Monday, October 27, 2008

Into the Gap...

The Bluebirds of Gappiness showed up again on Saturday. This time, it was a mated pair, flitting between milkweed stalks and fenceposts by sudden, urgent turns. I wonder how much longer these messengers will remain before they start their annual migration, leaving Wise Old Raven behind as official mystic courier of the Frozen North. Perhaps they'll make the switch at Samhainn, (pronounced "sow-when"), which literally means, "Summer's end."

It's almost time... which, as a person with so-called A.D.D., is a state of being with which I'm most familiar. (I prefer to think of myself as "multifocal," since it's not a lack of attention, but non-singular attention, that best describes my style of engagement.) One book about A.D.D. describes the afflicted as "hunters in a farmer's world." While it's true that hunters spend a lot of time scanning their horizons, I don't buy this idea either. I've never met a farmer who DIDN'T have to keep their minds on a hundred things at once.

The more I study my Celtic roots, the less my so-called disability distresses me. Celts, it seems, have always understood the complex and flexible nature of time. Celtic philosophers and theologians have long recognized time as an embroidered tapestry, a mesh of the interwoven, the knotted, and the wrapped. An old Gaelic hymn to the Christ Child includes the declaration that, "although You are not yet born, people are praising the great things you've already done." The Divine Child is both "already" and "not yet." This speaks deeply to me. It describes my state of being, much of the time. It also reminds me that, as a Chronos-bound creature, I have my work cut out for me. I know, full well, that I can't afford to stop TRYING to do things "on time." I will never stop struggling to do business promptly and show up prior to the official start-time of shifts, classes, and meetings. This may never be an arena of particular personal grace.

Yet Grace does come--and it comes, most often, when it's "About Time." It is when I am most awkward, most unsure, and most open that the Holy Spirit shimmers and flutters and blazes into view. Poet Ted Loder calls this, "teetering on the edge of a maybe." I perch on the edge of self-doubt, which strangely doubles as the edge of cosmic acceptance. Grace unfolds in those awkward spaces between naughts and oughts. I am challenged, continually, to live more fully and step more willingly into the gaps.

And now it is Almost Time for one of my favorite Gaps of all: Samhainn, the Celtic New Year. Like Christmas and Fat Tuesday, this has long been celebrated as a "time beyond time" when the shackles of society are shaken off in favor of wildness. Yes, there's a sinister side--tricks can be cruel and damage may be done--but the essence of this time is a holy one. Where and when else, in our fast-paced, artificially brightened lives, are we given permission to see and acknowledge the dark?

Like the Jewish people and many other ancient agricultural societies, the Celts recognized darkness as the necessary time/place for all beginnings. Each new day begins at sundown. The year starts when the cold creeps in, the light wanes and the hard labours of harvest come to an end. It's a welcome respite, a seasonal sabbath. Seeds rest in the soil, new life sleeps in the dark womb, and all wise people take time to laugh and rest, doing the crucial work of re-creation, singing and sharing tales among deep shadows and flickering light.

Among the shadows: not an easy place to be. Yet our shadows demand attention, as our brightness continually invents them. Samhainn may wear the disguise of No-Man's Land, but what it really offers is Common Ground, a place for honest hopes and unreasonable fears to meet. Here is one meeting I will not miss. Here is one lesson for which I dare not show up late. (Hurry! Finish the wiring in our new house, so we can turn off all the lights!) Now is the time to step into the darkness, dance and wrestle with the darkness, shake the grief loose from my bones, mourn for all things returned to earth, and dream of new life that shall spring.

Happy New Year! May this "Almost Time" become a celebration. May we dance and weep around the bonfires of loss, feast on the richness of our memories, and--in dreams--step into the future's blessed embrace.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

If it's nae Scottish...


Maine is the landing-place of my immigrant ancestors. My journey here has echoed theirs, in a way, as my settlement here came at the end of a month-long pilgrimage through Scotland's Highlands & Islands, a graduation gift from Celtophile friends. (That was the only time I've ever been to Scotland, but it felt eerily like home. I flew into Glasgow, took the train north, and blythely wandered from one island to the next, taking Gaelic language and music courses along the way.)

Although I will always be "from away," as the locals say, this place has drawn me back and caused me to put down roots. As my circle of Maine friends has grown, so has my delight in the state's strong Celtic connections. I discovered that Cornish fishermen were among the first European settlers in the early 1600s. I found place names like "Edinburg" and "Belfast" and "Wales." Thanks to a long line of Celtic travelers and settlers, Celtic concepts and ideas permeate the fabric of our state's culture and history. Scots words like "muckle" remain in regular usage, though the meaning has shifted. Knowing these things, and knowing my own family's history of immigration from the Scottish port of Ayr to the Maine town of Livermore Falls, I found myself moved to write. My mother's forebears--Border Reivers, rebels and patriots both--demanded a broadside ballad or a song in praise of the homeland. My father's forebears sternly recalled their heredity as brieves or law-keepers. Their ghosts called for justice, for memory's long reach.

English words didn't suit the task. I chose to write in Scots--which felt strangely comfortable, after listening to Scottish folk music and reading Scottish literature for years. Poet David Whyte once described the task thusly: "poetry is the art of saying something to yourself that you find it impossible to go back upon." I read and re-read my work to make sure it fit Whyte's description...and it did. But then I decided to submit it to a poetry contest--the only Scots-language poetry contest of which I knew, a contest that happened to be in, well, SCOTLAND.

Now the poem had to meet a more serious standard. There would be hours of fact-checking before I could take the bold and brazen step of sending the poor shivering little thing to its judgment and probable death. I searched Scots language websites, flipped back and forth through phrasebooks and dictionaries, and feshed michtily ower whether Ah'd done it richt. Finally, I sent the poem off by e-mail, expecting it to be quietly engulfed by, and lost among, the hundreds of other contest entries. It was enough to feel that I'd done something to honor my ancestors, and that I'd put great effort into doing it as well as possible with the tools I had at hand.

Here's the poem I wrote, with a caveat that you may need a good Scots dictionary nearby in order to understand it!

Screevins Frae a Bothy in Maine

Oot ayont Lewis, ayont the last lintin wing-tip
o skirlin seabirds, careenin aff craigs
whaur dings doon the ruddy Western sun,
Oot ayont strath an glen, the Border’s rollin hills,
Cap & Goon Toons & kenspeckle kirkyairds,
(Care-wairn & keekin thro lum-reek,
ash o anthracite, orange pips an chippie-wraps),

Oot ayont Ayr, anely-kent port o farin
For forebears kythed, aye, & aince mair mislaid:
(Anither muddle amang the hantle
O “Mester Robert Morrisons” on the leet…)
West o Edin(burgh), but East o the wind-
scourit Nebraska plains, the Idaho cattle-range,
an Puget Sound’s ain/ither Western Isles,
(Grossets in the kailyairds, rhodies on the braes),
Jiggin frae ane tae the neist, us unsettled settlers,
greetin gaberlunzies & sillerless sangsters seekin
Oor ain bit land:

Here, we upbigg the noo, we wabbit crofters,
Gowkin an pawky by turns,
Gang at it, ettlin, same as ilka Scot, dreyin oor ain weird on the wrang shore,
Jalousin some Grait Trowth
ayont the lint-dross, stanes an slaistered muck o History…
Kythin oor native place wis nivir wrestit, an
Kythin oor anely hame’s aye here:
The far-flung, sky-boundit ruim
O the hale blessit yirth.

--copyright MaineCelt
January 4th, 2008

Earlier this week, an e-mail came from a woman who works at the Glasgow Herald newspaper. Aye, that's Glasgow, Scotland, not just another funny Maine place-name. The poem placed second in their international contest, the first overseas entry to ever win a prize. "Astounded" doesn't begin to describe my response. There are a hantle of Scots words that suit my feelings better, but I'd start with our household favorite, "Gobsmacked."

The poem will be read aloud at a celebratory event in Scotland in November. Although I heartily wish I could attend in person, I don't plan to spend my winnings on a ticket to Scotland--it would go against certain ancestral traditions of frugality, as well as our tightly-controlled farm budget. Instead, I plan to put the prize towards the purchase of a decent laptop computer with the hope that good tools and much practice will produce a better--and more frequent--writer!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bluebird of...?

Bluebirds are a local indicator species. A bluebird sighting is a moment of unfettered joy, a subtle sign of abundance, a flashing blue blaze of hope. They're supposed to signal some level of health in their habitat, and their increasing rarity makes each appearance feel more like a sign of special grace...

But our bluebirds are different.

The first sighting was innocent enough. My OFJ (Off-farm job)was in a local middle school, providing academic and therapeutic support to kids with Autism. I'd been bringing in pictures of my farm animals to share with the kids. Uploaded to the classroom computers, the images could be used during speech therapy sessions, social games and communication exercises. Looking through the digital farm album became one student's preferred "reward choice." A student prone to violent outbursts could sometimes be helped to calm himself by putting on soft music and watching the images on "slideshow" mode. The results were so encouraging that I took to wandering the farmstead and woods, camera in hand, on a quest for images to excite, motivate, and inspire. That was how I came to discover our bluebirds the first time--not just one, but a courting pair, flitting from bare branch to bare branch at the edge of the pasture on a grey April day. I was thrilled to see them and profoundly moved by the gift of their presence. I was amazed that they chose to show themselves when I had a camera along.

I snapped several pictures of the birds, their vibrant blue bodies almost startling against the landscape of hushed browns and greys. The next day, I brought my digital camera to work with me and happily shared my story of discovery. It was one of my last moments of unrestrained enjoyment and enthusiasm at that job, as one student's behavior issues and a supervisor's health issues combined to make the rest of the school year pretty painful and miserable for our entire classroom. I left that job at the school year's end, ready for a break from such intensive caregiving. I thought about work environments that might be happier, but I didn't think much about bluebirds.

The next time I saw a bluebird, we were in the midst of butchering chickens. The bold little fellow perched on a pasture fence rail and watched us work. He seemed undisturbed by the avian carnage around him--the curling steam above the scalding pot, the bustling field kitchen with its sharp knives and scattered feathers, the plucked birds cooling in the ice-water bins--and merely cocked his head curiously now and then. He sang a few experimental notes: "Cheer, cheerful..." and watched us perform our grisly work. I felt the first hint of a suspicion that "happiness" was not exactly this particular bird's mission.

The next time a flash of blue caught my eye, I was gathering some of the last produce of the season. It was early October and the farm was newly quiet, as six of our eight pigs had been carted off to the butcher two days before. As I culled a few hen-pecked tomatoes and inspected the frost-damaged bean leaves, I heard a whirring of wings and looked towards the pasture. Not one or two or even three, but four male bluebirds were wheeling and careening through the air in an epic territorial battle. The birds swept low, fluttered in place, and fiercely lunged at each other by turns. I watched until their battle moved beyond the range of my vision. Later, it occurred to me that these birds had appeared on the pigs' scheduled date of butchering. I felt...slightly unnerved.

Yesterday morning, I saw them again: a male and two females this time, squabbling over rights to the last laden cluster of elderberries. The elderberry bush, already bent low with the weight of its fruit, was bobbing and waving from the birds' aggressive attentions. I slowly inched backwards and snuck inside to grab my camera, thinking of nothing but beauty and novelty. A half-hour later, I hopped in my car and went off to my "New Ventures" class, a grueling (but free!) 12-week course for aspiring women entrepreneurs. Back on the farm, the lads worked on our woodshop-to-cottage conversion project while I sat in a sterile classroom discussing cash-flow projections.

I was glad when the time finally came to head home. I pulled into the driveway, walked across the grass and up the weathered wood steps...and found a massive, jagged gap where the double-door threshold used to be. Little heaps of shattered, rotten wood were strewn across the deck, along with the splintered remains of the threshold. How we had avoided a fall, a broken leg, or anything more serious in all our trips across that threshold was beyond imagining--especially in the last few months as we hauled heavy materials, ladders and equipment across it. I stared, dumbfounded, at the uneven, empty span...and then I remembered the bluebirds.

I understand it now. Some places are blessed with birds of happiness. Some farms are hit with twisters and perhaps those farmers need such birds to remind them to hope, to lift their heavy hearts and take their thoughts, winging, over the rainbow. Here in New England, our hazards are neither as immediate nor as dramatic. Here, we cope instead with the slow grind of inclement weather and the constant frustration of infertile soil. We don't need to be surprised by cheer; we need to be reminded that things can change, lives can transform, struggles can end.

Our bluebirds appear to be harbingers -- not of doom, but of transition. It is a strange sort of visitation, but not an unwelcome one. We need such reminders. We need to be shaken out of our sad and stubborn ruts by a sudden blaze of of blue.
There is wisdom at the fringes. There always has been, whether or not it's accepted by those at society's comfortable center. Annie Dillard says that the world's prophets and mystics are those who dare to "go into the gaps..."

Here at Tir na nOg, we are blessed by the Bluebird of Gappiness.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

On The Fence

Why should I turn off the electric fence? It'll only take a few minutes...

Fifteen minutes later, I was straddling the wires with one wellie-boot on firm turf and the other sinking, slipping into the dark, stinking mass of pig-churned muck. Three days of rain had transformed a slightly overgrazed pig-run into a thick and malodorous mess. The soil, composed mostly of clay, had been churned by our six well-grown pigs to a consistency so perfect it could make a potter weep with joy--except for the smell.

Normally, we pride ourselves on the clean, fresh scent of our piggery. Given the opportunity, these wise creatures will confine their droppings to one small area and keep the rest of their run quite clean. With good air movement, fresh food, and frequent fence reconfiguration, we raise some mighty pure pigs--with the added bonus of cheap entertainment each time the pigs move to fresh ground, turning up new turf with eager snorts and soil-covered snouts.

They are amazing little landscape workers, these pigs. So it seemed like a sensible thing to set their Summer stomping grounds in the soft, damp ground at the orchard's edge where a future garden might go. It was great for the first few months. We moved the fence every few weeks and the little porkers trotted dutifully along, chomping down the weeds and the brush. But then came the Summer rains. Down into the muck sunk their so-called "portable" house, and we couldn't move them as often as planned. We compromised by simply enlarging their pen instead of relocating it altogether. They kept to the newer ground, for the most part, and all seemed to be working well-- until their Day of Destiny.

With so many hunters in Maine, it's hard to find a good butcher this time of year. The only date we could get was in early October. We had hoped to get a few more weeks of growth for our pigs, all of which are promised to local customers. The only other dates available were in December...and the thought of managing six large, well-muscled animals in ice and snow just didn't seem that appealing. It would be different if we had a barn and a way to keep their water from freezing, but we don't, so-- early October seemed like a good time to let them go.

We used a few spare poles and some extra fencing wire to make an "annex" between the piggery and the road. With a large bag of week-old loaves from a local artisanal bakery, we easily lured five of the six pigs into the annex. The sixth pig quietly stayed behind. She was the "omega pig," the most-bullied and least well-fed of the bunch, always crowded out at the feeding trough, perpetually teased and shoved by the other pigs at play. The sudden loss of her companions was, in her piggy opinion, no loss at all. She happily trotted away into the peaceful regions of the old pen, entirely unimpressed with the offer of bread.

Time was short. My farm-partner had to leave for a meeting and the butcher was due to arrive in less than an hour. I uttered words no THINKING pig farmer should ever utter: "Oh, you go ahead. I'm sure I can get this pig over there by myself."

You can guess how the situation played out--and how the pig played hard-to-get, daintily trotting through deep clay muck that grabbed and sucked at my big green rubber boots. And I--who had always laughed at stories of other farmers foolish enough to straddle an electric fence--well, now I was one of those very fools.

Now, with less than a month left 'til Election Day, there are a whole lot of other fools filling the air with malodorous muck... Some say we have to cut pork-barrel spending, and some say we have to focus on security and defense. As for me, straddling that hot wire with a boot stuck in the mud, I'd argue for a platform that addresses issues of offense--'cause, speaking from personal experience, OFF the FENCE is the best place to be!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Knitted Knockers

Everybody's Going Pink. The local grocery is festooned with pink ribbons, pink spatulas, pink cast-iron skillets, pink m&ms... and if they didn't trigger my deep-seated Barbie aversion, I might be lured in. The cause itself is laudable enough: Breast Cancer Awareness. But something seems terribly wrong about the grocery store's attempt at Corporate Philanthropic Activism. Maybe it has something to do with selling cancer-causing plastics to raise money for The Cure. Maybe it's just the visual clash between battling displays of Breast Cancer Pink and Halloween Black and Orange. The only pink thing I'm willing to purchase is a bit of deli ham, and even that triggers a mind-stomach tussle: the pretty pink meat would be greyish, if not for the addition of hazardous nitrates. Today, the stomach wins, but I walk past the teflon-coated pink skillets and plastic pink spatulas, ruefully shaking my head.

Elsewhere in Maine, however, there's a better movement afoot...or perhaps I should say abreast.

Chesley Flotten, owner of a knitting shop in Brunswick, Maine, has created an affordable prosthetic breast called the "knitted knocker." What began with a small local knitting circle has now spread worldwide, with groups of volunteers gleefully clicking their needles for a truly splendid cause. The devices are easy to make, comfortable to wear, (depending on the knitter's choice of fibers!) and much cheaper than the typical $500 post-surgery prosthetic. I'm not a skilled knitter myself, my lifetime output thus far being limited to two lumpy scarves and half a vest, but these folks inspire me to keep trying and learning. Knitting, like scything, is an example of low-tech brilliance I'd like to embrace--just as I'd like the chance to embrace all the fine, wise, funny, wonderful women whose lives have been cut short by cancer.

Want to learn more about Knitted Knockers? Try this! May your knitting be added to the great healing tapestry of all who work for justice and peace!

And, by the way, not all the pinkness is bad. Please take the time to check out Matthew Oliphant's "Pink for October" project. Another good thing to do in the name of The Cause? Re-read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." I miss her.