Monday, October 31, 2011

A Celtic Halloween

Currently Reading: The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston

All Hallow's Eve is upon us.... an ancient celebration with its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Our Jack-o'lanterns are glowing outside on our balcony; I'm still in my witch's costume. Nathan and I have had our fill of candy and watched our annual History Channel special on the Salem Witch Trials.

The back of Mary Adams St. John's grave in Riley Cemetery. My great-great-great-great grandmother. I thought a tombstone picture is more than appropriate for Halloween. Besides, it is beautiful!
As it does every year, Halloween inspires me to think about the real history behind this holiday that I love so much. We may not celebrate Halloween the way the ancient Celts did, but the idea behind the holiday has survived for hundreds of years. I believe this is one of my favorite holidays because of that feeling of tradition. Although centuries, beliefs, and languages have changed, the tradition continues.
Samhain was celebrated by the Celts as a farewell to the light season and the beginning of the dark season, when nights were longer, days were colder, and the world died until the light season began once more. Because it bordered two seasons, it was a fragile night, where the veil between this world and the next was paper-thin and able to be breached. They welcomed their ancestors, but also feared the fragility and instability of the night. A combination of sacred and terrifying. On Samhain, the Celts burned bonfires throughout the night to ward off evil spirits; it was believed that on Samhain, not only could ancestors return from their graves, but evil spirits could also steal one away to the otherworld. It was a night of fear and a need for protection- something that is replicated, though unconsciously, in our costumes of ghosts, witches, and Disney characters. It was (and still remains) a night where everything is topsy-turvy- on this one night, we are allowed to traipse through darkened streets and knock on stranger's doors, demanding treats. We can dress outlandishly in public (as I did at work today) and not receive strange looks. It is a day when we can have fun and relax, before the cold comes again and we must bundle ourselves against the elements. It's true that the ancient Celts may not recognize our own Halloween traditions, but underneath it all, we still have a need to face our fears, celebrate life, and look back to the ones who have left this world.

In case you are interested, I have many wonderful books on the ancient Celts that I recommend. Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees, The Flowering of Ireland by Katherine Scherman and Irish Folk History by Henry Glassie are some of my favorites. If fiction is your thing, I love the Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier. Although it is fantasy and not entirely historically accurate, it depicts Celtic society in a way that not many fiction authors do. Those books first inspired my fascination with Irish and Celtic history, and I love to revisit them.

Enjoy your Halloween! Just for kicks and giggles, here's a picture of me many Halloweens ago:

Note the book! I never stop reading! :)

Friday, October 28, 2011


 Currently Reading: The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston

The lovely 1940s music wafting through my favorite local coffeeshop is evoking a desire for Billy Collins' poems and who am I to deny the music's calling? This is one of my many favorites from Billy Collins... like many of his poems, it takes ordinary, thoughtless actions and transforms them into meaningful and thought-provoking moments. This is one that must be read several times, savored like fresh, juicy fruit in the orchard.
"Harvest of Cherries", 1866, Robert Speare Dunning. One of my favorite works at the Art Institute. This and my Monet Haystacks. The haystacks and I have quite a love affair going on. :)
I Go Back to the House for a Book
by Billy Collins
I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me —
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I think I see him
a few people in front of me on a line
or getting up from a table
to leave the restaurant just before I do,
slipping into his coat on the way out the door.
But there is no catching him,
no way to slow him down
and put us back in synch,
unless one day he decides to go back
to the house for something,
but I cannot imagine
for the life of me what that might be.

He is out there always before me,
blazing my trail, invisible scout,
hound that pulls me along,
shade I am doomed to follow,
my perfect double,
only bumped an inch into the future,
and not nearly as well-versed as I
in the love poems of Ovid —
I who went back to the house
that fateful winter morning and got the book.

There is no way to describe the pleasant and alarming twist this poem creates inside my stomach. It evokes images of a future, a person who is myself and yet not myself. Think of this: how many little actions or swift seconds have shaped our lives, unbeknownst to us? What little or obscure choices have led me to this moment, eating a grilled cheese sandwich in a lovely coffeeshop at 1:48 P.M. on an October Friday afternoon? The answer can never be known but it is fun to contemplate how fragile are the threads that weave our lives together. I hope my potential "perfect double" is having a fantastic life too. :)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Family Links

Currently Reading: The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston and The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I love old photographs.
My great-great-grandmother Mildred Gray Driver with two of her sons. One may be my great-grandfather Graydon.
I love to gaze at family photos- at their smiles, their facial features, yearning to catch a glimpse of myself in their jaw line or hair color.(I do apologize for the grainy quality of these photos... they didn't download as I had hoped.)

I wonder about their dreams and hopes and the thoughts going through their mind as this picture was taken. Were they happy with their lives? What were their best memories? What irritated them? What did their voices sound like? What did they pray? What did they dream of? 
My great-great-grandparents John and Wilhelmina Kastning, on their wedding day June 4, 1891.
My passion for history and genealogy no doubt stems from an active imagination, one that causes me to lose myself fully in my research and in the stories I unearth. Studying crinkled photographs and weathered papers allows me a brief respite from this world and entry into theirs. My pleasure for research is not solely in the gleaning of information, but in the sacred moments when I find their name in a newspaper or study their portraits, for it is then that I feel as if I am giving them another moment of life. In that moment, they are remembered and thought of, no longer forgotten. I love my line of work because I know I am connecting families and making the dead alive again in some small way.
My great-great-great grandparents Friedrich and Charlotte Kastning, parents of John. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from my father's side of the family scanned into my computer yet. Soon enough!
I love to gaze at these faces- so long gone, but still somehow part of me. Still a part of this world, even though they are no longer in it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

If You Were Coming In the Fall....

Currently Reading: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe and The Memory-Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

Happy weekend! Tonight is an Emily Dickinson night, in my opinion, so I'm going to share my favorite Emily poem. This poem has always made me smile; in high school, I had it taped to my wall because I felt it was an echo of my soul and all the longing I had inside. Its lilting rhythm and sense of anticipation cannot hide the loneliness and uncertainty pinned behind each word. It always makes my heart beat a little faster.

If you were coming in the fall,
I'd brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.

If only centuries delayed,
I'd count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemens land.

If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I'd toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time's uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chiaroscuro and Fragile Leaves

Currently Reading: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (because The Witch's Daughter has still not arrived from Woodstock), and The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

Even though it is falltime and I am completely enjoying my autumn book list because it effectively gives me chills down my spine and increases my already brewing anticipation for THE HOLIDAY (a.k.a. Halloween), I am going to take time to blog about a book I am reading as an audiobook: The Memory Keeper's Daughter. In particular, I want to explore an aspect of the book that I cannot help obsessing over because it is such an integral piece of the experiences of each main character. I won't give you the synopsis of the book, but will only set it up for you: at the beginning of the novel, one of the main characters makes a horrific choice in order to spare himself, his wife, and his son from pain and loss. Despite his attempts, his life is completely altered in ways he never could have imagined. His wife, the woman he attempted to protect, has completely changed. She becomes depressed and lost; their marriage starts to crumble. The perfect life he tried to create for them does not exist precisely because he tried to create a perfect life. I am not finished with the book so I cannot guess what will happen next, but from where I stand, it seems as if they are both on a downward spiral. The trajectory of their lives demonstrates vividly that loss can never be avoided, no matter how hard we try.

Do you know how I judge a "great" book? If it makes me pause and reflect while I'm reading it, or if I find myself obsessively analyzing it as I make the bed, clean the kitchen, and feed the cat, then in the Jillian dictionary, that book falls under the entry of "great book." I can't get this book out of my head. In particular, the idea of escaping from pain will not leave me alone. Which means that it is time to muse....

I would love to protect myself from pain and loss. Who wouldn't? The world is such a fragile place; I have only to glance out my window to see that fact reflected in the leaves breaking away from the tree branches and meeting the earth with each passing breeze. Our lives, like our world, is in a constant state of flux. The tide goes in, the tide goes out, and nothing stays the same. We think about our futures and we make our great plans, but we often forget that absolutely nothing is guaranteed. Plans will go awry, prayers will not be answered the way we wish, and people we love will no longer be with us. Although I see myself as a "glass half full" kind of girl, I can't deny that there are days where fear takes precedence over living in the moment. "What if Nathan doesn't come home tonight?" flashes through my mind as I wave him out the door. "What would it be like if I was never able to have children?" I wonder as I watch a mother read to her babies in the library. "What if my mother was sick like that?" I imagine as I help a patron whose hair has fallen out and who wears her bandana with pride. When those "What If" moments grip me, I imagine the impossible and panic takes the place of calm. "How terrible..." I think. "How awful." "What would I do?" And the answer of course is: I don't know. If I had the choice to spare myself any sadness or hardship that life may throw at me, wouldn't I take it in a heartbeat? To protect myself and my loved ones from the unknown and the unplanned sounds like a promise, a relief that life can be exactly what I dream it to be.Would it make our lives easier to live, not having to worry about the "unhappy" potentially ahead of us? Or would it make life less precious, less appreciated, less magical because it would always be the same? While I never like having my "What If" moments, I feel they are sometimes necessary for me to properly drink in the blessings God has heaped upon me, savoring the taste and texture of each smile, each "I love you", each conversation, each stroll through October leaves.

Astronomer by Candlelight, Artist: Gerrit Dou, late 1650s
In high school Humanities class, we learned about Chiaroscuro... the contrast and blending of light and shadow within a painting. The beauty of Chiaroscuro is that the shadows work with the light to emphasize and enhance the focal point of the piece. Ultimately, the shadows give the light more luster and radiance. When both are present, the painting shines with its full beauty. Perhaps the principle of Chiaroscuro can be applied to how to live life without the fear. To accept that life has and will have its fair share of sunlight and shadow... both will always be present. But together, they create a stunning and unique piece of art... a beautiful life that is ours and ours alone. We can't escape it and we can't protect ourselves.. but if we did, our paintings wouldn't be as beautiful. That is a thought to cherish, one that helps me forget the fear and wrap my arms around the moment I'm in now. Come what may.... my painting is going to be lovely.

Have an inspiring week doing what you love... I hope you all are able to find the chiaroscuro in your own lives.

Friday, October 14, 2011

friday poetry slam: happy birthday, e.e. cummings!

Currently Reading: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt
Happy Friday! In honor of e.e. cummings' birthday today, I am posting 
one of my favorite poems of his. The beautiful thing about cummings' 
poetry is that it can mean different things to different people. His poetry 
is full of images and metaphors and words that flow like water over rocks. 
This is what I love about him. 
P.S. Another wonderful celebration today that gives me shivers of 
happiness: 180 years ago today, my 5th great-grandparents, Rebecca 
Whittome and Robert Driver were married at St. Margaret's Church
in Hilgay, Norfolk, England. Happy Anniversary to my ancestors! 
In fact, upon rereading this poem, I realize that it is quite appropriate 
for this occasion as well. 
St. Margaret's Church, Hilgay, Norfolk, England
if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have
one.  It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses

my father will be(deep like a rose
tall like a rose)

standing near my

(swaying over her
with eyes which are really petals and see

nothing with the face of a poet really which
is a flower and not a face with
which whisper
This is my beloved my

            (suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Comfy Cozy

Currently Reading: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

As the weather turns colder and the leaves begin swirling down to the ground below, my thoughts often turn to feelings of "coziness." I'm sure I'm not the only one who loves to envision all of the little things that make me feel cozy, warm, and snuggly: mugs of tea or lattes with steam gently floating upwards; warm, over-large fleece blankets; snuggling with my husband and kitty; hot baths; crackling fires in the fireplace; hot bowls of homemade soup and bread; and curling up on the couch or in bed with a great book.
What is cozier than a cat amid books?
What is it about books that give us that "comfy" feeling? Is it because reading is not only a mental experience, but also a physical one? Is it because our souls squirm with pleasure at the thought of a long afternoon with a beloved book? Is it because licking our fingers, turning the pages, cracking the spines, and smelling the ink of a book is so satisfying? Perhaps it's all of these things.

Both the idea and act of reading provides me with a sense of calm, of balance, and of warmth. Reading is a full-body experience that I look forward to with pleasure. I am complete when I am buried in a book, nestled in a squishy couch and a soft blanket, with a mug of something warm by my side.  It's even better when I can sit near a window and gaze out at the world occasionally, especially if it is cold, snowy, windy, or rainy outside. My "cozy" factor is enhanced by the contrast of a cold and raging natural world just beyond the window. Granted, I don't save reading for those cozy moments alone. I read whenever and wherever I can- in the waiting room, before work, while cooking, and even while walking around. Yet I don't think it is a coincidence that the saying goes "curling up with a good book." With a book in hand, I cannot stave off the overwhelming urge to snuggle and cozy up to it, loving it in my own special way and giving my soul another dose of "happy." Maybe the only way to truly enjoy a book and wholeheartedly engage in the sacred art of reading, is to literally curl up with one's book.

Have a great week.... now go find a book to cuddle with! :)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Poetry Slam- Drink It In

Currently Reading: The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke (almost done!) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Photograph taken by my friend Jill B. I just love it! :)

Happy Friday, everybody! It is a beautiful autumn morning; from my balcony I can gaze upon bright blue skies, a colorful horizon of changing trees, and shorn cornfields, indicating another successful harvest. There is nothing that smells quite so delicious as an October day. Nate and I plan on celebrating the day and the gorgeous weather with a late afternoon stroll through one of the local cemeteries. Today, I'm pulling out Robert Frost, per the suggestion of a very dear teacher of mine. :) Once you read it, you just may be inspired to take a little walk through the leaves.

by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost--
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Very Own "Celebrating Halloween, October, and Autumn" Book List

Currently Reading: The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke

I hope you are all having a happy October! So far, I have celebrated by baking an apple crisp and visiting Edward's Apple Orchard with Nate, my dad, and my stepmom. What a great weekend. I hope yours was just as fun. I have a funny tradition that I started long ago and have kept up every year. Whenever a holiday or time of year rolls around, I tend to gravitate toward books that reflect it. By doing so, I feel I achieve a deeper appreciation and connection to the season and the world around me. My book is not an escape; it provides a deeper level of experiencing the season. And since it is finally October, it is time to read my autumn/Halloween books!

I absolutely love my October books. Autumn and October cause me to reflect on the world around me, on life, on death. My passion for meandering through cemeteries is increased tremendously as the days become crisp and the world prepares to "give up the ghost" and sleep for another season. While I enjoy searching out new books every year, I often use this month to reread my favorites, for reading these particular books at any other time of year just seems wrong. Many of the books are historical fiction, especially related to historic witch hunts. (My interest in the Salem Witch Trials is dwarfed only by my love of Irish history and genealogy). Others have creepy or mysterious aspects that lend themselves perfectly to a cemetery autumn read. (Note: I love to read in cemeteries. It's a wonderful way to enjoy nature, it's peaceful, and it's quiet. Call me crazy but there is something wonderful about cemeteries.) None of the books on this list are horror or thriller books, for I have never acquired any sort of fascination for those types of books or movies. Halloween (or Samhain, as the Celts called it) is not about murder or gore- it's about saying goodbye to the light season, remembering our ancestors, and anticipating the new year. So tonight, in honor of this wonderful month and the season which accompanies it, I give you my top "Celebrating Halloween, October, and Autumn" Book List in the hopes you will perhaps become inspired to pick one up yourself.
1) Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum
            A wonderful historical analysis of the events that led to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Boyer and Nissenbaum are two of the field's most eminent historians and they really know their research. Their argument is compelling and gives the witch hunts an entirely new perspective. I have read many books on the Salem Witch Trials and theirs is by far one of the best analyses of those terrifying nine months. A great read for the curious scholar who is looking for some shivers down the spine.
2) Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
            I read this as an audiobook last autumn, which was a fantastic experience. Widow of the South is based on true events during the Civil War and beyond. The book is about a Southern woman named Carrie McGavock whose plantation home becomes a hospital for dead and dying Confederate soldiers after a battle rages near her hometown. Appalled by later efforts to disinter and dispose of the soldier's remains several years later, Carrie, who is suffering from terrible grief for her own losses, decides to have the soldiers' bodies brought to her plantation and creates a cemetery for them, which she tends until her death. While the battle scenes and soldiers' experiences are interesting, the most meaningful and haunting part for me were the book's heavy- and often heartbreaking- discourses on life and death from a Southern woman's perspective.
3) The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
            One of my absolute favorite October books. Part fantasy, part Salem Witch Trial history, with splashes of genealogy thrown in, Deliverance Dane is about a PhD history student who starts researching one of her descendants after finding her "Physick Book." As she delves deeper into her family history, the main character discovers some surprising details about her ancestors and herself. The end is a bit over the top if you're not expecting it; however, I still relish reading it every year. My favorite memory with this book is from last year, finishing the final chapters as I sat on my mother's porch during a late October afternoon, the leaves outside quietly celebrating with me.
4) The Raging Quiet by Sheryl Jordan
         Please read this book. I cannot stress enough how much I love this book and I am fairly confident that if you love books at all, you will at least enjoy this one. Historical fiction centered in medieval England, The Raging Quiet is about a woman and a man who were different- and then punished for it. (Don't worry, it has a good ending). Marnie is a farm laborer's daughter who marries the landlord in order to save her family's position. Raven is a man whom the local people believe is possessed with demons. Marnie discovers the truth and befriends him, which causes the local people to turn on her as well. I love this book because it causes the reader to understand and face fear- and not the type of fear that is often advertised through horror movies, but the real fear of what people can be capable of when ignorance prevails over reason. If you read anything from this list this month, please read this one.
5) The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
                A wonderful classic for the season and one that I read for the first time last year. While not my favorite of Hawthorne's (I prefer The Scarlet Letter but most especially Young Goodman Brown), this was nevertheless a creepy book that brings up many questions and musings about our ancestors. How much of their influence remains within us and to what extent? Can we ever break away from our families' reputations and legacies? I haven't read any scholarly discourse on this book, but I believe this book reflected Hawthorne's own haunting thoughts on the legacy and taint of his ancestors, especially since his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the leading magistrates during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials (which is why Nathanial Hathorne changed his name). For a genealogy nerd like me, it definitely provokes contemplation, even long after reading it.
6) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
             Another fantastic classic, especially for Halloween. The plotline is quite familiar even to those who have never read it, so I won't recount it here. It's a quick read, and often amusing, but the end is truly scary, awakening our deepest fears about darkness and the unknown. What did happen to Ichabod Crane?
7) Brides of Eden: A True Story Imagined by Linda Crew
            This book does not seem at first glance to fit into my Halloween/October book list, but believe me, the creepy/chills down your spine factor is there from the start. Brides of Eden, based on a real event in the late 1800s, is about a man who came to a small town proclaiming to be the returning Savior. While it sounds almost amusing, this man ended up convincing almost the entire female population of a small Oregon town that he was both the Holy Spirit and Jesus, come to deliver them from the end of the world. Reading about the cult he ultimately created from the imagined perspective of one of the women inside of it is intense and horrifying. The sinister aspects of this story are numerous and the book will continue to haunt, long after you read it. Perfect for this time of year.

And my October books for 2011? Well, I cheated and started early, because I was just too excited. (I also decorated my house on September 15th. I go all the way.) :) This year, I am reading The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke, which is about an Irish woman who in 1895 was burned and killed by her husband, father, and other male relatives because they believed she was a fairy changeling. This is an absolutely true story; Angela Bourke does a phenomenal job presenting her research and making the broader connections between this event and other aspects of life, religion, and the political climate during this period of Irish history. Horrifying but addicting, this book had me from the first chapter... I am loving it. After that, I hope to try two new books: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt and The Witch's Daugher by Paula Brackston.The first is a historical fiction account of a family living through a terrible witch hunt in England in 1612 (who is seeing a trend in my book choices here?), while the second seems to be a novel about a woman who is a witch and has been granted immortality but must reap the consequences for this gift. Both very intriguing; I am quite excited to dive in to both! Plans always change though, so The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane might be picked up as well. We will see! Let me know what your favorite spooky books are! Have a great week!

Keep On Reading...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...