Friday, October 30, 2015

Thin Places in Pawtucket

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything sacred come out of Pawtucket? For the Celts the answers to both questions is a resounding YES! Because God is everywhere, we are surrounded by the sacred no matter where we are. As a child I experienced something like a sense of Presence many times in Pawtucket. Where are the thin Places for me in Pawtucket? In my early memories I recall the magical sense of the world holding its breath and the perfect rightness of everything as I walked round and round an immense Copper Beech that flourished in the grounds of Memorial Hospital on the Prospect Street side. I also recall standing transfixed in my friend Lucille's side yard on Columbus Avenue. It was near sunset and the skies were putting on an elaborate display of pinks and magentas and purples and gold. We both stopped throwing the ball,and as I looked up to one enormous cloud formation, it seemed to be penetrated with golden shafts of light. It was as if a great door had opened and I could see the angels lined up within--thronging to the gate and watching down on us. I could not speak right away, but when I could I asked my friend if she saw anything in the sky, and she said, "Yes, a huge cloud like the shape of a castle." By then the formation was moving and morphing and dissolving. But I felt like I had a brief glimpse into heaven. These are only two times, but there were more. They were in childhood. Let me say that I do not think I am special or alone with these moments of revelation. I think that all children have them. But no one talks about them; I did not tell anyone about them. I feared ridicule and even in-- or maybe especially in-- Catholic schools of the 1940s and 50s we were not being told about the possibility of approaching spiritual experience outside of the walls of a church or the time of prayers. Times like those in my adult years have been few and far between-- not entirely absent. Of course, perhaps my professed agnosticism and my hostility to religion made me shake most of them off--but some remain with me. One took place in Istanboul standing with a crowd of people mostly tourists under the great dome of the Blue Mosque. There were some men praying and standing. As I watched them raise their open, empty palms to the heavens, I had a profound certainty that they were right. God is one and HE is All powerful and HE is everywhere. This was the beginning of my getting back that immensely valuable gift--FAITH-- which I had lost for several decades. Most recently I had an intimation of eternity right near by. I was driving down one of the short streets that lead off Central Avenue to the SHOP and Stop Plaza on the Industrial Highway. Suddenly I could only see glory--everywhere I looked--sunflowers blooming, hydrangeas standing with immense flower heads next to broken front steps, brilliant chrysanthemums placed on cracked sidewalks and sagging porches, Knock out roses still rampant in weedy beds. All I could see were the colors, the persistence, the determination to bloom and to show forth the glory of their Creator. I was astounded that I had never noticed them before. So maybe the veil is trembling all the time, and we are all in a thin place if we can only let ourselves see it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thin Places and Thin Times in the Bucket?

THIN TIMES and THIN PLACES Lately I have been reading about Celtic Spirituality and the concept of "thin places" and "thin times" in that tradition. Are there thin times and thin places in the Bucket? With the days shortening and the onset of Halloween we are coming to one of the "thin times" of the Celtic Year. Thin times are those times in the year when the connection between human activity and divine activity becomes less opaque to us. When we feel some possibility of communication between souls still caught in time (us) and souls that have re-entered eternity. The idea of human life as the time we spend between two eternities is a widely held one on Celtic thinking and writing. Here is how the venerable Bede describes the experience of life and our ignorance of what was before life and what may be after life on earth: “The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he im- mediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.” The season of Samhain as it was called by the Celts was the end of the harvesting season and the marking of the onset of winter. It was a time when those of us alive could communicate with the dead. The residue of this idea comes through in our celebration of Halloween and in the Christian accommodation of ALL Saints Day November 1 and All Souls Day November 2. It also erupts in the well known Mexican celebration of November 2 as The Day of the Dead. Since my mother's birthday was 28 October, I especially feel close to her this time of year and sense her presence in her Pawtucket house and belongings that she treasured and the poems that she left behind.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Apples in the Bucket

One of the things that I missed most in the decades that I lived and taught in Cincinnati was the experience of Autumn in Rhode Island. And key to that experience is the chomping of an apple from a local orchard. But not just any apple and not any orchard. I longed for a Macoun from Phantom Farm. I never found any like them in Ohio and I hoped each year. But now that I am back here I have found myself taking one of my favorite and most familiar rides up Diamond Hill Road to the orchard there. It is a favorite route because it was one I often traveled with my aunt Grace Jenckes Hartley to visit the graves of my mother in Mount Calvary and nearby the historical Cumberland cemetery on Dexter Street where my grandmother Ida Mowry and her first husband and her father and her mother are buried. Then we trailed up to Diamond Hill stopped to reward ourselves at THE DREAM MACHINE--a great and under-praised but always busy ice cream place across from Diamond Hill State Park. Then on to the glorious Oak Hill cemetery on Rathbun Street in Woonsocket to visit the Jenckes memorial and the graves of my father, Grace's brother, and all the Jenckes' who preceded us. On the way home we stopped to buy apples and cider at the Phantom Farm also on Diamond Hill Road. My aunt would buy RI Greenings for pie making, she made the best pies and taught me her pie crust secrets. I would eat the apple peels as she pared the apples.But for out of hand eating, I only had eyes for the Macouns. They are the crispest of apples; their skin is taut and sweet and the moist flesh of the apple seems to explode in flavor. I could never wait to get them home but ate one in the car. "You are so like your father; Norman made a religious experience out of eating an apple." I feel that whatever health and vigor I have I owe to the apples and cider. They help me and my body make the seasonal change. I love all the seasons, but as a child autumn was my special time. I felt it coming on in late August--you know what I mean there is a day in August when the breeze suddenly turns to a chill wind and you wish you had a sweater and you know the brief ecstatic summer is already leaving. She is very fickle here in Rhode Island. I always hope for a long lingering Indian Summer. Something to fend off the onslaught of winter. I liked the sledding and skating of winter and of course, the coming of Christmas. But the two months after Christmas, January and February, are cold and fierce. And the piles of snow freeze and re freeze and long out wear their welcome. As I am older now, I fear winter--with its snow and ice and freezings-- it seems scary and keeps me house bound. But let's not go there--not yet. This autumn due to my surgery and recovery I left my pilgrimage late. I did get to Phantom Farm and enjoyed sitting on their side deck in the painted rockers, sipping coffee and having an apple dumpling. But the Macouns were gone by. I took a bag of excellent Macintosh--but they are not the same as a Macoun--not as sweet and tart and not as crisp and firm and not as dark red. But learning as I am to treasure what I can do, I enjoyed the visit and relished the sparrows coming for crumbs and the "mellow fruitfulness" of the entire scene. Another Fall without Macouns-- how many more would I have to savor that special fruit. But I was wrong. A few days ago my friend Elizabeth called and said she was driving to an orchard that she loved in Wrentham to get apples, could she get some for me? I grasped at that straw and said--if they have any Macouns left please get me a bag. They did and she did. So this story has a happy ending--there are Macoun apples in the bucket. Every one is perfect and every one is like a time machine taking me back to sitting on the second floor porch of our tenement in Pawtucket and sitting with my father eating the crisp fruit and talking about it as we looked at The Daily Racing Form and he circled the "winners" for tomorrow's races.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why a bucket?

When did Pawtucket become THE BUCKET in local slang?

Frankly, I don't know but I do recall the first time I heard my native city invoked by that nickname. Of all places--it happened in Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. 

 It was part of a refrain repeated for the benefit of me and my mother in 1973 when we made our first trip together to try to find our close relatives that had stayed behind in the old country. When we found my mother's first cousin and told him what city we were from in the US he suddenly recited: "bad cess to the day that I came to Pawtucket To work for John Campbell Hauling stones in a bucket."

He knew Pawtucket and the US first hand--he was one of the few Irish emigrants who made it to New York and didn't like it (he told us that he had been a conductor in NYC and crashed the trolley) He somehow managed to save the money to come back home. He told us that he missed the Old Cross at Ardboe and the beauties of Lough Neagh and the eel fishing that was their livelihood.

 And so he came back when he was 25 and fifty years later we walked into a pub and asked if there were any Colemans living nearby and were brought to Johnny Devlin whose mother was Mary Ann Coleman and the sister to my mother's father Joe Coleman--so we had a reunion of first cousins.

 So that was my Bucket experience. It seems that the popular use of the term started more in the 80s and what some of us see as an affectionate nickname is often taken and intended as a derogatory term by others.

 I have often thought of Pawtucket as a small important city. So much greatness like the mighty Blackstone has passed through here--the first foundry built by Joseph Jenks in the 1600s. The Slater Mill that launched the industrial development of the colonies in the 1700s.
 The first strike of textile workers soon after that showed the courage and sense of labor justice in Pawtucket. The Pawtucket boys who joined the GAR in the 1860s to fight for the end of slavery. See their graves in the Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery and Oak Grove on Central Avenue. 

Remember the the waves of immigrants that came here during and after the famine in Ireland of the 1850s. The incredible fact that Pawtucket at the Old Saint Mary's actually holds a Fenian grave--a sacred symbol and promise of Ireland's nationhood. I was amazed when I learned this from Professor Al McAloon, and he told me as we stood in the old grave yard that he had witnessed as a school boy the burial of James Wilson, the Fenian rescued from imprisonment in Australia by the CATALPA who lived out his life in Central Falls and Pawtucket.

 Patrick Pearse in his famous oration at the grave of Fenian O'Donovan Rossa inspires his listeners with the significance of this Grave to the history of Ireland: "Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace"

So it is a city with a great history,and it still may be called a bucket--but there is no disgrace in that--when you need a bucket, there is no substitute. So polish that bucket, patch that Bucket, raise that Bucket high. It's part of the paradox of Pawtucket-- a place we may love to laugh at but still a place to love and where we live with dignity and pride.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Reading a review today of a collection of writings and aphorisms by a French writer, Georges Perros, I came upon his definition of writing: "Writing is saying something to someone who's not there. Who'll never be there. Or if he's there, we'll be the ones who have gone away." The truth of this summary stopped me because it brings forward the essential loneliness of writing. The urge that we have to write is the urge to communicate but unlike conversation, writing is a communication which the writer can never be sure by whom, how or where it will be received. I reminds me that writing is like firing a gun and not knowing when it completes its trajectory. Sometimes when I read something and I am moved by it, I am also struck by how long this message has traveled before it reached me. After my mother died in 1997, my aunt continued to live in the house that they shared and nothing was disturbed. It was not until 2009 when I moved into that house that I came upon things left behind by my mother that shook me to the ground and made the grief at her loss sweep over me in waves of delayed understanding. I found a diary that she had kept in the late 80s and her well worn copy of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis with her remarks and prayerful notes stuck in the dog-eared pages. I felt that these were like messages from her that had finally reached me. Some poets have also expressed their sense of their readers of the future. In a sense all of the work of Emily Dickinson was a love letter to the future readers since she did not publish her great poetry in her own lifetime. Keats also brings alive this longing of poets to reach their readers: This Living Hand - Poem by John Keats This living hand, now warm and capable Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood So in my veins red life might stream again, And thou be conscience-calmed - see here it is - I hold it towards you. John Keats So writing is a kind of act of faith that somewhere, sometime, someone will read the words and finally grasp the hand that has been extended in the act of writing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Writing in the Providence Journal (2 Oct) in the Letters to the Editor, a correspondent complains, "as the final indignity, we'll get to watch former Governor Lincoln Chafee stumble his way through the first Democratic candidates' debate. My God, can it get any worse?" This writer needs to rethink the whole question of indignity and embarrassment. Who can embarrass us but ourselves? Nothing any one else does can cause me to feel embarrassment if I did not myself support or encourage the action. Human dignity resides in the person herself and can never be taken from that person. What is the indignity in having elected as Governor a man who had the courage to oppose the Iraq War on the national level, and opposed and helped to expose the dirty dealings of the 38 Studios insiders scam? As a child, too sensitive to the ridicule of others I would feel embarrassed because of our poverty, our circumstances, our lack of Christmas gifts, our lack of money to buy groceries, and many times my mother would reassure me, "The only person who can shame you is you." Lincoln Chafeee has not shamed this state: his raising of difficult and contrary opinions is in the tradition of the archetypal INDEPENDENT MAN and historically personified in this state by personages like Roger Williams, Thomas Dorr, James Wilson, Edward Harris, Anne Hutchinson and Henry Shelton--to name just a few who come to mind. I look forward to hearing what Chafee has to say, and if he embarrasses himself--that will be his problem--not mine and not Rhode Island"s.

Cemeteries that I love

I am a person who is fascinated by old cemeteries. I have a love for the old stones and for the poetry that is often carved there. I have visited cemeteries in Canada and Hollywood, Paris, London and Dublin--even Venice. I have been taken to visit the graves of my ancestors since I was a small child. My mother would take me to Valley Falls to Mount Calvary where her parents are buried and her brothers and sisters. And now she lies there too beside her own daughters, my sisters, who are also buried there. The stone that has their names and birth and death dates carved is full and so are the plots. When my mother took me there as a child she would clean the gravestone and she brought a plastic bucket and a brush and some soap and would get water from a nearby faucet. She would scrub the stone clean that she had purchased many years before. She said that when she was a child and her mother came to the graves there was no stone and they would pace off the grave site that sits beneath a large oak tree. But now there is a stone and the only information that is not yet there is the year of my Aunt Anna's death--you must wait a year after the death to place that date and so I will have it added soon. My father's sister, my Aunt Grace Jenckes, took me to a cemetery in Woonsocket to visit the graves of my father's family. Oak Hill is an oasis of peace and forested beauty in the middle of Woonsocket. It is hidden behind a row of three-deckers and when my aunt would turn into the drive from Rathbun Street it felt like we had found a door to a secret garden. What amazed me there was the prominence and beauty of the Jenckes Monument and to see that my father's people were buried there and had been for many generations. Grace would tell me what she knew about the Jenckes family; but most of her tales were anecdotal and were part of an oral tradition. I have since learned more about the History of the Jenckes family in Rhode Island at the Rhode Island Historical Society. But the person who has most brought it alive to me is Elizabeth Vangel who through her research uncovered so many of the illustrious histories of those who founded the sacred oak grove that is Oak Hill.