"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fast Away The Old Year Passes


"And now let us welcome the new year,
full of things that have never been."
--Rainer Maria Rilke

Why is it that the world seems to spin a bit faster with every passing year? At midnight on Halloween, I crossed my fingers in hopes of some magic that would make the calendar still say "October" when I turned the page over. The golden days had flown by so quickly, I could have used another go at the entire month! But, no, November it was! And no sooner had the rush toward Thanksgiving begun than we had overtaken yet another feast day and finished off another month. Any chance that we could repeat November? None whatsoever. It was December! It was Christmas! It's almost New Year's Eve! Time not only to turn the calendar over, but to hang up a brand new one.

One great thing about our neighborhood (probably yours too) is the talent that our neighbors have for keeping up with the rapid succession of holidays, no matter how quickly each arrives and departs. What a seasonal thrill it was to drive down the block the day after Halloween and spy the houses already illuminated for Christmas -- houses which only hours before had been festooned with spider webs and scarecrows! By Thanksgiving, it was possible to take the family on an evening drive and admire the winter wonderland of wreaths and trees and reindeer that our celebratory neighbors had devised for our viewing pleasure.

You can't say we weren't ready! Does anyone really wish that the decorations went up later and came down sooner? I certainly don't! In fact, I like to make a game of predicting which lights will last the longest . . . and with so many possible conclusions to the season, it's anybody's guess: The Twelfth Day of Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, Ground Hog Day, Valentine's Day, The Ides of March. Can anyone hold out until Palm Sunday?

January is a time of new beginnings, promising many more holidays to come, but like the slowly fading decorations on our front doors, it contains a lingering echo of the month and year just past. It's good to remember that this month is named after the old two - headed, two - faced Roman god, Janus, who possessed knowledge of the future and wisdom of the past. Conveniently, he could see forward into the New Year and backward into the Old. It was customary to place his image, maybe a small statue or amulet, at the front entrance of every home where he could look outward at the passersby as well as inward toward the home dwellers.

So, indulge in a few contemplative hours this month, gazing forward and glancing back. When you take that wreath down and put those cards away, think of the words of Malcolm S. Forbes, think of your friends, think of your neighbors:

"I hate these days immediately following the holidays. Emptying the house of Christmas trees, decorations and children is like emptying a home of warmth. But at least there’s the pile of Christmas cards to be looked through again before you do whatever you do when done with them. They serve as a cheerful handshake during the uncheerful letdown after Christmas. Don't stop sending them. Christmas cards are worth all the bother. In fact, the bother’s a good part of the pleasure."
--Malcolm S. Forbes (1967)
Christmas Cards In My Kitchen

Next post will be on Thursday, January 14th, 2010!
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(British Holiday Recipes:
Christmas Cake,
Figgy Pudding,
Mince Pies;
& More!)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Three Passions

Winter Solstice Sunrise, 2004

British philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) co-authored Principia Mathematica (published 1910 - 1913), wrote A History of Western Philosophy (1945), and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. At age 84, Russell added a prologue entitled What I Have Lived For to his autobiography.

Some excerpts:

"Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy . . . because it relieves loneliness . . . because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of heaven that saints and poets have imagined. . . .

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men . . . to know why the stars shine . . . to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth . . . the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me."

Okay, here are mine:

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
--1 Corinthians 13: 9 - 13 (King James Version)

First is the hopeless one--trying to create order out of chaos. I will never give up this losing battle! It has governed my child rearing, my housekeeping, my quest for information, my struggle against urban decay in West Philadelphia and neighborhood blight in West Lafayette, my hope for the afterlife that one day we really shall "know as we are known," that the whole confusing scheme of life will fall into place. One day my partial (i.e.,"imperfect") knowledge of this chaotic puzzling universe shall be made whole (i.e., "perfected") and that will be the reward of a passionate existence.

Second--sometimes known as the I'm talking and I can't shut up syndrome!-- is participating in "The Great Conversation," contributing to the "Dialogue of Ideas." This passion governs my friendships, my correspondence, my teaching, my understanding of history, my love of literature and movies -- and talking about them after I read / see them. This blog. It informs my quest for truth and beauty, my pursuit of knowledge. "Faith, Hope, and Love" have long been the popular favorites, but it is the "Knowledge" part that has always appealed to me.

My third and favorite passion is Christmas, the most comprehensive celebration of all celebrations! Every year, we hear the complaints about the relentless commercialization, the laments that Christmas is no longer a religious holiday but has become a religion in and of itself. Well, if you ask me, that's The Good News; that's something I can believe in!

As is so often the case, the third passion really draws on the best of the other two. I love reading about all of the old traditions--even the ones that we don't specifically incorporate into our own 21st Century observances. Surely some of the best contributions to the Great Conversation were made on behalf of Christmas; and surely the light shining out of darkness symbolizes our best hope for order out of chaos. If there is ever a time when we are inclined to treat each other well, to acknowledge each other's humanity, surely it is Christmas. The embodiment of spirituality, the first principle on which all other passions are based -- that's Christmas!

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice . . .
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
~T.S. Eliot
from "Little Gidding"(II, V)