Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Eve

I know my college classmates don't look this old, but I still like this picture.

Time is on my mind today,  and memories, and these songs from my youth, when we didn't even know what "old" was:

The good times we had

Times have changed
All the good times that we had are gone now;
Passed this way
Only mem'ries will remain, tomorrow

I thought my dreams would be enough for a while
And all the plans that we made
Hey, we had love, that was all that we had;
Even that don't seem the same

Peace of mind
Where's the happiness we should be havin'?
We can't find any answers in the good times we had

I thought my dreams would be enough for a while
And all the plans that we made
Hey, we had love, that was all that we had;
Even that don't seem the same

Peace of mind
Where's the happiness we should be havin'?
We can't find any answers in the good times we had

These friends of mine, we shared some good times together
days of sunshine....days of rain.

Many jobs and many towns we worked and never
Cared if we saw the same towns again.
Then one day we weren't as young as before
Our mistakes weren't quite so easy to undo.
But by all those road we traveled down,
I'm a better man for just the known of you.
These friends of mine we never cared about tomorrow
It was too early in the game.
We'd stay a while unil the day we'd get to wondering
If the far side of the hill looked the same.
And they's settle down somewhere along the way
Yes and somewhere just like some men do
But by all those roads my friend we've traveled down
I'm a better man for just the knowin of you.
(Tom Russell)

Those Were The Days
(Mary Hopkin)

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And think of all the great things we would do

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la La la la la la la

Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I'd see you in the tavern
We'd smile at one another and we'd say
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days.

Time it was and what a time it was

A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.     (Paul Simon)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Books I Read in 2019

Not all of them, but the ones that come to mind as I write this:

Lincoln in the Bardo   by George Saunders

Educated   by Tara Westover

An Education  by Michelle Obama

Beloved     by Toni Morrison

The Friend    by Sigrid Nunez

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

The Dark is Rising   by Susan Cooper

Stephen King's trilogy:
Mr. Mercedes
Finders Keepers
End of Watch

Kingdom of the Blind   by Louise Penny

Two from Ruth Rendell:
Kissing the Gunner's Daughter
Not in the Flesh

from Lawrence Block:
A Walk Among the Tombstones

from Peter Grainger:
Luck and Judgment
An Accidental Death

The Graveyard Book   by Neil Gaiman

Dracula   by Bram Stoker

I re-read the Millennium series and then read the three new ones by David Lagercrantz
The Girl in the Spider's Web
The Girl Who Lived Twice
The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

And, of course, re-read the books for my Modernity class, especially:
Slaughterhouse Five

I also re-read , each month, the relevant chapter in The Echoing Green  by Jennifer Heath.

I know I read more books than these.  One of my New Years Resolutions is to record the titles of the books I read in 2020 as I read them.

I also read many many articles on politics: the evil saga of Donald Trump, and a fair amount of the Mueller Report

There's definitely an attraction to the bloodthirsty in my reading life.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Complexities of Christmas

Christmas in Norway   

This song by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor haunts me:

It's coming on Christmas,
They're cutting down trees.
Putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace,
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
But it don't snow here,
Stays pretty green.
I'm gonna make a lot of money
Gonna quit this crazy scene.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I wish I had a river so long,
I would teach my feet to fly.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry.
She tried hard to help me,
She put me at ease.
She loved me so naughty,
made me weak in the knees.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I'm so hard to handle,
I'm selfish and I'm sad.
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I've ever had.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on...

I'm copying and pasting a column by Cynthia Kiteley Lee which I found interesting and thought-provoking...

The Complexities of Christmas   
Cynthia's Column
by Cynthia Kiteley Lee, Founder and Administrator 
Mystical Order of the White Rose

Joy (to the world) and Peace (on earth goodwill to all) are central themes of Christmas.  They are wonderful ideals and energies that some of us carry like warm coals close to our hearts in the cold days of December. 

The words peace and joy appear over and over again on Christmas cards, in Christmas carols, and are spelled out in the Christmas lights that, along with many other Christmas light decorations, brighten our longest nights of the year and enchant us with their brightness and beauty. 

And yet, Christmas can be very complicated, challenging, and far from peaceful and joyful for many of us who celebrate it, as well as for many who don't celebrate it, but who are strongly affected by the pervasive and unavoidably extreme cultural focus on Christmas and its many traditions and expressions during most of the weeks of December.

There is great and ever increasing diversity in our nation and in the religious and spiritual affiliations and celebrations of its citizens.  December has many Holy Days and celebrations other than Christmas, the best known of which in the United States are: Hanukkah, celebrated by the Jews (eve of December 2 through the eve of December 10); The Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of North America (December 12); Yule, the Pagan/Wiccan celebration of the Winter Solstice (December 21); and the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, which emphasizes African traditions of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. (December 26 to January 1).  To view the dozens more December Sacred Days and Days of Remembrance from a dizzying variety of traditions, visit this link for The Mystic's Wheel of the Year--A Multi-faith Calendar Reflecting Eco-Egalitarian Spirituality:

There are also many people who are atheists or agnostics without any spiritual or religious conceptual framework or affiliation, who may or may not choose to embrace some of the Christmas celebration traditions in an essentially secular way.  Honoring and embracing diversity calls upon us to be sensitive and tactful.   As mystics, contemplatives, and monastics we are able to help create and maintain peace on earth and extend good will to all,  regardless of our or their spiritual and religious affiliations (or lack thereof).  I assure you that our spiritual and religious affiliations are extremely diverse, and often include a relationship with more than one spiritual or religious tradition.

The Economics of Christmas

There is an extreme retail sales focus on Christmas, especially in the United States, where we have long been considered to be a country and people consumed by consumerism.  The definition of consumerism is: "the theory that an increas-ing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also: a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.[1]"

The intense emphasis on Christmas-related shopping and purchases has created a backlash or "push back" from many Americans who feel that Christmas has become tainted and corrupted by its heavily promoted consumer frenzy aspects.  Those who feel this way often choose to limit or altogether withdraw from the celebration of Christmas. 

Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations around the world.  In the United States:  "The holiday season is just around the corner and it’s truly the best time of the year for both consumers and retailers of all shapes and sizes. Since the recession in 2008, Christmas holiday retail sales in the United States have grown steadily.  In 2018, Christmas retail sales were forecast to grow to about 719.17 billion U.S. dollars; a 4.55 percent increase from the previous year. The amount of money that U.S. consumers plan to spend on gifts has also increased. [2]  Christmas is also a boon for people wanting employment, as hundreds of thousands of seasonal sales clerks are hired to help handle the sharp spike in sales.

The Not So Merry Aspects of Christmas

There are many stressful and challenging aspects of the Christmas season, even though the usual activities and traditions of the season are deeply cherished and enjoyed by many of the people engaging in them, while others (grinches?) consider them just one more energy and/or money-draining obligation on a too long to-do list. 

Many of these Christmas season stresses are related to the complex logistical, time, task, and financial management aspects of the approximately month-long Christmas season (typically from Thanksgiving Day in late November through Christmas day in the United States).  These can include: erecting and decorating one or more Christmas trees; mailing Christmas cards and parcels of presents; shopping for and wrapping presents; attending Christmas parties; going to Christmas community events (parades, Christmas light tours, fairs, taking children to visit "Santa Claus" at the mall); attending Christmas-themed cultural events (concerts, plays, movies); decorating for Christmas, which can be simple or elaborate, depending on personal proclivities; and oftentimes hosting and cooking for Christmas eve or Christmas day family and/or friends gatherings, and accommodating out of town overnight family and friends.

Just thinking and writing about all these activities makes me feel a bit tired; actually undertaking and completing them can be exhausting.  Drinking alcohol-laden eggnog, punches, and wines and liquors; and consuming sugar and carb-heavy Christmas cookies, pies, cakes, and other delicious foods at Christmas parties; combined with some late nights of partying--while they can all be wonderfully enjoyable--tend to upset our physical form and its processes, and take awhile to recover from.  

There is also Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder subset in which people who have normal levels of mental health most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter.  Common symptoms include:  sleeping too much, having little to no energy, and overeating (Wikipedia). The primary cause of this disorder is believed to be related to the reduced amount of daylight in the autumn and winter months.  Light therapy is available to help to reduce the negative impacts of this disorder.

 Other stresses of the season have to do with the complexities of the human heart and psyche, and the sweet--and sometimes not so sweet--memories we have of  celebrating Christmases in the past with family and friends who have died, chosen to end their relationship with us (or vice versa), or who live far away. 

The human heart and psyche are deep and rich and multi-layered, harboring enormous depths of abounding love and forgiveness, and deep, even soul deep, woundings by family and loved ones.

Negative thoughts and intense negative feelings about our past and present close relationships--or the lack thereof--are often triggered by Christmas-related activities during the weeks leading up to it, causing painful periods of grief, depression, and negative reflections about ourself and/or others, and our lives.  

I have a friend whose wife died this November.  They were happily married for 47 years, and spent the last 47 Christmas season celebrations together, so this holiday season has been and will continue to be painful for him, despite the loving support of stepchildren, step-grandchildren, and old friends.  The 24-year-old son of a woman I know died suddenly earlier this year; this will be her first Christmas without him.  She too has supportive friends and other family members, but this traumatic loss is likely to haunt her holiday celebrations. 

My husband Richard's son, who is now 22-years-old and in college, chose to end all interactions with his dad more than four years ago. Prior to this they would see each other two or three times a year for a meal in a restaurant that usually took place with his sister and were not made known to their mother, who divorced Richard about 10 years ago.  Richard was a passionately engaged and stable, loving father to his son and daughter (24-years-old) who relocated with their mother to another town in Mississippi when his son was 12 and his daughter 14.  Even though there were legal child custody rulings that gave Richard generous visitation privileges, his ex-wife (who had/has some mental health issues and was physically and verbally abusive to Richard and her daughter) did not comply with them and pressured her son to not be at home whenever his father arrived for a scheduled visit. Richard's daughter chose to maintain a very loving relationship with her father, but after physical and verbal abuse from her mother for doing so when she was a teenager in high school, she chose to keep her visits to and interactions with him secret. The passage of time has many healing properties, but some wounds don't heal quickly or completely.

A priest in a church I attended years ago often told members of the congregation to "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," a quote from Ian MacLaren.  Whether we are fighting internal battles or struggling with painful memories, thoughts, and feelings ourselves--or not--during this Christmas season, as agents of love and grace, empathy and compassion, we can give ourselves and others the gifts of unconditional love; nurturing our and others' bodies, minds and spirits; extending kindness; affection (including giving and receiving touch and hugs); offering intercessory prayers; and compassion. 

The Joys of Christmas and Other December Holy Days

The particulars of our December winter sacred celebrations vary widely, but the common threads that join us in the family of humanity are: love of family, reverence and respect for our family's religious and cultural traditions and beliefs, joy in family gatherings and celebrations, joy in experiencing  the songs, chants, music, and rituals associated with the celebrations, and pleasure in the consumption of special holy day/holiday foods and drinks.  In the northern hemisphere we also rejoice in the return of the light; the shift in solar energies that causes the days to grow gradually longer, and the nights shorter.  This shift begins after the Winter Solstice (December 21).

As for peace, we may be able to experience it personally, but millennia of human experience make it clear that our world is not (yet) a peaceful one in terms of the absence of external conflict, war, hatred, and violence. Inner peace is a gift to ourselves, others, and the world we live in, and is a powerful energy that radiates outward in subtle yet profoundly positive ways through spiritually-grounded individuals, groups, and communities. 

Fortunately, the universal spiritual practices of meditation, prayer, reflection, and contemplative and compassionate living support us in connecting with deep and nourishing levels of joy and peace, and maintaining them in the midst of life's many challenges and complexities.

Christmas at Hogwarts

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Wren

photo by Bob Nease

Yesterday was "Wren Day" among other things.  I am glad this English tradition has morphed away from hunting and killing a wren.   Here's the information:

Wren's Day is celebrated on St. Stephen's Day on December 26th. Traditionally it was celebrated throughout Ireland. Nowadays, the tradition can only be found in some towns.

Originally, boys and men (called wrenboys) would hunt for a wren to bring good luck for the New Year. They'd bring it around with them attached to a small bush they'd carry from house to house asking for money to bury their wren. (They no longer carry around real wrens. Sometimes they carry an effigy of a wren.) The wrenboys go around asking for money and singing wren songs. Some dress up in colorful straw outfits. In some towns they even have parades.

Here's one song that's sung on Wren's Day. Many variations exist.

The Wren Song
St. Stephen's Day Song
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze, (1)
Although he was little his honor was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

As I was going to Killenaule,
I met a wren upon the wall.
Up with me wattle (2) and knocked him down,
And brought him in to Carrick Town.

Droolin, Droolin, (3) where's your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best
Tis in the bush, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.

Up with the kettle
And down with the pan,
And give us a penny
To bury the wren.

We followed the wren three miles or more,
Three miles or more, three miles or more.
We followed the wren three miles or more,
At six o'clock in the morning.

Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs. Clancy's a very good woman,
She give us a penny to bury the wren.

Photo by Travis Truelove

Here's a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver:

The Wren From Carolina
by Mary Oliver

Just now the wren from Carolina buzzed
through the neighbor’s hedge
a line of grace notes I couldn’t even write down
much less sing.

Now he lifts his chestnut colored throat
and delivers such a cantering praise–
for what?

For the early morning, the taste of the spider,
for his small cup of life
that he drinks from every day, knowing it will refill.

All things are inventions of holiness.
Some more rascally than others.
I’m on that list too,
though I don’t know exactly where.

But, every morning, there is my own cup of gladness,
and there’s that wren in the hedge, above me,
with his blazing song.

Photo by Marianne Roken

Thursday, December 26, 2019

On the feast of Stephen

"Good King Wenceslas last looked out,
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel."

Wenceslaus Square, Prague

He was a real person, and very important in the history of Prague. The website Private Prague Guide says:

The first Czech saint and the patron saint of the Czech state, Wenceslas (Václav in Czech) served as duke of Bohemia from 921 until his death in 929 or 935. Though he died young, this martyr’s accomplishments were many. He built numerous churches in Bohemia and was deeply respected as a pious, moral, educated and intelligent man who promoted the Christian faith and took care of the poor, the sick, the widowed and the orphaned by doing charitable deeds. He even founded the rotunda of Saint Vitus at Prague Castle.

The whole carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing 

I especially remark the last two lines of the final stanza.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Love Awoke one winter's night

"Love awoke one winter's night
And wander'd through the snowbound land,
And calling to beasts and birds
Bid them his message understand.

And from the forest all wild things
That crept or flew obeyed love's call,
And learned from him the golden words
Of brotherhood for one and all."
-   Author Unknown

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

All the stars looked down

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire. 
(O weary, weary is the world,

But here the world's desire.)
The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown, 
And all the flowers looked up at Him,

And all the stars looked down.

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire. 
(O weary, weary is the world,

But here the world's desire.)
The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown, 
And all the flowers looked up at Him,

And all the stars looked down. 

 G.K. Chesterton

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Holly and the Ivy

"The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown:
O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir."

-   Christmas Carol

"The Holly King, represents the Death aspect of the God at this time of year; and the Oak King, represents the opposite aspect of Rebirth (these roles are reversed at Midsummer).  This can be likened to the Divine Child's birth.  The myth of the Holly King/Oak King probably originated from the Druids to whom these two trees were highly sacred.  The Oak King (God of the Waxing Year) kills the Holly King (God of the Waning Year) at Yule (the Winter Solstice).  The Oak King then reigns supreme until Litha (the Summer Solstice) when the two battle again, this time with the Holly King victorious.  Examples of the Holly King's image can be seen in our modern Santa Claus."
Yule and Its Lore

"The holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. . .

    I am the Holly King, Lord of the Waning Year. You may know me as the Green Man or as the Winter King. I rule from Midsummer to Midwinter, and my reign culminates in the festivities of Yuletide. As the wren dies to make way for the robin, soon I will bow before my brother the Oak King. You will not see me again until the Sun once more begins to wane. As I prepare to withdraw into the deep midwinter, I contemplate the glowing light of the reborn Sun in my cup — and in this holy grail, I see visions and dreams of the year to come.

    Carry a sprig of holly with you as my token. It will protect you against fierce winter storms, and will bestow upon you the focus, direction and courage you need to succeed in your own spiritual quest.

    Fill your homes with holly this season! Deck the halls! My evergreen leaves and bright red berries, seen against the barren oaks of winter, will remind you of the Life that sustains us during the bitterest time of the year."
The Holly King