Here's a Buddhist parable. (N.B., I am not a Buddhist.) It's from memory, so I may have some details wrong. If anyone knows the full version, do say.
A Buddhist monk came to a province of China where, until then, Buddhism had hardly been heard of. He built himself a small hut of sticks and took up residence on an otherwise undistinguished hillside.
Soon the province was buzzing with the news that a strange holy man had arrived. The words reached the ear of a powerful Taoist alchemist who lived nearby. The Taoist immediately gathered his potions, powders and magical apparatus and took himself to the monk's hut by the hillside.
"Come forth, stranger!" bellowed the alchemist.
"Certainly," said the monk. He stepped out of his little hut and seated himself cross-legged at the alchemist's feet.
The Taoist frowned. "Foreigner, do you know what I can do?"
"No," said the monk. "Please tell me."
"Behold!" cried the alchemist.
He gestured with his left hand, and thunder crashed. Lightning smote the ground and the green hillside parted. Fiery vapors roared up from the depths, and smoke darkened the sky.
"Behold!" cried the alchemist a second time. He gestured with his right hand, and a great cloud of insects came swarming out of the south. When they flew into the burning clouds, they turned into armored warriors. In moments an army surrounded the alchemist and the monk.
"Behold!" cried the alchemist a third time. He gestured with both hands, and the ground opened and swallowed up the army. Lightning struck again, and sealed the rift in the earth. In a moment there was nothing left but a few wisps of smoke and a bare brown patch on the side of the hill.
"So," said the alchemist, breathing a little heavily. "What do you think of that, foreigner?"
"Very impressive!" said the monk. "But... just wait until you see what I can do!"
"What?" said the alchemist, drawing himself up. "What, then?"
"You won't believe this," said the monk.
"Show me!" snarled the alchemist.
"Well..." said the monk, "when I am thirsty... I drink! And when I am tired, I go to sleep!"
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St. Martin's Summer. In Germany, this kind of weather is called „Altweibersommer” (=old women´s summer); in America, Indian Summer. All the words mean the same, namely good weather in bad season. The English St. Martin´s summer is deducted form a old legend. It tells that after having shared his cape with the beggar, St. Martin felt freezing cold. Suddenly, mist and clouds vanished and the sun came out. This was the first "St. Martin´s summer".
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Busy busy Saturday here, as we prepare for the big St. Martin's Day thing tonight, when we're going to host something like sixty people -- about equal numbers adults and kids -- in our front yard.
I had a day of manly activity, he said, chest swelling. St. Martin's Day needs a bonfire. There's a cherry tree in our front yard that died last year. So, I cannot tell a lie: I did not chop down the cherry tree. I sawed it down, and then spent a couple of hours sawing it into convenient log-sized, um, logs. The wood is probably still a bit green, but it should do.
Alan helped, breaking up the smaller branches and twigs -- crack! Smash! It's a commonplace that small boys like destroying things. This is because, well, small boys like destroying things. When a parent says, "Go. Destroy that utterly, smash it to pieces"? You have a happy small boy.
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On the evening of St. Martin's Day, small children parade through the streets, carrying lanterns. Here is one song that they sing:
Ich geh' mit meiner Laterne
Und meine Laterne mit mir.
Dort oben leuchten die Sterne,
Hier unten, da leuchten wir.
( Mein Licht ist aus,
Wir gehn nach Haus,
Rabimmel, rabammel, rabum.)
I'm coming with my lantern
And my lantern with me
There, over the light are the stars,
Here, under the light are we
(My light is out,
We're going home,
rabimmel, rabammel, rabum)
Why not try your hand at making a lantern, with these simple to follow instructions?
Remember:paper burns very easily. Under NO circumstances should you place a lit candle into your lantern.
* * * * *
We cleaned up the front yard a bit... this is the walled front yard that we almost never use, site of the compost pile and various unsuccessful attempts at gardening. I think we've mentioned that there's a strange little pool in that yard? Well, we found a dead rat in the pool. Long dead. The poor thing had fallen in, and I guess the pool is just a bit deeper than a rat can jump. A hard death. It's my manly duty to dispose of the corpse. The boys viewed the corpse with interest -- look, you can see the skeleton -- then got back to running around, climbing things and breaking sticks into smaller sticks.
The weather is gorgeous, clear and blue and (for November) warm. An American would call it perfect football weather.
A bit later we took the boys inside, fed them some pizza (Claudia is cooking for sixty, no time to cook for five), and rehearsed their St. Martin's day skit. Martinus the brave centurion fights off the barbarians -- Germans, of course -- and is awarded a silken cloak from the Emperor himself! Later, while riding through the town on his horse, Martin sees a poor man shivering with cold. He is so moved that he dismounts, takes his sharp soldier's sword and cuts the cloak in two. And the rest, as the say, is history.
Alan liked the parts with the swordfighting. David isn't sure he wants to be the German (who dies) and the old man (who is cold). Claudia is a stern and gracious Emperor. I make a lively horse.
* * * * *
Martinslampen (St. Martin`s lamps). The St. Martin´s processions with lamps often remove the St. Martin´s fires; and they symbolize the same: They bring light into the dark. In the countryside, Martinslampen are often made of pumpkins or turnips (like the Halloween-pumpkins in Anglo-Saxon countries). They are easy to make and can be replaced easily, too. The processions have their roots in the lucernarium, the liturgical lighting of the candles in the first vespers.
Martinslieder (St. Martin´s songs). St. Martin´s songs preserve the memory of St. Martin since the 14th century. Most of the new songs have been created at the last turn of the century, when the old customs had a revival. The old songs have their origins in the goliardic poetry of the Middle Ages. Some songs from the Altmark may be 750 years old. Mostly, the songs come from the Rheinland and the Netherlands.
* * * * *
We're a family still grappling with religion. Claudia is a sometime Buddhist and a Unitarian. I'm a none-too-observant Catholic. We want our boys to have a sense of spirituality and of wonder; we want for them to have the good things religion can bring, without the bad. We have some idea how unlikely this is, yes.
Alan is five and has ADHD; it makes him spacey and squirrelly much of the time, and sometimes whiney and sullen. David is four. He doesn't have ADHD, but he has a deep, deep streak of stubborn.
David loves things, stuff, possessions. This may be a second-child thing. When you have an older brother who can simply take your stuff, you learn early to fight for it. Alan shares easily, for a five year old, in part because he doesn't care much about things. David has a lot of trouble with sharing; it goes against his grain. Pushing him too hard will trigger a stubborn attack, which is something to see.
You love your kids so much sometimes, you think your heart may actually, physically crack. You want them to be happy. You want them to be good.
* * * * *
Martinsminne (dialect). To drink the „Martinsminne” means the drinking of the new wine of the year at St. Martin´s eve. This custom (especially in Cologne) has its origins in an old legend. The Swedish king Olaf Tryggwason had a dream vision in which St. Martin told him not to worship the old Germanic gods Thor and Odin anymore, but to drink the Martinsminne instead of the Odinsminne. In Germany today, the relation between thanksgiving and St. Martin covers up the tracks of the origin of this custom.
Martin von Tours (Martin of Tours). Martin was born in 316 or 317, son of a Roman officer. Martin became an officer himself, but he was baptized and later resigned from the army. He lived as a hermit and a monk and founded an abbey. Then, he became bishop of Tours. He became famous for his miracles and his mission in pagan regions. He died at the 8th of November 397 and was buried three days later.
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Saturday afternoon, four o'clock. The balloon goes up at six. Claudia has gone upstairs to shower. The boys are watching a movie, Toy Story. (Woody the cowboy doll is the favorite and best-beloved toy, until Buzz Lightyear shows up. When Buzz takes his place, Woody turns brooding and vengeful, and hatches a cunning plot. In the end, after various adventures, they will become comrades and best friends.)
This morning, I got the biggest laugh ever from the two older boys. I was dressing David, and he has a pair of Buzz Lightyear undies. As I was pulling them up his skinny little legs, I said, "You know... this looks like Buzz Lightyear." (I don't know. It was morning, I was thinking about our full day ahead. Maybe I was already a little loopy.)
"It is Buzz Lightyear, Daddy."
"No.. it's on his underwear, so it must be... Butt Lightyear."
Total delight! BUTT Lightyear! Let's repeat it twenty or thirty times! Daddy is the funniest Daddy ever!
* * * * *
11th of November. In Europe, the 11/11 is the official beginning of the carnival season. 11 is the number of sin and the number of fools. In biblical terms, it symbolizes the trespasses against the ten commandments. It is a „Schnapszahl”, a number in which all digits are the same. However, the beginning of the carnival season at the 11th of November is a „discovery” of the 19th century and has nothing to do with St. Martin.
Faire la Saint Martin (french). Also „martiner”. Means, in France „eating and drinking well”.
Kapelle (chapel). The cape of the roman officer Martinus was called cappa. It was preserved in a church in Paris which was therefore called „cappella”. The priest of this church was called „cappellanus”, the English „chaplain”. Today, Kapelle means a small church without its own priest or parish. It means also the musicians of the church. It is even another word for a combo, an orchestra or a band.
Verkleiden (to disguise, to dress up). At the St. Martin´s procession, a man dresses up as St. Martin on horseback; a boy as the beggar. Disguising allows people to change their roles, to act like another person for a certain time. In the play, one can bring history to life and make the intended message obvious. (e.g. the sharing of the cape) Not only children like to change their identity sometimes, but also adult people, who have to play roles everyday anyway.
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I'm writing this post in the study. Outside, the autumn sunshine is going gold, and the shadows are lengthening; the sun will set in an hour; by six o'clock it will be dar. When I'm done here I'll go outside, sweep up the last bits of twig and sawdust, dispose of the dead rat, and then change clothes. We've timed the movie so that we'll be able to dress the boys, wash their faces, and run through one last rehearsal.
We'll light the fire, warm the mulled wine, and hand out the lanterns. We'll gather in a circle and play through our little skit. (Claudia just came out of the shower. She has made herself a tiara, out of purple crepe paper.) We'll have a pile of snacks, but not to be touched yet! Those are for afterwards.
The children will form a line, raggedly. We'll try our best to teach them the strange foreign words of the song. And then they'll march, carrying their lanterns, to the end of the street: a procession of little lights, marching, stumbling, singing through the dark.