Three Gifts: A Solstice Story

Thanks so much to Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations about Hildegard of Bingen, among other wonderful books, for posting a piece I wrote about the Solstice on her website. To read it, click here.

Reality Is Just a Tango with Time

This appeared in Moondance last fall. I’m reposting it here in case anyone would like to read it.

In the fall, as the landscape withdraws into stark lines and the coming cold breathes brittle into my bones, I always mourn time’s inevitable creep forward into darkness.  Yet, in very ancient eras — and to many people still — time was endless, like a wheel, and therefore hopeful. Its circle of birth and death always led to rebirth as it marked the seasons, the years, and the generations. Then, as science ascended, time became a mathematical concept, merely a dimension, often depicted as an arrow unstoppably propelled into the future. Time was captured and stuffed into clocks to regulate our lives in factories and offices.

And so was time also transformed in my own life. When I was a child, time was magic, a beloved friend who gave gifts of Christmas and birthdays and stretched out happy summer afternoons till I was too tired to play anymore. Now, time has become simply the grid of each week’s over-burgeoning calendar page, keeping me up at night wondering how I will accomplish all I must once morning comes too quickly.

Still, for over a hundred years science has known that time really is a great mystery.  How fast I experience time moving varies with my velocity and how close I am to a gravitational field.  Modern physics, with its oddly-behaving quanta and space-time bending wormholes, has made real the possibility of time travel.  Researchers tell me that my own body, and everyone else’s, defies my traditional concept of time everyday, reacting to stimuli before my nervous system has had a chance to relay its presence to my brain as if it knew the impulse was coming.

However thrilling these scientific discoveries may be, in everyday life, I still perceive my body as continually moving into the future that, each instant, becomes the present. Yet, my mind has always travelled in time, just as the physicists say is the real way of the world.  My most intense moment of mind time travel was when I happened upon the 18th century battlefield of Culloden in Scotland and found a marker showing the spot where a clan with my mother’s name had stood to fight. Somehow, from the moment I stepped onto that field, I was drenched in the despair that had soaked the ground more than 200 years before.  Time’s constraints vanished as I walked in a fog of some odd kind of eternity that bound me for that afternoon to those who had perished on the soil under my feet. I did not see ghosts or hear the tramp of long-ago embattled feet, but that place was, for me, in both past and present and it seemed, at the time, right to be so.

This more flowing, sometimes-forwards-sometimes-backwards kind of time we occasionally experience in our minds is, to me, like a river.  Many years ago I dreamt that I was sitting on a high hill with a dream being, watching a river languidly wind its way through the valley below us. It was full of people swimming onward, not looking to left or right or even behind them. The dream being told me that the river was time and the landmarks on the shore measure out the years. All I had to do to enter into the past or future was to dive in at the right place.

What if I stopped swimming and hauled myself up from that river onto the bank?  What if I thought of myself as a being who is not bound to any particular spot along the shore but could choose where I want to be in time? What if I tossed out all my time-based assumptions, such as how women my age should dress and behave? What if I could find everyday the sense of intense relief I experienced in my dream when I left behind the pressures of the river’s currents for just a short while?

Perhaps I could stop fearing the end of my youth and celebrate the greater common sense and perspective that a longer memory has brought me. Recently, salespeople have twice given me “Senior Discounts,” assuming that I am older than I am. I think my first reaction to double-up on the moisturizer was wrong and I should instead think of all the experiences that have taught me how to make my life easier and be glad, or assume that maybe the salespeople glimpsed a bit of wisewoman in me. Perhaps, as one of the salesperson suggested when I told her my real age, I should just take the money and run.

Maybe, too, I can bring what feels comfortable and fascinating from other times into my own life without apology, no longer feeling as if I should only embrace what is 21st century.  Over the years, I have come to feel a deep connection to the spirituality I see in the art of the Paleolithic era. I never tell anyone I feel anything other than an archeological interest in these cave paintings, statues, and other representational objects.  What would people think? Yet I love the pure, direct, and essential relationship to a creating, life-loving, yet deeply powerful Source I sense in that spectacular art.  The next time I have to identify my religion on some form, I will write “Paleolithic” and direct anyone who asks why to the nearest natural history museum.

However, no matter how flowing our view of time, I will still die as will my loved ones. I must face the fact that my time on earth is not limitless no matter how much I may bounce around different eras in my mind. Yet as I sat at my mother’s bedside at the moment of her death, I knew more positively than I have ever known any truth that love is eternal.  At that instant, time became a beloved friend who had given me and my mother 40 years together on this earth. Even though that period was over, I did not doubt we would be together still outside of time’s grasp. Maybe it was only the shock of seeing her die, or perhaps a deep sense of denial, that freed me from the grief of absolute loss that day. Still, years later, I believe that at that instant I finally saw beyond the illusion of our everyday concept of time to its most profound reality.

In our daily lives, where our bodies live, time is that forward-moving arrow, and also, in the freedom of our minds, a gently flowing river. But, in our hearts and souls, time is a living being, one who gives great gifts that also require heart-wrenching sacrifice.  The great Goddesses of time – Durga, Kali, Cerridwen and others –  are often shown dancing the world into and out of being.  This makes sense since time is made from rhythm, whether the oscillations of crystal in our watches, or the swing of a pendulum, or the circlings of the planets round the sun making days, nights, and years. I now like to think of time as a partner who celebrates all life has to offer with me.

I think that from now on I will not perceive of myself as plodding along, walking or swimming, relentlessly moving forward from past to present to future, but dancing with time. I will join her of my free will so that I can live on this glorious Earth. At some moments, the dance will be joyful and I will jump from delight to delight, back and forth. At others it will be slower, in sorrow or amazement or a quiet enjoyment of a moment.  Sometimes I will lead time and sometimes time will lead me. But always, in this life, and in past and future lives, I will dance. Will you dance with us?

Emptying the Nest and Loving the Universe

Kuan Yin

This is the time of the year when the nest of many mothers empties as children who are no longer children head off to college. I suppose that the experience is different for everyone, but I am feeling at once a sense of loss of my old life and sadness from missing someone I deeply love, like, and respect, while also pride and excitement at all the future may hold.

As I often do when faced with something new, I turned to my trusty, dog-eared copy of  Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monaghan to see how women and female divinities have approached the situation down through the millennia. Goddesses who are mothers of specific children seem remarkably like mothers of our time. Some goddess mothers show an immense devotion to their children – Frigg, who made all creatures promise never to harm her son, Balder, or Ceridwen who brewed a potion to make her “ugly” son omniscient and inspired. Any mother can empathize with Mary’s sorrow at the death of her son and Demeter’s depth of mourning when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the Underworld.

Perhaps the goddess who those of us with empty nests can empathize with most is Antaboga, a serpent goddess of Sudan who loved her daughter so much that she gave her only the fruit of paradise to eat, thinking this would keep her from marrying a god and leaving home.  There is a lesson in the end of the story when her daughter slowly starved for lack of other food.  In fact, this story reflects the modern concern with mothering that is too intense and interferes with a child’s natural move to independence with the other side of the coin being the idea that motherhood is primarily a sacrifice of the mother’s well being to meet the child’s needs.

However, most goddesses associated with the word “mother” are Creator or compassionate mothers, to whom motherhood seems to be a most expansive and positive attitude about ourselves and our relationship to all the universe. We are mothers to our offspring, but also to all the world or universe. After her daughter is restored to her for six months of the year, Demeter returns the Earth to fertility to feed all its creatures. Peru’s Mama Cochu is the Ocean Mother who feeds all the planet and is the giver of health. Mary has inspired and given hope to both individuals and social movements around the globe. Kuan Yin voluntarily returned to Earth after enlightenment when she heard “the cries of the world.” The Sumerian “All-Mother Mami” created all human life from clay. The Yoruba’s Oddudua  created the universe itself out of primal matter. Each culture seems to have a Creator or compassionate goddess associated with the word “mother” somewhere in their past history. To these mothers, motherhood is an infinite act of love and creation, fulfilling rather than stifling our or our child’s or creation’s essential being and not in any way limited to just  reproduction of beings like themselves. This is the kind of mother I wish to be.

Not only in ancient myth, but also in modern storytelling do we find these mothers whose motherhood makes a multitude of life, or all of creation, possible and at the same time makes the mothers goddess-like themselves. My favorite children’s book of recent years is Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Ladder to the Moon, radiantly illustrated  by Yuyi Morales. For anyone who has not read it, it tells a story of “Grandma Annie” who is no longer living on Earth, but who truly “hears the cries of the world” and brings those suffering from natural disasters and human violence onto the moon where they are healed and held in love and understanding. It was inspired by the author’s mother and written for her daughter, who was born after her mother’s death.

I even found a modern “mother goddess” tale in the recent Doctor Who science fiction Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe that tells the tale of an “ordinary” London housewife who, because she is a mother, is able to hold an entire planet of doomed tree souls in her mind and carry them safely to the heavens where they live happily twinkling forever among the stars. I’m sure there are others and maybe you can comment with information about them if you know of any.

How do we bring this type of mothering into our own lives? One lesson I have learned is that mothering the world needs to begin with mothering oneself. We cannot mother if we are tired, sick, angry, or resentful. What can you do today to take care of yourself – to heal yourself and give yourself a moment of joy even if a moment is all you have? Then, as  I think about the great Mother Goddesses, I realize that they mothered by doing what was so essential to who they are that they could not help but share it with the world, whether it is expressing compassion, or creating worlds, or feeding living creatures. For some people, taking care of children is what makes them who they are. For others, kids just aren’t their thing, but maybe instead they write symphonies to bring amazement and solace to those who hear it, or run a library that transports the world into the minds of a community, or are a farmer and bring forth Demeter’s abundance to  feed others. What is your way of mothering?

I believe that mothering the universe is not defined so much by what you do as who you are. It requires us to expand ourselves every single day, to think of ourselves not as confined to a narrow image of who we are and what we can accomplish, to a small vision of our proper place and role, but to realize that we are as immense a force for mothering and creating the universe anew as we wish to make ourselves. Whether we mother one being or a multitude, or a creation of another kind, and no matter what we do to mother, we are a unique and essential part of the great mothering that began with the first instant of the universe and continues in an infinite number of ways every day and everywhere. Our nests can never be empty when we make the whole world our home.

Write a Poem and Rethink a New World into Being

It is said that the first poem ever written was a hymn to Inanna by one of her priestesses, an auspicious beginning to the art of poetry indeed.  Yet, I find that when I go to write poems using traditional forms and rules I learned in school, something is missing, or maybe something feels wrong. They don’t reflect the way I think of the world, especially those insights from ancient goddess traditions that I have found so meaningful.

Poetry-writing should be something that everyone enjoys and finds can express their deepest selves. Maybe it’s time to throw out some of those old rules and ways of thinking about poetry and come up with a new form. To that end, I offer up a new form of poetry – the Brigid poem. The Brigid Poem is a form of poetry that I just made up but that you can use if you wish, since sometimes having a structure can help get creativity flowing, as writers of haiku can attest. I call them Brigid Poems only because Brigid is the Goddess of poetry in the Celtic tradition, which is my heritage. You can call your forms of poetry, or novels, or stories, whatever you like and make them however you like.

A Brigid Poem has three sections that flow in an endless cycle with the last stanza relating to the first  in a life/death/rebirth kind of relationship. “Every story/novel/poem needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” was the first rule we all learned about composition. Simple enough, except that that isn’t how reality works. Real life as I observe it has cycles of beginnings, middles, ends, and rebirths. Nothing stops and dissolves into nothingness; everything was always something else and is always reborn, whether it is the day or year, or life cycle of our bodies moving through the elements, or anything else. We see this truth in many goddess traditions. The triple goddesses of birth, death, and rebirth are symbolic of the lives of humans, planets, and galaxies that may be born, live, and die in one form, but then are reborn into something else. Changing Woman is another story of constant, cyclic change.

The movement of the content of a Brigid Poem comes from the natural flux of life’s changes on many levels and expresses expansion and openness. How many times have you heard in English class that every story, or novel, or poem needs a “conflict”? Why? Is conflict the only way that life moves ahead or problems resolve? If we look at nature, it is cooperation, symbiosis, and caring among and within species that makes life possible. A much better guideline for how to move a realistic piece of narrative along is “Everything changes” (or even “Everything She touches changes”).  Transformation is how real life moves from one state to another. Inanna’s story reflects this in her transformation through her journey. Ostara’s turning the bird into a rabbit to save its life is one of both compassion and transformation. Stories and poems of integration, of deepening and learning compassion, of making whole, are much harder to write, but oh so much better for those who experience them as they seek to learn to live better lives.

That’s pretty much it in terms of guidelines, the rest is up to you when you write your poem, in honor of the wild woman creativity we can all bring to poetry-writing.

Here is a Brigid Poem as an illustration:

The Delphyne Dreams

*Delphynes were the women who would breathe in the fumes at the Oracle of Delphi and make prophecies that had to be interpreted by priests and frequently related to battles, emperors, and other such subjects.

In times past, the Earth whispered to me in a voice both plain and strong
Tidings of such succulent truths could only be held close,
Silently, spoken to myself,
While I uttered gibberish about play-acted battles and reigns
To emperors and priests whose treasures
Never reflected the gold of the sunset.

Over the millennia, my body has been reborn
As soil, sky, water, over and over. I am now Earth
And it is my turn to breathe oracles into your ears.
Do you hear what I am saying, women of the world, my daughters,
Now that what could only be hidden before must now be spoken?

All the unstoppable morning glory blossoms,
Snowflakes in flight, and watery glaciers, goring bulls
And suckling cubs are my sacred prophecies of joy,
But also my desperate pleas as my body becomes
A place where my creations can no longer find succor.
Not emperors, not priests, not only high-born queens do I call.
Every human woman is my beloved delphyne. I created
You to hear and heal my cries of the world.

Poetry, writing, and all art are just one way that we are bound by ways of thinking that are so ingrained that we no longer realize that sometimes what we take as truth are really assumptions about the world that no longer serve us. Whether it is ideas about success, about who we should be and what makes life meaningful, about power and how decisions should be made and by whom or just about anything else, perhaps real change can only come by rebuilding our thought processes the same way we can reform how we write poems to better reflect the world as we see it and would like it to be in the future.

What new ways of thinking can you make come into being through your words or pictures or songs or dances?

Sister Circles Round and Round the Universe

To me, women’s circles are an essential part of our spirituality. We not only support one another in circle, but what happens in circles – whether formal planned circles for hundreds or quiet conversations between two or three over tea – is so often how spiritual transformations happen. It may be a chance word or idea, or the experience of being listened to, a shared transcendent moment, or something else that happens to be just what is needed at that second. It is the connections between us  that light the fires of inspiration and encourage the emergence of our best souls.

I believe it has always been so. In caves are indications of Paleolithic people engaging in spiritual practices together and among the oldest paintings and sculptures in the caves are images of women. Pictures of women doing religious dancing and other activities together abound throughout the ancient world. This importance of spiritual community among women also extends to other spheres. Women, in particular, seem to have always formed circles to work in, whether a quilting bee or jointly raising children or tilling a field. When women worked in family groups and lived in the same village all their lives, being part of lifelong circles would seem to be easy and make life easier, too.

As with humans, so it has been shown to also be true with other animals. Researchers have found that female animals who form close friendships with other female animals live longer, have better immune systems, and more successfully raise their children. This is true whether the animals are elephants, monkeys, mice and horses. Female animals watch out for each other’s young, groom each other (sort of like beauty salons in the wild), share food (potlucks!), protect one another, and do many of those things that human women do for one another. Sisterhood, not competition and violence, is the real Law of Nature and how life continues generation to generation.

As I have grown older, I have come to see myself less as one individual than as the center of a web of circles that make up my life and through which I touch and am touched by women from all over the world. I have my family circle of my sister, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, my cousin and other family members. I have a social group I have been chatting with for seven years. I have close work colleagues with whom I have lunch several times a year. I have women I have come to know through actual circles at a women’s spirituality organization I have been part of for more than a decade.

I have been thinking about my circles lately because they seem to be breaking up all around me. In the past three months, two of the ten or so members of my social group have died. I just learned that the women’s spirituality organization is closing its space and will have no more circle events there after this summer. I have spent much of the past few weeks feeling heartbroken at these losses.

I have come to realize how much harder it is to create and hold onto circles now than it was in the past. We switch jobs and move on or to another part of the country. Families are spread over the globe rather than living their whole lives within a mile or two. We are so busy with work and child responsibilities that we no longer have the time to spend over a cup of coffee around the kitchen table that even our mothers did. I think of all the years I did not spend enough time with other women who are now gone or who have scattered and I am deeply sad and regretful.

So, I wonder: how can we create and sustain circles in the 21st century? Part of the answer is embracing technology, I do believe. While I may see women in the neighborhood less than my mother or grandmother, I can now become friends and chat everyday with women across the world. In fact, my social group that has shared births, deaths, celebrations, illnesses, recipes, book recommendations, photos and vacation stories for seven years exists entirely online. Members live on other continents and have lives very different from mine, yet we meet almost daily and share the most essential aspects of our lives. These relationships – whether on messageboards, social media, or elsewhere — are not the same as meeting face to face every day but they are circles nonetheless with their own advantages.

Another way is to acknowledge and appreciate circles that may take place across time and space, beyond our usual concept of a circle as being a meeting of women at one particular location at a specific moment. The very first women’s spirituality  circle  event I attended was a healing circle with perhaps 30 women all chanting and meditating. At the end of the circle, the holder told us that the circle had been created and would always exist, that we need only remember and we would be part of a living entity. I have gone back in my mind many times to that evening and I do believe that what she said is true. When I think of that circle, I can feel it form around me.

Also, as family members and now my two friends have died, I have come to realize that love truly is eternal, that death is not an end, but a transformation. If I expand what I think of as a circle, I realize that I am still a part of many circles I thought had long ago died with those who were in them with me. Whatever one may believe about the afterlife, the love that made the circles does not disappear. I have also been part of circles that sent healing to women of the past and I do believe that they received our good energy and wishes.

Finally, I do believe that as long as we walk on the Earth, we are not without a circle. The Earth herself, as well as all her creatures that walk, fly, and swim on her are part of our circle. I have trees outside my house that are very old and stretch their branches into a canopy over our roof. When I stand in the middle of them, I feel the same sense of protection, caring, and inspiration that I do in circle.

Expanding our vision of the women’s circle is not only good for us, it is essential, I believe for other women and even our chances of having a real global future. When I bring the deep connection that I feel in circles to women across the world whose lives and plights are brought to me over the airwaves and internet, it is impossible to not want to help in a very personal way. At the same time, I benefit from hearing the wisdom in their stories of courage and faith. Truly, every woman anywhere in the world  is part of my larger circle. What affects her makes a difference in my life and whatever I do to make the lives of other women better creates a real spiritual benefit in mine because of how we are connected.

It is the same with the Earth. If we go beyond our scientific knowledge of climate change to a profound sense of sisterhood with the great creative soul of the planet we live on, we know what we need to do and can do it. Perhaps this is what is missing from the movements for social justice and environmental sanity when they seem to be moving too slowly – the same sense of sisterhood we feel when the woman sitting next to us tells us a traumatic memory she is sharing for the first time. If only everyone directed the same sense of sisterhood towards women we will never know and the planet on whom our lives depend.

We modern women are in the center of many, many circles if we will only see them. When I feel as if my circles are breaking up, I have only to look around me, to look up at the sky, to go inside my own mind and remember all the women I have known and who have loved me and who I have loved over my lifetime to find my true circles.

The next time you feel spiritually weary and in need of a circle that our 21st century world cannot produce, remember all the many circles of which you are a part at every moment. Think of yourself as the center stillpoint of millions of circles all spinning around you, sending you the love and guidance you need. Send that love and guidance back through all those circles in a never-ending pulse. Give thanks that our circles are always with us.


Find Yourself By Getting Lost

Exactly two years ago today I was given a great gift by a nun looking for the highway. It was the end of the day and the only people in the community center where I work were myself and two other staff people. We were discussing how December 18 is a difficult anniversary for each of us. Two of us had serious winter weather car accidents and another received a cancer diagnosis, all on December 18 of various years. We were wondering at the coincidence of that, and how it was good to have other people around us that day for support, when a nun in full habit came rushing in the door. She was “lost,” looking for a state road that is nearby, so we gave her directions and she ran out again, trying to beat the rush hour, holiday traffic. A moment later, the door opened and she came back in with a plastic bag fill with hundreds of small holy medals of the Virgin Mary. She gave each of us one and said, “These will protect you,” even though she knew nothing of what we had been discussing. We all still have them and December 18 has since been less a day about anxiety and more about how sometimes we are blessed by being the recipients of little miracles.

I have thought a lot about this concept of getting “lost” since then. I get lost a lot. In fact, put me behind the wheel of a car and it is as if I have been set down in the middle of a desert with no roads or signs. I can get lost driving down a road four blocks from my home if it is dark and I can’t see the houses to know where I am. I think it is easy to get lost in our world. We are always thinking of five other things as we travel. We rarely can just go slowly, taking in all that we see and experiencing it, getting ourselves oriented as we go. We must be always be somewhere to do something, and probably be three or four somewheres to do three or four different tasks each day.

When I looked for stories of goddesses getting lost in this way, I couldn’t find any. I did come across the stories of Isis and Demeter. Both suffered tremendous losses – Isis of her beloved Osiris and Demeter of her daughter Persephone. Both wandered in the throes of their grief, finally both becoming nursemaids to royal children in places they just happened to be. Both tried to give the babies in their charge the gift of immortality, and as a result, their goddess identities were revealed leading finally to the recovery of their lost loved ones.

It seems to me that the wandering of these goddesses had unexpected good endings because they were not wandering lost, but wandering as a reflection of who they were — goddesses in deep mourning. They weren’t wandering as the result of “doing” something  they were tasked with accomplishing but rather as the result of “being” who they were. When they happened across people whom they could serve, they were able to stop and stay long enough to help others and be assisted in return to find their loved ones.

The need to be constantly “doing” is, to my mind, a particularly insidious way that women have been kept from finding, expressing, and living their true natures and power. Only a few generations ago, it was considered morally dangerous for women not be constantly doing some household task because it was believed they would sin if they were not always sewing, mending, cooking, cleaning. Even today, the concept of the “supermom” or “superwife” or even “superemployee” is, to me, the same thing under a different name. It is said that 80% of the work in the world is done by women. Many of us are expected to do the equivalent of two or three jobs, spending endless hours at work and at home. How many of us don’t wake up in the middle of the night solving a problem or listing all the things we need to do the next day? And how are we supposed to find the time and energy to use our voices, create our masterpieces, change our world to suit the needs of all people when we are always chasing the end of our “to-do” list? No wonder we get confused and lost so often.

Maybe we can learn a different way of being lost from those goddesses and the nun. When we take the time to journey, truly be wherever we are, to be of service through gifts of ourselves, we are proclaiming our sacred nature. We diminish ourselves by always feeling that we are only worthy if we are going someplace to do work or even to rest so that we can accomplish something later. Wandering lost as Isis and Demeter did is a celebration of being the divine spirits who we are.

Over the years I have learned is that when I am lost, I shouldn’t stop, but rather just keep going and eventually I will find my way back to somewhere I know. Part of this is likely because the region where I live has two major highways in concentric circles with roads that inevitably lead to one or the other. But I also believe that there is a lesson to be learned.  You will get to where you think you are supposed to be eventually, but maybe your inner spirit has made a path for you that requires you to be elsewhere than where you think you are going. Maybe, like the goddesses and the nun, your great and destined work for that moment isn’t written in your weekly planner, but is to be found by stopping, looking around, and seeing what you need to do where you are.

I believe that the same principle holds for all of us together. While we have come a long way in the past couple of centuries, I don’t believe anyone would say that our world is the way we would ultimately like it to be. But, as a result, there are many compassionate tasks to be done and people to spend time with who we would never have met if life were perfect. As we find our way out of the chaos of our current world, let us be like Isis and Demeter and stop along the way, not where we always thought we were going, but not “lost” either.

Reveling in the Solstice

From mid- to late December, people from many times and places — from the ancient Hopi to classical Rome to medieval Europe– raucously reveled in a world turned upside down. For a few short days each year, everyone would sing and dance, mock the powerful and holy, and escape their cultural roles and responsibilities with merriment, play, and joyful abandon. As I begin to think about planning my family’s holidays, I consider how far from these wild and outrageous bacchanals are our sweet, sedate and maybe overly sane year-end celebrations.

Some of these older, unruly traditions have a distinctly sacred female face. According to John and Caitlin Matthews’ book, The Winter Solstice, among the deities celebrated at the Saturnalia during this time was the mother goddess Ops and the woodland goddess Strenia. One goddess especially associated with this time of year, however, is the Celtic Cailleach, The Queen of Winter, who received mid-winter sacrifices and offerings. Cailleach is a creator Goddess, ruler over earth and sky, who is able to transform herself from an old woman to a young woman as many times as she wishes. She is envisioned as a “hag,” wizened and wild, but also wise and powerful.

I wish I lived in a time and place where all normal activity stops and truly dissolute revelry is expected and encouraged at least once a year. Only two moments of my life come to mind that really qualify for this honor. One was in the 1980s, when my roommate and I marched in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade*. Another was about 10 years ago, when I attended a Goddess Gala that included a most amazing culminating evening festivity.

What made both of these memorable experiences a sacred revel was that they were not only about high-spirited joy and pleasure, but true enactments of stories of coming from winter’s desolation into a hard-won light. Life in the Village in the AIDS-stricken 1980s, as I remember it, sometimes seemed to be a daily litany of horrifying sickness and death of those who had been the most full of life, creativity, and soul. As I marched with the bands and dancers, I sensed that, for that one night, those around me were defying the fate that was stealing so much from them, declaring that their spirits would overcome mortality even if their bodies could not. Similarly, the element of the Goddess Gala that I remember most was meeting Kali (really a woman dressed as Kali of course) in the dark woods as we went in groups to the celebration. Each of us had to decide how we would get past her and on our way to the ceremonial bonfire. The only answer was to dance with her, to embrace our fears and revel in the wheel of life, death and rebirth, to come together, as we did an hour or so later, in spirals of women dancing for all the generations of women before us who could not dance or express who they truly were.

Maybe this sense of coming out of the darkness of the long nights into the light is what our Solstice seasonal celebrations are missing as we politely gather round dinner tables and trees and open gifts or even quietly wait for the Solstice sun. Perhaps we have forgotten how to truly welcome the light by giving ourselves over to song, dance, and revelry because we no longer allow ourselves to experience the essence of the deep nights, whether physically due to the omnipresence of electric lighting, or spiritually as our culture has grown ever more hesitant to look death and tragedy in the eye and confront it.

The Winter Solstice should be a time of great healing and renewal as we integrate into ourselves all that we have been through in the past year and get ready for light of the coming New Year. All over the world, chaotic creator goddesses from many traditions teach us that the only way to truly be reborn is experience and acknowledge the sorrow in our lives and face our fears. When we dance and sing from pure joy of living in the face of heartache and loss, we can bring all that is best in us to transform winter’s hardship into the light of hope and wholeness. Is it any wonder that so many of the wrathful creator goddesses like Kali and Durga are envisioned in dancing revelry? Or that both the Greek Demeter and Shinto Goddess Amaterasu were coaxed by bawdy songs and laughter into bringing springtime back to the world that they had plunged into barren winter?

This holiday Solstice season, even if I do not revel as I once did, I will honor Cailleach and all the reveling Goddesses  and think of them when I see the lights on my tree or in the bright winter sky. When I look into the eyes of friends, family, and strangers around me, I will try to remember the long, gloomy  nights they have overcome to gather at these quiet celebrations with me. And maybe I will find just one truly outrageous, riotous and completely inappropriate act to do each day.


*In case anyone is wondering, my roommate went as the Doctor in Dr. Who, circa Tom Baker, and I was Sarah Jane.

Chaos-to-Go: Life as a Holy Speck in an Infinite Messiness

First published in Moondance, March 21, 2011

When spring arrives in New England, every acre burgeons into chaos as millions of spores and microscopic one-celled wonders, plants, fungi, animals, and birds emerge from an icy sleep into manic activity. Every year I marvel at this emergence of boundless life for a week or two until precise patterns of rivers and fields take shape. I experienced very much the same joy and astonishment when I first felt my unborn son move, when I realized that another being had somehow come into existence in the midst of the everyday disorder of my ordinary life. Surely these miracles cannot be, but they are.

Over this winter, I read books about the latest mathematical and scientific discoveries. With the world in its uncertain state, I sought sure, simple, and unchangeable truths. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that in the thirty years since I studied these subjects in college, the chaos of spring and rebirth has overtaken the orderly and mechanical perspectives of Euclid and Newton.

Chaos theory is, as I understand it, a view that the universe is incomprehensibly complex and its elements are deeply inter-connected. The theory was developed to explain seemingly random occurrences, like a surprise snow squall on a cloudless day. The most famous example is the “butterfly effect” in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world begins a series of occurrences that lead to a tsunami on the other side.

The theory has been applied to just about everything from the weather to human behavior. By using chaos theory as a new way to look at the world, we can see our actions as the result of uncountable preceding events that have tremendous effect on our own future and on those of others as their consequences reverberate through time and space.

Chaos is not new. In fact, the idea of chaos is ancient and, in many traditions, is envisioned as a woman, or, more precisely, a goddess. In this perspective of old, chaos is not disorder, but is, instead, the primordial great void, the boundless and unformed infinity that existed before creation of the physical world. To the Greeks, chaos was called Gaia, both before and after she formed herself into the Earth, stars, planets, and all that exists. Other cultures had different names for her. In this worldview, it would make sense that the physical manifestation of the spiritual vision of Gaia is a “chaotic” interconnected, complex web of everything that exists because all comes from and ultimately is Gaia.

In the totality of my life thus far, I see myself as a nexus of innumerable past events, most of which I considered to have little importance. Perhaps one line of occurrences started when I was twelve. A book fell off a library shelf into my hands which then sparked my continuing interest in mysticism. This fascination led to more books and, thirteen years later, to a lecture by Merlin Stone, where I was introduced to ancient goddess-centered religions. Another twenty years and hundreds of related events later, Stone’s presentation resulted in my volunteering to help with a women’s spirituality magazine. There I met a woman whose Internet journalism skills brought me to Moondance, which lead to your reading of this column. It is so comforting to think of ourselves and our lives not as isolated fragments, but rather as indispensable elements of a larger, meaningful whole.

For me the deepest experience of chaos is motherhood. My son recently began applying to colleges. This is supposed to be a deterministic, regimented, non-chaotic process of gathering data and sending it off in hopes for acceptance to a school that will increase one’s chances for lifelong material and personal success. As I read his list of achievements and essays about influential people in his life, the unique grown up who my son has become emerged before my eyes.

Suddenly I saw threads of interests and talents that began almost at birth. When pulled together, they define my son and seem to indicate what the next step of his life should be. This never would have happened had we not approached this academic exercise by welcoming the holistic disorder and unexpected delights of chaos.

As the most active mothering phase of my life ends, I must reset my course. At one time I would have this entailed distressing, life-changing transformations. Now I know that I only have to twist slightly in whatever direction catches my fancy to renew my life and maybe even someone else’s. Reading a book with an eye-catching title may cause me to embark on a new career. Buying a fair trade scarf may bring the few dollars needed to a women’s cooperative so that it can finish building a school that might educate a future leader. I am relieved, inspired, and liberated to see that each day’s actions need not be rare and monumental to be profoundly important. I do not have to somehow become a saint or celebrity or best-selling author for my years on Earth to be worthwhile; I can simply be my best self, and that is enough.

Tonight, if the sky is clear, go outside and look at the stars. Feel the ground beneath your feet and contemplate how the soil holds the relics of the years of life on this planet before your birth. Keep your eyes on the stars that will shine on everyone who will come after you. Understand your essential place in the universe is the result of a nearly infinite number of occurrences over billions of years. But also know that you are the contributor of an additional immeasurable number of great things to come. Savor this most precious moment of the universe’s messy, energetic, delightful, and most beautiful chaos, for who knows what it may bring.

Inviting Goddess to Your Tea Party

We all know how heavenly tea is, but even from ancient times it has had a mist of sacredness about it. And in all the years the teapot has symbolized the sacred in women’s everyday lives on this blog, I have never written about the close connection between goddesses and tea.  So, as the chilly early spring winds swirl around outside, make yourself a cup of your favorite tea and learn some goddess and tea lore.

Walk into any fine tea shop and you will find Quan Yin tea, a Chinese oolong tea.  Quan Yin, also spelled Kuan Yin, as you may know, is a bodhisattva of compassion, “she who hears the cries of the world.” Her story is that she became enlightened and was about to enter into Nirvana, but was so moved by the suffering of other beings that she vowed to remain in this world until all beings had become enlightened. You can see Quan Yin in the photo above.

No one knows exactly how the tea came to be named after her, but I especially love the story that a poor farmer, a Mr. Wei, was despairing that her temple near him was rundown and in disrepair.  He was led to a small plant. Mr. Wei cultivated it and became so prosperous that he was able to rebuild Quan Yin’s temple and named the plant’s tea after her.

In India, Tulsi is an herbal tea known as “holy basil” with myriad physical and mental health benefits. Besides its use as a tea, tulsi leaves are also hung in homes to promote purity, peace, and harmony.  Tulsi is considered to be divine in itself, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, who has come to Earth as the basil plant to benefit all humanity.  One of my favorite teas pairs tulsi with lavender.

The abundant mint is not only a wonderful tonic and delightful tasting tea, but has its own goddess story.  Mentha was a Greek goddess who was turned into the mint plant by Persephone, the wife of Hades, because of her husband’s love of Mentha.

Not surprisingly, herbs in general have many goddesses or female spirits associated with them. Airmed, an Irish goddess mourned her brother and, when she buried him, all the world’s herbs sprung from his grave and instructed her in their use.  Circe, who lived on an island, tested out her herbal potions on the sailors shipwrecked on her shores. The Buschfrauen of central Europe were delightfully wild women spirits who lived in bands in the woods and might let their herbal secrets be coaxed out of them. There are many, many other stories associating herbs with female divinity – these are just some of the ones I enjoy the most.

The process of making tea is, in itself, a kind of ritual.  You put water in a pot made of earth, heat it with the element of fire, then watch as the steam escapes into the air, and you are left with a transformed magically healing brew. Of course, the formal Japanese tea ceremony expresses this sacredness of tea perfectly. In fact, part of the ceremony honors yet another goddess, Huchi-Fuchi, a goddess of fire.

So, the next time you are seeking a way to bring sacredness into your everyday life, or to express your gratitude for the many mysteries and wonders of this beautiful earth we live on, or experience the healing powers of goddess, why not make your own tea ritual?  As you pour the water into the teakettle, think of Sedna, Yemaya, or any of the other many goddesses associated with oceans, rivers, or water.  When you turn on your stove, honor fire goddesses like Pele or hearth goddesses like Hestia.  As you ready your teapot, feel its solidity and be reminded of all we are given by our Earth goddesses like Gaia or Coatlicue.  When you put in your tea, thank goddesses of the land where it was grown.  As the steam rises, send up on it gratitude to air or wind goddesses like Kanuga.  When you finally have your cup of tea in your hand, thank yourself for all you have done today and know you deserve these moments of peace and enjoyment.

By the way, to find out more about these and other goddesses you may wish to add to your tea ritual, consult any of the many books that describe the world’s goddesses.  My favorite is Patricia Monaghan’s New Book of Goddesses and Heroines both for its comprehensiveness and because it has a wonderful index in the back listing various symbols, like the elements, stages of life, etc., and the goddesses associated with them.

Beauty’s Revolution in a Rose

This first appeared in Moondance in  Summer, 2010.

A shoot rises from the wet, fertile-scented earth, crisply green and strong. Soon exuberant pink, in the shape of the sun, bursts from the stalk. The bloom does not live to be admired; it is simply perfect, as are all the flowers, grasses, and ivies that gloriously come forth around it in their mustardy glow and wandering curiosity. And so beauty grows in a field in northern Michigan.

Every summer for four decades, I have vacationed in a cabin across from a field that is home to grass, poison ivy, and dirty golden wildflowers, except for one year only. One August, a single wild rose bloomed all alone in a corner of the field. It was the only patch of florist-bouquet color there and the lone wild rose I could find in the area except for a sister flower on a resort island ten miles away. That island is renowned for its bountiful, well-mannered gardens, but it is the field’s single wild rose that I have remembered all these years.

The acre’s placid calm belies the ecological stresses that make its naturally rocky soil and short growing season even more inhospitable. It is bounded by barren rocky roads and neighboring sections clear cut for lumber or hunting. Alien species are driving out native plants and wildlife, upsetting the balance upon which many species depend. Increasingly unpredictable weather threatens the growing seasons and water cycles.

Yet the wild rose’s seed still traveled to this field and made it home. Though the rose might have grown bigger and had more blooms in the island’s better fertilized and coddling home, I found the flower’s blossoming ecstasy richer for its determination to grow wherever it had landed. Years later, that thought has remained with me and has played a role in how I view life. I am surrounded by a kind of beauty that, like the wild rose, buds and blooms from the soil of conflict and heartbreak.

As I write, I listen to melodic and graceful traditional Tibetan music created to bring its listeners peaceful contentment while the singer’s culture at home is under siege. The women from the previously warring tribes of Rwanda joined into one community to support their families by making the colorful and whimsically shaped basket that sits on my file cabinet. Only weeks ago, Haitian women and men who lost everything in the earthquake still sang their national anthem as they lay injured in tent hospitals.

When I open my mind and my memory even more, I see that the beauty of the wild rose not only persists in the face of desolation but also can be a gift of liberating power when we feel most empty-handed. In the 1980s, I was in my early twenties and lived near Greenwich Village. As AIDS devastated so many lives in my neighborhood, funerals became part of daily life among friends and work colleagues. For years, the residents of the Village have held a massive Halloween parade. One year, as I watched a jazz band dance down the street, as vibrantly costumed marchers laughed and sang, as flowers flew and onlookers cheered, I realized that every other day, the community fought and mourned but that on this day, the community was defying death with music and dance and color. The loud, joyful message was clear: you may ravage our bodies, but you will never defeat our spirits.

The beauty of the wild rose is eternal. That moment at the parade has become a part of my thoughts and words for the past twenty-five years even though many of the marchers are long gone. Just as the grace of Tibetan culture has brought the plight of one small country into the headlines, lovely baskets travel across the world from Rwanda rather than hate, and the singing of the Haitian people will define the Haitian spirit all over the world long after Port-au-Prince is rebuilt.

The beauty of the wild rose is not judgmental. It does not say, “this being is beautiful and this one is not.” Rather, it celebrates each individual. Have you ever seen an ugly rose? Even when they shrivel and turn brown, a poignant, delicate artistry in the withered petals can still be found. All of the plants in the field seem beautiful once I release the labels “weed” and “flower“ from my vocabulary. And if each plant is uniquely exquisite, is it not the same with us also?

Most of our days are not lived in catastrophe, though. So what would my daily life be like if I and the rest of the world truly believed in the power of a lasting beauty that gives courage and celebrates each being and the earth? Every morning I would look in the mirror and appreciate that the increasing softness of my aging face makes me look so much more welcoming than I did when I was young. I would go to my human services job and none of the people who come for help would be in my office as the result of discrimination; none of them would have been abused and abandoned by their families. On my commute from work, I’d see only elegant buildings in every neighborhood and pristine landscapes instead of gray brick factories and piles of trash. I would never worry that the flooding of the rivers I pass on the train is part of a long-term ecological pattern but would, instead, merely enjoy the view.

I have never known these experiences, but I am sure my life would be far different from the one I live now. We all have an image of what a world lived under the rule of beauty could be, for almost every utopia imagined places this powerful vision of beauty where selfish coercion resides in our own world. It is there for us and within us, but perhaps we just don’t believe in it enough to give away the security of thinking the way we always have, even when doing so threatens our own well being and that of the earth.
A wild rose blooms in northern Michigan. As trees are felled around it, as the earth heats around it, as invasive purple loosestrife inches nearer to it, a wild rose blooms in northern Michigan. It is a beacon of beauty, a light to another world, a slight jar in the door out of desolation so that it does not slam shut on goodness and beauty and peace. Beauty is a revolution waiting for all of us, every day.

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