Hello, Darkness

Samain                                   Moon of the Winter Solstice

The holidays.  We’ve got no decorations up.  No Christmas or other holiday music plays here.  We did all of our shopping online.

When I was at Best Buy a week or so ago while hunting for a device to download pictures to Kate’s i-pad (no joy on that front even now), Christmas music played and, as I said here after that, I responded, singing along, even getting the little uptick in the heart that comes with the commercial or family holiday all Americans celebrate at this time of year.

I do miss some of the over doing, present wrapping–ok, I don’t miss present wrapping, decorating the tree–well, I don’t miss getting the tree, putting up the tree or the occasional nasty surprise like the one my friend Mark discovered when he watered and watered this year’s tree only to discover the pan had cracked and water had leaked out under the tree skirt, nor do I miss taking down the tree, cleaning up the fallen needles, Christmas music–responding in the store meant something to me, but only because I’d spent 40 days away from the US and this is one strong cultural tradition, over saturation spoils the effect, church services–well, I bailed on those a long, long time ago.

So, maybe I’m not too sad about our ascetic approach to the holidays.  Besides, the holiday that now means the most to me, the Winter Solstice, comes along now, too, and I do celebrate that one with candles, meditation and writing.

There is, though, a powerful need for reflection, for love, for warmth in all its manifestations.  Sergio, our guide on a tour in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the Americas, explained that winters there, where the nights are long long long, often results in depression.

Another argument for a Ge-centric faith, one that acknowledges the darkness, relishes its nurturing power, rejoices at the return of the light and doesn’t have to get overly metaphysical about it.

These brave festivals of the light like Deepavli, Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and even New Years all respond to the same fundamental astronomical fact, the lengthening of night and the ancient fear that the sun may not return.  In that sense they’re all good, but why not acknowledge, first, the fundamental reason for the season, axial tilt?

Socialized Medicine, Here I Come

Samain                      Moon of the Winter Solstice

The end of the day.  Sunday.  Used to go to sleep on Sunday night with Monday whirring away, chattering and buzzing, cutting a channel through my attempts to sleep.  Now I go to sleep on Sunday night.  That’s all.

Granddaughter Ruth has the makings of a cook.  Maybe.  Her recipe for cooking a turkey:  put it in the oven at 10 degrees, cook it for half an hour.  Put it on a big plate and put green beans and potatoes beside it.  Sounds like my first attempts at cooking a turkey.

Speaking of retirement.  Didn’t somebody bring that up?  I go to sign up for Medicare tomorrow.  I have my Medicare card already and now have to choose a plan.  Kathryn Giegler will help me as she did Kate.  This is a rite of passage, analogous to getting a driver’s license or that first Social Security check.

When I went on a quest tonight to solve a computer problem, I ended up in Best Buy where Christmas music played over the loudspeakers.  I found myself cheered by it, rather than annoyed.  It felt familiar, comfortable, mine.  This surprised me.  A Grinch I’m not, but I’ve often found the commercial side of the holiday season a large, unwelcome mosquito that won’t quit buzzing into my awareness no matter how often I try to swat it away.

Instead I found myself thinking of roasting chestnuts, singing carols, making a roaring fire and having hot chocolate.  Geez.

Yeah, You Betcha

Samain                        Moon of the Winter Solstice

Went out on an errand this afternoon as the sun began to set.  At 4:00 pm.  When I hit Round Lake, I saw a car in the rear view.  It had something on top.  A Christmas tree.  We have one of the metro’s favorite cut your own tree places about 6 miles north of us.

This triggered two memories.  The first, which you’ve encountered if you’ve traveled in the tropics during Christmas, is the jarring sight of Christmas trees, wreaths and lights all atwinkle at 80+ degrees.  In Rio they have applied to Guiness for certification of their floating Christmas tree in the big lake near the funicular for Corcovada (muy grande Jesus).  It’s supposed to be the biggest.  Among a crop of how many floating Christmas trees, I wonder?

An oddity I realized in Rio was that most of these Christmas decorations have a fir or pine as their exemplars.  That was the trigger with the Christmas tree on the car.  When I took my trip to Southeast Asia seven years ago, I was in Singapore at this time.  Same strange thing.  Christmas trees, wreaths, Christmas tree decorations all sprouting from vertical shopping malls in the air conditioned nation.

The second memory triggered by the car with the Christmas tree was the sight of golf carts all loaded up on flat bed trucks headed south for the winter season.  Soon we’ll have the rickety trucks coming to town piled high with cut wood sold door to door for fire places.

We do have a very distinct culture here and it’s visible to me right now, with South America so present to me.

One guy on the cruise asked me about ice fishing.  Seems the word of our palatial fish houses has spread to the larger world.

Yeh, you betcha, we’re our own culture up here.  For sure.

Missing Spirit

Winter                                                            Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice

Wondered if I was missing something.  Turned on the radio to 99.5 and listened to Christmas music, classical variety.  As I just to wrote to my brother and sister, there is some residual Methodist wandering around in my head, recalling those nights in the church on John Street, candles winking out as congregants extinguished them, leaving the sanctuary in darkness, a voice, in this particular instance, a voice from the Metropolitan Opera, a hometown gal who’d made it big in the big city, singing out of that darkness, O Holy Night.  Still sends shivers up my spine.

There is, too, a small boy waiting for Santa Claus and the luster of mid-day on objects below.  He misses the Christmas tree and the presents and the music.  And family.  Perhaps most of all family.

These both are, however, voices from my past, valued and warmly received when they emerge, but no longer vital in my present, just as the music of the 60’s or the cars of the 50’s still recall a good time, an important time, but a time now gone by.

I pressed the cd button and returned to the lectures on Big History, this time a review of the paleolithic, a historical era critical for our species, but often overlooked.  In this time we migrated first to the southern rim of Asia, then across the waters to Australia, and through Asia, across the land bridge to North America.  Each one of these migrations a test for our new specie’s capacity for collective learning, each one requiring a new set of skills, new tricks to wring energy and resources out of a new environment.  These were tests we passed and in that passing set the stage for our current dominance of the earth’s biosphere.

Christmastime and the Christmas spirit no longer enfolds me as it once did, sweeping down after thanksgiving and placing me in the confusing mix of retail extravaganza and high religious celebration.  Now the Solstice carries some of that numinosity for me, but none of the commercial buzz.  I don’t miss the maw of gifts and money and credit, false gods if ever there were ones.  Quiet, calm, still.  Dark, meditative, inward.  That’s the reason for the season for me now.

So, I’m glad for a place of peace as the Christmas machine churns anxiously all around me.  Still into the incarnation though.

Yo, Yo, Yo

Winter                                                Full Moon of the Winter Solstice

(from yesterday)

Yo, yo, yo.  Merry Christmas.   My stocking today brimmed over with absolutes and passive periphrastics.  Show you how far I am from school.  I’m doing the optional exercises in the back of Wheelock and bought a workbook so I’ll have even more.  Why?  Want to learn this stuff so it stays.  Even with that I know it will require regular work to keep my skills up.  Fortunately, that’s why Jupiter made Ovid.

Kate has 13 working days until she walks out the door forever as a full-time employee.  She’ll stay on as a casual employee for a couple of years, 4-6 shifts a month, and then after that.  Nada.  Nihil.  Non.

Today.  I burrowed into Wheelock yesterday.  Guess I’ve found my hobby.  Or, my vocation/avocation.  Into the museum for a Thaw and an Embarrassment tour.  Then back for more Latin.

Winter’s Loon

Samhain                                       Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

It’s the best time of the year.  Ring a ling, ring a ling, ring a ling.  Yes, because the woods are lovely, dark and deep.  And because we have promises to keep.  It’s the best time of the year.

I’m no Christmas curmudgeon.  The lights and the cheeriness lift my spirits, too.  Yet it is not the lights toward which I drift, drawn in Frost’s New England sleigh pulled by a draft horse black as the snow falling is white.  I wander toward the woods, the dark and the deep.  In there, amongst the trees, far from city lights lies the reason for the season for me.

Each night for the last week or so I’ve heard my favorite sound of the season, the hooting of a great gray owl which lives in our woods.  I’ve never seen this bird and this may will be the child of the one I heard years ago.  The bass voice declares a confidence in the dark and the cold, an embrace.  The rhythm and the solitariness of the sound captures the winter dark as a loon’s cry distills the summer sun setting on a northern lake.

This is the carol for which my heart yearns; strange, in its way, since the great gray is the apex predator in our world, excepting, of course, the humans.

So, as you drink your Christmas cheer, crack the window a bit, listen. You might hear the voice of the woods, lovely, dark and deep.

Black Friday

Samhain                                                   Waning Thanksgiving Moon

Kate had to tell me, again, what black Friday means.  Apparently (and you probably already know this) it’s the date retailers calculate they slip over from being in the red to being in the black.  When I have trouble remembering something, it’s often because I have another association clogging up the rememberer.  In this case black Friday has a theological tinge in my brain; it takes me to a day of lost hope, ultimate despair.  As a result, I have trouble associating it with anything positive.

If I consider the number of people camped outside (one woman since Wednesday night at a particular BestBuy), and, if I consider the reason many of them are in those lines, my association seems closer to the mark.  Our emphasis on extravagant gifts to celebrate the birthday of a man who wanted us to declare freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind has always revealed the dark side hedonism which we let loose at Christmas, but the pitiful sight of people braving cold and inclement weather as blind captives of our economic system.  Well…

A very positive note is the number of scientists now willing to engage in reasoned debate on the topic of global warming.  Understanding the science behind global warming takes careful attention to several different lines of reasoning and a dispassionate explication of those various strands works best from within a scientific rather than a political frame.  Perhaps, as an article in the paper said, we will be able to move beyond this debate and onto the question of what can we do.

We are not saving the earth; the earth will be fine no matter what we do.  We want to preserve an earth fit for human habitation; that’s what’s at risk here.  Can we learn to live on this planet lightly enough that it can carry us, feeding us, watering us, disposing of our wastes, providing materiale necessary for our habitations and our economies?  Those are the stakes.

Holiseason: The Sacred Walks Among Us

Samhain                                           Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

Holiseason has gotten underway with the usual signs:  bare trees, halloween candy going stale in the bowl, Santa Claus and Christmas music showing up well before Thanksgiving, a few turkey related cartoons.  The concentrated portion of holiseason begins with Thanksgiving and runs with little stopping through January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany and the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Now, we have signs and symbols, little in the way of active celebrating, but a sacred nimbus began to spread out as Samhain festivities came and went, a nimbus that extends over this difficult, cold, darkening period, drenching us in the depths of our own lives and in the collective life of our friends, family and community.  This is a two month plus stretch of the year that cries out for alone time, time to explore what constitute our deepest values, for together time to reaffirm our love and our regard for each other, for gifts and lights and merriment. Let Fezziwig’s feast start early this year.

I wish you the best of this long and roller coast time, a cup of good cheer, a smile and a moment or more of reflection, even meditation.

Photocentrism

Fall                                              New (Harvest) Moon

OK,I made this up.  Photocentrism is a focus on the virtue of light that, by implication, puts darkness in a negative or bad relative position.  Just because I made it up, however, does not mean I’m joking.  The context:  the docent annual meeting today and the presentation of a new December of the month called Winterlights.  I agree that Winterlights is a complex noun that has a rich associative feel.  I even agree that the celebrations in what I have long called holiseason–Thanksgiving to January 6th, the traditional 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany (visit of the Magi to Bethlehem), and the date for the celebration of Christmas in the Eastern Church–offer an unparalleled opportunity to learn from other cultures about matters deep in the human psyche:  Thanksgiving, Advent, Deepavali, Hanukkah, Posada, Winter Solstice/Yule, Christmas, Western New Year on January 1, the 12 days of Christmas and maybe Kwaansa, though its constructed nature makes me a bit shy of it.  Eid al Adha, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Hajj by celebrating the Irbrahim and Ishmael story, falls in November this year, but not within holiseason itself, so I’m going to leave it out of this discussion.

The festivals or holidays of light, in particular Deepavali, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice (although is a special case as we shall see) and Christmas (more for what it replaces, Saturnalia, than what it celebrates itself) do have a common thread.  Deepavali, Winter Solstice and Christmas all relate to the despair felt in subsistence agriculture communities when the light of the sun seemed as if it would wink out and perhaps disappear altogether.  This fear, of the Sun’s final rising, put its mark on well-known pre-historical landmarks like Stonehenge, Chichen-Itza and the great Newgrange dolmen in Ireland.  Without a knowledge of the physics and celestial mechanics of the earth’s orbit and the sun’s central place in our solar system, it was frightening to consider the possibility that this time, this winter, the gradual diminishment of daylight might proceed all the way to an apocalyptic darkness.  No light for the crops.  No crops for the animals.  Cold all the time.

What to do?  According to theories of sympathetic magic, like produces like, so the logical response to oncoming darkness was a bonfire, a torch, a brave manifestation of light and heat in hopes that the sun, since it is like light and heat, will either be rekindled or seduced into rising again.  And these practices work.  Each time the bonfires were lit, the torches paraded, the sun did not disappear, but returned to once again start the growing season and stave off starvation and freezing for another year.

All of this makes sense, granting the scientific understandings of these early peoples.  As cultures grew more sophisticated and astronomical knowledge became a bit more advanced, however, it did put out the lingering fear that the darkness would one day come and never leave.  So holidays that focused on light, especially, but fire, too, became integral parts of the cultural and religious traditions of many peoples.

They all leave out one important thing, though.  The virtues of darkness.  I first became aware of the following arguments when I began to research the goddess, the great mother goddess.  I won’t get into here the debate surrounding the contention by some that a great mother goddess preceded the monotheistic, patriarchal deities of the Abrahamic religions, though I’ll tip my hand enough to say that I don’t find the evidence compelling.

What I found out about darkness surprised me and changed my mind about how I view it.  Darkness is as necessary as light.  Seeds start growing in the dark soil, away from light and even after they penetrate the surface, their roots continue to press their way into the surrounding nutrient-filled earth.  Mammal babies live their first few months of life in the moist, nourishment rich environment of their mother’s womb. (OK, not in the marsupials and the platypus and the echidna’s instance, but you get the drift.)  Darkness creates the time of rest and restoration for us and for many animals.  It is when we sleep and when we dream.  Darkness is the natural condition of space, attenuated by billions of stars only in what amounts to a small total area of the vastness of the universe.  Light itself requires a degree of darkness to create vision.  Anyone who’s ever been in a whiteout where snow and sky mix to create a vertiginous world with no up and down, no distinguishing characteristics understands the problem well.  Or consider a bright, very bright light and its affect on your sight.

This argument can be cast as a feminist one in which the light represents patriarchy and the darkness the creative agency of women.  It can also relate to anti-racism work in that we tend to equate darkness, blackness with evil, with corruption and decay.  This denies the regenerative, restorative and generative nature of darkness and narrows our conceptual world in literally dangerous ways.

How could this relate to Winterlights?  Without this kind of background the celebration of light has a sinister side as well its assumed positive one.  The celebrations of light only make sense in terms of the deep cultural background and when we go there we need to understand the fear that created these holidays has also unbalanced our appreciation of the other state, darkness.  I’ve not given it any thought, but I imagine there works of art that make darkness a central theme, that could be used to help put the other holidays in a balanced perspective.

Hanukkah is a special case here in which the focus does not seem to be on the Winter Solstice but on a cultural achievement by the Maccabees, the expelling of the Greeks.  It does however beautiful-darknessshare a darkness dispelling theme with the others.

There is more to say here, much more, but I’m hungry.  Catch you later.

We wait.

Winter                                      Waxing Moon of Long Nights

SCATTERED AMOUNTS IN EXCESS OF 20 INCHES PROBABLE. THIS EVENT MAY BECOME COMPARABLE TO THE HALLOWEEN SNOW STORM OF 1991

Yes, we have the occasional tornado and derecho.   Those are the most damaging and scary weather phenomena that visit us, wrecking their way through country side and towns and cities.  For the most part though, we do not have an equivalent of the hurricane, the fire storm, earthquake or big floods (with the exception of Red River Valley in the far northwestern part of the state).  The only volcanoes we have in the state are long dead.

We have a mid-continental climate, however, and it can throw some impressive weather our way.  These winter storms* that come at us announce themselves days ahead of time.  The National Weather Service and private meteorologists working for newspapers, TV and radio work hard to keep us informed.

Minnesotans look forward to these kind of storms since thriving during difficult winter weather defines us as a state and a people.  We all have winter storm stories, whereas only a few have tornado or derecho stories.  Our snow removal system, a sophisticated example of good government, copes with whatever comes, but a really big storm like the one whose northern border is now just south of the metro area, can overwhelm them for a time, after all there is a financial and logistical limit to how many snowplows you can deploy.

Right now we’re waiting.  I’ve made a lot of leek and potato and chicken noodle soup.  Went to the grocery store yesterday and have plenty of gas for the snowblower.  We have a four wheel drive vehicle with a low 4WD if we need it.

Let it snow.

*.A MAJOR STORM SYSTEM PRODUCING HEAVY SNOW…POTENTIALLY NEAR RECORD IN SOME LOCATIONS…AND HAVING CONSIDERABLE IMPACTS ON HOLIDAY GROUND AND AIR TRAVEL…WILL BEGIN ACROSS SOUTHERN AND CENTRAL MINNESOTA AND WEST CENTRAL WISCONSIN BY TONIGHT. SNOWFALL ACCUMULATIONS BY THURSDAY MORNING ARE EXPECTED TO BE BETWEEN TWO AND FIVE INCHES. THE SNOW WILL LAST THROUGH THURSDAY AND CHRISTMAS WITH SIGNIFICANT ACCUMULATIONS FORECAST. THESE ACCUMULATIONS WILL LIKELY BE IN EXCESS OF ONE FOOT…WITH 20 INCHES OR MORE IN SOME LOCATIONS.

TOTAL ACCUMULATIONS ARE HIGHLY LIKELY TO EXCEED ONE FOOT OVER CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN MINNESOTA AND FAR WESTERN WISCONSIN…WITH SCATTERED AMOUNTS IN EXCESS OF 20 INCHES PROBABLE. THIS EVENT MAY BECOME COMPARABLE TO THE HALLOWEEN SNOW STORM OF 1991. GIVEN THE TIMING OF THIS SYSTEM…HOLIDAY ROAD AND AIR TRAVEL WILL BE SIGNIFICANTLY IMPACTED.

A WINTER STORM WARNING FOR HEAVY SNOW MEANS SEVERE WINTER WEATHER CONDITIONS ARE EXPECTED OR OCCURRING. SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF SNOW ARE FORECAST THAT WILL MAKE TRAVEL DANGEROUS. ONLY TRAVEL IN AN EMERGENCY. IF YOU MUST TRAVEL…KEEP AN EXTRA FLASHLIGHT… FOOD…AND WATER IN YOUR VEHICLE IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY.