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!

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