Monday, December 19, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

My side of the family gathered this weekend for our annual Christmas dinner and gift exchange.  Great food, much laughter, children once small filling much more space around us.  Maybe partly because of this, maybe partly because of the impending holidays, I've been thinking about the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne all day.  I've discovered that the words to the poem are most frequently credited to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who claimed he "took it down from an old man."  The title translates to something like long long ago, days gone by or old times.  Many versions exist, but I found two I liked best.  The first:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.
On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.
My Heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All Grief and Sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone;
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this, Heart of mine;
That Force nor Fate can me displease,
for Old long syne.

Since thoughts of thee doth banish grief,
when from thee I am gone;
will not thy presence yield relief,
to this sad Heart of mine:
Why doth thy presence me defeat,
with excellence divine?
Especially when I reflect
on Old long syne.

Sort of a wistful lament, with extinguished flames and Grief and Sorrow capitalized.  Another version is more upbeat, more what you have in mind when you think of New Year's, with liquor and hopes brimming.  Sure, some of the pint cups have only kindness, but maybe it's a metaphor:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
CHORUS:  For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

The song will mean a little more to me this year and the world felt like a small place indeed when I found in my research that an exhibit has just opened at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, entitled "Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne."  Click here to read all about it.

In either version, the words honor love, happy memories and sharing the present.  Wishing a blessed and peaceful holiday to all and a hope-filled 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Best of 2011

The year is coming to a close and lists abound.  Best of 2011, in every conceivable category.  Hands down, the best experience I had all year from any artistic offering… Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

I watched the first two-thirds of this movie, literally, on the edge of my seat.  It pulled me in and took me to places I can’t even begin to explain.  It contains one of the most poignant characterizations of fatherhood I’ve ever seen; it somehow covers the entire history of life but still captures what it means to be uniquely human.

If you have ever

-          wondered about birth
-          thought about death
-          contemplated the universe
-          remembered childhood
-          missed your parents
-          been afraid
-          received love
-          marveled at nature
-          felt alive

this movie will make you feel something.

And if it returns to your local theater for Oscar build-up, I urge you to see it.  It’s an experience you won’t soon forget, unlike any film I’ve ever seen. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Words, words, words

Yesterday I asked a friend to verify a translation for me.  Two words, English to Hebrew.  She speaks and writes Hebrew, her first language.  What I had found, when I plugged the words into an online translator, was there would be four symbols, two per word. The issue, I thought, was that sometimes the symbols were shown in one order, other times in another.  So, it’s either this:

מר לב
Or this:
לב מר

The words are “bitter heart,” from a Stephen Crane poem that’s always meant a lot to me, a big inspiration for the novel I just finished.

My friend asked me what I meant by bitter heart, because this is not something they would say.  I told her it was bitter in the sense of harboring resentments, heart as in the way someone feels.  She said you could put the two words together but there was probably a better way to say it.  For instance, they have a word for a person who is unhappy, holds grudges, for a long time.  I said that it was interesting, because in the context of the poem, Crane is actually saying that the heart tastes bitter.  She said you mean, like sour?  I said yes, but I didn’t think that’s what the poem was about at all.  Actually, I told her, I’ve always felt the poem was about the creative process and the delving inside oneself, a painful but rewarding and totally necessary process.  She stared, blankly.  I said, what if we just did the two words—which order would it be?

It’s a miracle, really, that we’re able to communicate at all.  With the variety of dialects and experiences, the wide void between each person’s heart and another’s.  Heart in the feeling sense.  And maybe I don’t know what the Crane poem is about, but only what it meant to me.  So when the words are inked on my skin, in or out of order, no one else will understand anyway, not really.  It’s probably untranslatable.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka