The Oak King and The Holly King

(This Winter Solstice story first appeared on this blog on December 21, 2017.)

It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild.  They pray each summer  for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.

The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact.  The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer.  The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence.  And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night.  The Long Night.  The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light.  They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win.  The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.

Gathered About the Yule Log
Gathered About the Yule Log

And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born.  For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness.  Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling ,  or even Gods  (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.)   Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation.  This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.

And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient  sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of  Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn.  Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun.  A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land.  (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)

And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.

But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice.  Darkness never conquers the Light.  And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.

And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.

And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”

 

The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.

The Word of Your Year

(Note: This post originally appeared on December 31, 2017, under the title “Word of the Year”.  An afterword follows this re-posting.)

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions well over a decade ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sterling advice: On New Year’s day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole “resolution thing” point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  Ha!  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to remember that I was supposed to be keeping my attention on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that it made a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I learned, quite amazingly, that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but also that we must, humbly and with gratitude,  receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  I learned, too, that though I may behave in a kindly manner to another, requiring of myself that I treat them with courtesy and consideration, I’m often shamed to admit that true kindness from within my heart is absent.  I will carry this knowledge with me into another year, and hope to create and extend more true loving kindness to all.

 I’d love to have you share in the Comments what you choose as your Word of the Year for the upcoming change of the calendar.

 

Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Unpretentious Words

Awhile ago, I included a poem as part of one of these blog posts: Epitaph In An Elevator.  It was hardly an example of shining verse, being unsophisticated in its composition and stark in the emotion it presented through the medium of gossiping voices.  And yet that simple, naïve little poem received multiple views and likes by readers.

Since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering why a work so basic and unpretentious “spoke” to so many people.

Considering this, I recalled a line from a Mary Stewart novel, Nine Coaches Waiting.  Ms. Stewart’s light mystery/romance novels, written at the end of the 20th century, were (and are) unappreciated gems; literary works of art, beautifully-researched, marvelously plotted, with vivid, memorable characters.  One of the things I recall most about her books, though, is that they often included quotes from classic poetry; lines that enhanced and augmented the story.  In the mystery Nine Coaches Waiting, the main character, recalling her late poet father, recollects and confirms the lessons she learned from him about poetry being “awfully good material to think with”.

Truer words were never spoken. Poetry—good poetry—brilliantly twists language to evoke emotion, and consequently reaches out to us in the hours when our feelings brim close to the surface. As I pointed out in the post Mathematics Makes a…What?!, the very best poetry tosses all the rules of grammar right out the window, superbly weaving words to fit feeling.  Our minds react with the abrupt recognition, “Yes!  Yes, that’s how I feel!” and we are immediately connected to something larger than ourselves; a universal knowledge, a link to all humanity.

So as I sat considering why it might be that my very un-brilliant and simple poem reached out slender fingers to touch so many readers, I finally realized that many of my own favorite poems—memorized, and recited to myself numerous times–are also incredibly simple. They are brief and straightforward, and two, especially, have an almost O’Henry-ish twist to the final lines.  (And I desperately hope they are not under copyright, for I intend to quote them here, trusting that their very age means these works are in the public domain, and apologizing if they are not.  A search for the terms, “How to determine if a poem is under copyright” produced few useable results, other than that poems published before 1923, which these certainly are, are likely to be public domain works).

Both poems, perhaps not surprisingly, concern the most difficult emotion of all: grief.

Lines By Taj Mahomed

This passion is but an ember
Of a Sun, of a Fire, long set;
I could not live and remember,
And so I love and forget.

You say, and the tone is fretful,
That my mourning days were few,
You call me over forgetful–
My God, if you only knew!

 Laurence Hope

and

She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

William Wordsworth

Poetry is very good material to think with.  And for that reason, no matter how poorly you or anyone else believes your works to be, continue writing it–because any words that evoke human feeling connect us to a larger view of humanity.  And in today’s sad and hate-filled world, that cannot but help be a good thing.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

Struggling Home

(A spooky little Halloween story told in verse.)

The square of light spilling from my window
casts liquid gold on the rain-drenched streets,
while angry winds, beating harshly sullen
reverberate like an army’s feet
and pound the night with a vicious fury.
An evening fit not for man nor beast,
I think–when, startled, I glimpse the outline
of someone walking the darkened street.

Sad Rain 3 cropHer silhouette bleared and fogged by raindrops,
small shoulders bowed unmistakeably,
a sodden figure that struggles forward,
the very picture of misery.
I know her!  She is my neighbor’s daughter.
Her father leads her a sorry life.
I wonder at her uncaring parent.
To send her out, and on such a night!

(For what she carries proclaims her mission;
 her father’s need, and the cause of strife.)

Her shadow moves from my light.  I hurry
up to the doorstep to call her in.
But I’m too late.  Though I call, no answer.
She cannot hear me above the wind.
And I wonder, closing my door quite slowly,
if any other might have the heart
to spare a thought for that broken figure
struggling home in the windy dark.

…That was last night, and I met my neighbor
on the street corner today.  I asked
if she, his daughter, had journeyed safely,
reaching their home with his liquor pack.
He stared at me from eyes deeply sunken,
his face unshaven, jaw gaping low.
He tried to speak.  Tears grimed down his cheeks,
and then, angered, bitter, confused, he moaned.

“Damn fool!” he cursed me, wiped tears, and whispered,
“my daughter’s dead–died two weeks ago!”

…It’s not rained since for a month.  Such clear nights!
Such nights as I’ve had no cause to think
of storms, or of that streetside encounter
when reason tottered upon the brink.
But clouds roll up, and the storm is threatening,
and I dare not look upon the street
where pall of night is illuminated,
nor lend an ear to the sound of feet.

I dare not open my door, nor listen,
nor gaze at gaps where the curtains part,
nor spare a thought for that broken figure,
struggling home in the windy dark.

 

 

 

A Crystal Inkwell Pendant

A few years ago I participated in a jewelry exchange. As the rarely-worn but lovely pieces were handed around a circle of women, I was particularly taken with one that no one else seemed to want.  A single golden feather protruded from a large round, faceted crystal with a small gold top.  It was, I realized, an inkwell—an old fashioned inkwell and quill pen.

I loved it instantly and chose it as my gift in the exchange. And then I took it home and never wore it.  For I told myself that this quill-and-inkwell (made of that crystal that no one can pronounce) was meant for a writer.  And I, despite my best of intentions, was not.

Oh, I’d tried to write—or rather, to become a published writer—a number of times. Six of my poems had been published (genuinely published—none of that, “Poetry Contest!” nonsense, where everyone submitting an entry “wins”, and then pays the publisher for the privilege of buying the overpriced compilation in which the poem appears).  No, I had received payment for the six poems printed by Unity’s publishing house in their monthly magazine, and even seen one of my works later reprinted, with permission, in a hardback compilation titled, Truth the Poet Sings.

But none of my other writing projects succeeded. I tried my hand at writing a romance novel, completing several chapters…but since I didn’t actually enjoy reading them myself, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.  I wrote a book of letters to my daughter, recording the wonder of her first year of life.  Melon Patch Letters was read and enjoyed by several women, many of them strangers to me, but despite the approbation I received from my Beta Readers, no publisher was interested in the work.

I even compiled a full manuscript of poetry: poems that traced my healing from depression through spiritual growth. I still believe The Shuttle In My Hands to be excellent, but, then, of course, I would. Again, no publishing house found it worthwhile.

Life itself intervened in my aspirations, and I wrote very little until, years later, I completed my intensely personal manuscript, A Diary of My Divorce.  I never submitted it for publication, although, looking through it again after 19 years, I wonder if I should not have done that very thing.

Enter the world of blogging and e-publishing. As these venues initiated and expanded, I considered them…but life itself has a way of interfering  in the actual business of really living.  As much as I wanted to write, as a single mother, working hard to support the two of us and putting my daughter through college, it seemed that the only writing I found time for was helping my offspring and her friends research and edit school essays and compositions and term papers.

And then, at last, I retired. Promising myself—promising everyone I knew—that I would finally begin writing a blog, I found myself totally intimidated not just by the many blogging platforms, but by the paralyzing fear around the thought, “What if I start my blog, and no one wants to read it?”

Assistance arrived in the form of a new friend whose relative suggested a good blogging forum. Nervous and uncertain of unfamiliar technology, I finally took the plunge.  Literally asking my angels for a title and motto for my blog, I found my fingers typing them out.  I struggled through my inexperience and created the first page.  And, finally, pressing the “Publish” button at last, on October 22, 2017, the post Princess Diana Saved My Life finally appeared.

I’ve written well over 100 blog posts since then, on topics encompassing everything from spiritual beliefs to brussels sprouts, from royalty to poverty to pets to toilet paper–essays that I work hard to craft and polish. In the process I’ve gained a few—just a few—followers, and another few dedicated readers who, themselves leery of a form of technology they did not grow up with,  won’t punch the “Follow” button, but still regularly read my maunderings.  Sometimes I acquire a few “Likes”; more often, I hear later from friends who particularly enjoyed a new column.  Oddly, many of my closest friends and family members never once look at anything I’ve written, while complete strangers and other bloggers laud me.

But it doesn’t matter, really, whether I acquire a following or Likes or even readers. For the simple truth is, I write for my own pleasure.  I write out of dedication to the craft of writing.  I write because the act of composition embodies everything that I am.

And now I proudly wear my crystal quill-and-inkwell pendant, recognizing at last that I always deserved to do so; that I have always been an author; that a lack of publication never once dimmed my enthusiasm or desire to write. Poetry, children’s stories, short stories, books—all are gathered within my file cabinet and occupy space on my computer, possibly doing no more than collecting dust, but evidence, nonetheless, of my intense desire, always, to follow my heart and write.

Perhaps, like the poet Emily Dickinson, the body of my works will be discovered someday after my death, and be recognized and published. Perhaps not.  But it doesn’t matter.  I am not writing to please a faceless public; I am writing because it is, inescapably, entwined within my soul.

Mispronounced, Revisited

As I have mentioned before in these blog posts, there are words that I have mispronounced for so many years that the mispronunciation now sounds correct to my ears. One of these is the word piscine—which is not, as made famous in one movie, generally pronounced “Pissing”, but “PIE Seen”.  However, when I first read the word, I accidentally placed the accent on the second syllable: “Pie SEEN”. To this day, that is how I read the word.  It rarely comes up in conversation, so I don’t generally have to worry about mispronouncing it in public.  But then, anything would be better than pronouncing the word as “pissing”.

But another word, topiary, is a pronunciation Waterloo for me.  Again, since I first read the word rather than heard it in conversation, I mispronounced it, reading it as “Tow PIE Uh Ree”.  When I heard the word pronounced correctly for the first time, TOW Pee Airy”, though, I thought to myself, “Well, that just sounds stupid.”  And I have embarrassingly mispronounced it, and been corrected, in conversation a few times.  Still, reading the word topiary, I hold on to my personal pronunciation.  It just sounds right to me.

Another stumbling block for me is the word plebian.  Perhaps due to my childhood lessons in sounding out unfamiliar words, it appeared to me that this word should be pronounced “PLEE Bee An”, not “PLIH Bee An”.  Fortunately, it is one word which I can usually speak correctly, even if in my own head I hear it differently.

But there are words which I intentionally mispronounce, such as the name of the planet Uranus.  In the English language, there is simply no good pronunciation for this the name of this poor, benighted planet. It either comes out sounding like “Your Anus” or “Urine Us”, both equally awful.  So I pronounce it “You RAN Us”.  It is quite wrong—and much more pleasing to the ear.  Correctness be damned.  And while I’m on the subject of words for outer space, I have found no fewer than five different pronunciations listed on-line for the name Betelgeuse.  So, once again, despite the popular movie pronunciation, Beetle Juice, I absolutely refuse to pronounce the word that way!  It’s atrocious.  Instead, I lean toward the pronunciation, “Beh Tell Jezh.”  Far more pleasing.

Other words can rattle me simply because of growing up using local pronunciations, such as the ignorant Hoosier tendency to call the popular breakfast food an “Aig” rather than an “Ehg.” It took me years to train myself out of that slip of the tongue. Coupon will always catch me out, though.  It will forever be to me a “KEW Pon”, not a “KOO Pon.”

But the mispronunciations of some words are so common that the correct pronunciation sounds strange to most ears; witness, the word which, as I sat in Mrs. Dryer’s third grade classroom, set me up for this lifetime of persnickety pronunciation habits: mischievous.  MISS Cheh Vus, not Miss CHEE Vi Us!  The word is so commonly mispronounced that I have been called out on a few occasions when using the correct pronunciation, and (in great irritation, I might add), debated the question with my would-be tutors.  Which begs the question: If a mispronunciation is that common, is it, in fact, simply a separate way of saying the word?  Language, after all, is fluid; it ebbs and flows and changes.  New words are added; others fall out of use.  The word gif did not exist throughout most of my lifetime, and, despite the intentions of its creator, I will always pronounce it with a hard “g”, as gif, not the peanut-buttery jif.

Which brings to mind a TV documentary that I once watched far back in the 1970s. The computer era not yet having arrived, countries such as Iceland experienced both isolation and individuality.  The show’s narrator was extolling the fact that Icelandic people still spoke the language, unchanged, of their distant forebears, the Viking people.  As the narrator spoke, the video ran, displaying an Icelandic TV news announcer, reading the latest stories to his listeners in their ancient tongue.

This sent me into gales laughter. Exactly what, I wondered, was the ancient Viking word for “television”?!

The simple truth is that none of us who have either been raised speaking or who have later acquired the English language speak the language as it once existed—the English of Chaucer’s day. Within a world of instant communication, language is changing even faster than it did in the hundreds of years that divide us from notable writers such as Shakespeare.  Some of those changes in both pronunciation and usage will be sensible.  The language we read and speak will continue to evolve.

But I absolutely, positively, totally refuse to bend even an inch on the pronunciation of mischievous!