Archive for the ‘winter solstice’ Tag

Solstice Season 2020

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My friend B’s sauna stove — fire in midwinter, fire of midsummer.

Light balancing north and south, nights and days in their interchange, sleep and waking and the opportunities during each for connection and discovery. May we hear the earth speaking, may the Ancestors alive in us show us the good paths, may each encounter give us space to practice our hard-earned wisdom.

French Visitors

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A burst of over 50 views from France so far today! Bienvenus, mes amis! Que les benedictions soient! A quick comment on any post is helpful — something you’re looking for, or would like to see more about in the posts here? Please let me know!

Winter and Summer Solstices

That time again … The solstices, winter and summer, are just a little over a week away. Our solstices — let’s claim them, not as something we “possess”, but as intervals and energies that embrace and sustain us. Alban Arthan, Alban Hefin [links to short posts on the OBOD Druidry.org site], the names OBOD uses for Winter and Summer Solstices, are often rendered respectively as the “Light of Arthur” and the “Light of the Shore”.

You can find some of my previous posts on Solstice here, for both Winter and Summer seasons. First, a three-part series from last winter, December 2019: Gifts of Solstice 1 | 2 | 3.

Flaming toward Solstice looks at the lead-up to our Vermont Summer 2019 celebration, and then there’s this  post of mostly images from that celebration. 13 Gift Day Flames for Solstice Solitaries offers practices for either Solstice. Days of Solstice can also apply to both seasons. 19 Ways to Celebrate Summer Solstice is pretty self-explanatory. But while focused on summer, it also suggests practices adaptable to winter.

Ritual of Installation of a New Chosen Chief

Solitaries, ritualists, O.B.O.D.-friendly Druids and anyone interested in ritual surrounding a transition of leadership in Druid Orders may find the recent OBOD installation of Eimear Burke worth time spent with this 25-minute Youtube audio-only recording. Close your eyes as the introduction suggests to increase your attention and you may gain additional insight from that focus.

Welcome, Eimear, and blessings to Philip for his 30+ years of service and leadership.

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Gifts of Solstice, Part 3

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

Much of what I write here is inward-facing. Writing’s a core component of my spiritual practice. For me it’s a vital means of discovery, of turning over an experience or perspective until — often enough to keep me going — it falls into place, takes on a new aspect once it gets put in words, gains a solidity or heft that lets me examine it more clearly, or links up with daily events, the weather, the experience of wearing skin, conversations, dreams, things Others are communicating as they go about their varied lives. Words through these short days and long nights, words that at least sometimes prove useful to you as well, a solstice gift.

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to the west, across the road from our living room window

Tonight my wife and I included among our celebrations of Solstice one event we’ve attended for several years running. A local church hosts ‘Into the Silence’, inviting a duo called Coracle to play Celtic-themed music and recorded natural soundscapes like whale-calls, birdsong, coyotes, or — like tonight — “owls with sleet falling”. The music alternates with periods of silence. There’s no introduction or closing, no announcements, in fact no human voices at all, beyond a few whispers, and some creaks from the wooden pews, velcro fasteners and zippers opening as participants settle in. The only illumination comes from a score of candles on the altar that a congregant lights at the beginning, and from a solitary Christmas tree trimmed with tiny white bulbs. In some ways it’s ideal “Druid Church”. The possibility of spiritual encounter feels larger without words.

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Now that my wife has finally recovered from a bout of food poisoning, she’s back in her weaving studio. This morning when I went out to start a fire there, the thermometer on the wall read 29 F / -2 C. Considering the last few nights have been below 0 F / -18 C, that’s heartening. It also turned out to be a sunny day, which helped the stove to get indoor temps up to a more comfortable range, so she could work for some hours on her warp.

The pleasure of kindling a fire in the house each day all winter, with a second one in the studio some days, sweeping ash, chopping wood, never diminishes for me. Yes, some mornings like this one, I’m shivering as I begin it, and sometimes the wood takes a while longer than usual to lift the stoves into the most efficient zone where they can burn hot and clean, but the work itself answers the effort.  (If you only let her, Brighid blesses it.) As Thoreau quips in Walden,

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.

Warmth, a direct connection between labor and result, recovery from illness, sunlight, outside air and snow both cold and dry enough that the coverlet of white powders off when I bang each log against the pile. Pleasures of solstice — gifts, all of them. And when we returned an hour ago from the solstice celebration of music and silence, a sky dotted with the distant fires of stars.

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Gifts of Solstice, Part II

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

Solstice — sometimes called the “world’s oldest holiday” …

Arthur, the “Christmas King”, because according to some traditions like those established by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Medieval bestseller” Historia Regum Britanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain) and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur’s birth (or death) takes place on Christmas, just as his coronation (and wedding to Guinevere) take place at Pentecost. Alban Arthan, one name for the winter solstice — the “Light of Arthur”, as it’s sometimes translated.

A multitude of holiday carols, because there are plenty, whether or not you’re Christian, to sing and celebrate the season. Like some kind of hemispheric fanboy, I can never resist the Australian adaptation of Christmas to summertime temperatures and kangaroos (“boomers”) rather than reindeer, in the form of Rolf Harris’s 1960 holiday song “Six White Boomers“, with its chorus (according to some versions):

Six white boomers, snow white boomers,
racing Santa Claus through the blazing sun.
Six white boomers, snow white boomers,
on his Australian run.

(This gives the silly, snarky meme “OK, boomer” a whole new feel.)

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time of the Oak and Holly kings/image courtesy learnreligions.com

The battle between Holly King and Oak King. (Brothers, enemies, both needed for balance. According to some accounts, they’re servants of the goddess Arianrhod, with the vanquished king retiring to the astral plane until his opposite, victorious solstice.)

Blended traditions that tell how the crown of thorns Christ wore to his crucifixion, and the Cross itself, were both made from the holly. The “rising of the sun” and the “running of the deer” in the ancient carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”:

 

Antiphony’s gorgeous and light-hearted version of Kim Baryluk’s “Solstice Carol” (and the Wyrd Sisters’ meditative version):

 

Contrasts. Nowhere in the year is there such a contrast between light and dark, hot and cold — whether you’re on the eve of Summer Solstice and the Long Light, or the Winter, and the Long Dark.

Solstice gifts, all of these.

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Gifts of Solstice, Part 1

[Updated 1 July 2020]

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

If we change just one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words (“longest”) in The Great Gatsby, he has Daisy Buchanan, that quintessential summer person, exclaim, “Do you always watch for the shortest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the shortest day of the year and then miss it”. (Those of you in the southern hemisphere can take your Gatsby solstice straight up, summery, and un-revised.)

Because the “Great Eight” festivals of the calendar are worth remembering, let’s not “miss it”, but watch and celebrate the shortest day.

A day the whole planet shapes is one of the gifts of solstice.

Older festivals, and revived ones, acknowledge the otherworldly aspect of the season. The central European tradition of Krampus as the alter ego and companion of St. Nicholas balances the season with a parade of gruesome and frightening figures.

 

Likewise, the Welsh custom of wassailing with Mari Lwyd, the “Grey Mare”, is equal parts festive and otherworldly. Here’s one of the traditional Welsh songs, “Mari Lwyd”, by Carreg Lafar:

 

The first lines announce the wassailers:

Here we come
Dear friends
To ask permission to sing …

And here’s a very impromptu and lively short clip of outdoor singers and answering singers indoors:

 

We can say that such human responses to the seasonal change are another gift of the solstice.

The third gift is the monuments that cultures and civilizations have built worldwide to mark and commemorate the seasons — especially the solstices and equinoxes. Standing stone complexes like Stonehenge, menhirs, passage tombs like Newgrange, earthworks like Serpent Mound, and so on all celebrate and commemorate a planetary event many have long recognized as significant.

Here’s a 2013 video of the creation and lighting of a labyrinth made from 2500 tea-lights at the Holy Cross Church in Frankfurt am Main, Germany:

 

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Listening to Inwardness–3: Labyrinth

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

Beneath the snow, the holly — 
behind the clouds, the sun …

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Where the verse is going, I have no idea. I’m still listening for the rest of it.

I like how the tiny red holly berries in this photo from yesterday morning are barely visible under the light dusting of snow, but also how once you see one or two, you start to see lots of them. Living as I do in New England and enjoying our glorious winters, I’ll still readily admit to a special fondness for things that stay green all year …

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In Part One of this series, I observed:

If one mythic image for the Summer Solstice is Stonehenge on Salisbury plain — “in the eye of the sun” — a corresponding image for Winter Solstice is the passage tomb of Newgrange, deep in the earth.

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440 BCE coin from Knossos — Wikipedia image

For most of us, a solstice visit to Newgrange in Ireland isn’t in the works this season, but a ready and powerful alternative — one native to the whole planet, really — is the labyrinth.

Working with the labyrinth can parallel the inwardness that places like Newgrange invite us to experience.

[The Wikipedia entry at the link in the previous sentence deals with the double meaning and usage of the word. The Cretan labyrinth associated with the minotaur — the deadly monster at the center — is actually a maze, intended to bewilder those who enter and cause them to lose their way at the very least, if not get eaten. “Amazed” is originally confused. But as the entry goes on to note, many even early representations of that most famous of labyrinths were unicursal — not really mazes at all. Instead, like the coin image to the left, they have a single course or path — one way in, and one out. You can’t get lost.

It’s as if the deeper symbol overtook the old story of Theseus, Ariadne and the monster, or ignored it. The labyrinth is not a trap, then, but becomes an image of return, rebirth, a “there and back again” experience that a certain Hobbit would recognize immediately.]

It’s this labyrinth, the classic “seven-path” version, that I want to explore here*, in part for the value of the number seven and its associations.

Walking the labyrinth has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects. Much of the evidence is admittedly anecdotal and needs further study. But the one thing that is clear from the experience of many people is that as a meditative experience, walking a labyrinth can induce a profound state of centeredness and re-equilibration. Much like the parallel and balanced movements of tai-chi, movement through the labyrinth consists of alternating directions, whether moving out from within, or in from the outside.

3-2-1-Seq-crpIf we number the pathways in order from outside to the center, we get a diagram like this. Whether the labyrinth opens right or left, the sequence of pathways is the same: 3214765. (In addition to forming a pleasing musical sequence if the notes are matched up 1C 2D, etc., on the C-scale, many other associations are possible. Chakras … Tarot cards … I leave this to you as a series of meditations to explore.)

The steps to draw a labyrinth are simple, once you learn the “seed” or starting design for the figure.

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The picture above is taken from Mid-Atlantic Geomancy, where you can also find the seeds to draw three-, eleven- and fifteen-path labyrinths. (Once you learn one, you’ll see how the others follow organically.) I also wanted to include a picture with the name Jeff Saward (link to pic and brief bio), because he has done so much valuable work on labyrinths over the decades.

Here’s a Youtube video suitable for kids on how to draw a seven-path labyrinth. It incidentally also illustrates how even drawing the figure can have a meditative quality:

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*In recent decades, in case you happened not to notice, there’s been a revival of interest in labyrinths. New Age authors have seized on the labyrinth as a form of “spiritual technology”. Churches as well as parks, and growth-and-retreat centers, offer labyrinth walks and meditations. You can find permanent ones made from wood, green hedges, stone, sea-shells, and other more unusual substances, as well as portable ones made of tea-lights, or painted on canvas that can be unrolled for use, and then rolled back up and stored or carried to a new location. The World-wide Labyrinth Locator can help you find some of the more permanent ones in your region.

Listening to Inwardness–1

[Part One | Part TwoPart Three | Part Four]

Now that we’re nearing the month-away point for the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice in the southern half of the world, it repays listening to inwardness, to meditate on shapes and images for these two planetary and spiritual events.

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Here in a picture is near-solstice light, solstice darkness, light snow dusting our backyard, looking approximately southeast, earlier this morning. In this picture, of course, it’s our back shed that hides the morning star, but on a larger scale, the planet itself blocks the sun, till time moves us back into the light.

If one mythic image for the Summer Solstice is Stonehenge on Salisbury plain — “in the eye of the sun” — a corresponding image for Winter Solstice is the passage tomb of Newgrange, deep in the earth. Till time moves us back into the light. At both summer and winter turning points, the Light still shines. We just see it differently, one in plain day, the other in hidden night, the waking and sleeping of the awen-self, creative always, but often in different modes. You can feel the winter-you drowsing, while the summer-you longs to be up and doing. Sometimes you sense the tug between the two right down in your sinews and bones.

I’ve posted here before of our local Vermont stone chambers, and of Ohio’s Serpent Mound — the serpent power alive in things —  in us, too, as one of those things, willing at intervals to shed its skin and be reborn. We can feel such restlessness in us at each turn of the planet, each shift of the sun.

As J. M. Greer observes in his Mystery Teachings from the Sacred Earth,

Everything in existence exists and functions on one of several planes of being or is composed of things from more than one plane acting together as a whole system.  These planes are discrete, not continuous, and the passage of influence from one plane to another can take place only under conditions defined by the relationship of the planes involved.

This isn’t some kind of Druid theology, of course. It’s not dogma, not something to be swallowed simply because an authority says the words. But it is a valuable experiential observation one person has made and presented to others, something to be explored, poked and prodded, unpacked and tried on to see if it fits usefully or not.

Participation in ritual can help set up those conditions that allow “the passage of influence from one plane to another”. So, too, can personal practice. I can invite such passage by making one out of my days: marking out a dedicated period of inner and outer work, hallowing it with attention and intention.

As above, so below; as within, so without: if I make and mark a dedicated passage of days to mirror and invite a specific passage of influence from one plane to another, what will happen?

Want to try it out with me?

Stay tuned.

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13 Gift-Day-Flames for Solstice-Solitaries

… that you can give to yourself and others. Many of these are simple, elemental — as they can and may be, needing nothing beyond what we have already. If not one flame coming as a gift, then welcome another. Try one a day for all 13, or choose one or more according to a rhythm that makes sense to you. If a nudge should come to try something else, ah, nurture it for what it can be. Flame sparks flame, light reflects light.

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recent mid-December dawn over our roof

Silence. What needs stillness? Find even a brief moment where you can give yourself quiet, if not silence. What flows from that interval? The flame of silence flares when we tend it, and dies back down to embers when we turn up our internal and external volumes. There’s healing in stillness, often because we can finally hear what we’ve been missing, as well as what we can give that we overlooked. Stillness brings a kind of space and light all its own.

Sound. What needs a voice? Music, the human voice, instruments, a happy dog barking, a cat purring, a child’s laughter. These too are gifts to cherish and celebrate. What do I have that I can say, what can I contribute to the conversation? What can I start (or continue) saying that I haven’t said before? What other voices can I listen to and help be heard?

Light. What needs illumination? The Festival of the Returning Sun that is Solstice means the days will begin to grow longer again after this Saturday. We may notice the lengthening more in mid-January, at least in the Northeastern U.S., with the cold, clear days that bespeak deep winter. What’s lighting up for me now? What can I help light up for others?

Ritual. What needs to be celebrated and made more conscious in my life? The smallest things may be asking and answering. Lighting a candle, or a fire. Bathing in a tub for a change, instead of showering (go all out with candles — or bathe in the light of a single flame). Sharing a meal. Watching a video together. Singing a favorite song. Wandering somewhere, off the clock, without a destination.

Kindling. What needs to catch fire? Think kindling as both the action and the materials for it. Go wide — be metaphorical, too. In addition to paper and twigs, think art of all kinds. Sketchbooks, fine paper and pens, glorious fabrics, seed catalogs. Parts, supplies, cleared spaces for projects. Plans, hopes, dreams.

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Mistletoe in silver birch. Photo courtesy Chris Miksic.

Prayer. What needs asking and acknowledgement? Wordless is fine. Asking is a good part of prayer, and there are many other prayers. Gratitude is powerful prayer. Linked with silence, it can become a dedicated daily practice. Or try out words. “Let my prayer rise like incense” says Psalm 141: “… the lifting up of my hands like evening sacrifice”. Find a verse or lyric, song or poem and let it be your prayer. Listen for the prompts everywhere: other people’s words, advertising jingles, casual remarks, a headline, a child’s question, the wordless eyes of animals, the “slow gestures of trees”, as UK LeGuin called them.

Service. What and who do I serve already? Can I build on that? Where are new forms of service looking for me? Who is serving me already that I can acknowledge? I start small, and the list grows. Dropping off a meal to a shut-in. Shoveling a driveway. Serving myself, saying “no” when I need time and space.

Change. What can I help be born? What is seeking to emerge? How can I help shape it? What can I let go of in my life, so that a new thing can find birth? What can I welcome that’s arriving?

Contact. What needs touching? Is it me? What can I invite to touch me? If I don’t have human presences, are there animals who enjoy touching and be touched? What can I bring into connection that’s separate right now? What parts of my life deserve to meet each other, and would flourish if they did?

Reading. What deserves my attention? It may be an actual book, of course, a collection of poems on my altar, or a beloved book from childhood that I can make a ritual of re-reading myself, or sharing with others. (And dogs and cats can make good listeners for this, too.) It may be things I’ve been noticing in my life. What am I reading in my life, in others’ lives, in the world, in my dreams, that wishes to offer guidance?

Memory. What can I recall? What deserves forgetting, letting go? What can I bless, regardless of where it’s going? What scrapbooks, physical or inward, do I turn over, or revisit? What does memory offer that I can enrich my life with today? Sorting the mix we all have, setting aside some images (burning them?), while keeping others, blessing all, a second time. And a third. What can I add to my store of memory? What memories deserve sharing with others? What memories do others have that also touch on my life? What memories can I honor that have little or nothing to do with me? What memories does this elm have, that hickory? Let me honor them.

Nourishment. What needs feeding? Is it for me to feed them, or for someone else? How have I been fed? What forms of nourishment can I bring into my life? What am I bringing in already? What forms can I share with others? What prayer of gratitude can I say, acknowledging those gone, those still here, for feeding things in me that might never have survived without their help?

Freedom. What needs to run free? What do I hold on to that would make both of us happier if I let go? What can I welcome that comes to me freely, unbidden, unlooked-for? What symbols of freedom speak to me that I can bring into my attention, my spaces, as reminders and for my growth?

As Mary Oliver exclaims in one of her poems, “so many questions more beautiful than answers”.

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Days of Solstice

On the first day of Solstice, the Goddess said to me …

I go looking for words, sometimes, to make do for deeds. But as I practice over these short midwinter days, as I celebrate them — the same thing, if I hold space for the desire to make it so — I find words coming both before and after the actions.

Slowly I start looking for guidance in more places, rather than shutting it down before it ever has a chance to reach me, wing of a bird-thought across the cheek, merest touch of feather-feeling brushing away dullness and lighting the heart to wonder, if I don’t turn away out of fear, or doubt, or — worst of all — busy-ness. Guest-guidance, I might call it, the stranger knocking, briefest word from a passer-by, bird across the sky, squirrel darting over the drifts in the backyard, woolly-bear caterpillar sluggish in the cold, clinging to the wood I carry in for the fire. Two fires today, for main house and weaving studio.

Josephine McCarthy wryly remarks, “Most of the jobs of a magician [I substitute “person” here, my fellow magicians, readers all] are about restoring balance — very simple, very unglamorous and not very useful if you want to get laid or have a new car”*. Gods know we need re-balancing almost everywhere. We’ve got our work cut out for the new year.

I reach for a natwanpi, lovely Hopi word, “instrument of preparation”, tool or implement or aid. [Go here for a post from 5 months back that talks a little about natwanpi.] For my wife, often, her natwanpi-of-the-moment is in the kitchen, whisk or blender or saute-pan. Much of her magic is a love of cooking, paired with an exquisite sense of taste that can detect herbs and spices in almost anything we eat, from our own kitchen or another’s. Other natwanpis at hand? Her looms, her warping mills, her heddles and stocks of fiber. And further out: her gift for friendship, her generosity. A wide and rich palette, a set of living natwanpi she cares for and delights in and deploys regularly.

I reach for a natwanpi, so many of them it’s an embarrassment of riches, though a bout of melancholy or seasonal affective disorder or depression can seem to raid memory of the treasure-house and make me forget or deny all I have to draw on. Google “natwanpi” and images come up from this blog, a hint of what I carry around, but also of what we each have our own versions of, and that’s just the treasure-house of images. Add in memories of people, places, animals, experiences that rest in other senses, smell and touch, sound and emotion.

McCarthy writes:

My deepest personal experience of that is with the lighting and tuning of the candle flame. The intent to light a candle to prepare the space for a ritual act developed from that simple stance, to an act of bringing into physical manifestation an elemental expression that lights through all worlds and all times: it becomes the light of divinity within everything (Magical Knowledge, pg. 70).

IMG_1936Or what seems almost the opposite to flame: I reach for a stone to hold in hand, door to memory, cool to the touch, scented with earth and mud and time, piece of the planet in my palm. The same, not the same: I build our house- or studio-fire, humming quietly to Brighid, the path of the act of building the fire paralleling the path the fire itself takes through the wood. I kindle, but whether it’s my spirit or the wood that’s burning starts to matter less: it’s both.

Oh, how to say these things we all know so intimately, yet often lack the words for? How to get at them? Much of magic is activating what and who we are already, what sloughs off with time if not renewed, what we can re-ignite with intention and love.

Or this, appropriately enough from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale: “Thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born”. What he doesn’t say is this: they’re the same things. What’s different is me.

Here for you is a spark of Solstice light: the vocal group Antiphony, singing “Solstice Carol”:

And here’s the original version by the Weird Sisters — some slight difference in lyrics and arrangment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T0i4akX5a8

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*McCarthy, Josephine. Magical Knowledge Book 1: Foundations. Mandrake of Oxford, 2012, pg. 57.

 

Oddments and Evenments

A 4:34 video of the recent Gulf Coast Gathering by M. Fowler:

C. S Lewis titles a chapter in his book Mere Christianity “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”, and there are many such clues. Much of spirituality consists in looking and listening long enough to perceive them.

Rather than a set of don’t’s, a livable spirituality consists mostly of do’s, if only because they give us a path of action rather than avoidance. Do try out what you’ve learned, do love other beings, do test your understanding of the universe against the universe itself and see where you can improve what you do, if only for the pure pleasure of the doing. Do watch for patterns and spirals, do celebrate when you can, because much passes by, never to return. Do drink deep, because with or without you, life keeps brewing marvels.

Love and timing: two powerful ways to live which — combined — work even better. Each is a mode of dancing with life, rather than resisting it. Feel the sway of your lover’s back, note the slight change in pressure of your lover’s arms, and be ready to move on into the next steps. Part and return, part and return again. These bodies wear out anyway. Why darken the changes with unneeded stress, violence and worry?

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In a post from late 2014 I invoked Brid and Ogma for a tongue, and over time received a set of them, Hurundib and Fizaad and Hodjag Rospem, among them conlangs for my fiction, as well as impetus for my Facebook group that practices Old English and among other things right now is reading Peter Baker’s Old English translation of Alice in Wonderland/Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande.

Ask, and it shall be given — just usually not in the limited way I’ve set up. Make my parameters too narrow, in fact, and I effectively shut off the very thing I seek. How often that’s happened to me I can’t begin to count, even in retrospect. Sometimes (most of the time?) our prayers need escape clauses. When I learn to give Spirit room to work through its endless forms and wisdom and energy (after all, it permeates all things, not just this middle-aged Druid), it’s amazing what results and can manifest. A home in the country, time to write, healing from cancer. It just took longer, with many more twists and turns to get there, than I’d planned: read that as “expected and thought I’d constrain the energy of the universe to manifest for me”.

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Today, wind and sun and cold — a defiance of anything the calendar has to say. Yet even and especially in the darkest and coldest of times, the promise of solstice: a fire burns at the heart of things.

Hail, then, Eternal Flame! May the awen, the gift of Brighid, the truth that nourishes lives and worlds, burn bright for you all.

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Winter Solstice fire 2017

“What needs to be born?”

I’m borrowing the title for this post, a lovely question, from John Beckett’s recent article here.

As we approach the turn of the year, we have W. B. Yeats’s version, the evocative query ending his poem “The Second Coming“:

… what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

For we give birth to all manner of things, and not always to our benefit. Like the young mage Ged in LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, “who raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength”, we sense an inchoate energy at work in so many things, if we could only align it to our purposes. Or is it time to listen more, and align ourselves with the energies of the intelligent universe all around us, that brings forth beasts and birds as well as humans who ask such questions?

And there’s our challenge: alignment. Complete the circuit. Our youth culture “hooks up” without finding satisfaction or connection. Loneliness, anxiety, depression afflict so many. Pain both physical and psychological drives an opioid crisis. What spiritual prescription can begin to address such heavy concerns?

If we’ve been paying attention, we know that no single solution works for everyone. This holds true in religion and spirituality, too, though plenty of one-true-wayers will beg to differ. So we turn again to do what we can, each in our own way.

As one of the Wise observes,

The ideal that you hope to achieve is always to be ready for an incarnation, whether it is in this world or those planes beyond. But unless an incarnation can be offered its birth through you, though, it is incapable of being brought into the manifestation of life. Therefore, your attitude should be one in which … you alone accept the responsibility of incarnating a new and greater value of yourself.*

Examining what needs to be born is a first step in bringing about a birth. (Following the metaphor further, we can of course rush to conception, and deal with the aftermath later. Some of us at least have learned that doesn’t always end well.)

1–What can we help be born in our homes and yards? I’ll start here with Earth. This time of year is perfect for dreaming with garden catalogs. What else? Is there a spot of backyard I can allow to grow wild, or at least wilder? The front lawn may feel more public, or be subject to various town or highway ordinances. But especially if you have even a couple acres like I do, consider whether a spot of wild is both “creature-kinder” and asks less mowing and upkeep. Brush from winter windfall can get it started.  Erecting even a few birdhouses for the more shy species that favor cover can also help. We’re still shaping what we’ve received from the previous owner of our land. I’m less green-thumbed than many, but even a thoughtful neglect to mow absolutely everywhere can encourage many species. We have a working truce with our feisty moles, renewed each year with a ritual and a few conversations, to keep them from our garden areas.

Is the way open for berry bushes, which birds may have obligingly already started for you? Along fence lines and beneath their favorite perching and nesting shrubs and trees, birds drop seeds that will grow in a few seasons to a source of blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, and more. Staring at snowdrifts can serve up good practice for imagining spring and planting and new green.

2–What can be born in my spending habits? I’ve come to appreciate small changes, because they’re easiest to stick with. There’s more virtue and occasion to feed the ego (and thereby nurture a positive practice) if I follow through for a year, rather than think big but end up doing nothing. Combine errands and car trips? Recycle used oil, parts, tires, cardboard, glass? Many communities are moving toward better custodianship of resources, and starting to offer better options. Inherit a shed filled with rusting things, and badly-labelled containers of possibly petroleum substances? Any clean-up is “more than before”. Shop used when possible. The northeast U.S. reads a lot through the winter months, and well-patronized library book sales often have surprisingly current titles. With many large libraries so short-sightedly downsizing their collections, you can sometimes enjoy remarkable finds.

3–What can be born in my practice? By this I mean spiritual practice. Whatever yours is, feed it. Make it easier for you to do it, whatever form that may take. If you haven’t taken up a practice, the new year is a good time to try one out, if not today. Again, make it easy on yourself. Huge numbers of possibilities: five minutes for sacred reading (and you decide what’s sacred to you), stretching, breathing exercises, clearing a chest of drawers or closet or room, an artistic practice, listening to music, yoga, meditation, home renovation, volunteering, helping a neighbor, shoveling a driveway, driving someone to an appointment. Writing actual letters. Listening. Singing or playing an instrument. Cooking. Tending a household shrine. Photography. Weaving.

Whatever it is, I succeed most when I begin with such a small period of time I can’t NOT begin. As a writer, I practiced with 10 words a day during my busiest times. (Too small not to succeed! Easy to make up for the next day, with 20, if I “forgot” the previous day.)

4–What can be born in other quarters of my life? I’m often not a very social person. (My default mode is reading or writing, rather than hanging out and talking.) This blog is part of what I do to connect beyond my own immediate circle. I’m also not a major volunteer, either, but rather than guilt myself up about it, I choose options where volunteering at all will encourage me to do it again. A monthly open discussion series at a local library starting in January is one of my current outlets. Supporting my wife, who’s the current wage-earner in the family, is another. Laundry, dishes, fire (our heat source), snow removal from driveway and solar panels, and I’m serving, acting outside myself, encouraging flow.

5–And I make and find rituals for what needs to be born, to help keep the doorways open. What needs to be born?, I ask, and light a candle, gazing at its yellow flicker. What needs to be born in me?, I ask, and spend time writing in my journal the response that comes. What needs to be born that’s already taking shape, that I can help with? What’s about to be born, that I can work with, and foster, and celebrate? What’s born among friends, when we gather in two days on the 17th in their backyard, to light a fire, and talk and snack and sit on lawn chairs in the snow, feet toward December flames?

Asking the question as I go, keeping the fire of my attention burning, helps the new thing be born.

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*Paul Twitchell. The Key to Secret Worlds, pg. 7.

Winter Quests, Visions, Pilgrimages

winter solstice 17

winter solstice, 2016

One of the great discoveries we keep (re)making is that in and around doing the work and not doing the work, this winter season is crammed full of vision and dream and inward turns. Any physical slump we may feel often comes courtesy of ancient programming to conserve energy, store fat, distill insights and experiences, lick our wounds and wait for the Light to strengthen again. The cold doesn’t help either, though it’s a marvelous tonic once we slough off the inertia and bundle up and head out to breathe air sharper than our athames and paring knives.

I write from my time and place, New England in winter. Translate to your own environment. You know it, are learning it with each day, ground under your feet, shapes of trees or endless grasses, desert or horizon or mountains in the distance, ocean blue-gray-green and immense beyond your sight.

Samhain may mark with a ritual day a time when the veil thins, but for me the whole season is paper-thin, a Japanese shoji screen between me and Otherworld, a spidersweb thickness away, the same soft, uncanny brush against the cheek of everything that “daylight brain” pushes away. But night brain rejoices, says yes! says come! says I know you! and speaks in exclamation points and question marks and all the punctuation you rarely see in our scientific waking life of categories and forms and lists and schedules and business hours.

I slip into daydream over breakfast, at work, while driving. Night threatens to take over. We turn to (more) caffeine, chocolate, anything to prop awake the animal self that seeks to settle into that intermittent twilight drowse. The season has already lifted the cover and left the door ajar. The challenge isn’t to do either of these things — they’ve already been done for us, courtesy of biology and the annual ritual of sun and planets and time — but to stay out of the rabbit hole, avoid the Cave, do the daylight things we’re called to do and not slide off into othering. Because night brain sends us thoughts and feelings unbidden, and it can be a rich time to set down in paint or on paper or in fiber or other craft something of the energies at work in this dark half of the year.

One way to see it and work with it: the mulch and compost and ferment already begun in us mean that the ancestors are putting forth their voices and desires. As their descendants, we carry on some of the work of their blood and sinew. At the same time, being wholly ourselves and not our ancestors, changes seethe and bubble upward from within, brew of the Cauldron. We quit a job, or a relationship, or others do these things for and with and against us out of their own ferment. We cast about for “what next?” and any answers may come not in daylight terms, necessarily, but in hunches and doubts and the same turns that dogs and chickens make before they lie down to rest and nest. Only we do this inwardly. Turn, turn, walk down the new-old bed we’ve made to lie in. And we try it on and test it for fit. Or walk away.

Often we expect any vision to come clear, to walk before our inner sight like TV characters do, crisp in their makeup and perfect hair and wardrobe, when often what comes is all shadowy and indistinct as faces around a ritual circle by firelight. A half-turn or blink and then it’s a single face we see in profile, up close. But what we think is I need to breathe or I gotta make a change. But we don’t or can’t talk easily about such things with anyone else, because it’s hard to explain the link between what vision gives us and what we feel. Just like in a dream, the inner journey brings me to a field of sunflowers and suddenly I know I have to change my life. The dream logic between the two is undeniable, even if it bypasses daytime reasoning. It’s not cause and effect, or before and after. No, it’s all one thing. And we seem to know it all at once, too. (But talking about it requires us to examine it piecemeal, like trying to push a whale through a sieve. It just doesn’t work. So we fall back on trying to explain that, too, and soon we’re twice removed from the original experience.)

So we make our pilgrimages through winter, pondering the pieces of dark world wisdom that arrive like that touch of coolness when we wake and find we’ve kicked off a blanket. Or in the dark, up to get a drink in the night, we step on a marble or raisin or kernel of popcorn and the surprise feels all out of proportion to the actual size of the thing that we set a tender foot on. Old photo or yearbook or holiday letter from the past, object unearthed when we were looking for something else. We sit with it and an hour passes in reverie. We chew and digest our lives and come to perceive something of their value and nourishment in such moments, unplanned, perpendicular to schedules and calendars.

Let me honor the dark, I whisper to myself.

Let me draw darkness around me like a blanket, feeling its folds.
Let me say its names as they come to me, strange sounds, rumbles and squawks in the throat, thing animals say to each other and us.

Let me caress the soft animal of my life.

Let me linger in the dark and its warm silences, welcome its cold shivers.
Let me weep when tears are tribute, salt and water to bless and purify.

Let me hold myself like a child in the womb,
rocking under the heart’s own rhythm, fetal and new.
Let me wake to darkness as to light,
and feel at home and welcome.

Let me honor the dark.

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Not Doing the Work

Because sometimes, especially this time of year as we approach the Solstice, an animal lethargy creeps in and “what matters most” means eating and sleeping. You should be hibernating, whispers Oldest Brain. And I long to listen.

Not doing the work is familiar by now. And all around us flash examples too numerous to count. Headlines and posts and memes and Facebook feeds, what’s trending, and even our friends may not offer what we need. Or indeed be working actively against it. Peep at a partner and they’re no help either, most likely because they’re in the thick of their own version. Or will be soon enough. (Sometimes it’s the height of respect simply not to dump my load onto my wife’s.) To lift a few lines from Rilke for my purposes,

Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,

or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?

Look, if we want an easy Bard, then we need to tune to another channel. Rilke isn’t it.

Sometimes it’s not even clear what he’s naming for himself, for us by proxy, though we may feel it in our marrow. Possibility slips by and sleep calls, that easy drowse-and-wait. Sometimes, true enough, sleep is good strategy. Only you and you and I and she and he and they can tell, each by ourselves, if such a strategy fits right now, peering between a dream and a nightmare and the choices seen and unseen that keep tickling our skin and our blood.

For it seems that everything hides us.
Look: trees do exist; the houses that we live in still stand.
We alone fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.

If we’re hidden, what luck finding anything else, or anything else finding us?! Especially what we feel we need most — that’s the most fugitive thing of the whole lot. I’m standing here looking and listening for a sign, but it turns out I’m it, tagged by the universe, which runs away — it wants to play — while I’ve got all this serious sh*t to deal with! If there’s a conspiracy, it’s a cosmic one, with shame and hope for fuel, a secret formula we’ve paradoxically always known.

So we take December mindsets like these with us as we go, turning them over to see where the light leaked out of what looked so very promising last week, or a month or year or decade ago.

Have I named it yet, this mood? Pause a moment and toss your own contribution onto the heap. Plenty of room.

Food-scraps-compost-640x360

There’s nothing wrong with composting these things, though we can often feel ashamed of all the brown leaves and earthy smells. It’s the right season for it. Rot and spoilage and scraps, odds and ends of the year all go in, and earth begins its long work over again, and transmutes it. Serious sh*t and funny stuff, dead skin and ideas, fingernails and ashes and brown lettuce leaves and apple-cores and the last squash that never grew once the days turned cold. That deformed pumpkin from the front steps, mummified relic of Halloween, and the remarkable sludge from the back of the vegetable drawer in the fridge. Fling in those irritations and annoyances and petty snarks. Spites and attitudes all go in, rattling as they hit the sides and bounce around against the Cave of Souls and disappear deeper down its gullet. We see that yawning mouth of darkness that terrifies us, even if only a little or for an instant, then realize we were just standing too close to the mirror and caught a glimpse of ourselves up close. So we do the work anyway, just as it does us without our permission. Because to be alive at all, we’re in it.

It’s good to take these things out and air them, get them the turning and churning and the even exposure they need, basting them in earth, so they transmute all the more readily. Everyone’s got them. Think of them as the scraps at the end of the craft session, husks and shells and scurf and skin, bone and gristle dropped into the sink after the holiday dinner’s done and guests gone, before the grand cleanup begins. Shards left over after creation’s finished. What gets swept up from the garage and basement floor. What the kids tracked in from outdoors, the carcass the dog dragged around the yard and left near the mailbox, the small furred or feathered corpse that the cat so thoughtfully dropped on the doormat. We’re always putting a foot in it.

So we squawk and shrink and blanch at these things, disowning them if we could, turning away, dismayed the universe sends such awkwardness our way. Among difficult gifts, the mind of winter ranks pretty high, because it’s pretty (not pretty at all) rank. Overripe, expired, corrupt, foul, putrid, excremental, cadaverous in its open decay.

“This too is mission”. And I can achieve it. I grasp the shame by its least offensive corner,  or shove my arm in up to the elbow and shuffle it along, helping it slither and slide into its next moment. And I might catch the eye of someone else doing the same. We nod stiffly at each other, almost imperceptibly. Earth blesses it, blesses us, accepting nothing short of all.

And I sigh and begin again, making room for that second part, unutterable hope. Which, as all Bards do, I keep trying to put into words.

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Image: Compost.

 

Fools in the Dark

fool_uniThe Tarot Fool — a fitting symbol as we pick our way slowly from this time of greatest dark right after the Solstice and into the slowly growing light. Blessed fools, all of us, lost and stumbling where angels often fear to tread (is that because, unlike us, they can actually see where they’re going?!). A time for gestation, if we can grab a few moments in the modern restless energy to fill every moment of this season, a time that, if we listen, calls us inward, to introspection and nurturing, to brooding on the new life in us that seeks birth and is always possible. So we run away instead with busy-ness. Almost successful in drowning out the possibility of transformation. Almost. How valuable our failure is to us becomes clear only later.

It’s still dark, though by minutes each day the time of light grows longer. But if the skies are cloudy, you may take a lot of convincing. Looks just like yesterday to me.

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“The card,” writes A. E. Waite, “which bears no number passes through all the numbered cards and is changed in each.”*

A little shiver at that. Like it or not, if we’re alive we’re changing. Un-numbered and free at the outset, I soon enough get counted, numbered, labelled, weighed, boxed and mailed to an unknown address. I get unboxed by others, or I unbox myself. I keep arriving, but never quite get there. But then that means the situations themselves are static, and the trajectories we follow are shaped by the initial energies we manifested when we set out. We are what we started out as, and we build as we go from there. Action, reaction. Source of traction to be able to walk at all.

The Fool isn’t looking at the drop right in front of him.  White dog at his heels (I say “he” and “him” because I’m personalizing things here — the fool quite rightly looks androgenous in many decks — it’s the Every Person card. Rewrite any pronouns to fit — it’s your story here), the Fool is intent on the journey, that first inhale, the animal spirits of hound and flower and golden sun urging him forward.

Of course, the path’s still unclear, the picture has a frame, we haven’t seen what’s up next. The Fool hasn’t even set out yet, or — inevitably — fallen, or opened up that pack on a stick that holds food, a map, a key to a lock it doesn’t fit, a phone number, a debit card with an initial balance. A roll of the dice. A lotto number. With clothes still clean, no grime from the trail, or wrinkles on the complexion, the Fool is unscarred, untried, fearless. Zen calls it Beginner’s Mind. Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”** Yup, know that, been there. Weak and not even recognizing it. No grace to be seen — because it’s dark, because grace manifests not as a separate thing in this case, not as something I can see or sense, but as the nature of the Fool itself.

Swept clean, rebooted, upgraded, ready to take the world by storm, found that dot-com, make a million before you’re 30, met your soul-mate, have the 2.2 kids and the photo-shopped life that the Fates and your parents conspired to deprive you of, and so on. Or simply in love with life, not yet hard-boiled and cynical, jaded and sarcastic, still full of yearnings and dreams. Not yet beaten down. Not just with eyes on the horizon, but above it, in the clouds. “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them,” says Thoreau.

nightlyre-foolredwhitedrakeOr the Fool is in fact immensely powerful and full of potential, but wholly blind to it. Dragon energy curls and flames in us. No mystery (all mystery) that one symbol for Britain and for things Celtic is a yin-yang, a Western mandala of two dragons, white and red.

In this card, the awful gulf below means nothing to one with the power of flight — but will I, will you or any of us, realize it in time? Instead I look back, I turn away from the chance to fly, I long for the comfort of the past.

Stephen Batchelor writes in his book Living with the Devil: “Without the devil to obstruct it, one could not create a path. For a path is kept open by overcoming the hindrances that prevent freedom of movement along it.”***

The devil is in the details, and the devil, or the details, are me — I custom-make the circumstances of my life from which I can learn the most. That’s one view. Everything is feedback, and therefore useful. Another view. “I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet,” says Batchelor elsewhere, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say.”

Back to square one, that first step, the dawn, the new day, the Fool’s setting forth. It’s summer, it’s winter, it’s summer again. “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” The wheel of the year takes us again and again through the great cycle of death and life and mortal beauty.

“We dance round in a ring and suppose, while the Secret sits in center and knows,” says sly old master Robert Frost.

“Knows what?” asks the Fool, and insists there’s an answer, never mind what anyone says.

“The Fool who persists in his folly will become wise,” says William Blake.

And the Fool, the blessed Fool, takes the next step.

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*Waite, A. E. “The Soul’s Progress.” Manual of Cartomancy. Reprinted as The Complete Manual of Occult Divination, Vol. 1. University Books, 1972.

**2 Corinthians 12:9.

***Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004.

IMAGES: Fool from the Rider Waite deck; dragon.

Yule Moon and Solstice

Some three weeks away, now, there’s a Full Moon on Christmas Day, at 6:11 am, Eastern Standard Time (U.S.). It will set less than an hour later where I live, so I won’t obsess over exact astronomical details or feel any need to rouse myself on a dark winter morning to witness it, but instead enjoy it the evenings before and after.

The Solstice, however, is different, and merits a different welcome. While I’m not sure I’ll keep the traditional night-long vigil through the longest night to greet the dawn, I will be up late, laying one last charge of wood in the woodstove, and contemplating the coming new year. And the afternoon before and after I’ll take part in a Solstice ritual in two different towns.

Why? Do the seasonal festivals really matter?

woodpile

Yes, this is a pile of sticks and small branches in an old orchard and pasture near where I live. You can see the long shadows of the tree-trunks — it’s late afternoon in November, a week ago. The owner cut a dying tree from the treeline that stands to the left, outside the picture. He’s already chopped, split and picked up the firewood, and gathered the remainder here.

Is it useful? No. It’s just brush. Burn it or dump it in a gully.

Is it useful? Yes. It’s kindling for a whole winter, and twigs for wreathes and crafts.

Is it useful? Who knows? That depends on how someone uses it.

Sometimes I find you have to ask the same question at least three times to get enough answers to work with.

Follow through on each answer and you get a different outcome. Is one of them the “right” answer? Who is asking?

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One of the suggestions for solitary celebration of the Winter Solstice that I’ve adapted and adopted from OBOD is this simple rite:

On the longest night, go through the house and turn off all lights. Spend time feeling and acknowledging the darkness. Then light a single candle, and go from room to room, lighting a candle in each one. Say what feels right for you to say.

A Not-Always-Druidic Miscellany

drhorribLooking at the current roster of candidates for U.S. president, all I can think of are the words of Dr. Horrible (a marvelous Neil Patrick Harris) in Joss Whedon‘s unique Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog: “The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”

You can catch the good doctor’s comment (along with another quip about the “status quo”) near the end of this 1-minute clip:

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tolkbtcJust back from the 50th Int’l Congress on Medieval Studies (held every year in Kalamazoo, MI) where I survived delivering my paper on “Tolkien’s Beowulf and the ‘Correcting Style'” and hobnobbed with some 3000 other medievalists from around the world. The Congress is always a remarkable experience: the 4-day event this year included 567 sessions of papers, roundtables and presentations, along with the always-popular publishers’ room (BOOKS! we’re NERDS!), concerts, mead-tastings, interest-group meetings, the annual Saturday Dance, the Pseudo Society’s mock lectures and delicious satiric send-ups of all things medieval, housed in typical 1950s-style concrete block dormitories with university cafeteria food and coffee, in always variable Midwestern U.S. May weather.

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Also visited again the striking Serpent Mound near Locust Grove in southern Ohio, and learned there’s a winter Solstice celebration at the site that includes the placing of lights to outline the earthwork serpent that loops across a rocky outcrop of the Adams County countryside:

(WILDART ALBRECHT 12/20/10) Volunteers  light the 900 luminaries at the Serpent Mound in Adams County. Volunteers light the serpent for the winter solstice . (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)

(WILDART ALBRECHT 12/20/10) Volunteers light the 900 luminaries at the Serpent Mound in Adams County for the winter solstice. (Dispatch photo by Eric Albrecht)

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Images: Dr. HorribleTolkien’s Beowulf; Serpent Mound Winter Solstice.

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