Among the dozen or so positive responses to my Christmas Day CP Posting (Bethlehem Scarred by Brutal Israeli Occupation, While the World Acquiesces, 12/25/2019), I received responses from dear friend and acclaimed poet Jack Butler (California) and Kay Weir, editor of “Pacific Ecology,” a Wellington, New Zealand-based scholarly journal whose mission is to “strengthen the voice of the environmental movement.”
I responded to Jack and Kay’s missives and wished them a Happy New Year.
In his response, Jack wrote the following:
“I am afraid that the monsters control the world, those to whom the killing of millions of others, even mothers and children, is a perfectly okay way to attain or keep power. I am afraid that many of us must die before the monsters are stopped, if they are to be stopped. … One cannot reason with people who justify their most horrendous acts as ‘the will of God.’ Love, Jack”
To which I responded:
“After I sent you the CP essay, I thrashed my behind for sending a gloomy piece on New Year’s Eve. I had intended to write a piece about ‘the digging in the garden ritual’ I’ve performed for the last 40 some years. Every New Year’s day I dig a small area in my garden, my way of turning the soil to bury the leaves (the old year) and expose the black soil (the new year) on which I will feast my eyes through mid-March, prior to planting my garden. Starting tomorrow, I plan to hammer away at the keyboard. Friend, Have a Most Happy New Year. Love, Raouf”
In her 12/28/2019 response to said CP posting, (and in redacted form), Editor Weir wrote:
“Greetings from New Zealand, Professor Halaby. Thank you so much for your graphic and brilliant article on Bethlehem and the tragic plight of Palestinians, even unable to go to their sacred sites, without arduous and insulting difficulties. The rewritten carol on Bethlehem is most apt.
Glad to hear you are a gardener and artist, the life of nature is wonderful! [emphasis mine].”
In my response to Ms. Weir’s missive, I wrote the following:
“Yes, Kay, the life of nature is indeed wonderful. I spend hours on end in my garden raising all sorts of vegetables, most of which are shared with neighbors, widows, and friends across town. If inspiration makes a visit, I shall endeavor to write an uplifting piece for New Year’s Day. For one must face the New Year with hope – and what is life without hope?”
Thanks to Janus’ optimistic outlook on putting the past year behind and greeting the new one with positive anticipation, hammering away at the keyboard to pen an uplifting piece was precisely what I intended to do to celebrate and herald the New Year. And thanks to Kay’s adage that “the life of nature is wonderful,” I’ve adopted this axiom as the title of this essay.
After composing two-thirds of this essay, the news that, to greet the New Year, Donald Trump ordered American death to descend from the heavens in his typically maniacal and predatory ejaculation of vile brutality, arrogance, and pomposity, I was undeterred. Much as the Old Man/the Leech Gatherer of William Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Persistence,” I was determined to put on a Janus-like positive outlook and resolved to finish what I set out to do. An optimistic essay had to be fleshed out and sculpted into prose.
And thus it was that on New Year’s Day a self-imposed moratorium on what channels we would watch on the telly’s January 1, 2020 offerings was strictly enforced. After viewing a brief report on the weather, the sycophants, pundits, merchants of death, and bought politicians were off-limits for the entire day. While FAUX NEWS is on permanent eviction, MSNBC and CNN were given a rest for the entire day, and in their stead the Rose Bowl Parade and a smorgasbord of football games made for a relaxing and enjoyable day.
For years now I have been performing four New Year’s Day rituals, rituals to which I have adhered religiously.
The Bird Feeding Ritual: Life is punctuated with routines, rituals, and the many mundane, perfunctory, and obligatory household, social, professional, and communal errands and responsibilities that can sometimes rise to the level of laborious tasks.
First and foremost is the daily task of filling the three-tiered bird feeder located some 20 feet away from our family and living rooms’ picture windows. In addition to bluebirds, wrens, finches, dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, and, much to La Belle Femme’s delight, uninvited squirrels show up and trapeze from one level of the feeder to the other in a feeding frenzy that frightens the birds. She asks: Don’t you enjoy seeing their raised, curved, furry tails quiver as they eat?” To which I respond: “The feeder is for the birds; they have a whole forest of acorns and my garden – in which they could forage to their hearts’ delight.”
I open the back door ever so quietly, ease across the back porch’s concrete floor, stomp on the extended wooden deck, and chase off the furry creatures into the woods. And it takes the birds a while to get over their fright and get back to their buffet.
As for the birdseed, La Belle Femme buys nothing but the very best bird food; the assortment of shelled sunflower kernels, hulled pumpkin seeds, peanuts, pistachios, and ground maize add color, variety, and texture to the morning and evening feedings. The “elite, zero-waste wild bird food” is supplemented with over a dozen vitamins. And should we forget to refill the bird feeder, the birds’ chirping is the Pavlovian reminder not only to us, but to the squirrels as well. Surprised as to why I allow the squirrels to feed for some 4-5 minutes, I assure my better half that there is nothing wrong with allowing the raiders a few minutes of gluttonous glee.
For some reason, the Red Cardinals, perhaps the prettiest species of the small feathery stock, have disappeared and are nowhere to be seen. Hopefully, they will return in late March or April to join the blue jays, mockingbirds, robins, and hummingbirds. La Belle Femme religiously tends to cleansing the hummingbird syrup feeders and to preparing the rich-in-sugar hummingbird syrup as though she were preparing her syrupy concoction for her Baklawa (baklava) pastry for which she is acknowledged.
I keep my ulterior motives vis-à-vis the squirrels to myself.
For the last two years a hawk has made annual extended visits to our backyard; by mid-April he perches on a dead branch atop the largest giant oak tree and scopes the entire perimeter – back, front, and lateral sides of the house. And many a time have I seen the hawk dart down, in full-throttle-projectile-speed, to claw an unsuspecting fattened squirrel. During the last spring and summer seasons the reptile population was reduced to two lucky harmless black snakes that escaped the clutches of the sharp claws. And I often ponder what lessons and adaptations aeronautic engineers have learned from the majestic birds of prey’s flight patterns.
Twice last summer I found two beautiful hawk feathers in the backyard and convinced myself that the hawk was gifting me two long plumes as a token of our friendship. For this reason, I’ve taken to calling him Falling Feather, and I am very grateful that squirrels, rodents, including field mice and poisonous snakes are forever (or at least until the next season) banished from my garden and the small meadow bordering the heavily forested landscape circumscribing our house.
The Walking Ritual: My second New Year’s Day ritual is my daily exercise routine.
Even though I have a Silver Sneakers membership at a local health club, my preferred daily walking regimen is undertaken either on the town’s nature trail or in my oak, pine, elm, sweetgum, and sycamore tree-lined neighborhood. During my Jerusalem, Palestine childhood and adolescent years the invitation to “Let’s go for a walk” was “Khaleena Nrooh Nukhud Mushwar [or] Khaleena Nrooh In-shim il-hawa,” which translate into “Let’s go for a walk [or] Let’s go out to smell the air [and, by extension] Let’s go out to smell/inhale the fresh air.”
And even though I get to see friends, former colleagues, local acquaintances, and the vivacious Dr. Virginia Anderson, my former star student, retired public school administrator, and health club instructor/owner at the gym, I prefer walking in the outdoors where there is no distraction of the up-and-down Stairmasters, the clanking of barbell weights, the whining of treadmills, the murmuring of elliptical gadgets, and the distraction of T.V. monitors inviting me to prepare and indulge in new culinary delights.
I view my daily walks not only as a thirty-minute interval of strenuous physical exertion, but also as a solitary intermezzo during which I filter out all the unpleasant, revolting, and menacing events in the nation’s swampy capital and the equally boggy capitals of a world gone mad with hatred, killings, and wars. There is something to be said about nature’s abundant and variegated seasonal mantles; dappled in vividly intense hues in spring and summer, richly cloaked in yellows, reds, and browns in the fall, and somberly attired in monochromatic greys in winter, nature communes with me as a lover would, and she affirms to me that each season has its cycle of beginnings and endings, this mysteriously cryptic sequence of change so inexplicably and serendipitously laid out in a perfect masterplan. Last year’s four-foot cedar seedling has this year grown by a whole half foot, and the towering oak tree under which it struggles to exist, currently shorn of its canopy of composting leaves and mulch, is granting the sun permission to filter down its life-sustaining rays that’ll help the sapling claim its turf on the vacant lot. And the lichen on the textured tree-bark’s northern side is thriving, thus providing nutrients to the deer population that run wild and free in our neighborhood. Having satiated their hunger by exhausting the abundant supply of acorns rich in protein, carbohydrates, and oil, as well as last year’s new growth on the azaleas, gardenias, ornamentals and fruit trees of every size, the lichen is the deer’s last resort until spring, born again, begins to come alive into blankets of fresh green grass and fluffy pink, white, and yellow-covered quilts of clover. And what a sight it is to see the honeybees converge on these early spring blooms to load up on the rich golden yellow pollen and zip back to the beehive to help build the honeycomb and nourish the queen bee as she begins her annual task of laying eggs in the vacant hexagonal prismatic wax cells.
I have spent many an enjoyable moment watching honeybees, laden with amassed pollen, land at the hive’s entrance. When the honey flow is rich in early spring, the worker bees’ hairy hind legs, engulfed with blobs of pollen, compel them to plunk down at the hive’s entrance and waddle into the buzzing world of a colony eager to convert the pollen into priceless molten delectable gold. I have spent far too many precious moments watching these industrious bees’ sluggish landings and the ensuing and agile busy as a bee re-emergences in single-minded flight paths to feast on nature’s spring bounty of sweetness and light.
And should humanity decide to emulate the communal esprit de corps practiced in a beehive, this would be an infinitely better, more harmonious, and certainly more peaceful world.
During yesterday’s walk I saw a cluster of pinkish red and black feathers, no doubt the remains of some predator’s meal. I also saw the rare Arkansas winter thistle plant, a plant we called Khurfeyshe in the native Palestine of my childhood. While in my adopted country winter thistles spread their prickly leaves horizontally to a diameter of 25 inches, the Palestinian Khurfeyshe grows vertically to five-foot heights. And a childhood memory flashed through my mind, a memory so seared in my cortex, it springs to life and replays itself every time I see a leafy, verdant, and prickly thistle of any sort.
In early 1950s Occupied Jerusalem food was scarce and rationed. We Palestinians living under Israeli occupation were not allotted ration cards on par with the newly arrived Jewish interloping immigrants. We supplemented our food by raising rabbits, a big religious taboo in a pervasively Jewish kosher climate, planting a vegetable garden, and feasting on an abundance of fruits planted by former generations. So, for some three years, every spring my widowed mother, armed with a paring knife, would lead us to the meadows surrounding our West Jerusalem suburban two-story stone house, whereupon she would painstakingly cut the large thistle stalks, strip away the prickly leaves, peel the exterior skin, cut the rich tissue of the thistle’s inner meat into child-sized lengths, and hand them to her wide-eyed hungry children. A cross between cucumbers, celery, bell pepper, and the sweetness of carrots, we delighted in the partaking of this open-air communion of scrumptiously delectable greenery served to us by the devoted and caring high priestess of maternal love.
And I see a metaphor in the Palestinian Khurfeyshe. Israel’s brutal occupation is akin to the thistle’s toxic prickly exterior, and the nurturing familial love reenacted in myriad ways by the Halaby family continues to be the life-sustaining khurfeyshe’s fleshy core that continues to sustain me emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
The Rose Parade Ritual: Late New Year’s Day breakfasts, coffee, hot tea or hot chocolate, along with the Rose Parade, have for years now become a favorite New Year’s Day ritual in our home. Because David Goodman, yet another former star student of mine, the owner of a local flower shop, and the premier florist in the southwestern quadrant of our state, was invited to participate in the decorating of this year’s Chinese American Heritage Foundation-sponsored float whose theme was “American Heroes,” I paid closer attention to all the creativity that went into this one-of-a-kind hypnotizing flowers-on-wheels parade transmitted across the world in nature’s exorbitantly abundance of myriad flowers in every size, shape, color, texture, and fragrance. Mine eyes are always dazzled by the soothing richness of this tactile and visual splendor, nature’s way of asserting her grandeur and miraculous brilliance. And I am not surprised that the float on which David worked painstakingly won the “Extraordinaire Award for the Most Extraordinary Float.”
This year’s float sponsors included: Voyage of Hope-1620 whose theme was — “Plant a Garden-Believe in Tomorrow;” Trader Joe’s “It Takes a Flight of Fancy;” Northwestern Mutual’s “Spend Your Life Living;” Downey Rose Association’s “On the Wings of Hope;” Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden’s “Cultivating Curiosity;” Chipotle’s Mexican Grill’s “Cultivate the Future of Farming;” China Airline’s “Dream of Flying, Wings of Hope;” Aids Healthcare Foundation’s “Hope for the Homeless;” Donate Life’s “Light in the Darkness;” Torrance Rose Float Assn.’s “Our Garden of Hope & Dreams;” Dole Packaged Food’s “Sunshine for All;” The Cowboy Channel’s “Walk Ride Rodeo;” City of Pasadena’s “Years of Hope, Years of Courage;” Rotary Rose Parade Float’s “Hope Connects the World;” And Kaiser Permanente’s “Courage to Re-imagine.”
It is so edifying to see corporate sponsorship for this very worthy cause.
Hosted by NBC’s Hoda and cobalt-blue spiffy-eyeglass-framed Al Roker, this year’s Rose Parade celebrated the richness of America’s diverse cultures/nationalities and ethnic/racial identities, and it included marching bands from every region of the nation, as well as Japan and Puerto Rico. The latter’s participants included dancers dressed in traditional Puerto Rican costumes performing traditional synchronized flamenco dance routines. The twirling of the rainbow-rich-colored sashes was a reminder of the vibrancy of Latino culture whose passion for life is edifying.
One has to marvel at the painstaking efforts taken in designing and decorating each of the floats. Utilizing a vast array of flowers to create architectural designs and biomorphic creations is an astounding testimony to the artistic gift bestowed on mankind. Whether it was castles, city walls, fences, temples, miniature green spaces, waterfalls and cascading Shangri-Las reminiscent of the Gardens of Babylon, human portraits, knights, mechanical devices including planes, ships, cars, and satellites, including a giant owl, lion, caterpillars, turtles, butterflies, cats, elephants, ostriches, and prancing horses, the world was treated to a rich sensory experience.
My favorites were the giant vintage 1930’s tractor in all-red flowers, the 35-foot self-propelled conveyor belt under the title “Conveyer of Hope,” and the many portraits of the “American Heroes” float. Other favorites included the live equestrian teams and the horse-drawn wagons in teams of 4, 6, and eight horses tethered in twos and hitched to each other and to the wagon with antiquated double trees. The 8 enormous Budweiser Clydesdales’ abundantly furry white fetlocks, better known as the socks or boots, added elegance to their coordinated gait.
The New Year’s Day Garden Digging Ritual: On New Year’s day Trudy (to whom I refer as Sista Wife), La Belle Femme’s sister, posted the following quotation: “Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” (Josephine Nuese, author, “The Country Garden.”)
Because of my passionate love of gardening (or, digging in the dirt as La Belle Femme puts it), Nuese’s observation dovetails with a plaque gifted me on Father’s Day some four years back. The plaque reads: “I may Sleep in the house, but I LIVE in the GARDEN.” And, having first read Nuese’s testimonial only five days ago, I am convinced that there is a universal call that beckons gardeners to start the year with the ritual of digging / tilling / turning over / ploughing / breaking up the soil.
Rain, snow, or sunshine, for some forty years now I’ve heeded the call of the soil on New Year’s Day. Lest I disturb the serenity of the day, I refuse to crank the garden tiller. Instead, armed with a shovel, I choose a 10×10 sq. ft. area and turn the top compost-laden soil into the ground to expose the wet and clumpy soil to the air and sunshine. Begun on New Year’s Day, this ritual is enacted every single season for, after all, the escape to the garden helps me forget the many ills of our world. And yes, one must face the New Year with hope – and what is life without hope?
Yes, Kay, “the life of nature is indeed wonderful.”
Happy New Year to all.