One on each hand

Wendell Berry’s two Muses (Standing by Words – highly recommended – page 204): “There are, it seems, two Muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form.

“The first muse is the one mainly listened to in a cheap-energy civilization, in which ‘economic health’ depends on the assumption that everything desirable lies within easy reach of anyone. It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live in the bitterness of disappointment.”

Here, a different slant on work from an unabashedly Christian poet and essayist. (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1983.)

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About that floating three-day weekend

In giving Kenzie that three-day weekend once every four weeks in the new novel Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, I was leaning on a work schedule I had on a newspaper out in Ohio. I sure wish I had it when I was living Upstate New York and assigned to a typical split week like his in the story. It was brutal.

Of course, in this round of revision, I was looking ahead to his experiences in my new Subway Visions. He would now have a chunk of time to head off to the Big Apple and return home.

As I reflect on my own forays into the city and its mass-transit tunnels, I think I made as many trips during my time in Ohio as I had in a similar period when I was living only four or five hours away from the metropolis. In other words, Kenzie gets in a lot more time on the underground tracks than I ever had.

Living an hour north of Boston, as I do now, I can admit to spending far more time on its subway system that I had in New York’s. And I’ve also relied on the systems of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington in the years since I drafted the original Subway Hitchhikers.

Have you ever had a special twist in a work schedule that had an impact like this?   

On seeing pileated woodpeckers

The pileated woodpecker is one of the largest members ot the family, rather comical and awkward looking, at that. It’s also not commonly seen, so sightings are always exciting, at least if you have an eye for birds. (Pronounced PIE-lee-ay-tid or PILL-ee-ay-tid, by the way.)

I remember one of my first encounters was while having dinner with the Ostroms at their house perched atop a wooded ravine outside Bloomington, Indiana. One alighted just outside the window, to our shared surprise and wonder.

More recently, as I was driving with my elder daughter down a road in Maine, one was flying just ahead of us but veered off before she could look up.

A week later, on a different road, the same thing happened.

She accuses me of making those up.

So the other day, after a meeting at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in Durham, I noticed two people in the parking lot who were staring at something in the trees just beyond. I caught the red head and then the full bird. Yup. Amazing, considering this was an urban neighborhood.

And then, on another trunk, I spotted on more red head and big body, which then swooped down to join the first.

The pileated ‘pecker is a large bird – 16 to 19 inches long with a wingspan up to 30 inches, as I’m reading, likely the largest of its family in North America – and they can do some serious damage to trees they decide to nest in. Think of a beaver with wings. Again, from some quick referencing online, I’d guess you can look for a nest based on the pile of wood chips below.

My companion, in her early 90s, apologized that she’s never been able to really see birds, not even as a child. “My eyesight’s always been poor,” she apologized. So much for a witness. At least she could attest that two others were also commenting on the birds before us.

As for said daughter? She insists I’m making this up, too.

For the record, I don’t think I ever seen more than one classic redheaded woodpecker in my life. Hairy woodpeckers and downeys and flickers, of course, are another matter. Old friends, I’d say.

Of course, the Woody Woodpecker cartoons don’t count, do they?

Not my picture, alas. Bird photography is truly a specialty.

Retired six years now

Through much of my working career, the question lingered: What do I want to be when I grow up?

The answer finally shaped up: Retired!

So it’s hard to think I’ve been retired six years now – make it seven if you include the early buyout that allowed me to work more flexibly in the newsroom for a year.

Frankly, I don’t feel retired – whatever that is. I don’t play golf or spend all day at the beach or play evenings of card games like bridge.

For me, what I wanted was more time to read and write and attend to Quaker matters and be out in the wilderness – that sort of thing. Do what Gary Snyder would call the Real Work.

My wife scoffed when she saw some of my early plans for retirement. Would I devote regular blocks of time to each pursuit? Would I rise at five to meditate and do yoga before moving on poetry or fiction?

Scoff? She was more infuriated that I wasn’t including time for household chores or gardening or togetherness along other kinds. Saw it as being self-centered.

~*~

Suffice it to say those early scheduling ideas are far from what emerged. They didn’t include swimming laps every weekday, thanks to the brilliant Christmas present of an annual indoor pool pass from my elder daughter, who wisely decided I needed more exercise, seconding a motion from my physician.

Nor did they include being performing in incredible choir in Boston, which takes up the better part of a day. Or, more accurately, an afternoon and evening. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate making music on such a high level.

Nor was blogging on those blueprints. It’s wound up occupying more time than I expected, but it’s also freed me from the submissions process in getting work published – so timewise, I think it’s a bargain. And that includes having my own small-press imprint on my Thistle Finch line here at WordPress.

~*~

I have been able to devote more blocks of time to the fiction, which has been satisfying, but I still feel myself pressed for time when it comes to doing all I want or should.

I’m still trying to make adjustments for the domestic needs, especially now that my wife’s back in the workforce.

The joke is I’m not really retired – I’m just not receiving a paycheck.

In retrospect, I’m surprised by how much writing I actually accomplished in my own time all those years I was employed. It gives me a deep well to draw on.

Singing over beers

So there we were after choir rehearsal, more than 20 of us gathered for what’s called a pub sing.

It’s commonplace in England and Ireland, I suppose, but a rarity in the States.

In fact, this was my first encounter. One of our members had reserved a room at a tavern down the street.

Our Boston Revels organization hosts public versions of these during the year, but this was more impromptu. Yes, we had a stack of the organization’s songbooks, just in case. As our motto states, “Where tradition comes to life.”

Two of those present had birthdays, so we belted out in the traditional Happy Birthday song, in glorious four-part harmony – maybe more.

And then one basso voice continued in a dark melody with lyrics like “long ago your hair turned gray, now it’s falling out, they say,” or “it’s your birthday, never fear, you’ll be dead this time next year.” He was quickly joined by a soprano across the table in what became a competition to see who could remember lines the other didn’t know.

For those with a mordant sense of humor, it’s (UHH!) great fun. You can even Google it under the “Happy Birthday Dirge.” For the record, we sang it much better than any of the versions you’ll hear there.

Fortunately, my birthday had slipped past unnoticed just a few weeks earlier.

Maybe next year?

‘Vegan Before 6’ for Great Lent

As Quakers, we’re not confined to a liturgical calendar or its requirements. Even so, through much of our history, members of the Society of Friends lived within the limitations of strict discipline, which included plain dress like the Amish and plain speech of the “thee” and “thou” sort.

These have greatly loosened up over the past century, which is not to say we don’t live out a distinct set of values – we’re just more flexible or forgiving. Non-violence and pacifism, equality, simplicity, social justice, and truthfulness remain forefront in our daily lives. Few Friends I know smoke, and in our circles, I suspect the majority now drive Priuses as a consequence of faith. Many, but by no means all, participate in vigils or social witness demonstrations.

But being Quaker doesn’t preclude us from what Douglas Steere coined “mutual irradiation,” acknowledging that we can learn from others’ religious practices and experiences and encourage them in their own. It’s not the same as a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, but rather a willingness to be inspired and enlightened by our differences. It’s something I’ve been enjoying among the Greek-Orthodox where I live, and found with Mennonites and Brethren earlier. It’s also a principal reason I participate in the Dover Area Religious Leaders’ Association and our joint services.

Of course, remarrying has changed some of my perspectives. With children, especially, there was no way of downplaying Christmas, not in contemporary American society. (Historically, Friends were among those who considered it a pagan import.) I’ve previously posted about the revolutionary ways observing Advent has helped me cope with the commercial assault of that holiday.

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Eliminating a liturgical calendar also meant we also didn’t observe Easter. (Every day was to be holy.) And without Christmas or Easter, there would be no Advent or Lent.

Leap ahead.

There’s no way to totally ignore these, not when no longer live in close communities of our own and are often the only Quaker in our workplace. On top of that, many of us come from other faith traditions and carry within us many of those teachings and traditions, one way or another.

~*~

All of this leads up to to a desire in our household to use Advent and Lent as times of renewal and rededication. We try to do a special reading together, at the least, and usually give up alcohol.

For the record, by the late 19th century, most Quakers had banned alcohol altogether – it’s not uncommon to meet Friends who have never had a drink in their life. On the other hand, when I admitted to enjoying a glass of beer or wine, one old Friend replied, “Jnana, in thy occupation, we’d be surprised if thee didn’t.” Remember, I was a newspaper editor.

So, here we are in what the Eastern Orthodox call Great Lent, and I’m surviving without my daily martini or a glass of wine with dinner. Abstaining reminds me of just how habitual these things become. Besides, I believe saying “no” for a season can be strengthen one’s willpower for other decisions, too.

~*~

One year, my wife and I went largely vegan for Advent. She had reviewed all of the Eastern Orthodox dietary rules for that observance and concluded they were essentially vegan with the additional elimination of olive oil and alcohol. Oh, and when she concluded that since olive oil would have been the only oil in the eastern Mediterrean, she extended the ban to all cooking oils.

It was a tough period, as I posted at the time. She did come up with some marvelous dishes all the same, but rather than being freed from considerations of food, she was spending more time trying to find ways to manage.

This year, for the period of Great Lent, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Remember, we’re not confined to the ancient regulations, we’re doing this voluntarily. (And, as I’ve learned, the Orthodox rules are only suggested, not required, of the faithful.) What we’re doing is inspired by food guru Mark Bittman’s book Eat Vegan Before 6:00. In short, we have more options when it comes to the evening meal – especially, as we’re applying this, on the weekends.

Since I’m already trying to observe a Healthy Heart diet, I’m not seeing a lot of change. The biggest challenge has involved my morning coffee, which is already down to a single cup a day, thanks to another medical restriction.

No, alas, there are no wonder substitutes for dairy.

Homemade almond milk comes closest – we find much of the commercial variety to be vile. But almonds are comparatively expensive, and soaking the nuts and grinding and straining take time.

Oat milk, made from oatmeal, starts cooking in hot liquid, leaving an unpleasant layer of sludge in the bottom of the mug.

Coconut milk tastes like coconut, which I find disconcerting.

Black coffee seems harsh on an empty stomach – a sliver of lemon helps a little, somehow.

~*~

So I’m counting the days till Easter – the Orthodox version, which comes at the end of Passover, a full week later than the Western celebration.