Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mama was a Rolling Crone...

Dear Mom,

Today's your 64th birthday. No, you're not losing your hair--I love the pride with which you wear your silver crown--and not much else about the song really matches, but one thing's for sure: I do still need you, now that you're 64.

I need you because we're both still raising each other, both still discovering the height and depth and breadth of our womanhood. Even though I've flown far from the small island nest of my childhood, we still are strongly linked. We are linked by our shared love and reverence for the land. We are linked by our shared linguistic silliness. We are linked by our shared hunger for beauty and our far-reaching theological curiosity.

Sometimes it's unsettling, this powerful connection. I'm not always ready to acknowledge how close we are. When I left on that plane for my first year of college in Alaska, I felt like a mustang just released from a rodeo gate, wild to bust loose from the (admittedly self-sought) burdens of The Dutiful Daughter. I longed to discover who I was apart from all others' expectations. Away in the frozen north, I spent long evenings staring up out at the snowy fields, softly illuminated by an ice-ringed moon. I wrote, sang, and--safe in my ivory tower--wept with abandon. (The freedom to sob my heart out was, oddly, my dearest new luxury after years in a five-sibling household with very thin walls.)

After the novelty wore off or the tears wore out, (I can't remember which), I lunged toward a new goal: to major in "international everything." It was a path you'd set me on, with your own voracious reading habits and deep affection for the diversity of human cultures. In letters and phone calls home, I'd relate my latest leanings and learnings. Your responses alternately impressed and irritated me; I was trying so hard to reinvent myself, trying to "compare and contrast," but you always agreed, approved, or at least understood. So much for rebellious differentiation!

As the years have unfolded, neither of us have ever managed to satiate our hunger for learning. We are both the daughters of teachers, after all. How delighted I was to watch from the sidelines (a.k.a. graduate school) as you celebrated your (mostly) empty nest by enrolling in poetry and forest stewardship classes! How much fun we still have, comparing notes from garden shows and farming workshops!

So, here I am, entirely myself, entirely my mother's daughter. You are still on the island, immersed in the business of gardening, surrounded with the fragrant fruits of your labours. You do not rest on your laurels. Your creations dazzle the senses and bedeck countless homes and businesses. They offer a benediction of beauty at rituals and events. Every year, you rework your plans, introduce something new, and push the edges of possibility. Here on this farm, I pay homage (momage?) as I echo your movements, sorting seeds and playing in the dirt.

Thank you, Mother. Thank you for your boldness, your wit, your spirit, and your stubborn dedication to being Truly Yourself. I still look to your wisdom and your witness. I still need you, now that you're sixty-four, and I am profoundly thankful for the healthy choices you've made to ensure you'll be around for many years to come. Although I suspect no child can have too many mothers,(biological, spiritual, and otherwise), you are still my Best Mama. Happy Birthday!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fifteenth Night at the Ceilidh Palace

...and a glorious time was had by all.

Not to be confused with Caesars Palace (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him), the Ceilidh Palace is the long-awaited addition to the home of our dear friends, F. and J. (For those still unfamiliar with the term, a ceilidh [pronounced "KAY-lee"] is a sort of musical pot-luck, where the entertainment tends toward the home-grown, free-range and organic.)

These two extraordinary musicians had long dreamed of building a splendid space for bardic gatherings. They poured the foundation years ago, but challenges all-too-common to the life of working artists made their plans go aft a-gley. This past year, though, they finally tackled the task's completion. We compared construction notes along the way. We merrily joked with them about our "competitive housebuilding," but many's the time we shared mutual congratulations over clever requisitions and creative use of cast-offs. We encouraged each other, commiserated over the "joys" of trimwork and drywall, and blessed each other's households with gifts of food, music, and friendship.

This weekend, they inaugurated the new space during their annual Twelfth Night Ceilidh & Conflagration. (Technically, counting from Christmas, it was Fifteenth Night, but the evening was too perfect to be bothered by technicalities.) In the past, this event has consisted of a fragrant, steamy elbow-to-elbow potluck in one room and a jam-packed music session in another, with scarcely room to butter one's bread or draw a fiddle bow. Folks took turns going out to gather around the snow-banked bonfire. They braved the frigid January night not just for the spectacle of the high-leaping flames, but also for the brief freedom to swing their arms and move easily about.

This year, the bonfire got off to a very good start with two crackly-branched Christmas trees. As in past years, many guests brought something to contribute to the fire, from tiny wish-enscribed slips to multiple file-folders of burdensome paperwork. (The year I graduated from seminary, I contributed a small papier-mache effigy I dubbed "the algebra monster." I gleefully threw it into the fire, thereby declaring my symbolic freedom from long years of abject algebraic failure in a host of mathematics classrooms. I felt cleansed by the act and willingly endured the bemused and befuddled looks of those standing near me.)

Inside the house, a new hearth was blessed and another fire kindled, this time in the chilly but welcoming space of their new greatroom: the ground floor of the soaring post-and-beam Ceilidh Palace. With a canvas hung to divide the space and trap the heat, a set of old church pews set around the edges, and a fire blazing merrily in the grate, the new room was beckoning. Our hosts called everyone in for the blessing. F. played a haunting tune on his flute. The blessing was pronounced, and all drank a toast to hosts, hearth, and house. Then J. cried out, "Let the wild rumpus begin!"

First came the Scottish smallpipes, then fiddles emerged from cases along with harp, whistle, bodhran and guitar. It was tentative at first. Someone led off with "Mairi's Wedding." Then it was "Atholl Highlanders" and "Calliope House." "Lark in the Morning" took wing. Fiddles and whistles wove around each other in "Jenny Dang the Weaver." After a few more tunes, a banjo appeared in the mix. Soon an accordion squeezed in. After years of dreaming, of hoping, of saving and striving, the room came to life and thrummed with rollicking, lilting, toe-tapping, spirit-lifting music. It was a realized vision, a creative conspiracy--literally, a breathing-together--and our hearts beat together to the rhythm of this shared creation.

The evening rolled on. The musicians became more venturesome. In a household full of musical inventions and oddities, someone emerged with one of the oddest: a double-chantered Tunisian bagpipe whose maker had made no effort to disguise the material: goatskin. Attempts to play it engendered uproarious laughter as the awful little goat-bag inflated to an alarming proportion, then emitted one tentative, goose-like *honk.* Although we could all plainly hear the air escaping from the loosely-tied bag, we all cried out for more, each squeak and squawk further incapacitating us with laughter.

Finally the poor creature was rescued and laid to rest, the gasping musicians wiped away tears of hilarity, and the session revved up again. More uncommon instruments were welcomed into the session and the tunes danced from one culture into another: Irish, Scottish, Quebecois, Breton... on into the dark winter night. Outside the sparks did their own wild dance, swirling and leaping high into the clear cold air. The Ceilidh Palace, work of common folk, bedecked with its faint tracery of plaster dust, was a treasure-trove heaped high. That night, we were all rich as kings and queens.

(All text, images, and video copyright Mainecelt 2010)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Leveraged Bale Out

The cows weren't expecting this. There they stood, in the pre-dawn winter darkness, looking aimless and sleepy in the middle of the snowy field. Our boots crunched in the ice-crusted snowdrifts as we approached the top of the hill. We would have to be decisive. We would have to be swift.

But it's hard to be swift when you're moving a 4-foot-diameter 500-pound bale. No matter how deep the cleats are on your boots, it's hard to gain purchase in ice and snow. By the time I'd brushed the snow off the plastic-wrapped bale and rocked it loose from the ground, those cows--in spite of the darkness--were acting suspicious.

So, we pushed. The Piper and I leaned our shoulders into the bale, muckling on as well as we could with our gloved hands. We paused to re-plant our feet and rocked the bale some more. Finally, we leveraged that behemoth that it rolled two full revolutions down the hill. Unfortunately, it was headed exactly NOT towards the pasture gate.

Pause for another correction. The Piper and I stand at opposite "corners" of the bale and push, slowly spinning it a quarter-turn until it's aimed in the right direction. Now the cows are lined up at the gate, snorting and tossing their forelocks. Iona, queen of the cattlefold, firmly plants herself at the fore.

Cows are not good at physics. I suspect their phenomenal digestion is the primary location of their intelligence. No, perhaps that's unfair-- there's nothing in their primal cognition to help them respond when a pair of two-leggeds starts rolling a giant marshmallow down the hill towards the pasture gate before dawn. We had the right voices, at least, so we weren't intruders... and when we sliced the haywrap just before the final push through the gate, those cows caught the clean vinegarish scent that announced incoming food. Hunger and curiosity dictated their subsequent arrangement.

And so it was that, when we gave the final push, that bale rolled down the hill, through the gate, farther down the hill with gathering speed, and...smacked broadside into that poor silly heifer. She gave a surprised wee jump forward, then turned around and stared reproachfully (balefully?) at the still-wrapped bale. I hustled down into the field and pulled off the haywrap. As the tasty contents were revealed, the heifer hung back and stared a minute more--just long enough for me to pull the wrapper off and out of the way--then moved in, determined to bite her breakfast right back.

So this is how the New Year begins: with rolling bales, chores before dawn, well-fed cows, strong women, leverage and surprises. We're ready, even if the cows aren't. Bring it on!!!