Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Song for a Winter's Night

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian storyteller in the best troubadour sense of the word- his story-songs are so well crafted that once they hook you in,they beg you to listen. The gambit of human emotions play against a simple score, sometimes layer upon layers of individual elements are used to keep the presentation clean and pristine. My favorite Gordon Lightfoot song is Song for a Winter's Night, which is not a Christmas song, but I still look forward to hearing it during the holidays because this seems to be the only time they play it on the radio.

It has been covered many times by other artists (a particularly bad version by Sarah McLatchen, who did an airy-fairy rendition that traps you into a bad LSD trip) to Jim Croce and wife Ingrid Jacobson, who did it spot- on as a duet, and is probably sonically a better version than Lightfoot's own. (Don't remember Jim Croce? He was a folk singer in who was killed in a plane crash in 1973 and who's most famous hit was Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.Check him out, he was fantastic.) Secretly, I always wanted John Denver to have recorded it. Lightfoot's version has a no nonsensical depth of emotion to it- it is the voice of the every man.

The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow if softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter's night with you

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon each page
The words of love you sent me
If  I could only know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter's night with you

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
the shades of night are liftin'
The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs if snow are driftin'
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter's night with you
And to be once again with you.

That's the entire song in three tight  verses; Lightfoot is a sparse writer. It's all the longing your heart has ever had in less than three minutes.You know exactly what the protagonist is thinking because it's all right there

Kything, the Celtic spiritual practice of being in the astral presence of a loved one takes place in created sacred space, where you are both drawn in to be held in a loving way. You can sense the presence, see the familiar lines around their eyes and mouth as they smile, sense their warmth, smell their skin, feel a fleeting touch and hear their breathing.

This, I believe is the essence of Song  for Winter's Night. It is awesomely magickal and wondrously simple- a conjuration of presence,within the soft glow of a lamp, and perhaps a glass of mulled wine. What better way to sing of a winter's night?

[Find the best version of Song for Winter's Night on the CD Gord's Gold, a compilation of some of his very best and most popular songs.]

Friday, December 24, 2010

Three Kings and a Bambino Shed

I was serving in what turned out to be my last parish as an Episcopal minister, and it was late Advent. I was the assistant rector in a Revolutionary War era church built of river rock at a cross roads which sat back far enough off the road that the roar of combustion engines was lost to birdsong and organ music. A beautiful building, with white-washed, gated pews and a slave gallery (balcony) just up a winding staircase. It had changed little since it was built, and things were rather cramped by today's standards. I remember it now as a kind of dollhouse/church,the appointments much too low and small for modern men and women.

Father Mark was known around the diocese as a bit of a character: he'd been a university chaplain and when he wasn't appointed a canon by the Bishop in his home diocese (whose politics he was diametrically opposed to) he somehow managed to not only be appointed to that position in the Philippines, he picked up a Doctor of Divinity along the way as well. at one point he was nominated as Diocesan Bishop and his wife told him that " You'll win because people know you." or, " You'll loose because people know you." I thought it was a very Buddhist way of looking a things. Well, Mark lost the election, and he immediately became the rector of the Church at Mill Creek Hundred.

Like all churches that had been in existence for a period of time, Mill Creek Hundred had an eclectic assortment of holiday decorations- things purchased by the Altar Guild for a specifically themed event, or things donated from family clutter. The Nativity set was composed of the latter.

Every Episcopal Church has a Nativity set- Mary, Joesph, the Babe Jesus, a manger, and some hay. The set at Mill Creek Hundred had been expanded over the years by the addition of various odd pieces-Shepard's, angels, animals, birds and many, many sheep and several camels. None of these additional pieces matched the original set and many were of a different scale, which made it a yearly logistics challenge for the dear ladies of the Altar Guild to position figures twice the size of the Holy Family far off in the background so when viewed from the front, they all appeared to be the same size. My favorite piece was a Shepard who looked exactly like Charleston Heston in the role of Moses; at some point he had been dropped and decapitated, and his head hastily glued back into place, only with his Adam's apple on the side of his head so it resembled a goiter. Recalling my first year of Old Testament studies, I determined that Moses had not been present at the Nativity, so this guy had to be a Shepard by process of elimination. Summoning my  art conservation skills honed at NYU, I took him home, decapitated the figure with a Dremel tool,sanded down the offending goiter,and repositioned his head. At the same time I made a couple of cuts through the legs to foreshorten them so he didn't tower over the Manger when positioned at the back among countless sheep of every size and color (including pink and mauve, don't ask...I didn't.)

While I was performing surgery on Moses lost twin, Father Mark was crawling far back into the basement of the church to retrieve what he termed, " The Bambino Shed". (Both Mark and I have a wicked sense of humor and played well off one another; we could make nearly anything into the subject of irreverence and satire, for which we both were brought before the Bishop and warned many times, ha ha...) The Bambino Shed had been recycled out of an old wooden orange crate, the whole outside of it wrapped with 1 inch holed-chicken wire so greenery could be lovingly tucked in by the Altar Guild. Attached to one of the upper cross beams (which had begun it's life as a # 2 lead pencil) was a rather large, out of proportion spun-cotton dove, whose left wing was shortened by the silverfish who also resided in the church basement.)

On December 15th, my job was to take the entire cast of the Nativity home and clean/repair or discreetly dispose of things too unseemly to represent the birth of Jesus.
I patched a camel, a few sheep, and tossed out what I believe might have been a boarder collie, but resembled an anteater by the position of it's snout ( No anteaters at the Holy Birth, either. Sorry. Although the elephants used by one of the Magi had to have come from Africa by the size of their ears...maybe I was hasty throwing out that anteater, er, dog...)

The six elderly ladies who made up the Altar Guild always did a magnificent job of decorating and wasted nothing...The Bambino Shed containing the Holy Family and now covered by greens was lit by a small electric bulb disguised as an angel...The Magi were placed on the opposite side of the Sanctuary and moved daily toward their quest following the star (e.g.,the table upon which the Bambino Shed sat) ...three Magi, a horse, a camel and an elephant, accompanied by servants and chests of gold, frankincense and myrrh, inched their way across the sanctuary floor toward the Bambino Shed, until they all hopped up onto the table holding the other figures on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany( an assumption on my part; I never actually saw them do this, although I did inadvertently drink too much communion wine during the three Xmas Eve services that year and teetered dangerously against the Altar Rail, nearly falling over backwards. After that, I learned to pull rank on the ushers and make them finish the blessed sacrament left in the cup, LOL.)

The daily journey of the intrepid Magi, aided by the Altar Guild, was dramatic and quaint. I must admit, however, that I was stymied by the two additional Magi peaking out from beneath the poinsettias surrounding the Lectern ( Who were they? Did someone on the Altar Guild uncover a forgotten text of the Old Testament? Were they the second string-just in case one of the first three didn't make it during the journey following the star to Bethlehem? I wondered, but the wisdom I had gained over the years as a minister told me not to question the mysterious ways of the Altar Guild, and the additional two Magi, their camels and slaves, remained in hiding under the poinsettias until well past the Epiphany.)

At the appointed time on December 25th, at the end of the first service on Christmas Eve, the occupants of the Bambino Shed came alive. There was an audible gasp as the lights were dimmed and the string of white lights positioned among the rocks and trees and cut greens were lit...it was magic.Everything took on a golden glow. The single angel, wearing a tinfoil reflector disguised as a robe lit the inside of the manger, and the Holy Family and visitors were illuminated by the Glory of the Lord (and Edison Electric). I'm pretty certain this was what St. Francis had in mind when he created the first Creche so many Christmases ago to tell the sacred story to the masses.

Love was born once more at Christmas, the Divine Child shone in the rapture of the Sun as the Son once again....Hallelujah!

Peace and Grace of the Season be yours today and everyday....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Merry Christmases Long Ago

This afternoon I bought an artificial Christmas tree at Family Dollar. It was on sale because the box was torn but all the parts were in it, so for $3, it went home. I was already resigned to the pot of bare branches like I had last year, which-if the truth be known- wasn't so bad looking after I they were trimmed with all the garland, tinsel and ornaments. In fact, you could hardly see any of the bare branches, and where they peeked through, it gave the whole thing character in a Charlie-Brown-Xmas-Tree kinda way...right up until the branches dried out and began to break off bit by bit and the oasis they were shoved into split in two and half the 'tree' fell on the floor before New Year's Eve.

There won't be that problem this year, because I have a 4 ft. genuine Noble Fir artificial tree, which the instructions packed with it assured me was made of real PVC ( Oh, goody!) The Noble Fir-named no doubt for it's fine heroic bearing and NOT because it is representative of any strain of fir tree named after anyone with the moniker Noble- is presently sitting on a card table wedged in the corner of my make-shift bedroom while it awaits trimming. I hastily cut a tree skirt from a yard of Xmas fabric covered in toy soldiers and holly on a cream-colored background and tucked it around the foot of Noble Fir to cover up its scrawny green  PVC legs, then got the stationary paper box full of Christmas ornaments off the top shelf of the closet where  they've rested since this time last year.

The box of ornaments is a wondrous assortment of things I've acquired from friends and my own habit of collecting through the years. Most of us have at least a few fragile ornaments from our childhood- mine are a couple of pine cone clowns made in China in the 1950's, two hard white plastic reindeer that I inherited after Aunt Laura Pote died in 1985, and a handful of peeling glass gee-gaws from my grandparents. The reindeer are always placed first on any tree of mine since I rescued them from the garbage when Aunt Laura's son was cleaning out the house after she died-she always placed them first on her own tree, and this sacred act was obviously lost on her only child who had tossed them into the trash can around the back of the house. They aren't particularly pretty, but they hold a lot of good memories for me of the next-door neighbor who was my adopted 'aunt' for 18 years.

Then there are the things I have made over the years from various phases of crafts- painted ceramics, counted cross-stitch,plastic canvas, bead kits, pain-by-number wood, assorted glued glitter items. They are joined by various Muppets, the Peanuts Gang, a 4 inch fully dressed Beefeater doll from England, cats, mice, cotton and feather birds and an assortment of stuff from friends-Jeff's grandmother's blue and white beaded Star of David and  bell; Gretchen and Mark's clothes pin bird's nests, Kay's hand-crocheted Xmas stockings and the Kermit the Frog in a Santa Hat JD stowed out of sight in his luggage and brought back from London for me when he filmed John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. My step-sister Elizabeth found a porcelain and cloth Scrooge doll in the Christmas Room at Ronnie's Garden World in Smyrna, DE ( Which I miss, by the way, because they had the best selection of  decorations anywhere.) There are a dozen or so formerly white plastic glitter- dipped snowflakes that just make the tree, in my opinion, even though they have now aged to a yellow patina.

Presently, it's all laying in a jumble under the tree sitting on the table awaiting the big moment-as soon as I find the fluffy white and silver garland and a few strings of white lights I've shoved inadvertently in another box...meaning I will have to search through all of them tomorrow until I find said missing items. I will not be able to trim the tree without them, it's in violation of the 'The Rules'-I bet you know which ones, because you have them at your house, too. You know, the Rules that dictate what goes on the tree in which order to a specific Christmas CD, or which ornaments are traditionally placed on the tree by whom, or that the lights must be on while the garland and ornaments are being added. Things that we don't even think about but do out of habit because they are such ingrained traditions.( And isn't that yet another wonder of Christmas?)

Meanwhile, as I position each ornament in its proper place and adjust it to hang just so, all the Christmastimes I have ever lived through will come flooding back in my memory in the blink of an eye,and I will be living them again...as I happily sing along in each of the Muppet's voices that I learned while working on the above mentioned Christmas special...abet, slightly off key.

Take that, Charles Dickens...even YOU can't create Christmas Past like a tiny ball of spun cotton atop a pine cone from China with spindly pipe cleaner arms and legs can!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Seeking Light in the Darkest Days

Seeking Light in the Darkest Days-Part Two
                                                Copyright 2003 by Kate Dennis/AmethJera

Day 8        

or Christians the season of the Advent of the Coming of Jesus the Savior begins: in Roman Catholic and many Protestant traditions the four weeks proceeding Christmas Day are marked by the placing of a wreath of greens decorated by purple and pink candles in churches and homes. Prophesy stories are read about the advent of the new age when their Messiah is born into physical being. A purple candle is lit for the first two weeks (purple being the color of royalty and reflection in the Christian Calendar). A pink candle is lit in the third week as a reminder of the motherly love of the Virgin Mary, mother of the child of God. It is a reflection of the love of humanity for one of their own. The fourth week, a purple candle is lit, signifying the continuation of the expectation of the Incarnation. In some traditions a white candle is placed in the center of the wreath on Christmas Day.

Many Pagan traditions have been adopted and assimilated by the Christian Church. The Advent Wreath is one of them. Greenery wreaths were common in pagan homes at all times of the year to signify the Wheel of the Year. Candles were added to decorate the wreath at various Sabats. The purple and pink candles of Christian Advent are quite appropropriate in a pagan home setting today to herald the birth of the Divine Child at Yule. Think of it as a circle of Light at the Coming of Promise.

“Father Creator, Mother of Love, bless all the circles of our lives: when we give rings in promise to one another, circles of friends and making sacred space. Be with us when our circle is broken, and when we ‘come around again’, and when our lives spiral inward and outward. Encircle us in loving arms.”


Day 9

hat color is your aura today? The true essence of the being is reflected by the light surrounding us. We reflect what and who we are, so I ask again…What color is your aura? How are you seen in the world by others? How do you see yourself?

“Creator of Life and Light, you have given the gift of life freely. Freely I offer myself and who I have become and who I am to others in return. Guide me in my personal and spiritual development. Change the color of my soul. Make me a window for the light to shine through.”

Day 10         

en days into the season and we are half way through of the time of anticipation. In the natural world the darkness of shorter days is fully established. Cold has set in. Trees that have shed their leaves show their skeletal branches. Animals have grown their winter coats; some have gone into seasonal hibernation. Animal too, we seek comfort and rest. We regenerate and grow in the relaxing darkness of long nights, awaiting the Light.

“Divine Child to come: Kindle a generous fire in our souls when the world is cold and gray. Make us warm in our hearts.”

Day 11

“My Soul doth magnify the Lord…”
- The first line of the Magnificat

n the opening line of this beautiful song attributed to the Virgin Mary, she sings her joy at being chosen as the human mother of the Divine Child of God. She reminds us of the majesty and glory of what will soon come to pass. This is the realization that even in the pain of labor, the Creatrix should give thanks. Mary has been compared to the Goddess as a counterpart in the mythology of the Birth of the Divine Child. Imagine yourself in her place for a moment, as the one who is about to give birth to possibility and promise in your own life.

“As  we are each a vessel to hold the blessings of this life, allow us to reach deep down into that place where we keep our intimate selves and bring out into the light  our own sense of divinity, so we maybe worthy co-creators with you.”

Day 12

“Hear the words of the Dark Lord, who was of old called Osiris, Adonis, Zeus, Thor, Pan, Cernunnos, Herne, Lugh and by many other names.

“I am He whose secret is that which opens the gates of life and death, and I am the guardian of the circle of rebirthing. I am the shadow in the midday; I am in the darkest places known and unknown. There I give repose and regeneration. Tell me your most inner secrets, and I will keep them under my wings.”

e have heard of the Dark Night of the Soul in common verbiage. It is portrayed as something to be feared, to be fought, to be railed against until the battle is won. In Pagan
tradition, darkness is only the opposite of light. It is assigned no attributes of loathing. Indeed, in many situations, it is the place to look to grow spiritually and develop our personalities. The darkness is a place of coolness from the heat of Life, a hiding place where regeneration can take place.

“Gracious God of Darkness: Restore our souls. Renew our spirits. Refresh our outlook. And when we become tired and overwhelmed in living, give us a sheltering place of comfort with you.”

Day 13  

n ancient times the Sun King - Sol Invictis – was the very sun incarnate. He was the giver of life, the cause of everything from making the plants grow into abundant harvests to the victory in war.He turned the tides of the Nile; it was he who was the protective patriarch of the people. The Sun King made the law and was the administrator of justice. He was the consort of the Mother, providing the seed of the Divine Child, who in turn became the Sun King Reborn. As we travel the spokes of the Wheel of the Year, the Divine Child born at Yule becomes the Young Lord in spring, who becomes the Lover at Beltane and the Sacrificed King at Lughnassah, the Dying Lord of Mabon, and the Dark Lord of Samhain…then to become the Divine Child once again. This is all possible because the gods are not held to the moral standards imposed upon humans by biology and society.

“Illuminate our hearts. Shine light into our minds. Renew our spirits.”

This would be a good opportunity for you to meditate on what the Divine Child archetype means to you:
-          Who is this Divine Child in regard to your personal spiritual tradition?
-          What importance does the rebirth of the Divine Child hold for you at this time of year?
-          Can you identify Divine Child archetypes in other spiritual traditions, and what do they mean in that context?       

Day 14

“…Ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and give love all in my praise…”
- Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Star  Goddess

he season of Yule is not only one of devout meditation and personal examination, but of unbridled joy. The Pan pipes play and the wine of Bacchus flows freely. The Saturnalia, a Roman holiday of merriment and feasting was celebrated at this time. In England, the Lord of the Misrule held sway over the population for twelve days. So many examples of this celebration of the essence of life in the midst of the stark bareness of winter show the mood and will of the people. There must be joy –there must be!

“I will be happy today, Bright God, even if the sun is not shining. I will find happiness in my self, and when I cannot find it there, I will seek it out. There is beauty even in the muted colors of the world. Let me shine with what ever light I may find.”

[This excerpt is copyrighted 2003 by AmethJera.All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.]

"Let's Be Careful Out There..."

Every episode of the 1980's police show Hill Street Blues would open with the morning assignments and dismiss with Sergeant Esterhaus' fatherly admonition, " Let's be careful out there." If you have never worked in Emergency Services as a police officer, firefighter or paramedic, you really can't appreciate the brevity of those words, which is private insider jargon among those who serve, protect and render aid. What it actually means is, " You are what stands between a world filled with all matter of danger and another human being who needs your help. Today you maybe be someone's salvation, but  you may have to sacrifice yourself doing that. Let's all come home alive." Dramatic sounding words which describe perfectly every single day in the field as a cop, firefighter or medic. I know, because I was a paramedic assigned to  the Tasker Housing Project of Philadelphia for nearly 20 years. The Tasker Project was little more than a war zone between African Americans and 2nd and 3rd generation Irish that lived in close quarters in an extremely poor part of the City of Brotherly Love near Gray's Ferry Crossing of the Schuylkill River and the old Arsenal. The battles were daily and the assaults often: all of the Housing Police, firefighters and medics knew each other on a first name basis...so did a lot of the residents. They saw us that often.

In 1983, I was one of the first women in EMS in Philadelphia- and the country. Female EMTs were a rare sight in those days. There were just as few women cops-and no females in the Philadelphia Fire Department who weren't dispatchers. Working in the projects, you piled your hair up under your helmet and hoped no one took notice that you were a woman.The uniform and turnout coat did nothing to emphasize femininity-everything was just a smaller version of what the men wore, and it was all ill-fitting and uncomfortable. I wore a medium blue shirt, navy twill pants and heavy steel-toes work boots, just like the men...and the same underwear, a dark blue tee shirt and boxer shorts. The only concession I was allowed was to sew the fly closed on my boxers; the tail of my man-sized shirt was long enough to meet at the crotch. I could have sewed a snap on them and made a body suit out of it, but then I would have been out of uniform during inspection...and the EMS officers came around often to check and make sure we were in Class A uniforms everyday and that the uniform was worn correctly so we'd look professional. We wore the same uniform day in and day out, 365 days a year. I will admit that I am rather envious of those in EMS I see today wearing polo shirts and shorts, or wool pants and sweaters because we never had them. Times have changed-for the better. The equipment is better and the uniforms come in all sizes-men's and women's. Sometimes I think that they've sacrificed professional appearance for comfort, but then again, half way through a 48-hour shift, no one really notices.
What has not changed is the job, which is thanklessly difficult for the most part. It's tough on your body, mind and spirit. Most of us that have spent a few years in the field have at least two or three major injuries that end up side-lining us to the point of disability. The turn over rate for EMS is higher than even the police department-or the military. Most only stay on the job 5 to 8 years unless you get promoted out of the field and into a better neighborhood, hospital duty, a desk job-or quit. I've done all three: I can proudly say that I was in the trenches a full ten years before I became a commander, and I lived to tell. The worst times during the job are when someone is killed in the line of duty. Some of the best are  working the holidays...Christmas in particular.

I enjoyed working the holidays, despite the ice and snow and no heat in the cab of the ambulance(you wanted heat in the back for the patient, so you turned it off in the cab-you couldn't have both.The first type 2 and 3 box units were temperamental beasts!)Oh, and no gloves-you can't grip a stretcher with gloves on and risk it slipping out of your hands.... There was a more relaxed flow between emergencies on the holidays- except those times when families gathered around the table to celebrate the season, had a few drinks...then remembered why they only did this once a year. It usually ended in blood shed; someone whopping someone else up the side of the head with a beer bottle, or whipping out a carving knife...the better prepared used small caliber firearms. In the projects they used some variation of a MAC-10, which is basically a small, quieter version of a machine gun that was chambered for both .45 caliber and 9mm ammunition. You never knew what sort of GSW you would encounter when a MAC-10 or one of it's distant cousins had been used, but the injuries were always catastrophic and usually fatal.Drug dealers loved them because they were cheap and easy to conceal, and you could be a lousy shot and still hit something or someone. Speaking of drug dealers, you could always tell where to go to get a good meal on Christmas Day when all the usual places were closed  just by observing the neighborhood junkies. Because they always have the munchies, always junkies know where the food is and where there is a McDonald's or a bodega open for a bite. 
In 20 years, my partner and I never went hungry thanks to the local junkies.
The most poignant part of  any Christmas emergency call usually involved a child-children who has been beaten by a parent for some small infraction, or burned by a candle or handling a string of C9 bulbs, or bitten by the neighbors' pit bull...occasionally we'd be called to attend a child who was 'just sick', and almost without fail the Mom involved was illiterate and  couldn't understand the doctor's instructions (provided one had been consulted) or didn't speak English and was at a loss of what else to do other than to call 911.They were always relieved to see us and didn't swear at us or otherwise try to kill us. We were always delighted and slightly relieved when it was something like a case of Chicken Pox and didn't involve any bleeding. It wasn't a true emergency, but we got to do a little education and community PR...which always made the job easier down the road. In the Projects, you always took off your instrument holster and badge and holding them aloft yelled, " I'm a MEDIC- NOT A COP...!" before you entered the building. Usually this worked and you didn't get shot at...usually, but not always. I got very good at diving for cover when I worked in the Projects, and I have the osteoarthritis from hitting the floor so often to prove it.

Keith, my first partner, was a kind, compassionate soul. He was an Eagle Scout and fit the mold-he was a good man. He used to buy a bag of groceries before every shift and give a few cans of food to whomever we came upon who needed them, and the bag was always empty at the end of the day. We brought along bags of hard candy on every shift for the hundreds of kids we saw on the street and handed out all of it to the little grubby hands thrust through the windows of the ambulance. We burned out the siren on our rig playing Jingle Bells on the hi-lo unit for a bunch of little kids huddled on a street corner one  snowy Christmas Eve, then went to a 7 Eleven and bought buns, mustard and hot dogs to roast over the open flames of a burning barrel they were using to keep warm. I've never tasted a hot dog that good since; I suspect it was the company....
I live far way from inner-city Philadelphia now, In the suburbs west of Raleigh, North Carolina. There is a city of  Raleigh Fire Station two blocks away, and the rumble of the rigs and the sound of the sirens stop whatever it is that I'm doing at that moment...I listen, counting out the units...and I can tell by the pitch of the siren and the vibration which type of unit is rolling out onto the cement apron in front of the station sight unseen l.

On Thanksgiving I baked a cake, carefully pinned my (now vintage) insignia on my coat collar and hiked up to the fire station. It was a little before 6 p.m., and the firefighters I could see sitting around the table through the window of the break room were sipping coffee and finishing their dinner. There was a TV mounted on the wall playing a football game, and a couple of the guys were snoring in chairs and the sofa in front of it. The floor was littered with empty soda cans and a pizza box, take out containers from McDonald's, and someone's turn-out pants draped over the end table. It looked just like I imagine every other fire house in America looks like on Thanksgiving day...it looked just like the one I used to command in South Philly, and it felt a little cozy ....like home.

I banged on the window with my fist and smiled at the momentarily startled crew. A young EMT answered the door warily, " Yes, ma'am...What can I do for you ?" His eyes swept over the insignia on my collar: the gold eagle of the Tactical Commander and the blue and white Star of Life of EMS, and he stood up a little taller and snapped out smartly, " Yes, ma'am!" 

I pushed the cake into his hands, " Happy Holidays." I said, " Thanks for being here... Be careful out there."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Seeking Light in the Darkest of Days

[The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, "Seeking Light in the Darkest of Days: Pagan Devotions for the Winter Solstice" 
(copyright 2003 By Ameth/Jera)] 

“My soul wanders in the darkness and seeks the Light of Hidden Knowledge.”
- spoken at the initiation of a Neophyte of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

o you often feel blue at this time of year? You’re not alone. Research has proven the existence of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a state of sadness common among those who lack exposure to sunlight. Scientists recommend going to a place where there is maximum exposure to light as a cure.

Our pagan ancestors had come to the same conclusion millenniums earlier. Building fires on hilltops gave light to the long nights. Perhaps feeling lost in the darkness, could the bonfire have also been a signal to the gods- “here I am” ? Hearth fires did much the same in heathen homes. Can you think of anything more comforting than a warm, golden fire on a cold winter’s night? To further brighten the living space, flowers, leaves, berries and fruit were brought inside to cheer the spirit. Lush spices and incense were used as a soothing mental balm. These were subtle reminders that life went on even during the time when it seemed the Earth slept.

O Goddess, as the light gives way to the darkness we stand in the knowledge that as the Wheel of the Year turns steadily onward, we are always in your care. We ask your continued blessing and grace, Mother Crone, to face the dark things in our lives. In the shadows we find not only rest and renewal, but our selves revealed.”

Day 2
randmother Spider spun her web in the sky. The points where the web connected were like diamonds. Later they became known to us as the stars…
- Native American Myth

The spiritual life of Native Americans is colored by their connection to all of Nature. There was a story explaining every natural occurrence. They look often to the sky and give honor to the stars.

“Listen to the words of the Star Goddess, she whose feet are in the dust of the heavens…”
- Doreen Valiente

Day 3

t this time of year, field and farm brace for the winter with the sewing of new seed to replenish the crops come the Spring. In times gone by, the herds were culled of individual animals that would not make it through the cold winter months, and the meat was used in feasts or put up for short term storage in anticipation of leaner times. What have you done to prepare for leaner times in the winter months? Have you remembered to sew seeds to restore your soul?

“Mother Terra, you are the holy earth and all within it. We thank you for your continuing substance. Your children rise up like the heads of flowers and turn toward your golden light joyously”

Day 4

here is a chill in the air, and all the creatures of Nature- animal, vegetable, and mineral- are preparing for a rest. Vegetation dies back to fallow fields; animals migrate, hibernate or transform their winter selves with thick coats of fat and fur for comfort in the long cold months ahead. Water turns to ice. We can learn from this example: slow down, make way, and settle in. Humans do it differently. We burn candles and incense oils, light the fireplace, soak in hot baths, read and listen to music more often, huddle together in conversational groupings.

“O Creator of Creature Comforts, help us to slow our minds and hearts in preparation for this time of renewal and rebirth. Like your creatures in the lower kingdoms, we too should now settle into the  comfort of the Earth in repose. Let us sink down into the comfort of knowing love and light will shine brightly again soon.”

Day 5      

f you look around today you will most likely find that electric lights are being strung on houses and rooftops around your neighborhood. Seasonal decorations are beginning to appear. You know the story behind some of those seasonal symbols?

Long ago, branches of fir, pine and other conifers were cut and brought indoors during this time of year to brighten and freshen homes closed tight against winter winds. The lush greenery was a reminder that life continued to flourish, even in a stark landscape that was barren to the naked eye. Greens laden with colorful berries were a reminder of the fruitfulness that was now hidden until bursting forth in joyous abundance at the first hint of Spring. Holly and mistletoe in particular were symbolic to the pagan people: the bright red berries were symbolic of the blood of the sacrificed King, while the white berries signified the seed of mankind.

Sometimes the best prayers begin with a question, Goddess. You have given us questioning minds and reasoning hearts- and the ability to find answers within. As we revel in the things of the season which give us ‘comfort and joy’, keep us mindful of their meaning.”

Day 6       

“In the weaving of your fingers,
In the whisper of the love that never ends,
In the dreaming, something lingers,
In the promise of a love that never ends
- Paul Noel Stokey

e are weavers by design, wrapping wreaths, garland and gifts. We wrap ribbons around those taking vows in handfasting and cords around those taking initiation into the Craft. We are bound to one another and to the One Who Is. At birth, a baby is bound to its mother by the umbilical cord until it is able to survive on its own outside the womb. To what do you wish to be bound in the coming year? From what do you wish to cut the cord and be set free?

“O Mistress of All Knowing, we are willingly bound to you by the silver cords of Love. We wrap up the best parts of ourselves as a gift to each other. We cut the ties that bind us to that we no longer need. We ask for the blessings of intuition and knowing, and the grace to know the difference.”

Day 7

uring the pagan season of light, there is an official government  holiday of thanksgiving in the United States. Set aside as a national day of rest and reflection, we associate it with pilgrims and turkeys. It is a day to celebrate harvest and abundance in our lives. It has, most recently become a day of over indulgence and unloving family arguments, a mockery of its meaning. In our hearts, we long for the Norman Rockwell picture of Thanksgiving. But that isn’t quite right, either. How do we break out of old behavioral patterns? How do we truly count our blessings? Do we make the proverbial count of blessings list? Where and how do you begin?
 I suggest taking time out of the day’s preparations to a walk around where you live and take stock of the blessing and wonders around you. Nature, of course, is a wonder unto its self, but have you looked with new eyes at the everyday and mundane? Consider the marvel of electricity and cable service, of how houses are constructed, that municipal services care for your water delivery and someone takes away the trash, that police and firefighters have been trained to keep you safe. Your list will expand in no time, and by the dinner hour your meal will truly have become a feast of celebration and thanksgiving.

“O Goddess of Abundance, open my eyes to see the blessings lovingly bestowed on me in my surroundings. How wonderful a world it is! My smallest joy is treasure. Accept my pleasure with thanksgiving.”

[This excerpt is copyrighted 2003 by AmethJera.All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.]

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Merry Whatchamacallit !

When I was growing up, the time between the day after Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve was called Christmastime in my house, a hold-over of my grandparents Depression Era/WWII experience. It somewhat secularized the holiday, and they were all about stamping out any religious overtones. Store windows were decorated in tinsel and lights, green wreaths with big red bows hung in doorways, the Salvation Army hung around on street corners next to their kettles and rang hand bells, Santa Claus was everywhere- and we were all pretty drunk on seasonal spirit without having drank a drop. Occasionally, someone was rebellious and quietly placed an electric menorah in their window to signify that they were Jewish and that Hanukkah was a holiday worth celebrating amidst all the Christmas hohoho. The two could exist side by side because both were festivals of lights, and most of the time the menorah was mistaken for blue and white Christmas lights anyway. No one was offended, everyone just allowed room for everyone else.

Enter Kawaansa...This African American harvest festival was first celebrated in the mid 1960's, with several scholars taking credit for it's creation. A week long festival of culture and family, it was quickly embraced by the Pan African community in America.It always felt a bit radical and dangerous in a Black Panther sort of way to middle class white America, who didn't understand because it seemed to be a dark secret(no pun intended)of the Black Community.  But like Hanukkah, it's always taken a step back from the glories of Christmas.

The Christmastime of my childhood was called Yuletide by folks in the Victorian era, an attempt to separate the Christ of Christmas from the St. Nick/Father Christmas merriment of the season: Christmas was the day of Jesus' birth and Yuletide was everything else..Twelve days of it, in fact, harking back to the medevil Days of Misrule and the earlier Saturnalia. Days of the returning of the relatives you loved or the ones you didn't want at Thanksgiving, friends, an abundance of food, lots of flowing booze...all topped off by a big once-live 
tree placed precariously in a stand that held water and was trimmed with electric lights, glass balls, angel hair and tinsel. You didn't dare touch the Christmas tree, except to add water to the base. It was one of those things in my childhood home that had a secular sort of sanctity about it; that is as: if you defiled it, something really terrible was going to happen to you- which was usually enforced with a good, solid ass-whipping. Besides, no one wanted to touch the thing anyway: it had razor sharp needles and the sap gave you a rash, and it was laden with little bombs that burst into shards when they hit the floor and spin glass that was impossible for tweezers  to remove from unsuspecting fingers, and you could possibly be burned or even electrocuted by the lights. Oh, and there was always the possibility the whole thing would simply go up in flames at any moment. My Grandfather was the local fire chief and yearly recited a litany of homes lost and little children burned to death because someone left the lights plugged in on their Christmas tree overnight, which of course, always made for lively conversation around the table Christmas Day. Despite vigilance and your best efforts, the tree was usually (mercifully) dead before New Years Eve, and immediately removed because it was a certified fire hazard. 

Everyone wished everyone else a "Merry Christmas", and no one was offended. Political correctness had not yet reared it's conveniently self-righteous head. The alternative greeting "Happy Holidays" was also acceptable, although very definitely considered secular and less heartfelt by the public( Christian) mainstream.
Today, as a Pagan, I still wish others a Merry Christmas, because that's what the season is in the common lexicon, although I do try to consciously say, " Happy Holidays" to cover the multitude of holidays that transect and overlap one another at this time of year. And as a Pagan, I do not go up in flames if someone  innocently wishes me a Merry Christmas, because I take their well wishes in the spirit of the season.There is no secret Christian agenda to convert me at work here, people are just trying to be nice to one another.

I do make it a point to say, " Blessed Solstice" or "Merry Yule" to my strictly Pagan friends, most of whom wouldn't bat an eye if I slipped and used the C-word. Were all raised in other-usually Christian- faith traditions, and we understand what intention lies beneath a heartfelt greeting. no matter what words are used.
I believe that's what lies at the core of the season's greetings- the intention of wishing one another goodness and blessing in a time out of  time when the rawness and reality of the world is put aside for a little while. Whatever you call it...the season is meant for caring,a time when we should recognize the simple vulnerability of just being human and speak a kind word to that.

May you Blessed Be.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Today Is World AIDS Day

According to the World Health Organization 33.3 million people are  currently living with AIDS.  New anti-retrovirus drugs have improved survival rates of  those with the disease, but we still are nowhere near a cure. Abstinence and safe sexual practices, and universal infection precautions are still the best and only ways known to lower the risk of contracting this disease. It is not God's Punishment for immoral behavior. It is not the Gay Plague. A virus has no religious or moral proclivities. It is a virus that is insidious and in some cases ultimately fatal. No everyone who tests positive for HIV gets AIDS. The odds are improving, but not nearly fast enough. Until then, I continue to remember and pray for a cure.

 This is an excellent website about HIV/AIDS: