Saturday, November 30, 2013

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, way too soon in my book

Today I drove to Baltimore and spent the day visiting some friends, going to a "Farewell/Open House" and buying my Christmas cards from the All Saints Monastery in Catonsville.  Actually , I drove all over... off the Beltway into Catonsville and out the the Monastery, then up Ingleside Avenue and Forest Park Avenue, over to our house in Windsor Hills, then out Garrison Boulevard and Belvedere and Northern Parkway, over to York Road to Ryan's Daughter ( a pub and restaurant), then home, via Lake Avenue, Falls Road,  up through the Green Spring Valley, to Glyndon, then back via Westminster.
Why the detail?  Because I was amazed at the number of cars I saw with Christmas trees trussed up and tied to their roofs, like large moose.  I was glad to see so many people still using real trees... but so early! Tomorrow is the first of December!  Not only that, the yards of so many are already decked out with Christmas lights and those terrible inflated snowmen and reindeer.

It hit me that in this country, Christmas begins immediately after Thanksgiving, and certainly by the first of December.  I guess this has been going on for some time, and I've only just noticed.

What an old codger I am getting to be.  I don't expect to see all this until at least the fifteenth of the month.  In my childhood, my parents ( my mother, really - my dad was not into Christmas decorating at all) put the tree up and decorated it with me about the 17th of December.

But really, tomorrow is the First Sunday of Advent.  If we were really purists, we wouldn't decorate until the 24th, and then keep celebrating until at least the sixth of January... even until the second of February.    But we don't.

I confess that I am now listening to my favorite Christmas music, for I love this music and will listen to it every day until about the sixth of January, glad to have a month or more to listen to it. 

Apparently this commercialization has been a concern for quite some time.I found this poem by the British poet John Betjeman, from 1955:

Advent 1955
John Betjeman

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound -
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'

And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there -
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know -
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
'The time draws near the birth of Christ'.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

So it was happening in England , too.  And here's a photo of a mall in Berlin, Germany:

The Betjeman poem I really love is this one, which was also probably written in the mid-fifties:

Christmas by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine. 

Publication news

 Williams Reservoir --- photo by Russell Joseph Reynolds

I'm feeling more upbeat than I was yesterday, primarily because I had a wonderful afternoon in the company of six Higgins cousins from three generations, and the wives of the older three.  These are re-connections after many years, and I am so warmed by them.

In other news, 
I have been writing, and also, sending poems out. Many rejections, but these acceptances, many of which one can read online. A number of these are poems from my first and second books; glad for them to get more exposure.
* My poem "An Active and Personal Devil" will appear in the December issue of Commonthought Magazine, a print journal out of Cambridge Massachusetts.

* I am "Poet of the Week"  for the week of December 2 on the website  Poetry Superhighway:
* Just received word this morning that my poem "If Memory Serves Me" has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by  Walking is Still Honest press.

* I have two poems in the November issue of W.I.S.H.( Walking is still honest!)

*Also, poems here:


*Also, Anthology 29, an Anthology of Religious Prose and Poetry, has included five of my poems. The whole anthology is online at ISSUU:

*Also, my interview is up on Molly Spencer's blog "the stanza" . It's about my book which was published last May.

*Also, my poem "Thin Skinned" was published in June in Turbulence, a print journal in the UK.

*Also,my poem "Georgia O'Keeffe Looks Over Her Shoulder" was published at Little Eagle's RE/VERSE .

*Also,I have a poem in this anthology of poems about Alzheimer's, FORGETTING HOME, edited by Anna Evans.

* Also,I'm going to read my poetry on the evening of February 20. at 7:30, in the auditorium of the Takoma Park community center, 7500 Maple Avenue, TP, MD 20912.
Maybe you could come!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Day after Thanksgiving

I love this photo of a Wild Turkey feasting at someone's backyard feeding station.  It came from Project Feederwatch:

Truly, a noble bird, as Benjamin Franklin said.

And here is one in flight - photo by Russell Joseph Reynolds:

They are huge birds.  I saw one stuffed ( not with dressing!) with wings extended,and mounted in a local brewery recently.  The wingspan must have been six feet.

Thanksgiving and the Facebook photos of some of my former students, or young relatives, or younger colleagues, and their families around the table, make me happy for them, but also make me feel my losses.

I’m teaching Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter again… second time.  I like talking with/to the first year students about it.  Clearly there are ideas they have never had; for example, wondering how their parents feel about their departure from home to go to college…and, even more, the good possibility that they will never live in their home towns again ( as they did in their first eighteen years).

 Different passages strike me this year. For example, in the passage where Hannah talks about her daughter Margaret’s wedding:

“Ghosts attend such events… You know the ghosts are there when you see as they see, not as they saw , but as they see.You feel them with you, not as they were but as they are. I never shed a tear that day, but all day long I saw Margaret as her father and her grandfather saw her. I loved her that day with my love but also with theirs.”

I felt that way at my cousin Jared’s funeral recently. 

At another place, after her husband dies, she reflects:

“Even old, your husband is the young man you remember now. Even dead, he is the man you remember, not as he was but as he is, alive still in your love. Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear.”

Lately I’ve been thinking of all the friends and family members who have “passed on.”  The image keeps being of them on a boat, moving out into the ocean… or in some way receding from my sight.  I’ve been feeling sad lately, but somehow these words help me. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago today

For those like me who were living and old enough to understand, this was an unforgettable day,
the Pearl Harbor and  9/11/01  of my generation.

I was fifteen years old, and at Bishop Shanahan High School,we were all in the auditorium at an assembly - the National Honor Society induction ceremony. I was on stage being inducted (aside: I lasted in the NHS only until the end of that year, having earned such a low grade in Geometry that I was drummed out) Anyway... Father Nugent (the principal) went to the podium and announced that Kennedy had been shot. I remember that my first thought was "Now, that is a sick joke!" Talk about denial! So we all went back to our classrooms ( homerooms?) and a little later, the announcement came over the P.A. that the president was dead. I remember seeing some of the teachers crying.

A poet-friend, Sam Gwynn, posted this today:

The Day Kennedy Died
By Leon Stokesbury

Suppose on the day Kennedy died you had
a vision. But this was no inner movie
with a plot or anything like it. Not
even very visual when you get down
to admitting what actually occurred.
About two-thirds of the way through 4th period
Senior Civics, fifteen minutes before
the longed-for lunchtime, suppose you stood up
for no good reason-no reason at all really-
and announced, as you never had before,
to the class in general and to yourself
as well, “Something. Something is happening.
I see. Something coming. I can see. I…”

And that was all. You stood there: blank.
The class roared. Even Phyllis Hoffpaur, girl
most worshipped by you from afar that year,
turned a vaguely pastel shade of red
and smiled, and Richard Head, your best friend,
Dick Head to the chosen few, pulled you down
to your desk whispering, “Jesus, Man! Jesus
Christ!” Then you went numb. You did not know
for sure what had occurred. But less than one hour
later, when Stella (despised) Vandenburg, teacher
of twelfth grade English, came sashaying
into the auditorium, informing, left and right,
as many digesting members of the student body
as she could of what she had just heard,
several students began to glance at you,
remembering what you’d said. A few pointed,
whispering to their confederates, and on that
disturbing day they slinked away in the halls.
Even Dick Head did not know what to say.

In 5th period Advanced Math, Principal
Crawford played the radio over the intercom
and the school dropped deeper into history.
For the rest of that day, everyone slinked away-
except for the one moment Phyllis Hoffpaur
stared hard, the look on her face asking,
assuming you would know, “Will it be ok?”

And you did not know. No one knew.
Everyone staggered back to their houses
that evening aimless and lost, not knowing,
certainly sensing something had been
changed forever. Silsbee High forever!
That is our claim! Never, no never!
Will we lose our fame! you often sang.
But this was to be the class of 1964,
afraid of the future at last, who would select,
as the class song, Terry Stafford’s Suspicion.
And this was November—even in Texas
the month of failings, month of sorrows
--from which we saw no turning.
It would be a slow two-months slide until
the manic beginnings of the British Invasion,
three months before Clay’s ascension to the throne,
but all you saw walking home that afternoon
were the gangs of gray leaves clotting the curbs
and culverts, the odors of winter forever
in the air: cold, damp, bleak, dead, dull:
dragging you toward the solstice like a tide.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On the Day of the Dead

We have these Autumn festivals in my area all through October.  A big one is the Catoctin Colorfest, which is held every year around the second weekend in October. The weather is good, but all the trees are still green.  In fact, our trees  changed almost overnight on October 31.

Today is Saturday, and it's All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead.  I decided to post two haunted poems that I admire.

Julie Kane

with pity for all living things
being chased by a ghoul on a horse
with its head tucked under its arm
consider the plight of the rider
consigned to blank nights on a horse
or behind the wheel of an automobile
consider the plight of the rider
cruising the potholed streets of your city
headless inside her automobile
sheer muscle memory steering her home
cruising the potholed streets of your city
dullahan, headless Irish fairy
dronelike, mindless, riding home
you may have sensed her, late one night
dullahan, headless Irish fairy
caught up in repetition
you may have sensed her, many nights
with your shamed red face in your hands
caught up in repetition
with pity for all living things

 Susan Elbe

I put a bone-white candle in the window,
a welcome, but they already know the way.

I'm not afraid. After all, the Aztecs held
there are two worlds—
one of the living, one of the dead.

This world, a dream that comes and goes.

They are always close, asking to be warmed,
asking for a scrap of meat,
begging me to not forget them.

The cold smoke of their voices whispers
at the pane, a dark nomadic alphabet
in an unfamiliar tongue
I've only just begun to understand.