Monday, September 1, 2014

A Sense of History defines some Individuals

I have been doing a great deal of soul-searching in the past year and having been called quite a few negative names by an individual who really is not qualified to judge me, I still tried to ascertain if I were guilty of any of the slurs.  First and foremost, there is the term 'hoarder'.  It is a rather popular catchname now, to the extent that it has sparked television 'reality' shows. 

Is it really fair to lump together the serious collector and the person who saves every plastic bag and bit of paper as well as haunting junk shops in order to find more 'treasures'?  I am not going to make a judgement there, although I do collect all plastic bags for reuse in cleaning my Cats' litter boxes.

It was the discovery, however, of yet another damaged silver spoon in the house that prompted this post.  The person who damaged it tends to be very hard on cutlery in general and spoons in particular.  He has come into some money of late which has made him more arrogant as well as even less appreciative of the intrinsic value of objects.  In fairness, he does have some aesthetic appreciation of beauty and fine things, but this is overshadowed by an erroneous belief that one can destroy anything and then use money to replace it.

What created the enormous divide between his attitudes and mine?  I think it is something that originated in early childhood.  He had no sense whatsoever of his family history, apart from general ethnic history.  Neither on his mother's side nor on his father's side was he given ANYTHING from which to view his own heritage in character or history.  I, on the other hand, was given a rich and colourful tapestry of a sense of aristocracy on both sides of my family.  Not simply aristocracy either but royalty even, albeit a connection that was centuries old and possibly a little tenuous, if truth be told.

The actual genealogical tree, however, is less important than the early BELIEF in this anchor of identity, although I did spend a number of years wondering if all of it were truth or if truth, exaggerated a little.  I know realise it is quite irrelevant.  They called me 'Princess' in school.  They called my daughter 'Princess' in school.  Something in both of us resonated to that sense of aristocracy, which is an almost intangible quality, quite different from having money  or living in luxury.   It is a belief that one is somehow special, although not a superior sort of 'special' to any one else with any sort of unique history.

On my mother's side, we are descended first from Charlemagne and later from the De Conde family.  The De Condes originally were Muslims who settled in Europe and who later became Huguenots.  The name has been spelled as De Cande and De Conde.  I met a member of the De Cande family in Paris when I was at University.  She was Muslim.  There was a De Canda at the battle of Karbala, named in the roll of 72 martyrs who stood with Imam Husayn.

The De Condes later became part of the royal court of France when Henri IV ascended to the throne.  Their history is interwoven with that of the Bourbon family but de Conde history from this point onward is extremely colourful but rather scandalous.  There was a taint of madness that ran through the family.  The Duke de Conde who lived during the reign of Louis XIV had a habit of going to his roof to bay at the moon like a wolf when it was full.  A rather famous French film with Gerard Depardieu named 'Vatel' is based on the life of the chef of the Prince de Conde, Louis II de Bourbon.

My maternal family can claim to be directly descended as well from the Montcalm family through the sister of the Marquis de Montcalm who demonstrated heroic resolve in his defence of Quebec.  These are some of the tales that were as much a part of my early childhood as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

On my father's side, there is a claim of being connected to the Kings of Italia.  2nd Cousin to the King of Italia is the way we were told of the connection.  The royal family of Italia did not have a very long history.  Considering the fact that my own father was born at the end of the 19th century,  the stories of HIS grandfather have to have been set in the early 1800s.  It is said that, during a period of economic depression, he allowed the peasants to farm his fields, taking none of the harvest for himself.  For this act of generosity, he was rewarded by the Pope with the Order of the Golden Spur...This is how I remember it, in any event.  My father died when I was 13 years old and my parents had been divorced since I was 5 years old.  I did listen to my father's stories with great attention.  I saw his diplomatic passport and a medal he had received from the government of Italia for some kind of heroic act during the 1st World War when he served in the cavalry.

When he died, nothing remained for my sister and myself.  My half-sister was the only member of the family who had access at that point in time.  My mother would not take me even to say farewell to him.  When I spoke to my half-sister years later, she claimed that everything had been stolen by a person or persons unknown, but I somehow doubt that.  She concluded by stating that it would be better to forget about him and his history.

It NEVER is better to forget these things because they are at the very foundation of personal identity for better or worse.  That is why I now believe that the specific factual details probably are not as important as the tales we were told and remember still.  It was those tales that made us the individuals we are.

My father was the youngest child in a large family.  In Italia, there was the law of primogeniture, which means that only the eldest son inherited.  My father being the very youngest had to make his own way in life.  After serving in the 1st World War, he joined the diplomatic service and travelled through the world for the Italian government under a diplomatic passport.  These are facts.  What is not so clearly fact are his descriptions of his childhood home where there were over 20 bedrooms and each had its own fireplace.  After the divorce, he promised to take my sister and myself to that house and to give us a pony and carriage. 

It is all very 19th century but then, my father was himself a product of the 19th century.  Very little remains from him but I never will forget his handwriting.  It definitely was the handwriting of an educated gentleman from Europe.  No one writes like that now.  No one has written like that for over a hundred years.  It was gorgeous calligraphy.

Fueled by my admiration of that handwriting (his signature scrawled in two books by Alexandre Dumas) and messaages written both in Italian and English on little postcards to me as a young child), I studied calligraphy myself, but never achieved his grandeur.  In fact, though, I evidently inherited my 'sinister' attribute from him.  He was ambidextrous but probably was born left-haneded.  In those days, children were not allowed to use their left hands in writing and he therefore would have been taught forcibly to use his right hand.  Whoever did that succeeded admirably as his calligraphy showed none of the telltale signs of a lefthanded person attempting copperplate or other cursive writing.

For me, on the other hand, writing with the right hand always proved difficult and clumsy.   It was impossible even for me to achieve perfection in any of the traditional right-slanted cursive hands such as copperplate.  Italics was another matter, suiting the left-handed writer as well as the right.

What does all this have to do with a silver spoon? 

Having been brought up with a very profound sense of personal history and intrinsic self-worth, irrespective of income or contemporary social standing, I tend to give the same values to objects in my life.  It does not matter where or how I obtain an object if it is beautiful and has some sort of sentimental or intrinsic value, whether that is as a precious metal or gem or because of its history or beauty.

I bought a set of long spoons at auction because the man who destroys spoons loves to eat with long spoons.  I believe they sometimes are known as iced tea spoons.  They are very pretty and probably are about a hundred years old.  As the set was incomplete and an odd number to boot, they did not cost that much.  Nevertheless, they are very pretty spoons and deserve proper care.  They are silver with a lovely pattern.

Although I bought them less than a year ago, two of the seven spoons have been bent to a point where they are almost deformed.  Obviously they have been used to serve ice cream that is too hard for them to tackle.  A careful person would use a different spoon or even an ice cream scoop to serve the stuff, then use the long spoon, if desired to eat it.  This individual is the opposite of careful, however and appears even to take a perverse pleasure in destorying objects, especially those for which he did not pay.  When he pays for an item, it has some worth in terms of the price tag that was on it.  When I buy an item or otherwise obtain something, it has NO worth in his estimation.    There is no historical component in his life whatsoever and I believe that is where the gulf was created between his perception and mine.

If I found a silver chalice by the wayside or unearthed it from a cave, it would be priceless, not only for its history and the amount of silver it contained but because of the 'romance' of the discovery.  There would be no way to replace it were it then destroyed, stolen or lost.  If he decided for any reason that he wanted a silver chalice, he would use a credit card to purchase it.  After that, its value would depend upon the amount paid.  Full stop.  It is not that he could not appreciate its aesthetic beauty or any other identifying quality.  It is rather than he would believe that he could destroy it with impunity and then buy another if necessary.

I know that there is a certain freedom in that attitude and that I am shackled by my sentimentality and my romantic character as well as my desire to surround myself with beauty.  Rich has nothing to do with aristocracy and in fact, not having spending money as a child has nothing to do with the amount of money my parents had or did not have.  We simply were not given pocket money at all.  Neither my sister nor I ever learned how to deal with money in an intelligent and practical fashion.  I admit this failing.  The man who destroys objects with careless indifference, on the other hand, has made a science of spending, especially when his spending involves imaginary, intangible items such as stocks.  To me, that is contrary to living.  What is the point of money that serves no purpose and does not increase the quality of life?  To see my total income fluctuate on a daily basis would drive me mad, apart from the idea of investment in firms that are hawking products that act on people's lives in a negative fashion.  Into this category I place the manufacturers of military equipment and cigarettes.  If one can have no influence on the firm in which the stocks are held, one has to consider carefully how one invests the funds in the first place.  Again, the individual in question is concerned solely with the 'bottom line', which is the amount of profit he can make.  He is certainly not alone in this... but again, I wonder if this is somehow connected to that fundamental difference between us.  To him, money is money.  A spoon is nothing more than a spoon that can be replaced.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

Interview of Bernard Cornwell by George R.R. Martin

While browsing Amazon to see if Conn Iggulden or Bernard Cornwell had published any new historical novels, I found this interesting interview. George R.R. Martin is the author of the 'Game of Thrones' series, which has become a favourite of mine recently. Bernard Cornwell is one of those prolific historical novelists who, while not an absolute favourite in literary terms, can be counted upon to be entertaining. I actually prefer Conn Iggulden, although he takes extraordinary liberties with history... but then, he never claims to write history books. He writes novels. Amazon.com Review George R.R. Martin Interviews Bernard Cornwell George R.R. Martin sold his first story in 1971 and has been writing professionally since then. He spent ten years in Hollywood as a writer-producer, working on The Twilight Zone, Beauty and the Beast, and various feature films and television pilots that were never made. In the mid '90s he returned to prose, his first love, and began work on his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. He has been in the Seven Kingdoms ever since. George R.R. Martin: It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common. My series owes a lot to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and the other great fantasists who came before me, but I've also read and enjoyed the work of historical novelists. Who were your own influences? Was historical fiction always your great passion? Did you ever read fantasy? Bernard Cornwell: You're right--fantasy and historical novels are twins--and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi). So I've been influenced by all three: fantasy, sci-fi and historical novels, though the largest influence has to be C.S. Forester's Hornblower books. Martin: A familiar theme in a lot of epic fantasy is the conflict between good and evil. The villains are often Dark Lords of various ilks, with demonic henchmen and hordes of twisted, malformed underlings clad in black. The heroes are noble, brave, chaste, and very fair to look upon. Yes, Tolkien made something grand and glorious from that, but in the hands of lesser writers, well ... let's just say that sort of fantasy has lost its interest for me. It is the grey characters who interest me the most. Those are the sort I prefer to write about... and read about. It seems to me that you share that affinity. What is it about flawed characters that makes them more interesting than conventional heroes? Cornwell: Maybe all our heroes are reflections of ourselves? I'm not claiming to be Richard Sharpe (God forbid), but I'm sure parts of my personality leaked into him (he's very grumpy in the morning). And perhaps flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice… a conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing. Boring. Sharpe often does the right thing, but usually for the wrong reasons, and that's much more interesting! Martin: When Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, it was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit. 'The tale grew in the telling,' he said later, when LOTR had grown into the trilogy we know today. That's a line I have often had occasion to quote over the years, as my own Song of Ice and Fire swelled from the three books I had originally sold to the seven books (five published, two more to write) I'm now producing. Much of your own work has taken the form of multi-part series. Are your tales too 'growing in the telling,' or do you know how long your journeys will take before you set out? Did you know how many books Uhtred's story would require, when you first sat down to write about him? Cornwell: No idea! I don't even know what will happen in the next chapter, let alone the next book, and have no idea how many books there might be in a series. E.L. Doctorow said something I like which is that writing a novel is a bit like driving down an unfamiliar country road at night and you can only see as far ahead as your somewhat feeble headlamps show. I write into the darkness. I guess the joy of reading a book is to find out what happens, and for me that's the joy of writing one too!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Discarded Toys: Conflicting Concepts of Creation







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I was thinking about discarded or forgotten toys and the literature and films that support the concept of their existence quite independently of the children who owned them and then discarded or forgot about them. In other words, the existence and character of a toy outlives its 'usefulness'. Although I dislike the stylistic qualities of the animation in the 'Toy Story' series of films, the concept is marvelous. Equally popular but older is 'The Velveteen Rabbit', a book that follows the life of a stuffed rabbit after his original owner is forced to part with him.

Being the person I am, I then pursued the topic to another level, which is the independent existence of Gods and Goddesses even if forgotten or repudiated by the humans who once worshipped them. There are those who believe that our Gods/Goddesses are created by us rather than accepting the principle that we have been created by a God/Goddess. My own belief is that, in the same way that any beautiful object that could be defined as 'Art' or Nature in some way embodies the larger, more abstract concept of Beauty itself, our visions of the Divine partly embody the Divine which is Infinite and thus cannot be encapsulated in ANY human concept, however sophisticated or elastic. We simply are incapable of perceiving the Infinite as we are incapable of creating a vessel that could capture the entire concept of Beauty or Truth.

As a woman whose childhood was populated by dolls and toys and who always has possessed a very vibrant and potent spiritual life, I would believe in the independent existence of my childhood companions and fancies as well as God if for no other reason than sentimentality. I do, however, truly believe in their existence on a spiritual level as well as the somewhat limited physical space they inhabit.

In trying to formulate my own philosophy, I began to think about the concept of the 'collective unconscious'. Certainly many minor deities and universal toys are recognised instinctively almost by individuals from different cultures and epochs as having specific attributes and powers. In the case of a toy, it can be one or more of the following: a source of comfort, a constant companion, a confidante, a surrogate child, the repository of dreams, wishes and secrets, a role model or concrete example of the owner's aspirations.

Minor deities can have the same qualities to some extent. The stories or myths that attach to a specific deity or saint are mirrored often in the stories that belong to or are given to certain dolls and toys. In the case of dolls and toys as in the case of deities and saints, the object is created usually to represent the protagonist or another character in a specific tale. Sometimes the creation of the doll, statue or toy then inspires further tales and an entire mythology or corpus of tales develops because of the concrete object. Films and video games have taken this to another level, where the object can be virtual rather than physical and often interactive.

Whatever the chronology, the idea that any doll, toy or deity will continue to live and perhaps have its own experiences after the original maker or owner ceases to take any interest in its creation is very comforting to me. In some sense, it is a triumph of Creativity and Art as well.

'Toy Story' is not the first tale of its kind by any means, but its enormous popularity may have affected a new generation and increased compassion and empathy towards creatures or objects who inhabit a slightly different reality from ours. It is a powerful manifesto against the idea of the 'disposable culture' and thus very compelling to me. It is based, of course, on Hans Christian Andersen's tale of 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' which is a classic.

To me, all the tales of the lives of dolls and toys, including the wonderful tales of Raggedy Ann, are a lesson in the power of the lowly, the inarticulate and the forgotten. The humble rag doll was the doll who possessed the heart, empowering, inspiring and sustaining all the others, toys and human children alike.

Even Barbie, reviled for her 'plastic' beauty and lifestyle exists quite apart from the commercial universe that spawned her and has been given significance and depth by generations of children who create their own tales for her.

I worked in a doll shop a few years ago and often mothers and grandmothers would complain to me about the children for which they purchased dolls and toys, declaring that these children did not take care of them or treated them harshly.

My response was always the same. 'You have to teach children compassion and gentleness. When they drop the doll or toy on the floor, you should pick up the doll or toy as if it were a child or animal, imbuing the child with a sense of empathy towards it. If you don't do that, how will the child learn?'

Unfortunately, there are adults who teach children to view their dolls and toys merely as commodities or commercial investments. I was horrified to discover children who traded their dolls and toys commercially (especially after the creation of Ebay), selling objects for a quick profit that they had received as gifts of love from family members.

It was with great delight that I saw a little girl pick up the doll she had dropped and ask, 'Are you okay, little Heart?' Her empathy towards a doll extended to embrace other children and human beings of all ages but it was those early experiences with her dolls and toys who taught her how to deal with the complex mazes of the human heart. It is no accident that therapists use dolls and toys to persuade children to re-enact the dramas and traumas in their own past.

The idea of the family shrine can be found in many different cultures and whether inhabited by the symbols of family ancestors or by 'lares' (household gods of ancient Rome), they become the repository of the history of the home and family. In like fashion, the dolls and toys of childhood serve as the repository of memories of childhood itself.

The question that provoked my thoughts originally was: Did we create these symbols or did we simply discover them? I believe that the abstract realities of Beauty, Truth, Art and the Divine exist whether or not we acknowledge them or pay them any heed or respect. When an artist creates a doll or toy or the statue of a deity, does he or she simply discover and make concrete something that exists even if never put into physical form? Or is he/she in fact the creator of something new and finite that can be destroyed and removed from existence in the same way that it was brought forth into the light?

To wise King Solomon is attributed the statement that 'There is nothing new under the Sun'. That declaration would support my belief that all of these creations exist independently of their finite 'birth'. Whatever power or 'life' they possess derives from a common source, however. The idea of 'gods at war' in a literal sense is absurd. The idea that the Divine Being, aka God is 'jealous' of 'false gods' is absurd as well. Goodness and Truth and Beauty all can inspire different symbols, manifesting in different ways to different people or artists. Whatever is interwoven into the tapestry of an individual's life tahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifkes definition and 'life' even from that person.

Perhaps this is the significance of the old myths about the Creator God who 'breathes life' into clay to create humankind. Our lives and our interactions with our dolls, toys and gods 'breathe life' into them as they become symbols of specific periods or events in our lives or become associated with a specific individual, whether it is the giver or some one who is evoked by the object.

For any one who is unfamiliar with this wonderful tale, here is a link to 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier':

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

It is a rather sad tale, and it remains a very powerful and beautiful story that has inspired many generations.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mysteries of Mongolia

When I was a child, I was fascinated by Mongolia. I found a copy of the Mongolian alphabet in an Encyclopedia we had at home and attempted to learn it. I did not do so with any particular goal in mind except that it appealed to me greatly.

I have been reading Conn Iggulden's series about the history of the Mongolian people and their leaders from Genghis Khan through Kublai Khan's reigns. The first novel about Kublai Khan, 'Conquerer' was released recently. The writer does not follow the facts faithfully in every case (and will admit as much) but his accounts are lively and colourful and he describes battles marvelously. His characcters have depth and the reader is submserged in the period completely. I always experience a sense of regret when I reach the end of any of his books. I think his novels about the Khanate are superior to his earlier Roman series. Recalling far more about the life of Julius Caesar than I did about the lives of the Khans of the Mongols before I ever began to read his books, the discrepancies I found in the Roman series were more vexing to me. Nevertheless, any of his books will be a jolly good read.

It is extraordinary to realise how intertwined the history of Mongolia is with at least half of the known world. The Mongols ruled Persia, the heart of Arabia, India and China inter alia, and left an indelible mark upon these cultures.

Returning to that early childhood interest in all things Mongolian, I looked for some Mongolian recipes on the internet and discovered a wonderful site:

Mongolian Recipes

This particular page gives a recipe for Mongolian meat pockets, known as Buuz.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Spurious Religious Arguments against Celebrating Festivals


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Facebook cannot be perceived as the ultimate in real information but it does give one a sense of how people think to some extent. Obviously, the biggest flaw in the system is the fact that Facebook only represents a part of the population but even so, one can find interesting opinions, both intelligent and idiotic.

Today is St. Valentine's Day or Valentine's Day, depending on your culture and religious affiliations. Even among Roman Catholics, it is not really a religious festival. It is a popular festival with deep universal roots that celebrates love and friendship (and possibly fertility). I therefore always find it a little absurd when specific religious groups attempt to dictate to their followers, forbidding them to celebrate a festival like this.

Negative dictates or prohibitions of this sort tend to be the work of fundamentalists, both Muslim and Christian. I saw a rather absurd little ditty on Facebook this morning to the effect that: 'Roses are red, violets are blue; You're a Muslim, so Valentine's Day is not for you.'

I've seen similar prohibitions from fundamentalist Christians, denouncing Valentine's Day as a 'pagan' festival.

To me, this is one of the basic problems that creates hostility between human beings. Festivals usually are based on universal concepts and for the most part, positive concepts. I have made a study of comparative religion and have experienced Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Pagan Festival celebrations. To the fundamentalist Muslim who composed or copied out that little ditty, I would declare that he might be surprised to find how many practices and celebrations that are enshrined in Islam actually have their roots in ancient pagan beliefs and practices. To me, that does NOT invalidate Islam just as Christianity is not invalidated by the fact that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is part of a universal tradition of Sacrifice for humankind. In fact, quite the reverse. Those beliefs that are universal and ancient tend to be the MOST valid in my view.

Whether St. Valentine actually has anything whatsoever to do with Valentine's Day or not therefore is irrelevant. It is a beautiful celebration of Love and Friendship with many endearing traditions. Furthermore, the date is significant, as it falls between Winter and Spring and is one of those celebrations that speaks eloquently of the renewal of life. The tradition of offering flowers, especially red roses, stems from this, if you will pardon the play on words.

The connection of chocolate with Valentine's Day makes sense when one studies ancient Mesoamerican civiliations. For the Mayans the Cocoa Bean was a symbol of life and fertility. For the Aztecs the Cocoa plant was stolen from heaven by the God Quetzalcoatl as a gift for humankind. He descended on a beam of light from the Morning Star. The Morning and Evening Star, Venus, is central to most ancient cultures and human sacrifices were offered to it or Her, in civilisations from Sumeria to the Americas. The symbol of Inanna and Ishtar both was the Morning and Evening Star, depicted as an eight-pointed Star. It is interesting to note that the gift of Odhroerir or Ecstacy was a drink stolen by the God Odhinn. The eight-pointed Star in the Runic Alphabet is a symbol of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, inter alia. Odhinn took the form of a serpent in order to be able to journey into the mountain where the sacred drink was guarded. The Serpent in the myths of Sumer was one of the creatures who dwelt in the World Tree.

Sacred drinks are a feature in many religions and festivals. For the Aryans, the sacred drink Soma was absolutely central to their religion and the ritual of preparing it is described extensively. In contemporary culture, although beverages made from chocolate are popular enough, it is the sweet that is most desirable and chocolates are a very important part of Valentine's Day.

The Heart is another symbol of Valentine's Day. Whether it represents the human heart or the female genitalia or buttocks is immaterial really. A red heart has become a rather universal symbol of Love and Friendship. The colour red denotes Life and Good Fortune.

From the dire pronouncements of Fundamentalists from every religion, one might think that a simple wish for a Happy Valentine's Day were tantamount to the worship of 'false gods' or even the Devil. I would like to believe that it is one of those festivals that could be akin to the clasping of hands across the sea, a means by which diverse cultures can meet in friendship and celebrate

Monday, January 23, 2012

'The Extra Man' is an Instant Favourite





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Bedeviled by a terrible toothache few nights ago, I sought some distraction in film with little expectation. Much to my surprise, I discovered a true gem AND was able to see it from the beginning. It is a fairly new film entitled 'The Extra Man' and is absolutely brilliant. My only caveat is that the first five minutes are rather dull and off-putting in a way. One could believe 'The Extra Man' to be a rather stilted period film until one discovers that the start of the film is nothing more than an interior fantasy on the part of the protagonist.

Too many comedies nowadays are broad and vulgar, appealing to the lowest common denominator. While 'The Extra Man' has some hilarious physical comedy and truly bizarre situations, it nonetheless is erudite and works on more than one level of perception. In many ways, it is possible that it was intended to be a 21st century version of a short story by a contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald. The protagonist certainly hints of this more than once. It is social satire at its best but even those who are unfamiliar with the corridors of social power in New York and who would not recognise the sly rendition of Mrs. Brooke Astor with her tiny dog can be entertained by this film.

For those like myself who love the works of Fitzgerald, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, 'The Extra Man' is a 'comedy of manners' in the best tradition that should prove an absolute delight.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Lunar Year of the Dragon

Dragons achieved a rather mystical popularity in the West in the latter quarter of the 20th century and have continued to maintain their status among lovers of fantasy and myth. On 23 January, celebration of the lunar New Year will begin and the coming year is ruled by the Dragon.

The Dragon in Chinese mythology is quite different from its Western counterpart, however. In the West, the Dragon essentially is a winged serpent, although in some cases, it was a gigantic creature who lived in the deeps of the oceans. In old Germanic and Norse Lore, it was called a 'worm'. In some tales, its breath was flame. Some dragons were depicted without wings but for the most part, they had the power to fly. Some were distinctly serpentine, but others had clawed feet similar to those of lizards.

Fossils of dinosaurs sometimes are very similar to the Dragons of the ancient West, giving hints as to the real history of the beast. It is interesting to note that the ancient Chinese referred to fossils as 'dragon bones' as well. In Chinese mythology, however, the dragon is an amalgamation of different creatures and therefore more symbolic than real.

The Dragon of the Sung Dynasty, for example, was depicted as a creature with the head of an ox, the muzzle of a donkey, the eyes of a shrimp, horns of a deer, the body of a serpent, covered in the scales of a fish and with the claws of a phoenix. Each Animal, according to the Chinese zodiac, has specific attributes and powers and thus, the Chinese Dragon combined all the powers of the creatures of earth, sea and sky and therefore was one of the most potent of symbols. It is a positive embodiment of power and good fortune.

One of the reasons why the Western dragon always was perceived as an enemy of mankind probably was the fact that it was based upon racial memories of large animals in the prehistoric eras. In fact, descendants of those creatures still walk the earth in the form of the Kimodo Dragon and the Crocodile. Rather than combining the attributes of all animals, the Western Dragon equivocally possessed the nature of a cold-blooded creature, completely alien to humankind.

Yet, even in the West, the Dragon came to represent Wisdom and a Guardian of hidden treasure and as such, a positive symbol in its fashion. In most ancient tales, however, it is the archetypal enemy of the hero, who must slay it in order to save humanity from extinction.

The Dragon and the Serpent of the most ancient myths of humankind probably are one and the same. In these myths, the Dragon Serpent inhabits the World Tree, usually as its guardian. In the tale of Gilgamesh, there were three inhabitants of the World Tree in Inanna's garden: an Owl spirit named Lilith, a zu bird and a Serpent/Dragon. The Zu bird had a nest and was raising its young at the crown of the tree in its branches. The Owl spirit or Lilith resided in the trunk of the Tree and the Serpent made its home at the root or base.

The hero Gilgamesh was given the task of creating a throne for Inanna from the wood of the World Tree. He smote the Serpent/Dragon, while the zu bird flew with its young to the mountains and the Owl Spirit or Lilith destroyed her home and fled. Thus we see that the Serpent/Dragon is the Sacrifice that is required for the harvest of the Tree and its potency.

This myth was borrowed by the writers of the Bible and became the tale of the tempting of Eve by the Serpent who is Lucifer in another guise. The World Tree remains the Tree of Knowledge and Wisdom but God forbids humankind to eat of its fruit. The Serpent 'tempts' the first Woman, Eve with this fruit and she takes it and shares it with Adam, her male counterpart. Both then are expelled from the Garden of Eden and according to some, Sin entered into the world.

The original myth thus is perverted somewhat and, typical of Biblical philosophy, everything is perceived as Good or Evil, Black or White. The Serpent/Dragon loses its original designation as Sacred Guardian and becomes the epitome of Evil. From this stems the portrait of the Dragon as a wholly destructive force in Western lore.

In Chinese myth, the Dragon often is shown with a pearl in its claw. It is a creature of impressive power and wisdom and, like the ancient Serpent/Dragon who dwelled at the root of the Tree of Life, a guardian of Wisdom and Knowledge. Such power, like the Power of Nature herself, is neither Good nor Evil fundamentally but a force that must be used carefully and responsibly. Evil is but one potential result when a mortal takes the power of the Serpent/Dragon into himself or herself.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Twelfth Night Cake


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My other Twelfth Night Post this year deals with the Sacred aspects of the Festival. This is devoted to the traditional Cake for the King of the Bean Ritual.

A Twelfth Night Eggnog Pound Cake

Ingredients:

3½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
6 large eggs
1½ cups eggnog

Powdered sugar, for dusting
½ cup chocolate chips, for making stars
½ cup white chocolate chips, for making stars

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugars and butter thoroughly.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the flour mixture one-third at a time, alternating with the buttermilk. Beat until smooth.

Transfer the batter to the prepared Bundt pan. Do not overfill! Any remaining batter can be used to make cupcakes. Bake at 325 degrees until it tests done, approximately 1 hour.

Remove cake from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and allow to rest on the wire rack until completely cool.

When cool, turn cake upside down. Make a slit in the bottom of the cake with a sharp knife and place an uncooked white bean in the opening. If you have the traditional British sterling charms, make slits for them and place them in the cake as well at regular intervals. The traditional charms are: Horseshoe, Coin, Bachelor's Button, Wishbone, Wedding Bell, Thimble.

Turn the cake onto a serving platter. Sprinkle with a little powdered sugar. Decorate with chocolate stars, if desired.

To make chocolate stars:

Melt 1/2 cup of chocolate chips or white chocolate chips in a small container. When melted and smooth scrape the chocolate into a small plastic bag and trim 1/4 inch from a lower corner of the bag.

Pipe the soft chocolate in rough star shapes onto a baking sheet or cutting board covered with waxed paper or parchment paper.

After covering the surface with stars, place the stars in the refrigerator for five minutes or so, or until set and firm. Peel the stars from the paper and arrange on and around the cake.

A crown made of gold paper can be set in the centre of the cake, filled with sprigs of live holly, ivy and evergreen.

The person who finds the bean in his/her piece of Cake is crowned 'King/Queen of the Bean' and chooses a consort blindfolded. He/she is the 'Lord/Lady of Misrule' and can make commands for the most absurd acts from those attending. Often a special gift is awarded to the King and the Queen. In some traditions, the King/Queen must give next year's Twelfth Night Party.

The Rites of the Twelfth Night or Epiphany




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The Western cultural revolution that swept away the Latin Mass and many old Western traditions of the Yuletide Season as well as other sacred Festivals in the Wheel of the Year has been reversed to some extent, as a new Mass that is translated much more accurately from the Latin is given to parishes and old traditions such as the Blessing of the House on Twelfth Night with Chalk and Holy Water are reinstated.


Blessing of Epiphany Water and Chalk

It is traditional for parish priests to bless water on the eve of Epiphany, which is used for the blessing of homes the next day. Chalk for each family is also blessed so that they may mark the names of the three Magi over their doors, as a witness of their faith and protection against evil. This blessing is from the older version of the Roman Ritual.

The feast of manifestation, or Epiphany, is traditionally celebrated the 12th day after Christmas on the 6th of January 6th.

Blessing of the Chalk:

'O Lord God, bless this Thy creature chalk that it may be used for the salvation of the human race. Through the invocation of Thy most Holy Name grant that whoever shall take of this chalk and write with it upon the doors of his house the names of Thy saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession receive health of body and protection of soul.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.'

The blessing of water on the vigil of the Epiphany could well be performed with full solemnity before the main altar. If this is not possible and no priest is available, the prayers and hymns might be used as a vigil preparation at home. The full text for the blessing may be found in Volume three of Father Weller's English translation of the Roman Ritual.

Prayer Source: Twelve Days of Christmas, The by Elsa Chaney, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1955

Blessing of Chalk:

Blessed chalk is distributed to the people in some churches, especially in Europe. The chalk is taken home and is used to mark the year and the initials of the three Magi over the door of the house (e.g.: 20 + C + M + B + 12) to remind all who enter and leave through the main door that they also must be ready to leave all, if necessary, and follow Christ. It might be added also that this is a beautiful act of faith.

Blessing of Bread, Salt and Eggs:

In some places in Europe, bread, eggs and salt are taken to the church on this day to be blessed. In sections of Germany incense is taken also. These things are blessed after the morning service and may be taken home to be eaten with the holiday meals. In Germany, the bread and eggs are given to the poor, the salt is retained at home as a reminder that the people, as Christians, are to be 'the salt of the earth,' and the incense is burned at the family altar to remind the whole family that, just as the house is filled with the odour of the incense, so should charity bind together all of the members of the family with Christ.

Blessing of Gold, Frankincense (and Myrrh): In many churches there is a custom of blessing gold, frankincense and sometimes myrrh on the feast of the Epiphany. The gold is to be offered for sacred vessels in the parish, the incense is taken home to be used as noted above. The blessings of all these things, the chalk, bread, gold, etc., may be found in the Roman Ritual (English translation The Book of Blessings). If these customs are not in practice in your parish, you might ask the priests to introduce them.

Blessing of Water on the Vigil of Epiphany: In some places water is blessed on the Vigil of Epiphany and is then given to the faithful to use in their homes, and also for the sick. Unlike the above blessings, however, this blessing is reserved to the Bishop or to his delegate. It is a beautiful, but rather long ceremony which may be found in the Roman Ritual.


Blessing of the Home on Epiphany

This blessing of the home and inscription of the initials of the three Magi above each door can be performed either by a priest or the head of the family.



On entering the home,

Priest or Head of House, the Leader: Peace be to this house.

All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui;
deposuit potentes de sede
et exaltavit humiles;
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiae,
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.


During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed:

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . . And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.

Leader: All they from Saba shall come

All: Bringing gold and frankincense.

Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.

All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendour of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray. Bless, O Lord God Almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase 'Christus mansionem benedicat' which means 'Christ bless this house'.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 12

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Green Pickle in the Tree




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Those who are paid by corporations and businesses to find new ways to part the consumer from his or her hard-won cash always are alert for the possibility of introducing new traditions at Christmas and every other holiday. I was a little skeptical of 'The Pickle in the Tree' tradition originally and felt that it probably was one of those bogus creations of a creative advertising mind. Now, however, I realise that it stems from one of the most ancient traditions of the Winter Season, predating Christianity.

With the acceptance of Paganism as a 'religion' in our time, many ancient traditions and beliefs have resurfaced, often in new guises. The Pickle in the Christmas Tree is one of those.

The religion of the Mother Goddess Cybele and her lover and son, Attis, has at its very centre the Pine Tree. Attis castrated himself beneath a Pine Tree and his spirit entered into the Pine, which then became his symbol. The myths relating to this are complex and obscure, but the essential rites of Attis are very similar to the traditions of the Christmas Tree. A Pine Tree was cut down and borne into a cave or dwelling, wrapped in wool (swaddling clothes) and decorated with violets, symbol of Attis' blood. The image of the god was nailed to the centre of the trunk of the Tree. After three days, the God rose from the Dead and was proclaimed arisen.

There is a myth connected with the Egyptian God Osiris that has at its centre an Evergreen Tree of Lebanon. Osiris was murdered by his brother Set. Set persuaded his brother Osiris to lay down in a coffin and then slammed the lid shut, tossing it into the river.

The coffin drifted to the land of Lebanon where it became enclosed in the centre of a Tree. The Tree was cut and used as a pillar in the King's Great Hall. Here the Goddess Isis found it and returned with it to Egypt. Set found the coffin, however and recognising the God within it, cut the body into fourteen pieces and flung them into the Nile. The Goddess Isis managed to find every piece except that of his manhood which had been consumed by fish. She therefore fashioned his manhood of wood.

There is a ceremony of Osiris described by Firmicus Maternus that resembles the festival of Attis. Each year, a pine tree was cut down, the centre hollowed out and from the wood of the centre, an image of Osiris was made, which then was buried as a corpse in the hollow trunk.

Now consider the green glass Pickle ornament which is, according to tradition, hidden in the Christmas Tree. The children hunt for the Pickle and he/she who finds it will have good fortune for the year and a special gift from Father Christmas. It is not difficult to see in the Pickle a symbol of the manhood of the God Attis or the God Osiris!

I therefore determined to adopt this ancient tradition and to obtain a glass Pickle ornament for my own Christmas Tree. A few years ago, the green Glass Pickle Ornaments were sold in every shop, it seemed, but believing it to be nothing more than a silly fad, I disdained them. Now that I wanted a Pickle Ornament, I could not find one...

Ultimately I was able to find them online, but nowhere else. The prices varied wildly but I finally found a set of a dozen Pickles from a merchant that cost the same as a single Pickle Ornament from other merchants. One of these delicate 'members' now is hanging close to the centre of the trunk of my Christmas Tree. According to tradition, the glass Pickle is the last ornament to be placed on the Tree. Although I did not obtain my Pickles until today, the one that is on my Tree now WAS the last Ornament to be placed!

Many aspects of this tradition reveal its origins. In ancient civilisations that practiced mummification, the organs often were pickled and placed in special receptacles apart from the body. The symbol of the pickled Cucumber therefore represents the preserved manhood of the God. The colour Green is the colour of Life and the colour of an evergreen Tree. The very shape of the Pickle is that of the God's manhood. Many people would be appalled by the true significance of the Pickle ornament but I daresay others who share my interest in ancient traditions and potent magic will rush out to obtain their own Pickle Ornaments!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Flowering Peach Tea and Yuletide Magic




Christmas is a bitterweet time for many of us, as we recall the past while enjoying the magic of the present and hoping that the future will hold more joy than pain. Whether through the hand of Death or having failed to navigate the dangerous reefs of personal relationships successfully, there is usually a reminder of loss in our memories of Christmases past. If we are firm in faith or balanced philosophically and spiritually, we can distill joy from those memories while refusing to grieve over the loss of loved ones.

My mother is spending her first Christmas without the husband with whom she shared over two-thirds of her life. She told me that she has been creating little altars to his memory with Christmas decorations that somehow evoke him. A pair of white turtledoves given to her... the female had a little flaw that resembled a tear in one eye. A pewter figurine of Father Christmas in a sleigh that reminded her of a poem he wrote two years ago...

For the most part, my mother always has been a forward-looking individual, but every one needs to be able to acclimatise the heart to loss somehow and this is her way of doing so.

For my part, I remembered all the letters to and from Santa in which he played a significant role and my letter this year was addressed obliquely to him, although it contained the usual salutation to Father Christmas.

As a writer, however undisciplined I may be at this point, I perceive every occasion as a memory in the making. Christmas this year will be incorporated into the tapestry of memory next year...

As the priest remarked at Christmas Eve Mass, Christmas is all about Gifts, even though it should not be centred on commercialism. After all, the Sacrifice of the God is His Gift to humanity and the Earth. The sacred birth of the God as a helpless infant is another Gift of Trust and Love. The WInter Solstice is a time of potent magic, and the very movement of the planets and seasons is cause for wonder. Magic and Yuletide for me go hand in hand.

I received a very magical gift this year in the form of a glass dragon vessel in which special tea is brewed. The tea is in the form of a ball that, when the hot water is poured into the vessel, blossoms into an exquisite floral arrangement.

It is a luxury item, pure and simple, but I always rather love that sort of gift, even when there are practical items I need desperately. After all, Christmas is a time of magic and luxury is the magic that gives an individual the illusion of having everything one needs and the heady sensation of being above the reach of dire need, even if it lasts only briefly and one plummets back to earth (and hunger and cold perhaps) with a resounding thud, bruised in body but not in spirit.

There may be gifts I need far more, but the gift of a shining glass canister painted with a golden dragon in which magical flowers take the place of ordinary tea is an amazing one. It is as though I were given a private magic show that I can repeat again and again. There are ten of the magical tea balls in the tea tin. The vessel itself has a lovely box covered in velvet as its home. It is a very elegant gift indeed.

My wish this Christmas is that every one, however rich or however poor, receives a little magic, whether it is a magical cup of tea, the appearance of a rare bird on a tree in the garden or a diamond ring...

If no one performs any magic for you, 'have yourself a Merry Little Christmas' and make certain that you give yourself a gift of magic! In the age of self-empowerment, there is no reason in the world why any one should suffer from the indifference, forgetfulness or cruelty of others. If no one does it for you, do it for yourself, with my blessing. I have spent some Christmas Days alone in the past and I was perfectly miserable until I decided to have a Tree, even if I were the only one to see and enjoy it and to place at least one small gift beneath it, even if I had to buy and wrap it for myself. It may not be the sort of Christmas I would choose, but it is far better than allowing the world to convince you that only people surrounded by families and friends deserve to celebrate Christmas!

Beyond the Tree and the Gifts, our age of technology gives every one the ability to watch films, shows and to listen to music. Good cheer always in a wonderful Christmas film or comedy or in the music of the season, sung or played by a group or artist one particularly likes. Perhaps it is not as personal as carollers at the door, but at least one can have the music at any time, no matter how far one's door is from the beaten path.

A Blessed Yuletide to All!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What does 'Like' Signify on Facebook?

When Facebook was young and untried and when the majority of its users were even more innocent, one would be rather pleased to see a little notice on the right side of the page extolling the virtues of a band one loved or a philosophy one espoused... It may have been no different then than now except for the proliferation of these adverts and the more aggressive manner in which they target Facebook users.

'Like' signifies many different things on Facebook. First and foremost, it is a shorthand method of telling another user that you have read his/her post. It is a shorthand method of congratulation for an achievement that a user has posted...

Where games are concerned, it is the accepted method of letting all players know that you have taken an item offered on some one's Wall as well as thanking the player who posted it.

What does it signify when one clicks on 'Like' for one of the notices on the right side of the page? Here are some general messages that ask a Facebook user to 'Like' them:

'I love Jesus'.
'God is Good'.
'I have Faith.'
'I love being a Mother.'
'I love my Daughter.'

There was a time when I might have clicked 'Like' for some of these, but no longer. They are adverts, pure and simple, designed to accumulate income for the person or organisation that published them. There is a rather notorious instance where a message asking FB users to 'Like' if they loved being a Parent turned out to have been published by a pedophile.

The following is Facebook's own definition of what 'Like' means and its consequences:

;When you click Like on a Facebook Page, in an advertisement, or on content off of Facebook, you are making a connection. A story about your like will appear on your Wall (timeline) and may also appear in News Feed. You may be displayed on the Page you connected to, in advertisements about that Page, or in social plugins next to the content you like.

'Facebook Pages you like may post updates to your News Feed or send you messages. Your connection to the page may also be shared with apps on the Facebook Platform.'

Any user can add a 'Like' Button to his/her website as well. Here is Facebook's description:

'The Like button lets a user share your content with friends on Facebook. When the user clicks the Like button on your site, a story appears in the user's friends' News Feed with a link back to your website.

'When your Web page represents a real-world entity, things like movies, sports teams, celebrities, and restaurants, use the Open Graph protocol to specify information about the entity. If you include Open Graph tags on your Web page, your page becomes equivalent to a Facebook page. This means when a user clicks a Like button on your page, a connection is made between your page and the user. Your page will appear in the "Likes and Interests" section of the user's profile, and you have the ability to publish updates to the user. Your page will show up in same places that Facebook pages show up around the site (e.g. search), and you can target ads to people who like your content.

'There are two Like button implementations: XFBML and Iframe. The XFBML (also available in HTML5-compliant markup) version is more versatile, but requires use of the JavaScript SDK. The XFBML dynamically re-sizes its height according to whether there are profile pictures to display, gives you the ability (through the Javascript library) to listen for like events so that you know in real time when a user clicks the Like button, and it always gives the user the ability to add an optional comment to the like. If users do add a comment, the story published back to Facebook is given more prominence.'

I am not an expert where anything involving code is concerned, but it is obvious that any one who uses the 'Like' Link in an advert or message on Facebook or on his/her website has access to details about the users who click on it. In other words, information that is published on Facebook by the user, including name, address, telephone number, email address, lists of family and friends and websites. In the case of the pedophile who asked parents to 'Like' the simple statement of being a parent, it gave this person a wealth of information about Facebook users who had children.

The problem is that the user who simply sees the statement and clicks 'Like' has no idea who wrote the statement or why. Furthermore, in many cases, 'clicks' are worth money to the person who sets up the advert. Amazon has a programme through which users are induced to add content to their websites. Whenever any one clicks on the link, Amazon will give the website owner a small payment, usually in the form of credit towards Amazon goods.

Games on Facebook often use something similar. I played a little game designed for children once where one clicked on little bonfires to obtain gold for gameplay. One day, the interface disappeared and I saw that the bonfires actually were 'clicks' for an Amazon payment programme. Obviously the people who create 'free' games played on Facebook have to generate income somehow, but one would like to know what one is supporting when one clicks on something.

The bottom line is that a Facebook user who 'Likes' the statement 'I love God' has no idea what he/she is supporting. It may be some one who simply wishes to publish support of religion or it may be an organisation or individual who perceives the statement as a 'hook' to make personal profit. Furthermore, if it is a commercial venture, you may find a notice on Facebook one day to the effect that you 'Like' Immortal Avocado Face-Lift Cream or whatever, if the statement you espoused was published by a business.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lowboy: A Brilliant Prose Poem about New York

I was fortunate enough to find a copy of John Wray's book, 'Lowboy' recently. It left me breathless. It is an extraordinary book, ostensibly about schizophrenia but more generally, as the reader progresses through it, it becomes a very unique prose poem about New York in all of its glory and filth.

In a curious fashion, it reminded me of Tom Wolfe's 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. That book was a study of New York from the perspective of some one from high society who takes a wrong turn. 'Lowboy' is a novel about a young schizophrenic whose entire life is based on a map that no one else can read.

In both novels, the 'city that never sleeps' emerges as the protagonist, at turns alluring, even irresistable, but ultimately a force that is as powerful as Kali or Shiva, capable both of destruction and creation.

Tom Wolfe and John Wray are very different in their styles and John Wray probably has not yet reached the peak of his potential as a writer. Nonetheless, 'Lowboy' is a powerful piece and it made me think of another young prose poet, Arthur Rimbaud.

'Lowboy' takes you through the underground system of New York as well as its streets. The underground emerges as the arteries of a powerful being who, like the Colossus of Rhodes, is one of the true Wonders of the World.

Open the book almost anywhere and you will catch a flash of brilliance:

'Already he felt the wave of doubt receing. Sometimes it passed through him hurriedly, haughty and careless, as if to show how little he was worth. Other times it capsized him completely. Not today, however. His eyes followed the tracks into the dark. The empty water-flecked channel where only the trains resided. The acidic yellow of the safety stripe. Behind the third rail a rat was lying splayed on its belly, twitching contentedly, drinking coffee out of a battered paper cup.'

John Wray weaves a poet's tapestry from the disparate threads of American jazz, the history of New York, schizophrenia, codes and ciphers, the subway system and the incredible dynamics of urban city life.

The description of 'Lowboy' as a prose poem about New York is not intended to denigrate the role that schizophrenia plays in this novel. Schizophrenia is a condition that both attracts and terrifies many artists, as it represents creativity in its ultimate potency, beyond reason and safety. It, like cancer, is creativity run amok, but every great artist has wished at least once, for the capacity to SEE reality in an entirely unique fashion. The boundary between schizophrenic vision and the vision of an artist sometimes is blurred. 'Lowboy' captures the essence of schizophrenia and the reader gradually comprehends the price that is paid for the type of 'madness' that transforms everyday life into an epic drama and ultimately one that either ends in tragedy or the 'flatness' that is created by medications given to control the illness.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Chemical Romance and 'Sing'


I listened to an interview with Gerard Way recently in which he expressed some surprise that his recent hit, 'Sing' was chosen for a popular television show called 'Glee'. I echo that, actually because, however irresistable the beat and music may be to the general public, the lyrics actually could qualify it to be chosen as the very epitome of punk music and its essential philosophy.

'If the music drowns you out, Raise your voice every single time they try and shut your mouth...'

The irony, of course, is that the music is so infectious that it is possible there are quite a few who ignore these powerful lyrics and their message. It is the hymn of the counterculture and, like the Black Parade, a declaration of unqualified support for the helpless and the disenfranchised. It serves as a manifesto for any human being, whether child, adult or senior citizen, whose footsteps walk to a different beat, whose heart beats to a different rhythm.

I don't watch shows like 'Glee' but as some one who was introduced to punk in London at a point in time when young native Brits felt they were being pushed out of their own civilisation, forced on the dole and given no hope whatsoever by Queen and Country, I immediately comprehended a fashion that declared, 'We take your rejects and wear them proudly. We'll pierce our ears with safety pins instead of gold because gold is a metal that belongs to those who don't give a toss about us.' As is often the case, the look was picked up by the masses and became trendy, but its original significance was a cosmic sneer at all the accepted values of British culture.

(On a personal level, I have to confess that I never ceased to be one of those who prefer gold, although leather and steel studs have their own ineffable charm as well as practical value when you live in an urban environment where a single girl could find herself with her back up against a wall in a split second. Those bracelets saved my life or at least my personal belongings more than once in their time.)

Back to Gerard Way and MCR...

'Sing it out, Boy, they're gonna sell what tomorrow means;
Sing it out, Girl, before they kill what tomorrow brings.'

In song after song, Gerard writes about the corruption of multi-national, capitalist society but at the same time, he makes a very personal statement. From 'Sing' again:

'I am not the singer that you wanted, but a dancer.
I refuse to answer, talk about the past, Sir.
Wrote it for the ones that want to get away.
Keep running...'

The burden of being a cultural icon is a heavy one and can become insufferable at times. You can hear echoes of it in his interviews as well as his songs and even in the title of a live album: 'The Black Parade is Dead!'

The whole point of the Black Parade, of course, is that it ALWAYS was a parade led by the Dead, who no longer can be hurt by the living. Gerard stated a belief that Death came to a person in the form of his/her fondest memory and the nucleus of 'The Black Parade' was a childhood memory of being taken to see a marching band by his father. Like any great artist, however, the universal far transcends the personal in Gerard's work even while his own personal experiences and thoughts remain shimmering threads in a potent tapestry that continues to grow year by year. 'The Black Parade is Dead!' was the public swansong of the performance piece that will live forever in the memories of an entire generation even while Gerard continues to move forward, laying new foundations for new symbols for those who cannot articulate their own deepest feelings or needs.

In many ways, MCR's Black Parade reminded me of Adam Ant and his Highwayman look, with much of the same social philosophy. Adam Ant, however, hid his own personal agony, preferring to keep his music tongue-in-cheek to some extent, a light-hearted romp that epitomised the 'New Romantics' of the 1980s. Both share a charismatic personality and the ability to project an almost ethereal beauty in their dramatic personae. Adam Ant's world came crashing down, but it is not impossible that he will rise once again like the mythological phoenix at some point. On the other hand, perhaps he has no desire to return to the world of music and will move in a different artistic direction.

Meanwhile, Gerard Way has made it clear that public performances are the fuel on which MCR depends for its creative energy, unlike some bands who only perform because it is demanded by their fans. Gerard is a consummate entertainer and I, along with all those who love MCR, have no doubt that the future of the band promises to be as exciting as the past.

Even if 'Glee' bastardises 'Sing' to some extent, it may draw new listeners to MCR.



Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lunch-Box Trees and French Bread Trees




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When I was a little girl, I loved the Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. The actual books bear little resemblance to the Hollywood film (which I never liked at all) and have the advantage of incredibly beautiful illustrations by John R. Neill, 'The Royal Illustrator of Oz'. One of the first books I read was 'Ozma of Oz', a tale that contained detailed information about the Land of Ev, where Lunch-pail trees flourished.

The first description of these marvelous Trees is as follows:

...'Lunch' could be read, in neat raised letters. This tree seemed to bear all the year around, for there were lunch-box blossoms on some of the branches, and on others tiny little lunch-boxes that were as yet quite green, and evidently not fit to eat until they had grown bigger. The leaves of this tree were all paper napkins, and it presented a very pleasing appearance to the hungry little girl.‎'

This tree captured the imagination of a very young girl, but I have discovered that I was not the only child who found the concept of such a tree irresistable. Although I have read all of my favourite Oz books countless times, the magic of them remains fresh and vibrant.

Enter the age of computer games and FarmVille where, much to my delight, a 'French Bread Tree' was released as part of the Bastille Day celebrations. The French Bread Tree is a Level 1 Tree, which means that it is available solely in the Marketplace and as a Limited Edition, soon will be unavailable. If placed in an Orchard, however, one can obtain Mystery Seedlings from it which can be grown into 'Big French Bread Trees'.

As an immature Tree, the bread is not particularly attractive or distinctive. Although it includes diverse shapes, all are unbaked and therefore have the same dough texture. It is when it is ready for harvest that the French Bread Tree is displayed in all of its glory and I feel that L. Frank Baum would have appreciated this variation on the original.

The Uncommon Honeybee


Years ago, honeybees were common in gardens. Now, they have become rather rare in many areas. I had not seen a real honeybee in the garden for a number of years until today. Early this morning, I went outside before the hideous effects of the current heat wave became too intense, to enjoy a cup of coffee amidst the flowers. It was then that I spied a honeybee flitting from flower to flower. There was only one bee but it made a valiant attempt to pollinate as many flowers as possible. I was struck by its beauty, glossy like silk velvet.

The bee is an ancient symbol of industry. It was popular in ancient Rome as well as medieval and Renaissance Europe. Napoleon took it as his symbol as well. I had a chance to purchase a Roman seal ring with a bee on it a couple of years ago but I resisted the temptation. As with any 'missed' unique item, I regret my temporary strength of will now. I doubt I shall have an opportunity like that again.

As a child, I remember that our garden buzzed with honeybees. It is sad that the bees have departed from so-called 'civilised' environs, but I am delighted to have seen one this morning.

The Etruscans would have believed the sighting to be an omen from the gods. If so, what does it portend for me?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Dark Poetry of MCR: 'S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W

My first experience of My Chemical Romance was 'The Black Parade'. I didn't like ALL of the songs at the start, but a couple of them grabbed me by the throat instantly and it remains one of my favourite albums. Now I have had a similar experience with the song, 'S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W' on their more recent album, 'Danger Days'.

'Move your body when the sunlight dies,
Everybody hide your body from the scarecrow
Everybody hide...

Make a wish when your childhood dies
Hear the knock, knock, knock when she cries
We're all alone tonight

Hold your breath when a blackbird flies,
Count to seventeen and close your eyes:
I'll keep you safe inside...

He burns my skin,
Never mind about the shape I'm in:
I'll keep you safe tonight, yeah yeah...

Move your body when the sunlight dies
Everybody hide your body from the Scarecrow
Everybody hide.

Blow a kiss at the methane skies,
See the rust through your playground eyes,
We're all in love tonight
(all in love tonight).
Leave a dream where the fallout lies,
Watch it grow when the tearstains dry...
Just to keep you safe tonight.

Heat burns my skin,
Never mind about the shape I'm in,
I'll keep you safe tonight, yeah yeah...

Move your body when the sunlight dies
Everybody hide your body from the Scarecrow,
Everybody hide.

Move your body when the sunlight dies
Everybody hide your body from the Scarecrow,
Everybody hide.

Love, love, love won't stop this.
(Bomb, Bomb) Love won't stop this.
(Bomb, Bomb) Love wont stop this Bomb.

Run, run, bunny run,
Run, run, bunny run.

Move your body when the sunlight dies
Everybody hide your body from the Scarecrow,
Everybody hide.

Move your body when the sunlight dies
Everybody hide your body from the Scarecrow,
Everybody hide.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Non-Ethical Ethix Marketing

Once upon a time, they were called 'ambulance chasers'. I was rather surprised to see an advert on Facebook about the possibility of obtaining compensation for addiction to a perfectly legal and quite effective painkiller named 'Opana'.

The advert does not give the name of the company who placed it. If you go to the website, you will not see the name of the company immediately either. You will be asked to fill out a form giving your name, address as well as particulars about your 'addiction' or the 'addiction' of a family member to Opana.

In very small print at the bottom of the page is the following:

;By leaving this box checked, I agree that the information viewed is advertising and that you agree to receive future advertisements from Ethix Marketing and/or its partners.
I agree that submitting this form and the information contained therein does not establish an attorney client relationship.
I agree that the information submitted will be reviewed by more than one attorney and/or law firm.
I agree that the information that I will receive in response to the above question is general information and I will not be charged for the information. I further understand that the law for each state may vary, and therefore, I will not rely upon this information as legal advice. Since this matter may require advice regarding my home state, I agree that local counsel may be contacted for referral of this matter.
I understand that I may receive, and am willing to accept, a telephone call from a lawyer/law firm to discuss this submission.'
END OF QUOTE

Well, quite frankly, the 'Ethix' corporation has to be involved in 'ambulance chasing' of the very worst sort. Addiction is such a buzz word in our society that individuals who NEED painkillers for severe pain or other legitimate medical conditions often go through hell before a physician will prescribe them, simply because of the negative social connotations and potential for legal problems.

I cannot agree with a social mentality that seeks to protect individuals from themselves. Adults are supposed to be fully capable of making their own decisions and doing their own research. Physicians should not be made liable when all they are doing is attempting to follow the Hippocratic oath by helping a patient deal with severe pain!

Addiction is not necessarily the worst fate that can befall an individual. Living in conditions of intolerable pain is far worse. Morphine and its derivatives at least are based on organic substances and their use has been documented for thousands of years. To me, synthetic substances that alter brain waves and 'block' messages from the body to the brain are far more dangerous, even though society is quite happy to allow physicians to prescribe those as an alternative to true painkillers, simply because of the possibility of 'addiction' to opiates.

There is something terribly wrong with a society that would prefer to push medications that reduce an individual's humanity by tampering with the messages that the body has developed to alert the brain to the time-honoured medications that simply alleviate pain to some extent. Opiates do not 'kill' severe pain, but they can mitigate the effects to the point where the patient can tolerate it.

While doctors remained terrified of prescribing legitimate opiates to patients, pharmaceutical sales representatives were pushing drugs like celecoxib (Celebrex) that actually killed people as an alternative. Doctors were passing these out like sweeties.

Celecoxib, which is not an opiate, has the following side effects:

Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; trouble breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); bloody or black, tarry stools; change in the amount of urine produced; chest pain; confusion; dark urine; depression; fainting; fast or irregular heartbeat; fever, chills, or persistent sore throat; hearing loss; mental or mood changes; numbness of an arm or leg; one-sided weakness; red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin; ringing in the ears; seizures; severe headache or dizziness; severe or persistent stomach pain or nausea; severe vomiting; shortness of breath; sudden or unexplained weight gain; swelling of hands, legs, or feet; unusual bruising or bleeding; unusual joint or muscle pain; unusual tiredness or weakness; vision or speech changes; vomit that looks like coffee grounds; yellowing of the skin or eyes.

A few people actually have died from severe GI toxicity caused by celecoxib.

Another 'preferred' alternative to opiates is even more dangerous, in my view. This is the class of drugs known as 'anti-depressants'. Pharmaceutical companies have been recommending that physicians dispense these in lieu of real painkillers, but anti-depressants can have far more negative side-effects than any CNS opiate painkiller. Furthermore, an anti-depressant CHANGES the actual personality and being of the patient where any CNS drug does not have this effect.

One of the most common anti-depressants used to treat severe chronic pain, although it is NOT a painkiller, is Sertraline (Zoloft).

Sertraline is an antidepressant in a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Sertraline affects chemicals in the brain that may become unbalanced and cause depression, panic, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

In fact, although they are called 'anti-depressants', this class of drugs often promotes thoughts of suicide in patients on which some have acted to their eternal detriment.

Common side-effects include suicidal behaviour, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, rigid muscles, high fever, sweating, fast or uneven heartbeats, overactive reflexes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, feeling unsteady, loss of coordination; headache, trouble concentrating, memory problems, weakness, confusion, hallucinations, fainting, seizure, shallow breathing or breathing that stops.

Surely common sense would tell a physician that a patient who suffers from severe chronic pain based on a PHYSICAL CONDITION should not be placed in a position where he/she has to deal with MORE serious problems such as those listed above? Why is it better to subject a patient to this than to prescribe a simple opiate?

The answer to this is nothing more than fear generated by the word 'addiction'. Like any propaganda or prolonged brainwashing campaign, the concept of addiction has been manipulated for political and commercial reasons. The spurious 'war on drugs' plays a role in this as well.

Recently, my stepfather died in hospice from a condition which made it impossible to breathe without agony. At the end, they gave him morphine to allow him to die in peace. A member of my own family threw tantrums over this, attempting to remove him from the hospice, screaming that he should not be 'drugged'.

Impending loss of a loved one can cause people to behave irrationally but it is the climate of our society that encourages individuals to consider morphine as an evil rather than a blessing given to us by nature.

It is time to put an end to this nonsense and to rehabilitate opiates into society's good graces, not for entertainment or recreation, but for the purpose of helping individuals deal with intolerable pain. Companies like 'Ethix' are NOT ethical in the least when they continue the witch hunt against legitimate painkillers. Shame on them and shame on a society that allows media-generate hysteria to usurp common sense.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Raven, Messenger of Death


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This morning, a huge Raven alighted on the giant Yew in the garden. One sees them in the neighbourhood from time to time, but I never saw one this close to the house. I immediately felt that it came here as a messenger from the Other Realm.

My stepfather died a few days ago after a prolonged and valiant battle with a terminal illness that prevented him from breathing. Despite the agony of fighting for every breath, he endeavoured to lead an active life as long as possible for my mother's sake. I seldom have witnessed a greater love than his for my Mother.

My Mum, although she loved her husband dearly, was not always kind to him. She is an individual who tends to explode when she is frustrated. Sometimes, she would try to apologise to him for one of her outbursts but he would tell her, 'I love you just as you are.' (She never apologised to me for any of her outbursts but I love her all the same, although I would not go as far as my stepfather... I really could wish for NO violent verbal outbursts in my life.)

My Mum married him when I was six years old, so he was a father to me most of my life. Had it not been for my biological father's intense jealousy, I probably would have had an easier time emotionally when my mother remarried. Nonetheless, the best way of perceiving the situation is to accept that I had two fathers and indeed, our society now has become more accepting of families that encompass more than the traditional nuclear unit of mother, father and the children of their union.

Every one deals with the reality of Death differently. Too many people tend to lash out at those who are closest to them. As is often the case, there was far too much drama and negativity at my stepfather's deathbed, but one hopes it will be forgotten and that ultimately, the survivors will draw closer to one another. I believe that it is misplaced anger in any case. People are angry with Death but they cannot confront that power directly, so they unleash their frustration and rage upon their loved ones.

Is it right to be angry with Death? Death is not our Enemy, although our own society views it as such and indeed, tries to market the illusion of immortality and eternal youth through the use of cosmetics, surgical procedures and other artificial aids. I have come to believe that Death is the natural result of a creature 'wearing out'. However much one patches the weak points in the body, sooner or later the spirit reaches a point where it must discard the old shell and move forward.

In literature, the weariness of Immortals has been recognised. What would it be like to live forever, watching loved ones and friends die, finding less and less that is new and exciting as the centuries passed and the antics of life became more and more repetitive? How many times could an Immortal fall in love? How long could an Immortal retain that sense of childlike wonder that is the best part of our psyches? I think eternal life would be a curse to any one other than a God for the Divine One would exist for a far greater purpose than his/her/its own amusement and needs.

To live forever, one would have to become a Sacrifice to the lives of all others, a perpetual servant of the Universe. Is not that what the Divine One is in essence? The creation and maintenance of Life is a task. One could set it in motion and then ignore it, I suppose, but how infinitely dull that would be? I cannot believe that the Divinity would choose Void and Nothingness over Creation, however 'old' the performance of the living became.

Death is a rite of passage, a farewell to this life. It leads to the Great Unknown.

Ravens long have been perceived as the messengers of Death. They were the companions of Odhinn, named Huginn and Munin, Memory and Thought. For the Celts, they were the messengers who traveled between the earth and the Otherworld. one of the ancient kings of the British Isles was Bran the Blessed. 'Bran' can be translated as 'Raven' and his head is believed to have been buried at the site of the Tower of London. The Ravens who live at the Tower are believed to represent the safety of the realm and so long as their presence endures, the land will endure.

The Raven, like the colour Black, originally a bird of great power and mystery, through the centuries acquired negative connotations in the same way that Death became an Event to be dreaded and feared, the Great Enemy of Life.

In fact, originally the Raven acted as a guardian of the Earth to obtain knowledge for the Gods. Death was nothing more than a Portal to the Otherworld and when any creature died, it moved on to another form or sphere of existence. This life and this world were but transitional phases in an existence that possibly might endure forever. It is the body that dies, not the soul.

The Raven is a very intelligent bird who can imitate the calls of other birds as well as the sound of falling water. Ravens have been known to echo songs, whether from a music box or an ice cream vendor.

My stepfather was Celtic and British in his heritage. Although he did not subscribe much to organised religion, he loved mythology and fantasy. He was a very spiritual man, albeit not a religious one in the ordinary Western sense of the word. His religion was Music and Art. He was a gifted tenor and acted as the soloist in a local church for decades. It was through his music that his spirit soared to Heaven, through Music that he communed with the Deity.

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien writes about the creation of Life as a symphony comprised of different voices whose songs are interwoven. The power of the Music is so great that every individual musical contribution can be embraced, however unique or different from the others...

In Lord of the Rings, Pippin and Gandalf have a conversation about Death, while awaiting a battle that could be the end of them.

Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.

Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Pippin: Well, that isn't so bad.

Gandalf: No. (Thoughtfully) No, it isn't.

Tolkien did not perceive the 'Lord of the Rings' as fantasy but rather as the natural weave of the tapestry of Anglo-Saxon tradition and lore had not Christianity come to the British Isles. He therefore incorporated many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon concepts into the work, including that of the 'lands in the West' to which the Elves set sail when they wearied of Middle Earth.

My stepfather loved Tolkien and it seems to me that, if any of the old lore of the journey after Death would hold true for him, it would be that of setting sail in one of the White Ships to 'Tir Na Nog' or the Lands in the West.

It is fitting that a Raven appeared to me today. I am far from the place where my stepfather died but my Mum is going to send me some of his ashes and I shall plant a little tree in the garden in his memory, even though I do not own the land myself. Before I saw the Raven this morning, I was in the garden, considering where I would plant the small tree as well as trying to decide the sort of Tree that would be most appropriate. Blackthorn perhaps, after the Raven's appearance. I have Oak, Ash, Birch, Rowan and Yew in the garden, but do not have Blackthorn. If my stepfather had been of a Mediterranean heritage, I would plant a Cypress for him but as an Irish Celt, he should have a Northern Tree.

These are the lyrics to 'Into the West', the song that ends Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy:

Lay down your sweet and weary head,
Night is falling,
You have come to journey's end.

Sleep now and dream of the ones who came before,
They are calling from across the distant shore.

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see,
All of your fears will pass away.

Safe in my arms, you're only sleeping.

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea, a pale moon rises,
The ships have come to carry you home.

Dawn will turn to silver glass,
Light on the water, all souls pass...

Hope fades into the world of night
Through shadows falling, out of memory and time.

Don't say we have come now to the end,
White shores are calling.
You and I will meet again.

You'll be here in my arms just sleeping.
What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea, a pale moon rises,
The ships have come to carry you home.'

And all will turn to silver glass,
Lights on the water, grey ships pass into the West.

In Memoriam

Into the West from Lord of the Rings



There was a time when I wondered at the reference to 'silver glass' but now I think it is a reference to a mirror. After all, Jean Cocteau wrote that 'Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes'.* (This is a line from Orphee, one of my favourite films when I was a child.) The way in which a mirror or looking glass was made was by adding silver to the surface of one side of a piece of glass. Mirrors are magical portals in myth and storybooks. When 'all will turn to silver glass', it is THIS existence on earth that becomes nothing more than a pale reflection of eternity and the world beyond.

*In the original: 'Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la mort vient et va.'