Spring is astonishing

I work in technology, and the epicenter of technology is in California. I have thought a lot about living in California, and repeatedly decided that I did NOT want to live in California. Many people transplanted to California talk about how they miss “the seasons”. I mean, paradise is great but it has no variety. I sometimes wonder in the dreariest days of early April (when according to the seasons I learned at the hands of English poets spring should be well along) whether the seasons are all that much to brag about.

May has had it’s fair share of showers

But then, oh glorious May! There is this thing that happens to color and sunlight in May that beggars explanation. It’s as though your eyes put on a saturation lens. Every color – from the blandest grays to the chartreuse grasses and indigo skies – looks more vibrant than you remember the world looking. The phlox is unrealistically pink, and soft to the touch. Fragrances – long forgotten out of doors – waft on the soft winds bringing news of nearby lilacs (my favorite flower). The way the golden light bends over playing children long into the evening hours seems like a double bounty. Not only is it a glorious, beautiful and rich light, but it lingers longer.

Spring is an excellent time for ambition. Oh, not as great as Fall. There is no better time for the embarking on great adventures than September (as Tolkien well knew). But when you step outside to mow your lawn for the first time in a calendar year and contemplate the land allotted to you, it occurs to you it’s not enough. You should put in a flower bed. You should plant some pansies. Heck, maybe you should buy out your back door neighbor’s yard and add it to your own! (I confess that latter is a fantasy I’ve entertained. Tragically, that neighbor has no interest in selling.)

Spring is the time of year when you make gardening commitments your July self will deeply rue. You know that, of course. Everyone knows spring decisions are unreliable. But you can’t help yourself. You don’t want to help yourself. You want to believe, in spring, that all things really are made new and you yourself are a different person. A greater person than you’ve been before. A person who will weed all year round.

My next door neighbor is just such a person. (If you’re one of the cognoscenti of my street, no this isn’t any of my neighbors you know.) Every year since they moved in they’ve seeded their lawn with new grass seed. They even usually water it (thereby going one up on me and my “only the strong will survive” attitude towards grass seed). But they don’t believe in actually MOWING said lawn. Those newly minted blades of grass poking up through the “one-step” grass seed/fertilizer & soil mixes will be grow unmolested until August, at which point they’ll be crudely mown (by a weed-whacker I believe) for the sole time in the year. (Unless I get sick of it and sneak over and mow it first, which is deeply tempting.) Still every spring, they plant. You can’t fail to admire optimism like that.

Proto plum

I have continued to follow the progress of my plum tree with avid interest. The winter moths have not arrived. I don’t know if that’s “yet” or if they’ve been successfully suppressed. I have found today a tiny, embryonic plum. I haven’t given much thought to the growth patterns of fruit, but since you generally only see the flower and the fruit, I thought the inbetween stages somewhat invisible – the ridiculousness of which belief becomes apparent as quickly as writing it down. They are indeed there, those minute plums. The one I spotted is less than the size of an olive pit – much less. But it is there.

The tragedy of my spring is that I am not overambitious just once (or even twice a year). I suffer from chronic overambition. I would say that this year has been extra super ridiculously busy, but if I’m honest with myself it’s actually only a notch or two busier than usual. A good portion of the extra busyness comes from the Pastor Nominating Committee, which I’m chairing. We’re meeting three times this week. And for a total of about 6 horus. And I have homework on top of that. The efficiency maven in me keeps looking at how we might do this faster & better, but it’s a process that resists shortcuts.

This guy would like you to know he is NOT a spiritualist and does not condone the ridiculous stuff his son gets up to. His son, meanwhile, has his name on the plot in no less than FIVE spots.

I find myself caught between two powerful feelings – on one hand the feeling that this is all to much and I absolutely have to slow down. On the other hand, there’s this pressing and persistent guilt for all the things I have not done, which I have not put my hand to. I do absolutely nothing for the PTO. I would love to do more things with town history, but I’ve never even used the brand new microfiche machine in our library. (Although I’ve dispatched others for information found therein!) I really want to put up a sign marking the Nobility Hill Historic district. Two in fact. I just need designs. And money. Those just need… time. I haven’t seen half my friends in far too long. I turn down party invitations I’d rather attend. I don’t have season tickets to the theater. I don’t practice my trumpet. And I wish I spent more time with my kids. They’re neat people. It’s been ages since I attempted anything complicated in the kitchen. And the prime time of foraging season is here and I have not set foot in the woods.

In my defense, this weekend I did see “Guardians of the Galaxy” (both 1 and 2) with my kids. I finished reading “The Two Towers” for the, uh, I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. But when you have your own personal “director’s cut” (which I *didn’t* read) you may have read it rather often. I did a ton of PNC work. I cleaned up the “clothes to donate” pile. I took a 3 hour tour of Lindenwood Cemetery. (GUYS! Stoneham was a hotbed of spiritualism! The ghost stories just write themselves, really…) We went out to dinner with the gift certificate we were given in gratitude for rescuing a hiker last year. I played two board games. I attended one soccer game (our team won!). I went to church, and the International Potluck afterwards. We saw Gabriel at the theater with the boys (it was excellent!). I mowed the lawn and the space where I want to put the “Nobility Hill” sign. We went for a run. I made dinner & we watched “Bertie & Jeeves”. And then I realized I had no idea what to write for a blog post and went for the extremely creative “well what’s the weather like” prompt.

And honestly, this was not a super duper busy weekend. Not even the fullest spring-intoxication can beguile more commitments out of me!

Thane was a very effective goalie!

One last word on spring. I’ve often contemplated the shift in metaphor that separates us from our forepoets. Both Homer and Keats – worlds & thousands of years apart – have seen real live sheep in the flesh. They know what they are to the touch. What a clean pelt feels like. How a contented sheep sounds. These are things that thousands of years of history have in common with each other. And they are things which have abruptly been removed from the common experience – or at best made isolated and rare. The rich metaphors are drying out in a world that no longer does the things we’ve always done.

But the seasons still remain. The stars have faded (when is the last time you glanced out and the sky was clear enough you could see the Milky Way?). The livestock are gone from our lives. We neither sow nor spin nor shear nor reap (the latter being especially true for my neighbor). So what remains as connection is all the more precious. The seasons remain. The daffodils still bloom, as once they did. Our hearts are “pricked” and we long to go on “pilgrimages”, just as Chaucer said. Even as much falls away, or becomes an intellectual adventure, we still share those seasons with those who came before us.

And that, my friends, is why I will not move to California.

Goslings are cute. Geese are jerks.

Poetry and Song

My toast to Bobbie Burns
My toast to Bobbie Burns

One of my favorite nights of the year is Burns Night, hosted by my dear friends Dave and Maggie.* The hallmarks of Burns Night, in addition to the Haggis and Scotch, are poetry and song. On the best of the nights, we’ve taken turns – breathless – in the living room sharing words and music. We usually begin with actual songs and poems written by Robbie Burns. (“My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” often gets sung more than once.) We recite his poetry. (Cally’s rendition of “Ode to a Haggis” is breathtaking.) Dave reads “Address to the Deil”.

Somewhere around an hour in, one of us gives the Toast to Robbie Burns. I was on duty a few years ago and actually read a biography of the Bard of Scotland. Since then, I’ve been on duty in case there’s some failure of speaker to arrive.

Then we start slipping into the vaguely Celtic. Adam does his priceless rendition of “Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man”. Maggie’s father lifts a mournful voice for “Kathleen Mavourneen”. There’s Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson – by heart or from the books that lay scattered at our feet.

We slide fully into just poetry, and just song. Nick recites Kite. We belt out “Barrett’s Privateers”. Cori’s liquid voice slides through “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. The night ends swaying, holding hands, singing “Auld Lange Syne” (all verses) while looking into the eyes and hearts of these people to whom we have grown suddenly, unaccountably close through these greatest magic-makers: poetry and song. We have all fallen in love with each other in the silence after the singing. I leave with a joyful heart, and can’t wait for the next year.

But I’ve never done it at one of my parties, for all my love and passion for it. Why not? I’ve wondered often.

During Christmas and Easter, I often stand at the front of the church as I play my trumpet. It’s a day a lot of visitors come, of course, and I can watch them as they worship with us. There’s a particular kind of visitor I haven’t quite come to understand yet. The stand with the congregation during the hymns. They often even hold the hymnal in their hands. But they remain stoically silent – jaws clenched and unmoving as the rest of us sing. I wonder: are they there against their wills? Do they think they “can’t sing”? (Do they think we can?!) Do they think that church is something you watch, instead of something you do?

Last year I toasted decked in my tam
Last year I toasted decked in my tam – thanks to Joe for the picture!

That is – I think – the heart of it. We have become a world of watchers. We don’t sound good enough. We aren’t skilled enough. We were told when we were little that we can’t carry a tune. Please, for heaven’s sake be quiet. We all hear the world’s best musicians and artists (remixed, studio supported) every day. How can our voice compete? It can’t. And so we shut up. And our neighbor/friend/partner/kid is also not nearly as good as what’s on the radio, so we make fun of them. We have an entire tv genre built around making fun of people for thinking they can sing. In truth, the moment Adam and I first met was over our shared defiance of this cultural norm. He was walking down the hall of our dorm singing “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”. Instead of giving him the “you’re weird” look, I picked up the chorus. (Prescient, eh?)

I love to sing, even though my voice is decidedly mediocre. I love to hear my friends sing – even if they’ll never be Brandy Clark** I love to look in their sincere and vulnerable faces as they recite a poem they learned by heart when they were fourteen. I love Nick’s sock puppet hand, Callie’s slicing of the Haggis, Dave’s delightful “deil” and Cori’s key change on “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. On those Sundays when I couldn’t find faith in my heart, I still came to church to sing the old old songs with my friends until faith could find its way back.

Where to go from here? I wish I could call on you all to sing – in public, with your friends. But even I’m too chicken (too wise? too often shot down? too defeated?) to call my friends to song. Perhaps instead I can remind you that the joy is not in the passive listening, it is in the listening to a friend. There is something about singing together which is powerful and precious. Sing to each other, my beloved companions. Quote poems. Sing to me. And together we can fill the world with a joyful noise.

Thane (top row) singing at his school’s winter concert

* New people at Burns Night sometimes ask how I know Dave or Maggie. My favorite reply is that I married him/her. It’s true. I did.
** I don’t remember ever hearing Brandy play guitar or sing in high school. I can’t remember if she was even in choir, and I’m pretty sure she never got a solo in our high school concerts.

My Truant Pen

I don’t think I’ve ever explained here where the name of my blog comes from. In college, I tried to memorize one scrap from every English class I was in. It was the Clerk’s Portrait from Canterbury Tales for Chaucer. For Medieval Epic and Romance, I picked my favorite sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.

Sonnet 1:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

Sir Philip Sidney 1591

Odysseus

So I’m reading “The Odyssey” at a pace best described as glacial. I’m on Book 5, where Odysseus has sex with a goddess but doesn’t really enjoy it.

Anyway, many of you will know that my degree is in Medieval studies. What I really studied was early music and literature. I read Chaucer and Song of Roland and Spencer and Milton and Shakespeare and Chretien de Troyes and pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. (OK, that’s not entirely true. I’ve had “Piers Plowman” sitting on my bookshelf since Jr. Year and I still can’t bring myself to read it.)

During this whole time I idly wondered how these brilliant writers of yore shared this vast and unified command of Greek mythology. Shakespeare, Donne, Milton … they all refer to the same pantheon and clearly expect their readers to be familiar as well. They didn’t have Bullfinches mythology. (Where did that come from anyway?) They didn’t have some Greek Bible laying out the theology. They had some Aristotle and his philosiphia… basically, I idly wondered for a long time about this but never bothered to think hard about it or, you know, look it up or ask someone.

I suspect you see where this is going.

Duh.

Homer.

I really should’ve known that.

What about you? What’s something that played an important role in an area where you are theoretically an expert, but you just never figured out some incredibly obvious connection? Have you ever had something like this crop up with you?

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats

September the 5th

This time of year is making me think of poetry. As I drive into work there’s a tree that is apparently calendar conscious. When we left before Labor Day it was green, and now it is tinged with fiery red around the edges. The change this morning is that a few leaves have fallen from it. There can be no denying that autumn is upon us.

Today’s poem is Shakespeare — but I don’t remember it all.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs rough-shaken by the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where once the sweet bird sang…

I have done a bad thing this summer. By my standards, I have read almost nothing in several months. And what I have read has been entirely fluff. I think that part of my exhaustion comes from the fact I have not escaped into the fantasy world that is available to me through books. I need that, I think. As much as I need exercise, or good food, or vegetation, I need fantasy.

There are three worlds we humans inhabit: the world of the flesh, the world of the mind, and the world of the soul. I am living far too much in the world of the flesh — the impermanent one where satisfaction is fleeting. The other two worlds are what inform, strengthen and bring meaning to the factual, physical world. And I have neglected them. When I move, perhaps, I can reclaim my citizenship to them — or at very least, pay an extended visit.