Tag Archives: Yule

The Close and Holy Darkness

One of the gifts I give myself at this time each year is to listen to, not read, but listen to, Dylan Thomas’ exquisite poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. There are several recorded versions, and a quick YouTube search will bring up some good ones. This year, I stumbled upon Cerys Matthews’ version and, oh my, it’s the best ever. She’s done it as an almost Peter and the Wolf (one of G/Son’s favorites) type of poem/musical work and it is pure magic.

Thomas’ poem ends with a prayer “to the close and holy darkness,” and I never hear those words without the chill that tells me that magic is afoot. (Someone once said that white magic is poetry and black magic is anything that actually works. If that’s true, Dylan Thomas was a grey Witch.) Now that we’ve slipped into the season of growing light, I find myself treasuring even more “the close and holy darkness.” It wraps around me when I settle under my heavy blankets at the end of a long day’s legal writing and it buffers me from the world when I wake a few hours before dawn for my daily practice.

Give yourself a gift and listen to Thomas’ magical poem. And then say your own few words to the close and holy darkness.

Memories to Take Into the Coming Light

One of the things that I do this time of year, as we head directly to the edge of the longest night, is to recount for myself, as I sit in my daily practice, all of the good things that have happened, all of the things that have warmed my heart, all of the things that I want to call instantly to mind when things go — as they sometimes will — badly wrong. I tell them to myself, like beads on a rosary, over and over, a mantra of pleasure, and warmth, and joy.

This has been a wonderful year. I’ve had a string of wins at work and, well, I’m a lawyer; I really, really like to win. I’ve gone on a few wonderful road trips with a dear friend who decided a while back to start dragging my Moon-In-Taurus ass out on some excursions. I’ve eaten spectacular meals on Capitol Hill, in Columbia’s shadow, and talked, as my Gemini Ascendent self loves to do, with dear and brilliant friends, about books, and politics, and religion, and art. I’ve had beloved friends over to sit on my porch past dark, eat food I cooked, drink wine I selected. I’ve picked flowers from my own garden for bouquets and picked way too much food from my own garden to feed myself, my family, the local food bank. I’ve seen breathtaking art in DC’s museums. I’ve picked crabs by the water with my extended family on an October day that sparkled like hard cider. I’ve spent time with a gifted shaman, great teachers, my favorite blogger. I’ve done deep magic with my deep Circle, I could go on. But one of my happiest memories is the day that G/Son was sick.

G/Son stayed for a week with me this Summer, just after he’d been playing with a little boy who lives near his other grandparents. In just a few hours, G/ Son, like his friend, was down with a fever. It wasn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of childhood maladies; I’d seen his dad through worse. But he was miserable and he had no appetite. Skinny by nature, he lost a bit of weight and worried his Nonna. The second day in, I picked a lot of basil and made pesto, which G/Son calls “green noodles.” I made it garlicky, with Frances Mayes good olive oil. G/Son ate two bowls. “Nonna, can I have more?” The next day, we had pho for lunch with his ‘rents and his fever broke.

And that’s my best memory of this secular year. The magical herbs that I grew, the food that I fixed, feeding that little body that I love, making that little boy better. It made me feel my own place in the river of time and I was, to borrow a phrase from Pillars of Time, with my son’s son’s sons and with my mother’s mother’s mothers. May it be so for you.

What will you carry forward with you into the growing light?

A Story for the Monday Before the Longest Night

I would like to tell you a story. A painfully oversimplified story, but a good one nonetheless. While this is my version of the story, it is by no means only mine. This is just another story of life on this planet and its relation to other living things. I hope you enjoy!

Our story starts with a tree. The tree is old and it is dying. This is okay. Throughout its long life the tree has produced millions of seeds and it is likely that at least a few of them are in the process of growing into new trees. It has replaced itself, the crowning achievement of all life on this planet. The tree has been through a lot during its time on Earth but now its life is coming to an end. You see, the tree has an infection. A fungal spore landed and began to grow on the scar of a branch that broke off during a wind storm.

The fungus is now spreading through the tissues of the tree. It started slowly at first but now it has reached critical mass. The fungus is consuming living tissues faster than the tree can repair them. It is a losing battle for the tree but a winning one for the fungus. As more and more of the tree dies, the dead wood becomes soft with yet more fungi. The softer the wood gets, the more appealing it becomes to insects. Beetles can sense the tree is dying and they swarm all over it, laying eggs under the bark. These eggs hatch into beetle grubs that live on wood. Ants soon find the tree as well. They are carpenter ants and these ants are young queens. One of the queens begins laying eggs and soon a whole colony of carpenter ants is living within the wood of the tree. As they eat their way through the wood more and more of the tree is dying.

Soon the last vestiges of life disappear from the tree. Spring comes and no buds break, no leaves grow, and no more water is pumped through its tissues. The story of the tree does not end here though. Far from it. All this insect activity has brought some new attention to the tree. Woodpeckers love insects and they begin to descend on the tree with vigor. Because woodpeckers are so territorial soon only a single pair visits the tree. At first it is simply to eat the myriad of insects living within the tree itself but, as their bond grows stronger, the pairs focus soon turns to producing offspring of their own.

Instead of chipping shallow feeding holes into the tree, the pair begin to excavate a nest hole. This hole is much deeper, extending into the middle of the tree. With copious amounts of insects and a few trees under their control, the pair of woodpeckers successfully raise many woodpecker offspring summer after summer. The tree served them well. In the winter, the nest hole served to shelter a flock of chickadees from the extreme cold. The chickadees don’t know it but they owe their life to the woodpeckers for having excavated that hole. Winters are cold in this neck of the woods and without a place to gather together for warmth during the night, the little chickadees could have very well froze to death.

One summer the pair of woodpeckers do not return. Perhaps one of them flew into a car or got picked off by a cat. Either way, the nest hole was vacant one night when a flying squirrel found it. The squirrel was looking for a place to sleep during the day and the hole served her nicely. She stayed there all summer and into the winter. Like the chickadees, flying squirrels also congregate together in cavities during the winter for warmth. The hole suited them well. One of those squirrels happened to be a male that won her over come spring. Together they raised a small brood that year. Being fond of fungi, the flying squirrels were often covered in spores while feeding. These spores were brushed off in the hole whenever they returned home to their young.

These spores began to grow and, over the following seasons, the middle of the tree was nearly hollowed out. The tree stood for a few more seasons after this but finally, after years of insects and fungi eating it away, the tree collapsed. Again, this was not the end of the line for the tree. Soon the forest floor began to reclaim what was left. Fern spores landed on the waterlogged shell of the tree and there they germinated and grew. Moss spores did the same. In time a family of shrews made a den under the tree. Many a baby shrew was raised in this den.

One day a birch seed landed on the rotting bark. Here, far from competition on the forest floor, the seed germinated. The trees roots dug deep into the soggy tissues of the tree and soon found their way down into the dirt. Once in contact with the rich humus the trees growth took off. It rocketed into the canopy, vying for a place in the sun. Soon there was nothing left of the tree we started with. It rotted out from underneath the birch. Now, part of the humus itself, it went on to nourish the birch, which had become a full grown tree. One winter day a storm blew in. The storm brought with it a heavy load of snow. One of the birch’s branches couldn’t take the weight. With a loud snap that woke a sleeping owl, it crashed to the ground. The following spring a few fungal spores landed on the scar and started to grow into the birch.

hat tip to Virginia Native Plant Society

In the Bleak Midwinter

This morning, a friend of mine posted on facebook that she’d been up since the wee hours wrapping presents and was feeling overwhelmed. Since she’s a Cancer (you people know how you are!) I didn’t even bother trying to tell her, “Well, then, just stop doing a bunch of stuff. Do one or two fun things and ignore the rest.” But it’s what we all do need to do, esp. at this time of year when the “overculture” bombards us with Martha-Stewart-messages that we aren’t “enough” if we don’t cut turnips into inkstamps and make our own wrapping paper out of genuine butcher block paper that matches our handmade Yule cards and the placemats at our holiday tables.

Here, just a few days before Yule, are some lovely versions of my favorite Winter songs. I hope that you’ll just stop and let the music wash over you.

For Heaven’s sake, it’s supposed to be fun.

Good Time of Year for Remembering Old Friends

Father Christmas (aka Old Sami Shaman)

Every year, about this time, G/Son & I read Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas. (A million years ago, I used to read it to his dad.) The part that G/Son likes best is the part when the North Polar Bear tries to carry too many presents down the stairs, trips, drops them, and falls down the stairs. We have a good laugh about that, and G/Son assures me that none of the presents destined for HIM got crushed. So far, that’s been true.

A few years ago, after we read the story for the first time, I began to make G/Son a cake version of Santa’s workshop, filled with uncrushed presents.

(Picture by the author. If you copy, please link back.)

This year, G/Son and his mom will make the cake and Nonna will show up to help decorate it. When this little soul was born, one thing that I promised the Goddess as I sat outside the room where his ‘rents were doing the magical work of bringing him through the veils, was that I would ground him in traditions that would sustain him into the 22nd Century, long after my ashes are, may it please the fates, fertilizing lilac bushes. I hope that this tradition is one.

What traditions do you create?

Picture found here.

Sami Shaman. Just Saying.

Solstice Blessings to You

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because Sophia over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

(with apologies to G.M. Hopkins)

Picture found here.

Into the Dark PotPourri

*Witches, someone once said, are people who aren’t afraid of darkness; that’s why they frighten other people. We’re trained, here, deep in the belly of Patriarchy, to fear darkness and to always “seek the light.” And that’s sad, because the darkness has gifts.

This Summer, I had to replace the blinds in my bedroom and I got “blackout blinds” that completely cut the outside light and leave my bedroom in real darkness. I’ve been amazed at the difference that they make. I wake up more rested and, in particular, my eyes feel about 100% better. (Makes sense. I make my living reading books and staring at a computer screen.) There’s some research that indicates that sleeping in darkness may cut the risk of breast cancer. But the real gift is the deep feeling of comfort and safety and embrace that I find inside the dark. I love my shining city on a swamp, but the light pollution here is rather severe. If I could make just one change, it would be to be able to see all of the stars at night. And all of the darkness.

*I had dinner tonight with Son, DiL, and G/Son. As I was leaving, G/Son ran up to me and gave me a Solstice card that he’d drawn for me. At five, his pictures are more like runes or hieroglyphs than watercolors, but he does love to draw. His Solstice card shows a bright sun and a king and queen, as well as some other figures that I’m not sure how to interpret. But I know that he’ll be able to explain them to me. There’s a whole lot of Pisces in that kid.


*Gardeners are people who notice changes. All over my little bit of Zone 7, we’re seeing changes now that shouldn’t be happening for at least another sixty or ninety days. I can almost hear the plants being confused, mumbling and jumbling beneath the Earth. It’s too early for my miniature daffs to be pushing up. It’s too early for my euonymous shrub to be leafing out. It’s too early for my neighbor’s forsythia to be in bloom. It’s too early for the buds on my Spring camellia to be so big. And, it’s too late. It’s too late for the robins that should have already gone South to be lingering here, eating the birdseed that I leave for the regular Winter birds. (Hawk knows this, as well, sitting every morning in my old maple tree, regarding the bird feeders as a connoisseur regards a selection of caviar.) Goddess knows what next Spring will bring. If we do (as I think we will) get some bad freezes, some things may simply die, having bloomed too early. Interesting to be a priestess of the Great Mother Earth, here at the beginning of the Great Die-Off. (And, by interesting I mean, as any gardener knows, heart-breaking.) There’s an old quotation I’ve always loved: “I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.” I did not know when I bought this bit of Earth with an euonymous bush that it might be my job to dig it up and compost it. But it may be. It may be my job. And, if it is, I hope that I will perform that task as a priestess, as a devoted daughter of a shifting Gaia. What else is there for me to do? We are clearly at the beginning of the end of the old normal. “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.” ~ Manual of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan. I am standing between the ending and the beginning. I do not know the correct balances. I think that Mother Earth will teach me.

* If you’re not reading Byron every day, what’s wrong with you?

*The flowers in my garden are all white or (one shade or another of) black (which often means “purple” as nature, oddly, created so few black flowers). Here’s Mary Oliver talking about white flowers and darkness:

Last night
in the fields
I lay down in the darkness
to think about death,
but instead I fell asleep,
as if in a vast and sloping room
filled with those white flowers
that open all summer,
sticky and untidy,
in the warm fields.
When I woke
the morning light was just slipping
in front of the stars,
and I was covered
with blossoms.
I don’t know
how it happened—
I don’t know
if my body went diving down
under the sugary vines
in some sleep-sharpened affinity
with the depths, or whether
that green energy
rose like a wave
and curled over me, claiming me
in its husky arms.
I pushed them away, but I didn’t rise.
Never in my life had I felt so plush,
or so slippery,
or so resplendently empty.
Never in my life
had I felt myself so near
that porous line
where my own body was done with
and the roots and the stems and the flowers

May it be so for you.

Photo, from the author’s garden, by the author. If you copy, please link back.

Song for a Winter’s Night

Give yourself the gift of turning off the lights and sinking into the long darkness of this night, as into the arms of an old lover. You know the night and the night knows you. Embrace.