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

 

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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

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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

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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