Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advent...The Time of Waiting

                                                    [Sarum Blue Vestments in a church sanctuary for Advent]

The four Sundays before the Feast of the Nativity -beginning either the last one in November or the first one in December- are set aside in the Western Christian world as the Season of Advent. It's a time of introspection and renewal at the start of the Church Year ( the time when Bibical readings of the Lectionary recycle.) Most popularly it was a time to prepare candidates for the Rite of Holy Baptism in the Christian Churches, but for those members already having received the Rite, it was a time to study religious texts and read inspirational stories. In more popular usage of the day. it has become family time, when everyone gathers to read a prayer as a candle on the Advent wreath is lighted, listen to or sing Christmas carols, bake and make crafts for the holidays. The traditions vary according to faith tradition and within individual parishes and families.

The Pagan traditions of bringing greens indoors to decorate were modified by the Christian Church; the austere Sun Wheel becoming the Advent Wreath.(It's necessary to note that mistletoe- the Sacred Golden Branch of the Druids- was never to be taken into a Christian Church. My how times have changed!)  The mythology changed little-both honor the birth of a Divine Child. The symbolism changed even less- greens formed into a circle or attached to a wagon wheel, then divided into four quarters, and candle anchoring each quarter. In many Anglican Churches today you will still find the wagon wheel type of Advent Wreath suspended from the ceiling and lowered each week with much ceremony as another candle is lit to mark the time. Newer churches use brass candelabra especially designed for the purpose and only used for this time of year; some have a small wreath of greens attached, some are purposely made with a brass circle to hold the candles and ribbons tied on, or flowers attached. The decorations are only limited to the imagination of the local Altar Guild members. Some folks-like me-have a home version of the Advent Wreath, although I no longer keep strict Christian tradition. My own wreath is a small circle of greens layed in a circle on a silver- plated tray, four candles at the quarters and the circumference filled with pine cones or nuts, artificial poinsettias, or ribbons. I have used red, green, purple or white candles depending on my mood and finances, and I never have the same wreath twice. I pray for the renewal of my spirit as I await the birth of the Divine Child at Yule and Christmas. The wreath symbolizes the sun, the four elements and directions coming together at the center, and the return of the Sun and the Son. The many meanings keep it mystical for me.

The first Advent Wreaths most likely were made of cut branches and adorned with tallow candles; later their meaning changed slightly with the royal blue of the Sarum Rite used in  English Churches prior to the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Like most of the liturgies attached to psycho-pomp, the Sarum Rite was extensive and complicated-and in Latin.Later practice found the liturgy simplified and said in English, the royal blue of the Sarum Rite changed to royal purple, not only to symbolize the expectation of an event associated with the Divine, but to tie in with the liturgical colors and similar waiting period of Lent ( The colors of Lent differing from a deep violet- more red to distinguish the imminent death and resurrection of Christ than the royal purple of Advent- that still retained some blueness.) During the Victorian era it became fashionable in churches to return to the Sarum liturgical colors, but not the Rite itself, which was long lost to history. As the Church is populated by fickle humans, the colors of Advent changed once again back to the royal purple with a singular note-one purple candle was replaced on the third Sunday with a rose pink one to honor the Holy Mother for her contribution to the event. Some modern day Advent Wreaths add a white or gold candle placed in the middle of the wreath on the 25th of December to denote the Holy Child has been born.( I use gold in my wreath because it's the color associated with the God.) What ever prayers you wish to say is acceptable, as there is no longer a hard and fast liturgy for the season; you may pray everyday during the season(lighting the candles every night) until the Nativity or just on the Sundays as you light each new candle (The first week light one candle, the second week, light the candle from the first week, then a second purple, the third light two purple and the pink on, then all four candles on the fourth week.The candles will begin to stagger in height. On the eve of the Feast of the Nativity, light the four candles and the center candle. Let the four Advent candles burn down together then, for Advent is ended...the waiting is over.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus" by C.S.Lewis

“Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” by C.S. Lewis
And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.
In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.
But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.
They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.
But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.
But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.
Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)
But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).
But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Last Days of Autumn

Once again we've survived the chaos that has become Thanksgiving: the relatives have gone home, the dishes are done, the all-day football games are over and the turkey carcass is summering on the stove....It's quiet. Blessedly quiet, and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief that the world has stopped and let us get off, if only for a moment.

The whirlwind of last minute grocery shopping and preparation for the blow-out feast is now a memory. If your home is anything like mine used to be in the days when I was the ring master in the Great Thanksgiving  Circus, it's somewhat of a shamble. The dishes weren't quite all put away and there was a large group of cartons containing leftovers lurking in the refrigerator like a street gang just waiting until the door was opened.
The kitchen still smelled faintly of turkey grease, and you'd just stepped on a piece of chewed gristle the cat had earlier- in your bare feet. And you were tired,but filled with a little self-satisfaction that it you'd fooled everyone and managed to pull it off once again.Go you! Time to let Calgon take you away...

Ever since I figured out that Black Friday was created to kick off the Christmas shopping season and I wasn't obligated to contribute to the confusion, I've pretty much eschewed going anywhere near a mall and opted instead for a walk around the neighbor hood or a drive that took me just far enough away from everything that I had distance between me and the scene of the previous day's activity. One year it was a trip down Route 9 through the wetlands to watch the blue herons, stop at the local farmer's market, then lunch lone at the Smyrna Diner; another year it was a drive to the Veteran's Cemetery to sit by the reflecting pond and feed the ducks and geese. There were a couple of years where I worked retail and was at retail ground zero- it was fun and exciting, but I was exhausted and slept through most of the next day, which was basically lost time. Last year I read a book and listened to some Christmas CDs.

The days between Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent have always been days out of time for me. I want to hang onto the Autumn like the last leaf, but I always find there's a point where I, too, finally let go and spiral down, adding my withered spirit to the pile of spent things of the old year represented by  so many fallen leaves. I think I must join the spiritual compost then, because I nearly always feel a bit off and out of sorts, dazed and slightly confused and wondering where the time went.Ruminating  a few days while I put away the last of the Autumn decorations and bring out the boxes of Christmas/Yule/Winter things, I feel better and by the time I light the first Advent candle, my soul begins to shake off the mulch of deadness.

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Holiday Memories:The Best Turkey Stuffing Ever

A flock of turkeys...Benjamin Franklin called them majestic and lobbied hard to have the wild turkey recognized as our national symbol rather than the bald eagle. All due respect to the distinguished former Ambassador to France and Statesman, signer of the Declaration of Independence, et al, I'm glad his suggestion died a-borning. Can you imagine the eternal humiliation of enduring various versions of turkey jokes that little fax pas would have heaped upon us as a nation? One has to wonder if the copious amounts of alcohol Franklin ingested during his tenure as the  Numero Uno American Party Guy in France and his raucously crude sense of humor were factors in this genius idea. The thought of a turkey in bas relief on every coin struck in American mints would be enough to send me screaming over the border into Canada...Can you imagine the 'Silver Turkey' instead of the 'Silver Eagle' dollar? Doesn't have the same elegant sound to it, does it?

Have you ever seen a turkey in the wild? I didn't see one until I was well past my 50th birthday on a trip up Mount Mitchell,  in the early days of my new North Carolina residency, but I knew what it was immediately.

About two feet tall, scrawny  and dull brown, it little resembled the image of the Tom Turkey with full tail and colorful plumage picture on the front of Hallmark cards. I suppose the fact it had been raining all day and it's feathers were soaked until they drooped didn't help...neither did the huge scaly  feet and claws. On the Ugly Bird Scale of 1 to 10( ten being a vulture) it was a 9.5 .It appeared from the brush beside the road and did the most amazing thing...the damn thing flew off. I been told all my life that turkeys couldn't fly, and this one took off running, flapped it wings a couple of times, and got enough altitude to escape over a fence.

Turkeys have nothing to recommend for themselves in the beauty department ( except to another turkey), but they can't be beat for taste and versatility. Roasted turkey with the trimmings is just about the best meal there is, hands down, and that's probably why we save having one only two or three times a year.That. or the amount of leftovers...we should be grateful our ancestors didn't have bison at the first thanksgiving or we'd be eating the leftovers from Thanksgiving until Spring...

My favorite part of the whole thing is a piece of brown, crispy skin and a heaping helping of stuffing from inside the bird. Some of the newer culinary advice I've read is to not stuff the bird because it cooks unevenly, or that the bacteria from inside the bird collects in the stuffing-I've never had either of that happen, and personally, I'm filing that information away the same place I put the folder on the herd effect of not getting a flu shot and tattoo ink can be sucked out of your skin by an MRI. My grandfather used to make and stuff the holiday turkey (and throughout the year chickens and rolled beef roasts) decades before I was born, and I've never experienced a bird with raw spots in it or heard of someone getting food poisoning because they stuffed their bird, and I would imagine if it happens at all they are isolated incidents...at any rate, I'm still stuffing my turkey for Thanksgiving.

Pop was a chief trained in the Army at the Cooks and Bakers School at Fort Dix. He was a fabulous cook and the only criticism was that because he was trained in the Army to cook, he always cooked like he was feeding one. When I was 12 years old he taught me how to make pumpkin pie, and we ended up with 11 of them because he couldn't reduce the recipe he had in his head down any father than to quarter it. He taught me to make the filling by sight and consistency, and the resulting pies I've produced over the years have been nothing short of miraculous if I do say so myself and I've never had a pie fail unless I've burned it.

The best part of Thanksgiving in the food department for me was the stuffing, and Pop had one of the best recipes I've ever tired...a loaf of stale white bread,moistened with a bit of milk and a couple of raw eggs, sage, salt, fresh ground pepper,and rosemary; chopped parsley, celery, onion, grated carrot and garlic sauted in butter and everything mixed together. He would vary it by adding sauted mushrooms,sauted spinach or smoked oysters, or chestnuts- and sometimes put all three types in the bird separated by an aluminum foil barrier between them. The secret ingredient in all the varieties was chopped fried bacon and a bit of bacon grease. He would stuff the bird,tie it shut and add more stuffing under the neck skin and fold it under, then loosen the breast skin and coat the meat underneath with solid butter he'd kneaded  in his hand until soft. More butter was spread over the bird ( again, using his clean hand), and then thick strips of 'seasoning bacon were laid across the breast and legs and wrapped around the ends of the drumsticks to keep them from drying out. It basted the bird nicely into a desirable golden brown, and the crispy bacon would crumble and end up in the bottom of the pan as part of the drippings used for gravy. The bird was set in a roaster and basted with the juices that dripped down throughout the roasting time and the result was a glorious gift of love. ( I will add that after removing it to a cutting board, he would flip the bird over to rest on it's breast and cover it with a large steel bowl or foil for 10-15 minutes so the internal juices would follow the gravitational flow to the breast meat, which was always moist, then flip it back over and unload the stuffing into a bowl. He never cooled the stuffing in bird, and that's probably why we experienced  the fabled bacteria problem.( **Leaving stuffing to cool in the bird, or worse-storing it in the bird- is just asking for trouble.**) Stuffing in my house exists under the two-day rule, but frankly it never has lasted until Saturday! Next day stuffing  was pan fried as a crispy patty, sort of like a potato pancake and smothered in gravy open-faced sandwich style.

I have made dressing ( inside the bird it's stuffing, on the side it's dressing) and it isn't the same.It becomes something less, a side dish. Even the addition of turkey or chicken stock has left it wanting; I believe it's the slow cooking inside the bird that makes the difference, or maybe it's the continuation of family tradition.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This is my favorite Thanksgiving-themed illustration by Norman Rockwell, Cousin Reginald Catches the Thanksgiving Turkey ( circa 1920). Not the lavishly detailed one showing Grandma proudly serving a succulent roasted turkey to an adoring family, or the one where the bird is being carved and the kids are having an orgasm over the thought of their own crispy drumstick, or even the one where heads are bowed in prayer over the modest dinner set on the table in a tiny roadside restaurant. No, dandy Cousin Reginald, clothed in his city slicker Sunday Best being chased across the farmyard by a turkey nearly his own size while his country cousins and their dog cheer for the bird (and you know they are!) is my favorite holiday Rockwell for this time of year. Why? Because it's believable. Because it reminds me that my cousins were once just like this...because I was that citified kid once-upon-a-time, and I can relate. Because there's more irony and truth in the painting where the kid is being chased by his intended meal than the one where the freckle-faced kid with the big ears and his whole goofy family are gawking at the perfect Thanksgiving dinner could ever convey for me. Because in real life things don't always go as you planned, sometimes you get laughed at, and you're forced to make a hasty retreat  empty-handed for all your effort, no matter how much bravado you manage to muster...and it continues to be that way for all time.

My grandparents spent the first part of my childhood trying to replicate a Norman Rockwell existence. They grew up in a world illustrated and interpreted by him . His idealism made them forget how dirt poor their neighbors and they really were: family life-the American Way-was raised up in all it's blue-collar glory on the cover of Life magazine during the war and post-war years.Never mind that you turned in the collars and cuffs of your favorite clothing so they'd wear longer and were darning your socks. They looked to those magazine covers to see who they were instead of the mirror because their real, everyday existence was too drab and painful to have stare back at them. They strived  to become the personification of Life magazine according to the Gospel of Rockwell. It gave them hope for the future, but meanwhile, life didn't look too bad. They believed it was how things were supposed to look and be, and they knocked themselves out recreating the family gatherings  portrayed.  Forget that we had to eat spaghetti every Wednesday night  because it was the only way we could possibly afford a holiday dinner later. The few 'found' dollars we had from eating  prudently was put into Pop's Christmas Club savings account from work, and they financed the Rockwell-style gatherings we had for the aunts, uncles and cousins at Thanksgiving and Christmastime.

I'm not knocking Norman Rockwell at all- he was an excellent artist. He understood what was in the heart of the Common Man and celebrated those little moments that made life bearable because we could gaze upon his paintings and know what we shared in the struggle. He celebrated diversity and praised patriotism. He was ahead of his time by portraying women in all walks of life-as factory and farm workers, professional teachers and nurses -even in war zones- not just as mothers, girlfriends and grandmothers ( but he did that, too). His illustrations and paintings showed real people-faces lined from worry, wrinkled from harsh farm work and age, hair of all colors, styles and conditions, and well-worn clothing old and new. He knew us, and maybe that's why my grandparents trusted his ideal. I none of the magazine  I've looked at recently reflect my life or who I am, and it almost feels like an intrusion to view them rather than an invitation to flip through their pages. The models are all pretentiously posed and seemingly bored with their existence.They are Photo Shopped into perfection.

Maybe the real reason why I love Cousin Reginald Catches the Thanksgiving Turkey  is because it reminds me that you shouldn't take things for granted, and that when you paint the picture that is your life, you should do it with as much detail as possible, and that the colors you use can be subtle to get your point across. Life was once simpler, and we can still have that picture if we consider what needs to be included in the composition and leave all the distractions out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thanks-Giving is Thanks-Living


Turkey roasted with stuffing and gravy. Pilgrims looking properly stiff in tall hats and cloaks. Indians in native regalia.Football. Christmas Parades. Black Friday.....wait a minute...isn't this supposed to be a holiday for giving thanks to (insert deity of your choice) for an abundant harvest? When did this become the flood gate to Christmas shopping?

The official Thanksgiving holiday floated around the calendar in the United States until FDR finally fixed it on the fourth Thursday of November in 1941 and Norman Rockwell immortalized it in so many paintings.( My favorite being a large turkey chasing a kid carrying an ax who had intended to make it into dinner.) Then JFK was assassinated in 1963, and that sort of put a damper on things for awhile.

What about those very proper, starched Pilgrims and very heathen-looking Indians sitting down to the Feast to End All Feasts, the women folk serving up roast turkey and ears of corn? They were immortalized by Hallmark, damnit, and the good folks at Hallmark wouldn't lie...would they?

During my childhood innocence I remember singing," Come Ye Thankful People Come" and feeling very close to what I thought it was like to be a Pilgrim. It was the weaving of wonder by an elementary school music teacher ( whose name I have forgotten, but who's love of holidays I have not.) Thanksgiving was the day your Mom sweated bullets because she was cooking the biggest dinner of the year for relatives no one really wanted to eat dinner with. It was the day the men of the family gathered around the television after a huge meal, half of them grunting like Neanderthals when their team scored, the other half snoring through the game in a Tryptophan-induced coma.It was the time of year when school children were dressed in tall hats made from oatmeal boxes and construction paper feathers to reenact the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth for the PTA. It was when the stores began gearing up for Christmas shopping in earnest. It was the only time of the year when the choir sang, " Over The River And Through The Woods" because, well, didn't everyone's Grandmother live in a little cottage on the far side of the village? But the best part of it all was that  Sweetzels ginger snaps in orange and black boxes were on sale everywhere post Hallowe'en...

Then there was the Annual Thanksgiving Service, which used to be celebrated in every little church across America. Later, it morphed into the Thanksgiving Ecumenical Service (during the early 80's) to include representatives from every  faith tradition in the community...if you worked really hard at contacting your fellow clergy, a brave rabbi might show up-as if Jews didn't celebrate Thanksgiving-to sit among the Christian ministers. If you worked really, really hard at it and you were well-liked in the community, both a rabbi and a Catholic priest would attend. Everyone lined up, organized by the minister in the host church, to read a bit of scripture from the Bible or mumble an obligatory prayer of thanksgiving for the country. As a new deacon, I recall these events being challenging and uncomfortable because the prayers had to be generic and not reflect the dogma of your personal denomination lest you offend visitors. I wonder now how they would react if a Wiccan or Pagan priest or priestess were invited to participate...or if a Native American came by to give thanks to the spirit of the turkey for sacrificing it's life to feed all of us hungry congregants.

After a while there weren't any church services Thanksgiving morning ( 'folks are too busy cooking dinner') and for while the service was held the night before, then eventually that stopped, too( 'folks are out of town, not enough people would show up for a service'). Pretty soon the majority of society forgot that Thanksgiving was primarily designed as a civil religious holiday on which to give thanks for what you received during the previous year, and to humbly ask for even more during the coming year (pretty cheeky idea, actually).

As I got older, the singing stopped, the annual big blow-out dinner became totally my responsibility, nobody watched football ( or whatever Disney had on), and I got to clean up said big blow-out dinner alone, because my mother and step-sister were in such a hurry to get home after they ate that they couldn't wait for me to clear the table and store the food, much less slop turkey-grease coated dishes through several hand-washings because we kept running out of hot water before the mountain of used eating utensils, pots, pans and plates could be washed squeaky clean. I will say one good thing for turkey grease: it's a great emollient.. After two hours of picking at a 20 lb. turkey carcass, my hands had never been softer any other time of the year. The bones were immediately put into a pot of water with sliced onion, garlic, vegetables and seasoning to start the biggest and best pot of soup all year. Turkey soup is truly a gift directly from the Gods.

My favorite part of Thanksgiving was after everyone went home, the football games were over, and Mom went to bed. Then I could drag out the platter of turkey meat, stuffing and gravy out of the refrigerator and have my own private feast, in it quiet. It was the only time I felt thankful during the whole holiday, and I suspect it had more to do with oral satiation than anything else. I just wanted to relax and enjoy some food in the peace and comfort of the dwindling evening. Sometimes I'd light a candle and eat my mini-after feast in silence, or accompanied by a little humming of " Come Ye Thankful People Come" (which I now sing at Lughnassah, because I feel it's more appropriate...or Christmas carols on the stereo ( phonograph, you know, that thing that played records-flat black plastic disks the proceeded CD players that use flat silver plastic disks...).

The next day would be HUGE...Black Friday. It even sounded exciting...Black Friday.There were mobs of people everywhere. For a long time I actually thought it was another holiday until I realized the whole idea of an early Christmas parade was to get people into town to shop. Truly, in my unsuspecting innocence, I believed it was the thing we all did the day after Thanksgiving, in fact, it was the American thing to do, since the National Guard and every Scout troop from far and wide showed up to parade down Market Street. 
It was a celebration! I didn't have an inkling that it had anything at all to do with crass commercialism, child of the Age of Innocence I was then. Besides, Santa Claus checked in to collect his mail at the end of the big she-bang, and if the intention of the day was anything less than pure, he wouldn't have bothered, right? Later, working in retail, I recall the thrill and hum of Macy's on Black Friday (and the thrill of time and a half) when the store was so jammed with holiday ha ha I couldn't even get off the register to eat lunch (or dinner). It was a glorious time to make memories.

Memories...That's what I believe to be the true meaning of Thanksgiving. We are to remember to give thanks...Giving thanks... what we should already be doing all year long...being truly thankful for what we are given throughout the year. The practice of gratitude transcends thanksgiving into thanksliving...acknowledgment of the little things we receive every day.A smile from a stranger passing on the street, someone holding the door for another...daily kindness we all can share, and truly counting our blessings great and small. Thanksliving. It doesn't cost anything, doesn't take up much time, and everyone can do it-if they choose. Gratefully living in the moment, and gathering abundance like so many fallen  Autumn leaves...how beautiful life is to live in gratitude.

Despacho Medicine Bundle

Want to learn how to make a Despacho? It's a type of medicine bundle used in the Andes Mountains and contains items that signify a specific intention wrapped in a paper bundle...very cool.

What it takes:

A sheet of fancy paper large enough to wrap up the other items. Handmade paper is a nice touch and adds a bit more power if you make it yourself. It has to be large enough to fold into thirds and refolded until you have 9 squares-the items will go in the middle square. If you just fold it letter style into thirds, you will place the items in the middle flat, refold it like a letter, then fold in the sides from the left and right.

Bay leaves ( the original uses cocoa leaves which are illegal most places) At least three of uniform size and shape. Up to twelve groups of three, the number of mountain spirits in the Andes.
The design will be a madela of sorts.

Prayers, wishes, etc, written on small slips of thin paper. It can be a single word or a photograph of the item. I'd photocopy any personal photo because the bundle is going to be 'released' (destroyed) later.

Trinkets like small seashells, beads, seeds, feathers, etc. that are meaningful and apply to the intention.

Herbs, flower petals, powdered incense, a splash of essential oil or perfume of your choosing.

** The Ritual
Light a candle ans smudge the area where you will be working; focus on your intention or prayer offering to set the power in the items. Lay the items out in a pleasing manner,arranging them in anyway you desire. Fold up the paper around the items, making a neat package and seal it by tying with string, making a paper band, or using a wax seal. Decorate it as you wish, maybe using a sprig of rosemary or sage, a feather, or a few pieces of pretty string. Hold the package and imbue it with a final bit of energy. You must now decide how to 'release' it- by burning, burying it in the earth, leaving it for the elements, placing it in water, etc. It doesn't matter what method you use, as long as you also release any expectation about how the prayer will be answered. The Universe, Spirit, God/dess, etc. will answer in the most appropriate manner in the correct time period for the request.

The Despacho can contain as little or as much as you wish, and be of any size. They can be small and thin enough to send to a friend in a card, or carried in your pocket, or as large a greeting card...it's up to you.

In the Andes, Despacho practitioners receive special training in this ritual and are set apart for the task.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Recognition of Gratitude

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow."
-Melody Beattie

Developing gratitude toward the people, things and events in your life is a life-affirming and effective way to strengthen yourself emotionally. Maintaining a gratitude journal makes it easy to get in the habit of focusing on the positives in your life rather than the negatives. A gratitude journal is a useful tool for stress reduction, because the positives in your life are right there in front of you- in writing. They are tangible.

Start by listing three things you are thankful for. They can be as simple as, “I’m thankful I woke up this morning.” or “My first cup of coffee was perfect this morning.” Remember, little things do count. Start with the basics: my health, my job, my family, my home, my pets. As you continue and get into the habit of picking three things, you will notice they will deepen in meaning. They will shift perspective for you. You will be delighted in how hopeful you are feeling. As you focus on the good things you have, you will create a space where good things will be drawn to you-this is the Law of Abundance.It’s an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more you will be given.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you write in your journal because things that happen that you are grateful for after the days’ entry is made can be made the next day (you’ll still be grateful, won’t you?) If you prefer, you can make a note at the bottom of your entry as an addendum. Try to branch out with what you’re gratitude covers, especially if you find yourself writing the same three tings over and over; you may wish to expand the list to five. Challenge yourself to noticing new or subtle things,” The hand lotion I just bought reminds me of roses, and I love roses!” When you've mastered the gratitude part of the journal, you can add other things which will broaden your spiritual practice, like the names of people to pray for, or wishes, or whatever you like. The idea is to make yourself happy, to be found in a moment of contentment.

Reading back over entries occasionally is a great way to put things into perspective and at the same time it’s a great pick me up. Checking back on the positives in your life will also help to control depression. It will make you more optimistic. It’s comforting to know that there has been something to be grateful for in those times when you’ve been down, and seeing that in writing will immediately lift your spirits.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It Takes A Village To Make A Change

As the member of a congregation of a well known ‘liberal religious tradition’ which espouses principles including “The inherent right and dignity of all persons”, I am frustrated by our version of ‘social justice’ in which we claim “...The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” So often we are enmeshed in political discussion and debate in my Fellowship that I want to shout, “Hey, is anybody actually out in the world DOING anything?”

It seems we love to talk. We take part in demonstrations and visit our elected leaders with petitions, but few are taking tangible action. We gnash our teeth and wail about the poor, but our response to hunger in the community is collecting food ( picked up by others) for the local food bank, and a small team of individuals who serve a single meal at the women’s shelter once every 4-6 weeks. Meanwhile, other churches are actively on the street every day distributing sandwiches to homeless in the Downtown area, or volunteering in day shelters, clinics or sorting clothing for the poor. Meanwhile we are discussing the moral implications of homelessness in a study group.

We are very active in social justice when it comes to attending rallies having to do detainees in Guantanamo or illegal immigrants, or the death penalty-all valid, and I my opinion, all sanitarily at a safe distance from actually going into the trenches and getting our hands dirty. We don’t mind getting our check books out. Undeniably, money does help, but it can’t buy the amount and quality of manpower needed to minister locally to those in our community. We seem to favor the popular cause of the day, instead of working to irradiate those closest to home. Again, safe and sanitary.

I am even more frustrated with the Pagan community, who at times fanatically pride themselves in pointing out the many faults and failures of organized religion. While we are bellowing about the perceived evils of mainstream religious organizations  (and Christianity in particular), we forget to look in the mirror at ourselves. I’m certain that as individuals we far outpace other religious groups, but as a community we are certainly lacking. The only time during the year Pagans are a social presence is during the local Pagan Pride Day or festival. If we can gather to work as a community then, why can’t we be a presence at other times? The general public will never know what we do to make a difference in our world if we hid our light under the proverbial bush.

Hillary Clinton is famously quoted as saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.” In that spirit, I say, “It takes a village to make a change.” While it is morally admirable that we are able to make a difference one person at a time, doing it that way is pretty slow going-especially when there are so many issues we are facing that need immediate attention. The problems linger because there is a dire lack of committed individuals bound together working on a cause in unison. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

By Any Other Name

I have always felt a very deep connection to the unseen forces of the Natural World. I think that everything in life is magical, because life is a miracle and much of it is unexplainable- and I think that's right, because that's where faith comes into the mixture, that's where God (whatever you call the Source of Life)comes into it. I think it becomes 'science' when we have an explanation for the unknown and unseen; science is a process of unending discovery. Faith is knowing that there is something there even if it's intangible. Faith is not the same as belief: Belief is what you think you know. Faith adds hope to that knowing.

Before mankind created organized religions, there was Nature. The God/ess of Our Understanding was and still is everywhere. The magic and wonder of Nature was framed for us differently by our primitive cultures, and some of us have never lost that connection even in an Age of Science and Belief.The beginnings of our spirituality and the ritual of the Church was first a part of the ritual and spiritual understanding of Nature. The Church created ecclesiastical ritual through a means of Ceremonial Magic.The Eucharist is a undeniably a magical ceremony when the transmutation of the Body and Blood takes place-otherwise for some it is just a ceremony, a remembrance. Either way is correct. It correlates to the time when our ancestors raised a glass of wine and a bit of grain to the God (s) of their understanding to give acknowledgment and thanks.It's all good in it's purest forms. You do what you believe is right in the form you believe is correct, and so will I, that's where we meet God.

Our modern day medical system came out of our learning to use plants and animals in a special, magical way. No one today would call that 'witch craft', but it was exactly that; it's hedge witchery and herbalism. Alternative medicine has it's roots in hedge witchery and is more closely associated with it because it is less mainstream.

In the late 1940's, Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant and military hero began exploring what he claimed was the 'Old Religion', a belief and faith system born our of worship of the ancient deities with a central Goddess at it's core. In it's day, GG chose to claim it as (British Traditional) Witchcraft. We now know it as Wicca. There are probably as many different forms of Wicca or Witchcraft as there are blades of grass or snowflakes. Each has it's own unique characteristics.

Jews, Christians and Muslims are know as People of the Book, that is, their religious roots are in the same faith and belief systems as Abraham and Moses.For some the Book is the Bible, for others it is the Torah or Koran. Buddhists, Taoists,Shinto, and all native aboriginal religions, fall under the category of Pagan/Heathen. These were faith systems developed by recognition of spiritual deep indwelling, of faith within the person, of what was there of Nature from the day of Creation. Spirit is all knowing, a Oneness.The Latin root Paganus means 'country dweller'. Heathens were traditionally the people living in the heath- the prairies and wild countries. There is no negativity attached to these words,and remained so until they were used as derogatory phrases to distinguish the masses from the 'educated class' of the People of the Book.

End of history lesson, back to me...I believe in the Immanence of Nature, that the natural world is a holy place, and I recognize and celebrate this through rituals and other expressions of spirituality. I believe that Jesus was not only the Son of God, and a great teacher, but that the Buddha is also.... as is every great religious and philosophical teacher through the ages, including Martin Luther King and the present Dali Lama. That makes me a Pagan. Into those beliefs I have incorporated knowledge of divination systems, herbalism,reflexology, and other forms of spiritual expression. By all accounts, that makes me an eclectic practitioner of Earth-centered Spirituality, and if you stretch that a bit further and I have to label it, then yes, I am a technically a witch.( A side piece of information here-all witches are Pagan, but not all Pagans are witches.) Furthermore, I have studied theology and was educated for the ministry, into which I was ordained after graduation. I am licensed clergy and ministered in a mainstream Christian denomination as a chaplain for many years, as I expanded my knowledge of other religions and studied in several esoteric orders. I now am associated with a liberal spiritual tradition that espouses all and every belief system...Pagan, Christian, Humanist and Atheist. I do not share in all of these beliefs with my fellowship members, but I respect their right to their own form of finding God or the answers to the Universe in their own way...and they respect mine. Being a witch or not being a witch hardly ever enters into the picture because it isn't as important to label what I believe as to to be able and willing to share it.