UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

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Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.

David

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LEAVING OUR DAILY LIVES TO RETURN ANEW: ROBERT FROST’S BIRCHES

There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.

As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:

BIRCHES

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer of air and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.

If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.

This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:

Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.

And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)

Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:

I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer…

Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.

And now Frost discusses swinging technique:

He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.

Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.

The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.

And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.

In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.

David

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Every year about this time I like to re-post this:

Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year. Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

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That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter. That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter. I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —

… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas. There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others, who may not call it by the same name, “Merry Christmas.” The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season. As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing: The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity. To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter. That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring. And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

English: Ilex species; Common Holly. I noticed...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol. Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us. The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life. That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality. It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

God Bless Us, Every One!

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation. We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean. But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death. Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday season, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice. However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like the altered Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life. It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well. It is a part of our spiritual journey.

David

GLAD YULE!

In two days — December 21st — comes Great Yule, the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  It is the bottom of the Wheel of the Year, the point at which the forces of Yang are at their weakest and Yin at its strongest, through the effects of that will not be felt for about another month.

wsolstitiajpg

It is also the time, as our ancestors knew, when the arc of the sun across the sky is at its lowest point, closest to the earth.  They saw this as the time when, as things in the universe looked to be at their most gloomy, the sun was then reborn, and so its arc across the sky would begin rising higher and higher, the days would begin growing longer, and warmth and light would gradually return to the world.  No wonder it was seen as an important time to celebrate and “make merry.”

Later, of course, the Christian Church took advantage of this, and began celebrating what it decided to be the feast of the birth of Jesus close to the time of the Solstice.  That is not surprising, because the day of the rebirth of the “Unconquered Sun” was an important celebration in Rome at the beginning of that millennium, and Church officials “co-opted” it to take advantage of that, with their notion that Jesus was the “Sun of Righteousness,” and that he, as a god, was born at that time too.  Of course no one really knew when Jesus was born (or even for sure if the Jesus as depicted variously in the New Testament even was ever a definite historical figure), but at that time all was politics and propaganda. Even churches began to be  erected with an East-West alignment.

You have probably heard the old Gregorian chant once used as a lead-in to the Christmas season, now often sung as a carol at Christmas,  O Come O Come Emmanuel, referring to Jesus.  One verse of it (in Latin) is:

Veni, veni, O Oriens;
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras.

Come, come, O Rising Sun
Shine on us in your coming,
Dispel the clouds of night,
And drive away night’s shadows.

With no change at all, that verse would make a good Yule song.

Yule, then, is a time to rejoice in the knowledge that the cold and privations of winter will not last forever, because the sun and light will return, and we will no longer see the old and harsh face of Mother Nature, but shall see her once more as the beautiful young maiden of springtime.

Yule brings us light and hope and rejoicing at the time of greatest darkness in the world.

Glad Yule, everyone!

David

PERCHTENLAUF: MOTHER NATURE IN WINTER’S HARSHNESS

I do not want to let another holiday season pass without talking a bit about the Perchtenlauf.

If you have never heard of it, that is because it is an old winter tradition kept in the mountains of southern Germany, Austria, and the Tyrol.  To understand it, you first of all have to know the meaning of the word “Perchten.”

Actually, we should look first at the form Perchta, also seen as Berchta, which was the name of a pre-Christian Nature deity, whom we can think of as being our “Mother Nature.”  Perchta, whose name means “Bright,” was a goddess who had two aspects.  In the warm and light days, such as in spring, she was a beautiful, shining maiden.  But in the cold, hard days of deep winter, she was a frightful old hag with a broom.  That shows us the two faces of Nature at two very different times of the year.

Perchten2
Perchta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perchta and her accompanying spirits of Nature and of animals came down out of the snowy hills to human habitations in the days between Christmas and Twelfth Night.  Like Santa Claus, who knew when you were good or bad, Perchta would come invisibly into homes to make sure the spinning was properly and diligently done, and that all was in tidy order.  If it was not, punishment would follow.

The frightful spirits who travelled with Perchta became known as Perchten themselves, and that is the origin of the name “Perchtenlauf.”  The “Lauf” part refers to the course upon which the Perchten travel to visit the mountain villages.

On the Internet you will find all kinds of interesting and entertaining photos and videos of the Perchtenlauf in various places in the Germanic-speaking mountains.  The Perchten today are often teams of young men who dress up in full and often very scary costumes, coming into the village sometimes with great racket and torches,  and with switches to “punish” various people they might meet along the way, not surprisingly often young women.

The interesting thing about the Perchtenlauf for me is that it shows the survival of the very ancient pre-Christian beliefs of the mountain people even into the age of computers and cell phones, and it also tells us something about ourselves and our relationship to Nature.

If you are a reader of the Brothers Grimm tales (if you are not, you should be), you may recall the old story of Frau Holle, “Mother Hulda,” in which two different girls, one diligent and one lazy, go at different times down a well and find themselves in a strange land where an old lady asks them to work in her house.  She tells the diligent girl to be careful to give the feather bed a good shaking so that the feathers fly, because when she does so, it snows in the world.   Frau Holle / Mother Hulda is just another and more northerly name for Perchta, and when it snowed in those parts of Germany, people could say that “Frau Holle” was making her bed.

The Perchtenlauf has become a popular and very anticipated event in mountain villages in Germanic Europe, and if anything it seems to be spreading even more widely than before.  Very elaborate horned masks are carved skillfully from wood, then painted, and there are whole hairy costumes that go with them.  American mountain towns could no doubt increase their winter tourism if they were to adopt the annual winter “Perchtenlauf.”

But for us, the Perchtenlauf reminds us that Nature is not always bright and sunny, but has a cold and chill and difficult side as well, which we feel most in the frost and ice and snow of winter.  Imagine, then, how winter must have seemed to people centuries ago, isolated in their mountain villages and trying to make it through that time of hardship with enough food and enough firewood so that they might survive to see Perchta’s more shining and favorable aspect with the coming of spring.  In terms of hokku and its spiritual foundations, the bright and beautiful and young side of Perchta in the spring is her Yang aspect, but in the winter we see her cold and aged Yin aspect, as frightening for us as winter for our ancestors.

Frau-Holle

David