Oct. 31, 2012

Tree House

by Nancy Willard

Start with a tree,
an old willow with its feet in the water,
and one low branch to let you in
and a higher branch to let you
and a lookout branch to show
how far you've come
(the lake before you,
the woods at your back),

and now you are close
to those who live in these rooms
without walls, without doors:
one nuthatch typing its way up the bark,
two mourning doves calling the sun out of darkness,
three blackbirds folding their wings tipped with sunset,
twelve crows threading the air and stitching
a cape that whirls them away
through the empty sky,

and don't forget the blue heron
stalking the shallows for bluegills,
and don't forget the otter backpaddling past you,
and the turtles perched on the log like shoes
lined up each night in a large family,

and don't forget the owl
who has watched over you
since you were born.

Be the housekeeper of trees,
who have nothing to keep
except silence.

"Tree House" by Nancy Willard, from The Sea at Truro. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween. The modern holiday comes from an age-old tradition honoring the supernatural blending of the world of the living and the world of the dead. Halloween is based on a Celtic holiday called Samhain. The festival marked the start of winter and the last stage of the harvest, the slaughtering of animals. It was believed that the dark of winter allowed the spirits of the dead to transgress the borders of death and haunt the living.

Eventually, Christian holidays developed at around the same time. During the Middle Ages, November 1 became known as All Saints' Day, or All Hallows' Day. The holiday honored all of the Christian saints and martyrs. Medieval religion taught that dead saints regularly interceded in the affairs of the living. On All Saints' Day, churches held masses for the dead and put bones of the saints on display. The night before this celebration of the holy dead became known as All Hallows' Eve. People baked soul cakes, which they would set outside their house for the poor. They also lit bonfires and set out lanterns carved out of turnips to keep the ghosts of the dead away.

It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther (books by this author) posted his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther was a monk who disagreed with the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences, which forgave the punishment for sins. Luther thought that God offered forgiveness freely without having to pay for it, and he wanted to reform the Catholic Church. He posted the theses as points to be argued in a public debate. He had no intention of creating a new branch of the Church, but that is what he did, more or less. He set in motion a huge rift within the Church, which eventually led to the Reformation.

It's the birthday of English poet John Keats (books by this author), born in London (1795). Keats's short life was marked by the deaths of friends and family members. His father died when he was nine, and one year later, his grandfather died. When he was 15, his mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed his brother and, later, Keats himself. He began writing poetry after he had started his career as an apothecary in London. His first book, Poems (1817), was not well received. His publishers dropped him, but other poets saw promise in his work. His breakthrough poem was a sonnet called "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." Keats had stayed up all night reading George Chapman's translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey with a friend. They stopped reading at 6:00 a.m., and by 10:00, Keats had written the poem and set it on the breakfast table for his friend.

Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a young woman whom he met shortly after the death of his brother. They were engaged in 1819. The two wrote frequently to one another, but did not spend much time together. Keats was already fighting his own ill health. In one letter, he wrote, "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death."

Keats wrote most of the poetry for which he is famous in one 12-month period, from September 1818 to September 1819. He wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and "To Autumn." One of Keats's sonnets foreshadowed his early death. He wrote: "When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, / ... — then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink." (1818). He died three years later, in a small bedroom in a house in Rome. His tombstone reads, at his request, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Keats wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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