National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
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The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

jwjohnson

To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

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The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Connecting Post for #BloggingtheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

Connecting Post for #BloggingTheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

The Last Sunday of the Month: Blogging the Spirit

Blogging the Spirit: Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month

 

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How do you connect to God? Are there practices or pieces of art or music or liturgy that evoke this relationship?

Is there a book or poem that ‘gets you’ every time, or a writer who sparks you in those hard moments?

Do you find this connection through trees, the changing of seasons, the cycle of the moon?

 

In a previous post, I discussed the desire to expand my mostly classic literature blog to reflect the variety of books I read. A brief exchange in the comments regarding religion and spirituality has prompted me to create an informal monthly event shared across social media.


Books, Art, Photography, Music, Poetry, Liturgy, Creativity

Some suggestions: a book review, a personal post on a particular practice, share a photo or piece of art. Is there a word or phrase or passage from your liturgy or spiritual books that you find beautiful? Does a particular melody or a song connect you to God every time you hear it?

If you don’t believe in God or religion but you are inspired by life share, too.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Pagans, Heathens, Druids, Wiccans, Tree-Huggers, Mother Nature Lovers, Those-Inspired-by-Life. Everyone is welcome!

The Mechanics

We can find each other with the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit to use on Twitter and Instagram and other social media. I will also put up a connecting post on my blog at 12am (PDT) on the last Sunday of the month where you can use the comment section to share the url to your post.

Please share this post on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, wherever you have social media, if you or someone you know is interested.

On the last Sunday of the month:

~post to your blog or wherever you have social media and use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter or Instagram
~come here for the ‘connecting post’ which will be my only post on that day and share the url to your offering in the comments
~click on various urls that interest you and make connections

See you on September 24th!
~Laurie

Questions: therelevantobscurity@gmail.com

A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith (2007)

Austen

I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.

 

This was the perfect book to cap my first Austen in August experience.  A work of nonfiction, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith helped with much of the back story to Jane Austen’s life and times that I mentioned in my Mansfield Park post and filled in some of the etiquette and culture gaps that perplexed me.

The Premise

Lori Smith is at a painful and difficult time in her life. Thirty-three years old she is unfulfilled in her job, frustrated that she is still single and though she does not doubt her Christian faith, she is struggling to make sense with all that is not working in her life. But the most difficult impediment is the profound fatigue and debilitating symptoms of an illness doctors cannot diagnose.

She learns to cope with the on again off again pattern of the illness and makes the decision to quit her job to become a full time writer. Long an admirer of Jane Austen, when a medication for an imbalanced thyroid gives her a reprieve from her symptoms, she books a trip to England with the goal of healing and reinventing herself through the life and works of Austen.

Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air….In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air.

A Travel Guide

Starting with a course at Oxford and by reading through all of Austen’s novels, Smith is armed with maps and tips for visiting cities and landmarks that figure in Austen’s life as well as in her novels: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Winchester, Bath, Box Hill and more. She quotes passages and ponders their connections to her own life.

Though I still have two more books of Austen to read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) it was easy to follow the parallels of Austen’s life with her novels that Smith points out (for example, at Steventon, she sees the barn where Austen “threw rousing family theatricals with her brothers,” and I just read Mansfield Park!)

Some of the Austen family material Smith shares was helpful to me, too, in knowing two of her brothers were in the Navy (William in Mansfield Park, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth and others in Persuasion), that one of her brothers was adopted into another family (Fanny in Mansfield Park), that James second wife was mean and jealous (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park) and Chawton Great House as the model for the Tilney home in Northanger Abbey.

This is a book for those new to Jane Austen and for the confirmed Janeite. For anyone planning a trip to England and their own walk with Jane Austen, consider this a comprehensive model.

Romance?

Finally, does Smith find romance? Of course, she does! Youth, England, summer, a course at Oxford. On her first day at the University she meets an American man studying for the summer who is kind, Christian and seems friendly. She falls head over heels, obsesses appropriately, has her future with him all planned out, but sadly, the feelings are not reciprocated. Although there are few resolutions for the issues Smith begins her trip

My days are still small. But the light is beginning to return. Just a couple of weeks ago I started being able to laugh at the world again, and that felt very good–soul healing laughter. I want more of it, to enjoy life, to love the people around me…I hope I will be healthy again.

And in health and all aspects of her life, I wish her well.

 

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Lori Smith has written several books including, Jane Austen’s Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman.

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My Edition
Title: A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith
Author: Lori Smith
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2007
Pages: 235
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, #AusteninAugustrbr

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….

 

pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….

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My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary

#BloggingTheSpirit

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message, Susan Bailey (2016)

My Edition:lmaliiuminated
Title: Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message
Author: Compiled and Introduced by Susan Bailey
Publisher: Acta Publications
Device: Paper book
Year: 2016
Pages: 121

“That’s the right spirit, my dear; a kiss for a blow is always best, though it’s not very easy to give it sometimes,” said her mother with the air one who had learned the difference between preaching and practicing.

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere?

 

Literary Portals to Prayer is a series of books by Acta Publications that takes passages from the works of a classic author and pairs them with excerpts from the Message translation of the Bible.

Louisa May Alcott, Illuminated by the Message is one of the latest offerings. It is compiled by Susan Bailey, whose research on the Alcott family is well-known. The book is laid out with a selection from one of  Alcott’s works on the left side and a passage from the Message Bible on the right. Like a devotional or book of prayer, it can be used as a means for contemplation or meditation. The modern English translation of the Message is a perfect complement to Alcott’s down to earth writing style.

My particular spirituality is an eclectic mix and my heart is always open to sources that give me a glimpse of God. Many of the passages in this small, yet powerful book touched me. Of the many, I chose two:

CONCORD, Thursday,—I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide “Virginia meadows.”

It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life. Louisa May Alcott, chapter 3, Fruitlands

But even there, if you seek GOD, your God, you’ll be able to find him if you’re serious, looking for him with your whole heart and soul. When troubles come and all these awful things happen to you, in future days you will come back to GOD, your God, and listen obediently to what he says. GOD, your God, is above all a compassionate God. In the end he will not abandon you, he won’t bring you to ruin, he won’t forget the covenant with your ancestors which he swore to them. Deuteronomy 4:29-31

*********

It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come; for by-and-by, Beth said the needle was “so heavy,” and put it down forever; talking wearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil spirit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble flesh….With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong; and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river. Little Women, chapter 40, The Valley of the Shadow

Bless our God, O peoples!
Give him a thunderous welcome!
Didn’t he set us on the road to life?
Didn’t he keep us out of the ditch?
He trained us first,
passed us like silver through refining fires,
Brought us into hardscabble country,
pushed us to our very limit,
Road-tested us inside and out,
took us to hell and back;
Finally he brought us
to this well-watered place.

Psalm 66:8-12

 

I was given this copy in exchange for an honest review.