Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Winter Solstice Story

Preface: What would people have noticed in the sky at the time of winter solstice, say 10,000 years ago at mid-northern latitudes? Shortest days, longest nights, the cold, longest noon-time shadows of the year, southernmost sunrise, and southernmost sunset. And what would they have thought about it? Well, here's that story, her story...

Ah, I hear the sounds of Day, people starting to move and shuffle -- it must be getting close to when I will rise from this warm cocoon. It's sooooo cozy in here. Hard to leave. But can't help it -- need to pee. Bladder's full to bursting. Can't wait any more. Need to go out of the cave -- I'll make it fast. Very smoky in here though. Fresh air would be nice, anyway...

Cold outside -- brrr -- chills me to the bone. And just getting light. At least I can see where I'm going. Don't want to trip over all these rocks. And slippery, with water dripping and ice all over everything. Icicles!! I love icicles. And looking up, it's SO beautiful -- sky colors, clouds, beginning of the new Day. Makes me stop, even in the cold, to gaze at the dawn sky. Really stop. Can't forget to pee, I say to myself -- but all thoughts of a quick run outside fade as the beautiful morning sky commands my attention. What beauty the Forces of the World have brought today!

So I stop. And watch. It happens every morning, I laugh to myself. Captivated by the beauty of the sky. Thank you, Sky, for surrounding me with inspiration. I should have said I would be the astronomer -- I am usually awake earlier than everyone else, anyway. Now where is the Great Shining Sun going to stand up out of the Earth today? Last week I remember seeing the spot where the Sun stood up. It was over that distant mountain with the interesting curve to it. Right next to the lake. I remember last time we had a cold season, just around the time my little Laura was born, seeing the Great Shining Sun rise near that same place. And the days were short and cold then, too. I wonder...

And last cold season, the Great Shining Sun never stood up out of the lake. It was just like the lake made the Great Shining Sun turn around and move along the mountains in the other direction. The Sun must like to stand up out of the mountains -- anyway, everyone knows it is easier to stand on land than on water.

And I remember watching every day, day after day, and the Great Shining Sun was not swallowed by the water. I must remind everyone this is the way it was last cold season, too. There is no need to fear for the loss of the Sun...

And so it was that people long ago paid attention to the sky, and learned by noticing -- the southernmost sunrise, the southernmost sunset, the cold, the longest noon-time shadows, the shortest days, and the longest nights at the time of winter solstice. And they learned not to be afraid for the loss of the Sun, because every year the Sun came back North, and brought with it the warmth and the longer days. It was just a matter of waiting patiently...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gorgeous Full Moon Setting!

I awoke at 6:30 a.m. one week ago (Saturday Dec. 13) to find it clear outside here in Massachusetts with the getting-ready-to-set just-20-hours-past-full Moon still visible in the northwestern sky. So I dressed very warmly, made a hot cup of tea, and took my camera to the Sunwheel. The sky was gorgeous!

I arrived at the Sunwheel at 7:30 a.m. as sunlight was already spreading over the land, made my way toward the East to the center of the stone circle, and found that the Sun was just becoming visible through the bare trees as seen from the center of the Sunwheel. And when I looked more closely, I saw that the location of sunrise along the horizon was very close to the position it would have 8 days later, on the morning of the winter solstice. So even though my purpose in being out before breakfast on that cold December morning was to see the Moon setting, my attention was first captivated by the sight of the rising Sun.

I took a number of pictures of the rising Sun toward the southeast, the direction of the winter solstice sunrise, and then I turned around to face the northwest and the setting full Moon. With perfectly clear skies it was easy to see the Moon, still quite high in the sky northwestern sky, and I realized that it would probably be 30-45 minutes until the Moon set behind the hills on the horizon. If I had had long underwear on, I might have just stood out in the dawn air and watched, but I was already chilled to the bone and wanted to get warm. I gazed skyward as long as I could, and then went back to my car to go home.

When I got out of the wind and had a few sips of tea, I turned my car around and was just about to drive away when I realized I hadn't taken any pictures of the Moon. That was silly, I thought -- what if I didn't come back to see the Moon set further? So I had a few more sips of tea, let my hands warm up until I could feel my fingers, got out of the car and walked back to the center of the Sunwheel. I took at least 5 pictures of the full Moon when it was still maybe 10 degrees above the horizon. At this point I was satisfied with my outing, and I went back to the car to go home.

Once I was in the shelter of the seemingly warm car, I had more tea, sipping the deliciously hot liquid as I gazed at the crisp landscape. I was in no hurry to go anywhere -- no one would even be awake at home at this hour. And then I realized that instead of having my car face East, with the Sun already having risen, I could turn my car around to face West and watch the Moon as I drank my tea. So I did.

And by the time my tea was finished, the Moon had dropped considerably in the sky. Again I got out of the car and walked back to the center of the Sunwheel to take more photos. My interest in being at the Sunwheel to see the setting Moon, as opposed to anywhere else, was that Dec. 13 was the one morning this month when the Moon had its northernmost declination (i.e. latitude on the sky), and was even more northerly than the summer Sun ever gets. That meant that the Moon would be seen to set more northerly than the summer solstice Sun. However, since the peak of the Moon's 18.6-year cycle, called Major Lunar Standstill, was 2 years ago in 2006, the setting full Moon today was not as northerly as it had been 2 years ago in December. I was looking forward to the beautiful sight of seeing the Moon set between the summer solstice sunset stone and the northern moonset stone.

So I stood and watched the setting Moon, first taking photos with my zoom lens, and then taking photos which also showed the Moon's alignment relative to the Sunwheel stones. And all the while the Moon was getting lower and lower, closer to the horizon, closer to the time of setting. This time I didn't go back to my car. I just decided to watch the event from where I was. And what surprised me the most was that in the early morning light the full Moon was getting so much harder to see.

I was puzzled by this. I had often seen the Moon rise in the late afternoon, not even as full as now (just 20 hours past the instant of maximum illumination), and even in the daylight the Moon was easier to see close to the horizon these other times than it was this cold December morning. Turbulence in the atmosphere? A lower horizon? I'm not sure. For now, the faintness of the Moon as it set that day remains a great mystery to me.

Just before the Moon touched the horizon, I could still see it clearly, and the Moon shows in the photos. It helped that I knew where it was, though. I realized that if I had gone home and come back to see moonset, I might not have been able to find the Moon in the sky. But once the Moon went partway below the horizon, I could barely see it at all. I knew it was still there, and I took photos in hopes of enhancing them to see the Moon. Then I said a brief 'thank you' to the Universe for the gorgeous show I had just seen. Including that I was awake and well enough to see it! After all, 1 year ago I was not able to just get up any random morning, drive myself to the Sunwheel, and walk back and forth to the center from the road 3-4 times to watch the Moon set and the Sun rise. So even though very cold, I was filled with gratitude.

And this time, when I want back to my car, I really did go home.

I spent the morning making a picasa web album of the photos I took at the Sunwheel -- to view the photos please see:


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Winter Solstice!

We are having a snowy solstice here -- yesterday's nor'easter gave us 12" of snow, and another 8" are in the forecast for today. In preparation for today and tomorrow's Sunwheel events [sunrise @ 7 a.m. and sunset @ 3:30 p.m.], I spent about 1 hour at the Sunwheel with my snow shoes on yesterday, first walking East to West 2 times, then making a path around the Sunwheel 3 times, then flattening an area in the middle, and finally going from South to North 2 times before leaving. Not only was I enjoying being out in the snow, but I was celebrating my healing -- last year I was not yet able to snowshoe at the time of winter solstice.

This morning I went to the Sunwheel at 6:45 a.m. accompanied by my daughter and her husband. They are helping me at each event by carrying things and helping people who want to buy Sunwheel T-shirts and sweatshirts. It had already started snowing, and it still is. There were 9 of us in total at the Sunwheel for sunrise, standing out in blowing snow celebrating the return of the light. The instant of the official beginning of winter was 7:04 a.m. EDT, while we were out in the elements intimately experiencing the environment. And in spite of the snow, I shared with the visitors the 6 things that are special about the day of the winter solstice:

1) shortest day of the year
2) longest night of the year
3) lowest noontime altitude of the Sun
4) southernmost sunrise
5) southernmost sunset
6) Sun directly overhead Tropic of Capricorn at local noon on December 21

Plus I love teaching that solstice means "standstill of the Sun", since already for 1 week the Sun has been rising at the same place, setting at the same place, and had a low noon-time altitude in the sky. This 'standstill' will continue for about 1 more week. Interestingly enough, there are numerous holiday celebrations that happen at this time of year that bring in the light for many days.

This morning it was 18 degrees out and windy, our hands and feet were cold, and our coats became covered with snow. And even so, it was a wonderful way to celebrate the Winter Solstice. We didn't see the Sun but we knew it was there. In fact, after 11 years of seasonal gatherings at the Sunwheel, this was the first time that I held a seasonal gathering while it was snowing. Luckily I live relatively close to the Sunwheel so it was not challenging for me to get there.

Last year it had snowed a few days before solstice, and I realized then that if I owned snowshoes I would be able to create a path in the snow for visitors. I bought the snowshoes then, even though 1 year ago I had just given up using a walker and was unable to use the snowshoes. I thought that snowshoes -- especially with the poles in each hand -- would be ideal for walking in the winter, getting fresh air and exercise, and strengthening my body and spine. And sure enough, about 2 weeks later on a warm January day, I was out using the snowshoes for the first time, learning that it was good exercise that was safe for me in a flat place like the Sunwheel.

It continues to snow as I write these words, in the middle of the day on Dec. 21, 2008. If the snow stops by sunset, we will be lighting candles at the Sunwheel during the sunset gathering -- for solstice and for Chanukkah -- lighting up the stones and the snow and the night, and doing our own little part to add to the increase of the light.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Snow Drop Peaks Out of the Ground

This December I have been slowly working on the task of clearing the garden -- cutting the spent stalks of ferns and perennials from last year's blooms, scattering any seeds I find for the birds or for future germination, and mulching the rose bushes in case of a cold winter. I find it easy and comfortable to be on the ground on all 4's, since then gravity is not compressing my spine.

Each morning I tour the garden, gently moving along the garden paths under the pine trees or out in the open. Noticing whatever there is to notice. I notice holes dug by the squirrels, looking for nuts they have buried. I notice the leaves covering the ground. I notice the tightly curled rhododendron leaves. I notice the colors -- browns and greens mostly, with red berries on the crabapple tree. There are huge, green foxglove leaves starting to wilt in the cold. I leave them alone now, after one year pruning them back and the plants all died. I notice the nuthatches walking down the trunks of trees in search of bugs to eat.

And this month I noticed something that I have never seen before in the garden in December. It was on December 1st, no less. There on the ground was the green tip of a gallanthum (snow drop) shoot coming out of the ground.

I had seen the shoots occasionally appear in January in recent years, and then the flowers would bloom in February. Named 'snow drops' because they really do look like little drops of snow, and they really do bloom under the snow. One of the first things to bloom in the late winter and early spring. Before the crocus even. But it was still autumn on December first, and the snow drops were there. I checked yesterday, and found even more -- now 8 shots peeking out of the ground. So I covered them with leaves to protect them from the cold.

We have had the most peculiar weather this fall. Warm days in the 50's, with much rain, and then days in the 20's. Maybe the plants thought our cold snap in November was it for winter. Well if so, they will be surprised by the 14" of snow we are supposed to get tomorrow, 2 days before the winter solstice.

Sunday Dec. 21 @ 7:04 a.m. is the official beginning of winter, and I am curious how long it will last this year. I guess we'll find out!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sharing Our House With Others

I have recently wondered about the inventory of other beings in our house.

When I lie down upstairs in the afternoons, I often hear scurrying in the attic -- possibly sounds of mice or chipmunks. Yesterday, I heard sounds of scuffling in the walls that was more reminiscent of bats. And we have had bats in the attic in the past, so why not now? Then there are the spiders that tend to come inside in the cold weather...

We did get rid of the infestation of those moths that eat through boxes of crackers and get into everything. And in the winter, the flies and ants are absent. Thankfully.

I don't mind sharing our house, especially with creatures who live somewhere we don't go -- like in the walls. It's just more of a problem when they make noise that wakes me up, or they die in the walls and smell bad, or eat the structure of the house. Now that's not acceptable.

We've had the smell of a dead animal in the basement recently, and I am wondering if that is really what it is. Haven't found it yet. Don't even know exactly where it is. Hoping it will go away by itself.

Life in the 21st century is truly amazing. If it's not one thing, it's another. Time evaporates, whether dealing with dead animals or fallen leaves or just taking the next breath. I try to remember to savor the moments, even when they smell of a dead animal, but that is usually when I want to hold my breath. I am starting to truly appreciate the advice to simplify one's life. There is so much to do and so little time -- best to spend it on the things that are essential and the things that really matter. Now if I could only find that dead animal...

Monday, December 8, 2008

The First Snow

Yesterday morning, we awoke to the ground covered in white fluffy snow for the first time this year. Just an inch or so, but enough that it needed to be shoveled off the side walk and brushed off the car.

And it was cold outside, at least by December standards, with wind chills in the 20's. And cloudy and gray. By the time I had cleared the snow from the sidewalks and my car, my fingers and toes felt numb -- at least where I could feel them. OK, I stayed out a little longer than necessary, wandering over the frozen landscape through the winter garden, pruning the occasional rose bush here, scattering the seeds of snakeroot there (it's named black cohosh, also known as 'bug bane' because it keeps the mosquitoes away in the summer).

And as I was finishing up outside and getting ready to come inside to get warm, I recalled the first snow last year. Also December -- the 9th to be exact. Also a small snow fall (2"). I know, because last year I kept a list of the days we had snow and how much we got.

And my heart felt warm and full yesterday, even in the cold, because this year I am walking without a walker. And able to clear the sidewalk with the snow shovel. It didn't matter to me that yesterday's snow was just 1" -- last year I couldn't shovel even that amount. Last year this time I still needed to walk with a walker. And last year this time I was just beginning to get strength back in my spine. I couldn't twist or bend. I remember in the first week of December 2007 trying to do a yoga pose bending to the side or forward, and I couldn't go 1 millimeter.

There has been so much healing in my body over the past year, I am deeply grateful. Sometimes, with the healing being so slow, it is hard for me to recognize my progress. But I remember last December well, and today my heart is full. My spirit lives in delight. I am so grateful for where I am now that I don't look at where I am not.

I am grateful for the 1" of snow yesterday that showed me how much I have healed. And I have great faith that next December I will be even stronger and more flexible than I am now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How Many Rocks Can Fit Into a Bucket?

Today I achieved a milestone in my life and in my writing -- I submitted a book proposal for a book describing the Sunwheel, or astronomically aligned stone circle, I have built on the U.Mass. Amherst campus. I have many ideas about books I want to write and publish, and it has been a real challenge to figure out how to manage my energy, take care of myself, engage in my healing, and also to work on the creative projects that are meaningful to me. I began working on this book and book proposal in 2004, so this stage of the project has been over 4 years in coming to fruition.

I was reminded recently of the parable about how many rocks can fit into a bucket. So here is how it goes...

If you have a bucket, and you fill it with fist-sized rocks, would you say that the bucket is full? Well, is it?

The answer is no, the bucket is not full. Because you can now add handfuls of pebbles, and these small rocks will fill in the spaces around the larger ones.

So after adding so many pebbles that they come up to the brim of the bucket, would you now say the bucket is full? What do you think?

The answer is no, it is still not full. Because now you can add handfuls of sand to fill in the holes around the pebbles.

So after adding sand to fill the bucket up to the brim, would you say the bucket is full now? Is it full yet?

The answer is still no, because you can pour water into the bucket, and it will fill the spaces between the grains of sand, all the way up to the brim.

NOW the bucket is full -- of rocks, and pebbles, and sand, and water.

Next, pour everything out, and then put things back into the bucket in a different order. First put in the water, then the sand, then the pebbles, and then the rocks. Will everything fit?

The answer is no, the large rocks will not fit into the bucket if the other things are put in first.

The metaphor here for me about life is that if there are some big things I want to do in my life -- and for me writing a book is one of them -- these won't fit into my days unless I put them in first, prioritize them, make time for them. If I spend my time doing all the little things that are asking for my time and attention, and there are an almost infinite number of such things, then there are not the blocks of time left for the big projects.

So as I was finishing my book proposal, and making time to write everyday, I was reminded of fitting the rocks into the bucket.

And some days, I even dream about having a bigger bucket!