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.

Spooked?

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.

Sinning Sainthood

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.


Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved

Featured image Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved

It’s About Time

Our clocks went back to universal time at 2am this morning. I woke up just after 6am in the chilly twilight and felt immeasurably better.I burrowed back under the heft of the duvet and extra blanket. But even with the lie in, I was up early penning the Sunday Weekly poem. This is the time of year to make like the bear or small furry animals who disappear down tunnels into their dens. To parlay a Mary Oliver quotation differently… my “soft animal body” loves this time of year. Which does coincide with my birthday at the week’s end, so perhaps not quite so surprising. I revel in this dark part of the year, called Samhain in Ireland, and unlike many folk, feel quite energised by it. I am digging into the darkness.

We are not only setting the clocks back and diving into the darkness of Samhain, as we call Halloween and the month of November here in Ireland. (We even get a bank holiday for Halloween! It’s the ancient Celtic New Year. Yet another example of how we ‘do the double’ with two celebrations for New Year.) . It is also a New Moon in Scorpio. Those who live in environments with a lot of artificial light will never fully appreciate just how dark a dark moon can be at the darkest part of the year. You can understand why they thought the ancestors and other spirits roamed the countryside. It feels like the point just before the bang went off and the cosmos was born.

The early hours also had me looking at the etymological roots of the English words burrow (since I was so enjoying my snuggle in) and barrow. The latter can be a handcart and essential gardening tool in one sense. But the sense I was seeking was its life as an ancient burial mound. Long, long ago we put the ancestors to bed in what was not unlike an animal’s den. My favourite ancient monument on the Cavan Burren is called the Cairn Dolmen. First they buried their beloveds under a pile of stones. Later, the neolithic people plopped a dolmen on top of the pile of stones. Now, time is making it subside into the mound. It begins to look like a barrow.

My own personal name for this is The Fairy Cairn.

The Cairn Dolmen, Cavan Burren, Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark

I will only be giving you one poem this Sunday. Which is not to say that I have not been scribbling other drafts. But they were really only fragments.

I did have my first meeting with my mentor/ editor this week, beginning the revision process that will eventuate in a solo collection of poetry that began life in the 365 consecutive poem a day project that ended in September 2019. What you see in this blog is basically a second draft, occasionally a third tweaking. I am now beginning the slash and burn process. A friend of a friend calls this the ‘Kill Your Babies’ stage. My wise editor reframed this as…”think of it as separating conjoined Siamese twins and putting them in their own cots.”

This is how one unconjoined Siamese twin breaths in this new micropoem.

Her reading glasses
folded
lie on the bedside cabinet
with the paperback,
it's bookmark
three-quarters the way through
forever.

My etymological survey this morning ended up at a website on Paracelsus who had some very esoteric terminology used by theosophists. But it became my word play sandbox for the Weekly Poem. The title, Yliaster, is defined as the primordial matter out of which the universe has been formed in the beginning of time.

Time is very much on my mind this morning.

Yliaster

First
there was brine
so much
it sank into the earth.
It fell from the sky.
Those salty tears
became
the scaffolding of the cosmos.

Next
came brimstone,
the noxious engine,
the truth that no light
comes without
a spark
and a parp
keeps things moving.

Last,
quicksilver,
scattershot,
inspired,
all too, too
self-aware,
a realisation,
a dashing away -
flighty, fickle, unfair.

All so like us.

Chaos begat Chronos
from salt, sulphur, mercury.

We got
Time.


Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved

Featured image Photo by NASA on Unsplash

All Hallows

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.

 

All Hallows

 

Tossing the ancestral bones.

See how they fall.

Inscribe a rune on a stone.

See how they fall.

 

Speak to us from the beyond.

Watch how they fall.

Speak in the flick of a flame.

Seek direction.

 

Night has fallen upon earth.

Watch how it falls.

The dead feel close this dark night.

Speak from beyond.

 

Tossing the ancestral bones.

Inscribing runes on a stone.

Scrying from our hearthside flames.

Seeking tarot to declaim.

 

See how they fall.

Watch how they fall.

Part the night’s veil.

Beloved dead we hale.

Speak from beyond

before the next dawn.

 

Copyright © Bee Smith 2018

 

Featured image by Julia Dinen at Galway’s Macnas Samhain Parade 2018.