The Secret Of The Center Of The Heavens

The Lovers Marc Chagal
The Lovers by Marc Chagall

When, With You Asleep

by Juan Ramon Jimenez
Translated by Perry Higman

When, with you asleep, I plunge into
. . your soul,
and I listen, with my ear
on your naked breast;
to your tranquil heart, it seems to me
that, in its deep throbbing, I surprise
the secret of the center
of the world.

. . It seems to me
that legions of angels
on celestial steeds
as when, in the height
of the night we listen, without a breath
and our ears to the earth,
to distant hoofbeats that never arrive – ,
that legions of angels
are coming through you, from afar
like the THree Kings
to the eternal birth
of our love – ,
they are coming through you, from afar,
to bring me, in your dreams,
the secret of the center
of the heavens.


John Prine Christmas Album – All The Best

There are some years in which the new music of that year is my inner soundtrack. Not this year. This year was one of attrition, music being lost in my life temporarily as I didn’t go see live music, I didn’t buy new music and I boxed up and put away temporarily 99% of the music collection I own in the midst of a long drawn out move.

We lost a few musicians who have brought me joy for as long as I can remember in 2020. John Prine headlines that list. I have been a John Prine fan since my middle sister brought home his album Bruised Orange in 1978 and I loved every song on it. I honestly have bought at least one copy of every album he ever put out and more than one I have bought two or three copies having worn the old ones out. And though not every song was brilliant there was always at least one great song on every album that wormed its way into my heart. I was a John Prine fan when it wasn’t cool to be a John Prine fan. I saw him in concert in small venues, large venues and everything in between. I saw him live in every decade since 1980. I have never seen a musician who could captivate an audience with his story telling in between songs with his gentle humor and smooth growly voice.

I saw him at the Minnesota Zoo after his first round with throat cancer in the 00 years when he was still self conscious of the disfigurement of his face. It is an outside amphitheater, relatively small, seats maybe 500 or so and the warm up act had come and went and we were nearly 45 minutes beyond when the start of his show was supposed to begin on a lovely summer evening. There was beer available, so we were making the best of it, but doubts were starting to creep into our heads whether he was going to show up. And then there was an announcement over the loudspeaker, saying; “John’s Town car from the airport had been delayed in traffic and he apologizes, but before you welcome him with to the stage, would everyone in the audience please turn off and put away your phone as John has asked personally that we respect his wish for no photographs this evening.” Every single person put away their phones. I have been to a lot of events where they made the same request and it is largely ignored. This was different. John walked out on stage with his band, and before he started he stood with his head cocked and bowed, in its crooked position because of the surgery, with his guitar around his neck and he told a story. And the moment he opened his mouth it was clear his voice, although challenged, was the same voice I had heard 1,000’s of times before. It wasn’t the longest set I ever heard him play, it wasn’t the best concert of his I ever attended, but it was by far the most intimate. And as he played his guitar and sang his songs and made music with his band, there was a kinship with that audience that went beyond what most musicians ever achieve; he was singing to his friends and family.

In a year where everything else stood on its head, John Prine’s voice was one of the things that didn’t waver for me. He died of COVID in the spring and his last song that he recorded in a hotel room in London , a short time before his death, wound up being his only number one hit, posthumously. Well, that is, if you weren’t a John Prine fan. He had been making number one hits for me for decades.

Like John Prine, I wish you all the best.

Merry Christmas.

My Grateful Christmas Spirit’s Still Alive

Childhood Creche purchased at the Ben Franklin store on main street in North St. Paul in the early 1960s.

 

Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree

by George Starbuck

*
O
fury-
bedecked!
O glitter-torn!
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
frostyfreeze turbans; iciclestuff adorn
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect;
bells! bibelots! popsicle cigars! shatter the glassware! a son born
now
now
while ox and ass and infant lie
together as poor creatures will
and tears of her exertion still
cling in the spent girl’s eye
and a great firework in the sky
drifts to the western hill.


Heading into the final days before Christmas I am trying to be upbeat.   I have much to be grateful for this year.  And yet, even a vastly toned down version of my normal Christmas cheer feels a bit overdone.   2020 is going to take some time to process.  How are you processing all that has happened in 2020?   Has your creativity been fueled or stunted by the dislocation of the pandemic?   For me it has been a year of getting up everyday and trying to move forward with little energy for creativity.   I am grateful for whatever small bit survived along the way. 

I wrote A Christmas Sonnet over Thanksgiving weekend.   It is not a great poem, but it feels genuine.  I think there are good things that have come out of 2020’s toughest moments.   It feels like we took a tiny faltering step forward as a nation of recognizing systemic racism for what it is, despite the failure of  our leadership in our federal government. It feels like change is coming as an organic outgrowth of individuals and organizations searching their conscience and trying to do not necessarily “the” right thing but something better than silence or ignorance.  The fact that multiple sports teams changed their names from something blatantly disrespectful and racist is a tangible example, even if they haven’t figured out what the new name is going to be.   The fact that monuments to a racist, slave owning past are being taken down and towns are acknowledging their part in that history in ways that do not glorify it, because there never had been glory in those institutions that warranted memorializing it in bronze, is a start to a conversation around actual reparations.   The fact that state flags are being changed to forge a new symbol away from the cultural identity of hate is a good thing.   Change is hard.   It’s painful.  Not everyone is going to peacefully join in.  But the herd has moved in a direction away from status quo and there is no stopping it now, no matter how much white privilege objects. These birth pangs of moving towards a more equitable future is worth it even if its still in its infancy and screaming its head off because its hungry.   

I do not believe poetry has one interpretation.  Poems have as many different meanings as people who read them,  which is why I find literary criticism an inherently suspect enterprise.  I believe poetry by its very nature is a personal language of an individual  that by its public sharing creates a thread of common humanity regardless of what other readers take from it.  

I chose the words of A Christmas Sonnet carefully.  They represent as best as words can how I feel right now.  I generally enjoy Christmas.  But I have been wresting with how I reconcile the pleasant traditions and memories of my past with the reality of the things that are completely broken in our society today and have been for hundreds of years?   How do I allow those two things to live peacefully in my mind side by side?  I haven’t figured that out yet.  For now I have decided the best I can do is to not create an emotional moat around the memorabilia of Christmas past and pretend it is above the pain of Christmas present.   Instead I will welcome that pain and confusion into the emotional mix and stir it up in the holiday pot and let the two co-exist, hoping that it brings a clearer ownership on my part in moving forward in the right direction next year.   And if nothing else, it feels authentic to seek redemption from things that represent the good of what was in the past, even when in some ways it represents the white blindness of my suburban childhood experience.


A Christmas Sonnet

By T. A. Fry

I would like to think I am not too old
For magic. This year’s endless tragedies,
Hunger, Fire, Floods, Injustice, Death, Disease,
Ran rough-shod o’er my nostalgic soul.
Will New Year’s bells ring as clear? Will hanging
Stockings, trimming trees, blot out blatant lies?
Fascists mocking humility, raging
At democracy in their bright red ties.

My grateful Christmas spirit’s still alive.
Despite the horrors; George Floyd’s death,
A pandemic stalking loved one’s breath,
Our compact frayed, but for now, survives.
I’ll honor the flesh of “I Can’t Breathe,”
Redeeming childhood crèche and Christmas wreath.

That This Was All Folly

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December

by Rebecca Hey

As human life begins and ends with woe,
So doth the year with darkness and with storm.
Mute is each sound, and vanish’d each fair form
That wont to cheer us; yet a sacred glow—
A moral beauty,—to which Autumn’s show,
Or Spring’s sweet blandishments, or Summer’s bloom,
Are but vain pageants,—mitigate the gloom,
What time December’s angry tempests blow.
‘Twas when the “Earth had doff’d her gaudy trim,
As if in awe,” that she received her Lord;
And angels jubilant attuned the hymn
Which the church echoes still in sweet accord,
And ever shall, while Time his course doth fill,
‘Glory to God on high! on earth, peace and good will!’


This Christmas was different, it wasn’t nostalgic to the same degree as years past, it was, for me a more visceral sense of loss.  I felt the pull of loved ones who have passed more strongly this year. Is Christmas a story of hope and birth or is it a story of loss and death?  I think that question is at the central core of why Christmas is unique for many of us, regardless of our spirituality or religion. Christmas is the backdrop to which so many of our memories are set, the props, the setting for joy and sadness that accumulate across our years. I went to church on Christmas Eve and tears kept welling in my eyes, memories of my Mother and I sitting together, listening to Silent Night, by candle light, her hand finding my hand, as a little boy and the last Christmas we shared, exactly the same.

Christmas is the story of love and love bridges both life and death.   We can’t have endings without beginnings and we can’t have beginnings without endings. The Vietnamese writer and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:

There is an intimate connection between birth and death.  Without the one, we cannot have the other. As it says in the gospel, unless the seed dies, it could never bear fruit.

We have a tendency to think of death as something very negative, dark, and painful. But it’s not like that.  Death is essential to making life possib.e  Death is transformation. Death is continuation. When we die, something else is born, even if it takes time to reveal itself or for us to be able to recognize it.  There may be some pain at the moment of dying, just as there is pain at the moment of birth, or when the first bud bursts through the bark of a tree in spring.  But once we know that death is not possible without the birth of something else, we are able to bear the pain.  We need to look deeply to recognize the new that manifests when something else dies.

Thich Nhat Hanh

So is Christmas a birth story, a life story, a death story?  For me, it’s all of them.  The service ended and my friends and I wandered a bit about the church, looking at the collection of Christmas art and creche scenes from all over the world, when beautiful bells began ringing a Christmas tune in tinkly wonder.  It was the creche pictured above, cleverly wired so that the bells suspended in the outlines of the stable rafters had little actuated hammers tuned to play based on some brilliant computer setup hidden away with wiring that was invisible to the initial glance.  It was a like magic. It was a pronouncement that look at the world again, more closely, there is still wonder to behold and beauty to witness, beauty in birth, beauty in death, honor to all our loved ones that aren’t present to hear it with us, listen even more closely and remember.


Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

Something Greater From The Difference

 

Package

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.

Winston Churchill

When Giving Is All We Have

By Albert Rios (1952 –

                                              One river gives
                                              Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.


 

Before The Ice Is In The Pools

by Emily Dickinson

Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me.

Seek Him In The Kingdom of Anxiety

Auden
W. H. Auden

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember.

For The Time Being by W. H. Auden


It’s New Year’s eve and all over the world will be celebrations welcoming 2019. Generally I let the poetry speak first and then follow with any commentary. I’ve mixed things up today as the poetry below by Auden is not easy stuff and I thought a little explanation was in order.

Auden wrote For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratario during the darkest days of World War II. It is a remarkable piece of writing, a retelling and interpretation of the Christmas story that is meant to be savored in some ways well after the marketing hype of Christmas has died down and the serious business of living in a new year has begun.  I will offer up a couple of pieces of the oratario in the next week along with a link to a digital version if you care to read the entire poem.  This is one of those poems that can’t be absorbed in one reading, there is too much to think about, too much dense material to wade through.

None of us truly understand another’s spiritual beliefs.  Auden’s poetry is filled with sign posts of his beliefs, his Anglican faith a center in his life. Auden was a gay man at a time when you could still go to prison in England for homosexuality and the Anglican church viewed homosexuality as deviant and wicked. Auden’s poetry is filled with discordance that may have its roots in the obstacles of aligning his strong sense of being a good citizen of the world and the isolation that being different can fester in Christianity. The greatest hypocrisy that can be at the core of Christianity, when it is used as a weapon to justify the actions of discrimination.

The sense I get in reading Auden is that he and I share something in common in our relationship with the Church; it is the foundation for our moral code and at the same time a source of discomfort in attempting to reconcile the entirety of Christianity’s contradictions with our own.  Auden was a bundle of contradictions. He was a moralist who drank heavily, punctual but in a continual state of dishelvement, a homosexual who never appeared to be fully at ease with his sexuality and in many ways a subversive, avant garde writer who choose to write in traditional forms.

What is remarkable about the Oratorio is how succinctly he gets to the contradictions that are the holidays for so many people.  It is a time of excitement, hope, love and joy for the fortunate who feel those uplifting sentiments in their lives.  For many others it is a time of loneliness, isolation and unhappiness. Auden impecably sews together both realities in his version of the Christmas story.  For The Time Being is not light reading. But if you choose to serve yourself up more intellectually challenging fair in digesting your holiday experience, I recommend finding a couple of hours sometime in the new year and sit down and read it.  In Auden’s work you my find a companion to help you on your way.  As he says below, “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”  In Auden’s version of the Christmas story some of us may more clearly see ourselves then the sanitized versions of Christmas that have surrounded us for the past weeks.


For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio

by W. H. Auden
Short Excerpt

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this…

The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

IV
Chorus

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

If It’s Darkness We’re Having, Let it Be Extravagant

tree
Christmas tree carcass waiting for the garbage man.

Taking Down The Tree

by Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.


What a difference there is between putting up the tree and taking it down.  In my experience, we usher in the grand festival of the Christmas season with the annual family ceremony of selecting, transporting and then decorating the Christmas tree, eggnog in hand, Christmas carols playing on Spotify.  Then several weeks later, generally only one person finds themselves with the solitary task of taking the ornaments off, boxing them up and kicking the tree to the curb like an ugly sweater some relative gave you on Christmas Day.

A much more pleasurable final resting place for your Christmas tree, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can have a fire in your back yard, is to put your tree out in the burn pit and let it get good and dry to become a natural inferno for next year’s first bonfire in the spring. That’s a sure-fire one match fire.  It’s also a reminder why our great grandparents before electricity took their lives in their own hands in lighting candles on the Christmas tree.  No wonder prohibition was passed in the 1920s!

My Mother always waited until 12th night to take down her Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day and ends on January 5. I like the term Christmastide to describe this period, as it creates an image of being swept away by the spirit of good tidings.

This year I am awash in pears, having been gifted several boxes of fruit. Trying to eat them all up before twelfth night is my challenge as pears go from perfect to putrid in about 3 days. I am making pear tatin, pear-blue cheese salad, pear sauce and would you care for a pear if I left it outside your door as I am playing ding dong ditch with my neighbors with pears in about 3 days. Please, next year, send me oranges.  At least I can turn them into screwdrivers on New Years day.


Sonnet

by Jane Tyson Clement (1917 – 2000)

Seeking the fact that lies behind the flower
the soul will break its own mortality;
searching the time that lies beyond the hour
the soul will yield its blind serenity;
that is but briefly to be ill at ease
and then forever to be tranquil-eyed,
stirring the wrath of temporal deities
who hurl pale lightning when they are defied.
The least fine sheaf of millet will repay
the soul’s slow contemplation, and the still
ages of starlight between day and day;
the climb is steep to mount a sudden hill;
but if man, fearless, follows stars, he’ll find –
lo, he is more than stars, and more than mind.


“Taking Down the Tree” by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

May This Season Make You Blessed

 

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My Inner Boy, 1967

 

Merry Christmas

By T. A. Fry

May this season make you blessed,
Every day with tenderness;
Renew our dampened spirits in its sway.
Rejoice in twinkling candlelight,
Young and old all spry this night,
Cheerful with renewal New Year’s Day.
Hark our dear one’s joy
Rally our inner girl and boy,
Inside our hearts’ a tiny silver sleigh.
Santa’s not gifts beneath a tree,
The true gifts are family,
May each flourish in both industry and play.  
And so I’ve devised a simple plan
Spelled it out in anagram,

Merry Christmas one and all this holiday.


 

Is it naive to want to want the world to be a better place this time of year? Then let’s be naive together in wishing each other the sentiments:  “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” The words nativity and naivety are french and come from the same Latin root that means just born. Every year, we need to birth anew our understanding of peace. Peace that is an outpouring of compassion, the capacity to empathize with even those we disagree. Peace arises from the certainty that there can never be peace for me, until there is justice for everyone else. Justice is not a means to retribution.  Justice has to be a road to peace, for Justice = Just Us.

May this world find real solutions to the most intractable of conflicts in 2019 and forge a brighter future for us all.

Peace on Earth,

 .          .  Goodwill to All.

 

 

Wonder Upon Wonder

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“I will try and honor Christmas in my heart, and try and keep it all the year.”

Charles Dickens

Before The Ice Is In The Pools

by Emily Dickinson

Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

 


 

A few years ago, I took the same concept as Tom’s Best of CD and applied it to poetry.  I keep a crude poetry log every year.   It is a google Docs that I add poems as I come across that I like throughout the year. I print it out in early December and read through it,  marking my absolute favorites. I then create a little hand bound book of poetry, making covers for it and give it away at Christmas to family and friends.

The first year I made the book it took a little figuring out. I make it the size of a 1/2 sheet of paper folded over, and I had to come up with a template on where to place each poem so that it worked out.  This is the fifth edition of Tom’s Best of… Poetry and I have it down to a science, being able to use the prior year’s as a template.  It consists of 10 sheets of paper – which when folded provides 40 pages.  I include a title page and table of contents which takes up two pages so that I am left with 37 pages as canvas with which to work. I have found over time that long poems don’t lend itself to this format, so a poem has to fit on no more than two pages to make the cut and be included.  I typically include two to four poems of my own.

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Several of my favorite poems from 2018 that I have included in my poetry book are listed below.  I have provided a link if you would like to read them. What was your favorite poem that you came across in 2018?  Do you keep a poem diary?  Have you ever made your own hand bound book?

1).  Aging by Randall Jarrell

2).  Professor’s Song by John Berryman

3).  Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant by Emily Dickinson

4). Corruption by Srikanth Reddy

5).  Stung by Heid E. Erdrich