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.

Another Talking Stick Ceremony

A Funeral Talking Stick fora Crossing Ceremony

(I wrote these words just over a year ago….)

For the second time in as many years, I am preparing a Talking Stick for a friend’s memorial service.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick service, sometimes called a Crossing Ceremony, is a way of allowing survivors to speak at a memorial service without having to endure the formality of rising to address a crowd, many of whom may be strangers. It speaks to our need to discuss memories of a loved one without invoking the fear of public speaking that so many of us endure.

The Talking Stick itself is a simple thing—genuinely, a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, of the right height and width to be easily held. Smoothed and sanded, perhaps, or even varnished, it is decorated with small items that represent the individual who has passed.  For instance, for a friend who loved the color purple, I tied purple scarf onto a branched stick, glossy and smooth.  I glued on crystals in colors she loved.   For the Talking Stick I am creating today, I chose the thick branch of an old rose, because the person who is gone was truly a rare rose in the garden of life.  I removed all but a few thorns. Those thorns left attached were meant to represent both the suffering and the fight she endured at the end of her difficult passage to the next life.  There are several small branches on her Talking Stick, because she took so many paths in a life that was vibrant and well-lived.  And I will be adding a silk butterfly to the top of her Talking Stick, to represent both the transformation in which I know she wholly believed, and the mutual friend, herself enamored of butterflies, who passed on earlier, and whom I know was there to meet her on the other side of the Veil.

And this is the beauty of being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick: It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans to be included.

I will carry the Talking Stick to my friend’s memorial service, and explain its creation, and then encourage those there, all unfamiliar with this process, to pass the stick from hand to hand, and to each speak one pleasant, special, or even humorous memory of their loved one. To begin their memory with “I remember ( her name)”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, the soul continues.  To speak only good of the person who has passed, for, if the relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems, not only out of respect not for the dead, but for the others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness…to know that, if they cannot say something pleasant or kind about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before passing it on to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and to know that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to speak, and to recap a life.  To help us say goodbye.

In Memory Of
Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole

 

 

My Mother’s Talking Stick

On the evening of my mother’s memorial service, I was the only person who rose to speak of her. The sadness of that is ineffable: that no one knew her well enough, or cared enough, to speak a farewell at her passing — or perhaps that no one trusted their painful memories of Betty Jean enough to speak kindly.  Truely, as my father said to me later, all those present at her memorial were there on his behalf.  As she aged, Betty had retreated farther and farther from nearly all social interaction, until she lived primarily lying on her bed, reading and smoking alone, seeing no one, calling no friends or former coworkers, not knowing her neighbors, leaving the house only for doctor appointments.

In the days leading up to Mom’s memorial service, I struggled with what I could say about the woman who gave me life. I adhere always to the principal that it is wrong, at a funeral or memorial, to speak ill of the dead, partially because they are not there to defend themselves, but primarily because there are people present who are wrapped in grief and mourning, and who do not need or deserve the load of another’s unpleasant remarks about the person whom they loved.

But my mother had been a seriously mentally ill woman, challenging to live with and difficult to love. I racked my mind, but most of all my heart, for words that would say farewell calmly, and without condemnation.  And finally, after much soul searching, I realized that I needed to concentrate upon the rare and precious moments when the other woman – the healthy, kind, brilliant and loving woman – peeked out from behind the tormented soul.  The woman, as I thought of her, whom God had actually intended, before whatever concatenation of mental illness and painful experiences set my mother on the path to her own destruction.  And from that perspective, I found words to speak my mother’s memorial.

Although speaking in public is to me absolutely terrifying, I stood before my father’s friends and our relatives on that November evening in 2010, and spoke these words of my Mother with all the kindness and understanding possible.

“As an adult, working with the Bradshaw material, I came to have some understanding of the complex woman who was my mother, and the myriad forces that drove her.

“Also as an adult, I learned that our thoughts do not choose us; we choose our thoughts.

“And so, thinking of my mother, I choose to remember her as she was on the nights when I, as a little child, sometimes could not sleep. She would lay me on the couch beside her and read me poetry.  Not children’s poetry; beautiful, majestic works from books, and things she liked from magazines.  Poems that were far above my head, at that time, and yet,  from how well she read them, I learned the cadence and rhythm and power of the written word.

“And that is how I choose to remember my mother, Betty Jean: She read me poetry.”

It was a brief and simple speech, quickly delivered. My father wept, but no one else cried — not even I, who weep at woeful movies or sad novels or a cross word.  We were all dry-eyed.  No one else rose to speak, either, and sometimes that fact still haunts me.  One should not go down into the darkness with so few people to genuinely mourn.

There is a ceremony used in some NeoPagan communities, called A Crossing, in which a Talking Stick is passed from person to person sitting circled in a room. Each person, taking the stick, describes a pleasant memory of the one who has gone.  And if they have nothing pleasant to remember, nothing kind to say, they merely sit silent as they hold the Talking Stick.

I’ve asked that this ceremony be held for me when I leave this life. I hope that I will not have outlived all those who have known me, and that there will be more than one person to say farewell at my passing.  I hope that there will be more who wish to speak than to merely stay silent as they hold my Talking Stick.  I hope that those who are present will put aside remembered differences, and speak of only pleasant memories, at least for that brief ceremony.

There was no one but me to speak my mother’s Talking Stick. But I hope that was enough.

In Memory of Betty Jean Snoddy Gregory
1930 -2010