Writing a World

 

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I have been away from blogging for a few months, busy writing a novel and having that special kind of fun that comes when creating a world and filling it with characters who get up from the pages and move and talk.  No longer my puppets, the characters become my friends.  The writing took time and was absorbing.  (When I’m writing I tend to neglect chores, family, and friends.  And my blog.  I would neglect food and exercise if my body didn’t demand maintenance breaks.)

The book is at the printer now.  It will be available, after a final proof review, in late July or early August.

With the title The Cave House Stories and with an exact image in my mind of the Cave House and the surrounding meadows and forest, I decided I had to paint the cover myself.  I got more than half of the image from my mind onto the canvas.  But I’m not giving up writing to become a painter.  Chuckle.

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In short, this blog is about the writing process as nourishment for the writer and for the reader.  One writing friend said, “If you have writer’s block, you are writing the wrong story.”  I agree.  The right story will grab you and insist on being told.  It will tell you what to write.  The characters will make decisions on their own and show you a scene you hadn’t imagined for them but one that is needed and just the thing.

Meanwhile, you may pace your familiar home without noticing while you walk around inside that colorful world of the novel with its voices and gardens and special living spaces, with its conflicts and solutions (think chemical solutions, for the right approach dissolves trouble.)  You enjoy the drama even when characters make mistakes in how they treat one another, even when there is sorrow and loss.  These are real within the story and they have meaning recognizable in the many worlds or writer, novel, and reader.

In the end, a novel is a gift to the reader, a gift offered without thought of gain or fame.  A gift of that special truth that can only be spoken in story.

Wild, a story

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High in the Maine countryside a cat stalked silently along, her gray-blue coat washed to a sleek shine.  Powerful lines curved from rounded head to rangy back and switching tail, her form sharp from tufted ear tips to lethal toenails. She was to her prey a formidable beast, an unanswerable death machine. Her alert green eyes scanned the territory, which was a large place of twilight days and black nights.  High above rose a wood roof intense with man smells she ignored.  She had little interest in the hind leg walking ones.  They were too big to eat.

In the middle of the space, fifty feet from either end, rose a large plywood bin.  The cat sometimes heard the heavy whoosh of mash emptying down a chute and the sudden click of metal stopping the slush. After each such slush new lines of mash sifted through several cracks in the bin onto the beams and boards around the bin—all as if deliberately to bring out the mice and even to grow more mice for her cat purposes.

The cat didn’t remember how she had gotten into the long henhouse attic.   She only knew she would stay.  Not that she liked the dusty smell of spilled mash.  But the mice here ran thicker than in the barn or lower grain rooms, more plentiful than she had seen anywhere.

She walked along a two inch beam between rows of insulating sawdust.  The cat could walk in the shifting sawdust but preferred the solid beam. Presently she came to the wide boards people used on the rare occasion they came into the attic. People should stay away.  They scared the mice.  In the murky daylight let in by the only windows, one at each end of the attic, she studied the open places, the area around the bin, and the long corners where the attic floor met the eaves, seeing with night eyes, listening, sniffing.

The cat paused.  Slowly she lowered herself into a crouch, her muscles coiled for the pounce. Quiet.  Eyes slitted.  Ears pricked forward. Suddenly she launched herself into the space under the eaves and turned back with a squeaking mouse in her jaws.  She smelled the rest of the mice, knew they watched her, and was comforted by their quivering presence.  They were her pantry.

Walking daintily along the beam, she brought the mouse to the boards and set it free.  It was bleeding and some of the blood had run onto her chin.  Lifting a paw to her face, the cat began to wash, stroking along the jaw, licking the paw with her tongue, stroking and licking rhythmically.

The mouse, not yet mortally injured, recovered from fright and ran a little way along the boards. The cat reached out her paw and gently pinned the mouse.  The mouse squealed pitifully, but no other mice came to save it.  The cat let up the pressure of her paw, studying the mouse as intently as if she’d never seen a mouse before.  When the mouse moved, the cat stopped it, pulling it toward her and letting it go again.  More bored than hungry, she continued to play with the mouse, letting it go a little further each time before catching it.  When it leapt off the boards and into the sawdust, the cat pounced in a dusty swirl and brought the mouse back to the boards.  At last she settled with dinner between her outstretched paws, cracked the tiny skull, and began pulling away bits of mouse.  With a dainty etiquette that would have suited a human table, she gulped the bits down—fur, flesh, organs, and bones.

After dinner she finished washing, then trotted along the boards to the far end of the attic and jumped onto a narrow window sill. From the window she could see the lambs in the pasture below. Too big to eat.  Satisfied with the familiar view, she curled her tail over soft paws, lowered her head and slept.  Sunlight deserted the attic leaving thick shadows.

When she stood and stretched, her long hair parted in blue-gray rows between flank and belly.  Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn that revealed white pointy teeth, a long tongue, and pink roof—the mouth of a cat in her prime.  Shoulders down and rump up, she stretched her body to its limits and lifted her fluffy blue-gray tail as if in salute to her own magnificence.  She leapt from the sill and walked softly along the middle boards, ears pointing alertly up and moving independently forward, side, forward.

She seemed to make no sound, yet suddenly there was a scurrying and scattering.  By the time the cat reached the grain silo in the middle of the attic, there were no mice, only footprints and droppings in the mash siftings.  The cat sniffed these, gathering information, the prints and scat a bulletin full of news.  At length she sat. Her right ear twitched and moved, gathering more news.  She rose and turned, then sat again on her haunches, still as a statue.  It was one of her finer abilities, this alert, patient, confident stillness.  She could smell the mice in their hiding places under the eaves.  When she had been still long enough, they would forget her and come out.  Her oval green eyes were windows of concentration.

Slowly a small mouse sniffed along under the bin. Possibly it wondered why the others had not come out again.  The coast was clear.

All at once the cat’s scramble and pounce broke the stillness.  The young mouse possessed a sudden, clear wisdom it would never use.  It squealed its complaint, calling for help that would not come.  Afterwards, ritual game and meal complete, the cat clawed the posts around the grain silo sending into the eaves a triumphant message.  I am Cat.  All this belongs to me.  Satisfied with the sharpness of her tools, she stretched out on her side on the boards, flat as a pancake except for the round of her happy belly.  Fearing no dangers, she snoozed until dawn, stretched, and went back to sleep.

A grating sound and sudden light woke her.  When a person’s head poked into the attic, the cat scampered under the eaves.

“Oh, so you don’t want to come down, you silly cat!”

The girl crawled under the eaves and pulled her out.  The cat did not resist.

“You are heavy, Blue.  You must weigh ten pounds.  I guess you’ve had your fill of mice, huh?  Good kitty!”

Crawling out from under the eaves and straightening up, the girl cradled the cat in her arms, turning her on her back to cuddle and pet her.  The cat purred.

 “All right.  Down we go,” the girl said.  She put the cat on her shoulder and stepped down the ladder, using her free hand to close the hatch above her head.  Still holding the cat, she stepped down onto the pen floor where white chickens shook their feathers, ringed the feeders, and spoke polite, “buk, buk, buks,” into the mash.  Blue was not allowed chickens and, anyway, was too well fed to take much interest in them.

“Daddy says three days at a time is enough to keep the mice down and plenty of mice for you, Blue, or you’ll make yourself sick.   But I promise to bring you back again.”

 Purring steadily, the cat put a soft gray paw on the girl’s chin.

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A Toddler Counts Blessings

All the world envies me.  I’m sure of it.

A lady watches us from her window,

two women striding up the walk look back.

Because he is going out, Samuel, on my hip,

 

chirps bye-bye in my ear.  I hunch the other

shoulder where purse and diaper bag straps

threaten to slide off, ask Benjamin to tie

Noah’s knit hat under his chin—Ben needs

 

ways to contribute and there are plenty.

We each take a chubby toddler hand, walk

Noah carefully down the steps and to the car

where the boys climb in.  Noah counts,

 

“I ride, Mummy ride, Ben ride, Sam ride.”

“Yes, Noah,” Benjamin answers, “we are going

for a ride to the store.”  I let bag and purse

slip to the floor, strap and buckle the three in.

 

As I get behind the wheel, a couple stroll

down the walk, glance our way, talking earnestly.

No matter how awkward and slow I must go,

I am sure all the world envies me.

On Going Barefoot

A little ducky duddle

went wadding in a puddle

went wadding in a puddle quite small

Said he, “It doesn’t matter

how much I splash and splatter.

I’m only a ducky after all.

                                                            Traditional Children’s Song

I’m glad to find medical advice for going barefoot.  The recent talk about the benefits of Grounding, or Earthing, makes me almost smug—because I’ve known for years that going barefoot was beneficial.  People went barefoot long before they learned to make shoes, and even then, I bet shoes only caught on in the colder and harsher places.

I found this sign on pixabay, a site for free photos.  Love it.

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When I got my first summer job during my teens, I didn’t know how I could stand to go shod all summer.  I didn’t like my first summer in shoes one bit.  And I shed my shoes any chance I got.  Why would anyone want to grow up at all if it meant shoes?  I found this photo on pixabay, an internet site offering many pictures free for use.

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I still go barefoot whenever I can.  At the apartment building where I live, we have a wide back lawn ideally suited to walking barefoot.  It’s a lawn where flowers grow with the clovers and grasses.  Violets stick between my toes.  Patches of bluets under pines where the layers of pine needles soften my way.

People warn me.  “Aren’t you scared what you’re going to step on?”  They tell me stories of a nephew who cut his foot going barefoot on the sidewalk by his house or a woman who sliced her heel on a can lid.  They are not wrong.  These days you have to be careful where you walk and you have to look.  Then there are some incidents that are inevitable, like the time I stepped on a ground bee and got stung.  But to me the strength of that connection to the earth is worth a bee sting.  A slice of onion or potato takes the sting out, and there is always oral niacin to get the poison out of my system.

On the farm where I grew up, as soon as the air warmed in the spring, we children begged to go barefoot.  My mother had a firm rule.  “Bring me a dandelion and you can go barefoot.”  The first brave yellow dandelion blooms came on the south side of the hen house.  We knew where to watch and we brought the first bloom to Mom.  We went barefoot all summer.  Here are two of my sisters playing barefoot on the lawn.

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Sometimes we stepped in chicken poop—always a few stray chickens managed to fly over the fence.   We rinsed our feet off under the sill cock before we went inside.  Our feet grew wide and tough.  I remember the feel of the barn floor boards, so smooth to my feet, the feel of gravel and sand in the driveways, the feel of grass, and the way I had to slide my feet in the stubble that stuck up sharply after haying.  We would wade in mud puddles, squishing mud between our toes and singing the ducky duddle song.

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Mom had a metal dust pan with a hole where the back of the handle connected to the pan.  My big toe fit the hole making it possible to sweep the dust into the pan while standing up and holding the pan with my toe, an action my father thought clever.  But when your feet and toes are handy, you learn to use them.  I’ve seen pictures of lusty, barefoot women tramping grapes to get the juice out.  My aunt tells of a time when her daughter-in-law had been visiting with toddlers.  Picking the children up and settling one on each hip, the mother then grabbed a toy and a sweater with her toes, brought her foot up to the opposite hand, and was ready to go, all cargo aboard.

Many people go barefoot at the beach and most of us swim barefoot.

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Running in the sand can be healthful.  Our beach was not sandy, though.  We swam off granite ledges and played on Orr’s Island’s rocky shore.  We walked on barnacles that cut our feet enough to draw blood yet our feet healed before we left the shore because we had spent the time walking in salt water.

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Not that going barefoot is for every occasion.  Cowboys wore high boots to protect their feet from rattlesnakes and thorns.  Although I had cousins who ran through snow to the outhouse, mostly we northerners wear shoes in the winter.

Which brings us back to Grounding.  That contact with the earth has been less and less available as we learned to manufacture shoes and sandals out of materials that do not conduct electrical and magnetic currents.  Meanwhile, the built world and its various kinds of trash have made going barefoot unsafe in many situations, not to mention frowned upon.  I was once barefoot in the foyer of my college dorm when a very proper lady looked way down her long nose at my feet.  Now it takes a doctor to tell us to do what we used to do on the natch, to find some safe places to walk/run barefoot and gain the strength and healthy effects available from the earth.  I will continue my barefoot walks in places such as my lawn and a nearby beach.  Meanwhile, around my apartment I go barefoot or wear leather slippers with no man-made sole to interfere with the flow of energy from beneath my feet.  Our floors and sidewalks are unpainted concrete.

For those who want more on Grounding, here’s a link to Dr. Mercola, who offers a wealth of information on the benefits of going barefoot.

https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/10/19/grounded-documentary.aspx

To summarize his findings, children who go barefoot gain strength in their feet and lower legs.  Grounding often allows adults to become free of chronic pain.  Walking barefoot on the Earth transfers free electrons from the Earth’s surface into your body that spread throughout your tissues providing beneficial effects.  Grounding had been shown to reduce inflammation and improve sleep.  Wearing plastic or rubber-soled shoes or flip-flops effectively disconnects you from the Earth’s natural electron flow.

According to Dr. Mercola, “the surface of the Earth holds subtle health-boosting energy. All we have to do is touch it and become truly alive.”

Grounding isn’t strange.  “It’s actually a natural act that virtually every living creature does instinctively.”

Good grounding surfaces include: sand as at the beach, moist grass, bare soil, concrete and brick (not painted or sealed), and ceramic tile.  Feet clothed in leather still get the benefit of the earth’s energy.

Some surfaces that will not ground us are asphalt, wood, rubber and plastic, vinyl, and tar.

Choose a safe spot and try it.  If your feet are tender, they will toughen up.  Happy Grounding.

 

Born First

Children sometimes have a problem their parents don’t see or can’t solve.  It is a fortunate child who has a stepdad like Chuck.

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It’s all about a stupid chair

and nothing more.

I think it isn’t fair

my brother sitting there

when I’m the one it’s for!

 

It is a special chair

all soft and cushiony

and close to the TV.

And I’m a special guy,

the oldest brother in the family!

 

I tried to tell my mom and dad

that they should love and cherish me

and make my brothers leave that chair

always every time for me.

They did not agree.

 

Mom said, “He was there first

sitting in that chair.”

She said my brothers, too,

are each significant and rare.

I didn’t care.

 

My dad said, Just don’t start!”

He said,  “Now, have a heart.”

My turn would be tomorrow night

if tonight I didn’t start a fight.

But waiting was too hard for me.

 

I said, “Don’t give my brothers turns!”

‘Cause sometimes I forget

about my own significance.

I just can’t miss one single chance

to test your attitude and stance.

 

On justice I insist.

Give all your love to me.

Each day make every gesture show

a strong partiality ’cause every hour

I need to know youre not discounting me.

 

Of love there’s never too much proof.

At night I’m still in doubt.

Until my little brothers came

I was the star of every game.

Now I’m the one left out.

 

The row I made about that chair!

Now all week I can’t sit there.

Which only shows I’m onto them.

They love my brothers best.

It isn’t fair.

 

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The row I made about that chair

Was not the end of it.  My dad,

He really is my stepdad, see,

I usually call him Chuck,

agreed with me.  Was I in luck!

 

A first born son needs, he said,

A chair quite soft and cushiony

And close enough to watch TV

To keep his special place all safe

Inside a busy family.

 

He took me shopping at the mall,

Where you can hope for anything.

And then like Watson, that was Chuck,

And Sherlock, that was me,

We snooped around for clues.

 

We took our time, we tried three stores

And then I found a beanbag soft and

Velvety in blues.  It wriggles up,

It lounges back, I drag it anywhere.

I don’t need the other chair.

 

I’m easy when my brothers ask for turns.

As Chuck explained, a first born son

Can share a lot and keep his place.

And that’s the whole story.

Rural Nobility

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Because of my farm roots, I have a special fondness for rural “stuff”—the strength, endurance, and courage that lie in the soul as expressed on our farms and in our villages.

Once I took my kids ice skating on the pond in Neahwa Park, Oneonta, a small city along the Susquehanna River just north of the Catskills. As I hadn’t been on skates with any regularity I was awkward and, the kids thought, quite hilarious. (Today, some years later, my bottom still remembers the cool sudden thump on firm ice.)

Still, I came away that day with a vision of success. An old man in a top coat and a hat with earflaps came gingerly down the wooden ramp of the old skate house, paused to remove the protectors from his skates and, holding these artistically crossed in one of his gloved hands, began a smooth path among the skaters. His composure and something more than skill, that transcendence of the physical made possible by years of excellence, caught my attention completely. He was not flamboyant. He had come not to show off but to feel the movement, to do what he could do. His unselfconscious grace caught my heart so strongly that I approached him when he had finished and was at the ramp, replacing the skate protectors.

“Please, sir,” I said, “forgive me for intruding on your private moments, but I loved watching you.”

“Thank you,” he said with a nod.

Emboldened, I continued, “Do you mind telling me how old you are?”

“I am eighty this year.”

“Well,” I finished, “may I still be skating, however awkwardly, when I am eighty.”

“May you be!” he said with a slight bow, as graceful in connection as in movement, and he was gone.

I didn’t see him after that season. My kids grew old enough to go skating without me, and I allowed myself to be too busy with adult cares to join them. I have more than a few doubts about my chances of skating at eighty, though I expect to keep up with yoga and be still standing on my head at an advanced age.  The image of that elderly gentleman skater gave me an expanded idea of what a human being can do!

I know another man, also a member of the rural nobility. As his son-in-law likes to say, “Emerson is a prince of a man!”

Emerson Mitchell, straight, lean, is the picture of elderly health. His gray-blue eyes are clear under strong brows. His white hair waves thickly back from a high forehead. His mouth turns slightly up at the corners, as if each moment holds amusement for him. Waiting for me in his blue work clothes at the top of the path, he is both elegant and ready for work.

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He pulls a green garden cart down the gravelly wood road and leaves it near some standing deadwood he intends to harvest for kindling. Carefully he rests the old bow saw on the cart handles.

Then, beckoning to me, he steps lightly along the hillside and into the ravine. He wants to show me the springs. We enter a pine grove, snapping underfoot the bleached twigs and lower branches sloughed off by the growing trees. Nimble as a buck, he gains the granite ledges, skirting patches of ground juniper and gray, leafless blueberry bushes. He bends and finds three red-orange box berries, gives me two, and eats one. After a winter of snow and cold, they still taste faintly of wintergreen.

We manage the last steep descent by catching at the trunks of small maples and alders which hold fast by strong roots in the bank above. Jumping one branch of the brook, we find ourselves standing on a sandy delta large enough for a square dance. From here he holds his hand out in a familiar pointing gesture, showing me where two springs enter at the gravel head of the ravine. There, at the source, he has dug a basin deep enough to fill a bucket. He keeps a dipper hanging on a nearby tree. Reaching for it now, he bends to fill it and offers me a drink. We share the dipper, drawing the sweet water into our smiles.

He shows me tight curls of fiddlehead ferns pushing through the loamy sand, skunk cabbages growing big, and a spot where lady slippers bloom each year. He tells how the contours of this basis change from year to year, how the postures of fallen trees can make it hard to pull them out for firewood, how he and his son once brought a tractor and borrowed winch to the delta, set the rope and winch around yonder oak, and coaxed several downed trees up, out of the gullies, nearly a year’s supply of firewood.

On our way back we stop at the garden cart. Emerson saws straight across the base of each of the drying pines, which make small cracking crashes against their neighbors and the ground. Then, kneeling on the forest floor, he uses the stumps as props and saws stove-sized segments. I stack the lengths in the cart.

Pausing, he tells of the blizzard of ’44, which came in May when he already had chickens out of the range, how he got through the drifts and brought water and grain into the shelters so the birds would survive till the snow melted. I see the past stretching back, events faced with courage and ingenuity, care taken. And amusement won from the hard life of a farm boy in the days when chickens were still raised by the mothers.

“I suppose I was about seven,” he begins. “I went to the barn to feed the horses and I noticed our three hens all outside with their broods, the little chicks looking for bugs like their mothers taught. But when I went in, I heard a small insistent peep coming from somewhere in the barn. Well, I traced the peeping to the stall of our old draft horse, and I deduced that that chick was beneath one of his feet. I went to his head and backed him up. He moved three of his feet—but not that one. So I moved him forward. Again he moved three of his feet—but not that one. I unhitched him and backed him out far enough to make him move all his feet. The little chick scampered off, cheeping, to find his mother.

“The horse knew,” he finished mildly.

“And meant to keep him,” I added.

We piled the cart high with good round kindling.

One story led to another.

“One day, I went down at dusk to do the evening chores and the three broods of chickens had all followed their mother into the barn to the nests. Only, most of them had followed the same mother, leaving the other two hens with only two or three chicks each. I don’t know what it was about that mother hen that attracted the chicks. Perhaps it was her dulcet voice. But there she was, trying to spread her wings to keep almost thirty chicks warm. Well, I didn’t think I could let this go on, so I took a few for each of the other hens until it seemed about fair and all the chicks were in, under, for the night. ‘Course, I had no way of knowing which chicks belonged to which hen, but since none of them complained, I decided it was okay and went on about my chores.”

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Without apparent strain, Emerson Mitchell hauls the loaded cart to the cellar door where he’ll unload it later. After a light lunch, he settles on the couch to watch a Red Sox game, snoozing between innings, a man who works and rests, pacing himself.

What a father can do, I tell myself, a daughter can strive to do also. I resolve to be so fine at almost eighty. And I have a larger idea of the stuff I am made of.

First published in the anthology Out of the Catskills and Just Beyond, edited by Bertha Rogers, Bright Hill Press, 1997.

The Colors of Christmas

“Why are the Christmas colors green and red?” I sometimes ask people.  No one has thought about it.  Well, of course they wouldn’t have.  The tradition they have known does not suggest why these colors became associated with Christmas.  And I’ve never read an explanation anywhere, but I think it’s obvious—to those who know the Solstice Celebrations that predated Christ Mass.  Red and green are the colors of life—red for animals and green for plants.  These are the colors of the juices that flow through living things.  They were the colors of the Winter Solstice, adopted later by Christians in order to persuade pagans to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

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Then, just as planned, people forgot that red and green represented the return of life when the sun began to spend a few more minutes each day above the horizon.  They forgot that lighted trees had been used both indoors and out for many centuries before such trees were associated with Jesus’ birth.  I’m thinking in particular about the folks in my small village today, most of whom think only about the years they have witnessed and not much further back.

Most people are not students of history.  We seem to have lost the need to remember how our ancestors lived.  Since the industrial age and, now, the age of technology, people have all they can do to keep up with the new demands on their attention and skills—and little need to know what past generations knew.  Of course, in truth we have forgotten or let slip a great deal of old time knowledge, including herbs and healing and the many mistakes mankind has made throughout history, useful lessons if we only kept them in memory.  We have lost the perspective and wisdom history can give.

Many of us care a great deal about the traditions of our families and regions, customs we learned in childhood that still bring us comfort and joy.  The ancient Pagans must have felt much the same.  At the time of forced conversion, they must have been much happier with a celebration of the birth of Christ that looked and felt like what they had known as little children—lighted trees and those bright colors, especially red and green.

Tradition is proof enough of the rightness of our ways.  This makes sense to anyone who has studied the Myers-Briggs ideas about character and personality.  As laid out for us in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, about thirty-eight percent of a random population report being oriented to helpful deeds, to duty carried out faithfully, and to the protocol handed down by those who have gone before.  Protocol minds work like a check list or flow chart–if this, then that.  We depend upon these dutiful people to run our institutions and to keep the basics in.  When protocol people learn about their particular gifts, they feel validated.  “I always knew I worked like that but I couldn’t explain myself.”

There are three other general types of personality, the action folks, the objective thinkers or scientists, and the relationship people.  None of these care as much about tradition as the protocol people, though some will tolerate ritual and celebration for the sake of the family (relationships) while others will say “bah humbug.”  Action people will put up with a lot if it involves music or any action such as ice skating.  They don’t bother about what the protocol people say is true based on tradition or what the philosophers say is not true based on observation.  Much that is traditional cannot be observed today.

This breakdown is oversimplified, but you get the idea that there are many different approaches to tradition and celebration.

As a subjective compassionate, I am most interested in relationships, in how people treat one another, in whether a tradition or celebration is kind and good for us.  I write to examine or question traditions that don’t go back all that far.  I honor the old ways of my northern European ancestors.  I write to recognize the simplicity of celebrating the return of the sun and the life that can go on under the sunshine of spring and summer.

In the spring I eat fresh greens, which will transform to good red blood.

But I will not argue with those who trust in and love a more recent tradition.

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