It was recently revealed that Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s most prominent atheist, loves to sing carols at Christmas time. But the songs he loves the most are not the modern secular ones. Dawkins writes: “I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells,’ but I’m happy to sing real carols.” He prefers the older songs, which tend to have explicitly Christian religious themes.
This makes perfect sense to me. As a child, those old songs were one of my few direct connections to an older time and an older culture. Many of the carols I grew up singing were authored in the 1800s. The lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” go back to at least 1739. The tune to “Adeste Fideles” may well go back to the 13th century.
It’s not only the music. I was enchanted by the old customs. Bringing a tree inside the house seemed unaccountably weird and magical and very much out of character for my sedate middle-class parents in our standard-issue suburban home. I didn’t understand it — but I liked it.
Something about all this archaic stuff resonated deeply with me as a child. It filled an inner yearning which I could not identify, but which I now recognize as a need to connect to a larger whole: to previous generations of humanity, and to Mother Earth.
That yearning need remains with me as an adult. You can read more about how I’ve come to understand the meaning of this holiday season in an essay, “Solstice Connections,” which is the first installment of a regular column called A Pedagogy of Gaia which I’m writing for Humanistic Paganism.
I offer these intimate and highly personal thoughts with love and respect to people of all faiths and no faith, and hope that they will be received in the same spirit.
Wishing you a Blessed Solstice, a Joyful Yule, and a Happy New Year.
It’s been a year since I wrote anything here. Did you miss me?
Did you even notice I had stopped? I thought I’d made myself clear when I wrote about stepping into the dark, but apparently I was too subtle. I’ve spoken to a few readers who didn’t understand its implications.
I’m curious to know how many people will even see this, since the site has been fallow for a year. If you’re reading this, please leave a comment and let me know. You may be brief; a simple anonymous “Yo!” will suffice. But say something, won’t you? You don’t even have to read the rest of this article, which is too long anyhow.
I have still been writing lo these many months. I just haven’t been writing here. But I have been writing a lot. Some of it is ephemera: status updates, tweets, comments on blogs and the like; no matter how thoughtful, no matter how substantive, these still feel insubstantial, like chaff that is lost in the breeze.
I had some essays published in a series of e-book anthologies called Voices from the Grain, but that seems to be defunct now, or dormant. You can read my articles for Yule, Ostara, and Beltane. See also my article for Candlemas which was published in a different venue because the ebook didn’t “make.”
But mainly I have been attempting to focus on fiction writing. It’s very different, and hard work to boot, but I’m hopeful that eventually I will have something of substance, a story worth reading by my own standards at least. Maybe, someday, I’ll have something to share.
In the meantime, this is surely an auspicious time for an update in the classic confessional style which I’ve always employed here. It’s the autumnal equinox again. It’s a good time for reflection and introspection. Also, the equinox marks the point at which I stopped writing here a year ago.
Since then I’ve continued to celebrate the eight holidays that make the Wheel of the Year, finding them a rich field of inquiry. They open up so many questions. They offer a continuous series of opportunities to reflect on cherished values and the deep mysteries attendant to our place in the cosmos.
There are many ways to interpret the Wheel. For example, the solstices divide the year into halves. From the winter solstice to the summer solstice the days get longer; from the summer solstice to the winter solstice the days get shorter. So in terms of light, the year has a waxing half and a waning half. The holidays in the waxing half celebrate desire, while the harvest festivals in the waning half are a time for gratitude. That’s one way to look at it.
The Wheel recapitulates the life cycle. I’m somewhere past the summer solstice of my life, moving into the cross-quarter: my Lammas, my Lughnasa. Perhaps I’m there now, perhaps I’m still approaching. Perhaps that’s why that holiday has resonated so deeply in my soul and been so precious to me. Of course we may experience gratitude and desire every day, throughout the year and throughout our lives, but I feel an undeniable sense of passage, of tipping forward. Gratitude comes easier to me now. The flames of desire and ambition still burn, but it takes a little more effort to keep them stoked. I remember being young. This feels different.
And now it’s time once again for the equinox, the second of the three harvest celebrations. I associate this holiday with gratitude, balance, and the mysteries of darkness. Without darkness there is no wonder. For this, I am grateful. I have not yet reached the autumnal equinox of my life. At least, I don’t think so. I’m looking forward to it with hope and trepidation. I’m sure not in any rush.
Bring the Crisis
I’ve come to understand my recent spiritual crisis as a transition between life-stages. We hear a lot about the midlife crisis, spoken in ominous tones, as if it’s a singular discrete event unique to the middle years, as if it’s something dreadful. But that’s not quite accurate on either count. What is life but a series of crises? And what is a crisis but a change, an opportunity? Without crisis there is only stasis. If we wish to grow, to develop as human beings, to reach our potential, then we should embrace the crisis.
That’s what I’ve done. That’s what I’m doing. My personal crisis has been documented in my writings here over the last several years. I’m happy to report that the crisis is ongoing. I feel that I have undergone, and am still undergoing, a spiritual revolution. It has been a process of transforming the self which seemed to begin almost spontaneously. At some point I recognized it, grabbed it with both hands, and started shaping it myself, to keep it going, and to guide it.
It has been, for the most part, a wonderful and joyous thing, shot through with strains of bittersweet and melancholy. But then my whole life has been that way. It’s just part of my character, part of my way of experiencing the world. But these recent years have been particularly joyous.
Some may wonder what I’m even talking about. It might help to pull this out of the abstract and give some concrete examples of changes that have manifested in my life. These are things that have taken root over the last four years or so:
I meditate daily. Or almost daily. Certainly on workdays. It’s hard for me to articulate how this affects my life. I’m not sure if meditation is the catalyst for other changes, or the result. Most likely I suppose it’s an iterative process. Meditation is part of my practice that deepens and strengthens and integrates other aspects of my life. You hear people talk about meditation as peaceful and relaxing, and so it can be, but I also think it’s much more than that.
I stopped drinking. I noticed I was drinking more and more but enjoying it less and less. Maybe years of steady moderate-to-heavy drinking changed my body chemistry. Maybe I’ve come to cherish certain aspects of cognition which drinking does not promote. Maybe it’s a combination of the two or something else entirely. I can only say I felt the need to quit, so I did, as of Mardi Gras this year. I’m not a strict teetotaler, but almost. I’ve gone from drinking every evening to drinking only on special occasions, at intervals of a month or two. And usually after those special occasions I wonder, “Why do I bother?” Alcohol is rapidly losing its appeal.
I’ve made changes to my diet. A couple years ago I made a conscious effort to start eating less, to cultivate a sense of hunger. I started to place a big emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, not just for me but for my family. More recently, after watching Forks Over Knives, Xy and I decided to stop buying bird and mammal meat. Our three motivating factors might be labelled health, earth, and ethics: that is, a healthier diet, a lighter impact on the planet, and the aspiration to inflict less cruelty on other living beings. (We agreed we might make an exception for animals raised in a more humane fashion, but we haven’t actually acted on that.) We still eat a lot of fish, though, and I find myself eating other meat occasionally when it’s already bought and paid for by someone else.
I have gotten into a regular exercise program. I started jogging. Then I added yoga. Then calisthenics. I would rotate through these three daily, then rest for a day and start over. I did that for about a year. Combined with the lack of alcohol and dietary changes, I lost about 25 lbs. over the past two years. Now I’m actively trying to build muscle mass through eating a high-calorie, balanced diet and lifting weights four days a week.
I can hear the objection: You’re just on a self-improvement kick. It’s nothing more profound than that. Further, one might note that these changes are all very self-centered. And it’s true that many of my recent efforts have had an intensely inward focus. Yet despite appearances I do actually have a social conscience. It’s not all about me. In fact, my relations with others, my family in particular, have been a prime motivator.
Since I stopped writing here, during my daughter’s first year at her new school, I found myself visiting her classroom repeatedly to celebrate the Wheel with them. Without planning it, I developed a miniature curriculum around these seasonal holidays, one part science, one part cultural awareness, and one part spiritual development. I read them books about the solstices and equinoxes, gave demonstrations with oranges and lamps, baked treats for them, told them stories and did rituals. I had a blast and I think the kids enjoyed it too.
My interests in these matters have also driven changes in my professional life. I’m no longer strictly a technical/creative specialist. In my role as a faculty developer, I now make an effort to recognize the whole person. My repertoire has expanded to include subjects like time management and work-life balance. I regularly facilitate discussions on sensitive topics. I’ve conducted workshops on mindfulness and other types of meditation. I wrote a grant that sent three faculty members to a week-long seminar contemplative pedagogy, and we have formed a learning community here on campus. Last week, we met in the Meditation Room in the newly constructed Katharine Drexel Chapel. A decade ago I would never have imagined this.
So what’s it all about? You could say I got religion, I suppose. Sometimes that’s what I call it. But our society has such strange ideas about religion. My approach, devoid of supernatural notions, might be seen as secular. Sometimes that label seems safer. I can only report that my experience of life over these last years has been suffused with a sense of wonder, awe, humility and love.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say at the root is the simple idea that I am part of a larger whole. And so are you, Dear Reader. We are all children of the Earth.
Does the Earth constitute a coherent whole, a self-sustaining system, an organism of sorts? I’m still sorting through the science and philosophy on that question. But whatever the exact nature of Gaia — mythical, archetypal, empirical, fantastical — my heart is filled with reverence for Her. I recognize that all my efforts and motivations spring from Her. She is the source of my very essence. I try each day to participate in Her more fully. For this, I am grateful.
A year ago I set myself a project, an experiment, a journey, a spiritual quest. I wanted to discover, uncover, delineate and define my religion. I wanted to deepen, strengthen, and integrate everything in my life. I wanted to live with greater intention.
And I wanted it all to happen on a one-year schedule. It sounds pretty silly when I put it like that. But sometimes we need silly conceits to prop up our most serious ambitions.
So anyhow, the year has gone round again. Here we are back at the equinox. The planet keeps revolving around the sun. Our journey is not finished. Not yet.
I’ve just read back through what I posted here since the last autumnal equinox. I aimed to post with less frequency but greater depth. And I did that, at least for a while. For the first six months, anyhow. I probably would have done better to break some of those massive posts down into sections and post them in serial fashion. But whatever.
It might seem I lost focus over the summer months. I did indeed get distracted by our travels, and the ROX party, and Persephone’s new school, and Isaac. I wrote about those things, but didn’t explicitly integrate them into the narrative of my quest. It would have required a little more effort to make those connections, and I didn’t make that effort. I got lazy.
But there’s more to it. A key piece of the puzzle, for me, was the question of theology. I published an essay on how my thoughts were evolving, but that was extremely tentative and exploratory. I continued to think and work on that over the summer, but I didn’t write about it. The time did not seem ripe, and my thoughts were far from clear.
Finally, a couple weeks ago, things crystallized somewhat. It was not a soul-shattering epiphany. It was more like a few ideas quietly clicking into place. Yet the ramifications are profound, at least on a personal level. I’m now prepared to make a basic statement of belief and identity.
While I’d like to articulate those thoughts, I’m not sure this site is the best venue. I’ve poured my heart out here for the last eight and half years. I think it’s time for a break. I suspect that if I stop writing here, I will be able to funnel that energy into writing something else, somewhere else, and I have some vague ideas about that. I think I’d like to write fiction for a while.
Every year is divided into a light half and a dark half. From now until the vernal equinox, the nights will be longer than the days. Right now we are losing one minute and 47 seconds of light each day. Over the last twelve months, I found I enjoyed the light half of the year more, but that the dark half was more productive. That dark half begins again now, with the autumnal equinox. Glenys Livingstone writes about the autumnal equinox as a time for “stepping into the creative power of the abyss.” So it felt last year. So again this year. New beginnings require old endings. I feel the need to step into the dark awhile, and harvest dreams.
We had a wonderful Lammas. It has emerged as probably my favorite holiday, which is kind of funny considering I never heard of it until two years ago.
It’s taken a few weeks but I finally got some photos up. And as an unexpected bonus, we even have a short movie, which contains the very first video ever shot by Persephone.
It’s just a series of raw clips but it captures the spirit of our holiday. On Lammas Eve, we had a small bonfire to which we committed the Brigid’s Crosses we made at Candlemas. Normally I wouldn’t approve of burning crosses in the front lawn, but I don’t think the neighbors were too alarmed.
I took the day itself off work. We baked bread figures, as shown in the video. It was last Lammas that I started baking bread, which has become a weekly habit and devotional ritual for over a year now. (I’ve told my boss she can’t say I’m “on a kick” anymore.) The bread figures themselves were far from beautiful, and they were hard and tough, kind of like a bagel. But they tasted pretty good, chock full of jumbo raisins and dates.
We also made dollies.
Like with the Brigid’s Crosses, we used the tropical ferns growing in our back yard for the raw material. It’s always more interesting to use locally grown stuff. The dollies are now hanging around the kitchen. In half a year’s time they will be dry and ready for burning next Candlemas. So the wheel turns.
Speaking of fire, we also learned a valuable lesson: Do not put fire pit on lawn, even for a little fire that doesn’t burn very long. We now have a nice dead patch right in the middle.
No elaborate rituals. No goat sacrifice. Just hanging out in the woods. Well, we did make those solstice stones earlier. But mostly we just hung out in the woods.
I don’t think we’ve ever done that, as a family. It was good.
We stayed at a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. I’m fascinated by stuff built by the CCC and WPA, and I wonder why we don’t implement programs like that now, during this time of economic crisis. Anyhow, the cabin was small and charming. The stone floors are delightfully cool in the summertime.
We did our cooking over an open fire. Hot dogs and s’mores. Yum.
Early in the morning of the longest day, Persephone and I made a short hike to a nearby playground.
After horsing around for a while, I tried doing a chin-up. Maybe I should have limbered up first or something, because I pulled a muscle in my shoulder and neck. Ouch! I was practically immobilized for half the day.
Actually I was able to move around and even go an a slightly longer hike later in the day. We hiked out to a firetower only to find it was locked up. But at least we got to see some wild creatures along the way.
For me, anyhow, this was the best way to celebrate one of the most sacred days of the year.
So this is how our summer vacation began. After a couple nights Monte Sano, we made our way up to Indiana.
Workers of the world, take a break and celebrate International Workers’ Day or as I prefer to call it: May Day. It’s a day to remember the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. It’s good to recall that the eight-hour work day was not always a given, but something for which workers had to fight and even give their lives.
Absurdly, the US government has installed something you never heard of called Loyalty Day on the first of May, “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” It’s a laughable attempt to undermine the celebration of May Day.
Of course, there’s an even older history to May Day that goes way beyond 1886. Europeans brought this tradition with them to the New World as early as 1627. It’s a cross-quarter day, halfway between the equinox and the solstice. Technically the halfway point falls on Friday evening, so maybe we should extend our celebrations all week long. There are a cluster of old traditional holidays around this time that have interesting stories. Many are seasonal observations with an emphasis on fertility and the coming of summer, and some are a little spooky, which I like. May Day — Beltane — Walpurgisnacht — Vappa — Roodmas — Whitsuntide — whatever you want to call it — I’d celebrate them all if I knew how. I’d like to combine the pagan and labor traditions, the “green root” and the “red root” into a single holiday. A protest, a party, a ritual — all in one.
Hopefully if you’re in New Orleans you can make one of the marches planned here. No matter where you are, there’s probably something going on near you. Get out there.
Now we enter that half of the year where the days are longer than the nights.
The equinox came this morning at fourteen minutes past midnight. I have to make an effort not to fixate on that single moment. I was asleep anyhow. Better to extend the celebration. The equilux was last Thursday here in New Orleans. Why not start there?
I got a second equilux this year, as I flew up to Philadelphia. The equilux, that day when sunrise and sunset are most nearly twelve hours apart, varies by latitude. It comes a day later there.
I went to Bryn Mawr College for the fifth Mindfulness in Education conference, which culminated in a full day of (mostly) silent meditation. I’ve never done anything quite like that before.
In retrospect, it was a great way to celebrate the equinox. Mindfulness surely cultivates balance. But I missed my family.
Then I came back home, and kept Persephone home from school Monday, so we could celebrate the equinox together. In addition to baking our weekly bread, we dyed eggs to decorate an “egg tree,” prepared a vernal-themed feast for dinner, and ran to the doctor for the girl’s four-year checkup and vaccinations. The meal was delicious: spring greens with sprouts, quiche, and charoset for desert. I also made black and white cookies, but didn’t get them done until later that night. By the time I finally hit the sack I was quite exhausted. I bit off a little more than I could chew. Not very balanced.
In the spirit of purification, I haven’t had anything to drink since Mardi Gras. (Well, actually since the weekend after Mardi Gras, but really, who’s counting? We had a visit from Ed the Meat Poet and I popped a cork.) I’ve been tapering off the coffee too, down to just a few swallows this morning. I hope to start on some dandelion-chicory root tea later this week. The idea of a seasonal detox session is appealing to me. In the same spirit I’ve even looked into fasting, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that quite yet. I am eating less, but that’s a topic for another post.
And if the spirit of the season can be maintained why not continue until Hellacious Saturday? Or Easter? Or Passover? Or forever?
Six months ago, at the autumnal equinox, I dedicated myself to a full year of discovering or uncovering my religion. This is the halfway mark, the inversion of that time across the mirror of the year. The dark half of the year is behind us for now, the light half ahead. The past six months have been fruitful, but my spirits have often flagged. I haven’t written about that much. The idea was to post less often and to write more thoughtfully, but to remain continually engaged in that process. Instead I’ve lapsed into periods of complete disengagement. Perhaps I need that reflective exercise to maintain a proper perspective.
It’s always a good time to begin again. Looking forward, I feel a buoyancy.
You are four years old today. So: Happy Birthday! But also: Happy Mardi Gras! The last time Mardi Gras fell on the 21st of February was in 1950, which was not only before you were born but well before I was born. These dates will line up again in eleven years, for your 15th birthday in 2023. It happens again in 2034 and 2045, eleven year intervals. Beyond that I’m not sure; I haven’t found any calendars that calculate beyond 2050. I don’t know what’s up with the eleven year intervals either. Weird stuff.
So, how does one celebrate a birthday on Mardi Gras? We tried to tie in with the number four for obvious reasons. We thought about the four seasons and the four directions but ultimately settled on the four ancient elements. You know the elements pretty well. After all, they’re in the lyrics to one of your favorite songs:
Earth, water, fire and air
We may look bad but we don’t care
We ride the wind, we feel the fire
To love the earth is our one desire
(The astute culture critic will have no trouble identifying the origin of these sublime verses as that eco-goth trio par excellence, namely The Hex Girls, as seen in Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. Only a pedant would quibble that we’ve changed the word slightly. The actual lyric references “earth, wind, fire and air,” which of course conjures images of a certain funk-soul act from the 70s. But wind and air are pretty much the same thing, and everyone knows water was one of the four ancient elements. What’s up with this blatant anti-waterism?)
So for this Mardi Gras you masqued as Air, you mother was Fire, I was Water and your virtual uncle James was Earth. Of course reality was a little more complicated; we were joined by an additional Water, played by Catherine, not to mention your grandmother (my mother) who didn’t dress as anything particular but was a most welcome addition to the festivities.
As for this last month of your life, you’ve accomplished many firsts. You composed your first poem, drew your first representational drawing, and sent your first e-mail.
Warning: What follows is not a well-researched authoritative statement. It’s unfettered speculation. Take it with a grain of salt.
The Oldest Holiday
Surely the winter solstice must be the oldest holiday, or one of the oldest. Early humans noticed that the days would get shorter and longer, and it’s fairly easy to determine the solstice if you’re paying attention. There’s no need for telescopes or advanced astronomical models. Just put a stick in the ground and measure its shadow each day.
I just finished reading Farnham’s Freehold (Heinlein, 1964) for my book club, and though I can’t exactly recommend the book, there is a short scene that illustrates the point. A nuclear blast has transported the characters into a strange version of earth. They are homesteading in a vast wilderness; they don’t know if they are in the distant past, the far future, or some alternate reality. They don’t even know what time of year it is.
Shortly after we got here Hugh picked a small tree with a flat boulder due north of it and sawed it off so that it placed a sharp shadow on the boulder at noon. As “Keeper of the Flame” it has been my duty to sit by that boulder from before apparent noon and note the shortest shadow — follow it down, mark the shortest position and date it.
That shadow had been growing longer and the days shorter. A week ago it began to be hard to see any change and I told Hugh. So we watched together and three days ago was the turning point… so that day became December 22nd…
It stands to reason that early humans would have noticed this phenomenon, marked it, and celebrated it. In fact I’d suspect that discovery of the solstice would lead to the idea of the solar year and a calendar resembling our own, thus leading to the very idea of annual recurrence.
Of course there are other factors to consider. In the tropics, the seasonal shifting between day and night is not as pronounced as in the more temperate latitudes. Near the equator the length of day does not vary much if at all, though the solstice can still be observed by the angle of the sun. Other annual events may have been more important in particular regions, such as the flooding of a major river. And calendars were developed around the moon also.
Still, celebrating the solstice must be pretty ancient.
Furthermore, as a global moment, it’s universal to all human cultures on every part of the planet. And, indeed, there have been midwinter festivals in virtually every part of the world throughout human history.
The summer solstice would have been known to early humans as well, but it seems to me that the winter event would have deeper meaning, especially to ancient people.
At this time of year, the days are getting shorter and shorter. Darkness encroaches, and the source of light and warmth is steadily more distant. Marking the time when that changed and the light returns must have been reassuring. The world will not be plunged into endless night. The sun returns, hooray, let’s party.
When we participate in traditions at this time of year, such as exchanging gifts or decorating our dwellings with festive luminous displays, we are repeating age-old observances. There’s a certain resonance in these rituals that echoes down the corridors of time, connecting us to the very dawn of humanity.
Universal and Natural
Most of us don’t explicitly celebrate the solstice any longer. This greeting was embedded in an e-mail I got yesterday.
It features Christmas (in four languages), Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. That’s nice. But consider what’s missing. Whatever happened to the Amaterasu celebration? What about the Beiwe Festival? Where is Brumalia, Chawmos, the Deygan Festival, the Dōngzhì Festival, Goru, Hogmanay, Inti Raymi, Junkanoo, Karachun, Koleda, Lá an Dreoilín, Lenæa, Lohri, Makara Sankranti, Maruaroa o Takurua, Midvinterblót, Midwinter, Modranicht, Mummer’s Day, the Perchta ritual, the Rozhanitsa Feast, Sanghamitta Day, the Saturnalia, Şewy Yelda, Sol Invictus, Soyal, We Tripantu, Zagmuk, and Ziemassvētki? To say nothing of Yule! And for the love of Mother Earth, what about the Solstice?
But it hardly matters. The old traditions live on. For most Americans they have been sublimated into the Christmas holiday. The actual date of Jesus’ birth being unknown, the early church probably fixed the day at this time of year to capitalize on an ancient pagan holiday like Sol Invictus. It makes a certain poetic sense, too; there’s a parallel between the rebirth of the Sun and the birth of the Son that extends beyond mere wordplay. The desire to participate in these celebrations is so strong that many completely secular people get into the “Christmas spirit.” Even prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins loves to go caroling. A paradoxical contradiction? Not at all.
Anyhow, I am happy to remember and the solstice and celebrate it explicitly. It’s about as universal and natural a holiday as one could ask for. It’s available to everyone, people of every religion or no religion, everywhere on the planet.
Footnote: Of course in southern hemisphere it’s the summer solstice that’s approaching, but if you’re going to celebrate one solstice you might as well celebrate them both. It’s all good.
A bit discombobulated and disconnected for this recent holiday. Perhaps that’s because I was traveling just before — the POD Network traditionally has their conference at the end of October, and this one was combined with the annual conference of the HBCU Faculty Development Network, and we mustered our biggest contingent (four) ever. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I got back to New Orleans last Sunday and immediately baked some pumpkin bread. Persephone came home from a friend’s with a Disney Snow White costume on. “Uh oh,” I thought. Sure enough, she refused to wear the costume lovingly made by hand by her grandmother (an Air Princess) because she was dead set on Snow White for Halloween. It’s amazing how much Disney princess stuff has infiltrated our lives even though we haven’t bought any. Truly, we live in the Age of Cheap Crap.
Even so, it was magical to follow my daughter around on a short jaunt through the neighborhood. It was her first night to ever do this and she was enchanted, as befits Snow White. Many of our neighbors were waiting on their porches, enjoying the flow of kids in costume. It’s a tradition to cherish, even as rampant commercialization threatens to spoil it and everything else we celebrate.
But I have to wonder: How many of my neighbors understand what Halloween really is? The “een” part gives us a clue. “E’en” is a contraction for “evening,” as in the evening before. So many of these ancient holidays begin the night before. The actual event is the next day. Christmas Eve has always seemed to me one of the most magical nights of the Christian calendar. How many of my neighbors celebrate the day after Halloween?
Well, actually, quite a few. This is New Orleans after all. The next day used to be a holiday at the University and dammit, I took the day off. It should still be a holiday in my opinion. When I passed by St. Patrick #1 on a quick errand that morning I saw plenty of people tending their family crypts.
My main activity of the day was masking of a different sort: covering up some lead paint. There were two strips on either side of our porch, about one inch wide and maybe ten feet tall, which the painters missed. I’ve been meaning to address these areas for a couple years now, ever since I noticed them. I used duct tape to remove as many paint flakes as I could. Then I covered everything up with a thick coat of high-quality primer, and ultimately a topcoat of paint.
Given that these two strips face outward to the sides of the house, where we never spend any time, this was probably not a critical fix, but I certainly feel better now that it’s finally done. I’m confident the lead paint will stay contained for years, by which time Persephone will be past the most vulnerable phases of her development.
That night we shared a delicious family dinner. Corn and tomatoes with bread. Our special guest: Glenn Dee Petty, 1923-1990, Xy’s dear departed grandmother. The main dish was one which Xy remembers Glenn Dee preparing. We had a place set for her with a photo on display. As we ate, Xy shared various memories. Since Persephone never met any of her great-grandparents, this is the only way she can really come to know of them. For that matter I never met Glenn Dee either.
It was a festive and sweet moment. I think we will expand on this concept and do it again next year.
Several weeks ago, a friend and co-worker, Dr. Mark Gstohl, was planning to shut down his Facebook account. He was finding some of his interactions more aggravating than enlightening. He has a wide gamut of friends across the political spectrum, and he was experiencing a lot of negativity. I offered to swap accounts with him. At first I made the offer in jest, but I became more intrigued as I considered the idea, and so I offered again. We agreed to give it a try just for the month of October. We briefly discussed the ethics of such a maneuver, but the issues at stake didn’t seem very serious. So we went ahead. We continued to use Facebook as we usually did, but we were logged in to each others’ accounts. So, Mark (who is an ordained Baptist minister) was posting Bible verses in my name. Further muddying the waters is the fact that we both have numerous third party services tied into Facebook. We didn’t swap any other accounts, so both our Facebook feeds comprised a mix of items generated by one or other of us. At the end of the month we took off the masks and reverted back to our real selves. Most people laughed it off, or scratched their heads in confusion, but my old high school chum Georgie said she felt “betrayed and tricked.” Maybe we should have taken the ethical issues more seriously. For what it’s worth, I apologized to Georgie and I think she’s forgiven me. This episode raises some questions about identity and expectations in the age of social media.
It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. That’s the equinox. This year it came at 4:04 AM (local time) on the morning of Friday, September 23rd. For this moment only, the earth’s axis was not tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. Sounds complicated, but it’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and a globe, and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to listen.
My understanding of the solar holidays continues to evolve. I used to have a vague idea that the solstices were a time to celebrate nature, while the equinoxes were a time to celebrate our humanity. The solstices represent the extremes of the sun’s wandering path across our skies. (See the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the arctic circles for more details.) The equinoxes represent the halfway point between these extremes. And who cares about halfway points? We humans do.
That’s what I used to think based on sheer intuition. That was before I knew about the cross-quarter days, which are even more deeply human and culturally constructed. Now I see the equinoxes as somewhere in-between, a time to celebrate and reflect on the balance between nature and culture. Equinox means “equal night,” i.e., the time of year when day and night are the same length, or nearly so. Dark and light in equal measure.
Living in the subtropics, I don’t feel the same sense of bittersweet melancholy I associate with autumn in the temperate zones, but there’s no doubt the squash harvest is coming in with a vengeance. There are a lot of harvest festivals around the world that occur around this time of year. Some, like Harvest Home and סוכות (Sukkot) don’t fall precisely on the equinox, but others like 추석 (Chuseok) and Mabon do.
Here in the United States our big harvest festival is Thanksgiving. I have some issues with the holiday. Leaving aside the usual political grousing, it’s too late in the year. It’s too close to the winter solstice and Christmas and all that. It’s too nationalistic. It’s annoying when people call it “Turkey Day.” Above all it’s too gluttonous. But then most of our major national holidays seem out of balance.
We invited some friends over for an equinoctial feast. I took the day off to prepare the meal: jicama, curried tomato bisque, cornbread, stuffed squash, Haver cookies. I kept Persephone home for the day too. Our friends are vegan; cooking without eggs or butter was an interesting exercise for me. They brought sweet potato muffins and some roasted squash as well. We had plenty to eat.
But I’ll say this about a vegan banquet. It just didn’t feel as heavy as meat and animal by-products. It felt entirely moderate, not excessive. At the end of the meal I felt full and satisfied but not overstuffed.
So I think it is possible to celebrate balance and celebrate the harvest at the same time. I think that’s more conducive to a spirit of thanksgiving than eating a bunch of turkey and collapsing in a food coma.
I had a short grace prepared, but I forgot to say it.
Maybe I should have started at Lammas; the completion of one revolution would seem to be a propitious time for starting another. Maybe the solstice would have been the best time; I made a case for that a few years ago.
Time slips away. Now I’m thinking the equinox might be the very best occasion. This is a symbol of balance, which is central to my aspirations.
Gus diZerega makes a convincing argument that balance is a key spiritual value in certain traditions, on par with salvation and enlightenment in others. Gus is writing from an explicitly Neopagan perspective, but note that balance is also one of the main principles of Taoism.
One of my favorite films of all time is Koyaanisqatsi. It shows that as a society, we are living a “life out of balance,” which is what the title means in the language of the Hopi.
It’s a powerful statement, made without words or any conventional narrative structure. It manages to be intensely beautiful at the same time. Highly recommended. I just wanted to touch on the fact that balance is not merely an inner experience. When our lives are out of balance, the consequences are manifest in the material world.
But how to find that elusive sense of balance? Patrick McCleary recommends a number of simple practices: breathing exercises, meditation, prayer and prioritization.
To me setting priorities is the best way to start. Although it can be the toughest to accomplish.
This advice caught my attention because I’ve been doing a number of those things already. In particular I’ve been prioritizing.
So here I am, at a point of resolution and determination, of self-authorship and self-transformation. I’ve been sifting through what it is that I feel I need to do now, and over the year to come.
Three things keep coming out on top:
Naturally, one might be inclined to ask, “What the hell are you talking about? Deepen what?”
Everything. My actions. My relations. My daily habits and practices. My inner and outer life.
And most of all, I want to be full of intention.
This may seem vague at first glance, but it’s really just abstract. There’s a difference. What’s missing is the next piece, which I’ll get to eventually, the concrete practices that put these into action.
But hold on just a minute. Isn’t that religion? A set of practices designed to develop our natural faculties for meaning, purpose and values? But I have no religion. I’m an atheist, an anarchist, a spiritual rogue.
So I’m setting for myself a one-year project. When I was younger, a year seemed like a long time. Now I feel like I could do anything for a year. I could stand on my head for a year. Instead of standing on my head, I’ll dedicate myself to this, make a project of it, give my best sustained effort to realizing these intentions. And at the next equinox, we’ll see where things stand.
I’m no longer scared of the R word. If religion is the wrong word for what I’m about, I’m perfectly happy to discard it. Words are important, but it’s the intentions behind our words that matter most. I’m using the term broadly, as I’ve come to realize the variety of religious experiences is beyond all my preconceived notions. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This will be a year of discovering my religion. Or inventing it.
In coming to this pass, I’m inspired by Project Conversion, so I’ve got to give props to Andrew Bowen. For the current calendar year, he’s converting to a different religion each month. Right now he’s a Sikh. He calls it “twelve months of spiritual promiscuity.” I’ve been following his story for the better part of the year so far, and it’s truly an amazing journey. I wouldn’t miss a day.
While I can’t hope to compare, I kind of wish I had a handy handle, a catchy catchphrase, something fun that other people could wrap their minds around. “My Year of DIY Religion” or “The 49 Stupidities of Editor B” or something like that.
But I don’t. And that’s fine too. If it’s meant to have a name, that can come in time. Maybe I’ll know what to call it when we come back to the autumnal equinox again.
Of course, I’m open to suggestions.
Xy and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday. As a gift I gave her a necklace.
It’s called Seeds of Demeter, a beautiful piece of work by Rhonda King. (Buy her jewelery.) Demeter is, of course, the mother of Persephone and the goddess of the harvest, so I feel this piece resonates with both the time and the person. I gave it to Xy with wishes that she will reap a beneficial “harvest” as she labors to teach her students.
I also took that occasion to talk briefly about the many ideas that have been swirling around me lately, of which I have written here. One might think the person closest to me would know all about this, but it’s not so. We’ve always given each other plenty of mental space.
I appreciate the freedom in our relationship, but I do worry. I worry for Xy’s general welfare. I worry about potential fractures and fissures. In this as in all things I will seek a tighter integration, to strengthen and deepen the bond between us. My soul has been on fire with joy, and I yearn to share that. It’s tempting to draw on another equinox metaphor of light and darkness, but I will forebear.
As I fumbled my way through my intentions, with far less eloquence than even this tortured prose may suggest, I realized just how far we are from a Married Master Mind. But I also see the promise and the possibility. We have a lot of work to do.
I’d also hoped for a little loving tenderness, but the time wasn’t right. We ended up with something a little more torrid and wild, a passion almost violent in its intensity. Not what I’d had in mind, not at all. But oh well. I’ll take it.
Certainly marriage is a balancing act.
Earlier, I alluded to an odd factoid: The day of the equinox doesn’t necessarily have exactly twelve hours between sunrise and sunset. It might, or it might not, depending on where you live on the planet. In New Orleans, that day was yesterday, September 27th. Sunrise was at 6:51 AM. Sunset will be at 6:51 PM.
Some people, astronomy buffs I suppose, have started bandying about a new word to describe this day: the equilux. I like the idea. The equinox is a fuzzy concept in most minds. Why not make it fuzzier? Even better, I like the idea of extending the celebration from equinox to equilux, with our anniversary right in the middle. Now more than ever, we need more time to find balance in our lives.
Tangents & Footnotes: This is where I’ll add afterthoughts and anything else that may come up.
The neologism “equilux” is hardly well-established, which may cause confusion. Case in point: The Ehoah philosophy proposes Equilux as a new name for the vernal equinox, as well as the beginning of the year, as part of the beautiful Pandion calendar.
Lammas is rapidly approaching. It was last year at Lammas that I began making an effort to observe each holiday in the Wheel of the Year with my family. Now that we’ve seen one full revolution of the wheel, I’m taking stock and reflecting on what it means.
It’s my understanding that the Wheel of the Year is a mashup of sorts, combining Germanic and Celtic traditions. The result is eight holidays more or less equally spaced throughout the year. These consist of the solstices and equinoxes plus the four cross-quarter days, which fall approximately halfway between the solstices and equinoxes. As far as I know, putting these two sets of observances together is a modern invention, originating in Wicca. Practitioners of Wicca generally call the festivals sabbats.
The Wheel of the Year is so beautiful and compelling that it’s been embraced and adapted outside of Wicca, which is what I’m doing. It lends itself to endless variation and interpretation. Even though I’m not Wiccan, I admire many aspects of the religion, the wheel most especially. I like how the cycle of holidays connects to the changing seasons and the cycles of nature. This should come as no surprise; after all, the very first sentence I wrote here when I started this online journal was, “I’m fascinated by cycles, including the cycle of seasons.” That was over seven years ago, long before I ever heard of the Wheel of the Year. I also like how these holidays connect to the past, as they are all rooted in antiquity. Each one resonates with its own meaning and traditions, the accretions of centuries. I’ve been trying to understand how to celebrate each one in a way that is relevant and meaningful to me personally and to my family as well.
So that brings us back around to Lammas. It’s a cross-quarter day, partway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Another name for the day is Loaf Mass.
…there is some evidence of the Christian Anglo Saxon harvest festival of Loaf Mass, which is likely to have been built on a pre-existing pagan ritual of the same time, as the festival is one of the harvest…. July was commonly the hardest month of the year for a pre-industrial farming economy, and many of the poor, who could not afford to buy bread and had run through their own stocks, died during July. So the bringing in of the harvest was the first time in months that most people would have a good meal and drink.
So it’s a day for bread. My daughter loves bread.
It’s our good fortune as a family not to worry about running out of bread in July. The supermarkets around here are fully stocked, year-round. In fact, in our society obesity is a bigger problem than starvation. We also consume vast amounts of fossil fuels to ship food around the world. I certainly don’t romanticize the past, but I don’t believe our current divorce from seasonal cycles is entirely healthy.
A discussion of such matters on the naturalistic paganism group got me curious about what is really being harvested at this time in this area. I did a net search for “Louisiana harvest season.” Isn’t that a sad comment on how disconnected I am from the cycles of nature and agriculture? I have to search the net to figure out what’s in season around here! Anyhow, I found a “Louisiana Harvest Calendar” from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry.
And so I learned that fruits and vegetables currently in season here include acorn squash, butternut squash, cushaw, pumpkins, yellow squash and zucchini, apples, figs, muscadines, peaches, pears and plums, banana peppers and hot peppers, butter beans and southern peas, cantaloupes, melons and watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, okra and sweet potatoes. (Interestingly enough, my spellchecker doesn’t recognize cushaw or muscadines.) Of course, it seems something is always in season here in the subtropics. But this gives me some ideas for a seasonally appropriate Lammas feast.
I am planning to take a day off work for Lammas, bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a person, and make some corn dollies with my daughter. We’ll save them for burning at Candlemas.
Demeter is associated with the harvest, and I associate Demeter with Xy, and she’s a teacher, and this is the time of year teachers are gearing up to go back to school. My daughter will also be beginning her first year of school. So I’d like this to also be a time to honor them (the women in my life) and mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Maybe we’ll make two loaves for mother and daughter.
Lammas is probably the least well-known of the eight holidays. As such, it seems like a fine starting point for learning about all this — a happy accident, but it will always have a special place in my heart. So, for me, it’s not just a celebration of the agricultural harvest but also a time to think about how we stepped into the spiral and where we’ve come since and where we’re headed. Right now I feel pretty happy that Xy has played along so far, as the interest in these holidays is primarily mine. Rituals and traditions gain power over time, as associations and resonances build. Simply doing the same thing at the same time of year can be richly rewarding. I’m looking forward to deepening our experience as we continue to move around the wheel again.
Tuesday was the Summer Solstice. I got up super early (4AM by my body clock, which was still in the Central Time Zone) and headed down to the beach.
It was still pretty dark, but even at that early hour the eastern sky held a faint glow which grew stronger slowly, slowly, as I watched and waited. There was also plenty of light from a gorgeous half-moon directly overhead.
After a while the horizon was positively rosy. There seemed to be a few clouds there. I figured they might obscure the solar disk, and this gentle rosy glow would be the full extent of the drama.
I was wrong about that. Soon I spotted a planet. I’m not set up for celestial photography, but you can see the planet in this shot if you look really close.
So I thought that was it. Not that I was disappointed. It was quite beautiful. I prepared to head back to our room, when a woman passed by walking her dog. There weren’t many people out on the beach at that time, and I suppose there’s a certain presumption of familiarity, if not fraternity, with other early risers. Anyway, she said to me, in a tone that suggested we were old friends, “Just fifteen more minutes.”
“Hm? Until what?”
Blow me down. I thought I’d been watching the sunrise. I knew the precise time of dawn, as I’d checked on the net, but I didn’t have a timepiece on me.
So I stuck around a little longer, and a good thing too. When the sun finally did pop up over the horizon, it was glorious. Majestic. Awe-inspiring.
Definitely worth getting up for.
Every year I learn a little bit more about astronomy and other aspects of these celestial events. Most of us know (if we’re aware of it at all) that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year. I always assumed that meant the earliest dawn and the latest sunset of the year as well. Makes sense, right? Stands to reason. But in fact the earliest dawn came about a week before the solstice, and the latest sunset about a week after. Weird, huh? I also learned that idea I have had in my head of the earth tilting back and forth on its axis is not correct. The axis is indeed tilted with respect to the plane of earth’s orbit around the sun, but it stays tilted in the same direction all year round. It’s just that as it revolves around the sun, that tilt means that one hemisphere and then the other gets more direct solar rays. It’s easy to find illustrations ofthis concept all over the web.
I really wanted to do something special to celebrate the solstice. I got a book on the topic, The Summer Solstice by Ellen Jackson. This book provides a kid-friendly explication of the summer solstice from diverse world traditions and the scientific perspective as well. Includes a story from Hawaii and hands-on activities. If there’s another book like this I haven’t found it yet. (Actually this is one in a series of four books by Ellen Jackson on the solstices and equinoxes, but I don’t know of any other book or series for kids that addresses the topic from a global perspective.) I read this to Persephone a couple times, and my father-in-law did too. She understands the basic concept, I think, and certainly understood this was a special day. She was especially excited to make a wreath in the Bohemian style, which I thought would be especially appropriate given her heritage, but on the day before our departure from New Orleans I realized I should have been drying out weeds, reeds and grasses a week or two ahead of time. I felt bad about having screwed that up. Having a bonfire wasn’t really an option for us. Another cool ritual I came across somewhere was the idea of launching candles on paper boats, but I don’t think that would work too well on the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe next year, if we’re in New Orleans, we could do that on the bayou.
So our celebrations in Vero were less ambitious. Persephone and I spent the latter part of the morning building a big sand sculpture. It wasn’t particularly artistic — just a big circular trench surrounded by towers. It was a solar symbol, at least in my mind. I didn’t take my camera down to the beach while we played in the sand, so I don’t have a photo of that captures the full glory of it, but I did pass by later and take a picture after the water had washed most of it away.
I actually started work on this project before the sun came up.
Later in the day we made the obligatory visit to McKee Botanical Garden. This place was established by the same eccentric Hoosier who created the Driftwood, the infamous Waldo Sexton. More about him later. Soon we were standing again in the Hall of Giants, marveling at the world’s largest mahogany table and other wonders.
Unfortunately it was blazing hot. In fact our whole trip seems to have been in the middle of a heat wave. When we visited this garden four years ago, the high was 86ºF. This day the high was 93ºF but we were melting like it was over a hundred. I’m sure with the heat index it was.
Fortunately things were much more pleasant by the time we got ready for our evening meal. We decided to dine al fresco on one of the tables by the ocean.
We used one of the gas grills to cook our food. This was also a nice place to meet some of our fellow guests. I discovered a lot of people were from inland Florida. Many of them had been coming to the Driftwood for years.
We’d stopped at a BBQ restaurant on the way home and picked up a couple pints of sauce.
Here’s a picture of grandma and granddaughter waiting for their dinner. I love their expressions in this photo. I also love this funky triangular table.
The chicken and roasted asparagus were delicious.
Afterward we went for a walk on the beach. A great end to the longest day of the year.
I meant to take notes on all the crazy things you’ve said over the last few weeks. But time got away from me. I remember you said “Trust me!” when we were playing Alphabet Farm. I wrote it down, because it seemed remarkable, but now I can’t remember anything more about it, except that I’d never heard you say that before, and somehow that seemed profound.
One morning when the car wouldn’t start I carried you across the street to Tommie’s shop. After I explained the situation to Tommie, including how you mother got to work that morning, you had one question: “What’s a damn cab?”
I don’t remember a whole lot more, but in my defense you were gone with your mother for roughly a quarter of the time since I last wrote. You spent a week at a friend’s cabin outside Fishville, Louisiana. When you came back I swear you looked and acted bigger. Just like last year.
Just before that we had the countdown to your last days of daycare ever. But I already told you about that. Since then you and your mother have been on summer vacation. I continue to work, but I get a vicarious sense of leisure from you two.
Maybe this would be a good time to mention something you said a couple months ago, which I never recorded. While I was putting you to bed one night, the topic of human mortality came up somehow, and you said, “But I don’t want to die!” I’ve never tried to hide the concept of death from you, the idea that all living things pass away, but I felt for you right then, and deeply. You sounded genuinely afraid. That old fear of death is a universal, and it’s been a mighty emotional force in my life. In fact the only thing that’s taken the edge off that fear, for me, has been you. After your birth, death and dying has seemed a little less scary to me. But that’s hardly something I’d expect you to understand at your tender age. So I said to you, “It’s OK, baby. Nobody wants to die. But it’s not anything you need to worry about for a long time.” I hope that was a good thing to say.
We made a return trip to Vero, Florida, with your maternal grandparents. I can’t begin to describe how magical it seemed to play in the surf with you. There’s something pure and purifying about the action of the waves. So many other distractions are forgotten, and we’re challenged to be most fully present, when a surge of ocean water is threatening to knock you down and wash you away. Actually you still get distracted and you’d have washed out to sea if left to your own devices. But I tried to get you to pay attention when a big wave was bearing down. Seemed like a valuable life lesson.
You were excited to celebrate the summer solstice, which we did today. I was thrilled that you seem to understand the idea of the solstice. “It’s the longest day of the year!” I’d promised we’d make a wreath, Bohemian-style, but travel and lack of planning on my part put that idea on hold. Instead, we frolicked on the beach and constructed a giant sun symbol in the sand, which the rising tide soon washed away. So that was sort of poetic.