On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas Icons, Their Legends and Lore

The Christian Church is now in the Advent season, and we all seem to be planning in one way or another for Christmas.  I am reprising my post for December 2012 about the origins of the symbols that signify Christmas, which officially begins on Christmas Day and lasts for twelve days.  Several years ago, I wrote brief pieces opposite the greeting for a series of Christmas cards, each describing the various beloved icons that appear at that time of year.   My presentation of those little stories follows below.

A Tale of the Holly

Long treasured at Christmas for its burnished green leaves and bright red berries, the popular holly has not escaped the inevitable connection to pagan peoples.    Ancient folk revered these and other evergreens in celebrating the cycle of life.   The early Romans brought plants into their homes during the festive January Kalends to be offered as a sacrament, a blessing on the house.  This custom traveled to northern lands with the Romans where the favored plant was the beautiful, prolific holly. 
Although the Church frowned on what they saw as a lapse into pagan ceremonies, they soon realized the value of such practices if the holly could be accorded Christian significance.  Thus the holly became known familiarly as "Christ-thorn" in order to represent the high and holy things of Christ's Passion:  the cruel spikes His Crown of Thorns, the red berries His Blood, the white flowers His Purity, the bitter bark His Sorrow.  For whatever reasons, sacred or secular, the holly has remained through the years a favorite holiday greenery.

A Tale of the Mistletoe

Under a sprig of mistletoe, according to legend, comes a blessing of peace between enemies and love between friends.  The little parasitic plant, found in America on maple, osage orange, and black gum trees, is considered an emblem of affection at Christmastime, but its legend has roots in paganism.  The Druids revered it as the "golden herb," which symbolized strength and purity.  In mythology, the Norse goddess of love, Freyja, gave to the plant the property of peace-maker.  How natural that in the middle ages the mistletoe, called "all heal" or "guidhel," continued to be plucked from its European host tree, the oak, and brought inside during the season that celebrates "good will toward men."  Mistletoe even appeared in the churches of medieval times where it was a symbol of pardon for sinners.  Only in more recent years has the charming plant been relegated to a more secular use.  Each Christmas the white-berried mistletoe is found atop door sills where those who pause may receive a kiss of friendship and peace.

A Tale of Santa Claus

The Santa Claus so beloved of American children came by his unique appearance and name from significant changes through the centuries.  Originally known in legend as St. Nicholas, a kindly, fourth-century bishop, he was transformed after the Reformation in Germany to Kris Kringle, from Kristkindlein, the little Christ Child.  Sixteenth century Dutch immigrants are credited with introducing the concept of Santa Claus to the New World; it took, however, a celebrated poem of the last century, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore, to firmly establish the old gentleman as we know him today.  "Santa Claus" is merely a corruption of St. Nicholas's name, but the pale-faced, lean ascetic in ecclesiastical robes has given way to a jollier figure with red suit and matching cheeks. Despite the superficial changes, the benevolent spirit of Santa Claus has persisted.   He is the imaginative incarnation of generous giving in imitation of the greatest Giver of all:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son."

A Tale of the Christmas Stocking

For generations, children throughout Christendom have hung up stockings on Christmas Eve with only thoughts of Santa's bounty.  Few have questioned the practice of using stockings rather than other receptacles such as baskets or bowls.  In fact, stockings hung by the chimney may seem to be a happy tradition whose origin is lost in the mists of time.  But legend has it otherwise in a story about the forerunner of Santa Claus, the famed St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop, whose generosity was unmatched.  Among his parishioners was a poor man with three daughters about to be sold into slavery because he had no dowry for them.  The good bishop saved the daughters with bags of gold, tossed down the chimney into their stockings left there to dry.  The traditional gift of an orange or tangerine in the toe of the Christmas stocking is a reminder of St. Nicholas's golden gift.

A Tale of the Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is one of the more beloved traditions of the holiday season, despite some attempts to link it to paganism and ban its use.  If it is true that primitive peoples worshiped the tree as sacred, it is equally true that our familiar Christmas tree was inspired solely by Christian thought and sentiment.  A wonderful legend told by Georg Jacob, an Arabian geographer of the tenth century, soon spread throughout Europe:  On the night Christ was born, all the trees in the forests, heedless of the weather, bloomed and bore fruit.  So taken were people with this story that it even appears in one of the Coventry Mysteries, The Birth of Christ, and in German folk tales.  It was in Germany that the transition was made from natural blooms to artificial decorations.  The Christmas tree was noted to be in homes there as early as 1604, and despite periodic puritanical grumbling, it remains today as the crowning glory of Christmastide customs throughout the world.

A Tale of Christmas Lights

The brilliant star that announced the Christ Child's birth hung in the heavens amid a field of stars that first Christmas night.  Since that time, lights have illuminated our celebration of that sacred event.  The story is told of the German reformer Martin Luther who being overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of the starlit sky one Christmas Eve wished to transmit his sense of awe to his children.  He brought in a small fir tree and adorned it with candles in gratitude to Him who "for us and our salvation came down from heaven."  Symbolically, lights represent to Christians not only the starry heavens that night in Bethlehem, but also they represent Jesus Christ as the Light of the World.  Almost unimaginable is a Christmas without lights.  From simple candlelight to dazzling outdoor displays, the lights of this season spread their shining message of peace and love to all who would see them.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Metaphors on Life: Four Poems

The first two poems were recently published in the 2014 edition of the literary journal, Number One.

The Sea

I sail before the wind
Spray lapping the gunnels
Licking my cheeks
Before me is a wilderness of waves
Clean and pure
Calling me home

If I would drown
Could that brine
Clean my heart
And clear my head
To perfect ease
Like it scrubs the bottom of the boat
I sail before the wind

It’s Time

Last night I had a dream
that led me into a forest
I thought safe, serene.
But it was a danger place.
Suddenly afraid, I crept along
and then I saw behind me
the beast, keeping to my pace,
quiet, unrelenting in pursuit.

It would not leave me be,
coming far too close.
Fearful but still strong,
I flailed against its grasp
and slipped ahead a ways.
But despite my desperate try
the odds were against me
avoiding at the last
the teeth of Time.

Awake, I know it is our fate.
We can't be fooled by hopes
of wise and peaceful years
the aged are promised.
For the dread of failing sight,
muscles, and mind
few of us can hide
behind a shuttered grin
that no one thinks is real.

Time is the lion in this place,
but must we lie like lambs before it,
resigned, waiting for its toothy jaws?
We only wish to wander in the woods
Before we are consumed.
Yet Another Meeting

Dullness meets
as slugs who squirm
to reach the other.

They collide
and hang together
suspended by a thread
losing their essence
while they waver
and cling
and then slide off
to disappear
a faint lumen
in their trail
they once had
an idea.

The Sign                                                                                    

I have been contemplating
a phrase I came upon:
“Walk with light,”
which at first suggests
the avowal of religions,
helping us to see a road through life
that we may tread with joy,
our senses open to the beautiful,
a heart relieved of burdens;
I see a stony path made smoother
by enlightenment of soul.

Or is the phrase more worldly
pressing us to keep our minds
brim full of knowledge and lore,
like a pot of stewing ideas,
or to be a fount of information
from which others can set store.
We should not settle, it says,
for the dark and hopeless way
of vague understanding
or blind ignorance.

Then again, “walk with light”
may only be a helpful plea
to watch the traffic signal
before we take the plunge
into a busy street.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Last Threshing Run

My brother, Ken Wald, recounts the following bygone event, which was originally published in the Slater (Iowa) Area Historical Association Newsletter of May 2006. 
            The summer of 1946 I had just gotten out of the U.S. Navy, having been in the last battle of the war at Okinawa a year earlier. The Navy lost more than 4,000 men there, and the Army and Marines lost around 7,613 men.  After being discharged, I became a member of the 52-20 Club ($20.00 a week for 52 weeks) while looking for permanent work.  In other words, I had plenty of time on my hands.
            While growing up, I had spent summers on the farm of my grandparents Cyrus R. and Bertha Tesdell Sydnes.  Those had always been a fun times, especially for a city boy from Des Moines. Sometime during that summer of '46 my uncle Ed Sydnes, who lived at my grandparents' farm, asked me if I would like to haul bundles for him during the threshing run, which would take place end of August. ''Run'' simply referred to the several farms in the area that were to have threshing done. Knowing that the threshing of oats had been a exciting time with all the activity going on, I jumped at the chance. I also knew that this would be my opportunity to be on the last threshing run; after that, it all would be done with combines.
            I was to drive a team of horses using a hayrack, a large box-like wagon, surrounded on four sides with boards that were separated several inches apart and extending up from the floor bottom about four feet (could be higher or lower). The horses I was to use belonged to another uncle, Fred Sydnes, who lived over by Alleman. They were two beautiful bays, brown in color and named Doc and Dan. They were very gentle and obedient and could even be ridden. Sometimes, if I had a load of oats on the wagon at quitting time, I would have to ride one of the horses and lead the other one back to our farm if there was no stall available at the farm where we were working. Doc was the leader but Dan would pull his weight too. Uncle Ed showed me how to harness them, and it was a job to throw that harness up over those big rumps. The next thing was to learn how to hitch them up to the wagon. There were some chains on the rear of the harness that attached to what is called the doubletree. The doubletree was attached to the tongue of the wagon and the front of the tongue was attached to the harness between the horses in the front of the wagon.
            The first day the doubletree broke before I even got started, so a new one had to be bought and installed the next day. The wagons would go out into the fields in twos to pick up the bundles of oats. I was teamed up with another fellow named Bill Houge, a nice looking and accomodating young man who was working for Mike Mickelson, also in that run. Mike was the engineer who kept the threshing machine in good working condition. That was quite a job since there were many moving parts on it that had to be greased and oiled and then repaired when something broke down. Mike was a wiry little man with a high voice and a Norwegian accent.  Like my uncle, Mike was also a bachelor and very likeable.
            My uncle drove the tractor that was used to pull the threshing machine from one farm to another and which actually ran the threshing machine by use of a long belt connected from the flywheel on the tractor to one on the threshing machine. Uncle Ed could pull that threshing machine anywhere—through narrow gates and difficult locations just outside the barn where the straw was to be blown in or out in the yard to be stacked.
            Prior to threshing the oats, it first had to be cut and stacked in the field. The oat stalks had the oats at the top of the stem or the straw. A binder machine was used to do the cutting (usually a McCormick Deering). It was pulled by a team of horses with a large platform and cutting saw blade on the side. The driver sat in the back of the machine to steer the horses and operate the various levers that ran the machine. The next job was for a man to pick up the bundles and stack them together with six to a stack, one on the top to protect the stack from rain.
            Extra help was usually brought in to the stacking of what was called shocking. It had to be finished in time for the threshing. When it was time for the threshing, we would start going out in the field with our rig about seven AM and work until lunch time and then out again until about six PM. Out in the field, we would first throw the bundles into the wagon box, using a three-pronged pitch fork. We would throw these in the box any which way until they reached the top of the box which was approximately four feet high. After that, we would start placing the bundles side by side alI around the box slightly tapered in toward the inside. This helped to keep the load from sliding off when it got higher in the wagon. The reins that went to the horses were tied to the top of the ladder in the front part of the wagon so they could be reached once the wagon was filled.
            The horses responded to "Getup'' or ''Whoa'' or maybe just a clicking sound from the driver's mouth to have them start. We would fill the wagon with bundles until we could not throw them any higher; then we would climb up the ladder and head back to the threshing machine to unload them. That was quite a ride back as the wagon would sway from side to side under the big load. One time, the back of my wagon caught a post going through a gate and I lost part of the load on to the ground. Bill quickly helped me throw it back on top so it turned out ok—thanks to Bill.
            Once the hayracks arrived back at the machine, they were driven up as close to the machine as possible right next to the big belt coming from the tractor. The horses did not like being so close to that turning belt and had to take a little coaxing by the driver. The bundles were pitched into the loader and the machine took over by shaking out the oats and then the straw blown out the blower pipe into the barn or stack.
            The women worked hard preparing meals for the threshing crew and they were wonderful meals and welcomed for the hungry thrashers. They consisted of a full course dinner and usually pie for dessert. We men all sat around the table with our sweaty clothes but clean hands and faces from washing up outside in the places provided. It was difficult sometimes for the women to know if they would also be serving the meal because the threshing might get done prior to mid-day and the team would move on to the next farm. Then that place would be responsible to get the meal. The women were usually assisted by friends or relatives in preparing the meals.
            Some of the farms on the run that I can recall were those of C.R. Sydnes (my grandfather), Ole Fjelland, Albert Alleman, Stanley Floden, Shorty Ersland, Louis Anfinson, Ernie Sydnes, OIe Storing, J.R. Sydnes, Mike Mickelson and Irving Ryan—most all the men were of Norwegian extraction.  I well remember Ernie Sydnes and Shorty Ersland who both drove the oats wagons. They were fun guys and when I was a kid would tease me about growing up to be a bachelor like my uncle Ed. They were right about that. For me, this bit of history that took place nearly seventy years ago was a great experience to be remembered with clarity and nostalgia since it was never to be repeated.