Friday, December 25, 2009


Like so many non-religious, Christian-ish derived families in America we always celebrated Christmas. We always got a tree, decorated it with lights and glass balls, ceramic animals in Santa hats and at least 2.5 “baby’s first Christmas” ornaments per person. We sent and received Christmas cards, most that said something like “happy holidays” or “peace on earth” and piled mounds of wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. After the present orgy we ate a big meal, played cards and were awkward or awful to each other, depending on how much alcohol was involved. There was no god, or Jesus, or spirituality at all involved. As a kid I loved my dad’s ancient nativity set, but felt weird about Christmas carols like O Holy Night and even Joy To the World.

As I’ve spent time exploring my own spirituality I have found a fair amount of meaning and tradition to pull out of that strictly materialistic celebration of my Photo by HRW Worchester childhood. As I studied ancient and neo-Pagan beliefs and practices I have built a winter celebration that I really enjoy. Of course, though, as soon as you think you’ve got something figured out the universe throws a wrench in the works. Keeps you on your feet, I guess.

This Advent season I started attending a Friends church in my neighborhood. Quakers come out of a Christian tradition and some groups are quite traditional and conservative in their Christian belief. The Meeting I am attending, though Portland-Oregon-liberal, still includes scripture readings and some serious Jesus talk at times. The last Sunday of Advent Meeting for Worship included a “Christmas Pageant”, the first I’ve ever attended, where the kids dressed as characters of their choice, gather around a growing nativity set. If there is anything more in the spirit of Christmas than a dozen tiny angels with bed sheet robes and pipe cleaner halos, I don’t know what is.

Being exposed to all this Christ focused thought, including that found in Waldorf inspired blogs I’ve been reading, and a “new believer’s New Testament” bible I found in a free pile, has led me to a reexamination of my beliefs about Jesus. But reexamination has not led to any conclusions yet. I still have some major reservations about Jesus and Christianity, reservations that may never be reconciled. The Bible I found has an introduction for new readers that sums up Christian belief. After long meditation I disagree with almost every point, from original sin to a devil who tries to keep us from the light. I also don’t quite hold with photo by Fruitnveggies' a belief in time with a singular beginning, pivotal and unique points and a final end. Both my spiritual and scientific world views see time as cyclical, rather than linear. And without a belief in original sin or the unique event of Jesus Christ’s life can I really believe in redemption through his death? At the same time there is so much theology and philosophy woven throughout Christianity that I couldn’t possibly reject it all out of hand. Rudolph Steiner wrote extensively about Christ and I haven’t read any of that. I look forward to continuing to broaden and deepen my relationship with Christianity, and with human’s relationships with the divine.

The pastor at my Friend’s meeting left us with a final thought the other weekend. He said that all of the characters in the Nativity story were active participants in the story. Each of the participants had heard God’s invitation and actively engaged in the events. He said some people were like the Shepherds, minding their own business until they were asked to come and witness God’s works while some are like the Magi who had been searching for a lifetime. Others are like Joseph who thinks he has everything worked out before God wrenches everything apart only to put it back together completely differently. He reminded us to listen for that invitation this Christmas season, listen for the invitation and accept it, no matter what our part may be to play. What invitation are you being sent this winter?

Christmas, though, is very much about tradition. No one ever read me the story of the birth of Jesus when I was a child, so my traditions aren't about that part of the story. In the end, there is one story that sums up Christmas to me.

"'Twas the Night Before Christmas"
By Clement Clarke Moore

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Advent, Awaiting the Birth

I didn't grow up going to church. My mother gave up religion early when she realized that history books and the bible don't jive and no one could give her a good enough answer as to why. My father was raised Irish Catholic, was a Hare Krisna for a while before I was born and, though I believe he has a personal faith and spirituality, never shared it with his family or pursued organized religion. For a while when I was in middle school my mom tried out a local Unitarian Universalist church but though it provided a community for us for a while it never quite stuck. I attended UU churches in college and afterwards but as my personal spirituality grew I found those churches lacking. One year in college my sister and I attended a "modern/evangelical/charismatic" Christian church for an Easter service and I attended a Catholic service that same spring. The Christian service gave me a sense of communal worship I enjoyed, and the Catholic service the sense of tradition I craved, but I couldn't deal with the theology of either.

This winter I started attending a Friends church in my neighborhood. The Friends, or Quakers, are a Christian community most known for their work in social justice and peace as well as their unique, silent worship. I finally quit thinking about going and just went and you know what? I love it. Really, really love it. This church uses a mix of standard churchy stuff like singing, readings and out-loud prayer along with time of silent worship. I found it amazingly refreshing, friendly and welcoming. It has really enhanced my Advent celebration and given me lots to think about this winter.

In the Christian tradition, Advent is the season of waiting and preparing before the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In my evolving eclectic pagan tradition, Advent is a season of waiting and preparing for the birth of the New Year's sun at Solstice. Considering the Bible doesn't say anything about December 25, lights, trees, cookies or hot toddies, I see no reason not to celebrate Advent just because it's been coopted by the Christians for the last thousand years.

Like I noted last post, I am decorating my advent creche again this year specifically using the Waldorf/Steiner tradition of decorating it according to the four realms of the natural world. It was quite bare the first week but it now has stones and crystals, evergreen boughs and animal figurines interspersed between the candles. Next week comes the fairy god mothers, wise men and goddesses and finally, on Solstice and Christmas eves, the baby Son and Sun.

In addition to decorating my creche and lighting candles I have been working towards being mindful of the four realms of creation during each week of Advent. During the second week I walked in the woods on a windy day and was very, very aware of the trees above me. I truly feared that a limb or a tree would come down on me and that fear kept the trees present in the front of my mind the whole afternoon. I collected fallen fir and cedar branches that day and took some holly from a tree in my yard to decorate my creche. The third Sunday of Advent included a trip to a dog park and making gingerbread cookies in the shapes of woodland creatures. Gingerbread hedgehogs are possibly the cutest things ever. I also filled all the bird feeders that week. This last week of Advent will include parties with my friends and more gingerbread men (and women).

Spicy Gingerbread Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup molasses
2 egg yolks
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
4 1/4 cups flour (any mix of white and whole wheat you would like)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice or nutmeg
2 tsp cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
more flour for rolling out

*Combine butter and sugar and cream until fluffy and well combined. Add molasses, egg yolks and grated fresh ginger and stir until well combined. I recommend using an electric mixer.

*Stir the spices, salt and leavening with the first cup of flour with a fork. Using a wooden or metal spoon stir the flour into the molasses mix one cup at a time. You will probably need to knead the last half cup in with your hands.

*Lay the dough ball onto a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper and spread into a thick disk. Wrap completely in plastic wrap or put the parchment wrapped disk in a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least three hours.

*When ready to shape cookies cut or pull baseball sized hunks of dough off the disk and using flour and your hands or a rolling pin roll the dough out into 1/4 inch thick slabs. Use cookie cutters of your choice to shape the dough, place at least 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. I found that drier dough makes sharper edges on your cookies. Decorate with cinnamon candies or sprinkles before baking or icing after baking,

This new moon is the new moon of the birth moon. We are awaiting the birth of the new year's sun, or of the Son of God. We are celebrating the birth of gingerbread people, of love in our homes and of traditions new and old. What are you doing to mark the path towards the darkest days of the year? What are your deep winter traditions? What's the cutest gingerbread cookie you have ever eaten or made?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Moving From the Season of the Dead

Today marks the full moon of the Death Moon, but it is also the middle of the first week of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas. I have been feeling this tension of energies this week and have been reveling in it.

The Death Moon is the first moon of the year and as such it is the time of cycle change. It is a time to work on handling transitions and changes in our lives. It is a time to meditate on the fact that stagnation is crippling and stifling, only through change do we stay dynamic and alive. We have just celebrated Halloween and the lives and ghosts of our Beloved Dead are still forefront in our minds. It is the time of bare, skeleton trees, giant moons on frosty nights and dry leaves scraping and scuttling along the pavement. It's a time of stillness before the wheel starts creaking into motion again.
photo by mikeropology

I am decorating and advent creche again this year but with a little change from last year. It is traditional for Waldorf schools and families to decorate their nature tables and light their advent wreaths in a very specific order. The first week of advent is dedicated to the realm of the earth, stones, crystals and bones. The second week is dedicated to the realm of plants, the third to the realm of animals and finally the fourth week is dedicated to the realm of human beings. The nature table or creche is decorated with figures that represent these realms and verses are read at the lighting of the candles on the advent wreath that speak to these realms. I find it a very powerful visual representation of the movement, as Ann Druitt's book All Year Round says, out of "a season of remembrance for the dead, into a time of preparation for that which is to be born.”

This year I was out of town celebrating Thanksgiving with my friends and came home on Sunday, full of love and gratitutde, to decorate my creche. I cleared my altar of the Halloween decorations (photos of my grandfather, deceased friend and childhood dog, figures of owls, salmon, ammonites, a sage smudge, candles, etc.) and set it up with my creche background. I set up four tall candles and added a number of shells, stones and crystals to the table. Every night this week when I come home I see that stark, bare creche. It is clearly waiting, just like we are waiting, for the rebirth of the light in just a few short weeks.

The first light of Advent is the light of stone–.
Stones that live in crystals, seashells, and bones.
The second light of Advent is the light of plants–
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.
The third light of Advent is the light of beasts–
All await the birth, from the greatest and in least.
The fourth light of Advent is the light of humankind–
The light of hope that we may learn to love and understand.
-attributed to Rudolph Steiner

Are you feeling the energies of the Death Moon or the Advent season this week? Or are you feeling both? How are you marking the turning from the season of the dead into the season of that which will be born? Do you celebrate Advent? Have you had to turn on the heater yet? :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Soldier and Death

As I said in my post, I am going to try to incorporate more stories and poems into my blog posts as a way to illustrate, rather than simply tell about, the turning of the wheel of the year. Some posts will include short stories or poems and some explination while others, like this one, will simply be a story.

This story is an old Russian tale I first heard through the Jim Henson's The Storyteller series. It caught my imagination and when I found a written version of the story I knew I would have to retell it as my Death Moon story. Here is my version, with links to the Jim Henson and Arthur Ransome versions at the bottom.

*** *** *** ***

The Soldier and Death

Once upon a time there was a soldier who had served his King well for 25 years and was finally free to go home. He gathered his cloak and his sword, kissed his companions good bye, and took three dry biscuits before setting off into the early winter morning.

He whistled an ancient tune as he traveled the high road past snowy fields and under grey skies. He walked and he whistled until he met a beggar along the road. The old man was dressed in patched and ragged clothes and begged for alms. The soldier had no money to his name but gave the old man one of his three dry biscuits.

“God keep you and Goddess bless” said the beggar.

“Goddess bless you as well, old man” said the soldier and he set off.

He whistled his ancient tune as he traveled the high road through wooded hills and marshy lands. He walked and he whistled until he met another beggar along the road. The old man was dressed in clothes even more patched and ragged than the first and was also begging for alms. The soldier had no money to give but handed the old man the second of his three dry biscuits.

“God keep you and Goddess bless” said the beggar.

“Goddess bless you as well, old man” said the soldier and he set off.

He whistled his ancient tune as he traveled the high road past fields of wooly sheep and shaggy cows. He walked and he whistled until he met a third beggar along the road. This old man was dressed in even more patched and ragged clothes than the other two. He looked so thin and weak he could hardly stand as he begged for alms. The soldier thought of his one remaining dry biscuit but decided that he was close to home and the old man needed it more than he did. He handed the beggar his third dry biscuit.

“God keep you and Goddess bless” said the beggar.

“Goddess bless you as well, old man” said the soldier.

“Is there anything you would like as thanks for your kindness?” the beggar asked.

“There is nothing you can give me beyond your blessings, friend” replied the soldier.

“Looks can be deceiving, young man. What would you like?”

The soldier thought back fondly on evenings spent with his companions wagering all they could think to wager playing cards. He asked the old man if he had any such thing as a pack of cards about him. The old man reached under his patched and ragged cloak and pulled out a small but beautiful deck and something else the soldier could not at first identify.
“Take these as thanks, and you will never lose no matter who you play against. And take this sack as well. If you come across any beast of fowl and want to have it just tell it to get into the sack and it will. Then you can do with it what you wish.”

“Thank you kindly and Goddess bless” said the soldier one more time before he set off again, whistling his ancient tune traveling down the high road.

After a night and a day of traveling the soldier found himself on the shore of a small glittering lake. He stopped to rest his feet and quench his thirst. As he lay back among the grass he noticed three wild geese paddling across the lake. “If only I could catch them,” he thought, “then I would not be hungry as I am now.” And then he remembered the sack the old man had given him. He stood up, held the sack open and cried “Hey, you, geese! See my sack? Get into it!”

The geese rushed quickly towards the sack and clambered over themselves to get into it. When all three were in the sack the soldier tied the top with two double knots, put the sack on his shoulder and set off again. His tune was a bit less lively due to the effort of carrying the three geese, but he traveled still along the high road past stacks of hay and fields of stubble.

Before night fall he found himself on the main street of a small but lovely town. He found a well kept inn and asked for the landlord.

“Sir,” said the soldier, “In my sack are three fat geese. I would like one roasted for my dinner. I’ll trade the other for a bottle of your finest wine and you can keep the third for your troubles.”

“Oh, aye,” cried the landlord and rushed off with the sack into the kitchens.

“Don’t forget to bring back the sack,” the soldier called after him.

In no time at all the soldier was tucking in to a wonderful dinner of goose roast in honey and cloves and washing it down with a bottle of fine red wine. He spent his evening dancing and laughing with other guests at the inn and finally laid his weary body down in a soft, warm bed upstairs.

In the morning the soldier woke up and looked out the window of the inn. On the hill above the town stood a beautiful palace all made of rose red stone with red tile roofs, a tower, walled gardens and beautifully carved wooden door posts and window frames. The odd thing was, that none of the windows had glass in them, and the gardens were clearly overgrown, and some of the roof tiles were broken or missing.

When the soldier went down for breakfast he asked the landlord about the palace.

“Oh, aye, that palace belongs to the Duke who rules these lands.” said the landlord. “It’s been empty these three years, though, because evil spirits have taken up living there. They say they are angry that the Duke didn’t pay proper respects to the stones and trees that made his palace. Every night the spirits come in and make such devilish noise, stomping and singing, hooting, hollering and playing cards. There’s no living there for decent folks.”

“Can no one clear them out?” asked the soldier.

“Easier said than done.” replied the landlord. “Brave men go in live and well in the evening and in the morning the Duke’s servants have to sweep the floors to pick up all the pieces of their bones.”

“I’ve served my King well for 25 years. Fire won’t burn a soldier and water won’t drown him. A single night in that palace won’t be the end of me.” And with that the soldier asked the landlord to point him in the direction of the Duke’s new home, wishes the landlord well and set off to talk to the Duke.

“Your majesty,” said the soldier after giving the Duke a proper bow and salute, “will you give me leave to spend one night in your empty palace?”

“No man has survived a night in that palace since the evil spirits have taken up residence. I hate to see the end of such a fine man as yourself,” replied the Duke.

“I’ve served my King well for 25 years. Fire won’t burn a soldier and water won’t drown him. A single night in that palace won’t be the end of me,” Said the soldier.

“Well, if that be so then God keep you and Goddess bless,” the Duke said, “Spend the night there if you’ve set your heart on it.”

The soldier entered the palace, whistling his ancient tune, cards in his pocket, sack on his back. He whistled and sang his way through all the empty rooms admiring the beautiful rose colored stone and admiring the carved wooden beams. He lit a small fire in large room, and sat down at the table to wait for the spirits, shuffling his cards and whistling his tune the whole night through.

At 12 o’clock sharp he heard such a noise as the soldier had never heard. Yelling and screaming, dancing and singing, drums and fiddles, hooting, hollering, stomping and yowling. The room filled with the devilish little spirits, with long fingers and toes on the ends of their long arms and legs, wispy white hair floating above their pale faces and sneering mouths filled with sharp pointed teeth.

“You, soldier,” one cried, “What are you doing here? There’s no living here for decent folks”

“What a nice tune he has” another cried. “And lovely cards” yet another cried. “And such a decent soul” a third remarked.

“Deal out the cards, we’ll take them all from you, and then we will tear you to pieces and eat you up!” the first screamed again.

The soldier laughed. “Be sure you know who is eating who. What do you have to wager against my tune, my cards and my soul.”

“We have 40 barrels of gold, we do” cried one of the spirits.

“Bring them here and let’s play a game” said the soldier.

No sooner than he had said it had forty of the spirits dragged forty barrels of gold into the room. The soldier shuffled his cards and dealt them out to the spirits pushing and shoving for room on the benches around the table. They played a game and the soldier won. They played again, and the soldier won again. A third game they played and a third time the soldier won.

So it went on all night with the spirits using all their cunning to cheat and lie but the soldier winning game after game. The gold moved from one end of the room to the other until the whole 40 barrels were stacked up behind the soldier’s chair. When the spirits realized they had no more money to lose they cried out with such a clamor. They yelled and they howled, they screamed and they screeched.

“Tear him to pieces! Eat him up” they cried.

“Be sure you know who is eating who,” said the soldier as he pulled out his sack. “Do you know what this is?”

“A sack.” One of the spirits replied.

“If it is a sack, then get in it!” called the soldier. With a rushing and a whistling all the spirits flew into the sack, clambering over each other to get into it. When they were all in the soldier tied up the sack with two double knots and threw the sack on the ground. He kicked it and tossed it around, punching it and beating it until the spirits cried out for mercy.

“Do you promise to leave this palace and never come back?” asked the soldier.

“Yes, yes, we promise!” cried the spirits.

And with that the soldier untied the sack and let the spirits fly out. And fly out they did! They tripped over each other to get away from that soldier and his sack. The soldier, however, caught the last spirit as it left the sack and held it by the leg. The spirit hung, gibbering and flailing, trying to get away. The soldier grabbed the spirit’s hat and said
“Spirit, promise me to be my faithful servant.” There was nothing to be done other than agree so the spirit agreed and agreed so the soldier would let him go.

“I will keep your hat and when I call for you, you must come to me.” Said the soldier and then let the spirit go.

The last spirit hopped off screaming, following the others over fields and woods, hills and pastures, across the Great River to the Isle of the Dead. They called all the other spirits and spooks, fairies and furies, banshees and angels, dryads, nymphs and gnomes, crying and aching in all their bones, and told them about the soldier and his sack. They set sentinels all around the Isle of the Dead, and warned the ferryman who ran the ferry across the Great River, and ordered them to watch well, and whatever they did, not on any account to let in the soldier with the sack.

In the morning the Duke and his servants came to the palace and instead of finding the soldier ripped to pieces found him whistling his ancient tune in front of a small fire in the large room. Behind him was the forty barrels of gold and at his side his sack. The soldier told the Duke all that had happened and how he had won the gold from the spirits and chased them away so no spirits would dare set foot within a hundred miles of the palace.

“If that be so,” said the Duke, “then we shall move into this palace at once and you shall live here with me as a brother.” And so they did. They moved in all of their tables and beds, servants and cooks and even the Duke’s wife and children. Soon after that the soldier himself took a wife and they all lived happily in the beautiful palace above the small town.

One year after the soldier married his wife gave birth to a beautiful son. The soldier loved his son more than anything and told him stories of his own valor and made up stories about when the boy grows up and becomes a general himself. The son grew into a fine young boy, happy and strong. One day, when the boy was three years old, he fell ill with a terrible fever. The soldier and his wife prayed and tended him, they called in doctors and wise women, they fed him teas and gave him baths and special ointments were put on his chest and forehead. Despite all of this the boy got sicker and sicker. The Duke was about to call for a priest to care for the dying boy when the soldier remembered the deal he made with the spirit all those years before.

He grabbed up the spirit’s hat and cried out, “Where the devil has my devilish spirit gone to?” With a small whoosh the spirit appeared in the room of the sick boy.

“How may I help you, great Sir” asked the spirit, his eyes full of fear.

“My son is very sick. Do you or any of the other spirits of the Isle of the Dead know how to cure him?” asked the soldier.

The spirit, with his with long fingers and toes on the ends of his long arms and legs, wispy white hair floating above his pale face and fearful eyes above a mouth filled with sharp pointed teeth, looked around as if unsure whether to reveal his secret but in his great fear decided to tell what he knew. He pulled a small glass goblet with strange etchings all over it out of his pocket and held it in his long fingers. He filled it with cold water from the basin next to the bed and held it upon the boy’s forehead.

“What do you see in the water, great Sir” asked the spirit.

The soldier looked through the glass into the goblet and saw a shrunken woman dressed all in black, her face shifting from young to old, beautiful to ugly, dark to fair and back again more quickly than his eyes could make out. “I see Death” he whispered, “standing at the foot of my son’s bed.”

“All is well, great Sir” said the spirit, “If you see Death at the foot of a sick person’s bed then with a sprinkle of water from the goblet they are fit and fine. If Death is at the head of a sick person’s bed, however, all is up with them and Death will have her due.”

The spirit sprinkled a little water from the goblet onto the boy and he was instantly laughing and crawling towards his mother, as if he had never been sick a day in his life.

“Give me that goblet and I will give you back your hat. We will call it quits and our deal be done,” said the soldier to the spirit. The spirit looked greatly relieved, handed over the goblet, grabbed his hat from the soldier’s hands and whooshed off, as quick as he could, away from the soldier and his sack.

Starting that very day the soldier set up as a wise man, traveling from sick bed to sick bed. He would fill the goblet with water and hold it up to the sick person’s forehead. If Death stood at their feet he would sprinkle the water and up they got. If Death stood at their head he would say “All is up with you, Death will have her due”, and the person died as sure as spring would come again. It was a hard time for the doctors and wise women, but a great time for the soldier.

One day the soldier’s great friend the Duke fell ill. The soldier quickly came to his bedside, filled the goblet and held it up to his head. To his great fear and horror he saw the shrunken woman all dressed in black, her face shifting from young to old, beautiful to ugly, dark to fair and back again more quickly than his eyes could make out standing at the head of the Duke’s bed.

“Quickly, man, what do you see?” asked the Duke. “I am feeling weaker with every breath.”

The soldier made a choice and chose to sprinkle the Duke with the water from the goblet. The Duke rose, fit and fine, but the soldier immediately fell ill himself. Death would have her due. The soldier lay on the bed, feverish and ill, getting weaker with every breath. He held the glass up to his own forehead, looked Death in the face and pulled his sack out from under his cloak.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked her.

“A sack.” she replied, her eyes growing wide with fear.

“If it is a sack, then get in it!” he cried with the last of his strength. And with a rushing and a whistling Death flew into the soldier’s sack. He jumped up, fit and fine, tied the sack in two double knots.

“I’ve caught Death in my sack! I’ve caught Death in my sack!” he cried. And with that, he took the sack, slung over his shoulder and headed off to the deep forest, far away from the small town with the beautiful palace. He traveled into the very center of the forest and climbed he tallest tree in the darkest heart of the forest. He climbed the tree with his sack on his back and tied the sack with Death in it onto the highest branch of the highest oak tree in the darkest heart of the forest. And then he went home.

With Death tied in a sack no one could die. There were births every day, and plenty of them, but no deaths. Wars would be fought and people would get sick, but there would be no deaths. The soldier looked out over his small village below his beautiful palace and was very pleased with himself.

This went on for a number of years, happy years in which the soldier’s son grew into a fine young lad. The soldier and the Duke remained friends and grew even more wealthy with the prosperity of their land. One day the soldier went for a walk through the town and saw an ancient old crone sitting on a doorstep. She was so old and tiny she looked like she could hardly keep herself upright and tottered in the face of every breeze that blew down the street.

“Grandmother,” said the soldier gently, “is there anything I can do to help?”

“You,” cried the old woman full of anger “you soldier with your sack have done nothing but harm to me. Years ago I was ready to die in my bed surrounded by my family. I was ready to find a peaceful place across the Great River and grow young again, ready to meet the Goddess in the place she made ready for me on the Isle of the Dead. But then you caught Death in your sack. I’ve now spent years in this broken body wishing for nothing but Death’s release. There is only one thing you can do to help me.”

And with that the soldier set off straight for the deep forest, far away from the small town with the beautiful palace He traveled into the very center of the forest and climbed he tallest tree in the darkest heart of the forest. He untied the sack and carried it back to his palace, ready to meet Death and go with her when he opened the sack. But when he opened the sack Death flew out, as quick as she could away to the Isle of the Dead, terrified of the soldier and he sack.

The soldier cried out for her to return, to take him as was her due, but she would not return.

“If Death won’t take me then I’ll have to go myself.” he said to himself and he immediately set out. He marched over fields and marched through woods. He marched over hills and he marched through pastures. He marched and he marched until finally he came to the ferry across the Great River to the Isle of the Dead.

“Hulloo there!” he called out to the ferryman. “I’ve come to take the ferry to the Isle of the Dead.”

“And who are you?” asked the ferryman, “and why didn’t Death bring you here?”

“I am the soldier who caught Death in his sack. She wouldn’t bring me here so I brought myself.” Replied the soldier.

The ferryman left the soldier and went across to the Isle of Death to see what should be done about the soldier. When he returned he told the soldier that they would not let him into the Isle of the Dead and he should return to his small town with his beautiful palace.

“But I have done a terrible thing. I owe Death her due and deserve to die!” cried the soldier.

“There is no place for you here,” replied the ferryman.

Just then, Death, a shrunken woman dressed all in black, her face shifting from young to old, beautiful to ugly, dark to fair and back again more quickly than his eyes could make out, arrived on the shore near the soldier. With her was the ancient old crone from the streets of the soldier’s town.

“Death! Tell the ferryman to take me to the Isle of the Dead!” cried the soldier, but Death shrieked in fear of the sack, turned away and disappeared as quickly as she could.

The ferryman reached for the ancient old crone’s hand to gently help her into his ferry but the soldier begged her to stop.

“Grandmother, please help me. I let Death out of the sack and allowed you to come here, to the Isle of the Dead where you will grow young again. Do me this favor and take my sack. When you reach the other shore call me into it so I can meet the Goddess and beg her forgiveness. Do this for me as I have done well by you.”

The ancient crone took the sack and stepped into the ferry. But when she stepped on the shores of the Isle of Death she began to forget all that had happened to her on Earth, starting with her meeting the soldier on the shore. She dropped the sack somewhere on the Isle and there it most likely lies to this day.

The soldier waited on the shore of the Great River to be called into the sack, but he was never called. He waited and waited and eventually he turned and walked slowly back to Earth. For all I know, he wanders the Earth still.

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If you liked this story please check out my source material. Both of these versions are delightful and rich in language and images.

Google Books page for Arthur Ransome's The Soldier and Death

Jim Henson's The Storyteller episode, The Soldier and Death
A video of the entire episode (also avaliable on Netflix as of October 2009)
Someone's personal page with a full transcript of the episode.
The Muppet Wiki page with information about production and the cast.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Full Sorting Moon

Look, here it is. The last full moon of the year. The Sorting Moon, being the end of the cycle, is a time for reviewing what has been done and choosing what to keep and what not to keep. It is the time of ripping the summer plants out of the garden and readying the beds for winter. It is the time to go through the stored food and toss any bad or rotting things so they don't spoil everything. In fact, just last week I pulled out all the tomato plants from my garden and now have a table full of green tomatoes to deal with. In an agricultural society this would also be the time of choosing which animals will be kept as breeding stock for the next year and which would be slaughtered for the winter's meat. It is a time when death, the ultimate end of the cycle, is on people's minds. It is the season of Halloween, the first dark days, knowing winter is here.

It also means that I have been blogging the Wheel of the Year for one full turn now. Wow. Time flies. In line with the energy of the Sorting Moon I have been looking over and thinking about what I have done this year in this blog. I am really happy, for the most part, with my writings and observations this year. I did succeed in becoming more concious of the signs of the seasons and my relationship to the year as it turns and found many new ways to celebrate as the year passes.

I am excited about continuing to blog through the year next year. I look forward to extrapolating on what I wrote this year and exploring different facets of each moon and festival next year. By the end of this year I was not getting posts written by the actual date of the moon or festival and would really like to get back on track with this during the next year. Another goal of mine for the upcoming year is to incorporate more stories and poems into my posts. I am very good at expository writing but enjoy the posts from last year that include with poems the most. Also, incorporating stories fits with my evolving ideas of how humans learn and remember best. Stories illustrate while words simply tell. I'll keep my eyes open over the course of the year for poems and stories that fit with the mood of the moons and festivals and if you have any suggestions, please do pass them along. A few original fiction pieces may show up as well.

A perfect meal for this time of year is a good beef stew. The meat and gravy give us strenght to face these dark days and nothing warms you up like a big bowl of stew. Give thanks to the cow who gave his life during this time of culling and sorting while you stew over the things you need to sort and cull in your life.

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*2 1/2 lb chuck roast
*1/3 cup flour
*1 tsp salt, plus more
*1/2 tsp pepper
*3/4 tsp ground sage
*cooking fat of your choice (bacon grease?!? or lard or coconut oil)
*1 onion, chopped
*2 stalks celery, chopped
*1 cup red wine
*1 cup chicken stock
*1 1/2 - 2 cups beef broth
*2 tbs tomato paste
*1 1/2 cups chopped carrots
*2 bay leaves
*Small sprig of rosemary
*1/2 cup frozen peas
*1 tsp red wine vinegar
*A pan full of chopped root vegetables - I used 3 smallish potatoes, 1 turnip and 1 1/2 large parsnips. Onions, carrots, garlic and sweet potatoes would all be wonderful.
*Oil, salt and pepper for the vegetables

The night before:
Trim and cut beef into fork sized chunks. Remove most of the gristle and fat, but some will add texture and flavor to the stew. In a zip bag or pie plate combine flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper and ground sage. Taste to make sure it is salty enough to not just taste like flour. Mix beef chunks into flour mixture and coat well. Heat cooking oil in a cast iron skillet and cover the bottom of the pan with beef chunks. Make sure to not crowd the pan and brown until at least a couple sides of each chunk are good and browned. Remove to a bowl that will fit all the beef, easily be covered and can go in your refrigerator. Repeat with the rest of the meat.

When all the meat is browned deglaze the pan with red wine, stir and scrape the browned bits off the bottom and simmer for a minute or two to reduce the liquid. Scrape the liquid into the bowl with the beef. (I did two batches of meat in my 12 inch cast iron and then deglazed the pan, rinsed it and did a third batch. I didn't want the browned bits to get too burned but your pan/stove/etc may be different).

Wipe or rinse the pan and heat up another tablespoon or so of fat. Sautee the onions and celery until tender, seasoning with salt, pepper and maybe some thyme, or ground rosemary or even more ground sage. Deglaze or scrape the pan and add the vegetables to the bowl of beef. Place the bowl in the fridge. Wash and chop root vegetables into 1 1/2 - 2 inch chunks. Place in a zippy bag or large covered container in the fridge.

In the morning:
Place the carrots in the bottom of your crock pot. Pour beef, onions and all the juice from the bowl in the crock pot. Combine the tomato paste with some of the stock and stir to combine. Pour the tomato and all the stock into the crock pot. I added beef broth until it was just under the level of the beef. Tuck the bay and rosemary in the liquid. I wrapped my rosemary in cheesecloth so I wouldn't have to fish out individual rosemary leaves. Turn heat to low and cook for 8-10 hours. Mine cooked for 9 hours and was perfect.

In the evening:
Turn the oven to 375. Place chopped root vegetables in a baking pan and coat with olive or coconut oil. Salt and pepper liberally and stir to combine everything. Roast until the veggies are tender and browned. Feel free to crank the heat to 425 if they are tender but not yet brown and you are hungry. Should take 20-30 minutes depending on how big your chunks are.

Add the frozen peas to the stew and stir it, removing the bay and rosemary and taste for seasonings. Mine didn't need any more salt but yours might. I did add a tsp of red wine vinegar and it really perked things up. I recommend you do the same. I also left the cover off while the veggies roasted to allow everything to thicken up a bit more. and add them to the stew. Serve by putting veggies in each bowl and pouring stew over top. Serve with buttered bread, red wine and maybe some pickled carrots or a salad.

Alternative if you don't own or don't use a crock pot:Instead of putting beef and carrots and stock in a crock pot, put it in a heavy stock pot. Simmer on the stovetop for a couple hours, or bring to a boil and then place in a 350 degree oven for a couple hours. Proceed as above.

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What is ending for you? What do you need to sort out? What do you like about my blog and what could make it better? Whats your favorite stew recipe? Enjoy your winter evenings!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Do You Really Want To Be?

"In my ideal version of Halloween, we wouldn't scare ourselves with images of ghoulish skeletons, eyeballs floating in cauldrons, and hissing, three-headed snakes. Rather, we'd confront more realistic fears, like the possibility that the effects we have on the world are different from our intentions . . . or that we have not yet reached our potential . . . or that people we like might completely misread and misunderstand us. Then Halloween would serve a more spiritually useful purpose. It would bring us face-to-face with actual dangers to our psychic integrity, whereupon we could summon our brilliant courage and exorcize the hell out of them." - Rob Breszny

Dressing up in costumes has always been my favorite part of Halloween. I love figuring out what I am going to be and figuring out how to make the costume. I love watching my friends ramp up their creative juices and enjoy working together on creative projects with the deadline of the party looming over us. None of my friends go for store bought costumes - creativity and home-made are the words of the day. One year a group of friends went as Zoltan followers from the movie Dude Where's My Car by wearing amazing interstellar jumpsuits. They worked for weeks on their bubble wrap suits, complete with interstellar fanny packs to carry wallets and house keys. This year one of my friends dressed as the Morton Salt Girl (yellow dress, big white umbrella) and another as Zoltara, the fortune teller from old penny arcades. I also met a wind up ballerina from a music box, a giant lolly pop, Tank Girl and a chocolate bunny. Too much fun!

The question comes up, though, of why do we dress up for Halloween? A little internet research confirms the idea that dressing up like this is an ancient Celtic custom during particularly holy days. This time halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice is the time of Samhain, the Celtic new year celebration. It is a time of the turning from the light half of the year into the dark and was a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thin. It was a time of a transition, a time when beings and spirits could move freely between the two worlds. Our modern tradition of dressing up is a direct descendant of Medieval costume parades during holy days and the upside-down revelry so important in those structured and stratified cultures. Other sources say that dressing up came from a modern fear of the spirits that can be found prowling the earth on these dark nights. As our society moved away from death as a part of daily life in the form of butchering animals and reaping crops we became fearful of the dead and started dressing up to scare off the un-earthly spirits.

One challenge that faces those of us who are rebuilding our own spiritual practices is how to reclaim ancient practices in a modern context. How do these old customs of dressing up, carving pumpkins and trick or treating fit into my life in a spiritual manner? My Personal Astrologer and Hero, Rob Breszny gives me some ideas with the horoscope he wrote above. His syndicated column, Free Will Astrology, has been a source of wisdom and meaning for me for years and I am always particularly thrilled with his writings around Halloween. What are we really afraid of? What do we really want to be? Lets make dressing up for Halloween serve to illustrate these big questions!

This year for Halloween I was a Dead Prom Queen. The costume pieces came to me easily once I decided and in the end I was really happy with it. I've never been a girly girl and never been one for dressing up but the idea of wearing a prom gown was exciting to me this fall. I found a beautiful red dress at Goodwill and it looked fantastic on me. I wore my tiara to work the day before Halloween and noticed something fantastic about costumes. What you wear effects how people treat you, and how people treat you effects how you feel. By the end of the day on Friday I FELT like a Princess. By the end of the night on Saturday I FELT like a Queen in a regal gown. The story I made up for my drowning was that my date was jealous and pushed me into the river after our Prom. In my costume, in my character, I was so awesome and beautiful that someone was jealous enough to kill me. What an inspiring thought to take away from a night of partying.

Luckily, none of my friends really were that jealous and we just had a grand time. What did you dress up as for Halloween this year? What could you dress up as to illustrate your fears or your hopes? What's the best costume you've ever seen on someone?

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

New Sorting Moon

This week marks the beginning of the last month of Annette Hinshaw's lunar calendar, the Sorting Moon. She brings to mind the central image theme of this month - animal herds being thinned so they can be cared for with the farm's limited resources during the winter. This is the time, at the end of the year, to sort through what has been done and learned, and to cull out that which is no longer useful or can not be supported. I'll meditate on that thought more as the month progresses but something else is taking up my thinking these days.

All of a sudden it is truly autumnal in this neck of the woods. It feels like just days ago I was enjoying the Indian Summer of Michaelmas time and now it is dark, wet and even getting a little cold at night. The leaves aren't that lovely yellow they were a month ago, they are now a riot of orange, brown and gold. I remember the awe I felt when my high school biology teacher taught us about why leaves change. It was one of the first of many times I have felt that sense of awe when learning or contemplating facts about the natural world. He told us about the different types of plant pigments - chlorophyll that looks green, carotenoids that look orange or brown and the xanthophyll that is yellow - and how they are all present all year. During the growing season the chlorophyll is so prominent that the plants look green but in the fall chlorophyll production slows and eventually stops. This leaves the plants true colors, the yellows, oranges and reds, to show in a glorious blaze before the tree sheds it's leaves for the winter. The yellows and reds are always there, we just can't see them. How cool is that??

The other marker of the turning seasons is how dark and wet it has become. We had our first big rainstorms last week and I have had to start wearing my dog walk shoes and pants for our morning walks. In the summer I can get away with wearing work clothes because the ground is dry and I don't get muddy but that is just not the case in the winter. This week also marked the first time the sun was down and the sky was dark when I got off work at 6:30. I've been working hard to adjust to the new winter rhythm in my life - morning dog walks, warm dinners waiting in the crock pot, nights by the fire or radio with crochet or hand sewing - but it's hard work! I'm tired tired and frustrated. Until the sun comes up the next morning and the sky is misty, the grass dewy and the trees bronze and copper colored. I do love autumn.

Speaking of dinners in the crock pot, nothing is quite so lovely as a warm dinner waiting when you get home. This week I made chili with cornbread in the crock pot and have been eating it all week. Blessed be the crock pot that cooks my food while I work!

**** ***** *****

Crock Pot Tamale Pie

Chili (make the night before)

1 lb ground bison or beef or turkey or whatever - I used bison
2 cans beans - I used black and kidney
1/2 onion, chopped
2, 3, 4 cloves of garlic, minced
dried chile powder and cumin - at LEAST a tbs each
other leftover veggies - I diced up two carrots fine and added a little leftover cooked corn
spicy stuff - I had some canned jalapenos, two kinds of salsa and some chipotle in adobo sauce that all got thrown in
tomato stuff - in addition to the salsa I added some tomato paste thinned to sauce consistency
liquid stuff - chicken broth or water as necessary

Fry up the ground meat with a little extra fat to keep things from sticking if necessary. When it's starting to brown add the onions, dry spices and other veggies and cook until browned and softened. Stir in the garlic and cook another minute before starting to toss tomatoey and spicy stuff in. Keep adding what you've got until the chili is a consistency a little thinner than you would like. Add a little salt if necessary and simmer until it has thickened a bit. Pour into storage containers and cool overnight.

Cornbread (Start the night before)

3/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup white or whole wheat flour
1 cup kefir or buttermilk or yogurt thinned to buttermilk consistency
2 eggs
Up to 3 tbs honey or maple syrup
Up to 1/4 cup melted butter, coconut oil or olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder

Stir together the cornmeal, flour and sour dairy and let sit overnight.
In the morning, stir in everything else and mix well to combine.

Pour the cold chili into a 4 quart crock pot and pour the cornbread batter over top. Cook for 6 hours on low or until the cornbread is set and everything is hot.

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What signs of the season are you noting as the wheel turns to deep autumn? Is it frosty and cold where you are, or are the fall rains a blessing? How are you settling into your cold season rhythm? What do you like to cook on a cold, dark night?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Moon When Squirrels Throw Acorns At You

As I have more closely watched the wheel of the year turn and gotten to know the major signs of the seasons I have started to notice the more subtle signs as well. It's fun to make up my own names for the seasons. There is a time in the spring I refer to as The Season When Little Birds Chase Big Birds. Starlings harass crows who get to close to their nests, crows harass hawks and hawks harass eagles. It's pretty funny to watch. In the summer there is the Season of Late Nights on Porches when it is too hot to hang out inside so all of our socializing happens outside. We have recently just moved into the Season When Squirrels Throw Acorns At You. The squirrels are busy and active building up their stores for the winter, and always seem to be chucking nuts at me as I walk under the trees they are working in. No one ever said squirrels were polite woodland creatures. Photo by Bourbon Familia.

There are some other fantastic signs of the season readily apparent as we settle fully into autumn. The sunlight continues to change, to get thinner. I met some friends for afternoon drinks the other day and we sat out on the deck and wore our sunglasses, but where I parked my car in the shade was still quite cool. The evenings and mornings are distinctly cold and I my dog is spending more and more hours under the covers with me rather than sleeping on her own dog bed as she prefers in the summer. The leaves on the trees are changing color and I am seeing more and more reds along with the common yellows and browns. The hills behind downtown Portland are starting to look golden green instead of just green as they do during the growing season.

Autumn is soup season, and root vegetable season. Here's a recipe from last autumn that combines the best of both worlds, and was made with turnips I harvested myself.

Harvest Moon Turnip Soup

4 or so cups of washed and chopped turnips
2 small potatoes, washed and chopped
1 small white sweet potato, peeled, washed and chopped
1/2 an onion, chopped
Couple tablespoons butter and olive oil
Salt, pepper, garlic powder and thyme
3 cups chicken stock, plus some more water
3 tbs butter
3 tbs flour
3/4 cup milk
Grated cheddar cheese
Croutons (bought oh, so long ago and finally getting used up)
Black pepper
  • Sautee the vegetables in the butter and oil in a big soup pot along with the seasonings until they are starting to get soft or color or both.

  • Add the chicken stock and scrape to get the crusties off the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil, drop to a simmer and check for seasonings. Simmer until the vegetables are well cooked.

  • Puree the soup in batches in a blender (being very careful! Volcanic hot spewing soup is not fun for girls or boys! Cover the blender with a dishtowel, and use the low setting on your blender!) or with a stick blender if you are cool like that. Keep the soup warm in the pot once it is all blended to your desired consistency.

  • In another small pot heat the butter and when melted add the flour. Cook a few minutes until it is a little golden in color. Slowly add the milk, stirring until the sauce is thickened. Add the sauce to the soup and stir to combine.

  • Grate a generous portion of cheese into each soup bowl (you could add cheese to the pot, but it makes reheating difficult, so I didn't) and ladle hot soup over the cheese. Stir to combine. Garnish with croutons, a little more cheese, and black pepper.
What season is it where you are? What creatures do you see being more active now and which do you notice by their absence? What are you cooking for dinner?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Earth is Breathing Its Soul Back In

“The original idea of any sacred festival is to make the human being look upward from his dependence on earthly things to those things that transcend the Earth.”
- Rudolph Steiner

Rudolph Steiner was a visionary and philosopher who lectured profusely through the early decades of the 20th century. He developed a model of thinking about human life that he called anthroposophy and is the founder of the Waldorf school movement. At the center of Steiner's philosophy is the understanding of man as a three fold being of body, spirit and soul and much of his work focuses on how we can balance and align these three parts of ourselves to meet our personal and cultural soul destiny.

One of the tools Steiner advocated for aligned our beings with the cosmic rhythm of the universe is the seasonal festival. He incorporated many elements of esotaric Christianity in his philosophy but, conciously or not, his descriptions of the festivals corresponds amazingly well with the pre-Christian wheel of the year festivals that I celebrate and talk about in this blog. Waldorf schools are the main celebrants of these festivals today and each group chooses different festivals to focus on, much like ancient pagan groups would have chosen some of the 8 quarter and cross quarter days to celebrate with a big party. The main festivals Waldorf or Steiner followers celebrate are Christmas (Dec 24), Candlemas (Feb 2), Easter and possibly Pentecost/Whitsun (March/April/May), May Day, St. John's Day (June 24), Michaelmas (Sept 29) and Martinmas (Nov 11). It is obvious that the dates align with the wheel of the year celebrations but I am more and more amazed that the essence behind the festivals is so similar as well.

This is the time of year of Michaelmas, the time when summer is tipping into Autumn. Steiner writes of the rhythm of the earth's year as being like any other living thing's rhythm. It includes outbreaths and inbreaths - times of being expansive and times of being contractive and huddled. He speaks of midwinter, around Christmas and the solstice, as being the most contractive part of the Earth's year and as a time when the Earth's soul, it's life force, is contained deep within her. At the other end of the rhythm is midsummer when the soul of the earth is completely exhaled and at one with the universe. Michaelmas represents the time when the Earth is breathing it's soul back in. Humans can use the spirit of this time to bring the universe's cosmic wisdom to bolster our will and courage as we face the dark days of winter and the dark times in our lives.

But these are big, unweildly concepts that aren't very practical, or much fun. Waldorf education uses stories to introduce academic material and the story associated with Michaelmas is that of the Archangel Michael, or St. George under the protection of Michael, battling a dragon with his sword of heavenly iron. Depending on who is doing the telling and who is doing the hearing the story could take the form of this classic tale of St. George and the Dragon, this tale of Li Chi and the Serpent, this lovely story in verse from the Wynstones Press book Autumn or any other story that shows an individual standing up against a large, scary force or being. Michaelmas activities include a pageant retelling the story, baking dragon shaped bread, tasks of courage and strength and parties featuring blackberries (one story says that Lucifer/The Dragon fell into a blackberry briar when he was defeated and so the fruit is no good to eat after Michaelmas). All much more accessable, and fun than deep philosophy, don't you think?

The Festivals that Rudolph Steiner writes of have captured my imagination thorougly these last few months. I know already that the celebrations marking the wheel of the year mirror cosmic truths and that symbols and stories help bring those truths to an accessable level. The writings of Steiner and the activities of all the Waldorf families and schools that have brought his writings to life have illuminated this knowledge in a whole new way for me though. And equally importantly, have given me some new ideas as to why it is important to celebrate the turning of the wheel - both to celebrate the turning itself and to use the reflection of our lives in the turning of the year to make our selves, our families and our communities the best they can be.

"The Festivals have become abstractions, matters of indifference to modern people. The word as a medium of strife and blasphemy often means more than the Word conceived as the power by which the world itself was created. Yet the alphabetical word ought to be the representative, the symbol of the Word Creative in Nature around us, in the great universe and within us too when self-knowledge awakens, and of which all mankind can be made conscious by those who truly understand the course of Nature. It was for this that the Festivals were instituted and with the knowledge we have gleaned from Spiritual Science we will try to understand what it was that the wise men of old set out to express in the... Festival[s]."

- Rudolph Steiner

For more information on Rudolph Steiner, Waldorf schools and the Steiner/Waldorf festivals, check out some of these resources:

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Autumnal Equinox

The cross quarter day in the fall is the autumnal equinox also called Mabon or Harvest Home. It is the second harvest of the year, the harvest of the fruits and the grapes. Like the spring equinox it is a time of balance between light and dark but this time with the tipping into winter rather than into summer. It is one of my favorite times of the year.

Every fall I look forward to what I call the Perfect Time of Year. The Perfect Time of Year is defined as a time when the leaves are changing but not yet falling, and though it's warm enough for shorts in the afternoon it is cool enough to want a sweatshirt in the morning and the evening. I thought it was going to come last weekend, but then it got up to 90 degrees for two days in a row. Too hot! This weekend, however, we had two perfect days. Fantastic!

Other signs of the season include a real change in the quality of the sunlight. The weather report claims it will be 90 degrees today, but this morning was cold enough for a sweatshirt. Once it was warm enough to take off the sweater it was still cool in the shade. The sun's movements in the sky are making evening driving a challenge these days too. My drive home includes the infamous Terwilliger Curves on I-5 south out of downtown Portland. The interstate makes a 90 degree turn from south to due west before turning south west and eventually south. It is known for it’s accidents and traffic snarles but I was shocked at how bad the traffic was last week. As I inched up on the turn I realized what was happening. All summer I would have to pull down my car’s visor as I made the turn to shade my eyes from the sun coming around the curve and out of the shadow of the hill. The close-to-equinox sun wasn’t just lighting the freeway, though, it was blinding drivers! The shortening days caused the coincidence of the low sun with the evening commute, and the equinox sun is sets directly in the path of the west facing highway. Those of us driving that one mile of road in that one hour of time were blinded to the point of driving 5 miles an hour on the freeway. Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and soon the sun will be setting before my commute, and further to the south. See, winter isn’t all bad.

As for the other solstices and equinoxes I woke up for the sunrise. I always enjoy doing something for the sunset the night before a sunrise morning and the Autumnal Equinox in Portland offers a perfect opportunity. Vaux's Swifts, a small swallow like bird, spend the summer in the woods and neighborhoods around town but come together in large flocks before heading south for the winter. In September these flocks roost in hollow standing trees or chimneys and get as large as the roosting sites allow. There is a school in NW Portland with a large chimney that supports a flock of swifts that can grow as large as 15,000 birds. It's a Portland tradition to pack a picnic dinner, a blanket (and cardboard for sliding down the hill if you are so inclined) and go to Chapman School to see the swifts come in for the evening. It is a breathtaking event with the sky filled with birds spiraling and swooping around. If you are lucky the hawk will show up for an evening snack sending the flock into a frenzy. Even more amazing is the thousands of people - yes thousands - who show up every night to be in awe of this event. The ooh and awws as the flock forms a tight spiral, the gasps as the hawk divebombs, the cheers as the swifts chase him off. The night I went the crowd actually broke into applause when the last swifts popped down into the chimney. It really is a sight to behold!

The next morning I woke up in time to catch the sunrise at a field I go to in the fall to collect wild fruit. Tumalo and I walked around as the sky turned from grey to gold and watched the rays of sunlight peek over Mt. Hood. I've been reading about Waldorf schooling and Michalemas recently (and will write a blog post about it soon) and the sunlight bursting over the mountain reminded me of a story by Reg Down that is told in Waldorf circles at this time of year. It is called The Most Beautiful Dragon in the World and is about a dragon who was very vain and tried to eat the autumn sun because he thought it was more beautiful than he was. The morning sun that day certainly looked to me as beautiful as any dragon could be.

What changes in the sun, the sky and the earth are you noting as autumn ramps up into full gear this year? Have you noticed the sun setting in odd places this month or seen animals getting ready for winter? What is beautiful to you about this time of year? Happy equinox!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Harvest Moon is New

As you sow, so shall you reap. That is the message of the Harvest Moon. It is the time of year when the fruits of the year's work at coming ready for harvest both literally and figuratively. As the days get shorter we are spending more time thinking and we have time to reflect on what we have and what we have earned. It is a time to fess up to taking too much responsibility and to own up to not taking enough. It is a time to reap the good karma of our loving, thoughtful actions as well as the bad karma of our thoughtless or malicious actions.

It is also the time of year to harvest the goodies out of the fields and gardens that we spent all year working on. I planted and tended a beautiful little vegetable garden this year and have really enjoyed the work and the harvest. The Harvest Moon is the polarity to the Seed Moon which adds symmetry to the fact that the last time I told you about my garden was in my Seed Moon post.

As I said then I was planning two gardens for this year, one at my parent's house and one at my own little house. The bed at my parent's house is 4' x 6' and I planted early season greens, peas and beets as well as an eggplant, a chile pepper plant and some flowers. My lettuce was a huge success and there was a time when I was harvesting more than I reasonably wanted to eat. The radishes, on the other hand, were a complete bust. Who knows why but the garden spirits just didn't feel like granting me radishes this year. Ah well, they made up for it in beets and chard. One of the big suprises in my little garden was the calendula I planted. I think I planted it late and didn't expect it to do anything but then one day I looked out and there was a gorgeous yellow sun of a flower. In fact, all the flowers I had in my garden were thrilling. Mostly they were bolted veggies like radish and mustard, but I loved my nasturtium, rosemary and pea flowers as well.

The little garden really isn't that much littler, but it did end up growing just one kind of food - tomatoes. Everyone needs a tomato plant or three and I had four. I grew a hybrid grape tomato and three heirloom slicing tomatoes. One set flower and fruit so late that I got only one single red tomato before the weather changed (note to self, don't buy that variety next year) but the Kellogs Breakfast Tomato and the Amish Paste both did respectably. The Kellogs Breakfast makes giant wrinkly tomatoes that ripen to an orange juice orange color. I am certainly growing those again next year!

Growing a garden is a deeply moving experience when you approach it as a partnership between yourself and the plants. I really enjoyed getting to meet new plants and new vegetables this year. I loved eating food that grew in dirt I tended with my own hands. I loved the work I put into my garden and loved showing it off. Of course, I am already making plans for next season. I put in more lettuce and radishes for the fall (maybe the autumn fairies will like radishes more than the spring ones did) as well as collards, kale and chard. I'm planning a garlic planting and daydreaming about another bed or two or three.

What are you harvesting this autumn? What did you grow in your garden? What did you grow in the garden of your life this summer? How is that harvest coming along?

You can see more photos of my garden on my flickr stream here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hey.. It's My Birfday!

As I said in my last post the Nesting Moon is my favorite time of the year and I believe that is mostly because it is the month that holds my birthday. And this year my birthday happened to fall on the full moon! And I was planning a camping trip! How exciting! All I can say is be careful when planning a camping trip on the full moon in Pisces, you may get more than you were bargaining for.

My birthday happened to fall on Labor Day weekend this year so I made plans to go to a camp site near home and for a group of us to go up after work on Thursday night. My friend had to work on Friday so after a night of setting up camp, sitting around the campfire and sleeping in a tent we drove back into town for work on Friday. It was novel and fun - I'm at work, but I'm camping! On Friday night the whole gang showed up and we commenced the debauchery. It was my birthday, after all.

Sometime in the middle of the night of the full moon Friday the Pisces energy took over and it started to rain. Not just a little drizzly rain like we so often get in Western Oregon, but real, water pouring out of Aquarius' water jug, fish swimming through the sky rain.

I spent a some time that night and the next morning being alone with my thoughts. The full moon in Pisces brings a mystical, dreamy time. A time to face karma and, as my friend Riana put it so eloquently "Listen carefully as the fullest version of reality is unveiled and you can realign yourself with the purest intention and purpose." On that day, my 29th birthday, the day of my first Saturn Return, I laid in my sleeping bag for a while that night just listening to the rain. I sat in the woods, sipping a Bloody Mary in the early morning mist, watching the rain pour through the old growth trees and into the Salmon River. Later in the day I balanced rock towers in the river bed, one of my favorite meditative activities. I certainly didn't get any clear view on The Fullest Version of Reality, but it was good to spend some time listening for the small still voice.

Luckily, I got that out of the way early because the rest of the weekend was full of deafening noise. My friends built an awesome tarp shelter around the campfire and the weekend's soundtrack was that of us telling stories and singing with the ever present background noise of rain on plastic sheeting. The rain seemed to be taking part in our conversations. Every once in a while the puddles that formed on the top of the tarps would spill out with a splash onto the ground. As the day wore into evening and the number of empty beer cans started to outnumber the full ones the sound became funnier and funnier. Sploosh... giggle, giggle, giggle. The Piscean water goddess was having her way with us, and we went willingly.

We cooked food over the campfire, we drank whatever we could find, we were wet and we laughed . And we did all of it in the middle of the most beautiful old growth forest I can imagine being in. I honestly couldn't ask for a better birthday. Happy birthday to me!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Breathe a Sigh of Relief

It has come, finally, my favorite time of year. This new moon is called the Nesting Moon in Annette Hinshaw's calendar and it is the moon I was born in. Do you feel most comfortable, most at ease right around your birthday? Maybe it's a Virgo/Nesting Moon thing, but I do. After the hot, frantic month of August, September comes in like a cool breeze. I wake up feeling like the world has color again.

This year the Nesting Moon starts a little early for my tastes, still well in the ick of August, but I still feel a slight shift in the energies around me. The Nesting Moon is the first hint of fall, when leaves start changing and we all start getting ready for what will come. It's a time to take action on plans and put up food, weatherize the car, start settling down for the coming winter. It's a time to start thinking about the future and what makes you safe.

Every evening on my drive home from work I listen to NPR's Marketplace. Kai Ryssdal is totally my NPR crush. Anyone who listens to Marketplace, or other financial news or other news shows, or has not been living under a rock, knows that at about this time last year our economy suffered a pretty serious collapse. People freaked out, people thought a new depression was upon us or that the entire capitalist system would collapse. 12 months later that hasn't happened, but times are tough for many people. Last fall when I was listening to Marketplace on my increasingly dark and wet drive home from work I had my own version of a run on the bank. One night I found myself at the discount grocery store with a grocery cart full of meat for the freezer and canned goods for the pantry. When I got home and got everything put away I had reveled in my sense of security. I felt like I could weather whatever the winter and the next great depression threw at me.

But that stocked pantry probably wouldn't actually keep me safe, would it now. If the electricity went out the meat would rot in the freezer and I wouldn't have a way to heat up all that canned soup. Some people take this idea of self sufficiency to extreme lenghts and stockpile years worth of shelf stable food in underground bunkers. Other people believe that their virtuous actions or right beliefs will keep them safe in this unsafe world. I'm not really sure that any of that will keep us safe. The world isn't safe, it's crazy and unpredictable and diverse and beautiful. What is it that keeps wild creatures safe? Horses have their speed and sharp hooves, but they still get taken down by wolves and lions. Squirrels gather nuts and make a soft, warm nest but they still freeze and starve in the bleak days of late winter. Nothing really keeps them safe except faith that the Mother will see them through, or she will be doing what's right if they don't make it through.

We Virgos and other Nesting Moon natives have a hard time giving up that control to the Mother. We like to think that our full pantries, virtuous lives and pure thoughts will keep us above the fray of this dirty, scary world. This fall, though I am engaging in some food preservation activities like jamming and drying fruit, I am not letting myself get pulled into a frenzy of stocking up to make myself feel safe. God helps those who help themselves, but the Goddess provides.

Instead, I will spend my fall enjoying the weather and watching the leaves turn brilliant colors. I'll enjoy the misty mornings, blazing afternoons and early evening star gazing. What are you doing this fall to make yourself feel safe? What signs of the coming autumn and winter do you see around you? Do you like this time of year or dread it?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Aftermark of Almost Too Much Love

To Earthward
by Robert Frost

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.


In Earth Time, Moon Time Annette Hinshaw quotes this poem, specifically the lines "Now no joy but lacks salt that is not dashed with pain... ; I crave the stain of tears, the aftermark of almost too much love." At first read, and in most literary analyses of the poem I saw, it is a story of longing for youthful love and discontent with the bitterness of age. Most comments about the poem focused on the sexuality of the first half of the poem and interpreted the last stanza as a longing for death. One blogger, Kelly Fineman, sees the whole poem as a bit more ambiguous than all of that. "I don't think he's a masochist; he's a realist who accepts the complexities of the world, including the negatives along with the positives," she says. I don't even see negatives in this poem, I just see the next step.

Like any good love story the story of this poem can be not only about an individual Lover and Beloved, but also about eternal, universal or cosmic Lovers and Beloveds. It could be about any of us, it could be about all of us, it could be about the God and Goddess or about the Creator and the Created.

In the Wiccan Great Story there comes a time of the year (this time of the year, in fact) when the Father God realizes that he must sacrifice his individual life so that the universal life may continue. He understand that after the spring and early summer of loving his Goddess and their Creation he must shoulder the weight of his responsibility. May and June were the time of those "strong sweets" that caused the "swirl and ache" of the creating-love. Now, August and into September comes the "sweet of bitter bark and burning clove" of sustaining-sacrificing-love. We still get the "aftermark of almost too much love" in the form of the harvest and the hot late summer days, but we know, as he knows, that winter is on it's way.

August is a difficult time of year for me. My birthday is in the first week of September and I feel like August is the end of my cycle. It's that frustrating time before the next start when you aren't quite sure what to do next. I also think the discord between the hot temperatures and shortening days sends me into an existential funk. I seem to weather it well these days, but it's a frustrating few weeks.

How are the shortening days and growing harvest effecting you? How do you feel about the responsiblities you have towards the things you have created? What do you think about Frost's poem?

Thank you to DW and Stubborndev for their beautiful photos.

Monday, August 3, 2009

August Eve, In the Woods!

In the heat of the summer comes the festival of Lammas, Lughnassad or Teltane - the festival of the first harvest. In the Great Story this is the time when the Father God accepts his duty to sacrifices himself so that all life may continue to be reborn. One story of this time of year is that of John Barleycorn, who as he dies turns into the seed which will be planted so he can grow again the next year. The grain's sacrifice allows nourishing bread to be made.

Another god associated with this time of year is that of Lugh, a celtic diety who's many names refer to his "long arm" or "skilled ways". There is a story that his foster mother, a royal by the name of Tailtiu, was set to the task of clearing a forest so grain could be planted but died of exhaustion in her attempt. Lugh declared a feast in her honor and organized games to be played during the feast. This feast and games are in some way the predecessor of our modern county fairs with rodeos and family picnics with potato sack races.

In exploring how I celebrate this festival I been drawn time and again to this idea of gathering together to play games or be outdoors. One year I organized a picnic at the beach for my Americorps team that included crazy bat races, rain gear relays and water balloon tosses. Like most of my Wheel of the Year celebrations it was not explicitely a Lammas celebration, but the meaning was just the same. This year I organized a camping trip to Central Oregon. It was glorious!

I took two whole days off work and spent three night camping along side beautiful lakes outside of Bend, Oregon. A group of friends came out to meet me and we spent our days swimming, lounging, napping and preparing food together and our evenings eating and drinking around a campfire (and moaning over our sunburned shoulders and thighs!). And of course we cooked things over the campfire. You would never believe how good a can of Dinty Moore stew is when cooked in a wood fire and eaten in the woods. We also made a giant batch of veggie packs, a perennial favorite campfire fare.

Camp Fire Veggie Packs

To bring with you camping:
*A big roll of heavy duty aluminum foil
*Cooking oil of your choice (or strips of bacon, if you do that sort of thing)
*A cutting board and knife sharp enough to cut your veggies
*Vegetables - onions, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant, brussels sprouts, green beans. Whatever is in season and tasty.
*Salt, pepper, garlic powder and/or other seasonings of your choice
To assemble and cook:
*Cut your veggies into relatively uniform size pieces, about 1 inch square. Keep harder veggies a little smaller than softer ones so they cook in about the same time.
*Tear off relatively large square sheets of aluminum foil and lay two on top of each other. Add a little cooking oil to the top square and add a selection of veggies. Mix and match your favorites as you would like - try carrots and mushrooms, or brussels sprouts and onions - or just add a little of everything. You don't want to overload the foil pack with veggies or they will steam and not cook evenly. Imagine the square of foil divided into a 3x3 grid and you don't want your veggies to take up too much more than the center square. Stir the veggies gently to oil them all up and sprinkle with salt, pepper or other seasoning. Alternatively, lay slices of bacon on the foil, add veggies on top and then maybe another slice of bacon. Try this with potatoes or eggplant. Wow.
*Fold the foil over the sides of the pile of veggies and then bring the top and bottom up and crimp it down over itself to seal the packet. It should be pretty securely crimped up.
*Place the sealed up packet of veggies either in the coals surrounding the fire or on a grate over top of a hot coal bed. You don't really want to place the foil over licking flames but instead over hot coals that you rake away from the flames. Leave the packets for 20 minutes or longer, depending on how hot the coals are and how big your veggies are. You can use tongs to pull one pack out, open it up (carefully so the steam doesn't get you) and taste. Crimp it back up and throw it back in if they aren't done to your liking. It's best when they get a little charred around the edges. That's how you know you're camping!

I realized as I was getting ready to leave on Sunday that I hadn't looked at a clock, except incidentally as I drove to and from the swimming beach, in close to 48 hours. I was living according to the natural rhythm of summer camping - wake up when the tent gets too hot, go to the lake when the campsite gets too hot, nap in your tent when the thundestorms hit, cook over the fire as it gets dark and fall asleep when you are tired.

In her book Slow Time, Waverly Fitzgerald writes about how our artificial time of seconds and days and months came into existence and offers activities to help us jump off the hamster wheel and into the river of natural time. It's hard to do in a 40 hour work week when I have to be somewhere at a specific time and get to leave at another specific time but it feels wonderful when I can break away from it.

Like the natural time of waking when the sun comes up and resting when it goes down the festival of August Eve reminds us that a time will come, quite soon, for the year to rest in the darkness of winter. August Eve reminds us that the fields must rest in the darkness of the fallow season and eventually our bodies must rest in the darkness of death. But not quite yet. We still have a glorious harvest season ahead of us including the hot, lazy Dog Days of summer.

How did you celebrate August Eve? When was the last time you broke away from artificial time and swam in the river of natural time? What is reminding you of the upcoming harvest and subsequent winter? What's your favorite thing to cook over a campfire?