Monthly Archives: September 2017

Angels Abound

As September draws to a close, this 29th day of the month brings Michaelmas, the Feast of Michael the Archangel, and this year, in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur begins with the setting sun.

I am reminded every now and then that blogs are great but real books are still the cat’s pajamas, for me, anyway. We are in the midst now of Week Two of a period where our blog platform won’t allow me to upload new media and where updates to the plug-ins won’t install. This sort of thing has happened before and I’m sure it will happen again. Seth Thompson is my go-to man of patience in these matters, and while he figures out the source of the current mystery and tries to make things right, it may be necessary to revisit a few past Book of Days chapters for the days that come. This one, for Michaelmas, is from just last year, improved a bit, based on some books––real books, off of real bookshelves––that I’ve been reading lately. Enjoy.



I wonder sometimes about the people who come into our lives just when you need them––the ones who drift in, do something good, then disappear. I am thinking right now of the random driver years ago who pulled in front of me on the road and slowed me down just long enough to protect me from the driver at the intersection ahead of us both who blew through a stop sign. Were it not for the slow guy suddenly in front of me, I would have been broadsided by that car that did not stop. So with thanks to that person I’ll never know, my fist-shaking and swearing became a sigh of relief. It does seem at times like I get through life with a measure of help from people just like this. What if it’s always the same person?

Today is Michaelmas (pronounced mick-il-mus). It is the Feast of Michael the Archangel, but angels abound in cultures throughout the world, we know this. And so it is fitting to celebrate not just Michael, but all angels, and various traditions will honor today Michael as well as Gabriel and Raphael. Others will include Uriel, Raguel, Ramiel, and Sariel. I love these names, names that come out of a long and complex etymological history, names that in their true form would be Micha-el, Gabri-el, Rapha-el, Uri-el, Ragu-el, Rami-el, Sari-el. The “-el” is Sumerian in origin, signifying “brightness” or “shining.” The etymology connects to the Akkadian ilu (radiant one), Babylonian ell (shining one), Old Welsch ellu (shining being), Old Irish aillil (shining), Anglo-Saxon aelf (radiant being), and English elf (shining being).

The list of angels continues, across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and beyond to other cultures, too: Camael, Jophiel, and Zadkiel; Anael, Simiel, and Oriphiel; Metatron, Israfil, and Malak al-Maut. Perhaps they are not all cherubim and seraphim, winged beings. Perhaps they are right here with us, looking just like us, driving cars when they need to and getting in our way, slowing us down when we need slowing down.

As for Michael the Archangel: He is the first of the archangels and the leader of the hosts of heaven. He likes heights: he is a protector of mountain tops and high places. He is, as well, a patron of cemeteries. His feast day comes with increasing night: we are a week past the equinox now and our nights in the Northern Hemisphere grow increasingly dark as we shave off a few minutes of daylight with each passing day. Darkness can be scary. It is a good time to call down the power of archangels for protection.

Struan Micheil, or Michaelmas bannocks, very much like scones, are typically made in Scotland on the Eve of Michaelmas (that would have been last night) from equal amounts of oat, rye, and barley flour, but I don’t see why you couldn’t make those bannocks today or this weekend (that’s my plan for Saturday). Tradition would have us make our Michaelmas bannocks without the use of metal: wooden fork, wooden or ceramic mixing bowl, stone for baking. Dinner might be roast goose, for Michaelmas coincides with the migration of geese. We call down the goose as we call down the angel. In some places, nuts are roasted and cracked for Michaelmas (a tradition that is part of many celebrations during these days of harvest).

It is the humble blackberry that is the center of the culinary traditions of Michaelmas, and we would do well to have our Michaelmas bannocks with fresh blackberries or with blackberry jam. The story goes that Satan, after his battle with Michael the Archangel, fell to earth from heaven and landed in a bramble patch, and each year on Michaelmas, Satan returns to curse and spit upon the brambles that he landed upon. And so we eat them up before this happens. Many folks will refuse to harvest blackberries after the 29th of September. It’s just not worth it; they could be cursed.

Last year for Michaelmas I gave you a song and I think I will leave you with that same song again this year, for it is perhaps the best song you’ll find to honor and invoke angels. It’s called “Calling All Angels” and it’s by Jane Siberry, a song she wrote and recorded as a duet with k.d. lang for the 1993 Siberry album When I Was a Boy. And so here, for you for Michaelmas, are two of my favorite Canadians singing the song live in Houston. It’s a homemade video, filmed by someone who was there in the audience that night, and in the very last few frames of the video, a woman in the audience turns to the camera and it is in those last few seconds that we witness the emotional power of a song, of a poem. This is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Connexions across time and space, whether human or angelic. Do we protect others? Bring out their best qualities? Are we each others’ guardian angels? Do we create heaven on earth? Do we choose to turn coal into diamonds? Believe what you will about angels. These daily decisions are ours to make.


Image: “Have a chair.” “Thank you, I have one.” Sometimes our guardian angels slow us down with newly-varnished chairs. In the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, David Niven plays a bishop who prays for help and receives it in the form of an angel played by Cary Grant. Seth and I watch it every year at Christmastime.

Since this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days was first published in 2016, Jane Siberry has released a new record. Its title? Angels Bend Closer. How fitting for today.


The Darker Half

Come 4:02 PM Eastern Daylight Time today, summer officially gives way to autumn: it is the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, with the opposite being true in the Southern Hemisphere, for there, this is the moment that spring begins. Things will be more or less balanced for a short time, but as we continue past this day, from this point forward we here in the Northern Hemisphere will have more darkness each day than light, while folks in the Southern Hemisphere will have more light each day than darkness. It is a gradual change, each day different from the one before, and it all has to do with the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth on its axis as it makes its yearly journey around the sun. Were it not for that 23.5 degrees, we would have no seasons at all.

And so the sun about now is rising pretty much due east and setting pretty much due west. We are in a brief time of balance, something worth seeking in our lives at least twice each year as the two equinox periods come and go. Not an easy task, to be certain.

It may be the first day of autumn by the almanac, but in traditional reckoning of time, the equinox is the midpoint of autumn, which began with the first of the harvest festivals, Lammas, at the start of August. Again, balance, as we find ourselves at the center of the season, half of it in the past, half of it yet to come, both sides of it on either side of where we stand now.


May you have a sweet and good year.

Tonight at sundown in the Jewish tradition we begin a new year. It is Rosh Hashanah. I’ve never felt terribly comfortable writing about faith traditions that are not my own, but a few days ago, thanks to mutual friend Paula Marie Gourley, I found this piece of writing about Rosh Hashanah that I rather liked. It’s by Julius Lester. I asked Paula to ask Julius if I could reprint here for you in the Convivio Book of Days, and Julius said yes. I suppose that makes Julius Lester our first guest blogger here in this Book of Days. This is all right by me. I am honored to have his words here, and I hope you take them to heart, learn from them, send them out further. ~ John

Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday night, September 20.


I don’t like it when gentile and Jewish friends greet me at Rosh Hashanah with “Happy New Year.” Rosh Hashanah is not the Jewish equivalent of January 1.

But I have never understood what “Happy New Year” is supposed to mean. I’ve never been sure that I want to be wished happiness. I’m not sure I know what happiness is, or that it is as important as we think. Happiness feels better than misery, but some of the most significant periods of my life have been the ones of profound unhappiness. For all the feelings of well-being that happiness bestows upon us, it is not a goal of life. I may spend the next year totally depressed, but that may be where I need to be in my life. A better greeting at Rosh Hashanah is “May you have a sweet and good year.” Even if the next year is a difficult one for me, it may be a good year, even a sweet one, even though it feels otherwise.

There is another aspect to Rosh Hashanah. It is also known as hayom harat olam––“the birthday of the world.” On our birthdays we mark our passage through time. One year of our lives has ended; a new one has begun. Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to mark the passages through time that have taken place in our world, and how big or inclusive “our world” is depends on the person. On birthdays we celebrate what has been and anticipate with joy what is to come.

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim––“Days of Awe.” It is a space in time for reflection, a time to withdraw energy from the world in order to renew one’s love for the world. We withdraw from the world in order to become more conscious of who we are and what our relationship to the world has been during the previous year. It is a way of celebrating the world, not by blowing noisemakers and getting drunk, but by taking responsibility for who we are in the world, because, in the deepest sense we are the world.

It would be incredible if, once a year, for ten days, the world would close up. The television and radio stations would go off the air (and ten days without hearing anything about Donald Trump would be purifying). Newspapers would stop publishing; the internet would shut off (though sales of tranquilizers would sky rocket just to quiet my anxieties as I suffered through internet withdrawal); companies would pay employees not to come to work, stores not selling essentials like food would be closed.

For ten days people would reflect on and talk to each other about what they had done to the world over the previous twelve months. What had they done that contributed to easing suffering of any kind? What had they done that contributed to increasing joy of any kind? And what could they do in the coming year to alleviate needless pain and contribute to senseless joy?

I know. I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant idealist. But so are Rosh Hashanah and Yamim Noraim. They hold before us unattainable ideals which we must strive toward if we are going to be as fully and wonderfully human as is within our grasp.

The greeting I prefer at this time of the year is L’shanah Tovah. Literally, it means “To a good year.” This leads me, at least, to reflect on what is “good,” which creates possibilities for new ways of being, creative ways of doing. However, if one is not comfortable with Hebrew, say “Have a sweet year,” or “Have a prosperous and sweet year,” or anything that comes from your heart. But please save “Happy New Year” for December and January.


Julius Lester has had a long, amazing career. He has published over 40 books, recorded two albums, hosted a couple of radio shows in New York City, taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has won numerous prestigious book awards. Had I known all this before reading his essay on Rosh Hashanah, I probably would have hesitated to ask Paula to ask him if he’d share his words with us. Thank you, Julius, for your generosity. Thank you, Paula, for the connexion. I was going to use one of her photographs, of apples and hazelnuts, to accompany Julius’s essay, but technical issues prevent me. Instead, here’s a photo we’ve used in the past for Rosh Hashanah: It’s a recipe for Aunt Ida’s Taglach from Pearl Silman’s handwritten recipe book. A few years ago Pearl’s daughter Rita asked me to make facsimile copies of the book for her children, Pearl’s grandkids. I couldn’t resist making a copy for myself, too. May you have a good and sweet year.


Essay © 2017 Julius Lester.