27 December 2005

At the Hinges of the Year

I find it enough to follow the seasons.
-- Henry David Thoreau

Throughout history, many people have celebrated the last week of the calendar year with special rituals to mark, not only the change of seasons, but also to discard the old and to clear a way for the new. Some cultures, like the classical Romans, marked the year's end with feasting and parties of Saturnalia (seven days at the end of December, the tenth month). One aspect that often prevailed at year-end celebrations was a new set of special rules, demonstrating that the normal patterns of life were briefly suspended. During Saturnalia, Rome's slaves could look their masters in the eyes on equal footing and anyone could comment or satire the rich and powerful without fear of reproach. Later in Europe, during the Middle Ages, Christians spread the idea of celebrating the feast of their Savior's birth during a twelve day period beginning with Christmas and ending on January 6th, Epiphany. Part of the time was sacred time, but much of the Twelve Days of Christmas featured celebrations and feasts where Lords and Ladies provided the bounty harvested in autumn's fields to guests at the winter's table. My colonial ancestors enjoyed much the same patterns of Christmastide as did the folks of the Middle Ages. They set aside the day after Christmas as Boxing Day, a day on which they gave gifts to the enslaved and indentured workers of their households. These small gifts of coins, ribbons, new clothes, shoes or tin whistles demonstrated the colonial sense of charity to those less fortunate. For more details about these and other culture's year-end rituals click here to see this wonderful article by Waverly Fitzgerald.

So in the last few days of the year, it is typical for me to review the past twelve months and to consider what went well in my life, what didn't, and what I might do to change or improve my lot in life.

I should begin this exercise by admitting that, in the recent past, life has been vastly improved over my long, impoverished years as a graduate student living the single life. So much so, that sometimes I think I have very little to complain about compared to many in this world. Compared to many in this world, I have always been blessed and fortunate. And that is truth. However, there are things I want to change, things I must do and things I plan to do in the next year. I believe that it falls to any thinking person to set herself or himself goals and to consider a strategy for achieving them and, then, actually going about it.

I was not keeping this blog at the beginning of 2005 and not all my readers may know me well or know me in real life at all, I will say that a bit more narrative is supplied here than I might give in a conversation with a close friend or in an email home to my family.

One thing is very clear today as I type these words: I have achieved a very important goal that I set for myself nearly a decade ago. That goal is that I have finally arranged my life so that I can, in Henry David Thoreau's apt words in the epigraph above "follow the seasons." The goal I set way back in graduate school was to bring my life more aligned with the cycles of Nature and of the seasons, and this year I finally feel I have accomplished just that.

I was able to accomplish it in several ways. First, I made a conscious effort to be aware of the weather, of the patterns of life out my living room windows or office window, of the suburban animals living near me and of my own feelings about the seasons. Simply the act of writing what the weather is at the top of an email to a good friend, might be a way for me to remind myself to reflect.

Which brings me to the next way that I was able to accomplish my goal. I have been giving myself increasingly more time to write and to use my journaling as reflective time. I'm drawn to the natural world as I have always been, and so my writing is accepted with the shape of my character, with the awareness of natural cycles and things. I have also worked on my digital photography, and my subjects are commonly natural ones, or the relationship between man-made things and those things of nature. I did not spend too much time practicing my sketching, but I did make a few more forays into the world of the hand-drawn arts. Perhaps soon my posts on this public blog will contain images as well as words.

Additionally, I began a course of spiritual study which has enabled me to get into contact with Nature and with my inner self. I have two friends who are engaged in similar pursuits, and the three of us have formed a great bond over the past year in finding seasonal activities to help us feel more awake to the life around us.

Lastly, I have endeavored to shape my working life and my personal life so that I have the time to focus on my need to be out in nature and to share that particularly with my husband. He and I both take great pleasure in being outdoors and in non-competitive sports outdoors such as hiking and paddling. We two are making plans to be even more active in our outdoorsmenship next year, but for now I'm content that our time out in nature we've set aside for ourselves is something very important that we privately share.

This year had also its ebbs and flows for me. I certainly suffered during the three and half long months of 90-degree heat and humidity of the Maryland swamp (as I call it). I do love the beauties of the Chesapeake region, but I really admit to loathing the humid summers. All of my Northern European ancestors seem to groan in sympathy with me when I go out into the sticky, unbreathable weather that seems to me not fit for (wo)man nor beast! Needless to say, the summer was a depressing time for me. I sat a lot indoors, but had the pleasures of escaping into novels, into the internet and into reading books aloud with my husband, trading off chapter by chapter. I did finally dare a new sport in October that may draw me out of my climate-controlled bubble next swampy summer--kayaking. At Hilton Head I went on two kayak trips with naturalists and learned about the natural wonders of those barrier islands. I had so much fun, that I asked my husband if we might take kayak lessons next spring so we can go on more "serious" expeditions in the summer. He has agreed, so that is something I look forward to with relish.

Finally, I am taking a new direction in my professional life that may allow me greater creative freedom in my work. Currently, my job does not give me many opportunities to utilize my abilities as a teacher, an artist or as a writer. It may be a very long time before I am able to establish a career where I can support myself with those activities, but this year I finally took some practical steps toward making my professional life more creative. I decided to call upon several friends who have skills in facilitating groups and in teaching for advice. I have such wonderful friends! They all listened to my questions and in many cases exceeded my hopes for help with a sense of direction. I now have the opportunity to assist in leading a women's retreat. I have several options open to me for teaching classes about creativity and have even had advice on how to market myself and to improve my qualifications as a facilitator. I found a call for articles in a journal I read for years and am writing an article that I will submit for publication next spring. I am developing a website to market my creativity teaching services to the wide world and recently found a graphic designer who knows about online marketing to advise me on its content. I took a workshop on starting my own small business that gave me much to think about and challenged me to articulate just what sort of business I'd like to have. In sum, I made great strides toward opening a new career path for me, relying on skills and ideas that I had harbored for many years.

This year is one that I will celebrate when the calendar rolls around to New Year's Eve. At the hinges of the year, I make my promise to myself to keep my dreams alive and to strive to take my desires for balance and wholeness into the coming months.

If you have any thoughts or stories (anonymous or not) about your year's challenges and successes, I would enjoy reading your comments to this post.

Bright blessings for your winter feasts and celebrations. May the New Year bring you health and joy!

12 December 2005


We received our first major snow/ice storm of the season last Friday. While the snow generally doesn't remain on the ground very long in Maryland's Decembers, the cold weather seems to have set in for good.

'Tis the time of the year when I love to read, to listen to, and to tell stories. Something about wintry weather makes me want to find a fireplace to curl up beside while listen to tall tales. Not that I have a fireplace, mind you. Instead I light candles and our Solstice tree lights to give our little apartment by the woods a soft glow. M. and I have made it our tradition in recent years to read each other stories on or about Winter Solstice. We've enjoyed reading aloud to each other in wintertime so much that we even began reading favorite children's books to each other during the ugly part of the summer when both of us felt oppressed by the double-whammy of 90-degree heat and high humidity. We read the entire Harry Potter series to each other, Garth Nix's novel Lirael, and now we are on the second chapter of Nix's most recent novel.

Part of my current spiritual path of studies includes practicing my storytelling skills. I have received some good guidance on how to do this. One technique is to create a "mind map" of the story, remembering scenes that need to be included in your story. Storytelling is an interactive artform. When you tell the story at one time and place, it will never be the same if you tell it again. That is because with each telling, the story's mood, your voice, the audience will be different. Live storytelling is performance art. Props work best when they are few and used only for special dramatic effect. A good storyteller can express the events and describe the scene in such a way so as to transport you into the tale.

At the beginning of November I challenged two of my friends who are also learning to be bards through the same course I am taking. I suggested that each of us select one story and learn to tell it aloud before the next time we meet (which is this upcoming weekend). I stated that the story might be anything real or fantasy of their choosing. It also need not be a very long-winded story, but one that we can tell from the heart. They accepted the challenge.

It took me several weeks to find my story to tell. At first, I did some searching around online for animal tales. I'm very fond of legends and old fables with animals for main characters. Yet the story that emerged in my mind, was not an animal tale. I was driving down the road one evening and all of a sudden began to sing an old Scottish tune that I learned from my music teacher, Mr. Kaplan, in kindergarten, The Skye Boat Song. That song is of Bonnie Prince Charlie's escape from Scotland after the dreadful Battle of Culloden, where the Prince Charles Edward Staurt's army of Jacobites was crushed by the English. Since I've been attempted to learn about my heritage, it occurred to me that my idle singing of this tune had within it the potential for a great story to tell.

I began to read my books on Scottish history and find website relating to the Young Prentender, as Charlie is called. I needed an angle. Then finally I happened to see a link to one of the "minor characters" of the Prince's story on The Scotsman's Heritage and Culture webpage: Flora MacDonald. To my mind, Flora is actually the critical character in the tale of the Bonnie Prince because it is she who smuggles him (dressed as her Irish serving maid, "Betty") across to the Isle of Skye by boat. Flora also paid the price for her actions: the English Government exiled and deported her to North America with her co-conspirator husband. Without Flora's bravery, the Prince might never made it out of Scotland alive. So I have decided that the tale will be at last told from Flora's perspective. Would she judge herself harshly or proudly for having made her decision? Was fully willing and loyal to the Jacobite cause, or did she harbor doubts only partly assuaged by entreaties from her husband and father?

I don't think I will write my version of the tale down just yet. No, I think, I'll keep it as a tale to be told aloud for now. I still have some homework to do this week in order to be ready to tell Flora's story. Perhaps the first telling will not be so good. Yet with each time I tell the story I know I'll get better at it. I can feel that Jacobean lore and literature holds a great many storytelling treasures for me to uncover.

07 December 2005

Upcoming: A Spring Retreat

It's a very snowy, frigid day here in Maryland. The snow blanketed us in powder on Monday night, but it's so cold that it will not melt anytime soon. It did not, however, stick to the roads or sidewalks, but there is lots of "black ice" on the roads this morning according to the news.

Several friends have invited me to work with them in planning a women's retreat at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church, where I was a congregation member from 1998-2003 until I moved to Annapolis. I'm so happy to be back among old friends and having the opportunity to create a meaningful day of activities for the women of my former church.

We had our first planning meeting this past Sunday. Our plan is to have the retreat in early March 2006. We have decided upon a simple, yet multi-layered theme: Spring Clearing: Honoring Transitions, Restoring Creativity. (Yep. The "creativity" part was my idea! *grin*) We have already brainstormed for the basic outline of activities. We plan to have begin with a social breakfast, with very simple and healthy food options (all vegetarian). By 9:30 AM we will hold a Gathering for all participants. The Gathering Circle is followed by group activities designed to get participants thinking about the retreat's themes: how they can relate to the ideas of transitions and how they view creativity. My friend. T.H. will then provide a splendid pot of vegetarian minestrone soup accompanied by home-baked bread and other side dishes and will need a team of women to help her serve and clean up. Two different afternoon workshop sessions will offer some individual choices and allow each participant to choose or experiment with her own creativity. The final activity in the late afternoon will be a Closing Circle of the whole.

I'm very excited by the great number of ideas and resources we are bringing to this retreat concept. We have some women in the church community who we are going to approach about leading a workshop or a part of the group activities. The theme gives me much to think about and much flexibility. I will need to come up with activities that can be done by large groups and by small groups. I've already begun the first stages of planning these activities.

It came to me that my own afternoon workshop on individual creativity will be a collage workshop. I think that collage is an easy way for people who might be intimidated by painting or sculpture to get involved in making visual art. Plus, I'm an old hand when it comes to collages. I've been making them ever since preschool--not constantly, mind you--but I do frequently use collage in decorating presents and other works of art. Lately, I've begun to use new-fangled glue materials and want to decoupage some small boxes. I just painted a round one with gesso the other night and will soon think about what materials I want to paste onto it.

Knowing I have a finite amount of time to hone my workshop ideas is good for me. Deadlines usually keep me to task, and particularly that's important when my "day job" tends to spill over into other aspects of my life. With this coming women's retreat, my dream of being a facilitator is finally coming to fruition. Runningwave Workshop is becoming a reality.

01 December 2005

Runningwave: Water Imagery

Water and water imagery has a great influence on my life. Whenever I feel my spirits sinking, I try to get away to a place where there is a large body of water. When I'm at home, it's the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries that have an impact on my emotions and sense of peace.

I am brainstorming about water imagery as I construct a website for my new business venture. The whole "runningwave" concept comes from a poem by Fiona MacLeod (a female pseudonym for English writer William Sharp. S/he wrote a "celtic" blessing in what passed for the "style of the ancient Celts" in early twentieth century Britain:

Deep peace, pure white of the moon to you.
Deep peace, pure green of the grass to you.
Deep peace, pure brown of the earth to you.
Deep peace, pure grey of the dew to you.
Deep peace, pure blue of the sky to you,
Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the Sun of peace to you.

At least one composer -- inspired by the same Celtic setting as MacLeod -- set this poem to choral music, because I have sung a version of it in a church choir. This poem attracted me so much that I did some research on MacLeod/Sharp and liked the lyrical qualities of the poetry. I decided to honor this poet by choosing my Internet callsign as "runningwave."

For the website, I am attempting to think about all of the ways that "water" can be seen as a metaphor for the action of thinking creatively. Human beings have a large percentage of their bodies as water, so the moon and other planetary bodies have an impact on us, just as the tides are caused by the moon's cycle.

In a webpage rough draft, I came up with the tag line: "Explore the tides of creativity." A friend of mine suggested: "Dive into creativity!" which I like very much. However, my mind finally recalled a stanza from my favorite poem by John Masefield written circa 1900, Sea Fever:

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

And I altered the phrase to "Hear the call of the running tides of creativity." Almost there, not quite. That's what brainstorming is about: playing with imagery like the pieces of a puzzle until they fit. And often the piece that fits one time may morph and shift into something that doesn't fit later or into some other shape that's new, and brilliant. I know the Masefield phrase is the key for me now.

If you have any water imagery that you find particularly inspirational, please do send me a comment!