Monday, March 22, 2010

Giving Thanks at the Equinox

This last weekend was the spring equinox. My original plan was to wake up for the sunrise on Saturday and go up to Council Crest. The weather on Friday was beautiful and Saturday was supposed to be just as gorgeous. Before I went to bed on Friday, though, I decided to put off the sunrise trip to Sunday so I could sleep in on Saturday. Knowing your limits and your needs is important after all. The clouds and rain moved in on Saturday night and Sunday morning broke grey and drizzly. I went to the field close to my house, where I went for the Autumn Equinox, and didn't even see the mountain. Or the sun. Just a solid, steel grey, soggy wet sky.

That didn't really dampen my spirits, though. As I walked through the damp field, smelling new growth and cherry blossoms, listening to birds singing and watching my dog run through the mist I couldn't help but feel full of joy and thanks. It's the new dawn of a new season in a beautiful place. I have a warm bed to sleep in, dry boots to walk in and food on the table every day. How can I be anything but thankful?

Shortly after I started attending my neighborhood Quaker Meeting I began a practice of prayer. I remember feeling quite lost during the open worship time of my first few meetings. What do I do now? Just sit here? I fell back on the little bit of experience I had at zen type meditation but didn't have much luck with stilling my mind. Right at the beginning of Lent, I am a little bashful to admit, I actually googled "how do I pray" and read most of the first hundred hits. (For a glimpse into the American mind type "how" into the google search bar and see what the autofill shows up... we are weird, weird people). And thus began my adventure with praying.

I remember hearing an interview on NPR a while back about a woman going through a 12 step program and finding a meaningful spiritual practice. She said that when she started praying it felt like someone had told her to start talking to a log. She couldn't imagine getting anything out of the experience, but she tried anyway. I wasn't starting quite at that point, but beginning a practice of praying was still a leap of faith. Why should I talk to god like that? She knows I'm here, knows what I want, knows what I need. Who am I to ask for intercession, or for my wishes to be granted? God has a plan, and it will be as it will be.
Photo by kukkurovaca

In the past I had tried working with pagan style rituals complete with incantations, candles, calling the directions and other props. Sometimes it worked, sometimes I felt a connection with the divine, but just as often it felt like simply going through the process. Daily praying has been an amazing experience I think mostly because it is daily. It gets easier, less stilted. I started with a formula that worked like that pagan ritual, but simpler. First I used a three step, "hello, thank you, please" type prayer and then the Lord's prayer modified to my needs. At first the formula really helped by giving me a script to follow. Over time I have found that I sink into a place where the script is no longer needed and sometimes words are no longer even needed. That is when I am really able to hear what the Quakers call the small still voice. I have even felt what pagans refer to as building, sending and grounding the spirit. I have felt enveloped by love, I have had epiphanies and I have found answers. Other times I still need the formula to get started and some nights I just repeat the Lords prayer a couple times and figure I'll give it another try tomorrow.

The morning of the Equinox, after my short walk, I stood at the top of the hill facing what would have been the sunrise had the clouds let the sun actually rise and began my new prayer ritual or process. But that morning I didn't feel like asking forgiveness for my trespasses or asking to not be led into temptation. I just wanted to say thanks.

Thank you, Sweet Goddess, for the cherry blossoms and magnolias. Thank you for the robins and starlings and crows that sing me awake these days. Thank you for the sheep sorrel and young lupines in the field, for the little three leaved plants that will soon make pretty pink clovers. Thank you for the rain that keeps the grass green well into August. Thank you for my car that starts each morning and gets me home safe each night. Thank you for the eggs and toast and hot tea I will drink when I get home, and for the massive abundance of food available to me any time I want it. Thank you for my mind that searches and finds, my heart that feels and knows and my body that can do almost everything I ask of it and so much more I don't need to ask it to do. Thank you for the morning. Thank you for the spring.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

To Everything There Is A Season

To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 King James Version of the Bible

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To everything there is a season, and thank the goddess this is the season for sprouting and flowering and planting and loving the sun! It is a time of parties and birthdays, new babies and new projects. How exciting!

In her Pagan Lent article, Waverly Fitzgerald talks about the wisdom of using the new growth energies of spring to catapult new changes in your life. People seem to do this unconsciously and we seem almost driven to try new things this time of year. I was at a party last night (my second or third party this week) and everyone was talking about their new projects. New jobs, new school, new careers, new boyfriends, new houses, new gardens. I have three new babies coming into my life in the next week or so, and new projects of my own both public and private.

The earth is getting ready for the great big outbreath of summer and plants are bursting forth with new growth. The difference between winter and spring in Portland is the presence of flowers and boy-howdy do we have flowers! The cherry blossoms have been out for a while and the daffodils and crocuses are at or past their peak, but others are showing up. Camellias, azaleas, magnolias, hyacinths, daffodils, apple blossoms, even some tulips in sheltered yards. I found mint, sheep sorrel, comfrey and a new spring onion growing in my favorite foraging grounds this week.

Just like last year I am spending this early part of the Seed Moon planning and planting my garden. I have expanded my garden to at least double what it was last year and already have a good solid plan for the early spring on paper. I realized last year that I grew too much lettuce and not enough greens for cooking so I'm halving the lettuce and doubling the turnips, mustards and beets. I'm also planning space for carrots, peas, beans and tomatoes. So exciting! Check out my photos from last year here to get a glimpse at what it will be like this year.

I'm already feeling a little stretched thin by this fantastic new energy and know that I need to continue giving myself enough down time to recover. Every year trees pool all their energy to explode forth in blossoms every spring before they even have leaves. What a crazy task! They know to take a break between blossoming and fruiting to recharge, and I need to keep that recharging part of the cycle happening in my life too.

What is starting new this spring for you? What flowers are you seeing? How do you recharge to be ready for all that spring and summer have to offer?

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Old Man Who Made The Trees Blossom

Many years ago on the island of Japan stood a beautiful little wooden house. It sat in a small garden in a farming village in the misty hills and had red ceramic roof tiles that kept the kind old man and woman who lived in it warm and dry all winter. It had a little entrance room where the old man and woman’s shoes were lined up, and tatami mats lining the floor of the cozy central room. Every day the good woman cooked rice and fish and vegetables for herself and the old man, and the kind old man tended the rice fields and vegetable garden to provide food for them both.

One rare clear day in late winter the kind old woman decided it was time to air out the blankets that covered the futon beds at night and her husband took advantage of the nice weather to look over the bare fruit trees in their garden. The weather stayed fine all morning and the kind old woman decided they should eat their lunch of cold steamed fish, sticky rice and hot tea in the garden. They were almost done with their meal, enjoying the cool sunshine when a small black and white dog trotted up the lane in front of their house. “What a handsome dog” the kind old man said, “Hello there, koinu. You look hungry, would you like to come have a little fish and some rice cakes?” he asked the dog. The little dog wagged its tail and trotted right up to the table. The dog ate his fill and was patted and petted all afternoon. The kind old man and woman loved him very much and decided he could live in their garden. They named him Shiro because of his handsome white face and made sure he always had good things to eat.

Shiro lived in the small garden next to the beautiful wooden house for a full year. During the summer he walked with the kind old man out to the rice fields and made the hard working men laugh with his antics chasing grasshoppers and field mice. In the autumn he rolled in the fallen leaves and made the kind old woman chuckle. In the winter they let him come into their house and keep warm by the cooking fire. It seemed like everything was perfect for Shiro and the kind old man and his wife, but there was one thing wrong. The kind old man and woman had neighbors who lived in small wooden house in a handsome little garden just the same as they did. The difference was that the neighbors were mean and greedy and they did not like Shiro. She mean old man threw stones at Shiro every time he saw the dog, and the greedy old woman refused to give him even scraps of food.

One day, in the late winter when the snow was starting to melt, the old man noticed Shiro sniffing and pawing at the frozen ground in the garden. He grabbed a shovel and went to see if Shiro needed any help. As he approached Shiro started barking and digging at spot among the fruit trees. “Do you need help digging, koinu? Here, let me help you.” He dug and dug while Shiro barked and barked until his shovel hit something in the soil and made a sharp clang. The kind old man kept digging until he unearthed a large pot all full of gold coins. He had never seen so much money in one place in his whole life! He showed his kind wife and they promptly bought a whole extra fish and plate of rice cakes to thank Shiro for leading them to the coins.

The mean old man next door had been watching the kind old man dig and saw when he pulled the pot of money out of the ground. He was jealous and wanted Shiro to help him find a pot of money in his garden. The next day he asked the kind old man if he could borrow Shiro. “Of course,” the kind old man answered, “You can borrow him if he will be of any use to you.” The mean old man led Shiro into his garden and demanded that the dog show him where gold was buried. Shiro sniffed around the garden, as dogs will do, but didn’t seem to be interested in digging. The old man yelled at Shiro and called him good-for-nothing until eventually Shiro started to dig at a spot under the mean old man’s fruit trees. “At last!” said the mean old man, “I will find a pot of gold just like my neighbors!” The old man shoved Shiro aside and began digging. He dug and dug but his shovel did not hit a hard pot filled with gold coins. He got angrier and angrier and started calling Shiro names again. Just then his shovel hit something that wasn’t dirt. It was a pile of stinking garbage. The old man was so angry he threw his shovel at Shiro and killed him.

When the kind old man came back that afternoon to collect his dog he found Shiro’s body under the bare fruit trees. He picked the little dog up to carry him home and wept in sadness. He and his wife mourned their little friend but did not blame the mean old man for his death. They decided to bury Shiro’s body under a small pine tree near their rice field, a place they remembered Shiro laying in the shade on hot summer days.

A magic thing happened then. They came to Shiro’s grave almost every day and watered the pine tree well with fresh water and their tears and in just a few weeks that small pine tree, which had been not much larger than the kind little old man himself, had grown into a very large tree.

One day, in late winter when the deer still gathered in the fields in the morning, the kind old man and his kind wife walked to the giant pine tree to water it. The kind old woman said to her husband “Remember how Shiro used to love rice cakes? He would sit up and beg for them when the village children had them, and he looked so pleased when he finally got some. We should cut down this pine tree and make a mortar out of it’s trunk so we can make more rice cakes for the village children.” The kind old man thought that was a good idea and set to work the very next morning to cut the tree and shape the mortar.

As he cut down the tree and scraped out the inside to shape the mortar the kind old thought about Shiro. He remembered all the times he had played with children, chased deer out of the fields, and made everyone laugh with his antics. When he was finished he gave it to his wife and she set the finished mortar on the paving stones in front of the house. The kind old woman filled it with steamed rice and began pounding it to make rice cakes. Something magic happened then. The rice turned into gold coins right in the mortar. The gold filled the mortar and spilled out onto the ground. She had never seen so much money in one place in his whole life! She showed her kind husband and they promptly bought oranges and candies for all the children in the village.

The mean old man next door had been watching the kind old woman pounding the mortar and saw when the coins spilled out onto the ground. He was jealous and wanted the mortar to turn rice into gold for him. The next day he asked the kind old man if he could borrow the mortar. “Of course,” the kind old man answered, “You can borrow it if it will be of any use to you.”

The mean old man took the mortar home and called to his greedy wife. “Wife! Make me a giant pot of steamed rice and I will turn it to gold. We will be even more rich than that simple neighbor of ours who spends all his money on the urchins who run in the street.” When the rice was done the mean old man poured the rice into the mortar and began pounding. He pounded and pounded but the rice did not turn to gold. He was getting angrier and angrier when the rice started to change. But it wasn’t gold, it changed into a pile of stinking garbage! The old man was so angry he picked up his hatchet and hacked the mortar into a hundred pieces. He piled the pieces up on the paving stones in front of his house and set them on fire. They burned down to a pile of smoldering ashes but the old man was still angry and jealous.

When the kind old man came back that afternoon to collect his mortar he found only a pile of ashes in front of his neighbor’s house. He swept the ashes into a basket and carried them home, weeping in sadness. He and his wife mourned their little friend all over again for the mortar had reminded them of Shiro, but did not blame the mean old man. They decided to scatter the ashes under the still winter bare cherry tree in their garden. That was where they had been sitting first met Shiro.

A magic thing happened then. As the kind old man and his wife spread the ashes around under the cherry tree a warm, spring breeze picked them up and swirled them all around the tree. When the kind old man and his wife wiped the ashes out of their eyes they saw the cherry tree in full blossom. It was so beautiful that everyone in the village came to see it. Whenever anyone praised the kind old man for taking care of his tree so well he always said “Oh, no, I didn’t do anything. It was the ashes of dear Shiro that made the tree so happy.”

News soon spread of the kind old man’s beautiful tree all the way to the larger town where a young prince lived. The prince took great pride in his garden but when he went to see the kind old man’s tree he realized he didn’t have anything so beautiful. He asked the kind old man if he would come to his garden and use whatever magic he had to make his cherry trees bloom so beautifully. The kind old man could not refuse so he gathered up the basket of ashes and followed the prince.

When they got to the prince’s garden the kind old man looked around at the beautiful shrubs, pathways and flower beds. He saw the lovely temple and the golden roof tiles on the palace roof. He noticed the large goldfish swimming in a pond near a bench. He said to the prince, “I’m sure my little dog Shiro would have loved to come visit your garden. It is such a beautiful place.” The prince replied “I would have loved to have him here. A little dog is always a pleasure to have in a garden.” Then the kind old man chose a large fruit tree next to a wooden bench, thinking Shiro would have loved to sit under such a tree and the old man climbed up the tree to a crook in the branches. He took a handful of the ashes and tossed them out towards the branch tips. A magic thing happened then. The wind swirled those ashes around the tree and when the prince and the old man wiped their eyes the tree was covered with beautiful cherry blossoms.

The prince was so happy with his flowering cherry tree that he couldn't stop praising the kind old man. “Oh, no, I didn’t do anything. It was the ashes of dear Shiro that made the tree so happy,” the kind old man insisted. The prince wouldn't accept that and declared that the kind old man should be called Hana-Saka-Jijii, or The Old Man Who Makes the Trees Blossom. The prince showered the old man with gifts of gold and silver and even offered to let him and his wife stay and live in the palace. Hana-Saka-Jijii replied “Thank you but I’d rather go home to my little wooden house near the rice fields where every tree reminds me of my beloved Shiro.”

Hana-Saka-Jijii and his kind wife were now very rich and lived long lives. They returned to their beautiful little wooden house in a small garden with red ceramic roof tiles. They went back to their little entrance room with their shoes lined up by the door, and their tatami mats that lined the floor of the cozy central room. They were loved and respected by all their neighbors and their cherry trees blossomed every spring into the most beautiful trees in the world. Every spring they looked into the garden next door belonging to the mean old man and his greedy wife and felt sad that their cherry trees never blossomed.

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This is my own interpretation and re-writing of a traditional Japanese Fairy Tale. You can view other versions at these sites:

A version retold by Alton Chung at the Spirit of Trees website.

A version from Yei Theodora Ozaki's Japanese Fairy Tales (1908) posted on the Florida State University literature clearing house. You can view it as a text, a pdf or download and MP3 of the story! Check out their main site here for thousands of other classic literature stories.

A visually beautiful version of the story found on You can view an electronic version of the original printed book as a pdf or a webpage. This is these illustrations came from.

There are many other versions to be found line. Google "the old man who made the trees blossom" and you'll have more versions than you know what to do with.