All posts by GretchenJoanna

About GretchenJoanna

Orthodox Christian, widowed in 2015; mother, grandmother. Love to read, garden, cook, write letters and a hundred other home-making activities.

The opposite of not getting in trouble.

My Christmas tree is still standing in my entryway, at the bottom of the stairwell. It’s handy to have an artificial tree so that it never starts looking worn out and dried up. I didn’t get it out of its box and trimmed until very late, and then all the days this month that I was mostly in bed because of my viruses, I couldn’t even see it much. I missed many services of Nativity and Theophany in which I might have been reminded by poetry and theology of the significance of “Immanuel: God with us.”

So bear with me if I continue on the theme of the Incarnation. After all it is, as was pointed out to me not long ago, the second most important point of Christian doctrine, after the Holy Trinity. If we truly live, we live it every day. And it’s worth giving extra attention to at least once a year. 🙂

One of the days I was in bed I started listening to The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. I would love to hear if any of  my readers has read this book or others in the Aubrey Trilogy of which it is first. This makes the third time I will have read this novel in the last ten years, and I could count on one hand the novels I’ve read three times in my whole life. I read the other two in the series as well, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and a totally different novel of hers, The Birds Fall Down.

They have all made me ask what sort of woman could create these fascinating characters and dramas, portrayed by means of the most revealing dialogue and natural prose. After I started sitting up in the recliner I began to read The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. It appears that there is a lot of autobiographical material in The Fountain Overflows, set in England in the Edwardian period. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write a good review of this book or any of West’s; they seem too vast and rich — and mysterious — for me to grasp, and that makes me wonder, Why am I so taken with her as a writer? and How does she accomplish this enchantment? I have some ideas — maybe they will lead to something!

The only reason I have for saying anything just now is, I ran across this passage about a Christmas Day the Aubrey Family celebrated. It contains one of the thought-provoking pearls of wisdom and understanding that are found liberally scattered throughout, not ever as little sermons, but as insights that come to the narrator Rose, or a phrase spoken by the mother as she’s trying to answer one of her children’s questions.

The father of the family wastes and loses money in various ways, so that they are always on the brink of disaster. In the passage below, the young Rose calls him “unlucky,” but the reader knows that it’s a case of children wanting to think the best of their father. His indiscretions or outright shameful behavior are the reason he and his family are always needing rescuing.

On Christmas Day the mother stays home with the maid to prepare Christmas dinner, and the father walks to church with the four children. The girls, having been musically trained to listen carefully and critically to every piece of music they hear, are often unable to enjoy anything slightly imperfect. The italics are mine:

“In church we were so contented that we did not think of the choir as music and did not approve or disapprove, but gratefully took it that it was giving tongue to what was in our hearts. ‘How bright,’ Mary whispered in my ear, ‘the silver dishes on the altar are.’ We liked the holly round the pulpit, the white chrysanthemums on the altar. Of late Mary and I had doubts about religion, we wished God had worked miracles that would have enabled Mamma to keep Aunt Clara’s furniture and saved Papa from his disappointment over the deal in Manchester, but now faith was restored to us. We saw that it was good of God to send His Son to earth because man had sinned, it was the opposite of keeping out of trouble, which was mean, it was the opposite of what Papa’s relatives were doing in not wanting to see him just because he had been unlucky. We liked the way Richard Quinn stood on the seat of the pew and, though he had been told he must be good and sit as still as a mouse in this holy place, nuzzled against Papa’s shoulder and sometimes put up his face for a kiss, certain that showing love for Papa must be part of being good.”

The picture of the family in church is sweet, but it’s the way the love of God and His willingness to come to our aid are put in a child’s very personal terms that strikes me. They paraphrase a word I really appreciate in regard to His taking on human flesh and frailty, human sin and soul-sickness and chains of death: solidarity. Glory to God in the highest!

Owls bring the night in.

In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.

But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.

In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.

Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls

You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.

A BARRED OWL

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

-Richard Wilbur,  from Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. © 2000

When blood is nipt, drink Hypocras.

When long ago I was beginning to explore the world of poetry for the sake of my children whom I was homeschooling, I ran across this poem by Shakespeare. It’s from the play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and every time I read it, especially in winter, it drives the damp and chill right into my bones. That is poetic power!

Notes on words and phrases: Dick is blowing into his hands, or on his fingernails. Joan is likely skimming the pot. The roasted Crabs are apples. People say the owl may well have been the common Tawny or Brown Owl, pictured below.

I’ve transcribed the poem as I found it originally in Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither. In his notes on this entry he gives a recipe for a warming drink such as Dick, Joan and Marian would have welcomed:

“To make Hypocras the best way.–Take 5 ounces of aqua vitae, 2 ounces of pepper, and 2 of ginger, of cloves and grains of paradice each 2 ounces, ambergrease three grains, and of musk two grains, infuse them 24 hours in a glass bottle on pretty warm embers and when your occasion requires to use it, put a pound of sugar into a quart of wine or cyder; dissolve it well, and then drop 3 or 4 drops of the infusion, and they will make it taste richly.”

That recipe doesn’t say that the ingredients are finally heated all together, but I would think so…? The one below, with an owlish theme, is on the rocks – brrr! A cup of Hypocras might feel pretty good today, as I am still “coffing” away, but lacking that I concocted my own steaming drink from ginger tea and Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Almond Beverage. I hope all of you who are in winter are staying warm enough, and merry, too.

Tu-Whit To-Who

When Isicles hang by the wall,
   And Dicke the shepherd blows his naile,
And Tom beares Logges into the hall,
   And Milke comes frozen home in paile;
When blood is nipt, and waies be fowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
               Tu-whit to-who
               A merrie note,
While greasie Jone doth keele the pot.

When all aloud the winde doth blow,
   And coffing drownes the Parson's saw;
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
   And Marian's nose lookes red and raw;
When roasted Crabs hisse in the bowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
              Tu-whit to-who
              a merrie note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

-William Shakespeare