Sunday, June 21, 2009

Blessed Summer Solstice!

Today is the Summer Solstice, the day of the year which has the longest daylight. Imagine how the ancients celebrated having so much light! The Dark Time of the Year was Winter Solstice, the day which was "the birth of the Sun", when the Sun began increasing in the number of hours it appeared to warm the cold places. Nowadays, our Sun heats our places and summer weather seems longer while winter season seems milder than when I was younger. Even living in the mountains.

To me, the solstices represent extremes: the most or least number of hours of daylight. This certainly seems appropriate this year. Often life in general seems to be on the edge... of disaster or breakthrough. While I'm very thankful for all of our blessings and abundance, I am also aware of the fragility of every aspect of our lives.

I have quoted Donna Henes' book Celestially Auspicious Occasions before, and I will do so again, because I think she says it so well:

The seasonal ascent of light and temperature is not -- despite popular belief -- due to our distance from the sun, but to the degree of directness of its rays. It would be logical... to assume that in the summer the earth approaches closest to the sun, and that we are farthest away in the cold dark of winter. Wrong! The earth reaches its perihelion, the point on our orbit that brings us closest to the sum, in winter (usually around Jan 2 or 3); and conversely, during summer (July 5 or so) we attain our aphelion, the farthest reach of our range from the sun.

Though the distance from the sun is greatest in the summer, it is at the Summer Solstice that the sun sits highest in the sky. The steep path of its rays is angled vertically
overhead. Its energy is aimed arrowlike straight down on us.

The Summer Solstice is the height of the glory of the season of the sun. It is at this point that the dark must begin to creep back.... For several days before beginning its descent, the sun stands sentinel at dawn. It seems to stand stark still in the sky, which is what solstice means: "sun stands still". (Just) As we celebrate the birth of the brand-new sun at the Winter Solstice, we
salute its vibrant maturity at the solstice in the summer.

In megalithic times, people began to create structures that would enable them to track the course of the sun, the source of life. These solar observatories were specifically designed to give precise determination of the days of the solstices... that are the times of greatest extreme. It was necessary to calculate the longest summer day, since it serves as a signal light, a warning sign for changes in light and weather to come.

Indigenous Europeans... built many such sun shrines. Stonehenge, the most famous standing stone circle, has its main axis in perfect alignment with the Summer Solstice sunrise. Strikingly similar monuments to the movements of the heavens were built by the ancestors of the tribes of the Great Plains of the northern US and Canada... positioned in exact orientation to the solstice sunrise. There are more than 50 knowing medicine wheels, some dating back 2,500 years.

Summer Solstice is a holyday celebrated with fire and flame. Bonfires are lit in honor of the sun, perhaps the most universal of the celebrations. It is the ultimate act of flattery by imitation.... And at the same time, the light and heat of the fire serve to soothe and affirm that, though departing, the sun will surely return.

In ancient Egypt, the Summer Solstice was celebrated by the Burning of the Lamps in honor of Isis, Queen of Heaven. In Rome, the day was dedicated to Vesta, known as Hestia in Greece... guardians of the public hearth and altar. The Norse goddess Sol, Sul, or Sulis drove the chariot of the sun. Ancient Buddhist texts speak of the sun chariot as the Great Vehicle or the Chariot of Fire. The ancient Greeks pictured the Sun carried across the daytime sky in a golden chariot steered by Apollo (Artemis' twin brother; she was goddess of the Moon and the hunt).

The Hopi Summer Solstice ceremony perfectly describes this seasonal shift in terms of a transferal of our spiritual reliance on divine illumination to the realization of our own personal response-ability.

In the Dakota tribe, the Sun Dance was the most powerful observance of the year. According to Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement and a survivor of the armed occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973 on the site of the Pine Ridge Reservation massacre of 1890, during the Sun Dance "we want to get in touch with the female, so we create purification ceremonies for boys and men to bring us to an understanding of what it is like to give birth.... During those four days and nights we do not eat or drink water so we can try to begin to understand the suffering of pregnancy.... On the fourth day we pierce our chests, maybe even our backs, to understand the pain and the giving of flesh and blood the woman goes through.

(Russell Means is also an actor who has played in many movies, including The Last of the Mohicans as the Mohawk father Chingachgook.)

Summer Solstice is a time of fertility and abundance (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is). The green of the plant world around us is riotous, as are the sounds of insects, birds, chicks, and thunderstorms. The heat and the rain collaborate to encourage astounding growth. The plants grow, luxuriating in the hothouse created by the weather and the insects feed on the plants and the birds feed on the seeds and the insects. It is the circle of life: birth, growth, decline, and rebirth.

I have found for myself and with friends that our lives often feel overwhelming and overabundant at this time of year. I think this is a reflection of the natural cycle going on around us. I also think that right now, there is so much going on in the un-natural world (based upon man-made decisions, changes, cultural habits, etc.) that it creates a chaos that all of us (human, animal, etc.) feel energetically, at a subtle but powerful level. Just watch the news or read the headlines and feel how your body is responding. Conversely, light a candle and sit and breathe quietly and notice how your body feels. Fragmentation vs. focus.

I hope you have had a chance to enjoy the sun and the peak of the light today.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Time for Celebrations... Commencement

Last night, our 18-year-young son Allen participated in the graduation program for GED graduates at Blue Ridge Community College. While Allen didn't really want to participate because he was nervous about being on stage, he did participate (guess who suggested that he did?). After the commencement exercise was completed, he said he was glad he did.

That's what rituals are about: a physical manifestation of a rite of passage, a stage completed (or entered into), a tangible ceremony around an intangible process. Whether it's a wedding, a graduation, a baptism, or a funeral, ritual helps us acknowledge and better grasp what process has been entered into or what covenant has been made.

And commencement is so well named; it IS the beginning of the rest of these young people's lives. There were 46 graduates (out of over 200 for the past year) who walked the stage. While any form of academic graduation is important, I think this ceremony really was special. All the students who enroll in the GED program have been through some tough times in regular school, and their courage and tenacity to take this step is really something I admire. Allen enrolled and successfully earned his GED in 3 weeks! His instructors said that he was one of the fastest students they've had! And he was labeled a poor student in public school. While I was a public school teacher (decades ago) and I support public schools, the way school funders (government and public alike) consider the lack of value of the school system is obvious in the funding they allocate (or willingly pay via taxes) to the schools. And while throwing money at something doesn't always guarantee improvement or success, it will help. And when our schools have more funding, they can reduce the number of students in each classroom, and give the students the individual attention they need. *sigh* Don't get me started!

So we are really proud of Allen for deciding he was going to earn his GED in record time, and then doing it!

The most impressive part of the ceremony last night, however, wasn't the keynote speaker or the College speakers: it was when three of the class' graduates spoke about their experience and desire to enroll and complete the GED course of study and testing. Those stories brought tears to my eyes. All of them said how much they appreciated the encouragement and support they received from their parents and the course instructors. Two of the graduates are mothers (one of a 2 month old and one of a 5 year old) and being parents also spurred them on to accomplish this goal in order to be a better role model for their children. That's what responsible parents do: they try their best for their children.

I watched all the graduates who walked the stage last night, and felt pride for each of them. I'm sure some of them are the first in their family to graduate from high school. There are over 15,000 adults in our county who do not have their high school diploma. Hard to believe nowadays, but it's true.

I love the bumper sticker: "Think education is expensive? Try ignorance!"

Allen wants to go on to community college, and I hope he does. He has a couple of goals he has set for himself to complete before he enrolls in a program. And his parents will be encouraging and supporting him.

Here's a toast to all of us who have achieved a goal!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Jellyfish and The Light of Forgiveness

This phenomenal crop circle appeared recently in England. Spectacular, isn't it?

What makes it even more interesting to me is that I had just seen Seven Pounds with Will Smith a week before receiving notification of the appearance of this crop circle. I'd not seen Seven Pounds before, and I really respect the roles that Will chooses (no, we're not on first-name basis, but he seems like such a regular, family oriented guy... someone you could have a beer with off-screen, you know?), so I wanted to be sure to see it when it came on cable.

What a powerful movie! I knew that Seven Pounds had to do with paying debts, and when I looked up the reference to that, it was old "Willie the Shake" who made it famous: it comes from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", where a wager is set and the debt to be paid if unfulfilled will result in '7 pounds of flesh' being taken. Its literal meaning these days is that no circumstances will prevent the debt from being repaid, whether it results in devastating circumstances, or even loss of life.

Will's character, Ben, has -- by a momentary, careless mistake -- lost what he loves most -- his wife -- as well as causes the death of six others. He has a "seven pounds of flesh" debt to repay, and does this by literally giving of himself to those who are in dire need of it. Ben is intense and urgent and driven by inner demons and flashbacks. One of these flashbacks is as a young boy when his father took him to the aquarium and the two of them watched ghostly and graceful jellyfish which his father told him are the most poisonous animals on earth. Ben gets one as a pet and keeps it in a cylindrical tank in his room. I took it as a reminder of happier times with his dad, before the gravity of adulthood took over. The jellyfish crop circle looks exactly like that jellyfish!

So the story (I won't tell the ending) is about mistakes made and debts paid. Underlying all of this heavy drama is the undercurrent of the need for forgiveness. Ben needs to forgive himself for a foolish yet fatal mistake. The movie haunted me for a few days (and still does, I guess) and I can't help but wonder how often each of us needs to practice that forgiveness... of ourselves and others. How often do those inner demons keep us from seeing clearly the need to forgive? Those dark demons are intent only on making us feel empty, worthless, evil. While the Light shows us that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, loved beyond measure by Spirit, and are constantly trying to do our best in any given moment to become closer to our Divine Self. While those demons torment, the Light nurtures. Why is forgiveness so hard for us? And while we may forgive others, why can't we forgive ourselves?

I am wading through the bitter disappointment of our 16 year old daughter Paige leaving home for the second time in a month. In our last exchange, she told me of wounds I had caused her when she was little. I apologized for my behavior... and now we both are tormented by those memories and wounds. Neither of us has forgiven me, not me nor her. Now her absence echoes like a drop of water in a hollow cave. Paige has had her own self-destructive behaviors over the past few years -- which have grown in magnitude -- which have made it hard to have her at home. So she needs to learn some lessons on her own, but I worry about her immaturity and lack of judgment and foresight in keeping herself safe. I pray for her safety. And for both of us to forgive, ourselves and each other.

I hope you find forgiveness in your day today.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Planting and Nurturing a Garden

I have been getting to know Sherry Rambin, a nurse administrator by day and a photographer by heart, in Asheville. What an adventure! Sherry loves life and photographing it, and her joy is contagious.
The other evening, she and I discussed the various roles of a Gardener, comparing them to the types of people one meets.

There's the Cultivator, the person who prepares the ground for planting. I've met several Cultivators over the past few years, especially in the non-profit area. Savie Underhill is in her upper 80s and now living in Boston near her daughter. During her career days, she lived around the world with her ambassadorial husband, Francis (she also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my "sheroes"!). Francis and Savie would move to a country, and when Francis would head for the embassy to do government work, Savie would head into the streets to see what the people needed. Then she tilled the soil to help make it grow into reality. When they first moved to the Hendersonville area, she -- with another Cultivator, Fran Schneider -- prepared the soil for the Dispute Settlement Center, the non-profit organization I proudly represented for 6 years which offers alternative dispute settlement processes and education to our community. Twenty-five years later, there have been lots of people who have experienced transformative mediation and how to have a respectful conversation with another around a contentious issue, thanks to these two women. (I want to be like them when I grow up!)

Then there is the Sower, the person who intentionally plants each seed in carefully prepared soil so that it will grow into a strong, beautiful, nourishing plant. I have had the privilege of knowing Seed Planters, too. Those people who are passionate about an idea and do what they can to make sure it is planted where it has the most potential for growth.

And there are the Waterers. These are the Nurturers of all things, delicate and strong. They are the ones who nurture newly planted seeds so that they can root deeply and leaf generously in order to successfully grow into strong plants. They also nurture old trees to ensure its continued health and strength.

Sherry first raised this whole series of roles by referring to me as a Fertilizer (no, not full of manure -- although some folks might say so! -- but instead one who fertilizes the plant). I love this analogy, because my heart's work is about building community (in addition to my art, which is my heART's work...). For someone to see me as a catalyst for positive growth and change is very exciting to me!
There are also the Weeders, those who lovingly go through the garden, thinning the seedlings and removing what is detrimental to the good of the whole. I once read that weeds are just plants that are growing where you don't want them to be. And in every community, we need Weeders, people who intentionally work to keep the garden healthy and thriving without unwanted weeds and pests causing damage to it. There are some non-profits in our area which are not receiving the funding that they previously have -- which is sad, indeed -- but they may not be as effective as others in providing the services that are needed now (more than ever). In this respect, funders (individuals and groups) are the Weeders, deciding who to support in their missions during these lean times. (That is all of us, folks!)
And then there are the Reapers, the ones who harvest the fruits of the garden to nurture others. This is true for edible fruits and veggies and herbs as well as non-edible (at least to us) flowers that feed our senses while providing sustenance and nectar to butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and others. I think of our local Council on Aging non-profit and their corps of volunteers who provide transportation for their Meals on Wheels program. Every day, nutritious food is prepared by the COA and volunteers pick up their clients' meals and deliver them to their door. Often, volunteers are the Reapers who offer the wealth of the harvest to clients. Most of our mediations at the DSC were provided by volunteers, who found great satisfaction in providing a safe place for folks to work through a conflict. Where would we be without Red Cross volunteers? Or Humane Society volunteers? Or Literacy tutors? Freely giving a part of yourself is a reward in and of itself.

And of course, none of these roles is exclusive of the others. Often, we find ourselves with a passionate project we want to create, plant, nuture, and harvest. Each of us -- whether it's as a parent, as an artist, in a professional role, or as a friend -- can fulfill each of these tasks. But I do believe that we each have a tendency to lean naturally to one particular role.

Which is your favorite role? Are you nurturing that in yourself?

Don't ask what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive
And then go do that.
Because what the world needs
Is people who have come
-- Harold Thurman Whitman

I hope you have the opportunity to fulfill your most passionate gardening role today!