Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wondrous Strange

The days between Winter Solstice and New Year's Eve have always had that slightly askew, muddled feeling to me, like someone cut the anchor and set me adrift to float gently toward the horizon. There is an emptiness that is welcome after weeks of frantic preparation for the holidays, a blessing of relief from the holiday ho-ho and commotion. I don't think I'm alone in this feeling, because I've seen that same fleeting look of momentary confusion/fear/lostness on the faces of others in the last few days which elicits the same nervous smile, like we all should be doing something other than playing hooky from Life.

Yet during this time out of time I can feel an urgency also. Within this period when not much seems to be happening on the surface, things are churning and formulating down deep within. It's as if the potential of the New Year is coming together, ready to explode into being at just the right moment when the power peaks. It's synergy, the coming together of many forces into oneness. While I believe reflection and introspection are restoratives for the soul, each New Year's Day I feel as if I've emerged from a dark underground place where my spirit has been hibernating. Blinking, I view the light of day for the first time on a first new day, and it is a extraordinary, magickal thing for me. It is wondrous-strange.

It is not to say we leave on-going responsibility behind. There will always be things we need to lug  through the portal of the New Year with us- things that require our attention so that everyday life as we know it continues. No journey is complete without baggage, but I do believe that we can to some extent control the weight of the load we bare. So often we drag our selves down with unnecessary things and make life ponderous and sullen. That's why the Place of Deep In-Dwelling is important: it's a safe haven to examine our lives and regenerate. Things we no longer need can be left there, where they will eventually fade away like so much compost, and perhaps help better things grow for us in the future.

Our New Year's Eves are spent quietly at home, or celebrating with family and friends. The phenomenon of First Night is interesting to me because we spend the last night of the old year in a Janus frame of mind, cramming  activities into those last few hours that directly contrast our ordinary lives: roaming around watching street performers, going to art and concert venues, going on amusement rides and eating foods we normally would eat- all in the name of having one last good time before the Big Ball drops at midnight. It's as close to celebrating Misrule as most of us dare come, and we end it with a kiss- the single final act of affection and kindness we can manage in those few precious last seconds as we cross over into the Unknown. We toss the confetti into the air (and our cares symbolically with it), shout as loudly as we dare (to frighten away those ever present demons) and drop the balloons from the ceiling ( as a quasi blessing of air, the element of inspiration.)

Then it's over. Life returns as a hopefully better version of what it was before. The champagne glasses are cleared away, the confetti and streamers are swept up, and the remaining balloons popped. We are left in the silence alone with ourselves once again, wondering what direction to take, and if it will be a better choice than the one we made last New Year's Eve.

Faith vs 'In Good Faith'

"Bibles Made Available at NC School"

Ginger Strivelli says her son, a fifth grader, was given a Bible at the public school he attends. This story caught my eye because it happened in my home state of North Carolina. It seems a public school principal made the poor decision to disregard the very highly publicized statue of the  Separation of Church and State we have in this country by offering free Bibles to students. For this she is inexcusably wrong. The above story mentions that the students were given the option of leaving class to go to the Principal's Office, where the books were being given out to whom ever wanted one.

The Gideons International, a Christian fraternal organization best known for providing copies of the Bible for hotel rooms, donated the books to the school for free distribution. Their spokesperson said it was not their policy to have a teacher hand out Bibles in school, but that they did want to make them available. Supplying Bibles is what the Gideons do, along with offering Bible Study and other training as a part of their evangelistic ministry.

I am envisioning that the intention of a member of the local chapter of the Gideons meant well when he dropped off the box of Bibles to be given out to anyone who wanted one, since no students were lined up in an assembly and issued a copy forcibly. They were meant as a gift during the Christmas season, so I suspect that the  box of books were intended to be set on a table with a sign that said, "Free, take one." I am not going to criticize Gideons International for being faithful to their ministry because spreading the message of their God is why they exist. They have freedom of religion just like the rest of us, even if this was a poor choice- and I believe it was simply that.

However, I am going to blame the Principal, Jackie Byerly, for accepting the gift of religious texts in the first place. She could and should have turned the offer of Bibles down flat. The Gideons would have gotten over it eventually: I'm pretty certain they get their fair share of refusals,too. Surely Ms. Byerly knows there is a separation between Church and State, and that any institution that that is funded through taxes falls under that category. She allowed religious materials to be distributed on public property, when she shouldn't have allowed it. This is not a matter of equality- the law clearly states that there be no exception, meaning no religious materials on the premises, period. Her decision was wrong. I'm not going to try to second guess that Ms. Byerly is herself a Christian because that should not be an issue in this case- as the representative of the public school system, she should have upheld the policy of zero distribution of  religious materials in her facility.

Ginger Strive-who is a Pagan- says her son, a fifth grader, was given a Bible at the public school he attends. She is outraged with about as much righteous indignation as anyone can muster, according to several reports. The story has generated a fair about of PR in the media. Pagans are up in arms because Bibles were given out in a public school and some are responding with the usual amount of anti-Christian sentiment.  As a Pagan and more importantly to the point, as a citizen, I am upset and concerned because an institution funded with my tax dollars has distributed religious materials in an educational no-fly zone. I would have the same feeling if the materials were political in nature.

Because I know there is always more to a story, I did a little research online... And just as I knew I would, I found some interesting details to further flesh out this story. According to the Christian Post website:"...Strivelli argues that making an announcement in itself is a form of coercion, since students have an opportunity to leave class and will no doubt do so when given the chance. She also claims that a teacher physically handed her son the Bible." ( )

Frankly, I'm finding a bit of a disconnect with her statement in which she indicates that her son  participated as a means to get out of class.  This means he voluntarily went to the school office on his own-just to get out of class- which says the onus is on her kid. After all, the only legitimate reason for him to have been out of class at that time would have been to go to the Principal's office for a Bible. No one forced him to leave class. No one coerced her son, and the assumption that "...since students have an opportunity to leave class and will no doubt do so when given the chance." is just that-an assumption on her part- because she honestly can't say she knows the motivation of anyone other than herself. Saying that making an announcement over the school PA is coercion is a  stretch of the facts. The announcement did not say, " Come to the Principal's Office right now to get a free Bible or else". Besides, I've been a teacher, and believe me, I know plenty of fifth graders who would have needed a lot more motivation than getting a free Bible to them to have worked up the gumption to take a few minutes stroll to the Principal's office, even to get out of class.

For the record, there was no mention in the original report from saying that a teacher physically handed Strivelli's son a Bible. None. I believe that Patti Wigington is a reliable news source for the Pagan Community, and a mention of someone handing the student a Bible was never made in her story. That statement seems to have come from Strivelli as a codicil after admitting that her son went to the Principal's office just to get out of class, which, let's face it, sounds a little wiggly.
( Actually it sounds like, " Hey, my kid found an excuse to get out of class for a few minutes, that's why he went to the principal's office.")

Principal Jackie Byerly has stated that she would handle the distribution of other religious material in the same way she distributed the Bibles. I don't think she yet has a handle on the concept that no religious material what so ever should have been distributed in the first place. It is obvious that she hasn't heard of the lawsuit last year against a Tennessee school district doing something similar. (

Meanwhile, Ginger Strivelli is trying to test the water in an interesting way: by asking the school to distribute Pagan books she has contributed to as a writer "... I need to contact the Editor who used my Chapter in her book, surely she can chip in some for my work on that book for her..."(

Uh huh...I'm beginning to suspect there's more going on here than meets the eye and which I personally find questionable and in poor taste. I'm reserving my opinion on this until later, because I'd like to see how it all plays out.

What I will say is this: Parents have a personal responsibility to oversee to their child's religious training. That includes a discussion on formulating a polite refusal when offered religious materials from another faith which you as a parent find offensive. A child of nine or ten years old knows right from wrong and is able to understand the basic tenets of their faith. He or she can certainly be taught to say, " No, thank you." or even " My mom doesn't want me to have that."

Spiritual training and the distribution of religious materials is the sole providence of faith communities and their member families. It is inappropriate for public schools to promote religion in the United States and has been illegal to do so since 1963( Supreme Court ruling, Murry vs.Curlett).

There are valuable lessons for everyone involved in this situation which I'd like to see come to a productive resolution instead of setting off another firestorm of religious persecution.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Toward That Long, Long Night

The moon hangs low in the sky-a huge golden crescent- as I type this. It is barely visible through the trees, but it is the brightest thing in the sky tonight. The cold is numbing. I'm only up at this hour because I was so cold earlier that I actually went to bed to get warm. It makes me wonder how my ancestors fared in their sod houses when the fire burned low, in that cold, wet part of Ireland so long ago.

Living is a struggle because of the cold. As each year passes, I find myself getting colder more often. I am not fond of the oppressive heat we have here in the South ( particularly living as we do without air conditioning), but I believe the cold is worse. There are nights I have slept fully clothed, even under a pile of throws and blankets, because it was one more layer of warmth against the piercing cold...and this is coming from someone who has cracked a window to let in the crisp air in January when I lived up North. It's a different kind of cold because of the humidity here.

Simply making it through the day, day after day, in this cold is maddening. I have no earthly idea how I am supposed to get anything done when all my energy-such as it is these days- is focused on getting and staying warm. Gods, I am glad that I don't have to go out and collect wood, but on the other hand, there would be a fire, and warmth. Maybe living in the modern world isn't so great after all?

This makes me appreciate the anticipation and excitement of those who have gone before as they awaited the long, long night. It would be the last of the nights that seemed endless. The following days would ever so imperceptibly gain light-and warmth. The light would gain and the earth would begin to send up life through the cold ground. It would call them forth from the dark like a siren's song. They would be just as unable to resist, until finally-finally-there would be something bright green and juicy to absorb the sun's rays.

But now, for a few days, there is the cold and the dark, where the warmth is in-dwelling. The furnace of life resides inside and burns steadily.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Remembering Love

It's just a tiny ornament, one inch long and half an inch wide. Sandwiched between two small pieces of glass is a faded, brown little flower, with the word
"Love" etched below. It's held together by a bit of metal foil and hangs by a frayed red ribbon.

It means the world to me.

We were standing in front of a shop  window filled with etched glass ornaments and sun catchers in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in mid- September,having walked from Camden Yards where we'd spent a relaxing afternoon watching the O's. Frankly, I'm not much for baseball-I'm not a fan of any sports, really: Occasionally I watch the Olympics. On this particular day I'd made the 90 minute drive down I-95 to volunteer on the crew at a charitable event John was playing for the regional Cerebral  Palsy agency, and we would be attending the Orioles game prior to the concert. Some of us took a side trip through the Inner Harbor just to window shop and came upon this glass shop.

The rather plain rectangle was quietly put into my hand. It was wrapped in a piece of white tissue paper. There was a tiny pressed purple and white violet and the word "Love" etched into the glass. It would look cute on my Christmas tree and join in the eclectic riot of ornaments that I carefully packed away each year. There were no accompanying pronouncements of love, just a low-key, non-romantic "Here you go-from me."  John had brought me ornaments from all over the world for my collection, so we'd gone through this particular ritual for years; most of the time something would arrive in the mail followed a day later by a phone call. Occasionally, like this day, the babble in question would be handed to me in person.

Nothing appeared special about the little glass rectangle when it was pressed into my hand. Nothing at all.

Except it would be the last ornament John ever gave me. He was killed in a plane crash three weeks later. I was devastated not by his dying, but by the separation of death. I wanted him back. I still do.

I'd forgotten about the little glass rectangle until I found it still wrapped in the tissue paper tucked deep in the pocket of my purse one day in early December. It was just in time to put it on the tree with my other pretties and twinkling lights. John had been dead exactly two months to the very day I placed it on a high branch so the cats wouldn't disturb it. Back lit by the lights on the tree, the edges of the etched letters made tiny dancing stars.

Fifteen Christmases have passed since John died, yet he's still with me. This one particular little piece of sparkling glass is always hung at eye-level so I can pick it out easily it every time I  look at my holiday tree. Admittedly, it is not as pretty as it used to be since the flower faded. But I remember what it looked like when it was new, and that's what I see, a delicate purple and white violet. Violets, in the language of flowers, have many meanings: friendship, love, remembrance, resurrection, rebirth... an un-ending promise. The ancient Romans laid violets on the graves of loved ones to denote continued affection after death. This is what enters my subconscious every time the little ornament catches my eye. It tells me that our friendship has endured beyond the veil and is still present even today. It says that the relationship not only continues, but will bring us back together at another time and place.

Another wonder of this magickal season, where Mystery reminds us of the fragility of Life and Love.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Out, Out Damned Fruitcake!

We have all seen it: that nefarious brick of glowing fruit chunks glued together with corn syrup and Goddess - knows - what. We were forced to eat a chunk of it by our Mothers every Christmas Eve because it made our sweet old Aunt Martha deliriously happy to watch our little kid faces screw up attempting to chew the sticky mess without spewing it across the room. And we swore we'd never take another bite of fruitcake for as long as we lived. Ever.

That oath ended when I found a wonderful recipe for fruitcake in a1973 Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Craft book. I've made cakes from this recipe-with a few adjustments-nearly every year since. It's essentially a dark spice cake with cooked fruit. I wrap it in cheesecloth ( or pieces of an old clean, worn sheet) soaked in brandy or rum, wrap that in foil then tuck them in zip lock bags. They have to be checked weekly and the cloth soaked periodically to keep the cake moist.

There is nothing to compare to the heady fragrance of a fruitcake's some of the best incense in the world! After a couple of weeks curing in the fridge, you pull it out, unwrap it and slice it in little pieces to serve with a pot of tea or good strong coffee, and it makes you feel all warm, cozy and loved. A morsel of late night fruit cake is a magickal thing...

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup diced mixed candied fruits and peels
1/2 cup raisins or snipped pitted dates
1/2 cup candied red or green cherries, quartered
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
2 eggs
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup orange juice or apple juice
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons mild-flavored molasses
Brandy or fruit juice

Rick fruit base cooked on the stove before adding to the cake mix.
I adapted this basic recipe and added apricots and figs, or prepared mincemeat, which is substituted for 1/2 cup of the candied fruit. I  also add in orange jest and adjust the amounts of spice. Taste it before adding the eggs and dry ingredients. I add a bit of fruit juice and water and cook the fruit on the stove for about ten minutes then let it set to develop the flavors.

1. Grease and lightly flour an 8x4x2-inch loaf pan (or two 5 3/4x3x2-inch loaf pans). Set pan(s) aside. In a large mixing bowl stir together flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Add fruits and peels, raisins, cherries, and nuts; mix ingredients well.
2. In another mixing bowl beat eggs; stir in brown sugar, juice, butter, and molasses until combined. Stir into fruit mixture. Pour batter into the prepared pan(s). (The smaller pans will be quite full.)
3. Bake in a 300 degree F oven for 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours for the 8x4x2-inch pan, 55 to 65 minutes for the 5-3/4x3x2-inch pans, or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. If necessary, cover pan(s) loosely with foil the last 10 to 15 minutes of baking to prevent overbrowning. Place cake in pan(s) on a wire rack and cool thoroughly.
4. Remove cake from pan(s). Wrap cake in brandy- or fruit juice-moistened 100-percent-cotton cheesecloth. Overwrap with foil. Store in the refrigerator for 2 to 8 weeks to mellow flavors. Re-moisten cheesecloth with brandy or fruit juice weekly or as needed. Makes 16 servings.This cake does not rise, and it's difficult to judge doneness by poking it with a knife. It is very dense and feels solid and heavy when done. The top will be glossy but dry.