Monday, December 21, 2009

Yule for me is a time of paradox. As the darkness deepens in the waning year, I go deeper within. It is a time for solitude and reflection. And yet it is also a time for the community to come together.

Years ago, as an adolescent I loved gymnastics. Right before the start of a floor routine, I would experience a moment of perfect, poised stillness. With my breath the only movement, I mentally went over the routine, correcting previous errors, stretching to do better than before. Then the music started, and stillness was replaced with deliberate action. The winter solstice is like that for me, a moment of concentration right before the music starts.

The celestial event of the solstice occurred a little over two hours ago, so now the year is officially waxing, although it is still tender and new. It is pure and unmarked, a ski trail covered in fresh powder without tracks. We may write upon it however we wish. We may repeat last year's errors, or we may blaze a new trail. It is our own choice.

As we privately make these choices, we also experience the community aspect of Yule.

This morning, while reading The Story of the Yule Log to my children, as I do each year, it occurred to me that my definition of community has expanded a bit since I wrote that story.

At the time, the story was written specifically for the pagan community of which I am a part. We were, and still are, a group of people spread out over a certain geographic region, with tendrils reaching out all over the country and the world. While we are friends and mostly quite fond of one another, many of us connected mostly during specific auspicious occasions. Many of us did not experience in each other the type of close-knit interdependence of a tribe from earlier times.

What I was missing is this point: We are just as dependent upon community as ever. "Community" is simply more complex than it was. "Community" is also the business community, which brings in the goods that we rely upon on a day to day basis. It's also the public schools our children attend, and it's the medical community, and much more. A few days ago, one of my children had a procedure called a swallow study. A radiologist, radiology technician, speech therapist and occupational therapist met to obtain and interpret the results of the procedure. As they waited to begin the procedure, they chatted, catching up on personal news, sharing the latest ideas. They are definitely a part of community, and my son depends on them to help him begin to eat correctly and end his dependence on a gastrostomy tube. This dependence is no less profound than a small tribe's dependence on the hunting party to return with fresh meat. Where would we be without the hospitals when our loved ones are sick or injured?

Obviously, we would be just as lost without community today as ever before.

So at Yule, we exchange gifts, and donate to charities. We come together and express our care for one another.

Last year, my youngest child began to figure out the whole Santa Claus thing. He asked me if Santa Claus is real, and I said, firmly, "Yes. Santa Claus is real." I said that it's just that little children need to see things in a more concrete way. I told them that now that he is bigger, he is starting to be able to think in abstract terms. Santa Claus might not really be a man in a red suit, but that doesn't make him less real. Santa Claus, for grownups, is an idea, a philosophy and a choice. He is the generosity in the human heart. If we choose to, we can all be Santa - when we give to Toys For Tots, or when we bring food donations to a community pantry, or in a hundred other ways. When a child experiences the man in the red suit, it helps him to connect his own specific, personal inner generosity with the general, universal generosity of the human heart. For me, the archetype of Santa Claus embodies our amazing potential to help one another. One might say he is a symbol for community in winter.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lives of purpose and meaning

A while back, we did a little family "faith development" session here at home where we showed the kids this video about consumerism and materialism:

I was worried about my nine year old becoming frightened by the portrayals of planet wide pollution with toxins, but he seemed fine.

I asked him, "What did you learn from the video?" He said, "Just because I don't have new shoes, it doesn't make me a bad person."

"Good," I thought. He got something.

Lately I've been trying to find ways to expand on the lesson. It seems to me that excessive consumption is a way to keep people distracted. Right up there with alcohol, drugs, sex, and other potential addictions, it's a diversion that keeps us from staying focused on our will, (that is, our Purpose With a Capital "P",) keeps us from hearing what our soul is trying to tell us.

I tried to describe this to my nine year old this morning:

"So, do you remember what the next Sabbat is called?"

Him, closing his eyes scrunching up his face:
"Ummm, it's Halloween but we also call it something else."


"Yeah, that's it."

"You know that it's spelled Sam-Hane, but we pronounce it Sow-en, because that's how it's pronounced in the original language?"

"Yes Mom."

"Say it with me. Sow-en"


"Do you know the real reason we do these things?"


"We really do it to stay connected to Spirit, to try to listen to what our souls are telling us, to find out why we were put on this Earth and then remember that. You'll keep learning more about this as you get older."

Him, putting on backpack and opening the car door:
"Bye Mom."

Me, driving away:
"I hope one day this means something to him."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our Family Autumnal Observance

The equinox happens here today at 2:18 p.m.

Sunday evening we had our family Autumnal Equinox ritual observance. It was mostly a lazy day. My youngest had been working on a book report, sculpting figures from the book in polymer clay. But with the exception of playing and exercising with the Wii, a bit of hand drumming and laundry, we were resting. I think this is appropriate right before the fall equinox, a moment of stillness before the turning of the wheel.

During the day there was a time when we encouraged the boys to watch some cartoons, like children do, and the four of us lazily stretched out on the big couch like a pride of lions, each of us touching at least two others. Heads on laps and feet on legs. We weren’t really cuddling deliberately, not wrestling or tickling. We were just connected. Even one of our cats got in on it, lying on the top of the couch back, his kitty paw resting on my elbow. He’s a member of the family too.

On Saturday I had given the boys a brief lesson about Mabon, showing them where the equinox sits on the wheel of the year in relation to the other days of merit. We talked about what this day might have meant in the “olden days,” and what it can mean today. I reminded them of why we do this – we do this because we never want to forget our relationship with our earth – that we evolved here, and for this reason we are made from this earth. It is a part of us and we are a part of it. We are inseparable from it. The holy days of the wheel help us to mark the passing seasons and acknowledge our relationship. I don’t go into anthropomorphization of deity in the Goddess and the God – they are too young for that. But I do believe that a person can benefit from being connected to these ancient archetypes, and this is an important part of my life.

Yesterday, when I began to gather the things we use for our family ritual my youngest son brightened. I could see the anticipation in his eyes. He loves these things we do as a family. What surprised me most was the pleased response from my husband when I told him that I had a full ritual planned. Sometimes I worry that he just tolerates the pomp and circumstance. But no, he seemed to enjoy it too.

For this time of year, our ritual involves simply eating a meal in sacred space. The ritual focused on giving thanks, appreciating where the food comes from, and the importance of family and community. We talked about how harvest time might have been a time to take stock of the success of the harvest. Today we harvest too, but we harvest different things in different ways. A person doesn’t have to work in the fields to enjoy the fruit of his labors.

I said, in the old days people might have said something like, “What about Widow Smith? I hear there was blight in her vegetable garden this year. Does she have enough food to get through the winter? Does she need help?” I said that we don’t experience that type of hardship as much in the middle-class life we lead, but in the old days most people were faced each winter with hardship and the prospect of a difficult survival. In modern America, some are outraged when they experience hardship, as though they are entitled to a life free of struggle. But the truth is that all of us, as humans, will experience hardship and struggle at some point in our lives. The thing to do is to prepare for it, rather than deny the inevitability of it. And, most importantly, to help others who are in hardship whenever you can. Because if you look around, you can always find someone less well off than you.

It was a good, simple meal. We had chicken quarters, and colcannon. I made a carrot and raisin salad and Brussels sprouts. We had picked up croissants and a strawberry rhubarb pie at the bakery. We topped the pie with good ice cream – I deliberately bought just a pint, so that there would be none leftover to tempt us. I browned and seasoned the chicken and placed it in a crock pot with chopped onion and celery. When the chicken was cooked, I took it out and set it aside, and filled the crock pot with shredded cabbage and cubed potatoes, and poured in defatted broth from the chicken and a can of evaporated skim milk. When the cabbage had cooked enough to reduce in volume, I placed the chicken back on top. When it was time to eat, I took the chicken back out, mashed the heck out of the vegetables in the crock pot, and when it turned out to be a bit too soupy, I stirred in enough dried potato flakes to thicken it up a bit. (I usually keep the dried stuff on hand for that exact reason. –Shhh – don’t tell my secret.)

Afterwards I asked the youngest if he enjoyed it, and he smiled and said he did – both the ritual and the food. I did too. The ritual was pleasant, and gave us the connection, the time to pause and reflect, that we sometimes need.

As we ate, we joked about how we were all going to hear about it when we stepped on the Wii balance board the next morning. I was surprised though – my weight was only slightly higher the next morning and today my weight was down by quite a bit. It is possible to feast while watching one’s weight – carefully.

This was our Thanksgiving. The current American Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November, which was ultimately declared a holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, is more a national holiday steeped in American mythology than a true day of thanksgiving, at least to me. It’s a great opportunity for the family to do something meaningful together, but in my view it doesn’t have to be about turkey, a big meal and football. I’ll buy at least one turkey in November, since they will likely be on sale, and I’ll cook, but I won’t knock myself out preparing a Thanksgiving feast. We’ll eat well, hopefully without overeating, and we’ll talk about the American Thanksgiving, and the mythology that we were taught in school, and what we learned later. However, we will have already had our true thanksgiving feast.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Spirituality In Transition

A year ago I began to pull away from the Unitarian Universalist church I had been a part of for over six years. My reasons were various, but mostly had to do with the realization that the social environment of the congregation was becoming increasingly toxic for me. Quality of social interaction is of critical importance to me. While there are plenty of very nice members in that church, my experience was dominated by social interactions heavily peppered with gossip, triangulation, behind-the-back sniping, and flat-out rude, thoughtless, obnoxious behavior. I had developed such an aversion to the place and to certain members that I would feel my stomach roil at the thought of it. It was bad for my spirit. To me, this was not church. In my view it was, to a large extent, a dysfunctional social club.

A few months later, the minister of the congregation sent a letter of resignation to the members, and at that point I decided to resign from the church. I don't fault the minister, and I'm still a UU. All groups of people, religious or otherwise, can develop a toxic element unless the group has the will to do something to prevent it. Unfortunately this is the only UU congregation in this area, so I've been without "church" for about a year.

We can choose. We don't have to subject ourselves to people and behaviors that lessen our quality of life. And so I chose. Things have been much better since, and my stress levels have been lower. I am more focused, because my energy is poured into what matters most to me and to my family.

Besides the church, I've been a part of a wonderful Pagan group for thirteen years. While they are like an extended family in a way, we only meet once every six weeks or so, and the feeling of community is a bit more elusive and less personal there for me. Each of the meetings is like a little reunion, but it's not a part of daily life.

As a result of my separation from the church a year ago, my spiritual practices have been in transition. At first, we intended to do almost exactly what we had been doing, but scale it down and do it for the family only. I had been a member of the CUUPS chapter within the church, and they gathered to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, to drum, and for part of the time kept up a monthly spiritual program around the moon cycles. For a while after leaving the church, I maintained a home Sunday faith development program for the kids and observed the full moons with my husband, but the programs and methods that we had developed for the public didn't meet the individual needs of my family members. At times it seemed there was something forced and insincere about it, and with exception of the home Sabbat celebrations, my "homeschool faith development program" eventually fell to the wayside.

We also joined the "Church of the Larger Fellowship" in a trial membership, but that didn't quite do it either. There was no interaction with the minister, no Sunday service, no annual congregational meeting that we were aware of, no democratic process, and no review of the budget. When they asked for money, I honestly didn't know how to respond. I realize that there are costs, and that the UUA needs money, but I'm accustomed to being told how the money will be spent when they ask for it. There were some some monthly articles and pod casts on the website, but they didn't take the place of real worship. There was a monthly newsletter that arrived in the mail, but the topics didn't seem relevant to our life. None of the faith development programs were appealing to us, and my husband and I realized that we can develop our own self-directed programs and get the results we want. In fact, we probably visited the CLF website three times in six months, and listened to two podcasts in that time. We never really felt connected, and it didn't do much for us.

More recently we decided to redesign our family room around faith development, study and crafts, and the work involved in that has sidetracked us. I guess you could say that painting walls and moving furniture has been our faith development work lately.

With the approach of Mabon and the anniversary of my "pullback" from the church, I realize I'm over the grieving and self doubt that plagued me for the last year after resigning. I would like to join another church where I can be a Pagan and be a part of a higher purpose, and it must be a community where the quality of relationships between members is very high. That isn't likely to happen any time soon.

In the meantime, I'll take another stab at giving some goals and purpose to the spiritual education of my children and my own continued spiritual development.

Family Sabbats are easy. It's a simple matter of sitting down with the children and reading the Sabbat stories to them, reinforcing the stories with little rituals, making crafts, and cooking foods of the season. I feel that when we observe the Wheel of the Year, we are celebrating our human relationship with our earth, and the old traditions that brought us to where we are today.

Lunar observations are a bit different. For me, these are highly personal. They are about finding one's sense of purpose, the reason we are here, and our own true will, and then, in addition to concrete physical action, working with nature and with spirit to help create our reality. This practice does not replace taking action, but reinforces it.

Weekly faith development is a simple concept. It's about teaching the kids the things they can't (and should not) learn in school due to the separation of church and state. In addition to teaching values, my goals in teaching our children is to help them have a foundation that prepares them for choosing their own spiritual path, and that will help protect them from cults and fundamentalist indoctrination.

Lately I've been working more to shed the compartmentalization of my spirituality. Everyone knows this, and everyone says it: Spirituality isn't just something you do in church. It isn't just something you do in a circle of friends under a full moon.
Peter Mayer says it well in his song. "Today the only difference is, everything is holy now." I would add to that, everything is holy now, all the time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grand Canyon

Two weekends ago the four of us went to the Grand Canyon. We had been cooped up too long with the summer heat. Michael came home early from work on Friday and packed the car. We picked the boys up from school and hit the road. The freeways were so jammed that it took over an hour to get out of the city.

We arrived at the campground without a reservation and got lucky. The weekend before Labor Day weekend was not booked solid. Michael and I pitched the tent in darkness, silent as ninjas, (almost) with our solar lanterns barely keeping us from tripping and falling on our faces.

The four of us were cozy in our snug little nest of a tent. The temps were warm at night and chilly in the early morning.

The next morning I watched my youngest son's face to see his expression at the first glimpse of the canyon. He was placid, and not amazed like I expected. He just said it didn't look real. He was right. It was so beautiful it was like we were looking at an illusion. Even though it was slightly hazy from the Los Angeles fire, it seemed hard to believe that anything so beautiful could be real. The child took it in stride, as if he could not be surprised by anything delivered by nature. Of course it's beautiful. What else would it be?

We spent Saturday and Sunday exploring the south rim, trying to see as many of the points of interest as we could. We didn't hike much due to the heat, but we went on a few easy walks and wore the kids (and ourselves) out.

Saturday afternoon we found some piles of wood for the taking where the forest was tidied to prevent forest fire, and we strapped some to the top of the car and took them back to the campsite. When we arrived, mule deer were calmly grazing through the campground, each casually keeping one eye on the campers who stood stock-still to watch them, mouths open in amazement. When the deer were about thirty feet away from our campsite, our youngest made a sudden dash to the car to get the camera, spooking the deer and sending them into a lightening quick flight. But they soon stopped again, as though nothing had happened, and let the child get close enough to take photos.

That night we placed the largest log we had found on the campfire, which was silly because it would have burned all night, while we unfortunately could not do anything but sleep. On Sunday morning when we broke camp, my dear husband strapped the remaining pieces on the car along with our gear. He knows me well. Wood found this way makes the best Yule logs.

We keep talking about the day when we can take the boys on a real backpacking trip, but for now these easy trail walks are sheer bliss.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My husband's birthday today

Today is my husband's birthday. We are just going to have a quiet celebration at home. Money is tight, and he has said, like the good sport that he is, that his birthday presents are the power tools he bought to build the media cabinet. I normally object when necessary working tools double as gifts, (like a vacuum cleaner,) but if he genuinely enjoys wood working I suppose it's fair enough.

I did make him some really nice soap using coconut and olive oils and thirteen essential oils. It's cured enough to use. And I picked him up a couple of useful little gifts that won't necessitate any skipped meals.

Right now I'm making Mexican rice to go with the fajitas he requested for his birthday dinner. I baked the cake yesterday. It's a dark chocolate zucchini cake. Here is the place where I found the recipe:

I substituted the sugar for 1/3 cup of a stevia-milk sugar blend, and baked it in the slow cooker because we don't use the oven in the summer. It's not very sweet, but we'll top it with berries and serve it with raspberry sorbet.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ay Yi Yi!!!

I've been receiving a lot of internet hoax spam lately. Yesterday I got one. I do not know the person who sent it to me. It was a petitiion for Congress to stop them from paying social security and medicaid to illegal aliens. Like they are a bunch of loonie fools and we have to stop them from ruining the country.

It wasn't just the spam that bugged me, it's the fact that our government has been working on healthcare reform and are being attacked from all sides. There is this huge misinformation machine, spreading all sorts of rumors and lies about the government. The goal seems to be to attack American confidence in our government in order to create fear and create obstacles to change. This thing about Congress giving SSI and medicaid to illegal aliens seemed like one more thing.

I snapped.

So I wrote a very assertive response to the email declaring it a hoax and lecturing the sender about fact checking before forwarding spam. I further stated that if the sender doesn't have time to check, please don't foward it to me. I included a link to a Snopes article, showing it to be a false rumor.

I looked at the substantial distribution list and didn't recognize a single name. I thought about it. All those people. How many of them don't know? How many will sign the petiton and forward the spam?

I thought about it again. Then I hit, "Reply to all."

Yes, I know. The cardinal sin of email etiquette. A couple of people have already responded to my email, letting me know that I only needed to respond politely to the sender. I am suitably chastized, and my cheeks are appropriately reddened. I do not normally behave like the scourge of the Internet.

Still. If I had it to do over again, I think I would. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Secrets In The Sabbats: Imbolg

The week before Imbolg, my eight-year old and I got out the plaster bust of the Goddess that we put on the altar every year, and refurbished her. Basically, we chipped away at the plaster crown on her head, because it keeps getting in the way of the crowns that we make for her, and then we sanded the head smooth. Later, I took her out back and sprayed her with a fresh coat of paint. After she dried, I placed her on the altar, swathed her in veils, and placed the candle crown on her head.

On Yule night, with our sleeping bags unrolled in front of the fire, each member of our family threw pine cones and acorns into the fire, each one representing a wish. For Imbolg, we talked about turning wishes into goals. I wrote simple elemental meditations about how the elements can help us achieve our goals by lending us the strengths of nature.

For our cakes and ale, we served navettes and milk. Each of us had a silver chalice containing whole, organic milk. We read something about the Goddess representing love, and when we take in a sip of the milk, we are taking in the love of the Goddess. Then everyone took a little sip. Then we said that when we pour out some of the milk, we are remembering the importance of loving others. (or something like that.)

Each of us poured a little bit of the milk into the bowl of blessed water, which was a small bowl of water containing a generous pinch of salt. After we each poured the milk in, watching how the white milk spread and formed a cloud pattern in the clear water, I set the bowl down.

We went on to read something about taking another sip of the milk and taking the Goddess herself into ourselves. We took our sips of milk, and then read something about pouring out a bit more milk to remember the importance of sharing our gifts with others.

When I picked up the bowl of milk so everyone could pour again, we saw that the milk had formed a perfect spiral in the clear water. My youngest son looked at the bowl of water and milk, and looked at me, his eyes wide, his mouth open. "Wow!", he whispered.

I realize that there is probably a perfectly good, reasonable scientific reason this happened. Maybe as I turned to put the bowl down, I created a mild centrifugal force in the water. Perhaps the salt in the water and the fat in the milk had something to do with it. I don't know. But it seems to me that it doesn't matter. In sacred space, any scientifically explained phenomenon can also be a spiritual miracle.

Anyway, the surprise of seeing the white spiral, and the expression of awe on the child's face, was sweet.

When we poured again, the water turned a cloudy white, and the moment passed. But it's one of those little moments that I will never forget.