Everything You Ever Wanted Is Coming True: Chinese New Year’s Greetings

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

by Martha Dahlen

intro by Amy Chin and Steve Zeitlin

As the Year of the Pig cycles into the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, the writer Martha Dahlen gives us a primer on the many meanings of auspicious New Year greetings to ensure our City Lore family enjoys a happy, harmonious and prosperous year.

 –Amy Chin, City Lore Board Member

 

New Year’s decorations on East Broadway in Chinatown. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

Walking through the twisty streets of Chinatown a few days before the big New Year celebration to take place January 25th, I was intrigued by the ubiquitous red paper signs and greetings.  My friend, Martha Dahlen, who lived for 20 years in Hong Kong, explained to me that these are decorations, but decorations with significant meanings. They are part and parcel of the poetry of everyday life for many Chinese people, especially Cantonese, in China, Hong Kong, and New York. Here is her take on it.

 

 

 

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is by far the most significant, most widely celebrated holiday in China.  The belief is strong that how you begin the year will influence your fortune throughout the coming months.  Hence, as New Year’s day approaches, people pay off debts, clean house, buy new clothes, prepare gifts, cook auspicious foods, decorate with blooming flowers and fresh fruit (especially round, golden citrus), and hang red banners proclaiming confidence that the coming months will be prosperous and joyful.  When they meet, people exchange greetings but, in addition to the generic “Happy New Year!”, there are many other, more colorful phrases expressing specific aspirations.  Further, the Chinese believe each New Year has its own dynamic energy–something like a new weather system coming in–as represented by the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Thus, the New Year offers the chance for a fresh start on several levels, and the variety of Chinese New Year phrases captures the range of this opportunity.

Gong Xi Fa Cai “Congratulations! Great prosperity!”

Ru Yi Ji Xiang “Your life is blessed according to your wishes”

The New Year greeting most familiar to non-Chinese people is probably Gung Hei Fat Choy, which is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters which, in Mandarin, are pronounced as Gong Xi Fa Cai.  Gong Xi (Gung Hei) is a two-word combo that means “Congratulations!” with overtones of respect, sheer happiness, and blessings.  Fa (Fat) means to grow, increase (the same word is used to refer to yeasted bread dough).  Cai (Choy) refers to money or wealth.

For Hong Kong Cantonese, the phrase is an exuberant affirmation that life is good, something like, “Congratulations on winning the lottery!”  For other Chinese, the phrase seems crass, and they prefer expressions, such as  Ji Xiang Ru Yi. Ji Xiang means “auspicious”, while Ru Yi means “as wished” or “comparable to your intentions”.  The whole phrase is loosely equivalent to, “May all your wishes come true.”

 

Bu Bu Gao Bi “Step by step ascend the throne!”

Long Ma Jing Shen “Dragon spirit, horse vitality!”

 

There are age-appropriate phrases.  For example, let us say you meet your young nieces or nephews; you might greet them with, Bu Bu Gao Bi (step-step-ascending-throne”), hoping to inspire them to greater efforts in school.  To the entrepreneur in your family, you might say Wan Shi Sheng Yi (ten thousand-things- victory/success) or Long Ma Jing Shen (dragon-horse -vitality-power).  In the latter phrase, the dragon symbolizes heavenly greatness, while the horse represents earthly power, and the whole can be loosely translated as, “Fly high!  Charge ahead!”

 

 

 

For people experiencing the challenges of aging, you could greet them with a fervent Shen Ti Jian Kang (body-strong and healthy) or the poetic  Shou Ru Song Bai (longevity-like –pine-cypress), as both pine and cypress trees are classic symbols of long life with dignity. (Note: Both these phrases are also appropriate birthday greetings.)

By this time, you may have noticed that all of these phrases are four characters; in fact, they may be a subset of the huge group of Chinese aphorisms known as cheng yu.  These are pithy statements that express, in meaning, Chinese culture, and in form, Chinese language.  For example, each Chinese character, in every dialect, is pronounced as a single syllable.  Thus, four words have a fixed, regular rhythm.  Every dialect (the most common being Mandarin and Cantonese) are tonal, so each character has a certain pitch and phrasing.  In other words, a four-word phrase has both rhythm and melody, making them easy to memorize and recite.  Indeed, some families, gathering at Chinese New Year, will compete among themselves to see who can remember more of these colorful expressions, in a kind of musical poetry contest.

Yi Tuan He Qi “In unity, harmony”

Another aspect of the Chinese language at play here is the fact that the number of characters in the language far outstrips the number of ways monosyllables can be pronounced.  The result is that characters differing radically in meaning may be pronounced similarly or even the same.  Linking two characters–in a sense, creating two-syllable words—is one way to avoid confusion in speaking.  For example, the word, Ji, when spoken could refer to the various characters for good, a thorn bush, or the great ultimate (as in Tai Ji).  Similarly, Xiang could mean auspicious, or details/minutia.   But Ji Xiang, the two together, immediately narrows the field, such that the listener automatically hears the intended meaning (good fortune).

Several such pairs occur in multiple phrases; e.g., fu gui (honorable), da ji (big luck).  Ping An, meaning “peace and safety” is another such unit.  So, for example, putting the phrase Chu Ru Ping An above your door confers peace and safety (ping an) on all who leave (chu) and enter (ru).  There is also Si Ji Ping An, meaning “four (si) seasons (ji), peace and safety”.  And Lao XIao Ping An, meaning “old (lao)-young (xiao)- peace and safety” (Lao Xiao Ping An is also the name of a steamed beancurd and fish dish, suitable for those two groups who might lack teeth).

Another characteristic of these phrases is the lack of grammatical nuances.  No little words tell you how the ideas represented are meant to be linked.  For example, Kai Gung Da Ji is translated, word by word, as “Start-work-big-luck”.  Does that mean IF you start work or WHEN you start work you will be lucky? Does it promise luck (or blessing) AFTER working?   No matter: the listener simply understands that work and good fortune are linked.  Furthermore, with no verb tense, these phrases fall squarely in the category of affirmations: each depicts a condition as though it already exists.

Cong Xin Suo Yu “As your heart desires, may it be so!”

Home and family are important themes in greetings as they are in Chinese culture.  For example, Man Tang Fu Gui (Full – meeting hall –wealth –honorable.)  The second character, ‘tang’, suggests the central courtyard of a Chinese extended family. Thus the phrase seeks to capture the deep glow of contentment, pride and honor one feels when beloved children and grandchildren gather at home with their parents.   Speaking of parents, one phrase that mothers love to use, and newlywed children are loathe to hear, is Jin Yu Man Tang, which literally means gold (jin) and jade (yu) fill the home, and figuratively means “I am looking forward to grandchildren any time now”.  Abundance is a major theme.  So we have Nian Nian You Yu (year-year-have-surplus).  As the word for surplus sounds like the word for fish, a whole fish is traditionally served at every New Year’s eve dinner–and it is important that some fish be left, symbolic of surplus in the coming year.   Reportedly, in earlier times, during lean years, a farmer might serve a wooden fish to ensure that it would be leftover, thereby also ensuring surplus in the coming year.

Many of these greetings are codified in rectangular red banners known as fai chun (Cantonese pronunciation, as they are predominantly a Cantonese tradition).  These can be seen throughout the year in homes, offices, businesses and restaurants, but are especially prevalent during the New Year season.  Most people buy their fai chun, but it is generally agreed that writing them yourself will give them more power.

Fai chun make aspirations public and permanent.  Currently in Hong Kong, people are using this traditional form to express their political, as well as their personal, hopes for the coming year.  However, the former is not without risk.  “Satirical” decorations are banned, and people worry about surveillance.   One clever fai chun is a square writing of a traditional four character phrase zhao cai jin bao (finding-wealth-advancing toward- treasure/gems).  When viewed upside down and twisted just a little (the many parts of a Chinese word make this possible), it becomes  zhui qiu zi you min zhu (stubbornly pursuing-freedom- democracy).   Such writing is even more clever because the words for “upside down” in Chinese (dao li) sound like the words for “already arrived” (dao le).  So posting this one upside down not only makes it look innocuous but also increases its power.

As January 25 approaches, prepare to Ying Chun Jie Fu (Welcome spring [as] luck enters) with the fervent hope for Tin Ha Ping An(heaven-earth, peace and safety).   Say it, believe it, live it.  Fu Lu Shou Quan:  All blessings are yours.

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

Dividing Up the World: Two Kinds of People

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #15

Sitting next to me at a bookfair, a poet told me that the kindest thing his father ever said to him was, “there are two kinds of people in the world, and you’re neither one of them.” I was reminded that my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, once collected examples of dividing the world into two kinds of people in notebooks that have sat on our bookshelf for some thirty years. I pulled them out for this month’s Poetry of Everyday Life blog. 

And well I should because, after all, there may be two kinds of people in the world, but Amanda, City Lore’s Education Director and our guest blogger, to her credit, is definitely neither one.

 

Dividing Up the World

by Amanda Dargan

 

Illustration by Eva Pedriglieri

I grew up on a farm in Darlington County, South Carolina, and one day my father, Lucas Dargan, announced that as a sideline to his work as a forester he planned to start raising chickens and selling the eggs. At the local feed and seed store where he went to buy supplies, he got into a conversation with the owner. “Lucas,” the owner told him, “you know, there are two kinds of people in this world, those who want to get into the chicken business, and those who want to get out.” 

Years later, when I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, I started keeping a notebook of these everyday expressions that I heard or found in conversations, newspaper articles, and books. My father, always a rich source of these and other expressions, gave me another example. On returning from a trip to Italy, he told us about a harrowing taxi ride in Rome and the driver’s response to his concern about the speed and recklessness of the city’s drivers, “There are two kinds of people in Rome, the quick and the dead.”  A similar expression is used to describe two kinds of men–“ the quick and the wed.”

Amanda Dargan. Do you unroll toilet paper from the top or from the bottom?

At the same time I became interested the rhetorical tactics these phrases employ. The “two kinds of people” expressions my father reported are  examples of one of Aristotle’s three laws of thought, the law of the excluded middle. The chicken business expression leaves out precisely the category my father wanted to be – someone who enjoyed and was successful in the chicken business. It also leaves out people who have never considered getting into the chicken business. The Rome taxi driver’s “quick and the dead” expression leaves out the category of those who drive safely and survive.

In addition to the excluded middle, dividing the world expressions often employ the strategy of foregrounding a detail that divides a wide swath of human personalities into two types, often using a mundane behavior to illustrate a larger personality type. Alan Guignard, a friend who was part of a group I travelled with after college, complained that there are two kinds of people in the world, life saver suckers and life saver chewers. He was a life saver sucker, and we, his traveling companions, who gobbled through a whole pack of life savers while he still sucked on his first one, were life saver chewers. Life safer suckers, he declared, are more deliberate, frugal, inclined to delay gratification, and stick to a plan. Life saver chewers, on the other hand, are impulsive, seek immediate gratification, live in the moment, and scrap the planned itinerary when they see something they find more interesting. 

“There are two kinds of people,” our friend Holly Cutting Baker declared, describing another character trait that embodies a larger personality type,“rumpled and unrumpled.”  Rumpled people look rumpled no matter how much they iron their clothes. “I’m definitely a rumpled,” she said. “Unrumpled people look neat even if their clothes are rumpled.” Steve Bannon, for instance, would be a rumpled; Barack Obama, unrumpled.

Not all dividing the world expressions are binary. Others divide the world into three or more categories based on their approach to a common behavior. John M. Richardson, Jr. once claimed, “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen; those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

Some of these expressions are built around a tautology. James Thorpe claimed there are those who love to talk, and those who hate to listen, modifying the more common expression those who love to talk and those who love to listen, and suggesting that the later category does not exist.

Some divisions signify absolutely nothing more than a difference in habitual behavior. My friend Craig Schaffer once told me that there are two kinds of people, those who eat artichoke leaves with their top teeth and those who eat them with their bottom teeth. Similarly, another expression divides the world between people who pull their toilet paper from the bottom and people who pull it from the top. Those divisions don’t seem to indicate larger personality traits, just habitual behaviors, and they also exclude the middle category of people who aren’t so set in their ways and may choose to vary the way they scrape artichoke leaves with their teeth. 

For philosophers, mathematicians, and logicians, these dividing up the worlds can be expressed in mathematical terms. The law of excluded middle is written by the mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce as {(x → y) → x} → x.  I won’t attempt to explain.

For folklorists, dividing-the-world expressions are a form of verbal play. They are a way of simplifying the complexity of human beings, often by drawing on stereotypes, by putting them into distinct categories in order to persuade, express an insight, or argue a point of view with wit and humor. For example, optimists and pessimists are described in a popular expression as those who say the glass as half full, and those who say it is half empty. My daughter Eliza suggests a different way, which is not included in this binary expression: If you take an empty glass and pour water into it, it’s half full. If you take a full glass and pour water out, it’s half empty. A friend, Carol Klenfner, quoted a man who told his grandchild: “You ask if the glass is half full or half empty?  What does it matter? It’s such a beautiful glass.”

Some dividing-the-world expressions create a false dichotomy to stake a claim or denigrate a category of people. For example, those who love the art or music of, say Beyoncé, and those who have no taste. When Steve told his father that he was planning to teach high school, his father said, “There are those who do, and those who teach.” And one cynic added, “those who teach teachers,” as if those in this category were somehow on a still lower rung of the ladder. At City Lore, in fact, we do teach teachers and consider it a high calling.  

On reading this the folklorist Phlip Nusbaum reminded me that There Are Two Kinds of People in the World was also the title of a song by Little Anthony and the Imperials back in the 1950s. (That’s the group that sang the hit Tears on my Pillow.)  It goes:

Just two kinds of people in the world
why can’t we fall in love

The tendency to divide the world into opposites has itself become an expression. The American humorist Robert Benchley is credited with the expression, “There are two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.” Hmmm, which am I?  Another claims there are two kinds of people, those who live life and those who ponder it. If you’ve read this far, you must be one of them.`

After a few years of considerable frustration, my father did get out of the chicken business, but not before he inspired a way of dividing the world in our nuclear family that has become a favorite Dargan-Zeitlin family expression to use when someone gets too bossy around the house. When my youngest sister Rosa was a child, my father asked her to do a household chore. She resisted and asked, “Why?”, to which he responded, “Because I asked you to, and I’m the boss.” “You’re not the boss of the house,” she told him defiantly. “Momma’s the boss of the house. You’re the boss of the chicken house.”

Please send your Dividing up the World examples to adargan@citylore.org.

 

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Time All At Once

Carrie’s Cosmic Seder

Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin

Brodsky-Stein and Zeitlin Seder, 1946

After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her family Seder in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, and led them to freedom.

As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The forthcoming Passover nights will certainly be different from other nights as Jews around the world struggle to cope with the horrific pandemic surrounding us. Yet however we choose to mark the occasion of Passover this year, Carrie’s thoughtful piece reminds us of the meaning of the celebration, and how much it will mean for all of us to celebrate together with our family and friends next year.  

Caroline Harris

The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story.  On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder:  the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner.  The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.

PAST

The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer.  For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”

The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.

The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either.  It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.

More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.

Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story.  Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.

 PRESENT

Caroline Harris and Howard Goldman Seder, 2018

Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced:  slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism.  The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events.  Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.

The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses.  We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died.  Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.

Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.

 FUTURE

We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.

But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”–  It would be enough.  The Haggadah’s vision extends further.

Where does the story end?  A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year.  Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.

Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come.  We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world.  In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging.  From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.

But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path.  We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.

And then we sing.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Live from the POEMobile – Poems on Steam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #10

My friend and possibly distant cousin, Ariel Zeitlin, expressed the view of many of us when she quipped, “You may be living over a hot air grate, but at least you’re in New York.” I’ve always been fascinated with the steam that billows out from the underground in New York, on and around which many homeless souls have found some cold winter warmth. To me it suggests that the hallowed ground beneath our New York City footsteps is bubbling and gurgling like a witches’ caldron, an orgy of passion or the fires of hell – mirroring the teeming life of the city above.

But for Chris Jordan, who spends his time thinking and imagining and projecting light both from his luminous soul and the hi tech projectors he owns and thinks so much about, the steam from the streets was just another challenging surface to project upon.

And for our poetry team – Bob Holman and Sahar Muradi and myself –the intermingling of words, light and steam was away to express the fleeting evanescence of life.

Ride with us in the POEMobile and watch it now before the steam disappears into the ether.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnCHiACVKc0&list=PL4slyQodoIv3DexHzk_d3vAHmo3NjPWU6&index=4

 

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree

 

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9

 

Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

BENEATH THE VISITING MOON

POETRY TO EASE THE FINAL PASSAGE

January 27, 2017

“We all have to face this thing sometime,” my wife’s father, Lucas Dargan, told me around the time he turned ninety-nine.

Six months later, he found himself facing precisely that “thing.” A retired forester who planted over two million trees in his lifetime, he had split wood every morning until two years before.

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Tonight, he lay in a hospital bed at the McCleod hospital in Florence, South Carolina, unable to properly swallow or get out of bed unassisted. Family members took turns staying overnight with him, and this night was my turn. At one point, I thought he was sleeping. I was working on my computer, when I heard lines from a poem coming from the other side of the room:

 

I am dying, Egypt, dying

Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,

And the dark Plutonian shadows

Gather on the evening blast

 

“I think it’s from Shakespeare,” he told me, so I brought my laptop over to his bedside and looked up the lines. Born in 1917, Lucas was always amazed at the magic of the Internet to access any tidbit of knowledge. The verse turned out to be from a poem by William Haines Lytle inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first line, “I am dying, Egypt, dying,” is from the play itself. We then looked up the drama online and found Marc Antony’s soliloquy that begins with that line. Then I read to him from Shakespeare’s play.

 

Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers

 

 

 

 

       Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers

When I finished, he said, “Steve, when I close my eyes I think of the billions of people who have done this before me.”

“Well, you know you’ll be remembered,” I said.

“That’s true,” he said, “not as good as heaven—but a lot better than hell.”

The next day the doctor told Lucas and the family that there was nothing more to be done medically and recommended hospice care. That day, we brought Lucas home to the family farm and set up his bed in the living room, where for the next three weeks he was surrounded by family members and a stream of visitors, including guests for the weekly poetry and music nights he had hosted at the house for many years. Other visitors included members of his old Boy Scout troop, who talked about what they had learned from him, and a local farmer, David White, who had started a tradition of bringing lunch to share with Lucas every Monday, and who this time brought in a newborn duckling on his visit.

Among his many visitors was the hospice chaplain with whom Lucas couldn’t help but share his view of religion: “I do not claim to understand the nature of the Supreme Being, and I do not acknowledge that anyone else does either.” Lucas was a devoted agnostic who believed that it was just as much a leap of faith to be an atheist as a believer. The chaplain, who returned for a second visit, said he enjoyed discussing spirituality with Lucas and concluded, “He just doesn’t want to put God in a box.”

It was clear to all of us that in his final days Lucas sought solace in poetry, not religion. He told my wife Amanda, “I think all poets share a deep concern for the human condition.” And the poets whose works he wanted to hear or to recite were those who wrote about death and dying and those whose poems he had memorized when he was young.

Many of the poems he knew by heart, including some we had never heard him recite before. Once, when I asked if he wanted us to read him a poem, he said, “Steve, look up Carruth.”

“Carruth?” I said.

“Yes, C-a-r-r-u-t-h, William Herbert Carruth.”

The poem he had in mind, “Each in His Own Tongue,” seemed to capture Lucas’s poetic perspective on religion. I picked up his tattered copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1924. I read a line from the poem, A haze on the far horizon. Lying in his bed, he recited the second from memory, The infinite, tender sky. I read the third line, and then he responded with the fourth from memory. We went all through the poem in tandem.

 

The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,

And the wild geese sailing high—

And all over the upland and lowland

The charm of the goldenrod—

Some of us call it Autumn,

And others call it God.

 

A day or two later, he asked Amanda to read him the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, another classic nineteenth-century poem about death.

 

. . . When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart . . .

 

As she read, Amanda watched her father close his eyes. She thought he had drifted off to sleep, and she put the book down, too sad to continue. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, her sister Rosa asked, “Would you like to hear another poem?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Amanda hasn’t finished the one she was reading.”

Rosa finished reading Bryant’s poem.

 

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

Lucas draped himself in the weave of his favorite poems as he confronted death, as if he could pull them up like a blanket. They kept him warm and clearly helped him approach his death with peace of mind. His amazing mind—“fastened to a dying animal,” as Yeats put it—remained sharp until the end. He didn’t stop reciting and listening to poems until the day before he died. “We should all aspire to his life—and his death,” his nephew Rod McIver said.

As befitted this man, his daughters planned the funeral service to include his grandchildren reading some of his favorite poems, including Shelley’s “The Cloud,” Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” The service closed with his poetry-night stalwarts—Stanley Thompson, David Brown, and Worth Lewellyn—playing his favorite song, “Loch Lomond,” on fiddle and guitar. (“You take the high road and I’ll take the low and I’ll get to Scotland before you . . . ” )

I was left mulling over the lines we had read together from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

 

This case of that huge spirit now is cold . . .

And there is nothing left remarkable

                                                   Beneath the visiting moon.                                                                                       

 

                                                                                              ~Steve Zeitlin

 

*      *      *

 

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org, “By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness. “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

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