Posts Tagged ‘Enya’

The Memory of Trees

December 19, 2009

Yes, I stole that title from an Enya song. It’s on her album The Best of Enya, which is great, but my favorite CD of hers is still The Celts. Anyway, it makes an appropriate title for this post.

I’ve heard many of my fellow Lutherans claim that Dr. Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. That would seem a difficult assertion to “prove,” as I suspect the practice of dragging green, branchy things indoors to use as decorations and/or symbols has been around since we had an “indoors.” But what is probably true is that Dr. Luther popularized the custom of bringing in an evergreen tree and tying lit candles to the branches, thus delighting every child and worrying every adult who saw it.

When everybody started doing it, Dr. Luther had to go into hiding in the Wartburg (a big, drafty castle well-stocked with pens, ink, and paper), where he wasn’t allowed to play with hatchets, saws, or matches, and where he settled down at last and translated the Bible into a vernacular that clued the common people in to what those priests were going on about in Latin, and to what those stories encoded in the stained-glass windows were all about.

So all was well that ended well: Germany didn’t burn down in the late Middle Ages, and Luther’s writings survived, and so did the custom of Christmas trees.

Dr. Luther wasn’t really bent on deforesting the countryside. His focus was on how, since evergreen trees maintain their life in a barren, wintry land (until you hew them down, of course), they make good symbols for Christian truth: that in Christ, God sent a Savior into the world; that through faith in Christ, even though we must pass once through the gate of mortality, we can have eternal life. (Hmm . . . I guess hewing down the tree once is part of the symbolism, after all!) At the top of the tree is the Christmas star, which leads the way to Bethlehem.

That star has always been one of my favorite parts of the Christmas accounts. Think of the wonder of it: an event so significant that it was marked by the appearance of a new star in the sky . . . a celestial light that moved ahead of the wise men, and stopped above the house where the child was. I don’t know whether the wise men simply headed in the direction of a distant star to the west of them, or whether it was a close and large enough light source that they physically followed it and saw it stop and hover above a particular house. The point is, it was something that had never happened before; they recognized its significance, and it led them to what they were seeking.

I love the fact that those called to Bethlehem, those afforded a glimpse of the newborn King, were the truly humble and the truly wise. Shepherds — the bluest of blue-collar workers, the simplest of folk who “knew nothing” and “had nothing,” responding to a host of angels . . . and then the far-off scholars with no other agenda — the pure scientists, with their noses in books and their eyes on the sky, earnestly poring over the sum of previous knowledge and watching the world to see what happened.

Isn’t it interesting that the paths of shepherds and scholars converged on the same house, the “House of Bread”? We who know nothing, and simply labor to survive . . . we who know what can be known . . . we are all beggars.

The one who feared and hated the star and what it meant was King Herod, who if he’d been king during the Second Age of Middle-earth, would almost certainly have become one of the ring-wraiths — the nine kings of Men who, “above all else, desire power.”

But anyway, back to the point!

(Sorry, one more quick story first, speaking of Luther: years ago in Taylorville, I knew a very old Pentecostal lady, who for a long time had lived across the street from my Grandma Emma. One day I happened to tell the lady, “We’re doing a play at our church. I’m playing the part of Dr. Martin Luther!” She blinked a few times and said, “You’re going to play a black man?”)

Now to the point! I was intending to talk here about memories of Christmas trees. (This may spark some good discussion — but whatever you do, keep those candles away from the curtains!)

First, one of my earliest memories of a Christmas tree is a memory of fear. (Why are so many of the things I love rooted in abject horror? Hmm. . . . Hallowe’en, Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, books, pens, office supplies — the fear is there, if only one looks for it.) It was in some department store. In my dim recollection, rounded and polished by the sands of time, I was temporarily separated from my mom, but that’s probably an embellishment — maybe she was looking in another direction or something. Anyway, I found myself “alone” with a towering Christmas tree all of white plastic — glaring white plastic branches, white needles — it was more like a thing of dead coral than a tree — or like some huge formation of frost. And smack in the center of the tree was a face: bulging eyes, maybe a nose, and for sure, a red, red mouth. It was like a clown’s mouth [shudder!] — thick-lipped and pliable. The mouth twisted and moved, and the eyes moved, and a voice (probably tape-recorded) emanated from inside the tree. I screamed and ran back to my mom. Even now, I shiver to recall the redness of that mouth in the midst of the pristine white tree . . . the staring eyes . . . the voice, laughing and beckoning me closer. . . . That tree put the fear of Christmas into me, for sure.

Whew! On to happier memories: Grandma Emma had a tree that everyone laughed at, everyone agreed was pretty pathetic, but we all loved it. My Uncle Art said it best: it looked like Charlie Brown’s scraggly little Christmas tree.

First of all, it was kept in an unused front bedroom, the newest part of the house, that was separate from the rest. Grandma kept the registers in that room closed and rugs tucked under the door, so that no heat was wasted on an unoccupied room. That room always scared me — fear again — partly because of the fierce coldness of it, partly because it had a big bed that was always made, with sheets and blankets and covers and pillows, but never used — a room eternally waiting for someone. But mostly it was scary because of the three-paned mirror on the dresser. Boy, did that mirror terrify me! When I’d venture into that room, the icy cold taking hold of me, I could see three images of myself at once, each from a slightly different angle, and I’d hear myself think “Three Freddys,” which phrase somehow scared me even more.

The little tree was kept in a white cardboard box in a big closet at the very extremity of that room. I think it was my Uncle Art who described the annual tree-getting ritual as “going to the Cold Clothes Closet to Get the Creepy Christmas Tree.”

Back in the warmth of the main house, the tree seemed normal-sized to me as a small child, but I think it must have only been about as big as a bush. But Grandma had it up on a little table, so it was tall enough. It was green and shaggy, with needles sort of like green fur. I’m sure whoever designed it was proud of him/herself for the innovation of convenience: you didn’t have to assemble anything. The branches were attached to the trunk and folded up against it. When you took it out of its box, you just had to pull each branch down to the angle you wanted, and twist them a little into the shapes you wanted. I suppose this had been done so many times that they were all bent and crooked and tired. There were certain areas on the tree where there were too few branches, no matter how you rearranged them. You could spend all the time you wanted, but the tree always came out looking like a green, lopsided tumbleweed. And the biggie: it could never, ever stand up by  itself. We always had to tie strings to it like guy wires. One ran from the trunk to the window-latch. One ran to a bookcase. There were at least three strings, so now it was like a green tumbleweed caught in a web. And you didn’t want to get too rambunctious around it, because it was all very precarious.

Then Grandma would open the boxes of decorations and lights. As I look back, I think she probably had lights on there that were designed for all-weather outdoor use. They seriously overburdened that tree — and probably the wiring of the house. Now and then a bulb would explode with a pop and a sizzle, and we’d usually blow a fuse before the day was done. But out of the boxes came ornaments like treasures — delicate bulbs and figurines of glass — angels and wise men, spikes, snowmen, and colorful Father Christmases that were far older than Santa Claus — definitely old-world, with their fur-lined robes of blue and gold and green. The most wondrous of these ornaments were from Germany: I’m not clear on whether Mom brought them back when she was there, or whether my great-grandparents had brought them over on the boat. (I’m guessing Mom.) To set on the piano were straw-basket figurines of Saint Nicholas and his diabolic counterpart, the long-tongued, red-skinned Krampus, who accompanied St. Nick and left lumps of coal in the stockings of children who Hadn’t Been Good.

In all its finery, tinsel and lights and several lifetimes’ accumulation of ornaments — decorated over several hours by Grandma and me — the tree was no longer pathetic. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. It was like us, like the shepherds, like the wise men — beggars from the dark depths of the Cold Clothes Closet, now Clothed in Christ. It became the center of many a loving, joyous Christmas celebration. For my cousins and me, I’m sure that will always be The tree — the one Christmas tree that stands out in our memories as having been the most magical.

Oh, there were good ones at our house, too. I remember plenty of three different kinds of tree options. We had an artificial one, too, that came up from the basement in a box. It was also green, and the branches for it had little splashes of different-colored paint at their bases which corresponded to little splashes of paint on the trunk. So, for example, brown-coded branches were the longest, followed by black, etc. There was always a dead, mummified mouse somewhere in the box — invariably. I don’t remember a time when we opened that box that there wasn’t exactly one dead mouse included. (It wasn’t the same mouse; we removed it each time.) I suppose the mice in our house had a council each summer to choose the volunteer from among their sick and elderly.

But then, we also had quite a few real trees, selected from Christmas tree sales lots run by the Boy Scouts.

And then later in my childhood, my parents discovered the best option of all: getting a live, potted tree which could be planted outdoors after the holidays. We did this for enough years that there’s now an evergreen hedgerow along one edge of the yard.

Our trees, too, had lots of colored lights of different sizes that popped and smelled hot and blew fuses; and we also had some of the German ornaments. What I remember most about our trees was that I loved to crawl into the space behind them, hidden between the tree, the wall, and the bookcase, as if I were hidden in a real forest, and I would gaze into the glowing caverns among the branches. Those spaces, viewed up close, became magical worlds, illuminated by the winking lights and the glinting bulbs, angels, and tin soldiers. The worlds were green and aromatic, populated by fairies, saints, living snowmen. . . .

I remember, too, times when we’d turn off all the lights except those on the Christmas tree, and we’d admire it for a long while, that radiant tree in the warm, dark hush of the house.

Finally, there was the great tree in the chapel at Concordia College. As a chapel assistant, I always got in on helping to put it up, on an evening at the start of Advent. I think the call was open to the entire campus — anyone interested could come and help set it up, and it was a major task. The tree was about 20 feet tall in my memory (which probably means it was about 15), and its trunk came in two sections which fit together none too snugly — there was some wobble and play, which again made the operation precarious.

It also had branches which fit into holes. Consider the physics of such a tree: branches at the top of an evergreen are shorter, right? And you can’t assemble such a tree if it’s lying down, because one side would come out squashed. And if you start putting in branches at the bottom, you can’t get a ladder close enough to put in the ones at the top. So the only way to do it is to stand up the entire trunk, get it firmly fixed in the holder, and then start putting in branches from the top down.

I remember one year in particular — probably the first year I helped with it, because Pastor Tom Acton was still there as campus pastor. A dozen or so of us were helping — organizing branches into piles, untangling light strings, etc. Pastor Acton didn’t like heights, and I loved them, so he let me be the ladder man. (In Japan, there’s an old saying: “Monkeys and fools like high places.”) We’d stick in branches as the trunk wobbled dangerously, bending in the middle. People were sent to the back of the chapel to assess the overall shape, to tell us where the holes were. I remember the tree toppling over when we had it about half done, and one side got squashed flat, and we had to take most of the branches out and start over.

And while we could still get the ladder in close, before the bigger branches were in, we also had to start stringing on the tiny white lights. From the very top of the ladder, I still couldn’t reach the top of the tree to hang the lights, until Pastor Acton came up with a solution: “Bring him a taper,” he said. (A taper is that instrument acolytes use for lighting candles. It has a wooden handle, and the brass top of it forks like a capital upsilon: one branch has a cup for extinguishing candles, and the other has a thin candle housed in a tube — the candle can be paid out like a pencil lead as it burns down, and it’s used for lighting other candles. Anyway, it also works well for lifting a string of Christmas lights to tree branches over one’s head.)

The morning after we set up that enormous, hardly-stable tree, the college president was scheduled to give the homily in chapel, and when he wasn’t in the pulpit, he was sitting right at the base of the trunk; every so often he’d brush against one of the branches. All we who’d been there to help erect it kept eyeing the tree nervously, watching the subtle quivering of its needles, wondering if President Krentz were about to be buried under a ton of artificial greenery. (His guardian angels were on duty, and he lived to serve out his entire presidency in good health.)

And those are my memories of Christmas trees. Do you have any good Christmas tree stories to tell? Were there trees that horrified or delighted you? Trees that were particularly problematic or particularly wonderful? What are your memories of trees?

If I don’t get another chance to say it before the 25th: to all of you, a very merry and blessed Christmas!

Where the Corn Was Spilled

June 6, 2009

That title will make sense by the time we’ve come to the end of this entry. I’m going to quote first here from a wonderful comment that came into the blog today from Shieldmaiden. (You should definitely go back to the two previous entries, “Trees” and “Dark Doorways,” to read the latest reader comments! It seems there are often a few that come in just before I post a new entry, and I don’t want anyone to miss these extraordinary contributions from readers. In every way this is our blog, not just mine. Be sure to revisit the comments to “Trees” as well as “Dark Doorways”!) So, anyway, quoting from Shieldmaiden:

“Speaking of dark or magic doorways I don’t think it gets any more magical than the picture I saw on one of the blog posts last summer. The one of an old gate leaning against the trunks of maples and partially swallowed by their trunks. I couldn’t help but imagine that on a certain midsummer night when the moonlight fell just right, and several other elements lined up, that the gate would swing open and when you went through it you would step into an enchanted forest of another world.”

Eeeee! Shieldmaiden, I hope you’ll let me use that in a story someday! That picture is the new header for the blog, but since I change headers from time to time, I’ll include it here, too:

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

Now I’m going to quote again from The Green and Ancient Light, that unpublished, homemade book of vignettes and recollections from my childhood, printed in September of 1990:

“Beneath the living blanket of green leafy vines was a barn. Down among the roots of the high weeds going to seed were bricks and a concrete slab. At the heart of the hedgerow was a rusting fence, hardly recognizable as such. Only a nail and a chain remained, dangling against the peeling bark, of some iron thing the maple tree had swallowed years ago.

“This relentless march of the sprouting, encircling, all-consuming Earth is essential in understanding my childhood. Nature guarded its secrets well, its rough-edged relics of days gone by; they were tucked away in shady, whispering hollow places where only the folk of the hedgerows could readily find them, the cat and the rabbit, the dog with his nose to the dewy ground, the sleepy opossum, the raccoon with his humanlike hands. These folk climbed over and around the treasures in the gloomy hedgeheart — the forgotten gate leaned against the young maples, its boards bleached and bone-hard, its metal fastenings eaten with rust; the roll of fencing behind the tin shed, half-sunk in the earth, down between the treetrunks, a tunnel for foxes and a rusty trampoline for little  boys; the mysterious odds and ends of glass and tarpaper, the dimly-remembered toys of earliest childhood, sheltering now beneath the dusky hillocks of the grass; the several corroded things in the delightful hollows of the man-made cliff behind the cellar.

“All these things and a thousand more called out to two little boys, called out in voices soft and mellow as ripened rust, orange in the hot light, dark amber in the sunset; the grasses called out, their blades in the wind, their roots probing into matters. The world of passage and change called out, the world of transformation and chemical reaction, of unbecoming and becoming: ‘Come and see, boys; come and find. Discover in these green depths the things that once were, the things you lost five summers ago, the things your grandfathers’ compatriots built forty years ago; see what is now, how undauntedly nature takes your ball and runs with it, how it takes all your ideas and improves them, and goes on; and, boys, carry with you from this secret world these purposefully-formed seeds of things that may be.'”

I honestly think that a huge part of my writing is a giving back of the gifts I absorbed from the green world around me in my childhood. A Cricket editor’s comment that I particularly cherish was: “Your memory for detail is phenomenal: you sit in Japan and write lovingly about small-town life in Illinois.”

Anyway, while we’re speaking of the magic of trees and doorways, certainly this tendency of nature to advance and absorb and reclaim the objects of human construction is a worthy subtopic — it has always been a large part of the enchantment for me.

Again, I remember illustrations from a book of fairy stories I had when I was very young (and still have — I know right where it is, though it’s deeply buried in storage). It was a tattered old book that a library was throwing away. My mom the librarian would rescue such castoffs for me, and sometimes they became the greatest treasures of my own library. It didn’t even have a cover. But I remember a beautiful two-page panoramic color painting of a meadow; and half-hidden here and there among the tussocks of long grass were sleepy rabbits in their burrows, rusted swords, crocks of golden coins, and probably a fairy or two — the last time I saw it was several years ago.

But that picture expresses a wonder that I suspect is common to many of us. I remember my childhood fascination with objects overgrown, things half-buried, items long-forgotten and vine-clad and sinking into the ground. I don’t know why the phenomenon was so enthralling to me.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

In the north wall of our barn, there were some closed hatchways or windows covered over by Virginia creeper vines. Piles of stone were soon overrun by weeds. Farm implements parked and abandoned sank into the embrace of nature.

As a college student, I was captivated by these lines from Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion”:

“Earth is eating trees, fence posts,

Gutted cars, earth is calling her little ones,

‘Come home, come home!'”

And here are three more poems that I think speak to this same theme, each in its own way:

“The Presence,” by Maxine Kumin:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

It could have been a raccoon

lugging a knapsack,

it could have been a porcupine

carrying a tennis racket,

it could have been something

supple as a red fox

dragging the squawk and spatter

of a crippled woodcock.

Ten knuckles underground

those bones are seeds now

pure as baby teeth

lined up in the burrow.


I cross on snowshoes

cunningly woven from

the skin and sinews of

something else that went before.

The next one I remember singing in a choral arrangement in an all-state chorus festival when I was in junior high or high school — performed by a huge choir made up of kids from all over the state. The poem itself was written and published during World War II by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, and it’s called “No Mark”:

Corn grew where the corn was spilled

In the wreck where Casey Jones was killed,

Scrub-oak grows and sassafras

Around the shady stone you pass

To show where Stonewall Jackson fell

That Saturday at Chancellorsville,

And soapweed bayonets are steeled

Across the Custer battlefield;

But where you die the sky is black

A little while with cracking flak,

Then ocean closes very still

Above your skull that held our will.

O swing away, white gull, white gull;

Evening star, be beautiful.


That is an awesome poem! Do you see how it’s precisely to the point of this discussion? Finally, this next one comes to us courtesy of this blog’s own Catherine, who tracked down the words for me. It’s the old Scottish poem “Twa Corbies,” or “Two Ravens”:

As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies makin’ mane [making a moan]

And one ontae the other did say

Where will we gang and dine the day,

Where will we gang and dine the day?

In ahind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new slain knight

Naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk and hound and his lady fair,

His hawk and hound and his lady fair.

His hawk is tae the hunting gane,

His hound to bring a wild fowl hane [home],

His wife has taken another mate,

So we can make our dinner sweet,

We can make our dinner sweet.

And you can sit on his white breast bone,

And I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en,

And with a lock of his yellow hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

And many’s a one for him makes mane;

Naebody kens where he has gane;

Through his white bones when they grow bare

The wind shall blow forever mare,

The wind shall blow forever mare.


Three diverse poems, but I submit they’re all really talking about the same things. Do you agree? And yes, I have a poem of my own to toss into the pot. This is my own version of the same theme — a poem I think I’ve alluded to on this blog but have never quoted in full. So here it is: “Glory Day,” by Frederic S. Durbin:

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia Creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.


As one of my two favorite professors would say, when he finished reading a poem aloud to the class, “How do you like them apples?” I’d love to hear your analyses of the poem — of what precisely the “something like a dragon” is. Any takers? (You won’t be wrong, I expect.) [The poem’s a sonnet, by the way!]

So, well, well, this theme of nature’s reclamation of objects is large in my mind this week because it’s such a key element of the book I’m writing now. (Since it’s passed 25,000 words, I’m just going to start calling it a “book” instead of a “story.” I think it will likely hit the minimum novel requirement of 50,000 before all is said and done.)

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

That book is still going well, by grace! On Thursday, I had the most productive day on this project so far, with 2,858 words written! On Friday I did 1,909, which is still ahead of a NaNoWriMo quota count. Today, Saturday, I was fixing earlier things, so didn’t make any forward progress. I spent a long stretch revising one seven-line poem that plays a crucial part. So it goes, in fits and spurts. . . .

Here’s one more poem of mine [still on the subject — no disbursements to the Pun Fund], written [I think] during my college years, though possibly right after I came to Japan. I’m not really advocating paganism; it’s more just a statement that humankind’s impact on the created natural world is temporal and transient:

“Urban Requiem”

In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.


Heh, heh, heh! Yeah, I was going through a Lord Dunsany period. I think he had some similar ideas, didn’t he?

As I’m wrapping up here: I just received my copy of the May/June Cricket, and I was thrilled and delighted to see a letter and photograph from The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club! Here are my heartfelt thanks to those readers and their parents! This issue of Cricket is one I’ll treasure. I think I’ll make a good color photocopy of the letters page and keep it in a picture frame! There are several letters that mention “The Star Shard,” and also in the back, the winners of the Urrmsh song poetry contest are printed — so even though the story finished in the April issue, we really need this May/June issue to complete “The Star Shard” Cricket collection!

I’m still listening to Enya. I have two of her CDs now: The Celts and Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya. Really wonderful. Also, I saw the new Star Trek for the second time tonight.

I’ll let some visual images close this posting out:

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .