Monday, December 28, 2009

What time is it, anyway?

The turn of the decade hadn't registered at all until someone's holiday card wished me a happy new one. I'm afraid my first thought was: oh, no! Not another decade! Isn't chalking off another year enough? Then I stepped outside to go for a walk in the first sunlight I'd seen for days, and pleasure in the moment took over.

As I walked I reflected a bit perfunctorily on the past ten years and all the changes and upheavals in the world and in my own life--which I will not enumerate. Then I found myself pondering time itself: round time, as in the earth's journey around the sun and the phases of the moon, and linear time which defines various beginnings and keeps relentlessly advancing into some elusive future and/or catastrophic end. Then there is ritual or religious time, which is some combination of both: liturgical calendars based on the sun and moon (round) that celebrate events that are considered unique and historical (linear). There is also what I call organic time: birth, growth, aging, death--of plants, animals, and ourselves. However cyclical organic time may be in our gardens, when it comes to our own lives, we also see it as linear. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end--ours.

In this season that is about to culminate in a global celebration that ushers in the secular new year of linear time, we've celebrated all the other kinds of time, too, round, religious, and organic. We are the calendar makers and the myth makers; I suspect there is some connection between those two things. Both may be based on keen observation, but both are also human constructs, our way of making sense of mystery. 2010 is a new year and a new decade only because most of us agree that it is--or have agreed to agree, whatever other calendars, religious, cultural or personal, we might also keep.

So what time is it, anyway? What time do you want it to be? We like to put adjectives before the word time and we also like to add an "s" to the word, which makes it clear that time is various. Good times, bad times, tough times, hard times, happy times, past times, end times. Memory and prophecy, the lines we cast into the past and future, are human constructs, too. What stories do we want to tell ourselves about time, what has happened and what is to come? And by the way: what time is it now?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Glorious Mother of the Stars

Solstice News: My album MaevenSong is scheduled for delivery today! The first sung notes are: "This story begins in the night. There will be a dawn, I promise." The last: "You will rise with the sun!" You can preview MaevenSong at by clicking on the book covers and then the song links near the top of the page. You can download songs or the entire album at ,

The Glorious Mother of the Stars

The sun rises late at my house, because of a wooded hill to our east. At this time of year when it clears the crest of the hill it looks like a star fallen among the bare trees, a match about to set world ablaze. And I am reminded that the sun is a star; it is a fire, and all that we burn to warm ourselves and to give light comes from this star, our star, that the Celts saw as a mother:

Hail to thee, thou sun of the seasons,
As thou traversest the skies aloft;
Thy steps are strong on the wing of the heavens,
Thou art the glorious mother of the stars.*

And, not being so literal-minded that they had to stick to one gender, a god:

Glory to thee,
Thou glorious sun.

Glory to thee, thou sun,
Face of the God of life.*

The newborn sun is, of course, also associated with the Divine Child, perhaps especially in English poetic tradition with its ready-made connection between sun and son. Let us not forget the divine daughters, like Persphone, Inanna, among others, who journey to the underworld and then return bringing new life.

In my counseling practice, I often work with people who have deep wounds because they were in some way unmothered or unfathered. (Really, that describes most of us, no matter how well-meaning our parents might have been.) So I invite people to go to the Mother, to imagine her, whether they see her as Mary, Isis, Brigid, or someone who needs no name and may not take a human form. And if it is a good father you need, then look up at the sun see "the face of the God of Life" shining back.

The new solar year is also a good time to tend the divine child not just in ourselves but in the world--as the world. The divine child Jesus said that any service rendered to any one in need was rendered to him. So he tells us the divine is everywhere, hidden in the most threadbare humanity. What if we saw the earth itself as our divine child, to be nourished and cherished. As devoted parents, we might be willing to put the earth's needs first sometimes, to make some sacrifices that the earth might thrive.

Enough with the metaphors. the truth is we are the earth and the sun, the moon and the stars. We are the same substance, and so we resonate with the yearly round. We rise with the sun. We begin again. Happy Solstice!

** Both the above verses come from Carmina Gadelica, Hymns & Incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the 19th Century by Alexander Carmichael. They are part of an oral tradition whose antiquity is hard to calculate. This work is now in public domain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lights out: surrendering to the dark

Since Halloween, for the zealous, and since the day after Thanksgiving for just about everyone else, we've been turning on the lights. We've been beating back darkness, depression, fear, and gloom with commercial clamor and the added stress of determined holiday cheer.

What if we didn't? Yes, I know the traditions of this season have ancient roots and almost all cultures sufficiently north of the equator have held feasts and revels and called for the sun's return as or more vociferously than we do. I don't want to write a blog about old customs: good, modern customs: crass or compromised. No. I want to talk about the dark, our fear of it. I want to talk about the dark. Our hidden longing for it.

For ten years, I was a Quaker and continue to have great respect for The Religious Society of Friends. During that time I did sometimes feel oppressed by Friends frequent references to the Light, their metaphor of choice, the ocean of Light that covered the ocean of Darkness--darkness being the force that light invariably vanquished. Quakers are by no means the only people who make this ubiquitous equation. Who hasn't talked about "dark emotions" or used the expression "going over to the dark side." But consider:

The womb is dark; the earth where the seed gestates is dark; the ocean where all life began is dark; the night which gives us the map of the stars is dark; corn ripens in the dark. Nor is light always benign; there is the naked light bulb of interrogation, the too much light that withers crops, the light of a bomb exploding. When we equate darkness with evil and light with good, are we not, however unintentionally, implying that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people? Could we find another metaphor? Or use this one differently?

I am now an interfaith minister and a pagan with Christian roots. The Church's liturgical year and the pagan year, indeed the liturgial year in most religions are not so different. All of them had their origins in observing and aligning with the journeys of the sun and the moon, the changing seasons. For the past seven years I have also been studying tai chi, whose symbol is the dark and the light in dynamic balance, each one holding the seed of the other.

In the Northern hemisphere it's the nadir of the dark time. Why not surrender to the dark? I like holiday lights as well as anyone, because they are tiny in night's vastness, light seeds. All I am saying is: sometimes just let the dark be dark, let the night be silent. Turn out all the lights and sit in the dark. Inside darkness. Take a bath in the dark. Turn out the outside lights and look at the stars. Parties can be fun. But stay in sometimes. In the dark. Inside the restorative, generative dark.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mixed Marriage

Later this month we will be celebrating thirty years of mixed marriage. Some people said it couldn't last, and it's true: we come from radically different cultures whose members have battled each other off and on since pre-history and still struggle today. But we persisted. We beat the odds. Statistics vary, but some sources say close to fifty percent of marriages like ours will fail. Yes, a marriage between one man and one woman, a mixed gender marriage, which some people and some legislative bodies, like the New York State Senate, insist is the only kind of marriage there is.

I am not only a thirty year veteran of a mixed gender marriage, my husband and I are also minority members in our immediate and extended family. When we gather around a holiday table, more than half the company is gay. When I consider my circle of friends and my wider community, the same is true. The difference in our minority status is that no one discriminates against us, passes moral judgment on us, or deprives us of our civil rights.

I am also an interfaith minister and a couples counselor. As a minister, I have helped many people create their wedding ceremonies. If they want to write their own vows, I don't stand in their way, but I always put in a plug for the traditional vows: "for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death." That's what marriage is, making those vows to another person and having the guts, grace, and good luck to keep them. Nothing more, and nothing less.

I rarely perform marriages anymore, because it feels like a blurring of the separation of church and state for me, as a member of the clergy, to sign a state document. I also don't like to offer a service to mixed gender couples that I am not allowed by law to provide for same gender couples. Here's a common sense solution that would preserve the boundary between church and state. All unions should be civil unions with all rights accorded equally to all couples, mixed or same gender. The marriage ceremony as a blessing of the union could then be performed by the church, clergyperson, religious tradition, or community that the couple chooses. Of course, some churches will not bless same gender marriages, but many will and already do, as do many interfaith ministers like me.

During our long marriage, we have been through many phases, including one where it seemed as though all our friends' marriages were breaking up. For reassurance I called the most stable couple I knew. "Are you all right?" I asked. "You're not breaking up, are you?" They assured me they were fine. Of course, they were a same gender couple, and didn't have the challenges of a mixed marriage. They celebrated their thirtieth anniversary last year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Brother Blue: alive in the story

We think of stories as words, whether spoken or written. But where do those words come from? When the last word is spoken, where do they linger? Where do they live?

Hugh Morgan Hill, loved by many as Brother Blue, died last month at age 88 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I first encountered him on the Cambridge Commons when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. There was no flyer for an event, no stage, no time of performance, only a slender man dressed in blue, out under the trees telling stories with his whole body. The story I heard him tell that day was one he told many times about a teacher who'd inspired him. I can still hear him rhythmically repeating one of the story's refrains, "blue eyes, true eyes," as if it were a song. I can still see the way his hands danced in the air, the way he seemed to be telling the story to me alone.

Some thirty years laters, on tour with The Passion of Mary Magdalen, I was scheduled to appear at Club Passim in Harvard Square. It was a Monday night. The only people there were the host, my husband, my cousin, the act that followed mine, and a man I was sure had to be Brother Blue. When I approached him to ask, he said "Yes, baby, that's me," pleased but not at all surprised to be recognized. I told him a little about my book, and then got ready to go on stage.

For this tour (and every one after that)I had decided to depart from the standard reading format. I opened by singing the first three paragraphs of the novel blues style. That night as soon as I started singing, Brother Blue leapt onto the stage and started singing with me--in the voice of Jesus! So I sang back to him in the voice of Maeve (aka Mary Magdalen) and we had a sung, impassioned, improvised lover's quarrel on the stage. "Baby, you know I love you," he sang. "But you left me," I sang back. "I've been searching for you all this time." Words to that effect. It's not the words I remember so much as suddenly finding myself alive in the story, confronted with a wild, living Jesus.

According to Brother Blue's wife Ruth Hill, curator of oral history at the Schlesinger Library, Brother Blue was once a struggling playwright. As he described his plots and characters to his friends, he discovered his gift for oral storytelling and for improvisation. I never aspired to be anything but a novelist, but after months of touring and telling stories, I found it strange to go back to the written word. I missed my body. I missed that electrifying-anything-can-happen moment I knew with Brother Blue. That moment where he lived his life, that gift he gave to anyone lucky enough to be drawn, however briefly, into his story.