Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snow from afar

The daffodils may not be blooming yet, but compared to what most of the rest of the northern hemisphere is going through, it's springtime in Victoria. I should not be smug, though. Winter has just begun and anything can happen. In fact, I'm a little afraid we have entered into a new mini ice age, like the one that wiped out the Viking colonies in Greenland. It's hard to believe that anyone ever fell for that global warming gag. If only it were so! If the world were in a warming phase it would be a much better place to live. Warmer air would hold more moisture, bringing rain to dry areas. Since hurricanes and other violent storms are caused by sharp contrasts in temperatures of air masses as they come into contact, they might be less frequent and not so devastating. More greenhouse gases? Of course. Plants love carbon dioxide. If we had more of it in the air, plants would grow in more abundance. Alas, I doubt if such a thing will happen. We are still in an ice age that's been going on for an estimated 10 million years and there is nothing to indicate that it is over. It's just in remission and it will come back. Those might be the kind of interesting times I would prefer to miss.
We've had no recent snow in Victoria, not even in the Sooke Hills or on Mt Douglas. So when I looked around from King George Terrace Rd, I was surprised to see a hillside across the water covered with snow. As nearly as I can figure out on my inadequate maps, it can only be the west shore of San Juan Island on the US side of things. How they got it and we didn't goes beyond my meagre knowledge of meteorology.
I will say this about snow. It's nice to look at from afar, from a safe distance, not requiring heroic and perilous driving feats to view. Vancouver Island's main ski hill is at Mt Washington near Courtenay and apparently they have record amounts, to the delight of those who enjoy sliding around on the stuff. In fact, they say it has the most snow at middle elevations of any other ski hill in the world. I don't know exactly what that means, but up yours, Whistler.
As for me, when "the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful..." Listen to Dean Martin supply the tune. But my favourite winter song is Baby It's Cold Out There, and nobody did it better than Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Greeting

Solstice- from Latin, sun+stopped, ie, the day the sun stops
Today is the first day of winter- which means the earth is positioned where the suns rays are perpendicular to the tropic of cancer. After today the earth will gradually tilt the other way so that the sun's rays begin to creep northward again. This was a big day in Neolithic Europe if the theories concerning Stonehenge and numerous other monuments are correct and they were constructed to be giant calculator/observatories to pinpoint the exact times when the seasons changed. They were the pinnacle of Neolithic lore, representing an acute knowledge of the movements of the stars, possibly even of the precession of the equinoxes. Constructed by people living four or five thousand years ago of wood and massive carved stones, they are as old as the pyramids. It's possible that traditional European fairy tales contain faint echoes of those distant times. Theories abound about the meaning of these traces.
In a collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion, is the Song of Rhiannon, wherein King Pwyll decides to sit on a magic hill one night. He sees a beautiful woman riding slowly by and sends one of his servants to catch up to her and ask her to stop. But no matter how fast the servant rides he cannot catch up to the woman. The next night another servant on a faster horse tries again, with the same result. Eventually, the King rides after her himself on his fastest horse. But as fast as he rides he keeps falling further and further behind, until at last he calls after her to wait. And then she stops. Of course, he falls in love with her, and goes with her to rule her realm. A few years later, he decides to go home, but when he arrives all the people he used to know are either dead or very old. If I remember right, that's how it goes.
Folklorists speculate that in the original version the king was sacrificed, his soul going to the underworld. The solstices were especially propitious because the underworld and our world were closer together than at other times of the year. But who knows for sure?
Some with fertile imaginations jump to the conclusion that because Christmas is close to the solstice, and that Christ was sacrificed on a tree near the other solstice, that our Christian tradition was just a newer version of an older, pagan mythology. I don't really believe that. There is much that is beautiful in the various pagan traditions, but Christianity was a complete break from the past.
Still, I can understand how someone could be enraptured by Celtic and pre-Celtic mythology. I visited Stonehenge once, and it is a decidedly spooky place, just as spooky as the unearthly beauty of Celtic poetry.

There comes a host across the clear sea, to the land they display their rowing. Then they row to the bright stone from which a hundred songs arise,
Through the long ages it sings to the host a melody which is not sad. The music swells up in choruses of hundreds, they do not expect decay or death.

This otherworldly character persisted into the Christian era.

Delighted I think I might be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea.
That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course...

Rather than viewing the living world as an endlessly repeating cycle, Christianity teaches that there has been, and will be, only one creation, a creation which will play itself out in a culminating event at the end of history. Christ came to show those who were willing to listen how to keep from having their souls destroyed when time comes to an end. The feast of Christmas commemorates Christ's entry into the world, and focuses on the miracle of birth- not just his birth, but everyones's birth. Coming to be is a miracle to be celebrated, and the goal of a life is to be worthy of attaining an eternal life of bliss. I have yet to encounter any other religion with teachings remotely like this. I have read extensively about old mythologies at an earlier stage of my life, and when I came around to look again at the Catholic teachings of my youth I was very surprised to discover how unique and unlike paganism Christian beliefs are. I'm a little sorry that I wasn't taught in Catechism about those older beliefs. If I had been I might have been less inclined to be impressed by their novelty. What is the truth? It's for each of us to decide, but according to the Church, there are serious consequences for deciding wrong.
In our age it's especially important to celebrate a day that makes birth and childhood sacred. It's such an ordinary thing for a child to be born that it's easy to forget that nothing could be more miraculous. And in the dark cold days of winter, that's something worth remembering. It's in the winter that the year dies, but also it's after the solstice that the sun begins to resurrect itself. Spring, and new life, is on its way.
My favourite Christmas poem was written by Thomas Hardy. It may be a little corny but I don't care. It's called The Oxen.
Christmas eve, and twelve of the clock.
'Now they are all on their knees,'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
'Come, see the oxen kneel

'In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,'
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

The tide was high when I went by Clover Point today and the wind was driving the waves against the breakwaters and berms. Not as spectacular as during a real storm, it is nevertheless always impressive to feel the weight of the Pacific Ocean pounding the beach. Even at noon the sun is not far above the horizon and its light feels weak and pale, but it's all the more beautiful for all that.
May we all be blessed on Christmas and throughout the New Year.

Monday, December 6, 2010

December Blues

It's getting close to Christmas, not my favourite time of the year. Too many painful reminders of my wasted youth. Too dark. Cold. A time to endure until the days get longer again. At the same time, those gloomy reminders are a necessary spur to think things over yet again. I whole heartedly agree when somebody once said, that without music life would be a sad mistake.

Accordingly, I encourage anybody reading this to click here and watch the video. Often I feel pity for anyone who grew up during the age of rock and roll. They may never have heard real music. This is a true deprivation, a malnutrition of the soul, and perhaps worse than the more easily measured malnutrition of the body.

A 'flash mob' is a fairly recent invention, made possible by instant messaging and cell phones. A flash mob is a group of people who spontaneously arrange to gather someplace, say a subway station, a street corner, or any well-populated public space and put on a show of some kind. Naturally, considering the age we live in, the show is of an obscene or outrageous nature. Strange outfits, nudity, shocking antics are the usual fare. No strange outfits on display with this flash mob. Just an assortment of normal looking people. Young, old, in between, male and female, but refreshingly wholesome and smiling. It takes place in a public location, a food court in a mall. The camera surveys the scene, Arbys and other outfits in the background, parents and children having a bite to eat. Suddenly an attractive young woman stands up and starts to sing. She has a fine, clear voice, and the opening bars of the Halleluja chorus ring out. Soon she is joined by another singer in another part of the room, then another, and another, and at last a whole choir is giving voice. Oh, if only such a thing would happen in Victoria… although all those references to God and Jesus might lead to their arrest for disturbing the peace. Click here to see it.

What I like best about it, though, is not so much the singing as the astonished expressions on the faces of the young children who had the good fortune to be there. Rapturous would not be too strong a word to describe some of the faces. It may have been the first time in their lives that they heard real music. Hopefully, like an inoculation, it might give them some protection from the ravages of our pervasive pop culture, the which is a disease of the soul that has sucked away the lifeblood of our culture.

This is Victoria, so even in the winter not every day is gloomy, and when the clouds go away the air is brilliantly clear in a way that it never is in summer. When the warm weather is here there is always a haze, often only noticeable because it's hard to see the mountains. On a clear winter day they always seem closer and more vividly real.