Winter Solstice Greetings

Here in my neighborhood north of Seattle, Washington, we have had our second snowfall of the year—about three inches yesterday and the evening before. Today, it’s 27 degrees (low of 19!) and the sun is shining. Outside my window: glittering white.

On December 1st, despite slush and ice, I set out for a long afternoon walk, and I slipped on a patch of ice, fell hard, and cracked the head of my left radius bone, right up there in my elbow. I was in a fiberglass splint—looked like and felt like a big ol’ cast—for 7 days. The initial evaluation suggested the crack went all the way through. I couldn’t use my arm, I couldn’t get it wet, couldn’t practice my Christmas songs on the piano, couldn’t wear my Christmas sweaters. I couldn’t type! It took me four or five days just to figure out how to wear clothes and leave the house.

I saw the orthopedic surgeon on day seven, expecting to be told I’d need surgery. Instead, he said the crack was partial, and “No surgery,” plus—amazing grace—no cast! In his opinion the crack would heal just fine if I didn’t lift, push, or pull with my left arm, or fall down again. He showed me how a single week of having the arm in the splint had weakened my grip, and compromised my ability to move my wrist or do simple things like touch my head. (Try flossing your teeth when you have only one arm.) “That’s not from the break; that’s from having your arm immobilized. If you wear a cast for six or eight weeks, you’ll need physical therapy for a year!”

He said I could do “light kitchen work” and—more important—“you can type.”

I admit to having entirely lost my Christmas spirit. I’m only now getting it back. Partially.

Nonetheless, over the last few weeks I have been co-leader of an Advent study at my church. I committed to it in October, after all, and my primary role in the group is merely to bring poems. Easy peasy. I’ve collected both traditional Advent poems by well-known Christian writers such as Madeleine L’Engle and Oscar Romero, and poems that might not spring to mind when we’re talking about Bethlehem, gentle donkeys, shepherds guarding their flocks by night, and the birth of a savior in a stable.

Not that such poems can’t be wonderful. (Of course they are.) I guess what I’ve been after is to broaden our context, to make us see the Advent season in the light of our own lives.

Advent first began in the 4th century as a period of penance for new converts. It didn’t lead to December 25, like an Advent calendar with little chocolates inside, but to Epiphany (January 6). Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “arrival” or “coming,” and from the Greek, parousia, which is also translated as “presence,” especially, “presence after absence” (or second coming). Back then, Advent was sometimes referred to as “the Lent of St. Martin’s” (and began on St. Martin’s day, November 11). Also, it was considered heretical to associate the Christian season too heavily with the winter solstice—too pagan. Sorry, but for me that’s exactly what’s evoked, and why I was drawn toward wanting to take part in the class. Well, light and an adventure.

I’ve made some surprising discoveries. In the book my co-leader assigned, Jill Duffield’s Advent in Plain Sight: A Devotion through Ten Objects, the first object is “gates.” I love that—I did a little digging and learned that the word “gate” appears 418 times in the King James Bible. In my introduction to the poems, I talked about how a gate can seem to be a barrier, but it’s really an invitation. A gate marks a path to be followed.

Poems, too, are gates. In my college teaching career I often encountered students who hated poetry. They saw a poem as a gate with a “no trespassing” sign hanging on it. But isn’t a poem, like a gate, an invitation? Open this. Walk through. See the world the way I see it. The first poem I brought was Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness,” and the study group climbed onto the bus with me. “There’s communion here,” one participant gleefully noted. And another: “it’s a story of the good Samaritan!”

I found this short poem by Richard Bauckham on an Advent website, The Adventus Project. Details such as keeping vigil, a turn of the tide, and the cattle-shed roof lend it an Advent gloss, yet it’s multi-valent. A Druidic heart could be happy here. Bauckham is a theologian and poet who lives in Great Britain, but he could be my neighbor here in the Pacific Northwest in my house in the woods.

First Light

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.

Richard Bauckham

https://richardbauckham.co.uk

My apologies for a somewhat wobbly, all-over-the place post. (Consider that I was told I wouldn’t be able to type for 6 weeks!)

Sunday evening at 11:00 my dog desperately needed a walk, so, despite the falling snow, we went out (with every caution for secure footing), and one reward was an owl hooting continuously from the snowy woods. No wonder my dog was restless. No wonder I love Bauckham’s poem: “We have kept vigil with owls.” Me, too.

It’s a gorgeous time of year, when you’re not all broken and needing a nap and a cookie (did you know that when you have a broken bone your body burns 20-30% more calories? Someone told me so—maybe just indulging my natural inclination).

When I first began gathering poems for the Advent class, I had a notion that the study participants would want to write with me. That didn’t happen (with the addition of a co-leader and the book, it became more conventional, which is fine), but it hasn’t kept me from writing. Early on, I came across a poem by Laura Walker titled “Psalm 100” (follow the link to read it for yourself). It made me open my Bible and reread Psalm 100. And then I wrote my own poem. Is it an Advent poem? Not really, unless you see it—like Bauckham’s poem—in a tradition of praise.

So, for solstice, here’s my poem in praise of light. From here on out, each day enjoy those extra few seconds of daylight.

Morning at Glen Cove

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
–Psalm 100, NIV

After a night of wind the cove sings.
Under cold water, a skein of herring,

above, a skein of glaucous-
winged gulls. Scraw of bald eagle

and great blue heron, sky
brimming, unfurled. In the early morning half-dark

sea lions bark, hoarse with so much praise.
Sunrise offers a kingfisher

chittering down the pink light.

Bethany Reid / 2022

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age

I cannot say enough about this amazing book by my good friend and long-time co-conspirator in all things creative, Priscilla Long. Watching Priscilla produce this book, reading drafts, devouring a number of her sources, has been a game-changer for how I think about aging, and how I want to behave in my next chapter.

To read the Northwest Prime Time review, follow this link: https://northwestprimetime.com/news/2022/nov/08/dancing-muse-old-age/

And, most important, sign up to attend the virtual book launch here:

There will be a virtual book launch at Elliott Bay Books November 15 at 6:00 PM: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/priscilla-long-dancing-with-the-muse-in-old-age-with-bethany-reid-tickets-429907824877

You can order the book through our sponsor, Elliott Bay Books, your local independent bookstore, or anywhere books are sold.

The Morning Write

Because a friend asked me to tell her about my morning journal habit, I’ve been thinking about what exactly it is that I do.

Complain. List things-to-do. List things done. Check off things done. Kvetch. Write letters to myself (Dear Wise Self: …). Record dreams. Groan. Write metaphors. List words (windy words, horse words, words pertaining to knots, synonyms for complain). Transcribe passages from books I’m reading. List titles and authors of books I have read (I keep this on an index page). Transcribe poems. Scribble new poems, or baldly terrible lines that might become new poems. Moan. List mean thoughts. List uplifting thoughts. Whine.

I have kept a journal since I was a teenager. There were earlier abortive attempts, for instance, a Christmas-gift diary with a key when I was eleven or so. Then, in 10th grade, Miss Caughey (pronounced Coy) assigned her students to keep a journal. We may have been reading Anne Frank.

I can still picture the image on my notebook (and tried but didn’t find it online). It was sort of a tree, sort of a kaleidoscopic blot with a yellow background. Miss Caughey required that we turn in our journal once a month. She would sometimes write a note to me, responding to a passage, but rarely. She taught five or six sections of English every day. I was confident that what I confided to the journal was more private than not.

My journals are not publishable, not earth-shattering, not gravity-defying. They are a hodge-podge, a mess. I sometimes remind myself that complaining in my journal is counter-productive, and that I should write what I want, not what I don’t want.

I used to write in spiral-bound notebooks, cheap ones, but in 2001 I bought my first Lee Valley journal, and I have filled 35 of them. Just this morning, I began the 36th, the last one I have on hand. I checked the online catalog and though they used to cost a reasonable $18.95, they are now priced $31.90. All paper supplies have gone up lately, my friend reminded me. These are handsome books with lined pages, 400 pages, plus index pages.The quality of their paper allows for double-sided writing (cheaper notebooks, not so much), so they are probably still worth it.

From the first page of my 2001 notebook:

I feel as though I am breaking and entering. I’ve resisted keeping my journal in a beautiful book — it demands too much. That I not scribble. That I avoid nonsense. That I write beautifully. This book will have to accept whatever I lay down, just as the cheap notebooks have. So I am writing in this book.

In this notebook I also found a dream about a friend who had died one year earlier, and this line:

I can believe that he, like George Harrison, was a spirit with a body on loan. Even so, I’d like him to CALL me.

I also found a two-page entry about trying to force one of my daughters to clean up a mess she had willfully made. It did not work out as I wished, and I ended up saying terrible things to her. (She was ten.) When I finally returned to her and apologized for losing it, she said, “Apology not accepted!” and stamped off to her room. (My husband cleaned up the mess.) Nineteen years later, she is still messy, by the way. Recently when I was helping her do some cleaning, she said, “If you had made us do chores, I would have better habits now.” Should I share this entry with her? (Probably not.)

At the end of the two pages, I reached an insight: my daughter was like the balky little mare I had when I was fifteen. One option (I wrote), was to let her have her head.

On 20 March, 2002, I wrote:

The washing machine, full of clothes and water, is broken, frozen, stuck, kaput. Damn!

And I wrote:

So I am writing in this notebook, 15 minutes each day in the goal.  “Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer.”

A Little Something to Get You Writing

One of my daughters is moving home temporarily, and cleaning out the bottom story of our house — which includes a mother-in-law kitchen we’ve never really used — has necessitated another attempt to reduce the amount of paper I’ve stored in bins and boxes. I threw away a bunch of old literature assignments, and I found a notebook I kept when Writing Lab was first launched.

Our writing group has a couple of new or newish members, so I thought I’d replicate the first meeting, at which several of us (including me) did not yet have our textbook, Susan Tiberghien‘s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft (Marlowe & Company, 2007).

Our first exercise that day was from Heather Sellers’Page after Page:

  1. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, LIST 10 THINGS YOU DID YESTERDAY.
  2. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (that’s Sellers’s dictum; it’s okay with me if you switch to cursive at this point), WRITE FOR 10 MINUTES (set a timer!) ABOUT ONE ITEM ON YOUR LIST.
  3. We then talked about what it felt like to write in all caps, and agreed that writing in caps slowed us down, and felt a little like drawing the letters. We had to think more, and some people felt frustrated by that. (Note, years later, I did this exercise with a class that included a couple of engineers — they said they always wrote in all caps, and didn’t get the point of it at all.)
  4. Obviously, you can keep at this, tackling each item on the list by turn, or letting one insight or detail from the first free write lead you to a new exploration.

The next exercise was from Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story:

  1. On the left hand side of a blank page, write the numbers 1-30 (all the way down the side).
  2. Beside number 1, write I AM BORN.
  3. Now fill in the title chapters for the rest of your life story.
  4. After doing this…though we ran out of time and talked about it instead…the next step is to choose one chapter and break it into 30 more chapters — or, failing that —  people-places-things that the chapter could, conceivably, include.

(I wish I could recover all the nuances of our conversation about this exercise — it was rich!)

I recommended typing up the exercises to prod them into becoming something more (always works for me). Before adjourning, we agreed to meet weekly, and I asked everyone to read Tiberghien’s first chapter, “Journal Writing,” for the following week.

“In the degree that we remember and retell our stories and create new ones we become the authors, the authorities of our own lives.” –Sam Keen