I arrived back home Sept 19 to a whirlwind of activity: trying to find a new housemate by October 1, unpacking, cleaning, major yard work, seeing some old friends, and generally trying to land. Then I decided to head to Massachusettes from Oct 13 to Oct 28 to see the fall colors. I was in culture shock and not yet to face the changing reality of Silicon Valley. Every time I come back it seems more crowded, densely packed, and stressful, and I feel less inclined to be here each time. I was just about to board the plane in SF when I got a call saying that my stepmom had passed away. Very sad news, and very confusing, as the last year or more of her life she changed markedly, becoming obsessed about my uncle’s well being and very different from the cultured, refined woman I’d known when she was with my father. That loss was compounded a week later by the news that a good college friend Chris Cutler had committed suicide. Chris was hands down one of the best biologists and ornithologists I’ve ever known, and probably that the world had as well. What a loss for humanity, plants, and animals world-wide. He was one of the few people I knew who had been to every continent, mostly as a biologist, and knowing that he was no longer padding around the globe helping endangered creatures caused a serious pang in my heart. I would like to post a letter I wrote to Chris during dia de los muertos. I was sitting at a table with lots of 5-10 year olds with glitter bottles and glue sticks who were writing letters to their beloved dead, and it felt very healing to be amidst their number:
Dear C-squared (thanks Mary for that), Though I haven’t seen you for a few years, you were always on my mind, and I saw you traveling far and wide, helping save sea turtles, doing mysterious things on Papa New Guinea, going to Antarctica, and taking lucky ecotourists to Africa, the Mediterranean, etc. Every year in December, your off season, I’d visit you in Santa Cruz, and we’d walk Lilian’s dog or look at all the biology bibles you’d collected and were studiously pouring over. You’d tell me about your recent exploits and I’d feel reassured knowing that you were out there, knowing that nature and wild animals were better off because of you. Your love of indigenous kids in Nicaragua, your quote in the high school yearbook of Eugene Debs (“there is no way to peace, peace is the way”) – you were as much an anarchist as I, as progressive and iconoclastic. I was shocked and stunned at your sudden death. Like a bird, you took to the wing. I am sad that we couldn’t help you, that you didn’t reach out. Maybe that wasn’t your way. I feel a great loneliness, a hole in my heart, knowing your are gone. Thank you for all that you have done for the earth, for animals, for humanity. I hope you come back and get to do more. Please stay in my heart and remind me of what is beautiful in the world. Stay wild Chris – that is your birthright. I love you.
The night before the memorial for Chris on December 5, I had a dream that Chris and I were in a small dinghy and a huge wave was about to wash over us with certain death. I had a strange sense of calm knowing I would die with Chris. I wrote the following words that I spoke at his memorial:
I ran into you rock scrambling in the Granite Mountains. We were up there in our natural history class, you birds and I mammals. I’d gotten in trouble for this before when Ken Norris got angry at me for wandering off at Honey Lake, the day I found a beautiful chert arrowhead that I left in place because it didn’t seem right to take it. And there you were, like a vision, spry and agile, springing about rocky crevices. A kindred spirit! Never had I seen someone wandering alone in a landscape like I did. I wondered at your character, whether you were like me. And yes, you were. Years later, while working at a respectable job as a tech writer at Apple, you called me and offered me a position on a boat as a biologist. What did I tell you then? That I couldn’t leave a job I hated, felt trapped by and thought I would die in? I think about that naturalist position still, wondering how different my life might be if I’d taken it. You took the road I did not – but still, after Apple, I found myself hiking 1000 miles one summer on the Pacific Crest Trail alone, admiring sunsets, out in nature. That’s all we wanted – to be close to the land, to wild ones, where we all belong. So few have kept their wild nature – I think you are one of only 2 people I know that really lived the way that I think we are all meant to. And now you are gone, somewhere, or perhaps nowhere, and I dream of you, me, together in a tiny boat, a 50 foot wave about to engulf us, and I feel a strange sense of peace, knowing that I am with you. At least for a few more moments.
I decided to spend Thanksgiving with my mom and step dad in Santa Monica (a tradition in Bob’s family), then for 5 days in Palm Springs at a lovely time share. It was beautiful though a bit shallow in Palm Springs (I’m not a big time share fan). Upon returning in early December for Chris Cutler’s memorial, I dove into Christmas and holiday seasonal activities, including music, decorating, and visiting people. I was asked to write and lead a winter solstice ceremony for the Sunnyvale Unitarian Church, which I have included below. It was remarkably powerful and I felt transformed listening to my voice as if I had been a third party witnessing the event.
Winter solstice ritual (only a portion – I left out poems, songs, and stories): There is a moment of silence that occurs every year, a moment we have all experienced at least once in our lives. It can silence a great city like London or New York, and can bring stillness to our hearts, whoever and whatever we may be. That moment is unlike any other. It offers the promise of new beginnings, of clean slate of the new year, and it incorporates the darkening days as well as the promise of light returning. It is a moment such as this that lies at the heart of Midwinter Solstice, and it is in celebration of this that we are here tonight. “Solstice” comes from two Latin words: sol meaning “sun” and sistere meaning “to stand still” because it appeared as though the sun and moon had stopped moving across the sky. This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. Wisdom consists in knowing one’s place in any given cycle, and what kinds of action (or restraint of action) are appropriate for that phase. Attuning our senses to the subtle changes and cycles of the seasons assists us attune to the subtle changes and cycles in ourselves.
The solstice has become indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply imbedded within us that we no longer question why we decorate a fir tree at this time, or place green boughs and candles in our homes. Take a peek through the curtains of time to past traditions that have their roots in the oldest of pagan ceremonies, celebration of the solstice. Many Neolithic peoples in places like New Grange or Dowth in Ireland built passage graves aligned such that once a year, on the winter solstice, the rising sun’s rays flow down the passage of the cave complex. It is thought that one of the purposes of this type of grave site was to enable them to resurrect fallen heroes and others dearly beloved to the people. They would place the bones of these ancestors on a small stone at the back of the passage and believed that the sun’s rays on winter solstice would bring them back from the dead. Many ancient peoples performed sacred rituals and made offerings when the sun dipped below the horizon to ensure its daily return, especially during the darkest days.
In Iran, families often kept fires burning all night to assist the battle between the light and dark forces. In ancient Rome, solstice was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. During the solstice, Roma masters celebrated with their slaves as equals. In 300 AD, the bishop of Myra, later Saint Nicholas, used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Wanting to bring something of joy to poor children in his parish, he would slip into houses at night and in secret and leave gifts in the shoes of the poorest children.
Many folk tales, like the Arthurian legend, speak of the import of this time of year. In King Arthur’s tales, the Green Knight comes to Arthur’s hall as Christmas festivities were getting under way. He offered a strange game – that someone should strike him with his great axe knowing that he will give back such a blow in a year’s time. Only Gawain is brave enough to accept the challenge, and he undergoes many trials before the tale ends. Once his head is severed, the green knight is able to pick it up and await the coming challenger – something Gawain is unable to do. The green knight is the incarnate spirit of winter, able to present the frightening challenge as a prelude to the battle for the spring maiden. Many of the traditions now associated with Christmas are believed to have originated centuries earlier with nature-based communities and indigenous peoples. For example, the idea of Santa Claus may have come from the story of the first shamans who were said to climb high into the upper worlds and return with gifts of wisdom and prophecies. The word “yule” may derive from an Anglo-Saxon term that means “wheel,” and in pagan Scandinavia, village people sat around bonfires of burning yule logs throughout the night while drinking mead and listening to the stories of minstrel-poets. The solstice evergreen, was adapted from medieval and Victorian times. The holly and the ivy derived from the pre christian time when the lord and lady of the greenwood were honored by the hanging of green garlands from ridge poles in houses.
The Celts associated the winter season with the Great Bear. They called winter solstice Alban Arthuan, which means the light of Arthur – the Celtic name for bear is Art. In their tradition, the Bear resided in the North, the realm of conception & incarnation, of inspiration. For when the power of the Sun is at its lowest point, life quiets down enough so that we may enter the deepest recesses of ourselves and bring forth our inner light to be manifest in the world. As the Sun is at its weakest point, the Feminine is at its greatest strength. Now, we focus on the deep, dark, fertile ground within where our intuition & creative forces abide. We must know our shadow in order to know our light. -The Light of Arthur, Alban Arthuan, guides us through the darkness of Winter and the darkness of ourselves to our rebirth in the Spring.
The winter solstice is a reminder of the darkness within us all. Let us take this time to honor and connect with the darkness within, and with the light. Take a moment now and let your gaze turn gently inward, scanning your body from head to toe and noticing any sensations or feelings there. Become aware of the space around you – the sky above, the earth below, the land encircling you. As your eyes adjust, you find yourself in a dark forest under a night sky. There is no moon, and the dim starlight twinkles through the trees. Evergreen trees flank your sides, their boughs heavy with snow. Take a deep breath and smell the fresh scent of pine and snow. Listen: a deep hush lays across the land. All is still, as if waiting, breathless. Take a minute to feel this hush in yourself. (pause) Now notice that there is a small path between the branches, going toward a dim light. You begin to walk down the path, crunching on snow, peat and dank earth. As you walk, notice the tree guardians on either side of you – their color, form, shape. Their boughs are the harbingers of the returning light – they store the life energy in them and even now are preparing for the return of the sun. Feel their soft needles on your skin, smell their fragrance, listen to their stories. What do they say? As you continue on the path, you notice a small clearing in the distance. As you near, you see a tiny fire in the center of the clearing. Become aware of an object you are carrying in your hands. It is a symbolic gift to the universe, something that you can and wish to give to the world or an individual. Commune with its message, study it carefully. (pause) When you are ready, walk up to the small fire and offer your gift to the flames, knowing that it will be received by the universe through the transforming nature of fire. As you gaze upon the flames, you become aware of a cauldron, large and black, behind the flame. There appears to be something bubbling up in the cauldron, and as you gaze upon it, an object floats to the top. Take it out and study it. This is the gift that the universe gives to you. What does it represent? What is its purpose? Is it a response to request made in times past? Does it have a connection to the gift that you offered? Sit in silent meditation with this new gift, allowing its portent to soak into your soul. (pause) Breath in this gift, breath in the silence of this sacred grove, breath in this hearth fire at the center of the clearing – breath it in to your heart and soul. (pause) Begin to transition back to this place and this time. Notice your feet on the floor, your body weight on the chair, your arms in your lap. Feel your lungs moving with the breath. In your own time, begin to bring your attention to back to the room. ___________________________________________________________
This January I attended Nancy Mellon’s wonderful storytelling workshop connected with Kindergarten Forum, which I have attended at the Peck’s home over the years. She asked us to write a fairy tale showing children getting lost in technology and finding their way out. I wrote the following tale which I named Irina and the Enchanted Caravan.
Once upon a time there lived a brother and sister who lived in a fertile valley in the mountains near a big lake. They loved the great mountains and lake and their small village very much. Every day they would go to the lake to play and wonder at its bottomless depths; sometimes they swam in its pristine waters. One day as they were walking towards the lake they spied a large caravan of wagons winding down the path. As they peered through the bushes they saw a mysterious stranger cloaked in purple velvet who was leading the caravan of wagons. They decided to follow him. and crept along noiselessly as he made his way into the center of their village. No sooner did he reach the village square when he began calling to the villagers to come to marvel at his amazing treasures. The children were curious and followed the villagers as the line formed. As they entered the wagons, they were caught by amazing sites: mirrors, baubles strange toys, and machines that flashed with lightning. The sides of the wagons were lined with images and cages full of calling? exotic birds. Anything one could imagine were displayed in those wagons; there was no end of things to explore. Much time passed, yet it seemed like only a moment. Finally the girl called to her brother and told him she was going home. “Come Brother, it must be late and Mother and Papa will be worried”. When her brother did not answer she called out again, and finally she heard a small voice that sounded far away. “Only two more games. I will be home soon, I promise.” As she left, she noticed that it was very dark outside; many hours had passed since they had first spied the strangely cloaked man early that morning.
She ran home to her home on the outside of the village. Breathlessly she told her parents about her brother who would not leave the caravan. They told her to go back and get him out. When she returned to the wagons in the square she couldn’t see anyone. It was as if everyone had disappeared into the fabric of the wagon; only shadows and dim lights represented their previous forms. Again she ran back to her parents to tell them of this misfortune, and they shook their heads sadly and began to guess that an enchantment had surely befallen her brother and all the other villagers. Her papa said, “My dear, you must go immediately to the old man in the mountain. You will find him sitting under a magnificent tree. You will know the tree when you see it. This old man [will] can help you [us].” So she quickly gathered a warm coat and a bedroll and some food and water and set off into the dark night. As she ran, trees swaying and stars twinkling around her, she thought about the silly things her brother loved to do. Her mind shone with memories until at she arrived at a great tree that had been hit by lightning. In the darkness she saw that the tree had recovered by winding itself into powerful formations. A wizened man sat at its base in the great roots. He did not speak or move. She stood for a few minutes wondering whether the man was now part of the tree. Finally, she began to cry to him about the plight of her brother and the village. “ Sir, please help us. My brother is trapped in a caravan. I’m afraid he may never come out.”
Slowly the old man opened his eyes and then he spoke so quietly that she barely heard him. “I saw the magician as he made his way down this very road with his enchanted caravan. Child, you have a special gift. You resisted the enchantment with your clear eyes and heart. Now take these three seeds, and place them at the entrance to the caravan. Be kind to those you meet on the way, and remember that you have a special gift which you have not fully discovered.”
The girl thanked the old man and made her way back along the path, running, tears blinding her eyes, for she was so afraid for her brother. On and on she ran, receiving mysterious energy. Finally she reached the village square and the enchanted caravan. Placing the seeds very carefully at the entrance of the first wagon, she stepped back to see what might happen. Instantly from the first seed sprang a bear that leapt into the caravan. Less than a minute passed before he came back with her brother in its great paws. From the second seed sprang a wolf, who ran into the caravan and came back with the villagers on its back. And from the third seed sprang a panther, which took the magician in her great jaws and carried him away, as she would carry her young on the path over the mountain, drawing the caravan behind. The boy hugged his sister and shouted, “Thank you for saving me! Without you I would still be lost in the stranger’s caravan and I might never again see you, or our parents, or the lake, or our village. Let’s go home to Mama and Papa!” And with that, they ran home to tell their parents what had happened. It was mostly her story but he also was excited to share all of the things that he had seen while trapped inside the enchanted caravan. In the coming years, the girl found that indeed she did have special gifts. Her brother grew and learned much from his experience. Together they helped the village and the bountiful nature that surrounded them to thrive. Whenever the caravan was passing nearby again together they knew what to do.