What does an elder do?

I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?

One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.

I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.

The tiny hail on the ground in our back yard that day.

So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)

I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.

Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.

As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.

And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.

Capisic Brook, the little stream that reminds me of the deep River.

Magic in the midst of illness

Woke up to a misty morning on this new moon day, and started reading my journal from the last new moon until today. It is a ceremony I honor each new moon, and it is a way for my life to teach me.

I was struck by some passages from the time of Halloween/Samhain, that special time of connections to the ancestors. Because of chronic illness and its deep fatigue, I haven’t felt very spiritually focused lately, not much energy for deep ritual. Plus in COVID times, we don’t have our seasonal gatherings either. But it seems like the ancestors and spirits are reaching out to me nonetheless.

I did manage to cook salmon and potatoes for dinner on Samhain to honor some of Margy’s and my various ancestors. I listened to Quebecois music while doing dishes, and drank East Frisian tea. During the night of the full moon/blue moon I suddenly woke at 4 a.m. and saw the moon shining brightly outside my window. The next day, I saw a cardinal–my healing messenger bird–at the bird-feeder–the only time I’ve seen one there all this season. I was watching TV a couple days later and stumbled upon the movie Coco, which (despite its flaws) got me into the mood of Dia de los Muertos.

Marigolds growing self-seeded in our garden strip near the road.

I was looking for things to watch on our Roku and stumbled upon a series on Canadian Rivers. The best episode was on the Moisie River, or Mishtashipu in the Innu language. I had first learned about this river from Innu people who were fighting to protect it from a hydrodam planned by Hydroquebec. They won that fight, partly because there were also rich white people trying to protect their own salmon fishing. It was beautiful to see the river, and to listen to the Innu people who call it home. (And by the way, the word-segment “ship” in Mishtashipu is a cognate to “sip” in Passamaquoddy, which means river. I feel happy to know that.)

All these little threads meandering unexpected through my days, pulled from me this prayer: “Ancestors, are you reaching out to me from the other side of the veil? Even though I have so little spiritual concentration or focus right now? I open my heart to your presence.” I remembered magical moments of other times when I felt the presence of spirit close by. When my Innu ancient-grandmother, Nukum, first appeared, holding a bowl full of the universe. When I was able, despite all odds, to find the grave of my great-grandmother Claudia in Ottawa. When I was sitting right next to my dad as he took his final breath on this earth.

At the tiny headstone of my great-grandmother Claudia.

During those Samhain days, I was also working on a testimony about my family’s role in colonization. I was feeling the weight of the ancestors–the migrations, the wars, so much. I was feeling overwhelmed by that weight, I was feeling that I could not carry that weight, or imagine ways to find healing for this aspect of my heritage. I feel weary even from the weight of my many living relatives who seem trapped in a cult of lies, there is much estrangement between us. And so once again I reach back to spirit kin.

Finally, I hear: “You don’t have to carry the weight. Let go. Remember trust. I am here even when you cannot hear me, in this dark night of the mind and body. You are already in my hands. It was never a question of guilt or innocence. It was always about love. It is okay to trust my love. Breathe in love.”

And so, today, day of the new moon–this new moon which is also considered part of the time of closeness to the ancestors and spirits–I let myself hear those words again. There is room for magic to intervene, even in the midst of illness and fatigue, even when I cannot dance or sing or build a fire. And I am filled with gratitude.

Writing a Journal

Journaling DSC01316I started to write a journal when I was a young adult. It was 1979, and I was a year into my first serious relationship with a partner. His name was Gary, and we were deeply in love. But the first pages of an orange spiral notebook are filled with my confusion and pain about the struggles in our relationship. When things were difficult, he withdrew from me, and so I wrote about the pain I felt when he withdrew. I wrote about who we were together, and parts of myself that seemed to be disappearing. Perhaps I should thank him now—if he were a better listener, maybe I wouldn’t have started writing so much.

But once I started, writing became an important way of learning about myself, a spiritual practice that has continued to this day. I wrote my questions about how to live in the world, what my own calling might be, what brought me joy and what left me empty. I wrote my questions about God. It was in that same year, 1979, that I was wrestling with big questions of spirit and faith. I was introduced to the idea of the Goddess, and women’s spiritual circles. I wrote to God, to Goddess, to Jesus, all my questions and doubts, in a kind of prayer—are you real? Are you there for me? What am I meant to do in this life?

Writing can unburden our hearts and minds. We can take our weary feelings, our anger, our confusion, our loneliness, and we can put it outside of us, setting it down on paper. It can help us to let go, and move on. Writing can also take us more deeply into our own hearts and minds, and open us, layer upon layer, until we reach the place of inner wisdom. Polly Berends said, “Everything that happens to you is your teacher…the secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” Journaling is a way of sitting at the feet of our own life and being taught by it.

A few years into my journaling, I began to mark the pages according to the cycles of the moon. Each new moon, I began to read back to the last new moon, and sometimes I would give a theme to that moon time, like a chapter to a book: the traveling moon, the moon of discernment, the moon of confusion. To read through our own journal entries is another way of being taught by our lives.

Sun and Moon

Campsite View

Morning View from our Campsite

One summer, I was sitting at our campsite at Winslow Park, watching the sun rise over the water. It was a day without a lot of plans, so I could sit and watch the sky and water for a long time. I noticed how fast the sun seemed to move up the sky. I heard somewhere that you can estimate the time by holding up your fist sideways, and counting each fist width from the horizon to the sun as an hour. In a simpler world, it was enough to tell time by noticing where the sun was in the sky.

Curious about this, I discovered that actually, if you took a picture of the sun at noon every day for a year, you’d find that it wasn’t in the same spot at all. Rather, you’d have a photo of an elliptical shape, like a lopsided figure eight. People call this path of the sun an analemma. It is formed from the fact that our orbit is not an exact circle, but an ellipse, and our planet is tilted relative to its orbit around the sun. So we have the seasons, and each day from June to December the sun rises a few minutes later, and a little bit further to the south, passing by due east on Equinox.

The natural world is full of these movements that follow their own intricate rhythms and orderly patterns. As I become aware of them, I begin to feel myself as a part of a vast dance with the sun, the earth, the moon, the stars. Our spiritual journey is such a dance—it too follows intricate rhythms and mysterious patterns. We may imagine that we are going forward, but perhaps we are dancing round and round like the moon.

Each day, the moon rises on average fifty minutes later than the previous day, and the high and low tides are changing at a similar pace. Winslow Park has a tidal beach, so we pay attention to the tides in the summer. You can only swim for about two hours before and after the high tide. One of our city friends didn’t understand about tides. We were planning to go swimming with her on a Wednesday. Two days before, she was visiting the beach and called us from there to make plans. “The sign at the beach house says high tide is at 2 p.m.,” she said, “Shall we meet at 2 on Wednesday?” We had to explain to her that the tide would be later in two days, closer to 3:40 p.m.; that it changes every day.

Once, years ago, I created a moon calendar for my stepdaughter Stephanie, who was six years old at the time. I was curious myself about why the moon was sometimes seen in the morning, and sometimes in the evening, and I thought it would be fun to learn about it and share it with her. So I tracked it, and began to understand its pattern.

The full moon rises at sunset and stays in the sky all night, setting at sunrise. Then, as the days go by, the moon begins to grow smaller, and it rises about fifty minutes later each day, until you can only see it in the morning just before and after dawn. About two weeks after the full moon, the moon rises unseen with the sun and sets invisibly with the sun. The night is dark. This is called the dark moon or the new moon. Then a day or two later, a thin waxing crescent appears in the western sky just after sunset and sets soon after. Each day it is seen in the evening for a little longer time until we come round to full moon again.

Full Moon