Friday, December 6, 2019

The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

Still, I don't do much with this feast day--if I had children or gift-giving friends, I might, but most years, I simply pause to remember the historical origins of the saint and the day.

In different years, I might have spent some time looking at my own Santa objects.  One year, my step-mom in law and my father in law gave me these as Christmas presents:

They're actually cookie presses, and the Santa figures are the handles of the press. I've never used them as a cookie press, but I love them as decorations that are faithful to the European country of origin.

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them. No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Through the centuries, the image of Saint Nicholas has morphed into Santa Claus, but as with many modern customs, one doesn't have to dig far to find the ancient root.

I don't have as many Santa images in my Christmas decorations. Here's my favorite Santa ornament:

I picked it up in May of 1994 or so. I was visiting my parents, and I went with them on a trip to Pennsylvania where my dad was attending a conference. I picked this ornament up in a gift shop that had baskets of ornaments on sale. I love that it uses twine as joints to hold Santa together.

In the past decade, I've been on the lookout for more modern Saint Nicholas images.  A few years ago, one of my friends posted this photo of her Santa display to her Facebook page:

I love the ecumenical nature of this picture of Santa: Santa statues coexisting peacefully with Buddha statues. And then I thought, how perfect for the Feast Day of St. Nicholas!

This year, I have a new favorite Saint Nicholas image, courtesy of my cousin's wife:

In this image, Santa communicates by way of American Sign Language.  As I looked at the background of the photo, I realized Santa sits in a school--the sign on the bulletin board announces free breakfast and lunch.

The photo seems both modern and ancient to me:  a saint who can communicate in the language we will hear, the promise that the hungry will be filled.

In our time, when ancient customs seem in danger of being taken over by consumerist frenzy, let us pause for a moment to reflect on gifts of all kinds.  Let us remember those who don't have the money that gifts so often require.  Let us invite the gifts of communication and generosity into our lives.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Ruins of Advent?

Last night, after dinner, my spouse played mandolin on the porch with the porch light on, so I decided to sketch.  I was bleary-eyed with tiredness, but I kept sketching with short strokes of a fine tip pen.  Then I went back and added some color:

I have been drawing doors in various settings since my online journaling class last year.  This year, the doors have often been in settings of crumbling walls and buildings, often with a tree and/or vines.  I'm not sure what that says about my subconscious.  I don't usually think much about these sketches before I start when these doors arrive.

I added a haiku-esque creation:

Ruins of Advent,
Fierce memories, deep regrets
The year speeds ahead.

Here, too, I wonder about my subconscious--what is my deeper self saying to me?  I haven't particularly felt like this Advent is a ruin, in the way that I have other Advent seasons.  And I'm not aware of fierce memories or deep regrets this year.  Hmm. 

I was prompted by the ruin of a wall and a door, so maybe I shouldn't read too much into this.

Let me also record a contemplative morning.  Several weeks ago, a friend I know only from Facebook said she would be reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities for Advent.  I decided to buy a copy and read it too.  This morning I started it.  It's the kind of book that makes me want to underline every word.

Here's what leapt out at me this morning: "Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they've always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it's compromising: it recalls the mainstream, when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is, and it recalls that the power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope, and often our power" (page xvi).

Now to take a walk and get ready for work.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Poetry Wednesday: "Sustainable Habitat"

I spent lots of time yesterday supporting various charities on "Giving Tuesday."  I loved the idea of doubling my donation.  I loved the idea of a special treat for donating.

As I drove to work yesterday, I heard about a recent outbreak of "porch pirates," people who steal the boxes from online merchants off of the front porches of customers. I had a sudden vision of ordering lots of books from small presses in the hopes that they would be stolen and find a larger audience. Instead, I increased my donations on this "Giving Tuesday."
It took me back to a time of ordering Christmas presents for my nephew--plush toys that would also support the preservation of wildlife habitat.  The juxtaposition was not lost on me:  plush toys being delivered across continents for a Christmas gift that would help preserve the habitats that our lifestyles are in the process of destroying.

From that juxtaposition, this poem arrived; it would later become part of my third chapbook Life in the Holocene Extinction:

Sustainable Habitat

Since she has stuck to her diet for several days, she rewards
herself with extra cashews
for her meal of yogurt and raspberries.
She prepares a new pot
of shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
She thinks about the miles traveled
to bring her breakfast to her.

She sorts through a pile of manuscripts,
children’s stories, one of the few types of books
her publishing company will still print on paper.
She notices how many of them
are based on stories from vanished
cultures. She makes notes about illustrators
and thinks of her own paints
now gathering dust.

Later, she orders Christmas presents
for the children: plush
toys that turn rapacious predators
into cuddly comfort. Her purchase
supports a fund to sustain habitat.

She orders a holiday treat for herself:
a sparkly jewelry set crafted
by a woman several continents
away. It will perfectly complement
her holiday outfit that was constructed
in a factory on an island that will sink
under the rising seas by the end of the century.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Power of the Dark

Long ago, as an English major in undergraduate school, I thought about the impact of traditional use of the symbolism of dark and light.  I knew that for most of our literary history, at least the literary history I studied, light has been used to signify good and darkness has been used in conjunction with evil and depravity.

I only recently began to think about the social implications of the dark and light imagery in our spiritual writing, specifically the Bible and all the works that analyze the Bible.  I'm embarrassed to admit that fact--as early as the 80's, I was cognizant of the problems of dark = evil and the implications for racial justice in non-church settings, but I didn't see it in church?

To be fair to younger Kristin, I was likely aware back then, and I added it to the long list of problems I had with all things church.  And I suspect that I'm not the only one who can revise a lot of spiritual imagery while forgetting to return to the Nativity texts.  There's something about learning that material as a child that gives me a huge blind spot as an adult returning to them.

And yes, I'm aware that in this area, I'm a textbook case of white privilege.  I am grateful to theologians who have helped me become aware of my blind spot, and I am sorrowful that those theologians are still having to do this work in our larger culture.

For several years, I've been diligent about substituting light and dark imagery for other ways of talking about health/good and sickness/bad.  But I've only just begun to think about the ways that we might subvert these ideas.

What if darkness was the way we thought about health and goodness?  How would we tell our religious stories differently?

In a sermon at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Wil Gafney shows us how powerful this inversion of light and darkness can be.  It's the kind of sermon that makes me gasp in delight, while also realizing how far I have to go in my sermon writing skills.  She writes with the skill and precision of a poet and the fierceness of a social justice warrior.

From the very beginning of the homily, we have a sense of the power of her words:  "In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word."

The rest of the sermon is just as breathtaking.  It's a perfect reading for the first week of Advent--or for any time we need a reminder of the what God can do.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Best Poetry of 2019--the Very Short List

Before I left for my great southeastern driving journey of Thanksgiving week, I read Dave Bonta's call for our lists of the best poetry of 2019.  Dave suggests that we might be able to come up with a different list than the usual "best of" lists that we find in newspapers and journals this time of year.  Those lists do seem to focus the same books that are under consideration for national prizes--in other words, books that are already going to get a lot of attention.

As I thought back over my list, I decided to focus on the books that I wanted to read again, the books that made me feel sad when I finished them because I'd never have the delight of the first read again. I thought about books that make me want to keep writing poems.  I want books that help me to see the world differently, that make me shake my head at the audacious comparisons and the wonderful wordplay.

If I could choose only one book I've read in the past year to read again and again, it would be Space Struck by Paige Lewis (Sarabande Books).  I wish I could remember which poet recommended this book and where--it sounded interesting to me, and I added it to an Amazon order to get to the free shipping level (yes, I'm the last person in the U.S. who does not have Amazon Prime).

A look at the titles of the poems lets us know that we're in store for a treat:  "You Be You, and I'll Be Busy," "God's Secretary, Overworked," and "So You Want to Leave Purgatory."  It's one of the few volumes of poetry where I've put a star by the title of one of the poems because it delighted me so.

Let me look at that poem, "On the Train, a Man Snatches My Book."  I love the way she describes how she's feeling, if she decided to pay attention to the man who sneers at her with such contempt and dismissal:

"                     . . .                     I feel

as if I'm on the moon listening to the air hiss
out of my spacesuit, and I can't find the hole.  I'm

the vice president of panic, and the president is
missing.  . . .                                                  "

This book is full of musings of our current existential despair--both on an individual level and a species level.

It's been a good year for poetry collections that use science in interesting ways.  I'd add Martha Silano's Gravity Assist (Saturnalia Books) and Lee Ann Roripaugh's Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 (Milkweed Editions) to my list too.  Regular readers of this blog may remember that I wrote a post about Roripaugh's book back when I first read it in the summer.

I'm also including a book that I'm not likely to read again--it was a tough read the first time.  Paisley Rekdal's Nightingale revisits Ovid and all those metamorphoses.  The description sounded like it would thrill my inner English major who loves to see the connections to older literature.

I had forgotten how much of Ovid's work revolves around sexual assault and rape.  Perhaps all of Greek mythology does, and I've forgotten.  In this Me Too world, the book was a tough read for me, as much of it revolved around sexual assault.

It's important work, and "Nightingale:  A Gloss" is an amazing poem.  It also makes me nauseatingly afraid to leave my house with its depiction of threats at every corner, no matter how idyllic.

Space Struck, too, shows a world of threats, but it affects me differently.  Is it the difference in the type of threat?  Maybe that's it.  The poems in Space Struck are shorter, and therefore they have a different impact than some of the poems in Nightingale.  Or maybe it's the humor that weaves through Space Struck that's not in Nightingale.

It's been a great year for poetry--I look forward to seeing what 2020 brings (a new decade--gulp!).

Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Quick Look Back at Thanksgiving Week

I have that discombobulated feeling that comes from beginning a day looking at North Carolina mountains, driving 8 hours, stopping for a meal with an old college friend in Jacksonville, driving 5 more hours, and sleeping in my own bed for the first time in a week.  Last week I watched a sliver of moon rise as I drove north, and last night, I watched a sliver of moon set--a sliver from a different phase but looking very similar.

Let me record a poem idea from a week where there wasn't much writing:  Jesus goes to Black Friday sales--Black Friday, Good Friday, lots of fun potential there--why haven't I thought about this idea before?  And then the hesitation--surely I've thought of this before?

It was a week where I expected to have more Internet connectivity than I had.  In a way, I'm glad that I didn't really have much connectivity after Tuesday, but I am now WAY behind in my grading.

Did I read a lot?  Not really.  I finished Toni Morrison's The Source of Self-Regard in small bits of reading time, and I devoured Lynda Barry's Making Comics in 2 separate reading sessions.  Both books inspired me to be more creative--I resolve to carve out some creative time during the month of December.  The book did not inspire the next generation to be creative with me.

It was good to be together.  We had 18 people gathered around the tables this year.  We saw relatives whom we hadn't seen since 2014, along with the relatives who come every year.  It's startling to realize how the children are racing to pre-teen/teenage years. 

Even without solid internet connectivity, we still had to wrestle the attention away from the screens.  As a child who always wanted to be left alone to read, I am torn in multiple directions.  I know that some of the parents would be fine with children's noses in books, but screens are different.  I also understand needing to escape the family bedlam. 

For the most part, we avoided arguments, even though the grown ups come from different political persuasions, and the children fought over fair distribution of resources and over the rules.  We had the kind of good conversations that come from lots of trips to get supplies and from long hours without screens.

I always think that I will hike more, and I don't.  I always think I will do some of the artsy-craftsy things around the Asheville area, and I don't.  But that's not the purpose of the trip, after all.  It was good to reconnect with family and friends along the way.

I always talk about the ramshackle house at a Lutheran camp, and we returned there this year.  For the first time, we had plumbing problems--backed up pipes.  The camp caretaker was very gracious about needing to roto-rooter (a verb?) out the main lines on Thanksgiving morning.

This year there was a bit of sorrow.  We know that the camp is in the process of selling some of the land that's behind the house that holds us.  Next year, there will be the ever-encroaching development, even closer to the house.

In a way, that battle was lost long ago--from the windows of the house, the super Wal-Mart always glows.  We had a long conversation with a pastor who explained the reasons why the sale needed to happen.  That pastor was once my campus pastor during my undergraduate years and was my grandmother's parish pastor after that.  Now he works for the organization that runs the Lutheran camps.  It was good to have lunch with him on Friday.

And now, I should get ready for church--and after that, the long afternoon of grading and laundry.

But first, the missing verse from "Frosty, the Snowman," as taught to me by the littlest member of our tribe:

"Frosty, the Snowman,
had a holly, jolly nose.
He walked into a building
and melted off his clothes!"

I wish it was last week.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving Creativity

For many of us, the meal will be the main thing we create during this Thanksgiving week:

Or maybe we will be at our most creative when it comes to transforming the leftovers.

Maybe we will draw pictures of turkeys.

Maybe we will make them part of our announcements:

Maybe we will turn our autumn pumpkins into a different sort of display as we transition to the next holiday.

Maybe we will turn our gratitude into haiku:


Travels behind us,
We gather for food and fun,
Deeper nourishment.