Holy Wild, Muse In Brief

A Steamy Autumn Morning

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


The world is an astounding place, especially when you’re up for the sunrise.

(If you’re up for the sunrise because a migraine woke you from a sound sleep with the hot pain of a thousand blazing swords stabbing into your brain, well, this is sometimes the price we pay for getting to live in a world with so many things worth waking up to.)

fogfallgeese_KellarWilson

Some modern Druids and Celtic polytheists celebrate Samhain on the day of the first frost. And so the first morning in autumn that I wake up to find the land crisp with crystallized mist clinging to each blade of grass, edging each fallen leaf… that is a sacred morning.

On such mornings, when breath hangs in the air with every shivery sigh and steam rises from the quiet streams that ripple through the landscape, it’s easy to understand why our ancestors spoke of the veil between the worlds growing thin. Even as the trees drop their leaves and the land grows still, the earth seems alive with spirit. What gentlest of movements could part that veil of mist, could bring us suddenly fingertip to fingertip with the Otherworld.

We live in a world of concrete and plastic and glass these days, but still on a morning like this, I can feel the mists rising, the veil parting. I’m still astounded by the strangeness I see around me. Like the frost melting to dew in the warmth of the rising sun, and the patio furniture outside the local Panera steaming like a hot-blooded beast:

The world is alive. You are alive. Remember.


Image Credits:
• “Fog, Fall, Geese,” by Kellar Wilson (CC) [source]
• “Steamy Autumn Morning” video by Alison Leigh Lilly


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Muse in Brief

A Steamy Autumn Morning

The world is an astounding place, especially when you’re up for the sunrise.

(If you’re up for the sunrise because a migraine woke you from a sound sleep with the hot pain of a thousand blazing swords stabbing into your brain, well, this is sometimes the price we pay for getting to live in a world with so many things worth waking up to.)

fogfallgeese_KellarWilson

Some modern Druids and Celtic polytheists celebrate Samhain on the day of the first frost. And so the first morning in autumn that I wake up to find the land crisp with crystallized mist clinging to each blade of grass, edging each fallen leaf… that is a sacred morning.

On such mornings, when breath hangs in the air with every shivery sigh and steam rises from the quiet streams that ripple through the landscape, it’s easy to understand why our ancestors spoke of the veil between the worlds growing thin. Even as the trees drop their leaves and the land grows still, the earth seems alive with spirit. What gentlest of movements could part that veil of mist, could bring us suddenly fingertip to fingertip with the Otherworld.

We live in a world of concrete and plastic and glass these days, but still on a morning like this, I can feel the mists rising, the veil parting. I’m still astounded by the strangeness I see around me. Like the frost melting to dew in the warmth of the rising sun, and the patio furniture outside the local Panera steaming like a hot-blooded beast:

The world is alive. You are alive. Remember.


Image Credits:
• “Fog, Fall, Geese,” by Kellar Wilson (CC) [source]
• “Steamy Autumn Morning” video by Alison Leigh Lilly

Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual, story

Lughnasadh: Honoring the Harvest Through Grief and Gratitude

For me, today, the saying, “I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day”… is not a metaphor.

After all, it’s Lughnasadh — a holy day, the first of the harvest festivals — and I am practically salivating in anticipation of this evening’s festivities. Nothing fancy, just great food (including hand-picked wild blackberries that we harvested from along the bike path that runs through our neighborhood!), silly songs, and a simple ritual in the local park to celebrate the season and honor the land.

lughnasadh_feast

Often, I find it hard to concentrate on work on holy days, and of course it’s even harder when that day happens to be a gorgeous, sunny Friday in late summer with the lazy hum of the bees and the idle meanderings of the butterflies whispering, Slow down, take your time, don’t push so hard, it’ll all be fine…

So I wasn’t planning on doing much work today, let alone blogging. But then I came across this post by Merhamet Miller, exploring themes of hard work, hope and sacrifice during this season of harvest — and what it means for Pagans living in the Deep South of the United States, who not only struggle with the summer’s intense heat and the land’s unyeilding clay, but also with the legacy of religious intolerance and fear that have kept them from being able to freely and openly practice their faith for so long. She writes:

I ingest the bread, and I look at the people and enjoy that air conditioning, and see the roof over our heads and I personally know some of the Clergy and Leaders that went before me making sacrifices, watering our souls for hours when we were parched, planting in the stony soil and despite obstacles yielding generations and generations of a Pagan community. We have become so prolific and so scattered we forget, that in 1991 one of our own marched with snipers at his head for our rights. We have become so prosperous we forget that one of our own went to court 7 or more times to just have the right to have an occult store in our town. We forget the sacrifices made, so that we could have this building. We do not look at the Clergy standing in the middle of the Circle as farmers, gardeners, people who are planting their seeds under harsh conditions…but they are. They must have incredible “green thumbs”.

Over the past few weeks, Jeff and I have had many occasions to remark just how amazingly lucky we are. This afternoon, Jeff will be leaving work early in honor of Lughnasadh — his boss not only knows about his Pagan spirituality and supports Jeff taking time off to celebrate the holy days, but often enjoys asking him about his plans and sharing stories about his own experiences of being inspired by nature. This evening (barring a thunderstorm that might be headed our way!), Jeff and I will head back to the local park where, only a week ago in honor of the new moon, we held a small ritual with candles, incense, libations and prayer — and where not a single person stopped to harass us or accost us for performing this Pagan rite in public. Later this year, we’ll celebrate a multi-faith winter solstice ritual with our extended family (after which Jeff’s awesome aunt might write an endearing blog post bragging about it to her fellow Christians). We are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by loving, supportive people and to live in a part of the world where our spiritual practices are accepted as a valuable and meaningful part of who we are.

summer_wheat

In Druidry, Lughnasadh is a time for the community to come together in celebration and playful competition, to take a moment to rest from the labor of the summer’s work in the fields and enjoy the first fruits of that labor, to show off the skills and talents that we’ve been cultivating all year. The gods know, we spend enough time in this society with our noses to the grindstone! Even when that work is joyful and fulfilling… it’s still work. So this holy day is a time for playfulness and relaxation, a moment to pause during what is for many the peak of summer’s heat — to seek the relief of cool shade, sweet mead, strong beer and the cheer of good company.

But it is also a time to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us and made this good life possible. The festival is named for the Irish god Lugh, who established the holiday as a funerary rite in honor of his foster-mother, the goddess Tailtiu, after she died of exhaustion while clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. It is easy to see in this story parallels to other grain-goddess figures who have blessed the land through their loving sacrifice — Demeter, grieving the loss of her daughter to death; Selu, Corn Mother of the Cherokee, instructing her sons to drag her corpse across the fields so that new life may spring from it to feed her progeny. Right now in my life, I know several women who are struggling with grief and depression, a sense of exhaustion, a lurking hopelessness. Lughnasadh is not only a time to celebrate the bright strength and impressive skill of successful work, but to embrace the darker side of work: the fear that all that we are working for will ultimately fail us; the fear that our work will not be enough to overcome scarcity, insecurity and injustice; the fear that the products of our work will be consumed thoughtlessly or mindlessly wasted, that we ourselves will be utterly used up, driven to the point of exhaustion, left at last to be forgotten when we are no longer considered “productive” members of society.

Strangely enough, I think that it is this very acknowledgement of fear and loss during the most fruitful time of the year that marks this as a holy season. It is this mingling of love and sorrow, hope and grief that transforms the cycles of production and consumption into something more: a sacred harvest. When we forget the hard work of our ancestors, when we distance ourselves from the sweat, blood and tears that connect us to the living reality of those who have come before us, when we anesthetize ourselves to the grief we feel at the struggles they faced and the sacrifices they made — that is when we risk becoming mere consumers. Grief serves a sacred purpose, for we cannot grieve what we have not loved. Grief is one of the fruits of love, even as joy and prosperity are the fruits of labor.

This acceptance of death, loss, grief and fear runs through all of the harvest festivals — the ghouls and ghosts of Samhain, the balancing of light and dark on the equinox — but it is perhaps during Lughnasadh, when the sun is still high and the harvest is just beginning, that we most need to see grief as a necessary aspect of the work that we do. The afternoons are hot, the storms roll over the landscape, the berries ripen, the wheat and barley rustle in the fields. There is still so much to do. It would be so easy to convince ourselves that we have no time to rest, no time to relax — no time for self-reflection or the grief that it might bring with it.

But the bees hum and the butterflies whisper, Slow down, don’t push so hard, be gentle with yourself for a little while… During the sacred season of Lughnasadh, we can allow ourselves to take a few moments to explore the transformative grace that turns death into life, work into wheat, and grief into gratitude. We can root ourselves in all that it means to be human on this wild holy earth, and remember that part of honoring the work of those who have come before us is to enjoy the gifts of that work in the here and now, the sacred present, with all the gratitude and laughter we can muster.

The world won’t fall apart if we give ourselves time to grieve. The world won’t fall apart if we allow ourselves to be happy.

So bang the drums! And sing the song!

Hoof and Horn, Hoof and Horn
All that dies shall be reborn.
Corn and Grain, Corn and Grain
All that falls shall rise again.

Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual, story

A Ha’penny Will Do: A Pagan Perspective on Christmas

I’m on the road right now, traveling across the country to spend time with family. But here’s a ghost of winters past to tide you over until the new year. This post was originally published on December 3, 2009.

Christmas is coming. That song wends its way through my mind this morning. “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat….” It’s strange, but Christmas is one of those holidays that make me feel the most Pagan. Maybe it’s all the greenery brought in from outside, the whole-hearted unabashed singing and celebrating and decorating, especially with the simple old-fashioned trimmings of ribbon and candles and holly and bits of shining tinsel. During the Christmas season, my parents’ house itself becomes a kind of walk-in shrine to Yuletide Cheer, and I’ve inherited my fair share of holiday decorations that find themselves strewn about my apartment each year. The green and red and ribbon and fire and shiny things, all this raging against the dying of the light, is all very Christmas-y to me, though. Alban Arthan, the solstice, remains distinctly quiet, reflective and dark, the new-born sun like a small, cold seed of potential light still to be planted, hidden away, unripe and unready. Yet it seems more obvious than ever that both of these are necessary, both moods relevant and revelatory each in their own ways.

xmas_blooms

This year, my decorations will be migrating over to Jeff’s place where, for the first time, I will be sharing Christmas with children as a kind of parent-figure in my own right. Children who still don’t know Santa Claus isn’t real (despite the oldest being eleven and having only just found out the Tooth Fairy has been mommy all along). The “story” we’re sticking to, in case this is the year they ask, is that Santa is real, because he is the spirit of generosity and gift-giving that we invite into our lives and into our hearts, to help guide us in choosing the perfect gift for our loved ones. It’s the same story my parents explained to me the year I playfully, but knowingly, asked my father for Santa’s phone number because I needed to call him and update my wish list, and my father in turn dutifully dictated our own home phone number as I dialed, a mischievous look on his face. But I find that I can’t be all too concerned with whether or not the kids believe in Santa Claus. Instead, I have found myself ruminating on Christianity and the story of Christ, and how to share this with the children in a meaningful way as a Pagan parent.

Honestly, I find that I’m having a bit of an identity crisis over the Christmas holiday this year. Not so much the kind that leaves me wondering who I am — I know who I am — but the kind where I find myself asking, “Who the f’ are all of you, anyway?” Christmas is still the one time a year when I attend church with my family. Every year, midnight on Christmas Eve (or, I guess technically, Christmas morning) finds me sitting meditatively in one of the long, polished-wooden pews of my old church, smiling familiarly at the faces I recognize, noting the muted creams, greens and golds of the church’s Christmas decorations, neither gaudy nor solstice-seasonal, that always seemed so oddly out of touch with everything except the building’s own particular sense of style.

Midnight Mass is presided over every year by a priest now well into his eighties, who is one of the wiser and kinder spiritual leaders I’ve known in my life, and who speaks gently and deliberately each prayer and blessing. Whereas once I thought his long pauses and slow pacing were signs of senility finally setting in, work with regular meditation in my private life has in recent years opened up these moments of quiet, in the darkest hour of the longest night, to reveal the spaciousness of absence and Mystery. From the warm lights and bustling family noises of a cheery home edged with expectation and excitement, each year we venture out into the windy darkness of winter midnight, starlight scattered across shorn-down fields rolling out to the horizon in all directions, to sit for a time in dimly-lit tranquility, singing old, familiar songs in keys nobody can comfortably reach. And when the wizened priest stands at the altar and recites the Proclamation of Christmas — “Today, the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, countless ages after the creation of the world…” — to the building crescendo of the organ piling chord upon chord, culminating in the announcement that Jesus is born, today, this day, in the present tense, while the organ shakes the building to its rafters, every year I feel that strange and knowing thrill. The thrill of mystery, where garish light-filled celebration collides with darkness and fragility and the silence of the rumbling, trembling pipes of music suddenly cutting out.

And I find myself wondering, this year especially, what does all this have to do with Christianity?

Now, I think many Christians would themselves say that this is it, this is really the heart of Christianity when all’s said and done. This moment of creation and beauty and light within the gently howling darkness. Yet so many things get tacked on, added and amended, huge socio-political institutions growing up around simple, powerful truths, institutions that expect assent to certain formulae and doctrines, that draw conclusions about heaven, hell, salvation and revelation. I no longer believe the story of Jesus as exclusive spiritual truth, let alone as literal historical fact. Yet I believe in the story in a way that anchors it deeply in my bones, regardless of what religious community I belong to. I believe in the truths this story tells. I have not left those truths behind; they were in many ways the very thing that led me to Druidry, that left me dissatisfied with Christianity as an organized religion. These truths have never disappeared from my life, and yet I am as sure of them today — as sure of their mystery and power and gentleness and goodness — as I am sure that in every way that counts, I’m no longer a Christian. Not really.

But that leaves me with a question. Because the solstice season is a season of noisy celebration and fire-lighting and gift-giving, as much as it is a time of death and darkness and the suffering struggle of rebirth in the biting, barren cold. And the story of Christ being born is, all theology and doctrine aside, the story of the birth of the world, weak and squirming and covered in glop, the on-going singing of the World Song, ever-new and always renewing, today, this very day, in the present tense. So the question I’m left with is: how do I share this aspect of the solstice, Alban Arthan, with children never raised with a theology of god-become-man, not even familiar with the story, with the bizarre notion that Utter Godness is within each of us? And how do I tell them the story without getting bogged down with the language of doctrine and interfaith politics? Never mind that Santa Claus isn’t real, how do I teach them the things that are?

Because one thing you can certainly say for Christians is, they’ve got focus. The birth of a sun-child on the winter solstice is all the more powerful when that babe of light is the unique Revelation of Spirit, the whole Divine shebang condensed down into this singular, fragile form. This is, in some ways, poetry heightened to the nth degree: not only the use of particulars to speak of universals, but the exclusive worshipful focus on a single Particular as the whole of the Universe. The Hindu bhakti yogic discipline (love and devotion to one particular deity) has nothing on this. And the mild Pagan focus on Mabon, or Sol Invictus, or whatever other solar deity… well, feels a bit lacking in comparison, just another god among a whole slew of gods and goddesses to choose from, if you please. Besides which, the gods of Pagan polytheism sometimes feel so heroic and larger-than-life that the utter mystery of vulnerability and weakness gets left in the mythic-metaphorical dust.

Whereas, take Mary, whose only superpower was having not had sex yet. As the story goes, this young woman, living in poverty, sustained in her livelihood largely by family and community ties and betrothed to a man she loved deeply, is confronted by God — friggin’ God, you guys — and given the choice to bear a holy son destined, after only a few short years on the planet, for degradation, suffering and death. Aside from the destiny of the child, to be an unmarried woman and pregnant at this time risked personal shame and community rejection, jeopardizing the future of her marriage and permanent ostracism from the social ties on which she depended. And the Universe itself basically asked her permission, this nobody, this fragile little human thing, and in full knowledge, knowing what risk she faced and the suffering it would bring, confronting the overwhelming injustice of it, and her own smallness and impotence in stopping it… she said yes. Not a goddess with nothing really to lose. Just an ordinary woman, who gave birth to a god as wrinkled and spongy and smelly as any infant.

There is something important in this, something that I wonder sometimes might be missing from today’s Paganism still deepening and finding its sea-legs. There is, in the Christmas story, something about confronting the reality of darkness and suffering, not with shouting and singing and leaping bonfires in defiance, nor with acquiescence, silent obedience or willful denial… but with quiet, unflinching affirmation: the affirmation of empowerment, courage and strength, the life-giving, meaning-making affirmation of creation. A recent comment from a reader of this blog spoke of the “gentle respect” for suffering and difficulty that lurks sometimes in my writings here. For me, sorrow, loneliness and grief go hand-in-hand with joy, connection and love in this life we live together, in this song we all are singing. In a very real way, I could not devalue or deny these things without sacrificing the fullness and complexity of beauty and life, without substituting a shallower, simpler version of mere contentedness and safety in their place. This is a truth of my Druidry, my Paganism — the balance, the intricate interweaving of darkness and suffering with illumination and ecstasy. The liminal space between, within which nothing is precisely delineated and separate.

And so, this is the space I find myself in again as Christmas approaches. Wondering, wandering in a liminal space. Asking myself how to teach children that realizing their own inner Santa Claus is infinitely more challenging than believing in some unlikely literal jolly-old-elf, and infinitely more rewarding. Asking myself where I belong, where we all belong, and how we belong to each other. Asking myself how I can tell the stories of my ancestors, pagan and Christian alike, to the children of my partner. What can I say that will be meaningful and relevant for them, that will share with them the “spirit of the season” that I have come to know and love and value? What will I say when they come singing, a penny for my thoughts?

Well, like the song says, if you haven’t got a penny, maybe a ha’penny will do. And if you haven’t got a ha’penny… may the gods bless you.

Featured, Holy Wild, Theology

The Pulse of Autumn

There must have been an autumn when I was a child… But those days I remember as being full of the smell of sharpened pencils and graphite shavings, the rustle of notebook pages, the glint of bent spiral bindings and — sometimes — at the bus stop, a glimpse of horizon between the houses and the whispering golden pear trees, a full moon setting pale opposite the rising sun.

DragonSkin 14

This morning, I glance out the window between sips of mint tea. The vines cascading down the garage have flushed to copper and rust, fading back into the old red brick. The sky is overcast, but the sun is low and spills in shifting rays over the tall grasses of the backyard, coming and going, light and dim again as it sinks. A neighborhood cat prowls, its black body slipping through the weeds that bend and shift in soft browns almost like wheat. The silent overhanging trees are limp with mottled yellows and golds.

Somewhere, a cloud changes. Suddenly the scene is awash in early morning sunlight, illuminated, every leaf translucent like a moving, living fountain of stained glass against the low, dull sky. The cat pauses, a dark shimmering shape stilled in a shaft of light, its ears and tail twitching. I can almost see the tips of its whiskers shining. Then, it hunches down again, head low, its form one long line of shadow slinking off.

Death slips in. The dead among us rustle like dying leaves, or notebook pages.

I could write something here about harvest and blood sacrifice. I could write about the thinning veil and the shifting worlds that turn and loom up from the dark, that gape open like a wound, sewn up again with our firelight and our dancing and our spooked laughter. But all you need to do, really, to know the season is to listen, and wait. The days are growing darker. Although this morning blossoms into an afternoon as warm as a summer day, the light is long and the wind prowls restless through the thinned trees. Night will be here soon. Autumn beats like a thready pulse through the years.

When I was a child, this time was always so full of bustle and noise, schoolwork and excitement, and later the beat of the drumline and the call of the horns blaring out above the gusting wind and the stadium full of high school football fans. Summer was the time of energy and freedom, and I reveled in it — fall was all discipline and direction, when enthusiasm for the school semester was still high and the stress of homework and midterms hadn’t yet set in. Yet as I grow older, and my time becomes more and more my own, I find that the tides of autumn sweep me up into their subtler beauty, more reflective, more solitary and still. Now, most afternoons I can hear the distant staccato thunder of the marching band drumline bouncing off the brick walls of the local high school and echoing out over the neighborhood. The starlings scream at one another like hecklers. The crows gather on the power lines. I have time to sit and listen, and watch the cats prowling.

A few years ago, my cousin wrote me an email asking what kinds of holy days Pagans celebrate around this time of year and what we mean by the “thinning of the veil” between the worlds:

Maybe this is when dreams involving the dead are more pervasive than any other time of the year? But, would communication between the living and dead need a certain time in the Earth’s rotation cycle, or couldn’t they do that at any point?

What is this connection between the realities of the Spirit and the spinning of this tiny blue gem of a planet through all that darkness?

I’ve been pondering this question. It was not many years ago that I lay on a hillside under a crabapple tree whose branches hung low with end-of-summer fruit, turning over Whitman’s poetry of death, regeneration and the thousand leaves of grass over and over in my mind. I had decided, then, that I was ready to die, and as I lay still in the warm, long sunlight of that afternoon, I imagined that I could feel the dissolution of my body back into the mud and worms of the earth — the veil between self and other, between spirit and soul, slipping off like a death shroud lifted and tossed by a turn of the wind. I had lost yet another friend to death, too young, and I was very much alone in the world… yet the world itself was with me, a landscape thick with presence. It was honor then that kept me alive, my sense of honoring the body I was in, of caring for it for its own sake as part of the sacred world, and having the patience to allow its story to unfold into whatever grief or joy might come.

Dragonskin - Molting

Why should our communion with the beloved dead depend on the coincidental turning of the Earth on its axis? Why should we not always be in touch with those who have crossed the threshold, in touch with our own mortality and death? One might as well ask why the angle of the sun should sometimes grace the crocuses and wet new buds of spring and at other times drop down heavy and hot into the deepest reaches of summer lakes, why childhood should burst with curiosity and buzzing movement and adulthood settle into the long, gentle pull of days one after another beneath a bright, cool sky. The truth is, I suspect, that there is no Other-world. That we live in this one world, together with the dead and the long-departed, drinking in the same gulps of breath as they once drank. They are as close to us now as our own skin and bones and blood. This is true, just as it is true that the sky is always full of stars, whether we see them striking out towards us through the darkness of night or lose them awash in the brilliant blues of sun-filled days. Just as it is true that we live embodied, embedded deeply in the seasons and moods of the landscape which lays heavy around us, even as we spin through space on a speck of dust and sea held together by gravity and speed. It is all one world.

Autumn beats like a pulse through the years, but the blood is always moving and the heart always remains. We feel the contraction in the land around us, the breathing in, the tension of something drawing close. With every beat, the heart draws nearer to itself. We taste the fruits of harvest. We smell the blood of slaughter. We shiver at the setting sun, earlier each day. We draw nearer to ourselves and to one another, for warmth or comfort, or out of necessity. The dead draw near as well. We say the veil has thinned, but perhaps it is only distance that has grown lean and pale between us. We can see farther now, deeper into the woods now that the leaves have fallen. The sky draws closer with its low clouds and ever-briefer days, the sun slinking along the horizon like a prowling feline.

Past and future reach towards one another to brush fingertips in the here-and-now. There is the thrill of recognition and bated breath.

One day each of us in our turn, too, will brush the veil aside, the flimsy liminal sheen that demarcates the boundaries of our bodies. That veil will lift, like a death shroud pulled aside by a sudden gust of wind. And like the stars and the inconstant dead, we too will reach through darkness to tell our stories ceaselessly to the living land.


This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Justine Riekena (aka Moma Fauna) on her blog, Pray to the Moon. For details on how to join, click here.