Simple Reverence

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The peace and stillness of winter. We feel the hush that comes over the earth with that quieting cover of snow. I watch the little black-headed Juncos hopping about the ground, scratching and poking about for food. The chickadees and flickers visit the feeder. There is, perhaps for just a moment, a sense of rightness with the world; a reminder of the simpler beauties and gifts that are around us all the time on this amazing earth.

My friend Suzi Banks Baum recently posted a lovely and thoughtful missive on her blog, aptly titled “Holy Ground.” Full of beautiful images and reflections on her love of ritual, of connection, of the simple making of offerings – mostly of natural materials – to settle her into a grateful presence with her life and the natural world. It is a wonderful reminder, and I invite you to take a few quiet minutes to read it here.

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May you find (or create), in this increasingly hectic and uncertain time, moments and offerings of peace  and gratitude – for yourself, for others, for the earth.

Celebrations of Light and Loved Ones

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There are a few holidays – originating from different countries and faith traditions – that cluster around this time on the calendar; all celebrations of light and hope, and celebrations of remembrance of  ancestors and loved ones who have died.

Diwali – October 28-November 1

Diwali, or Show. A major Hindu holiday throughout India, also celebrated around the world by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains; it is literally a Festival of Lights with candles, lanterns and fireworks illuminating the nights, accompanied by feasts, gifts and candy for children –  it is thought that all negative influences are vanquished and the way then open to receive prosperity and good health and happiness in the coming year. Isn’t that what we all want? Indeed. The festival goes on for five full days, and there are many more and important aspects to the celebrations than I am describing here. But, check out this  set of beautiful photographs from around the world (sorry about the annoying ads that accompany it, but they can be silenced. The photos are worth it).

 

This time of year is a little like a musical mash-up of Christian and Pagan traditions and rituals. 

 

Halloween / All Hallows Eve – October 31

Halloween – this is the one that we here in the United States know and celebrate – kids (and adults) in cute and scary costumes going door to door and getting way more candy than humanly imaginable outside of a grocery store. But it stems from the early Christian All Hallows Eve, where people gathered in ceremony to ask God’s blessing and protection, and in preparation for the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Days

The practice of wearing costumes and going door to door for treats is said to come from 16th century Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

 

 All Saints Day  – November 1

All Saints Day originated as a Catholic celebration of the saints of the Church, and invoking their blessing and protection. It is considered a High Holy Day, one of the days that attending Mass was considered mandatory.

Eventually, the leaving of flowers on graves and remembering friends and loved ones who have died, so that over time the distinction of All Saints Day has for many become absorbed together with All Souls Day.

 

Samhain – November 1

Day of the Dead – October 31 – November 2

All Souls Day – November 2

At this time of year it is believed that the veil between our world and the afterlife are the thinnest, and in the Celtic tradition of Samhain (“Sow-wen”), the Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead, and the Catholic All Souls Day is a time to honor and pay tribute to those who have died, and to be able to receive messages to these ancestors and loved ones. It is when we light candles and express our prayers for the good tidings and blessings to and from the beyond. Altars are constructed, bonfires and candles lit. There is feasting and merriment, even (or maybe especially) in the proximity of thoughts of death, for this also comes at the time of year when the crops are finished – Samhain is also about the final harvest – it is a mixture of celebrating the abundance and acknowledging the fact that the ground is going into hibernation and will not provide for us as it has throughout the spring and summer.

It is a fierce celebration of life, all the more so because of the knowledge of the close proximity of death. Which, in turn, brings to mind the reminder of our own mortality. This  is considered a time for reflection and introspection, a human drawing inward and “hibernation” that mirrors the hibernation that is starting to occur in both the plant and the animal realms.

So we light candles against the darkness, bringing a flame of hope into the cold and dark of the year; we remember and reflect; we appreciate and feast; we honor and pray. 

Welcome to the celebrations of deep autumn. 

 

Note: The histories and legends and lore are vastly more complex and intertwined and fascinating than I have been able to even hint at, here. For some beautiful photos from around the world about Diwali, go here (and again, I’m sorry for the annoying ads that start playing. Just mute them). For information about the Celtic holiday and how it intersects with the Christian, I know of almost no one better than Christine Valters Paintner. And a useful site I found for Day of the Dead information can be found here

Autumn Equinox

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Here in the Northern Hemisphere, you can tell when autumn starts to quietly elbow its way into the tail end of summer: The cricket’s song is slower, more leisurely in the cooler evenings; the mornings have a distinct chill and freshness hinting of the rain-washed air to come in the weeks ahead; even when the temperature rises in the afternoon, the heat is warm, but more lackluster than it was in July and August. The light is later to arrive in the mornings, quicker to leave at night.

As the wheel of the year turns, we arrive at that seasonal tipping point of the autumnal equinox – that moment when the duration of light and darkness are equal, like a perfectly balanced teeter-totter, before the balance ever so gradually starts to shift toward later fall and winter and the dark of the year.

The onset of autumn signals the winding down of the harvest season. Pantries and freezers are filled with the abundance of the yield, set aside to nourish the body – and the soul –  through the cold and dark months of winter. I find a deep sense of satisfaction and genuine, fundamental wealth, when I see the rows of jars in various jewel tones on the shelf, the luscious-ness of summer preserved, set to brighten the table in the darker months.

It is also the time of year to settle in and reflect on the personal seeds you planted in the spring; take some time to look back and access what has been or can still be harvested, but also (just as important) what may be best left withering on the vine, maybe to become nourishment for the emotional ground in which you plant your next season’s goals, ideas and dreams.

“At the heart of autumn’s gifts are the twin energies of relinquishing and harvesting…In holding these two in tension we are reminded that in our letting go we also find abundance.”  – Christine Valters Paintner

It is the season of candlelight, comfort food, thick sweaters; things that bring warmth to body and soul as we acknowledge that we are now turning toward the cold and dark of the year – the quieter, more introverted season that stands in contrast to the busier, more extroverted nature of spring and then summer. Opposites that contrast and compliment, that dance the year together.

Parker J. Palmer is a man I greatly admire; he is gifted in his ability at putting exquisite wording to the quieter, more contemplative parts of our lives. He has written a beautiful piece about the “paradox of fall” here. I hope you enjoy it.

Celebrate the Equinox and the arrival of autumn. May you find much abundance.

 

(note: I realize I neglected to post about Summer Solstice this year – so the full circle of the seasons is incomplete here, my apologies – will pick it up next time ’round.  – PA)

 

Beltane: The Bright Fire of Spring

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Beltane (May 1st) is one of the Celtic quarter-days, landing at the middle point between the spring equinox and summer solstice. By many, it is considered the height of spring and the beginning of the time of year when the light seems to rule over the darkness. We feel it as the mornings grow lighter earlier (the sky is no longer dark when the alarm clock rings in the morning, the sun not rising until well into the first cup of coffee); there is more birdsong, with some new and different voices in the chorus as migrating birds return; the twilight starts to arrive later in the evening.

There is the hint that summer is indeed starting to make its way toward you, and gardeners’ thoughts start drifting toward the time when tomatoes can be planted.

Flowering is in its full color and there is the sense that the world has truly come alive again after its long winter’s sleep. Beltane marks the season of fertility, the rising sap, the anticipation of the bearing of fruit (and offspring). It is the time of celebrating the life force in all its forms. The traditional Maypole dance is an ancient and phallic symbol of the celebration of fertility.

May Day baskets, left on doorsteps, mirror an older Celtic tradition of scattering flower petals on doorways as a blessing.

In many cultures there is a tradition of building fires and feasting at this time of year – welcoming back the warmth and light after a cold, dark winter; sharing the near-last of the preserved pantry with gratitude for last year’s harvest and in hopeful anticipation for the growing season which is just beginning to be seen in the early emerging of newly-planted crops. It is still often a precarious, liminal time of year, so the celebrations are ones for hopeful fruition of all sorts in the coming season. (If you still have a jar of canned peaches tucked away, this would be a good time to break it out and savor the memories of last summer, look forward to the return of fresh succulent peaches at your local farmers market).

Today, it is still a good time to look forward and be hopeful: Plant seeds both in the ground and those for personal projects or goals for the year ahead; bring fresh flowers or flowering branches into the house; open windows and doors on the first warm days (the impetus toward spring cleaning makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?) and feel the living energy all around (and hopefully within) you!

Celebrating St. Brigid

IMG_0516The light today was different. For awhile the air was softer in that way that indicates the coming of spring. The seemingly near-endless deluge of cold, biting rain that has been the bulk of our winter here in the Pacific Northwest was blessedly absent and there was a slight breeze afoot rather than a coarse wind. It was like the landscape gave a sigh of relief that the winter was coming to an end and that we are turning the corner toward spring.

I know. Tell that to the folks in Colorado who just got delivered a foot or more of snow. But here at least, the sense of the seasonal wheel turning, the light returning, St. Brigid’s Day in all its magic and sun-drenched glory, was alive and well.

Brigid holds sway in both the Christian and pre-Christian realms, and is one of the main Saints in Ireland. Snowdrops, one of the first flowers to emerge in late winter / early spring, are one of her symbols. She bridges the natural and human world, is associated especially with the elements of fire and water. There are holy wells across Ireland devoted to her; I visited one in County Kerry, many years ago, saw in the tunneled grotto a plethora of devotional offerings both elaborate and spontaneously pocket-content plain. Notes of gratitude, and those requesting protection and aid. Most amazing were the canes and crutches leaning up against one wall, the implication of the power of the sulphur-fragrant water burbling softly at the far end of the tunnel, lit by a hole in the ceiling, allowing the rays of sunlight to illuminate the marvel of it.

The longer days, the beginning of bud break, the traditional time when lambs start being born – Brigid invites us to feel hopeful for the growing light and awakening of the natural world.

The Celtic cross-quarter day (those days halfway between solstices and equinoxes) that falls at this same time is Imbolc, a word that means “in the belly.” Not only ewes and human mothers, but the earth’s belly itself is starting to stir with new life. This day always feels like the beginning of a New Year in its own distinct way. So light a candle, make a wish, enjoy the lengthening days, witness the new young plants pushing their way out of the ground up toward the sun. I

There are many stories and symbols associated with St. Brigid. She is considered the saint of dairy workers, cab drivers, mothers, poets, and many more.

Other reflections on St. Brigid’s Day by some friends and colleagues:

Marisa Glaser Goudy

Suzi Banks Baum

 

To Bless a New Building

 

grange exterior (architectural angle)When I became a Life-Cycle Celebrant, even though I received certification in both weddings and funerals, I knew I didn’t want to get trapped in the chute of being just a wedding celebrant or just a funeral celebrant, or just any-one-kind of celebrant, for that matter.

I truly believe in the power of ritual and ceremony to carry us meaningfully across all sorts of thresholds in the course of our lives; the problem is, we have been cut off from the gristle and heart and soul of such things, so that many of our passages are followed by rote, by some pale shadow of what they could possibly be, because we don’t know any better or any different; we sometimes end up feeling like something is lacking, an unpleasant dry-ish taste in our mouths, without us knowing quite why. This is what I want to change, a celebration at a time.

What is more sterile, more rote, for example, than a high school or college graduation? They all look alike; they are all by-the-book identical, for the most part. And yet. And yet….it still brings a tissue to the eye of many a parent (I remember it did to mine), it moves those who are graduating – I would bet regardless how jaded the teenaged or young adult heart – into a jubilant sense of having passed over a threshold where things now really are different and changed forever. The process of walking up one set of stairs, across a stage (the liminal space), to then receive a diploma and shake hands with the school principal for the last time and leave the stage at the other side; moving that tassel from one side to the other, a shiver of finality; such is the power of ceremony, even the most banal.

On the fringes of the ceremonial world, then, are the more subtle and less overt occasions, but none the less important. Transitions like retiring from life-long employment, moving to a new home/leaving a family home, making the bold decision to build a new building in service of a dream and seeing it to completion. The latter is very much like a graduation, complete with pithy speeches and an action (traditional ribbon-cutting instead of moving tassels) that separates what was to what is now and moving forward. That symbolic crossing of a threshold. There is much cheering and applauding in both cases, because there is the feeling that it’s real. A tangible thing. And therein lies the magic.

But how to make something like a new building significant and individual and real? How to honor the uniqueness and the commonality at the same time?

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I had the opportunity to do just that, about a week ago, at the official opening of The Urban Grange at Zenger Farm. It  coincided with the end of my six-years on their Board of Directors, so the ceremony gave me the chance to have a kind of small-g “graduation” for myself. For me, privately, this was a meaningful culminating event, as the capital campaign for the new building was the major and driving project in the final year of my board tenure.

The history of the building of the Grange and of the farm itself is made up of intertwined stories that stretch back and forth across nearly a century, involving the original Zenger family and all the people who have created the organization that exists today; their combined dreams for the future of this land that in ways takes on the aspect of a sacred space. I wove a few of these stories together, then offered everyone present the opportunity to express and leave behind their blessings and best wishes for the farm by making weathergrams that were strung between the deck pillars like their own personalized version of prayer flags. I closed with a blessing by Austrailian writer Mikail Leunig. Afterward, those assembled made and hung their weathergrams, visited with old and new friends and had more food and drink (in this case the feasting started before the ceremony, not left till last – it was also a party to celebrate the organization’s volunteers, after all).

Did the ceremony work its appropriate magic? I’d like to think so, and some of the feedback confirmed that. One person, who was familiar with the stories I shared, felt like those stories – and by extension the Zenger family – were duly honored by their telling. Others felt like the building was finally and officially “real.” That’s how I felt, too. Like the Grange settled itself a little deeper into its place. Earlier in the day there had been the official ribbon cutting with city officials and dignitaries, and the day ended with a blessing and a celebration. Combined together I think the building, the project, the people who made it happen, were all uniquely honored.

It is a subtle thing, sometimes. But I think it truly is a sort of magic.

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We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace

Let us find such a place within ourselves.

We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty.

Let us find such a place within ourselves.

We give thanks for places of nature’s truth and freedom,

Of joy, inspiration and renewal,

Places where all people may find acceptance and belonging.

Let us search for these places:

In the world, in ourselves and in others.

Let us restore them.

Let us strengthen and protect them

And let us create them.

-Mikail Leunig

Upsherin

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Earlier this year, I was honored to attend the Upsherin ceremony that friends held for their three-year-old son, Ezra.

Upsherin is a Yiddish word that literally means “shear off,” and the traditional ceremony dates back to the 17th century, if not earlier. It is richly steeped in Jewish tradition, and while my friends Ariel and Seth are not Orthodox, they nevertheless wanted to honor the deep cultural stories and traditions that their son was inheriting.

In traditional Judaism, the first three years of a child’s life are absorbed with the love and nurturing of the family. At the age of three the child is first introduced to the (outside) world of learning, education and the Torah. It is when the child first starts to catch a glimpse of their own gifts and talents and start to develop them. The hair is not cut during these first three years, as symbolic of holding on to and carrying what they were born with and developed during this formative period. At the age of three, this first hair-cutting is symbolic of the first (of many) cutting of ties with the family, as the child starts the process of making their own place in the world.

Okay, yes, Upsherin is traditionally only about boys. Girls do have their own at age-three rituals. And some families do have a first-haircut at age three for their daughters these days, as well. Like I said, Seth and Ariel aren’t Orthodox, and so the peyot (side-locks) were cut; their long-time Rabbi who was in attendance at this joyous celebration was a woman. There is room, I think, for the richness of tradition and the inclusiveness of more modern considerations. This is the exquisite mixture that Ariel and Seth live with and aspire to give as a birthright and celebration to Ezra.

And so we all gathered in Seth and Ariel’s comfortable living room. There was a delicious assortment of food and beverages available, including cookies in the shape of Hebrew letters (traditional treats at an Upsherin, to symbolize the sweetness of learning). There was lots of friendly conversation between people who both knew and didn’t know each other before this day. The whole house was warm and inviting.

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Ezra was incredibly brave (or so it seems to this introvert): a three-year-old having just awakened from a nap, finding himself the center of attention (by a group of adult sand children that he mostly knew, but not all, but still…). He was happy to have the Hebrew letter cookies; wanted to keep hold of his favorite toy car in his other hand, thank you; definitely did not want to wear his grandfather’s tallit (prayer shawl), as would be tradition, so it was instead draped over the back of the chair in which he sat, in the middle of the room. Cameras poised and ready for what was to come.

The Rabbi spoke briefly and explained the meaning of the Upsherin, taught us a traditional song for the occasion that we then sang in unison, Jews and non-Jews alike. It brought us all together as a community, into the moment of this age-old tradition; elevated it beyond the simple haircut.

A friend of Seth and Ariel’s cuts hair for a living and so was in charge of the scissors. Ezra was uncertain, but this man put him at ease, expertly and swiftly starting to cut the massive amount of blond curls away. As was the tradition, grandparents and parents received the first-cut locks of hair as important keepsakes. Cameras snapped. People gathered were rapt. Ezra ate his
cookies, held his car, sat patiently.

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We were all suddenly in a space at once current and timeless. It is the amazing beauty of ritual, of tradition, to be able to transport us “modern” people into a place that feels larger, more solid and intrinsically real and whole. We are grounded into a different kind of presence, where we are suddenly able to reach back and touch something much older, much more fundamental. Even for those of us for whom this isn’t our personal ethnic tradition; we are allowed witness into something rich and wonderful

 

And as soon as it started it was done.

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The cloud of angelic curly locks were gone, and in the chair now sat a Child. No longer a baby.

Ezra refused to have the first kipah (skullcap) placed on his head, as was tradition. Okay, he’s a modern kid. All in good time.