Wheel of the Year

Talking to the Sun at Summer Solstice

When I was 9, my mom bought me a book of poetry called "Talking to the Sun." I regularly got lost in it, in no small part because its pages were densely packed with amazing art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This favorite book became a constant companion even as I moved multiple times a year during college, to now, over 20 years later. If I ever have a child of my own, "Talking to the Sun" will certainly be among the many treasured and beautiful volumes given me by my very cool, art-loving mother passed down to the next generation.

The poem below is the last poem in the book, and is the poem from which the anthology gets its title. I read it today under the noonday Solstice sun. (The painting, "The Repast of the Lion" by Henri Rousseau, is what accompanied the poem in the book, but as it was a collection for children, they cropped out the actual lion and his gory repast.) One good thing about growing up is that you can revisit poems and songs and paintings from your childhood and understand them better. Happy Solstice.

P.S. Sometimes I like substituting the word "herbalist" for "poet" in the following verses, and adjusting the rest accordingly.

Rousseaulion

A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island

by Frank O'Hara

The Sun woke me this morning loud   
and clear, saying “Hey! I've been   
trying to wake you up for fifteen   
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are   
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen   
to speak to personally
                                  so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could   
burn you through the window I would   
to wake you up. I can't hang around   
here all day.”
                      “Sorry, Sun, I stayed   
up late last night talking to Hal.”

“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was   
a lot more prompt” the Sun said   
petulantly. “Most people are up
already waiting to see if I’m going   
to put in an appearance.”
                                       I tried
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”   
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t   
know you’d come out.” “You may be   
wondering why I’ve come so close?”   
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot   
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me   
anyway.
            “Frankly I wanted to tell you   
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may   
not be the greatest thing on earth, but   
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some   
say you’re crazy, they being excessively   
calm themselves to my mind, and other   
crazy poets think that you’re a boring   
reactionary. Not me.
                               Just keep on
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll   
find that people always will complain   
about the atmosphere, either too hot   
or too cold too bright or too dark, days   
too short or too long.
                                  If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy   
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.

And don’t worry about your lineage
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting   
for you to get to work.

                                    And now that you
are making your own days, so to speak,
even if no one reads you but me
you won’t be depressed. Not
everyone can look up, even at me. It
hurts their eyes.”
                            “Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”

“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s   
easier for me to speak to you out
here. I don’t have to slide down
between buildings to get your ear.
I know you love Manhattan, but
you ought to look up more often.
                                                 And
always embrace things, people earth   
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens   
and you should follow it to hell, if   
necessary, which I doubt.
                                       Maybe we’ll
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now   
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem   
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling   
me.”
       “Who are they?”
                               Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you   
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.


The Longest Day, The Shortest Night: Summer Solstice

Kunthisurya A couple of days ago, the woman who, with her husband, is doing the work of exploring the divine male and female at our mystery school asked me:

"What should I be concentrating on for Summer Solstice?"

I gave her an off-the-cuff drill:

This is the height of the male (solar) force, which draws most strongly upon the expression of female fertility to bring creation to the surface.

It is the zenith of what started as the romantic Beltaine energies. No longer wild, it is focused, and no shadows are cast. The Sun pulls straight upward while the Earth arches toward it accordingly. It seems like surrender, but actually the two hold each other in balance (an even, powerful balance of attraction; not quite the thrall of Beltaine) and see each other most clearly. To draw a metaphor, the mystery lover of Beltaine is now your known partner and most powerful ally.

The Sun brings the Earth to the peak of its industry; but, as with all things cresting, the high point of a cycle heralds its inevitable decline. And as the power of the Sun begins to wane and the days get shorter, the Yin grows and Earth produces her nourishing harvest.

We move so much to the surface of ourselves at midsummer. Every nerve, every sense, seems to be electrified. And as any straight channel will demonstrate, it is the time to receive and give pure, unadulterated and efficient energy because there are no twists and turns to slow or otherwise shift the flow.

This is the definition of what happens at high noon on the day of the Summer Solstice: Become a battery and charge up when the getting's good!

Meditating on Darkness at Summer Solstice

That's pretty much what I told her. But here's what I didn't:

Everyone talks about Summer Solstice as the longest day. Well, it's also the shortest night. That brief night is a vigil in itself, a trembling wait for a day of glory and light.

But what happens to nights after the solstice, at that very fine turning point of energies -- is also very important.

My theory is this: You receive the height of Yang energies at Summer Solstice. These energies are so Yang, they have the ability to penetrate to deepest Yin. This means that you receive the seed of light to sustain you through the greatest darkness -- Winter Solstice. That very first night after Summer Solstice, that night when darkness takes over just tick more... should be given just as much meditation and contemplation because it is the first night, the first expression of Yin, that will anchor and nourish that Yang.

In non-Chinese terms: The first night after the Solstice sets the tone for how well you feed the fire that will carry you through another year, much of it in cold and darkness, until the warmth of the sun begins to grow again. What kind of fuel will you use? How often will you need to stoke the flame? Will you be a good steward of your energies so that they are available to you when you need them most?

As quickly as our attention is given to expansion and heightened activity (Yang, the Sun, the Summer Solstice), in an instant it must shift to conservation (Yin, the Earth, the harvest and eventual sustenance through slumber).

But Why Listen to Me When Hrithik and Aishwarya Can Show You?

But gee, you know, simulacra is the way to reach the masses these days, isn't it? So here's a music video of sorts which kind of illustrates my point. It's from the film Jodhaa-Akbar, whose absolutely gorgeous (you guys: GORGEOUS) soundtrack by the incomparable A. R. Rahman has had me obsessed for months. In fact I bought the soundtrack before ever seeing the film, and I still think that in some ways the movie does not do justice to the music!

I won't spoil the film by giving too many details, but know that you must get over the fact that the pair in this clip are probably two of the most beautiful people on the planet before you can absorb any other meaning.

But in light of Summer Solstice, notice how Emperor Akbar "brings" light into Princess Jodhaa's room -- literally filling it with the rays of the Sun. Of course, it was his event to plan. But the point is, he brings the light that penetrates the feminine space. After a slow build of romance throughout the film, this is the point where they finally see each other for who they are and acknowledge their mutual power -- Yang and Yin.

The display of chemistry is pretty vivid here and the device used by the filmmakers to highlight the strength of this pair's trance-like attraction is that glorious day suddenly becomes night. In absorbing the sight and energy of each other, they exhaust the daylight. And here's the mystery of Summer Solstice: watch as Akbar lights the candle and brings Jodhaa's night-time (Yin) self to life.

Or, don't think at all and just enjoy this stunning clip with its beautiful, beautiful music. Make sure your speakers are turned up. Much, much better yet: plug in your headphones to really appreciate the song. Happy Litha everyone.


P.S. A fine English translation of the song from the Urdu is found here; scroll down. Devotional picture at the top of the post is of Queen Kunthi summoning Lord Surya, the Sun god.

How many goddesses can you find in this post?

Last night in Experiential Anatomy class, a friend I hadn't seen in years said she enjoyed my blog.

Between two schools, two nights of classes per week and two jobs, I'd almost forgotten I had a blog! So here are some short(ish) updates:

Full Circle

The friend I mention above, Beatrice, was there from the moment I set foot on this path of studying herbalism. We spent many hours in class together, camping, driving, talking, eating in those days, and she showed me much generosity, both material and intellectual.

I can still remember one night when we sat in her van outside my apartment after school one day. I was trying to figure out where I was going with my future career, hopefully, in herbalism. I said, "I want to do something in herbalism that no one's ever done before! I don't know what it is, but it has to be different."

Beatrice sighed. "Oh, that's just your ego talking. When you get older you won't be so motivated by that."

I tell you, that moment has stuck with me all these years. Any time I feel the urge to be 'different' coming from some superficial ego place, I hear those words. It's made me a better student, a better herbalist, and hopefully, a better teacher in those rare instances when I might have some wisdom to impart to others.

She finished her course of study at our school before me, and went on to develop her career. When my school decided to offer an Asian bodywork program, she decided to go for it and expand her already formidable healing toolbox. How poetic it is now that she should return just as my long butt-in-seat academic journey nears its end. It seems a very auspicious omen indeed.

Hawaii and the 'goddess'

Lugh and I went on our (so far) annual trip to Hawaii last month. It was an odd sojourn, partly because it was so uncharacteristically cold (low 70s) on Oahu. Sweater weather, really, especially at night. I'd known this was going to be a working trip before going, and that I'd likely be stuck in the hotel most of the time, but I'd have appreciated at least the option of going out and snorkeling!

The one day we really had a chance to get any swimming in, it was still cool and windy. The waves at Waimanalo beach were wild. After eating pineapple and watermelon on the sand with my friends, I stripped down to my swimsuit and made my gradual entry into the water. My friend WaiWai appeared at my side.

We talked for awhile as we watched the waves trounce other swimmers. I'm no swimmer; she, on the other hand, was on the swim team in school. We are both Aquarians -- the air sign that carries the water of enlightenment. "That's the thing," I said. "We want to be able to carry the water and control how it flows. But we aren't comfortable being swept away by it." Of course in this sense I meant water in its broader aspect as the symbol for those often uncontrollable tides of emotion and dream. I think WaiWai agreed.

She taught me to dive under the large waves that day, flattening myself to the sand as the wave rolled over me. A useful tool indeed, in and out of the water.

We also talked about the old Hawaiian man who gave her her Hawaiian name. She told me he used to rub aloe on her shoulders, telling her how good it was for her skin. I asked if perhaps he didn't also just want to touch her. She said it wasn't unlikely.

"You know what the Sanskrit is for aloe, don't you?" I asked her. She didn't. "It's kumari," I said. "Kumari means 'goddess.'" It gave a new angle to her experience. "I have a big aloe in a pot on my doorstep," she said. "Maybe you are getting this piece of information about aloe so you can connect with it and the divine feminine more," I offered.

I may have been only half right.

That evening we were scheduled to go to a concert. It had been an overcast day at the beach and I was slathered with 70-SPF sunscreen. But after a few hours of resting in my hotel room, I started to get an itchy heat rash (along with a runny nose, headache and sore throat... Wind Damp invasion alternating between Hot and Cold). I asked WaiWai to bring me a few stalks of the 'goddess' when she picked me up for the concert. I put them in the mini-fridge and we departed for the show. Returning late from the concert feeling awful and exhausted, I went straight to bed.

The next morning I slit one cool aloe stalk down the middle, giving thanks. I told Lugh about my conversation with WaiWai as he drew the demulcent side of the plant over my shoulder, back, chest and face. It seemed a holy experience somehow.

"Wow, I wish you could see this," he said, as he smoothed the plant over my back. "The red bumps are going down instantly!" I'm convinced now that the best way to use the 'goddess' plant is to have it applied by a man who thinks you are a goddess, as well!

All Work and No Play Make Herbis Orbis a Very Dull (insert Homer Simpson drooling sound here)

I'm finished with the tedium and rigors of (acupressure) point location class, but that has been replaced by the aforementioned anatomy class. Which, so far, isn't anywhere near as maddening, though the tests are still challenging. This is joined by a shiatsu class and weekly 'client' intakes.

Meanwhile, I've got my big East West seminar experience coming up in a few short weeks, for which I am woefully unprepared. Basically we'll have three days of monitored clinic 'testing' where we interview, assess and formulate herbal preparations for various patients. Having fallen behind on other deadlines for work for the school, I will not be able to cram much studying in before I find myself amidst the California redwoods once more, feeling I don't know my own butt from a hole in the ground.

"But haven't you been working in clinic for the past several months?" you may ask. Well, yes, but not with Chinese herbs or patents, which I'll need to know. Suffice it to say, I'm going to rely on the books I'll bring and hope for a talented clinic partner.

And if I don't 'pass' -- well, there's always next year.

Or clown school.

Circling Beltaine

Unbelievably, I'm staring right into the wild eyes of Mayday again, which this year I will spend with my group here in the Midwest. Sometimes I wonder if anything could top the gentle magic of my Beltaine spent last year in the redwood forest, but I have no doubt it will be wonderful in its own way. It always is.

Beltaine is that incredible time of wild blooming desire -- desire on all levels. As I approach May in a much more subdued, introspective way this year, I wonder if I am just so full of desires for all aspects of my life that I'm having trouble focusing; or if the flowers and fruits of last year's desires have depleted and exhausted me so much that I need to lie fallow for a year.

We shall see what blessings the season brings. I submit to the tide, but I acknowledge that this time around, I am not bending to the wild hunt; I am Persephone emerging from my mysterious, dark time with Hades, rushing reborn into the strong, garlanded arms of a goddess who loves me even so.


Tired, Schmired. No Whining at Imbolc!

Alley

Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
--Romans 8:24-25

Tired, tired, tired. It's a word I hear a lot lately. If you live anywhere that has a true winter season, you know what I'm talking about. Those dark, cold months seem to pack the chronological punch of double time, so long and arduous are they.

It's not that we endure much hard physical labor during winter; that is an effort reserved for the warmer months. What makes winter seem to drag on and on forever is the opposite -- a lack of movement which makes us feel like we're not getting anywhere, not moving forward. While the temperate climes of other seasons call us out into nature for work and play, winter seems designed to keep us inside, stoking cabin fever as much as the fires we need to keep us warm.

Your relationship with winter might have a lot to do with your love of snow sports and how state-of-the-art your outerwear may be. Where I live, we've just been through one of the most bitterly cold, high precipitation winters we've had in about 15 years. How I feel about this season is often colored by how many days of sub-zero windchill I have to walk through, how quickly my city plows the side streets, what sort of technical malfunctions come with frozen switches and wires, and how long it takes before the deadbeat landlords in my neighborhood finally clear their ankle-turning sidewalks of impacted snow.

So, considering this winter's track record -- Yeah, I'm tired. Many a morning I have looked out my window and marveled at the breathtaking expanse of virgin snow and the otherworldly hush that comes with it, inches of crystalline water buffering the sound of traffic, footsteps, voices, planes; the sole sound the lonely scrape of a shovel in the distance. But then I'm out in it walking to the train, and like David Byrne I say to myself, "If this is paradise, I wish I had a snowblower!"

Winter is exhausting in some respects. But if we've done it right, we've used it to rest and to dream. And no matter what the thermometer says outside, hope isn't just right around the corner, it's here.

Lessons of Water at Imbolc

God hurls down hailstones like crumbs.
The waters are frozen at God's touch;
God sends out the word and it melts them;
at the breath of God's mouth, the waters flow.
--Psalm 147

On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, February 2 is actually the first day of Spring. Sure, it could be colder than a meat locker outside, and the ground could be so hard it might seem as though nothing green could ever burst forth from it. But take my word for it: February 2 marks the beginning of Spring.

Like Paul says in his letter to the Romans at the beginning of this post, you have to hope for what you cannot see, and wait with endurance. This hope, waiting and endurance is the work of Imbolc, also known as Candlemas. Perhaps if we cannot see that which we hope for, we can sense it, and in early February we usually get that blessing. For sure, the days are getting noticeably longer. If you're lucky, as we have been just this weekend, you get a thaw and watch the first movement of the year not driven by some merciless wind. There are no signs of life yet, and the ground is still covered with snow, but I've been watching with pleasure the receding crusts of dirty snow as it melts into puddles. I sent up an "Amen!" for every icicle (some with small child- or pet-skewering potential!) hanging from the eaves of the house that shrank in the sun, drop by drop, until finally breaking free and shattering into pieces on the ground below.

It is no coincidence that the element of water is most prominent at Candlemas rituals. At Imbolc, we purify ourselves for initiation into the Light of the Year, the new cycle of work and growth on our spiritual and mundane paths. It is a kind of baptism in this sense -- a washing away of the Dark and of the old year.

Baptjesu

If you look at the role of water in the sacrament of baptism, you can see that it cleanses, which is largely the point, but deeper than that, it carries a special blessing. It is a vehicle for the Spirit, which follows it and falls onto the person receiving the sacrament, conferring the grace of purification and welcome. This is precisely the same role water plays at Imbolc, lit and made alive by the fire of the young Sun.

Getting Your Act Together for Imbolc

But water is also a splash in the face -- a wake up call. The time of dreaming in the dark is done, and it's time to get to work. The water that moves now, that cleanses us, also removes the sleep that carried us through the deep winter months. Last Imbolc I wrote about the work ethic example of the goddess Brigid and the traditional meaning of Imbolc -- from the Gaelic for "in milk," associated with lambs born at this time of year and all the work and preparedness that requires. The movement of water from frozen to flowing is, for many of us, a subtle but more understandable cue that the time has come to prepare the way to put some of our more realistic mid-winter dreams into action.

So too does the receding snow pull away the cozy covers from a sleeping earth, revealing it to the approaching and life-giving Sun, telling the ground to "wake up," so to speak, and begin the work of letting seeds soften for their millions of inevitable underground Spring explosions.

We often feel groggy when we're just waking up, but the energy of the year is beginning to grow. It is time to make the most of the few weeks we have left to prepare well for what we wish to bring forth in the New Year! Whether you have a circle of friends with whom to observe Imbolc, or just a meditative bath to mark your official entry into the new cycle, I hope you reflect upon the lessons of newly moving water and the role the warming Sun plays in this. A blessed Imbolc to all!

Above: Lugh in a Chicago alley; The Baptism of Christ by Paris Bordone.


The Dark of December: Time to Count Your "Nevermores"

Ravenwindow 

Most of us know Edgar Allen Poe's most famous poem -- the one that catapulted him to stardom, in fact, in 1845: "The Raven."

Is this poem the story of a grieving lover slowly descending into madness, hallucinating an interaction with a raven who may or may not be there?

Even if it is, Poe's "The Raven" illustrates a great way to waste the segment on the Wheel of the Year which is the darkest yet of the Dark half: December. Let's take a look:

THE RAVEN.

ONCE upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door--
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
This it is and nothing more."


So here's our narrator, sitting in his cozy little house, fire crackling by, reflecting upon the past. Certainly we see late October and November as a time for reflection upon the past year. In October we reflect more on the past year's gains -- it is the final month of harvest, after all. And, keeping in mind that to reap the October harvest means that something must die, November is traditionally considered as the month of remembrance for the dead.

But "The Raven" is set in December -- "bleak December" -- and the time for reflecting and remembering is over.

Note that in our poem it is December outside, separate from our narrator's action, and something from out there is trying to get in. Whatever it is makes our narrator (read: us) nervous and scared, and understandably so.

But look closely: the narrator is out of step with the season and time of day:

It is midnight; he is awake, reading, fighting off sleep.

Now is not the time for rational thinking or for rationalizing whatever might be "out there" away; it is the Dark of the Year, and we are quickly slipping into the time for dreaming, and as we all know, dreams are anything but rational.

December is the time of forgetting, and he is still remembering. Perhaps forgetting is too strong a word; anyone who has been initiated into the ways of death by the loss of a loved one is forever changed and will certainly never forget, but one does have to stop dwelling at some point.

That point is represented on the Celtic Wheel of the Year by the darkest time: December.

I'll write more about that in a moment. Let's move on through "The Raven":


Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" --  here I opened wide the door; --
Darkness there, and nothing more.


A lie: first of all, sleeping would be appropriate at this hour, not napping, and secondly, he wasn't napping, he was awake, reading! Another incongruence.


Lenorewater 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more.


Using his empirical sense of sight, he searches the dark abyss fruitlessly for the visitor who has come a-rapping. He whispers of course, hope against hope (or horror), what is on his mind: the name of his lost beloved. The darkness returns the name. Is it she who has disturbed his evening? Is she out there? But the echo is all he gets, and so, unsatisfied:


Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;

'Tis the wind and nothing more!"


Our narrator turns away from the cold night beyond his door, probably never even stepping over the threshold, and returns to his room. He chooses not to search the blackness, preferring the comfort of his quarters and morbid thoughts.

Whatever did not come in through the door is now at the window. Though he still rationalizes it away to preserve his peace of mind, he is still compelled to see what the December night has brought him.


Athena 

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


The December night has brought him a raven, which unapologetically barges right in. In myth and legend, the raven is the bird of death -- from bill-tip to talon, black as the cold midnight from which it came, an eater of carrion, its artless broad beak not made for singing (that is the glad expression of spring and summer birds), but only capable of uttering rough sounds.

Or in this case, as we shall find out, one merciless, negative word: "Nevermore."

But who are the other 'characters' in these two verses?

Where does the harbinger of the month of cold, darkness and death, the black scavenger bird, alight?

Atop the head of Pallas Athena: daughter sprung full grown from her father Zeus' head, virgin goddess of wisdom, valor and war, companion to heroes, bringer of light, discipline and philosophy to humankind.

Pallas' totem animal is the owl; how dare any other bird, especially one so inelegant as the raven, perch right atop her horsehair helmet?

Athena represents order, rational thinking, discipline. This represents comfort for our narrator, most likely an academic of some sort. But he's already got one foot in another world -- the world of death, into which he has been initiated by the loss of his Lenore. He refuses to look at Death for what it is, and so does not understand its mystery, only its machinery. He is torn between wanting to forget Lenore completely and wishing to be reunited with her. In any case he remains static in his dwelling upon the memory of something that can never be restored to the original state with which he associates it.

When the raven perches atop the white bust of Pallas Athena, it signifies two things: 1) This is not the time for rational thinking. It's a wild, dark, December night out there and you would only be so lucky as to be able to rely on rules and your five senses to get you through. And 2) Death and decay are inevitable. Not even the most ardent worshippers of Athena's Olympian ideals of light, discipline and heroism can escape it.

But it is our narrator himself -- or some 'knowing' part of him -- who utters the name of the Death god himself: Pluto. Pluto is Hades, lord of the Underworld, where, if we were to look at this from a Greek mythological point of view, Lenore now resides. And a sight-seeing tour to the Underworld is exactly what the Dark of the Year provides, if one is aware enough to buy a ticket.

Like so many of us who study myth and archetypes, our narrator has the tools and inner knowing to apply the mysteries' usefulness to his mundane life, if only he can remember that they exist beyond his precious books!


Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --

Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."


Bleak December's salesbird of death seems to tell our narrator: "Look -- if you think you will ever be rid of the reality of Death, you've got another thing coming, buster."


Chair 

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never
nevermore."

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!


Hmm. "Some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and follwed faster till his songs one burden bore --/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy bore..."

Gee Mr. Narrator, project much?

Alternately dismissive and bemused, our narrator continues to be torn: first, he rationalizes away the raven's talent for speaking its single word, but then pulls up a chair and tries to divine some deeper meaning from it; second, he seems to begin moving forward in unraveling the mystery of his bird guest, but then immediately returns to his tormenting yet familiar thoughts of dead Lenore.


Angels 

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


The narrator either hallucinates or truly senses the presence of angels and incense. He thinks that in kindess God has sent them to help him forget Lenore. The raven once again unceremoniously disrupts the stillness with its familiar cry.


"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


By now knowing EXACTLY what the raven's answer will be to any question put before it, the narrator bizarrely gives the bird the power of a prophet and asks it if he will ever find relief from this sorrow, either in this world or the next. Of course the raven gives its usual reply.

And because this poor guy is already at the end of his rope, you know the result isn't going to be pretty:


Expel 

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!
quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted
nevermore!


Driven to anger and hysterics by the raven, who has only done exactly what at first 'beguiled all (the narrator's) sad soul into smiling' before, the narrator screams at the bird to get out of his house. The implacable raven utters his one word and remains there still.

So how do I say our narrator is "wasting" his December?

Let's give the raven a few more words:

"Dude, if you are just going to sit here in your house, as though it were still the time of reflection and remembering (October and November), then no, moron, you will never find relief from your sorrow. You'll never forget Lenore because you won't let her really be dead. And much better than forgetting, you won't ever understand what she really meant to you until you stop dwelling on her absence."

Poe, I'm not.

In other words, you can't keep riding the wave of anything from the past if you're going to move forward. You have to let go -- let die -- your triumphs and failures, or at least the emotions of them, so that you can build anew. Yes, you'll use foundations previously laid, but if you sit around saying:

"Gosh, what a nifty foundation I've built for myself, it's so cute and perfect and adorable and grand that I wish I could preserve it just the way it is,"

Or:

"Damn, look at this lopsided, poor excuse for a foundation I tried to build for this project. It is so ugly and upsetting I can't even look at it long enough to clear it away,"

...You'll never get anywhere.

The raven, an unwelcome and frankly disturbing gift given by the bleak December night, reminds us that now is not the time for harvest (killing), nor is it for remembering, but for stillness and the 'beingness' of being dead. It's dark. It's cold. Nothing that isn't supposed to be alive now is.

What does this mean? This means that whatever you worked to manifest in the light of the year should have been harvested by now, and given thanks for by now. And what was discarded should be left to do the un-work of being dead: that is, putrefaction. It is from this decay and primal soup that we call forth new life that will grow under the light that slowly returns after the Winter Solstice. December is a month of irreconcilables, but that is the greatest mystery of all. It is the 'coagule' of the alchemists, taking the putrefied remains of organic substance and reassembling its elements into something completely new.

Graveyard 

The narrator of "The Raven" has his inner knowing. He knows he can learn about the mystery of death and where Lenore is if he just goes outside, leaves his incongruent chamber of morbid dwelling (no pun intended) and accepts the death, dark and stillness of December. He even seems to know that he's as stuck as the 'unhappy master' he imagines taught the raven to speak.

But in the end he tries to expel the raven from his familiar little morose hamster-wheel of out-of-season thoughts. And like a messenger sent from his higher self, the raven plants itself until -- if -- the narrator ever "gets" it. With its maddening one-word vocabulary, the raven is a reflection of the narrator's own stasis and a reminder that while true death brings about change and new life, stasis sets the stage for nothing but desolation.

If, this December, you find yourself in the place of the narrator, remember: if you don't feel like sharing your room with the raven, just open the door and walk out into the dark and the cold, accepting the season. Like the plants who have returned their energy to the earth, seemingly incapable of ever returning to life, lie down and sleep deeply. Get rest now, because after the longest night, it will be your job to dream dreams of the new year.

"O Night you black wet-nurse of the golden stars! From this darkness all things that are in this world have come as from its spring or womb."

-- Philalethes, Magia Adamica, 1650

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Woodcuts above by Gustave Doré, 1884.


Samhain 2008: Calling All Souls

Namebox 

I have spent this Samhain and the days leading up to it in Ireland, the place from whose pre-Christian traditions we take our Wheel of the Year. As I type I am riding on a coach out of Killarney to Galway (crossing the River Feale just out of County Kerry into County Limerick, to be exact).

I have a fairly good idea of what my magickal group were doing yesterday for Samhain -- a mystery play commemorating the goddess Inanna's journey to visit her dark sister Ereshkigal. stripped of her seven 'me' (hilariously called 'doodads' by Ima in her fantastic Tuesday night lecture) as she moved closer and closer to the heart of the Underworld.

Like Lammas and Autumn Equinox, the two preceding festivals on the Wheel of the Year, Samhain continues the theme of death and going downward. That is, the death of ego as well as death of body, and also the movement downward into the dark of the year, into the time of dreaming. It is generally acknowledged that this is a time of year when the 'veils between the worlds' are thinnest.

Which worlds are these? In the case of Samhain, they are the Middle World -- the world of action and mundane human existence; and the Underworld, of course -- the realm of the dead, darkness, and water and earth, elementally speaking. (Note, at Beltaine, which is opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year calendar, the veils are thinnest between the Middle World and the Upper World, the realm of light and air, along with its elementals and spirits, particularly what we call in Ireland the sidhe -- fair folk).

Certainly traveling through Ireland's unseasonably cold and bleak landscape -- but still green and dotted with yellow blooming gorse, fuschia, wild rose, yarrow, prehistoric stone ring forts and beehive homes, and of course, sheep -- sets an enchanting and somewhat somber atmosphere for Samhain. A fair number of trees have already lost their leaves, exposing cores wound round with ivy, and many of those deciduous trees still bearing leaves look aflame against the purple-grey clouds.

The serene but subdued scenery stands in contrast to Ireland's history; much more so than the last time I was here I have heard about the sorrows of this land, most tragic of which are of course the famine, civic unrest and oppression by the British, a sorrow that I imagine is passed on even in cellular memory from generation to generation. The sense of loss and longing is echoed through the stories of many of our tour, more than a few of whom have experienced personal tragedies and recent deaths of family members and friends.

SoulcandlesOne of the things we usually do on Samhain is to honor the dead and our ancestors. Specifically, we speak their names, in the belief that because the Wheel of the Year has brought us down into the darkness and closest to the Underworld, they can hear us, and through our spoken memory, live on.

This is only my second time to Ireland, and I don't know most of the people on this tour, brought together by my husband's music. I had planned to arrange for at least a private ritual recognition of Samhain, such an important cross-quarter point on the calendar. But one has to be sensitive about how far strangers (or friends) are willing to move outside their comfort zone.

For example, last night I was talking to a friend about Samhain and how I wished we could come together as a group to somehow acknowledge it and speak the names of our dead in this beautiful land. Not a full-blown 'ritual' by any standards, but something more formal than over a plate of fish and chips. To my surprise, this person said she didn't feel the need to do much ritual with others anymore because it had already been integrated as a part of her everyday private life. She follows an eastern path and meditates everyday. I realized that if I had been asked the same question a few years back I probably would have answered the same way.

This discussion made me consider the need for such things -- for ritual in general but for community ritual in particular. I like to think that like my friend, most of my mundane life is actually a protracted ritual, or perhaps strung together with moments of ritual and recognition of the divine throughout the day. Some might call this prayer, and that would be pretty accurate I think.

But I think that it is not always enough. Certainly for those who do not make time to create sacred space throughout the day or week or month, a gathering less formal than, say, church, could alter their view in a healing and organic way, and bring them more in tune with the natural rhythms of the year and our human life. Setting and time have everything to do with this. Recently I heard a Catholic bishop say that love and spirituality work best if they are organized, and at some level this resonates with my line of thinking.

Community ritual, even if it is as small as just two people -- gives those participants a chance to bear witness, which goes a long way toward validation of self and other. It is an opportunity for reflection as well as integration. It is a chance to bond in a uniquely human way, at the soul level.

In the case of Samhain, to share the names and stories of our deceased loved ones in community momentarily (or perhaps more than momentarily, who knows?) expands the memory of the past, strengthens our connections to it.

"Yes, I share your memory," we say.

"Yes, I share your sense of loss," we say.

"Together we help each other to see the faces of those who have left us."

And maybe above all, we say and hear, "Yes, a part of us went down with them for a time into the Underworld, an experience that has left us forever changed."

A blessed Samhain to all souls out there, above and below.


Wheel! Of! Fortune?

20thpath

Behold the Tree of Life, herb farm style, its sephiroth made of the lids of Ball jelly jars. The Tree's connecting paths are marked by the Tarot keys that represent them. The upside down lecturing lady in orange is Ima, of course.

See that asterisk? That's the path I'm traveling now, Key 10, Path 20, The Wheel of Fortune. Technically I just figured this out while sitting there during lecture. The revelation is no surprise. But let me tell ya, the path of the Wheel of Fortune ain't been all that pleasant.

"Pat, I'd Like to Buy a Vowel, Please: 'Y?'"

It's been 28 days -- a complete moon cycle -- since my last post. This hiatus has not been for lack of ideas, and I suppose any self-respecting blogger might say that lack of time is no fair excuse either. Well, whatever. Normally I make Twitter my repository for nebulous one-line reports from my emotional barometer, but what the heck -- I'm going to depart from my usual "Let Herbis Orbis bring you the greater magickal meaning of the season!" schtick for a change. On rare occasion, this blog can serve to give my angst its due prose.

So, I was hatching all manner of scintillating blog content for the month, after my August 1 entry on Lammas. Oh, Lammas -- you know, the fun-filled pagan festival about death and sacrifice. Lammas, that festival whose name is so close to "lame-ass."

Or in this year's case, "lambaste." Turns out, this particular Lammas was having a powerful effect on a lot of people.

Shortly after I'd written that post, a friend urgently requested that I meet with her to provide some counsel on the tough time she'd been having since the previous day. Here was this lovely, wonderfully strong woman coming to me for help -- an honor, especially for a fledgling priestess -- and what she described was nothing short of the classic 'dark night of the soul,' maybe even with a few extra imps thrown in. We talked for a long time. I think I helped her out. We bonded. I learned a few things about myself. All was good, the storm quelled for the most part.

Then another friend described the whole month of August as 'anxious,' a quality not exactly helpful while he sustained some major life changes in the past few weeks. Someone else, trying hard to make positive strides in her life, was finding herself resenting even her closest loved ones and becoming quite depressed in the process. Left and right, people were getting into accidents of varying degrees, receiving threatening phone calls, suffering some sort of humiliation, or otherwise forced suddenly (and sometimes explosively) out of comfortable old patterns.

Me? Well, I was well on my way into a fantastic August. All was going well in terms of my job(s), school, relationships, you name it. I found life to be as romantic and electric as the almost daily thunderstorms we had been receiving all summer. I was dreaming epic dreams and nurturing those dreams with poetry, music and meditation.

But then the storms stopped. And the dreams stopped. Recently, sleep itself has been hard to come by. And all that had been flowing, gushing, even, so wonderfully, began to hesitate. The flow would start and stop, then slow to a pathetic trickle. This sudden turn of events made me question myself, my relationships, my worth.

Simultaneously, my calendar filled up with work, school and social dates. House guests. Long trips. Non-negotiable obligations. Birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions, shows, parties, special requests, urgent work projects, overtime. Don't get me wrong -- a lot of this was fun, and maybe in any other month I'd handle it better.

But unlike my friends and acquaintances, whose classic Lammas experiences 'dismembered' them dramatically, in the space of a day or two or three, mine dragged out (and still drags out) in fits and spasms. While my buddies got the experience equivalent to a bug whose sadistic 10-year-old captor blows them up in a microwave, I got the kid who puts the bug in a jar and comes along to scorch it with a magnifying glass every hour or so.

You see, right after the dream drought and the flooded datebook came all the subtle little niggling stuff: A misunderstanding and snarkiness with an online classmate whom I respect; long dry spells in communication with a new close friend, leading me to worry rather obsessively that I'd said something to make him take back his love; poorly interpreted communications and defensiveness between me and various authority figures; my usually dead-on Tarot spreads that seemed to go nowhere; even a clumsy little tango with some Traditional Chinese Medicine snobs.

Here's an example of this sort of star-crossed communication that's been par for the course this month -- one that's somewhat funny enough to recount without making me feel like crap:

One morning weeding with Ima in her Saturn garden went thus:

Me: "....And what's this purple plant here?"

She: "Coltsfoot."

Me: "Really? This purple one here?"

She: "Yes, it's Tussilago."

Me: "But how'd it --"

She: "Tussilago farfara."

Me: "But I've never --"

She: "Coltsfoot."

Me: "But --"

She, with the conviction of a thousand TV evangelists: "IT'S COLTSFOOT."

Oh -- here's another one that happened on Lammas itself. Enter Ima, arms full of altar materials she's just carried back from halfway across the farm:

She: "OK, I brought all the altar tools. Let's set it up."

Me: "Do you mind if we use my tools? I brought my kit."

She: "Well, where is it?"

Me: "In the car."

She (eyeing the car some yards away): "Nah, these'll be fine."

Me: "But... don't you want to use altar implements that... match?"

(A dark look flickers across Ima's normally placid face.)

She: "Sure." (Walks off to mercilessly weed some poor shade bed with unusual vigor.)

Me, to Jeff: "Wow, did I come off as snotty just then?"

Jeff: "A little."

John

"I'd Like to Try to Solve the Puzzle, Pat!"

So The Wheel of Fortune, ruled by Jupiter, is about coming to a place of abundance, expansion and movement. (Yes, you TCM nerds, just like the Wood element, which is all about the Liver's smooth spreading and flowing of Qi and Blood -- herbs for which, in the Western Culpeperian tradition, would indeed by ruled by Jupiter.) The idea of course is that you have to be able to either rise above the wheel and stay on top of it or get to its axis and be the still point around which it turns. That way, you don't get dragged up and down (through the mud!) with the wheel every time it completes a revolution.

Ups and downs. Fits and starts. Spreading and flowing. Certainly if I could just get to the center of this wheel I'd be able to look ahead and see where the hell I'm going.

See that guy up there? Doesn't he look just like Jupiter/Zeus incarnate? That's my friend John, Ima's brawnier half. (And there's Alan in the back, Hi Alan.)The picture was taken a couple of days ago at Ima's birthday dinner (her birthday is today in fact). John does indeed carry a lot of Jovial energy. Which brings me to our conversation that evening.

My husband Lugh was telling the story of how he made the decision to leave a well-paying job in marketing to become a full-time musician, about 15 years ago. He was driving along a country road when a red-tailed hawk slowly descended in front of his windshield and kept speed with the car. In its talons was some poor little rodent. Lugh and the hawk kept speed with each other for a time, and suddenly the hawk released its prey (which bounced unceremoniously off the window) and flew up and away. Lugh interpreted this to mean that he had to give up that which gave him sustenance to fly higher and follow his bliss.

Lugh: "So, basically, I made a life-altering career change because of a bird."

Me: "Wow. I wish I could get a sign like that. Struck by lightning. Thrown off my horse, that sort of thing."

John: "Really? I get those sorts of signs all the time."

Me: "I'd like to have the Universe slap me upside the head sometime. Pow!"

John: "Maybe you just have to pay closer attention."

Pfft. Closer attention? Me, to whom the Universe lately sends empty envelopes with no return address? Tattered paperbacks with no inscription? Strange unmarked packages of, like, Tupperware lids but no Tupperware?

But then, it's the same Universe who sends me grand messages via clouds and flowers. And dead rock stars! (For the past two weeks, a heavy dose of Dr. Winston O'Boogie.)

And, before they stopped, the dreams I had were more than dreams, they were travels across time and space. My problem is I was looking for more validation than just my own.

Maybe John's right. The subtler the messages get, the closer attention you have to pay, and because the signs are so personal, you have to have the courage to affirm them regardless of what anyone else thinks.

It's a tricky situation, not one for the faint of heart. People might think you're cuh-ray-zee.

So, dear late Lammas, you who slay on your own time and at your own pace, have it your way. I'm gonna stop tugging on my end. I'm getting off this Wheel; if you want me, I'll be sleeping in the back of the carriage.

Thou shalt know
Self-chosen are the woes that fall on us.
How wretched! For we see not good so near,
Nor hearken to its voice –
Few only know the Pathway of Deliverance from Ill
For Fate doth blind us all,
Who up and down,
With countless woes are carried by her wheel,
And bitter inborn strife companions us
And does us secret harm.
Provoke it not, O Humans!
But only yield, and in yielding find escape.

--- From The Golden Verses of Pythagoras


Lammas, Not "Lame-Ass"

Wickerkids
Hey, you kids get away from the wicker man! Young 'uns at Lammas 2008 on Ima's farm.

Last year at Lammas-tide, my friend Jeff turned to me as we wrapped up a weekend of group ritual, and said:

"This was a really good, satisfying Lammas celebration. Lammas with my old group was always so blah. We actually used to call it 'Lame-ass.'"

"Lame-ass"? Good lord.

Perhaps if we'd stuck to calling it by its original name, "Lughnasadh," we wouldn't run into that kind of thing.

I must confess, however, that I can see why so many people have a hard time getting into this festival the same way they would Samhain or Beltaine or either of the solstices. Lammas is even tougher to stomach than the existential questions of Summer Solstice, in some ways.

Why? Because Lammas is about sacrifice, gratitude hand-in-hand with letting go, continuing hard work, and death – and just to make the experience extra profound, you have to deal with all of these in stifling heat.

In my experience, if you approach these concepts with thoughtfulness and respect, your Lammas should be anything but lame… ass.

Sacrifice and Gratitude

Lammas may be the first harvest festival, but it has a distinct flavor of sacrifice. Needless to say, the idea of 'sacrifice' doesn't make you feel like kicking up your heels much. Indeed, Lammas is when we acknowledge the death of the god of vegetation and begin to experience noticeably shorter days.

This is a key point about Lammas: gracious sacrifice – that is, worthy sacrifice, sacrifice fueled by true gratitude – is a necessary component to our connection to the divine and our acknowledgement that we are co-creators with it.

Sacrifice, being a kind of change, is necessarily a kind of death. In short, you have to let something die away from the experience you're used to, or have even become attached to; – you have to offer it up – to show gratitude. This action makes room for more growth and honors the best of what you have reaped from this season.

The old Lammas/Lughnasadh rites put it most clearly: at harvest, the grain must die so that we can live. We cut it down, killing it, so that it may transform into bread for sustenance. Think of it as "You can't have your harvest and eat it too!" It is also at this time that you begin to save seeds of your best and strongest crops so that you can plant more of the same next spring when the cycle begins anew.

(For the sake of clarity and continuity, I should interject here that Lammas focuses more on the sacrifice; transformation is generally the domain of the next festival, Autumn Equinox.)

So once again, a review of the year is in order: Of the goals you set for yourself this year, what is finally yielding fruit? What are the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

For example, this year I set goals to lay a strong foundation for my future career in herbalism. Opportunities to do this presented themselves and I jumped at them, paving the way for countless blessings, love and friendship. I honor these by being faithful to my goals, and by reaping my blessings gratefully. However, I realize that if I become too attached to things as they are, I crowd them with my ego and insecurities, and force them to stop changing and evolving.

So I choose to take from this experience lessons for the future and, while I cherish my successes, I remain detached enough to let them die and change into something new and just as wonderful. I offer it up for sacrifice, for eventual transformation.

Already several times this year my attachment has been tested when some of my most cherished blessings have seemed to withdraw. Lammas brings this into focus and perspective. It is no mean feat to feel truly joyful and grateful as something you love moves off into the distance. But to let go of something begrudgingly is, as my Ima says, to "poison the gift."

To poison the gift makes a lousy sacrifice. And to perform a lousy sacrifice means to risk restricted blessings in the future.

And remember: the work is not yet over! This is only the beginning of the harvest. It may technically be the beginning of Autumn now, but Summer takes a long time to come to a full stop.

In honor of your accomplishments, don't let your pride and attachment to them allow them to wither on the vine. What a cruel (and frankly wasteful) fate! Instead, respectfully harvest them, save some seeds, and transform them to be of use in the coming winter months. Most importantly, give a little back to Nature, Spirit, the Divine – whatever you want to call it – in gratitude. Sacrifice makes room for more growth and more blessings. Lammas gives us the perfect opportunity to make space in our lives to grow the dreams and blessings of the dark of the year.

Oh yes, one more thing:

Llamas_by_ann_torrence

Original photo from photographer Ann Torrence's very cool blog!