Pagan Lent

First published in 2002 at School of the Seasons.

When I mention the word “Lent” around my pagan friends, a curious thing happens. I watch as their faces go blank, they look away as if to say, “That’s not for me. That’s something Christians do to mortify the flesh.” Certainly this was the flavor of Lent as it was practiced in the late 1950’s when I was attending St. Bridget of Sweden Elementary School in Van Nuys, California. We gave up a favorite food for six weeks and saved our pennies for the “heathen babies.” But since I’ve been studying seasonal celebrations, I realize that the roots of Lent reach far back in time and are deeply aligned with the energy of spring. So I propose taking another look at Lent, its roots and its potential as a spiritual practice.

The very name of Lent is synonymous with the season, for it comes from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when the days lengthen. Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Since Easter always falls on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. During the church services held on Ash Wednesday, we listened to a reading which reminded us that we would die “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”) and then the priest marked our foreheads with a smudge of dark ash (on the third eye chakra, a place also marked with sacred ash in Hindu devotions).

For the next six weeks we were required to give something up, something which was precious to us, that we would miss, something that would build character, for we would have to struggle against temptation as Christ struggled against temptation in the desert while fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. The 40 days of Lent are a significant period. Forty is a magical number which recurs throughout the Bible (Noah floated in his ark for 40 days and nights, the chosen people wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jonah led the citizens of Nineveh through 40 days of penance). But forty is also a magical number in other ways. I’ve heard that it take six weeks to break a habit (or establish a new routine). Six weeks times seven days equals 42 days, almost exactly the same time period as Lent.

But it’s not just the number of days that are significant but their conjunction with the season. In Chinese medicine, spring is the time of the liver, whose energy is change. Haragano, who teaches Wheel of the Year classes in Seattle, says that treatment centers experience higher success rates in spring than at any other time of the year. She attributes this to the incredible energy for change which courses through the earth at this time, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas put it. The sap is rising in the trees, which are budding; the green stalks of crocuses and snowdrops are pushing through the frozen ground. There’s an incredible shift happening which — in those parts of the world which are frozen — manifests in the spring thaw, the breaking up of the contraction of winter.

Lent is the time for making auspicious changes. It doesn’t have to be about deprivation, although that pattern is deeply ingrained in me from my Catholic childhood when I usually gave up cookies or candy for Lent. As an adult, I’ve used Lent as an opportunity to experiment with my patterns with other substances. Giving up alcohol for one Lent eventually led to giving up alcohol altogether for several years. Giving up dairy products, however, did not lead to a permanent change, even though I immediately noticed the return of a certain amount of congestion (which I had previously considered normal) when I began eating dairy again at Easter. Two years ago, I gave up coffee entirely (although not caffeine — my consumption of Darjeeling tea shot up in proportion). Again, although I went back to drinking coffee (hey! I do live in Seattle), I weaned myself from daily coffee consumption and now have a latte only once or twice a week. One year I gave up sugar, probably the most difficult of all. The effect on my energy level was drastic and shocking. The few times I ate sugar (jellybeans at Nawruz, desserts at a Victorian ball), I binged and then felt sick for days afterwards. Now although I’ve put sugar back into my diet, I’m much more sensitive to its effect on my body. I no longer buy cookies or ice cream for late night snacks and I discovered an organic Earl Grey tea that’s so sweet and delicious I can drink it without sugar.

The emphasis on giving up a rich or luxurious food item has deep historical roots. The day before Lent is often called Mardi Gras, which translates as Fat Tuesday, because people gorge on rich, deep-fried foods like doughnuts and pastries on this day. In Russia, the week before Lent is the time of the butter festival when everyone feasts on blinis, pancakes wrapped around fillings. In England, the day before Lent is Pancake Tuesday since pancakes are the food of choice. The recipe for pancakes published in The Compleat Cook in 1671 includes a pint of cream, six new-laid eggs, a pound of sugar and nutmeg or mace. The previous Sunday is Colop Sunday, the last chance to eat collops (chops) before Lent begins. Carnival, another name for the period right before Lent when people splurge on the rich foods and outrageous behavior which will soon be prohibited, comes from Carne (meat) vale (farewell) because Catholics give up eating meat for Lent.

A friend of mine who is a member of a Russian Orthodox church tells me that their restrictions on food during Lent are even more severe than those I experienced in the Roman Catholic church. Lent is like a six-week progressive fast, in which people give up first meat, then a different food item each week, until the week before Easter they are eating only bread and water. This reminded me of the diet I followed (in reverse) the second (but not the last) time I quit smoking. I was following a program outlined by the Seventh Day Adventists which prescribed a strict diet during the first week of not smoking. We were supposed to eat only fruit and fruit juice the first day, then add in vegetables, then grains. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine were all forbidden–triggers for nicotine craving. I was so obsessed with figuring out what I could eat and doing all the preparation involved in preparing fresh fruit and vegetables that I barely missed cigarettes. If you have been considering trying an allergy elimination diet this would be a great time to try it.

If you think about what’s going on in the natural world, these food deprivations make sense. This part of early spring is the most hazardous time of the year for people living close to the earth. The first bitter greens (so prominent a part of spring equinox feasts like Passover and Easter) are just emerging. Fresh eggs, also associated with these feasts, are not yet available; birds are just beginning to nest. The foodstuffs, particularly the salted and smoked meat, that were stored to carry the family through the winter may be giving out. The potatoes and apples left in the cellar are getting soft and of dubious quality. The deprivation of Lent may not be voluntary but a necessity imposed by nature. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “Fasting is in rhythm with the seasons, scarcity followed by abundance.” By choosing lack, people believed they could induce God to send plenty: rain, harvest and life. As Gregory the Great said, “To fast is to offer God a tithe of the year.”

There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new. Yet any change is fraught with danger and difficulty. As a friend of mine said while we were on our way to a ritual, “There is no transformation without change.” Gertud Mueller Nelson in her wonderful book on Catholic ritual comments, “which of us…does not know we must change and fear it, and in that fear come face to face with the mystery of death.” She believes that “conscious engagement of suffering and death forces us to take stock of our gift of life and consider ways of reforming and living our lives more fully and passionately.”

Nelson mentions that a banner displaying the words Vacare Deo (meaning to empty oneself so God could fill one up) was displayed in her childhood home during Lent. Brooke Medicine Eagle assigns the same value to fasting when she describes vision quests in Buffalo Woman Comes Singing.. She writes that when we fast we refrain from taking in on the right side of our experience, thus creating a vacuum in our consciousness. “By our very nature, something else will come in to fill that space.” For Brooke, the vacuum was filled with dreams, visions, clairvoyance, astral travel and revelation, all left-sided events. “The fast,” she writes, “seems to work the same way with all people. It is a brilliant tool for opening ourselves to the Great Mystery and to the Source of Life within our own being.” In discussing how to fast, Brooke Medicine Eagle recommends doing so “not as a punishment or a sacrifice, but as a joyful way to call upon another part of yourself, a way to awaken to Spirit’s voice within you.” Although you can simply move through a regular day without food, Brooke suggests taking a day off, going to a beautiful spot in nature and creating sacred space there where you can spend your time in meditation or centering. “Whatever holes in your life you fill with food — or anything else you’ve included on your fast — will become very obvious when you begin to do without them.”

I know how powerful this practice can be from my experience with another kind of fast: the week of reading deprivation which is part of the twelve-week program described by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. For reasons similar to those described by Brooke Medicine Eagle, Julia Cameron recommends abstaining from reading for one week. For those of you who get your daily dose of words from NPR, listening to talk radio is also forbidden. “Reading deprivations casts us into our inner silence,” a place where we can “hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration.”

The effects of reading deprivation have been dramatic for me and my students. The first time I did reading deprivation, I got sick. I was indignant and frightened. How could I stay in bed and rest without reading? As a way to soothe my sore throat and get to sleep at night without the soporific of a bedtime novel, I sipped at the lavender brandy I had in my cupboard for medicinal purposes. Since I hadn’t drunk alcohol for several years, I was shocked when I realized that I had replaced my addiction to reading with alcohol. The second time I did reading deprivation, I found myself spending hours obsessively planning: rewriting to-do lists, making ten year plans, elaborating all the tasks necessary to carry out complicated projects. I had never noticed before how much time I spent planning to do things as compared with actually doing them. It was another revelation.

I do reading deprivation every time I teach an Artist’s Way class. Subsequent experiences have not been so dramatic but they have been gratifying. I now look forward to reading deprivation as an oasis in my life which is crowded with things to read. One time while standing at a bus stop, restless and impatient during a reading deprivation week, I went into the nearby florist’s shop and began sniffing all the flowers, trying to come up with words to describe their various scents. I have done some of my best writing during these weeks, which are also usually times of particularly vivid dreams.

This sort of sensory abundance and sensitivity is one of the rewards of the deprivation or purification process of Lent. Lent begins with the excesses of Carnival. It comes to an end with an outburst of joy and indulgence. The Easter feast is a banquet of rich foods, the bounty of spring. The mood of Easter is one of gaiety and celebration–it derives from a Roman festival in honor of the resurrection of Attis called Hilaria.

If you find it difficult to contemplate giving something up for six weeks, just remember that you can indulge at Easter. Knowing that you are abstaining for only a limited period of time makes exercising restraint easier. Plus you can look forward to the excess of Easter. After six weeks of soy milk lattes the year I gave up dairy, I had my first latte breve (made with real cream) on Easter.

For pagans who don’t want to align with Christian holidays, a more natural time for celebrating Lent would be the six weeks between Candlemas and Spring Equinox. In fact, you might work it into your Candlemas pledge, taking a new name which symbolizes the change you want to make.

I’ve focused on giving up substances, but there are many other kinds of changes you can make. Process addictions like planning, worrying, obsessing about love, watching TV, overeating, overworking, are all good candidates. For instance, if you tend to overwork you might want to set some bottom lines ; no working overtime, no working on weekends, no work phone calls at home. I usually try to make a change in a behavior as well as giving up a substance. One year I gave up criticizing (not an easy task for a Virgo). Another year I gave up nagging.

Several years ago, I gave up self-deprivation for Lent. Mostly through working with The Artist’s Way, I had identified a pattern which Julia Cameron calls artistic anorexia which also applied to other areas of my life. I was constantly denying myself simple pleasures with the excuse that I couldn’t afford them, either financially or in terms of time. Perhaps this was a remnant of my Catholic childhood; certainly it’s a prevailing theme in our Puritan culture. I have to admit it was hard to indulge myself every day but it resulted in an atmosphere of permission for pleasure that permeates my life to this day.

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My Favorite Calendars

Photo by Melissa Gayle West

I love this time period between the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, when my new calendar is still empty and the old one is full of memories. I comb through one and look forward to filling up the new one. Here’s a list of some of my favorite calendars. Calendars make great gifts, for you and for your friends.

Jim Maynard’s Pocket Astrologer

If I could buy only one calendar a year, this would be the one. It contains all the calendrical information I need for the year: the dates of major Christian, Jewish and other festivals, plus moon signs, moon void of course, eclipses (and where to view them), the best meteor showers of the year, planetary transits (including Mercury retrograde), and much more, all for my time zone (Pacific; there’s also one for Eastern time). I’m not sure why I love this calendar so much. Other calendars — Llewellyn’s astrological calendars and the WeMoon almanac — provide the same information. Maybe it’s the compact size. Maybe it’s because Jim Maynard was the first person to teach me about that mysterious time interval called “moon void of course” (a transition time when the moon is “in between” signs). Maybe it’s because so much is information is packed into such a small package. You get everything I mentioned above plus a blank horoscope wheel for writing in your own chart, a visual map of the planetary motions, explanations of the qualities of each zodiac sign and planet, an article on planting by the moon and much more. Orrder one at this web site.

Planner Pad

In a totally different realm, the realm of scheduling, I would be lost without my Planner Pad which is like the control panel for my complicated, multi-faceted life. Unlike traditional planners in which one tends to write mainly the dates of external obligations (appointments, etc.), the Planner Pad system encourages you to think of what you want to do in different areas of your life and then assign them time in your schedule. (I imagine this is similar to the Covey system which I’ve never used, though I have incorporated many insights from his books into my schedule, like putting first things first (my spiritual life, then my writing) in both my schedule and my day.) I’m going to adapt some of the Planner Pad ideas into my Natural Planner. I just found a great post online from Diane who loves using a Planner Pad for organizing as much as I do and she breaks down the process in great detail. If you are interested, you might want to read her post. For years I used the 8-1/2 by 11 size, but the year I ordered the smaller size, I had a lot more time (not so many lines to fill up with tasks), so I’m going back to the smaller size in 2012. To order go to the web site.

Wall Calendars

Besides my handy astrological guide and my planning system, I always like to keep a beautiful wall calendar on my wall. Both Pomegranate and Amber Lotus offer many beautiful choices. I think you can use calendars as a focal point for your dreams, which is why I sometimes give friends calendars as New Year Gifts, calendars that feature places they want to travel (Greece, Italy, etc. ) or activities they love (yoga, writing, knitting, etc.).  One year I chose a William Morris floral design calendar which helped inspire my flower essays.

Weekly Journals or Engagement Calendars

I often use beautiful calendars as journals. I have one I kept the year my daughter was turning two and it’s full of hilarious stories about her adventures and a detailed record of her vocabulary acquisition. We both still enjoy reading it.  I also have a Book of Days that came illustrated with Japanese seasonal paintings which I use as a phenological journal, where I track the seasonal changes in my life, noting the first whiff of sweet box in January, the first ripe raspberries in my garden in June, the first time the radiator comes on in my apartment in September. I put each entry under the appropriate day and write the year in parentheses, so that over time the book has become a palimpsest of over a decade in my neighborhood. I can say with certainty, “the lilacs are blooming earlier this year.”

I heart the inspiration for the Ecological Calendar, which is available both as a wall calendar and as an engagement calendar. It’s beautifully designed and meant to help you notice the natural rhythms of the year. In the engagement calendar, each weekly page shows celestial events, the ratio of sun to darkness, natural seasonal events, the tides and a preview of what’s to come. The right hand page offers space to write in your commitments or comments. It begins on Winter Solstice, as every calendar should. I love it that the creators have named the months and the days fanciful, seasonal names, just like the creators of the French Revolutionary calendar. Winter is Celeste, Sleet and Bluster. December 24 is MoonGlow, December 25 SnowLine, December 26 Ice Floe and December 27 Frozen Lake. But these names point out one problem of seasonal calendars: they don’t fit all regions. There are no frozen lakes in Seattle, and I’d be surprised if the emphasis on snow in winter works for residents of Florida or Southern California.


For the past six years, I’ve been enjoying the treasure trove of seasonal information collected by Bill Felker who publishes Poor Will’s Almanack. Felker started paying attention to the weather patterns where he lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio after his wife gave me a gift of a barometer, and that expanded into a passionate devotion to all indications of seasonal time. He predicts weather patterns, lists flowering plants for every day of year, provides a pollen count and a SAD index (hours of sunlight available), describes what’s happening in the night sky, and writes a perceptive and elegant essay to begin each month. You can order the 2018 edition or his book of essays at his web site or at Amazon.

Creative Calendars

One year when I was really struggling to find balance in my life, I made a collage calendar showing the year as a circle with different slices of pictures for each month. December and January were time off months, months for dreams and visions, which I depicted with a starry sky background. February, April, July and October were months I wanted to focus on my teaching, indicated by fields of lavender. March, June, September and November were months I planned to focus on my writing (I used the image of a page of handwriting). May was my month for sending out my work (I figured if I could get it all done in one month of the year, I’d be relieved of the pressure I always feel to market my work). I indicated this month with flowers and a hummingbird drinking from them. August was a vacation month (camels in the desert). This calendar proved to be enormously useful to me since every time I was feeling frantic, I simply looked at it to figure out my priorities.

Twyla Tharp describes using a circular calendar in her book The Creative Habit. She says she keeps track of multiple creative projects by drawing circles within circles on a piece of paper with the deadlines scrawled inside the borders. Although each circle is unique it rubs up against or enfolds other circles. She writes; “If I follow my circles and match things up with my calendar, the progression begins to make sense.”

My daughter has been creating a bullet journal calendar for the past several and I love seeing the creativity and originality she puts into it. She has separate lists for appointments and tracking certain activities that are important for her. She uses different colors to capture different sorts of engagements and tasks. And it’s totally personalized to her needs and her interests. I’m giving bullet journals to all my writer friends this Christmas and hoping they will find them useful.

It’s easy to make your own calendar. Many convenience stores, like the Walgreens in my neighborhood, offer templates you can fill in with your own photos. I’ve used their template for the last few years to make a calendar featuring photos of my daughter’s Chihuahua, Pepe (who is also the hero of my novel, Dial C for Chihahua). We give them as presents to Pepe’s fans (he has many).

A few years ago, after finishing a big genealogy project on my mother’s family, the Wittaks of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I made a calendar that featured significant family dates on the date grids and displayed photo collages of the ancestors of the family and the houses they lived in. I sent a copy to all of the relatives who had helped me with my research. It made a great gift.

As you can see I love calendars! I’d love to hear about the calendars you love.

First published on December 24, 2011. Updated 12/23/2017.

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Who Is Santa Lucia?

By Joanna Powell Colbert

By Joanna Powell Colbert

One of the most charming customs of the Yuletide season is that of the Lucy Bride. She is the young woman or girl who wears a crown of candles on her head and walks through a dimly lit home, carrying a tray of pastries and coffee to feed her family. She is called St. Lucia and is most commonly known as the Christian saint who was said to light the way to salvation. But why did this Italian saint, with her origins in Sicily, capture the hearts of the people of the far north? For it is in the dark, northern lands of Scandinavia that she is the most beloved.

As Clement A. Miles wrote a hundred years ago, the imagery of the light shining forth out of darkness is a primary Yuletide theme, one that seems to strike deeply in the hearts of humankind. “Lux in tenebris is one of the strongest notes of Christmas: in the bleak midwinter a light shines through the darkness; when all is cold and gloom, the sky bursts into splendor, and in the dark cave is born the Light of the World.”

The historical Lucia was said to have been an early Christian martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, during the 4th century reign of Diocletian. She quickly became quite popular, with a widespread following by the 6th century. Two churches in Britain were dedicated to her before the 8th century, when Britain was still largely Pagan.

As with most saints, solid information about Lucia is lacking but many stories and legends are told about her. It is said that Lucia came from a wealthy family, and that she carried food to persecuted Christians hiding in dark underground tunnels. She wore a wreath of candles on her head to light the way as she carried her baskets of provisions. Another legend says that she plucked out her own eyes and sent them to a suitor, so that she would not have to marry him. Yet another tale claims that she was tortured for her faith and was blinded in that manner, though God restored her eyesight in the end.

Many images of St. Lucia show her holding a plate with eyeballs on it. She became the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble. 

The emphasis on eyes may have come from the identification of the Sicilian woman Lucia with the Italic goddess of light, Lucina or Lucetia. This goddess was often pictured holding a lamp and a plate of cakes, which were later mistaken for eyeballs. Lucetia became known as one of the aspects of the Roman Queen of Heaven, Juno. As Juno Lucina, goddess of childbirth, she was known as the opener of the eyes of newborn children.

She was also known to feed her people in times of famine. A story is told that St. Lucia arrived in the Syracuse harbor in 1582, bearing wheat on a ship for the townsfolk who had prayed to her for help while they were starving. A similar story takes place in medieval Sweden. St. Lucia, “with a face so radiant that there was a glow of light all about her head,”2 arrived in a ship on Lake Vannern bearing provisions during a winter famine. From both of these stories comes the custom of eating wheat porridge in honor of Lucia.

Various explanations are given of how the Italian Catholic saint traveled to Lutheran Scandinavia and became firmly entrenched in Nordic culture. Did the Vikings bring the story of St. Lucia back with them on their travels? Perhaps the story was carried by German traders, or priests and monks from the British Isles may have introduced the story.

However the story arrived in the northlands, it seems clear that the name “Lucia,” from lux (light), captured Nordic hearts as she merged with their ancestral traditions of Freya and Frigga. 

It was not unusual for the titles of ancient goddesses to be adopted as titles for both the Virgin Mary and for female saints. “Freya Vanadis,” meaning “shining bride of the gods,” reminds us of Lucy’s title “Lucia Bride.” Frigga was known as “Queen of the Aesir,” and St. Lucy was also called the “Lucia Queen.” 

Both were solar goddesses, associated with sun symbols such as sunwheels, cats, spinning, amber, and gold. Freya was called der vana solen, “the beautiful sun,” in a Swedish folksong.

The “eye” imagery of both Juno Lucina and the martyr Lucia is linked to Freya’s eyes which shed tears of amber in the ocean and gold on the earth. Unlike the virgin Lucia, however, who plucked out her eyes rather than submit to the caresses of a husband, Freya wept for her lost lover Odur.

She was the giver of riches. One of Freya’s names was “Gefjon,” meaning “Giver” or “Allgiver,” and she was known as the dispenser of wealth and plenty. It was said that her brother Frey gave the gift of fruitful fields while Freya gave the gift of crafted gold.

The golden saffron buns that the Lucia Bride serves are called lussekatter, literally “light cats.” One Christian tale said that the “rolls served by Lucia were devil’s cats which she subdued.” Freya’s solar chariot was pulled by her famous cats across the heavens. These cats were known to control the sunshine — it was said that if it rained at an inconvenient time, it was because the neighborhood cats were peevish or hungry.

Frigga was more closely tied to hearth and home than Freya. She is the goddess of spinning and her symbols are the spindle and distaff. The act of spinning was considered a magical act, sometimes symbolizing the spinning of destinies by the Fates, sometimes the spinning of light by the sun goddess. The winter constellation we know as Orion was called “Frigga’s Distaff,” Friggjar Rockr. “As the spinner, [Frigga] appears in Austria under the thinly Christianized guise of ‘St. Lucy’ or Spillelutsche, ‘Spindle-Lucia’, who, like Perchte, punishes those who have not spun during the year or have spun on her chosen feast-days.”

Lucy, like Frigga, is the bringer of light and life to the household in the depths of winter. 

Freya and Frigga are both identified at times with the Germanic goddesses Holda and Berchta, who are the light and dark sides of the same being. Both Holda and Berchta forbade spinning or other rotary tasks during the Yuletide season, the time when the “sun stands still” (the meaning of the word “solstice”). In Christian times, the ban on spinning was extended to include St. Lucia’s feast day.

Her feast day is December 13th, which was the day of the solstice before the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 1300’s. An old English rhyme reminds us that St. Lucia’s Day used to be the shortest day of the year: “Lucy-light, Lucy-light, shortest day and longest night.” Today, her feast day is seen as the beginning of the holiday season and is often called “Little Yule.”

The choosing of a girl to embody the character of the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride) or “Lucia Queen” in her community dates back to the 12th century. She wears a white dress and red sash (symbolic of light and fire) and a wreath of greenery (lingonberry or whortleberry twigs) on her head. Candles are attached (some say nine, or seven, or four — all sacred numbers) to the wreath and lit. She sets out while it is still dark “to carry food and drink to every house in the parish, and also to visit stables and cow-byres, so that animals as well as human beings may share in the promise of lengthening days and greater plenty that she brings.” She is preceded by torchbearers, and followed by a train of maidens, “star boys,” and wicked-looking trolls and demons. The goblins represent the bitter winter, soon to be vanquished by the radiant Lucia. “The Lucia Queen’s visits drive away misfortune and bring good luck and prosperity.”

Besides the visits of the village Lucy Bride to all the homes in the community, each household has its own bright visitor. The oldest (or youngest) daughter arises “at first cockcrow,” dons the gown, sash and crown, and in the darkness before the dawn, awakens the sleepers with songs, coffee and special buns called lussekatter. Some families then eat breakfast in a kitchen lit with candles.

Since 1927, when a Stockholm newspaper sponsored a contest to choose the city’s Lucia Bride, St. Lucia’s Day has become a source of national pride in Sweden. Lucia processions are held in schools, hospitals, offices, factories, and even airline flights. There are Lucia competitions where young women compete to represent their community. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature crowns Stockholm’s St Lucia.

Lynn Nelson, an American woman of Swedish descent, recalled the Lucia festivities of her own childhood: “I once knew a Swedish Evangelical Lutheran pastor . . . His predecessors, the Catholic priests, had taken five hundred years to clothe the [Lucia] tradition in its Christian trappings. St. Lucy was actually, he said, the goddess Freya. . . The pastor was quite old and had grown a bit testy as he spoke, and he finally rumbled that the Papists would never have been able to carry it off had they not struck on the device of placing at the center of their restructuring of the symbolism of this tradition a cup of hot, rich coffee and a slice of good coffee-cake.”

Whether or not her popularity is due to coffee and rolls, St. Lucia is greatly beloved as the Lightbringer during dark northern winters. Helen Farias neatly ties up all the elements of the Lucia story by saying that she “is the light-bringing midwife who is also bride, at the height of her power and who is most generous with her gifts, settling to earth at dawn in her cat-drawn chariot . . . just in time for breakfast.”

Joanna Powell Colbert is an artist, writer, and teacher of earth-centered spirituality and the Tarot. Joanna spent nine years creating the Gaian Tarot, which combines her love of symbolic, archetypal art with the mysteries of Mama Gaia, the natural world. Joanna blogs at


Freya Aswynn, Northern Mysteries & Magick, St Paul MN: Llewellyn 1998.
Florence Ekstrand,Lucia, Child of Light, Welcome Press, 1989
Helen Farias, “Customs and Legends of Little Yule,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 5 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1990.
Helen Farias, “Divine Mothers of a Northern Winter,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 7-8, Clear Lake WA:1988.
Helen Farias, “Festal Food: Lucia Cats,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 1 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1986
Helen Farias, “The Return of Lucia,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 1, Clear Lake WA: 1987.
Helen Farias, “Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights,” The Beltane Papers, Clear Lake WA: Samhain 1992.
Waverly Fitzgerald, “St. Lucy’s Day,” School of the Seasons, <> (Accessed 1/21/00)
Waverly Fitzgerald & Helen Farias, Midwinter, Seattle: Priestess of Swords Press 1995.
Susan Granquist, “Lucy Fest,” Irminsul Aettir, <>(Accessed 1/21/00)
Stephan Grundy, Alice Karlsdottir, Diana Paxson, “Chapter XVIII: The Frowe (Freyja),” Our Troth, <> (Accessed 1/27/00)
Christina Hole, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, London: Paladin 1976
Ellen Evert Hopman, Tree Medicine Tree Magic, Phoenix Publishing 1992.
Alice Karlsdóttir, Stephan Grundy, Kveldulf Gundarsson, Melodi Lammond, Larsanthony K. Agnarsson, Karter Neal, Laurel Olson, Diana Paxson, Siegróa Lyfjasgy, Dianne Luark Ross, “Chapter XIII: Frija and Other Goddesses,” Our Troth, <> (Accessed 1/22/00)
John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, Quest Books 1998
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, Dover Publications 1976/1912
Lynn H. Nelson, “Holiday Business All Done,” <> 1/8/99 (Accessed 1/21/00)
Patricia Monaghan, O Mother Sun, Crossing Press 1994.
Thorskegga Thorn, “Spinning in Myths and Folktales,” <> (Accessed 1/27/00)

This article was first published in PanGaia magazine, Winter 2000-2001. The footnoted version is  in the appendix of Joanna’s recently published e-book, A Crown of Candles, which is filled with ideas for celebrating the winter holidays with a party honoring Santa Lucia.

The photo of the Lucy Bride with her crown of candles was taken at one of Joanna’ s legendary Lucia Parties by Paul Bingham.

The lovely photo of the Lucy girls was taken by Claudia Grunder and I found it at Wikipedia.

It was first published December 8, 2015.

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Counting Leaves

Another great essay from Bill Felker’s lovely essays about his seasonal observations in Yellow Springs, Ohio, taken from Poor Will’s Almanack. This is from November, 2005:

Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed as former things grow old.
Robert Herrick

On the night of November 11th-12th a year ago, the temperature in my yard dropped to the middles 20s. At 8:30 in the morning, I looked out the back door as the sun was coming up over the houses on High Street: I saw the green leaves of the white mulberry tree starting to fall.

I was excited because I had never witnessed the total collapse of the mulberry. My notebooks have kept sporadic track of that particular tree’s history. It lost its foliage on the 3rd in 1991, on the 4th inn 1988, on the 6th in 1982, on the 8th in 1990, on the 11th in 1984 and 1986, on the 12th in 1983 and 1992, on the 17th in 1989, on the 23rd in 1994. But I had never actually seen the leaves come down all at once.

So now I watched in awe; the branches hemorrhaged, leaves clattering down in sheets for almost an hour. At 9:30 the tree was empty, and the ground was covered.

Trying to understand what I’d witnessed, I went out and counted the number of leaves in a square foot beneath the tree: 65 leaves large and small filled the space. I measured the area that held most of the newly fallen leaves: 55 by 40 square feet. I multiplied, came up with 2,200 square feet, multiplied that times 65 leaves per square foot. I had seen something in the neighborhood of 143,000 leaves come down, gave or take maybe 50,000. Divided by 50 minutes, that would be about 3,000 leaves a minute.

Driving through the country later in the afternoon, I saw the remnants of other white mulberries. It seems they had all come apart at the same time. And the next morning when I arrived at work, I found that the ginkgo near my window had shed all its leaves overnight. I went outside and counted again. There were about 100 ginkgo leaves in a square foot, all lying in an area about 35 feet by 35 feet: my math produced 122,000 leaves.

Now concerning to the value of such imprecise and frivolous calculations, I’m not sure what to say. The numbers are one way of trying to gauge the enormity of the end of summer. Counting, like keeping records, is an attempt to touch the elusive movements of time. Tallying the leaves, I pretend to experience and salvage more of their passage.

Bill Felker who writes and records the signs of the season in Yellow Springs, Ohio. You can order his 2011 Poor Will’s Almanack  here.

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Descent: A Holy Longing

By Ruby Sara

The radiators in our building came on two days ago. Their ominous and persistent tapping and clanging will now be our constant companion ’til spring. I admit to feeling a small thrill, the official beginning of fall and everything, but mostly I’m plain chock full of dread. Ever spent a winter in Chicago, doveys?  If yes, then you know of what I speak. But it is still only September, if only for a few days more, and then the heart-aching savage splendor of October and the bone-mother breathing in of November to go before my heart will declare it Winter-For-Sure, so I count my blessings in gingko leaves bright as butter and the breathy purple weight of the common reed in bloom. This year I noticed where I hadn’t before the profusion of sawtooth sunflowers in every opportune thicket behind parking lots and roadways – every year I seem to notice some new plant. Some plant-folks believe that an abundance of a plant in one season means that it will be needed medicinally in the following season – that the Mama sends us medicine in anticipation of our need. While I don’t know if sawtooth sunflowers have any physiologically medicinal purpose, I think their mirroring of sunlight could be a clue for me to begin stocking up on vitamin D, as the days grow shorter and Mother Night shows her wicked teeth. For it is indeed, in the teeth of its soul-rocking beauty, the season of descent.

The exquisite weather and impending holy days breed many ponderings, and much writing – honeybees, madness, liturgy, candles, poetry and bread. And of course, speaking of bread – much baking. Rosemary loaves and basil rolls and apple gingerbread. Harvest Home!  We have been full up in celebrating it this year it seems – from large rituals to smaller gatherings to potluck feasts, this fall has been duly marked in the book of my body, and I have no complaints. Already I have begun to eyeball pumpkins. Pie made with honey and freshly baked pumpkin, y’all…I see no reason to stop celebrating.

On one recent gathering to mark the equinox proper, a handful of friends and I convened on a small fire ring near Mother Lake, surrounded by tall trees, and the wind that night moved outrageously among us – snatching up our small voices and throwing them out among the sand and beach grass. It is hard to pin down a concrete thought when the wind blows as it does in September, I admit. The oceanic boom and hiss of trees in the wind is like an electric signal in the skin, and I can’t help but be moved – my heart in my chest, my arms in the air. A human animal, small and grinning.

I have always had a love affair with the wind. Weather in general has been my love for as long as I can remember, and the wilder the better, but most specifically the wind. As a child I would wander within the confines of our scrubby Colorado yard examining snowflakes or looking for spirits in the lilacs and the bearded irises, and always no matter the time of year the wind was present, and we decided early on that we would be friends. So it is that this marvelous season is made more marvelous by the thrill of wind – great gusts rising in the leaves and over the lake. Kindling in my heart the unknowable longing.

The Holy Longing

Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you,
when you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.

Johann W. Von Goethe

I am indeed often a troubled guest on the dark earth. That familiar ache for…something. When I was in my early twenties I stumbled across a Jean Houston book in a used bookstore called The Search for the Beloved, and the title alone rocked me to my core – a linguistic clue to the longing (the book didn’t bear out the promise of the title for me, but I kept it on my shelf for years anyway as a reminder). As my personal theologies moved and shifted, I identified it with a yearning for magic, for God, personal wholeness, the southwest, Beauty, the road, for living in harmony with the earth, for illumination. It is all of these things really – I am too much of a hot mess to narrow my focus to one tinderbox. The holy longing is often interpreted as a yearning for “God,” a singular, aterrestrial and transcendent deity that is found outside the body, above the earth, outside or beyond material existence and necessitating a severe asceticism – some could even interpret Goethe’s poem that way I suppose. But I would propose that Goethe instead suggests that until one digs down very deep, into life – a life that burns with desire and passion and being – into the rich, material darkness at the heart of the earth, where true light is born (to meet Her, Night Queen and Solace to the Dead, to “die before you die,” a common trope of mysticism)… that it is only then that it becomes possible to move – that it is within the earth that seeds break open with death and life cracking simultaneously in the dark, vaulting upward, and that until the very meat and bone of earth is grokked, we are only guests, not Family. And I want to be Family with the earth, my god – my Beloved.

So I have made no plans for escaping this mortal coil – to truly grok body and earth is a life’s full set of mysticisms and I am happy to pursue them (and fail at them more often than not), pulled along by some lake-fire/night-wind/unnameable weight in my chest. The fall light lifts my heart and turns it to smoke, readying my body for Samhain’s hard lessons…each year we grow white-hot and are plunged again into water, tempered by the Mama’s seasons, and polished to precision. To be blades for digging. To find a hand at our ankle and pulling us under. To meet our Beloved below the earth. To become Queens of the Midnight Sun.

Grok the coming of that Mother Night, beloveds. Samhain comes, singing the song of descent. Pray wind and fire, pray mercy and strength – pray forever, without ceasing.

Poet, performance artist and liturgist, Ruby Sara is a regular columnist for Witches and Pagans magazine, a member of the performance collective Terra Mysterium, and the author of the blog Pagan Godspell. She lives in the fiercely wild urban Midwest with her intrepid spouse and their demon-monkey-cat, Pinky.

All the photographs were taken by the marvelous Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know.

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by Reverend Judith Laxer

I made a pact with my cat Wanda when she was about 3 or 4 years old. She was resting her head in the palm of my left hand, while I petted her from the tip of her nose to the back of her ruff.  Bliss was on her face and probably mine too.

My landscaping friend Michael had recently given me a cat skull he had unearthed.  He knew I would appreciate such a thing, and as I ran my hand over Wanda’s head, I mentally asked her, “Can I have your skull when you die?” And clear as day, I heard her reply, “Yes!”

It was as clear as another answer she had given me the day we met. At a summer barbecue, the hostess mentioned that there was an abandoned litter of kittens in her neighbors’ yard. I went to look for them and saw several small faces peering back at me from the beneath the brush but they stayed out of reach. Later in the day, the neighbor came over holding a small black ball of fluff which she placed in my hand. The kitten was tiny, with a big mane surrounding her jet black face, making her look regal. “What’s your name?” I asked her and as clear as if she spoke the word out loud, she answered, “Wanda!”

Wanda was very sensuous, ultra feminine, and a true creature of habit. She was a Taurus and she was a lover. She grew to a good size all the while remaining dainty. When she got older, one fang seemed to grow longer and rested outside of her mouth. We used to rub it for good luck.

When the end came...we buried her under the apple tree in our back yard.

Wanda lived 16 years and four months. We gave her the cushiest life and she gave us endless joy. When the end came, we didn’t let her suffer one little bit. We hired a vet to come to our home and euthanize her and we buried her under the apple tree in our back yard. On top of her grave, I placed a stepping stone with a waning moon on it and around that a circle of stones to represent the Wheel of the Year, along with an old deer skull a friend had given me long ago. It was very Georgia O’Keefe.

My agreement with Wanda made a great story. I told it to those closest to me, those who knew and understood me. I told my Mystery School students about it while showing them the cat skull Michael gave me and describing it as something one might use on their altar representing the direction of north.  I got to be that cool and eccentric woman who did such things as form a contract with her familiar for after its death.

But in truth, I shied away from what it actually meant. It wasn’t until I placed her in her grave that the impact of what I would have to do actually hit me. I’d have to dig up my dead cat! I’d have to face the macabre reality of flesh and bones. I’d have to actually get out the same shovel that I used to dig her grave and dig it up again!

My friend Margaret and I had both been apprentices in the Wise Woman tradition on a small urban farm. We learned about plants and medicine making and our relationship to the cycles of life. On the last weekend of this nine month journey, we each learned how to give death to an animal that lived on the farm. We then cleaned and prepared and cooked the chickens and rabbits for the final feast.  Since Margaret and I had gone through the experience of giving death together, I asked her if she would help me recover Wanda’s skull and she agreed.

And then, 13 months after Wanda’s death, I had a dream. I was driving on a long road that turned into a steep winding trail that morphed into me riding a bike up, up, up until I was climbing to the top of a very tall tree and looked out on a huge vista and the river that rolled across the horizon. When I looked down, I spied a friend, pregnant now, chasing a crying child. She looked up, saw me and called, “Judith! We are about to take a family photo! Come down and join us!”

‘No, no!” I called back. “I don’t want to!” As I scrambled down the tree to the parking lot and approached my car, there was Wanda scratching at the Autumn leaves. I opened the back door of my car and she jumped in. I shut it and then opened the front door and sat in the driver’s seat as she jumped from the back to the front passenger side. I began to pet her. I could feel her fur, her wet nose and under my hand, the feel of her skull, her skull, her skull…

I woke up with those words echoing in mine. It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning a week after Samhain. I knew: Wanda had come to tell me it’s time.  I called Margaret and told her about the dream. We agreed to meet the next afternoon.

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul

Once we set the date and time, I found myself stepping out of story and into reality. This was really going to happen! From there, I moved directly into an altered state, which consisted of feeling like a part of me was floating up above my right shoulder observing my every move.  It was either very shamanic or schizophrenic, I am not sure which.

An hour and a half before Margaret was going to arrive, I went out to Wanda’s grave with a rake, shovel and wheel barrow. I offered a prayer to Hecate and then started to sing, ‘Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul!’ as the rake scratched at the Autumn leaves.

When the gravesite was cleared, I removed the deer skull and put it aside. Then, moving widdershins,  I removed each of the Sabbat stones widdershins and set them aside. Finally I lifted the stepping stone that had rested undisturbed for 13 moons, and watched the worm I had disturbed burrow its way back into the dark soil.

As I waited for Margaret, I puttered around the garden; clipping, trimming, pruning, pulling the dead bean vines off the trellis, deadheading the dianthus, killing time.  When Margaret arrived, we set to work.

I watched my foot push the shovel into the hard packed soil.  Shovelful by shovelful, I removed the dirt and placed it in the wheelbarrow. I remembered I had buried Wanda exactly 2 feet deep, placing her body curled up in the fetal position, into the cool, brown body of Mother Earth.

Soon Margaret said we should probably get the yard stick and see how deep we were. I ran to get it, grateful to retreat for a moment. It turned out that we were at one foot, and Margaret took over the shovel now and began to dig a wider hole.

We hit something hard with the shovel, and everything stopped. But it was only a rock. We sighed with relief. “I don’t know if I can go through with this.” I said shakily. ‘Well, lets just dig a little more” Margaret said. I nodded in agreement. Next, we came upon something long and thin. ‘What’s that?” She asked, as she reached down and picked it up. But it was only a thick root that peeled apart like paper. At a foot and a half, we switched to the small hand trowel.

Then, as I dug gingerly, I came upon a bone.  No false alarm this time; it really was a bone. As I knelt there looking at it, it occurred to me that although it was soil covered, it was clean of fur and flesh. Wanda had been right: this was the right time. I put her leg bone beside the deer skull and Margaret and I looked at one another. We were close.

The next thing we encountered looked like a lump of dirt. “What’s that?” I asked. “I think it’s her skull!” I gasped. Margaret asked if I could get some water and once more I ran inside, this time to fill the watering can and lug it back. As we poured the water over the lump of dirt, we saw the outlines of the skull appear.

I thought we would come upon it on its side which is how I had placed her in her grave. The thought that she had moved under ground made my stomach lurch. (Later, I learned that as the flesh decomposes, the bones settle.  Most animal skeletons are found in the prone position, regardless of what position they are in when they die.)

Margaret began to loosen the soil around the treasure with her fingers. Very gently, she lifted Wanda’s skull from its bed, a true gift from the earth. The two jaw bones easily dropped from it, along with the one lucky fang. Then Margaret turned it around and placed it in my hand so I was the one to first look upon her skeletal face. What a sight! For a split second, I thought I saw her complete face again, jet back fur and amber eyes, but then it was gone and I was looking at Wanda’s gorgeous skull.  “Hello!” I whispered to the bones, my eyes resting on the inverted triangle that once was her nose.

I am glad that I’d had already seen a cat skull; the orbital bones for the eyes are huge in comparison to the rest of the skull, and would have frightened me out of my wits if I hadn’t been prepared. We picked up the two jaw bones with teeth intact and I got the loose fang. “I can glue this one back in,” I thought wildly.

We poured two more cans of water over the skull and used an old toothbrush to loosen the dirt. The skull was packed with soil; it seemed it would never come clean. Wanda had been a long haired cat and we often commented on how big her head was. But now as I held her skull in my hands, it was so small.

It was over. I had her. Our contract, from agreement to notice to deed, was fulfilled.

I looked at Margaret, tears streaming. “I am eternally in your debt.” I said. “I could never have done this without you, Margaret, thank you!”

The rain began to fall in earnest, a fitting end to the day's work.

A soft rain began to fall. I hadn’t previously thought past the exhumation: in my mind, the story always ended when I held her skull in my hand. I put her leg bone back into the grave, and Margaret lifted the end of the wheelbarrow as I directed all the soil back over her remains. When it was smoothed over, I dropped the stepping stone back down, and put the deer skull upon it again.  The rain began to fall in earnest, a fitting end to the days work.

I placed Wanda’s skull, jaw bones and tooth onto a clean black plate I had used in ritual. I brought her inside the house again. “Welcome home.” I said to her as I placed her on my altar.  Now her ritual life begins.

Rev. Judith Laxer treasures her profession as a Psychic, Spiritual Counselor, Hypnotherapist, Shamanic Practitioner and ritualist. She is the founding Priestessof Gaia’s Temple offering Goddess Worship Services in Seattle where everyone is welcome. Judith authored the not yet published book of eight fictional stories to accompany the Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year, entitled “Along the Wheel of Time”. Contact her through or

A longer version of this piece was published in Witches and Pagans Magazine, Issue #20.

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The Autumn of Life

by Edia Stanford-Bruce

The year I turned 40, I disappeared.

It had been coming on gradually, this “fading,” but I waved it away as the mere product of an over-active imagination or peri-menopausal anxiety. The atmosphere in several areas of my life was shot through with an unsettling chilliness and the earth seemed to be holding her breath; waiting for something.  Then, one night, frost hit. The next day, I was “middle aged.”

I began to notice magazine covers in bookstore racks. There were articles about how to be a sexy lover; how to be a beautiful bride; how to be a happy mom-to-be; how to be a good mom, how to pay for college and then, that was it. There was no sign life existed after 35.

I would pick through the mall attempting to dress a body that was betraying me, not shedding the creeping weight gain, shoving me toward the women’s sizes.  “My size” clothes were now located deep in the innards of stores hidden well away from the “career” misses and miles away from the uber-trendy petites on the highly visible outer aisles. Clothes after 35 were cheaply made, boring colored and fashion null. The personnel in my favorite stores began to ignore me and I sought solace in new boutiques especially for “my size”.

The changes growing older brought frightened me. Every year something that to my mind affirmed my identity as a woman, as a mother, as a productive member of society, dropped away. I shriveled inside like leaves denied the summer sun. At the point I thought that there was no more purpose for living and no more reason to expect anything but to blow away, I turned 50.

My gardens and all the earth became my professors. I began to listen and examine closely the lessons about living they were teaching. The first, most important lesson is that each season has its own specific work. Autumn is the season of harvests. The work of autumn is to gather in– whether for dinner, for preserving, or for next year’s seed. So, with same the purposeful energy that I harvested my peppers and tomatoes from the gardens I gathered in the produce my soul grew in the summertime of my life.

At 40 I was examining the early fruit harvest of my poison beds (habitual negative thought) — lack of self esteem and depression. However, by 50 I had learned that there were several more harvests to come before the killing frost that signals the beginning of winter. Now was the time of the fruit harvest of the more prosperous intellectual groves of beautifully ripe love for art, literature and spirituality. Not only that, the grain harvest of the second career 30’s and 40’s was standing in the field, ready for the scythe. That meant the half-century mark of my life was no time to mourn the passing of life’s summer. There was still work to do.

Most mind bending of all, I discovered an “interim” planting time—a time to sow the seed of a third career. Then I really began to appreciate the benefits of the season when the oppressive heat cools into twilight glow. The invisibility of the autumn woman came as a surprising blessing. The pressure was off to be pretty, perky and cute. People would carry home my words like prized cuttings because I was now someone who would be seriously listened to. Some of “Mami’s wisdom” gained from living would be preserved, not in Mason jars, but in scrapbooks and the memories of those who heard the stories.

This was not a time to categorize myself as “lost potential.” It was not a time to envy the energy, smooth skin, and toned muscles of youth. I began to notice more positive—even sexy– images of autumn women boldly looking out at me from magazine stands and more stylish clothing in stores as I turned 56 last month. However, there is still resistance to full acceptance and understanding of the seasons of adulthood after summer. I disappeared as a customer to the media and businesses that pandered to the youth market. Yet because of this, I entered a new season of freedom where I did not have to cater to images of how I should look or behave. There indeed was life—a new adventure– after 35. I embraced the crone and danced into the autumn life.

Edia Stanford-Bruce is a freelance writer and the Vice President for Public Relations, Booz-Allen Hamilton Toastmasters Club in Tyson’s Corner, VA. She earned the BA from Norfolk State University School of Journalism and also holds a M.Ed. in early childhood education from Rutgers University, specializing in literacy. Currently, she volunteers with Reston Interfaith as an administrative assistant supporting Stonegate Village Residents Services Office in Reston, VA. She and husband, retired pastor Rev. Dr. George Bruce, are happily empty-nesting in Reston’s Historic Lake Anne neighborhood. Her commentary about searching for work in the second half of life, “Victoree’s Blog: No White Flag”, is available on

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Late Summer

Another great essay from Bill Felker’s lovely essays about his seasonal observations in Yellow Springs, Ohio, taken from Poor Will’s Almanack. This is from August 2004:

When I get up before five these mornings, I sit by my window and I feel the fall moving toward me. Outside, there is no wind; the yard is quiet. The trees and flowers are motionless. The early summer chorus of birds has almost ended. Only a cardinal and a bullfrog sing off and on. Sometimes, the jays are nervous and whine in the trees. Sometimes, I hear crows across town. The katydids stopped calling in the middle of the night. It is too early in the day for cicadas and bees. The August crickets are still growing up; they won’t chant for a few days.

I can’t decide whether the shift in the season has followed the silence or preceded it. I don’t know if my perceptions are real or imaginary. Maybe I’m just restless. It’s been hot since the end of May. The heat wears me down like it wears down the plants and animals, draws life from the garden, the pond, and the brain.

I have run out of summer one more time

Of course the varieties of flowering plants are different now from what they were a few weeks ago, and the tint of the leaves has deepened in some places, faded in others. There is a haze to the sky; it builds up through the sluggish fronts of middle summer. Maybe that lack of purity is what tells me the earth has shifted on its axis, that it is turning back toward the sun for winter, that I have run out of summer one more time without having kept the promises I made to myself in April.

I have often tried to list the births and deaths of plants, insects and animals that define the shift to autumn. But I have never looked closely enough, have not watched or listened or thought carefully enough, and so the emotions of late summer can comer over me quickly and hard, and I listen to the stillness, trying to understand what has happened, wishing I had paid closer attention, thinking maybe if I really understood the process better, then I wouldn’t feel so bereft at the end.

But no matter how many notes I take, I know that when the birds are quiet in the morning and the wind stops blowing, I am at the end of one more cycle of planning and longing and then I can’t help repeating the same questions I asked a season ago. What next? What should I do now? Will there be enough time? Where do I go from here? How can I make amends for what I haven’t done? Whom should I still love? What does it matter?

The beautiful photo of a haybale on a hazy day was taken by Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know.

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Memory Lapse, Taxonomy, the Platonic Fallacy & The Common Sense

By Bill Felker

Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Henry David Thoreau

Lately I’ve been forgetting the names of some of the wildflowers I’ve identified through the years. I’ve also been forgetting the names of a few of my old acquaintances.

“Hey, how ya doin’?” I greet them, adding a soft mumble for the person’s name. Sometimes the other people remember who I am. Sometimes they mumble the same way I do. Sometimes a bob of the head is part of the ritual as though the person were choking on something or about to cough.

It’s easy to look up the forgotten flowers in my botanical references. Since I don’t have a people reference with photos, however, it often takes me a while to figure out the name of the man or woman I have just encountered. And even the momentary loss of a name is disconcerting in that the cerebral landscape suddenly becomes less familiar than it was seconds before. In some ways, the experience is like one of my repeating dreams in which I walk lost down a familiar childhood street on which everything has changed.

As I am accustomed to making much out of little, I worry that I’m losing my grip. After all, the process of taxonomy (naming things) is the way of the scientific world, the business world, the academic world, the broad world of social intercourse. I remind myself without names, there is no language and no human identity.

I weigh options and choices. Should I really bother to take the time to distinguish between silverweed and a flower that looks a little like wild strawberry? I always have. Is my acquaintance with what’s-his-name superficial, and that’s why I don’t recognize who he is? Am I simply forgetting, with good reason, the unimportant people in my life? That is also possible. Perhaps I do not recognize so-and-so because I have no need or desire for significant intimacy with her. That is likely.

Or maybe these aren’t the real issues at all. Maybe my organism is simply shedding its skin and preparing me for the great winnowing, the long oblivion. Is this intermittent forgetfulness, I wonder, the ante-room of a final metaphysical and psychological journey, the onset of dementia, incipience of Alzheimer’s? I ruminate and pick the scab of my memory lapse, trying to make sense of my aging.

Then, finally, I have it. I conclude that my anguish is merely a kind of disorientation caused by the perfidious Platonic Fallacy. That philosophic error was spawned by several of Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates encouraged people to think that ideas and their names were more permanent and ultimately more important than material objects, that the idea of a chair, for example, was more durable than the transitory, material chair from which the idea came.

My body, then, is simply telling me to get real.

Silly Plato! Silly Socrates! The truth is that any theory of ideas is useful only if you can remember. Once you forget the name of what’s-her-name, then her physical presence is much more significant than any conceptual shenanigans. My body, then, is simply telling me to get real. It is telling me that what’s-her-name simply is, and that, as Sartre said over half a century ago, existence indeed precedes essence.

And so I embrace the existential wisdom brought on by changes in my brain, allowing expedient insight to shatter arrogant and youthful concepts about high reasoning and subtle wordsmithing. I embrace the consolation of my friend, Henry what’s-his-name, his talk of mysteries, “daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense!”

Bill Felker observes nature in Yellow Springs, Ohio and records his observations in Poor Will’s Almanack. This is a reprint of the essay he wrote for June in the 2005 edition.

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20 Questions About Bhakti

by Sonya Lea

In January of this year, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday in India. Ten years earlier, my Zen master told me I needed to go to India. But I had resisted, mostly due to my fear of being overwhelmed by the place, the people, the sensations. But as my fiftieth birthday approached, I decided the second half of life needn’t be lived in fear. So my husband and I set forth on a month-long journey to India that included the ancient Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges, the world’s largest religious festival – the Kumbh Mela, a tiger safari, a tour of Rajasthan, and an ayurvedic spa in Kerala. We were immersed in an experience beyond our ordinary minds, a journey so very consuming, that our practice became keeping our eyes wide open, and dissolving our beliefs about ‘how things should be.’ When I returned to Seattle, I wanted to stay inside the intensity of the way of life, and so I began a hundred-day practice of bhakti, the way of devotion.

India is a country of contradictions, a sometimes chaotic place where people manage to infuse every task, every day and every relationship with bhakti, a word that can be translated as devotion, although it means much more than that. Bhakti comes from the Sanskrit bhaj, to belong to, to be a part of. To express bhakti requires a fully engaged relationship with the Divine, one beyond ritual and tradition.

Bhakti is the essence of life in India. From the dawn bicycle ride to the temple and back each day before work, to the flower-stacked altars in homes, shops and even parking lots, to the mala beads worn smooth through fervent wear, devotion is as much a part of the day as the coffee break is in America. Bhakti emphasizes practice, a kind of participation with love. Bhakti brings one liberation through action. Bhakti is worship that has flooded the banks of the river of love — devotion as madhura bhava, the lover and beloved, a metaphor for the relationship between the individual and the divine. It is Radha and her love for Krishna. For me, it is Johnny Cash singing “Would You Lay With Me? (In A Field of Stone)” to his beloved June Carter.

I had heard that one hundred days of attention toward any practice would change one. I would start with a daily sitting meditation practice and then see where bhakti led me. I thought I would find answers but instead the practice offered me a wealth of questions.

1. Ever since the Bhagavad-Gita spoke of bhakti as a service to God, religious texts have referred to the devotee’s transcendental state as brahma-bhuta, somewhat like a consistent state of joy or bliss. If I practice bhakti, will I increase my capacity to live in this state of bliss?
2. Bhakti is about relationship, those between beloved-lover, friend-friend, parent-child, and master-servant. Bhakti practice can be in devotion to a spiritual teacher as guru-bhakti, to a personal form of God or Goddess, or to divinity without form (nirguna.) The idea is to illuminate the devotional energy within you, to see what arises, and to come into relationship with the Divine. If I don’t believe in God, can I use a form that represents the Divine for me, such as a relationship, nature, art, reality?
3. I chose Kali as my object of devotion. In truth, Kali chose me years ago, when I lived in a cancer center for a month while my husband recovered from a rare disease and debilitating treatment. In India, Kali and her devotees are everywhere. I realized I could embrace her openly. How will my life be impacted by inviting in the fierce Mother Goddess? Could this experience bring the kind of death and destruction that Kali is famous for offering to Her devotees?
4. I spend part of each day bringing Her an offering – flowers, songs, stories, candles. She says nothing. My life heats up, in a necessary, honest way. I’m clear about beginning a new novel. I speak my truth, even when difficult, to my kindreds. I stay silent and alone when it hurts. Still, I wonder about my offerings to these spirit teachers: If bhakti is about devotion, does it matter whether there is an object of that love?
5. I decide that my husband is going to become the benefactor of my bhakti practice. I do the little things quietly. I do the grocery shopping. I fold the laundry. I clean the urine spots around the toilet. Usually hated tasks that I let my husband know about, loudly. If I’m doing this as a bhakti practice, isn’t this less about my husband though, and more about wrestling with where I refuse to offer actions with love?
6. Einstein said, “Nothing truly valuable arises from ambition or from a mere sense of duty; it stems rather from love and devotion towards men and towards objective things.” Was Einstein cleaning the toilet?
7. What happens when we make a devotional offering of something we detest? I decide to find out by offering doing the taxes as bhakti. This results in offerings of fine chocolate to my belly. Stat.
8. Eventually I notice that when I devote myself to my husband’s desires, I feel submissive yet happy. Does this make me a bad feminist? Or a good kinkster?
9. If happiness depends at least partly upon our decisions (and scientists say 40% of happiness is based on voluntary choices that result in fulfillment or pleasure; the rest is genetic and based on conditions) then can I create happiness for myself by making choices that make other people happy? Is my devotional practice a great big boomerang of happiness?
10. In week four, I decide to offer all my cooking to a bhakti of my body’s desires. I enlist my friend Kathryn to help me discover what my body finds truly nourishing. I set out to prepare and eat delicious, nutritious food with gusto and pleasure. Is this body bhakti revelatory? Or is it merely self-indulgent?
11. Is it really possible to be anything other than self-centered? Try.
12. I notice how much gratitude my husband has for all these quiet practices. His precious thankfulness makes me want to do something every day, just to experience his pleasure, and the effects of it in my life. Does that make me manipulative?
13. On day fifty-six I read Krishnamurti. “You spend several hours a day in what you call the love, the contemplation of God. Is that devotion? …And the man who worships his work, his leader, his ideology, is also consumed by that which he is occupied…A man is devoted to his wife for various gratifying reasons; and is gratification devotion? To identify oneself with one’s country is very intoxicating; and is identification devotion?” I realize how identified I am with being the spiritual one, a holdover from the good girl archetype who slyly insinuates herself into my wild life as a way to keep me ‘safe.’ I want to release the concept of being the devoted one, to see what happens when my bhakti becomes messy and spontaneous. I wonder if I will continue practicing at all in this freedom, and whether that even matters. I am not interested in being accepted by a Zen master or a lover or my audience. I’m after the liberation that the truth brings.
14. Within Hinduism the powerful bhakti movement began in the middle ages, with the great mystical poets known as the saint-singers. They did not consider Brahmanic rituals necessary for salvation, and thus made self-realization accessible to all. Yet, despite masses of devotional literature, music and art, why hasn’t bhakti liberated India’s lower castes?
15. Anti-caste bhakti movements, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalit Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar remain popular, yet the caste system has shifted very, very slowly. Some say the bhakti movement developed its own hierarchies that kept people submissive. Does great fervor translate to real revolution? Inside either societies or myself?
16. My practice moves from sitting in the room to walking alone in the wilderness. I begin to realize that the lost relationships in my life have been dissolved on my behalf, because they needed to transform, not because anything or anyone was imperfect. Was Krishnamurti right? Is there love when sentimentality and emotion and devotion cease? Is devotion really a form of self-expansion?
17. On day sixty-three, I sit with Kali and simply stare. I argue with my husband about the chores. I am reluctant to declare this path a ‘failure’ and abandon it entirely, however, the process is more of a stripping away than I imagined. India as a whole had this effect on me too. Has this bhakti path been an illusion? Has the illusion been harmful to my husband and community? Am I worshipping an illusion, and in doing so, clinging to my own gratification?
18. Blind devotion doesn’t lead to God. There is no devotion without self-knowing. When I worship another, am I worshipping myself? Am I devoting to an image of my own thoughts?
19. Billions of people are following bhakti yoga: sravana (listening to scriptural stories), kirtana (praising/ecstatic group singing), smarana (remembering/fixing the mind on God), pad a-sevana (rendering service), arcane (worshipping an image), vandana (paying homage), dasya (servitude), sakhya (friendship), and at ma-nivedana (complete surrender of the self). Is devotion actually a description of the search? And, as such, is bhakti leading me farther from simply loving what is? Or have I reached the final stage of bhakti, the surrender of the self?
20. Day ninety. I sense that there isn’t any need for me to make offerings to Kali. Unless I find myself doing so. I see that my husband requires no tending in order for his gratitude to emerge – he is natural in his loving. My practice has resulted in more open-ended questions than answers. I feel I must live into them rather than force awareness. I’m not sure if India would like this way of bhakti, yet this is the teaching that has arrived. The questions pour forth: Is devotion an escape from reality? Has reality any symbol? Can a symbol ever represent the truth? Can we love without a desire to be in devotional pleasure or divine dissatisfaction?

Sonya Lea is writing a novel set in India and New York City. She has written for The Southern Review, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tricycle, and for films and television. Her essays have won an Artist Trust award, and her work can be found at her blog Working Wild.

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