The Rights of Spring

When people say to me “Happy Easter”, I feel a bit conflicted. The “Happy Passovers” don’t bother me, nor do the “Happy Ramadans” I hear from my Muslim relatives. But I can understand why it bothers me; I was born into a Christian family, one which conveyed mixed signals about the religion, let alone the origin or meaning of the holiday. We were a secular family who went to church together maybe five times, tops, during my childhood. The subject of religion was never spoken of in my family; we were one of those educated, white, liberal households who hung their cultural hats on the Episcopal Church, but who seldom actually went there.

In that my parents were music lovers, and in that classical music – more specifically Baroque music – was their thing, a lot of religious texts went along with the territory. And that always confused me greatly. They would sing along with choirs, lifting eyebrows and swaying with great emotion, yet the words they sang were completely counter to anything they espoused to believe in real life.

My mother is fairly foul-mouthed person who would often loudly chastise religious folks for being “goddam Christers”. There was a strong implication in my household that anyone who believed in Jesus – or who was loud about their beliefs – was tacky and ignorant. This message, however subliminal it might’ve been, was delivered to me loud and clear. So when I was 12, I decided that I needed to learn for myself what this religion thing was all about, and I asked my mother to please drive me to St. Augustine’s for service every week.

Sunday school and the occasional youth group events went along with the experience. And, after noticing peers serving as acolytes, I asked if I might not be one too. So began my five-year stint as an alter “boy”, attending the 8 a.m. services with the ancient and unintelligible Fr. Lightburn and sometimes, with nerves present, the high services for Christmas Eve or Easter with Father Mazza himself.

I loved the ritual, the mystery, and the notion that I was performing actions that had been done by so many before, for hundreds of years, in the very same manner. I felt the essence of reverence in the pouring of the water over the priest’s hands before he prepared the sacrament for communion. I loved the very name of the container into which the water spilled – the lavabo bowl – its Latin-derived name just reeked of antiquity. The service – in particular the smaller, less well-attended one – pulled me in. I loved the silence (no music accompanied these early services), the robes we wore, I loved the lighting of candles (there was a slightly stressful moment when you held the long taper up to the candle and waited for the wick to take the flame), I loved the way we two acolytes stood during the service, motionless, flanking the alter. I loved the language too – I relished the recitation of the Nicene creed. (For me it was never the same after the church later modernized the text.) All of this motivated me to try and better understand the meanings behind the pageantry. It seemed disingenuous to be part of a service, the reasons for which weren’t entirely clear to me.

For several years in my adolescence, I struggled with the concept “God is everywhere”. How could this be? And how disturbing was this? I knew He was supposed to love me, but really? Did he also watch me as I undressed? Was he in the shower with me too? This I never liked.

One day in youth group we’d baked little heart-shaped dough pieces onto which we’d painted the words “God Loves Me”, and I remember a moment in the green, wet grass outside in the church’s courtyard when I got it. I had been holding this small thing in my hand and thinking very hard. If God was everywhere, then God had to be… energy! What else was everywhere? Energy was present – latent or active – in every single thing in the universe! Finally, I had figured it out. I was giddy. I was ready to accept this religion thing now. The Jesus-coming-back-to-life thing would still need some work, but at least I now had some sort of reliable footing onto which I could build.

And so I passed the next decade thinking that yeah, there was merit to the basic tenets of Christianity. But of course, the more one learns about the world, other cultures and other religions, and about how power works in general, the more one grows understandably skeptical about the whole concept of organized religion. By my mid-twenties I was pretty sure that the truths that Jesus et al were trying to share with the world had been corrupted by the filter through which the information was given; the messages were coming to us through a lens of privileged men (I’d say “white” men, but there are more races implicit in the re-telling than just the white guys). We were not getting the unadulterated truth. The message – as well as the terms and conditions which the religion laid out for its believers – had become mainly a vehicle for power and suppression. And it was not always easy to know where the truth ended and the falsehood began.

My mother-in-law was the first person to introduce me to more metaphysical ways of organizing the world. She was a bit wacky – and she never really liked me much – but she taught me a lot, and I can credit her for expanding my ways of thinking. A lot of the stuff she turned me on to was, especially at the time, very “woo-woo” and would’ve had most mainstream folks rolling their eyes and passing judgement. But it was material worth considering. After all, we humans have an innate need to quantify and qualify our existence, and every little bit of information helps us along the path. Even if we choose to be atheists or agnostics – that in and of itself is a choice. Like the old Rush song goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. Me, I’ve always chosen to keep my thinking open.

When my husband left me, it threw me into an existential tailspin. I spent hours upon hours reading all manner of material related to spiritual thought. I meditated, I visualized, I learned about ancient texts and beliefs in energy. At the time, I was desperate to learn why my husband had treated me so badly, how he could possibly have justified his behavior, and how it was that he simply didn’t care anymore. The concept of past lives was the only thing that supported my new reality. This idea held the possibility for a definite cause-and-effect phenomenon which helped to explain things. And for a very long time I was fully invested in that belief.

Now, I just don’t know.

A few months back, I started speaking aloud Nichirin’s Buddhist chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” every day. I’m no closer to allying myself with the Buddhism thing than I was before I started chanting, (and I do think many Buddhist folks I know are just as fanatical about their beliefs as are super-devout members of any religion) but I do feel very much in agreement with the way in which all sects of Buddhism champion a continued effort towards a higher level of peace and acceptance. Plus, I am growing more comfortable with the concept of impermanence. And I’m not chanting for religious reasons per se, but for the mental focus it brings to me. The way in which it offers clarity and specificity to my goals. For me it’s a vehicle for good and productive living rather than an expression of any belief system.

And it has me thinking again.

Are we part of an individually, soul-based continuum – or a more general, energy-related, molecularly described continuum? Either way, we are unquestionably made of stardust. We are, on a purely physical level, made of the cosmos, and to that physical cosmos we shall return.

I’m sure that Jesus lived, and I know he was a great teacher of love, and although I’m not convinced, I think he even might’ve come back for a minute. I’ve had plenty of my own metaphysical and unexplained experiences, so I can’t dismiss this high-profile event out of hand. And while I’m questioning such things, I might also ask: Did lamb’s blood painted on doorways really prevent the deaths of newborn babes? Did the angel Jibreel really visit Mohammed and impart to him the teachings of the Koran? Did Siddhartha really banish the evil Mara?

What seems to matter more than the verity of any of these historic claims is that they provide us with belief systems, something we humans crave. We want to know that waking up this morning was necessary. We need to feel important, validated and purposeful. And all of these teachings, at their heart, are about the very same things.

Spring is a time of renewal. And it doesn’t much matter what we call it, or how exactly we got here. A renewal by any other name is still just that. All of it is correct. All of it is right.

Happy Spring to us all.

Twelve Days

In my home, as a child, there was always talk of the twelve days of Christmas. Sometimes, on one of the twelve days, there might be another present or two for us – usually under Frank and Martha Carver’s tree, the two other older people in the lives of me and my brother, Andrew. They lived on a farm with a Franklin stove that was always warm and a house that smelled wonderfully of the country. We Conants and Carvers all knew that Christmas was about a journey. Not that our family felt any affinity towards the religious aspect of the holiday, in fact I’d say they were solidly secular about it – but in spite of that, my parents delighted in singing the old religious hymns and recounting the historically accurate account of Christmas which our commercial world seemed to ignore completely. Making the season even more personally meaningful to us all was that Andrew’s birthday was on New Year’s Eve, and my parents – though seven years apart in age – were both born on January 6th, Epiphany. (The day most of the Christian world is busy celebrating Christmas and giving each other gifts as the wise men themselves did two thousand years ago.)

I too, have stressed to my own child that this season is about a beginning, a journey, and finally the culmination of that journey on Epiphany. My son is himself easily able to see metaphors in life and can see the season for what it offers. He may still believe in Santa, and we may not be a household dedicated only to the teachings of Jesus, but he can still understand how holy a time this is in our yearly calendar and how this time is a good one for self-reflection and renewal. I myself, however, in spite of my lifelong efforts to remind my peers that the true celebration of Christmas only just begins on the 25th, have just finally gotten one thing straight. The twenty-fifth is not the first day of the twelve as I’d always thought (I’d been counting Epiphany as a stand-alone day after the conclusion of the twelve days) but rather the first of the twelve days of Christmas begins on the twenty-sixth.

Today I also learned that there is a correlation between the signs of the zodiac and these twelve days. I realize this may be dangerous territory for some; to mix the Christian teachings with the Zodiac (the study of the Zodiac being something which seems either too ridiculously ancient, esoteric or just plain bullshit to many) may seem a stretch, or perhaps wrong, blasphemous. But I am at once impressed at the way in which these different templates match up, how magnificently it all seems to work. (There are also 12 tones in our western chromatic scale!) I realize that to some the relationship between the Zodiac and the days of Christmas may be no new information, but for me it was. I also just learned that many folks are under the impression that Christmas day marks the end – or the culmination of the twelve days. Big world. Lots of stories. The journey to the truth takes time and discretion.

We’d had our holiday party last Friday on the Solstice, the longest night of winter, a landmark on the holy calendar in its own right. While I invited my friends and neighbors, with whom I have never had conversations of a religious, spiritual or metaphysical nature, under the auspices of a general open-house among friends, I secretly held the intention that Elihu and I mark the night in camaraderie and love, that we might mark the occasion rightly and set a happy and bright tone for the future to come. I noticed that there was no talk of the date, no mention of its rumored significance (save my humorous toast to the ‘end of the world’ as I thanked my guests for attending) and I found that interesting. Also made me wonder once again, where were all those other folks who, like me, believed in pausing for just a moment to acknowledge this special day?

I may feel alone in my desire to live more connected to the ancient traditions, it may seem as though I’m alone as I concentrate on my connection to Spirit, to God, to the rest of the world and all its inhabitants… but my Yahoo inbox tells me otherwise. I know there are others out there. But these ‘other’ people live far and wide, and I know none of them personally. I did see a neighbor on Facebook who, although she purported to be hosting a ‘cookie party’ on the 21st, called it a ‘celebration of Solstice’ on her farm’s page. (Her lack of the article ‘the’ before ‘Solstice’ made her true intention seem even more apparent to me.) So I know there are others whose attention is not entirely in this modern, me-first world. And we’ll come to know each other someday. Not worried. Things seem to happen as they should.

Surrounded by the woods and fields with birds always at my window feeder, I’m in a perfect spot to contemplate my connection with all that is. Yeah, I’m feeling the need to remain at home, to remain quiet, to go about my chores and to live in gratitude as best I can. Some days I really miss people, but so far I just haven’t found a need to be with them. Somehow, after four years here in relative social isolation, I still feel the need to be alone. So I’m going to use these next twelve days to contemplate things as I wish them to be, to contemplate also the strengths and lessons of those twelve signs…

There is a meditation for today on the sign of Taurus – the second of the twelve Holy days – and also coincidentally both my and my son’s birth sign – which ends with these words:

Now I choose
to shape my future
in a balanced dance
between comfort and challenge

The original text is much longer and is more specifically related to the sign of the bull, but for me, these final lines seem to sum things up very nicely. I’ve spent the past four years learning how to live on my own. From here forward I need to expand, to grow my endeavors, learn how to thrive on my own. And right now, it looks daunting to me. I’ll probably need to keep an eye on that balance thing.

Not sure what messages await in the next ten days, but I’m interested and curious. So much to do, so much to know in this world. For the short stretch of days ahead I’ll try to live as mindfully as I can. I might not be able to live in such a state of concentration the remaining days of the year, but I’ll do my very best for the next ten.