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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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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
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’
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.
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 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
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
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.
Write another poem (30 lines maximum) about what it would feel like to finally possess the “one thing needed.”
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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There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it. —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou
Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany… [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 23
Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!
Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.
Dad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.
Living poetically: an orderly life
Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.
This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.
For purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.
It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.
These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.
On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween
…has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain… — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. —Wikipedia
As was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.
As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.
Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to
…[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia
Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why.
According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”
Why rituals matter
Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.
I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car. The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.
Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.
Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.
I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.
When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”
Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.
When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.
Truthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?
Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)
Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.
Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.
If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.
You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?
Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.
The presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.
John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.
Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.
The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.
Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.
Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.
Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?
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