Monthly Archives: April 2019

As a Vapour, or a Drop of Raine

Tonight, this last of April, brings a welcome to summer. The setting sun will bring us Walpurgis Night, the Eve of St. Walpurga’s Day. These are obscure celebrations in the States, as is May Day, but the common thread tonight and tomorrow is that we are springing now into summer. Life is exploding everywhere around us as trees leaf out and bloom and as bulbs beneath the earth erupt into flowers that carpet the ground. In the Northern Hemisphere, we approach the gentle time of year.

What’s traditional to this night? Bonfires (translated easily to a backyard fire or an illuminated candle), and gravlax (a delicious cured smoked salmon from Scandinavia) and sparkling wine enjoyed outdoors. Outdoors is key, and for many, Walpurgis Night, or May Eve, is a night to spend entirely outdoors, gathering blossoms and greenery with which to decorate our homes tomorrow on May Day. It’s another of the holidays that the Puritans really disliked, for who knew what mischief folks would get to out in the woods alone at night? One result of this Puritanical distrust is that maypoles and May Day celebrations never took root here in this country quite to the extent that they had in Europe, much to our loss as a nation, and these traditions were tough to recover even in England, where the Puritans were in power from 1649 to 1660. During their reign, May Day was banned (along with maypoles and even Christmas). The most joyous place for a May Day celebration would seem to be Scandinavia, where winter’s darkness is most severe, and where one can imagine a day to welcome summer would be heartily received.

For the Celts, this is the entry into Beltane (pronounced bowl-tan-a). It is the cross-quarter day opposite Samhain, which comes at Halloween and All Souls Day. Being the opposite spoke in the wheel of the year, our perspective is opposite, as well: While at Samhain we were gathering in and shifting sights inward, now we are emerging and shifting sights outward. It is the time of growth and openness, a rebirth into the world: bursting forth, bursting forth. Rivers running, leaves and flowers exploding onto the scene, filling spaces in the sky and the landscape that were not long ago stark with winter’s emptiness.

A fire, a candle, gravlax, and sparkling wine. If you’ve none of these things with which to celebrate––or if you have them all––here is a good thing for your celebration. It’s a poem by our Book of Days hero Robert Herrick. It’s from his book Hesperides, first published in 1648, as the Puritans were rising to power in England. Read it silently to yourself, read it aloud to yourself, read it to someone you love. It is one of my favorite poems, a thing of beauty, a thing of this earth, and love, of course, calls us to the things of this earth.


by Robert Herrick

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree.
Each Flower has wept, and bow’d toward the East,
Above an houre since; yet you not drest,
                     Nay! not so much as out of bed?
                     When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
                     And sung their thankful Hymnes: ’tis sin,
                     Nay, profanation to keep in,
When as a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.

Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
                     And sweet as Flora. Take no care
                     For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
                     Feare not; the leaves will strew
                     Gemms in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the Day has kept,
Against you come, some Orient Pearls unwept:
                     Come, and receive them while the light
                     Hangs on the Dew-locks of the night:
                     And Titan on the Eastern hill
                     Retires himselfe, or else stands still
Till you come forth. Wash, dresse, be briefe in praying:
Few Beads are best, when once we goe a Maying.

Come, my Corinna, come; and comming, marke
How each field turns a street; each street a Parke
                     Made green, and trimm’d with trees: see how
                     Devotion gives each House a Bough,
                     Or Branch: Each Porch, each doore, ere this,
                     An Arke a Tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
                     Can such delights be in the street,
                     And open fields, and we not see’t?
                     Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obay
                     The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
                     A deale of Youth, ere this, is come
                     Back, and with White-thorn laden home.
                     Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,
                     Before that we have left to dreame:
And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
                     Many a green-gown has been given;
                     Many a kisse, both odde and even:
                     Many a glance too has been sent
                     From out the eye, Loves Firmament:
Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
                     We shall grow old apace, and die
                     Before we know our liberty.
                     Our life is short; and our dayes run
                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.


Image: “The May Queen of New Westminster’s Annual May Day,” possibly by S.J. Thompson, British Columbia, Canada. Photograph, c.1887. The photograph comes with the following information: “The May Queen and her court. Girl at top left is Adelaide Ewen born in 1877. She was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Rogers Ewen. Isabel Macmillan Latta, the donor of the photo, was the daughter of Isabella Ewen whose sister is in this photo.” [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.



Easter at St. Bernard’s

Here’s a story I wrote many years ago, when I had aspirations to be a different sort of writer than the one I became. The memory of it popped into my head on Saturday as I was raking hay in the garden, and later I found the typed manuscript pasted into a journal from 1993. Ann Peyton, my teacher, thought it was ok back then, and I read it on Holy Saturday night these 26 years later and thought, well, a little polishing up and it might be even better. Here it is. Happy Easter. –– John

On the morning of Easter Sunday, there is an egg hunt on the grounds of St. Bernard’s. It is an annual event, always directly after the 9 AM mass: screaming children scurrying, adults on the sidelines, Father Fred directing and guiding, his black vestments down to his black shoes, floating above the green grass.

This year, before mass is over, and after the Egg Hunt Committee of the St. Bernard’s Women’s Club has all the eggs hidden––some in easy plain-as-day flat-out-middle-of-the-lawn spots, others in more difficult spots (like the purple one hidden inside the bottom of a rain gutter)––well, somewhere in the midst of this a raccoon comes on the scene, steals a yellow egg from the exposed roots of a large banyan tree, shimmies beneath the shrubbery and devours his prize. This is true. I saw it happen.

He wore a blue jacket. Large brass buttons. Nothing else, of course. Maybe it’s the tail situation––I couldn’t tell you, really––but animals never wear trousers. Not in stories like this, anyway.

So this raccoon eats this stolen yellow egg, taking great care not to spoil his blue jacket, and he is amazed to see, out of the corner of his eye, another egg, a bluish-green color, right there beside him under the shrubbery.

“No way!” he says, and he swaggers up to it and devours this one, as well. He belches once or twice and rolls onto his back in that delightful sated feeling that comes after a good meal. He is contemplating sleep, rolling to his side. There is another yellow egg ahead of him on the grass. His eyes widen. He jumps to his feet, runs and grabs the yellow egg, thinks, “I will save this for later,” then scurries toward the wood past the sanctuary of Mary, Mother of God.

There is a red egg at her feet and this raccoon, he cannot believe his incredible good fortune. He drops the yellow egg, takes the red one instead, and runs for the wood. His belly aches a little but he runs anyway with his red egg and blue jacket with brass buttons. He jumps into a rotted old tree. Home.

“You guys! You will not believe this. Look!” He shows the other raccoons in the rotted old tree the red egg. “It’s like, raining eggs out there. They’re everywhere! Hundreds, maybe thousands! Eggs just… everywhere! Yellow ones blue ones red ones, green ones, too! And they are…” (he sucks in some air) “…everywhere.”

Naturally, this news gets all the other raccoons pretty worked up and soon there’s a clamor going through the rotted old tree and through the whole neighborhood: raccoons jumping out of morning naps, scurrying into jackets and overcoats and running outside to see this great event: colored eggs falling from the sky. They process through the wood and toward the grounds of St. Bernard’s.

Now, at about the time that the raccoon in the blue jacket with brass buttons had picked up the red egg at the foot of Mary, Mother of God, Father Fred was blessing the congregation and saying, “The mass is over. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And the congregation said, “Thanks be to God,” and the organist began a triumphant tune and the children were suddenly reborn and they jumped up and grabbed their baskets and took moms and dads by the hands and ran to the church lawn. And Father Fred took his place at the center of the lawn with his black shoes sunken in the green grass and his black vestments floating above them. He yelled GO! and the screaming children blasted out from all sides. They dove and slid and colored eggs were scooped up right and left up and down here and there and the whole thing was over in seconds. The colored eggs at the grounds of St. Bernard’s were gone in three blinks of an eye. Father Fred gave jelly beans to the children and the ones he liked got pats on the head, as well. Then the congregation rushed off, saying “Happy Easter,” “Goodbye,” “Dinner’s at 4,” and Father Fred went back to the church to prepare for the mass at noon.

The grounds of St. Bernard’s were deserted when the entourage of jacketed raccoons arrived to delve into the multitude of colored eggs that been sent from on high. They burst from the wood smacking their lips and sniffing the air and dusting the sleeves of their jackets. They looked around, expecting piles of blue eggs, yellow eggs, red eggs and green ones, too. But there were none.

The raccoon in the blue jacket with the brass buttons was in a panic. “I… I don’t understand. I ate two eggs, I did. I found them here, in the grass. I even left one––a yellow one––here, by the pretty stone lady.”

The other raccoons grumbled amongst themselves. They were rather upset and raccoons don’t hesitate to show their displeasure, you know. They were grumbling and turning away, hissing at the poor little fellow and making obscene gestures as they passed. And the raccoon with the blue jacket and brass buttons was left alone at the foot of Mary, Mother of God, sobbing and quite shaken. He was very embarrassed. I know. I saw the whole thing. I would have been embarrassed, too.

But don’t feel bad. Raccoons are resilient creatures. As it turns out, he’s found the purple egg that was hidden at the bottom of the rain gutter. I never would have thought to look there and apparently none of those children thought of it, either. But the raccoon with the blue jacket and brass buttons has found it. He devours it, taking care not to spoil his jacket. Then he scurries off, into the wood.


Image: Even bunnies wear blue jackets with brass buttons. This is one of the handmade paper eggs from Germany that we sell at the Convivio Book of Days Catalog. Happy Easter!


Ocean Breeze, Palm Trees, Distant Moon

And so we are in the midst of Holy Week. It came with a shock this year, as we watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame burn in Paris, a loss for which it is for many of us impossible to find words. Holy Week is a time I hold dear, even though I don’t think of myself as a particularly religious person. I write about all these holidays, these holy days, and they hold vast spaces in my heart, and I listen to an awful lot of sacred music and I sing hymns as I go up and down staircases, just because I like them, and I feel sick about Notre Dame, but more for its beauty and history than anything else. My connexion to things religious is mostly, for better or for worse, human. I say a silent grace before meals, when I think of it, but more often than not there is already a forkful of dinner in my mouth when I am beginning to say it. And I pray, mostly when I’m driving to work each morning; at some point a few years ago I decided I could make better use of my time during my daily commute if I switched to prayer instead of all the cursing and swearing that had, up until that point, been more typical of my drive.

These things are in my DNA. As a grandson of early 20th century Italian immigrants, I grew up with St. Anthony in the backyard. In the house, there were all manner of saints and blessed virgins under glass domes on bedroom bureaus and crucifixes hanging on the walls and prayer cards with saintly images leaning on picture frames. St. Joseph, St. Rocco, St. Anthony again, the Infant of Prague, Santa Maria della Vittoria––the Black Madonna of Lucera. The year after my grandpa died, which was just after I graduated high school, there was, during Lent, forty days and nights of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at our neighborhood church, St. Paul’s. I wanted to keep Grandma engaged. I had no idea what Adoration was, but Grandma expressed an interest, and so I brought her the first night when Lent began. And I brought her the second night. By and by, I brought her each night that week, and each night after. I don’t think we missed once, all through those forty nights. We would sit there, she and I, in the dark candle-lit chapel. Grandma would mumble her prayers in Italian, we would chat quietly, we would sing and pray when the priest came in to sing and pray with those of us who were gathered. We made friends: Father Brice, the pastor, Father Alonso, who was from Spain and who spoke so slowly that Grandma had no trouble understanding his English, Pat McAuliffe, the woman who made sure everything in the church was in order, and who often was out of her shoes anytime you entered the sacristy unannounced. Grandma and I would go late in the evening, maybe 9:30 or 10, and stay past 11, every night for forty nights. It was one of those things I never would have imagined myself doing, but I did it for someone outside my self, I did it for Grandma, and it turned out to be one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced. Which is often the case when you step outside your self and do things for others.

It was probably those forty nights that fostered my love of churches at night. And so it is that I have come to love another of Grandma’s traditions: the visitation of three churches at night for this same overnight watch on Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday. And still, all these years later, you will find Seth and me doing this on Holy Thursday this week, as we do each year. When we go and sit there in the still and candlelit darkness, I do pray a little, but mostly I just sit. I am right up against Seth, usually, but I also have Grandma nearby, and all the people who have come and gone in my life. We are all quiet, taking in the creaks of the building and the sounds of passers-by outside the doors and the flickering of the candles. This year, I suppose, I’ll have Notre Dame with me, as well. The heart expands, and expands.

Friday is Good Friday. I have never, in all my life, been to church for a Good Friday service. Each year I think maybe this year I’ll go. And maybe this year I will go. I have taken the day off from work, so that’s a good start toward the possibility. Friday night will, as well, begin Passover. It is a high holy week across faiths this year. Saturday brings Holy Saturday, the Easter vigil. Some years, if we have it in us, we endure the Vigil Mass, which can go on for many hours. It can begin only once darkness falls, so it is a late night. One year I really wanted to go but couldn’t for one obligation or another, so I went to the Creole service that began at 11. I was the only person there at St. Ann’s who was not Haitian. I was warmly welcomed, but my French is rusty and my Creole not much better and though I could understand only very little, still I could follow along. This, through years of experience. We sang in Creole, people shook my hand and offered me the sign of peace in Creole, and when we stepped out into the night onto the city street, it was well past 1 in the morning. I felt light and at peace. Again, one of the most special things I’ve experienced.

And maybe this is what I love about Holy Week. No matter how far I’ve strayed, I always feel welcome in the churches I visit on my journey this week, especially on Holy Thursday, that somber yet beautiful night through which many of them will keep their doors open clear through to the next morning, for we are invited: to keep watch, and to be present. The distant moon, our constant companion. Along with it, the ocean breeze, the silhouettes of palms. It is the most beautiful time of year here in Lake Worth. Open, welcoming, warm. As Lent concludes and we ponder the mysteries of this week and as we approach Easter… this warm, welcome openness I wish for you, as well.


Image: When I am visiting churches on Holy Thursday night, I like to wander around. I’m not sure if it’s sanctioned or not, but nonetheless Seth and I tend to wend our way into chapels, peep into unlocked doors, ascend staircases. This angel greeted us in an upper choir loft of one of those churches, perhaps St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach or St. Edward’s or Bethesda by the Sea on Palm Beach.

Music for the week: Several years ago, the Boston Camerata released a wonderful collection of songs for Holy Week. It’s called “Lamentations: Holy Week in Provence.” It is exquisite.