Wednesday, December 22, 2021

An Evening with Thornton Wilder

This should probably be “An Afternoon With Thornton Wilder” because that is when we went to see these plays, but Stars Playhouse said “Evening,” so I am going with that. 


I have written about plenty of productions at Stars Dinner Theater over the years, but oddly, had never seen anything at their smaller venue, Stars Playhouse. This location is in a small industrial building, and is even more barebones and intimate than The Empty Space. Whereas Stars puts on musicals, the Playhouse focuses on plays, often ones with small casts, and minimal sets. In other words, the sort of stuff Thornton Wilder liked to write. 


The headliner for this trio of one act plays was The Long Christmas Dinner, which was bookended by Queens of France as the opener and The Drunken Sisters as the humorous closer. The three put together had a run time of about that of a regular play. Many of the cast appeared in two of the plays, but none were in all three. 


I don’t always mention the directors of the plays I see, although I probably should more often. Since I am not part of the productions, it is often difficult to know exactly how much of the production to attribute to the director’s vision, so I haven’t tended to speculate. In this case, John Spitzer (last seen as Lancelot), who is the artistic director of the Playhouse, directed the plays and came out before each one and said a few things about it. I rather enjoy getting that sort of insight into the director’s vision, so that was definitely a positive about the production. It was clear that Spitzer felt a personal connection to The Long Christmas Dinner in particular, and that love came through. I appreciated the chance to see some Wilder live, and thought the productions were well done. 


Queens of France


This is technically a one-act play, but it felt a lot more like a vignette. The scene is the office of M’su Cahusac, a con-man lawyer. Over the course of the play, three women, in different stages of victimhood, come in. Cahusac is in the business of convincing them that they are each the heir to the crown of France, descendant of the lost dauphin. (Fans of Huckleberry Finn will remember how long this sort of thing has been going on in the American South…) The first is a young woman who is hearing for the first time that her life may be in danger because she is the rightful queen. The second is still in full belief in the scam, and is hit up for money to “redeem” some item belonging to the royal family. The third, the oldest, is beginning to doubt the story a bit, but doesn’t entirely care, because it has been a fun fantasy. And, she has nothing better to spend her money on than a bit of attention from a younger man. 


The mood of the play is that of light humor, and a bit of a wink of an eye. Like most Wilder works, the humor is gentle rather than biting or mean. And the point is that we believe what we want to believe - all Cahusac has to do is appeal to vanity, or a desire for purpose in life, or a need to boost self esteem. He is selling a lie, but it goes down easy if you want it to. 


Four actors (Blanka Trujillo, Jordan Fulmer, Emma Scott, and Leslie Lane), a simple set, and understated acting brought the play together. 


The Long Christmas Dinner


This was the longest of the plays at around 40 minutes. The basic idea is pretty easy to explain. The Bayard family has a series of Christmas dinners over a 90 year period. Characters come and go as time goes on. They are born, they die, they marry, they have children. Life happens. A house that was once new and exciting becomes old and (in the eyes of some of the characters), haunted. Roderick’s business becomes a factory, culture and technology change, a war leaves holes in families everywhere, and so on. 


The play takes place around a table, and the characters come and go through three entrances/exits. The first is that of birth - we understand characters to be born through the way the other actors react to the pantomimed babies that are held. The second is where characters who go away and come back enter and exit. So, when Cousin Brandon returns from Alaska, he enters from there. The final exit is just that. When characters die, they exit through that portal. 


Because the play moves through time seamlessly, the actors have to denote aging through their acting, not through costumes or makeup. While Wilder’s stage directions indicate the use of gray wigs, in this production, nothing was changed except the acting. I love watching each character go through the stages from enthusiastic youth to middle age to elderly frailty as indicated by everything from gesture to voice. In particular, I thought Karl Wade (Roderick Sr.), Cristina Goyeneche (Lucia), and Kamala Boeck (Cousin Ermengarde) were impressive in how they handled this. (No shade on the others, but those three were highlights.) 


Throughout the play, certain phrases keep recurring, and are passed down by generation just like heirlooms. For example, from Mother Bayard: “[current preacher] preaches a splendid sermon. I cried and cried.” Or from various elderly acquaintances of the family, being quoted: “Does [character’s] [medical complaint] give [him/her] much pain?” “Some, perhaps, but you know [his/her] way - it’ll be all the same in a hundred years.” Or, from various female family members: “Every least twig is wrapped around with ice. You almost never see that.” And, from the current patriarch: “To the ladies, God bless them every one.” I am sure I am forgetting some. 


I should mention here that the pre-production music was some solo jazz guitar by Patrick Reyes. He also played little riffs every time the years passed in this play, which was a nice touch. You can tell from context, but it was helpful to have the musical cue as well. (And also, I am always in favor of live music whenever possible.) 


I love the minimalist idea behind this play, and love the way Wilder handles the ordinary drama of family and the passage of time. 


One of his decisions did make me think a bit, though. The line in this family is traced by the males. Which, I suppose, since the house was supposed to be the same, this was in line with male inheritance. But it also raised a few questions. The first is rather personal to me. In each case, the daughter in law is fully embraced as part of the family, and in many ways, the women hold everything together. To simplify this, the one daughter in the play never marries or has children. But it still seems to me a bit odd that there was no female drama with all this. Perhaps Wilder - unmarried and likely gay - didn’t see or experience this? Or just made the decision to have all the real interpersonal drama be between the men? Who knows? 


The other thing about this decision is that the women in the family line end up as old maids, which, well, seems to be an interesting choice as well. I’d be curious if Wilder ever mentioned his thought process. 


Overall, though, an excellent play, and one that I enjoyed. 

 The cast of The Long Christmas Dinner
Not that they are ever all together at the table like this...

The Drunken Sisters


For context here, Wilder originally wrote a short play re-telling one of the Greek myths, entitled The Alcestiad. Euripides wrote the best-known version of this story, where Alcestis offers her life in exchange for that of her husband, Admentus. Wilder wrote this play, but then World War Two broke out, and it seemed to be out of step with the times. He sat on it for a while, and it wasn’t produced until 1955, and even the director admitted that he did a poor job with it. After that, Wilder decided to add a “satyr play” to go with the story, and lighten the mood afterward. The Drunken Sisters is that play. It wasn’t until after Wilder’s death that the two were actually performed together. In this case, since Stars Playhouse did it as a stand-alone, I think it really helps to know the mythology - in particular, the ending makes more sense if you know what happens.


Anyway, in this episode, the three Fates are sitting around bemoaning the fact that they already have heard all of the riddles ever created, and are bored out of their skulls. Apollo, overhearing them, sees a chance to save the life of Admentus, one of his favorites. He then disguises himself as a lowly slave, puts three bottles around his neck, and tries to “sneak” past the Fates. He is, as he intended, discovered, and “forced” to “reluctantly” disclose that the bottles contain Aphrodite’s elixir of eternal youth. The Fates appropriate the bottles, and drink them down. But Apollo has tricked them. The bottles actually contain a powerful booze, which makes the sisters drunk. With their reason impared, he bargains that if he can tell them a riddle they can’t answer, they have to spare a life of his choosing. He wins, but there is a problem. The Fates cannot give up a life for nothing - a willing substitute has to be found. And, well, we know who that ends up being. 


Jordan Fulmer returns in the role of Apollo. His hayseed version is pretty funny, and it is easy to laugh when the Sisters have the better of him in the end. (Also, can we agree that Apollo is serious putz?) Fulmer is an excellent comic actor too, and hammed it up properly. The three Fates (Blanka Trujillo, Cheyenne Reyes, and Madison Shuck), also made a big switch from their more formal and straight-up acting to an over-the-top style. It was a nice contrast from the first two, and a good way to send the audience out with a laugh. 


Props to Stars Playhouse for putting on these plays. I am thinking I should come back and see some of their other ones next year. 


Monday, December 20, 2021

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Although many of our selection are ones new to me, this was one that was already on my “to read” list. I have previously enjoyed reading two of Ishiguro’s other books, The Buried Giant, and The Remains of the Day, so I wanted to read his newest. (I note that this also made Barack Obama’s reading list for 2021 - which is consistently thoughtful and erudite. I have read quite a few off his list over the years.) 


As is the case with any Ishiguro book, it is extremely difficult to discuss them without spoilers. His writing style is to gradually reveal information until the picture becomes clear at the end. But along the way, things remain shrouded in mystery, and it is often difficult to figure out what the book is even about, so to speak. In this case, I am making the deliberate choice to give spoilers, so as to discuss the themes of the book, rather than just quote the cover blurb. 


So: SPOILERS!!! If you want to read the book first, do it, then come back here to read my thoughts.




Klara and the Sun is science fiction, which is a bit of a departure from either of the other Ishiguro books I have read. Although, honestly, all three are so unlike each other in their basic settings. 


But I wouldn’t say that they are that different either. Ishiguro has a style. Not just a style of writing, or even mostly that. In fact, his style, while recognizable as his, changes with his narrators quite a lot. The English butler has a very different voice from an old person with possible dementia, or in this case, an “Artificial Friend” - an embodied AI designed to provide companionship to human children. 


What is the same from book to book is the narrative style. Ishiguro picks a narrator or central character who is on the fringes of society in some way. In both The Remains of the Day and Klara and the Sun, the narrator is of the servant class. Thus, he or she is part of the society, yet not really of it. They are on the outskirts, the fringes, the margins. As we noted in our club discussion, there is a lot of similarity to the way that Klara offers to stand by the refrigerator to give the family privacy (even though she can clearly hear everything) and the way the butler is expected to wait on the guests without being part of their conversations. 


The book is the story of Klara, an “AF” who is purchased for Josie, a tween girl who is ill. As we eventually come to find out (sorry about the spoilers, but they are unavoidable), she has been “lifted” - that is, genetically engineered to boost intelligence. The problem is, the procedure has a risk of causing eventual illness and death, which is what happened to Josie’s older sister. Whether or not Josie will live or die is a key plot point. 


But it gets a lot darker than that. Josie is in love with a neighborhood boy who is normal - his mother declined to “lift” him, which means that his future prospects are dim - he will need practically a miracle (or, as his mother hopes, a little nepotism) to get into college. So, you have a potentially doomed romance going on. And some serious classist bullying by other “lifted” kids. 


But the darkest part of all isn’t revealed until far later. Josie’s mom selected Klara, because she and an artist have been working on a “portrait” of Josie - which turns out to be a three-dimensional body. Which they intend to house Klara as an imitator and replacement of Josie, should she die. 


Klara, who is in many ways the most emotionally intelligent character in the book, decides to try to strike a bargain with the Sun (since AFs are solar powered, she develops a sort of sun-worshipping religious system) to save Josie’s life. 


And that is just the plot, before you get into the glimpses of the dystopia Ishiguro envisions. Glimpses, because everything is told from Klara’s viewpoint, and her only way of learning about the society she is in is through what she hears humans say. Machines are well on their way to replacing most human labor, and, as we are seeing in our own time, rather than lead to better lives for workers, this has meant that humans are increasingly dispensable to the capitalist class. In the book, these “post-employed” persons have ended up in ghettos, and have formed rival factions for their own survival. (The book hints at fascist and anarchist groups, but we never get details.) By the end, it appears that society has changed somewhat, and AFs have gone out of style. Or at least been replaced by something more advanced. We never know, though, because Klara’s intended lifespan has run, and she is put out to pasture so to speak. (The similarities to a nursing home are interesting.) 


As far as themes, the central one is on the nature of humanity. What makes someone human? Are we really no more than the sum of our biology? Does the mind and will - or even the soul - actually exist outside of brain synapses? 


And if we are simply more complex machines, wouldn’t Klara be able to “be” Josie, as long as she can duplicate all the mental and emotional processes? 


There are some devastating lines in the book related to all of this. Mr. Capaldi, the artist and scientist, himself has his doubts, even as he drives the project. 


“And now Klara’s completed the survey up there, I’ll be able to give you scientific proof of it. Proof she’s already well on her way to accessing quite comprehensively all of Josie’s impulses and desires. The trouble is, Chrissie, you’re like me. We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age, it’s a hard one to let go. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there. Nothing inside Josie that’s beyond the Klaras of this world to continue.”


Josie’s father (a post-employed divorced from her mother) seems skeptical, although he tends to project his skepticism on to Chrissie rather than own it. He ends up confiding to Klara. 


“Let me ask you this. Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? SOmething that makes each of us special and individual? And if we just suppose that there is. Then don’t you think, in order to truly learn Josie, you’d have to learn not just her mannerisms but what’s deeply inside her? Wouldn’t you have to learn her heart?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“And that would be difficult, no? Something beyond even your wonderful capabilities. Because an impersonation wouldn’t do, however skillful. You’d have to learn her heart, and learn it fully, or you’ll never become Josie in any sense that matters.” 


Klara’s way of analyzing this is like she analyzes the physical world. Objects reduce to simple shapes, mostly boxes, and resolve to detail from there. Thus, Klara thinks at first that she could simply explore all of the boxes, and boxes within boxes, until she learns it all. (This is a wonderfully accurate yet poetic way of describing how various forms of computer recognition work, by reducing things to geometry. Whether we humans do this too at a level we do not notice because of our seamless software is an open question. We can recognize a friend’s face without being able to describe why we know it.) For Josie’s dad, the question is whether those “rooms within rooms” are infinite, or merely finite. Klara seems to think that there is a finite limit somewhere. 


“Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn. Josie’s heart may well resemble a strange house with rooms inside rooms. But if this were the best way to save Josie, then I’d do my utmost. And I believe there’s a good chance I’d be able to succeed.” 


Even Paul has to admit that this is something he cannot truly be sure about. 


“I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt that there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better.”


This is one of the existential crises of our scientific age. We still do not understand that much about human brains (or animal brains for that matter), but the idea that there is a self apart from our physical bodies has become more difficult to believe. And yet, it’s complicated. 


(Another book I read this year that examines this issue is Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi - it’s an amazing book I highly recommend.)


What further complicates this whole mess is that Klara is such a great character. She is clearly a sentient being, in her own way. Indeed, she often seems the most “human” of the characters. And ultimately, she is capable of what we humans tend to consider the most human, the most noble of acts - self-sacrifice to save another. Certainly, she seems more human in the good sense than the “lifted” kids other than Josie, who lack the basic empathy and humanity to get along socially with other humans. (Josie’s friendship with Rick, the non-lifted friend, has enabled her to act more like a normal human.) Ishiguro’s writing makes Klara the character you root for - and she is supposedly the machine. 


We had a long and thrilling discussion of this book at our meeting, in part because those who attended this time were quite into the book. Just a few things from that discussion I haven’t mentioned above. 


First, the nature of religious belief. Klara’s “religion” makes sense in light of her experiences. She is solar powered, so her literal source of life is the sun - her god, so to speak. While waiting to be purchased, she observes a homeless man and his dog appear to die, then resurrect by the appearance of the sun. (In reality, this sounds a lot like they overdosed on something, but came out of it.) Klara’s “theology” develops as the book progresses, eventually to the point where she realizes she is asking a favor of the sun, and using both bargaining (“I’ll kill the polluting machine if you save Klara”) and emotional manipulation (“Josie and Rick are in love”) the way humans do with their deities. The thing is, there may be a miracle at the end, although, as with any miracle, how could we know for sure? Correlation and causation are not the same thing, obviously, and proving that something unexpected was or wasn’t a miracle is dicey at best. And, for that matter, is Klara really wrong when she blames pollution that blots out the sun for preventing the sun from its healing work? 


Speaking of that, the villain to Klara is the “Cootings Machine,” some generic construction/demolition machine. I was curious about this, because Ishiguro tends to hide “easter eggs” that are references to his Japanese and British roots - anglophiles will often notice references in his books that we Americans might miss. I looked it up, and there is no clear answer here. Maybe he just made up a corporate name. Or, if the numerologists are to be believed, you can rearrange the letters to spell something related to pollution. (Someone on Goodreads suggests “Nicotine+Smog+HCA (hydrocarbon aerosols)”) Or, one could consider it a reference to a sex act, if Urban Dictionary is to be believed. (Honestly, are there any words that haven’t been used for a sex act yet?) Probably all of these are reading a bit much into it. For Klara’s religion, the machine takes the role of the the Devil, as kind of an scapegoat for what are actually human actions. Which is why killing one of the machines doesn’t actually stop the pollution, or reverse the cause of Josie’s illness. 


I know I am forgetting to talk about other stuff we hit on, but in any case, this book is quite thought-provoking. Ishiguro deserves his Nobel Prize for the body of his work. Every time I read him, I am amazed at what he does with so little. His books aren’t particularly long, the language is simple, his descriptions sparse. But he creates whole worlds, makes three-dimensional characters come alive, and make the reader feel so deeply. It is writing craft at its finest. 



Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. A few of the books were “optional” second books for a given month.


A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng 

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Broad Band by Claire Evans

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore



Sunday, December 19, 2021

Christmas Poems 2021


This is my sixth (kind of) annual Christmas Poem post. I never got around to writing one in 2018. You can read the others here:


Christmas Poems 2015

Christmas Poems 2016

Christmas Poems 2017

Christmas Poems 2019

Christmas Poems 2020 


And on a related note, my Christmas Carol post.


Other posts on Christmas:


The Christmas Wars, Or, How To Use Christmas As An Excuse To Be A Jerk

Night Shift At The Hospital on Christmas Eve

The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens

Reading A Christmas Carol With My Kids






In part, this series has been my way of wrestling with the trauma of the past several years, which have brought the loss of our longtime church, loss of connection to my former faith tradition, estrangement from my parents (over religion and politics as well as the way those toxic ideologies have impacted my own family), and of course, the swerve of my country toward fascism and theofascism, driven by those of my former religious tradition. Christianity in the sense of following Christ has been replaced by Republicanity and, honestly, Ku Klux Klanity. 


Since Christmas has long been a favorite holiday for me, this has been rough. I miss the days when I could celebrate wholeheartedly, and feel connection to others through that celebration. As a kid, family gatherings were something I looked forward to, so it was devastating that after I grew up, they became increasingly a battleground of family politics and the culture wars - and a chance for certain family members to bully my wife yet again - so we stopped going a number of years ago. I still enjoy what we have with the kids and with my brother and family, but there is always a certain bittersweet element to it, because of the losses that have come. 


Fortunately, I am not the only one with this experience, whether among my friends, or the poets of the past. There are a plethora of expressions that have spoken to me over the years, and they have tended to hold up pretty well. (See my carol post above, for what the prophets of the 19th Century had to say about slavery, for example.) So, as I have most years, I kept my eyes open for good Christmas season poems, and chose four to feature. (Don’t worry about the ones that didn’t make the cut - those are carefully noted for future years.) 


The first poem I chose is by a poet that I discovered just this year, Lucille Clifton. She had a long career as a poet and educator, but for some reason, she never attained the fame of her contemporary, Maya Angelou. (See past installments for an Angelou poem.) I mean no shade to Angelou, but she wasn’t the only great poet of the last 50 years, and not even the only great African American female poet of her generation. Clifton certainly deserves a mention in that conversation, and she may be - in my opinion at least - in the 20th Century pantheon. 


I recently read her collection, Two-Headed Woman, and discovered a cycle of poems all about the Nativity and the Incarnation. To say that Clifton put a different spin on a familiar story is to undersell how she subverts our “traditional” interpretations of the story. I could have selected any number of the poems (and you can read another in my post on the collection, linked above), but I decided to go with this one. 


a song of mary 

(by Lucille Clifton)


somewhere it being yesterday.

i a maiden in my mother’s house.

the animals silent outside.

is morning.

princes sitting on thrones in the east

studying the incomprehensible heavens.

joseph carving a table somewhere

in another place.

i watching my mother.

i smiling an ordinary smile. 


Many, although not all, of Clifton’s poems use all lowercase. Unlike e e cummings, she does use punctuation. In this poem, Clifton makes a greater circle of the female in the idea of the Nativity. It isn’t just Mary, and an angel, and then men. Rather, Mary is seen as a continuation of her own mother, and indeed the string of mothers. The start of the Nativity is in that continuity of motherhood, of the feminine divine. I strongly recommend reading the entire sequence, and, as Mary did, ponder these things in your heart


The next one is an oldie but goodie, by the amazing John Donne. His “Holy Sonnet” series is amazingly deep and rewarding to read and re-read. (Most famous is “Death Be Not Proud,” which most of us read and analyzed in high school, but it is by no means the only worthy one.)


Holy Sonnet 15

John Donne


Wilt thou love God as he thee? Then digest,

My soul, this wholesome meditation,

How God the Spirit, by angels waited on

In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.

The Father having begot a Son most blest,

And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—

Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,

Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest.

And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find

His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,

The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,

Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.

‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But, that God should be made like man, much more.


That last couplet is the crux of the poem, on which the rest turns. I am no expert on comparative religion, but I am not unread on the subject. While religions in general tend to share far more in common than not, there is one thing that really stands out to me (and other writers on the subject) that seems to be a distinctly Christian idea. The Incarnation, God in the Flesh, isn’t unique as an idea - gods take human form ALL THE TIME. But they tend to appear human, rather than be human. The incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus wasn’t just a god in a man-suit, but an instance where the divine took on ALL the limitations of humanity. And that includes the limitations of knowing only what he was taught or could learn, all the limitations of a truly human mind. (It is literally heresy to believe otherwise, yet I think in practice most Evangelicals believe that Jesus retained his omniscience - he retained the mind of god. This has led to some problematic beliefs about, well, a lot of things. That could be an entire post.) 


I will also note here that Donne, like many (perhaps most?) Christian thinkers of the past, believed in Christus Victor, not Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I don’t always agree with Donne’s theology on every point, but the man was an amazing thinker, and his longing for connection to the divine never fails to inspire. 


The next poem is a significant switch in mood and theme. I try to include a more secular poem in this series, both because not everyone shares my religion, but also because “Christmas” is - like literally every human holiday - syncretistic. That’s not a bad thing. It just means that we are creatures of culture, and combine the past and the new constantly, reinterpreting our experiences in light of everything else. Thus, many “pagan” traditions have become part - indeed core rituals and symbols - of Christmas. Unlike the Fundamentalist subculture I grew up in, I have no problem with this. Humans have found their own connections with the natural world, its cycles, and its spirituality in various ways over time. That we choose to mark the winter solstice with our own story of rebirth and renewal is just another metaphorical way of connecting with deeper meaning. 


That said, here is one by Elizabeth Bishop. It is both a poem and a riddle. Have fun figuring it out. 


The Colder the Air

by Elizabeth Bishop


We must admire her perfect aim,

this huntress of the winter air

whose level weapon needs no sight,

if it were not that everywhere

her game is sure, her shot is right.

The least of us could do the same.


The chalky birds or boats stand still,

reducing her conditions of chance;

air’s gallery marks identically

the narrow gallery of her glance.

The target-center in her eye

is equally her aim and will.


Time’s in her pocket, ticking loud

on one stalled second. She’ll consult

not time nor circumstance. She calls

on atmosphere for her result.

(It is this clock that later falls

in wheels and chimes of leaf and cloud.)


Gollum would approve. I find the rhyme scheme (abcbca) to be fascinating. A bit different than what one might expect, but it ties the stanzas together internally in a way that fits with the thematic ties between the first and last lines each time. 


The final poem is from Madeleine L’Engle, whose poetry seems to be fairly unknown. She wrote a lot about love and hope and standing for what is good and loving especially in times of darkness and hate. Which is, well, as much on point now as it was during World War Two. For the same reasons. There are those who continue to feed fear and lust for power and greed, and license to harm the vulnerable. 


Into The Darkest Hour

by Madeleine L’Engle


It was a time like this,

War & tumult of war,

a horror in the air.

Hungry yawned the abyss-

and yet there came the star

and the child most wonderfully there.


It was time like this

of fear & lust for power,

license & greed and blight-

and yet the Prince of bliss

came into the darkest hour

in quiet & silent light.


And in a time like this

how celebrate his birth

when all things fall apart?

Ah! Wonderful it is

with no room on the earth

the stable is our heart.


This is another example of a six-line stanza, but with the abcabc rhyme scheme instead. The ampersands are in the original, which is definitely an unusual device in poetry. 


L’Engle’s words retain their power over time, and I find them inspiring. The hope of the Kingdom lives in our hearts, perhaps most when it seems most far away on earth. 


Whatever you believe, whatever your connection to the transcendent, may the true spirit of goodness be with you this season.