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September 6, 2004
I’ve always found something to say on Labor Day: musing on its metaphysics in 2002, and on the irony of honoring labor by not working in 2001. More personally, I worked on facing up to my father’s impending death in 2000, while last year the irony really hit home as I hovered in unemployment. But this year Labor Day is all too literal.
Yes, I’m working again.
Back with the federal government, for the sake of my pension, and because they’ll have me, even when the private sector won’t.
I can’t say I’m all that happy about it.
It was nice taking a year off, but dangerous, making it that much harder to go back to the workaday routine. I mean, working really takes a bite out of your day. Not that I got a lot done while I was off. Being unemployed I thought I’d have more time, but of course one always has the same amount of time; it’s just a matter of what you do with it. And I didn’t do much. Well, I was tired after working for my whole adult life; I deserved a rest.
Isn’t that what Summer is all about, the languid lacuna between the gateposts of Memorial and Labor Day? But we work too hard, or work at the wrong things. Now even our leisure is being filled with “extreme” forms of play which are as taxing as work, or else we are so consumed with our jobs that we bring them on vacation with us via our phones and laptops for fear that any downtime will leave us vulnerable.
Oh, for an extremity of inactivity: the bliss of nothingness.
The Gnostic vision of creation differs from our mainstream notion of a proactive God inaugurating the workweek in a flurry of invention. Rather it would seem some instability in the fabric of emptiness occurred, some disaster of discorporate eternity, bursting forth into the labor-intensive dimension of temporal resistance. Creation is only God’s reaction; more in the nature of the filmic action-hero’s implausible last-ditch stratagem; the impossible rescue that animates our secret hope. For this cause the World of Work was born: to body forth as a means to extricate us from our obligation to the same. The achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven will be the end of all effort, and the end of all. Then let the credits roll.
But we are in the midst of the movie, and only prophets (or critics) want to spoil it by telling the end in advance. Closer at hand we see work going on all about us at an alarming pace. One cannot watch the natural world without being impressed by the incessant effort it betrays. Tiny shoots of Spring strain skyward until they tower over the Meadow by Midsummer, while a plethora of insects emerge among the stalks, feed, breed, transform, and reemerge with such profligate alacrity that we might feel not only that we inhabit a Summer action move, but an episode shot in time-lapse.
Even if we observe a turtle basking in the sun we are told that it does not indulge in the sin of sloth, but only suffers the cost of cold-bloodedness, forced to wait until its metabolism warms to an active level so that it can pursue its duties. In the meantime, it is exposed and vulnerable, like an executive at the beach without a cell phone.
So the World is a hard-working place, and we humans alone among its denizens seem subject to the temptation of not pulling our own load. At least that’s what’s taught at the confluence of business and religion that currently dominates our culture. But I see us as not so different from the rest of our co-inhabitants in this World, in the sense that we are no more inclined than a turtle to do what we do not need to do. The point being that we very much do need to lay our business aside at times; it is our very capacity to free ourselves from necessity that has made us more than the other animals, and thus the agents of possibility in the drama of Creation. From our indolence are born the dreams and visions that inspire our work, and provide the new ideas that our efforts develop into an ever changing and evolving reality, one that heads towards its own transcendence.
Or such were my thoughts when I had the time, a whole year, to think such things. Now it’s turtle-time again, pulling the head back into the dark recesses where work devours time and Holidays are less the domain of imagination than a mere pause to catch our breath, grudgingly granted by the guardians of productivity, in a worksite-world where too much of the work we do were better left undone, and much that needs doing is disdained as something less than work-worthy.
Well, I tried (not too hard) to find something worth doing, ending up at the Food and Nutrition Service, which is engaged in feeding people, one of those things that really does need to be done, though of course it’s done in the usual roundabout governmental fashion that frustrates as much as it rewards. And I’m working harder for less money, but I have to feed myself too, and I wasn’t going to work for the military/security complex that seems to be the main source of federal jobs at the moment.
In the end it’s just a job.
My real work is elsewhere, and more rewarding, if less remunerative. A few things did get done in the Arboretum over the past year. Seasons were transformed, and cycles turned; birds came and went, while flowers came to fruit, and who’s to say I didn’t have some part in all of that? I saw twelve new species of birds in Central Park, and the only effort it took was to be there. But we live in a culture that grew up thinking that seeing is a kind of work; that vision goes out from the eye to seize upon the thing that’s seen. After a year off I know better: simply open your eyes and the World pours in. The only effort is in recognition. The real work is in recognizing what’s worth working toward; the rest is the labor of love.
July 4, 2004
Patriotism and nationalism are more or less synonymous, though patriotism somehow sounds a little less aggressive to me. My problem with the present holiday is that I don’t really feel much of either; I’ve just never had that deep-seated need to wave the flag. And it shows in my Fourth of July posts, which, when they haven’t been more concerned with celebrating Summer, have often critiqued notions of patriotism. That was only natural last year, when the nation was too busy warring to keep me employed, but even in the peaceful days of 2000 I was expressing my preference for the original Dionysian lyrics to the battle-born song that became our national anthem. Interdependence, rather than independence, has been another recurring theme, comparing the ties of nation to those of family in 2001, while in 2002 I stood at the continental divide and wondered how a land so wide could truly be united.
But I don’t actively dislike my country, disjointed though it may be. Its problems are the typical problems of human beings, magnified by historical happenstance that has brought us to a peak of worldly power beyond the expectation of our original patriots. If we have squandered opportunities for virtue, others might have done no better in our position, and some would surely have done worse. But there you have it: it’s my country, right and wrong.
Country has two meanings: one natural and one artificial. It is at their juncture that my reticence comes into focus. We refer to the Land itself as “country”, and use the same word to indicate an infrastructure of human agreements, a political construct that binds the people who populate a particular region. Traditional spirituality insists that those subsisting upon the Land, flora and fauna alike, are a sort of emanation of it, and this includes human inhabitants. That notion harkens back to the dawn of human consciousness, and America, paragon of the modern world, might seem to give it the lie: a country recently created, composed of immigrants and migrants of varied stripes, spread over such a range as to comprise many kinds of country in a single one of the national sort.
Of old, countries were mostly drawn along ethnic lines, which were typically enforced by local geographies. America was never so earth-bound; it was born of Enlightenment ideals. That idealism had its flaws, disregarding the native population and countenancing slavery, as well as making the predictable compromises of practicality and self-interest, but the liberal democracy it spawned has demonstrated an elasticity that has allowed for increasing diversity and a measure of self-improvement over the last two centuries.
Even so, allegiance to ideals is of a different order than adherence to place, and the two will learn different lessons. For my part, I’ve always felt more connected to the earth beneath my feet than to the institutions of the social space around me. In this regard I no doubt take the advantages of being an American somewhat for granted, but the “fruits of liberty” must grow from humble soil, and exploitation without regard will exhaust the very land that gives us life. And that’s as true in the country of ideas as in the countryside. Hence the Arboretum is a sort of country within the country, observing natural laws more than national.
As far as my idea of America goes, the last few years have been bleak, and don’t reflect my hopes for the nation. This has not been entirely our fault, but it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve done much to help our case, or uphold our supposed ideals in the world at large. Best intentions aside, it may be that we have yet to fully grow into the land that we have occupied here, wide as it is. Learning to live properly in our own home still has much to teach us. Surely that should be enough to occupy us, without pursuing occupations in other lands. Still, I wouldn’t make the nation’s birthday the occasion for partisan political positioning. Any patriotism that alienates half of the population is not worthy of the name. Not that I claim to be much of a patriot, but I will say that I am lover of the Land that is America, and a believer in the possibilities we may yet cultivate here.
This country is still being born.
June 20, 2004
The apex of the Year is here. Where the Sun stops, to take the word solstice literally. Stops and turns back, sinking southward, the days growing shorter once more, the window of illumination contracting. Of course it’s the movement of the Earth that causes this impression, but that’s astronomy; here on the surface we are subject to perceptual illusions. But it takes months for the gathering Spring to warm the hibernating Earth, and having grown hot it will take even longer to cool off. The pace of the change hastens most around the equinoxes, and it won’t be until we approach the Fall that we really sense the failing of the light and feel the coolness of gathering shadow. For the moment we have the long days to look forward to; the season of the stopped Sun, hovering above us in all its terrible beneficence.
It’s already been hot.
Not that I’m complaining; it beats last year’s ceaseless precipitation, but get over one thing and there’s another waiting. The summery pattern of heat, humidity and thunder started to emerge before the end of May this year, reminding us once more of the specter of global warming. But Summer remains the populist season; few will wish the Sun to stay stopped at the bottom of the cycle, when the Winter Solstice wraps a long night around us.
As I noted in 2002, Summer is the time for taking time off, but now I’m overworked through not working. Trying to put more effort into looking for work that I need more than I want, not to mention scrambling to meet a double-holiday deadline has me sweating almost as much as the heat.
Looking back, I see that we’ve finished another cycle in the time I’ve been writing this page. Four years have passed, bringing once more the heavily freighted year with the extra day, as well as the presidential election and the Olympics. Just as in 2000, Leap Year forces the Solstice from the twenty-first to the twentieth, but that year Fathers’ Day was earlier, leaving me time to smell the flowers, sweet and stinky as they were. This year the twentieth is also the third Sunday, resulting in this logjam.
It doesn’t really matter.
In Summer nothing seems to matter much. Games are only games, and we’ll wait for Autumn to really get worked up about politics again. It would be nice if the candidates would take the season off as well.
No, I’ve never bothered to write exhaustively on the Solstice, having other causes for exhaustion. I touched on boundaries, seasonal and otherwise, in 2001 (a post that now requires an update), and last year’s little poem at least acknowledged the gathering storm, but mostly Summer is invitation and acquiescence, rolled together into inaction. Or no more action than rolling over, front to back, so as not to burn.
Well, we may all burn one day, and soon, if the weather keeps going like this, or if we don’t change our wicked ways. But right now I’m beached, even here in the city: Summer-struck, and too lazy to care.
Somebody pour me a drink.
June 20, 2004
This page has always been dedicated to what is generally understood as a feminine power. Mother Nature; Mother Earth; the Goddess… however conceived, it is the vessel of conception that has fostered my conception of an Arboretum flowering in the middle of the City. But just as in nature, the counterpoint of paternal power has played a crucial role in animating the whole. No Mothers without Fathers, and certainly no sons.
When I first addressed Fathers’ Day in 2000 I gave thought to how my own father had helped to shape my sensibilities. I already knew then that his health was failing; he’d been on dialysis for three years, a situation that cannot be indefinitely prolonged, but even an end long foreseen somehow comes as a surprise, and I was not really prepared for his quick decline and death in the Fall of that year.
In part that was due to his indomitable zeal for life, by virtue of which he remained independent and vital up until almost the very end, even as his body fell apart around his living spirit. In retrospect I can now see that I was thereby spared the agony of a long, feeble decline, but the time I spent attending on his demise remains the most wrenching experience I have ever gone through.
I wrote about those days extensively in this space, and it was through that effort that the page really came into focus for me. I’d started off with a sort of almanac notion, trying to keep up with whatever was going on in the Park at a given time, spinning off sub-philosophical riffs and looking for the roots of the holidays within the cycles of nature. I didn’t want to sound too pious or new age-y, so from time to time I tried to inject a little humor by making a slightly over-serious attempt to adopt the viewpoint of a plant or a bird, but I was also adopting a writer’s persona, rather than speaking directly from the heart.
That was fine, I suppose; it was not my idea to write a journal or a confessional. The web has plenty of that, and I was attempting something broader. But the wide-angle viewpoint is a luxury, and I found my world shrinking as the year and my father waned together, drawing me into my own little family drama. Unable to keep up with the schedule of the outside world, I turned inward and began discussing the events at hand, hard as they were, and more or less outside the framework I’d set myself.
And it was good for me, as cliché as that sounds. They always say it’s good to talk about troubles, that the weight of them is somehow lessened in their expression. I had much comfort from my friends, but gaining sympathy is not even the point; it’s more in the saying itself: a sort of incantation that displaces pain into words; a spell that dispels.
And I learned something about the web too, maybe going to the point of why it is so suited to personal writing. One can talk, and one can write, but most of speech evaporates into the air, while writing has traditionally been either public or private. A real diary has a lock and is rarely revealed; words written for the public often leave something out. The online world lies strangely in between. The web is public, but self-selective: anyone can see my page, but few are likely to. I am not anonymous, but neither do I declare myself widely. I feel no need for restraint, but I am also concerned to produce something that is more or less responsible as literature, since it might be read by anyone. The discipline of online authorship does not favor either public or private faces, but allows the self to emerge in the dialectic between the two.
None of which has anything to do with my father specifically, but it was a good lesson for me to learn, and one that I like to think has improved my writing, (poor though that may remain.) Nor were my original intentions really violated, for I started out with the notion that we have much to learn from nature and its cycles, but I was only talking about what I thought I knew, whereas I ended up learning more through my own direct involvement in that most natural cycle of generational succession. Being a participant, rather than an observer, made me perhaps a better reporter. That’s not journalism, but neither is this news; just the same old story, as told to (or rather through) yours truly. In the end, this page is not so much about some big idea as it is about simply having someplace to put my stuff.
So I thank my dear old Dad for one last lesson, and I’ve continued to write about him each year: the mourning of 2001 giving way to a more distant wistfulness in ‘02, until by last year he had become once more a protective presence. I will think of him always, but this year I want also to look beyond my own life, and send my best wishes to a couple of friends who have recently become first-time fathers. They have the resources to teach their children many things my father never knew. And no doubt they will pass on some things that only they know, but I will also trust them to teach, as my Dad did, the universal lessons that they too must earn; truths only learnt through the ongoing Mystery of fatherhood itself.
I send my best
In father and child
One cycle crests
The wheel is turning
Yours to seize it
The theme reprises
May 31, 2004
I’ve made no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for the soldiers’ holidays of Memorial and Veterans’ Day, the one for those that died in battle, the other for those fortunate enough to survive it. Either way, we privilege the place of war in our culture, while euphemizing it in terms of human valor and sacrifice. Even the language of the US Code obfuscates, invoking “prayer for permanent peace”, whereas the real tradition involves the decoration of graves, and was first formalized, in the pseudo-military form of a “General Order”, by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans that wielded significant political power in it’s post-Civil War heyday. A century later, with the nation mired in a particularly ignoble war, the legislators who reformed the holiday schedule did not see fit to mention graves, and the corpses of Vietnam earned less honor than those of any former war.
That was not fair to the dead, for death remains death, whatever “value” we may put on it. All I remember from that time is Poppy Day, when, invoking the flowers of Flanders’ Field, the latter day descendants of the GAR made the rounds of grammar schools, and we uncomprehending children were all but obligated to offer up a quarter to purchase a wire and crepe-paper flower. Better they’d sliced the barren pod of a real Poppy, harvesting the opium ooze for easement of the eternal soldiers’ wounds… But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, as we are once again in the throes of conflict, searching for a way out, but not yet able to admit our error. In the course of excusing ourselves we insist on the virtue of every soldier, or at least the dead ones, the “worth” of whose extinction may be presumed to outweigh the embarrassment of any possible atrocities along the way. But war consists largely of atrocity, and whether we call it honorable or odious our main desire is to put it behind us, hidden like the rotting body lying beneath the flower-strewn turf of the grave.
Memory is the root of memorial, but I’ve been happy enough to forget, insisting instead on the populist rite of passage from Spring to Summer that underlies this date. I’m not alone in this, and, given the focus of this page, it was easy enough during its first two years to focus on the seasonal shift. Or rather it was hard for me to force myself to address the official narrative within the context of the immanent one. In 2000 I found the flowers of the Tuliptree to strew, but on behalf of all of us, as I would not give precedence to the warrior dead over noncombatants slain. Not while Life makes casualties of us all. In 2001 I traced a memory from past to future through the revival of the American Chestnut tree, continuing a theme that finally bore fruit last Thanksgiving. Things were different by the next year, and in 2002 I fell back on the ancient Triad form to insist that neither war not peace are properly the object of holidays. As such, I’ve remained reluctant to concentrate on our current state of war, which seems to be ongoing. So it was that last year, even at our supposed moment of victory, I found myself turning away from the nation’s wounds to address my own.
None of us have found healing yet, but we are working on the forgetting. That’s not as easy as it might seem: one does not simply forget and have done with it; you have to keep on forgetting, lest the untoward memory return. The forgetting is as ongoing as the fighting, but as long as war remains a hemisphere away it cannot eclipse the coming of Summer.
They say that vacation travel is returning to pre-9/11 levels, our debilitating fears forgotten, or at least repressed. So the Memorial Day weekend veers once more towards the uses of the living rather than memories of the dead, oscillating with our social weather. But Summer is ever the future of the Spring, and forgetfulness is a way of forcing some sort of future out of an unacceptable past. Maybe it were better to remember, in hopes that the censure of memory might help us to forge an acceptable future, but I fear our memories are no more reliable than our auguries. The future we predict never works out quite that way, and neither did the past that we remember. Self-justification flows in both directions, issuing from our current unease.
Recalled or forgotten, our soldiers remain but dead.
Honor or dishonor is ours to bestow, but never theirs to know.
We remember what we can, and forget what remembrance cannot bear.
Summer covers the graves with green and we can only wonder whether those who there repose would rather we drape them with a flag or a picnic blanket. What was it that they won for us? The pain of a memory premature, or the luxury of a season of forgetfulness?
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…