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June 2008

May 2008

Where the Wild Things Are (or, When Things Go Pleasantly Against Your Expectations)

A peridot-colored May froggie near one of the water gardens.

I spent last weekend at Ima’s farm, a welcome respite from the city and work. I’d been having a hard time getting back into my routine headspace after returning from my wonderful trip to California (adult summer camp, as I described it to my friend and teacher Ben), and the idea of going deep into the somewhat familiar Midwestern woods and walking, singing, writing alone – seemed just what the doctor ordered.  Ima was hosting the first-year herb students’ inaugural trip to her farm.

But we third-year kids know our joe pye from our boneset, our blackberry from our red raspberry – so I figured we could goof off all weekend and maybe get away with a little light weeding.

Star Farmer and I arrived to find the campground full. (Herb students and massage students on the same weekend? We hadn’t had such a big group in years!) We went up to a spot we used to pitch our tents last year and found the mosquitoes hungry. Even worse – my barely used tent, a lone exhibit of rare evidence that I do sometimes make astonishingly poor investments, would not go up. (It is supported by inflatable rods. To inflate it I must labor away at a foot pump made in China. It is only good in theory. Like some kind of fickle performing animal, it only sets up for my husband. It is ridiculous. It is useless. Verily I say to thee, stick to traditional pole tents.)

In a show of solidarity (and maybe because he, too, had had enough of the mosquitoes), Star set his sleeping quarters up along with mine in the big upper room of Avalon Hall, an all-purpose building at the front of Ima’s land.

Ah, but what disappointment can’t be cured by good food and good spirits? We went out for dinner, anticipating the glorious tangy, mahogany, crispy-skinned duck at a restaurant in the nearest town, overpriced and ambitious in its culinary endeavors but boasting the most decent wine list for miles.

No duck. They didn’t even have the wine we enjoyed so much last time.

The next morning my irrepressible Ima showed up as I waited for a campstove frittata to set, and for my headache to go away. By now we had a small cadre of exactly five third-year students.

“Great, you guys can help me plant while I show the new students around!” Ima chirped, looking beautiful, sparkling, even. Apparently there were some several hundred seedlings waiting to go into the ground.

“You can be in charge of the planting,” she said to me.


"Every angel is terrifying"

I  was compelled to stay up late last night reading aloud Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.

I woke up this morning, saw the date, and realized to whom I had been reading them. Without him, my life's path would have been very, very different.

Rest in peace, Jeff. Sometimes I think the world cowered under the weight of your heartbreaking beauty... and in the end, one of us had to turn away.

Beltaine 2008: Mora et Amor

Mora: Latin for "delay" or "linger"

Amor: also Latin, "love"

A Beltaine reveler amongst the forget-me-nots 

I type now in the last minutes before midnight on the eve of Beltaine, from a cabin in the redwood forest above Santa Cruz, CA, where I am attending the annual East West School of Planetary Herbology seminar. I have looked forward to this week all year, and now I find myself bewildered and saddened to know that it is quickly coming to an end. Today in particular was unforgettable and awe-inspiring. We hiked into a beautiful nature preserve to meet new plants, each one more beautiful and unique than the last, led by our guide on hilly, sandy, winding trails, under the trees’ gracefully arching branches. Finally the already enchanting setting gave way to unbridled fairy tale measure, and we were suddenly surrounded on all sides by endless waves of violet-blue lupine in an open, sun-drenched meadow.

I spent almost all four hours of my flight here writing out a Beltaine essay by hand, full of my philosophy of flowers and their special significance on this particular holiday, notes about the alchemical marriage between the Red King and the White Queen, the softening and blooming of the earth and the strengthening of the sun… etcetera.

But I’m not going to use any of that. You can read a bit about flowers and ritual in last year’s Beltaine post, and search for and find any of the plentiful and excellent content on the Internet about Beltaine folklore.

Instead, I’d like to talk about how Beltaine in its unique position on the calendar symbolizes mora et amor – suspension and desire.

Like its crossquarter partner Samhain on the Celtic wheel of the year, Beltaine is a point of no-time and no-space; a liminal place belonging to no temporal or geographic realm. One way of looking at Beltaine is that the year has one foot in youth and the other in adulthood. Not coincidentally, it’s exactly how I feel now, having been absolved of all my usual obligations except to get to class on time and soak up information like a sponge. Despite the academic direction of this gathering, my focus and concentration easily evaporate into dreaminess and disconnection here, where I am as likely to have a conversation with a flower or a caterpillar or a fawn as I am to have with one of my fellow students. As they say of Samhain, Beltaine represents a time when the veils between the worlds are thin.

So what does one do in no-time and no-space?

Pause. Take a long pause and pay attention. In my opinion, there may be no better time to be still than on Beltaine Eve, respectfully stopping to drink in the delicate and earnest beauty of the young goddess under the guise of the Earth. It is now that we see her in her early summer lingerie -- the frilly white and pink blossoms clinging to the still-visible sinuous forms of the trees; it is at this time that we are enveloped in her very first perfumes, coming sweet and clean from the ruffled lily of the valley at our feet or the heady romantic lilac brushing our shoulders.

The maiden goddess puts on this ravishingly lovely display in response to, and for, her consort, the god –- who, under the guise of the Sun, awakens her and draws near. This is the great, eternal romance, the never-ending dance of opposites: female and male, dark and light, moist and dry, still and moving, tame and wild, familiar and foreign, solid and etheric, yin and yang.

All my life I have felt my senses filled with the charge of anticipation at this time of year. Just think of the great shift at whose heart we sit: The Sun will reach its zenith in a few short weeks, while boughs heavy with nectar-rich blossoms herald the plethora of tightly closed buds and churning seeds waiting to explode onto the riotous summer scene. The Sun brings light and warmth but with a heat that is not unforgiving; the forest is still clad lacily enough so that we might see through to some other side.

We’re on the brink of great change.

And so with that in mind I offer to you another way of looking at Beltaine, one not literally about seeking dalliances with a secret partner while going a-Maying in the wood, or about hopping the fire for fertility or even about sex in general.

Well, all right, it is always sort of about sex.

But what I have learned about Beltaine this year is that it is about tension. It is about the forces that hold us in suspension –- mora --, the opposing energies that at once draw us near and keep us distant -- amor.

Seeing some opposite force outside of ourselves attracts us because oftentimes it is an energy we crave to have or to be, or one that can help us express something inside that has of yet found no outlet. This amor, or love, may be a person, state of being, a level of achievement, or even an object. The recognition of the distance between oneself and one’s inamorata defines the desire, and one seeks to close the distance, thereby lessening the feeling of tension. In other words, you go after what you want and claim it!

On the other hand, the same tension can hold things in suspension and act as a preserver of dreams or fantasies not yet born or set into motion, and it is a dynamic that sets a magnifying lens to our current place and time. By this I mean that the space between the desirer and the desired may do well to keep them apart, and that one may actually find nourishment in the tension. Gratification is not always the name of the game, and anyone who reads this blog could guess that I believe mystery is a nourishing component of one’s relationships with spirit, self and others. A full life is aligned with mystery -- to let go of one is to let go of the other.

This last bit is even more abstract, so practically speaking: Are you ready to take that leap? Did you set into action a plan that will carry you safely to your love-to-be, your idea of health or contentment, the next level in your career? Are there other contracts at stake? Risks are exciting but should be handled with care. If it is not the right time to bloom, the mystery may sustain you for now . . . or even forever.

One gift I see is that the dance and tension of opposing forces symbolized at this time of Beltaine serves as an opportunity to evaluate which way to go forward (or stop, or change direction… in any case it is a going forward). After all, the brink is often the best place to pause and study the lay of the land, and the silence before the music begins is the best place to find your center before taking your first step.

For me, personally and practically -- seeing so many successful herbalists and teachers created a real and tangible tension between where I am now (perpetual student) and where I wish to be (having cultivated enough wisdom from plants to be able to help myself and others heal and stay healthy). Quite literally, as an intermediate level student at our gathering, I am safe within the mora -- the cozy in-between, the suspension. I was not an anxious beginner facing the unknown, nor was I an advanced student under pressure to prove my skills.

But soon the scales will tip and I'll have to either deliberately move forward or choose to entertain the mystery of what would come with a year of waiting before gathering enough confidence, sensitivity and knowledge to treat anyone under the watchful eyes of my mentors. It was funny; we had finished eating the most divine chocolate ganache, fresh strawberry and whipped cream birthday cake when I suddenly realized that at this time next year I'd be sweating bullets!

My classmates in a field of lupine 

I hope that whether you let out the slack, walk carefully the tightwire, or find another way around to view your desires from a different perspective, you revel in your loves and lovers this Beltaine and every Beltaine. Men and women alike: wear the seductive mantle of the early summer goddess and be the rousing, warm and activating Sun – and in any case let yourself be attractive in the most guileless way, in the way that is your true nature.

I was away from my own group this May Day, but I am pleased to say that I had a wonderfully gentle and magical time in the forest with my fellow herbalism students and teachers. We celebrated the end of our week of study by singing and dancing and telling stories, playing music, eating ice cream and luscious strawberries and playfully rejoicing in each other’s unique energies.

And at the end of that long, lovely night, I slipped back into the silent, starlit wood, holding a purple flashlight borrowed from my tenderly beloved teacher . . . who in so many beautiful ways illuminates for me the path back home.