Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Just Like Harry Potter

Last year I woke Christmas morning in my private rehab room, legs thickly bandaged. My head was laying on a handmade pillowcase decorated with ivy and mistletoe. It was one of a few dozen gifted to the hospital to be gifted out to the long-term patients, of which I counted. I opened my eyes and reached for the cup of water I kept on my hospital table, along with my lotion, my gifted iPad mini, my glasses, Kelley's chapstick that she gave me, and a small notebook and pen... all lined up carefully before sleep, within easy reach.

But on Christmas morning there was also a stack of presents on my table! The first thing that went through my head was, just like Harry Potter! In the first book he wakes to find presents at the end of his bed at Hogwarts. Not having had any family who cared about him, it was an unexpected moment of pure joy.

In the hospital, I recognized that same feeling behind my breastbone. I had been so saddened to have to be there for the holiday. I had not anticipated or expected the hospital to acknowledge it at all. But there were four presents, wrapped in bright paper, waiting for me.

I later learned there was a woman who organized it every year. She came onto the floor with two carts full of games and toys and books the day after Christmas, and put them in storage until next year. I asked her to thank Santa Claus for me and she smiled.

It was a small kindness for her and a huge uplifting moment of childhood wonder and hope. The fact that someone did such a kindness for isolated people in painful recovery, it gave me new courage and strength. People are good. People are kind. Remember that as the love of the holiday season gives way to exhaustion and winter.

People are good. People are kind. Be among them. Where you see moments of possible random acts of kindness, take them. Be the catalyst for joy in the world. Pour that into the world and create one you want to leave behind for your descendants.

I will.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Modraniht, id est matrum nocturum

“the Modraniht, that is, in the night of the mothers[=matrons?]”

I came across this celebration when I was researching the pagan roots of my German ancestors. Early Germanic peoples celebrated the night before Winter Solstice as Mothers Night. The Venerable Bede, a Christian monk from the 8th century wrote about it in his description of the pagan calendar. In Old English they called it Modraniht. More than 1100 votive stones and altars have been found through the centuries, dedicated to the mothers, or matrons, and half of these altar stones were inscribed and dedicated with Germanic names.
The main areas of worship have been uncovered in ancient Germania, northern Italy and eastern Gaul. There are a few larger cult centers with temples found along the Rhine. Many of these altars were found near rivers, wells or springs. The dedicated altars and votives reached as far as present day Scotland, southern Spain, Frisia and Rome. There is reference to the Germanic Mother Cults in the writings of Bede in 725 AD: “And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.”
Altars and votive stones, as well as temples, were often carved with images showing three women of matron age and appearance, often holding baskets of fruit and a baby. Based on the inscriptions found, it is thought that these altars were dedicated as offerings of thanks for abundance, gifts and blessings that soldiers and sailors had already received. They believed the Mothers had responded to their prayers and this was their way of acknowledging them, burning incense and leaving sacrificial offerings of food.
Many of these goddesses or spirits were named for the family that was dedicating them, as well as being named for the river or spring that watched over the local town or village, such as the Albiahenae matrons of the town of Elvenich or the Renahenae of the Rhine. Of the 1100 votive stones found, over 360 different ones name the same sets of matrons, the Aufaniae, the Suleviae and the Vacallinehae. Based on the age of the stone inscriptions, it appears that the cult of the Matrons began to die out in continental Germany around the fifth century CE, and Modraniht fell out of favor as Christianity gained foothold.

The Night of the Mothers was the time to honor the familial and tribal “soul” mothers who watched over them. It was intended to honor those who had crossed over, not for those still living. On Mothers Night we honor the sacrifice of life so that the ancestral matrons might become a source of wisdom and strength for those still living.
I begin my celebration by creating a small rock cairn on a temporary altar. I honor first those of my mothers who have crossed over, inscribing their names on stone in chalk. I light a candle for each of them. I remember them and tell what I know of their stories. I do also choose to honor the strength of the mothers still living, that they may become part of that ancestral current when it is their turn to pass through the veil.
I drink a cup of tea and invite them to share my cup. I crochet, something my Great-Grandmother taught me on the front porch over the summer when I was younger, gifting me her hooks when she could no longer use them. One way to honor the mothers is to honor their work and pass on the skills that have been taught to you by your mothers, and their mothers, that they live on through you, and the crafting of your hands.
What was special to them? Before dusk falls on Modraniht, I sit and hand-sew, darning old clothes. With each stitch, I pray. Tonight I stitch runes of rebirth, recovery, and courage into cloth. Each stitch is a small prayer of hope, a way of pushing forward despite the adversity.
This night is the night for daughters and sons to honor the line of birthings that occurred throughout history, that opened the way for their births. That made their presence in the world. It does not matter what current feelings might be complicated around maternal relationships.
You are because they were. Do not rewrite the past. Honor the journey.

A year ago I prayed to my mothers from a hospital bed on the rehabilitation floor. I thanked the spirit women who stood by my bedside on the Burn ICU. I thanked the faces I recognized from photos and the ones I may never identify.
            Again, I pray for them. I thank the ICU nurses who mothered me back to health and back to myself. I thank and pray for everyone who had hands in easing my recovery, brightening my heart, or tended to my body needs in any way. And this year I thank the courses my brain stories took that enabled me to step out of the fire without succumbing to madness.
            In light of that new prayer, I light a candle for the mythological goddess Frigga, who sheltered me in the darkest moments by wrapping what was left of my bones in a cool cloth and tucked me away from the glare of the blinding sunlight. In the next moment, in my ICU bed, I knew a moment of relief.

I am Sarah,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Patricia,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Eliza,
daughter of Mary of Ireland,
daughter of mother unknown…

Daughters of daughters back to the first mother,
I pray to you in stitches.

The needle between my fingers devolves into metals of various kinds, into bits of bone, until my hands roughen, becoming one with the first hands of my line to stitch skins together. Whoever is unknown to me, whatever countless number of generations of mothers led to my birth, we are joined in this familiar act.

I pray for health for my loved ones.
I pray for my continued healing and recovery.
I pray for happiness for all who walk the earth.
I pray for moments of joy for all who are grieving.
I pray that the echo of the wisdom of the mothers who have come before is remembered.
I pray for the earth, for our Great Mother, whose bones and minerals and animal DNA gave us life.
I pray for all mothers who came before me, all who walk with me and all who will come after... though my line ends with me.
May my life touch others while I am living it.

Grandma Donna MacDonald (m.Riddle)

Grandma Ruth Emma Ruston (m.Eaton)
1xGG Minnie Estelle Wicker (m.Ruston)

1xGG Hattie Eva Smith (m.Eaton0

2xGG Ruth Ireland (m.Ruston), Grandma Ruth Emma Ruston, 2xGG Emma Angeline Whitcher (m.Wicker)

2xGG Hattie Eva Dutcher (m.Smith)
2xGG Theresa Cordelia Tenney (m.Eaton)

2xGG Frances Gillette (m.Riddle) back, far left, & 3xGG Jane Berry (m.Gillette) front, right

3xGG Eliza Marsh Bird (m.Dutcher)

3xGG Sophia Sears (m.Smith)

4xGG Mary Ann Boots (m.Gillette)

4xGG Elizabeth Ann Hill (m.Berry)

[Adapted from an article originally published December 21, 2011.]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Christmas Orange

In celebrating Christmas, my favorite family tradition involved the mystery of the orange in our stockings. While we waited for my Grandpa to drive over to our house to be with us while we opened presents, we would empty our stockings, filled with little toys and candies… and an orange. The memories are so strong that every time I hold an orange in my hands and smell the citrus fragrance of the rind, I think of Christmas morning, when I would peel it open and gobble the fruit down. There was an orange waiting for us every year.
My mom remembers having one some holidays, but not always. It was my dad who had an orange in his stocking every year. He said it sat on top of his stocking, hiding what was beneath it. And our oranges served the same purpose, to better hide the surprise of what prying eyes peeking around the top of the stairs would soon find inside.
In researching the tradition of the Christmas orange, the only thing that was clear was that its direct origins are still a bit of a mystery. Laura Ingalls Wilder references getting an orange in her stocking as a child in 1880, noting that it was a special treat. According to the Food and Nutrition Encyclopedia by Audrey Ensminger, with the advent of the new rail system, and the abundance of ripe oranges out of Florida and California, there was a fair supply of them available to the public in the 1880s.
What a special gift at a time of year when there isn’t a lot of other fresh fruit available. Lucky for us, winter is the peak of harvest season for citrus. In England, I found that putting oranges in the toes of stockings pre-dates World War II, but became a common tradition during the war. It must have been an especially delicious treat during rationing.
I found correspondences of the orange to the mythology of Bishop Nicholas, better known as Saint Nicholas, but nothing I could cite as factual. Nicholas was a good, wealthy man born in Turkey in the fourth century who spent his life helping the poor. Folklore says that he secreted money into three stockings of three daughters of a man who could not afford a good dowry and feared he would not find them good husbands. In the story, the gold melted inside the stockings where they hung over the fireplace and the young women pulled out three golden balls in the morning. It’s true that statues of Nicholas often show him holding three golden globes, but any claimed similarities to the Christmas orange as a symbol of Saint Nicholas’ generosity have been recently made.
I hold one in my hand and I smell Christmas kindness. I think any Santa or Saint would approve.

Making Decorative Pomanders
Pomander balls go back to the 15th century, used as natural air fresheners. To make them, you need oranges, a lot of whole cloves, and something you can use to pierce the skin like a toothpick, pin, nail, or wooden skewer. You can also use citrus fruits like clementines, lemons, limes, tangerines, or kumquats (kumquats make adorable tree-sized pomanders).
Some people like to make designs with their cloves and others cover it with them like a second skin. For best results, I recommend covering as much of the orange with cloves as you can as the clove oil acts as a preservative. Use your pointy thing of choice to poke in holes before inserting cloves (or your fingers will soon start to hurt). If you need a guideline for your rows, you can wrap a rubber band or masking tape around the center to get you started. Leave room in your pattern to tie ribbons around the orange for hanging and display. I use cotton cording that I can weave around the cloves. Then hang the pomander in a closet for a couple of days to allow drying time, as they can get moldy (one woman on-line said she puts hers in her fridge, but I’ve always shut them away in a closet). Scent-wise, these will last a few weeks.
If you want them to last through the season, you can coat your pomander with powdered orrisroot to help preserve it. For pomanders that both last longer and spice up your home, you can coat your pomander in a mixture of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and powdered orrisroot; three tablespoons each.

            If you hang stockings, will an orange wait within it for you? Maybe another festive fruit? Or some tradition unique and special to your family?

Blessings to You and Yours
As part of my spiritual practice I celebrate Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, which falls on December 21. I grew up Catholic, celebrating Christmas with my family on December 25. As an adult, I observe both holidays. I still celebrate Christmas, just a different kind. I love Christmas. I am full to the brim of Christmas Spirit.
Happiness. Peace. Kindness. Compassion. I celebrate Christmas as the holiday of family and humanity. I light candles to honor and revere the goodness inside each and every one of us. I wish for peace on earth, that the good will shine through, that light will win out.
This is the year for compassion.
When someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Holiday, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Kwanzaa, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Merry Solstice or a Happy Yule, say “You, too.” It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s something you celebrate.
People are wishing you good tidings in the spirit of brotherhood and joy as dictated by their faith. Return the favor. Don’t be a Scrooge. Who can’t use more joy and light?

[Adapted from a post originally published December 11, 2013.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Human Kindness

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is witnessing moments of kindness between strangers as these events occur with more spontaneity at this time of year. Allow me a moment to plug the notion that we can carry Christmas and Solstice with us through the whole year. Human kindness always moves me and makes me misty. The most memorable and heart-warming moment I remember happened during the holidays of 2001.
The day of the attacks on the twin towers happened the September day before I was to start training as a cashier at a local grocery store. We had recently moved to a new city and spent the day of the attacks glued to the television we hadn’t even had hooked before we heard the news. When I clocked in the next morning for training, everyone was in a state of horror and shock.
I hadn’t been there long enough to know any of the regular customers yet, but what I saw were couples and mothers shopping to feed their families, day in and day out. It was their only agenda. They all had different colors of skin and different styles of dress and each of these was widely varied. After the attacks, I saw the majority of my community respond fearfully to the women in their abayas and hijabs.
In their fear they were not kind, and they felt free to make horrid comments to the women shopping that I cannot even write out for you. They literally walked up to unveiled Muslim women shopping, minding their own business, and accused them of killing people in New York City. Of hiding weapons beneath their abayas and demanding to see what was hiding underneath them. And much, much worse. In front of their children.
And what will those children grow up thinking about their place in the world?
I am grateful that my grocery store allowed the cashiers to refuse service to those customers who would not cease in harassing the Muslim families. And I did. Often, at first. I have always believed in kindness. It is always heartbreaking to me how cruel people can be from a place of fear.
What is it that makes us lash out like wounded animals at each other? How does hurting other people make us feel better? I understand being afraid. I understand having fear. We are each allowed to feel the emotions we feel. But we are not allowed to inflict them on others. We are not allowed to wield them like weapons against other people. We are all animals. That is true. But it is supposed to be our human compassion and brains that lift us above our animal nature.
Every day, those interactions were the shadow that fell over my joy of getting to know the community here and its humanity. I saw too much ugly at first- which may have been true wherever I found myself then. One day, on a holiday shift, one man’s generosity renewed my faith in the goodness of people. One small act of kindness was enough to tip the scales.
A Muslim man and his wife came through with their young son, buying healthy grains and vegetables and fresh meat and milk and eggs. It was the healthiest display of food I ever saw anyone bring down my register in all of my time at the store. She wore an abaya and hijab but the old couple before them paid quickly and muttered about letting burkas in the store.  
The electronic benefits line was down, as it often was back then, and their EBT card was denied. They began to count out their cash and put things big extras back, like the asparagus and the turkey. When they took back the only other extra, the box of cereal for their son, he did not cry in complaint. That moment stayed with me. It was obvious they were struggling to decide what else to take away.
An older man behind them asked me how much more they needed, while they sorted through their groceries. They only had twenty dollars and I whispered apologetically to him that they needed another eighty to cover everything, and that our system was down- that it wasn’t their fault. I was so used to customers being impatient and wanted him to understand the technology glitch was no one’s fault.
The Muslim woman started to apologize nervously to everyone in line around the same moment. But the man behind them smiled compassionately and handed me a hundred dollars. All he was buying for himself was bread, lunch meat and milk.
At first the couple would not take it, but he insisted. I will never forget what he said. “You need help, and I am in a place to give it to you. I would like to think that when I need help, someone will be in a place to give it to me.” The family thanked him profusely and gratefully. You could see the surprise wash over them. As they were leaving, the husband turned around and told the man that he would never forget his kindness. And the man shrugged it off, “Just repay the favor some day.”
When they left, the man would not hear me say anything about it, waving my gratitude and tears away. He said it wasn’t a big deal. “It was to them,” I assured him. And it was to me. I have never forgotten it either. I have paid it forward innumerably.

Sometimes kindness comes in the form of a simple smile. Making eye contact with your cashier during your holiday shopping. Taking a moment to saying thank you to all of your cashiers, to the waitress when she brings you a new drink, to anyone working in service for you. There are a lot of people in the world and we don’t know everyone. But at some point in our lives, even our closest friends were strangers to us. And every stranger is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, friend. We have choices every day in what face we show to the world. Spread compassion and kindness throughout your days. It is the simplest and most beautiful language we can share and it is a language that will shape the world around us into a brighter place.

[Updated from “Human Kindness” published December 4, 2013.]
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