheerful, active, productive, unofficial association of people who genuinely want to infuse the world with a little more beauty, more compassion, and—on a really good day—more fun. I want to work toward something noble or at least useful; I desire loftier goals than Not Being Depressed. The ambitions and expectations with which I began my adult life no longer call to me. A few have been achieved, but I think that I will never live on a farm, keep honeybees and chickens, or explore the Mississippi River on a houseboat. (I do, however, hold out for a year or two of travel in a mini-motorhome similar to the Chinook in which my boys and I spent many carefree hours.)

A change is gonna come

As to Not Being Depressed, one would think that I, having emerged from a place so blighted that I can conjure neither images nor words to describe it, would be in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. I know that, from that dark prison, I bargained with God, promising that if I were delivered I would be endlessly grateful and unvaryingly kind… that if I could once again stand in the sunlight and place my feet on solid ground, I would ask for nothing more. But we are made for bliss; God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with “comfortably numb.” If there’s a good thing to be said about Sunday guilt, it’s that distress motivates change.

I regard the world and its pain, I consider the relative difficulty of putting on shoes that match and traveling less than twenty blocks in an automobile once a week, and I realize that if I made going to church next Sunday morning the only item on my checklist I could do it. It’s doable, and I can do it. A few phone calls, a conversation, an arrangement… this is not a mission for the NATO Allied Command. Things requiring much greater effort are being done as I write, will be done tomorrow, and I will do some of them. One evening this week I will babysit three-year-old triplets, a task I challenge the NATO Allied Commander to achieve with the skill and energy that I bring to it. When the time comes, I certainly won’t wage an internal debate on whether to show up for the triplets. Such is the strength of simple commitment.

So I think that I will stop wondering why I didn’t go to church this morning—a mental exercise that predictably invites argument—and I will make a simple commitment. I will make that commitment to myself, I will make it to someone else, and I will meet it. I will go to church next Sunday. I will expect that, with my having stayed away, there will be a bit more strangeness in the experience than when I was a reliable churchgoer in a past life and going to church was like reuniting with a large and delightfully eccentric family. I believe I can handle it. Above the strangeness will be the open door; beside it will be the welcome mat. That’s why I choose to go. All are welcome there. And next Sunday I will go to church.

church-window-notre-dame-cathedral-paris-huffpost

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris—Huffington Post

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Thinking Makes It So

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…. Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)

Everything old is New Age again

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their closest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the purpose of studying Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with all seven continents represented.

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. The message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earth might literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

Another spiritual-genre phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I greatly admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes the rich and ancient Hindu mystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, 2004, photo by Alan Light

My daughter refers to all this as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
(1875), is undeniable. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson. They’re part of a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible, and many others..

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the emphasis on forgoing medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy. I have not included the much-loved Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle use, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math. One exception, however, is Marianne Williamson, who combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and beautiful to see.

(Christian Scientists are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed, when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message described as faith healing or positive thinking.)

According to Christian Science, as I understand it

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs that people can be separated from God and that matter is real
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle

Thus, poverty is the manifestation of an erroneous belief in “lack.” War and family strife are examples of the “lie” of inharmony.

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences. More important, though, is that you choose the guru who speaks your language. You might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not.

Rumi

 
 

Poem C

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley

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A Mother’s Prayer

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can.

Grassy valley under a blue sky

My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid sky

My Space Inviolate

My space inviolate, circle of safety, whitewashed
in whorls of sweet sunlit air. Here is a cradle;
here is a lullaby; here is the wild strawberry,
here is the lily of the valley, in the shade, these
unpretentious in their scent and in their aspect.
Charmed, I fill my lungs with earth and flower
essence, and my heart with innocence —
nothing tainted is permitted here;
I fill my sight with creamy pastel spring
blooms and new yellow-green sweet grass.
Angels who whirled in the dance now sit quietly,
expectantly, one who is wise beside me.

New spring grass

New spring grass

Meditate this hour on your angelic
guardians, whose charge is but to guide you
to your joy. Now rest and dream, and when
you rise, put on the vestments of your power.

All that is kind; all things for love; all hope for
harmony, you’ve just to ask. It is our only task
to give you ease, to please you, to create
a clean, unsullied heart in you, fulfilling
what you’ve chanted at the precipice
of sleep, so near believing all these years.
Look! Every tear you spent for love and
penitence is sacred; each was shed in
honest pain, and we have saved them for
this baptism.

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Be happy, then. Know that we look after
him and mend his heart, so sore and
unprotected. There! It is done,
and he has seen the messengers of his
salvation, and believed. Then we embraced him
with a lambence that will cleave to him. You
need to understand that love like this,
angels cannot resist. It’s manna, meat and
drink to us. Now you must let him go;
now do release him; entrust him to us.
We shall keep him in an easy custody,
his warden shall be bliss.

Here in this circle is no place for fear.
Nothing feeds it here. Now be serene,
as you were meant to be, for all is well.
The insignificant, pathetic demons
from the place called “hell,” which is no place
at all, but just a state of mind, were chased
away, by saying, “Boo,” and making faces
at them. And yet they scare you so,
they interrupt your dancing— as if they were
substantial… as if they were not less than air.

Cattails


Poem A

Pine Ridge Nebraska

The Pine Ridge region, northwestern Nebraska

Turned Around

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Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Thanks to all 431 of you who visited Write Light on November 29 — my second-biggest day ever for this blog!

My dear friend and colleague Queen Jane the Easygoing and Way Smart is the person who submits my poetry and prose to periodicals and publishers. Sometimes she has difficulty choosing; I’m quite prolific.

In the next few weeks I’m going to post ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Thanks! Oh, I already said that. Well, thanks again, in advance….

TURNED AROUND

Because I have been less than inches
from the chasm of unbeing,
and have been afraid that, having
nowhere else to go, I would
on purpose, accidentally,
fall in, and simply fall and fall
forever, since unbeing has no
floor; and have been rescued, and
been certain of my rescuer,
and have again felt almost-solid
earth beneath my feet; when I
had given up on earth and sky
and sun and rain and comfortable
shoes and friends and weddings; having
been as good as dead, there in that
purgatory of unbreathing,
and then being turned around,
embraced, and liberated — I
believe in miracles. For everything
is living once you have been almost
dead; and all things shine, as if their
only purpose is to serve as
a reminder of that brief and
infinite dependence on
the spirit who exhaled to give me
breath again.

* * *

Published!

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Dundee School, Omaha, Nebraska

My school, Dundee Elementary, in Omaha, had a large playground and, between the fence and the wall, wonderful climbing trees and hiding places. I fell off the wall and ruptured my spleen when I was 9. Photo: RDG Planning & Design

In a small literary magazine…

…appeared this poem, my very own! Note rhetorical devices, including pathetic fallacy (anthropomorphism, personification), alliteration, assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, slant or half rhyme, and others.

Swaddled in Saturday Afternoon

Friday afternoon in early spring
was all but Saturday, and finer in its
way — a long, warm wallowing in
fresh anticipation — no activity
at all, allowing for the effortless,
habitual mobility of youth,
and I had energetic fantasies,
pie in the sky, like every other foolish
girl — I’m certain it’s a rule or ought to
be — uncensored dreams, I mean. How pliable
the world and I were then, how agile my
imagination, deftly crafting Saturday
scenarios and shaping situations on a whim.

Mother Greeting Children After School

Friday afternoon...

In my fringed suede jacket with my long,
brown hair in braids that swished across
my back, I could be Jo March or Annie
Oakley just by wishing to. A lengthening
of stride on pleasant residential
sidewalks, in an instant turned to hard-
packed trails across Nebraska Territory,
I was guiding covered wagons westward,
though unhappily my little pony, Daisy,
had been left behind in Council Bluffs,
recuperating from… from… um… the
hiccups; such a mystifying case,
so strange.

Girl Playing with Leaves

The wind changed...

The wind changed. Balmy just a tick ago,
the day turned strangely dark, and
cold, quick puffs of what remained of
winter merged into a gale. I loosed my
braided hair and let the wind do what it
would. I knew (the wind did not), no
matter how it tugged and turned, no
ordinary wind could separate my hair
and skin — a small but gratifying
evidence of power, to tease the elements
that way, and win. And with such grand,
decisive triumphs, Saturdays begin.

Kids in Spring

Oh! Here they come...

There was a wild and wooded place, if
only ten feet wide or so, that circumscribed
the park. Good climbing trees were there, and
shrubs to hide in while you waited for
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to ride in
from their day of keeping lawlessness
at bay. I must be canny and adjust
my brim, so it just skims my eyes. Oh! Here they
come! Alas! It isn’t they, not then! It’s
Robin and his Merry Men, and I, Maid
Marian, again defied the wind and
pinned my tousled hair into a prim,
aristocratic bun, with tendrils tumbling
‘round my face.

Mom Serving Lunch

...for there was lemonade...

The wind abated and the sun peeked out.
I leaned against the Gallaghers’ red maple tree
and watched the play of shade and glimmer in
the variegated canopy and felt
the muffled thrum that was the rhythm of
a Saturday in spring, the quieting
of afternoon in placid neighborhoods.
I heard my mother mixing commerce with
a bit of gossip as the Alamito
Dairy man, whose name was John, sold butter,
half-and-half, and cottage cheese, and muttered
something he had gleaned from Mrs. Hahn,
about the Beasleys’ sheltie’s puppies being
weaned, as I recall. I listened to the
uninflected tune of bees around
a clump of lilacs, heard a small child’s bleating
and her mama crooning consolation,
and a screen door with a wicked spring
obedient to physics, snapping like a
shot, too raucous for the soporific
interlude. And why not let myself
be swaddled by the sun, the homely
sounds, the scent of sod just laid, and lilies
of the valley emanating fragrance
disproportionate to their small,
delicate, half-hidden habitat?
Well contented was I then to call
an end to my adventures for a time;
for there were lemonade, and crackers, and
a book to carry to the back yard and my
secret nook between the privet and the
elm, concave as if it had been made
expressly for my shoulder blades.

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    Out of Order

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
    Chapter 11: Living Poetically

    What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

    Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
    Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

    We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

    A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

    I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

    redoute-four-1

    Little Things

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course
    Lesson 35
    Chapter 11 (continued): The Morris Chair and Other Metaphors for Love

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

    morris-chair-ironwood_publicdomain

    A freshwater swamp in Florida (U.S. Geological Survey)

    A freshwater swamp in Florida (U.S. Geological Survey)

    I am not into angst. Give me good, honest sadness, if you must, but don’t take me down sordid side streets dead-ending in despair.

    Do not write poetry about your feelings, except metaphorically, or in passing. You will get stuck there, in that swamp of emotion, when the point is to uncover what lies beneath the muck.

    Let’s say your mother has just died. Please, if she is living, know that I am not ill-wishing her; may she live in robust health and prosperity to 150. My mother — as you know, if you have been paying attention — died in 1974. I did not write much poetry then; it would be another five years or so before I started writing therapeutically, or out of pure joy, rather than to impress someone.

    If I had wanted to write a poem about my mother, I would not have begun by recalling how wonderful she was and how much I had loved her and was missing her. Those were sentiments that were going nowhere… that were honest but superficial; my feelings were so much more complicated than sadness and grief. There were anger, regret, a little guilt, gratitude, laughter, bemusement, mixed with emotions that, to this day, I believe there are no words for — a tangle of knots and orphan threads that were going to either crush or choke me.

    A schoolchild's slate very similar to Mom's

    A schoolchild’s slate very similar to Mom’s

    As it happened, I went into therapy instead of writing poetry. But if I had written poems for and about my mom, I think I would have begun with the little slate — one of the orphan threads in the tangle.

    I have said that Mom was an antique collector and dealer. One of her prize possessions was a small slate — a child’s personal chalkboard from the days when paper wasn’t plentiful. I’m sure it was fifty or seventy-five years old; it was about five by seven inches if you count the rickety half-inch frame.

    I found the slate in the closet of the spare bedroom a few days after Mom died. Written on it, with white chalk in Mom’s handwriting, was “Merry Christmas 1974.”

    Now, this was very odd, enigmatic bordering on spooky. Mom died on August 8, 1974. For what possible reason might she have, that summer, to all appearances glowing with health and vitality, written “Merry Christmas 1974” on the little slate and put it in a closet where it would be easily found among her treasures?

    Canon Typestar 110 electronic typewriter

    Canon Typestar 110 electronic typewriter

    Pappy’s Journal

    When Dad died, in 1985, I was wiser. I did not go into therapy. Dad had retired about three years after Mom died, had bought an electronic typewriter, and had begun sending to his relatives, periodically, four-page documents printed on the backs of pieces of junk mail. He called this work-in-progress Pappy’s Journal. It contained amusing and sometimes poignant reminiscences about everything from ice-skating on the Des Moines River when he was a boy to a play-by-play of the previous Saturday’s Nebraska Cornhusker football game. Dad had been a CPA and a Scot, and he was thrifty to the core. (He had perfected a way of grafting soap slivers onto just-opened bars of Palmolive.) He always sent four pages, even if the fourth page ended midsentence, because four pages of twenty-pound paper was the maximum you could mail using a single first-class stamp.

    The Red Sea—Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, 2007 (photo by Bobak Ha'Eri)

    The Red Sea—Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, 2007 (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri)

    So instead of seeking psychiatric help, I edited his reminiscences, sparingly, and wrote some annotations, and I also wrote several poems, one of which won first prize in statewide poetry contests in both Kansas and Arizona.

    The Morris Chair

    for Dan Campbell, 1913-1985

    Once it was merely oak and textile, but you
    chose it as your incarnation’s favorite
    dwelling place; and since its cast, at first, was
    hostile to your contours, something had to
    give — the Morris never had a prayer.

    As sitting folks do, you made an impression on the
    topography of the worsted cushion, and, like the
    victim of erosion, the planet was
    reshaped: a plateau here, a gully there… a
    landscape — where before had been mere
    serviceable flatness — was now the sculpted
    valley of adamant flesh, bone, and muscle.

    After the armistice, you and the Morris were
    compatible as the angular pieces of a
    jigsaw puzzle, and anyone else venturing
    to sit upon the thing would find it
    uncongenial, neither rigid nor
    relenting, just tenacious of its silhouette,
    and true to its architect, and steward to
    your indelible effect.

    It doesn’t require a death in the family to write an evocative poem, choosing for its fulcrum something small and secretly prized, perhaps. Here is one of mine:

    Summer Afternoon, Shinnecock, by Julien Alden Weir

    Summer Afternoon, Shinnecock, by Julien Alden Weir

    Meditation on a Summer Afternoon

    All the riches of the world exist in shadows
    of a walnut tree on sunny summer
    afternoons: the small, expressive flutter of
    a leaf in a listless breeze; the cleaving
    scent of earth and pine and grass and
    honeysuckle heavy on the vine; the
    rough-and-tumble scratching of a
    dozen squirrels in a frantic scramble
    branch to branch, and suddenly
    they’re statues munching fat, firm
    nutmeats, littering with shards of
    shell my cluttered yard that I shall
    rake another day; plump robins, in
    shy trepidation, venturing to search
    for succulent gourmet delights, then,
    frightened off by someone’s slamming
    of a door, they dash away on wing
    and call a warning to their mates.
    Nearby a brash woodpecker hammers,
    hammers more, persists in hammering
    upon a maple tree. I clap my hands,
    applauding, and to see what he will
    do. He quits, and then resumes.

    A book of poetry sits idly on my lap,
    unlooked at. Pages turn upon a
    breath of air; perhaps, I fancy, there’s a
    spirit there, enjoying Blake. I listen to my
    children at the neighbor’s, splashing in a
    plastic pool and laughing with the
    unrestraint that grace bestows on
    childhood; and down the street, somebody
    mows a tidy lawn that’s lined by rows of
    peonies, exuberant and lush, ridiculously
    pink or deep merlot.

    Pink peonies (photo by Fanghong)

    Pink peonies (photo by Fanghong)

    Something sighs contentedly. Perhaps it’s
    I, or else a pixie living in a tribe beneath
    the shrubbery. Nothing weighs on me. I
    feel so light that I’m surprised to find
    myself still sitting on my rag of quilt upon
    the grass instead of simply rising, chasing
    birds or playing tag with bees. But I am
    earthen still, and glad of it, delighted to
    be wrapped in humid air; it moves
    sufficiently to cool my skin and curl my
    hair. The ground is warm, a comfort, womb
    of seed and tiny creature curled in sleep,
    awaiting dusk.

    As shadows must, they lengthen and the
    laughter shrills. The time has come. I will
    collect the children and go in. I brush away
    the thought, just for another minute’s
    taste of pure serenity, but also fond
    anticipation of the dinner hour—cheddar
    cheese and melon salad, I decide, and
    lemon pie, and then the bedtime stories
    that transport us to exotic climes. The
    time has come, but I have evening yet to
    savor. Summer comes in such abundant
    flavors—warmth and coolness,
    thunderstorm, forsythia and clover, early
    sunrise, tall and motley hollyhocks—I feast
    upon them all.

    garden_sister_alma_rose-120x139-90x105

    Assignment 35.1

    Every day if you can — but at least twice a week — choose a moment out of the day you have just experienced and write about it metaphorically in the poetic form of your choice. I hope you will do this for the rest of your life. It will prevent your “running on empty,” as Jackson Browne sang… or, perhaps even worse, running on autopilot. Entire spans of years of my life, when I was not living poetically or contemplating things by writing poetry, are a blur to me now, and sometimes I go back and try to recapture those lost moments, as in “Meditation on a Summer Afternoon,” above.

    Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    * * *

    Lady Irene

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 33

    Chapter 11: Living Poetically
    Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene

    Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 

    athens_school_of

    Case Study #1: Living Poetically

    Anne Bancroft

    Anne Bancroft

    None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.

    Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.

    Irene the Artist 

    She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.

    During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,

    (French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia

    Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.

    Mel Brooks, 1984

    Mel Brooks, 1984

    Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)

    As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.

    Gifts of the spirit

    Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

    Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

    Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.”  She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.

    She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:

    • Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
    • Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
    • Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
    • Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
    Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

    Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

    In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.

    Irene of the generous spirit

    Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

    Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

    Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.

    Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.

    A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

    A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

    The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.

    I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.

    Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

    Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

    Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.

    Thwarted

    Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.

    The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

    The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

    Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat,  hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.

    Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.

    ___________

    (1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia

    Single cartouche with blessing

    Single cartouche with blessing

    What Are You Waiting For?

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 24

    Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
    Part 3: Advent

     

    Don’t concentrate on the things you want. Concentrate on the feelings you want to experience.— Heard on Hay House Radio, December 2008

    Advent (n.): arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous); “the advent of the computer”; the season including the four Sundays preceding Christmas
    wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn, accessed December 17, 2008

    A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

    A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

    For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of waiting — a less somber sort of waiting than the Lenten season, because the climax of Advent is a royal birth amid humble surroundings — heralded, nonetheless, by angels and celebrated by kings and shepherds alike.

    Advent, like most Christian observances, has prechristian origins:

    Ancient Germanic peoples gathered evergreen branches, wove them into wreaths, and decorated them with lighted fires as signs of hope during the cold of winter… [for the coming of spring]. Christians adopted this tradition. By the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols as part of their Advent celebration. For them Christ was the symbol of hope, and was known as the everlasting Light, [before which the darkness of winter would vanish]. Therefore,… Advent, like… Christmas and Easter,… was a “Christianized pagan… [experience].” —http://clergyresources.net/Advent/origins_of_advent.htm, accessed December 17, 2008

    Toward Contentment

    Advent is, among other things, a metaphor for the human condition, which is one of chronic anticipation. Even if I am working on a task that interests and absorbs me, my work is motivated by the anticipation of finishing it. Yet completing the task brings only short-lived satisfaction; often there is more joy in the anticipation than in the completion, just as traveling can be much more fun than arriving. You are perhaps familiar with this quotation about Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE): “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” (Plutarch’s [C.E. 46-126] Life of Alexander).

    A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

    A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

    Utter contentment is impossible for us mortals because it would mean resistance to change, and things are always changing. Only in deep meditation do we (temporarily) gather the loose threads of our lives and allow them to remain unwoven. In meditation there is no striving, there is only gentle acceptance. Jack Kornfield teaches that if, during your time of meditation, you are hungry, you can decide to embrace the hunger within your meditation or to stop meditating and get something to eat. Either is fine. You are not to judge yourself. Whatever meditation is about, it is NOT about beating yourself up — ever.

    There are, of course, degrees of “chronic anticipation.” There is perennial discontent. There are fears (rational and irrational) and anxieties. There are sadnesses, which I classify as “full” and “empty.” When my mother died, I was “full” of sadness. It was a kind of wealth of feeling, enriched by the knowledge that if I hadn’t loved her so much I wouldn’t be feeling so bad, and also by a sense that, though I would always feel the loss, it wouldn’t always be so sharp and painful. But, in the year after her death, there was also depression — an emptiness of feeling, a refusal to accept the pain — and there was anxiety, because her death had been unexpected and so it seemed as if something horrible could happen at any time, and I feared to relax, to let down my guard against the possibility of disaster. This is, I’m told, normal.

    ‘Mom!’ no more

    There was a different kind of emptiness when my youngest child left home in 1998. He had joined the army, so his leaving was sudden and dramatic, not the gradual kind of going-away-to-college leaving, which can be equally devastating but which at least allows a mother to cling to the illusion that her child still needs her.

    Shingles, yuck

    Shingles, yuck

    I was so ill equipped to deal with the loss of my identity as “Mom!” that I became physically ill. After all, I had been “Mom!” for over thirty years. Being sick was, I think, my body’s way of reminding me that I was still alive. First I came down with the shingles (Herpes zoster) virus on my face and scalp. Shingles, as you probably know, is the inflammation of a nerve, and it can be excruciating. In my case, the weight of air was painful. Fortunately, my optic nerve was not involved; if it had been, I could have gone blind in the affected eye.

    But the worst was yet to come. In the wake of shingles can follow any number of disorders, including postherpetic neuralgia and autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and so forth). Whatever the cause (no one is quite sure), my joints swelled and reddened and I was in constant pain for which the only sure remedy was prednisone, and you just can’t take handfuls of prednisone if you want to safeguard vital internal organs such as your liver.

    My house

    My house

    By the end of 2002 I had lost my job, my fiancé, my house, my beautiful pickup truck, my savings, and my precious Labradors. I went limping to the refuge of my daughter’s home, more than a thousand miles from where I had lived for most of my adult life, and found solace among longtime friends and extended family and in the church where I now live as caretaker. I struggled for two years to succeed at an eight-to-five job in marketing, but it was beyond my physical strength.

    The storm before the calm

    My identity as “capable, reliable employee” had been second only to my identity as “Mom!” in propping up my ego, and now that, too, was gone. Other calamities, too sordid or too complicated to describe, came and went. At times I was literally penniless. And I couldn’t say, with any conviction, “Well, at least I have my health.”

    Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by Davis Monniaux)

    Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by David Monniaux)

    And what I discovered, in circumstances that would have seemed unimaginably bleak only a few years earlier, was joy.

    In 2000, when I first became unemployed, I began meditating and writing poems and songs — mostly gospel music and hymns — sometimes dozens in the space of a week. While the elements of life as I had known it slipped away, I turned to prayer, meditation, and poetry-writing, finding not only moments of peace but also objects of curiosity, and so I engaged in a serious study of those practices, gleefully aware that I would never run out of material. My goals, unlike Alexander’s, would never be fulfilled.

    I had formally studied music, poetry, and religion in college, and had continued to indulge my interest in those subjects throughout my life. They had always been sources of pleasure; now they were resources for survival.

    Bloom where you’re planted

    Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

    Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

    So much of life is ballast — stuff that seems necessary for balance when you have it but that you are perfectly willing to throw overboard when your ship is going down. You have probably read about pianos and bedsteads found alongside the Santa Fe or the Oregon Trail, each discarded treasure giving the oxen one less thing to haul westward, and, as a bonus, giving the owners one less possession to dust.

    The first thing to go is guilt. As observed in Lesson 13, “the only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab.”

    Next is anxiety, which is a little harder to shed than guilt is because we know a lot more about the past than we do about the future.

    ‘I don’t mind what happens’

    In the bestselling book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle distinguishes between the CONtent and the essence of the human spirit. He tells this story about

    J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, [who] spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words — which are content — that which is beyond words, beyond content. At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.”

    This kind of serenity is not emotional numbness. In fact, freedom from fear brings freedom to love fully; to be gently compassionate with yourself and with others; to experience the full range of human emotions, in fact, because you know that you are not your emotions and that they can’t destroy you, even the really messy ones. Through meditation the indestructible Self and the connectedness with all things are revealed.

    My 2008 Christmas letter begins,

    If I ever write a book about this period of my life (and I will), it will be titled Adventures in Poverty. It will extol the people who have encouraged and supported me since I quit my vile but well-paying job 2-1/2 years ago to start writing my own stuff instead of other people’s bloated ads and vapid news releases. It will be chock full of Household Hints (“Spray your shower walls with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and tea-tree oil and some other liquids, I forget what, then get out of the bathroom, fast”; “How to make laundry detergent out of soap slivers and other stuff you have lying around the house”; “How to make a hearty soup out of black beans, stale doughnuts, and other stuff you have lying around the house”)… and so forth. It will convince you that you don’t need a car, you just need friends who have cars. You will discover that Wal-Mart is the Antichrist, and how I know that, and much better ways to save $$$. You will learn how to sweet-talk “Ginger” at Qwest so that she won’t disconnect your phone. And you will understand how little you need, really, to be happy.

    I still want a bathtub

    I still want a bathtub

    Not that I have become a willing ascetic. I still want things, in particular an antique bathtub, because when the church refurbished my bathroom after the Great Rat Exodus of 2005, the contractors installed a shower — a very fine shower, to be sure, but there are times when a girl just wants, you know, a bubble bath to ease the ache in her limbs and the tightness in her neck.

    In meditation, and in writing poetry meditatively, however, I am waiting for nothing, not even a bathtub. In meditation, at least, “whatever is, is right” (Alexander Pope).

    ME INPERTURBE

    ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
    Master of all, or mistress of all — aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
    Imbued as they — passive, receptive, silent as they,
    Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought;
    Me private, or public, or menial, or solitary—all these subordinate, (I am eternally equal with the best — I am not subordinate;)
    Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta, or the Tennessee, or far north, or inland,
    A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life in These States, or of the coast, or the lakes, or Kanada,
    Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies!
    O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.

    Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

    Walt Whitman in 1887

    Walt Whitman in 1887

    What was Walt Whitman waiting for? To be serene, “self-balanced,” in every circumstance. Aren’t we all? Wouldn’t that make everything else unnecessary? Wouldn’t the cup always be overflowing (or at least half-full instead of half-empty, or, as the late George Carlin used to say, twice as big as it needs to be)?

    Whitman, by the way, wrote in free verse, “a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter, rhythm, or rhyme (Ex: end rhyme), but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.” —Wikipedia, referencing G. Burns Cooper, Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, Stanford University Press, 1998

    Assignment 24.1

    1. Write a poem (30 lines maximum) in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) about “what you are waiting for” — the one thing needed for contentment.
    2. Write another poem (30 lines maximum) about what it would feel like to finally possess the “one thing needed.”
    3. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

     

    * * *

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    The Sun Returns…

    …and other metaphors of Christmastide

    victorian_calendarsanta

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 22

    Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
    Part 1: Christmastide

    At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

    It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

    Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

    Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

    NEWGRANGE

    Newgrange today, aerial view

    Newgrange today, aerial view

    There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

    Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

    Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

    Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
    The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

    The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

    Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

    Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

    Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

    ***

    MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

    Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
    Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
    festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
    in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
    up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
    celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
    preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
    for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
    that’s how old she is.

    Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

    Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

    We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
    blow cold around the chimney, though we and
    Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
    while she knits or crochets and talks about the
    days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
    in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
    you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
    anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
    was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
    Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
    the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
    resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
    bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
    to the sun to come and stay another year.

    “And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
    Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
    some disguise and go from house to house, for
    revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

    Maenad

    Maenad on Wheel of Life

    She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
    hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
    auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
    that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
    “And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
    supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
    says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
    and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
    likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
    earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
    returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
    before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
    see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
    for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
    and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
    too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
    recognize them when it was their time to go.

    Druid cutting oak mistletoe

    Druid cutting oak mistletoe

    “Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
    old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
    left their droppings on a branch—
    has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
    leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
    be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
    decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

    Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
    chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
    secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
    are allowed to know the ancient tales.

    Decorative mistletoe

    Decorative mistletoe

    “The mistletoe is
    sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
    which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
    because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
    on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
    of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
    healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
    the cattle and the flocks would flourish
    and the crops would thrive.”

    “And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
    always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
    was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
    tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
    of course, but in the principle of giving to the
    earth her own).”

    And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
    from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
    tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
    give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
    to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
    mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

    At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
    Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
    with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
    lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
    lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
    we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
    are made new today, and always, by the grace of
    God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
    as one, “Amen.”

     

    * * *

    THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

    The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
    Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

    Refrain

    Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
    The playing of the merry organ
    Sweet singing in the choir

    The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

    The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

    The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
    on Christmas Day in the morn

    The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
    And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

    Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

    Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
    Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

    In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

    European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

    European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

    Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
    have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
    “Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
    but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
    boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
    A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
    brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
    won’t make that mistake again.)

    Yule log

    Yule log

    “Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
    says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
    a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
    the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
    Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
    Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
    for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
    Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
    from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

    “And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
    (for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
    they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
    we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
    as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
    despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

    * * *

    Wassailing

    Wassailing

    WASSAILING

    Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

    In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

    * * *

    TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

    A tomte watches at the cradle

    A tomte watches at the cradle

    A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

    Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

    Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

    Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

    The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

    Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

    Assignment 22.1

    Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

    An early Santa Claus riding a goat

    An early Santa Claus riding a goat

    Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

    Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)