Saturday, December 31, 2011

as the year winds down

as the year winds down,
the merry-go-round sits still,
the Earth keeps spinning
As the year 2011 winds down like a wobbling top, the Earth continues to spin on its axis as it circles the Sun, the Sun continues to orbit the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, and the spiral arms full of stars continue to rotate while the whole galaxy turns like a child's pinwheel in space.
          The playground at the tiny park in tiny Salem, Iowa, boasts a see-saw set and a merry-go-round, not surprising since nearly a fourth of the population of 464 are under the age of 18. The steel spokes on the carousel have been repainted in primary colors, though the paint on the hub and the rotating wooden platform has weathered away to freckles and streaks. Someone has added a yellow happy face to the blue-over-white axle. It's good to see such a simple form of outdoor entertainment still making the rounds. 
          I am hanging onto one of the bars and pushing to get the platform turning, running as fast as I can in the worn dirt groove around the perimeter, then jumping on and clinging to the bar for the whirling ride. Close to the edge, I feel the exhilarating centrifugal pull trying to fling me off and I tighten my grip. Other children jump on until the platform is completely full. I observe that those in the middle are turning slower than the ones on the outside, an experiential lesson in physics for a child in the garden of children. When the merry-go-round slows down enough to hop off, I am standing still but the world is spinning around me. Many years later I learn that the sensation of dizziness is due to the inner ear going into a frenzy when it doesn't know where you are in space. 
          Of course, we're all on a giant carousel spinning in space, some of us closer to the center than others.

Friday, December 30, 2011

demise of windows

demise of windows --
broken glass, boarded up, bricked,
corrugated, plastered

The decline of windows is one sign of an urban area in decline. A glass pane gets broken by storm or a thrown rock and, rather than being repaired, it gets boarded up. The window in a room no longer in use gets filled with bricks or a corrugated metal panel. A basement window at street level gets plastered over to prevent access. What was once open, allowing the passage of light, now remains closed. In time, weather will warp the wood, crumble the bricks, rust the metal, erode the plaster. Then light will move freely through the open windows once more.

lamppost cloaked in black

lamppost cloaked in black --
screaming red, pink, green burst forth,
clamoring to be seen

Like an archeologist's pick, the ravages of time have chipped away the surface layer of an urban artifact, uncovering its history and simultaneously creating brilliant abstract art. On Main Street in the tiny Midwestern town of Eldon, Iowa, a lamppost is being stripped of its staid black exterior, revealing exotic under layers, like an embroidered scarlet petticoat peeping out from under a Victorian woman's prim black dress.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

town of peeling paint

town of peeling paint,
hidden words emerging as
weather scours the walls

On Boxing Day we visit Eldon, a small town in Iowa, population 998 at last count. Since the Rock Island train station closed, the town has withered, buildings like empty boxes, slowly deteriorating. Words painted on brick walls long ago, gone undercover as new owners applied plaster or paint to hide them from view, are resurfacing as weather whittles away their concealment. Fragments emerge, inscrutable as camouflage, passing from crypsis, being hidden, to mimesis, being seen but resembling something else -- a half-finished puzzle, a skull, a shark, a teddy bear, a Cheshire cat.

perception depends

perception depends
on perspective -- abstract art
or a Pepsi sign

On the main street of Eldon, Iowa, a gigantic red, white and blue sign painted on the side of an old brick building outshines the modern brick City Hall next door. Even though the paint on the Pepsi sign is slowly peeling away, it's clear enough from a distance to let you know that Hughes Brothers is a grocery store. Up close, the crackled paint looks like abstract art. You have to move away from the wall to see the big graphic design, still holding its iconic image together as the paint pulls apart.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

reflections of a bank

reflections of a bank,
windows guarded by scrolled iron,
vault open, empty

Rain has streaked the double glass doors protected by iron scroll work of the Bank in Eldon. Seen through the glass, wooden chairs piled on top of each other, wooden benches set haphazardly in the middle of the floor, a pile of lumber, the Great American Seal inlaid on the floor, the door of the vault open, the glass door of a store across the street, next to a red Coca Cola sign, closed, bare trees in the distance held inside the reflections of an abandoned bank.

through contorted glass

through contorted glass
reflections of bent towers,
twisted threads of gold

A glass block window set into bricks admits light inside while obscuring the view from outside. Now there's not much to see in the dark interior of the Bank of Eldon except scraps of wood and a few pieces of antique furniture. I don't know when the stately bank with its marble Corinthian columns was built, but it may have been in the 1930s. That's when developments in machine production produced a well-sealed hollow block consisting of two halves of heat-proof glass pressed together. These glass blocks and red bricks will stand as long as the mortar holds them together in this little town which has abandoned its old bank.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

a vee of wild geese

a vee of wild geese
cross a pink pillar of light
above the vanished sun

What I see but you don't see is a vee of Canada geese flying across a pink pillar of light marking the spot where the sun just vanished below the horizon. By the the time I stop, the geese have flown on south. But the pink pillar of light lengthens and lingers long after the sun has set, until the golden glow fades from the western sky and the mackerel clouds turn from pink to gray.
          Scientists say that the solar pillar is not actually a vertical ray from the sun but rather the collective glints from millions of ice crystals high in the atmosphere. The small clumpy clouds that look like fish scales or a school of fish hovering above the pillar are altocumulus. These high, heaped clouds are formed by the lifting of air in advance of a cold front. The old proverb, "Mackerel scales and mare's tails make lofty ships carry low sails," refers to the common experience of clumpy or wispy clouds on a warm, humid summer morning followed by a thunderstorm later in the day, a warning that the ship should lower its sails to protect them from high winds. But this is winter, not summer, and the buttermilk clouds appear at sunset, followed by a tumult of stars.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

on a bed of hay

on a bed of hay
the baby encircled by
a host of wondering
animals, both tame and wild,
from far and near, drawn by light

The inspiration for our creche came from A Christmas Cat by Tasha Tudor, about a stray cat that gets a new home at Christmas. In the story, the children put their stuffed donkey and toy goat in the traditional manger scene with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We could do that too. The boys had some miniature animals: a donkey, two sheep, three rabbits, and three chickens, though no goat. I had a set of American Family dolls with a mother, father, baby, grandparents, a pioneer woman and a Native American girl. We set up the creche on the 19th century walnut kitchen hutch with its possum belly flour bins and collector plates on shelves behind glass doors. Throughout the child-raising years the collection grew: a cow, camel, elephant, horse, hedgehog, mouse, owl and a squirrel carrying a red ball like a gift for the baby. After the kids left home, I kept on collecting animals from all over the world to add to the menagerie: an ostrich and a kiwi, a pair of yaks, kashmir goats, lamas, a penguin, songbirds, a fox, a raccoon and, yes, a goat. Now when the grandchildren come at Christmas time, they see a host of animals all gazing in wonder at the baby, dressed in a yellow sleeper with a little red bird perched on his feet.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

cone of candlelight

cone of candlelight
illuminating the dark
cave of winter

Back in those days, the Christmas tree was always a freshly cut evergreen, never fake. After anchoring the tree in a metal stand, our father strung the electric lights. The bulbs, the size of his thumbs, came in alternating red, blue, green and yellow. My favorite lights were the bubble lights, which were introduced in America in 1946. Each light had a round fluted base, red or green, and a glass tube filled with colored liquid and pointed at the tip to look like a candle. A bulb heated the fluid in the base, which magically bubbled up through the tube. At the top of the tree, Daddy affixed the golden angel, which glowed from a little bulb inside. While the lights were going up, we kids strung popcorn and cranberries and made garlands from strips of colored paper glued into circles linked to form a chain. We carefully removed the delicate shiny tinsel from the box and draped the limp strands one by one on the branches. Next we added fragile glass balls or figurines. For awhile there was a fad of swaddling the tree in "angel hair" made of spun glass, probably not very safe.
          Our grandparent's lived on a farm in Southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from our home in St. Louis. Grandpa always cut a cedar tree from their property and set it up in the little enclosed porch off the living room. The cedar needles were a kind of rusty green and prickly, but it was decorated with blown-glass ornaments from Germany in all kinds of shapes: fruit, animals, stars.
          After I was old enough to have our own tree, we lived on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, in an old stone house built in the 1840s. I wanted to have a really old-fashioned Christmas tree, cut and brought into the house the day before Christmas and decorated with real candles. The tree had to be really fresh so it would not burn up when we lit the candles. I made candle holders out of walnut shell halves glued to spring clothespins. The little candles were hand dipped beeswax that smelled like honey when they were lit on Christmas Eve.
          When artificial trees began to appear, I could understand the benefit of not cutting down live trees, but I didn't like the fact that they were made of plastic, another drain on our natural resources. So when we moved to a farm in southeastern Iowa, I started buying a live tree every year from the local nursery, a small pine or spruce. While the ground was still soft, I dug a hole, set the potted tree in the hole and mulched heavily to keep the dirt from freezing and the roots from drying out. Just before Christmas we brought the tree inside for a few days. I continued the tradition of adding one new Christmas ornament every year, so those went on after the little blinking white lights, blown glass icicles and a star made from gold foil on top. After a few days, the tree went back out to be planted in its hole.
          This year I bought the tree early, but we had flooding all spring so I had to wait for the ground to dry out before digging a hole. I left the tree in its pot in a shaded place on the north side of the house. Then we had a drought all summer and the ground was too hard to dig a hole. I watered the tree, of course, but the needles started turning brown and falling off. Eventually it died, along with a number of shrubs, fruit and nut trees and one Christmas tree that had been growing just fine for years. I felt sad about the loss and decided not to do that to a live tree again. So I bought a tiered metal stand, a tree-shaped candelabra. In the holders I placed white beeswax candles. Right before Christmas I cut a few evergreen boughs and placed them on the five tiers, along with fresh tangerines and red apples. Between the candles I hung ornaments from my collection. On Christmas Eve I lit the candles and reveled in the remembered aroma of honey and soft candlelight gently chasing away the darkness.

Santa Claus arrives

Santa Claus arrives
in a one-horse open sleigh,
takes us for a ride

Santa Claus arrived in a sleigh pulled by a full-size horse, not eight tiny reindeer. He didn't  land on the snow-covered rooftop at night. Instead, he drove through the fresh fallen snow right up to the front door on Christmas morning. He was dressed all in red with white trim and black boots, and he had a long white beard, but he did not have a little round belly. He was tall and slender, like the depictions of the third century Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, or the Victorian English Father Christmas, rather than the "right jolly old elf" in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" written by Clement Clark Moore in 1822. Santa didn't smoke a pipe, but he did have twinkly eyes, rosy cheeks, a nose like a cherry and a jolly laugh. In fact, he laughed a lot like my red-headed Uncle Joe, who was sitting inside my grandparent's house with the other uncles and aunts. Much to our delight, Santa Claus took my older sister and me for a short ride in the one-horse open sleigh. Then he kindly posed for this photograph. You can see that it's a really old photo because it's black and white and square and perforated around the edges. So this is proof that Santa Claus is real because seeing is believing. Just don't believe everything you hear about him. Go by your own experience.

photo greeting card

photo greeting card --
two smiling girls with their mom
wish you Merry Christmas

Photo greeting cards are not new. This one is from sixty odd years ago. Our mother is wearing a dress with a sparkly costume jewelry pin on the wide pointed collar, a retro style that's come back around. My older sister and I are wearing dresses typical for little girls in the late 1940s, puffed sleeves, white collars. Mine has pinafore trim down the sides of the bodice. Little girls still wear similar styles, wide skirts, lots of ruffles. Some things change, some things stay the same, like my wish for you to enjoy the most merry Christmas ever and a truly happy new year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

from a spirit house

from a spirit house
Mathuska Olga's presence 
still helps her people

My younger sister feels a strong connection with anything Russian after spending a year there, so when we are in Alaska she drives 25 miles north of Anchorage to see St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church at Eklutna Heritage Park. Located on Cook Inlet, Eklutna was settled by the Ta nai na tribe of Athabascans around 800 years ago, and is the oldest inhabited community in the Anchorage area. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in the 1840s and built a log church in Knik in 1870, which was moved to Eklutna about 1900. It is considered the oldest log structure in Alaska. A larger clapboard church was built next to it in 1962.
          The church reflects a blending of native Athabascan practices with Russian Orthodox Christianity. This is particularly noticeable in the cemetery, established around 1650, with its spirit houses built on top of the graves. The priest who shows us around explains that different styles and colors indicate specific families and a marriage between two families results in a blend of colors.
          On a wall inside the church is a painting of Mathuska Olga Michael (1916-1979), a Yu'pik whose husband Nicolai Michael ran the general store and was postmaster for Eklutna, and later Archpriest. Mathuska Olga was also a midwife who gave birth to thirteen children, several without a midwife attending her, and eight of them survived to maturity. She was known for her empathy and caring nature for those who had suffered from abuse, especially sexual abuse. While her husband traveled to other parishes, she kept busy helping others, spending many hours making parkas, boots, socks and mittens not only for her own family but for others. Nearly everyone in the village had something made by her. She died in November, when snow and ice made traveling nearly impossible, but a southerly wind thawed the snow, making the trek possible for parishioners from neighboring villages to attend her funeral. On a spring-like day a flock of birds followed the mourners carrying her coffin and circled above the grave, though all other birds had long since flown south. The unprecedented thaw made it easy to dig the grave in the usually frozen ground, as if the earth opened to receive her. The next evening, the wind began to blow, the ground refroze and winter returned.
          Even after she departed, Mathuska Olga continued to provide help to many people. The following account, provided by Fr. John Shimchick of the Orthodox Church of America, comes from a woman who had suffered for many years from the consequences of severe sexual abuse experienced as a child.

          "One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods feeling still a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the woods followed by a fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary, dressed as she is in an icon, but more natural looking and brighter, walking toward me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise looking woman. I asked her, 'Who are you?' And the Virgin Mary answered, 'St. Olga.'
          "St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren't many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. She gestured for me to sit and she went inside. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun of our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.
          "Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and violets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of platform bed like a driftwood box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant. (I was not pregnant for real at that time.) I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding by arm, she pretended to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breath. She still hadn't said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed. I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.
          "Up until this she hadn't spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradually became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn't pay much attention to anything else. It was the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn't scary even though, at that time, I didn't know about people who literally shone with the love of God. I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back by own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.
          "After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write, the miracle of the peacefulness, and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.
          "Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said, 'That's a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.' I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame, and helplessness I felt. We had labored together and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the 'incense' that it wasn't my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God's, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is. At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light (the northern lights). Either Matushka Olga said, or we both heard in our hearts, that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing, great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort."
          Matushka Olga, wife of Archpriest Nikolai of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, member of the Real People as the Native Alaskans call themselves, midwife and healer, a Real Mrs. Santa Claus.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

winter solstice sun

winter solstice sun
setting red beneath orange clouds,
heralding summer

The shortest day of the year in our part of the globe, chilly wind from the northwest, gray all day. At sunset the orange-red orb peeks between flaming clouds. "Red at night, farmer's delight." Sure enough, the sky clears and stars wink on. With the moon in its dark phase, we should have a good view of the Ursid meteor shower peaking later tonight, with sparks of light pouring out of the Little Dipper, streaking away from the Little Bear like fireworks. Down below, holiday lights on houses, trees, bushes and lamp posts brighten the gloom while we wait for the sun to stop standing still and begin to rise further south each day.
          Celebration of the winter solstice goes back at least 30,000 years, when people held festivals of light to ensure the return of summer. Many ancient stone structures were designed to observe solar events such as the winter and summer solstices. Stonehenge, perhaps the best known, is aligned to point to the winter solstice at sunset.
          My first view of Stonehenge is from a hilltop overlooking the Salisbury plain, not long after the summer solstice. Above a field of golden wheat bordered with red poppies, the standing stones look like a child's building blocks piled on a green carpet. Up close, we discover that the site is enclosed by a chain link fence and the stones are roped off. Visitors walk around the circle at a distance but are not permitted inside the temple. However, this year an English Heritage special access tour allowed a group of 1,000 to stand inside the circle and observe sunrise at the winter solstice, when the central Altar aligns with the Slaughter Stone, the Heel Stone and the rising sun to the northeast. This spectacular sight was followed by a Druid fire ceremony celebrating the rebirth of the sun. 
          Rebirth is a major theme of many holidays at this time of year. Many modern Christmas traditions celebrating the birth of Jesus can be traced back to ancient Celtic practices, which are still practiced by Pagans to this day. The Druids call their winter solstice celebration Alban Arthuan, "the Light of Arthur," because they believe that King Arthur was born at the winter solstice. Alban Arthuan is also known as Yule, "the Wheel of the Year." The Yule log is lit on the eve of the winter solstice from the remains of the previous year's log and allowed to burn for twelve hours for good luck. The Yule tree is decorated with lights to represent the sun, moon and stars, and gifts are hung on the tree as offerings to the various deities. Holly was revered because it remained green when the sacred oak lost its leaves and holly was placed on doors as protection from evil spirits. Mistletoe, "All Heal," was believed to have all kinds of miraculous powers: healing, giving fertility, protecting from witchcraft and bringing good luck. It was so sacred that if enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting and maintain the truce until the following day. From this arose the modern practice of hanging mistletoe in a doorway as a sign of peace and good will. So the ancient traditions continue, transformed but not forgotten.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

monks in maroon robes

monks in maroon robes
gather at the Great Stupa
to pray for victims
of the earthquake that destroyed
Taklung monastery

Today a group of Buddhist monks in their dark red robes are sitting in a group on Bouddhanath's lowest platform. We are told that they are praying for the victims, living and deceased, of the earthquake that struck Kyegundo, Kham, in eastern Tibet on 14 April 2010. The earthquake destroyed the entire village, killing over 1400 people. Even more devastating for Tibetans was the collapse of the 800-year-old Taklung monastery. Stupas on the hillside toppled, but many of the stone Buddha still sit serenely. While the monks chant, we sit cross-legged on the edge of the gathering to meditate. Afterwards we join Tibetans performing kora, circumambulating the stupa, turning prayer wheels and chanting with their prayer beads.

          Meanwhile, life goes on around Bouddhanath: women selling corn to feed the pigeons, vendors selling vegetables, blind musicians playing, a woman making beaded bracelets, dogs sleeping in the sunshine.