Lent (and Poets and Writers Magazine)

Two things arrived this week: Lent and Poets and Writers. Both are a challenge. Both involve faith (mine is pretty shaky, both as a writer and a person who goes to church). Both are disciplines which make me flinch, twitch and obsess about my life.

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A woman representing Lent with her sparse Lenten fare. “The Joust Between Carnival and Lent” Bruegel (from Wikipedia)

Lent: The annual “what do I give up?” “Why? What good does it do?” “What is faith anyway?” I’ve always thought I’d make a better Buddhist instead of being a mediocre Christian. Let’s face it, going to church because the music and ritual is pretty is not exactly what Jesus had in mind. As a priest friend of Anne Lammott’s said, that “would drive Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” If you practice Buddhism, it’s a given you should renounce bad habits forever, or at least on a progressive scale. In Lent, you only have forty days and forty nights to agonize about how you’re so bad at all this stuff. I guess I’ll stick with Jesus.

If it’s tough enough to assimilate Jesus’s forty days and forty nights fasting in the wild and attended by angels, it’s harder still to assimilate the rest of his life, and owning all of that as a “Christian.” Then, there’s St. Paul to further confuse things. I wrote this little doggerel in a notebook years ago: I have mixed feelings about St. Paul./ I don’t care for the man at all.

My Lenten challenge this year is to figure out why St. Paul bothers me so much. Is he the reason that Catholic priests are all guys and even some Anglicans don’t appreciate women bishops and priests (because it’s not apostolic succession. Don’t get me started!)? And Paul is one of the reasons that simple folk pound on the Bible to condemn homosexuality. But that’s a huge question of context and translation. Depending on which version you read (even between the Oxford Revised Standard and the Oxford New Revised Standard), Paul was actually bashing pedophiles. I disapprove of homophobia as heartily as I do approve of same-sex marriage, but I’d bash a pedophile in a heartbeat.

C’mon. Who was this guy who traveled so far to convert people he used to persecute, and now wants to convince them (and me) that God’s designated representative has appeared on earth, because he, St. Paul, had a vision after the Crucifixion, which, had he been there, he would have likely cheered like a Red Sox fan?

I have problems with his veracity and sanity.

So my Lenten practice is to read all the epistles of St. Paul. I’m going to figger this guy out if I have to drink copious amounts of strong, black lapsang souchong  to get through it all. How bad can Paul be if he can write: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (Corinthians I, King James version). That’s some good writing.

At least there’s an end to Lent and I can go back to joining Jesus at the cat bowl.

But now Poets and Writers is still another thing. It comes relentlessly every two months and stares at me in the face like a dog with a ball. I dutifully look at the articles, especially reading the ones about publishers and agents. I spend quite a bit of time in the classifieds to see if there are places to which I could possibly send my poetry, non-fiction or fiction. THEN there’s the part where I sit down and check out all the websites and submissions guidelines and cross out everything I’ve circled. In two complete afternoons of searching some thirty sites, I sent out two submissions.

This is not the best use of my time.

But it is part of the practice of being a writer. It is discipline. And I am an unruly, unwilling, even hostile participant. I know it’s good for me. If the three big questions are “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What ought I to do?” I get that I’m a writer, and I’m supposed to show up – this means at the page and in the pew and at the lectern, where, as often as not, my assignment is to read the Epistle on a given Sunday. I do my homework. I practice. Maybe someday it will all do me some good. The ashes smeared on my forehead on Ash Wednesday are a pretty effective reminder why.

Here’s an old poem:

WINE – A Lamentation

 He takes a sip, prize

glass rests beside him, red

 wine glows lovelier than opal gin,

than russet whiskey,

lovelier by far than

cold tea in my old chipped cup.

 I bought the glasses, three boxes,

anticipating much celebration—but

 the birthdays come

one after another.  And

deaths.  I forgot how loss

demands an odd celebration.

Now Lent comes again. 

We make sacrifices.  His is

half-hearted—no hard liquor.  Religion

goes only so far towards redemption.

His Jesus, too close for perspective,

mine too far for faith.

Drink is habit more than sacrament.

 I watch the glow reach his cheeks.

 He talks a bit, not much, of craving golf

With nothing to loosen my tongue, I nod.

Mary Sanders Shartle (from Winterberry, Pine by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and MSS)

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What do you do up there in winter?

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Some years ago there were three, large, inoperable picture windows on the northwest side of our house, which was odd. Living in the North Country (upstate New York), it is a known fact that most of our weather comes from the west. To have that side of a house shut off from those accessible breezes is unthinkable. As soon as we amassed a little renovation money, we replaced the three fixed windows with casements, a slider and a deck to encourage walking out.

The annual spring celebration happens when the temperature hits a balmy sixty-five degrees and all those windows are opened for the first time to allow the spring breezes and bird song to stream through after the long winter. The saddest day of the year is when we shut the windows and slider against the cold and now forbidding winds and occlude the less than musical clamor of the jays and crows.

So it was at this time I returned from extensive knee surgery in early November and assumed the pose of recovery on the blue couch with the view to the woods and the foothills of the Adirondacks in the distance, the bird feeder in the foreground.

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The two cats joined me in practiced positions, testing the new bionic joint until it ached and all of us had to move.

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Wink and Clooney

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Wink

 

When we first moved here from downstate in 1981, we had a radio but no TV. We referred to our new life in the woods as having only four channels: bird feeder, book, fireplace and kitchen stove. Of the four, the bird channel tends to be the most intermittently exciting. The population of wild turkeys has swollen disproportionately to the disappearance of the ruffed grouse. Here’s how it looked the other day as I lay here:

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…and this just a week before Thanksgiving!  There were eighteen of the evolved dinosaurs going after cracked corn.

My temporary immobility in the face of all this nature outside the now operable but closed up windows, is as much an ache as the new, operable and yet unnatural and painful knee. Part of me is bone on bone in spite of the repaired joint. I doubt I will snowshoe this winter, let alone cross-country ski. This torments me as much as my excellent physical therapist who stretches, presses and bends the stupid joint to her will so that maybe one day I can return to those old activities. The squirrels torment the cat with the protective glass between them, a bit unfair. I only watch as the cat does. So near and yet so far, like the hills I used to hike and ski in the distance there.

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Clooney and a persistent squirrel

Here’s a poem from those earlier days:

WHAT DO YOU DO UP THERE IN WINTER?

 We do describe the smell of snow—

like dust, like washed ashes.

 Four channels:

     Bird feeder

     Book

     Fire

     What’s cooking?

 

The great north woods out of doors,

negotiable in primitive ways:

     planks of slicked wood

     bear paws

     crampons

 

Limited conversation:

     weather

     who’s  pouring?

                 Mary Sanders Shartle, from Winterberry, Pine

LIFTING

A couple of Saturdays ago, my husband and I attended a weight-lifting competition at one of the local Y’s. Our son-in-law, a Y trainer, was one of the competitors. The room was packed with enthusiastic fans of local lifters, both men and women of varied abilities from good to really good. There were three events: squat lifts, bench presses and dead lifts. I won’t waste time here explaining procedure, rules, equipment, safety precautions. There were two things that really impressed me aside from the display of sheer brute strength, especially one chap who attempted to dead lift 700 pounds. (He succeeded in lifting, but not releasing the lift in proper form.) The ritual of lifting, like all rituals, involves gear, costume, art, symbols, preparation, approach, procedure. There is a prominent respect for the effort involved.

The first thing I loved were the tattoos. The tattoos at the competition were really extraordinary. There were a whole range of symbols and imagery–some of it arcane and some of it more modernistic in terms of graphics. Roughly half of the participants sported tattoos, some were massive, whimsical and colorful, others dark and odd or indecipherable–writing, webbing, geometric, religious or profane. The best was an intense young man with a carefully detailed spinal cord running down his own and the word “BROKEN” in Gothic lettering spanning the space between his scapula.

The second thing that impressed me was the support for each and every lifter provided by every other lifter along with the audience, trainers and judges. There were no favorites to speak of. There was one incidence of a squabble when one lifter did not feel he’d been fairly judged. (He was given another shot at it.) In a room full of such lethal power, there was nothing but joy, warmth and good will. Cheers from the crowd, cheers from the Y attendants, cheers from other lifters. “C’mon. You got this!” There was tension in every lift as every muscle in every attending body identified with the lifter’s challenge, every breath held and released with his or hers.

The next day was Sunday. Before the service starts in the Episcopal church there is a formal ritual of lighting the candles. Two acolytes in robes (and sneakers) process in unison carrying long staffs with an extendable lit taper on one curve and a snuffer on the other. They bow before the cross and step up to the altar. There are two large, heavy brass candlesticks there. (I know how heavy and fragile they are, because I’ve tried to lift them.) The candle lighting is a spectator sport for the congregation because it’s tricky. To get the lit taper to meet the wick of the candle is not easy.  Very often on Sunday there is one candle on the altar and one acolyte struggling with a taper that does not reach the wick. Finally, the head acolyte comes in, lifts the entire candle down so that the acolyte can reach it properly. There is a collective exhale from the congregation when the candle is finally illuminated.

I hesitate to wander any farther down the paths of metaphor. Weight lifting at the Y and candle lighting in church could not be more disparate except for the common rituals that attend both.  But  the head acolyte helping the younger with the candle, the congregation holding their breath in expectancy and releasing it at the successful lighting was so evocative of the audience of the weightlifting competition the day before, I started taking notes in wonder.  I would not be more greatly entertained if there were tattoos involved. Under those acolytes’ white cassocks and black robes in church, all I see and love are the sneakers. Because of that casual street gear in a formal and ancient ritual, I think of the Olympiad, the uniforms, the gear, the march, the lighting, the athletics and all their attendant forms. I hold my breath and release like the lifters.

Navels, Braiding and Mother’s Day in the North Country

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I traveled to Parishville, New York to learn how to braid rugs. It was my daughter’s birthday and Mother’s Day weekend. Helen Condon, whom we’ve gotten to know from Great Camp Sagamore, has a thriving cottage industry in the old grange just by the dam over the St. Regis River there. Her second floor is a vast workshop with shelving all around and heaving piles of wool in chromatically arranged colors.

DSC00464The fields of wool

For a fee, she will feed and house two people at the grange over a weekend, provide a kit with the colors of your choice (and Helen’s theme) and teach you how to braid a rug or a basket or a chair seat. I chose a rug color scheme called “Blue Heron.” My daughter chose “October Forest.” During a weekend with Helen, you can form about eight rows of an oval rug and on Sunday, you bag up the remainder with all the accouterments, haul it home and finish it. It is now some weeks later and my daughter has finished her rug. I am now up to row fourteen of seventeen total rows for a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 foot oval rug.

A braided rug begins with a “navel,” the center connector of the three original 2-inch strands of wool in different colors or patterns. The strands are folded, imbedded and stitched in a T-formation. We attached the navel in a clip on a piece of plywood bound to the worktable by a C-clamp, and the braiding began.

My mother used to braid my long hair when I was a child. It was a somewhat painful ordeal, especially for someone with my thick, easily tangled hair. But every day after breakfast until I was about eight or nine, I had my hair braided. If my mother was not around, one of my older sisters would do the duty. Straight part down the middle of my head, braids over either ear, barrettes to hold back the wisps on each side. Scrape, tug, pull, twist, pull, twist, pull, twist. There was a ferocity to the process which I endured and not quietly as I recall. However, I loved to braid and there was no one younger or willing to suffer my attentions. When I had measles (several times), I was forbidden to read (there was, and is, some medical evidence that measles could cause blindness in children, but as a result of a measles-concurrent Vitamin A deficiency, not, perhaps, from reading or eye strain, but this was the 1950s.) To entertain myself through the interminable days of illness, I would tear strips of tissue from a Kleenex and braid the strands, making little book marks for the books I would not be able to read until I was well.

Helen would strip long yardage of wool for her rugs and tear them into 2-inch wide lengths to be used for braiding. Every time we’d get to the end of a strip, we’d add the same (or at a given point another strip) with a diagonal run through the sewing machine, then back to braiding. After about three feet of braid lay about us and around the fattening rug, we would stitch the braid to the last row of rug with a special thick, waxed thread and a broad flat needle. We’d break for wonderful meals with Helen and then back to work in the fields of wool.  Helen had acquired a new kitten, named Della Reese, who sat either on my shoulder or on my daughter’s lap while we braided and stitched and turned. With the rushing sound of the St. Regis River outside the window, it was a lovely way to spend a weekend.

The fields of wool

Helen, myself and Della Reese

Genna braiding "October Forest"

Genna braiding “October Forest” with Della watching.

I’m not sure I will start my own cottage industry of Adirondack rug-braiding, but it has been interesting to learn a new skill set, one passed down from Helen’s grandmother to Helen and now to my daughter and me.  At home, my own cat, Wink, sits on the rug while I work. “Blue Heron,” Helen’s Adirondack canvas the colors of pond, stilted regal bird, moss and reed greens and blue sky, is growing row by row in my imagination – perhaps a poem. I look out at the waning Adirondack spring and imagine a canvas of my own with all the shades of green we see driving through the hills, the colors of lilac, honeysuckle and forsythia by the farm houses, the blue of sky. I wonder how much of those colors I could capture, as Helen has, in a 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 oval rug. I might call it “Adirondack Spring.” But Helen will probably beat me to it.

I made sure to keep my daughter’s hair short when she was much younger. She could grow it as long as she wanted when she could shampoo and care for it by herself. I spared her, at least, that childhood imposition of forceful braiding. She did have the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. I’m not sure if I or someone else taught her to braid, but how lovely to have the ability to take something so inherent in our shared lives to make an object as useful and enduring as a woolen rug.

 

Assignment: Write about a photograph and what it means.

I’m remembering a picture of me as a little girl in a pinafore holding an Easter egg.  Nearby, on our front stoop in Ohio, sits a basket with a real live duckling. My mother is nearby. The year is 1954. We are on our way to Easter Services at the First Presbyterian Church. My father, Buster Shartle, took the picture. It is warm enough in southwestern Ohio  to be without a coat.  Here in the Adirondack foothills there is still a bit of snow left and I’m still dressing in layers.

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I am also remembering that little girl, so daintily dressed and pampered, lying in bed unable to sleep at night, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to have nails driven through flesh. Easter is, first of all, about the hideous death before there can be the Resurrection. It seems there was a lot for that little girl of four or five to absorb. The duckling was dispatched by a fox. The mother had issues. Easter ducklings and pinafores didn’t change things. These days in a world of hurt, it still hasn’t changed. A South Korean ferry filled with teenagers flipped over; we remembered the Boston Marathon bombings; another crazed high school kid went on rampage; another soldier, ditto.

Perhaps that’s the reason that I have Buddha and Kuan Yin represented around my house and in my office rather than crucifixes. These are a witness to my life long struggle with all that’s been preached, promised and, in some cases, threatened from a Christian pulpit.  Nietzsche said that the last true Christian died on the cross. John Shelby Spong said that God is unemployed, if not dead. He doesn’t save, He doesn’t heal, He no longer affects weather or battle outcomes. We seem to take care of or fail at most of that ourselves without His interference. So why church? Why Holy Week?

On Saturday I helped the Altar Guild, one of the few of such active institutions left in this Episcopal Diocese of Albany. I polished brass. There is an 1880 collection plate fashioned by J&R Lamb Studios, famous still for its church windows, wood carvings and artifacts. The brass plate is engraved in the style of the pre-Raphaelite Brethren with passion flowers, oak leaf clusters, a cross and whip on the left side, and the three nails to the right of the central IHS symbol. The plate was donated by a woman named Abby Mumford Thompson in memory of her sister, Lucretia C. Whiting, about whom I can find little or no information. It is a thing of beauty, this plate meant for collecting money from the congregation and yet reminding the giver and receiver what is crucial to the faith–crucial–the same root for the word crucifix. Those engraved symbols seemed to be given more credence in those Victorian times.

As I work on a chapter about such artifacts for a history of Bethesda Episcopal Church, I am aware not only of Bethesda’s history, but of all faiths and religions and their symbols. There were people back then who, when they cried “Heaven help us,” probably believed that there could still be Divine intervention in their crises. I honor the history while I struggle with the faith. I love the music, so beautifully performed by Farrell Goehring, Kathleen Slezak and the Bethesda Schola Cantorum. I love listening to scripture. I believe in showing up, helping, listening. I do not cry for Heaven’s help. I go to the doctor. I read John Shelby Spong. I wonder if the snow around the Buddha will ever melt.

Buddha before spring, 2014:

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Buddha on April 14, 2014:

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ForeWord Reviews to publish review of Lily Martindale

ForeWord Reviews will publish a review of The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale on June 1st, 2014. Here’s a snippet:

“Mary Sanders Shartle paints a strong portrait of New York’s rugged Adirondack region in her debut novel,The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale. It’s an atmospheric tale about a great tragedy that devastates two little girls. One refashions her life, finding love, faith, and a rewarding career, while the other struggles for many years to forge herself anew … Shartle’s memorable novel will find a ready audience with readers who are already fond of the Adirondacks, but it is so studded with rich detail and scenery that others will want to transport themselves to this wild, dangerous, yet achingly lovely place.” — ForeWord Reviews

 

March

It’s snowing.

Yesterday it was fifty degrees on the back side of the house where the sun hits the thermometer. I sat outside on the steps with my tea, flanked by big plow and shovel piles. Now big wet flakes are coming down and it looks like it’s going to be a day full of weather with the temperature dropping. I think I’ll stay put, watch the snow piles grow.

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I like winter fine. It’s why I live up here. But lately I’m feeling hemmed in by those plow piles, by the ice on the driveway, by things I need to do piling up on the desk. It could be a productive day. The measurements I’ve heard about the gathering snow range from four inches to over ten inches. By upstate standards, that’s pretty average. There’s about a foot of work piled on my desk: two mss in progress plus research, plus bookkeeping, etc. etc. As always, there’s nothing for it but to get to work.

Meanwhile, an old poem from one of the Three Poets chapbooks:

MARCH BETRAYAL IN THE ADIRONDACKS

February melts away. The first
bird to sing of it is chickadee.
The radio guy says a robin’s in
someone’s backyard, but that’s
south of here by some.

The little melt revives the bees, beavers and maples.
Tempted with the risen sun,
I feel the false sense of warmth.
A dark shirt will warm my back
on the way to the mail at noon. But night
brings white ice. I feel my bones,
not my sap.

My sister calls from Maine to say
crocus are up. All I see
is the patch of brown over
the septic. Can’t ski
anymore, can’t rake either.
The shovels wait, knowing, by each door.
March

means deceit. When I crave
to bask, to flutter, to hatch, to fly,
it snows again on top of ice.
The pulse slows to crawl and
strives to race like a bad dream,
and again it snows on top of snow, on top of ice.

March is the torture of hope.
To the frozen heart the open cell
door leads to the waiting arms of the jailer.

Mary Sanders Shartle

(from Glacial Erratica: Three Poets on the Adirondacks, Part 2 by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle)

Endless Winter in the Adirondack Foothills

“Sometimes it seems that it’s always winter–always been winter, will always be winter in the North Country.” The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale

I saw a chipmunk a couple of days ago. Likely his/her stores got low in the cozy den, and he/she was out foraging under the bird feeder. A week or so ago the chickadees started calling. They do that in February when it’s really cold. Then the titmice chime in and things start to lighten up out here in the woods. Not just the three minutes added to the daylight count either. The heart inflates a bit.

My right knee, however, looked like one of those old, black and white Farmer Jones cartoons–like a pig with a garden hose in his mouth, getting larger and larger and defying gravity like a balloon. The doctor drained off 50 ccs (that’s about a cup) of yellowish fluid. Although all tests came back negative, he decided it looked like Lyme disease anyway. So a week later and two caps of doxycycline a day, the swelling is down considerably and the pain level has leveled off to previous arthritic zones, and I have joined the swelling (sorry) ranks of Friends-With-Lyme.

When the doctor saw the improvement yesterday, his comment was “Son of a bitch–it’s Lyme” and proceeded to go into a rant about how there is no funding in this litigious society, no movement forward on creating a vaccine to stem the swelling (sorry) tide of the illness. We talked about the frequency of Bell’s Palsy showing up that’s related to Lyme and all the weird stuff that can happen.

Years ago when I was working in Admissions at Skidmore College, I interviewed a young woman whose best friend’s mom was the first person ever diagnosed with the disease in Lyme, Connecticut in the mid-1970s. It took some years for someone to figure out that her symptoms resembled Rocky Mountain tick fever, and treat her with antibiotics. I asked how she was doing (this being in the 1990s) and the young woman replied “Fine.” However, “fine” is not exactly what I have heard from my cohort group of FWL. Beyond the aches and pains there can be serious brain fog, memory impairment, Bell’s palsy, fibromyalgia,and more. And sometimes, like malaria, there can be an echo effect. You’re better, and then after awhile you’re not better.

“The one thing that this long, cold winter will do,” Doc said, “is kill off these ticks.”

Now that’s something seriously worth considering to appreciate this long, tedious winter! It has been consistently very cold up here in the foothills of the Adirondacks, unlike recent winters. The depth of frozen, frosted soil must be pretty good by now. Unless the black-legged tick (otherwise known as deer tick) has been biding its time breeding and building super powers, we should have a relatively tick-free summer. It would be nice for the first time in five or six years, to go out in the garden without long sleeves, pants tucked into socks (so uncool) and a coating of Deep Woods Off that would drive small children away. Speaking of small (and not so small children), you should turn them on to:

“The Tick” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8JZSKTAJfA

So – back to the early signs of spring. A prose poem:

CHICKADEE

The 2-note whistle of the mating call is my father’s, not precisely the same. Pretty close. The
2-note phrase: “Yoo hoo,” echoed across crowded parking lots, airport waiting rooms, baggage claims or just inside the front door of the house. “Yoo hoo,” meaning I’m home, over here, look here, you’re going the wrong way, don’t wander, come back. It was our names, discretely piped, our direction reordered, our curious heads turned back to the fold. Hounds to master, cat to dish, grandchild to lunch.

“Chickadee” is the territorial standoff, the buzz of warning: “chickadee-dee-dee” meaning my place, not yours, my food, my nest, my mate, my tree, my sky. He knew his birds, my father. I’m amazed he did not mention the origin of his call. When I moved here to the woods, I first heard the call. Dead of winter they start, you know. February, minus ten degrees, sunny and suddenly one calls off in the trees. I imagined my father, dead since Christmas, alive again. Come my beloved, my wee one, my pets and babies, come home.

Mary Sanders Shartle, Three Poets, Notes from the Fire Tower

Go in peace to love and serve the world.