Wednesday, February 10, 2016

George Washington’s Ash Wednesday—Murfin Versee

A flurry of calendar coincidences inspire poetry.


Note—The Old Man is slowly recovering and reducing his pitiful whimpering.  But still not up to snuff.  So I am reaching into my old bag of tricks and pulling out another Moldy Oldie for Ash Wednesday;
For some odd reason, calendar coincidences have often started my poetic juices flowing.  First was the coincidence of the First Sunday of Advent and World AIDS Awareness Day some years ago.   That one made it into my book We Build Temples in the Heart.  There was the time in 2005 when Rosa Parks was laid out in the Capitol Rotunda on Halloween.
Then there was the congruence one year of the first day of Ramadan, Rosh Hashanah, and the day before the anniversary of September 11that resulted in a piece called If I Wore Stars on a Pointed Hat.  In 2010 the Winter Solstice coincided with a Lunar eclipse.  A new moon fell on the mutual birthday of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath so naturally I wrote a poem called How Black the Night.  In 2011 Good Friday ended up on Earth Day.   I had to write about that.
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Ash Wednesday                                                                                                   


The thing is, this is not necessarily a good idea.  Most of these events are a onetime only or a once-in-blue-moon occurrence.  So a poem honoring the occasion may have limited general appeal.  Worse yet, I usually don’t become inspired until the day is upon me.  That means that I have no time to send it out for placement in some prestigious venue which could time the publication.  So I end up posting the verses here on the Blog where they are always in danger of becoming immediately ephemeral.
But I can’t seem to help myself.  In 2012 Ash Wednesday come  around on Washington’s Birthday.
What’s a fellow to do?

Despite this window in the Congressional Chapel in the Capitol, the popular image of Washington in reverent prayer receiving the so called Vision of Valley Forge was invented out of thin air by his early hack "biographer" Parson Weeems.  Elevated to the status of a virtual saint by American Evangelicals, Washington's religious views were much more nuanced and complex.  He dutifully fulfilled the roles appointed him as a leading gentleman of his Anglican parish.  He attended services as rarely as possible and always left before communion.  He was influenced the Deists, but his true religion may have been his cherished Free Masonry.


The Vestryman
Ash Wednesday/Washington’s Birthday 2012

The Vestryman performing the duty expected of the local Squire
            attended chapel when absolutely necessary
            and when no good excuse like fighting an Empire
            or Fathering a Country was handy.

He sat bolt upright on a rigid pew
            contemplated the charms of Lady Fairfax
                        or later dental misery.

            When came the Altar Call, he would stand up,
                        turn on his heel, and march straight out
                        as if a legion was at his back.

            No filthy priestly thumb ever grimed
                        that noble brow.

—Patrick Murfin     

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Revisiting Mardi Gras Envy and a Murfin Poem



Note:  The Proprietor still feels like crap.  Temperatures in McHenry County hover in the teens.  There has been just enough snow to look temporarily pretty, be a nuisance, and hide the black ice patches created by the weekend thaw.  But I am going to work this morning because that is what we vaguely Protestant drudges do.  Fortunately I can cheer myself up the comforting knowledge that there are places where none of this is true and people celebrate the glorious liberation of, in the currently fashionable term, having not a fuck to give.  And I have a post to resurrect from the archives that explains it all.
There are a downsides to having been raised vaguely Protestant and residing in sometimes inhospitable northern climes.  Perhaps the biggest is regarding with wistful envy the liberating extravagance of Carnival and Mardi Gras.  It is the un-religious holiday—a day of wallowing in the ways of the flesh and merry making before getting down to the serious and unpleasant tasks of the proper piety of Lent.
Catholics seem to know how to take advantage of the opportunity, especially in warm places where the streets beckon—New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro most famously.  But folks from countries where Romance languages are spoken can find ways to celebrate even in icy Quebec City.  
The idea is simple.  Finnish up the Christmas season on the Feast of the Epiphany, the fixed day of January 11, and then coast down the hill of Ordinary Time until Ash Wednesday kicks off of Lent, which by the lunar calendar falls anywhere from  February to March, gathering speed all the while.  It is the “dead of winter.”  Even in Mediterranean countries it was dark and often cold.  Folks stayed inside more, got on each others’ nerves.  But by Fat Tuesday, the sap was running and Spring seemed just over the horizon.  Perfect for one last opportunity to bust loose before breaking out the sack cloth and ashes.
Puritans discover some guys having a good time....


Protestants, particularly Calvinists, their decedents, and those who stood close enough by to be infected, took a dim view of the whole process.  More Papist/pagan nonsense to them.  A good Calvinist existed in a state of perpetual Lent.  The experience of any sensual pleasure was regarded as a sinful distraction from contemplation of the awesome majesty of God and our totally undeserving souls.  It was for good reason that Puritanism has been described as the nagging suspicion that somewhere, somehow, somebody is having a good time.  
England, I am told, once celebrated Carnival—a cultural gift of the Norman French aristocracy.  Cromwell and his boys pretty much wiped that out at the point of the sword.  Even when Kings remounted the Throne and the Anglican Church regained the upper hand, the old traditions fell away.  Instead they shrank the celebration down to something called Shrove Tuesday, which is celebrated mostly by making and eating pancakes.  Now I bow to no man in my affection for the flapjack or griddle cake, but even a high pile drenched in butter and real maple syrup is a poor substitute for dancing semi-naked in the streets.  They passed this tradition on to all of the former pink spots on the globe where the Empire once ruled and to all of the Protestant sects derived from Anglicanism and Calvinism.

Lining up for Pączkis.  In cold climates people kept their clothes on and pigged out....


Of course, not all Catholics party with absolute abandon.  Those from northern and eastern Europe either never celebrated or toned down Carnival.  The Poles celebrate with Pączki Day (pronounced pŭtch-kē).  In the old country it was held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, but in the immigrant communities of North America it is held on Fat Tuesday.  Folks line up at bakeries at the crack of dawn to purchase pączkis, a kind of jelly doughnut made only once a year.  This is a much bigger deal than it sounds.
In Germany, the Baltic states, and Scandinavian Fat Tuesday is likewise celebrated with special local pastries meant to use up the supply of sugar and lard before the Lenten fast.
Tonight the biggest and most honored Krews will be conducting their parades in New Orleans.  Down there, they take Mardi Gras seriously and have stretched it to the whole season between the Epiphany and Lent.  Various parades have been winding down the streets of different neighborhoods for weeks, each followed by its own Ball.  The streets of the French Quarter will be crowded.  Many revelers will be drunken northerners and Calvinist escapees.  They will party next to the locals, drinking copiously, begging for beads cast from the parade floats, and eying the pretty young girls flashing their tits.  Everyone will forget that Ted Cruz and the rest of that tribe exist.
And I wish I was with them.  It’s been far too long since I reveled in sin and degradation
Two years ago Social Justice Committee of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry was scheduled to dutifully meet to do its earnest work on the evening of Fat Tuesday.   We were, after all, the stepchildren of those old Massachusetts Puritans.  As Chair it was customary for me to open the proceedings with a reflection.  Usually it’s a reading I snatch from the internet.  But that bitterly cold night smack dab in the Winter that would not end with howling winds blowing snow dangerously across the roads, we gathered anyway. I read them this.  Fitting and apt.   Sitting through my poetry ought to be hair shirt enough for any Puritan.



A Prayer for a Committee Meeting on Mardi Gras
March 4, 2014

Drudges like us throw on our heavy coats
            and slog through the still arctic night
            to rendezvous around a table
            for the earnest business of making the world
            a kinder place
            or so we tell ourselves.

We pass the hours elbow deep
            in the common dishwater
            of routine and rote,
            duty and debate
            and adjourn the world not moved
            a centimeter from its calamitous orbit.

But tonight in the Big Easy,
            down in Rio or far off Nice,
                        any of the warm places
                        where the evening pulses expectantly,
            they don masks and dance heedless
            in the streets.

In timeless Carnival
            the rich and poor,
                        Black and White,
                                    queer and straight
                                                alien and citizen
            revel together in absolute equality.

In the common streets
            justice rolls down like bons temps
            and righteousness,
                        the enemy comity,
            is tucked away in a samba dancer’s thong.

For this one night there is Joy
            and the old world dances to a coronet.

—Patrick Murfin