|A Winter's Tale
Before the shootings in Arizona happened on January 8th, I had planned to write about dragons. Perhaps the subject is still apt.
So I will start where I intended to: reading in the winter by the fire. There is a trail of bark along the carpet, the wood has to be replenished often and the heat is uneven through the house, but no matter; it is a great pleasure watching your own wood transform itself into warmth and flames. The old wingchair by the stove in winter is the best place to read Tolkien, or Beowulf.
Yes! We have heard of years long vanished
how Spear-Danes struck sang victory songs
raised from a wasteland walls of glory.
Years ago I read some of Beowulf in the original. Now I know less and so read a translation (above is Rebsamen's), but in English Old or new the poem strides alliteratively through the ravages of the great meadhall and Grendel's dismemberment, the underwater battle with his terrible and nameless mother, the side eddies of conflicts among men, and so on to the great final battle with the dragon: one of the two great dragons in Germanic literature, Tolkien thought.
Like better readers, what I love about Beowulf is the poet's compassion for his subject, the tactile horribleness of his descriptions of the monsters, and the wonderful quality the poem has of deeply rooted myth. This is no allegory, but a story to take at face value, to hear as true as the Greeks heard the Iliad. Nor is Beowulf a Christian poem exactly but instead a poem about a pagan age written from a Christian perspective, and the illustrative story of one good man's battle against the dark. Beowulf was sung with deep admiration about a people who had had as yet no Revelation, but who understood all about Evil—and much about Good.
Reading safely by the fire I like to think of dragons as far away, of another age; but then I open the paper and see they may be no farther than Tucson. Or closer still. And that is one of the lessons of Beowulf; that no man, and no congresswoman either, can know what monstrous ego is coming in envy and destruction to get his bit of national press.
We must remember, though, that this is an ego which requires our pity as well as our opposition, and that the monster may be of our own awakening and connivance. I am thinking less of “the atmosphere of poisonous political rhetoric,” though I hate it as much as anyone, and more of all the other detaching and splintering pressures of modern life, that could separate a young man so completely from his neighbors he could kill them. My sword is more likely to be a ploughshare, but I take it up.
~ Katherine Dalton
A Labor of Hope for the New Year
If the weather outside is frightful and the fire so delightful, you might be witnessing any given evening in December here at chez Peters. In accordance with the specs that descend to us from holy household tradition, hundreds of tiny white lights adorn a Frasier fir Christmas tree—only a Frasier fir—and a Christmas wreath, likewise bejeweled, hangs above the mantle. Verily, the whole domicile bears the marks of a Certain Someone’s exquisite touch: candles, seasonal frames for pictures, yuletide mantlepieces, stockings hung with care, Christmas dishes, table cloths red and green and festive. The very napkin rings and candlesticks sing their own noel.
And so all this remains until the strict fast that precedes Theophany and the feast itself have passed, whereupon we come to that sad weekend during which everything comes down. We wrap it up and tuck it away for another year.
Oh, there’s a roaring blaze in the fireplace all weekend, and the remains of a pot of white chili stand at the ready. The dear flesh, so recently certified in the Nativity, will be accorded its rightful honors. We’ll treat ourselves well enough.
Indeed, as I pour the coffee this morning it appears from the carnage in the kitchen that we were making rather merry last night. Ah, yes. It all comes back to me. Once the noise had finally faded and the revelers repaired to their pillows and comforters, I held counsel with Mozart and Malbec into the mid-morning hours, looking already with nostalgia upon the tree that has given me so much pleasure this past month, morning and evening, evening and morning, until at last my lids grew heavier than sandbags and I prevailed upon myself to give the embers one last poke and lug my guts to a warm bed upstairs and the unknowing company of the enslumbered goddess excellently bright.
No long winter’s nap for this Jester, however. I write this little note in the dark quiet morning hours of January 8, 2011. (Two thousand eleven! Whither hastes this glorious life? And on what wings?) That the days are getting longer now means nothing in this part of the country. We could see snow in May—and often do. No matter. I have a ‘mind of winter,’ as the poet says. I love
the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in distant glitter
Of the January sun.
I’ve laid plenty of firewood by for winter’s fifth act, and a huge pile of maple for the next winter awaits my axe and maul. I’ll spend an hour or two splitting a tithe of it today. The work is good. It’s one of life’s great pleasures to see the meaty wood open up and to smell it in the crisp air of the new year. This is a hopeful task to cheer me on a somber weekend when the lights and trimmings come down and the Frasier fir goes out the door to warm the woods, as another poet put it, with the slow smokeless burning of decay. What to do then but
tak a right gude willy waught,
For auld lang syne.
~ Jason Peters
On the Nightstand
Christmas break is always an opportune time to catch up on fiction. This year I found Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns on my sister’s shelf. As I read, I found myself wondering how I had not read this book before. Cold Sassy Tree is the name of a semi-fictional town in Georgia. The odd name binds the narrative of the novel, and encapsulates the story’s themes of small town culture, death, and progress. As the fourteen-year-old narrator, Will Tweedy, explains, the original settlers of the town stopped under a patch of cold sassafras trees, and the name stuck. Will tells the story of Cold Sassy Tree in 1906, when the little town encounters progress, and, not coincidently, death.
The novel opens with the death of Will’s grandmother and his grandfather’s scandalous marriage, three days later to a pretty milliner. Will’s grandfather, like the general store he runs, is at the hub of the Cold Sassy community. He is also the one person preventing the town council from changing Cold Sassy’s name to something more “modrun” like “Progressive City.” The ensuing story spares no detail of the cruel gossip in such a town, but also does not shy from underlining the deep affections of shared space and kin. Let me recommend this glimpse of a bygone place, where the people are not glamorous, but where their lives abound with simple pleasures.
~Rachel Blum Spencer
The First Sunday of Advent
(First published Summer 2010 in Vineyards magazine)
The weight of steel against the heaving rails,
Strict rust parallels
Between the platforms, where commuters stand
In topcoats, mufflers, or in woolen hats:
Numb fingers thumbing the loose ends
Of gloves, expectant of the call
To draw them from their winter suburbs off
To the iced towers of the working daylight.
We have some hope once other hopes have failed,
Raised trees that have been felled,
The blank cashier who answers our command
For coffee and a scone. We feel the fat
Of idle hours, the long feline
Stretch of life’s sabbatical.
Our eyes are set toward Center City; aloft,
The southerly birds head toward an age of daylight.
But when? the glorious letter in the mail
With words of rustling bells?
When? the permanent heat in the cold land?
Our limbs are aching and our feet are flat,
Our thoughts encumbered by the gravitas
Of each body’s weight. Our fall
Was hard and like no other. Will the soft
Wing of some other life lift us toward daylight?
~James Matthew Wilson
A Joke from the Bar Jester:
Old Man Jokes category:
An old guy is sitting on a park bench weeping uncontrollably when a young man walks by. The young man says, "Sir, are you okay? Can I help you?" The old man says, "I don't think so." Young guy says, "Well, what's the matter?" Old guy says, "I'm 88 years old and I just married a 24-year-old woman!" and lets out a mournful wail. Young guy says, "And that's the problem?" Old guy says, "No. There's more. She owns a huge liquor store!" whereupon he wails even louder. Young guy says, "That sounds pretty good to me." Old guy says, "It's gets worse. All she wants to do is make love–morning, noon, and night!" Young guy says, "Sir, I'm afraid I don't see what the problem is." Old guy looks up and says, "I can't remember where I live!"
~ Jason Peters
What I'm Listening to These Days:
I’m on sabbatical this semester, which gives me a bit more time to listen. The following recordings have passed through my CD player in the last while:
Mahler Symphony #5: Rudolf Barshai/Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. This recording of Mahler’s great celebration of love over death is remarkable in itself, and becomes even more so when one considers the youth orchestra that play their hearts out for the demanding Barshai. In both conception and execution, it’s a revelation.
Wagner Der Ring Des Nibelungen: Krauss/Bayreuth/1953. Krauss produced what is, in my estimation, the greatest Ring ever. An all-star cast which includes Vinay, Windgassen, and Hotter is left behind by Astrid Varnay’s transcendent turn as Brünhilde. As close to perfect as one can get with this series of operas, one of the great achievements of Western art.
Schumann, Piano Works. Alfred Cortot on the piano. Though not a great technician at the keyboard, Cortot finds every ounce of poetry in Schumann’s music. Deeply involved and moving performances, played lovingly and with nuance.
Gilbert and Sullivan, Patience. Ohio Light Opera. My daughter works at OLO over the summer and brought us down to Wooster for this thoroughly engaging performance of Patience. I have rarely enjoyed time in the theater more than I did that day, and the recording holds up very well, with Kyle Knapp’s Bunthorne a particular delight. Not as polished as the famous D’Oyle Carte recording, but I don’t like my Gilbert and Sullivan too operatic anyway.
Front Porch Conversations Online: The Best of 2010
At this time of reflecting on a year just past and looking forward to a year just begun, we take a moment to revisit some favorites conversations from 2010.
John Medaille – Welcome to the Putocracy (January 25): This will not last. Greed consumes everything, until it finally consumes itself.
Susan McWilliams -Our Hookup Culture (March 2): Hooking up is almost bound to emerge as a norm among young adults in a large-scale society where mobility is highly prized and cultivated.
Allan Carlson - Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: Rebuilding and American Economy (March 8): In light of the the economic crisis – and the bright light it sheds on the failings of modern capitalism – there is a need to reconsider older arguments of a “Third Way,” a social and economic system that in important respects would be neither capitalist nor socialist.
D.W. Sabin – It's the Land, Stupid (March 9): I’ll take the old gal with a few well-earned wrinkles that fit soft and snug like a favorite glove. It’s the land, stupid, and boy is she a thing of stunning beauty.
Jeff Taylor- Come Home America: Prospects for a Coalition Against Empire (March 12): The recent anti-empire, anti-war conference in DC could be the start of a significant Left-and-Right movement to challenge the foundation of U.S. foreign policy. An across-the-spectrum coalition has great potential but problems are inherent. Political theory and political history can provide lessons.
James Matthew Wilson – The Culture of Atomic Eros (April 1): It is time to consider what the latest uproar against Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church tells us about the state of our society. It is an ugly truth: the reordering of western society to the one imperative of sexual fulfillment. But, ultimately, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, we shall die not of decadence but of boredom.
Russell Arban Fox – Thoughts on Teaching Wendell Berry (April 29): Teaching Wendell Berry to students today isn’t a thankless task, but the victories are small and far between (which, one might say, is all the best victories always are).
Mary Berry Smith - Membership (May 24): We are here, in part, because choices made in big places have worked against rural places and rural people.
Bill Kauffman - Don't Shoot that Mockingbird! (May 28): Besides, the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.
Caleb Stegall – The Lightning Oracle (June 21): What a trifling thing it is to control man! How easily we believe in fairy tales when they come cloaked in the black box of authority and superior knowledge.
John Shelton Reed - A Tale of Three Restaurants (July 1): I prefer the waiter at Galatoire’s who told us to avoid the trout because it wasn’t very good that day. That’s useful information. But it’s simply impossible to imagine a waiter at this other place telling you to avoid the Tasmanian King Salmon.
D.G. Hart – The Boy Scouts Win One for Mom, Apple Pie, and the Seventh Inning Stretch (July 20): If all groups were forced to comply with the anti-discrimination policies of the federal government, conceivably churches could not exclude unbelievers, wine clubs would have to be open to tee-totalers, and neighborhood associations would be forced to include non-residents.
Jeffrey Polet – In Praise of Gossip (August 12): Gossip, under the right circumstances, acts as a virtue which demonstrates concern and thickens social ties.
Katherine Dalton – Everything I Ever Learned About Civility I Learned in a Small Town (September 24): For instruction in civilization, nothing beats a small town.
Patrick J. Deneen – Is There a Conservative Tradition in America? (September 28): The answer is hardly obvious.
Mark Signorelli- What is it Like to be a Man? (November 22): And nowhere, not in so much as a page of this literature, does one discover even the beginnings of an answer to the question, “what is it like to be a man?
Jason Peters- How to Write Like the Average Undergraduate Male (December 14): Save. Print. Drink.
Mark T. Mitchell – What is American? (December 14): While there is much work to be done and there are no guarantees of success, we don’t have to look far for the foundations upon which to build. They are all around us.
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