Many years ago I was about to eat breakfast in a Dallas hotel when I smelled smoke. My companion and I looked at each other.
“Do you smell —”
“Yes. Do you think it’s coming from the kitchen?”
It was unmistakable; our mouths were ready to eat while our noses were insisting, “Wait, something’s wrong.” Yet others seemed oblivious. People still helped themselves to the buffet, refilled their coffee. We did notice one other guest looking around suspiciously. It was Jim Malcolm, at the time the lead singer of the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs. We were all there for the annual North Texas Irish Festival, a grand celebration of Celtic music and storytelling.
It was in the kitchen. We were about to take our breakfast to go when someone came around and quietly evacuated the dining area.
All this comes to mind because a friend alerted me that today is Robert Burns‘ birthday. I have no Scottish tea, so I hope he won’t spin in his grave over my choosing Barry’s Gold Blend for the occasion. I paired it with an oat cake, which might appease him.
What Burns poem to point to? He’s written quite a few that mention winter, but I wasn’t familiar with the ones I looked up.
Then the mental jukebox yielded For a’ That and a’ That, which some consider his most famous poem. I came to it first as a song. (Listen to Malcolm singing it here, under the title “Is There for Honest Poverty.”) Judge a person by character, not status. True then, true now.
Besides the fact that small countries love their national treasures, I think one reason for Burns’ enduring popularity is the musicality of his lyrics, some of which he wrote as songs. (Listen to the great Scottish girl band The Poozies singing “The Shepherd’s Wife” from their album Infinite Blue. Or check out Jim Malcolm’s album Acquaintance, entirely songs of Robert Burns.)
All this is a roundabout way to accomplish two things in addition to observing a poetry holiday:
1. To dust off the Daylilies gratitude columns. I am grateful to the friend who told me to go find people to play music with in Arkansas (and gave me a deadline), which led me to the monthly sessions of traditional Irish music, which led to my forming the band Cairde with four good friends, which led to us eventually performing at that Dallas festival several times (the first time in a fierce winter, the wind accordioning the tent walls of the outdoor stage we first played on). Grateful for the deep, long friendships of all those people, especially the two who have passed on. And for getting to hear such great live music, at festivals and from bands touring through Little Rock.
And I’m grateful for poetry, and music, and their memorizability, portable comforts for cold times. Also, even, for the snow flying sideways past my window right now, and the warming tea, and the electricity that allows me to type here at the cabin without having to blow on my fingers, and the friend who let me know in passing that today happens to be Robbie Burns’ birrrrrthday.
2. To announce the completion of something I left hanging a year ago: the book club for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Why didn’t I post the final post of our rich discussion? I think I was sick, a loved one was sick, and everything seemed too much, so I let it go. This same friend recently asked if I’d finish it. I’d been thinking about it, actually, and her request made me laugh out loud. All the nudge I needed. (Yes, grateful to you, too, friend, for asking.)
Last year I designated March 3 for that last post. We’ll keep that date and just advance the year. This Pittsburgh winter has been much colder than last year’s, so I’d like to see what February has to offer before I wrap up that book. If you read along and commented last year, it would make me happy for you to pop in again this year. That train’s taking a realllly long time, but it will get there.