On Going to the Barn at Christmas

 

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh,the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                                                           “Christmas Poem”  ~  Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.
The legend referenced in the poem’s first line also appears in Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Oxen,” published  on Christmas Eve, 1915, in The Times of London.
I photographed the stone barn in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.

A Silent Singing

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in this more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her notebook in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. My own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years. Still, I occasionally find myself thinking, while pulling trays from the oven or standing in line at the post office, I could stand some peace and quiet.

Some quiet would be especially nice. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing Justin Bieber’s version of All I Want For Christmas piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself.  While seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss, and the noise made by impatient drivers circling the shopping mall parking lots sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.

Even the hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning: What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   It’s little wonder that, by Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas, when what we’ve just had has left us exhausted, disappointed, or drained?

Seasonal excesses aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — to be well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though often hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world some years ago, while on holiday in England. After stopping in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn where I could settle, and soon came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. Cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns should be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge — “that pile of rocks in a pasture,” as another guest put it. Aghast, they implored, “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might be better visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that probably meant, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying.”

Acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations are more publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of a cold weather visit. “For one thing,” they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” At the time, that was true.

Lured by twin promises of unclogged roads and good conversation, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore.

While I knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and that on that day the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word itself — solstice — comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one legend recounted by my hosts, not only the sun stops his movement at the time of solstice. Those who happen to be in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, may hear the earth herself pause: taking time to catch her breath while she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old “pile of rocks in a pasture.” When we arrived, crowds that had gathered for celebration on the day of solstice were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds,  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence so complete I could hear blood beating in my ears, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me. There were only the rocks, the sky, and a hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering, and the pause will come; soon enough, the solstice will arrive. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our over-filled lives to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing for ourselves a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may well find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing silence over our world’s cold-singed plain will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

Comments always are welcome.

Homes Made For the Holidays

The Baldizzi family kitchen ~ Photo by Keiko Niwa

Josephine Baldizzi arrived in this country as a young girl from Sicily. Her family lived on New York’s Lower East Side from 1928 to 1935, their home a small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

During the Depression, there was no money for Christmas gifts or decorations, so her father, Adolfo, scavaged through their neighborhood for discarded pine branches from other peoples’ trees. Putting his carpentry skills to work, he drilled holes into a piece of plain board and then, using the branches he’d collected, created a Christmas tree for his family. Continue reading

Who’s To Say?

 

Fading but still recognizable, the coneflower drowsing in late afternoon sunlight seemed oblivious to the laughter surrounding it.

“Look!” said the friend who knows me well enough to know the reason for my laughter. “What do you suppose it wants to say?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but it certainly knows how to ask for attention.”

We laughed because the arrangement of the coneflower petals — so much like crossed fingers — reminded us both of my own finger-crossing habit. As a child, caught between my eagerness to take part in adult discussions and parental admonitions not to interrupt others, I often found it hard to plunge into the ebb and flow of conversation. By the time an opportunity presented itself, I’d forgotten what I’d meant to say.

As a memory aid, I began crossing my fingers while waiting for a chance to speak. After others noticed the gesture and learned its purpose, my crossed fingers became a family joke. Over time, they became a family tradition: a recognizable sign that someone had something to say, and would like a chance to say it.

Of course, crossed fingers have taken on multiple meanings over the centuries. The coneflower might have been as interested in concealment as conversation, or it might have been hoping for the luck of a lingering fall. Whatever its purpose, the ambiguity of its gesture fits nicely into an etheree.

 

Tucked
behind
a stiffened
back, two fingers
cross to temper truth;
to void a hasty vow
or lure the touch of Lady
Luck. Superstition, some declare —
but when traditions linger in a
hand, who’s to say where truth and falsehood cross?

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

Blessed Be

 

I am in a mind to bless.
Blessed be the book, the page, the word, the letter.
Blessed be the great names and the ungreat names.
Blessed be the velvet that is the color of wine, and the wine.
Blessed be the particles in the light.
Blessed be the shoulder and blessed be the burden.
Blessed be the calendar.  Blessed be the clock.
from Kaddish ~ Leon Wieseltier

 

And blessings to each one of you, who have blessed me in these years.

A blessèd Thanksgiving to us all.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Justice and Freedom ~ But Most of All, Love

Peter, Paul, and Mary arrive in Tokyo (1964) to play for military audiences
(Photo courtesy Stars and Stripes)

Stan Lee. Aretha Franklin. Charles Aznavour. Tom Wolfe. Neil Simon…

As if confounded by the inability of wealth or fame to resist the predations of time, we stand, incredulous, before the deaths of our celebrities, watching as their lives begin to fade against the horizon of history.

Sometimes we grieve. Sometimes we become nostalgic. Sometimes we become nervous, aware that the passing of yet another famous face is a marker of sorts: a memento mori, a reminder that our years, too, are passing, and that the fate of others soon enough will be our own.

Occasionally, the response is more personal.  When I learned of Mary Travers’s passing in 2009, I wasn’t surprised. Her struggles with leukemia had been well documented, and her death in a Danbury, Connecticut hospital at the age of 72 was the natural outcome of a long process. Still, it stirred some memories.

mary

I’d first become aware of Travers when she joined with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey to begin making music around New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s; the trio swept into American consciousness with an irresistible combination of intensity and cool. Herb Caen, celebrated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, coined the term “beatnik” in a  1958 column that might have taken lanky, blond Mary and her goatee-wearing pals as models.

maryalbum

Their 1962 debut album, Peter, Paul & Mary, contained two of their biggest hits: Lemon Tree, and the multiple Grammy Award-winning If I Had a Hammer. Within weeks of purchasing the album, I’d memorized the lyrics and chords for each of its songs, as had most of my friends. Later generations might moonwalk or play air guitar, but in our 1960s basements and bedrooms, we strummed and harmonized.

Folk harmonies sounded ‘nice’ to an older generation unsure about Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis, so our parents found it easy to smile approvingly while we listened and sang. In time, the songs’ lyrics would begin to balance the sweetness of those harmonies, resonating in a way rendered sharper and more pointed by changing circumstance and our own maturation. But in the beginning, it was the fun of singing along that drew us in.

One day, news of a concert appeared in the Des Moines Register — Peter, Paul, and Mary would be playing the KRNT Theater in Des Moines. Immediately, four high-schoolers set about nagging four sets of parents for permission to attend. When our parents agreed, my friends and I hardly knew how to respond. It was to be our first live concert, our first trip without chaperones to an out-of-town event, and our first exhilarating taste of an adult social life.

The concert, a two-hour performance before a sold-out crowd, seemed far too short. At its conclusion, unwilling for the night to end, we searched out a well-known coffee house on the edge of the Drake University campus and settled in among the mix of patrons, trying not to call attention to ourselves.

We needn’t have worried. Shortly after our coffee arrived, Peter, Paul, and Mary arrived as well, drawing all of the attention to themselves. After ordering, they began working the room, chatting and signing autographs as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Inevitably, someone asked if they’d sing another song. Rather than declining outright, they suggested they’d be happy to reprise Lemon Tree if we would join them in the chorus.  And so we sang: beautiful, ethereal Mary, puckish Peter, and quiet Paul leading their awe-stricken fans down paths of melody like a trio of Bohemian pied pipers.

Many decades later, browsing web postings about Mary’s death, I discovered a similar account of a KRNT concert in the comment section of Rzine, a former publication of Rhino Records.

John Hagelston had told the story of a visit by the trio to the company’s headquarters. It was a typical account of an entirely pleasant day: a mix of a little business, a little singing, and some time for employees to meet and chat with the musicians.

Imagine my surprise when I found this comment, left by an anonymous reader:

My girl friend and I attended a concert given by the trio during the late 1960’s in Des Moines, Iowa. After the concert, the trio were signing autographs and interacting with fans in their usual fashion and I got up the nerve to ask Peter if he needed a ride to the hotel. Amazingly, after exchanging glances with us between autographs for what seemed a long time, he brought the autograph session to a close, approached the two of us and said he would alert his manager to the situation.
So off we went, the three of us. Peter asked if there were any coffee shops on the university campus where local talent performed but, unfortunately, the only such establishment closed early on week nights. I always wondered how the “regulars” would have reacted to an impromtu jam session with Peter Yarrow.

I’ve always wished I could have told that anonymous commenter that Peter had his opportunity to visit the coffee house on a Saturday night, and that he brought Paul and Mary with him.

Over the years, I enjoyed other concerts by the group — in Iowa City, in Telluride, in San Francisco — but none of the performances exceeded the pleasure of that intimate coffee house evening. Still, by the time they joined together to perform on April 24, 1971 at the Washington, D.C. march to protest the Vietnam war, the context for their music had changed. No one who attended that march — or followed events connected to the civil rights protests of the 1960s — ever will forget the power of their collective voice.

“If I Had a Hammer” ~ written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes

I last heard the group in Texas, at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mary, who had been quite ill and hospitalized, flew in for a single performance. Walking with a cane and obviously suffering the effects of her treatments, she remained dignified, good-humored and honest about the realities of her life.

Despite being in less than good voice and despite needing physical support from time to time, she sang on. As the sun set and stars rose, tears fell among audience members compelled to face the truth. It would be the last time we would see Peter, Paul, and Mary together on stage.

marykerrville2001

To remember Mary Travers today is to remember a woman whose voice stirred longings and aspirations in an emerging generation as surely as she expressed those aspirations to the world. Clear-eyed in her approach to life, graced with remarkable toughness and an extra allotment of kindness, she maintained her commitment to causes of peace and justice to the very end.

Reflecting on her life, fellow group member Peter Yarrow mused, “Mary always was honest and completely authentic. That’s the way she sang, too: honestly, and with complete authenticity.”

Listening to Travers’s songs and tracing her path through the decades, I feel again the surge of hope and possibility that rang out in that honest and authentic voice. Weary of bureaucratic wrangling, sick to death of pettiness, pessimism, and every sort of posturing along the full length of the political spectrum, I wonder: is it possible that the old songs might once again stir hearts grown accustomed to seeking not justice, but partiality: not freedom, but advantage? Is it possible that clear and authentic voices once again will ring out over the din of manipulated rancor?

Only time will tell. But while Mary Travers has laid her hammer down, it may be time for those who remain to pick it up. There are sisters and brothers among us who need to hear her song.

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about the history of the song “If I Had a Hammer.”

The Poets’ Birds: Blackbirds

Meet Isoceles, the grackle with the triangular perch

 

Strictly speaking, this handsome bird is a grackle rather than a blackbird: specifically, a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major). Often seen along the Gulf coast, it can be distinguished from the common grackle by its dark eyes; common grackles’ eyes tend to be a bright yellowish-gold.

Ogden Nash once wrote a humorous if not entirely complimentary little ditty for the grackle, but the stately demeanor of this bird seemed to demand something more. Wallace Stevens was able to describe “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and these four ways especially appeal to me:

 

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.   
III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.   

Comments always are welcome.