Friday, December 22, 2017


comfort and joy

Today is one of those winter days during which a gray sky is warmed by the golden smudge of the sun radiating from behind the low cloud cover.  The solstice has just come and gone and here we are, turning to that light once again.  We walked down the street last night to the big old church and heard a concert of carols in the round, sung to us and our neighbors by candlelight.  Haunting and memorable.  New snow from this week and the promise (threat...?) of more on the way, and soon, has me gazing at the transformed landscape, and trying to paint it.  From safely inside the warm house.  I've also been reading because Santa stopped by early with a new Ronald Blythe book, Under a Broad Sky (Canterbury Press 2013).  I opened it right away, to this (p.1):

"It is a relief to find that one does not gain a mature vision of everything - that the first sight of snow, for example, will be as serviceable, wonder-wise, as that of all the snowfalls in one's life.  A six-inch snowfall establishes a presidency that takes our breath away, partly by its nerve, partly by its loveliness, bringing our ant movements to a halt, transforming everything from twig to a cathedral."

His observations of country life and literature are timeless and I recently ordered all of his remaining books of essays (those not already on my shelf, I should say), originally published as his back-page column for the Church Times.  I say his remaining books of essays because this year he ceased to write them.  He is 94.  He says, in a recent brief interview, “I live very much in the present. I wake up in the morning feeling ever so well, and feeling today is the big day.”  Lovely.  May we all be able to say the same.

Most days, I resolve to do just that.  When I can't work outside - too cold, too cold! paint freezes and so do I! - I gaze out the windows of my studio into the woods and find delight in the marks that nature makes.  In turn I try to describe them on canvas and in the pages of my diary, with marks of my own.  With varying levels of success and failure, as usual.  This week, on the easel, on a small canvas:

A little painting of almost nothing - just some marks like snowflakes.  A quiet reverie during this season of peace.  I am off to wrap presents for my nieces and nephews and extended family, but before I go, happy holidays, and tidings of comfort and joy, and a few more words about snow, for good measure.  From New and Selected Poems Volume One by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press 1992; pp.150-151):

     First Snow
     The snow
     began here
     this morning and all day
     continued, its white
     rhetoric everywhere
     calling us back to why, how,
     whence such beauty and what
     the meaning; such
     an oracular fever! flowing
     past windows, an energy it seemed
     would never ebb, never settle
     less than lovely! and only now,
     deep into night,
     it has finally ended.
     The silence
     is immense,
     and the heavens still hold
     a million candles; nowhere
     the familiar things:
     stars, the moon,
     the darkness we expect
     and nightly turn from.  Trees
     glitter like castles
     of ribbons, the broad fields
     smolder with light, a passing
     creekbed lies
     heaped with shining hills;
     and though the questions
     that have assailed us all day
     remain - not a single
     answer has been found -
     walking out now
     into the silence and the light
     under the trees,
     and through the fields,
     feels like one.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


make room

This month finds me preparing for many things.  Real winter, the solstice, another birthday (the big 5-0, which my biological father once said was the only birthday that really counts - What does that even mean??), Christmas, and then the turn of the year.  It's a dark time and the news leaves me feeling, daily, as if I've been slimed.  Repulsive development after repulsive development.  Whatever small victories that do come feel over shadowed by the general climate of doom.  Happy holidays to you too, right?  This liberal snowflake is determined not to melt away to nothing, however.  As usual I've been seeking the uplift, wherever I can find it.  My attention span remains at a low ebb, though, so my reading has been sporadic and gadflyish, since I can't seem to settle down often enough to read for hours and hours, the way I always have throughout my life.  One answer to this dilemma is the anthology.  I have a soft spot for anthologies and many, on many themes, can be found throughout my books.  I love how a compiler chooses and arranges snippets of literature and poetry around a theme.  I love contemporary and ancient choices, and I love the ways in which the selections in an anthology reflect and amplify the light of human understanding across time.  And when I don't have the wherewithal to settle in with a long book, for hours and days, an anthology helps me access what I love.  It reminds me of what I love, immediately, often when I need it most.

Two anthologies sit on my table this week, close to hand.  One old - A Winter Miscellany edited and compiled by Humbert Wolfe (Viking 1930) and one new - How Lovely the Ruins:  Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times compiled by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda, with an introduction by Elizabeth Alexander (Spiegel & Grau 2017): 

The former is perfect for this time of year.  The jacket flap tells us it is "...a garland for the bleak season."  It also tells us that "This volume will be accused of being an anthology - but the imputation is hotly denied by the compilers.  It is, in fact, what three comparatively active minds have found to like and dislike in winter."  This statement notwithstanding, as far as I can make out, the book is certainly an anthology.  It contains commentary and original poetry (fair to middling, it must be said) by Humbert Wolfe, alongside selections from other authors, arranged into sections such as Countryman's Winter, Traveller's Winter, Reveller's and Fireside Winter, The Poet's Winter, God and Mary's Winter, etc.  Who is here?  Robert Louis Stevenson, Horace Walpole, Robert Burns, John Clare, Gilbert White, Emily Brontë, and many others, that's who, alongside known and anonymous writers of ancient and medieval times.  There is poetry, prose, and song.  Overall a charming book with some of its pages still uncut, even after all these years (I have a sharp letter-opener at the ready, in lieu of a paper knife).  And the theme - the winter months, snow, storms, night winds, revelry, sacredness - perfect to linger with, while also savoring The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater, which I am still in the thick of.

The latter is perfect for this political, historical moment.  I wouldn't ordinarily buy a book like this, new, at full price, but I was visiting a local bookshop with a friend last week and the cover really got me.  I held the book and hesitated, thinking, I don't need this.  (Haven't we all been there?  Standing in a bookshop, book in hand, questioning ourselves...?)  Then I opened it at random in a few places and what I read left me no doubt that This is exactly what I need.  The editors are upfront about the fact that they gleaned much of what appears in this book from poems and quotes that have been making the rounds on social media.  The jacket flap also says the book's selections celebrate "...our capacity for compassion, our patriotism, our right to protest, and our ability to persevere..."  Sections include Against Tyranny, The New Patriots, Gathering Strength, etc.  Included within are Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, Ralph Ellison, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jamaal May (the wonderful title of the book is from his poem There Are Birds Here), and many others.  At just under 200 pages, though, I found myself wishing for a lot more.  However, I don't mean to complain, since what there is, is pretty great.  Take this bit, a few lines from the poem Daily Bread by Ocean Vuong (p.111; read the whole poem here):

 the year is gone.  I know
 nothing of my country.  I write things
 down.  I build a life & tear it apart
 & the sun keeps shining."           

Whew.  Gets me right where I live.  And there is a lot more shivery wonderfulness in this book, from Marcus Aurelius to Howard Zinn.  Both of these anthologies highlight for me the necessity of reading things we might not ordinarily read - because, as well as many old favorites, and some chestnuts even, the selections the authors choose help us readers encounter authors unfamiliar to us, and send us off in new directions with hope and intent.  They make room in our minds for new thought and consideration.  They open windows and doors and expand our world view.  I am keeping both books on the trunk that serves as our coffee table, in the living room, to pick up and read a few pages from, all winter long.

Speaking of the living room.  Another thing I seem to be up to lately is making room for new things, and new old things, in actuality, not just in mind.  A good harbinger for my next decade, I hope.  For one, we have recently adopted my mother's grand piano.  I had to empty out half of the living room for it, and rearrange the furniture, and now the piano and the Christmas tree we welcomed into our home last weekend are dancing cheek to cheek:   

I took piano lessons for a while, when I was young.  They never really stuck, sad to say, perhaps because I didn't love the music I was attempting to make, back then.  But something I read recently helped me in that regard, and when the issue of this piano came up (taking up a lot of space where it lived before, other family members didn't have room for it) I thought that perhaps I might try learning a few songs I've always loved.  I didn't expect to be making music with my own hands at this point in my life, but I guess I've been a late bloomer in most things, and so while this is a surprising development it is a welcome one.  Playing the notes of a few old songs feels like remembering a language I thought I had forgotten for good.  Opening up yet another anthology, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press 1939), and playing - tentatively, yes, but still playing - The Holly and the Ivy, next to the tree, as snow falls and the evening light wanes - well, it is a quiet delight.  It is helping me make room for beauty, make room for joy, in large and small ways, every day.  In the coming months and years, if I am so lucky, I will work to carry that forward, no matter what.

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