I Don’t Know What You Do Exactly When Someone Dies

Vincent
Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

XVIII
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
loosened forever.  Formally the sheet
Set forth for her today those curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husbands speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers,
unclassified.

      .                   .Finis


Reading the sonnets contained within Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, it is hard to reconcile the timeline of when they were penned to the content.   Edna St. Vincent Millay published them in 1923, several years before she met and wed her husband and more than 20 years before a sequence of deaths of men she loved would begin to surround her like a shroud. I am not one to investigate literary criticism, which ties all kinds of obscure politics and literary references to lines of poetry.  I know that is what great poets do,  they write literary criticism, they read literary criticism, they translate other great poets from other languages and they write poetry with depth so literary critics have something to do.  But I am not a great poet.  I am consumer of poetry and as I have stated before, I approach poetry with the same approach I drink wine,  I consume what I like, regardless of what other people think or the gravitas it has received.

There are seventeen sonnets in the sequence from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that deal with Death, using the view point of a wife watching and helping her husband die. Vincent constructed these sonnets slightly different than her previous work, but the construction in my mind is not intent on making a statement on Feminism as much as they fit the disjointed nature of the subject matter – death.  I do believe that great poets and novelists are able to create something in words that is entirely more real than the life in which they live.  These sonnets are written in third person, not first person and by doing so, they are not autobiographical, but at the same time they are chillingly personal.

The first sonnet in the sequence tells the story of many marriages, one that has subsided in working like a marriage should, but there is still a kind of connection with a history of love that cannot ever completely unchain one from the other.  The first lines speaks volumes of what has come and gone. And like most things in life, do not express the totality of the wife’s sentiments, which are flushed out in subsequent sonnets.

I
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

So she came back into his house again.
And watched beside his bed until he died,
Loving him not all.  The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stalk were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and shed; there, from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected creeping-jinny vine,
(And one, big aproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).

XIV
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

She had a horror he would die at night.
And sometimes when the light began to fade
She could not keep from noticing how white
The birches looked – and then she would be afraid,
Even with a lamp, to go about the house
And lock the windows; and as night wore on
Toward morning, if a dog howled, or a mouse
Squeaked in the floor, long after it was gone
Her flesh would sit awry on her.  By day
She would forget somewhat, and it would seem
A silly thing to go with just this dram
And get a neighbor to come at night and stay.
But it would strike her sometimes, making the tea:
She had kept that kettle boiling all night long,
for company. 


I have had more than my fair share of deaths in my circle of loved ones in the past year.  It can get to feel like death is ganging up on you.  And it has been interesting to watch how all impacted in various spheres of my life, have dealt with the grief and finality of change that death brings.  There is no one way to grieve and no right or wrong way to experience the loss of beloved ones and creatures in our lives.  Grief is entirely a personal experience best shared with others, even if it feels awkward.  In a recent conversation with someone who has experienced a bucketful of tragedy and loss in a short period of time, she stated it astutely, “I did the best that I could.”  Vincent channels that sense of being lost and doing the best you can in the final sonnet I will share from this sequence.


XVI
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The doctor asked what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days,
and she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier – then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”

This Beast That Rends Me

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George Dillon (1906 – 1968)

Address To The Doomed

by George Dillon

Say it is life that matters. Say the bone
And flesh that blazoned it are but a book
Mislaid, forgotten, and the meaning known.
I will believe, but I have lived to look
On the cold body of the beautiful dead,
White and immobile as the moon in air –
The imperious heart being strangely quieted,
And the proud spirit flown I know not where.
Say it is earth again.  Let it be hid
In ruined leaves.  Account it as the dust
That quarrels not with doom and never did,
And reckon me among the quick who must.
Yet would I sleep tonight at the rose’s root,
Seeing what TIme has trampled underfoot.

October 1930


George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay shared several things, both won the Pulitzer Prize, Millay for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver and Other Poems in 1923 and Dillon for The Flowering Stone in 1932.  They also shared a bed. The two would cross paths in Chicago in 1928, while Vincent was on a reading tour and despite a 14 year age gap, the two were smitten on first sight. Millay was the pursuer and wrote volumes of letters and poems to Dillon in those first torrid months. Millay was married and confided instantly to her husband about her new found boy-toy.  He was wise enough to know that this too would pass, and on the face of it accepted Millay’s love affair with Dillon, which both chronicled in sonnets and poetry; Millay in Fatal Interview and Dillon in The Flowering Stone.   This unconventional mutual confessions of unfaithfulness was a big nothing burger in their own personal lives, but was just the kind of juicy romance that the reading public was hungry for at the time.  To have a strong, beautiful woman, in charge of her own sexuality was an awakening force in evolving norms towards women’s independence and sexual liberation.

Millay simultaneously wrote sonnets to both her husband and Dillon during the years 1928 to 1930 and it is a bit confusing reading Fatal Interview which was written to whom. The sonnet below Millay wrote in pencil on her first lunch with Dillon in 1928 in Chicago, so completely was she infatuated, she gave it to him immediately.  Her opening salvo completely prophetic, so much was she confident in her love language and natural tendencies.

This beast that rends me in the sight of all,
This love, this longing, this oblivious thing,
That has me under as the last leaves fall,
Will glut, will sicken, will be gone by spring.
The wound will heal, the fever will abate,
The knotted hurt will slacken in the breast;
I shall forget before the flickers mate
Your look that is today my east and west.
Unscathed, however, from a claw so deep
Though I should love again I shall not go:
Along my body, waking while I sleep,
Sharp to the kiss, cold to the hand as snow,
The scar of this encounter like a sword
Will lie between me and my troubled lord.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1928

Dillon went on to become an editor for Poetry magazine from 1937 to 1949.  Today, Dillon is largely forgotten as a poet. His literary legacy did not survive his generation.  He stopped writing poetry by age 41 and eventually faded off the literary landscape. His only present day notoriety is as one of many of Vincent’s lovers. And in that regard, he is in very good company.


To Losers

by George Dillon

Let loneliness be mute. Accuse
Only the wind for what you lose,
Only the wind has ever known
Where anything you lost has gone.
It is the wind whose breath shall come
To quench tall-flaming trees and numb
The narrow bones of birds. It is
The wind whose dissipating kiss
Disbands the soft-assembled rose.
It is the wordless wind that knows
Where every kind of beauty goes.

And if you lose love in the end
Say it was taken by the wind.

Truth Made Tangible, Is Truth Indeed

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Edna St. Vincent Millay around the time of publishing the poem Renascence.

“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

re·nas·cence

/rəˈnasns,rēˈnasns/

noun

FORMAL
noun: renascence; plural noun: renascences
  1. the revival of something that has been dormant.
    “the renascence of poetry as an oral art”
    • another term for Renaissance.
      noun: Renascence

Renascence (excerpt final stanza)

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

To read the entire poem, click on this link:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55993/renascence


Renascence was a defining moment for Vincent’s career as an artist and as a person.  It accomplished two things, it brought her to the attention of a broader reading audience, as well as publishers, and solidified the backing of a wealthy patroness, Miss Caroline B. Dow.  Here is how it came about.  The summer Vincent was 20, 1912,  she left the family home in Camden to visit her Aunts in Massachusetts. The funds that bankrolled the trip were the result of Vincent winning ten dollars at an oration contest in which Miss Dow was in the audience.  From that day forward, Dow began thinking about how she could help Vincent maximize her talents, so taken was she by Vincent’s reading of several poems on stage.

Late in that summer, her mother Cora wrote Vincent a letter asking her to come home to Camden.  The enticement was news of a contest being held by The Lyric Year – with a $1,000 being awarded in prize money to the top three poems. Authors could submit unlimited number of poems to Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher.  There would be three judges, Edward Wheeler, editor of the Current Opinion, William Braithwaite, poetry editor of the Boston Transcript and the editor of The Lyric Year, who remained nameless. Vincent submitted Renascence and then had the pluck to write to the editors of The Lyric Year several letters, inquiring about how they were progressing in picking a winner. She did it in such unguarded cheeky fashion, that her poems and the letters caught the attention of Ferdinand Earle, one of the editors at Kennerley, who began to correspond with Vincent, praising her poem and suggesting she would be a winner. The complimentary tones on each side continued and Vincent was lead to believe she would be in the top three.

It was a crushing disappoint when the awards were announced and Vincent’s Renascence was out of the money, receiving an honorable mention. The slight in handing several inferior poems cash prizes resulted in critics attempting to make up for the injustice by praising Renascence and the young female poet in their reviews. Even fellow poets included in the anthology wrote to her telling her she should have won. It was Vincent’s first brush with the politics of publishing and it would not be her last. However, Renascence placement in the highly regarded The Lyric Year refocused Miss Dow’s attention on Vincent and solidified her belief in Vincent as a real talent, now with the backing of a prestigious publishing house’s and several critics’s endorsement. And so, Dow went to Camden to speak with Cora, Vincent’s Mother, about finding a way to get Vincent into Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to give Vincent the opportunity of a college education.

Miss Dow realized that Vincent lacked not only the finances but the depth of formal education at high school to be admitted based on her transcript alone.  Vincent would have to prove herself college worthy on college admission tests, for languages, Latin, math, science and the humanities.  Vincent buckled down and prepared herself and passed the tests, only just barely making the minimum marks required on math and the sciences. But Vincent knew, though she would never be class valedictorian for academics, she would light up Vassar’s college theater, musical productions and the social scene. With Miss Dow’s financial backing and those of Dow’s friends, the princely sum of $400 was assembled to cover the costs for Vincent’s first year, with promises to continue to assist as long as she kept up her grades. Vincent was about to embark on what would be a life changing experience at Vassar, a future she could never  have imagined just a year before.

What’s interesting is I don’t consider Renascence a great poem. I don’t think its even in her top 50 poems in my opinion.  I think many of Vincent’s sonnets have much more staying power across time and literary landscape. But it was a poem that fit the period for sentiment and style. Young Vincent was smart enough to realize she had to fit in first in the publishing world, before she could stand out on her own.

Vincent penned the forward to her collected sonnets in 1941 and shares what she thinks is her first sonnet, written at age 15, that she unearthed among her papers, written in pencil on lined paper.  It is eerily prophetic and though simpler than her best sonnets, I know that as a writer, if the 49 year old Millay was not proud of her younger self she would not have included it.

Here it is:

Old Letters

By E. ST. V. M

I know not why I am so loath to lay
Your yellowed leaves along the glowing log,
Unburied dead, that cling about and clog –
With indisputable, insistent say
Of the stout past’s all inefficient fray –
The striving present, rising like a fog
To rust the active me, that am a cog
In the great wheel of industry today.
Yet, somehow, in this visible farewell
To the crude symbols of a simpler creed,
I find a pain that had not parallel
When passed the faith itself, – we give small heed
To incorporeal truth, let slack or swell;
But truth made tangible, is truth indeed.

I Will Be The Gladdest Thing

iu-13
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am glad I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven’s

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain,
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs asprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like scullions in the fairy tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spellbound under the aging sun,
Music my rampart, and my only one.


In reading Nancy Milford’s biography of Millay titled Savage Beauty, I was struck by how important the role of music played in Vincent’s life. Poetry and poets are not the same thing. You can not reconstruct the poet from the accumulated words of a lifetime. You can get a glimpse of their souls, their personalities, some of their beliefs, but the flesh and blood is far more spurious and complicated. Millay could channel joy in her poetry almost like a melody that runs through many of her poems. Vincent learned to read music at the same time she learned to read poetry.

In 1900 when Vincent was 8 years old, her parents separated and never reconciled, divorcing soon after.  The Millay’s was a modest household prior to the separation but now, Edna and her sisters were thrown into domestic chaos that would shape the co-dependent relationships that were both vibrant and at their core somewhat rotten between her, her siblings and her mother Cora.  Cora spent the next 25 years as a traveling nurse-maid, skilled in the art of nursing sick children back to health from the myriad of childhood diseases at the time.  She rarely was home and so Edna, her younger sisters Norma and Kathleen, ran their own household, in a broken down shack, knowing that the best way to not attract unwanted attention in the community from their plight was for the three little girls to run their lives with pristine efficiency. A list of chores titled “Do It Now” outlined the tasks that each was to complete from 6:00 am to 6:30 pm and then off to bed at 8 pm. The girls often made play of the work by singing to each other, making up songs and crafted a conscious air of happiness, that surrounded them and that was real in their bond to each other, but masked an underlying sadness that pervaded their pain of having no consistent support, financial or domestic, from either parent.  That domestic happiness that the three girls created was a source of intrigue and envy that drew others into their inner circle like moths to a flame throughout their lifetime. It created an unbreakable bond between sisters and between Edna and her Mother.  But not all bonds are forged from only good.  The nuanced way Edna deals with sorrow, indifference and love, I think comes from a deep well of complicated circumstances and hardship.  Edna was a generation older than my parents, both born during the height of the depression, but I have witnessed how “making do” with not much at a young age creates its own pandora’s box of issues that are both positive and negative in shaping young minds.

There are many recordings of Edna reading her poetry.  I will share a few in upcoming posts, but listening to recordings of her voice today, it sounds oddly foreign, a bit jilted, with a curious accent more English than New England.  It sounds like she is putting on airs, trying to impress the rich crowd that she would not only aspire to eventually be part of, but would succeed, though never feeling like she completely fit in. Whether she had a softer, gentler voice for her companions in every day life we will not know, but based on her prolific letter writing and the playful, gentle teasing that pervades it, I have a feeling her unrecorded voice was much softer in song and favored company.

Fragments of Millay’s poetry are pervasive to this day in our collective culture. Her words inspiration for other writers, other artists and pop songs.  I have included a video of Deb Talan’s song the Gladdest Thing that is based on Millay’s poem Afternoon on a Hill.  Enjoy.


Afternoon on A Hill

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

I will be the gladdest thing
    Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
    And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
    With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
    And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
    Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
    And then start down!

 

 

Ugly Things Will Get Less Ugly

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My Favorite New Music of 2019 CD

“The story of each stone leads back to a mountain.”

W. S. Merwin

American Sonnet for the New Year

by Terrance Hayes

things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually things got ugly unbelievably quickly
honestly things got ugly seemingly infrequently
initially things got ugly ironically usually
awfully carefully things got ugly unsuccessfully
occasionally things got ugly mostly painstakingly
quietly seemingly things got ugly beautifully
infrequently things got ugly sadly especially
frequently unfortunately things got ugly
increasingly obviously things got ugly suddenly
embarrassingly forcefully things got really ugly
regularly truly quickly things got really incredibly
ugly things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully

 

Published in the print edition of The New Yorker,  January 14, 2019,


This is the last Fourteenlines for 2019, the last of the decade.  Fitting to end it with music. I continued my tradition of assembling a mix of my favorite new songs that were released in 2019 and giving it away as gifts.  This years mix was a two cd set with 34 songs.  I include one song from each artist.  There is a certain sound and rhythm that runs through it but the genres run the gamut from rock to blues, to jazz, to soul to pop to singer songwriter.   The best new artist is J. S. Ondara who has local ties to Minneapolis currently.   He is a talent to watch.  Best comeback goes to P. P. Arnold.  First new album in many years and she has made a great one.

I have shared links for my five favorite songs of the year.  Enjoy and Happy New Years.  May 2020 bring you peace, health and prosperity.

 

 

 

Bring Your Love To Me Undarned

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This Year’s Tom’s Favorite Poem Book, from gift to part of the mix on the kitchen table.

Port-O-Pot

by T. A. Fry

Someone carelessly forgot,
To secure their lime-green Port-A-Pot.
Splattering its’ stinking, filthy load,
Nasty obstacles in my road.
If you’re hauling ’round aging shit;
Check ties twice, then dispose of it.


This year is the sixth edition of Tom’s Favorite Poems.   I hand made and gave away as gifts a new personal best, with 15 copies distributed.  Unlike past years, where many of the favorites came from the poem log I keep, this year all of my creative energy regarding poetry was poured into Fourteenlines. So when it came time to pull together my best of it largely consisted  of rereading this year’s posts and taking my favorites that lent themselves to a little book of poetry.  There are 33 poems contained within, three of my own and 30 of others writing.  Not surprisingly, there are ten sonnets included. There is a poem by both W. S. Merwin and Mary Oliver, who passed away this year.  Over all it is a very pleasing little anthology.  If you asked me what are my top five poems from 2019, my answer would vary depending on my mood that day, but if I am forced to pick five this morning, here they are:

  1.  Janus – By John M. Ford
  2. Walking Away by Cecil Day-Lewis
  3. Now by Robert Browning
  4. It’s The Dream by Olav Hauge
  5. Bring Your Love To Me Undarned by T. A. Fry

I know its a rigged jury system to include one of my own poems in my top five for the year, but I never said this was an impartial list.  I always look back at my writing productivity over the course of the year and give myself a grade.  This year I give myself a B.  I spent my writing time in different ways this year, most of it focused on this blog. The second area of focus was on editing two chap books that I have been working on for the better part of six years, and I spent the least amount of time on writing new poems. If I total up the year’s new compositions there are 7 or 8 good sonnets, another 6 or 7 reasonable rhyming poems and 2 or 3 free verse poems for the year. My total output is better than one a month but a far cry from recent years.  But if I can write one great poem a year, I am happy.

Of the three poems of my own included in this year’s anthology, each represents a different method of creativity in my writing process. The poem Port-O-Pot wrote itself on the way to work last February, when waiting at a stop light merging on to a highway, a truck with a trailer loaded with six Port-o-Pots, situated about five vehicles in front of me, went around a bend in the round while accelerating from the stop light and hit a bump, ejecting one off the side in the back. It broke into a few pieces and then was demolished by a utility truck that couldn’t get out of the way in time.  There was a small delay and then those of us that needed to get to work, wound our way carefully through the carnage of plastic and filth, hoping that the car wash was going to be open when we got off work.  The poem was all done in my head by the time I got to my office 10 minutes later.

The sonnet Easter, I included on Fourteenlines and it is on the last page of this year’s little book. It is an example of writing with intention and letting the hard work of writing become a time capsule for a memory that will forever transport me back to that day.  It took me several days to have a good draft.  Then after probably 25 to 30 more revisions, reading and rereading and revising, it came to be the finished sonnet. The poem is an eternal connection to all the dear people I shared the experience of communion with that day.

The third and final poem of my own that I included I have not shared until this post on Fourteenlines. It is far and away the best poem I wrote this year. It is an example of grinding, writing down ideas, letting them sit and and then revising, rewriting and editing. It is an example of not giving up. Sometimes writing is not inspiration, it is hard work. The title and opening line I wrote as part of a longer poem back in January and I kept coming back to it and rewriting it.  Finally after many drafts and failed attempts that I was unsatisfied with, I decided to start over and took the line, Bring your love to me undarned, from out of the body of the poem and made it the opening line, deleting the rest and started over.  A fresh start after 9 months freed up my subconscious and then the poem came together over the course of a week of new writing.  It is one of the few poems I have ever written that the finished poem is almost perfect iambic pentameter, so when you read it, follow my rule for poetry and read it out loud and let your brain, mouth, vocal cords and tongue all experience the poem. You will know it differently read aloud then reading it silently.  We have a different spoken voice that we hear then we do our silent voice inside our heads.

If you wrote a poem in 2019, that fits the style and length of this blog, rhymed or unrhymed, that you would like to share on Fourteenlines, please contact me at Fourteenlines10@gmail.com and I would be thrilled to work with you to guest blog an entry in 2020.


Bring Your Love To Me Undarned

by T. A. Fry

For Carmen

Bring your love to me undarned,
Moth holes and worn heels
Ragged in its country charm
Where your love has kneeled.

Kneeled before the grace of God
Kneeled to wash their feet –
All the creatures you have loved
And some you’ve yet to meet.

I’ll darn it with a silken string
And mend it with some yarn,
And knit back all you bring
To me, in your loving arms.

 

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.”