Hannukkah…

hannukah

So, we are in the middle of the Jewish festival of Hannukkah, a minor Jewish festival that has perhaps gained prominence because of proximity to Christmas, allowing a festival alternative to Jews living in the West.

Hannukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re dedication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire of the 2nd century BCE.

The story of the Maccabees is the sort to stir up a certain kind of soul.

The Syrians ruled Judea after the death of Alexander the Great but in 165 B.C., after a three-year struggle led by Yosef Matityahu and his sons, especially Judah Maccabee (Yehudah Hahmaccabee in Hebrew), the Jews in what is now Israel defeated the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV (“Epiphanes”), who had insisted on the institution of state-sponsored paganism, forced Jews to bow down to idols, and desecrated the temple (Beyt Hamikdash in Hebrew) in Jerusalem. Antiochus dedicated a pagan altar in the temple, and had sacrifices made to an idol.

After hard fighting, the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and entered the temple that was the center of Jewish religious and national life, symbolizing national liberation. They removed the idol that had been set there for pagan worship, cleansed the temple of pagan sacrifice and rededicated it. The date of Hanukkah, the 25th day of Kislev, was chosen because it was the anniversary of the dedication of the pagan alter.

According to tradition, when the Jews cleaned the temple, they found only one small container of oil with which to light their holy lamps. Miraculously, the container provided enough oil for eight days, until new new oil could be made and purified.

As ever, we project the meaning we need onto our festivals. This from here;

It is a holiday of freedom, celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians. It reaffirms the centrality of Israel and of Jerusalem in Jewish cultural life Without love of Israel and Jewish national existence, Hanukkah has no real meaning. Hanukah was was suppressed by the successors of the Maccabee dynasty, who were unfavorable to them, and remained a minor holiday for many years. Hanukkah, a celebration of national liberation and a military victory, did not fit well with the passive Diaspora culture of ultra-orthodox Jews. However, the holiday continued to be celebrated throughout the centuries and kept alive the embers of Jewish national feeling. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, and the rise of Zionism, Hanukkah assumed a new significance.

It is easy to see how the story of the Maccabees resonates with a particular kind of militant Zionism, intent on purifying modern Israel.

To celebrate a different kind of Hannukkah, I offer you a poem by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amachai;

Wildpeace

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

We Who Still Wait book now available…

We who still wait cover

We Who Still Wait is now available in hard copy via the Proost website or from Lulu here. Cover looks lovely! It would make a fine topical Christmas present, if I say so myself… not too late to order a couple.

This is a project that Si Smith brought together, involving photography by Steve Broadway, meditations by Ian Adams and some poetry by yours truly.

If you are more into accessing these things as downloads then use the Proost website- you can download a bonus version with Steve’s lovely photos available for use separately…

Here is another one of the poems;

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth
They’d prepare the way of the Lord
The in-laws would gather, take over the manor
Young Joseph would just be ignored

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth
The paths would have all been made straight
The midwife would chide, send the kids off outside
A whole village would stand by and wait

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth
He’d have a fine bed for his head
But while men smoked cigars and blew smoke to the stars
He was born in a stable instead

Jesus was not born in Nazareth
This king never needed a throne
The first thing he saw was dirty old straw
Our Lord was a long way from home

Snow…

trees, snow

No, not yet; just the name of a song.

I found an old CDR in the car on which I had put some music from the Paste Holiday Sampler a few years ago. It is a mixed bag, but this song captured my attention. Just the right combination of pathos, humanity and beauty…

Chickens, no more…

si smith, chicken

A couple of days ago something visited our backyard chickens and tore off their heads. Who knows what killed them; fox, pine marten, dog?

Will made the discovery on the way to school. Wet feathers in the grass. Blood. Death for no apparent reason. We humans invest so much in the animals we share spaces with. We give them human characteristics, personalities. And when they die, we rehearse a very human kind of grieving. Our chickens lived just outside the kitchen door (sometimes inside the kitchen door) and I keep finding myself looking for them.

But they were just chickens… we are sad for a brief moment and then move on. Still it leaves me wondering again about the world we are part of.

We promote ourselves to the centre of things, as if we humans broke this world and so each and every ripple in the smooth surface of celestial peace is down to the eating of that bloody fruit in the garden. Perhaps we did.

But perhaps too bad things just happen; sometimes for no reason. The world is light and shade. Grace and mindless violence. Chicken, and stoat. One can not really exist apart from the counterpoint provided by the other.

Meanwhile, after all the poultry inspired pontificating, I will be found in the supermarket, buying eggs.

By the way, the lovely image above was done by Si Smith of one of the said creatures in the flush of health…

Nellie the hen, snow

Christmas albums…

bird, winter tree

Is it just through getting old that I am starting to be increasingly moved by a certain kind of Christmas music?

I don’t mean all the dreadful rechurned musak that pours upon us like secreted sticky puss from the speakers in every God forsaken mall at this time of year. That makes me feel ill. It distances me from everything that seems real and beautiful about the Christmas itself. It sets me against it all and I have to fight to find my way back in towards the light.

Other music has exactly the opposite effect.

Nostalgia has some part to play, I must admit. The sound of a Salvation Army band echoing along the street unfailingly reduces me to tears. Then there is the back-of-the-neck tingle of a choir singing Once In Royal David’s City in some fecund incensed cathedral vault.

But beyond this, we seem to be collecting a series of Christmas albums from the most unlikely of artists. Perhaps they sell well and so there is a commercial pressure to produce them; people have to make a living after all. All I know is that they have the effect of taking me deeper into something truthful at a time when meaning is obscured by so much tat and tinsel.

Never more do we need the artist, the poet, the troubadour. Not just for a spike of ephemera via twitter and a bit of Facebook sharing; more because without them, we lie barren, and Christmas is just economics.

So here is my little list. I know you will add lots more…

Bruce Cockburn, Christmas.

Tracey Thorn, Tinsel and Lights.

Sting, If On a Winters Night.

Kate Rusby, Sweet Bells.

Good guys don’t swear…

I have been thinking about bad language.

Partly this is because some of the writing I am doing has to have some of those words in the mix. Without them it is simply not credible.

Also I have been playing an album by Sun Kil Moon a lot recently, and it has a lot of swearing on it. To be honest, I kind of wish it hadn’t, even though I love the album.

But good guys do not swear. Or at least that is what I was told growing up. Except a lot of them did; as I listened to their conversations when at rest; as I heard them dodge death from behind the wheel of the car or nurse a thumb whacked by a carelessly swung hammer…

Perhaps they were not really good I thought.

But I grew up swearing too. Not much; less than most, more than some, I would say. Michaela never swears. Not even at me. (I know- scarcely credible huh?)

For me, certain words act like the valve on a steam boiler. Over use them and the valve is no longer effective. I do not use them against actual people, although sometimes I wish I could.

Some words I never use, and I am never sure why really- they are just words after all. Language is always evolving and the taboo associated with words seems to evolve… even if most of them are always something to do with reproduction in some way or other.

I knew a woman once who inserted the word fuck between every other word she ever spoke. I fucking went to the fucking shop to fucking get some fucking milk. You get the picture. I asked her what she did when she really needed a swear word in an actual emergency and she looked at me slightly confused, then told me to fuck off.

Beware, spake I, lest when needed, your words lie sticking in the dirt like arrows shot too soon. She was not fucking impressed.

But some things deserve to be sworn about- some people are indeed bastards.

Some things that happen in this world deserve to be punched right in the nose with the ripest bit of Anglo-Saxon we can put into print.

Not by me though. I am a good guy.

 

 

Indigo, a history lesson using poetry…

indigo-bg

If I was to choose a favourite word, I might have chosen this one; Indigo. I have written about this before (here) when I said this;

I think it reminds me of something half remembered from primary school- a reading set of books that only the keen readers ever progressed to taking home.

Or an ink pen whose innards bled blue blood all over my fingers.

It describes colour, distance, depth. It contains a promise of space beyond space- like a night sky.

Gregory of Nyssia, a 4th Century mystic, likened the move towards God as to a journey into holydarkness. He suggested that the deeper and further we go, the more darkness we find in the light. For him, God is unknowable- a dark purple mystery, drawing us on- calling us to explore further and further…

Indigo.

In we go.

Then I discover something I did not know about indigo; and that is that like sugar, tobacco, mahogany and many other exotic luxuries that we have come to believe should be ours almost by right, indigo has had a terrible cost.

See for yourself;

 

Indigo

BY CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI

Benegal, 1779-1859

The fields flame with it, endless, blue
as cobra poison. It has entered our blood
and pulses up our veins
like night. There is no other color.
The planter’s whip
splits open the flesh of our faces,
a blue liquid light trickles
through the fingers. Blue dyes the lungs
when we breathe. Only the obstinate eyes
 
refuse to forget where once the rice
parted the earth’s moist skin
and pushed up reed by reed,
green, then rippled gold
like the Arhiyal’s waves. Stitched
into our eyelids, the broken dark,
the torches of the planter’s men, fire
walling like a tidal wave
over our huts, ripe charred grain
that smelled like flesh. And the wind
screaming in the voices of women
dragged to the plantation,
feet, hair, torn breasts.
 
In the worksheds, we dip our hands,
their violent forever blue,
in the dye, pack it in great embossed chests
for the East India Company.
Our ankles gleam thin blue from the chains.
After that night
many of the women killed themselves.
Drowning was the easiest.
Sometimes the Arhiyal gave us back
the naked, swollen bodies, the faces
eaten by fish. We hold on
 
to red, the color of their saris,
the marriage mark on their foreheads,
we hold it carefully inside
our blue skulls, like a man
in the cold Paush night
holds in his cupped palms a spark,
its welcome scorch,
feeds it his foggy breath till he can set it down
in the right place,
to blaze up and burst
like the hot heart of a star
over the whole horizon,
a burning so beautiful you want it
to never end.
 
 
Note
Paush: name of a winter month in the Bengali calendar
The planting of indigo was forced on the farmers of Bengal, India, by the British, who   exported it as a cash crop for almost a hundred years until the peasant uprising of I860, when the plantations were destroyed.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, “Indigo,” from Leaving Yuba City: Selected Poems (New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1997).