Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

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The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

Going Home: leaving the Centre of the World

mountain 3Air Canada has generously allowed me to change the return date of my $1700 ticket for an additional $210 and I am returning to Toronto -in the comfort of the economy class cabin- on Monday. (As constant readers know, serious illness here in California kept me five months instead of two weeks.) The ticket was bought two hours before I flew down, ergo the high price. Yes, I paid for insurance, which refused to pay out because I knew there was an emergency when I left, and extra for luggage. I intend to thwart the airline of an additional $75 for a second bag by mailing my summer clothes.

Having dealt with that business, I have moved on to emotional impact.

First of all, I have to leave paradise, what I called Shangri-La in May posts, when I first visited and which I later called the Centre of the World, as the Chumash tribe does.

I have talked about the 3 year long drought, bears prowling the village, wildfire on the mountain and early snow. There is potential for large animals on the winding mountain roads as well as ice. There are signs that say,, “Expect to use chains at any time”, amusing enough when the temperature is 100 degrees F. but in  dead earnest. I haven’t mentioned that our ultra-friendly village sits in a valley shaped by the San Andreas Fault.

But I have also talked about the clear mostly silent skies , blue by day and unbelievably star-filled by night. There are no street lights and there is an ordinance against light pollution. Trees, mostly pine, climb the 8500 ft. peak of Mt. Pinos as well as the lesser slopes of the San Emigdio Mountain range and their breathing purifies the air. Here at 5500 ft. the aspens and poplars are florescent yellow now. The house in the pines is under a steep slope above a pond. House and pond are darkening by 4:45.

When snow fell on Hallowe’en, flocks of birds came down from the mountains. One morning there were many Brown Thrasers and others looking for food on the ground. The Stellers Jays, which amused me in May, flit back and forth between the trees, entertaining Clara and me when we drink our morning tea on the deck of my other, hillside  home. Woodpeckers search for grubs, head down on a pine tree. One jay likes to land on the deck rail and stare at the open door as if waiting for breakfast. But feeding a bird is inviting a bear. A hawk sat in a tall tree at the house in the pines this morning. Yesterday, the family golfer saw an immature condor. His first clue that it was an enormous bird was the slowness of its wings.

There is a horse trail that runs 3 miles down to an immense pine, over 20 ft around and 600 to 1000 years old. There are many other hiking trails. The Chumash Wilderness is accessible only by an ancient trail, which the firefighters had to use to get to the fire and crush out the spots the helicoptered water didn’t hit.

Our patient can do the 6 1/2 mile hike to the big tree. I cannot.

There are other amazing things about this place, for example, I can leave here in my fur-hooded jacket in near freezing temperatures and drive to Bakersfield where it is 90 degrees -altitude and an hour’s driving – north.

Not a bad place to find yourself marooned!

Then I will be leaving behind the close companionship that developed in the family as we struggled with a potentially fatal illness. At first we were united by grief and fear and general angst and now by joy that we have found a way to manage the disease. Our patient no longer needs constant care, even though she is still recovering.

Then there is the actual arrival home to deal with, walking in the door of my home. I confess I am afraid of that. I am told that since no one has lived there for 5 months, the dust will be only a light film not the greasier stuff that cooking and shedding skin cells produces. I did ask my sister to make my bed. I leapt out of it on June 4th when I got the phone call and started booking my ticket and throwing stuff into a suitcase. It’s as if I feel that the place is going to reprimand me for neglecting it.

I visualize it, the pictures on the walls, most of them painted by friends, except for the large photograph of the Seine by night, the Fiestaware cups on the sideboard, the bright rugs, the big rocking chair, so I will be familiar with it.

I have made about 55 trips to Southern California, two of them for several month’s stay and I always find the adjustment back to a long distance relationship with my family here difficult for a few days, not to mention adapting to Toronto, a colder place in every sense of the word.

This time, however, I will be taking back a different self, one more confident in support that transcends earthly connections, comforting as they have proved to be. I have the beauty and peace of this place securely memorized. I will have the memory of sitting alone, tearing a baguette for croutons, and suddenly feeling that I really was at the centre of life, at the centre of what Greek legend calls Eros.

 

 

Easter Retrospective

115 journals

journaling, reading as strategies for survival and change

pagan Christ

I am re-posting this from last year. Of course Easter was not early this year, but given the weather we are still having, those Easter clothes of yesteryear would be too cold.

I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year -2013. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.

In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.

Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.

My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming  back for more.

This Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.

As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.

Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus.  He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.

By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.

At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”

On a less serious note: this year, 2014, the local Jehovah Witnesses invited me to a memorial for the death of Jesus Christ. That’s what I call a zinger.

Valentine’s Day: reconsidered

Romantic love has co-opted February 14th. Hard to believe that is what St. Valentine was all about,although Wikipedia would have us believe that he championed courtly love. Just to be clear courtly love is all about poetry and wearing a lady’s favour, not something sweaty.

It’s turned into a festival of red roses and chocolate. And heartbreak. Not evough cards in the classroom valentine box. No engagement ring again this year. He/she actually forgot. That convenience store bouquet. Dinner out in a much too crowded restaurant with bad service. The roses you bought for yourself drooped over next day.

Let’s re-conceive the idea.

Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love, the feast of the god of love or God of Love, if you prefer. Whether that is Eros or something other dude, up to you. Change the gender if it helps. Now let’s take a look.

Feel your most beautiful feeling. Remember it. Imagine it. Picture its beauty. The full moon in August hanging over the Tioga Pass is a good one. The effervescent foam on the moonlit gulf of Corinth. Use your own.

Now focus deeply within.

Perhaps you will hear yourself say “You are more beautiful.  More beautiful than all the red roses, all the red hearts, all the chocolate given and received. More beautiful than sunlight. More beautiful than warmth on a snowy day. More beautiful than _____(name a recent or beloved new born baby.) More beautiful than ____ (name your most beloved animal and/or person).” You get the drift. Just keep piling it on, naming gardens and places, islands, mountains, individuals, whatever warms your heart.

Does it happen? Do you begin to know that that great beauty and love lives there? Repeat as necessary.

Love does dwell within.

 

 

Winter Blues

“Pile Driver Blues” was an a cappella opus, I made up one weekend when I found myself trapped in a San Fransisco airport hotel during construction. I sang it to a two year-old as I pushed him in a stroller around the concrete. Next door was the infernal, 12 hour a day, ground-shaking pile driver. It was not my last encounter with the blues. January seems to breed them.

Does it pay to examine their origin closely? Holiday hangover? Weather fallout? Economic downturn? Legitimate grief? Fatigue? All of the above? Information is always useful, I suppose, and may provide perspective.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the treatise on ancient Chinese medicine, sees it as a good and necessary way to slow us down in winter so that we get enough rest to consolidate our strength.

Early this morning, my sister Georgia, alerted to my winter blues, phoned to prescribe Northrop Frye’s Double Vision Chpt. 3. I was taken aback, to say the least. I was on my way to a tai chi class, however, so I tabled the suggestion.

Two hours later, I was back home, stretched and invigorated, but bluer than ever. I tried a nap and woke up ready to try her idea. I found Double Vision on-line and began reading. What do you know, she might be onto something.

Chapter 3 is called “The Double Vision of Time” and begins with a description of the tragedy of time. “It seems probable that the basis for consciousness … is the awareness that the uneasy pact between body and soul will dissolve sooner or later..”  The body’s drive to survive makes us suppress our consciousness of this as much as possible or, at the very least, to convince ourselves that we are not going to die at once. The result, however, is a “subdued anxiety”, or quiet desperation, according to Frye, scholar, critic, a fellow Torontonian, and 78 years-old when he wrote that (1912-1991).

Ordinarily, we see time as horizontal and linear, comprised of past, present and future, although all attempts to grasp “Now” prove illusive. It barely emerges from the past before it vanishes into the future. Moreover, its progress involves a kind of repetition which Frye describes as parabolic as is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare’s seven stages of man, beginning and ending in helplessness. (“All the world’s a stage..” As You Like It II, vii) “Thus the tragic aspect of time in which every moment brings us toward death.” The double vision of time involves superimposing a vertical dimension, in which all time exists at once.

In practical terms, we can free ourselves from time by “genuine achievement” in everything that matters and that can be accomplished by the building of habit through “incessant practice”. Practicing the piano, for example, repetitively playing scales and practice pieces eventually allows us to break through to the freedom of accomplishment. Thus we come to an “enlarged sense of the present moment”. Experience and awareness are one. Now we are in the “Now”. This intensity is spiritual connection, the vertical dimension, enlightenment.

Right. I think I get it. I do have a number of practices: tai chi, journal writing, cooking, blogging. If I just keep at them, with intention, I’ll break through to a timeless moment? And such a moment will surely be free of the Blues.

The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: I didn’t come here of my own accord
                  And I can’t leave that way.
                  Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.

Considering Loss at Thanksgiving

Recently, I lost my usual social group. It’s because of the flood, the basement flood at the tai chi club I attended two or three times a week. It wasn’t even a very deep flood, not what others in my town experienced that July 8th when the heavens opened, but deep enough to cause a flowering of mould or noxious fungi. Initially, it smelled like charred wood. When no one else seemed to smell it, I knew I was in trouble. A blinding headache confirmed my suspicion. I withdrew. I raised an alarm. This was a health hazard, I said. The contractor who dealt with the building agreed. The rug had to be pulled up and the floor treated with anti-fungal cleaner.

It is now three months later. The rug is still there and so is the over-growth of fungus.

I tried visiting a month ago. As soon as I walked in the door, I got light-headed. Surely, I would adapt. Half an hour later, I kept saying I had to go because my head was aching, but I seemed incapable of taking myself out the door. Walking toward my car, I knew it was the beginning of the end. On Friday, I turned in my key. The instructor who took it asked me how long it takes me to get to the club I now attend.

It is true that I am now going to another location of the same outfit, half an hour closer than the mouldy one, a spacious, airy building that brings to mind Hemingway’s “clean, well lighted place”. But it lacks the 50 or so familiar faces I used to gab to and the four good friends I had made there.

There is a good deal of self-pity involved. I had been going to that club for eleven years and was instrumental in its membership expansion, in upgrading the building and in fund-raising. Every so often, I am given public credit for this. Don’t want it. Want a de-fungused basement.

Give that up, Joyce. You did it. Now it’s done. Have the grace not to snivel.

So I took Magic Erasers into the new club and scrubbed the baseboards before class. I talk to absolutely everyone who will give me the time of day. I take food in for potluck lunches. There’s got to be a pony under this pile of — fungus.

In other news: the cottage I love is being sold. We will not be able to rent it next year. A beloved house in Southern California is being lost to bankruptcy, a loss which reminds me of an earlier loss that I spoke of in my post about The Great Gatsby. https://115journals.com/2013/05/17/the-great-gatsby-a-personal-response/

Worst of all and no joking matter, a young relative is dying. I do not claim that this will actually be my loss, because I am peripheral. It is, nevertheless, a source of grief, all the more because it reminds me that I very nearly lost someone much closer. https://115journals.com/2013/01/06/shed-come-undone/

Roots are being torn up. I pulled two fat carrots out of a garden a few days ago. They are destined to join parsnips and turnip in a mash-up tomorrow. Heat, butter, nutmeg and sea salt will transform them into a mouth-watering Thanksgiving delight. (A Canuckian Thanksgiving) And I know that these changes are also transformative, but, like the carrots, I don’t yet see what we are becoming. I catch glimpses – a new home for one of us among mountain pines, my renewed friendship with my ex-husband after 30 years estrangement and various spiritual books assure me that the young man is about to be changed into “something rich and rare”.

Blake has observed that if we had stayed together in that house under the hill, skimming the leaves out of the pool and feeding the birds outside the patio door, we would be stodgy and rigid. He doesn’t add “whereas we are flexible, large-minded and open-hearted”. But of course we silently believe we have made a transformation of that order.

So for that change, at least, I am grateful.

Your Immense Heart – re-posted

This morning it seemed like a good idea to re-post this.

A jar floating in the river
Has river in it. The city lives in the room. Think of the world
as the jar and your immense
heart as the river.
Rumi – Coleman Bark’s translation in The Soul of Rumi p. 295

Apparently, Rumi is currently the best selling poet in America. He is the 13th century Sufi, born in Afghanistan, who fled Genghis Khan and went to live in Persia. Coleman Barks, his translator, has brought him to our attention. There are other translators certainly, but I am familiar with this one and came across the lines I have quoted high above the blue Pacific on my way to Maui. I kept running them through my mind so that, by the time, I saw the double rainbow over the ocean on the Hana road, I had committed them to memory. It seemed a wonderful thing that, instead of being carried along by the current of the world, my heart was the great river that bore the world along.

Well, easy enough to know the immensity of the heart when it is full of joy as it was then. Not so easy in times of fear and loathing. And disappointment and frustration, and loss and failure and recession and depression and so on until we end up with Grinch-sized hearts, hearts that need the jaws of life to pry them open. Little tiny hearts such as Connor  (“Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, posted May 30) must have had in the end.

Open-heartedness like a river accepts everything and sweeps it up in its embrace. It does not hold back to assess a situation, deciding perhaps that here, compassion is called for or there, that empathy is in order, that this is just and right and valuable whereas that is not. It doesn’t involve effort or reason. It isn’t deserved. It is more like grace.

Big-hearted people, the Falstaffs that we meet, give us a glimpse into open-heartedness although we may dismiss them as tiresome good-time fellows. But the open heart is not necessarily ‘Hail-fellow-well-met’.

The open heart sees things in a positive light. What seems negative is just misunderstood, for always life is carrying us on in the right direction, the direction our soul is seeking in spite of where we think we ought to be or go.

But how to come to such an inclusive, accepting, positive frame of mind can be a difficult question. We each have to find our own way. Someone might begin with gratitude. Someone might arrive by being in love. Some by family love. Some by love of a pet, some of nature. To be truly open-hearted will always mean expanding beyond those beginnings and, for example, including everyone in that beloved family, loving your mother-in-law as much as your cat, for example, your political opponent as much as your child.

It is not a way of being that comes naturally to us yet, but I believe that technology is coming to our assistance. The internet can serve as one immense heart as well as mind. We share our thoughts instantly and spontaneously now and we have the opportunity to be more empathetic.

In another poem, Rumi says we are cups floating in the ocean and we should strive to wet our lips.

Easter Retrospective

I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.

In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.

Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.

My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming  back for more.

This past Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.

As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.

Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus.  He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.

By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.

At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”.