Winter Moon at Dawn: Possibility and Potential

With what degree of certainty does the Old Farmer’s Almanac guarantee its weather predictions? Add twenty percent to that. I promise you that I can predict when arctic temperatures will hit the Hudson Valley almost without fail.

For the past several winters we have taken care of my folks’ dog while they are off on vacation. Next winter, give me a call and find out when Mom and Dad are heading south – it means that the thermometer is plunging southward too.

Chris Darling, EveryStockPhoto.com
Chris Darling, EveryStockPhoto.com

Through the tiny gap between my scarf and my Red Sox ski cap I watch Saoirse, the oh-so-delicate 100 lb. black lab nose along the tracks tracks of some mysterious creature who is not hiding in a cozy den, despite the frigid wind. The moon lights the western sky at just after 6 a.m. and I feel as if I am walking through a different world. Amazing how being a dog minder introduces you to the smallest details of a new neighborhood at the most unusual times of day. Only when she has moved on and I raise my eyes from the icy snow banks do I realize that the whole world is markedly brighter. Pastel morning is just beginning to color the east, and the landscape glows as if someone just turned on a light in a distant room. In this case, I guess that would be Connecticut.

Even in the near blackness a surprising number of cars idle in driveways, trying to motor themselves awake in the bitter cold just as their drivers nurse that last cup of coffee. As much as getting up early and donning boots and shearling is a chore, Saoirse’s visit offers me my my first chances to learn the rhythms of my neighbors’ lives by piecing together what clues they leave in this coldest, darkest time of the year.

There is so little to go on – you have to have impeccable timing to catch the bundled figures gingerly make their way across the ice from the coziness of the kitchen to the tepid warmth of a car whose heater strains to keep the windshield from fogging. Instead, I am left to look into the glowing windows and see figures passing back and forth, engaged in the sacredness of the morning routine.

What is it about looking into the glow of a home’s lights at dawn that seems so much more intimate that seeing those same lamps ablaze in the evening?

mypictureWe are all a confederacy of early risers. Though some may be cheerful enough morning people, we are bound by what still seems an unnatural act, getting up when it’s dark as midnight. Who are we to rise before even the sun has climbed into his seat in the sky?

I found my heart warming to the residents in the houses where I could see someone standing before the kitchen sink, washing up a few breakfast dishes before she dashes out the door. We begin and end this day as strangers, but for this handful of moments between rising from bed and braving the world, we are all united in this process of preparation for the work ahead.

In this brief time between night and day I can believe wholeheartedly in a common humanity that we all share. A dream of still warm blankets and hopefully someone we love who lay beside us while we slept. A vision of hope for the day ahead before the winter chill and the vicissitudes of life challenges our resolve.

To think like Anne Shirley, this is the time when it is still a new day with no mistakes in it yet. All people and events are merely beautiful possibilities in the frozen morning lit by the grace of a waning moon.

Winter Solstice: Mary, Mother Earth, and the Stories that We Tell

In the end, all we have is nature.

My teacher offered this wisdom during my healing class a few weeks ago, and only by going in the opposite direction, by dipping into myth and stories and ideas have I begun to understand the profundity of this statement.

I was blessed with the most incredible, nourishing Winter Solstice I could have possibly prayed for. The snow continued to fall while the Christmas lights glowed all day in the cozy house. I had the luxury of spending hours in my sacred little room: lighting my Advent candles, meditating, drawing, writing, discovering new territory in the realm of spirit.

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This December has offered me previously unimagined insight into the power of both the Solstice and Christmas.

For some time now, I have been experiencing visions of Mary. In them, she tells me that she is not just that silent, blue veiled vessel with the alabaster brow. She is the Mother who carried the weight of the world between her hips and who gave birth to a God. She is not some distant creature to be locked up in churches. She is a vital ally, a friend to all life. Mary is the supreme realization of the Divine Feminine.

Never before would I allow myself to get close to Jesus’s mom. A girl who got tangled up in all that Biblical stuff just because she was passively filled with angel dust? Not my style. Instead, I sought the Goddess in myth and legend, rock formations and prehistoric art. The statues of the blessed virgin that graced the churches I passed were just dull marble decorations that helped other kinds of people through their day.

But Mary has been insistent, and I realize how foolish I have been to refuse her. I now allow myself to drink deep her story.

Two phenomenal posts that I came across today, both based on today’s Gospel reading about the Annunciation, opened new doors of understanding for me: Christine at Abbey of the Arts and a blog that’s new to me, Magdalene’s Musings.

The more deeply I fall into the stories of the Annunciation and Jesus’s birth, the more overcome I am by their power. Suddenly it makes sense that these events would form the basis of a faith that endures 2,000 years later.

At the same time, my understanding of these miraculous moments is colored by the new “relationship” that I have with Mary herself. As she becomes something other than an iconic character for me, and instead emerges as a face of the feminine aspect of God, I realize how the stories that bind her to history are just that: stories.dsc01518

The time I spent soaking in Paganism and Celtic magic left me with a strong understanding of the way the Church strategically scheduled Christmas to coincide with a holiday as old as the earth itself: the celebration of sun’s return around December 21. The overlapping events and the connections between them are becoming increasingly clear to me:

The earth is tilting back on its axis so that the sun shines longer in the sky each day.

Mother Earth is offering up her Child, the Sun.

The Feminine Divine is making way in order to give us the Divine in human form.

Mary gives birth to the infant Jesus in a manger.

When I fully realize that the nativity story is not about shepherds and stars, but is instead a beautiful allegory for the cycles of the seasons, I arrive on a new plane of respect for Christianity and for all of nature. The interconnectedness of humanity’s stories with the basic laws of this earth make me stop and allow tears to fill my eyes for the incredible beauty we are all permitted to be a part of.

Did those events in Bethlehem really happen? I would not deny it. And if they did, I believe it was because God knew humanity needed to watch the power of his love enacted in human form. The passing of the seasons and the miracle of the earth’s rebirth of the seasons is too abstract a miracle for us to understand. What genius and power, to give us these holy beings, Mary and Jesus, to guide our story-loving souls.

solstice sun setI stood outside as the sun set on this shortest day, and I understood completely that the only sure thing is the natural world. The ideas, the living beings, the manufactured things, they will all fade away. Only the mountains and the seas, the sun and the moon will remain.

But still, I know I feel more connected to God and to the rest of this beautiful world better by holding in my heart these stories that we tell.

Happy Families Shovel Snow All Alike

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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Our first snow in the new house!

An adventure as we debated exactly where the driveway was under eight or more inches of gorgeous powder. A disappointment when we realized the plows all dumped the heavy stuff from the road across the street right in our driveway. A blessing in that our endurance was just enough to accomplish the whole job in one marathon session.

Visions of Russian peasants who probably spent a fair part of their difficult lives wielding snow shovels flashed through my mind. After a two and a half month literary slog that was much tougher than today’s shoveling, I finally finished Anna Karenina last weekend.

With more spite than I intended, when I finished, I asked my husband if he was insane to count this epic of whining and jealousy and navel gazing among his favorite books.

I cannot remember having a more extreme love/hate relationship with a book. Few novels take up so much time, so I guess I had more time than usual to consider how Tolstoy was a genius, but a genius with a deeply disconcerting perspective on human nature.

Did Tolstoy hate humanity so much that he chose to expose only the pettiest, most deluded aspects of human nature? Or (and this is what I really fear), was he a master who brilliantly shed light on the private, claustrophobic confines of the unquiet mind?

Anna Karenina’s first line is so iconic, but what does it mean when a book that is an essential part of the Western canon takes such a dim view of happiness and contentment?

Of course, how would eight hundred pages of pleasure actually read? Tolstoy was definitely on to something when he operated under the belief that angst and intrigue were much better fodder for fiction than fulfillment and requited love.

dsc01497What is it that is so boring about happiness that we don’t much care to read about it and so many of us chase it out of our own lives in exchange for a bit of drama and excitement?

We don’t have to live out our lives like novels or movies, seeking out painful plot twists just to keep the audience interested. Pursuing and savoring simple old contentment can be the most fascinating occupations of all.

Happiness takes a trillion different disguises. Sweating and working and achieving something with your honey. Making dinner. Making love. Making up. Making out. How quickly would you lose count of ways to find your bliss?

There is something decidedly out of joint in a world whose headlines are all about the bad stuff in life. There’s real tragedy in the fact that entertainment so often relies on the voyeuristic impulse, the need to watch other people’s failures and heartbreaks.

Maybe it’s true, and there really is a great diversity in the ways that unhappiness can settle upon families and individuals. It certainly seems that such stuff sells and I know I love a good tear jerker every now and then. But that doesn’t mean that there are not myriad ways to be happy or that every narrative has to focus on disappointment and the denial of joy.

Imbolc and Revising My Sacred Calendar

Sacred PathOn this unusual solitary Sunday I found myself in in a noontime twilight when I yearned to fill fruitful hours with reading and writing and meditation but instead wandered between rooms, giving a few minutes to a novel before remembering I had left a cup of tea steeping in the kitchen a half hour before. Though I often resist the wisdom that tells me to pull on some boots and get outside, I looked out to the melting snow and realized that I had to leave my cocoon.

I was tempting nature to glitter through its bleak February palette with unmistakable manifestations of the divine even as I consciously settled for the mundane beauty that is a false spring: forty degree sunlight air hanging over mud and snow that will invariably freeze in a few short hours. Really, this is how I gaze upon life much of the time – resigning myself to reality but coloring it all with a sense of hope I am sometimes unwilling to admit. As you will see from the picture above, this ended up being a much more sacred journey than I might have expected; it seems that there in fact must have been some magic delighting in the sunshine.

Gradually I was able to release the expectation of revelation and even stopped chanting the vaguely frenetic mantra that was intended to shape this tramp through the woods into a productive walking meditation. I pulled back the layers of ego until I was simply a woman on a path on a warm winter day. Soon, I started noticing sounds beyond those of the crunching ice and the squelching muck beneath my galoshes. I pitied myself and the wonder of the earth for a while; our perfect communion was marred by distant shots from the gun club and the low hiss of the thruway – destructive neighbors that I so rarely acknowledged. For a time I let these impostors excuse my neglect of the natural world: being outside barely worth it when any signs of wildlife that hadn’t been hunted or pushed into oblivion by human incursion were drowned out by all that human noise. But eventually even those pretexts melted away as I watched blue jays chase one another from birch to birch and realized that the little movements at the corner of my vision were due to an underbrush alive with busy squirrels. All of my intentions of really being present in nature were forgotten in the act of actually being there.

Everything I “should” have been thinking about melted away under the flame unmediated experience. My thoughts turned to flowing wax that was free to drip through my consciousness to form new shapes, loosed from their old forms and patterns. Finally my sense were opening wider so that I remembered to take a deep breath of the sweet fresh air. It tasted just a little like spring, and I remembered that in Ireland the weather had seemed to turn at the first of February in celebration of Imbolc.Brigid

That is when I stopped to stare dumbly into the middle distance. It was February third and I had not even thought of the festival of Imbolc, Brigid’s Day. For so many years the feast of goddess/saint whose image I had worn around my neck had been deeply important to me, marked by rituals both public and private. I remember so clearly the first Brigid’s Day of the millennium when I hung my cloak out in the damp Galway night so she could pass by and bless it.

What does it mean that I had been thinking of how to make Lent more meaningful but had not remembered what I had always considered what I thought to be the most important day of the Celtic year? I have been so disconnected from the relationship of time and nature that I don’t even know if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (just Googled it, he did). As I began walking again I marveled at strange new focus my awareness has taken – Catholic traditions treasured over pagan rites? Who was I? I mourned a bit for all it seems I have forgotten.

But then I realized how artificial our calendars are, how arbitrary our scheduled holy days. Certainly the winter solstice is a moment in time, but unless you are standing in the inner chamber at Newgrange how can you know for sure? When celebrating Brigid’s qualities such as fire and home and healing and poetry, does the divine care if we are off by a day or two? After all, time has proven to be a plastic thing when we remember that the Church imposed December 25 upon the newborn Jesus.

After that walk through a wintertime awakening, I am feeling graced with a deep peace to realize that I remembered Brigid not Bandiabecause I turned the page on the calendar, but because I heard the whisper of the earth.

The Degree To Which We Feel the Chill

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A quick trip to the mailbox in the moments between moving from a toasty car to an almost cozy house gave me a few moments under the stars tonight. Our neighbors’ woodsmoke hung heavily in the air and the snow squeaked under my feet as it does when the temperature threatens to linger at zero. Even here on the fringes of the “country” a great stretch of the sky from the horizon to Orion’s edge (perhaps his elbow?) was shaded pink with the lights of the nearby town, but still the constellations stretched with such glory across the top of the world, all at once chilled dignity and ecstatic brilliance.

This was the end of the sort of day that almost everyone complained about. It was cold, truly cold, and though the sun shone brightly, it was difficult to find the place between suffering from the frigid air and sweating under the layers of woolen compensation once you made it inside. During the drive home, I was listening to NPR as usual and heard a piece in the “You Must Read This” series. The contributer was talking about the solace she found in reading Chekhov in Syracuse, New York while she was a teenager. I don’t have much affection for Chekhov, particularly, but we don’t live all that far from there and certainly I understood her talk of the cold. What hit my artistic sensibilities (and my general refusal to use two words when twelve might have the particular lilt I am hoping for) was her description of the climate: “Some years it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us.” Clunk.

Alright, so I might have said that differently (the way the cold seemed to bent on exchanging our bones for icicles or something, but I’m not working with a three minute time limit and well, no one has asked me to broadcast my opinion of books on National Public Radio), but her word choice really just got my attention about what seems to be a broader (and less nit picky) issue.Jan 1 snow

To personify the cold as an agent trying to kill you is to plant yourself (and your city) smack at the center of the universe. It is to take the movement of atmospheric currents and the tilt of the sun personally. Somehow, that just seems a massive waste of energy (the question of climate change aside in this situation, of course). What sort of state do open ourselves to if the weather becomes such an adversary even as we sit comfortably behind the windowpane, teacup in hand? Are we so mentally and spiritually fragile that the cold can penetrate places a parka cannot protect us from?

As soon as I say this, I realize that a week ago I was dissecting the way the darkening days leading to the Solstice set me to contemplate death. Though I did not suggest that the absent sun was in on an assassination plot, I certainly offered my fate to be influenced by waning daylight and other unearthly agents.

Perhaps I am not exactly certain what I am trying to say here, beyond attempting to call for a balance between recognizing that we are creatures constantly affected by our natural world and getting tangled up in blaming nature for its crusade against our personal comfort. How do we understand ourselves to be inextricably bound to the web of all creation and yet maintain a centeredness that means we are not thrown off balance every time the wind blows?

The only answer I can begin to offer is to practice acceptance, to be present to the world around us yet know that we bear stillness within. Since my topic here is winter, maybe I do not drag the metaphor to far to think of the castle that stands firm even after one shakes the snow globe – one steady force amidst a shower of white?