Archive for March, 2008


Tag! I’m it.

I was recently tagged by, of all people, my favorite atheist, “Bad”, over at “The Bad Idea Blog”. I must admit that I was somewhat astonished to be tagged by this highly intelligent, eminently readable, but somewhat dour individual. But on the other hand, it IS a literary meme, so perhaps it’s not so discordant after all.

The rules of this meme go like this:

1. Go to page 123 of the nearest book.
2. Find the 5th sentence.
3. Write down the next 3 sentences.

Pretty easy, as far as this sort of thing goes. This is undoubtedly why he tagged me with this in the first place: anything more involved and I probably would never have gotten to it, inveterate blogslacker that I am.

As it turns out, I happen to be re-reading J. M. Barrie’s “My Lady Nicotine”. Barrie is, of course, far more famous as the author of “Peter Pan”. In fact, Wikipedia makes no mention at all of this work in their entry about Barrie (a work extolling the pleasures of smoking is far too politically incorrect for Wikipedia, presumably).

The book was originally published in 1890, and recounts the adventures of Barrie and his four bachelor friends, Gilray, Marriot, Scrymgeour, and Jimmy (Jimmy’s last name is Moggridge, but for reasons revealed in the book, he alone of the four friends is always referred to by his first name).

While this book is comparatively obscure, it is actually rather popular with us pipe smokers. What makes this book so interesting (at least from my perspective) is that the stories are all related through the prism of the smoking habits of each of the five friends. While cigar smoking is occasionally referred to, it is the pipe which is usually at center stage in each of the short vignettes presented by Barrie. The five friends’ love of a particular mixture, known as the “Arcadia Mixture”, forms the central theme of the book.

Whether you smoke or not, the book is an extremely entertaining visit to late Victorian England, viewed through the eyes of someone who was there. Barrie’s subtle wit is in fine form here, beginning with the first chapter, in which he informs the reader that he has given up smoking. At the beginning of the chapter he is strident (like most reformed smokers) in his declaration that “I am much better without tobacco, and already have difficulty in sympathizing with the man I used to be”, yet by the end of the chapter he grows wistful, and as he launches into his series of tales, we see where his heart truly likes. Strangely, in the description of the book, the reviewer for seems to have complete missed the irony in this chapter.

As an interesting footnote, Barrie was close friends with the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle paid a subtle tribute to his friend in “The Crooked Man”, in which Holmes says to Watson, “You still smoke the Arcadia mixture of your bachelor
days, then! There’s no mistaking that fluffy ash upon your coat.”

So, without further ado, here is my contribution to the meme. Oddly enough, this particular passage has nothing to do at all with smoking.

I stood up and gazed. She was perhaps a hundred yards away fro me, but I could distinctly make out her swaying, girlish figure, her deerstalker cap, and the ends of her boa. (as, I think, those long furry things are called) floated in the wind. In a moment she was safe on the other side; but on the middle of the plank she had turned to kiss her hand to some of her more timid friends, and it was then that I fell in love with her.




Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus
(Christ our Paschal lamb is sacrificed)
-Dominica Resurrectionis (Gregorian Mass for Easter)

These words, originally from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, form the entire Alleluja section of the Gregorian Mass for Easter, written some time in the 10th century. Or, should I say, written down some time in the 10th century, as the Mass itself is undoubtedly much older than that.

I love Gregorian chant. I love how this music floats down through the mists of time, envelopes me in its seductive, meter-less rhythms, and carries me away to a world of monasteries and mysteries. It is spiritual and mystic, and very, very, beautiful. The haunting melisma in the word “immolatus” (sacrificed) still sends a chill up and down my spine every time I hear it.

Easter is a very different holiday from Christmas. Christmas is a holiday that even an atheist can get into, if he so chooses. Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins admits that he “likes singing Christmas carols”, and describes himself as a “Cultural Christian”. Apart from the fact that Christmas has been secularized and commercialized almost beyond recognition, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Nothing especially remarkable about that, really; we celebrate the birthdays of lots of people: Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. It does not require a belief in divinity to celebrate anyone’s birth.

Easter is very different. Unlike Christmas, one cannot separate the the holiday from its religious underpinnings. What is being celebrated here is no less than the idea that someone was resurrected from the dead. While one can believe that Jesus lived without being divine, one cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead without believing in the divine. You either believe it, or you don’t. The only middle ground is agnosticism.

Personally, I guess I fall into the agnostic camp on this one. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve shed many, but not all, of my religious beliefs. Like many people nowadays, I find little that is appealing, and much to be deplored, in religious orthodoxy. But unlike the atheist, I am not prepared to state that something cannot exist beyond the capability of my five senses to understand it. There is much in the universe we will never understand. The unseen can still exist.

As far as Jesus goes, he lived during a time when eschatological “prophets” were a dime a dozen. Yet while the rest have all been forgotten, he somehow inspired a group of men to spread his teachings, even to the point of sacrificing their lives in the process. He quite literally changed the world forever. Divine? I don’t know, but he clearly had something going for him. The real sin is that Christianity has strayed so far, so often, from the teachings of Christ.

But I still love Gregorian chant.

Happy Easter, to all those who celebrate it.



The Bush by the Mill, a haiku

Sweet amber solace
Burns all the way to my soul
Sears away the pain.

-Stephen P. Smith


Donatello, a poem

Donatello sits atop a box,
A box of toys you haven’t touched in years.
He mutely wonders where you’ve gone and why
You never play with him anymore.
Donatello was always your favorite one.
He cannot know his favorite little boy
Has ripened into a man, a soldier marching
Down the blood soaked, ancient road of war.
The plastic guns exchanged for ones that kill.
The childish games replaced with grown up death.
Once you were a blond haired, blue eyed boy,
My mind still echoes with your childish laughter.
Now the black robed reaper stalks your dreams;
Twenty one black bells toll for your innocence.
And when I see your sad visage I wonder:
Do you miss your playmate Donatello
As much as I miss the happy little boy?

-Stephen P. Smith


Mary’s Lamb, a poem

The morning sunlight hits her aching eyes.
Her husband gone already, left quietly.
First she sees the empty silent crib,
The changing table smelling still of plastic,
The rubber toys and mobiles in their boxes,
The unworn little dresses hanging there.
She winds the plastic lamb, it sings to her
A song of mary and her little lamb.
Her body feels like its wading through cement.
Nothing else to do this morning. She sleeps.

And then her baby comes to her
In dreams of pink and lavender.
With laughing eyes and chubby face
And little dress of silk and lace.

She wakes again to the squealing sounds of a school bus.
The children shout but none will enter this house.
With all her will she raises her head a little.
Her red eyes assaulted by the flowered wallpaper,
The brightly colored pictures of smiling lambs.
Baby shoes that still smell like leather.
Her bladder aches. She wanders down the hall.
In the kitchen, the unused baby bottles
Keeping silent vigil on the counter
Remind her of how tired she always feels.

In sleep her baby comes to her
On little wings of gossamer.
Gentle words she softly sings
And to her mother solace brings.

Darkness. Door slams. Her husband is home.
The TV fills the house with joyless noise.
She calls to him, but no reply. She rises.
Runs her fingers along the empty crib,
The pristine changing table sterile white
The little dresses hanging in a row. She holds a toy.
Mary had a little lamb.

But at night her baby comes to her
In dreams of pink and lavender.
Wipes bitter tears from red rimmed eyes
And begs her mummy not to cry.
Face aglow with limpid light,
She promises to come each night.
Hand in hand they walk together
And mummy hopes she sleeps forever.

-Stephen P. Smith


A Single Sparrow Singing, a poem

Based on a true story. Yes, I knew her.

The dead dry leaves crunch beneath her tread.
She walks through a winter where no spring will come.
She tries to think, her mind a shattered mirror.
Thoughts kaleidoscope, just beyond her reach.
Even her own reflection warped and broken.
Frozen blistered hands carry the gasoline
Across this cold and silent field. The sun
Defiles the sky like a swollen crimson blood clot.

The stadium is full of happy stupid people.
They have long black and red scarves and rosy cheeks.
They drink hot chocolate, wave their pennants, shout and
Cheer their football team, their high school heroes.
The band parades across the fifty yard line.
The twirling batons flashing in the sun,
The saxophones and drums spew cacophony.

She walks across a field that gives no smiles.
The smell of gasoline fills her frozen nostrils,
Seduces her whirling brain with thoughts of peace.
A cloud descends upon her. She feels nothing.
Dimly aware of the cold and joyless sun
And the weight of the rusty gas can in her hands.

Calm she is now, there is no fear.
No more God, no more guilt,
No more heaven, no more hell
No more penance, no more pain
No more hope, no more loss.

She lifts the gas can high in supplication,
A high priestess on the altar of despair.
The gas cascades and soaks her clothes,
Covering her body like a mephitic sacrament,
Caressing her like a lover, drenching her clothes.
It finds her armpits, breasts, and crotch, and feet.
And still it pours, making her wet all over.
The plastic lighter is no longer in her pocket.
The flint wheel sparks.

Parents wave to sons and daughters on the field
Wishing they still wore their varsity sweaters.
Third quarter. Fourth quarter. Two minute warning.
Game over. Victory! The teams depart the field.

In a field a single vesper sparrow sings
Its lonely song to the slowly dying sunlight
And no wind moves the dead grass and dry leaves.
The swollen sinking sun is smeared with smoke.
An empty gas can lies prostrate on its side.
People are running hard across the frozen earth.
They thought they heard the sound of someone screaming.

-Stephen P. Smith

taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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