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Halloween and Other Ghosts

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We’ve reached another cross-quarter day, the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, better known as Halloween.  It is interesting that this day gets so much attention.  Many believe it has no connection with religion.  They celebrate it with fun and costumes in the early dark.  A significant minority in this country knows that it has religious origins and prohibits it as satanic.  In its early form it was a time of religious ritual, particularly rituals of purification through fire, and of moving to winter quarters.  In some places it was also the start of a new year

I’ve always thought it would be an awkward day for a birthday.  How special would you feel if everyone else was getting candy too?  A friend born on this day, however, told a story about a time in elementary school when birthday parties were forbidden.  The teacher worked her birthday into the Halloween festivities.  That would make a person feel special.

Another person who was born on this day was my mother-in-law, Jane.  Her sons would have no excuse for forgetting their mother’s special day.

I’ve not been impressed with the recent focus on zombies.  I don’t believe in them.  Ghosts, however, are real, in a number of ways.  A woman from New Orleans told me, “Home is where you listen to the ghosts.”  I picture her attending to voices of her―and her community’s―past now that she has returned home, voices she could not hear properly when she lived elsewhere.

My own ancestor research has been work with ghosts, a crowd of people clamoring to be remembered.  They have sometimes weighted on me as an obligation.  At other times they are more like sprites, delightful wisps teasing me into the past.

One of the special things about my mother-in-law was an uncanny ability to find a parking place just where she needed one, no matter how crowded the situation.  To this day, when my husband and I find a space like that we say, “That’s Jane’s space.”  It’s as if she has found and held it for us.  She’s a good ghost; we’ll have her with us as long as we remember.  The parts of our past we’ve neglected may come back to haunt us.  Those we’ve cherished will remain in our hearts, connecting us to our heritage.  Perhaps you’d rather call them something else than ghosts.  Any metaphor will do, as long as we remain mindful of this phenomenon, that we continue to be connected to those who are gone.

A New “Church”: From the Biography

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John Emerson Roberts’s contacts with Robert Ingersoll, described in my blog of October 6, bore fruit in the fall of 1897.  From my biography of Roberts, here is a description of Roberts’s independent “Church” and how it operated:

The Church of This World held its first service in the Coates Opera House on September 12, 1897. In addition to Roberts’s lecture, which he still called a sermon, music was provided by Carl Busch. The service apparently consisted only of this music and the sermon with no offering, no hymnody, and certainly no prayer. It is interesting that the organization was called a church, given the comments Roberts made in the spring about the negative connotations of that term. The phrase “this world” was evidently taken from Ingersoll’s letter praising Roberts’s sermon about the boy who died in jail: “You are preaching a religion for this world.”

Carl Busch was a major figure in the music world of Kansas City.  Born in Denmark in 1862, he studied in various institutions in Europe.  In 1887, Busch was working in Paris, playing in orchestras conducted by Camille Saint Saens and Charles Gounod. The Danish vice-consul in Kansas City invited Busch to organize a string quartet and bring it to America. Busch did so, and spent the rest of his life based in Kansas City. Times were not easy for the arts. Busch organized a series of orchestras and programs, but between the economic troubles of the late 1880s and the 1890s, and the lack of developed musical taste among the well-to-do business class who were the city’s elite, support was not always sufficient. The position as music director for the Church of This World was at least steady work, though very part time; Busch was still employed there when his biography was written for Whitney’s Kansas City, Missouri, in 1908.

The Church of This World was set up with a board of trustees just as the Unitarian Society had been. The names of the earliest set of trustees are not known. The trustees are listed in the newspapers only in later years when there were stories of development or decline to report. The funding for the church was provided by supporters who paid for their seats; the cost ranged from $5 to $25 per year. This practice is comparable to the idea of pew rentals, which many churches used to provide a base of income; the theater seats were no doubt more comfortable than typical pews. Seats for those who just came in were free.

The sermons Roberts gave in that first year are lost.  In the fall of his second year, however, Roberts published a series of sermons as a hardbound book.  A few copies have survived.

These sermons show how his preaching and views had evolved. The first sermon was titled “The Imperial Demands of Progress.” The word progress had become a highly resonant term for Roberts. He begins with the idea that one has an obligation to participate in progress:
“Deeper upon enlightened minds grows the conviction that progress is the world’s supreme law. To contribute to that progress, to obey that law, is the cosmic business of everyone and of everything that is.”
While he sees this as a human undertaking, however, he has not become a true Ingersollian; he has not given up talking of God, of spirit and of the divine. He concludes this first sermon by saying,
“Let us trust the old, the common, the misunderstood earth. Let us hail the dawn of the day coming fast and sure, when all men everywhere shall see that the earth is divine, man is divine and God is all in all.”
Though “thought” and “reason” are among his favorite themes, Roberts also holds on to the idea that religion, as opposed to specific religions, is an element of life that will endure.

There’s that dawn metaphor again in the second quotation, an image Roberts used often.  Read more about his most unusual institution in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, available through Amazon from ERYBooks (or use the contact page).

The Map of Longing: Poem and Chapbook

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How shall I properly introduce my chapbook The Map of Longing now that it has snuck into my blog entries through a poem called to mind be recent experience?  It is my second chapbook with Finishing Line Press, published in 2009.  It is a collection of poems about loss and longing within the ordinary phases of life.  I had the fun of working with a friend who is a photographer to choose the cover picture, which shows a road leading to some unknown place through overhanging trees.  The fact that it is a scene from my home state, California, was an incidental plus.

 

My mother, Emily, in her prime

Many of the poems in this collection relate to my mother, including some about the last months of her lifeand clearing outher house.  Others refer to my own move from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, which happened the same year as my mother’s death.  Is it any wonder the two themes are intertwined?

There are several poems, however, which attempt to capture the feeling of being lost, disoriented, out of touch, as a general human condition, not connected to any specific circumstances.  One of these is the title poem, which expresses the mood of distraction and disorientation by the very number of its metaphoric images.

The Map of Longing

The express train
knows where it’s headed.

I zigzag,
a squirrel before cool weather
signals gathering,

no pattern tidy
as trimming for a skirt,

no purpose,
like switchbacks
up a mountain.

My turns random as leafing
through a dictionary,

I skid like a getaway car
within a movie frame,
constricted by the tracks of time,

direction inescapable
as A to Z.

The Map of Longing is available through Amazon.  You can get a signed copy from me via ERYBooks.

Reflections on Contemporary Travel, with a Poem

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When my husband and I travel, we usually use one motel chain, one which claims, and usually provides, certain amenities such as a decent breakfast, thick towels and internet service.  This practice also enables us to build up points toward a free stay once or twice a year.

There is one problem with having a “rewards card” however.  It means they have our email address.  After each stay we get a request to fill out a survey.  There is no “I choose not to” option at this point – if we don’t answer it we’ll get a “friendly reminder.”  Part of the survey includes “when did you last stay in a motel?”  “Which brand was it?” and “Did the brand name influence your choice?”  By this time I want to scream “Yes!  Of course the name influenced us!  We have a rewards card!  Aren’t you paying attention?”  But they are not paying attention.  They offer no place to make a comment to the organization, instead of to the individual hotel.

But the question which gives me the most trouble is “Was this trip for business or pleasure?”  If I have to get across the country to visit family, there ought to be a third category.  Would it be both?  Neither?  This became an acute issue for me when I was travelling to visit my mother because she was ill.  The culprit that time was an airline, but the reaction was the same.  Is it business or pleasure?  It’s both.  it’s neither.

My chapbook The Map of Longing includes a number of poems related to my mother’s last months.  The fact that it happened at the same time we were preparing to move made everything sharper and more complicated.  In the poem below I tried to express some of my frustration.

Choice

The form asks, “business or pleasure?”
No “other” category for this trip
which is neither―or both:
my mother’s business,
her pleasure in our visit,
our pain in the strained connection,
spoiled arm, scattered mind.

The web of family combines
what marketers want to segment,
as if pain and pleasure could
be wrapped separately, like
the chocolates she loves, as if
“all of the above” were an option
one could choose not to check.

The Map of Longing is available through Amazon.  You can get a signed copy from me via ERYBooks.

Recommendation: A Wonderful Writing Workshop

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View from the Mesa

I have just returned from a week-long workshop at Ghost Ranch.  It was both stimulating and relaxing and full of kindred spirits in a spirit-filled place.  “The Ranch” has a long history, going back to a small dinosaur whose bones have been found there, the Coelophysis.  The name “Ghost Ranch” goes back to the Archuleta brothers, who told any would-be thieves or cattle rustlers the place was haunted―and no nefarious person ever came out alive to contradict them.  Ghost Ranch is connected to the Presbyterian Church but funded separately.  It offers a wide variety of classes from spring into fall, as well as a January term for students.

Anita Skeen is the organizer of, as well as one of the teachers in, the Fall Writing Workshop at Ghost Ranch.  Anita has put this together for the second week in October for something like fifteen years and has taught at the ranch for many years before that.

This year there were four classes.  While Anita taught one on The Writer’s Notebook, Ina Hughs taught Creative Nonfiction, Catherine Watson taught Travel Writing, and Jane Taylor led a workshop in poetry focusing on shape and voice.  Each teacher gave a reading, so that all participants could hear the work of all of them.  At the end, a joint reading of all the students gave an overview of the class approaches and assignments.

One afternoon, each teacher gave a short workshop.  It may be no surprise that the basic rules of good writing in all genres are much the same: details, emotion, a good beginning, middle and end, etc.,  but it is great reinforcement to hear this told in different ways for different kinds of writing.  Reminders are often as good as new material for encouraging the artistic process.  All of the teachers were entertaining as well as informative.

Our cozy classroom

The writing was all fresh work.  There were exercises and assignments, with freedom to interpret or adapt them to whatever flowed from the pen.  In my small class of three students, the variety produced from one assignment was a delight.  The mutual support and good spirits made everything seem even better than it was – at least in the case of my own efforts.  I came home with a batch of new bits and pieces to pursue, and new ideas about how to approach them.

There are a lot of different housing options.  I chose the cheapest, which were located up on the mesa, units of simple rooms with shared bathrooms.  This turned out to be a good choice in two ways.  First, the walk up and down the hill was good exercise to stir the writing muscles as well as the physical ones, and second, the mesa has the best cell phone service, the main part of the ranch being in a valley.

Will I go back next year?  Maybe.  Do I plan to go back before very many years go by?  Definitely.  Maybe next time I’ll find the words to describe the colors of the turning cottonwoods against the pines and junipers.  Watch for next year’s schedule to appear at www.ghostranch.org.

Juniper

Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

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Cliffs at Ghost Ranch

Ghost Ranch is a feast for the eyes, a wonderful place for a photography or painting class.  I was there to write.  All week, I tried to find words to describe the turning cottonwoods, yellow, gold, against the evergreens of pine and juniper.  I failed.  But I came away with many words on other subjects: new material to work with.  More on the people, the place and the class in a future post.

Cottonwoods at Ghost Ranch

Viva New Mexico

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This desert globemallow is a southwestern native plant growing in my yard.  This one grew from a seed dropped by a plant I dug out of the sand in the arroyo near our house and transplanted several years ago.  Transplanting from the desert is tricky because the plants very quickly send their roots down deep for water.  If you cut the root the plant most likely won’t survive. Desert globemallow is a short-lived perennial, so I was pleased when two new plants arose to replace the old one.

I am setting up this post to go public while I am at a writing workshop at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  That’s Georgia O’Keeffe country.  I hope to see, and photograph, some beautiful rocks, and perhaps some New Mexico native plants that don’t grow in the desert.

To experience more of New Mexico, click on 200 New Mexico Poems in the side bar.  This site has poems relating to many areas, landscapes and cultures of new Mexico.  New poems are being posted almost every day, growing toward the promised 200 poems.  It’s worthy of frequent visits.

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