Saturday, January 22, 2022

Ravenswood Notes: Five Years North

     Poetry is the fire axe behind glass, the bottle of water in your backpack, the thing you reach for when you need to reach for something, and I was glad to see Caren Jeskey bookend her Saturday essay with a pair of powerful poems.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

     Skeins of unwoven yarn and instruments unplayed pepper the corners and gather dust on the shelves of our pandemic homes. After a few months of learning chords, a guitar hangs unplayed behind a friend as we Zoom. She guiltily explains that she stopped playing after a few months of lessons. Others mention undone projects that fizzled out. Unused packets of bread making yeast are being frantically given away in neighborhood sharing groups before they expire. Indoor gardeners are pawning off a preponderance of aloe pups and clippings from prolific Wandering Dudes.
     Folks are afraid to tell their friends, when asked, “I laid in bed and watched Netflix for four hours,” or “I scrolled Facebook for most of the morning," or “I ate three bowls of cereal and went to sleep.” However, they will proudly share if they spent a couple hours reading an actual book or another “worthy” endeavor. They feel ashamed at their lack of productivity and as though are being scrutinized by social media or another eye in the sky at all times, won’t often share about the amount of time spent vegging out or simply resting.
     I heard on NPR the other day that during the Great Depression, Americans were urged to take up hobbies. This was partly classist. It’s hard to take up a hobby when waiting in breadlines and coming home to hungry babies, not to mention little to no means for crafting, cooking, or musical supplies.
     Hobbies are a good idea though. Not the kind you spend too much money on and never touch again after the initial good intentions and energy. Baby steps are fine too. A hobby can be cloud gazing. Counting the different kinds of mullions you see on a brisk winter walk, on a bus or train, or in the passenger’s seat of a car. Meditating. Just stopping.
     After days of isolation mostly indoors save the occasional walk, due to an avalanche of work and not enough sleep, I was overjoyed that I had to drive to Wilmette for an errand on Thursday. I took Sheridan Road and ogled the frozen white water at the bend by Calvary Cemetery. I kept within the 15-25 mph speed limit past stately houses and patches of lakefront, and felt soothed. When stressors tried to creep back in, the freedom of driving on a sunny day brought me to the perfect moment.
     I curved around the magnificent form of the Baha'
i Temple and by then all of my mental clutter was gone. It was just me, my clean car—since we had stopped for a $3 wash—and a gorgeous 16 degree day, driver’s window down for some real sun rays. On the way back I stopped and contemplated the brilliant white iced-over lake from the deck of the Lighthouse Beach.
     We have learned that stressors of our world community can become a formless, faceless behemoth. Only the very privileged are less scathed by what’s happening down on the ground. The rental market is out of control. Everyone seems to have COVID (thank goodness, not me, but I can’t count the people in my life who do). Medical staff are quitting in droves and have been completely traumatized. Folks still don’t get it and continue to take risks. I get it, but it seems to speak to delusion, diagnosable folie à deux.
     On the up side, this could be a world war, and it’s not, even if it feels that way sometimes.
     I believe that finding oneself in this mess is the key. If we can do that, we can live more mindfully. We can accept our limitations and use our power to affect the changes that we can. I long for a world movement of refining our senses. Instead, I fear that the collective nightmare of this pandemic will end with us being in worse shape that we were before.
     This week I’ve had great challenges that might have completely robbed me of my peace in the past. What saved me was knowing that my inner partner was always there for me. She had my back. She reminded me that the only way out of a mess is to clear the clutter.
     On Wednesday night I took the time to watch a documentary film Five Years North about the journey of a young man named Luis. I knew I had to make this small effort (rather than my guilty pleasure Hulu show that makes me laugh my butt off) to remind me that the world is full of people who have much, much less than I do and I have to remember that in order to stay grateful for all I do have. To appreciate my life and my loved ones now. This is not a dress rehearsal.
     Luis was sixteen when he took the harrowing journey from his small Mayan village in Guatemala to New York City. He spent the next several years working from before dawn until well after dusk to pay his smugglers so that his family in Guatemala would not lose their home. It was more than $20,000. Then he stayed so that he could continue sending money home so his sisters could go to school. One washed dish at a time. He then became a line cook and moved up to being a chef. He may have prepared a meal for me or you one day when traveling was safe.
     Yes, the world is overpopulated. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to care for others.
     What is the purpose of being on this earth? The one good thing this pandemic has done for many of us is to reset and turn back to the simplest things in life. From a place of calm grounding we can move mountains if we try.
     While Ms. Plath in the words below does not seem to see her worth, I feel she cuts to the quick of the starkness of life. And death.

Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
            —Sylvia Plath


  1. You described perfectly what most likely is going through many people’s minds and lives.
    Enjoyed the first poem.
    Didn’t get the second.

    1. Thanks Les! When I read the Plath piece I thought about the brightness of red poppies on a fall day, as a woman in an ambulance passing by might be dying, her heart as red as a flower. Poppies are a love gift, unasked for- as all things in nature. The carbon monoxide part, to me, conjured up images of a pale man with sad or dull eyes hiding under the rims of their hats. Perhaps the dying woman's husband choked by the fumes of the ambulance? Then she seems to ask why she deserves to live while late (aka dying) mouths cry open. Then again back to the beauty of nature in a forest of frost, a dawn of cornflowers. Melancholy, yet simply noting the juxtaposition of life and inevitable death.

      Here's another interpretation:

      I like to read poems aloud, slowly, multiple times. This seems to allow pictures to emerge, which I feel is the purpose of poetry.

    2. As a retired paramedic, I focused on the woman in the ambulance whose heart bloomed through her coat. I never could conjure an image so I was stuck there.
      You and Plath have interesting and credible interpretations.
      Thank you.

  2. The Wandering Jew is a mythical immortal man whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. In the original legend, a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming. Sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, while sometimes he is the doorman at the estate of Pontius Pilate. [Wikipedia]

    A second definition? A person who "never settles down."

    The third...and most well-known? "A tender trailing tradescantia, typically having striped leaves which are suffused with purple."

    So when did the commonly-used name for the plant become politiclly incorrect? Who changed it to "Wandering Dude"...and why?

    I guess this boychik is really out-of-touch these days, what with being a geezer and all.

    I had them for many years, originating from a single cutting, in various apartments. it was during the time (70s and 80s) when hanging plants were the big thing in home decorating. Moved them from location to location and they thrived. They seemed impossible to kill. But my first wife somehow managed to do them in. I think they died of thirst, or starvation, or maybe both.

    1. Thank you for that history! A few Jewish neighbors and friends have asked me to stop calling them Wandering Jews, and so I have complied.

      As far as keeping them alive, I learned the hard way that they might rot if you water the root directly, but the soil likes to be moist & the leaves misted.

      As far as the why for the name change, I found this: "But further research revealed ‘Wandering Jew’ to be connected to an apocryphal myth, one that has been used to justify anti-Semitism since at least the 13th century."

    2. I found the same thing, Caren, but I've never heard of that outfit before. They, too, said that Jewish people had also asked them to stop calling the plant by the old name. Okay, whatever. I never heard the new name, until you used it. I learn so much from EGD. It's my window to the world.

      When my first wife didn't water our green-and-purple hanging plants, they began turning brown and dying off, so that was when I watered the hell out of them, and practically drowned them. I suppose they rotted away.

      My present wife also had what she called a "brown thumb"...and she killed off all her houseplants, same as my first wife did. So we've had no greenery in our house for the last three decades. I don't think big hanging plants are as popular as they used to be. People are now too busy, and don't want the extra work. Sad, because plants (like cats) make a house feel more like a home. But maybe they were just another passing fad.

  3. Poppies will sometimes bloom twice a year when cared for properly. This can occur all the way into fall.


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