Selective Remembrance

Today’s poem commemorates a century since the ending of ‘the war to end all wars.’ Which hasn’t happened again and again and again worldwide, in civil disputes, freedom fights, and far ranging involvements that have resulted in more war and less peace.  Remembrance Day 2018 salutes the fallen who served when called. But on this Remembrance Day I also want to be thankful for those conscientious objectors, many of whom I met when they were in their 80s and 90s back in the last millenium.  I knew COs who served in the merchant marine in both world wars. I knew those who served in the Friends Ambulence Unit. I knew those who did social work in the bomb ravaged East End of London as alternative service. I even knew a CO who was a jail bird. Rather than parlay his engineering reserved occupation status, he went to Stangeways Prison and rewired their electrics. I remember them today.

The poem’s title is inspired by a project a Quaker friend of mine participated for this Remembrance Day. She was here last summer and crocheted numerous white poppies to create wreaths of remembrance for those who suffered the collateral damage of war. You can find out more about this Peace Pledge Union project  here.

The white poppy has become the pacifist way of remembering on the 11th of the 11th month each year. I am remembering with a poem that was also in part inspired by a BBC documentary where a German World War I combatant described how his first kill affected him forever.

The featured image is a photograph I took in Litchfield Cathedral last April. In a side chapel they had an exhibit on the first World War. This sculpture calls to mind the many (about 300 if my memory of one statistic floated is serving me correct) shell-shocked soldiers who were executed for ‘funking.’ I remember those men, too, today.

This is a revised version of a poem originally posted here in 2018

Collateral Damage

Killing is nothing personal

so long as it is wears the other uniform.

One who knew the trenches spoke,

remembered the moment

he saw the eyes of the man

he bayonetted.

How strangling, beating

and stabbing were their day’s work.

No problem…

except he still woke some nights,

haunted by that Frenchman’s eyes,

his hand,

which otherwise he would have taken and shook.

Then there were the ones who came home broken –

even after Armistice those absent

while sitting around the dining table.

There were Dads who disappeared each Christmas

down a bottle, refighting the Battle.

There were ones who drove family away.

Home has no place for combat.

Lest we forget the shell-shocked comrades

stood blindfolded before firing squad

knowing the Pals taking the parting shot.

Lest we forget survivors who escaped

bombs and bullets in cellars. And rape. Or not.

The victor can spoil. They’ve lost the shellac.

It leaves a wildness in the blood and bone.

War spoils,

both survivors and civilians back home.

That peace bugled at Last Post

never sounded an easy note.

Lest we forget the price of peace consider

the cost in collateral damage

It’s colossal.

It’s personal,

whites in eyes.

Like a bayonet into a belly.

Truly, that is the business of war.

All are lost.

Lest we forget.

Copyright © Bee Smith 2020

I discovered this photo on Facebook in a post by Nikki Phillips of an art installation by Jackie Llandelli of Ghost Soldiers overlooking their memorials in St. John’s Churchyard, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.

Ghost Soldiers

			

How Could They?

I have lived nearly forty years away from the motherland, but apparently the heartstrings go deep. They have never plucked more strained, anxious and frayed as these past four years. While we had a brief rejoicing over the Biden/Harris electoral victory and the bells of churches around Europe chimed for democracy saved, we see an attempt to put one over the electorate, calling everything a cheat.

I really hope that does not happen, because it would mean that the oldest democracy in the world is gone. And that is dangerous for all of us no matter where we live.

As an American abroad I have fielded questions these past few days about how could those 70 million people have voted for Trump. In our media here it is clear he is dangerous and probably clinically mentally ill. We know about the kids in cages, which alienated all who have a fully operational moral compass. Less well known is the post office interference in this election. My ballot was issued from Washington, D. C. on 19th September. It still has not arrived, though they correctly addressed it. (I rang the Board of Elections and checked.) It takes seven days for post to cross the Atlantic. I downloaded, printed out and posted a Federal Backup Ballot, which is available to voters abroad. I can see from my registered post tracker that it was ‘delivered to Agent’ by the US Postal Service on 21st October. Yet it is still not on the system as ‘received/counted.’ How many others has this happened to?

But thinking more deeply, I think that what the 70 million vote reflects is a referendum on white fragility. (The economy isn’t doing THAT well to have swayed so many.) Too many people think they are not rascist, but what is clear is that there has been a concerted and vocal heightening of anti-semitism and rascism against people of colour over the last four years. Wanting to hang on to your privilage is, actually, rascist.

Yesterday, the Republican party launched their attack on the the 74 million American voters on the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht in 1938. They blame George Soros. Who happens to be Jewish. On Kristallnacht, Hitler’s fascist brown shirts and secret police burned books, smashed Jewish businesses, synagogues, beat, arrested and murdered Jewish people. It was the beginning of the Holocaust and millions upon millions of people – not just Jews, but Romany people, socialists, communists, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavic people – were imprisoned, were enslaved labour, were tortured, medically experimented upon, and murdered on an industrial scale.

Ever since the Reconstruction failed after the Civil War (1861-1865), there has been a policy of denying people of colour their full rights. Ex-slaves registered to vote post Emancipation Proclomation, but terrorism by white supremecist groups like the Ku Klux Klan stole that vote. Everytime there is legislation to redress that wrong, someone comes up with another cheat and strategy to keep their white privilage. Which is the same as white power over people of colour, a demographic that is rapidly becoming the US majority.

Fear and fragility in the face of the perception of losing face probably lay at the deep subconscious of the 70 million voters for Trump. They will deny it until they are red in the face, but deep down we know the guilty truth.

I can say this because I am white. I can say it from the distance of forty years of living away and seeing things from the outside with an insider’s knowledge, empowered by a really thorough 9th grade Civics teacher. I can say this because, though I criticize, I know I have a very deep affection for the motherland. I only found out how deep these past four years.

As one of my brothers said to me in a phone call this weekend, “but 74 million voted otherwise.” Probably more if there were people like me whose franchise has disappeared down some postal black hole. But as another friend said on her blog, as she paced around Gettysburg Battlefield, spotting other tourists she asked herself, “Did they vote for him? And that one?” It is not a time to feel safe and secure. And she is white. How must it feel to be a person of colour?

There is much work to be done. There are myriad investigations into corruption that are urgent. But the most urgent work is to finally reckon with the evil of slavery and how it was the foundation of the fledgling republic. We need not so much a reconstruction as a truth and reconciliation commission.

The Declaration of Independence stated that this is self-evident, that “All men are declared equal… ” (And do not forget the ladies, Abigail Adams pleaded with her husband John Quincy.) It’s still a major work in progress. We were only a few states short of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s. Since then it has been erosion and backlash.

Time to get to work on that.

Fragile

What made you so weak?

You knew
what you had built was on such shaky ground.

Is this why you won't listen
while others speak?

Is this why you drank that bitter brew
and created this uncivil battleground,
made such seismic divisions?

Property and power over is what you seek.
For years and years the balance has been askew.
This was not the ideal upon which we founded
this state and its long promised vision.

It is one thing when an icon breaks,
quite another when governance is by hate.

Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved.

Featured image Photo by Jenny Marvin on Unsplash

In the Darkness before Dawn

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:

Love

Love makes you brave. 
Waking up at the darkest hour
on this cold November morning
I contemplate the ways love 
made me. 
The rebukes and cautions
made in the hope of keeping me safe.
The brush of a lover's lips where
bloomed faith.
Just as arms shielded me so
mine grew strong enough.
Love and I could belong.
Not  completely safe, but secure
in faith and the hope
and the knowledge
dawn always follows
the darkest hours.
That when love is brave
it will never ever betray.

Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved. 

Featured image Photo by Paigie Page on Unsplash

What Would The Ancestors Say?

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.

Joseph Smith with his fiancee Barbara Muller in 1910. They married New Year’s Eve that year.

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.

ancestor fortitude
Smith Brothers and friend at 1939 NYC World’s Fair

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.

The summer after my dad died

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.

Best of Times,Worst of Times

Who, in the English speaking world, has not read Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities at some point during their teens? It was a set text when I was in 10th grade in the early 1970s. But that was a world ago. Do teenagers know Sidney Carton’s heroic speech these days? At any rate, those opening sentences resonate with this year. Well, some may not be feeling it for the former, but the tale of those two cities does illustrate how that sentence can be true.

We are not quite a week into Ireland’s second lockdown, which we are told will last until 1st December. In truth, I barely registered that it was a bank holiday in the Republic yesterday and it almost escaped me that today is Tuesday. I nearly forgot that today is the day I post a weekly blog. And ideally, a new poem.

What emerged is very rough and raw. It is a monument only to my commitment to keep up the practice. It is not for want of idleness. I have a couple projects in train with only twelve days off between the end of my Zoom Short Fiction workshop in October and the Poetry one that starts the first week in November. I am currently writing a e-course provisionally titled A Light in the Window: A 21 Day Journey Through December’s Dark Days. The plan is for participants who register to get a daily reflection and journal prompt in their email inbox for twenty-one days. As a bonus, there is a Sunday Zoom ‘Virtual Fireside’ where participants can check in, share and companion one another as we journal and journey our way to winter solstice. Watch this space for full details to get released early in November.

I also have a grant proposal to write before 6th November, as well as prep for the Poetry workshops in November. So I may be living in splendid isolation, but I am far from idle. The side of my brain that engages with prose is more active at the moment. It felt like I had to wrench it bit to get it into gear for the draft of poem that follows. Or there may be two poems inside this particular draft. I have not got the bandwidth to decide today! Only some revision time will allow for me to decide. But that may not be until Yuletide!

  The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
 
 Which, in truth, tremulously hover 
 between terror and hope.
 Just this year we said goodbye
 to the Indian cheetah
 the Sumatran rhino,
 turtles, paddlefish, macaws.
  
 Perhaps we only truly feel grateful
 once we have destroyed, 
 then indulge in nostalgia. We mourn
 with crocodile tears from a croc
 with a ticking clock inside.
  
 We will only know them as figures
 in the illustrated guide to ecocide,
 or as shadows behind the rice paper
 sliding door separating us 
 from our own transmutation
  
 into hungry ghosts wandering,
 not knowing that our life – the old life-
 with its morning rites like
 tea and toast or coffee and brioche
 has gone. 
We can only watch it, 
looking from outside in
through the steamed up glass of a transport caff.
  
Once there was a child who dimpled
as it smiled for no particular reason,
flexing its thigh muscles as it got used
to the their power as they bounced 
up and down for the admiration
of a doting giant.
  
 Once that child twirled itself round and round
 before hurling itself onto the grassy ground
 to feel the pull of the world as it revolved
 on its skewed axis. And it knew happiness
 as it watched cloud and sky fly past.
  
 Perhaps it was always thus.
 That only when we sacrifice for the sake of love
 do we know the best in the worst
 and time stops
 being relevant. 
That then there is only
 
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
 And
 We miss you. 
 We miss you. 
 We miss you.
 
 Copyright ©Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved. 

Featured image Photo by Daniel Joshua on Unsplash

Zoom into Poetry for November?

Zoom

For the past two months I have been running two creative writing groups each week, meeting up for Zoom on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. I have five in each group which is a good number to allow everyone to share their week, read out what they have written during the session or as ‘homework’ and receive feedback. My gut feeling was to never have more than six people in each group; that was confirmed by the pilot workshop participants when I did a trial run in July.

Due to other committments one of the participants cannot join the four weeks of poetry workshops from November 1st. So I now have a space on Saturdays, Zooming from noon to 2pm Irish time. And if you think that is early, tell that to Susan in Canada who joins us at 7am her local time!

The Zoom workshops will be held on Saturday, November 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th. The workshops include emailed support materials, inspiring videos, in session exercises and sharing of work in progress. The workshops cost €45/£41 and can be paid via Paypal.

Message me with your email and I will forward full details and nab that space fast!

Remember in November. The Celts thought that memory was the author of poetry.

Participants in the Zoom workshops will have the option of joining the free creative writing labs in December where we will workshop work in progress from the autumn workshops. These are not open to people who have not previously attended a Word Alchemy workshop.

Here in Ireland we are back into Level 5 Lockdown. We are back to staying within our 5km form home for exercise ; the only journeys from home are for groceries, medical appointments, work and education (primary and secondary schools remain open, as do creches and childcare facilities). Everything else is closed for six weeks. Most people are working from home.

It seems I was a bit of a Cassandra when I looked into my crystal ball and saw that virtual workshops were the way forward through autumn and winter. Small enough to be safely held spaces, where people could get to know one another and give constructive feedback and encouragement. We also have a laugh. My husband, banished to the other side of our cottage, often asks if I am running a laughter yoga class instead of a writing workshop!

Creative activities are good for our all round well-being – mind, heart, and spirit. Keep creating art this winter!

Featured image Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Breathing

Where I live, in one of the counties in the Republic of Ireland bordering Northern Ireland, we have been put on Covid19 Level 4. Basically, we can move freely, so long as we stay in our own county, but only essential businesses remain open. No one is meant to visit our home. Restaurants are takeaway only and pubs are shut. Worship is back online, though churches remain open for private prayer. Third level, further education is online, too, though primary and secondary schools, as well as creches, remain open. For the time being. Unless things get worse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given home developments and the fright shows in the motherland, my usually very well-controlled asthma has flaired up in the past fortnight. The past week has seen me getting a flu jab for the first time in years and mailing my Federal Backup Ballot vote, tracking its progress by registered post. (The Federal Backup vote is available to voters abroad; my ballot, requested last August and marked as issued on the Board of Elections system, still has not arrived.) It also involved a trip to my GP to see the practice nurse, Audrey, who assessed the asthma, tinkered with my medication and listened sympathetically to my underlying anxiety.

While we can still venture beyond five kilometres of home, we took advantage of the sunshiney Sunday to visit the Cavan Burren, one of the UNESCO Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark sites close to home. We walked into the woods, away from the established trails, to my favourite megalith. It is signposted as the Cairn Dolmen, but I call it the Fairy Cairn. Cairns, essentially a high pile of stones, were the first kind of spiritual or burial sites built eons ago. Dolmens were the next technological advance. In the Cavan Burren woods you can see how they plopped a dolmen on top of an established cairn. It is probably fair to say that it is a unique example of megalithic building, at least in Ireland.

Moss and heather covered dolmen on top of a grasses over cairn in Cavan Burren woodland, October 2020

I stood before my favourite megalith in the whole world and sang to it. Choir singing used to help regulate my asthma, but regular choir practice fell away in the past couple of years for a variety of reasons. But that deep diaphragmatic breathing was the best medicine. Deep in the wood’s green lung I sang to the stones and the trees.

Breathing

Standing with the trees
before the piled stones,
I lift my voice
in tones of AH -EE-OH
over and over.
I-EE, I-EE sung sharply, 
is yipped into the crack in the sky,
straight through the dappled light.
Spruce megaliths surround
the dolmen slouching
into the ground, resting
on the greened cairn, and just
for that moment
in their embrace
I was uncorked,
uncontained,
breathing.


Copyright ©Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved
Trees encircling the Fairy Cairn, Cavan Burren Woods, October 2020.

Walking back along the path I stopped to notice the mushrooms forest critters had been nibbling. Mushrooms grow in the dark, underground. They create enormous mycelium fields that stretch and connect over great distances, out of our sight.

Humans have their own version of mycelium fields. We are all connected. We all want to breathe freely. If this virus teaches us nothing else, as its pathogen robs its host of oxygen, it is that we all need to breathe, that we must allow everyone breathing space.

I am writing this post on Monday because I have plans for Tuesday. Tomorrow I will be participating in a free Zoom Art Therapy Play Day for artists, sponsored by Cavan Arts Office. Self-care is essential these days. Grab it with both hands whenever and wherever it is safely offered. It is another kind of breathing space.

All Shall Be Well

The great Irish poet Derek Mahon died on 1st October. In terms of contemporary Irish poetry giants, this was the second great loss of the year. Eavan Boland passed away in April. Both were also influential on the international English language poetry scene. Boland was a professor at Stanford in California. Belfast born Mahon was a member of Aosdána, one of the select writers who received Irish Arts Council support to keep writers writing.

Mahon is the author of one of the poems nominated as a poetry prescription for our Covid19 times by The Atlantic magazine -“Everything Will Be Alright.” You can listen to the incomparable Andrew Scott (The Priest on Fleabag, Moriarty in the most recent Sherlock series) read the poem on this You Tube clip. https://youtu.be/kfjYhje2zrE

You might think from the poem’s title that it’s a bit Pollyanna-ish. But here is a line quoting from the poem to set you right. “There will be dying, there will be dying, …”

It reminds me of the mystic Mother Julian of Norwich, who is famous for her saying “all shall be well.” Mother Julian lived through, and survived, the Bubonic Plague and the Peasant’s Revolt. Catastrophe visits every century. We are not unique. Yet, amidst all that turmoil she set down her mystical visions in a book, Revelations of Divine Love.

I do not think that you need be a theist to contemplate that we need a great deal more love, empathy and compassion in our world. Julian of Norwich was an anchorite. She was literally isolated from the world, immersed in prayer, fasting and entertaining the angels of revelation, which she shared first with the people of Norwich, and then with the wider world.

Isolation can be hard, and harder still for some who rely on literal human connection on a daily basis. But perhaps there is a missed opportunity. A student of mine wrote a wonderful dialogue between grief and gratitude this week. To immerse yourself in loss alone is to miss the connection with its twin, gratitude. There will be death, but everything will be alright.

I am revisiting a poem written for NaPoWriMo 2020 this week, tweaking it and revising. The brief was to write about something handmade, but is really a litany of gratitude.

Handmade 

Once, 
a Celtic knot clock
was in the Christmas box.  

Also,
hand painted silk scarves,
a Technicolor Joseph’s coat shawl  made 
way back in the early 1970s,
knitted coffee mug cozies.

Each year,
jars of pumpkin chutney, 
blackberry jam, apple jelly -
gifts
the visitor brings to the door.

Decade after decade,
the meals my mother made daily,
casseroles from leftover ham at Easter, 
tuna melts on Fridays for
when I got off the bus from college.   

Once,
My father’s hand touched my mother’s shoulder. 
She turned towards him 
and let me in.   

Copyright© Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved

The world is going through heavy weather. We know multiple kinds of bereavement. But there is much to be grateful for, too. I am reminded that Quakers write not obituaries, but testimonies “to the grace of God as lived in the life of X”, giving thanks and celebrating the luminosity of a life well lived. Gratitude can help us navigate and mediate grief.

Featured image Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

How Weird Is Your Normal?

Some people embraced the New Normal early on. Others railed at it. Still others pointed out that what is now normal is really weird. Which got me thinking that this may always have been so. Darwin observed that species adapt to survive. Under pressure, some humans adapt more easily than others. But was the old normal really so ‘normal?’ It may have been the routine or the convention, but viewed with de-scaled eyes was normal not a little bit weird?

I am reminded of my first visit to Belfast in December of 1980. The Hunger Strikes were happening. There were armoured military vehicles patrolling streets. An armed squaddie in full combat dress walked the shopping precinct. If you wanted to park your car in a Control Zone you needed to leave someone in it to prove that there was no bomb threat. During the Christmas sales a tightly permed elderly lady dressed in a twinset frisked me before I could enter Woolworths to buy a teapot. She ran a metal detector over my then boyfriend. The Europa hotel was behind metal hoarding, fending off the next bombing.

All of that was normal for residents of Northern Ireland during the 1980s when I vistited. But how weird does it sound to you? After thirty years of living with an eye and an ear for potential threat, how weird must it have felt to see the gradual dismantling of the military presence stand down. There goes the fortified police station in the border town. Up go a block of flats in its place. Even though that happened in 2013, nearly fifteen years after the Belfast Treaty was signed.

So, here we are in these chaotic times. Chaos is our new normal.

The world is on fire

and you are wondering what 
to cook for dinner.
But the fire is faraway,
even as the ash
drifts ever nearer, nearer.
But not close enough
to scorch or singe your lawn.
Still, you know your world
is on fire, but dinner needs
making, the children
have homework for tomorrow.
You can learn to live
with smoke, rubble and embers.
The house is okay,
though dinner's served a little
late on broken plates.

Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved

Featured image Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

Standing, holding uncertainty

As part of my weekly cherishing of myself, this past Sunday evening I registered for a live Zoom by Dolores Whelan and Mari Kennedy on the “Gifts and Wisdom of the Celtic Tradition for these uncertain times.” The Celtic religious traditions – both spiritually and socially – were quite different until Christianity went the way of Rome after the Synod of Whitby in 665 CE. Between the Celtic spiritual sensibility and the Brehon legal system based on reparative justice as opposed to punitive measures, life on the Celtic fringes was the light that blazed during the Dark Ages. Brehon law lingered in the Gaelic areas of Ireland up until the 17th century and was a liberal system that enshrined women’s rights when few existed elsewhere in European civilisation.

Nor did the Whitby Synod completely extinguish the underpinnings of Celtic spirituality and religious practice. The popularity of John O’ Donohue’s writings tapped into a hunger for that older wisdom creating something of a renaissance.

Ancient Celtic wisdom revers nature, contemplative silence, the giving of hospitality as a sacred duty, and the porous veil between our material world and ‘the other world.’ Dolores gave us an Irish proverb in translation- “Tir na nÓg is behind my house.” As Mari Kennedy discussed, the ancient Celtic world a millenia and more ago operated so that individuals were responsible for being in ‘right relationship’ with themselves, with the land, with their neighbours and with their god. Sovereignty was not just for the high king. It was, and still is, about living with integrity and maintaining that wholeness in all one’s dealings. That right relationship with all four is the cross surrounded by the circle of wholeness. Right relationship opens a way for there to be reparative justice rather than the punitive justice of our current systems.

The Celtic Cross – a symbolic unbroken wholeness as referenced in Whelan’s and Kennedy’s Celtic Wisdom webinar

The Celtic world was not afraid of darkness or death. The Cailleach is a terrible hag and rules winter. But she is also credited with being the Creatrix of our known world. The Celtic New Year – Samhain – or Halloween as it is known elsewhere – is at our darkest time of year. Out of that darkness the light is reborn at winter solstice.

I am reminded of the time I listened to our cat Zelda purr her litter of kittens into the world as she sat beside me. A few months earlier my husband sat with our cat Sophie as she purred her way out of this world. Birth and death both require labour; they are two sides of the same coin.

We are in that liminal space (there’s another point that Mari brought up in the webinar!) where we are witnessing the death of our old known world. The birth of the ‘new normal’ is not yet with us. We stand on our threshold with the door open. We are between the old model of our known world and the yet to be seen new model. We are needing to hold our uncertainty and stand with it – in our own integrity.

This was all very synchronous for me. The previous Friday I sat with my husband and a friend outdoors mulling over how I might devise a course that would speak to the the long days of December. With indoor visitations disappearing across the map as areas lockdown because of localised Covid19 spikes, I wondered how the Covid19 Christmas would look in 2020. I had already emailed siblings in the States asking that we don’t do the present parcel routine this year. I really do not want my siblings – all over 69 years of age – queuing for a long time in a post office, potentially exposing themselves to pathogens.

On Saturday, a discussion with some students who stayed in the Zoom room after class helped clarify what I can offer. And, credit where it is due – thanks to the late Mammy Rountree who helped construct the name for the course.

Which will be…21 Days Journey through the Dark Days of December. I will be writing more about this next week. For now, just know that my hope is that there can be a community of souls helping each other hold the uncertainty as they wait upon the return of the light.

If you want to learn more about the wisdom of Celtic spirituality I refer you to Dolores Whelan’s website (http://www.doloreswhelan.ie) and Mari Kennedy’s Celtic Wheel year long course starting soon. (https://www.marikennedy.com).