Liberating Language

I’ve nothing against baseball, though I confess I’ve never watched a complete World Series. I enjoyed following our football and basketball teams in high school and college, but I’ve never attended a professional game in either sport. Years ago I could score a tennis match or round of golf, but those days are gone and I don’t regret them. In short, I’m a terrible sports fan.

On the other hand, I adore Super Bowl parties.  The food’s great, the crowd’s congenial and the atmosphere’s relaxed. In 2009, a friend with Pittsburgh connections sent me a Terrible Towel and I went to the party as a temporary Steelers fan. As it turned out, team allegiance mattered not a whit when it came to enjoying the highlights of the day – including the broadcasters in the booth. Everyone watching agreed Al Michaels and John Madden were a winning combination. Always humorous, their commentary was sharp and insightful, though no one paid them much attention unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

All that changed in the game’s second half, when a player took off on a medium-sized run of perhaps fifteen or twenty yards. At the end, Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”.  Silence enveloped the room as everyone turned to look at the screen and three people demanded in unison, “Alacrity?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context. Still, alacrity seemed to be doing its own version of broken-field running as it forged its way through clusters of declarative sentences and monosyllabic comments, four unexpected syllables that stopped an entire party in its tracks. (more…)

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm  Comments (80)  
Tags: , , , , ,

The Saining of Speech

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled, two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection now in the hands of Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland,

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings of the people. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve.  Our modern eagerness to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts.  In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”   Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries were more than willing to adapt the prayers, blessings and invocations Celts wove into the fabric of their daily life. As Brooke says, “Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.”

At heart, saining was a matter of consecration, but not in our modern sense of setting aside or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance. (more…)

Fading Phrases, Rising Words

The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea.  The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds.  This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.

Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing light while on our own shy, spinning globe rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. (more…)

Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm  Comments (10)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Lamb, Loom & Seed ~ Touchstones for Life


Treasured as a traveling companion and source of inspiration since coming to me as a gift in 1979, Alexander Carmichael’s wonderful collection, Celtic Invocationscelebrates a faith and world-view I find deeply appealing. An English translation of Carmichael’s famed Carmina Gadelica ( or Gaelic Songs), it was compiled as he traveled Western Scotland from 1855-1899 and  is rooted in the culture of the highlands and islands, stretching from Arran to Caithness and Perth to St. Kilda. The prayers, invocations and blessings it contains represent a combination of Celtic vibrancy and Christian richness.  When St. Patrick arrived in Ireland and Irish St. Columba (521-597)  carried the faith on to Scotland, the culture, theology and spirituality which resulted was unique.  It remains so today.

Our modern tendency to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts.  In the words of Avery Brooke, “the Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  Brooke also notes the unusual tolerance of Christian missionaries toward Celtic religion and traditions.  Because so much of Celtic life was “sained”, blessed and taken up whole into Christianity, Celtic tradition which might otherwise have been lost is accessible today in the wonderful prayers, blessings and invocations which were woven into daily life.  To quote Brooke again, “Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, runes and customs, along with the crops, the fish, daily work and nightly sleep were sained – marked with the sign of the cross – as were the fæiries, the banshees and the people.”

When I think of  Celtic Christianity, the word which seems most appropriate is “consecration”.  We tend to think of consecration as a “setting aside” or “setting apart” for a holy purpose.  In our world, the consecrated is separate, quite removed from the realities and routines of daily life.  For the people of the Isles, consecration served to elevate and hallow all the circumstances of the day even as it emphasized their dependence on life’s giver and sustainer.  

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers, invocations of the Saints and hymns to Jesus.  But there was far more than obviously “religious” prayer woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals which marked the passing of the days and the cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the “smooring” (smothering) of fire at night and for the kindling that “lifted” the fire in the morning. There were songs for the heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting and reaping,  prayers for traveling and prayers for sleep.  Celtic prayer was less something one “did” than an attitude toward life: grateful, receptive and filled with recognition that divine grace and providence is the mysterious ember glowing in the heart of humanity.  Like the home ember nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of the divine was meant to be tended by humanity. (Click here to read more)

Free the Oxford English 47,156


I’m not a rabid football fan – I always feel badly for the team that loses – but this year I had an invitation to a Super Bowl party, a Terrible Towel to wave and a new recipe to try. It seemed the perfect time to make my way to a friend’s home, settle back and watch the fun. They had a new, super-sized tv guaranteed to make watching the game enjoyable no matter which team you were cheering for, and I appreciated Al Michaels and John Madden in the broadcast booth, even though no one seemed to listen to their coverage unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

No one listened, that is, until sometime in the second half, when a strange thing happened. A player took off for a medium-sized run of perhaps 15 or 20 yards, and Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”. Suddenly, the entire room fell silent as everyone turned toward the television and three people demanded in unison, “ALACRITY?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context, but it was pretty darned strange to see that wonderful four-syllable team doing its own version of broken field running through a maze of simple, declarative sentences and spare, one or two syllable phrases. That single word stopped an entire party in its tracks, leaving it scattered and stunned at Michaels’ audacity.

The response reminded me of people’s curiosity when I used the word skry in my latest poem, The Grammarian in Winter. I had several publicly posted comments about it, and even more emails, all from folks who essentially said, “SKRY?”   When I was writing the poem and the word came to me, even I wasn’t completely certain of its meaning. I looked it up, found alternative spellings, confirmed the definition and plunked it into my poem, where it serves it purpose beautifully. It’s an unusual word, perhaps even archaic, and it’s no longer heard in casual conversation unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails out behind the garage or takes three day weekends to attend Wicca conventions. But it’s a good word, and I was happy to give it a home. (more…)

Published in: on February 4, 2009 at 8:00 am  Comments (13)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,079 other followers