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May 9, 2004
In the beginning, every parent thinks their child is the most perfect baby ever born. Alas, this evaluation is subject to change over the years, but even less reliable is the affection of the child, and most of us pass through (at least) a period of antipathy towards parental authority as such. Well, let me say that I have not suffered much, maybe too much largess if anything; but while I may have had my “awkward age”, and moments of embarrassment, I don’t believe that I have ever uttered that blasphemous shibboleth of childhood: “I hate my parents.”
The modern holidays honoring parents have no place in Tradition. Their institution may reflect a need accentuated by a lifestyle that takes us further away from our parents than was formerly the case in the days when most people lived and died in the same place where they were born, and many an aging parent lived with an adult child, exchanging in actuality what we now exchange in symbol. Certainly I do not take the cynical view that Mother’s and Father’s Day are essentially “commercial” holidays, marketing flowers, cards, and dinners out. They are worthy additions to the cannon, and if they recall but coarsely the old Commandment to “honor thy father and mother”, so our secular society must find its own way.
In celebrating parents on this page I have spoken more about my father than my mother. This is only partially due to my need to process the fact of his death in 2000, which took up several posts. One wants to believe in (and genetics teaches) a sexual equality of parenthood, but the fact of being borne within, and born from, the physical body of the mother lends her a certain preeminence, extending to our notions about the world at large. The Western tradition of patriarchy has succeeded not so much in dismissing the Goddess as in displacing Her, and Motherhood is now Her prime refuge, for which cause we find it all the more replete with metaphorical meaning, offering a greater range of reference than our Father, remote in heaven. So it was that I found mother birds to write about in 2000 and 2002, and Mother Earth in 2003. Only in 2001 did I express my regard for my own mother.
That seems like a long time ago, so let me take this opportunity to say that my mother is the best one in the world (though I won’t argue if you think the same of yours.) As a child, I thought she was the smartest person alive, but the years have only left me more impressed by the breadth of her learning; her endless curiosity and insight. Looking at old photographs, I see that she was always beautiful, but she has learned the art of living within one’s body, and bears her beauty more comfortably now, enriched with the wisdom of her years. And all this has been hard-won, in a life she had to make for herself, after she departed from marriage.
In my youth I often wished to hide the secrets of my inner life from her probing mind, but now I find that there is virtually nothing I cannot talk to her about, and it gratifies me to be able to share what many adult children still withhold. Having received from her the gift of Life, revealing such strands as I can of its reticulation is the best I can do by way of repayment.
We live at distance now, and I don’t see her as often as I’d wish, but she is ever in my thought, and remains a guiding voice. I measure the fitness of my every impulse by testing it against my image of her judgment, even though I know that she would forbear me much in the temperance of her love. And yet, I do not even speak to her as often as I should, but that is the way of the modern world, where families are far-flung, and too many are happier that way. But I will take up the duty (and the telephone) of this holiday, and call her on Mother’s Day, and talk around the bush of things trivial and things important; of my life, hers, and all the world’s; all as a prelude to the words that come just before the final click and silence on the line: “I love you, Mom.”
I truly do.
May 1, 2004
O’, the first of May.
I call it a holiday, but it has no special place on our official calendars. The leftist usurpation of the date notwithstanding, the celebration of May Day at this point in history would seem to be largely a matter of nostalgia. Several posts from the first year of the Arboretum discussed the old English tradition of the Greenwood: that ever-vernal zone of mythic happenstance, told in song and story, and epitomized in the frolic of the May Games. Outside of the occasional children’s maypole, and the sometimes-questionable realm of neo-paganism, the date is little noted by our modern culture.
Well, I note it. In large part, my intent in these pages has been to revivify the Greenwood Tradition. I have always embraced nostalgia, which is the desire to return Home, and I see it not as an anachronistic longing, but as a basic component of the human psyche; part of a dialectic with our impulse towards the exotic, that being the complementary need to explore that which is not our home, but rather the dwelling place of the Other.
For us today, the nostalgic vector of this dialectic is frictional with our alienation from nature, and the more we despoil our environment, and embed ourselves in technology, the more energy this friction develops, until it catches fire, and throws off a great light, illuminating our deep-rooted need for a direct experience of nature as the life-giving Source. So it is that we have built the Park in the midst of the City; a greenwood set among towers of steel and concrete; not an answer to alienation, but a sort of song in the form of tree and brook, field and meadow, that has the power to express, and somewhat to assuage, our longing. Or so it is for me, at least in my better moods, and this I have hoped to communicate here within the confines of the virtual greenwood I call the Arboretum.
My mood is rarely so hopeful as on the first of May. But that’s what holidays are for: to force a necessary mood, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Begun in hope, the Arboretum project has become to some degree a chronicle of woes. Its first Fall was blighted by my father’s death, as traumatic an experience as I ever hope to go through, and before my twelve-month-and-a-day of mourning was finished, the national tragedy of 9/11 struck, inflicting trauma across the board. I began that day only a few blocks away from the scene, at a job which at least provided me an island in the storm, but the storm has blown that away too. Now war and woe the world over seem the order of the day, and if I greet another May in hope, it may be that I hope for too much.
But through it all, the Greenwood endures. Or at least I hear its music echoing in the memory of country-dance tunes, mingled among the bird songs and the voice of flowing waters issuing from the wooded shades of Central Park. Now, even as of yore, May Day marks the high point of the Springtide. The reality of reborn green transcends time, as pleasing to our modern senses as to our medieval forebears’. This is what I alluded to in 2000, when I plotted the course of the season through a triangulation of Spring holidays, ordered in the ancient Celtic form of the triad. A triad creates a relationship of three, in which the first two items set up the third as the real point of the poem. Thus I said that Spring has three faces: St. Patrick’s for the past, Easter for the future, but May Day for the moment: the only time we can actually inhabit.
In 2001 I gave myself over wholly, and didn’t even write the real post until afterwards, when I detailed the course of a day’s rambles through the Park. And in 2003 I sought to use the immediate as prophylactic against the overbearing symbolism of two vultures that shadowed a war-wracked Spring. That turned out to be a failed effort; more to the point was 2002’s poem, which introduced a theme that ran to the end of the year, linking the seasons through flower and fruit, by way of a riddle acknowledging that though these may be in a sense the same thing, it is transformed through time, and we cannot have both at once.
What we can have is the gift of Spring. Traditionally this takes the form of the Branch of May: the flowering bough collected before dawn for exchange between lovers. If the Greenwood is to persist, its rituals must of necessity change somewhat. As antidote to our carefree destructive ways of old we no longer need to break boughs or catch birds on limed twigs. The camera and the binocular will suffice, allowing us to possess these things without maiming or imprisoning them. Just to glut upon sensation is enough for May in the twenty-first century.
The value of this natural sensuality is no small thing. All the more so now, when our own sexuality is too often vulgarized and pornographic, lacking the perspective of nature’s context. For our ancestors, nature was the domain of a wildness that held a threat equal to its enticement, honing the piercing point of sensual ecstasy. The Puritans outlawed the May Games, and the walls of the City protected them from nature’s rank encroachment, but now all is turned inside out; it is we who wield the threat, and the wild things fly before our sprawl. Yet with care the Greenwood can grow inside our walls, be they walls of concrete or of mind. But the music of our Maying must be as a feigned birdcall, designed to draw the winged enchantments back within our view. There is an old song in which the catching of the flitting bird is equated with the fleeting pleasure of love, but for us, capture is now beside the point, for such birds as these will ever elude our snares. May we rejoice in the freedom of their being.
April 11, 2004
One thing is certain: the theme of Easter is rebirth. Whether this is a proprietarily Christian matter is no sot clear, and my posts have argued that it is not. Still, all our affairs in this nation, and this nation’s affairs in the world, are marked by the West’s religious heritage. Today we need to ask not so much whether we can be reborn, but whither we may grow.
In 2000 I looked forward into a new millennium that seemed to hold endless promise: time and space for us to work on our own spiritual growth. Events since then have forced the issue, and I can’t say I’ve been happy with the results insofar as they relate to the condition of Christian America. Still, I will not despair, for despair is founded in certainty, and rebirth is always full of the unknown. Last year I lamented America’s imperial impulse, but that now seems to be the least of our problems. No doubt I was infected by our leaders’ self-delusions; their vision of swift victory in Iraq and a preemptive march into a glorious future of international capitalist democracy: a world reborn on our terms. Instead, another Easter finds us still fighting the same war, with little vision of an ultimate destination, and our resources stretched too thin to manage a single theater effectively, let alone an empire.
Maybe this morass was foreseeable. Indeed, I never really believed the “cakewalk” crowd’s prognostications, but I feared their single-minded belligerence and the sheer power at their command. But martial superiority is too blunt an instrument for our present purposes, and if the administration has other tools, it has yet to show them to any great advantage. They might have learned a lesson from those who once sought (with similar success) to suppress a nascent Christianity. But that would put the sandal on the other foot, a position I don’t suppose our god-fearing leaders could even imagine.
The President’s Christian faith is a matter of some interest here. While at least a nominal religiosity remains a prerequisite for any realistic presidential candidate in this country, the current officeholder is more forward in his devotion than has been the norm for one who must lead a diverse populace while respecting the separation of church and state. Making a public show of piety plays to a broad demographic swath, and few politicians are above cynical pandering, but in Bush’s case it’s his apparent sincerity that alarms some observers.
The President’s religion is portrayed as a more or less mainstream Methodism, but in his public rhetoric he certainly seems to engage what is thought of as the “Christian right”, which sometimes extends to the nether regions of the evangelical community, where strange notions about America’s special destiny in God’s “plan” are held with disquieting certitude. The fear is that this is the same certitude that led to the administration’s misjudgments about our ongoing adventure in Iraq. One hopes God’s plan is better than theirs. Whether the affair has taught our leaders any of the humility that befits the Christian remains open to doubt.
Doubt is eclipsed only at the moment of rebirth, when understanding overflows in the form of genuine belief. I’ve repeatedly argued that this inherently ecstatic state must be continually achieved and re-achieved; that it is to be constantly worked towards, but never clung to. The memory of this experience is what we call faith: another blunt instrument, but often the best we have to work with.
The evangelicals, and the President, I believe, represent what is referred to as “born-again” Christianity. For them it is not enough to be raised in a tradition, or baptized in infancy; they require that a person be subject to the ecstasy of the rebirth experience, and thereby transformed. I would like to think that I share common ground with this position, but I often get the idea that they do indeed cling to the visionary moment of certainty, at the expense of the doubt (and concomitant self-examination) necessary to navigate the “real world” in which we are bound to live our lives. The revelations of rebirth can inform this World, and imbue it with a vision worth working towards, but ecstasy for us is by nature brief. When we pretend that we can live our whole lives within its bounds our faith is apt to become not so much blind as self-delusional.
So it is that I fear our leaders have not merely lied to us (habitual in politicians) but to themselves, which is far worse, and more dangerous for us all. In 2000 I preceded my Easter meditation with a look into the darkness of the day before: the necessity of the Underworld journey as embodied in the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. For our President, rebirth seems to have rescued him from nothing worse than the dissipate pleasures of a privileged but aimless youth. Soul-stifling such activities may be, and it is my faith that one person’s suffering is as legitimate as the next one’s, regardless of degree, but as I pointed out in 2002, rebirth is ultimately attained only through some manner of death, which tends to put our lesser sufferings in perspective, as well as explaining why Jesus had to descend before he could ascend.
We are caught somewhere between the heights and the depths, trying to sort truth from lies in matters about which we have no certain knowledge. Sadly, we are subject to rulers with too much certainty, and the power to send others into the unknown of death. Christians are advised to imitate Christ, but these people issue orders in the manner of those the scriptures say condemned Him.
In the end, we are left less with the surety of scripture than with the contingency of poetry, such as I offered in 2001. And we have the Spring, which, long before the growth of Christianity, was recognized as the season of rebirth. Easter remains the Christian holiday par excellence, but it does not close The Book on life, death, or rebirth. Nor did it begin this eternal tale. In 2000 I wound up the season with an observation of Pentecost, or White Sunday, a day of glossolalia, confirming the Lord’s divine bequest to his Apostles. But even the “gift of tongues” serves only to put new words to an old tune.
April 1, 2004
April Fools’ Day2000
I barely consider April first a bona fide holiday, although I’ve marked it each year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for humor, and there ought to be a day devoted to laughter. Laughing is one of my favorite things to do; a genuine ecstasy: an involuntary spasmodic ripple of the body that we find mysteriously enjoyable, issuing forth in a guttural meta-language which is universally understood. It’s sort of like sex, but easier to come by.
So my post from 2000 was a joke, albeit a lame one. The thing I don’t care for is that the day is often given over to practical jokes, which are not my favorite form of humor. They come down to playing a trick on someone, and then having a laugh at their expense. I don’t want to fool people, and I can rarely remember a typical story-type joke. I prefer what I would call wit: humor extracted out of normal, everyday converse by means of unexpected twists and turns of thought and word. I guess this can amount to tricking up someone else’s mind or tongue, but the hope is that everyone is in on the joke, leading us all on a little mental flight which, at best, winds up with everybody getting one of those weird gut-spasms.
The picture essay from 2002 is more along those lines, though I don’t mean to suggest that I’m any great wit. Which, I suppose, means I’m witless. Well, we all are, from time to time. That was my subject in 2001, when I focused on how birdwatching can make a fool of the observer, and even lead one to fool oneself. That’s the most dangerous kind of fool; the one we really need to look out for.
Fittingly, no one is even sure where the April Fool tradition comes from. One story is that it relates to that Gregorian calendar reform I keep coming back to, and the original fools were the people who didn’t make the date change but kept on celebrating the New Year in the Spring. I don’t think it’s always foolish to be out of step with the masses, and being on the wrong schedule provides a useful excuse for missing unpleasant appointments and such. I’ve been a bit out of step my whole life, and I’ve spent much of it among people who are proud to be so: the bohemians of your so-called counter culture. We like to think our foolishness is a form of superiority, but that’s a real joke; most likely on us.
Actually, I was always a compromised bohemian (as if there’s any other kind.) Too timid to truly detach myself, I hung on to the “security” of a “real world” job. Now that’s gone, and I’ve only my own foolishness to blame. But life is like that: sometimes we laugh ourselves to tears, and sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. Either way, we’re just another body that can’t do more with its thoughts and feelings than to trigger some uncontrollable rolling gush of sound or fluid. If that makes us feel better, then I guess we live in a fools’ paradise.
Paradise; paradox: a pair of dice: each year rolls them all together. Last year’s poem was about what really happens at April’s advent: we get that first whiff of Spring. Just a little at first; a nice day, then a nasty one, but enough to remind us that life is worth living, or that it will be lived, whether we will or nil, and we’d be fools, or nihilists, to turn our backs on it. We will have an eternity to “get” the joke of nothingness, but April is our chance to let laughter reign, doused though we be by showers of rain or showers of tears.
March 20, 2004
Vernal Equinox2000 and here for first flowers
2001 and here for first flowers
2003 and here for first flowers
Traditional societies typically regard the solstices and equinoxes as holidays, and I go along with them, although our modern culture does not support specific official celebrations. That’s not to say that we lack for “seasonal” holidays, but these are overlaid with other meanings, and often displaced from the astronomical dates to better accord with the weather at our latitudes. Or at least the latitudes of the northeastern US, the nation’s power center at the time when most of our holidays were instituted. Since I live in those climes, in New York, this suits me fine. I don’t even envy our friends in the south who are already traipsing in sandals and sun. What use to them is the first day of Spring?
Well of course, no one scorns the Spring, and we find ways to celebrate, be it Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, or May Day. Just so, we honor Summer with Memorial Day and the Fourth of July; Autumn at Thanksgiving, and Winter with Christmas and the New Year. Actually, back in olde England, before the calendar reform, the New Year was identified with the Vernal Equinox, and was observed on March 25.
That was fitting in its way, for Spring is surely the most hopeful of seasons, if also the most ephemeral, suggesting rebirth more so than embalmed Winter does, whatever the shifting Sun may say. Summer simmers in lassitude, and Autumn is beautiful but sad, with death and departure all about. No, it is Spring when Life begins and prospects brighten.
Given all the opportunities there are to discuss the seasons, it hasn’t been my practice to necessarily write much on their initial dates proper. I’m more interested in actually getting out and experiencing them, in a sort of ritual, as I discussed on the Vernal Equinox of 2000. Sometimes this leads to a subsequent report, as in the picture essay from 2001. And sometimes work or weather has skewed my schedule, as in 2002, though that was preferable to last year, when the day was blighted by the advent of war, an inauspicious inauguration if ever there was one.
One thing has remained constant, even if the date has shifted. (No, I don’t mean the phrase “week of warming weather” which I seem to have used repeatedly in March posts. I suppose I should work on my alliteration, but if tracking the seasons isn’t about repetition, what then?) Each year I show what I consider to be the first flowers of Spring. No planted bulbs, or imported ornamentals blowing to an alien rhythm; it is our own native Red Maple that marks the onset of the season, in particular the gnarled and battered specimen that persists in the midst of the Wildflower Meadow. Who knows how long this tree can stand? It bears wounds, and has lost the better part of what was once one of its highest branches within the time I’ve watched it. All the more reason it holds my heart. The beauty of beginning and the beauty of the end are but bridged by the anxious joy of being, and for us Life is that which is not Forever.
The Eternal may be the source of Life, but the two are not quite the same. Rather we partake of an image, like an angel drawn by flailing limbs in the late-fallen snow of a failing season. So every repetition is an imperfect rehearsal of the next. But this year’s flowers are the best that we can do.
March 17, 2004
Saint Patrick’s Day2000
This is another popular, though not state sanctioned holiday. It’s certainly wandered a long way from its origin as a Catholic feast day, and even from Ireland. I’ve heard that it’s celebrated with more vigor here in America, and particularly in New York, with its famous parade. But the obvious connotation is with Irishness, which, as I explained in 2000, I expand to Celtic origin in general, allowing me, as at least a partial Scot, personal entrée to the Holiday.
Perhaps I’m stretching things, or just sentimental, but I’ve found Saint Patrick’s Day to be amenable to a surprisingly wide variety of musings: not just Celticism, but heritage and nostalgia as such, which I discussed in general terms in 2001, and in 2002 as a way of understanding why anyone would want to strand an unsuspecting Screech Owl in the Park. And of course there is its association with Spring, manifesting not just in a date proximate with the equinox but through the celebration of the color green in and of itself. In a better world each of the primary and secondary colors would have a holiday of their own, but, as I indicated last year, green is special, even if you’re not a plant. And I haven’t even gotten to the joys of drunkenness yet.
Ah yes, drinking. "That sweet poteen from Ireland green".
Do we drink to forget, or to remember? Just now I’m remembering a Saint Patrick’s Day almost a quarter century ago, one that showed me things I’d never seen before, and hope not to again. I was in school then, and a friend with a penchant for misguided adventures enticed me and two other pals into a dimwitted plan guaranteed to make us a small fortune. That would have amounted to maybe a couple of hundred dollars each, but hey, we were just college kids without much cash, willing to take a chance.
The scheme involved hawking Irish t-shirts at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. My buddy had fallen in with a fellow (the boyfriend of a woman he did odd jobs for) who claimed to have done this at other fairs and parades, with lucrative results. Never mind that it was unlicensed vending, he’d asked a cop on the street who told him that wouldn’t be an issue. He drove the four of us over in his van, stocked with boxes of insipid t-shirts of the “kiss me I’m Irish” sort, and we hit the street.
Of course it was an unmitigated disaster. As we dispersed along Fifth Avenue, holding our wares in boxes which took both arms to support, shouting “git yer Irish t-shirts” over the roar of the crowd, one of us, a guy named Scott, (there was also an O’Conner, and our ringleader’s name started with Mc, so all were nominal Gaels,) was instantly picked up by the police for unlicensed street vending.
The rest of us were swept up in a maelstrom. Let’s just say people did not come to the parade looking to buy t-shirts. They were packed too tight to reach for a wallet if they had wanted to, but many had already been drinking for hours before the march even started, and they had other things on their minds. They were reeling and rocking; shouting obscenities; starting fights: all the sorts of things associated not so much with the Irish as with boors everywhere.
I’d say Scott was lucky to have been whisked away by the cops, but as soon as our sponsor bailed him out he was sent back out on the street where he was overwhelmed by a group of rowdies who covered him like vultures on a carcass, absconding with all of his shirts.
I actually did better than the others, selling more shirts than were stolen from me, but all of us were battered and a bit traumatized, and witness to things we’d rather not have seen. The rearing police horses, effecting “crowd control” were frightening, and the gang of white punks chasing a lone black kid into Central Park while shouting racial epithets was disheartening. Directly across from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the crowd was thickest, I was literally lifted off my feet and carried along in the press, fearing for my life lest I should stumble and be trampled.
Needless to say, there were no profits. Our sponsor took a bath on the whole affair, and grudgingly gave us twenty bucks each for our pains: a poor wage even in those days. We were left with one of those memories you hope to laugh about at a later date. Well, I’m laughing now as best I can, and I suppose I learned something about a “great New York institution”, but maybe you can see why I eschew the popular profile of the Holiday for my own sort of romanticizing. They say the parade’s been cleaned up a bit since then, but you won’t catch me going back.
No, I’ll go to the Park instead, and maybe not until Spring comes in on Saturday, since this year Saint Patrick is clothed not in green, but in the white of a late winter snow storm. At least the inclement weather may prevent the sort of rowdy overflow that also marked the notorious Puerto Rican Day parade of 2000. That was an even more noxious day, but the comparison does serve to show that such antisocial behavior is mostly a matter of unleashed mob-passion, and not the province of any particular ethnic group.
Saint Patrick’s Day remains a hodgepodge of disparate impulses trying to congeal into an Irish stew. Spare me the corned beef; I’ll take the green of incoming Spring, and the music that plays on. Only two days ago I stood on the edge of the North Meadow and thought of a song from the Old Country called The Lark in the Morning. Indeed, it was a glorious morning, just before Winter’s (we hope) last blast, and I heard a tune, rare in the Park, and older than Ireland: the voice of the Easten Meadowlark. Enough for me to be drunk on, it rang out over the playfield which is a meadow in name only. Likewise, the bird is really in the blackbird family, lark being an Old World name brought over by our ancestors, along with their saints and holidays. Green they did not bring, but they found it here, the same in every land, where every Spring reminds us once again of the perfect Home of our desire.
March 5, 2004
A week of warming weather seems finally to have broken the back of Winter, but be warned: this is a season that makes no promises: incipient Spring is often stunted. This remains Lent. For that reason, I went to see Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion of the Christ. I make no pretense of film criticism, but my rambling meditation is here…
February 25, 2004
Did I say Ash Wednesday was in March this year? That’s what I get for looking at the internet cross-eyed. But then, this is a Holiday one might wish to put off. As my year 2000 laundry list of the unpleasantries of the Park indicates, it’s a sort of negative holiday, and of those I observe perhaps the one most subject to my own peculiar interpretation. I don’t pretend to celebrate it in any orthodox fashion, and I certainly don’t enforce it as a specifically Christian occasion. Nor have I seen fit to mark the feasting and indulgence that traditionally precede it (though I did make mention in 2001.)
It’s worth remembering that compared to most people, now and throughout history, we live in relative luxury. For us, every day is Fat Tuesday. Which makes a period of self-enforced abstention all the more fitting, if that much less likely to be observed. Even if we grow too fat, we are apt to turn to the latest fad diet to offer the unlikely promise of weight loss amid indulgence. In America, even the poor may be fat.
But rich or poor, whatever we are used to comes to seem as no more than our due, while anything less leaves us wanting. So it’s hard to take a step backwards. And yet, that seems to be my fate just now, as I am unemployed and without good prospects. And I’m getting fat. If I’m going to keep up with my own rhetoric, I suppose it behooves me to use this day as an opportunity to point myself in the right direction: not backwards, because my back is against the wall, but towards a future I cannot yet fathom.
This is not easy for me, as any optimism I may have displayed around here is only a prescription against my native pessimism and melancholia. At least I should know better than to trust my worst instincts. Despite my dark visions in 2002, the Park has not yet burned or been devoured by alien beetles. On the other hand, worse things have happened in the wider world, which I alluded to in last year’s post, one of a series of antiwar entries I felt compelled to produce.
It might be hoped that the troubles of the world at large would serve to put one’s own in perspective, but it’s just as easy to see them as a hall of mirrors, amplifying one another into infinity. It doesn’t make me feel any better that joblessness is widespread in America right now, or even that the situation may help to dethrone the odious regime in Washington. Not if the “solutions” run to self-serving protectionism, when the real sin is that there are so many on Earth who are not fat, but rather so impoverished that they are eager to do our work for a pittance. I’m happy to give them the jobs, but I must have a pittance-and-a-half to survive.
Well, I know better than to say such things (though that doesn’t stop me from saying them.) And I know that the best hopes are often unguessed at. I’ll survive, one way or another. And I’ll use such spiritual tools as I have in my kit to do so. The strictures of asceticism are a good place to start; not for nothing are they granted a place among the Holidays. Heck, with any luck I’ll find a miserable, low-paying job just in time to take me away from the best Spring birdwatching.
Happy Lent everybody!
February 16, 2004
I haven’t been willing to take this holiday very seriously. I’ve generally dispensed with it in one paragraph, except for last year, when I used it as an excuse to go off on a lengthy tangent about the politics behind Christo’s impending Gates project in the Park. That dubious display is still one year away, but Presidents’ Day is here again, and since I’m trying to take a broader view of the Holidays this time around, I thought I should make the effort to consider the occasion in more depth.
My observation of the Holidays is in part a defense against cynicism, my own not least of all. Most people I know are more or less cynical about holidays, and I’m probably more cynical about politics than anything, so a politician’s holiday is a bit hard to stomach in this day and age. But, as is often the case for the cynic, who presumes to see beneath the surface, it turns out I knew less than I thought about Presidents’ Day.
For one thing, I’m not even sure how to write the name. I seem to have spelled it differently each year. Presidents? President’s? Presidents’? But it’s not just me. It turns out this Holiday is remarkably confused, as much so as any rewritten ancient rite. It all started with the first public celebrations of George Washington’s birthday (presumably sincere), which began at the end of his term in office. Even then, however, there was confusion about the date. Britain, and her then colonies, were famously reluctant to accept the revised Gregorian calendar of 1582; not until 1752 did the English world make the adjustment, which required excising eleven days from the current year, eliminating the excess built up by an imprecision in the old Julian calendar’s calculation of leap years. The missing days were a cause of some consternation, and there was disagreement about how to account for them in matters of reckoning, such as birthdays. So it was that Washington’s Birthday was initially celebrated by some on February eleventh, the original calendar date, while others adjusted it to the twenty second, to account for actual time passed.
Washington was already a semi-mythic figure in his own time, and appears to have enjoyed more bipartisan support than any president in mine. I suppose I cannot begrudge him a holiday, for everyone needs a myth of origin, and even a cynic should admit that America has been a worthwhile effort, whatever its failings. Personally, I’d be satisfied with the Forth of July, but we are people, and will personify. George Washington, the man-who-would-not-be-king, is no mean symbol, and not so far from the truth as some of them.
So Washington became the iconic President, raised above the dirty business of actual politics. It took an entire lifetime before another president impacted so deeply on the national psyche, and only when the country that came together for Washington appeared to be coming apart. Lincoln is the dystopian president, martyred mentor of dissolution. The nation’s survival has hallowed his memory, but his fate recalls the ultimate cost of political “disagreement.” Lincoln’s birthday, too, became a holiday, but one imposed by victors, and long resented in the South.
They could ignore him if they chose. Federal government holidays are not binding on anyone except the federal government. The states are free to name their own official holidays as they see fit, though they largely follow the federal schedule. The real problem with Lincoln, a century on down the road, was merely bureaucratic, for his birthday also falls in February, on the twelfth; too close for comfort to Washington’s. This tended to have a diminishing effect. When I was a kid in Detroit in the sixties, both birthdays were holidays, but we only got half a day off from school for each, which seemed like a raw deal to me. A real holiday means a whole day off. And you wonder where my cynicism comes from.
Like Pope Gregory with his calendar, there are always reformers. By the end of the sixties legislation was enacted by Congress to overhaul the whole federal holiday system. Most significantly, many of the “minor” holidays were divorced from their traditional dates and made to fall on the nearest Monday, ensuring a long weekend for the working masses. I’m sure we appreciate the sop, as far as it goes. They could hardly change the date of the Fourth of July, or Christmas, but Washington’s Birthday (whatever its “real” date may have been) was among those holidays set afloat, and Lincoln’s Birthday disappeared from the schedule altogether.
That’s a literal reading of the law, as incorporated into the United States Code. The third Monday of February is designated to commemorate George Washington; no mention of Lincoln or any other President. But here’s where the plot thickens, thanks to, you guessed it, a president.
And what a president. Richard Nixon it was, who presided over the institution of the new holiday schedule, which was first celebrated in 1971. His responsibility was limited to issuing a routine Presidential Proclamation of each holiday, thus executing the legal authority of the language in the US Code. But Nixon never shied from exceeding his authority, and it seems that somewhere along the line there were second thoughts about the Washington/Lincoln business, so Nixon’s proclamation announced, not Washington’s Birthday, but a new Holiday, in honor of Washington, and Lincoln, and all the presidents. This was the first Presidents’ Day as we know it. It may be that Nixon thought his proclamation had the force of law, and that the new occasion had been officially instituted as such, but it was not so. That would have required an Executive Order, or a change in the actual law, but this was never done, and as far as the law of the land is concerned, there is no such holiday as Presidents’ Day.
The states, however, generally accepted the language of the proclamation. Most of them went over to the new Monday Holiday schedule, and most included a single Presidents’ Day in February, under that name (and usually spelled that way.) So while there’s no official federal Presidents’ Day, most of us celebrate one under the auspices of our individual states. Which is a funny way to honor centralized power. Actually, the term “Presidents’ Day” is widely used within the federal government, and appears in official documents, but it would be cynical of me to suggest that one hand of the government doesn’t know what the other is doing, or that it fails to follow its own law.
Then again, it was Nixon who brought us to this pass. And since we’re remembering presidents today, I will say that of those in my experience, the man-who-would-not-be (but was) a crook is the most memorable. And not a little responsible for whatever political cynicism I may own. Was he trying to horn in on an honor undeserved, enlisting such lesser lights as himself in the mythic van of our Founding Father? That seems to be the result, for now the lot of them are celebrated equally. But I was working for the federal government, years later, when Nixon died. Then we got an unscheduled day off to mark his passing. I guess that’s customary upon the death of any president, and not untoward. But it’s a good thing I’m not really a cynic, or I’d be tempted to say that was the real holiday…
February 14. 2004
The roots of Valentine’s Day are vague, with ties to Christianity and Traditional midwinter observations alike. At one extreme it’s basically the same holiday as Groundhog Day, helping us get through the season (as evoked in last year’s poem.) In its contemporary incarnation it’s been turned into a sales pitch for flowers and greeting cards and chocolates and such. The commercialism may be decried, but this debasement is only the usual tax levied by capitalism, and accrues to everything we celebrate. Even so, I can’t think of anything more worthy of celebration than Love.
Love, of course, can mean many different things, but whether we consider the mating of birds or people, it’s clear that romantic love is the object of the Holiday. This Valentine’s Day comes at a low point in my personal romantic arc (at least I hope it doesn’t get much lower,) as I am single, and aging, and now feeling the emasculating effect of unemployment, which makes one reluctant even to put oneself forward in the face of the inevitable “and what do you do?” Do? I walk around the Park, and wait for Spring, and I profess about it, but that doesn’t amount to a profession, nor does it serve the cause of seduction much.
I touched on these matters (minus the unemployment) in my first Valentine’s post in 2000, ultimately focusing on the symbol of the Rose, something that can be found in the Park. Not to say that love itself cannot be found there, but it seems to require an expansion of the concept, such as I argued for in 2001.
But that’s all just another way of saying that Love is more than romance, which proceeds from saying that romance is more than sex, which is what it really comes down to. Sex is Nature, while Love is Culture, but a connective tissue of metaphor (which is to say, meaning) grows between, and knits our bodies to our souls.
So for me, Valentine’s Day has been a matter of expanding the boundaries of the Holiday, and I think that’s fair enough, if we accept that a holiday is something visited on the whole of the populace, not just those for whom it is “applicable.” This is surely true of the official holidays; in the case of those that are not government sanctioned I suppose we may pick and choose, but certain of them: Valentine’s, Halloween, Mother’s Day, etcetera, are so deeply worked into our culture that they are hard to ignore, and I have included them in my personal canon insofar as they seem good to me. And as I said, the idea of a Holiday of Love is estimable; far better than many things we celebrate. If chastening the chaste is the danger, then loving outside the box, so to speak, is certainly preferable to the depression some singles are said to suffer on this occasion.
February is depressing enough in and of itself. The shortest month is the hardest to bear, even without the extra day this year brings. Maybe that’s why I like to fill it with holidays, official or otherwise. With Groundhog, Valentine’s, and Presidents, there are three guaranteed holidays in February, which equals any other month, as long as we don’t count the Twelve Days of Christmas individually. In many years there’s even a fourth February holiday, when Ash Wednesday wanders in.
Ash Wednesday is one of my more idiosyncratic choices for inclusion in the canon. There will be more to say of it when the day comes, but I mention it now because I see that in 2002 my Valentine’s post was predicated on the fact that Ash Wednesday fell the day before, leading me to present love as the last means of survival in an abnegated and excoriated world.
Ash Wednesday moves around dependent of the date of Easter, which is based on a lunar calculation, and can range over a month’s time. Presidents’ Day also moves, not so widely, but it has a week’s latitude, falling on February’s third Monday, which can be as early as the fifteenth. With Valentine’s Day fixed on the fourteenth, this can lead to a logjam of holidays. In ’02 they all fell within six days. That tends to tear the observer in different directions, but I guess I shouldn’t complain; it would be possible to have them actually overlap. Were Ash Wednesday to come on the fourteenth or fifteenth, we could have three holidays in two days. I’m not going to worry about it just now, but it’ll be a heavy February when that calendar comes ‘round.
This year Ash Wednesday waits for March, but Presidents’ Day is day after tomorrow, leaving me less of a window than I’d like. It’s a real change of gears to go from Love to Politicians. The calendar says the two cannot coincide, but I suppose the spirit of this Day obliges me to apply the one even to the other. The Holidays are challenges as much as celebrations.
Just like Love.
February 2, 2004
I’m not going to pretend that Groundhog Day is any sort of major holiday; I’ve generally treated it lightly, pretty much as a joke in 2000, with the old song about eating the critter. There was a photo essay in ’03, and some of my typically groan-inducing poetry in ’02. The 2001 post however was a different story, and I consider it one of the touchstones of the Arboretum: the tale of how an actual encounter with a groundhog initiated a change in my perception of Central Park. For that alone, Groundhog Day deserves a place in my personal canon of Holidays.
Not that Marmotta monax needs my endorsement. The Holiday remains popular, even though it can’t be used to sell much more than one morning’s weather report and a few Winter tourist packages. It helps us crack a smile in February, that least-loved of months, but there’s more to it than that. Groundhog Day’s wink-and-a-nod to our Shamanistic past is an admission that, all our modern sophistication and technological prowess notwithstanding, our relationship to the weather, to wild animals, and to the natural world as such, remains mysterious and unpredictable.
Which is to say, even though we know a lot, and track repeating patterns, the exact circumstance of the coming-into-being of a particular February proves to be a wonder each year, even as it remains something to be endured. A joke on us, as much as on the Marmot.
As far as the Park goes, I haven’t seen a Groundhog since the Spring of 2001, when I had another couple of sightings on the Mount.
Not a one since.
Nevertheless, hope remains. In fact, we have it on expert authority that M. monax is still present. At least the species was listed in an inventory produced last year by something called BioBlitz. Despite the name, a BioBlitz has nothing to do with germ warfare, but seems to combine hard science with public relations. In an effort to “increase public awareness and appreciation of biodiversity and its ability to thrive within an urban environment,” teams of scientists, aided by a corps of volunteers (and official logos) descended on the Park over a weekend in late June in an attempt to catalog every living thing within its boundaries.
According to their list, they found the Groundhog (i.e. Woodchuck,) which is more than I can say for myself. But I was in the Park on one of those days, and I saw a bird that the ‘Blitzers missed, a Worm-eating Warbler, quite unexpected for the date. Birds may come and go without accounting, but even more surprising on that day was a misplaced mammal, not indeed a Groundhog, but a smaller, striped, rodent: a Chipmunk.
Everyone knows there are no Chipmunks in Central Park. Parks in the outer boroughs have them, but the heavily used territory in mid-Manhattan seems to be too much for the little ground-dwellers. The BioBlitz didn’t report any, so that should settle the issue. But I saw one, on the Mount, right in the same place where I last saw the Groundhog, as a matter of fact..
What to think?
It turns out that there was an attempt to introduce Chipmunks into the Park, part of the same project that included the Screech Owls I’ve mentioned. But that was eight years ago, and it didn’t work out. Chipmunks are fine prey for unleashed dogs and roaming cats, not to mention hawks. Central Park just doesn’t offer them enough undisturbed habitat to prosper. They’re more conspicuous than the field mice I do occasionally see, so I can’t believe that a breeding population has managed to sustain itself undetected for years.
All I can suppose is that someone released the Chipmunk into the Park. Probably the usual thing with some kid having to give up on a wild pet. Or could it have been an insidious attempt to fool the BioBlitz, maybe even some sort of fifth column effort from within the organization?
As with so many conspiracies, we’ll probably never know. Which brings it all back to Mystery. All I know is that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of a Chipmunk in the Park since that day. It seems almost hallucinatory now, but I’m pretty sure it was real. I mean, I’ve got photos.
The Chipmunk didn’t tell me anything about the weather, and when it comes down to it, neither did the Groundhog. But they do serve as a caution against magic and science alike; a reminder to look for oneself, and not to place blind faith in experts, whether they are forecasting the future, or testing the opacity of more immediate shadows.
January 19, 2004
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day2000
Two years the Holiday Season spans, animating the annual divide, and linking our past to our future. Then it leaves us, withdrawing its tinkling and its tinsel. We stand exposed, somewhere between hangover and hope, eye wincing, looking out over a Winter the better part of which still lies ahead of us…
Into this bleary landscape comes the first of our Holidays. First, and perhaps fittingly, the youngest. For though the round is ancient, yet it changes to suit our needs. Maybe that’s why I’ve found this recently created holiday more fecund than some others: it was created out of immediate necessity. Not to say guilt.
Guilt will breed its own necessities, and admission is preferable to denial. It is to be hoped that this Holiday was instituted in good faith. Only those who doubt the efficacy of the symbolic will regard it as a mere sop, offered in lieu of a true change of heart.
For a Holiday without any connection to Nature’s cycle, MLK Day has proved surprisingly receptive to my Park-focused natural history viewpoint, and I haven’t lacked for material. The year-in-review pictorial from 2001 is the only concise, single viewpoint image of the seasons I’ve produced for this page, while folk vs. scientific taxonomy (2000) and mixed flocking (2002) still strike me as fitting subjects. All of which gives me cause to recall that our race relations have often been plagued by unfortunately drawn “natural” metaphors, or, under the guise of “science,” descended into a netherworld of vulgar Darwinism. In defense of my use of such techniques I can only offer the sincerity of my own vision, insofar as I am able to express it. But witnessing the Truth is not the same as speaking it. At least I can fall back on inconsistency, and if in ‘02 I used mixed-species flocking to argue for the benefits of diversity in a community, I felt obliged to point out a segregated group of Coots the next year, though I wasn’t willing to draw conclusions from it.
Was that only a year ago?
But 2003 brought different concerns, and the Holiday showed its versatility, leading me to contemplate matters beyond race. With war brewing, it was Dr. King’s pacifism I turned my attention to, finding there an irony, in that while it was nonviolence (along with his clerical collar) which made King a widely acceptable symbol for a racial Holiday, the same quality now challenged the powers-that-be in another context.
This year I actually checked the language in the US Code, and in all fairness, it does say: “such holiday should serve as a time for Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.”
That says it pretty well. Still, I think it would be historically dishonest to pretend that the Holiday wasn’t mostly “about” race, at least at its inception. And race as a matter primarily of black and white, framed by the postwar civil rights movement that was King’s milieu.
Racial issues seem ever more broadly construed these days, and it turns out there are more kinds of inequality than we ever knew. The image of Dr. King will remain that of a black male, but as a symbol he must be flexible enough to allow for his Holiday’s future development. To the extent that it becomes less of a “black” holiday, and more of a “diversity” holiday, one must assume its namesake would be pleased. Following this course, MLK Day may be revealed as the positive end of a polarity with Columbus Day, another holiday with equality issues.
Ostensibly commemorating what we used to call the “discovery” of America, Columbus Day also has its ethnic and religious partisans, but they are in danger of being betrayed by a closer reading of their own text, leading to a focus on the negative side of colonialism. The Europeans’ disregard for the humanity of the Other seems indefensible to us now, but it didn’t give people much pause a hundred years ago, when Columbus Day was first widely celebrated. They couldn’t see anything wrong.
Martin Luther King Day represents not so much our guilt or shame (for you cannot really make a holiday out of those) but rather our learning to see; to recognize that indeed there was something wrong with the attitude that Columbus (no less than the slave traders) brought to these shores. And the Holiday represents our desire to address the matter. It reaches outward, offering a chance for growth, expanding the possibility of America, even as Columbus Day threatens to collapse in upon itself. I’m not saying we should get rid of Columbus, but if Martin Luther King Day were to truly fulfill its promise and potential, that might also be our best hope for retaining a balanced understanding of our past misdeeds, which we might otherwise dismiss, as our ancestors did, blaming an “other” they failed to recognize within themselves. Only then will we learn how to honor our history without whitewashing it, and Columbus Day may yet have a future.
Certainly Martin Luther King Day has a future, perhaps a glorious destiny.
We can hope.
It is a “political” rather than a “natural” holiday, but ultimately grounded in the true Mystery of Identity. As such, it will always provide fertile ground for contemplation, as long as its symbolic focus remains vital. And in that regard, it seems to me that Dr. King was well chosen, and his Day a worthy addition to our roster of Holidays.