Monthly Archives: December 2015

71. New Year, New Century

DSCN4794The end of the year is my favorite season. Whether you are Christian or not, the story of the birth of the Christ child is also the birth of hope, the birth of joy, and the birth of innocence. We need all those things in our world. I have come to love this season more now than I did when I was a child.

Add a sense of the world’s renewal at the turning of the year that comes to us from the pagan roots of our Christmas festivals, and it all becomes pretty magical.

I have already spent time celebrating the year’s end as we Westerners see it. Now, on the last day of the year, I would like to turn toward the East, to a land beyond the land of the Magi.

*****

Rabindranath Tagore is a Bengali writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. He is largely unknown in America, and for good reason. His work is hard going – not because of difficuty of language (there are plenty of translations), but because it is the product of a spiritualism that is beyond the American norm. America loves it’s gurus; we all know that. But the ones who make it here tend to have a gift for sound bites, an easy pop-psych message, and a face the camera loves.

Tagore was glitz free.

When I was studying Anthropology, my subject area was South Asia. I ran across Tagore’s poem Sunset of the Century in a textbook, and was so taken by it that I quoted part of it when I wrote A Fond Farewell to Dying, and quoted it again as the sub-title of this website.

At sunset, December 31, 1899, Tagore looked at his land, crushed under a hundred and fifty years of British domination, and looked forward to the new century which he hoped would bring India its freedom.

Here is the excerpt I quoted in Fond Farewell:

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful.
With your white robes of simpleness.
Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God’s throne daily on the ample bareness of your poverty.
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

That last line is probably my favorite quotation of all time. The complete poem is in today’s Serial post.

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Sunset of the Century

hiatusToday, in A Writing Life, I explain my connection to this poem. You can take a look there; I won’t repeat myself here.

Sunset of the Century
Rabindranath Tagore
(Written in the Bengali on the last day of 1899.)

 The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred.
The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food,
And licking it, crunching it, and swallowing it in big morsels,
It swells and swells
Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden heaven piercing its
heart of grossness.

 The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace,my Motherland.
It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh, – the self-love of the Nation, – dead under its own excess.
Thy morning waits behind the patient dark of the East,
Meek and silent.

 Keep watch, India.
Bring your offerings of worship for that sacred sunrise.
Let the first hymn of its welcome sound in your voice, and sing,
‘Come, Peace, thou daughter of God’s own great suffering.
Come with thy treasure of contentment, the sword of fortitude,
And meekness crowning thy forehead.’
Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful
With your white robe of simpleness.
Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting

70. The War is Over

240px-Wildfire_near_Cedar_Fort,_Utah Every era has its terrors. Throughout my childhood in the fifties I was deeply aware of the likelihood of nuclear war. I was fifteen during the Cuban missle crisis. When I went to college, Viet Nam was well underway.

As I mention today in Serial, I tried my hand at folk music. I even wrote a song, which no one has heard for the last 45 years. I wish I could call it the melancholy thoughts of youth but, sadly, it’s still spot on.

The War is Over
Syd Logsdon

Now that the last war is over
Now that the violence is done
Search through the rubble for mourners
You will find — not a one.

Now that the green grass is dying
Now that the trees are stripped bare
The sounds of the forest are silent
The brooks have no laughter to spare.

The moon still hangs sad and silent
The stars fill the heavens with light
The sea rolls so dark and so lonely
Over cities where ruins now lie.

Look for your friends in the mountains
Or your enemy’s spoor on the plain
Run through the corridor shelters
Seek a companion in vain.

Cry out your soul for a songbird
But none will answer your call
Search for your friends and your loved ones
But they’re gone — one and all.

Search for the one called the victor
Through the still smoking rubble and ruin
Now that the violence is over
Now that the war has been won.

Innisfree

hiatusYeats is one of the great poets of the English language and The Lake Isle of Innisfree is among his best known poems. I was introduced to it through folk music.

I arrived at college just at the end of the folk era. It had basically passed me by in my country-western Oklahoma life, and I was hooked as soon as I discovered it. One of my roommates had been in a high school folk group in Minnesota. He quickly found a girlfriend who could sing (beautifully) and a fellow guitarist, and started playing in the local coffee houses. I borrowed his tenor guitar to learn on, then got a six string, and I was just getting reasonably good when folk music disappeared overnight and psychedelic rock became the rage. Timing was never my strong suit.

My roommates and I were always short on cash, so we shared our stash of records. One of my favorites was Hamilton Camp’s Paths of Victory, but it went with my roommate when college was over. Camp took Yeat’s Innisfree and wrote music for it, and a sweeter song was never sung – at least until Judy Collins sang it a cappella to his music a year later.

This is one of the two or three songs I catch myself singing whenever I am alone and can harm no one. Chances are you already know the poem, but I suggest that you Google judy collins innisfree and hear it sung on U-tube. Or, if you are old enough to enjoy an early Dylan sound-alike, Google hamilton camp innisfree.

  It isn’t hard to find. Clearly, I’m not the only one who loves it.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree – William Butler Yeats – 1892

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

*****

During this last week of the year, I’m taking a hiatus, sort of, by placing some of my favorite poems instead of things I have written. My fantasy short story Prince of Exile will begin here the first full week of next year.

69. Site Tour

IF YOU HAVE ONLY BEEN DIPPING INTO THIS WEBSITE, THIS WILL SHOW YOU HOW TO ACCESS SOME THINGS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

But first, an announcement. My upcoming novel Cyan has been delayed. It will be out in April or May, not in January as originally promised.

This has left me scrambling. About a dozen Cyan related posts which were scheduled for December and January had to be replaced with new, seasonally appropriate material. All that is done now, and things have calmed down.

So now —– welcome to the five cent tour.

This is post sixty-nine in the blog A Writing Life. The site is also called A Writing Life, which may cause some confusion. Since this is my first website, I learned as I went and not all my early decisions were the best.

This site has been up since August 31, with an arrival page called Welcome to my Worlds and two separate but related blogs. That was an early choice I have never regretted, although I’m sure some should-have-been followers have clicked in at the arrival page and never found either blog. No plan is perfect.

I had a backlog of material which I wanted to present in serial form, so my second blog was called Serial. There is another blogger’s rule: simple and straight forward is good; cute, clever, and confusing is bad.

As of today, there have been eighty-eight posts under Serial. So far I have presented a previously published science fiction novella (To Go Not Gently), a science fiction short story (Into the Storm), a vignette (Koan), two fantasy short stories (Blondel of Arden and The Best of Lies), a non-fiction piece (How to Build a Culture) and an excerpt from a contemporary novel (Symphony Christmas).

All of the above have been removed from Serial; otherwise, the slide from latest post to earliest post would take endless minutes. There will be one more fantasy short story, Prince of Exile, beginning next week, then Serial will morph into something different. Check it out in mid-January.

Except for Symphony Christmas, all the pieces removed from Serial have been moved to Backfile. They can be found on the Backfile drop-down menu, along with two other pieces that were never placed in Serial. They have all been returned to first-to-last order, but the original blog divisions have been retained as virtual chapters to make navigation easier.

If you actually click on Backfile, you will find a page with an annotated list of its final contents, divided into Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry. Clicking on a live poem will take you to the A Writing Life blog where it appeared. The other poems entries will be made live as they appear in posts. Five will be activated during December.

Library is an annotated list of my novels. About and Contact are just what you would expect them to be.

Wander around and enjoy yourself.

Channel Firing

hiatusThis poem by Thomas Hardy was written in April of 1914,
fourteen years after Tagore, which I will give you in two days.
Two months later, World War I began.

         Channel Firing

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright.  While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled.  Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder.  Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening . . .

“Ha, ha.  It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again.  “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

During this last week of the year, I’m taking a hiatus, sort of, by placing some of my favorite poems instead of thing I have written. The fantasy short story Prince of Exile will begin here the first full week of next year.

Filler

This week there will be posts Tuesday through Friday, to allow me to post on New Year’s Eve and Day.

Today, and during the rest of this last week of the year, I’m taking a hiatus, sort of, on the companion blog Serial by placing some of my favorite works by others. My fantasy short story Prince of Exile will begin there on Monday, Jan. 4th.

The First Surveyor

hiatusDuring this last week of the year, I’m taking a hiatus, sort of, by placing some of my favorite poems instead of things I have written. My fantasy short story Prince of Exile will begin here the first full week of next year.

A. B. Paterson, Australian poet, is often called Banjo Paterson because he signed his poetry with a picture of a banjo during his early days as a newspaper writer. Australian egalitarianism carries with it overtones of hidden conflict, between urban and outback, between privileged and unprivileged, and between pioneers and the late comers who often, as in this poem, had no understanding of the ones who came before them.

The First Surveyor

“The opening of the railway line! — the Governor and all!
With flags and banners down the street, a banquet and a ball.
Hark to ’em at the station now! They’re raising cheer on cheer!
‘The man who brought the railway through — our friend the engineer.’
They cheer his pluck and enterprise and engineering skill!
‘Twas my old husband found the pass behind that big red hill.
Before the engineer was born we’d settled with our stock
Behind that great big mountain chain, a line of range and rock —
A line that kept us starving there in weary weeks of drought,
With ne’er a track across the range to let the cattle out.

“‘Twas then, with horses starved and weak and scarcely fit to crawl,
My husband went to find a way across the rocky wall.
He vanished in the wilderness — God knows where he was gone —
He hunted till his food gave out, but still he battled on.
His horses strayed (’twas well they did), they made towards the grass,
And down behind that big red hill they found an easy pass.

He followed up and blazed the trees, to show the safest track,
Then drew his belt another hole and turned and started back.
His horses died — just one pulled through with nothing much to spare;
God bless the beast that brought him home, the old white Arab mare!
We drove the cattle through the hills, along the new-found way,
And this was our first camping-ground — just where I live today.

“Then others came across the range and built the township here,
And then there came the railway line and this young engineer;
He drove about with tents and traps, a cook to cook his meals,
A bath to wash himself at night, a chain-man at his heels.
And that was all the pluck and skill for which he’s cheered and praised,
For after all he took the track, the same my husband blazed!

“My poor old husband, dead and gone with never a feast nor cheer;
He’s buried by the railway line! — I wonder can he hear
When by the very track he marked, and close to where he’s laid,
The cattle trains go roaring down the one-in-thirty grade.
I wonder does he hear them pass, and can he see the sight
When, whistling shrill, the fast express goes flaming by at night.

“I think ‘twould comfort him to know there’s someone left to care;
I’ll take some things this very night and hold a banquet there —
The hard old fare we’ve often shared together, him and me,
Some damper and a bite of beef, a pannikin of tea:
We’ll do without the bands and flags, the speeches and the fuss,
We know who ought to get the cheers — and that’s enough for us.

“What’s that? They wish that I’d come down — the oldest settler here!
Present me to the Governor and that young engineer!
Well, just you tell his Excellence, and put the thing polite,
I’m sorry, but I can’t come down — I’m dining out tonight!”

68. Nostalgia

Dec 25thAs a sort of disclaimer, let me assure you that Christmas Day, and the season that precedes it, is my favorite time of the year. I love everything about it, but that doesn’t keep me from also seeing it slantwise.

“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees . . .” It seems to be a sad and bitter beginning, but Joni Mitchell’s River is all about nostalgia, and so is American Christmas in the twenty-first century.

This goes deeper than surface appearances. The obvious nostalgia is for rural life and all its simplicities – clean snow, red barns, white farmhouses and a one horse open sleigh. In reality, there is nothing nostalgic about walking to the barn in the pre-dawn darkness to face three hours of chores at five below zero. Never mind; when I see that perfect scene on a Christmas card, I want to be there. Childhood memories of frozen feet don’t stand in the way.

Christmas literature today has come to mean movies. I know that there are new Christmas books every year, but they all seem to fall into a soupy genre I can’t bring myself to read.

Among movies, the original is A Christmas Carol, in all its iterations. It stands alone, a whole genre all by itself, and there is no nostalgia in it. No one wants to go back to the age of “prisons, and Union workhouses”, cold, hunger, and early death. Instead, the story is about the change in Scrooge as he considers the horrors faced by those around him, many of which are his own fault. The horrors don’t go away, except for the few people Scrooge can help, but Scrooge himself is redeemed.

Recently, there have been a spate of TV movies all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? I leave them with that soupy genre of books, readily available for those who can stomach them, after pointing out that they have nothing to do with Christmas.

The rest of Christmas movies fall into one category, with one masterplot. They range from silly to profound, but they all have this in common: Santa is accused of assault, or loses his memory, or decides that he doen’t want to be Santa any more, or Santa Jr. doesn’t want to take over for Santa Sr..

Santa, and/or those around him, are on the verge of losing faith, but they are saved at the last minute by _______. Choose a crisis and a salvation, and write you own screenplay.

Don’t get me wrong. I love these films; I watch them all season. They have to be really bad for me to turn one off. But what is the one thing are all these movies nostalgic about? Faith, of course, which so many people today are clinging to by their fingernails.

If Santa stands in for Jesus – and even those who wish he didn’t, know that he does – then every time Santa once again proves himself to be real, that version of Christianity which proposes a warm, loving, all seeing, yet forgiving God is reaffirmed.

Those who are afraid to doubt out loud can sit back and let Santa, acting as a stand-in, reaffirm their faith.

I’ll buy in. For another Christmas season I will set aside my unbelief and bask in the feeling that someone out there will make all things come right.

Now get out from in front of the television; Miracle on 34th Street will be on in twenty minutes.

Symphony Christmas, 10 of 10

Because I intend to publish the novel from which this excerpt comes, Symphony Christmas will not be placed in Backfile.

Neil and Carmen are delivering a present to Rosa at her apartment.

Rosa’s little sisters were staring at Neil, wide eyed and unabashed. He shifted nervously from one foot to the other, painfully aware of the brightly wrapped package under his arm. The Alvarez’s were nice people; he could deal with them in a school setting where formality gave a pattern for their interaction. Here, he did not know what to do.

Language was not the problem; Carmen could translate. The problem was culture. Should he sit down? Should he expect a cup of coffee? If they offered him one, would they expect him to take it or to refuse? Would they be insulted if he refused? Should he treat Carmen as an equal, or take charge of the conversation? Should he come right to the heart of the business and give the gift, or would it be more proper to talk a while first? If he were in the home of any of his Anglo kids, no matter how rich or poor, he would not have been so much at a loss.

Carmen sensed his discomfort and took charge. She spoke to Mrs. Alvarez in Spanish. Although Rosa’s mother spoke fair English, she was more comfortable in Spanish, and it let Jose share in the conversation. Then Carmen said, “Give her the package.”

Neil held out the package to Rosa and said, “Merry Christmas.” For the first time, Rosa and her parents allowed themselves to become aware of its existence. Before that moment, only the younger children had stared at it.

Rosa held it in her hands for a long time, admiring the paper. “Its really pretty,” she said.  Neil wondered if she would open it now or at Christmas, but he had no way of asking without appearing pushy.

Then Carmen said, “Go on, Rosa. Open it.” Rosa tore off the paper, pulled open the box, and extracted the jacket. Her face was full of hesitation. She loved it, but she wasn’t quite sure it was really hers until Neil said, “Go ahead, see if it fits.”

Rosa spoke to her mother – asking permission? – before she slipped it on. Her face lit up as she smoothed the fabric around her. Then she had to ask; she had to be sure. She said, “Is it for me?”

“It’s yours,” Neil assured her. He started to add that Carmen had picked it out, but his good sense stopped him. It would detract from the moment, so he remained silent while she showed it to her parents. Rosa’s father crossed to Neil and shook his hand again, mumbling something in Spanish of which Neil only caught, “Gracias.”

Rosa’s mother said, “It is really nice, but you shouldn’t have.”

Neil looked at Rosa’s beaming face and said, “I wanted to.”

Things had gone well so far; it was time to retreat before he said something clumsy to ruin everything. Neil made a tiny motion toward the door and Carmen spoke to the Alvarez’s in Spanish one more time, then took Neil’s elbow and eased him toward the door as the conversation bounced back and forth between her and Rosa’s mother.

Rosa and her mother followed them out onto the stoop, then Rosa made a quick, shy motion forward and threw her arms around Neil’s waist for a moment. She said, “Thank you, Mr. McCrae.”

Her heart was in every word and her voice made it a song.

Neil and Carmen drove away in silence. Neil was not a man to accept gratitude easily; it made him uncomfortable, and out of his discomfort he said, “Giving her a jacket won’t change her life.”

Carmen was beginning to understand him. She recognized the source of his uneasiness. She replied, “Giving her a jacket won’t change her life, but knowing that you cared for her might.”    finis