Friday, April 20, 2012

What the Living Do

What the Living Do
by Marie Howe

 "Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down
 there.  And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have
 piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called.  
This is the everyday we spoke of.

It's winter again:  the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn 
it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag 
breaking, I've been thinking:  This is what the living do.  And yesterday, hurrying
along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my
wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is
it.  Parking.  Slamming the car door shut in the cold.  What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up.  We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We
want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss--we want more and more and then
more of it. But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the 
window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a
cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that
I'm speechless: I am living.  I remember you." 

I feel close to life AND death here--very immediate this landscape.  Each day we awaken and surrender to it, especially the clogged drains, the frozen pipes, the tussles with french bureaucracy, the death watch beetle in the attic, the omnipresent feeling of never being understood.  We are struck dumb by the dwindling exchange rate; by the discovery that a farmer one field over is using Monsanto products; by the news that  42,000 Plane trees, the sentinels who have watched over the Sun King Louis IV's, Canal du Midi, the oldest and longest manmade waterway since it began in Toulouse, the Pink City, in 1667, are being attacked by a fungus.  They are dying...They will be burned down, removed and replaced in the next 20 years.

But then we are struck even dumber by all that beauty wrapped in a taco of fragility; by the Cukoo birds in the forest wooing their mates right now; by the Percheron colt and his donkey sidekick lolling merrily on their backs in the emerald green fields; by the jardinere who leaves the first cut of grass till late in the season, saving the dandelions for the bees who've had a tough winter, and by the way we are growing old together in this country not of our origin.  We get to watch it all while cherry blossoms fall like pink snowflakes, sticking to our silly heads in this eternal spring.

                                        For Lisa, John, Richard & Deborah
                                  William Blake Tarot - Death & Transformation

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fishing for Fallen Light

It is twilight here:

     1.  The soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the reflection of
           the sun's rays from the atmosphere.
     2.  The period of the evening when this takes place between daylight and darkness.

The french word for twilight is crypuscule, a word not nearly as romantic-- crypuscule conjures up images of crypts, death, pustules, lesions, maybe even vampires and stakes through the heart.  Perhaps it is where the "Twilight" book & film series' (gobbled up by legions of teenyboppers), author got her idea. I love words and hate it when a word gets hijacked.  Usually I can rely on the french translation of any word to be  melodious and evocative.  Picture the word "d√©sabonnement"--non-renewal or cancellation of one's subscription--I see jet black hair tossed back in wild abandon, clothes in disarray,  or "se derocher"= from the rock, the reflexive alpiniste falling off a rock face.  A single French word commonly replaces a string of words in English. 

The Japanese word  Kotodama or Kototama refers to the cultural belief that mystical powers dwell in words and names. And that sounds can magically affect objects. Koto means "word, speech" and tama means "ghost, spirit, soul". The ritual use of words can alter our state of being and touch the soul of a landscape.  Chanting, affirmations, blessings. Years ago I was part of a group blessed on the Burren  (the Great Rock) in County Clare Ireland, by the remarkable priest and poet, John O'Donohue.  In his book "Stone as the Tabernacle of Memory", he talks about the special nature of ruins, "protrusions of past time into our present...memorials of a past that was never our present." John wrote about the 12th c. Cistercian Abbey in Corcomroe in the Burren where the monks bound the stones one to another and hallowed the countryside and the Abbey with their chanting, liturgy and spirit. It was as though the stones had imbibed the spirit and life of the monks. 

Since I've come to France I've been chasing down the Cistercian monasteries, irresistibly drawn to them, glorious ruins that appear like mirages or ghostly phantoms in the woods or at the edge of a farm. Which makes sense since the Cistercian monks followed the rule of St. Benedict and returned to manual labor, field work.  They were the main force in technological diffusion in Metallurgy, hydraulic engineering and agriculture--move over Friar Tuck! And their architecture is one of the most beautiful styles of all the Medieval architecture. 

One twilit eve last week, driving to Villars in the Perigord Vert to see the prehistoric Grotte with its blue horses, sorcerer and bison painted in manganese by Cro Magnon man  17,000 years ago, I fell upon the  12th c.Abbaye de Boschaud, asleep in the hollow of a valley.   The earth is full of thresholds, and I felt as though I had crossed an important one.  In special places I like to see what the Tarot might have to say. As the light changed and the sky began to darken, I pulled the card "La Pances" from the Jean-Claude Flornoy deck.  Jean-Claude, the master card maker who recreated two decks from the earliest Marseille decks, Jean Noblet c.1650 & the Jean Dodal c. 1701, died suddenly just before the St. Suzanne Tarot Conference last fall, so sadly I did not get a chance to meet him, but was happy to add his deck to my collection.  

In most decks the II card is the High Priestess or La Papesse (the Popesse) only the Dodal has called her La Pances.  No one's quite sure why nor if there even was a female Pope though a few sources
mention "Pope Joan". One clever Hans said that it might be french homophony for "pensee", reflection or thought, though not widely used word in 18th c. France. More commonly the word is "belly, womb, stomach" or kangaroo pouch.  

But more importantly what does she have to say?  If light is the Priestess of Landscape,  the High Priestess serves to remind us to follow our own "lights", intuition, inner wisdom.  She is representing spirituality as opposed to religious conformity.  The monks found divinity in their fields and the stones that bound them to their land. Carole Sedillot writes in "Ombres et Lumieres du Tarot":
"Spirituality isn't defined by the enclosure of the spirit in a dogma - whether religious or otherwise, but by opening the spirit to vast and new horizons that offer it evolution and elevation."
As light turned to shadow, I thought of Neruda's poem about fishing for light:
                                               If each day falls
                                               inside each night,
                                               There exists a well
                                               where clarity is imprisoned.
                                               We need to sit on the rim
                                               of the well of darkness
                                               and fish for fallen light
                                               with patience. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"If the Fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise" - William Blake

But before I talk more about the "Fool", I must say Adieu to two great artists who
completed their own Fool's journey last week:  Earl Scruggs, perhaps the greatest 
banjo picker of our time and Adrienne Rich, a poet for the ages.  Adieu is French for
"farewell", but in Occitan (which is a Romance language still spoken in the Charente,
where I live) it is the same word for farewell and hello.  Occitan comes from lenga 
d'oc, which comes from oc, the Occitan word for yes.  The poet Dante was the first to
record the term lingua d'oc.  He said a few other things in Latin about the three major
Romance literary languages, but I think it can be boiled down to a lot of ois and ocs
and oil, which somehow makes me think of Olive Oyl, Popeye and Chips Ahoy.  It's a
very hard language to wrap the tongue around.  I've been taking french lessons from
the Deputy Mairie, Michel, in our little village--a native Occitan speaker-- and I can
understand only about half of what he says (still $$ well spent!)

How grand to say goodbye and hello at the same time, and that is what I did today,
because, truthfully, I'd forgotten about E. Scruggs and Adrienne Rich for a  very long
time.  And as is so often the case with remembering, it was bittersweet.  Foggy
Mountain Breakdown, Flatt and Scruggs' tour de force banjo background for  Bonnie
and Clyde reminded me of an ill-fated drive-in movie date  to see Faye & Warren--
hot dogs, cherry cokes, sticky groping & copious amounts of Country Club Malt liquor
resulted in my throwing up on my date's leather jacket.  I like Steve Martin's memories
of Earl a lot better.  "Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his
fingertips," he wrote in the Jan.12th New Yorker.  On YouTube, I became the 
4,275,999th person to hear him play, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown".  Earl did have
"stars shooting from his fingertips" and so did Steve Martin, who was playing along
with him.  That's the sweet part.

Adrienne Rich held a much bigger slice of my history.  This evening I reread her
"Diving into the Wreck", written in the early 70's.  Reading that poem brought back the
Vietnam War and all the attendant antiwar poets/writers and their acts of conscience:
Levertov, Bly, Vonnegut (Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5), Ferlinghetti--too many to list.
And through a dusty, yellowed, lens I saw myself against a backdrop of Gothic
buildings, on the Quad of Cornell University, looking past the blooming cherry trees to
a podium, cheering on the brave, articulate souls who bore witness to their beliefs.
Later in the night, I would trudge home and type till the wee hours (on a standard
Smith-Corona) the annotated bibliography of the Chanson de Roland--a graduate
wife putting her radical, articulate husband of conscience through school.  And then
came feminist literature courses (bonjour Mme Bovary), Ithaca's Lavender Hill mob,
the first openly gay theater, Moosewood Cookbook, communal living, open marriage,
open minds, open hearts.  You see what happens?  You pull a thread, it all unravels.
Through it all Adrienne was a ship charting a brave, unknown course--writing poetry, 
rejecting awards, while I, a small pilot fish, swam alongside.

They have nothing of harm to dread
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven where peril's abroad,
An asylum in the jaws of the Fates!

So here's the bitter part:  A conformity of thought kept many of us in our places. For
you must truly be a "fool" to make this journey.  Good news is you can start anywhere
along the road with the innocence of a wise "Fool".  Merci Earl & Adrienne for
your music, songs, poems and books.  But mostly for your "foolish" courage.

The door itself
makes no promises
it is only a door.  adrienne rich

"Open the book of tales you knew by heart,
begin driving the old roads again,
repeating the old sentences, which have changed
minutely from the wordings you remembered."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool's Day - Let's Wash the Lions

"Poisson d'avril!" and "pesce d'aprile! - in France, Italy, and French speaking Canada, kids and adults run around tacking paper fish to people's backs (without getting caught) & then shouting April Fools!  No one stuck any fish to my back today, but I did have a delicious meal, of "Cabillaud", which is le roi de la mer (King of the sea) in France and known as Cod in USA.  It is a fish that has been eaten in Europe since the Middle Ages. The fishing boats leave from La Rochelle and search the cold, salty North Atlantic waters where the schools of Cabillaud migrate. 
The dried Cod is called Morue and is often preserved & sold salted within an inch of its life. Once I made the mistake of purchasing the Morue, preparing it lovingly (without rinsing it)=  April Fools!  
In 1508, French poet Eloy d'Amerval referred to a poisson d'avril, literally "April Fish", and in 1539, a Flemish poet, Eduard de Dene, wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on foolish errands on April 1st. Seems as though the French &  Flemish poets had quite a sense of humor!  One of the first British references appears in the 17th c., writings of John Aubrey, who called it "Fooles holy day" -- on April 1, 1698, on a not very holy fooles errand, several people were tricked into the Tower of London to "see the Lions washed".  

Seems satire & pranks are DOA in USA -- the news services and twitter tweeters heralded an item posted by Len Burman, an economics professor from Syracuse University, on claiming that Mitt Romney had ceded to Rick Santorum. "Kind of baffling," he said in a phone interview.  "It was April Fool's Day, and it was completely implausible..."  

All of this "foolishness" makes me think of one of my favorite Tarot cards:  "The Fool"