Ruminations of a Seasoned Life

As Spring creeps northward, coaxing up the daffodils, forsythia, and redbud, I am back into routines after times of travel and our work at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, which just completed its annual meeting. The turkeys have shown up outside our house, performing their obscene and acrobatic rituals of mating. The Jays are back, the Cardinals sizing up our windows for their mock combat with the rivals they contain. The Bluebirds have come and gone in fewer numbers than before, their absence a terrible sign of what we have done to their homes, their bodies, and their flyways. Yet the leaves return, the onions lead the grass to lushness, branch lettuce pokes its first hands up through the humus at the waterfall.

I am working on some poems coaxed out of yet another annual event, the Press53 Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem. Some 53 of us get together for a day of workshops, conversation, and performance to celebrate the craft we share. The sponsors, Press53 and Jacar Press, show us what they’re publishing and promoting to keep this alchemy of words alive in North Carolina. The workshops usually evoke some poems, some of which will pop up here when they have fermented a little more.

While I am there, I usually take a walk through the old Moravian Cemetery nearby, with its row upon row of simple stones laid flat on the ground. Each person is buried in the order in which they died, erasing all distinctions of this life, awaiting the joyful Resurrection of the Dead they celebrate each Easter with trumpets and song.

Our Peace Conference was devoted to the theme of Faith, Health, and Peace, with informative presentations on some of the success stories in fighting disease, but also on how the health of communities, the health of our bodies, and the health of this world are all interconnected in a web of life. The question is: How do we nourish life in its manifold dimensions? Such an effort puts us in line with the Source of Life, while our warfare against death, which characterizes so much medicine and its costliness, can never be “won,” for it is part of life. The words Shalom, Salaam, “wholth” and their kin can lead us into a different perspective, and that’s what we were struggling for.

While we are emerging into Spring, my co-author John DeGruchy, in South Africa, is settling into Fall. We are pulling together the text for our little book on woodworking and spirituality, entitled Sawdust and Soul. With reflections on our years in woodworking, on the relationships with parents, children, family, friends, and mentors, we hope to stimulate conversation about the impact of this work with natural materials on our lives and spirits. You’ll hear more about it later!

Those are my ruminations of the season. I close with just a little poetic that emerged a short while ago as I was struck by the seasonality of our life.

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How would I know myself

without the seasons?

How would the earth embrace me

in its dance around the sun?

How would I chop my life in little chunks

to feed my fire?

Would I drown in time’s ocean,

never seeing shore?

Could I pace myself,

control my impatience,

shake off the dread of change?

How would I act

without the simple drama of the year?

Find my way in a familiar play

with just the right suspense,

the satisfaction of completion?

To have a fill of night,

a satiation of the day,

A sleep that touches death,

a waking to eternal life?

 

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Desperados

After an arduous drive from Albuquerque to North Carolina in the wake of ice-storm Titan, our return from the long trip to Las Cruces found us face to face with taxes and preparation for the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference. Now that that’s concluded, I can return to writing and woodworking!

There are still some writings I want to share from our time in Mesilla, New Mexico, where the veneers of modernity still offer a thin place to sense a life which still casts shadows and images into our own.

American culture is still permeated with the Hollywood images of the Wild West, of brave Indians and relentless cowboys, of bandits and flinty sheriffs. This leads us into Billy the Kid Store - Webthe bizarre politics of guns and anarchy, as well as providing rich territory for historians to debunk the myths. The curio shops, however, depend on the images. In Mesilla, it’s the trial of Billy the Kid, a fragment from a time of dislocation, poverty, and the lure of easy money. A modest adobe building on the edge of the plaza housed the trial of Billy. The curios, souvenirs and local crafts inside can hardly give us a taste of the raw edges of life in the 19th century. But the building’s memories were enough to tweak my awareness.

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Desperados

hopeless

ageless

oh so young

Billy

Butch

Kid

Jesse

Dancer

in the sun.

Gunned up in life

gunned down in death.

Yet we are fascinated

living in a world

depending on tomorrows

how they lived in face of death

suspended

without hope

a reckless

vile

freedom.

 

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Generations in Mesilla

They call it Old Mesilla – the tightly settled grid of one- and two-storey adobe buildings gathered around the central plaza and its church. There is a “New Mesilla” stretching half a dozen blocks beyond this central grid until it yields to fields and mile on mile of the pecan groves waiting for water from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which has bottled up the Rio Grande some miles north.

We have had a chance to walk these streets for the past month, listening, looking, talking to the residents and shopkeepers, getting some little feel for the century and a half of human habitation here. One street, the Calle Guadalupe, stretches the length of the old town, connecting its cemetery on the south to the plaza and the church on the north. It is a place where generations live connected to the church, the bells, the groves and fields, and family memories. I’ve tried to capture that in this extended poem as we end our stay here, perhaps with better ears for this kind of community and its struggle to maintain this chain of generations in a world of planned obsolescence and constant destruction of the old for the coming of the new.

 

The Calle Guadalupe ends

            or yet begins

            among the tombs

            of ancestors

            and soldiers

            brothers sisters aunts and uncles

            mothers and fathers

            sleeping in the earth beneath

            stones elegant and plain

            chiseled and painted

            with photographs and plastic flowers

            benches for the living

            waiting arms outstretched in welcome

     like bare pecan trees

            pleading for the waters

     to be born again.

You pass along the uncurbed way

            homes sheds and stores

            a pig sleeping in the dry dirt

            turtle doves whooing in the cottonwoods

            doors in blue against the brown

            Our Lady painted on a desiccated stump.

You reach the plaza

            shoes clattering on bricks

            children scampering in screams like sirens

            giggles from the school girls

            as the wind whips Sister’s wimple

            and the Spanish-speaking carpenters erect

            a bandstand to replace

            exactly

            what was there before

            commemorating when Mesilla

            found itself a reluctant bride

    purchased from old Mexico.

You hear the churchbells  motorcycles cellphones

            drumbeats from a slowly passing car.

You cannot hear

the cries of murder born of greed and passion

buried in adobe walls,

of gallow judgments from a hanging judge,

the weeping of old priests.

You reach the church

            signs telling women

            there is help for crisis pregnancies.

You come upon a stone within the courtyard

            for innocents

            who never walked

            the Calle Guadalupe.

The undead pleading for the unborn.

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The Bells of San Albino

We are spending the month of February in the little town of Mesilla, adjacent to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Mesilla (pronounced “Meh-SEE-yah”), which means “little table,” was formed shortly after the end of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 to provide a place on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande for Mexicans displaced by the war. However, when the US bought the land that came to be called the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1854, Mesillans found themselves citizens of the US once again. Since then, the Rio Grande moved itself west of the town, seemingly ratifying what politics and money had effected earlier.

Over all this time there has been

San Albino Church, Mesilla

San Albino Church, Mesilla

a Catholic church at the center of Mesilla’s life – the church of San Albino, named after the fifth century French Christian martyr, St. Aubin. The present church structure, like its two predecessors, stands at the north end of the plaza. Its three bells have tolled to mark the sacred and secular time of the town since the 1880s.

While at first I was told they had a silver core, I found out that at least one and possibly all of them, were cast in Milwaukee around 1887, so I think they are solid bronze. Its (or their) origin in  Milwaukee, where I taught for 15 years, was a happy surprise, yet another evidence of connection in our lives. I wanted to think

St. Rita Copper Mine

St. Rita Copper Mine

that the copper in them came from the famed St. Rita mines northwest of here in the Gila Mountains, but their origin says otherwise. The Gila Mountains were once the stronghold of Apaches, whose many raids to defend their land and life terrorized both miners and ranchers of this region. The St. Rita mines, which we visited last week, continue to be one of the largest and most productive copper mines in North America.

The bells, augmented by an electronic carillon, punctuate our day, with a special sequence on the old bells on Saturday evening and Sunday morning to call people to Mass. I have been told that the largest bell, named San Albino (also called the Campana Grande), rings only on Easter, since its resonance matches that of its tower just enough to have introduced some cracks in the tower itself.

As if to mirror the church’s durable presence, a single family, I have been told, has been ringing the bells since the 1890s. According to a plaque outside the church, Manuel Valles rang the bells for sixty years. This task has been handed down, so that a third generation in the family now puts their hands upon the ropes to bring their voices to the world. I hear that yet another generation is standing in line to take up the task. Perhaps I shall find out more before we leave.

Living in the presence of these bells and visiting the vast open-pit mine of St. Rita call to mind my research into the life and work of my grandfather, Charles Jackson, in the copper mines of the Americas and of Cyprus, which we visited two years ago. Copper is so ubiquitous in our lives that we scarcely think about the ways it has shaped us over the centuries, just as the bells of San Albino do today in Mesilla. I am listening to the bells this Sunday morning and exploring, like the veins in an old shaft mine, the connections of copper in my own life. You can do the same.

I share a poem emerging from the history of these bells and my ruminations.

Manuel Valles rang the bells for sixty years

            in the tower of the church of San Albino

            in the town of La Mesilla.

Lovingly he called to them,

            San Albino,

                        raise your voice like the martyr Saint Aubin,

            Maria Albina,

                        annunciate the hour to the world,

            Sagrado Corazon,

            call the people to the heart of Jesus.

For sixty years Manuel Valles rang the bells.

            The sun-baked bricks received their tones

                        settling in the wind-blown sand.

The tin roofs echoed dryly in the torpid heat.

The doves flew out surprised each time

            his great bronzed hands pulled on the ropes.

When Manuel Valles rang the bells those sixty years

            lovers kissed the hours in the Calle Guadalupe,

            children skipping rope changed their rhythm to his chimes,

             the women in bright dresses,

the men in long black pants and floppy hats

            responded to his call and filled the welcoming church.

The bells that Manuel Valles rang for sixty years

 sang when people wed

and cried out when they died

in war, at work, in bed.

Now he has joined the invisible chorus of the bells.

Manuel Valles rang the bells for sixty years.

His hands now handed down

receive a little boy

who reaches up

to pull the dancing cord.

 

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