Funeral Blues

Auntie Beth died suddenly. Coronary thrombosis gives no warning. Driving to the funeral home, people on the sidewalks and in cars were happy, laughing, and enjoying life. “Don’t you know what a sad day this is?” I wanted to scream. “Can’t you see my grief?”

Any attempt to find words to express feelings related to the sudden loss of a loved one is futile since there are no words that can handle this moment in anyone’s life.

In the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, Matthew (John Hannah) and his partner Gareth (Simon Callow) are enjoying a festive wedding reception when Gareth suffers a heart attack and dies.

At the funeral, Matthew’s eulogy to Gareth is heart-wrenching. I began this post saying there are no words to express the sadness of sudden loss; but, W. H. Auden proves me wrong. Through Matthew, Auden captures the feelings of devastating loss in his poem, “Funeral Blues.”

With Gareth’s death, Matthew’s joy and his reason for living are gone. His loss is both public and private. He feels the world should acknowledge his pain and share his grief. “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, / Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves, / Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.” At the same time, Matthew’s loss is intensely personal. “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest.”

No one but the bereaved can understand or feel the intensity of such sorrow, “For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Exploration

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets.

“To know the place for the first time” haunted me. I didn’t know where I read the words or heard them. I didn’t know who wrote or said them. How they found their way into my memory remains a mystery. They took up silent residency until they were needed. Roused from their slumber, the words clamored into my consciousness. I launched a search for their source. With that fragment and the magic of Google, I found T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I’ve kept a journal for over thirty years. I recall struggling in the beginning to make the journal relevant. After several attempts, I created a persona to whom I wrote letters. John was wise and unconditionally loving, exhibiting the personal characteristics to which I aspired. I poured out my soul to him.

Four years into journal keeping, I came across Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary in which she talks about deciding on an audience to whom the journal is addressed. Rainer suggests that the audience should be the person the writer will become at some time in the future—a future self. It pleased me that John met Rainer’s criteria and that I created him intuitively.

Journaling is an exploration, a journey of self discovery accomplished through writing. The journey of self discovery is a cycle. The self, multi-layered and multifaceted, is discovered in stages or in waves of awareness. I discover myself at a particular level and then the journey of self discovery begins anew. The end of exploration is to know myself at a new level of awareness for the first time.

Having put my pen to the page, it is not possible to cease from exploration.

Déjeuner du Matin

Déjeuner du Matin is the first poem I learned in French. The poem is easy for first semester French students to understand and to learn. Poet Jacques Prévert’s simple language carries a dramatic punch. I was pleased to recite the poem because I felt, at the time, as though I were really speaking French even though the poem was the extent of my facility with the language.

My fascination with French began when I registered for the first semester of college classes. My adviser, Mr. Sydney Patzer, was an older man with white hair and a carefully trimmed mustache. Distinguished and quite dapper, he looked as though he stepped from a 1940s movie set.

“If you’re going to major in political science,” Mr. Patzer said, “you’ll want to study French, of course.”

The first class the first morning of my first semester of college was French 1. The instructor was Madame Ruth Parlé Craig. And, everyone called her “Madame.”

Bonjour, ma classe,” Madame said as she bustled into the room, arms full of books and papers. Rubenesque, with redish blonde hair streaked with gray and pulled back from her forehead into a tight roll at the base of her neck, she was dressed in a rust colored two piece suit. With short quick steps, Madame walked to the front of the classroom where she dropped her books and papers on top of the desk and pulled a class roster from the pile.

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “This if French 1. I am going to call the roll. I ask that you sit in the same seat each time we meet. I have a photographic memory and take roll by doing a memory pattern. If you’re not in the same seat, you will not be counted as present.”

Madame finished calling the roll then, without consulting the list, identified each student correctly. From that moment, I was in love with Madame, French, and tous les choses  françaises (everything French). Midway through the semester, I became a French major.

Coy Mistresses

“To His Coy Mistress” is an example of carpe diem, seize or pluck the day, poems about making the most of time. There is nothing coy about Andrew Marvell. He wants to get laid and leaves little doubt about his lustful desire.

I often say, “Had we but world enough and time,” to describe dismay at what I can’t control. Usually, it is a pleasant experience I want to last and to enjoy longer. Focusing on what I want rather than being in the moment is the opposite of carpe diem. Saying “I don’t have time” or “there isn’t enough time” is nonsense. I have all the time there is. When my time is up, that’s all the time there is.

A mistress need not be a human object. A “coy” mistress may a metaphor for an art medium whose inspiration an artist seeks. Writing is my mistress. Demanding, coy, and capable of cruelty, she expects me to sit alone in a room and to write.

Writing is my art, my love, my passion. I am willing to devote as much attention to my art as Marvell is to his lady. When my muse smiles on me it’s like a glimpse of Heaven.

I need my muse’s love while my willing soul still “transpires.” Therefore, I write to demonstrate worthiness of my muse’s attention. Dying with unwritten words still in me is an unpleasant thought. A “fine and private place,” the grave is no place to embrace a muse.

Making the most of time is good advice; but, it is possible to make time a fetish. I don’t like rushing from activity to activity. I don’t like the endless media stimulation and distraction of email, cell phone, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I want to be mindful of rather than frantic about what time I have.

Mindful use of time, thinking about what I do and why I do it is being present in the moment. Living mindfully eliminates worry about making the most of time.

Focusing on today is making the most of time. Being where I am when I am there is making the most of time. There is no need to outrun the sun.

A Bequest of Wings

A life is without books is unimaginable. The worlds created by Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Steinbeck, Irving, and a host of other writers enrich my life.

Emily Dickinson expresses her reverence for books as “a bequest of wings.” In another poem, the book is a “Frigate” and “the Chariot / That bears the Human Soul!”

Dickinson regards a book’s words as precious, capable of loosening the human spirit and granting liberty of mind. Opening a book is freeing a genie from captivity. The loosened spirit is free to soar. Life is bigger, horizons are broader, possibilities endless, and liberty unlimited.

Like Dickinson, my favorite books are “kinsmen on the shelf.” The wall above my desk is lined with shelves holding the books I’ve acquired over a lifetime of reading. Looking at my bookshelf is like looking at a family photograph. Each book is a collection of memories. I recall when I bought the book, why I bought it, and where I was when I read it. If the book was a gift, I recall who gave it to me. Each book transports me back to the experience of reading. I am free to reconsider its content and meaning. I am inspired to build on what I learned. And, I am free to take the journey at any time.

How would Dickinson regard the effect of modern technology on the book? What would she say of ebooks and Kindle? While I love the feel a book in my hands, I am no Luddite. My Kindle is handy.

But, Kindle does not provide all the benefits of a printed book nor does it provide all the benefits of modern technology. For example, most Kindle books lack an index linked to the book’s content and, unlike electronic books owned by some libraries, it lacks the option of full-text searching.

Emily Dickinson might say it comes down to a question of access. A book, whether printed or electronic, is “a bequest of wings.”

Annabel Lee

I was in the seventh grade. Priscilla Zwitzer, who taught at my school, was a friend of my family’s and a neighbor. Priscilla and her husband had an exquisite collection of classical music and spoken word LP recordings.

Priscilla and Martin had no children. Educated, well-traveled, and sophisticated, they were the parents I thought I should have been given. They let me have unsupervised access to their LP collection. I enjoyed countless hours of listening to classical music performances and poetry read by actors who created magic with their voices.

James Mason’s “Annabel Lee” was dark, morose, and appealed to my moody adolescent sensibilities. The tone and rhythm of the poem and the images of “high-born kinsmen” and “sepulchres” by the sea captured my imagination. “What’s a sepulcher?” I asked Priscilla. She smiled as she handed me a dictionary.

My seventh grade drama class introduced me to Poe’s short stories. We were given literary passages to prepare as dramatic readings. When I was handed the opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I could not have been more pleased. My hours of practicing to sound like James Mason paid off despite the effect of puberty on the male voice. “That was very well done,” said Mr. Edwards, my drama teacher. “Dennis has set the performance standard,” he announced to the class.

It was many and many a year ago in a place beside a phonograph where I lived with no other thought than to be transported worlds away by the delights of poetry.

From the seventh grade to today, poetry has given me great joy and pleasure. Priscilla and Martin passed on years ago leaving me with the legacy of an incomparable gift.

A Personal Blog Challenge

I joined the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge and wrote 26 blog posts, one for each letter of the alphabet from April 1 through April 30, 2013 (Sundays off). The theme I chose was “important people in my life.” I learned I could write on a schedule and stick to a theme. The challenge was fun, enjoyable, and did not seem difficult.

I skipped the 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge; but, the idea of writing 26 blog posts on a theme stayed with me. What about setting a personal challenge? How about writing 26 posts on a theme in any month? I don’t need to wait for April to join the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. After more thought, the idea for a personal challenge turned into a challenge to write 26 blog posts on each of 26 themes over 26 months, a total of 676 posts.

Initially, I thought of one theme for each letter of the alphabet. For each theme, I began a list of 26 post ideas, one for each letter of the alphabet. On further reflection, I abandoned the alphabet criterion in favor of selecting themes that come to mind. I set August 1, 2014 as the challenge start date.

By beginning my personal challenge on Friday, August 1, 2014, I will finish on Friday, September 30, 2016l.

The blog challenge commitment serves several purposes the most significant of which is forcing me to write and post on a schedule. The challenge causes me to seek a balance between writing and other projects I am working on.

I am curious to know who is in my balcony willing to cheer me on. Anyone?

Adios, San Miguel

I added two weeks to my San Miguel stay to be here for the Easter celebrations. Am I am glad I did. Mexicans know how to celebrate. The Mexican Easter celebration is filled with processions, music, color, drama, and even a bit of comedy. The past three days were a feast for the senses.

Viernes Santo (Good Friday)
Viernes Santo, there are processions held in several locations throughout San Miguel.

Santo Encuentro (Holy Encounter)
At 11:30 a.m., the Santo Encuentro procession takes place at the Parroquia and through surrounding streets. The main attraction is an antique figure of Jesus that includes a mechanism allowing the statue’s head to be raised as if to look at his mother, represented by the statue of the Vigen de los Dolores (Virgin of Sorrows).

Santo Entierro (Holy Burial)
At 5:00 p.m., the final procession of the day assembles at the Oratorio.  The Santo Entierro is a royal funeral procession. Those who walk in the procession are dressed in luto riguroso, strict mourning. Men in black suits, white shirts, black ties. Women in black dresses and mantillas, white gloves. The formality of the procession is memorable. More impressive is the reverance of the people who line the streets for two hours to attend the slow, slow advance.

Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday)
On Sunday the celebrations end. At noon, the traditional burning of effigies of Judas and other disliked figures are strung up in El Jardin. The pinata-like papier-maché figures are blown up with internal firecrackers! The crowd roars its approval. The figures’ heads are collected and sold.

Leaving…
My flight to Los Angeles departs early Tuesday morning. My bags are packed and my head is filled with memories of a magical place and friendly, beautiful people. I accomplished the goals I set for what I’ve called my “artistic retreat.” I feel like I’ve found a place where I am free to focus attention, time, and energy on activities that nourish my creative spirit. I return home refreshed, invigorated, and with my creative batteries charged.

Adios, San Miguel. Hasta.

Holy Week Begins In San Miguel

Religious celebrations in Mexico are a blend of liturgical practice and local custom. Liturgical practices are the public rites of the church throughout the world. Local celebrations are unique to the culture of place. In San Miguel, Holy Week begins the Friday before Palm Sunday.

Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows)
Friday morning, El Colegio, the street in front of the Mercado Central, was filled with flower and fruit vendors. Tarps draped across the street made a cave-like atmosphere intensifying the colors of purple and white flowers and of bright oranges.

“Hola, amigo,” said Abraham, my friend from El Bagel Cafe, “Today is Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows). It’s a beautiful time.”

Viernes de Dolores honors the Virgin Mary, recalling her sorrow on learning she is about to live through the pain and passion of Christ. Beginning early in the day, public and home altars are installed throughout the city. Many of the city’s 45 fountains are decorated by informal groups of neighbors. Elements of the altars consist of white altar cloths, representations of the Virgin, white and purple flowers, bitter oranges, wheat plants, and herbs. The color of each element has a special significance: white signifies Mary’s purity. Purple signifies both penance and royalty. The bitterness of the oranges suggests Mary’s anguish and Christ’s bitter cup. Sprigs of fresh chamomile (green) represent humility. The pale gold of the new wheat is produced by keeping it covered, away from sunlight. Its color suggests prayer made in secret that only God hears.

In the evening, the streets fill with people visiting the home altars. Refreshments are offered: fruit waters, popsicles, ice cream, and sweets all recalling the sweetness of Mary’s tears. Recorded local hymns of the passion can be heard from place to place. As with any Mexican celebration, impromptu kitchens spring up along the streets offering tacos, tamales, and other savory delights. 

Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday)
Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) is celebrated in San Miguel with two processions.

I left my apartment at 9:00 Sunday morning to walk the short distance to El Calvario (The Chapel of Our Lady of Solitude) at the top of calle San Francisco. El Calvario is the site of the beginning of a procession to recall Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. The street was empty. Soon, a few people—mostly fellow gringos—began to gather. At 9:30 a burro arrived on the back of a pick-up truck.

The crowd grew as members of the procession arrived: Jesus, disciples, acolytes, followers. At 10:00, the procession began a slow descent along calle San Francisco. Led by three acolytes  followed by Jesus astride the burro, 12 men portraying the apostles, and other marchers, the procession made its way to the church of San Francisco where mass was celebrated. Arriving at San Francisco, the church’s bells rang wildly to welcome the procession.

The second Palm Sunday procession takes place along calle Sollano from Parque Juarez to the Jadin. The procession is lead by a priest followed by parishioners carrying a sculpture of Jesus riding a burro. The procession is escorted by a drum and bugle corps. Firework explode and the joyous clanging of church bells welcome the procession’s arrival at the Parroquia.

On Palm Sunday, intricately woven palm fronds shaped as crosses, flowers, stars, and other designs are sold outside the city’s churches. The palm frond objects are taken by their buyers to mass where they are blessed. Following mass, the objects are taken home where they are hung on doors and in windows to protect the family from evil.

Services, celebrations, and fireworks continued late into the day in one place or another all over San Miguel. Each celebration is an example of a long history of local custom honoring the principles of faith.

El Señor de la Columna

Easter festivities begin in San Miguel de Allende with the arrival of Nuestro Señor de la Columna (Our Lord of the Column), one of the most solemn and traditional religious festivities of the year.  Accompanied by a large procession, the statue of Nuestro Señor is carried to San Miguel on the shoulders of the faithful the week preceding Holy Week. The procession begins Saturday at 11:00 p.m. from el Santuario de Atotonilco (The Shrine of Atotonilco), eight miles northwest of San Miguel. I left my apartment Sunday morning at 5:40 for the 20 minute walk to the place where the procession enters the city.

The Procession
Avenida Independencia was filled with people who worked overnight lining the procession’s route with chamomille, anise, and greens. Street murals of intricate designs made with colored sawdust welcome El Señor.  Purple and white banners and flowers line the street. At 6:00 a.m., hundreds awaited the procession’s appearance. The statue was greeted with fireworks. The crowd swarmed behind the procession as it passed.  Flowers, herbs, and greens are taken as souvenirs.

The procession reached the Church of San Juan de Dios about 8:00 a.m. where it was received by the bishop of Celeya (Guanajuato). Mass was celebrated before a large crowd in the atrium of the church. Following the mass, the statue of Nuestro Señor is placed on the high altar, where it will remain until Wednesday following Easter. At 6:00 p.m. that day, the statue begins the return journey to Atotonilco in a similar, but smaller, procession.

During its stay at the Church of San Juan de Dios, the statue is watched over by members of El Hermandad del Señor de la Columna (The Brotherhood of the Lord of the Column). The Brotherhood organizes the procession, working all year to prepare for the event.

The Statue
In 1823, Cayetano Vargas, a San Miguel merchant, commissioned Father Remigio Angel Gonzáles,  the parish priest of Atotonilco, to sculpt a statue of Señor de la Columna to request a miracle. The statue, made of painted wood, represents the flagellated Christ resting his arms on a small column. His cheek bears the scar of Judas’ kiss, his body is covered with blood, and his ribs are exposed from flogging. An impressive figure credited with miraculous powers, the statue stands six feet high and weighs 88 pounds. It is housed in el Santuario de Atotonilco, a site of spiritual retreat for thousands of faithful from all parts of Mexico.

(Sources of information used in writing this post: Jade Arroyo, Attención, April 4-11, 2014; Attención: Quepasa (Supplement), April 4, 2014; Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel; www.wikipedia.com.)