Thursday, June 14, 2012

Summer's Coming... Are You Ready?


Fern Hill

By Dylan Thomas

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
       The night above the dingle starry,
               Time let me hail and climb
       Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
               Trail with daisies and barley
       Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
       In the sun that is young once only,
               Time let me play and be  
       Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
               And the sabbath rang slowly
       In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
       And playing, lovely and watery
               And fire green as grass.
       And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
       Flying with the ricks, and the horses
               Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
               The sky gathered again
       And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
       Out of the whinnying green stable
               On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
       In the sun born over and over,
               I ran my heedless ways,
       My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
       Before the children green and golden
               Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” from The Poems of Dylan Thomas

What happened to summer?

Do you recall when summer was long and open and abundant and ~ most of all~ free?
Sometimes now it seems that all we have of summer is the dread of higher utility bills and the scurry of arranging activities for kids, some of whom will never know that expanse of unstructured time that we took for granted.

It’s not just global warming ~ my summers in New Jersey were quite hot and way more humid than here. It’s not just that summer seemed better when we were young. It’s not just technology and the economy, although each of these is a part of what happened to summer.

The word “summer” evokes any number of memories, images and associations. Most good: fairs and festivals, beaches and boats, gardens and golden afternoons. We recall summers with delight because our senses were heightened and we had the space  to be present. Even the adversities: mosquitoes, sunburn, poison ivy, heat with no air conditioning, do not seem to have been as bad as the darkness and dullness we associate with deep winter.

What I think has happened is that we have culturally lost the ability, or even the motivation, to create space for reflection, for conversation, for wilderness, for FREEDOM.

It’s as if our souls were once vast uninhabited forests and we had multitudes of ideas and dreams and resources. It’s as if we have collectively torn down the forests and built artificial, programmed, ugly and dominating structures and sidewalks and stadiums that keep us from ever experiencing the mystery and joy of the soul-forest we knew. We have cooperated with those forces that mitigate against freedom: unrestrained capitalism and all of its component parts, including, it would seem, permanent war; materialism and technology; addiction and greed.

We are no longer free. Or, if we even have a glimpse of freedom, it terrifies us.
Freedom is what Dylan Thomas is celebrating in Fern Hill.

For me, it was my family home in New Jersey. We had about five acres and a really big old house. No air conditioning. My dad was an erstwhile gentleman farmer, and there were innumerable nooks and hiding places. We spent all day every day out of doors. We rarely went anywhere in the car;  there were too many of us, especially when all of the stepbrothers were there and my little sister came. We were eight kids, infant to age sixteen, when I was ten. We had a huge vegetable garden and cats that had kittens in the barn and we made things out of nothing: forts and restaurants and villages and gizmos. I found shady places to read and be alone. We never, never, never wore shoes.

The joy I feel when I evoke these years is not beyond my grasp. It was not merely youth or innocence that allowed me to be present and aware and in the moment. Indeed I was a fairly serious child, painfully shy and with no permission or tools to grieve a mother’s death.
Dylan writes of time as that which took his freedom and joy:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying…

I don’t buy the premise that time will inevitably steal this joy and freedom we wistfully recall.
So,  how do we return to a summer-like place in our spirits and in our living?

It was Camus who said "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer."
Remember, it was also Camus, existentialist, who evoked the myth of Sisyphus to express his philosophy. This notion of the poor guy rolling the heavy stone up the steep hill over and over only to have it roll back down is so familiar to many of us who have succumbed to the wheel of karma.

But Camus also ended this seeming tale of despair with the words: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy!”
He wrote, “"Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! That hour, like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock."

First, do not assume that there is no freedom available.
That said, freedom, which is our real topic here, will not be given you again in the same way it may have been when you were a child and your caregiver said: Go outside in the woods (or down the block, or to the fields) and don’t come back till dinner time.”

We must find, claim, and seize our own freedom. It is within almost every one to do this. I know because I have witnessed human beings with what may seem insurmountable challenges practice freedom of the heart and mind, and experience joy. Everything does not have to be perfect for this to happen. You do not have to buy anything or go anywhere or pay anybody.  You don’t have to be happy even. For example, I am deeply unhappy about some things beyond my control just now. But today I will experience joy and freedom.

Yesterday, I participated by invitation in the second ordination of a woman to the Catholic priesthood to be held here in Lexington. Both were performed here in the room. Right now a huge melodrama is playing out over in Rome at the Vatican over this. These women, as well as the women religious and many male priests, are standing up to the domination and hierarchy of the Catholic establishment with courage, conviction, and mutual support and love. This would never have been granted them. They had to take it.

Dylan Thomas ends his poem:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

His poem is a lament, a wistful evocation of what is lost. Unlike Camus, he does not offer a solution to the “chains” he sees imposed by time and its inexorable passage.

Audre Lorde wrote these words:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

She was talking, in a seminal address, about racism, homophobia, and sexism. But as Lorde taught us, all oppressions are linked. Even the way we allow ourselves to be chained, the ways we take on the oppressions and make them our own.

Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to
be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a
difference between the passive be and the active being.

While I love “Fern Hill,” I think there is a passive acceptance there that I question.
We can practice freedom in hearts and minds and spirits. It’s not that hard. We must

1)    Decide to do so and acknowledge our part in our own bondage.
2)    Take actual steps: making time, letting go of things, learning to be present,
3)    Ask for help and support.

I wish for you the invincible summer that abides within us all. May it come to you today, and even if briefly, every day for the rest of your time on earth.