Correction from last week’s blog! The clocks did not go back last Sunday. We had the Halloween bank holiday last Monday (yes, Ireland has a weekend holiday each year to celebrate Halloween, or Samhain, as we call it.) The clocks go back on actual Halloween, the 31st, which is this coming Sunday. It gets a bit confusing (I was not the only one, which is always a comfort!) because many times the clocks do fall back over the Bank Holiday weekend. Given the low cloud and the dusky dawn that can stretch on through the day one would not be faulted for thinking that the Samhain darkness has already descended.
And the bank holiday also affected my blog post schedule for this week because Monday jobs and appointments migrated to Tuesday for this week. And the older I get the more I like to not have to multi-task too much on any day. Either its age or the pandemic lockdowns have re-wired me that way. Too much of anything – exposure to any outer stimulus – can be overwhelming and exhausting for an introvert at the best of times. These ain’t those! And I am trying to be a normal human who does see people outside of my property (with safety measures, masks, etc, in place.) Despite a 90% double vaccinated population cases are rising. This may be in part because the Irish population is vigilant in regularly self-testing and safe guarding elders and children who are not eligible for the vaccine. But it is a worry. Enough of one that younger ones have brought it up in conversation in passing with me this past week.
But before I get on with the weekly poem, some snapshots taken during our daily constitutional my beloved and I took down our lane a showery day last week. Hopefully the misty, betwixt and between atmosphere will help you get into the the proper Samhain mood.
The weekly poem grew out of a growing sense of frustration with…will anything get Done done!?! If you reckon I swallowed the lexicon, well, tough! It has been a dictionary and chocolate cake kind of week! As my mother would have said, “Go look it up!”
has its own primogentive power
with a quirky, random order of succession
one item migrating to another
pile to clear one tiny space before another
"tidied" item can be effaced or dis-
played/placed/posed of *pick one or all three options*-
bin, bag, chest, drawer, cupboard, under covers-
before parthogenesis immaculately
happens, your home overrun. Books unread/
read/to be re-read, the dust resettling itself
as the polish slides across the surface.
Face it! Housework is Sysiphus' job's worth.
All uphill and roll down again, toiling daily.
The pen precisely placed. The cup washed, drained.
Constant repeat and still disorder reigns.
I hope you have a festive All Hallows! Whether you dress up in costumes or not, feel the thin veil between us, our world, and the land that is Not.
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.
Day 14 of NaPoWriMo2020 is the midpoint of the month. It is not unnatural to flag when you are running in a marathon. Although when I did the 365 poem a day marathon from September 2018 until September 2019, it was July, when the end was in sight that I really felt I might stumble, fall down and not get up. This morning felt a bit like that moment. I was up way to late hand sewing face masks for friends (I have scrap fabric; my young friend who shops for us sourced elastic in Carrick on Shannon.) My brain felt a little fragile. I didn’t want a really big challenge, or any challenge really.
I challenge you today to write a poem that deals with the poems, poets, and other people who inspired you to write poems. These could be poems/poets/poepl that you strive to be like, or even poems, poets, and people that you strive not to be like. There are as many ways to go with this prompt as there are ways to be inspired.
In the end I did do something I do not ordinarily do. I decided to tackle the task as a prose poem. Whether it works or not I have no clue. But I did have some fun with it. And that was really what I needed this morning, when I slept late while the sun shined.
Dead Poets’ Halloween Party
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton have their heads together over vodka stingers, there in that dark corner. No one wants to interrupt. Because. You know! collective eye roll) it didn’t end very well for both. They suffered for their art. Bless their wounded hearts! Men disappointed them. Dorothy Parker could have told them so. She was sad, too. Oh! There’s little Emily Dickinson. Even she is living her life over in that solitary corner like it is a loaded gun while she sedately sips her sherry. I wonder if you sauntered closer if her eyes really are the colour of fortified wine? They do seem to unnaturally glitter and shine. Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry have only just recently entered the room. He has come as The Green Man. Mary is Mother Goose this year, leading a posse of her late, much lamented dogs into the party. They are chowing down on cocktail sausages put down on the floor by the bartender. Good Lord! The bartender is Frank O’Hara! Meanwhile, some Imagists are striking a tableau over to one side. An absurdist is pouring concrete onto their feet to make them a plinth. What poet does not want to be an edifice? If this bar stocked saki, I bet the top banana himself, old Basho, would grace this party. Him standing amidst the fray in his shabby kimono. It might potentially offer an amusing Zen moment, everyone’s poetic lack of permanencewhen all we strive for is eternity.
Samhain, or Halloween, ’tis the spooky season, of ghosties and ghoulies and unexplained stuff that goes bump in the night. So it makes sense for this Sunday’s Weekly Poem to take inspiration from that wavey pavey line that divides our world from whatever is next. (If you believe in that kind of thing.) There is plenty of debate about that. If you watch The Good Place on Netflix you might play around with ideas that the otherworld is a kind of Medium Place where souls are stuck. As my young friend with a psychology Ph.D. observed, ‘being stuck’ is the flag that says you need therapy. If souls or spirits or ghosts are stuck, it would seem that even the dead can be in need of therapy!
Yesterday was the Day of the Dead, aka All Souls Day. It’s also my birthday, so the ancestors were much on mind even as I was savouring a pumpkin cheesecake made for my birthday tea. Halloween, or Samhain, was a three day feast back in the day when the pagan Celtic kind of people lived on this island. When Patrick Christianised Ireland the old customs would not completely die. So now we have the three day feast of Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Both traditions acknowledge, to a greater or lesser extent, that that the line between the world of the living and the dead is particularly permeable at this time of year. Some cultures celebrate the beloved dead, like the great Day of the Dead festivals in Latin America. In our more northern climes we are a bit more nervous of perhaps too close an encounter with the skeletons in the family closets. In Ireland the fairies were said to be particular active and might take a fancy to steal your child. Hence, dressing up and pretending to be dead, or something particularly unattractive for fairy snatchers. (NB: Fairies, we apologise for this libel on your character. This is a public service announcement.)
But the dressing up also allows us, whatever age, to explore being someone else, to live out some unlived life – the accountant masquerading as a pirate, the assertive woman fainting into one of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Women in Peril,’ the sexually shy woman vamping it as Morgan le Fay. You can be an angel or a devil. You can flirt with The Good Place, the Bad Place and even the The Medium Place for what it is on The Other Side of that permeable curtain. (If you believe in that kind of thing…which I guess a lot of us do, because it can’t all just be a Hallmark plot to sell more cards.)
‘Tis the season after all.
All hail the saints! All hail the souls who missed the mark but were beloved still.
We do the best we can with the arrows of our intention aimed at impossible targets, that fail to launch or fall wide of the bulls-eye.
Some saints tried to do their best, slipped, missed, but eventually did better. They improved their eye.
All hail the saints! All hail the souls who miss the mark, but vow to do better with their hands and eyes.
Our beloved dead did the best they could even when it should have been better.
But then, we who live are not always so well understood.
For reasons I cannot quite fathom I have been feeling really tired this past week. Maybe the juggling of three and more projects is catching up with me. I have a list of things I need to attend to today, but I kept slapping the ‘Snooze’ on the alarm. I felt completely flat and out of inspiration for poetry practice. So I was lazily looking at my email, Facebook and finally Twitter. I generally just check in once daily there, but as soon as I opened it there was a post in the feed with a poetry prompt from @UrbanWordNYC…”write a poem addressing how death is the original form of ghosting.” So okay. I have my assignment for the Poetry Daily! Serendipity saves the day! I may have more personal experience of ghosts than social media ghosting, but I can work the metaphor…
Everyone leaves. At some point I will, too. I am of an age now - the autumn of life - when friends are dropping from their perches in the trees.
Long dead friends resurrect in Facebook memories, speaking from some separate realm, saying how much they are looking forward to seeing me soon.
I have no such plans. Shudder just thinking it. I ignore them! She is safely dead. I am alive and reasonably fit. Getting on with my life just fine without her presence.
Except absence never grows old, or disappears. Death has its own half-life radiating from some pit just above your diaphragm. Damn!
Everyone leaves! Consider this just a dress rehearsal in your role of ghost. It's a practice run for the really big griefs.
Face it. Every life is lived by losers. First its a phone, then house keys. The BFF. A spouse or three. Mum. Dad. They just pile up, those losses, littering the back of the closet.
It's a regular Halloween party in there. The great celebration of all us losers of loves bygone sipping the juju juice, making fun of all our ghosts let out for a day.
Isn’t She amazing? That is one of the Macnas puppet sculptures made for the Samhain parade this year in Galway that was published on Facebook. Julia Dinen captured this amazing moment where the two worlds are side by side. Just as we are this Halloween. Which is a big enough holiday to warrant a bank holiday weekend each year. It is Celtic New Year’s Eve tonight.The Irish for this celebration in Samhain. (Say it Sow -like the female pig – in). This is the night when our world is separated from ‘the other’ with a tissue thin veil between us. We can see things we would ordinarily not be able to discern.
To me that puppet in the photograph is the Cailleach, the oldest female ancestor. She is said to have created the world – or at least the Irish part of it – by emptying her apron of stones to pile into a cairn that became Eireann. This is the night for connecting with the ancestors beyond the veil. And while some are spooked out by that thought – hence disguising your pretty children so they will not be spirited off stage left behind that curtain veil, – others know this is the best night of the year to do any form of divination. It is a time to both let go of an old year, as well as look to the future and what it holds. And it is well to leave an offering out – for the ancestors or the fairies – to garner blessings of good luck in the year ahead. A tot of whiskey or poitín (or tea if you have taken The Pledge), some honey and cream or milk are good to leave on your doorstep. Make sure that the birds and other critters have something, too. They are all part of the ancestral tapestry.
So it seems appropriate for today’s poetry practice to take a kind of incantory feeling.
I am minded today of the Arundrati Roy quote to seek joy in the saddestplaces. We need to be reminded of joy and a prison qualifies as a sad place, but my husband and I and about fifty souls witnessed it yesterday in our local low security prison. I feel it warrants memorialising in my poetry journal. As backstory for you to understand the context of how it came about, I need to explain that they run a coffee shop that is open to the public, as well as having a car wash and polytunnels where you can buy plants. This is a bank holiday weekend in Ireland so there were a lot of visitors about the campus on a Sunday. The barristas in the coffee shop had been chatting to some of the regulars who work with a group of disabled young adults locally. They cooked up the idea of throwing a bit of a Halloween party for them, got the chief’s blessing and threw themselves into having a wee kareoke yesterday afternoon.
Since I am both an adult and and American born, they had no problem in getting me to dust off my witch’s costume (complete with cauldron as purse and besom – oops, forgot the flying ointment!). My husband has a wizard’s cape and another member of the public dressed up as Queen of the Night to add to the atmosphere. One of the guys bought decorations while out on temporary release. Paid from his own pocket I may add, from his €2.20 an hour wages as barrista.
We need to spread the joy. No photographs since that is an Irish Prison Service no-no. The jackolantern has to speak for us all.
You wouldn’t have believed it
to know that years ago
Steven had seized and seized and seized,
a ceaseless neurological event
that nearly extinguished him,
that left him in hospital a full year.
But here he is growling out Breakfast Roll,
stamping his feet, knowing all the words,
giving it as much soul
as any Motown microphone ever heard.
He didn’t bring the prison down – quite.
He raised its roof though. I saw so many doors
swing wide open and so many smiles that
went right straight to the eyes for the first time
in too long. We all grinned so much our jaws ached.
And then Steven switched it up,
crooning a song. Megan and Mary mimed to the words.
Heart for love, empty arms as language for lonely.
Fifty pairs of eyes beheld them mistily.
And clapped and applauded. And still everyone smiled.
No matter they sang a bit off key. So don’t all of we.
But heart and soul and being inside the song.
You don’t see that so very often.
Later, when the bus had taken them all home,
the barristas mopped the counter, did the washing up.
One of the guys, a lifer, gave out a little sigh,
said, Today was a good day, smiling again at the memory.
Okay, I realise that I need to explain the title. You know when you have odd, random experiences, that are not necessarily readily explained by the physical laws of the universe? They feel laden with portent, but not in a meaningful coincidence kind of way. That’s WooWoo. Or for short, The Woo. It can feel a bit spooky or actually leave you feeling a tad spooked. So with Halloween not a week away, I thought I would poetry journal today’s random weird experiences. (No! Don’t judge them weird! They are just woowoo!) They tend to come in threes (like clichéd buses), so I promise I will report back if there is a further instance of The Woo. And if I ever figure out what I am supposed to be looking at, or figuring out. Still at the head scratching stage in this household.
‘Tis the season for the veil between the worlds to be mesh thin. It is definitely permeable. And out where I live this feels like Planet Normal.
In the interests of full disclosure I will confess that I was the child who was declared to have worryingly fey tendencies. Or putting a positive spin on it – was imaginative.