Pumpkin Pie

Nov 27

I hate pumpkin pie. But I love my grandmother. As Turkey Day comes and goes we have not just a day for family gathered, but one to remember gatherings in the past. Invariably, this means remembering those who have celebrated a day of eating and drinking with us and aren’t here anymore. In a very real sense, holidays are days of memory, marks on the calendar that remind us of the unwinding spool of our lives across years, decades. A moment of sentiment, perhaps over a glass of wine, and we recall the ones who have departed.

Everyone has favorite relatives, those that we’ve bonded with especially well for one reason or another. Uncles that taught us a trick or two, cousins that are like siblings that we rarely see but show that blood really is blood and the same. My grandmother was from New York, New York. But unlike what we today may expect of a New Yorker from her generation, hers wasn’t an immigrant’s narrative. Her family was there before the Statue of Liberty was given to us by the French. They had, in fact, lived in New York for centuries and intermarried with Native Americans from Manhattan Island. Before this, they were Puritan pilgrims that came to the Americas on the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock and eventually celebrated the first Thanksgiving. For all that romantic imagery, however, my grandmother was of those who weathered the Great Depression, who endured lives of hardship that we can scarcely imagine today, the stories of which all honest men will admit terrified them in a sense in their boyhood. Life can be hard and you only hope it’s not as bad for you as it once was. My grandmother’s first husband died during those hard years and she was left with a daughter they adopted together. The courts tried to take the little girl from her and she fought to keep the child. She won. That’s my grandmother-tough as nails, committed to her principles. Sometimes you have to do what’s right, not what’s easiest. Sometimes you have to make a stand for what you believe in.

We actually called my grandmother Nana. But when I was a boy, I didn’t understand what Nana meant. I thought people were calling her ‘nanny’ and being disrespectful. In a child’s righteous tirade I declared that she was my grandmother and not my nanny. I don’t remember this event, but take my mother and grandmother’s word for it-clearly it left an impression, they chuckled over my words in the years to come and Nana always signed her cards to me “from your Grandmother” in the sort of elegant cursive script that is a calligraphy and not commonly seen today.

I was fortunate in that, even though Nana was from New York, she moved to Athens, Georgia when I was a boy. And so I got to see her fairly often. I’d spend the night, and she’d have cream soda in the refrigerator. But with lives as busy as they are, the times I got to see her most seemed to be the holidays. My grandmother liked to cook and every year on Thanksgiving she was sure to make pumpkin pie. It may surprise some who know me today that I was once a finicky eater. I just wouldn’t eat something if I didn’t like it-much to my Dad’s consternation. Early on in our burgeoning family holiday tradition, Nana brought over pumpkin pie. My mother served it to me: “Nana made pumpkin pie, Petah.” I tried a bit and, well, for reasons that I don’t understand, let it just be said that I don’t like pumpkin pie. “Well, what do you think? Do you LIKE it?” Ma asked. I inhaled, nodded my head and said: “Yes, um, it’s very good.” This, of course, pleased Nana to no end. I ate the entire piece. And from then on Nana was always sure to bring pumpkin pie when it was Thanksgiving. Ma would happily exclaim: “Guess what, Petah? Nana baked pumpkin pie, your favorite!” And every year I would eat that pie, because, you see, I loved my grandmother very much.

After dinner, I would get Nana to tell us family history-something that fascinated me. Unlike my father’s family-which came over in 1904-her family had been her since the seventeenth century. They were at the first Thanksgiving, they married Natives, they fought in the Revolution, in the Civil War, were active in politics. One ancestor had, in a tale told with the mythic esteem once held for the office of president, “met Abraham Lincoln and shook his hand.” We were related to Pocahontas, Patrick Henry, the Harrison Presidents, it was all so big and different from the mundanities of the lives we are living in-as everyone sees their own time as both of great importance but little interest. Later, I was to take a class as part of the curriculum for my history undergrad that went through Thomas Jefferson to the Civil War. I was astonished as the class progressed, it was like re-living the oral tradition I’d memorized from Nana. Questions I’d had were answered: if we were pilgrims, what were we doing in New York? The answer, as the puritan population expanded-they moved there. My ancestors were Whigs. The Whig party fragmented under the pressure of the Civil War-and in many ways the Republican party filled the void. My grandmother was a bit of an anomaly as a working class New York woman, she was a Republican. Nana was a devout woman. She held the sort of unshakable devotion that is unfathomable to many of us today. Whatever someone believes or doesn’t the firm conviction and maintenance of her principles is something to hold in respect and perhaps awe. As an old woman, she made the pilgrimage to Israel, took a group photo in front of the tomb of Lazarus. She brought home crosses from the Holy Land. The only physical object I own to remember my grandmother by is a large, brown-stained cross on my dresser. But it’s the photo in front of the tomb I think about often-an old woman taking an adventure drawn from her principles.

Nana passed a long time ago-the late nineteen eighties, not too long before I graduated from High School. She left me a couple of dollars as a gift. It was my first passage of a close relative.  In her last years, Nana had both cancer and diabetes. My parents were divorced. The grandchildren were teen-agers and I was caught up in the inane melodramas of adolesence. One of our last times together was an ambulance ride together-she called my house after falling down. I rode with her to the hospital-an act she found humorous. “I knew it!” she said when I volunteered to go along for the ride. Her last words to me, in private, in a nursing home and not too long before she died was that I was a good boy. Somehow, some way, no matter what, Nana always saw the good in me. Once, in conversation, my younger sister told my wife that she had a special relationship with Nana. My first instinct was to argue that, to the contrary, I was the one with the special relationship. I stopped myself, of course, and laughed at the child in me defending his territory. But more than that, realized that we’d all had a special place with her.

Thanksgiving just passed. I ate pumpkin pie. And I still don’t like it. But taste can hold a memory as real as the day it was first laid on the tongue. While chomping on the brown and orange stuff, I remember Nana sitting in the chair, matriarch dispensing stories, and the boy still misses you.

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The River

Nov 12

The house I grew up in-which is still there and is still my mother’s abode-sits on a hill above a flood plain. Down below, across a soft brown meadow, and through a thin line of North Georgia trees is the Oconee River. Languorous, chocolate murky, it wends a shallow cleft through granite stones and sediment. I’ve known the River all my life. I’ve seen its mark rise and fall with the seasons, with the changes in sun and rain. Sometimes, it would spill over its banks, and create a miraculous miniature lake down in the field that was the flood plain. In harder times, when to all our surprises in this day and age water was a limited resource, the river would dwindle and its body lessen, until its figurements were starved, its spare form giving way to river stones beneath.

The Oconee is dotted with the ruins of mills. Old stone edifices fallen into a beautiful destruction. Somehow, the crumbled stone and mortar is a part of the river as much as the trees and granite that are about it and the fish that swim in it, even though it was made by men.

When I was a child, despite warnings from my mother, I would play down by the river. There were trails along it through the woods. Trails that led deep into the forest and down the water, bearing the young walker into a good distance from square shaped lots and the cars that parked on them. I still have dreams of walking those paths by the river, as if at night I return to it along with many others and make my way again through paths trodden in childhood.

When I was older, I still went down by the river. I would sit on great granite slabs and not think about things. In long silences, I walked underneath oak and hickory, occasionally spotting a deer. Once, a hummingbird flew up to me. Serpents are a common enough sight in warmer months.

When I go home, I still visit the river. I go down to its banks. The water goes by. It was here before I was and will be here when I’ve moved on.

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Not From Around Here

Oct 08

Everyone wonders who they are, and it follows that everyone wonders where they come from.  Some are fortunate enough to live in lands that have been theirs for millenia. The land has names they’ve bequeathed it, and the very environment vibrates with a meaning that is grasped on some deep, inner and chthonic level. Historical details about origins aren’t as important to these folk-the weight of their beginnings are found in myths and legends. Great heroes are the founders of these nations. The battles they fought to ensure the future of their peoples are conflicts of good and evil, where brave men defeat the darkness with the blessing of the Gods.

This isn’t the case, of course, for those of us living in nations founded later, as any American will tell you-however uncomfortably. Our national birth-pangs include mass genocide and enslavement. But what is more, none of us are from here. The hills, rivers and forests that we are born to are still too new to be fully ours. Our people came here from across the Sea. Regardless of whether you are European, Asian or African. So-who are we? Where do we come from?

I grew up in the American South. A place where the people  who have settled it are Europeans and Africans with decidedly Anglo-Saxon names, as well as appearance and folk-ways. My appearance made some difference obvious: I was dark haired and dark skinned, with a large nose and Mediterranean features. My religion was similar, but not the same: I was Catholic. But more than anything, my name: Ristuccia. It’s interesting to have a name that’s hard to pronounce and so, easy to remember. It was a source of oddity that marked me. Catholics with German or Irish names could avoid detection. Many Southerners have Native blood, and so have dark skin and hair. But my name, there was no getting around it. Ristuccia. I’ve heard it pronounced as many ways as you can imagine over the years-in school, on sports teams, at work. One of my favorites was an African American kid named Kim that I went to school with (he was a boy, by the way)-he’d pronounce it a different way every time I saw him as a joke between the two of us-and I still laugh about it today.

Ristuccia-what kind of name is that? Where are you from? Even before these questions might naturally arise-it was put before me. There weren’t any others in Athens, Georgia-the town I lived in. I never met any others in Georgia, or even the entire Southeast. We were Italian. My people were New York. New York-more than any other American city, is the center of the Italian experience in the United States. More than Chicago, more than Philadelphia. New York. I got that much just from my parents stories. New York, in some strange way, became where I was truly from-because it was obvious that I wasn’t from where I lived, despite the fact that I was born there. New York was my own mythic land of origin.

One glorious summer, my family took an extended vacation to the Big Apple. I left behind the small Southern time that was my home and flew on a jet to the de facto capital of the world. While there, we visited family, toured the sights. I got to see the Bronx Zoo and eat in traditional Italian restaurants nearby. We went to the top of the World Trade Center. While there, my grandfather, knowing about my interest in geneology, gave me my great grandfather’s papers. Old, brown, faded. It was written on in black ink, with a handwriting that was almost like calligraphy. It described my great grandfather in Italian. His eyes were ceruli. It named my great-great-grandfather: he was Giovanni. That’s Italian for John. John was my grandfather’s name, my father’s middle name-and I’ve kept it in the family, it’s the name of my youngest son. Giovanni. It was traceable to the mid-nineteenth century. What was more, I learned that we were from Lipari. Lipari is a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. It’ s relatively small, with a permanent population of ten thousand people. The chief crops are wine grapes and capers. The main industry is tourism. My ancestors were fishermen. The name Ristuccia had a poetic meaning: when you burn a field of wheat (something farmers used to do to refertilize their fields), the part that re-grows is the Ristuccia. It indicates life-death-rebirth.

Later, I learned that Lipari was completely depopulated in 1544 when the Ottoman corsair Barbarossa attacked it. Obviously, this meant we moved there some time after this. And then, in a random Internet search, I found a record of the names of the city in Lipari. Our name appeared in 1544. We were part of the contingent sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to re-settle the island. There, before me, was the history of my family going back to the sixteenth century. For an American, this is an exceptional experience and somewhat unheard of. And then, not too much later I met other Ristuccias from Lipari with Giovanni in their name. Cousins of mine from some earlier century. I am sure there is a history that goes further than this and maybe some day I’ll learn it-but for now, just being able to look back to the 1500’s gives me a sense of continuty to the past, a connection that is deeper in time and thus, deeper to myself.

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Letters on Rilke, Part Four

Sep 27

cont’d from previous post

The Tree of Life is divided into ten stations of consciousness, called Sephiroth (Sephira is the singular version), which roughly translates from Hebrew as ‘enumerations.’ The Sephiroth are interconnected by paths. Each path contains its own numinous spiritual experience, the dynamic of which is to escalate the spirit of the aspirant from one Sephira to the other. To work all the Sephiroth and run the gamut of experiences from the lowest to the highest is the true work of a mystic in the Western Tradition. Enlightenment in the West is called Illumination, and this is how it is attained. We start in the Sephira called Malkuth (analogous to Earth) and end in Kether (a word that means crown). From there, eventually, one experiences the Ein. This means ‘there is not’, as in, there is nothing we can say that can describe it-Ein is beyond any and all possible attempts to limit what it is by framing it in any but the most abstract of human language and idea. Here is the Unio Mystica, the oneness with God.

When I was a kid, it was vogue to be into Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, any kind of exotic spirituality from the East that seemed to offer some sort of inner work. Many might deride the intentions of those who were seeking (it was, let’s face it, ‘cool’ to do), or the sources from which they gained information. I assert that, often, the desire to have a valid spiritual experience was there. But the question remains, why did my peers seek out foreign systems in which to explore their inner selves? Ironically, it would seem, it was because it was more accessible. Scholars popularized the East, the Beats brought it to the youth culture. By the time my generation got on the scene, it was de rigeur if you were into any sort of alternative spirituality, the East was the place to look. The mystical apparatus of the West, still rich and vibrant, had been dispensed with by our austere Puritan forebears and ignored by the Enlightenment.

So-the question to ask would be why did I select a book on Occidental Arcanum? The answer is that is was purely by chance. Or, if we say that there are no accidents, it was meant to happen. At any rate, I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started. A teacher I had once said that when you start spiritual work of this sort you are telling the universe you are ready to play the game. The only thing is, once you start you have to keep playing-and you have to play to win. What’s more, it’s the only game in town-and anyone who isn’t in the game isn’t alive, not in the truest sense.

The Western mystic builds the Tree of Life about him to attain Illumination. And, as a sixteen year old boy, sitting in the basement bedroom I had in my mother’s house, this was what I was doing. I visualised and built the Tree in my aura, from lowest to highest. From Malkuth to Kether. I saw their respective colors, intoned their God-Names, Archangelic names, angelic names and then settled down in my chair to see what I could see. Now, did I really expect to have a ‘mystical experience’ whatever that is? Did I really think that, somehow, just chanting in my bedroom with incense and candles was actually going to do anything? Or was this just some weird shit I could brag about to friends and ladies to demonstrate just how off the wall I was? I’m not sure-I think that the curiousity was real and the idea that there could be occult (as in hidden) knowledge hidden in a tradition I was already familiar with was rather appealing. The masses only understood a little bit, as much as they could be bothered with. I wanted to have a deeper experience. I wanted to go as far as I could.

I breathed rhytmically for a few moments, and then, I’m embarrassed enough to admit, I passed out. Waking conscioussness went somewhere else and with it, all my sense of being. I might as have been where ever it was that I found myself-as far as I was concerned, I was.

A mist enshrouded land, harsh with granite-somehow, ancient with stones. I stood on the world-it was as old as all life. I met a Watcher on the Threshold. It challenged me and I had to fight to earn my way past, to deserve the rights of vision. And then, above, I saw, garlanded in stars, clad in nebulae, a vast entity, female in aspect. She created worlds-she created them by giving birth to them. All life is born out of what comes before it in unending succession both before and after. It all came from her. She abides.

I’m not sure how much time went by. Sometime later, I woke up on the floor of my bed-room. I took the experience with an adolescent thoughtlessness. I don’t mean that in a callow way-I just accepted it for what it was. It happened. I was there. I went to the Threshold and came back, having gone as far as I could in that moment, I resolved to go again and again and see where the milestone was, what my inner compass could attain to, what new maps I could discover and how far was far enough each time. Since then, I’ve been in the Grail Castle, stood in mud up to my knees in Hades, journeyed to Agartha in the East-but still, the woman in stellar raiment is the star that guides me.

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Letters on Rilke, Part Three

Sep 08

cont’d from previous post..

I jerked slightly at the voice. The book, from a section filled with arcanum, was clearly for adults. Although it wasn’t illegal for me to leaf through its pages-I felt like I’d been caught. The store owner-an attractive, older woman-smiled at me. Somehow, it was okay, I was being given permission to go ahead and investigate something that would have been forbidden in the corners of my former life. But that was then, now, there was no one to look askance at what I read. There was no one to hold my mind in check, to restrain my questions, to tell me I had to to just believe what I was told.

“I think you’ll like that one.” she said. I blinked, nodded. I brought enough cash to buy a number of books-this one, a large and heavy tome, would cost as much as several paperbacks. It was worth it. I shelled out crinkled bills from my jean pockets and then hastily departed. Still young, I didn’t want anyone to see me with a book of secrets. I kept it in its brown paper bag, careful not to pull it out utnil I was home and safe in my basement bedroom. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized most wouldn’t recognize such a thing if you beat them over the head with it.

The book concerned Western Inner Tradition and covered a range of topics: Kabbalah, alchemy, sacred geometry, angelology, demonology-all coherently systematized in a manner that was approachable to the reader. Within a  week I’d collected the elements of ritual-nothing too impressive, just a candle, some incense and a makeshift altar. Having flipped through the pages (I’d already dispensed with the idea of a linear progression as taking too long-an ambition for another day), I’d decided on something that was suitably exciting, but not too dangerous either. The promised results were evocative to say the least.

In that sort of work timing is everything. The season, the phase of the moon, the day of the week, the hour of the day all have significance. This is true for all traditions, really, but in today’s hurried and material world, the subtler nuances of ourselves are hardly noticed, much less observed. I chose my own day randomly-in fact, I don’t think I really out too much thought to the matter. I got home from school. Within a few hours, dusk collapsed into full blown autumnal night. I lit the candles, I lit the incense. Essentially, these are mood-lighting. I sat and tried to breathe rhythmically but soon decided it was too much effort.

Then, still seated, I attempted to build the Tree of Life in the subtler body that is a gradation of the soul. To be continued.

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