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Celebrating the Time Before Beginnings

It’s hard for me to write a holiday post this year. To say I’m not in the Christmas spirit is the understatement of the year. And yet, this is the time of more than just canned Christmas music and out of control commercialism. I’ve always been bah humbug about that. But the fact that we’re in the dark days, the fact that we’re about to find in each of us newness in spite of all that has happened, all that has laid us low in the past year, the fact that we’ve found a commonality a sense of connectedness in those dark days, well that is something I’ve always found worth celebrating. This year, with the loss of my sister, more than ever, I need what those dark days can offer me, that womb of darkness, a place of being and not doing and that’s why I’m sharing this post with you again.

 

As I was walking along the canal the other day between rain showers, watching the moorhens leave water con trails across the surface, I was thinking about why this time of year is such a big deal. It’s dark, it’s dreary, it’s seemingly dead. Really, it seems like something we should just want to skip right through as much as possible, and yet we celebrate this time of year more than any other.  For several years I celebrated the seasons of the year with a Wiccan coven, and one of the best parts of that time in my life was the effort made to understand and live in sync with the changing seasons of the year. That I’ve held onto long after I left the coven. That ebb and flow remains an important part of who I am and how I celebrate.

 

Then, as now, the magic of this time of year intrigued me the most. In the Pagan cycle of the year, the winter months are represented by the direction of north, the cold, dark direction, the place where everything seems dead and silent. The days are short and the nights are long and it’s a temptation to go to bed early and sleep late. In the darkest days it’s even a temptation to follow the example of our bear cousins and sleep the whole dreary time away until the spring returns. The holidays aside, by the time January gets here it’s all about the return of the light. We’ve all had enough dark days, and we want sunshine.

 

So what’s so magical about that? Of course we want the sunshine. Who doesn’t? But the magic comes in the waiting. The dark powers of the north, the dark earth energy of the pagan wheel of the year is dream magic. It’s the time before beginnings. It’s the time when we sit with a cup of tea clenched in our hands and reflect on what has been, while everything in us looks forward to what lies ahead. On the one hand we dream of the past and we say our good-byes to this turning of the year, on the other hand, we dream and scheme and anticipate the future that will begin, just like new life, in the dark place. And we wait for the end that has to happen before the beginning. The time before beginnings. It’s a phrase that has no meaning if we don’t have a past to reflect upon. It’s a phrase that has no meaning if we don’t have a future to anticipate and to dream and scheme for.

 

This time of year the sun, when we do get it, is never very high in the sky, and it’s often a cold anemic sun. This time of year when everything seems so dead, there are already buds fattening on the trees — the beginnings of the leaves that will shelter the birds and shade us from the sun when it’s at its most powerful. This time of year even the winter visitors, the waxwings and the fieldfares, are anticipating new beginnings, feeding up for their return to the north and for the raising of the next generation.

 

It’s in these dark days, in this space in between when it’s not quite the end, but it’s not yet the beginning either, it’s in this liminal space that we experience a magic that’s different from any other time of the year, a magic of stillness, a magic of holding ourselves tightly and inhaling deeply just before the sun returns and we’re off once again, running forward into the headroom and the creative momentum that this time before beginnings has afforded us.

 

Happy Time Before Beginnings!

 

Dark Days and Birdies

(Archives)

The darkest day of the year has come and gone. From now on it’s a slow, teasing progression toward spring and glorious sun-filled days. But even the dark days bring their own pleasures.

Every year in early December, something wonderful happens in our back garden. The wagtails return! We’ve had a pair of pied wagtails over-wintering with us for the past four years now. I’d like to think they come because they’ve developed a warm spot in their little birdie hearts for us, but I know they really come for the shredded cheese.

 

Wagtails are insectivores, and these two lovelies, whether they are the original pair who first visited us on that dreadful winter four years ago or some of their descendants, have probably come down from Scandinavia to winter here in South England. They come here because there are certain kinds of insects that survive in the moss on the roofs of the houses and every time the temperature warms slightly, they come out briefly. It’s a day to day existence for the wagtails, and I can’t imagine how any of them actually survive, so I put out shredded cheese, which they love.

 

I associate Christmas with a huge influx of birds in our back garden, and it’s a time when I feel closer them and am more sensitive to their needs. Though food is the obvious need – fat balls for the general population, mixed seeds and nuts for the tits and doves, currants for the blackbirds and of course shredded cheese for the wagtails (though the starlings and the magpies also love the cheese and currants) the big draw during the coldest days of winter is the birdbaths. People might not realise birds have no source of fresh water when everything is frozen. Imagine nothing to drink when the weather is cold, no place to bathe.

 

Every morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see, we go out and fill all the feeders, spread currants and cheese for the blackbird and the wagtails and then we tend to the two birdbaths, clearing out the ice with hot water. When that’s done we go in to have our own breakfast. Our dining table is in front of sliding glass doors that look out into the back garden, so every morning during the bleakest days of winter, we are rewarded with an feeding frenzy and a pool party.

 

We live in a wonderful symbiosis with our avian friends. We keep food and water available for them throughout the coldest darkest times and in turn we’re rewarded with a close-up and personal view of the natural world we wouldn’t otherwise get. The blackbird perches on the retaining wall and stares in the window at us if there are no currants for him. The wagtails show up out of nowhere when they hear us filling feeders. They’ve learned there’ll be cheese.

 

Through December, we’re all waiting for the daylight, waiting for the sun to return. We’re all waiting and longing for light and warmth and new beginnings. Through those darkest months, I marvel at how the birds survive the bleak harsh days when there seems to be nothing for them to eat, nothing for them to drink. I know that lots of them don’t survive. I know that when the temperature dips below zero, whether or not they survive the night can depend upon how much they’ve been able to forage the day before. The difference between survival and death is such a fine line. And every year I’m astounded and amazed by their tenacity, by their will to survive the dark days.

 

In the spring, the wagtails go back to Scandinavia to breed and the bird population in our back garden changes, and the dynamic changes. We get fledgling starlings and blackbirds and the whole garden becomes a nursery for the next generation. But there’s something magical about those winter months, the dark cold days, the times when the closeness I feel is a deep admiration for the ebb and flow, for the push to hang on one more season, for the deep powerful urge to survive and bring forth the next generation. I watch the starlings fluttering in wild abandon in the birdbaths, the water freezing on the edges even as they bathe. I watch the wagtails and the blackbirds treading frozen ground, eating cheese and currants, their feathers fluffed to nearly twice their body size to keep warm, and I feel that somehow, I’ve become a part of something so much greater than myself and my little understanding of the world. This is the gift I receive every year in the dead of winter, and it’s a gift that I treasure long after the sun has returned and the Dawn Chorus has begun in earnest and the wagtails have flown north.

 

Happy Solstice, everyone! May all the gifts you give and receive be gifts that touch the heart.

 

A Tribute to My Sister

 

My beautiful sister passed away suddenly on the first of December. I am heartbroken, but I doubt if anyone could claim more rich and wonderful memories that I can with my sister. She was my best friend, my confidant, and my partner in adventure. I have no words for the crater her absence leaves in my life, but wow! What a friend she was, and how glad I am that I had such a sister and such a friend. The post below is our last adventure together, which I shared only a few months ago, but it seems right to share it again because I treasure it.

 

While my husband and I were in Oregon for the memorial service and to help clear her things, we ate some of these wonderful huckleberries, jam-packed with laughter and joy, every morning for breakfast in our oatmeal. There are a million memories of her I wish I could share, but this was quintessential Nancy, and I wanted to share it with you all once again.

 

A Berry Yummy Time

Huckleberry picking with my sister in Oregon. I’ve wanted to do it forever, but could never seem to manage my visit to coincide with the elusive fruit in season. Finally I managed! And the experience did not disappoint. The only disappointment was that we didn’t get to camp while we picked.

 

 

Official picking tools: a plastic ice cream bucket clipped onto a belt to free up both hands for the yummy, but backbreaking, task at hand.

 

 

The delightful fruits of our labours are the wild cousin to the blueberry, smaller and much more tart, tiny round packets of tastebud titillation.

 

 

In the UK, they are closely related to bleaberries and bilberries. We picked three days and over that time managed nearly three gallons of berries. LOTS of work.

 

 

But time spent in the sunshine on the wild flank of Mount Hood is SO worth the effort.

 

 

And yes, it was sunny, though from the distance where I’d taken this photo, the clouds hadn’t cleared yet. This is a little closer to our destination.

 

 

Oh, and did I mention lunches at one of the best cafes in the world?

 

 

We seldom picked later than three in the afternoon.

 

 

By that time the back was not caring at all about the belly’s greed, and of course we ate almost as many as we picked. Well, in the beginning at least.

 

 

I had to pick frantically to keep up with my sister who is an expert at the job. She always managed more than I did, even with her ‘one for the bucket, one for the mouth’ technique.

 

 

And then there was clean-up before we headed home. The remnants of huckleberry stains from three days of picking were still with me when I got on the plane back to the UK.

 

 

At home, the berries had to be cleaned and bagged, then put in the freezer.

 

 

All this happened while we laughed and chatted about the wonderful day we’d had.

 

 

BUT! We always made sure we’d left plenty out for the best part of the day, the reward at the end …

 

 

Homemade huckleberry pancakes for dinner!

 

 

 

Nancy Thomas, my dearest sister, you will be missed.

 

Reading Shamelessly

From the Archives

http://www.listchallenges.com/books-youll-never-brag-about-having-read

 

No doubt you’ve all seen the checklists that periodically go around with must-read books, or the hundred best books of all time, or the checklists that test how well read you are. Honestly, who can resist? And who can resist possibly even cheating just a little bit and ticking the boxes of a couple of the ones we’ve not actually read, but maybe we’ve started, then got bogged down and finally just gave up and watched the movie or the mini series instead. Oh come on! Admit it! I’ve done it. Being thought of as erudite, well read and worldly is just so damned appealing.

 

There’s a link on List Challenges that goes around on Facebook periodically to another such list. But this list contains the titles of ‘books you’ll never brag about having read.’Some of them are just mindless guilty pleasures and smutty bonk busters. Some of them are infamous for being poorly written, but making their authors a mint. What writer isn’t a little green around the gills where those books are concerned? Some of them were the trend of the day — all the rage one week, forgotten the next. Some of them were written by people who were once admired, but have now fallen from grace. Some of them are rubber-necking books – you know the type – literary train wrecks and gossip fests just too juicy to resist. Some of them had me scratching my head and wondering why they were even on this list at all – especially when I could think of a few of my own I’d have added if I’d been making up the list.

 

Of course I had to test myself and felt slightly smug that I’d only read six. Yup! That’s me, Social Media folks! I pat myself on the back, I stick my nose in the air! I read only the highest quality literature. As for those six, well everyone lapses a little now and then, right?

 

But the lovely refreshing surprise that really got me thinking about what we read and why, was that most of the people who responded to my sharing this link on Facebook were unabashedly unashamed of reading their share of the books on this list. It’s reading, rights? These very smart people realize that. Whether it’s a bonk bust or a train wreck, the power of the written word is totally awesome! It’s an eye on the world that’s nothing less than magical.

 

The world we experience in the rarified air of what’s considered great literature is no more the real world than the one we get when we read fluff ‘n’ stuff. Reading isn’t now, nor has it ever been a reality check. If anything it’s the ultimate escape, the voyeur’s view into how the other half lives. It’s the opportunity to be entertained, titillated and even occasionally transformed. Being educated and well read is a thing we all treasure, and rightly so. But the experience of the written word is as much about pop culture and gossip and trends and history unfolding in all it’s marred, messed-up glory as it is about being educated. In fact, it seems to me that there is a point of cross-over that we can’t really afford to miss if for no other reason than because it’s a part of our culture, a part of the world we live in — bonk busts, bunny fluff, woo-woo and all. Besides, we need the escape, we need the view from outside ourselves. Guilty pleasures are often the best, and they’re never better than when we feel we should be reading Dickens, but end up reading Dan Brown over a pint of chocolate ice cream consumed straight out of the container.

 

Don’t get me wrong, some of my best, most life-changing reads have been classics, and they were wonderful and transforming, and I see them as mile-markers in my life. But I have my own list of fluff, woo-woo and mindless pulp novels, my own dirty little secret reading list, and I’m fine with that. Those books make me feel good when nothing else will. The fact that I canread, that I do read, that everything is out there for me to read; the fact that the written-word, no matter how shallow or forgettable is still the written word, well that’s nothing short of wonderful. At the end of the day, reading is an activity worthy of respect in its own right. The fact that we DO read is of far greater value than just how highbrow the reads on our checklist are.

 

Thoughts on Cinderella and Being Our Own Hero

From the Archives

I’m thinking about Cinderella today, oh I know there’ve been lots of face-lifts to the story to make it more modern, and I know the original fairy tale had some seriously dark stuff in it. The old Russian version has the evil step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit their enormous feet into the dainty glass slipper! And the evil toe-cutters are exactly my point.

 

I’m thinking about how often women are portrayed in pop-culture as either wanting to or NEEDING to be willing to cut off their toes to spite their feet in order to be worthy of a Prince Charming to come and rescue them. I’m also thinking about how often that perfect beauty of tiny feet, tiny waists, big tits and gorgeous face are the main characteristics of the damsel Prince Charming rescues. In fact, they’re quite often the ONLY characteristics of the damsel in need of a romantic rescue. Sadly, we’re encouraged not only to read about that vacuous blank canvas of a damsel, but we’re expected, likewise, to want to BE her. That dream of being rescued by the prince on the white horse will surely become our reality if we can only cut off out toes and be Cinderella!

 

Okay, if I’m honest, at every single one of the difficult points in my life I would have been more than willing to be rescued from the struggles, or even at times I would love to be rescued from my ordinary life and brought into something more exciting. (That’s always a very dangerous thing to wish for!) And who hasn’t spent serious time ‘looking for a hero,’ even if it’s just in a really juicy fantasy.

 

Most of the time, though, we don’t get rescued. We have to do that ourselves, and we’re all the better for it. In the best situations, and in the best stories I’ve read, the hero and the heroine rescue each other, and they’re both worthy of the rescue.

 

I suppose the need to be rescued is archetypal, just as is the need to go on a quest, which is often only an elaborate way of rescuing ourselves. But the makings of a fictional hero and a heroine these days seem to have more to do with fat bank accounts and chaining virgins to the bed in an expensive dungeon and less about the journey that risks everything.

 

Oh, did I mention the journey? Right! The rescue, the quest, they always go hand in hand with the journey. And this is why, for me, Cinderella is one of the weakest tales. The journey is the leaving of our comfort zone – quite often screaming and kicking every step of the way. In that respect, no doubt Cinderella was outside her comfort zone at the ball, but in most journeys, there’s no glass slipper, no prince charming, and no fairy godmother dashing to the rescue. There’s much fear and trembling and digging deep. THAT’S what makes a book nail-biting and un-put-downable (there! A new word) It’s when chaos springs from the mundanity of order that heroes are made. And the resulting quest, the resulting journey is usually at least as painful as having toes severed to fit into glass slippers.

 

We rescue ourselves on a daily basis. We find within ourselves the makings of the hero, and we push forward. That little seed of the hero’s journey exists in all of us, and it’s never a matter of sitting in the ashes by the fireplace and waiting to be rescued. It’s a matter of getting muddy and mucky and taking risks and moving into the places inside us that terrify us, but that pull us like magnates, nonetheless. We are our own heroes, and our stories – those of us who write stories, come from the deeper places in our selves – or at least they should if they’re ever to matter much.

 

Am I being judgmental? Quite possibly. I never claimed not to be. But I know my own journey, and I know when I sit in front of the computer and break into a cold sweat because I fear the place I see myself heading, because I know I have no choice but to go there if this story is to be born, then I know that no one will rescue me but me, and I have to go deep into chaos to come out the other side as my own hero.

 
© 2018 K D Grace
The Romance Reviews

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