Archive for the ‘winter solstice’ Tag

Gifts of Solstice, Part 3   Leave a comment

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   Leave a comment

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   Leave a comment

[Updated 20:07 EST 18 Dec 2019]

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   Leave a comment

[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   Leave a comment

[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   2 comments

… 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   Leave a comment

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.

 

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