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Monday, March 23, 2009

My Wooden Spoon from Iona – CREDO LXVII

   
I got it in 1967 in the gift shop of the Abbey. It sits humbly in a holder to the right of my stove, showing signs of years of use stirring porridge, pea soup, and the like. I have made twenty-three trips to this tiny Hebridean island west of Scotland. Many of the summers I led small groups of my teenage students on tours of the British Isles, and the wooden spoon became our teacher. One boy had commented on the ubiquitous motif in Celtic art and manuscripts of characteristic interwoven patterns, often including animals, birds, and human figures. How come? was the question and the spoon answered:

I am just a plain wooden spoon, but consider the tree from which I came and the millennia of ancestors that provided the seed for me. That tree was cut down by men, whose ancestors stretch back through time, as well. The woodcutters wore clothes that were made by other people of materials that had to be grown in other fields and transported . . .

Now the students laughed and began to contribute the history of the ship that brought the spoon to Iona, the building of the Abbey in the eighth century, the founding of the Abbey by St. Columba who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland . . . Then came the question of how Mrs. Howell came there in the first place, inspired by a visit to her small house on Long Island by a one-time visitor called Margaret Stuart who asked her if she had a picture of St. Martin’s Cross in her library. In the search I first learned of Iona’s existence, and bells began ringing in my soul.

You get the idea. If you own anything to which you have associations, it can conjure the world entire, if you choose, and this is what the Gaels, the Scots and Irish Celts were trying to convey. Everything is interconnected, and so this provides the mana or magic inherent in simple objects. Thus is a sacred meaning to be discovered in the commonplace. So by being conscious and grateful for this, as I stir my porridge here in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the porridge tastes that much richer!

I have another habit that I have developed lately. I inherited a most beautiful Persian carpet. It hangs at the top of the stairs in my house. It belonged to my Teacher M and portrays a mysterious robed Sufi master sitting on a throne being attended by two men who are floating. Above them is the figure of Abraxas. All this is knotted into a large carpet of rich dark browns and golds. Lately, every morning as I go down to breakfast at 5:30, I have taken to stroking the carpet with my arm and enjoying touching something that those carpet makers must have imparted symbolically in designing it. I murmur “God bless the day!” as I do so. Foolish or not, it connects me through the centuries that may have passed since it was made. I assume it was Persian because Arabs are prohibited from depicting human figures.

When I taught history I developed another game called “Touches Away.” It went like this: When my father, who was born in 1894, was a little boy, he was taken to the St. Louis World’s Fair. There was an exhibit of a very old black man who had been born to a woman slave of George Washington. He had held the baby, so the old man was one touch away from Washington. For a nickel, my father shook hands with him, that’s two touches; my father puts me three away, and I would tell my students that when I touched them, they were only four touches away from our first president! This made the human connections through time meaningful and fun. One of my special touches comes from meeting a very old lady in Basel, Switzerland, called Emily Bardach. I was sixteen. She had been the last love of the great Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, then a much older man, who moved in international literary circles in the early 1800s . . .

I won’t bore you with the number of truly famous people, it has been my privilege to be two touches away from like Freud, Adler, and, many times, Jung, or the meetings with the Dalai Lama and Muktananda in India. Given my childhood of traveling constantly with my parents, I even sat reluctantly by invitation on the lap of Mussolini at Ostia. As both my grandfathers were writers and William Dana Orcutt, was a publisher, he met Henry and William James, and Cardinals in Rome, and Mark Twain , whom my father met when he was nine, come to think of it.

Nowadays, many of you reading this, have no doubt very much the same experience, and some scholar has pointed out that everyone on earth is probably connected by only seven other people.

The point I am trying to make is that we are one, a truth perceived by the Gaelic Celts and taught me fortuitously by my wooden spoon from Iona!

lovingly,
ao

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