A Light in the Darkness: Celebrating the Dark When All the World Yearns for the Light

dark matterAt this holiday time of year we are surrounded by “lights in the darkness” – twinkling holiday reminders of the coming light now that we have reached and passed the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year. For millennia, humans all over the world have made bonfires and light festivals at this time to signify the hope in the midst of mid-winter despair that Earth’s life will renew itself. In our not-so-distant past, when winter could be a time of starvation, especially in my part of the northern hemisphere, such rejoicing at the coming of the light at the Solstice made sense for it meant reassurance of springtime food and relief from the killing cold.

But I love the darkness. I wait for winter and the chance to rest, dream, and be more fully my spiritual self in the long nights and velvety deep blackness I see for so much of the day and night. As much as anyone can who lives in the modern, western world, I retreat into my envisioned cave and enjoy being part of the cosmos while exploring my inner world. The little twinkly lights sometime seem like an intrusion. The springtime and long summer days will come soon enough; why do they need to invade my too short season of darkness?

Yet, there are lessons to be learned in winter’s starlike lights that can only be learned when we also appreciate the darkness. The combination of deep darkness and the holiday lights are a reminder that we are both infinite and embodied. So often we see those two aspects of our being in conflict, as if we can only be one or the other at a time. But what if they are not in conflict, not even complementary, but each is necessary to the other?

The twinkly lights remind me that my winter dreaming is useless if it has no meaning in the embodied, action-packed daytime aspect of the world, if I cannot take my dreamings and make a better planet with them. When we are in the dark dreaming, we must remember to make our dreams achievable and relevant to the outside world.

The twinkly lights remind me that we need to make our bodies ready for the more active time of the light by resting, by nourishing ourselves in these moments of quiet contemplation. Soon the twinkly lights will become the blazing sun and our labor, of whatever kind, will be required to put food on the table of the world, whatever form our work in the outside world takes.  Our bodies must be ready for the task.

Finally, the twinkly lights are our beacons of light on the way back to our home in the sun, just as the few hours of darkness we may enjoy in the summer when we are in nature and able to see the blackest night without artificial lights are our pathway back to the dreaming time of winter.  When our time of resting, contemplation, and creating the seeds of what we will harvest in the summer and fall is over, we know we will have a way to where we need to be.

To those of us who do not long for the spring and summer in the dark days of winter, the illuminations that the world seems to so instinctively light at this time of year are a reminder of the importance of our dreaming and resting in winter to the world of action that thrives under the sun. It reminds me that this luxuriant season of darkness is short, the summer will soon be upon us, and we must make the most of it.

 Photo of dark matter credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe (NASA JPL/Caltech and STScl)


Sacred Questioning

To read a new post of mine about asking essential and uncomfortable questions as a spiritual practice on the wonderful site Feminism and Religion, please click here.

Living Between Our Lives: Thriving in Liminal Times

The beginning of November is a “liminal time.” It is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin and it can be easy to feel we are in some mystical realm when we get up early and see the mist rising off the fields or the crimson light of an early sunset when we are used to daylight. It is the new year in some cultures. It is a time when change is in the air and we are putting away our summer routines and remembering our winter ones.  No matter what the month, we all have especially “liminal” times in our lives, when we choose, or have forced upon us, great change and we are no longer fully living in our old lives yet not quite in our new ones.

As I look back over my life, I see that I am someone who has enjoyed “regenerating” myself, each time creating a liminal time as one phase faded and another came into being. I grew up in a university town in the Midwest in the 1960s and 70s and left that comfortable life for the punky, noisy, and art-infested East Village of the 1980s when I was in my 20s.  Then, at 30, I left again to be a spouse and parent in a small town in New England, complete with a Victorian fixer-upper house, herb garden, and professional job.  Each time, I felt both the stress and thrill of, in a way, starting my life over.

I’ve found that these liminal times offer two unique opportunities and November provides a special perspective on each of them. The first is the chance to learn who we really are without the trappings that come with living in a particular place and time so long that we surrender our uniqueness to the convenience of routine. In November in my garden, some plants that only live a season are already on the compost pile waiting to become nutrients for next year. Others are perennials that are withered and need to be cut back. A few are still in flower and as fresh and green as they were in the spring. Yet, they are all on the cusp of change in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. They teach us that, even as we let one life pass away and another take over our days, we still remain essentially ourselves. Next spring new flowers will emerge from the seeds cast this fall and fresh stalks and blooms will appear out of the ground from the roots of perennials, but there is some essence that will remain the same. Jerusalem artichokes will not arise from the seeds of geraniums and bee balm blooms will not grow out of raspberry canes or grapevines. Just as the plants will be different next spring as they adapt to next year’s environment – some will flourish with abundant rain while others may struggle without adequate sun — there will still be something about them that makes them immediately identifiable, so do we have the chance to see what remains the same in us when our environment changes. Liminal times reintroduce us to our most essential selves, both those aspects we love about ourselves and nurture and those that we may wish not to face and so use the busyness of everyday life to ignore.

Liminal times can also make us aware of the magnificence of everyday life as we explore new routines, places, and people that may soon become so commonplace to us that we forget to appreciate them. For a short time, we have the wonder of living in a world that is fresh and exciting, demanding more of our attention but in return giving us the joy of being engaged in its details and possibilities. Think of the first snowfall, an event that frequently happens here in New England in November. I have seen a first snow for every one of the past 55 winters, and I know that within a month or so I’ll be ready for spring, but I never fail to run outside to experience the beauty of the flakes as they waft down to the ground, or the refreshing taste of their chill on my tongue, or their gentleness as they fall on my hand. After the first heavy snowfall when the ground is covered, I always feel as if I am walking out into a new world, one that has never known the step of humanity before. And so it is with our new circumstance or environment. This new corner of the world has never known us before and we can make of it completely what we choose here and now.

While these liminal times can be a time to revitalize our world, not all of them lead to better life situations than we had before. A health crisis, the loss of a loved one, and other similar changes can be more catastrophes than opportunities. And even preparing for a new phase of life we are looking forward to can be exhausting as we do our usual chores each day while needing to fit in all those extra logistical tasks that come with closing out one part of our lives to move into the next. These liminal times can still be our means to gain strength, wisdom, and power. Consider Inanna, a goddess who chose to visit the Underworld to learn the lessons she could not find anywhere in her bright world above. Before she could enter she had to give up all her symbols of position and wealth, even her clothes, which she did willingly. While in the Underworld she lost even her life until she was rescued. While there she found she was deeper, richer, fiercer, and a better goddess than she ever knew she could be and through the agreement to send her husband down to the Underworld to take her place for six months each year, she set into motion the seasons that make life on Earth possible*. She found who she truly was in her essence and remade the world into one of abundance and vitality.

While we may mark the phases of our lives with great changes, in reality most of the time we are more like the moon that gradually moves through being new, waxing, being full, and then waning, progressing slowly in small incremental steps instead of revolutions.  In fact, every day brings changes, though we may not recognize them. Perhaps by remembering the positive, life-giving ways we have felt during these liminal times, we may find ourselves more alive and joyful every day.  May we bring the blessings of these liminal times to each moment we live.

*To learn more about Inanna and Her descent, see Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer.

Living in the Garden of Time

bridge2When women seek that within themselves that is eternal, when they re-center themselves in their own souls, so often we go to a garden or forest or other natural place. It is there where many of us find our greatest truths. Yet, I find that so often I tend to ignore the wisdom I find in my favorite natural places, continuing to think without question in ways that I have been taught since childhood and that are constantly reinforced by the culture around us.

Lately I have been considering what nature tells us about time, and specifically about the ways we perceive our lives. I have always thought of time using a traditional mathematical model, as a progression from beginning to middle to end, and my own lifespan as a number of years that I constantly spend, like money, and have less of as I get older. I believe that this viewpoint contributes to our society’s perception that youth is to be hoarded and older age something to be hidden, as if by doing so we will be able to hold in our grasp more of our precious years of life.

But, what if I were to think of my life not as a time-bound progression from coming into being to no longer existing, but as a garden or other natural place? What if I do not think of myself as moving along a pre-formed, perhaps even pre-destined, path, from birth to death, but rather as the center of my own garden with time happening around me and as part of me? What if the past is not lost and the future is not simply a non-existent wish, but if past, present, and future were all part of my life right now, like a bunch of blossoms with some still in the bud, others in full bloom, and yet others fading?

In such a place, the flowers that had dropped their petals to the ground would not be lost, garden8but would rather be starting at a new beginning of their journey as they decompose into the soil that nourishes and becomes part of next year’s blooms. The past would be all around me in every leaf, blossom, and root that is made up of plants from past seasons. I have, at times, wondered what it would be like to live in one of the times and places in the past when women’s spiritual power was recognized and encouraged (for wonderful explorations of these see either of Max Dashu’s amazing DVDs, Women’s Power and Woman Shaman: The Ancients). Who would I be if I had lived my life in such a time? What if that time were not gone, was not dust under our feet, but alive within us, still infused in the soil of our souls? What if our time with all those family and friends who have given us love and inspiration, but who are no longer on earth, was not over, but was still present in some deep way? Instead of feeling as if we, as individuals and as a generation of women, were on our own as we try to make our world not just sustainable but a garden that nourishes all living beings on it, perhaps we would feel the strength, love, guidance, and wisdom of all those who lived in the past and ourselves as part of a circle that has been a presence in the world for a very, very long time.

magnoliaIn such a place, the flowers that were still in bud, or not even emerged, would not be yet to come and therefore not to be considered as important as ourselves, but rather a part of us and as alive now as we are. Just as I think about the past, I also contemplate the future and wonder how generations after us will live in this world we have created as well as what amazing progress they will make on the foundation of the good things we have done. Considering their well being is not just a kindness to those who will come after us, but an essential aspect of taking care of both ourselves, for we are part of them, and being good stewards of the garden while we are alive in it. And they, too, are part of the circle of all those from both the past and present and, in their own way, contribute to our wisdom and well being by the promise of all they will do and be in their own time.

Envisioning myself as being at the center of a garden of time has become essential to the way I view myself and the world. I find I enjoy my life more because I am no longer fretting about how large a store of years I have left, but rather I see my life as a whole. I no longer long for times and loved ones I have lost, for I recognize that once I have had an experience or come to love someone, they are as with me now as ever. Perhaps most importantly, I feel more like a part of a human community with a deep past and, hopefully, a long future. Not everything needs to happen in my lifetime to count as an accomplishment. If something I say or do now bears fruit in someone’s life decades from now when my petals have gone into the soil, that’s the way things are supposed to be.

As I am nourished by the past, may I be a bloom that adds beauty and joy to the future.

Celebrate the Mystery of the Summer Solstice

dark matterMystery is one of the Universe’s greatest gifts to us.  Mystery reminds us that we are more than we can see and that endless adventures await us if we will only open ourselves up to the possibilities that come from living in universe with realms that are beyond what we perceive with our senses in our day to day lives.

Unfortunately, Mystery is not much valued in our society that feels most comfortable when all the fundamentals of our world are understood and neatly fit into categories and niches, whether of science or religion. Mystery is found in abundance in ancient stories of the creation of the universe and of the bringing into being of life, and seems to have been a part of daily spiritual life when they were created. What are we missing by not celebrating more the joy we feel when we gaze up at the stars and wonder what is out there or into a baby’s eyes and think of the infinite possibilities of her future?

As it happens, we are actually surrounded by Mystery.  Dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe (you can see it in the darkness of the ring in the photo above). We  do not understand what these are. You can read more from NASA by clicking here. We only know they exist because of their effect on such things as the rate of expansion of the universe, as I understand it. In other words, all the galaxies, stars, planets, and everything that makes up what we think of as the universe is only 5% of what exists. Someday dark energy and dark matter may be understood, but, for me, it is a visible symbol of Mystery’s delights brought to light.

When I think of Mystery, I think of winter, the dark time of year, when so much of life’s creation goes underground and makes ready for the emergence of spring, when we are more apt to go deep into the Mystery within ourselves and make ourselves ready for our own rebirth. The Summer Solstice can be thought of as the coming of the Dark, of the time of Mystery, just as the Winter Solstice is celebrated as the coming of the Light. The time of light has grown longer and longer and, the day after the Solstice, will begin to recede to make room for the now lengthening nights and all that they bring.

IMG_1124So, the Summer Solstice is the time to welcome the burgeoning of Mystery back into our world. But, at the same time, the hot, abundant days of summer also have their own Mystery. The succulence of the raspberry, the beauty of a peony or a rose, the wild exuberance of the grape vine – all these have an element of Mystery in the vitality of life within them.

This week of the Summer Solstice, as you plan how you will mark the day that has been of such importance all throughout human history, think of Mystery’s great part in this moment of the year. What is Mystery to you – both the Great Mysteries and the small every day ones? How can you add these into your observance, whether that is a formal ceremony or just a moment spent during the day looking up at the sky and feeling gratitude for the sun’s warmth? How can you remind yourself and others that, however much our daily lives may take up almost all our thoughts and time, Mystery surrounds us and is to be celebrated?

Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. J. Jee and H. Ford et al. (Johns Hopkins Univ.)

A Mother’s Day Gift from the Garden of Dreams

Mary Sharrat has kindly posted a guest blog from me on her blog Viriditas.  It is titled “A Mother’s Day Gift from the Garden of Dreams” and you can read it by clicking  here.

Celebrating the Everyday Joys of Beltane in the Suburbs

bridge2It seemed as if everyone in the small suburban town where I live was celebrating Beltane early this past weekend. Most of them had likely never heard of Beltane, but I saw people enthusiastically raking lawns, planting pansies in flowerpots, buying mulch and peat, bringing babies to restaurants to run on the floor with no one minding, buying giggly little girls new spring clothes at KMart, taking long walks in the afternoon warmth, and in so many other ways being part of the northern hemisphere’s season of life renewing itself and the Earth’s abundance.

As I thought about the festive atmosphere surrounding these ordinary acts, I realized how deeply Beltane is rooted in the everyday life of our planet and all those beings who live on Her.  The renewal of life is what normally happens every day, but especially at this time of year, as long as nothing catastrophic interferes. Beings instinctively reproduce and bring forth new generations, people naturally want to nurture their own and other life forms, all of life is woven together in a delicate balance dedicated to the renewal of life.

Of course, humans, in particular, are constantly interfering with this constant life renewal with wars and other violence of all kinds and human-made poverty, homelessness, hunger, and injury, death, and disease.  These past two weeks I have been reminded of how wounding these acts can be to an entire population.  The town where I live is not far from Boston and almost everyone I know was personally affected by the Marathon bombing in some way, whether they had a connection to someone who was killed or injured or were shocked to see familiar places where they live, work, or shop transformed into battle zones. What I saw this past weekend was people drawing on their natural  bountiful and beautiful Beltane spirit, while not forgetting those still in need of help.

So, I am now seeing Beltane as not only a celebration of the season of nature’s fertile abundance, but also an affirmation of the joys and power of the acts of daily life and our relationships with our families and friends of all species that bring forth new life, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. So often it’s easy to think that we need to set aside a special time and place with symbolic activities to really become part of a celebration when, in fact, we are constantly surrounded by the spirit of what we are trying to bring into our lives.  This week, for my observance of this holiday, I think I will try to find ways to promote Beltane’s healing spirit as it is manifested in everyday activities of a 21st century American suburb – gardening, encouraging kids, giving those traumatized a place to find support. What about you?

Celebrate Yourself on Wives’ Feast Day

February 1 or 2 is the date of many holidays – Imbolc, Candlemas, and Oya’s Feast Day, among others – but one that I especially love is “Wives’ Feast Day,” celebrated in Ireland and Northern England. Wives’ Feast Day is, as I understand it, a day for women to gather amongst themselves and enjoy food and one another’s company, especially within the context of honoring all that women do to create nurturing and happy homes.

Society has changed greatly since Wives ‘ Feast Day began centuries ago. First, many women are not wives. Still, Wives’ Feast Day is for you even if you are not married. In fact, the word “wife” originally meant “woman,” and not specifically a woman who was married. And, almost all women I know shoulder significant housework duties, whether or not they are married, or live by themselves, with family, or with others, or whether they work outside the home or not.

Even the concept of “home” has changed. To me, making a “home” may mean making a house a place of peace and comfort, or it can mean creating a business, university, or community where everyone feels welcome, or making wherever one dwells “homelike” for those who do not have homes for whatever reason. So, Wives’ Feast Day should be considered a day for women to celebrate themselves for the considerable work they do to make themselves and others “homes” of all kinds.

I love that many women celebrate Wives’ Feast Day by gathering together among themselves to feast and have fun. One “home” we so often don’t recognize but which is essential to our happiness and health is the “home” we create with other women. Whenever we come together with other women and strengthen our bonds, talk about what is important to us, encourage each other, and create our community, we are making a very special kind of home that we all need and that makes possible our other work in the world outside our women’s “home.”

Of course, changes in society have also made it sometimes difficult to celebrate Wives’ Feast Day in the traditional way. On February 1, I will be up at 5:30 am and at work by 6:45 am, then home at 6 pm or so, with evening chores keeping me busy till time to go to bed – not much opportunity there for feasting. February 2, a Saturday, holds a little more promise, but still weekend chores generally make it hard for most of my friends to gather at any one time and place. I would imagine that many women can cite similar schedules.

That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate Wives’ Feast Day. I think that what I will do is take a little extra time and go down to the local supermarket to get some special take-out for lunch, with maybe enough to share with the two or three women in my office. I’ll see if we can take even a half-hour to share some special food and time together. Perhaps on Saturday I’ll see if I can meet a friend for tea and make sure that I go ahead and have a piece of cake or cookie that I might not otherwise. It should also be said that more men are making “homes” so perhaps a “Wives’” Feast Day could include any men in your household who make your home with you if you like.

Wives’ Feast Day also coincides with Imbolc, the day when we mark the first stirrings of spring, of course. I think it is most appropriate to honor the Earth and Her abundance on Wives’ Feast Day, for the Earth is our greater home, the home that connects us all, and She is the source of all the food we feast on and the materials that we use to make our homes of whatever kind. Perhaps one way to celebrate Wives’ Feast Day is to also honor all those beings in nature, from the Earth herself, to animals, and plants, who join with us to make our homes, to reaffirm our place in the web that connects us all as Creators. Whether by simply being mindful of the Earth’s generosity as we eat or by doing some form of environmentally activism that helps sustain the Earth, we can make the Earth an essential part of our Wives’ Feast Day.

I am posting this a few days before Wives’ Feast Day so we can all do a little planning and perhaps celebrate this holiday. If you find some special way to observe Wives’ Feast Day, I would love to hear about it in a comment!



Honoring the Older Women of December’s Darkness

I’m so thrilled to contribute a guest post on the wonderful site “Feminism and Religion.” I invite you to read my post “Honoring the Older Women of December’s Darkness” by clicking here.

Giving Christmas a Second Look

For me, Christmas has become mostly a holiday I celebrate with family because they do and then I go off and mark the Solstice with my women friends in an evening of stories, songs, dances and pondering the Return of the Light. However, maybe I was wrong to push Christmas away so quickly. Maybe I just haven’t been looking at it the right way.

I recently heard a Christmas song titled “Mary Did You Know.” I only heard this song for the first time a few years ago, so you may not be familiar with it either. Its lyrics ask Mary if she knows her little baby is divine in many poetic and insightful ways.  What is more meaningful is what it leaves unsaid. What you know when you hear the questions is that this is a human woman who loves her baby just as any woman would, absolutely and completely, and she does not love her baby any more or less because of his divinity. Also, we know that his divinity will be the cause of the greatest sorrow anyone can bear, the death of a child.

I think I needed to be a parent for many years to really understand this song (and I think the love it expresses is of any parent – mother or father). I needed to sit with friends at the funerals of their children and hear them express the depth of their grief and then witness them, through faith, regain the ability to live, even in a world that has stolen what is most precious to them. I had to experience the slow and sometimes painful loosening of the bonds between parent and child as that child grows up and moves into an independent life. I had to know the amazement of seeing a child you have raised become his own person, with his own destiny, even if at times you wish he had chosen a life that is less noble, but safer.

After hearing this song, I have begun to think of Christmas as a time to celebrate the faith and inner strength of ordinary people and how that, in a way, creates divinity. Almost all my learnings about the feminine divine have been about goddesses, beings who were not human, of whom I had elements, but who I could never be in their form. I, like all women, may be sacred, but I am not a goddess, I am human.  Mary at the manger is a human woman who has just given birth and whose life will be forever changed by it, as the lives of all parents are forever changed when their baby is born.

I know of no other holiday that celebrates the sacred power of the love and faith of humans, that reflects the depths of human joy and sorrow in this way. This Christmas I am going to pay more attention. I am going to stop saying to myself “this is not my holiday.” I am going to try to see the celebration of Christmas as it is in the very first moment of the story of the mother, father, and baby in in the manger, a story that belongs to all of us and not just one religion. And then I will try to bring that reverence to every day the rest of the year.

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