Auld Lang Syne or times gone by

I retired at the end of October after working for nearly 10 years as a funeral celebrant. It’s been one of the happiest periods of my working life – but, for lots of reasons, it felt the right time to stop.

My last professional role was a Christmas Memorial service that I’d committed to back in the summer. They are always very special occasions – a gathering of families served over the last year or two by a particular funeral director. Everyone who comes has lost someone and there is comfort in coming together, comfort in remembering.

There’s singing, a few prayers but the heart of the service is when we read out the names of everyone lost and everyone remembered and light candles for them. At Dan and Sarah’s they are arranged in the shape of a cross. Afterwards, in the late afternoon twilight they seem to shine ever more brightly.

I’m always asked to read something and this year – for my farewell – I chose Auld Lang Syne, saying:

There aren’t many poems or songs where you can safely say that, in a room like this, everyone has heard of and, probably, sung along to as well. But my reading today is one of them – it’s the old Scottish song – Auld Lang Syne – that is sung the world over on New Years’ Eve. I bet every one of us here has sung it, with our hearts full and our hands linked with our friends around us.

Strangely enough it doesn’t seem to matter that most of us don’t really know what the old Scottish words – Auld Lang Syne and all the rest – actually mean. Somehow, with the tune and the words together, we understand that the song is all about love and friendship and the need to remember all the times gone by, all those good times past.

That’s why I’ve chosen it for our service. At this special time of year, when the days have grown short and the evenings longer, we find ourselves thinking about times past – the good times and the friendships; the people we’ve loved. At this time of year the one’s we have lost also feel especially close.

I believe it’s important that we do this – because it’s when we take out a book of photos, share some memories, maybe light a candle or raise a glass to absent friends – or come to services like this one today – well, that’s when our loved ones draw close to us again. For me that is what saying or singing Auld Lang Syne is all about. I’m going to read it now. But before I begin can I ask you – if you wish – to take hold of the hand of the person sitting by you and, as I read the words, think about the times gone by, and all that your loved ones mean to you.

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since those times gone by.

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since those times gone by.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’thine!
And we’ll drink a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
Robert Burns

Auld Lang Syne or times gone by

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Just treated myself to a copy of Julia Blackburn’s latest book, Timesong, Searching for Doggerland.

In the introduction she says,

I wonder if it makes sense to imagine infinity going backwards in time rather than forwards. When you look at it that way round, you no longer have the vague dread of what the future holds, instead there is the intimation of the enormity of everything that has gone before: a solemn procession of life in all its myriad forms moving steadily towards this present moment. You can almost hear the songs they are singing.

There is something else. My husband died a few years ago. He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.’

As an epigraph she quotes the last few lines of a poem by Charles Causley, called Eden Rock. I thought it was worth sharing the whole:

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.
Charles Causley

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

RIP Robert Pirsig

It’s hard to claim much sadness for the death of a person you never met and haven’t thought about for many years, but reading about Robert Pirsig’s death yesterday (at the grand age of 88) did give me pause.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the mid seventies, not long after it came out. It thrilled me. I was completely caught up in Phaedrus’ inner journey, and although I still have no sense of the academic worth of the ideas Pirsig’s hero lives through – I’m no philosopher – they hit me like a bombshell.

I was 20 or so when I read it, trying to work out what to do with my life and what to make of the tail end of all that sixties idealism I’d grown up with.

ZAMM made sense to me. It seemed to express – in a more coherent and structured way than anything I had read before – the  spirit of those years.

Pirsig’s emphasis on quality, his challenge to the value-free subject/ object duality that was driving the materialism of western culture seemed – seems – essential. I never forgot it – it simply became part of the way I looked at the world.

That’s why, when I read the news last night, not having thought about him for many, many years, I raised my hat to him – in respect and thanks – and wished him well on his next road trip, perhaps – who knows – with his son Chris again.

RIP Robert Pirsig

This Is a Prayer to Baba Yaga. This Is a Prayer for Resistance

A friend posted a link to this on Facebook – I thought the poem was much too good to lose amongst FBs wretched algorithms.

Baba Yaga, the crone, a figure beyond the expectations and demands of society, reminds us of the freedom we have, and the power if we choose to exercise it.


Baba Yaga

This is a prayer for Baba Yaga.  This is a prayer for Resistance.

This is a prayer for the magic of chicken feet, the heat of old hates, the way old bones hurt.  This is a prayer for Resistance.

This is a prayer for hat knitters, sign-carriers, Congress-callers.  Old women make up the Resistance.

This is a prayer for casserole-bakers, newsletter-writers, nuisances.  Old women make up the Resistance.

This is a prayer for phone-bankers, neighborhood-canvassers, early-voters.  Old women make up the Resistance.

When the Moon is full, I call to Her.

I bring coals for Her oven.  I bring flour, to cover Her tracks.  I bring paprika salve for Her old, sore joints.

I bring a list of complicit women.  I bring a doll poked with pins and bound with vines.  I bring a bottle of ancient anger.

“Come, Baba Yaga,” I say. “Come find me alone in the woods.”

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This Is a Prayer to Baba Yaga. This Is a Prayer for Resistance