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!