Return of the Light

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Spring Equinox. The scales are now equally balanced between daylight and nighttime, and we look forward eagerly, some of us, toward the tipping toward longer days and more light, as the cold and darkness start to recede in earnest. (As I type this, I realize a good portion of the midwest and eastern United States is still – somewhat atypically – under snow. They’re not yet feeling the spring thing, perhaps; or maybe, just maybe there is a certain quickening in the air, a betraying lightness that foretells the coming season of growth and renewal, just around the corner?)

It has been unusually cold and rainy here in the Pacific Northwest for what seems like forever; so in the lovely warm sunny-ness of today, on Equinox eve, I went to my new community garden plot to do more weeding and turning of soil, laying the beginning of new paths and beds. Claiming it for my own, thinking about all that might be possible in the coming growing season. Following an ancient turning of the wheel from the cold, dormant, waiting earth toward the emerging, fertile, beginning of abundance. Full of promise and hope.

And yes, we could use a little more hopefulness these days.

The simple miracle of a seed germinating and its tender stem reaching with certainty toward the sun.

We planted a new Dogwood tree today, to replace a tree that had to be taken out last year; in full bud, it will flower soon and add a billowy brightness to the far corner of the yard. It was an act of hope for the future. It felt great.

The spring equinox is about all that is emerging, becoming.

The blueberries are budding, the flowering currant is starting to show its color, the crocus and daffodils abloom and opening to the sun.

What seeds are you planting? In a garden, in your best self, toward the future? This is the time of year to consider ripeness, fullness, growth and the emerging of dreams and ideas, plans and hopes, into the warmth of the sun that is starting to make its return.

What seeds are you planting this spring – either in the ground or in your heart – that you intend to nurture for the future?

 

 

 

Revisiting St. Brigid’s Well

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In the Celtic world, February 1st is known as St. Brigid’s Day  (also celebrated as the pagan holiday Imbolc), and is the  Celtic “quarter day” – halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox – that marks the beginning and promise of the coming of spring. I wrote more about it here last year.

In this year of such social and political divisions here in the United States, I find a certain amount of solace in the ecumenical appeal of Brigid; she was adored as a compassionate mortal woman during her human lifetime, revered as both secular and saintly, embraced by both the Catholic Church and Celtic Paganism. That she embodies such a largess of spirit and wide-reaching devotion seems somehow both comforting and healing.

I have recently been thinking about a trip I made to Ireland – thirty years ago this year – that included a visit to one of St. Brigid’s holy well sites (there are a few of them scattered around the island). I wrote about that visit, several years ago, and I thought I would share it with you, here. 

…..

I take a small blue and white cardboard matchbox from my pocket, remove the matches, and fill it with soil from beneath one of the shrubs behind the statue of St. Brigid, looking around to be sure I’m not being observed in this small act of thievery. Then I put a tightly-folded pound note in the thin slot of the padlocked metal donation box at the base of the statue. Payment for my transgression. Not exactly the souvenir of a tourist nor that of a pilgrim, but something in between the two…

The metal gate at the sidewalk opens into an unassuming courtyard garden planted with low, sturdy shrubs and, on this particular spring day, vigorous clumps of bright yellow narcissus puncturing the gray overcast from the sky. A statue of Brigid gazes down from atop a central berm, housed in a protective glass booth – reminiscent of one of those carnival fortune-telling machines – and one must stop and look up, heavenward as it were, to see her properly. Brigid holds considerable sway here, and there is something that begins to shift not long after entering: the rest of the world – the temporal world – seems to fall away. No sounds of cars, of human voices. I am grateful that this is a Wednesday morning in late March, without a tour bus in sight.

Off one side of the curving path and down some shallow steps, there is the invitation of a low archway carved into the whitewashed wall and fringed with ivy. From the brightness of the day, I stoop and enter a cool, dusky interior, a small tunnel of whitewashed stone. At the far end, sunlight from an unseen opening to the sky illuminates a rough fountain cut into the wall, with the burbling sound of water.

The first thing I notice just inside the entrance is an assortment of crutches and canes, presumably left behind as offerings of gratitude and testimony by those having been healed by the taking in of water from the well. I’m not much of a skeptic in these matters really, but I still marvel that this could possibly be so, and in such numbers. Did pilgrims really come here with cane and crutch and leave no longer needing them?

As my eyes grow accustomed to the dim light I realize the length of the tunnel is lined with shelves and picture rails, and that the entire length of these sills is crowded with an assortment of mementos in the form of offerings, notes, framed pictures; some of it the detritus of everyday pocket-contents as though their owners, having been moved by their visit, were compelled to leave something, anything, that would say to the saint “I’ve been here, I just wanted you to know.” Or from an overwhelming, unplanned and unexpected desire to leave an offering to Brigid herself, and a ball-point pen, toy car, or solitary bus token rummaged from pocket or purse were the only gifts available to hand.

Some offerings were clearly planned in advance: Votive candles, an array of various-sized statues of Jesus and Mary; some huddled together in groups, lined up like a receiving line to the well, others standing alone in contemplation; and some, draped with brightly-colored beads as though they have just returned from Mardi Gras.  There are framed, plaintive portraits of Christ with eyes cast heavenward, and those of the Virgin Mary with her bleeding, crown-of-thorns-enclosed heart and pale blue robe, her doe-like, soulful eyes gazing off into some unseen distance.

Tucked in amongst all the trinkets and traditional objects of religious devotion are the Notes: Scrawled in pencil and pen, on index cards or torn scraps from notebooks, matchbooks, envelopes, hotel stationary. Some simply expressing love and fealty to Brigid; some, thank you notes for healings rendered; others are heartfelt, humble-to-desperate pleas for intervention and aid. I am stopped and in awe of the nakedness of spirit that surrounds me. This collection of divinity is a treasure trove for the eye and the heart and the spirit, and as a photographer, one I deeply want to capture on film. And yet it feels so achingly personal, the emotions and vulnerability too raw. I finally manage a very few photographs, holding in my heart an attitude of respect and reverence as I record as best I can, hopefully without becoming simply a cheap voyeur to other people’s faith.

At the far end, under the opening to the sky, a sun-sweetened wall of mortarless dry-stacked flat stones holds the source of the only sound – the well itself. Water spills from an opening in a short fall down to a basin cut into the floor. The splash and streaming make the stones behind the little waterfall a shiny wet-black. As I raise my cupped hand with the small bit of cold water toward my mouth, I catch a strong odor of sulfur that almost makes my eyes water. I hesitate only a moment before sucking the water from my hand. The smell is worse than the taste, fortunately (I would have hated to gag on holy water, after all). The taste is clean, clear; almost hollow in a way, as though holding a space for something more ethereal along with its hydrogen and carbon molecules.

Leaving this tiny grotto, I am momentarily blinded by the world made bright again; birds flying overhead, cars zooming by outside the gate. Time resuming its normal progression.

The stolen treasure, my humble saint’s-relic, came home with me in my luggage, undeclared at customs. I have it with me to this day – nearly thirty years later – in a cardboard box with other collected odds and ends of memory. I encounter it from time to time and open the box to see what simply looks like a common bit of soil; but I close my eyes and once again feel the cool, dusky moist air, the profound quiet but for that whispering of the well, that scent of redemptive sulfur.

…..

 

Photo: (c) Design Pics http://www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography

Reflections on the Longest Night

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I love Winter Solstice. It’s true that sometimes the darkness can be oppressive and I long for more light; but sometimes the darkness wraps me in its gentle quiet, inviting deep introspection and contemplation. It provides space in which I am able to spread out and smooth the edges of some of the harder memories and emotions.

Last year I posted a blessing by Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue that is still sweet and relevant. Worth reading again, you can find it here.

***

There are many celebrations this time of year, both religious and secular, that involve lighting candles and building fires, actively bringing light into the darkness. Lighting candles in the dark of the year seems a particular act of hope and faith.

The little white lights so often on in my kitchen and office this time of year, cheery and welcoming and inviting me to linger, to settle in, to nest and hibernate.

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Winter Solstice is a seasonal turning point with the implied promise of the growing light and spring to come; it invites us to action, a time to reflect on what there is in our lives that no longer serves us, those things that are best left behind to the memories of the year now nearly at its closing. Similarly we are invited, with the gradual return of light and warmth to us here in the Northern Hemisphere, to consider what we want to carry forward, what seeds we want to plant, literally in next year’s garden as well as in our own psyche’s soil. It is a time to find our intentions and aspirations for the next chapter, the next year.

Do you regularly choose a word for the coming year?

Have you chosen yours yet? (I haven’t, though I’m getting closer.)

It is an interesting tool for looking back and looking forward with intention, and doesn’t carry the (understandable) stigma of the New Year’s Resolution. If you haven’t done it before, here is one person’s take on how to help discover your own word of the year.

***

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For the past ten (ten!) years or so, I have met with a small group of friends on the east-facing slope of a beautifully wooded park in the midst of the city in the pre-dawn morning of Winter Solstice, to greet the sun. Here in the Pacific Northwest it is generally cloudy or rainy (or both), so most years the sun’s arrival is barely more than a thin bit of brightness against the distant hills, occasionally cast in pinkish orange; a humble, very undramatic entrance. But anticipated and reveled in, all the same. This morning however, the entire city was cushioned in soft gray fog, so not only did we not see the sun’s arrival, we couldn’t even see the distant eastern hills! No matter, we still witnessed the growing lightness in the sky (and thankfully it wasn’t raining); we shared fresh Satsumas (each symbolic of a small sun in the palm of the hand) and sips from a flask and from a thermos of tea; my friend B and her three-year-old son donned “sun masks” and hid behind a tree, jumping out to announce the sun’s arrival – as reenactment of an ancient ritual? Perhaps. It was certainly a delighted participation in the magic of the season on the part of the three-year-old.

***

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Here is hoping you find much warmth and light and the comfort you need in this dark of the year, and a sense of hopeful intent for your year ahead.

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!