The first Zoom of the “Writing the Light in the Season of Darkness” sessions began this past Sunday. It coincided with the first day of the eight day Jewish holiday Hanukkah and the first Sunday of Christian Advent. I was looking at stars, (being bodies of light) and stumbled upon the Octogram, an eight pointed star that seems to have worked its way into just about every religious (and secular) tradition you could imagine. It figures into Goddess spirituality as the Star of Ishtar and Hinduism as the Star of Lakshmi. It appears in Judeo-Christiantradition as the Star of the Magi and kabbalah, and symbolises Islam in the character Rub el Hizb. Buddhists use it to represent the Eightfold Path of the Buddha. Michael Moorcock designated it the Chaos Star and I found an obscure reference to it as The Warrior Star. But to Native Americans an octogram signifies Hope. And hope was the theme for our writing prompts this past Sunday.
Coincidentally, there are eight women who signed on for this Zoom workshop, too! So athe group is also an octogram.
We started with some of the usual symbols of hope as prompts: anchors, rainbows, birch trees, butterflies, as well as that old Emily Dickinson chestnut “Hope…that thing with feathers…” (There was some rebellion in the Zoom Room as a few took exception with Emily, especially since one of our number had just been nipped by her parrot!)
I played around with a few things but what challenged me was that phrase “Warrior Star” and how it connects to Hope. Mostly because I resisted the idea of yoking hope and warrior…but poety is the path of surprise and this is where it led me.
Maybe hope is what keeps you fighting your corner...
Maybe hope is the courage that anchors...
Maybe hope is what never shall be moved...
Maybe hope is the motor of survival...
Maybe hope is the highest stake against high roller odds...
Maybe hope is the adreneline rush with the pay off...
Maybe hope is the warrior that wears wings...
What is hope to you? An anchor, a butterfly, a rainbow, a thing with feathers, a tree? Can you write eight things, people or events that fill you with hope? Light a candle to them.
2020 has been, to quote one of my favourite YouTubers, Bernadette Bannerman, a dumpster fire. I am sure that all of us have had lows and then still lowers over the course of the year. To mention just one anxiety: the statistic that there were one million Covid-19 positive tests in seven days just last week in the USA alone.
This does not bode well for the holiday season. The UK is in lockdown for a month in the hopes of saving Christmas. Ireland has had a six week lockdown that is due to ease on 1st December. But…as we configure our bubbles there are going to be not a lot of face to face meetings over the holidays this year because indoor groups beyond a household are dubious. This is despite the Aldi Christmas ad where an anxious child keeps asking his parents “Is he coming?” He is constantly reassured. The viewer thinks…oh, Santa. Of course. But the last scene is the child running to the front door and rugby tackling the knees of a elderly gentleman crying, “Grandad!”
My personal Christmas wish is for dry outdoor weather that will allow another household to have hot chocolate outdoors with us. Bring your own cup and chair. My husband is already figuring out how to make a fire pit to help keep us warm. Given Ireland’s damp Christmases Past this is a Big Wish. Are you listening, Santa?
We know we are lucky. We have each other, pets, and good telecommunications. I Zoom twice a week with my creative writing groups, so I get some social interaction beyond the household, even if it is virtual. I phone friends for chats on a daily basis. We have bolstered one another through Lockdown 1 and now Lockdown 2. We have remained well. Lockdown 2 has been a lot harder than the one last spring though. With holidays coming up and getting cancelled or pared down to the minimum there are some doldrums rumbling.
I am not unaware of how a lot of people find the dark days of December very hard in the best of years. And, as said before, this is a dumpster fire of a year. So I have written a 21 day e-course that will drop a little bit of hope, inspiration and virtual company into your email box from 1st December to Winter Solstice. This December may be a bit tougher, but we can still focus on the return of the light, the wheel turning again sunwards and the new growth in 2021.
My aim is to place a light in your inbox window each morning for those twenty-one days. So I have named this shared journey based on a short reflection and daily journal prompt A Light in the Window: A 21 Day Journey Together Through December’s Dark Days.
Like those Canterbury pilgrims of old, we need companions. So there is the option of Zooming into our cottage’s fireside deep in the West Cavan countryside on three Sundays, 6-8pm Irish Time/ 3-5pm EST/12-2pm PST.
The cost will be 21 dollars, pounds or euro or whatever is your local currency.
The first email goes out the morning of December 1st, 10am Irish Time.
You can send your expression of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org, which will get forwarded to my personal email account. I will contact you with registration and Paypal details. You can also gift the e-course to family and friends who need a little light during the dark days of December.
Let’s spread some light this December!
Here’s a poem based on a memory from last December. When shall we sing again in a small, crowded space?
A Pool of Light
A splash in this December night, the motley assembly of voices raised in chorus, virtual strangers picking out harmonies, humming along when words fail, beating time to the tunes , clapping, snugged up in this small country pub, turf fire warming the crowd of bodies at the bar and we are
singing, singing, carried along by melody, camaraderie, joy's memory. Hope sounds like our rowdy laughter, applause, the respectful murmur of 'good man' , the parting glass wishing all a 'Good night!' as Ben holds open the door, formally shaking our hands as we leave that pool of light and walk out into winter's dark night.
I hope you will sojourn with me during the first 21 days this December 2020 so we can bask in that pool of light.
I was born at this dark time of the year. I was a Samhain baby, born on All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. For a multitude of reasons – my fair skin burns easily and is prone to heat rash, allergies, biting insects who find me oh so tasty – I do not love the summer. Perversely, now at the darkest time of year I have found myself wakeful at 4am. And I do not think this is necessarily linked to anxiety. This has happened in other years. Maybe because I was born at this time of year my body perks up. The sun is low, the temperatures cool, insects have flown away and pollen is dormant.
So it has been in this past week that I have been awake and writing before 5am on a few occasions. Some call this the amrit vela, those ‘ambrosial hours’ before dawn that seem the natural habitat of prayer, meditation, and creative endeavour. I am well aware what today is in the motherland. So first I prayed – for love to cast out fear. Then I pulled out the notebook and my fountain pen and wrote, after a false start, this:
So, Halloween tomorrow, that day of the year when the veil between this world and the ‘Other’ world is tissue thin. It is also Celtic New Year over the three days culminating with All Souls Day, aka The Day of the Dead, on 2nd November. The next day is, of course, USA Election Day. And I have been wondering what the ancestors would be saying to my fellow Americans at this historic juncture.
It’s not that all our ancestors were great and good or wise and kind. We know that US history is stained with the karma of slavery and indigenous genocide as political policy. Robber barons exploited immigrant labour shamelessly.
Come to think of it, some of my own ancestors were probably making some of the cigars those FIfth Avenue Robber Barons were smoking. Today, I was musing whether my Great-great Grandfather Rothermel, who surrendered his Hesse-Darmstadt citizenship in 1859, thought it was worth the journey. According to the 1900 census he was 75 years old and employed as a street sweeper. His wife was rolling cigars in their tenement and their daughter, my Great-Grandmother Lizzie Rothermel, was working as a stripper in a cigar factory just as the union movement was forming. They lived a few blocks from Central Park, but a world away from Fifth Avenue. They lived down near the East River where all the city’s sewage and waste emptied into the water. It must have smelled hellacious in the hot, muggy summers in those days without an EPA.
It has taken five generations for Great-great Grandfather Rothermel’s descendents to achieve a college education, including an M.D. and a Ph.D. His grandson, my father, became the treasurer of a major pencil manufacturer because he had been able to take night classes courtesy of the G.I. Bill. As bright Great Depression kids from families of modest means (which was pretty much everyone in the cash strapped 1930s) college was a unachievable dream for my parents.
Opa Rothermel’s grandson, my Grandpa Joe Smith, had been a labourer, a NYC public school janitor and an elevator operator. He died before the Great Depression and the New Deal. His widow moved back with her parents with her three young sons. She washed dishes in a restaurant according to the 1930 census. Her eldest son, my Uncle Howard, left school at 14 and started working for the US Postal Service to help support the family.
I would not be here but for their grit and resilience. But my siblings and I might not have had our meteoric ascent without opportunities funded by federal and state government. For that branch of the family to thrive there needed to be some help.
My father died when I was five years old. My mother was widowed at age 45 with children aged 14, 12, 10 and 5. An insurance policy paid off the mortgage, but for daily cashflow we relied upon Social Security and Veteran’s Benefits and my mother’s part-time employment during hours where I would not become a latchkey child. Her frugality was bordering on genius. We were all bright kids and she got all of us through undergraduate college degrees. A combination of savings, work, our own scholarship and grant funding from state and federal agencies got us all through bachelor’s degrees.
We had help where previous generations wanted for a little of it.
During the 1960s Lyndon B. Johnson launched a ‘War on Poverty’ that saw many imaginative programmes become open to the Smith kids. The National Foundation for Science enabled my sister and eldest brother to attend college summer courses at the Haydon Planetarium and St. John’s University while still in high school. Our Uncle Howard was still in the family apartment in Queens and provided the necessary bed and board and adult supervision to make it possible for them to attend.
When I was eleven the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offered a Creative Drama course for my age group at the local college twelve miles away. It was every afternoon, five days a week for six weeks. My mother drove me there everyday and waited, doing errands or reading on a bench, until the session was over.
There was a motley group of kids from both Columbia and Montour counties. We were guided by a skeletally thin, eloquently chain smoking Austrian Jewish refugee, Professor Frohman. What he made of us I cannot imagine, but he worked wonders for me. Before this course I was withdrawn behind a fourth wall of bereavement over my father’s death. I was painfully shy and probably depressed, too. I was a mouse. Over the course of that six weeks, my lion was born. Bit by bit over my teen years, my brio returned.
Because of that publicly funded course I was less scared of the world. Professor Frohman somehow facilitated a space where I became more brave, even as we imbibed his passive smoke.
In the fifth generation we received help, the kindness of strangers funded by federal and state tax dollars. We benefited from LBJ’s administration’s vision of The Great Society. All of the Smith kids worked blue collar jobs during our undergraduate years. My sister waitressed. My brother’s cleaned out the friers each night at the Wise Potato Chip company. My first job was quality control inspector checking emboidered days of the week on bikini panties.
But those were means to an end jobs before we found a life in medicine, education, administration or communication. The world opened to us. Three of us have passports and have travelled abroad.
We were all bright, but so were my mother and father. And probably those ancestors hand rolling cigars and sweeping streets were bright, too. We just had some help. We took what opportunities were offered and ran with them.
That tax funded help began to dwindle during the Nixon years and then dried up during the Reagan administration. The 1980s famously saw the Margaret Thatcher quotation that there was no such thing as society (which may actually be a symptom of psychopathy.)
There are still immigrants striving. But where do today’s Dreamers get the help to thrive?
It should not have to take five generations for an immigrant family to not just survive, but thrive.
Unless your ancestors were indigenous Americans, the story of your family on the American continent began with a migrant. How many generations has it taken for your family to strive before they could thrive? If they still aren’t thriving maybe it is because you never had the opportunity to benefit from the kindness of strangers in the form of a tax funded helping hand given ungrudgingly.
If you did have help, pay it forward. And, as Mr. Rogers told us on PBS back in the day “there are always helpers.”
My life probably would have been very different without LBJ and the Commonwealth of PA. Think about that this Election Day.
We are living in a season of grief. We are living in a season of mass bereavements – from Covid19 or other causes – where we are limited in our expressions of mourning. We are also facing grief for injustices done. Sadness is an appropriate response. Anger is an understandable response. In my own sorrow I turned to poetry. This is the book I plucked from the shelf.
Before I tell you about the poem that I turned to, I want to speak as some one who grew up as a white person in a small town that had one black family and two mixed race families. In 1968 I was eleven and the land of my birth was being shriven with unrest caused by civil rights withheld and a foreign conflict that many did not sanction. Protests that turned ugly were on the 6:30 news most summer evenings. (We religiously watched NBC’s The Huntley BrinkleyReport in our household.) That raised my consciousness, as well as the assasinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. What I had to help educate myself and build empathy was good reading matter.
My elementary school publicised a subscription book club where you could buy cheap paperbacks every month. I spent a lot of my weekly allowance with that Book Club. As a book worm tween I was able to buy and read books like Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and a biography of Mary MacLeod Bethune. Because I was also hungry for biographies of women (which were thin on the ground in the 1960s), I understood on some unconscious level the desire of having someone who looks like you reflected in the world. In those days we had a new phrase “role models.” I might not have had the same skin colour as Bethune, but golly she was a Mighty Woman! What reading did for me was educate me about lives that were different from mine, but were interesting and powerfully inspiring. It also gave me context for what was happening contemporaneously. Reading forged a connection that transcended social, racial, religious, and gender differences. It also exercised my empathy muscle and prepared me for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. By puberty I was well informed at just how low humans could go in terms of harming fellow human beings.
So, readers, please give your children books that will give them context to help them understand the why of what it happening at this moment. It will help them in so many ways.
Now, to the poem that helped me write the Sunday Weekly poem and also to navigate my sadness with this moment in our history. The poem is Alice Walker’s “Torture” that runs through a litany of “when they torture your…” loved ones with the response “Plant a Tree.” The final verse runs thus:
When they begin to torture
and cut down the forest
they have made
Alice Walker “Torture” from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful
June 5th marks the first of three eclipses within thirty days. We have two lunar eclipses with the full moons on the 5th of June and on 4th July. Sandwiched between, on the same day as summer solstice,we have a solar eclipse on 21st June. In reading an email from astrologer Chani Nicholas about this tumulutous thirty days, I feel she makes a very pertinent remark that speaks to the world’s current condition. Eclipses, in her view, purge toxicity. We usually get two sets of solar and lunar eclipses every year. 2020, very unusually, offers us an extra set. To have three within thirty days is also an astrological rarity. And what she feels this period asks of us is to “investigate the connective tissue of our world and our lives.”
What connections have been eclipsed? What has been shadowed? How does this illuminate our current condition? Two articles I have read this week have made a great impression upon me. Both are intrinsic to my interrogating my white person’s privelege. The first is an early release of of Anne Applebaum’s article “History Will Judge the Complicit”, the cover story for the July/August edition of The Atlantic.https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/trumps-collaborators/612250/ . The second arrived in an email from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website that includes a dialogue on race (from Rap on Race) between anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and author James Baldwin.
We sideline our past at our peril. How often are we encouraged too soon to “move on?”
“Moving on” often encodes other people’s agendas for us. It can sow a spurious forgetfulness of pain. “Moving on” sometimes skates on the surfaces, denying the depth of pain or grief. It can lead to stuffing down emotions that are not validated, where they go to live in some shadowy corner of our body and mind.
“Moving on” can become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. At worst, it is a conscious tactic to shirk responsibility and guilt. It is a ducking down, avoiding getting caught in the act of complicity. It can even disguise itself and become a strategy to avoid being identified as the cause that effected the pain. “Moving on” can be like forgoing an autopsy on an unexplained death and going without the Medical Examiner’s pathology report that fully explains the damage inflicted from ‘the gross insult’ to the person.
And, going down metaphor lane, we can extend this to mean not just the gross insult to a physical body, or person, but also to minds, to a community, to a group of people who have had a label hung around their necks like a yoke is put on oxen.
Which happened to some slaves on American soil. They were human beings classified as chattels, listed as property in wills and tax records. The story of enslaved human beings on the soil that became known as the United States of America began in 1619. We have had four hundred years of racism. The US capital city, the White House, and Capital itself, was built by enslaved people.
I do not want to move on from this moment in history if it means the continuation of oppression.
This is where James Baldwin’s and Margaret Mead’s discussion is thought provoking. Mead cannot accept Baldwin’s assertion that he is responsible for the perpetuation of racist attacks. Why? Because he did nothing to stop them happening. He addresses the state of our – all of us – complicity. “All of us have produced a system of reality which we cannot in anyway control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, what is happening, in time.” And, by his lights, atonement is called for. Then there can be forgiveness and history is no longer an excuse note.
Considering that long history of oppression on US soil, I remembered an 18th century American man who made concerted life-changing decisions not to remain complicit. Like Saul before him, this devout Quaker had a Damascene moment. His employer asked him to write a bill of sale for the purchase of a human being. He was so appalled by this action that he refused to do so again and found alternative employment that aligned with his conscience.
Behind the unfamiliar 18th century turn of phrase, he acknowledges how the selfish spirit, ever strong, can be rooted in the oppression and exploitation of others. Long before Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King were espousing non-violent direct action, Woolman was interrogating his own responsibility and complicity in the oppression and violent harm to others. He was a Recorded Minister in the Religious Society of Friends, but he preached with gentle persuasion and explanations as to how his conscience had decided (or ‘convinced’ him to use Quaker terminology) upon his course of action. Always, he took long, prayerful consideration of what Jesus would do in any circumstance. He resisted his white privelage as best he could under the circumstances of colonial, pre-Revolutionary America. By the time he died he had convinced all Quakers to free their own slaves and begin the long compaign to change the hearts and minds of others to outlaw the slave trade. In effect, he galvanised Quakers to consider that their faith was intimately connected with effecting social justice for other than themselves. That, in effect, social justice activism was the connective tissue of their religion.
It began by addressing his shadow, his sense of guilt towards another human being and his responsibility as a humble clerk, a tiny cog in the system that was evil. He did his best to atone.
By The Light
When his employer asked him, a clerk,
to write a bill of sale of one human being
to another, he stopped.
He would never do it twice.
Not for the sake of a wage. There could be other
employment - tailoring, for instance. But then -
cotton! Picked by slave labour. So
and wore flax instead.
He travelled in the ministry to share the light
of a Christianity out of step with many.
to where the words came from.
Even when they spoke in different tongues
he felt for the Spirit moving within
his Friend, his Neighbour.
And he coveted none that belonged to them,
like their dignity. Guest at plantations he paid slaves
for their service, gently asking his hosts to honour
his Conscience 's dictates.
Not theirs. (Not yet.) An early exercise
in consciousness raising. Like not taking sugar
or drinking rum, small acts accumulate into petitions
to deliver us from great evil.
He was only one, and mostly unsung.
He did strive to live in The Light, awake,
considering how one may live away
from the Valley of Shadow, with Darkness undone.
I have been on a bit of a digital break over the holidays, but here we are with the first Sunday Weekly poem of a new year and a new decade. I fully intended to do a 2019 reflection on 30th December, but as it happens I became fully engaged in baking for an alcohol-free New Year’s gathering with friends instead. The days slipped by and then Sunday morning rolled around and I needed to write the weekly poem. This is not to say that I did not write over that week, because I did, but that is material that has been submitted to an anthology of women’s writing with the working title Bloody Amazing!
No sooner than the New Year’s decorations were taken down, I looked onto social media and I find words like Armageddon and apocolypse being bandied about. Immediately, (I am not lying) Archbald MacLeish’s sonnet The End of the World came to mind. Macleish lived through World War I, served with the precursor of the CIA in World War II, saw the Cold War and atomic bomb threat, and wound up his days in the Library of Congress. According to the text book anthology I used in college, The End of the World was published in 1926.
While perusing some the the decade reflections in print media I noticed that 2016 is considered the worst year in the 2010-2019 decade. Yet, it was the happiest for me as I married my long-time love that year. (Though at the time some friends did say it was the anticipated happy moment that was keeping them going and reason to get out of bed in the morning.) Anne Lamott echoes this observation in a book I got for Christmas, Almost Everything. (Canongate, 2019). This quotation in the Prelude inspired today’s Sunday Weekly poem. As did Dickens in Tale of Two Cities when he observes that it was both the best and worst of times.
Quotations, lines of other people’s words, just keep drawing my eye and beguiling my creative life these summer days. Last autumn, when I was was making a concerted effort to try different poetry forms on a daily basis, I stumbled upon the cento. It is a patchwork poem made up from lines of verse from other poets. You can find my initial effort at https://sojourningsmith.blog/2018/11/07/cento-on-hope/.
But it is not just limited to poetry. It is a literary collage. (I loved collaging as a kid and did many for extra credit as a 7th and 8th grader. We didn’t call them vision boards back in the day. It was play with words and image, jumbled together, contrapuntal, onto poster board. Collage is still one of my favourite activities for relaxation and/or inspiration.)
So the cento is a collage poem. Or patchwork poem.
Opiod of the People
I will be living with chronic pain for the rest of my life. Owning our story can be hard... being afraid to ever be happy again. People have begun to believe in God again.
It's impossible to get at the truth without pain. (Not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.) Ask their forgiveness for the fact bcause there is no other hope.
The persons who lent their voices to this patchwork, or collage, poem are: Brené Brown, Sonya Huber, Svetlana Alexeivich, and Caroline Moorehead. It’s a different kind of exercise doing this mash up of disparate voices speaking about the opioid crisis, the Soviet Union and ex-Soviet Union, and vulnerability.
You would think it would be all triumphal on the hero’s return. But actually, this is a really tough stage of the hero’s journey. You go back to ‘sort of’ normal. Except nothing ever will be normal again. But you need to build a new normal.
You can never go home again once you have been away. It's just a bit scary to those who stayed. They don't know you anymore. They have not seen what you saw. They don't know what to say, do not wish to imagine what adventure's trials wrought.
Sometimes with luck there will be one who recognises the spark who shares your pluck who will then set sail with you to new horizons who will build you a home in both your hearts who is your return in hope and love.
We have certainly experienced such mild winters as this one (so far) since we moved to West Cavan seventeen years ago. I do remember a Christmas Eve dressed in just a light pant suit with a scarf at my throat, not needing gloves. But it is also very dry, instead of wet, too. And I like to record these observations, that some Januarys are full of frost, ice and snow. Others see the snowdrops six weeks early in raised beds and other bulbs popping up.
Blooming in Winter
The azalea in bud on Stephen's Day bloomed one single blossom the day she died.
I remember a January day nearly forty years gone, seeing roses in Victoria Park, Hackney, London,
blooming despite what felt like bitter damp and cold, bone soaking and searing all simultaneously, a mystical
wonder, or wonder of some sort, some kind. There in a two-faced month of dark and cold that bulbs would peep out and there are some bold
enough to bloom early, pioneer plants at the vanguard, with a differant narrative. They wear lanyards spelling hope.
Nothing can be completely done or dead. Some bloom early and others late, wither, die back, return. We each find our own thread.
See the length stretch out. Await the scissors or harvest scythe. The cut. The gathered fruit. The miracle there will be blooms again.