Music for the Holidays

Very belatedly I’m listening this evening to two of my favourite holiday CDs. Because of the upheaval in the house I’ve not had the chance to do so before now.

The first one is Celtic Christmas II, a collection put out be Windham Hill in 1996, and which I have listened to for the past twenty years now. This music takes me through two turbulent decades of my life beginning with the year I graduated from seminary and my mother died, encompassed my dream job as worship administrator at Trinity Church in Boston, through a marriage and two divorces, eight moves, one emigration, and, finally now, to my settlement in the UK.

I can see all the events that are part of this process without closing my eyes. Music powerfully evocative in this regard. Some of the music of Enya does the same for me, taking me over the same years, though not in the contexts of holidays.

The power of sound to tug the heartstrings, amazes and humbles me. The way melody can harness emotion and then release it in floods of tears or gentle sobbing, leaves me weak. Love. Loss. Pain. Joy. Emptiness. Fear. Hope. Yearning. All these emotions follow the tracks of this CD and the one that I will play after.

The second one is Celtic Solstice by Paul Winter and Friends. It came out in 1999 and was recorded on the longest night at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, where I was baptised. It is still available and has some lovely tracks on it. This CD evokes different emotions connected with the place it was recorded, different memories and a longer history encompassing the first 45 years or so of my life and then tucks it into the Pagan context in which I now frame my spiritual practice and path as a Druid, which I have travelled for past 18 years.

Again, the images of my experience dance in front of me and envelop my awareness when I hear this music, so different from the first.

I tend to settle into a deep place of reflection between the Winter Solstice and January first. I review what I have done, and not done, achieved and not quite gotten done or not done to the best of my ability. I give thanks for the gifts I have received. I mourn the losses and rejoice in the births of new experiences. I review and then let go where appropriate. I take the lessons and release that which no longer serves.

This year has seen my second divorce. It has also seen me settled not only in the UK, but with a wonderful new partner and a new life with him. In the Autumn I managed to reconnect with my brother after trying for nine years, after my settlement paperwork came through. We aren’t close really, but at least I know he’s out there. Recently, it has seen as well my reunion and reconciliation with a friend whom I thought was gone forever after seven long and arduous years for both of us. The stories of which are unfolding in emails between us and bringing us tears of joy and sorrow for each other. And because we are separated by an ocean the deep yearning we each have to see each other and hear each other’s voices, and to one more hold each other in the embrace of forgiveness and love, which never parted from either of us as it turns out. The former can be done by technology, the latter will have to await her visit within the next several years.

So, the music I am listening to touches me on many levels and across and through so many layers of my life and my living. I listen and remember. It is an exercise in anamnesis. In unforgetting. In opening my heart to joy and sorrow. Opening my soul to its past. Letting the notes of the instruments wash over me and the words sung take me back gently, so that I can move into the future more whole and with a measure of contentment.

What do the Trees feel?

Since the weekend there has been a lot of wind blowing over the high bit of Somerset where I live. It is the other side of being blessed with big sky. As I walked into a meeting in the village last evening I saw what the wind had done to the young leaves on the trees along the way I have to walk. As I walked I listened. I opened by senses and my soul and was rocked by what I felt, what I heard.

It was a mixture of sadness, grief and what I can best describe as stoic resignation. There was keening, but also the shrugging sigh. Clearly, from this I have learned that trees not only feel loss, but have their own ways to cope. This is my reflection.

How did you feel,
for I know that you did,
when the wild wind
tore through your branches,
sending young twigs with their leaves
to the gutter and pavement below?

No summer of ripening,
no autumn of splendor,
no food for the small ones,
no delight for the eye.

Key seeds unripened,
never reaching the stage
spinning you into the future
uncertain at best,
pale remnants strewn,
hope unfulfilled
as harsh winds
drove through your boughs.

No summer of ripening,
no autumn of splendor,
no food for the small ones,
no delight for the eye.

Indeed there are still leaves,
yet more twigs and other seeds remain,
indistinct in the green mass
remaining to deepen to shade,
but those at my feet now
discrete and distinguishable,
separated from the your holding
are most easily seen.

No summer of ripening,
no autumn of splendor,
no food for the small ones,
no delight for the eye.

Do they cry out when the wind
shears them off in the gale?
Do you hear them cry but turn
your energy from away
easing their journey below?
Do you feel their pain or only your own?
For now I know that you do
in a tree’s different way.

No summer of ripening,
no autumn of splendor,
no food for the small ones,
no delight for the eye.

Deep was the sadness,
raw was the grief,
resignation articulated,
felt in my soul wrenching my heart,
as you bent with the next gust,
one last time to your lost leaves,
though no bitter farewell,
paying homage to those departed
strewn at my feet.

No summer of ripening,
no autumn of splendor,
no food for the small ones,
no delight for the eye.

Do I exist?

If you refuse to acknowledge me,
does that mean I do not exist,
I have no worth or value
past or present in your life?

If I greet you and you ignore me,
does that mean what we shared,
all those years had no worth or value,
that our time together had no meaning?

If you grimace when you see me,
does that mean I am beneath contempt,
and my very being is somehow
offensive and hateful to you?

I do not understand,
I fail to see how a smile,
a simple act of kindness,
would despoil your grand new life,
unless it would fracture
your carefully placed notions
set around you now as a fortress
to keep at bay the fear,
to protect against the guilt,
to shield against the questions
and reality you have never faced
as you yielded to the temptations
of the flesh and for them abandoned
the intentions of the soul.

The day the War began

When I first went outside this morning I could feel something different. A different energy. A false calm, and artificial pausing of the frantic energy in all the life forms around me. My walk was a challenge this morning. Too much was seeping into my awareness, to many images began to flood my interior vision, to many sounds assaulted my internal ears. I seemed to be walking in a daze, walking here and walking somewhere far away, in an alien landscape. My soul ached

Yes, the birds sang – muted songs.

Yes, the butterflies danced, but it was not the same sort of dance they danced yesterday.

Or maybe I perceived them differently . . . for though this morning was glorious, memory makes it harsh. Remembrance makes it terrible.

I watched the clouds tower up, rehearsing, remembering the rising storm clouds of the early morning of this day a century ago, that broke before midnight.

It is not possible for me to think back and not feel, feel things I shouldn’t possibly be able to feel. Not to know things I can’t possibly know. Perhaps because I have touched some to the history, lived and worked in the shadow of the energy of this day for many years, three decades ago. . .

In San Diego I worked for a woman whose stepmother was Helen Hayes Gleason Johnson, whose first husband (who died of typhoid in the 20’s or 30’s) was Arthur Gleason. He was a reporter of Colliers Magazine during the WWI and she was an ambulance driver behind the lines in Belgium. I worked for her step-daughter in the house Helen’s second husband built for them and that was their home in the 30’s to the 60’s by which time both my employer had inherited after the deaths her father and Helen.

Helen drove for the Red Cross. She was decorated by the King of Belgium after the war, being the first woman to be decorated as a Chevalier. I was privileged to have read all of Helen’s letters from the war and was supposed to get them to do something with prime source materials — an historian’s holy grail, but only a week before I had arranged to take them, the water heater blew up in the basement and flooded where the trunk was kept. The whole lot was soaked beyond retrieval.

But, several months before the water ruined everything, I spent a week going through the material. Two things stand out for me to this day, clear and in sharp relief. One was the letter I read that Helen wrote on a train going through France the day the war was declared and second was the piece of shrapnel, a chunk of metal the size of the palm of my hand that nearly killed her. I can’t remember the words Helen wrote, but I remember the feeling I had as I held the letter in my hands. I recall the sense of despair and the fear the leaked through time to me as I read the words — that letter opened a portal for me that has never really closed.

As others have commented there is no such thing as a glorious war, nor glorious warrior. The propaganda used to get young men to sign up and the fury unleashed on those who for conscience sake could not take up arms were both skillfully wielded to manipulate the masses.

I feel all this more keenly here, living in the UK, so much closer to the places where this frightful conflict unfolded and stalled and was pressed on. Trenches and gas and barbed wire and no man’s lands, and mayhem and palpable fear and bitter resentment.

What was lost to the world, to families and the sciences to literature, to medicine, to music — these are also things I think about. Also that without WWI and the misery and loss there might not have been the fictions of Tolkien; a terrible price to pay for Gandalf and Frodo and Aragorn, the Elves and the Orcs, Fangorn and Rivendell, Minas Tirith and Mordor. We might by now have a cure for some dreadful disease that threatens us. Would the Spanish flu have taken so many, wearied by war and weeping, bereft and unable to find hope and a reason to go on.

There is so much we might elect to conjecture and so much more we might wish we never had to consider, including that the so called peace at the end of WWI sowed the seeds for the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War. For, not one bit of this happens or happened in a vacuum. Not one little bit of that could have occurred without lots of other little bits that seemingly might, on the face of it, appear completely disconnected.

What is it then that I remember today? I am a rememberer. I am one who is called to live in a state and in the reality of anamnesis, of unforgetting. Today there is much to process. There are many threads to untangle. There are wide vistas to take in and the small sheet of paper, written with a pencil in a train carriage chugging through the French countryside, as the harvest was about be taken in, which landscape was soon to be altered beyond recognition. The ensuing conflict ruined lives and reshaped the entire social and political structure of Europe. This conflict toppled monarchies. This conflict bequeathed us Fascisms in Germany, Spain and Italy, and the rule of the Proletariat in what was at the time still Russia that in time transmuted into global Communisms.

What do I remember today? The weeping mother and the sobbing wife, the orphaned children and childless parents — on both sides of that War that did not end anything but our innocence.