Yearly Archives: 2005

Storms A’Plenty

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My, it is tossing and turning out there. Storms have been buffeting the Northern California coast for a few days now, but this one is the best yet. It came in yesterday afternoon, starting pretty mild. Last night before driving home from work I was able to fill up my gas tank and finally get the shoes I need: waterproof sneakers. Montrail has been my brand of choice, but down at REI they had a type of Merrells that were half the price and actually fit my foot, unusual for Merrells. They ride higher than I’m used to, have an ultra padded insole, great arch support, and look nice to boot. I call them little SUVs for my feet.

Thus shod, I drove back into town through the rain this morning very slowly, noting all the places where water was pouring over the road already. To a work meeting, then a session with my wonderful body/soul/worker Terra Mizwa, and then winding through the backroads to avoid some of the wetter spots on the way back out to the coast. As soon as the road rose out of the valley to descend into Freestone and Bodega, the wind started slamming the car and I had to turn my wipers on double time. The wind kept up all the way out, but coming into Bodega Bay the rain tapered off. I came inside, plugged in everything that needed to be charged up in case the power went out later, stuck a lasagne in the oven, and went out in my little SUVs to walk Vince while I could.

By some small act of grace, we were able to take a windy but relatively dry walk. Thanks to a birdwatching lady I met yesterday at the rail ponds, I can now identify the little birds I’ve been seeing everywhere for the past few weeks: the red pharalope. Except they’re not red; their winter plumage is in Arctic colors, not too helpful for camoflage once it comes ashore in California, which fortunately it apparently rarely does. Still, they’re everywhere on our walk, along with egrets enjoying the tasty earthworms that have left the saturated earth, gulls passing the time, and the occasional vulture circling hopefully, albeit in a macabre reminder sort of way.

Not two minutes after we arrived back at the house the clouds let loose and it has been raining full tilt ever since. All in all it has been a thoroughly enjoyable evening: the lasagne was great, the woodstove warm and attractive, the power has stayed on so I can satisfy my internet addiction, I got some work done and had time to watch Orlando Bloom battle the Saracens, something I hadn’t quite gotten around to earlier this fall. If it stays this way for most of tomorrow, I’ll do some ornament packing and de-Yule-ify my living room. Maybe bring in some more firewood and dry it on the hearth. I’ve got movies, I’ve got whiskey, half a lasagne and a king’s ransom in chocolate. It’s going to be a really nice New Year’s Eve.

Time Ripping at the Seams

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I have been able to spend some time this holiday season with my sister Sarah, her husband Jon, and their adorable little dumpling Elena. Elena is 9 months old now, and suffice it to say that she’s about as cute as you can get without a prescription around here. And I don’t think it was just because I got to be there when she was born (on International Women’s Day, I might add). Trust me, I’ve seen my fill of babies, and Elena outweighs most of them both in looks and in stature.

Sarah, at 39, knows it is likely that she won’t be having anymore children, and described to me the heartbreak that comes with every change Elena makes: nursing less, becoming more social. Her ennui essentially boils down to the awareness that some day Elena will be grown, and will no longer need her. I know that feeling, and I know how painful it is to smile at each passing cuteness while inside you’re mourning its passing. Feeling that sense of loss — or trying to avoid it — is why many women keep on having babies well past the time they should stop. Eventually, though, everyone stops having babies, and their babies do grow up, and they do leave home. The heartless (yet truthful) thing to say here is that ultimately we are all alone no matter how we surround ourselves with possessions or people, and we may as well get used to feeling it. That is not the right thing to say to a nursing mother though, so I did not say that to Sarah.

It reminds me of my current favorite New Yorker cartoon, of a TV stage where the host is standing with a contestant in front of Door #1, #2, and #3. The lights are on, the audience is hushed, and the man is about to make his decision. The perspective of the cartoon allows us to see what choices lie behind each door: a New Car, a Maui Vacation, or the Grim Reaper. I can tell this post is now in danger of topping the maudlin-o-meter, but I have to say it: family life is often like experiencing all three of those choices at once.

For instance, this Christmas: Bowen came up from Santa Cruz, Lyra escaped from her busy coffee-making schedule in SF, Jojo was here for the presents, and my nephew Alex whom we rarely get to see came to spend the day too. It was so wonderful to have them all with me, to stuff our faces with food, laugh at each other, and watch movies when we were sick of talking. Yet below the surface, I felt all these subtle shifts taking place. I am adjusting to the fact of having grown children, and they are working hard at being grown. One of us will say something to the other, and I will feel this ripping sensation, as if the very fabric of our relationship is caught by the tip of that scythe and the pattern does not hold. It is hard work, growing up, and painful all the way around.

In fact, if I wanted to scare them I’d say (truthfully) that just being alive is incredibly painful, as much as it is glorious and joyful. But why would I want to scare my kids? They probably already know it anyway, but maybe they thought that it would cease being painful as soon as they figure out who they are and what they want out of life — say, by the time they’re 25 or so.

No, the fabric has been ripped, and who knows what kind of crazy tatters will remain before some sublime adult relationship emerges from all this chaos? To me the hard part is not feeling the tearing of my heart as another child breaks away in another way, it’s trusting that love will remain in the space that has opened up. You have to trust in something that is nothing tangible, that is an absence of habit or pattern. That is really freaky. There are prescriptions for the kind of fear and anxiety brought about by having to trust invisible love.

Visible love is second nature to decent parents: here, I’ll get off of work to take you to your dentist appointment. I’ll give you money to go to the movies with your friends. I’ll cook food you like when you come to visit. Invisible love is trickier: I trust you to be where you say you are going to be. I trust you to stay alive in my absence. I trust you to love me even if I’m not doing things for you.

Eventually, so I hear from friends whose kids are my age, a new pattern emerges from all that trust that is more suited to a relationship of adults. I’m looking forward to the day. Like so many things about this adventure of parenting, I’m not sure I got to that step with my own parents. But parenting has been very good to me. It has allowed me to heal a lot of raw spots left over from my own upbringing, just by being able to do something different with my children. I know Sarah feels that with Elena too. At last, that is something hopeful (and truthful) that I can say to Sarah: the joy that you feel with Elena, and the healing that her presence brings, will not diminish with time but will continue with surprising twists and turns for the rest of your life.

Down to Zero

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A week ago, Jojo was telling me the story of 2 eighth grade girls in her school who had gotten into a fight, according to her over which of two gangs was the best. We talked a little about what kids their age living in Sebastopol might or might not know about gang life, whether gangs were perceived as fashionable just like different brands of jeans. I took the opportunity to tell her a little about Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the co-founder of the Crips gang then awaiting execution on California’s Death Row.

Tookie Williams had been on my mind for a few days, ever since I listened to someone reading his writing over the radio. I knew he had written several books for children, had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for his anti-gang work while in prison. I consider the death penalty worse than medieval: it is one of the great evils that we perpetuate in this state. Yet even if I were for the death penalty, I still would be opposed to it in this case. We need more men like Tookie Williams, articulate, passionate men who have been through the fire and lived to tell the tale, who can help guide young people away from the dangers of the streets. The last thing we need is another reason for poor Black youth to feel that there is no possibility for justice or a good life for them. Killing such an eloquent, reformed spokesman, regardless of the wrongs he had done earlier in life, is driving another nail into the coffin of an entire generation of disenfranchised youth in our cities and prisons.

Monday morning driving Jojo to school, we heard on the news that Schwarzenegger still hadn’t responded to pleas for clemency. Williams was scheduled to be executed at San Quentin that night at midnight, and Jojo and I made tentative plans to drive down after I got off work and join the vigil outside the gates. For a girl who loves horror and suspense movies, who revels in being scared out of her wits, it was gratifying to see her stricken reaction to real-life horror, and the outrage she felt on hearing about this miscarriage of justice.

That day at work, two people came in and in a classic bait-and-switch one of them distracted me out front while the other went into the back room and stole all the credit cards out of my wallet. This was tremendously upsetting to me, even though I had been watching for something like this to happen since they’d walked in. As soon as they left I went right to my purse and discovered the theft, so was able to file a police report and cancel all my cards before they could even charge a tank of gas. But what a time of year to have no credit cards! And I was reminded that if this had been Tookie Williams in his early days that I had met instead of those two desperate bumblers, I would be lucky to be alive right now. People do bad shit to other people for no reason, all the time. I was in despair for the entire human race. My sense of having been violated merged uneasily with a huge feeling of gratitude, though: following a strong intuition that morning, I’d just done all the rest of my holiday shopping before arriving at work, and so could probably live without those cards until they were replaced.

I just stayed upset all day, and I couldn’t tell how much was from the theft and how much from the atrocity to be committed in my name later that night. I kept checking in to the SF Chronicle’s website for news on the clemency appeal and set up a little shrine to Williams at the front counter, which garnered some lovely comments from customers. Finally word came down that the Governor had denied Williams plea for clemency, and that the execution would go forward as scheduled. My upset turned to nausea, and I gave up trying to make myself feel better for the rest of the day.

By the end of it, I was too exhausted to think about driving to San Rafael, and with no cash and no credit in my wallet it didn’t seem like the smartest thing to do anyway. So Jojo and I lit a candle to Tookie in our house, said prayers for his peaceful passage and for the hope that he will have a better life next time around. In the moment, there didn’t seem like much else to do.

That’s how my week started, and the pace and challenges have not let up for a second. There have been a string of delays at the plant with the Music of Gwydion CD which have frustrated me no end, and mean that no one will get their CDs before Solstice. Everything is taking longer than it should, nothing is easy, and there’s no time to really rest.

I feel stripped down to the bone, in the middle of a marathon with no reserves and no option of quitting. The weather has been cooperating nicely, making me feel like Edmund Hillary everytime I go out to walk Vince bundled up against the howling wind and rain. Tonight I sit here on my bed with my laptop while in the next room Jojo and several of her 7th grade friends are whooping it up on the occasion of her 13th birthday party. Pacing is everything, especially when the timing is immovable. Maybe tomorrow I can sleep in a bit.

Onward Into the Night

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I know this is the season of gathering darkness, I can tell from the fact that the sun sets way before dinnertime and rises just in time for me to walk the dog before work. It is winter here: the new grass is taller than my shoes, the ground is always damp, and the night air burns my nose with its mixture of cold, wet, and woodsmoke.

In my effort to clean up the front yard, I’ve started hauling the chopped ends of 2 x 4s, construction cast-offs that have been lost to the overgrown grasses, into piles and onto the back porch. So far I have barely made a dent in the seemingly endless supply of ready firewood around here. The woodstove has been going every night for the past couple weeks, ever since the unseasonable warm spell around the last full moon passed away. I find myself remembering that Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter where it’s the coldest winter on record for the settlers and they use up all their wood, and by the end they’re spending all day twisting grass together to keep something burning in their stove as they all huddle around it. Melodramatic, I know, but I enjoy being able to tell from the morning clouds what kind of weather is coming in, and how much time I have to bring more wood inside before it starts raining.

I am used to equating winter with a mythic descent into the dark, like Psyche or Kore entering the Underworld. In years past this association has worked for me, but not this year. Maybe it’s because I’m not living around as many trees as I’m used to, and the darkness has fewer places to gather. The hills around here are bare, windswept, and rise in uneven arcs against the sky as though etched with the finest chisel. Trees survive only in the hollows, though there are occasional stands of cypress here in town and on the ranchland surrounding us, planted as windbreaks by an earlier generation of coast dwellers.

Sometimes it is late by the time I get home at night, and I have to walk Vince in the pitch black. I don’t bring a flashlight, and though I have to rely on my feet knowing the trail into the empty circuit of road that is our local dog run, when I get there I can dimly make out the white of the sidewalk against the black asphalt–enough to feel confident as we walk through the silent night. Above me the stars are a glittering majesty, the Milky Way so clear and beautiful it is almost painful to behold. The clouds, if there are any, come in like long wisps of light, or dense and mottled like the shell of a giant tortoise.

There are birds sometimes, the shadow of a barn owl flying low, fast and effortless. Vince’s presence stirs up some red pharalopes sleeping on the road, that cry out and take wing invisibly as we walk. But mostly our only accompaniment is the foghorn and the constant surge of the surf in the distance. This does not feel like a gathering of anything; this is a great emptiness, a night more vast than I have yet experienced. It is an emptiness that does not rule out light, or heat, or happiness, but puts them in their proper context: pinpricks of starlight in its great expanse, made visible to us now through the trick of the seasons.

I am spellbound by the ruthless clarity of this winter, awestruck at the stark beauty all around me, and happy in my warm, brightly lit little corner of the universe while the wheel of the year spins so close outside my windows. There is a peace in the darkness, and a respite which I desperately need. These days, I breathe it in with the cold and wet, and it feels wonderful.

Making Progress

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Here we are, on the cusp of the biggest collective tryptophan high of the year. All over the country, people are rummaging through their closets looking for their baggiest clothes that can also pass for dressy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast. College students who have made the trek back home for the weekend are already cursing their decision, wishing they didn’t have to spend the next three days with their boring and/or ignorant relatives.The more fortunate among us are warm and dry, well-fed with a comfy place to sleep, surrounded by friends or family. Those less fortunate are still homeless, penniless and jobless from the ravages of the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Or they have just been handed their pink slips from General Motors, who just announced they’re laying off 30,000 more workers and closing 9 plants in the US. They are waiting for their loved ones to return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and some wait in vain for a homecoming that will never take place.

At this moment I am alone in my beautiful house that is lit with a very long strand of colored lights recently hung floor to ceiling across the living room. There is a fire in the woodstove, my dog Vince rests contentedly on his pillow, and filling up a previously empty corner of the room is my new piano! It is a baby grand circa 1931 that I found on Craigslist last week for a ridiculously low price, after spending close to 50 hours researching and playing used pianos. The movers brought it in just this afternoon, and by dinnertime I had to stop playing because the muscles and tendons in my arms were complaining.

Growing up, we all learned to play on a sturdy old Baldwin grand piano that still sits in my parents’ living room. I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old, but months before that I began playing by imitating the pieces that my older sister was learning in her lessons. That was not the first time, and it was by no means the last, that I annoyed her mightily by encroaching on her territory. But she got me back years later when she picked up the cello as her second instrument. That was the one I would have picked too, but since she had claimed it first, the dictates of our intense sibling competition meant I then had to choose something else when it was my turn to branch out.

I loved playing the piano, even though I went through periods of hating to practice, hating my mother for forcing me, and disdaining my provincial old lady piano teachers. Music was my lifeline, my most reliable outlet for emotional expression and solace as a teenager. I loved Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel — anything that was like a painting I could color in my own way. My classical training provided me with a solid musical foundation, but I wanted to be able to do other things with music, too. After I left for college at 17, I took up the guitar and swore I would never take lessons on it as long as I lived. I wanted to learn how to play it myself, to let how I played be a direct expression of what I knew rather than what I had been taught.

The guitar has been a treasured companion to me over the years, my musical mainstay even as one by one I’ve added other instruments to the list of things I can pick up and make music on. When my kids were small, one of my mother’s piano students in Oakland had a Great Aunt Verna who passed away and left a piano for her heirs to deal with. My mother’s student offered it to her free of charge for someone who could use a piano; so it was the our house acquired a lovely Chickering upright. That has been a very good piano, and continues to grace the parlor/ritual room/music room back in Sebastopol.

Moving out here to the coast, one of the first things I brought was my guitar and music stand. I was determined to get back into songwriting, which to me is like an indicator species of my spiritual and emotional health. If things are not in balance in my life, the first thing to disappear is songwriting. It is so important to me, and yet the conditions under which I can write a song are complex and fragile, and not easy to recover once they’ve been interrupted. Solitude being the single most important ingredient in the mix, my guitar was an obvious companion to bring along.

I don’t even think I would have chosen to bring a piano here for myself; it was the necessity of having an instrument for Jojo to practice when she is staying with me, combined with the realization that a grand would really go much better in the space than an upright, which catapulted me into the past several weeks of piano-spotting. The more I looked, though, the more I yearned for a grand piano like the one I grew up with. The big, resonant sound that fills a room to overflowing, the power and the subtlety of a fine instrument, all called to me with the force of a need unmet for so long that it’s been effectively forgotten. And so here I sit in radiant happiness, knowing that as soon as I’m done blogging here I’ll go back over and play till my hands are sore and it’s time for bed.

My good friend Barbara, an ardent practicing Buddhist, says the thing to do with beauty is not to hide it, minimize it, or be ashamed of having it, but to give it away. Appreciate it, and share the experience as widely as possible, with a prayer that beauty enter the lives of all people. So I thought to share this snapshot of the happiness this day has brought me, and the deep gratitude I feel for all that I have, all the beauty which surrounds me here. May the forces of beauty, balance, and delight overflow your homes, your feasts, and your lives in the days to come. May we not forget those in greatest need in our prayers of thanksgiving tomorrow, and when the feasting is over and we have all gone home, may gratitude and happiness for all that we have be our first thought on waking, and our last thought at the close of day.

The Faerie Shaman Rides Again

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Though I never knew him personally, Gwydion Pendderwen loomed large in the Bay Area Pagan community when I first became a part of it in the early 1980s. My first affinity group participated in the protests at Lawrence Livermore Labs in May, 1982 in conjunction with activists from Reclaiming. I remember a buzz that day when a certain man came onto the scene: Gwydion had come down from the mountains to protest nuclear weapons research with the rest of us. It was something special that a prominent Pagan not normally associated with the overtly political Reclaiming would step across the aisle, as it were, and lend his considerable voice to the actions we were espousing. There was a feeling of hope in the air, too, that this might be the start of a larger Pagan presence in the anti-nuclear movement. A few short months later, Gwydion was killed in a car accident, and the Pagan community lost a charismatic, talented man. Gwydion’s influence continued on, however, in the two albums of music he had made, Songs for the Old Religion (1975) and The Faerie Shaman (1981), and in the Faery Tradition which he helped shape.

After his death, Gwydion’s music was distributed by Nemeton, the publishing branch of Church of All Worlds, and was promoted in Green Egg magazine, for years the pre-eminent Pagan rag in the US. Once I started Serpentine Music in 1992, I would regularly scour the Green Egg classifieds looking for notices of new Pagan cassettes on the market to review or consider carrying through Serpentine. Ah, the quaint days of pre-internet Paganism! In those days, I carried Gwydion’s two albums on cassette because the original vinyl records had long sold out and apparently never been re-printed. I think Gwydion’s master recordings had also been lost, because the Songs for the Old Religion tape started with the sound of a needle being dropped onto an LP, followed by a scratchy, very low-fidelity audio transfer.

Sometime in the mid-90s Nemeton released both of Gwydion’s albums in a double CD set. I remember talking to Orion Stormcrow who was handling their production and distribution, hoping he would be able to get some better sound quality on a digital re-master. I guess they didn’t have the funds to do it, because when the CD came out you could still hear the needle dropping into the grooves, along with all the pops and scratches of the old LP they used as a master.

In 1995 my then-coven was having a day out on the town in SF. We were in Uma’s Tools of Magic shop in the Haight when I spied a copy of The Faerie Shaman LP high on a dusty shelf and bought it immediately. Uma couldn’t figure out whether to sell it for practically nothing because it had been sitting there for so long, or to charge me a premium because I obviously valued it so highly. That was the first time I remember thinking that it might still be possible one day to do a quality re-master of Gwydion’s music if I could find a well-preserved copy of his first album and got the equipment together to do the transfer.

But over the ensuing years Church of All Worlds kept their CD in stock, and my LP stayed stashed away on a shelf still unopened. Then, along with shakeups within CAW, Gwydion’s music became increasingly difficult to keep in stock until in 2004 not only were the CDs impossible to get, but my phone calls and emails were going unanswered as well. Finally last fall I went through an all-out effort to find out who if anyone was still in charge of keeping his music available, and had no success. I contacted my friend Anna Korn, who was one of the executors Gwydion named in his will and has always tried to keep his legacy alive. The year before I had gathered the hardware and software necessary for a fairly high-quality digital transfer from vinyl, in order to produce The Best of Pagan Song collection. With Anna’s encouragement (and the loan of her well-preserved copy of Songs for the Old Religion), I then started looking into what it would take to legally re-master and re-release The Music of Gwydion.

There is nothing like producing an album to make you absolutely sick of whatever music it is you’re producing, no matter what you thought of it before. For weeks or even months you must listen to it repeatedly over as many different sound systems as you can, not as a music lover listening for enjoyment but as a technician looking for any and every flaw, which it is then your responsibility to correct, or at least acknowledge and decide to live with. I have probably listened to Gwydion’s music more in the last six months than I ever have in the past 13 years of selling it. I definitely hit the wall with listening fatigue towards the end as I always do, but I also came away with a renewed respect for Gwydion’s accomplishments as a songwriter and recording artist.

His tunes are catchy, with great hooks and nice chord progressions. Gwydion was a master wordsmith and gifted storyteller, and his finely crafted lyrics are always well-matched to the music. His music is a product of its culture and times: late 70s and early 80s Paganism, heavy on the Celtic themes and folk music instrumentation. But any sense of his music being dated is eminently forgivable simply because it is well-made and heartfelt. It stands on its own as some of the finest Pagan music made to date, and now that I am free to listen to it for enjoyment, I am thrilled to be able to offer it to the public again, in a new edition that is the best I could make it.

More than two decades after his death, Gwydion’s life and musical legacy still loom large in Pagan culture. For those who are already familiar with his work, I am sure the re-release of The Music of Gwydion will be immediate cause for celebration. I also look forward to seeing Gwydion’s influence on a new generation of listeners, some of whom I hope will become Paganism’s next batch of bards and songwriters. We are in need of new artists who are inspiring, and who aren’t afraid to work hard at their craft for the beauty and satisfaction such creations bring. The Music of Gwydion is at the printer’s right now, and will be shipping through Serpentine Music in a couple weeks’ time, with all royalties going to benefit Gwydion’s forested home in Mendocino County, in accord with his final wishes. 23 years after his untimely death, the Faerie Shaman will ride again!

“Roots Down, Branches Up, Cell Phones Off!”

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I participated in a wonderful initiation ceremony this past weekend. The initiate was pretty much an ideal candidate: grounded, intuitive, smart, grounded, talented, serious, expressive, funny, and grounded. Even though there were only two initiators involved, which means we were doing a lot of work, both of us felt good afterwards — not drained, not hyper, but energized and satisfied. Having participated in quite a few initiations in my time, I know how very rare it is to end up feeling that way afterwards.

It is now nine years after my own Feri initiation, and I finally feel comfortable running that energy full-tilt. It has taken that long for many of us to sift through all we were given and find our own way to use and transmit Feri energy to others. This time I edited and partially rewrote some of the better-known liturgy associated with the rite, so that for once the kinesthetic sense of what I was doing jibed with the words I was speaking.

Lumping an intense ritual in the midst of great upheaval in my life was not easy. I am a relentless multi-tasker usually, with a music label, a writing career, a family and a day job to juggle, but this past week the number of details added to my already full plate was just insane. Getting to and from the initiation alone involved a total of seven hours of driving, and it was only 90 minutes away. So it occurred to me that I may have to add something to my late friend Raven Moonshadow’s brilliant grounding liturgy.

Many of us in Reclaiming use Raven’s grounding (“Roots down, branches up!”) because it’s, well, succinct. After a certain number of years, you simply don’t need to lead a long involved visualization of entering the center of the earth and beaming out to the heavens to ground yourself. You just do it, and get present. So Raven’s signature grounding has been used liberally and with great relief over many years of ritual.

This time, though, I spoke it as, “Roots down, branches up, cell phones off!” The ubiquitous cell phone is a good stand-in metaphor for all our devices and to-do lists that keep pulling our attention away on the horizontal plane. It’s not so much that my frenetic pace had stopped me from being rooted in the earth or open to the sky, but it was scattering my energy to the four winds, not allowing me to think of only one thing at a time. In any ritual but especially in an initiation, you have to give your full attention to what is occurring in the circle in that moment. You can’t have divided attention and wonder if you forgot to call someone back. So that was my little brainstorm for the weekend, it was very helpful for us in that beautiful initiation ceremony, and maybe it can help others out there, too.

Sudden Turns and Slow Approaches

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I am now not only by choice but by necessity nested in my lovely house by the bay. October has passed by in a blur of strong emotions punctuated by late-night drives, my car full of belongings, out the winding road to the coast. It has been exhausting, and even now with everything more or less in place, I spend a lot of time sitting around in shock. Not writing, not reading, not playing music, just waiting it out until I feel like I’m back riding the waves rather than being slammed by the surf.

Making such a radical shift in my life has caused my hindsight to kick into hyperactive gear. Every dream I’ve had over the past several months has been gone over with a fine-tooth comb for prescient clues. I find myself analyzing past events and wondering, “Did I know it then? Was I preparing? Did I see it coming?” Eventually I wind up right at the corner of Paradox and Give-it-up, and then I know it’s time to stop thinking and start working at something — anything. No matter how long and how consciously we prepare for a transition, the moment of change itself is startling. And even when change catches us unprepared, happening so suddenly it takes our breath away, hindsight will always manage to find a trail of breadcrumbs, subtle signs and auguries, somewhere behind us.

My move requires of me another 20-30 minutes of driving each way no matter where I’m going. In any other setting this would kick me over the edge into a general hatred of humankind, but instead this drive mostly relaxes me. In all those miles I do not have to go through a single stoplight, and the road runs through some of the most gorgeous coastal valleys and foothills imaginable. I drive twice a day through a constantly changing dreamscape of color and light.

On mornings when I have to take Jojo to school, we leave just as the sun rises over the eastern hills. The mornings have often been clear and balmy here on the coast, and the view down the hill towards the bay is always breathtaking. With no breeze to speak of, I let Vince run around the “dog park” as I walk briskly and watch the bay lighten up, a palette of soft grays turning to pastels, then we pile into the car, plug in the XM radio (my big splurge to make me feel better — it’s working), and head inland.

In conversation I catch myself saying “home” when referring to both houses, our family home in Sebastopol and my new home here on the coast. Sometimes this feels awkward and makes me pause. I’m amazed at the speed with which I’ve transferred myself body and soul to this new place. At the same time, there is a familiarity with the old place borne out of 17 years of residence. Surely that is still home of a sort? My feelings about this are all very new and raw, not settled at all. As much as I can I am enjoying the process, and taking the time to learn what is most important to me in a home.

Two nights ago I brought a bunch of altar supplies out here with me. It is Samhain, the Days of the Dead, and I felt the need arise as it always does around this time of year to put up an altar to my ancestors. This year’s model is really stripped down — the tiny gold thimble my great-grandmother left me in its woven basket, a favorite bracelet from my mother-in-law, a locket from one grandmother, and a ring from another. A few pictures of dead relatives, my mini-dead-altar made from some of Raven Moonshadow’s old belongings, a candle, a bunch of sage.

On the porch outside sits a jack-o-lantern Jojo and I carved, overlooking the street like a rag-tag beacon. After setting up my altar I went outside and lit the pumpkin, and its newly bright eyes looked intently beyond the Western gates, past the mouth of the harbor and into the wide ocean beyond. I know I wrote something at Beltane about that moment when the force of the holiday hits me. Lighting the jack-o-lantern for the first time was when Samhain really hit me this year.

There’s something about celebrating the thinning of the veils out at the edge of the water — it doesn’t feel as land-based as it used to. Out here, the precarious nature of all our inland assumptions about stability and permanence are easily seen. When the ancestors arrive, it’s not through the trees or up from the ground. They come in like a storm front directly from the Otherworld, and that world is as close as the water at my feet.

Now that I am living on my own the ancestors have different things to tell me. It’s as though for so many years while I was raising children, they’d take one look at me and decide amongst themselves, “I think she needs a transmission of that special meatloaf recipe I always used to cook,” or other thoughts of that nature. Now that my mothering time amounts to no more than a few hours per week, they’re coming to me after the kitchen’s been cleaned up and they’re ready to crack open their secret stash of bourbon. It’s a whole new relationship, and it hit me full-on as I lit the pumpkin on my porch a couple nights ago. It takes some getting used to: they’ve been around a whole lot and I am trying to take it all in as quickly as it’s coming to me.

In a couple days we will all board a plane to Minneapolis and go help celebrate with my dear friend Donald Engstrom and his lovely betrothed Mark as they get handfasted. It will be a multi-layered performance art experience over several days and many different venues. The Minneapolis hostel will be full of many close friends and talented witches, and their kids and my kids will all have a blast I’m sure. I can’t think of a more stunning group of folks to witness the turning of the wheel with, or another man to whom I so wholeheartedly wish that all good things might come. And as the rains start to soften this land, blunting the burrs and tamping down the dust, may we all breathe deep of the fresh clean air of Samhain. The old year is dead. Long live the dead!

Hands

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Several months ago, my friend Rabbit emailed me while I was in Wales, attending my sister’s birth. He asked me to write something about my hands. Tonight, cleaning out my email caches, I found my reply. I think it is worthy of posting, so here it is:

My hands aim more directly now. I could say it is from aikido practice, where there is constant observation of whether your hands are pointing where your body is pointing, and training them to be in alignment. But I think it is most likely also from that wonderful territory known as middle age. Middle age for a woman is a tremendously freeing landscape, where you’ve managed to escape the expectations placed on younger women, but have not yet been relegated to the irrelevancy of old age. You can still surprise people, and in fact often do, especially with self-assuredness and the sudden realization (on their part) that you know more, perceive more, about the situation than they do. You can go from unnoticed in one minute to an ultimate authority in the next. Maybe my hands led me there, or maybe their straightforwardness is a result of this happy accumulation of, as we used to say in the 80s, power.

An example: I reach across the couch to place my hand on my sister’s pregnant belly, feeling her baby move. I may do it with hesitancy, or uncertainty, or maybe just on a whim. But my hand does it deliberately, purposefully, and comes away with knowledge that the rest of me has to leap forward to catch. It’s exhilarating, keeping up with my hands these days, a little like having my super-cape in my back pocket, waiting for the inevitable phone booth transformation.

I have also started wearing rings on my fingers. As a pianist and guitarist, my hands have always been the part of me that is an instrument, and as I searched for clarity of expression through them I also kept them mostly free of ornament. Suddenly, some weeks ago, I decided to try silver rings of various shapes on as many fingers as I could fill and still like the effect. I’ve got just three of the ten occupied so far, but I’ll only wear ones that strike my fancy. I’ve got one that’s a piscean double spiral, joined at the middle, another that is a slim band of scrollwork bordered by two solid lines, and yet another that holds a rounded garnet in a bed of vines.

What I notice today is that my hands are happy, and work themselves into shapes I hadn’t considered before. There’s a gracefulness about them that works nicely with their newfound authority. I enjoy watching my hands, wondering how they will surprise me next. In fact, it is a surprise to find I have anything notable to say about my hands at all, but there it is. Surprising, and joyful.

The Earth Turns Color

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Fall is a beautiful season here in Sonoma County. Being a California native, I have taken umbrage at those who claim that California doesn’t have proper seasons. These people can only see two: rainy and dry—and they usually complain about the rain. Yet to me, the four seasons fit perfectly with what I see, feel, smell, and experience through the year here.

Fall begins hinting in mid-July when the acorns start dropping from the oak trees. Then around early August the oak leaves start to turn brown—slowly at first, but by September when the heat comes in waves and the whole region is baked by the harvest sun the oaks are joined by the fruit trees, the grape vines, and lastly by the maples which need a good cold snap to really turn.

At the Fall Equinox, the season has been around for about six weeks by my calendar. Then comes the browning of the earth, one of the most difficult points of the year for me. The chickory, which blooms by the roadside in brilliant blue late into August, has finished its flowering and turned to seed. The grasses are long since harvested, the cows have trampled the golden hills so even the pastoral vistas look tired, overused. Taking a walk through nearby Ragle Park into the seasonal wetland around Atascadero Creek, the ground which stays damp so long into the summer is baked dry. The foliage is not only dry and brown but sparse, as though picked over far too many times by hungry critters. Even the birds are brown, fat little nondescript birds the color of mud, with no song of brilliance to offer the day, only monotone chirps as they go over every stalk once again on their rounds.

The land, the animals, the people, all wait for the rain. It is a wait with an edge of pleading to it: many of us remember the seven years of drought within the last decade, when the rains started hopeful but soon petered out, leaving the hills a delicate green that barely lasted through mid-spring. But even without the rains the air changes in late fall, dropping its pollens and the dust from harvest’s tractors, stripped down to some essence of fall-turning-to-winter. As the air changes, the browning of the year starts to feel less like fall and more like winter. It still can be hot during the day but the air is crisp and cold at night, and even the fog rolling in from the ocean has a stinging bite that is characteristic of winter.

Finally, the rains begin. The earth opens her pores, everyone tilts their heads up to wet their faces. The trampled grass of the fall turns to wet straw, and finally to a mat of mulch which helps the land conserve the water that is falling. The dirt-brown birds go away somewhere and their hapless cheeping is replaced by the erotic sound of frogs in the wetlands. Frog singing is a very wet sound, like slick skin enveloping yours. It comes from all around, not a single source, and if you time it right you can walk through the deafening sound and be completely transported to the Dreamtime.

The frogs bring winter but it’s a bebop winter, full of wild syncopation, surges and silences that catch your attention and keep it enthralled. The dampness freshens the air, plumping it up and making it feel so good in the lungs. It’s as though with every breath we re-hydrate ourselves after the long waiting spell. Rather than causing the air to lose its clarity, the rain makes the air crystalline, brilliant. Standing on a hillside after a rain, there is such an incisiveness to the air that one feels capable of seeing with perfect acuity well beyond the horizon.

That is the weather I love the best here: the kind that finally warrants pulling out the wool sweaters and dressing in layers. Sure, it rarely snows in the coastal foothills, but an arctic storm is an arctic storm no matter what temperature it is. I love it when the wind howls and the rain pounds and finally sunny California is forced to batten down the hatches and cease activity, if only for a long night. Maybe it’s the revenge of the introverts, this love of winter in a sunny clime. Inwardly I sneer and scoff at those who complain of the cold and damp. I can be tipped into road rage upon hearing one too many radio djs refer to winter storms as “bad weather” and sunny December days as “good weather.” For heaven’s sake, didn’t we learn anything from the drought?! Seasonally-appropriate weather is good weather.

The kneejerk prejudices of news anchors and commentators towards the weather also shows up in their near total lack of understanding of the seasons. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter. Here in California, Midwinter means exactly what it says: it’s the middle of winter. Not the beginning of winter, as you will hear everywhere. Winter begins here with the rains and the turning of the air around Samhain, or the beginning of November—give or take. By the mid-winter holidays, it’s been around for quite a while.

I will write more about winter when we finally get there, but now we have entered the long waiting period, the browning of the earth, and the sun is beating down on us in great waves of inescapable heat and the dust rises in anticipation of each foot setting on the trail. The fall teaches a plodding patience, and is interspersed with moments of almost unbearable sweetness as a choice ripe fig or luscious pear comes within grasp. May we all bow to the lessons of the seasons, and come to ripeness in our own time.