Monthly Archives: June 2008

Where’s the Sun?

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I live in one of the few places in Sonoma County where there is a shred of freshness in the air today. The wind is blowing fierce, the sky is like a milky soup with streaks of rust from all the fires burning, but at least here the smoke mingles with a layer of fog sitting just off the coast, and it is possible to see small patches of almost-blue in the sky, to the west. They are faint as phantoms, and if you focus hard they disappear, but even the hint of a clear sky helps restore sanity.

A few days ago I joined a California disasters email group, where it is possible to get hourly updates on all fires and other critical conditions in the state as they unfold. The traffic is so heavy on the list that I opted for the digest version; even then I have been getting two or three email digests per day. I scanned the messages once but couldn’t bring myself to read them. I was safe; the fires were striking other places; that was all I really needed to know right then.

I spoke with a good friend in Willits today, who said that the air was so thick with smoke it was impossible to even take a walk without feeling sick. He was in Santa Cruz over the weekend, and standing on a bluff looking south toward Big Sur he could see the enormous black thunderheads come in off the ocean, striking dry lightning across the landscape. And from every lightning strike there soon rose a column of smoke. Literally hundreds of fires were set this way over the weekend, some of which are being left to burn as firefighters concentrate on the most threatening ones first.

I went to Oakland this Saturday, the morning that my father collapsed at the pool and died. As I sat with my sister and my mother, who was still in shock, I noticed the air getting hazier outside. I had to do something, in between calling people, reminding ourselves of other people to call, waiting for the coroner’s report, and answering calls from those who had heard the news.

So I checked my email on his computer, the new one I helped him buy and that he never fully mastered. He was frustrated by the tremor in his hands; no matter how I adjusted the keyboard sensitivity he always ended up pressing the wrong keys and his letters to friends ended up looking like a scrabble game.

I had been planning to spend time with him this coming weekend, maybe all of Monday morning, helping with his latest email woes and teaching him again how to use his scanner. Instead I cleaned up his desktop, deleted all his junk email, and started sending notices to his friends and colleagues. I re-set the keyboard to how I like it, and then, unable to begin writing his obituary, I started reading about all the fires.

My mom and I went outside for a while, I forget why, and the air had gotten palpably thicker. I was on the verge of pointing it out to her, but then thought the better of it. There are some moments of personal crisis which are made transcendent by knowledge of simultaneous collective “disturbances in the Force.” This would not be one of them. For her, at 74 losing her mate of almost 50 years, a reminder that the hills were a blazing inferno would be in no way comforting.

So I kept the news to myself as I read the laundry lists of fires, each identified by acronym, with details of how many acres were affected, what percentage was contained, and which neighborhoods were being evacuated. I wrapped myself in quilts of town names, roads closed, and evacuation centers opened. I tried reading other things, but somehow the short, declarative statements of the fire reports were all I could absorb.

For years I tried to get my father to write about his life, but he always resisted. Maybe I was really talking to myself all those years, because now when I try to remember the stories he told me, I find that I can only think of the ones I wrote down. I wrote about one memorable lunch here, and our most recent lunch here. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw him alive. We spoke on the phone twice after that, but were due for another visit which now will never happen—at least, not on this side of the veil.

There are tragedies, and then there are tragedies. My father died on the Summer Solstice. He was 81 years old, had led a full life, and left swiftly while surrounded by friends, doing what he loved. If there must be a sacrifice at the sun’s zenith, let it be this. I will miss him terribly—I do already—but I can’t begrudge him a quick death before his growing infirmities robbed him of joy.

The sky now at sunset is tinged red all around. There is no escape from the smoke, and the black thunderclouds are riding across the Valley, slowly advancing on the tinder-dry Sierras. We are being hit hard this fire season, even those of us not in the path of the flames. Tomorrow I will view my father’s body. Monday I will speak at his memorial. In between, there are countless tasks and trials. The wind outside is cold and damp, acrid, and stings the eyes. It also carries the faint whisper of freedom.

A Dream Harvest

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A couple years ago, I wrote about how singing and especially songwriting was one of my personal indicator species—those activities which, by their presence in my daily routine, mean that I am functioning at my fullest. By their absence, I can measure the level of stress that I am under. When they return, it is like I have just noticed that the sun is out and am able to take a full, deep breath.

Now that I have my own place, it is dawning on me that perhaps there are other soul-health indicators that I have been unaware of all this time. I have never had a garden of my own, to design and plant and care for just the way I want. For the past couple years there has been too much going on to do more than punt in the garden here: plant a few things, see if the deer eat them, water them when I remember, and hope they survive.

I made a few good choices: an apple and fig tree which thrive in the coastal climate, a bay tree (laurel nobilis) which gently demarcates the front yard from the side yard and gives me pungent leaves for cooking. Somehow those got watered enough, and with deer netting around them they are growing well into their second year.

Other choices weren’t so wise, and I won’t bother to list them. But this year I was determined to get started on the project I have always wanted to create: an herb garden. Specifically, I wanted to grow the herbs that I use in my work with dreams: mugwort, valerian, skullcap, lavender, hops, verbena, angelica, rose, sage, rosemary, and a few others. I figured if I started small, with one or two plants of each, chances were that I could keep up with maintenance and harvesting, and eventually make dream pillows with homegrown herbs.

It turns out that even starting small is a lot of work! Finding good medicinal herb plants is not easy, for one thing. Then planting them in neglected beds meant that I had to attend to the woody stragglers planted in years previous that were barely hanging on. I kept at it, weeding and sheet mulching and hooking everything up to a drip. In some cases, that meant ripping out and re-creating an entire bed taken over by spearmint, or doing a morning’s excavation of the old drip system, parts of which were blocked and parts which were leaking like a sieve.

By early this month I had everything in the ground and hooked up to the drip. There are still a few mysteries, like what is eating my marigolds (deer and insect resistant!) to the ground, and what that strange color on one of the roses is. But there have also been wonderful finds, like a pitcher sage that survived three years with no care whatsoever, and two types of honeysuckle that hid from the deer and are bouncing right back to grow over a trellis.

In one bed there was a French lavender that I feared the worst for, but pruned back and watered anyway. I checked on it two weeks ago, and it was full and bushy and loaded with stalks of unripened flowers. So over the full moon this week I have been doing my first Summer Solstice harvest of lavender, as well as rosemary. My dining room table is piled high with fragrant herbs soon to be hung upside-down in bunches in my shed, along with a tray of Spanish moss harvested from a cypress tree near the beach.

Being an herbalist has been a lifelong dream of mine, and I had thought it was brought on by all the young adult fiction I read as a girl, where there was a wise old woman living in a cottage somewhere who had healing plants growing all around her. It turns out that it has been part of my nighttime dreaming too, for just as long. Digging in the ground these past few weeks I started remembering many dreams I have had through the years of finding the woman with the herb garden and listening to her stories.

In a sense, this whole full moon has been a waking dream for me, where I rise in the morning and step outside into a long-forgotten dream that is now being tended, and watered, and bearing its first harvest. I pick my herbs and carry them inside, notice what plants are growing well and which need more care, and give them all a drink before the heat of the day.

When I go back inside to sit at my desk, the garden outside keeps growing. I feel buoyed by the life in the ground, the fragrant herbs scenting my fingers and clothes, the color reflected back to me through my windows. It is a good feeling—a great feeling—new, yet vaguely familiar.

I find myself sifting through other people’s dreams now, searching for the dried-up survivors of ancient dreams which keep appearing and refuse to die, calling out for water, waiting to bloom again. The tenacity of the soul, and the speed with which it can recover from years of neglect: these are the gifts of my first dream harvest.

Anne is Very Happy Now

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It is amazing, the human capacity to make do and get by, when really we would prefer an entirely different set of circumstances. Perhaps this adaptive trait is what has made us such a successful species—but I didn’t start this post to talk about evolutionary biology. Heavens no!

No, I am excited to spread the word about a major new development in the increasingly adrift world of media outlets. Newspapers across the nation are tanking, newsrooms at every major network are having their budgets slashed, and even the internet has not been able to pick up the slack in terms of investigative journalism—with notable exceptions, of course.

Yesterday, however, I found out via Jeff Jarvis that a new, independent, investigative journalism enterprise has started up, ProPublica. From their “Who We Are” blurb:

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them…

We have created an independent newsroom, located in Manhattan and led by some of the nation’s most distinguished editors, and staffed at levels unprecedented for a non-profit organization. Indeed, we believe, this is the largest, best-led and best-funded investigative journalism operation in the United States.

Yay! This just makes me incredibly happy. They have created six categories for the stories they produce: Business & Money; Justice & Law; Energy & Environment; Government & Politics; Media & Technology; and National Security. You can subscribe to RSS feeds for any or all of these categories, or just browse their main page to see the stories posted since they started, in late April.

I could go on about how blog-based software (which is what they’re using) is revolutionizing both collaborative publishing and website development in general, but that would bore even me. And I will leave it to others to say hopeful things about how this will hasten the return of the democratic process to our suffering nation. Instead, I’m going to head over there right now and start reading.

A Very Good Thing

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Yesterday afternoon I was preparing for my first class on Children in Contemporary Paganism, to be held online that evening through Cherry Hill Seminary, by reading some of the articles assigned to my students. The first piece was a lovely essay by my old friend Mary Klein, and as I read it I remembered the time I met her (now teenage) son Robbie. Mary and Dave had come to one of our first May Day parties, and Robbie had all the enthusiasm of an almost-toddler eager to walk, but not yet able to walk alone. I have never seen a child take so many trips across a lawn and back, gripping tightly to the fingers of one or the other of his hunched-over parents. Mary and Dave were patient and good-humored, in spite of having aching backs by the end of the afternoon.

I read four articles in all, written by friends of mine and published in the Reclaiming Quarterly over the past decade. They reminded me of earlier articles that I had published about Pagan parenting, back when the Quarterly was the humble Reclaiming Newsletter. And because my mind loves nothing better than a juicy tangent, I decided I must then and there dig up my old back-issues and see if I could find those articles.

Hours later, the class was about to begin, I had a desk full of stapled copies of some old pieces, and my scanner was busy making a final PDF of a long-forgotten poem I’d written about my daughter’s birth. I was not as prepared for the class as I had hoped to be, but taking the winding trip through my closets to unearth the box and sift through old newsletters had done me a world of good.

When I first got involved with Reclaiming, in the mid-80s, I read every newsletter I could get my hands on. I craved the backstory on all these people I had just met, and wanted to understand both the personal and the political dimensions behind every topic.

In the pages of the newsletter there were arguments about how much to charge for classes (Cerridwen Fallingstar against just about everyone else, as I recall), humor pieces from the fictional housecleaner Hannah Clancy, rants from Rose Dance and Moher Downing, poetry by Francesca Dubie (before she became DeGrandis), and hilarious send-ups of favorite liturgy, like the one at right. I inhaled it all. These were myFashion is the Healer chant people, my new tribe, and I loved hearing about their conflicts just as much as their inspirations. It made them all the more human to me, and therefore more authentic, which allowed me to both trust them and not put them (or the tradition) on a pedestal.

As the Newsletter morphed into the Quarterly, I gradually lost interest in its content. It became more of a platform for a particular subset of our thoughts and ideals, and seemed to lose its earlier focus of intense, engaged discussion. This is not in any way a criticism of the dedicated people who kept the quarterly in print throughout that time. Having worked on the newsletter for many years myself, I know how much hard work is involved, and how difficult it is to keep up that kind of commitment over the long term.

The change was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the decentralization of Reclaiming and its growth both nationally and internationally. With the rising popularity of blogging over the last five years or so, many of us loosely (or not so loosely) connected to Reclaiming have developed our own forums for thinking about, and talking about, the topics of the day. It has been thrilling to re-connect with old friends like Robin Weaver, Kevin Roddy, Pandora, and Sharon Jackson through the blogosphere, even as I become acquainted with many newer people through their own blogs.

Now, it appears that the Reclaiming website will be supporting this constellation of conversations, by listing prominently all the blogs hosted by Reclaiming-affiliated folks. I look forward to this major change, and not because I think it will drive more traffic to my blog. If anything, the Reclaiming site will see increased traffic from all our blogs being linked to it.

As an old-timer, and somewhat tangential to the extended Reclaiming community, I will love having easier access to what people are saying in other regions. But as a newcomer to the clan, I would love it even more. The backstory! The drama! The differences! Ultimately, our blogs are testimony to how people can disagree and yet maintain common connections. I would be the last person to characterize Reclaiming as a utopian social experiment that succeeded, but it has somehow supported a culture of inquisitiveness and a great many people who are skilled at expressing themselves verbally and in writing. That is something any tradition should be proud of, and enthusiastically share with the world.