Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Solstice. Just before Christmas and our tree is up, shining with lights in the darkness which is profound, this shortest day of the year.

I arose in the darkness and sat with it this morning, kept a close eye on it as it gave way to dawn. I plan to bundle up and walk in the woods today. The day may be overcast—but it will be far from gloomy in there. Close, dim perhaps; but not depressing. The woods at the darkest time of the year feel majestic, full of secrets.

Later I’ll listen to music, maybe even get out my guitar and play. I should bake something too, in the longstanding tradition of my people at Christmas, a rite that I’m certain goes back much further than I can see, beyond my mother and my grandmothers, beyond the women whose names are on the recipes handed down to me: Martha, Diatha, Leah, Opal.

It’s still a mystery, my descent from my ancestors, how my life is linked to so many generations before me, as life itself is a mystery, how the light comes back every year, finds us again and the new year begins. It’s just the Christian calendar, a Chinese-American friend said to me once. She was referring to the millennium, as I recall, and dismissing it as a purely Christian invention, and of course she was right—at least, about the year 2000. But the Christian calendar is overlaid on something more ancient, the Gregorian on the Julian, both of them working from the sun and starting the new year soon after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice—observed and celebrated in pre-Christian times. I think of the standing pillars of Stonehenge, arranged to frame the arc of the sun on its shortest journey of the year and constructed at least 4,000 years ago. During the middle ages many western European countries actually started the new year on December 25th, marking the birth of Christ and closer to winter solstice. (When reforming the calendar and lopping off days to get back into alignment with the sun, Pope Gregory held onto the Roman convention of the New Year beginning on January 1.)

Like the calendar many of the holiday festivities, the decorations and the carols are older than Christianity. Now and then I peek behind the “Christmas” veneer and see my pagan ancestors. Celebrating Yule, for instance—it’s not a Christian festival, but the word’s been co-opted as if it means Christmas. I listen to the carols and ancient voices call out to me, singing about the greenwood as if it’s a very real, specific place; singing of dawn breaking and deer running. They had a lot to say and to sing about, it seems, at this shortest day of the year, even without the addition of a prophet from the middle east.

Some of the Christian lyrics build on the happy spirit of revelry (in fact carols were originally dances) and call out for beneficence, and for understanding among people, and who can argue with or complain of that? Other lyrics simply recount the Christmas story: the star, the kings, the birth of Christ; and often each bit of story is tied to something still green and growing, like holly, that one might find on a winter ramble in the wood.

And I come back to where I began: Today I want to walk in the woods, whether dim or shot through with the rays of the low-sailing sun, where people for thousands of years have felt close to the mystery, the unknowable. The trees that outlive us, the ground we will return to, the bits of green that always survive the frost. The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer.

Our roots are long, long as the shadows this time of year.


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Christmas Eve.

Snow is on the ground. Icicles big as baseball bats hang from the porches of the little houses on Leroy St., and if you come late and the church lot is full and you have to park on the street, you will carefully make your way up the end of someone’s driveway—lit by Christmas lights—and move along the sidewalk as if through a tunnel, flanked by walls of snow.

Inside, there’s a huge tree at the front of the sanctuary, hung with ornaments all in white and gold, all Christian symbols. I don’t think even the grownups know what half of them mean. Ok, we all know the dove is about peace, and the fish has something to do with early Christians, but lots of others just seem vaguely familiar, or not at all. A woman in the congregation painstakingly crafted every one of them, out of Styrofoam and braid and beads. (The tree in the social hall, in the basement, is far less majestic. It’s artificial, white, and has a color wheel turned on it so that it slowly changes: blue, to red, to emerald, to a funky gold. It always has a hypnotic effect on me—I could watch it for hours.)

But back to the sanctuary. The advent wreath’s up front, on a stand. I never remember what the colors mean, I just know the white candle in the center does not get lit ‘til Christmas. I like the purple candles best, and how fat they are: big, round columns that look like they could burn for days. The altar is banked with poinsettias, scores of them. Sometimes our family has paid for a few and takes them home later, but at home they always look spindly and kind of lame to me compared to how they look amassed here—an army, a forest of fiery red flowers.

There are a lot of people packed into the sanctuary, some of whom we see only once a year. But my young brain doesn’t think about this much, or judge it. It’s exciting, the crush of people, all dressed in their holiday best. Men in waistcoats, and holiday ties; women in jewel colors, ruffles, hairspray, clip earrings. One year our mom sews long skirts for my sister and me. (Mine is deep green velvet. I think Linda’s was port.)

The sanctuary feels warm with the press of all these people, and the darkness at the windows along the sides makes the effect even more cozy. Crammed into the pews, a handful of kids always drop their votive glasses, and they clink as they roll around on the floor. “Good God, it sounds like a bar in here,” my dad always says, and we all laugh.

Every year the service begins with our best musicians, the T. family, playing “Gesu Bambino,” “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” on alternate years. Tom’s sweet violin cuts through the sanctuary, supported by his mother’s steady cello and intertwined with his sister’s warm-sounding flute. Already everyone knows that he will play in a professional orchestra one day. I can picture the chairs they sit on, small wooden chairs that usually stay in the storage space behind the choir loft and have “ihs” carved in the back.

The choir assembles in the “narthex,” the space just outside the doorway to the sanctuary. I always think it’s funny that people seem to enjoy using the technical terms for parts of the church—and yet, it fascinates me, too. The T. family has finished playing, picked up their chairs, retreated from in front of the steps to the altar. The organ begins something we all know—because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll know all the hymns tonight. There is a sound—how do you describe it? The sound of everyone around me getting to their feet. And as the choir comes down the center aisle in their pale gold robes, we’re all singing. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Even in the robes, I can tell who’s who—and I enjoy this, recognizing that the short woman with the carefully coiffed hair and the gorgeous voice is Mrs. A., and the tall, thin man who bounces a little is Mr. W. They’re familiar, and yet, transformed. Or maybe it’s just that I recognize the fellowship in singing in a choir, symbolized by their robes. I know about singing in a choir, I’ve been doing it here since I was four years old.

And sing is what we will do, for the next hour. Sure, there will be readings from the Gospels, and the minister will address us briefly. He knows he has to keep it short on Christmas Eve—besides, with the votive glasses rolling around, and the occasional baby bursting into voice, how long can he expect to hold the floor?

And we have a lot of carols to sing—so many, that “The First Noel” will only get three of its umpteen verses, and someone’s favorite will get left out—better luck next year. And then the moment comes we’ve all been waiting for, even those who don’t know it.

The ushers come up the aisles and light the candle of the person sitting at the end of every pew, and that person lights the next person’s candle, and that person, the next, until everyone in that crowd of people is holding a burning candle in a glass. The lights are dimmed and the organ, softly now, strikes up “Silent Night,” and we begin to sing the last hymn.

Somewhere around verse three the organ drops out and it’s just us, the multitude, singing in the candlelight, the dark of a winter’s night pressing in at the windows as we sway with the music, not really thinking any more of gifts we’ll open tomorrow, what Santa will leave under the tree, what we’ll have for Christmas dinner, or even the relatives we’ll see. All drops away—as I suppose it must have in churches all over the city, with their own colors of candles, ways to decorate an altar, hymns to the eternal.

How strong a pull has Christmas Eve. When I look back on it, I think I understand better than I ever have that for me, the pull is in the power of uniting, of belonging, of opening our hearts. And of course, singing.

Always, singing.

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I went swimming yesterday – a rare occurrence, so late in the year. September 27th. I could hardly believe the calendar read nearly October, and not August.

I walked around in the shallows with my camera first, taking shots of the furrowed sandbars under the clear water, the patterns the light makes, the island with its brushy hairdo in the background, the peninsulas in the far distance. On a calm day, I’m fascinated by the way the water ripples and moves over and around the sandbars. Words from the realm of sound, and music, come to mind: vibration. Resonance. Harmonics. I stood with my camera in the shallows, trying to capture some of it as the minnows pooled around me and nibbled at my feet.

A woman approached on a sit-on-top kayak. I’d seen her dragging it to the water as I walked out, she came from one of the big houses north of us. I wondered which one. Could she be a guest of the people who cut down trees on my sister’s property last spring, without asking?  The trees were right in the sight line to their huge front windows. We had a talk, and they were apologetic afterwards, but still… I’m skeptical. I’m suspicious in general of the “big house” people, they of the expansive landscaping, perpetual lights, wandering chainsaws.

She paddled up to me as I was snapping pictures. I felt annoyed. With an entire Bay to paddle in, why come right by me? Later I realized she wanted to stay in the shallows as she headed south.

“That looks like a nice camera,” she said as she approached.

“I like it,” I said, and shrugged. I was thinking, it’s not a terribly fancy camera. I lined up another landscape in my viewfinder.

She paddled slowly and deliberately – an older woman, probably in her 60s. I noticed her wide-brimmed hat, just like the one I was wearing.

“Are you taking pictures of the island?” she asked.

I stopped to explain a little – the patterns in the sand, the light, the submerged tree trunk I’d seen the day before from my kayak. “It’s around here somewhere,” I said.

“Did you see the eagle on the island this morning?” she asked.

I responded no, not this morning. But, I told her, I’ve seen it out here before. For a quick second I imagined her standing on one of the balconies on one of the big houses, binoculars trained on the island. I felt a strong possessiveness, like a small child with a favorite object – my island, mine! And the urge to say, I’ve been coming to this island since before I could walk… Or was it later that I thought of saying that? I don’t know.

She got just past me with her slow paddle strokes when the trill of a loon floated over the water.

“That’s a loon,” I called from behind her.

“Sounds like it to me,” she said.

It called again. “It sure is,” I repeated.

“Beautiful sound,” she said.

I stood there with my camera as she slowly moved off on the still water.

I walked about, taking more pictures. I thought about the loons. I thought about the woman’s comment: beautiful sound. I thought about avian botulism, the numbers I read this past spring in the newsletter from the Watershed Council. Over 400 dead loons reported last year in Charlevoix and Emmett counties alone, and those are just the birds that volunteers found and tallied. I wanted to tell the woman from the big house, paddling serenely down the Bay, that the beautiful sound of the loons won’t be here for long if we don’t start trying to protect it.

But she was long gone, and I, reluctant if not entirely unfriendly, had not exactly made a friend.

Maybe next time, I thought, while the minnows tickled my toes. Maybe next time I’ll do a better job of connecting. Finished with my photo shoot, I walked back in, off the sandbars onto the clay-like crust that has formed over the pebbly shallows in front of the island, through the mucky patch just off shore where I sink up to my calves in spots, these days. I walked up onto the shore, crossing the gunk-coated stones, thick with dead algae, just at the water’s edge. Less than a decade ago they were clean, their rich colors shining in the sun. When we were small my sister and I spent hours at the water’s edge on a still day, playing with our buckets and shovels, looking at the stones.

I took my camera back up to the cottage, its memory card holding pictures of a rare day in late September: light, pattern, waves of energy through which we, no less than the minnows, move. Next time a kayaker comes out from the big houses up the beach, I hope to remember: at the right frequency, we all resonate together.


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Sitting on the porch in the mild, fresh air, I hear a cricket chirping rhythmically from the grass on the beach. Out on the water a seagull cries – a plaintive sound, but I know better than to think of it as mournful or lonely. Seagulls are perpetually crying. I think it is their nature.

A crow hops across the yard and from the branches overhead comes the quick, bright call of a chickadee. The air smells moist and clean: sandy, like the Bay. The sun falls in bars between the tree trunks, warming the pine needles blanketing the ground and sending up their scent, too. A squirrel runs headfirst down the trunk of an oak and scurries over to climb another tree. I can’t see his color, in silhouette against the light of the water, faintly blue in the morning sun. Then he appears suddenly on the pine tree at the corner of the porch, peering in at me. He’s golden-brown.

There’s just enough breeze to set the ferns on the front of the bluff dancing, and I see the water moving north, the troughs of waves appearing as tiny, sand-colored lines. No jet skis are out yet, and I can’t even see the neighbor’s boats from here. The seemingly endless fireworks of the 4th and last night’s leftovers, a few stutters of booms and flashes, are a thing of the past. It’s quiet, but for a small plane that comes into hearing and drones into the distance.

This is what I live for: morning coffee on the porch at the cottage. Nothing is happening. Everything is happening.

Last night we had guests at our campfire, friends from up the beach. One of them had never been to our place before. At the end of the evening in the light of the flashlight we walked up the stairs to the cottage and our guest looked around the yard, mostly in darkness, at the trees, the hard-packed sand and the moss, the dirt driveway. She said something about it being so unlike her parents’ place, up the beach – no landscaping. This is nice, she said. Rustic.

I said yeah, it’s rustic. She probably couldn’t see the smile on my face, in the dark. What she called “rustic” is what draws me here to sit under the trees, watching the squirrels and the chipmunks run around the pine-needled ground, seeing the ferns and the chokecherry dance in the wind along the bluff, watching as the bands of morning light slip slowly down the tree trunks and the shadows shorten, heading for noon. Hearing the birds call, wondering if I’ll see the mergansers pull up down in front, zipping along the surface of the water, fishing.

Rustic is a word that conjures for me an effect, something to be achieved, purposefully shaped if not contrived. Perhaps that’s only when applied to interior decorating. There’s purpose to the way things are here – but the purpose feels larger than me. I’ve shaped nothing much here; neither did my parents before me. The small things they did to the landscape, the rough stairs my dad built, himself, to get down the bank, the screen porch they added on years after they built their tiny cottage, trees growing mere inches from its screens – these only serve to make the presence of the outdoors even larger.

I don’t think of myself as religious, and I don’t believe in a god with a human-like personality, a king-like “deity.” I never did, despite all the years of church I attended. Something did stay with me from all that time, though. Words from a hymn I’ve always loved:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies

For the love which from our birth over and around us lies

Rustic. Whose purpose? What purpose? I’m not sure I can define it. But I can feel it, lying “over and around” me – and within me – here.

For the Beauty of the Earth, lyric by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917.

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I was really excited when I saw that 2.7 million people “Like” the Dalai Lama on Facebook. It made social media look really cool – how great is it that people around the world, by the millions, come together on the internet over the wise words of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning holy man?

Then I discovered that 1.3 million people “Like” the National Rifle Association. Which is fine – except it made the Dalai Lama’s numbers seem less impressive. I guess somehow I hoped that way more than twice as many people would “Like” the Dalai Lama, who is after all an international figure and a living symbol of love and compassion, as “Like” the NRA. I wonder if any Facebook friends of the Dalai Lama are also friends of the NRA? Just curious.

Even more disheartening since I consider the man a professional bully, I discovered that over 1 million people “Like” Rush Limbaugh. (On the other hand, Facebook also boasts the following groups: Telling Rush Limbaugh He’s Full of Crap, and Rush Limbaugh Sucks. They have a combined total of around 216,000 endorsements.) Tim Tebow has 1.6 million “subscribers” to his Facebook page; Tom Brady, 1.28 million. Eli Manning has only 449,000. Madonna, on the other hand, has over 7.3 million “Likes” – more than the Dalai Lama, Tim Tebow and Tom Brady combined, with a couple of million to spare. Crazy – but check this out: Michael Jackson, who’s no longer with us in the flesh, has no fewer than 44.8 million “Likes,” and kind of unsurprisingly, Lady Gaga tops them all with 47.6 million. I have to be candid: I doubt the Dalai Lama is ever going to get even close to either Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga. Which makes me wonder: how many “Likes” would Gandhi get? (Actually, Gandhi has a Facebook page. But I’m talking about if he was still alive). Or the Buddha himself? Or Jesus?

Hopefully more than the NRA, or Rush Limbaugh, or much as I like to watch him play football, Tom Brady. I like to think so. But more than Michael Jackson, or Lady Gaga? I wonder. The power of music and dance (not to mention amazing stage shows) captivates people, and translates well to social media. Deep thoughts about loving your neighbor, maybe not so much – but still, I’m glad to see those thoughts on Facebook, at all.

But listen: can’t we get the Dalai Lama up to at least three times the “Likes” of the likes of Rush Limbaugh? Help me out here – if you haven’t already, “Like” the Dalai Lama. Let’s get him up over 3 million. We owe it to ourselves, if only so we can look in the mirror and “Like” what we see.


I wrote this piece about nine months ago, and just went on Facebook to discover that the Dalai Lama has 4.4 million “Likes” while Rush Limbaugh remains at 1.1 million. Even though I didn’t post the piece until now, I like to think that somehow my thought went out into the universe anyway.


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It’s Saturday, the day before Easter, and there’s good news from the park: everyone, everything is waking up.

This morning as I stood in the sunlight beating down on the two-track beside the meadow, a fly flew in my ear. I shook it away and laughed – how funny that it could be so joyful, the first fly buzz of the year.

I was eager to see if the Blue Racers were awake, and so we stepped off the trail and over to where we discovered their nest last year – a small, overgrown pit in the ground, probably once part of a building foundation but now almost invisible in the grass. Sally wasn’t all that keen on the idea. She favors leaving the snakes alone, doesn’t like to bother or stress them – but I can’t help it, I want the thrill of seeing. I stood near the edge of the grassed-over hole, fixing my attention on a shiny dark object beneath the grass that turned out to be a rock and while my attention was so focused, whoosh! – suddenly a thick, blue-black rope appeared right in front of me and plunged, twisting, into the tall grass beyond the pit. I jumped straight into the air and clapped my hands to my chest – even when you’re looking for it, the sight of a four-foot long Blue Racer emerging at your feet is startling. I waited for a moment, looking around in case there was another; Sally was already back on the path. “C’mon,” she said, “You got what you came for!” And when I rejoined her on the path, she commented that she hoped the snake would soon resume his resting place in the sun.

We followed the trail into the woods, surrounded by birdsong. I don’t know many birdcalls; but I recognized chickadees, and a cardinal. There were many more I do not know by sound. The forest floor was sprinkled with violets, and marsh marigolds bloomed at every stream we crossed. In one clear pool, edged all around with the bright green blades of skunk cabbage, we saw fingerling-sized fish, dozens of them, darting to and fro. Framed in all the greenery Sally spotted a huge old oak, back in the woods a short distance: a massive trunk with spreading, twisting branches, clearly hundreds of years old. In its very age it seemed timeless, wreathed with the fresh new growth all around it.

On the drive out of the park a pair of wild turkeys was walking along the shoulder, in the sun. Most often, we’ve seen them back in the woods where it’s darker; but this time I saw the markings on their tail feathers all lit up. “Wow, their feathers are beautiful,” I commented. Turkeys hardly have a reputation for beauty – but they should.

I read a quote somewhere recently, in which the speaker said nature was his religion – he felt closer to God out of doors than at any other time. I’m in complete sympathy. I too feel closest to mystery and wonder, and all that is beyond my understanding, when I’m out in “the wild.” It’s fitting, then, that on Easter weekend we took to the trails to see life returning, everywhere.


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Josephine the cat is sitting on the back of the chair, purring right into my ear as I write. When I turn my head towards her, she sniffs me and then rubs her nose against my glasses. Unconditional love. (Or it could be that my sweaty face smells good to her – I just came in from a long walk in the heat.)

She’s dwindling to nothing in her old age (she’ll be 19 in a couple of weeks), just a handful of bones in a skin sack. When I pick her up she feels unexpectedly light – it’s like picking up a box you thought was full, and it’s actually half-empty. It’s been a theme of my life in recent years, watching pets – and people – age; learning the lessons of “let go” and “love them while you have them.” Either one is about being fully in the moment.

I just turned again and she’s looking over my shoulder, almost like she’s trying to read what I’m writing.

Carpooling back from a gig with the choir I sing with last Sunday, we were talking about religion and spirituality – which was natural, because the event we sang at was a church service. One of my choirmates described a time when through spiritual practice she got beyond her everyday perception to a kind of bliss, and pointed out that quantum physics is now changing our beliefs about time and what we think of as “real.” Then she said “let’s face it, no one really knows what happens when we die.” And of course that’s true. We watch the body diminish: decrease in mass as Josephine’s is doing, get weaker, suffer disease and malfunction. We may even witness that moment when it ceases altogether – just won’t go anymore, not another heartbeat, not another breath.

I’ve been present, for that moment; and along with my feelings of sorrow and loss I felt completely bewildered – which makes sense, because as my friend was saying last Sunday as we were driving up Woodward Avenue, passing big, beautiful old churches at intervals, nobody really knows what happens when we die.

But we can’t stop speculating about it – coming up with everything from reincarnation to resurrection; we can’t help wondering, and we can’t keep ourselves from pondering, theorizing and preaching on it, endlessly. I think a lot of it is fear – the fear of oblivion, of the possibility of total extinction. We’re afraid that when our bodies stop, all that we are ceases to be – wiped away as if we were no more than pale, uncertain scrawls on a chalkboard.

I understand the fear but I don’t know if the theories always help. They seem in some ways a distraction. If the only certainty is “now,” it seems to make sense to focus there. I guess I hope that if I can do it, my life can then open like a flower – expanding out from the center, like the universe; and the center is “now.”

Josephine, having no problem embracing her “now,” has moved over to the cat bed on the settee and is turning slow circles, settling in for a nap.

Postscript: I’m not the only one watching animals age and thinking about mortality. Link to website of photographer Isa Leshko: http://isaleshko.com/elderly-animals/ Warning: the photos and especially the short film on her site are likely to make you feel sad.

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