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Happy Solar Circuit!

M101 cropped

A spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: M101 Photo credit: ESA & NASA PIs Kuntz, Bresolin,, Trauger, Mould and Chu et al.

The ball has dropped on a new year. January 1 marked the day we completed our latest orbit about the sun as we wished each other “Happy New Year.” Of course, there was a time when the calendar did not begin there. It was Julius Caesar, who in 46 BC moved New Year’s Day backward three months from the vernal (spring time) equinox in March to its current place in the calendar. Two years later Julius was assassinated (probably not for his calendric activities, however). Some still begin the year on the vernal “equinox” (meaning “equal night” [and day]), one of the two times each year that the sun appears to rise precisely in the east and the night and day light are equally 12 hours long. This year the vernal equinox is March 19.

In fact, other cultures use other calendars. One other innovation of Julius Caesar was to add—in fourth year—a leap day to the formerly final month of the year, February, to correct for the approximately six hours the year exceeds 365. Unfortunately the Julian system overcorrected by about 3/400 of a day each year. In 1582 Pope Gregory (actually a conference of calendar geeks, like this author) devised a method to account for this over correction. At their suggestion he revised the Julian calendar so that every century that should be (under the system of Caesar) a leap year is, instead, a regular year, unless the year is divisible by 400, thus eliminating the extra three days in four hundred years. Problem solved! He also reset the year by removing ten days from the calendar.

Happy Old New Year

But, one consequence of this innovation is a gradually increasing disparity between the two calendars. Thus, January 1 (on the old calendar), the so called “Old New Year” that is still used by the Orthodox Christian Church, that rejects the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope, falls on the modern (Gregorian) calendar, today January 14, 2016. So, I say “Happy Old New Year!”

In an attempt to overcome my Eurocentric bias I have looked into the calendars of other cultures that start their year on other days, rather than January 1, and have found that they are often associated with celestial events. For example, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is associated with the autumnal (fall) equinox and the new moon. This year the Jewish New Year occurs on the evening of October 2, 2016. The Islamic New Year also uses the moon for its cadence, beginning the next day, October 3, 2016.

But as I contemplated my sixty-ninth circuit about the sun, I was tempted to say, “Here we go again!” Then I realized that our solar system is also orbiting the galactic center where lurks a massive black hole. This “Galactic Year” (the time to make one galactic circuit) is estimated to be a little less than a quarter of a billion years. Therefore, in the 4.54 billion years since the formation of the earth, the solar system has made approximately twenty circuits. So, the earth is nearing three galactic weeks of age!

Never the Same River

On the other hand, the solar system is orbiting at a velocity of about 143 miles per second! We, riders on the earth, are corkscrewing through space at an astonishing speed. That fact implies that since last January 1, 2015 we have moved about four and half billion miles. In a very real way the old adages applies to us, the one that advises, “You never step into the same river twice.” As we pass through the year, orbiting our local star, the seasons changing with the angle of the sun in the sky, I now realize that we are not in the same place we were twelve months ago. We are very far removed, in fact. Each minute that passes we hurtle a distance equal to the diameter of the earth.

What is more, I am not the same person I was then, either, nor are you. Our experiences and memories have changed us even though (contrary to popular mythology) my brain cells are the same ones I had last year. My brain has merely been slightly rewired by my thoughts and memories. On the other hand, my same heart has beaten approximately 32 million times but my blood cells have indeed been replaced several times. At the atomic level, moreover, only 2% of the atoms of my body remain from the body I inhabited a year ago. Thus, I am indeed, not the man I was, although I look much the same. I have been renovated at my core.

From these reflections I take away two profound truths. Firstly, as a different person than I was a year ago–but yet a doppelganger of myself–I am not the prisoner of my past. I can chose a different direction as I move forward even if I begin at the spot where I find myself. Two dear friends shared a photo of an artist’s installation they encountered on their hike up the Aggenstein in Bavaria, Germany. It has become an icon of this principle to me. The object is an open door on the path. The future is, indeed, an open door. We can choose to pass through it or turn away. In the photograph we see the paths that record the choices of many feet. I will be looking for those open doors that I encounter in the year ahead. I was reminded of Jesus words, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Rev 3:8) What a wonderful possibility! Open doors abound.

The second take away truth I see is the old and possibly clichéd realization that one will only pass this way once. Every moment is unique. We are speeding through space at a breakneck speed. Humanity has never been here before. Thus, I must savor every moment like a meal that I will enjoy only once, although the memory will linger forever. Every thought, every breath, every interaction changes me and I change everything I touch, as well.

So as we go round again for the first time, may we enjoy the view from the track and leave our own traces on high mountain paths we have never trod before.

So I wish you a Very Happy Solar Circuit. How good to cross paths this time around.

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Open Door Aggenstein Bavaria, Germany, the icon of possibility that lies before us. Photo credit Chris Littler

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A Reply to Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)  Photo credit: www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) Photo credit: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Eleven years ago I attended, with my wife, a speech by Maya Angelou at the University of North Texas. It was an inspiring ninety minutes that included a slam poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo, a personal friend and a powerful voice for La Raza and the Chicano experience. Much was made of words, little swords of truth, even to the point of encouraging the listener to write their own works.

The message was not lost on me. I was inspired to compose a poem in response to Maya’s challenge. Of course, one does not write a poem or prose to be read in your closet, speaking only to the walls. Therefore, I sent the poem to the university sponsor of the event. She insisted (to my embarrassment) that we send a framed copy to Maya Angelou herself, which we did. I do not know what Dr. Angelou thought of my work, but no matter, it was a positive response to what she proposed we (read I) do. Last year she died. Thus, I will never know.

Given the events in our nation in the last few weeks and my post last week that reveal how far we have come in race relations (not far it seems), I offer this poem for your reflection and your inspiration. Write your verse and share it however you may.

On Hearing Maya Angelou

I would live a large and unabridged life,
Not a quiet, small, condensed, digested
Version, read so safe, content, and cowardly,

A life as large as black mommas singing
Gospel hymns and William C. Handy tunes,
The poesy of black humanity’s pain.

Think not that Angelou could sing the blues
With such wide mirth and clarion voice unless
She first had bound it—to speak at last for us.

Think not that you alone stand soaked with rain
And search in vain for Noah’s sign above,
A lost rainbow-hope in clouds of dark struggle.

Think not that Christ the hope of Easter morn
Secured without its price of Thursday’s long
Night of olivine doubt and Good Friday’s cross.

Rainbows come only when our own sun winks
Through the storm and back refracts its wan light
To show to us gossamer spectra within.

I would live a large and unabridged life
Where pain and joy together teach me what
A human is: black, brown, white, bold, joy-filled, large…free.

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo creddit: /twitter.com/thepoetjz

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo credit: https://twitter.com/thepoetjz

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Poem For Carrie

Original poem and photograph by Sam Matteson. Permission is granted for non-commercial use. (Click on figure to enlarge.)

We can often learn much from the most innocent among us if we are really listening. As my wife and I visited the gulf coast of Alabama during the past week that included my 50th high school reunion, I was reminded of the story of the first visit to the sea shore of a young girl who had just learned to swim. She ran down the dunes to the beach but stopped short of the surf and looked from her toes in the foam that swirled about her feet up to the horizon in the distance. After standing for several minutes silently contemplating the expanse of blue before her, she said in a small voice: “I think that I will swim in the shallow end.”

The picture above is of our daughter Carrie when she first visited the Pacific Ocean in the late1970s. I held her hand that day as we played in the ocean, just as my father had held mine in the years before when I was a child and we visited the gulf and played in the surf. I recall the feeling of the swells rolling into the shore lifting me, with the help of my Dad’s strong grip. My feet often did not touch the sand beneath the waves, but Dad was always there.

Then I grew up. My father did not hold my hand very often after that, until the day he died and in an unnatural reversal, I held his hand—though he did not know it, stricken by an ultimately fatal stroke as he was. In that dark night, I thought again of sweet Carrie’s plea from years before: “Don’t leave me alone my Daddy. I don’t want night to get into my eyes.” Yes, too often it seems to me I have let night get into my eyes and darken my soul. Too often I feel at sea and like Peter who began so well bidden by Christ to come to him upon the sea, I seem only to sink down. Yet, I take comfort in the words of Matthew’s gospel that follow: “ [W]hen [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” (Matthew 14: 30,31)

I did not choose to swim in the deep end of the sea, but life has cast me there. Many times I have seen the waves and felt their swell and was afraid. It was then that night began to get into my eyes and I reached out and caught hold of a hand not my own. So I persist swimming on without touching the bottom, fearfully at times but hopefully as well, swimming in the deep end of life.  My own child taught me this.

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Wet Mountain Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado Photo credit: Carolyn Matteson

Wet Mountain Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado
Photo credit: Carolyn Matteson

In 2003 my wife’s sister and brother-in-law, Linda and Bob Warren, whom I like to call my “bonus siblings,” drove us out from Buena Vista, Colorado in their four-wheel drive vehicle into the dense San Isabel National Forest, and over Cottonwood Pass. Bob and Linda have resided in the Wet Mountain Valley (pictured above) for over twenty years and should by now become accustomed to the stunning beauty of the mountains and forests of south central Colorado. But not so. They were as enraptured as were Carolyn and I, the visitors from the flatlands.

Beholding the autumn foliage in the pass, I was inspired to pen the poem below that not only exalts in the beauty of the place but also marvels at the extravagance of a God who would create such scenes for His own pleasure.  What a gift to glimpse it, too, almost incidentally.

Cottonwood post (1)

“The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains – mountain dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops.”–John Muir (1938)

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April has been designated National Poetry Month (http://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/stanza/national-poetry-month-2015) Below is a poem that expresses my simultaneous aspiration and doubt about my attempts at communicating truth. It was inspired by a dream that is described in the poem. I probably was under the persistent influence of my research into the history of stringed instruments, ancient Grecian music, and better ways to intrigue my students in my musical acoustics class as I went to sleep the night in question. Inspiration can spring from the oddest intersections of thought.

One of the oldest complete musical poems is the text of the Song of Seikilos (ca. 200 BC), an ancient Greek text performed by the Atrium Musicae de Madrid directed by Gregorio Paniagua that can be found on-line at https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=9RjBePQV4xE#t=6.  Its haunting text and musical accompaniment on the kithara (lyre) must have made a subconscious impression on me. It may do the same for you.

In the weeks to come I will a post an original poem each week. I believe that poetry is language singing, telling us of life in its multifaceted reality. April poem post #1:

Original verse by Sam Matteson (www.sammatteson.com) Permission granted for repost or copying for educational use.

Original verse by Sam Matteson (www.sammatteson.com)
Permission is granted for reposting or copying for educational use.

Poetry Quote: “At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.” – Plato

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Connie Nichols, a stranger to me, but the beloved sister of my dear friend Alan Wimberley, died suddenly and tragically in a motorcycle accident on Good Friday last.  A news story reporting her life and death recounted the details (see links).  And as is so often the case, news of death takes me back to the loss I have felt as each one of my parents and parents-by-marriage departed.

I offer these lines of verse as a validation of the pain we all will know if we live long enough.

(Descansos  means “resting place” and refers to the informal memorials that appear on the margins of the highway where a loved one died. This poem was composed in February 2003, following the death of my friend and father-in-Law John Rhodes.)

Descansos

I scraped the graveyard’s mud from our shoes
With my car’s ignition key
And I remembered the overburdened “x”—coming back,
Stabbed into the earth beneath the trees:

A flower-capsized cross
That barely stood on its own
In the highway’s broad shoulder.

There last someone lay upon the earth,
And last breathed this good air,
And last blinked back sunlight.

My heart is not large enough
To hold the hurt for every man and woman,
But I cannot escape the pain of you
That spills out when I turn to look.

Would that every end-point were punctuated so,
With full stop, or semi-colon, or comma—plain.
Seems to me a life deserves that much—or more.

But no; in memory only can we truly see
The frayed end of your line that threaded
Through the eyelets of our days and nights
That I would cinch it up if I could.

But I look back in my mirror
And watch the grieving miles
Unreel with each revolution,
And loss—elastic—ever stretches, there to here.

 In Oklahoma we crossed high over the river
Where the barge collapsed the bridge
And ten cars drowned with a nightmare fall.

Now no crosses or flowers float on the stream.
New concrete spans the gap, too.
I see no phantom mists or apparitions,
And the place is haunted only in dreams.

In truth, here is not a horrid but a holy place,
Where last you breathed—and then you did not.

So my heart piles stones high
To cairn this sacred spot,
This place where you left off
And where we recall you still.

I know that this is not enough,
But it is all I have strength to do.
Pray it is enough.
It must be.

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