Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Spirit of Birds

When I entered the small living room of my host on the Solstice day, my eyes were drawn immediately to the Christmas tree, flocked in white and covered in birds: clear glass birds, traditional ornament birds, felted birds, birds made of bells and pinecones.  The tree was magical, and it drew me once again to a story I have been trying to write for months, well years really: a story of birds on a Christmas tree.

My auntie, long deceased, gave bird ornaments.  She believed that birds should hang on Christmas trees. Every year she bought a new bird to hang on the tree in her home, and gave it to her son, her only child, to fill him with the magic of birds.

After Auntie died I picked my cousin up at the airport to spend the holiday with our family, his first Christmas without his mother.  He told me sadly that he would miss getting a bird from his mother.  At her death, I hadn’t thought of this detail, as I am sure he hadn’t until this season came around.  I asked him what he did with all the birds from past Christmases.  “Gone,” he said.  “She sold them in a garage sale when I was in college.”

I remember the sale.  Auntie was tired of moving, tired of schlepping her things from apartment to apartment, tired of fighting with her only son, and tired of the pain that comes with divorce. She sold it all: childhood toys, jewelry, family antiques, clothing, and Christmas decorations.

For many years now, I have been reliving that garage sale.  Wishing I had the presence of mind to stop it or to at least stop the sale of those birds.  I wished I could have bought them and presented them to my cousin in some grand gesture of family love and loyalty.  I even pictured myself going door to door on the street where Auntie lived asking people if they had bought any bird ornaments at a garage sale, oh so many years ago.  Every year at about this time I can picture the event: bird ornaments being lifted out of a dusty card board box as they were sold one by one on a hot July day while my cousin waited tables in a far away town, trying to save enough money to buy books for college, unaware that they were disappearing.

The story has a happy ending, I told my host, whose tree I stood there and admired.  A few years later my cousin married a woman who gives him a bird ornament every year for Christmas. He has 10 now. 

Legend says that birds are the carriers of spirit: taking the soul with them as they fly high above treetops or perch on branches to sing their song, and so I bask in the glow of my hosts bird filled Christmas tree in the waning light of this solstice day.  All those years I had pictured the fateful garage sale when really this special bird filled tree is what I should have been dreaming about. I finally understand what Auntie always knew. At last, I am comforted by birds. 

Amy C for the PGM

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Light Behind the Window

A long time ago, I used to love night-walking the streets of the New England town where I lived.  These were wandering years, 20-something, learning-to-pay-the-bills-years.  Drafty apartment, year-long lease years, when most of what I owned fit in the back of a blue Toyota station wagon.   I’d been living away from the comfy mid-western home I’d grown up in and was struggling to figure out what home meant to me.  I didn’t know it then, but in retrospect, I’m certain I roamed the dim lamp-lit streets of that Connecticut river valley town in search of a life that felt like what could be mine at a time I simply had no idea where I was headed.  This searching impulse overrode much of the common sense of the time that warned young women against walking alone in darkness anywhere. 

 Victorian house after house beckoned from the sidewalk.  I’d peer into warmly lit interiors for country farmhouse tables, shabby chic arm chairs, upright pianos, and the humans who played them.  Occasionally, I’d see a family in animated dinner conversation, an old couple at rest in the blue tv screen light, or a teenager–just a few years younger than I was at the time, but still so young, illuminated by a reading light, encircled in the hug of what I presumed to be her favorite chair in a wood-paneled nook.  I imagined her solidly planted.  At the same time, I granted she could be yearning for escape just as I had been not many years before.

 I didn’t own a tv, so those night time walks were my entertainment, my mediation, as well as good exercise.  At the time, I worked long days helping people live more independent lives after years lived in state institutions. I spent a good deal of the daylight hours in places most people would consider dingy, sometimes dangerous, if not catastrophically depressing. As the “light seeker” I suppose I was, I looked for what was wonderful-in human imperfection and in the complex world people who’d lived most of their lives shut away from were learning to negotiate. Then, under cover of darkness, I walked nights trying to sort out the murkiness inside of me:  who was I and what mattered enough to me to support a light I sought to manifest in the world?  I took unapologetic comfort in what I saw illuminated in the darkness: laughing faces around a table, a cello in a corner, a comfy chair and a good book to read—simple pleasures that came to mean much more to me as I lived in the world and provided an antidote to many grey days.   

To this day, I carry the exquisite tug of the ways light and dark play with and serve one another.  Even all these years later I continue to enjoy walking in darkness.  This, for me, feels enveloping and protected. I am forever drawn to the light behind the windows of strangers.

The winter solstice is nearly upon us.  The long nights will be getting shorter and the light will return.  I’d like to celebrate the complexity, the paradox, the dance of light and dark in our lives and in this world.  Each is necessary to bring clarity to the other.  Enjoy the season.  I bring you tidings of comfort and joy!

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, December 12, 2011


The holidays are a time of journeys for many of us. Fortunately, I only have a two hour journey to reach my dad and step mom’s house. I have been blessed with another chance to spend Christmas Eve with them in their cozy home that has the true spirit of Christmas in it every day of the year. My son is on duty this Christmas, so I will journey to my life-long friend Sharon’s house on Christmas Day and spend the day with her and her family. I love her family and I am grateful to be a part of that family. There will be lots of food and laughter. It’s a day I treasure.
As my thoughts turn to journeys, I think of our WWfaC winter retreat at St. Mary of the Woods in January. I love the coziness that wintry canvas provides, a warm place to reflect and write with no worldly distractions.
The journey that is really on my mind is the journey WWfaC is taking to the Isle of Iona in May 2012. We are holding a writing retreat on that amazing island off the west coast of Scotland, but it is more than just an opportunity to write in a foreign country. For me, it is a journey that eases my soul. Beth Lodge-Rigal has asked those of us who are attending to begin a journal about this trip, so this is my beginning of that process.  We will travel by planes, trains, ferries and coaches.  I have made this journey many times and each time I experience an internal change as I gaze out the windows of these various conveyances and watch the changing landscape and light. The metamorphosis is beginning.
As soon as I settle on the train for the three hour journey from Glasgow to Oban I can feel my muscles begin to release the internal stresses of every day life. There is happy chatter on the train as it begins it assent into the highlands.  When I step off the train in Oban, the sea air clears my head as I breathe in its freshness. And the sounds and sights of this Victorian seaport envelope me and my transformation toward peacefulness is nearly complete. This country is a place where I’m utterly at home and content.
When I board the huge ferry to the Isle of Mull on the next leg of my journey, I climb to the top deck, weather permitting, and let the salty wind blow the last of the cobwebs from my heart and spirit. The gulls' cries as they follow the ferry welcome me and my fellow travelers.
By the time my feet touch the ground in Craignure on the Isle of Mull, my step is lighter and I practically bounce to the waiting coach to take that beautiful journey across Mull and one last ferry ride to that little gem of Iona in the glittering bay. I smile. I’m home. I’m home.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Light in Darkness

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Chinese Proverb

As the days darken down, I find myself in a transitional space. I have lived almost my entire life in northern regions, where a first hint of winter enters on the wind while fall is still in full swing, and darkness bleeds into daylight well before anyone is ready to face the inevitable reduction in exposure to the sun.

For me, this transition to a dimmed existence is deeply familiar, yet tinged with familiar comforts. My emergence into this bleak, wintry world is simultaneously colored by glimpses of extraordinary luminescence, made visible in contrast to darkness: the stark illumination of an icy moon and the miraculous, mirrored radiance from fields of snow; the warm glow of simple, brown-bag luminaria on a  dark path; the reflected glimmer of a Christmas tree in beloved ornaments; flickering candlelight highlighting family faces at my dinner table.

I grew up in a relatively small town, in a relatively simpler time, and experienced the freedoms (as well as the limitations) that existence offered.  One freedom was a less vigilant attitude about the movements of young girls in the waning hours of daylight. I remember walking home from a friend’s house or school in darkness, feeling covered by darkness in an empowering way, captivated by my own breath visible in the night, buoyed by the ambient brightness of snow blanketing roofs and yards, animated by cold and the brisk walking pace it encouraged.

As I age, the cold seems colder (although Bloomington is the most southerly home I have ever had), and the darkness often seems too dark, an inconvenience at best and a serious threat to harmony and mental health on the worst days.

This year, I’m making a winter resolution, to recall the feelings of aliveness and comfort that early dark and cold can spark, and to create light and warmth wherever and whenever I can for myself and those around me. I’m lighting the Christmas tree as long as possible, and this morning, I put fresh candles in the kitchen candleholders. I’m offering mugs of cocoa daily to my girls, topped with airy clouds of whipped cream, and planning frequent  evening baking.

May you surround yourself and yours with warmth and light to last into the now-unimaginable heat of summer.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse